Editors comment (Everything Matters, Beyond Meds): Ian (formerly Bill) Scheffel was my friend and he was my partner along with Chris Cole in the project I’ve mentioned a couple of times. Ian and Chris Cole and I have been planning to launch something we’ve called Mad Spiritual...to celebrate and support folks who experience altered states etc. Ian’s experience with altered states was a critically important part of who he was. Those places in the psyche from which many profound insights come… It’s unfortunate that those corners of humanity’s psyche frighten many people and so our society doesn’t yet know how to support or nurture such emergence processes. Ian was moving in and out of those spaces lately. He is a beautiful, loving man who saw into the nature of humanity in ways that became hard to manage. It doesn’t feel like he was escaping but continuing on his particular journey. Thich Nhat Hanh has said about self-immolation that it should not be considered suicide in the usual sense…
“The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of suffering to protect his people. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.” (entire letter to Marin Luther King Jr. here)
Ian was mad spiritual. I am mad spiritual. Chris too, our third partner is Mad Spiritual. We come together to share love and support with others like us. We are everywhere. We are an important part of the human family and our needs are not being met. There aren’t many of us who feel free to speak explicitly about such things because there is risk involved. We are not taken seriously and we are often harmed in the name of medicine.
Ian’s suicide is a loss to the whole world and it is also the most precious of gifts. This I know. I also know that he is at peace and that peace is felt in my heart where he also abides.
The most physically palpable deeply grounded feeling I have about my friend’s suicide is that he knew what he was doing and that he is still here in my heart…holding me down, to the ground in delicious if also painful sobriety. We have work to do that the world might one day be safe for all of us.
I am sharing an article that speaks to his life below and also reveals much about the work he and I and Chris were doing. May Ian be remembered and celebrated now with his own words. If you’ve never encountered Ian before, feel free to connect with your own heart as you read his words. Let him become part of who you are too. If you knew Ian/Bill let the below bless you further with his wisdom, love and insight. Let us carry on his vision together now.
Thanks to ACISTE for allowing me to republish this beautiful article here.
Threshold of the Unseen: An Experiencer’s Journey
By Ian (formerly Bill) Scheffel
“We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
We have no memory of being in the womb or emerging from the birth canal. Dreams are quickly forgotten if remembered at all. We experience emotions but may not always know why. The most fundamental dimensions of our experience cannot be found in any solid way, quantified, or even seen. How can we understand spiritual emergencies and other spiritually transformative events if, as R.D. Laing wrote, “We can see other people’s behavior but not their experience?”
Of course Laing sought above all to understand the experience of those he saw psychiatrically; initially he was nearly alone in his belief that psychosis held meaning. After experiencing my own spiritual emergency, I recognized I needed a new language for what I’d experienced as well as allies who believed my experience had value. Six years later, I advocate that, for those in extreme states, the greatest first aid is honest inquiry into their experience, and humility and patience in the face of the ineffable dimensions they experience. Those who have such experiences must be encouraged to speak, and we must all cultivate the inquisitiveness and courage to listen.
In the 1970’s, I dove into the spiritual life. As a student of Chögyam Trungpa, I became a pioneer—along with his other students—in what is now called the mindfulness movement, though that phrase does not capture the rigor and passion of our study and practice in those early days, much less the depth of Vajrayana Buddhism. In the early 1990’s, as I pursued a creative writing MFA, I studied with contemporary lineage holders of spiritually transformative poetry: Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, Anne Waldman, and others.
The Beat poets were transmitters of consciousness who helped pave the way for meditation to enter the West. They understood that poetry could be “an exploration of consciousness itself” and that writing could point one toward enlightenment. “With pen in hand, awake” is how Ginsberg once put it. It was this experience that also anchored me in the necessity of valuing the stories of our journey, something not necessary as appreciated in the meditation tradition.
In the early 2000’s, my long-time practice of meditation and poetry seemed to open into another dimension—one for which I have no adequate words. I could say mystic, shamanic, highly synchronistic, one of guidance. The “unseen world” of spirit and what it asked of me became the most compelling part of my life. The unseen was an intermittent but reliable visitor who co-shaped my life and urged me, above all, toward extensive travel. How to tell a thousand stories in a single paragraph? Here’s something I wrote years ago:
The unseen will make itself felt in our lives if we have a longing for and openness toward it… or “them.” It’s not necessary to have the foggiest idea of who they are as much as it is to trust the moments that arise in which we feel them in our heart. Along with those moments comes a kind of crossroads or ‘synchronistic short-circuit.’ Intuition occurs suddenly and unexpectedly and asks us to act and commit ourselves to it. It is a sudden opportunity to escape habit and conventional belief, to chart a more daring and compassionate course. This unseen dimension is a profound expression of love. We fall into it through our heart, but it also takes us into a life far beyond the personal. To answer the call of it often means to find one’s personal life turned inside out!
At age 50, committing to the intuited messages I received, I left my career as a college professor, sold my home, downsized, traveled around the world, and eventually lived part-time in Cambodia over a several-year period. Cambodia became the place where I experienced the unseen world as a profound source of wisdom and guidance that was always with me. R.D. Laing wrote:
It is not surprising that someone with an insistent experience of other dimensions, which he cannot entirely deny or forget, will run the risk either of being destroyed by the others, or betraying what he knows.
My experiences in Cambodia left me with the conviction that I could not betray these spiritual messengers, and that I must attest, through my writing, teaching, and personal relationships, to the potential we all have for making these connections. I felt like an explorer who’d discovered a new continent—telling others about it felt at times thrilling, at other times absurd or futile.
In 2012, seven years after my penultimate experiences in Cambodia, I experienced three “dissociations” that landed me in the hospital; twice I was admitted to psychiatric wards. I have tried on a number of words for these experiences: dissociation, psychosis, spiritual emergency, shamanic initiatory experience. No matter the label, they were spiritually transformative, especially in the terms Pema Chödrön speaks of: when things fall apart! After the third experience, and with little place to turn for alternative support or resources, I accepted the conventional diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the recommendation to take medication.
After three years of medication and adverse side effects, my doctor agreed with my plan to withdraw from psychiatric drugs. In doing so, I temporarily experienced a worsening of the side effects, but eventually I emerged from that experience with a profound blessing. I had clarity and a new vision. I realized that I must contribute to the field of spiritually transformative experiences, as well as to help others make informed decisions about psychiatric issues.
I would also bring my experience of meditation, poetry, creative process, intuitive work, experiences of the unseen, and my psychiatric journey into workshops where I would share resources for mental health. I am grateful that those with “lived experience” are not only being increasingly given a voice but are also being offered seats of authority at the table of psychiatric and spiritual dialogue.
Through years of teaching poetry and creative writing to others, I have witnessed the power and transformative necessity of story, the truths discovered in the act of writing. In this short essay I could only disclose the briefest outline of my own story—and like all stories, perhaps my most important ones are liminal, marginal, scarcely able to be described, possibly taboo.
To approach such experiences as the poet approaches that strange and wondrous moment in which a poem might arise, may have has much or even, at times, more value than seeing these experiences solely through a therapeutic, clinical or even spiritual lens. In the domain of the spiritually transformative, the meditator, poet, and mystic are essential guides and therapeutic fonts of healing.
ACISTE Executive Director Katrina Michelle recently wrote:
I believe that we are all spiritual experiencers. It is just a matter of time before the dominant system can be perforated to embrace the integrative scientific research that will broaden the scope of how we understand the human experience that is the spiritual experience.
I aspire to contribute to this transformation. And I like the verb “perforate” with its implications of opening, penetrating, linking together—and bringing with it breath, water, and the other necessary elements for healing so that our lives may have meaning and genuine spiritual growth.
Visit Ian (Bill’s) website: Transcending Madness
Everything Matters Editor’s note: I can attest to the fact that Bill did contribute to this transformation in significant ways by his very presence and transmission in the world. He remains in my heart and the hearts of all who loved him.