Friday, December 30, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits" - Mad Wisdom


I learned early on to listen to my inner voice, and not the cacophony of foolishness that is conventional "wisdom." I recognized that the experience some call "psychosis" was for me an attempt at spiritual transformation, and I sought out wise teachers who could help me. I was fortunate to find this help within Tibetan Buddhism, where the lamas taught me the spiritual nature of my mental states and instructed me in yogic disciplines to stabilize mind within body.

My experience with altered states of mind prepared me for the mental and physical changes of death and dying, which other people fear so much. For example, many people begin to experience depression as they grow older. But I have already, by necessity, learned to deal with depression. Over time, I learned to recognize depression as a kind of prayer. For me, it has become a stabilizing energy that enables me to absorb and accept the vicissitudes of life with calmness and patience.
Sally Clay, who spent over 30 years in the American psychiatric system

Historical evidence suggests an encounter with the Gods is often more frightening than enjoyable. The mind-shattering terror one felt in the presence of Pan inspired our English word "panic." "Holy fools," adepts driven mad by their close relationship with the Divine, can be found in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Sufism, Tantra and Russian Orthodox Christianity, among other traditions. But today those experiencing "mad wisdom" are more likely to find themselves institutionalized than lauded as saints.

The very idea of personal gnosis is controversial enough in many quarters. Personal gnosis involving intense, disabling visions is often rejected out of hand. If the Gods want only the best for Their followers, why would They inflict schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or crippling psychosis on a devotee? Instead of dealing with this disquieting theological issue, it is easier to discredit the message and messenger. This is especially easy because of the stigma attached to mental illness. Revelations that fall outside your comfort zones can be safely ignored if they come from a "crazy" person.

This can be a difficult issue. We should not dismiss all bizarre behavior as "insanity" but neither should we pretend that insanity does not exist. Many mental illnesses can mimic the effects of a mystical experience. It can be difficult to distinguish between a psychological disorder and an encounter with the Gods – especially when you take into account that the two are not mutually exclusive. The Gods often find cracked or even broken vessels to be the most useful. But just as not every mystic is mentally ill, not every mentally ill person is a mystic. Joan of Arc and Francis of Assisi heard voices: so did Charles Manson and John Hinckley.
Mentally ill shamans know that our brains aren't entirely reliable. We know we can't always rely on what we believe to be "reality." This gives us a certain advantage over spirit-workers who have never had to question the evidence of their senses or their logic. For them getting a message wrong can be embarrassing. For us it can mean a trip back to the hospital. We tend to be more careful about our revelations and treat them with a healthy skepticism that is often lacking in the Neopagan community.

Having a spiritual contact (what Spiritualists called a "fetch") to sort out the real voices from the subconscious sock-monkeys is very useful. Finding that contact can be the first step to recovery, or at least to making peace with your sickness. But taking that leap of faith and trusting one voice amidst the many can be a terrifying step, with huge consequences if you are mistaken. If at all possible you should get assistance from a qualified spirit-worker who has experience dealing with mentally ill clients. And you should be ready to listen if that spirit-worker tells you "I don't think that message comes from the Gods." A valid contact can help: a sock-monkey will only lead you further into delusion and dysfunction.
– Kohinoor Setora, spirit-worker living with mental illness
We are not obligated to reinforce a sick person's delusions, no matter how much they might want us to do so. But we do have a moral responsibility to treat them with kindness and respect. Mental illness can be a tremendously lonely and isolating disease. Reaching out to a sick person with understanding – even if you must let them know that their "revelation" is just another symptom of their condition – can go a long way toward easing their suffering.