Voices in the Wilderness and Sacred Madness

Dan Edmunds, EdD

There have been those in various generations who were voices in the wilderness, who through very unconventional ways brought attention to the problems and oppression of society. These individuals were possessed with sacred madness. Many of these individuals were initially reviled, and labels cast upon them, only later to be revered and their message embraced. In the Christian realm, we can look at the story of St. John the Baptist, that voice crying out in the wilderness, convicting the society around, and unfolding higher spiritual truths. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, we St. Xenia. St. Xenia displayed ultimate humility, and she gave all her possessions to those in need. St. Xenia would wander the streets of St. Petersburg wearing the military uniform of her deceased husband. There is also St. Symeon Stylites, who lived for many years atop a pillar and would speak scathingly about the corruption of the society at the time.  In the Zen tradition, was Han-Shan, a brilliant poet who when anyone would approach him to discuss Zen would only respond with hysterical laughter.  In the Buddhist tradition, there is the the term, ‘yeshe cholwa” or ‘sacred madness’. Those said to possess yeshe cholwa were seen as those who had been able to break away. They are able to challenge power and orthodoxy, and teach lessons through an unique way of utterance and example. They call others to reflection. In the Sufi tradition, we have Nasruddin. Nasruddin had been to speak. He asked,  Do you know what I am going to say? The audience replied “no”. So Nasruddin said, ” I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” he and left. The people asked him to return the next day. He asked the same question, and the people replied yes. Nasruddin said, Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time! and he left again. The people did not know what to make of this, so they asked one more time if he would speak to them. Again, he asked, Do you know what I am going to say? Half said, “yes” while the other half said  “no”. Nasruddin then told them, ” Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t.” and again he left. In Hinduism, we ahve the term ‘avadhuta’, one who has cast off all conventional ways in order to come closer to spiritual reality.

What would modern psychiatry make of these voices in the wilderness? What would they say of those who would dare to radically challenge their society and its standards? They would be locked away, forced drugs, labeled, never understood. And maybe it is time, that we realize that those who we may be labeling presently, may also have an important message, that their experience no matter how unconventional, or unusual, eccentric, may have meaning, it may actually say something we need to hear and pay attention to. Often those labeled as ‘seriously mentally ill’ are also speaking out about the oppression they have endured and that of our society. Maybe we can begin to appreciate them, to journey with them, seek to understand, and to put aside all our assumptions and judgments, to embrace the madness, and even go as far as to see the experience as sacred, as something necessary for some. An experience, which with the proper support need not be breakdown but breakthrough.



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Dan Edmunds, EdD
Dr. Dan L. Edmunds is an existential psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in Northeastern Pennsylvania. His work has focused on drug free, relational approaches for those undergoing extreme states of mind as well as autism and developmental differences. Dr. Edmunds is the founder of the Center for Humane Psychiatry, an emancipatory movement for human rights in the mental health system. Dr. Edmunds has advocated for psycho-social approaches for those in distress that are affordable and accessible. Dr. Edmunds developed a therapeutic community project and is involved with autism acceptance and the autistic rights movement. Dr. Edmunds is the author of BEING AUTISTIC: AN APPROACH TOWARDS UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTANCE; THEY SAY MY CHILD HAS ADHD: DEBUNKING THE BIO-PSYCHIATRIC PARADIGM; THE MEETING OF TWO PERSONS; and MYSTICAL METAPHORS. Dr. Edmunds is a frequent speaker on critical psychology issues.

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  1. Yes, that is a great post. It’s kind of scary how people can react so viscerally when you display behavior that is just a little bit different – for example when you admit that you don’t like watching sports or prefer not to celebrate your birthday. There’s often a reaction like Wow, what’s wrong with you? Being radically different is practically considered a crime.

  2. Thank you. There are other figures I could add, such as Marpa and Milarepa in the Buddhist tradition and there are many stories in the Philokalia, all which are unusual, but inspiring. I am traveling to India to deliver workshops on my work with extreme states and also autism acceptance and will be researching temple healing at a temple where those undergoing extreme states reside. I hope we can move towards a point of understanding rather than just suppressing states that are extreme and can realize the oppressive events in society that lead to distress.

  3. Many of the saints in the Roman Catholic tradition had their visions and heard their voices and called the corrupt hierarchy of the Church into question. They were persecuted by Church authorities and Joan of Arc was eventually burned as a witch, based on a verse out of Leviticus about not letting women who wear mens’ clothes live becuase they are witches. In indegenous societies, just about the only way that you can become a shaman is to experience the emotional and psychology anguish that we like to label as mental illness. People come out the other side of their experience of madness and become the person who heals the sick and helps people pierce the veil existing between this world and the next. Being Native American, knowing these things from my own culture and history proves to me that biopsychiatry is nothing but quackery and a way to fleece people of their money. Pray that we have more voices crying out in the wilderness to call this broken and sick system to account and to reform.

  4. I greatly appreciate this post because alternative/holistic health experts like Dr. Andrew Weill and others advocate for a healthy mind/body/spirit. Sadly, psychiatry was invented by atheists like Freud bent on destroying religions, families and other traditional social supports, so they could gain social control over society for the power elite and replace them with their own destructive views of humans as animals with no soul or spirit. This is one reason why people suffer from alienation, isolation, apathy, consumerism, and other emotional angst. Biological psychiatry is very much out of touch when one considers best selling spiritual leaders like Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama and many others practicing a wide variety of spiritual paths that appeal to the spiritual thirst/quest of many people. I think all major spiritual traditions are a source of wisdom with the greatest truths being those common to all spiritual paths like some form of the golden rule. Since the map is not the territory and one’s spiritual path is like a raft to get one to the other shore, I hope to see similar articles here in the future.

    • Donna, I have been reading this blog for sometime and also made a written contribution prior to the new format. I plan to resume with more contributions in the near future. I always look forward to your comments because they are so unrelenting in their insightful critique of Biological Psychiatry.

      However your comment about atheism in reference to Freud was very much off the mark. I have been an active critic against Biological Psychiatry working in community mental heath for twenty years, and I consider myself a committed atheist; I am sure there are many other valuable contributors to this blog who are also atheists. For many people being ruthlessly scientific is incompatible with the superstitions of religious doctorine. And being ruthlessly scientific does not exclude compassion or a deep sense of morality but in many people this only enhances these attributes. And many of us find religion to be quite harmful to people, and can make a strong argument that it has also contributed to the oppression of those people labelled mentally ill. Given that view point I would not make the blanket statement that religious belief or religion itself is the reason for peoples’ poor behavior or bad choices in life. Some of the greatest fighters against injustice are religious and yes many are atheistic.

      Now on to Freud. Freud’s main problem was that he was a coward who placed his own career above the interests of the truth and above the interests of his clients and those millions of people negatively influenced by the major mistakes in his theories. In Freud’s early work he discovered that many of his patients were tramatized by sexual abuse and this had lead to a myiad of psychological problems. He wrote a major paper recounting this evidence and presented it at an important conference of practitioners in his field of work. His exposure of sexual abuse was not well received and he soon was isolated among his peers. It was then that Freud abandoned the truth and decided to reverse his thinking and eroneously declared that his patients were not, in fact, sexually abused but had instead fantasized this abuse. This betrayal led to many of his later theories that have been correctly labelled as sexist and overall oppressive to women. Frued may have made some contibutions to our field of work, especially the concept of the unconscious, but overall his role has been overwhelmingly negative; and this has nothing to do with the fact that he may have been an atheist. This above information is available in the book by Jeffrey Masson “The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory.”