Heaven, Hell, and Psychosis

Ron Unger, LCSW
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While the mental health system identifies psychosis as being about suffering, or “hellish” experiences, if you actually listen to individual stories, it is obvious that intensely positive or “heavenly” experiences occur as well.  What we need is a better understanding of how and why these experiences occur so often together, and what to do about it that could be more helpful than providing mind numbing drugs.

I think some insight into this can be found in the master’s thesis of Paris Williams, which is
posted online at http://rethinkingmadness.com/#/author-bio/4558919736.  In particular, there is an autobiographical portion of this paper, which describes a really profound healing, from a state of deep terror and conflict to a state of deep peace, as a result of something that happened within a dream.

It shows what can happen when a person simply changes perspective on really fundamental issues. The shift Paris describes is from a hellish experience to a heavenly one:

An Existential Crisis

Several years ago, I had fallen into a deep existential and spiritual crisis, and I found myself grappling with the theme of organismic wisdom in what felt like a fight for my own existence. While several paradigm-shattering epiphanies led me into the depths of this crisis (the details of which fall outside the scope of this paper), the final epiphany that ripped the carpet out from under my feet was a deep experiential realization of the fact that my perception of the world is seriously distorted by my own cognitive constructs. This epiphany put me into a space in which I felt I had very little to cling to as a way to make sense of the world, and I found myself perpetually on the verge of being overwhelmed by powerful emotions and other anomalous experiences for many months. I was fortunate to have developed the resource of a mindfulness meditation practice (in which I made the effort to remain aware and equanimous of the sensations within my body), and this provided me with a means to find at least some semblance of stability in the midst of these storms. I was also fortunate that, due to the nature of my work and lifestyle, I had a lot of time to deeply explore these storms and work on finding some peace and understanding of them. In the initial stages, I recognized these many storms as long-suppressed emotions, finally free to flow to the surface, seeking new balance as my previous defenses had now become so seriously undermined. As time passed and I explored more deeply into these emotions, however, I realized that a more fundamentally existential struggle that lay beneath that of my personal history was taking place.

 

I found myself in a struggle with two diametrically opposed fears. On one hand, I experienced a profound fear of losing control, a fear related to the sense that I was on the verge of total self-disintegration or self-annihilation, a fate that seemed somehow even worse than death. This fear led me deeper into contraction and isolation, keeping me grasping in futility for some kind of solid ground to hold on to. On the other hand, I experienced a profound fear of isolation, of being all alone. Along with this newfound awareness emerged another powerful realization—I realized that,  paradoxically, this battle of fears was also simultaneously a battle of desires. Somehow, the fears and desires made up one felt experience. The fear of losing control, of losing my sense of self, was coupled with an intense desire to solidify my sense of self, the striving for which resulted in a deepening sense of loneliness and a distancing from love, connection, and the realization of unity. On the other side of the struggle, the fear of being utterly alone and isolated was coupled with an intense desire for love, connection, and unity, the striving for which seemed to jeopardize the cohesion of my self. As this struggle raged on within me, I felt as though I would be completely ripped apart. I felt caught in an impossible dilemma.

 

After many months of this struggle, I was having an especially difficult week. I had just returned from a 10-day intensive silent meditation retreat that had only seemed to intensify the struggle. My entire being was almost constantly racked with the pain of the struggle, and only rarely did I manage to catch brief moments of sleep. I felt that I was approaching the limits of my strength and feared that I would soon succumb to some form of self-annihilation (though I did not know how this would happen exactly, I imagined that it would take the form of either utter madness or death). About a week after my return from the retreat, I finally fell into a relatively deep sleep, and, in it, a dream came to me that would completely change my life.

 

I was standing in a field, soaked with sweat from the unrelenting terror. I looked around and saw a number of others also standing in the field with me, sweat dripping from their faces, each one clearly stuck in a struggle very similar to mine. I then turned around to a fellow struggler standing behind me, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I’m not going to drink.” This statement refers to a previous inclination of mine to get drunk with a few friends when I was experiencing a lot of pain; but, now, I was determined to work through this hell with clarity and courage. He nodded back to me, indicating that he was also willing to stand strong and work through the pain and terror, and then I turned to look forward again. We soon found ourselves being led into a meditation hall.

 

We “strugglers” each stood on our own meditation cushion with our eyes closed, listening to the gentle murmur of a group of teachers standing at the front of the hall, discussing our condition. After a few moments, they were silent, and I knew that they had come to an answer. I felt one of them approach me, and, though my eyes were closed, I could sense vibrant warmth and motherly love emanating from this being, whom I sensed had the form of a beautiful woman. I sensed her bringing a spoon up to my mouth, filled with some liquid; and, with the most tender, compassionate voice, she said, “Don’t suffer, take this . . . please don’t suffer, take this.” Though I sensed nothing but pure compassion, love, and wisdom from this woman, I found myself struggling to trust her.

 

“What if they’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to end our suffering is to kill us with poison,” I thought. “But maybe they’re right—maybe death is better than living in this hell state—anything would be better than this. But no, I don’t want to give up! There must be some other way.” I stood there, completely tormented, not knowing what to do, feeling my soul stretched to the edge of its limits, not being able to imagine any hell worse than this state of intense terror and despair . . . and yet . . . somehow . . . I found the courage to open my mouth and take the liquid. Pushed to my furthest extremes, I somehow found the courage to let go and accept . . .

 

Just as the spoon touched my lips, I felt a wave of cool, refreshing relief flow through my body from head to toe, and I woke up. My sheets were still soaked with sweat from my terror (not unusual for those months of my life), but now I felt unbelievably peaceful, in a state of ease that I had hardly recognized. I noticed that the fiery coal that had been burning in my solar plexus constantly for the past 3 months was completely gone.

 

Finding Faith in Organismic Wisdom—

From Dichotomy to Paradox

 

It was about 4:00 a.m., and everyone in the community was asleep. We lived on a large grass airfield, and I walked across the field to the lake, taking in the stars and the sound of the crickets, feeling so connected with everything, so peaceful and relaxed. I was a bit confused as to what had just happened, but I knew that a very profound shift had taken place. After sitting by the edge of the lake for awhile, drinking in the world in this new light, it became clear to me exactly what had happened. I had finally experienced what it was like to “let go.” I had seen vividly how for months I had been teetering on what felt like a knife edge between two abysses—on one side there appeared to be an abyss of total self-disintegration, and on the other side an abyss of overwhelming despair, loneliness, and isolation. I had been desperately holding on to the idea that I somehow had to remain in control, that if I did not tenaciously strive to “hold myself together,” I would succumb to an unbearable fate. This dream, then, catalyzed a much needed shift from desperately struggling to control my experience to finding faith in organismic wisdom.

 

By not acknowledging the organismic wisdom within my being, by not realizing that my being naturally has the wisdom to follow the organic process and naturally find a sense of health and harmony, I had been inadvertently fighting it, creating more and more of a dualistic split within my being, and therefore more and more suffering. Ironically, it was only when I was in sleep, when my conscious mind was not so active, that organismic wisdom (in the form of the compassionate woman) was able to assert itself and provide my conscious mind and will with the opportunity to relinquish this struggle and regain faith in it. The moment I released the struggle and surrendered to organismic wisdom (by accepting the spoon), I experienced an immediate sense of relief and reintegration. I realized that it was possible to comfortably hold both a sense of duality (that there was an “I” separate from the rest of the world) and a sense of unity (that I was fundamentally interconnected with everything else). It could be said, then, that virtually all of this pain had been caused by mistaking a paradox for a dichotomy.

 

The logic of my rational conscious mind had not been able to find any way to hold the validity of both duality and unity, and so I had been caught up in a terrifying struggle with no apparent resolution. I learned that it required a wisdom much deeper than that of my conscious mind to provide me with the ability to recognize and to hold this paradox. My conscious mind, with its lens of logic and reason, had only been able to perceive the world as dichotomies and therefore had to wrestle with the impossible decision of choosing between either duality or unity; this innate wisdom, on the other hand, was capable of holding the paradox that both duality and unity are valid subjective experiences.

 

That night, I had had my first real taste of surrendering to this innate wisdom, and there was no denying the cessation of suffering that came with it. By finding the faith to accept that there is a deeper source of wisdom within my being, by relinquishing my need to be in control, I had finally touched the peace that had always been waiting for me just beneath the surface of all that turmoil. I could see now very clearly that it was the struggling itself, caused by the lack of faith in my own innate wisdom, that had created all that pain; and, ironically, I could see that by releasing my intense need to remain in control, I had experienced a degree of freedom and choice I had never imagined was possible.

 

As I continued to sit on the shore of the lake that night, soaking in this new yet strangely familiar experience, a sliver of light formed on the Eastern horizon and began to swallow the stars, one by one. The impermanent nature of this world revealed itself, and I recognized that this state of profound peace would also pass; after all, it seems that everything in this world is impermanent, even peace. Recognizing the tenacity of my will, even after the night’s epiphany, I could foresee a fresh new batch of suffering on the way as I would inevitably attempt to “hold on” to this peaceful state, and I had to smile. I would enjoy the delicious nectar of this peace while it lasted, but I would have to learn to let it go like everything else.

I think what is key here is that Paris realized he would have to “let go” of this experience of heavenly peace.  If he had not, if he had tried to grasp onto it (which would have been understandable, given how wonderful it was) then this grasping itself could have led him to flip into another hellish experience, perhaps more profoundly hellish than before.  Then he might have ended up diagnosed and medicated, for life, within our dysfunctional mental health system, instead of becoming the psychologist and author that he is today.

When we are in a distressing or traumatic situation, we often need to choose between opposites, to pick the course of action that will save us.  But for our long term health, we typically need both opposites, we need to let go of choice and judgment, and accept the reality of paradox.

The late Al Siebert wrote about the role this acceptance of paradoxical traits plays in resiliency.  On his still-existing site, http://www.survivorguidelines.org/ , he wrote:

Value your paradoxical traits

Interviews and surveys show that life’s best survivors value being flexible, resilient, and adaptable above any other quality.

 

How does a person do flexibility? The answer is that flexibility, resiliency, and adaptability all come from accepting and appreciating your inborn ability to be both one way and the opposite. It is normal and healthy to be both serious and playful, self-appreciating and self-critical, optimistic and pessimistic, angry and forgiving, trusting and cautious, selfish and unselfish.

 

Paradoxical traits are, at the psychological level, like the opposing muscles in your body that contract and extend. Your ability to control how you move and react comes from being at the choice point between counter-balanced forces.

 

Action plan: Make up list of all the ways in which you are both one way and the opposite. The more the pairs of opposites the better. Validate opposing qualities. Tell yourself, for example, “It is all right to be both optimistic and pessimistic.”

When people are experiencing the most basic facts of their existence in a hellish way, when they are in states that our mental health system calls “psychosis” they are often acutely feeling torn apart by opposites, by a battle between good and evil, etc.  While this may look like a terrible “illness” to some, I think it is important to know that simple cognitive changes and mindfulness practices can lead to the same basic facts of existence being seen as completely acceptable and good.  A mental health system that recognized this fact could help people make such shifts in perspective out of hellish states, and then help them be non-grasping in regards to positive mental states as well.

The better spiritual or religious teachers, of course, have always worked to help people accomplish just that.  But we don’t need to adopt any spiritual or religious dogma in order to help people with these issues:  instead, we can just directly observe the nature of human resiliency and what facilitates it, and then help people move in that direction.

12 COMMENTS

  1. “The Healing Room”

    I have a universe inside me
    Where I can go, an spirit guides me
    There I can ask oh any question
    I get the answers if I listen

    I have a healing room inside me
    The loving healers there they feed me
    They make me happy with their laughter
    They kiss and tell me I’m their daughter
    I’m their daughter

    (Me love you lots of lots of lots)

    You have a little voice inside you
    It doesn’t matter who you think you may be
    You’re not free if you don’t know me

    See I’m not the lie that lives outside you
    And it doesn’t matter what you think you believe
    You’re not free if you don’t know me
    If you don’t know me

    See I am the universe inside you
    You come to me and I will guide you
    And make you happy with my laughter
    I joy in seeing you’re my daughter
    You’re my daughter
    So believe you’re not free if you don’t know me
    if you don’t know me
    if you don’t know me
    if you don’t know me
    if you don’t know me
    if you don’t know me
    if you don’t know

    http://youtu.be/iub2-7mKv68
    Link ID: Sinéad O’Connor The Healing Room [email protected] Music Awards

  2. I appreciate this post so much. I have gone through years of the of terror that Paris describes, and I also used sitting meditation to hold on. It has been crucial to get off all medications, as I did almost three years ago, because insight–mental and bodily awareness–is crucial, along with faith that the torment is meaningful and not a matter of brain dysfunction. Medications disrupt at all levels of awareness–mind, body, and meaning, as well as teaching us that we are helpless.

    One thought I’ve had about the the source of that kind of dichotomizing and conflict between isolation and connection, is that it arises out of an early childhood experience of a double bind. The essence of the double bind is that you can only be loved by not being yourself, a no-win choice between self-annihilation and love. In a state of total dependency, love equals survival.

    This is the experience of having a narcissistic parent, who needs to treat you as an extension of themselves, who invades your inner self, rejects all genuine self-expression, and in fact shames your core self. This template about the dichotomy between self and love is brought into adulthood, making relationships painful and causing despair.

    I further feel, based on my own experience and people I know who are considered mentally ill, that people resolve this in one of two ways. Either by choosing self, building up great inner strength but cutting ties to others in order to protect the self; or by choosing love and submission, and inhibiting self expression. Thus I see schizophrenic isolation and depressive self-suppression and passivity as being two different resolutions to an impossible situation.

    The hope, for me, lies in becoming aware of the template as an old template that can be broken. A new paradoxical relationship template can be constructed. My work with a therapist who is very involved her own meditation practice and brings buddhist principles into therapy, including radical honesty, has been most of all about starting all over again to learning through practice with her a new way of being in relationships, one in which you don’t have to annihilate yourself as a condition of love.

    It was extremely difficult to find a therapist who was willing to work with me off medications. I located her through the mindfulness/meditation community.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Ron.

    Identified with everything Paris describes, and this desperate need for “others” to stop projecting their own fear & assumptions about a bad experience, onto the person going through these profound states of existential crisis.

    There is a great need for us to learn about our emotional projection process, in how we enhance our own sense of functioning, by adopting a “pitiful creature” stance towards the sufferer.

    Currently in the 5th week of an active psychosis, which only an escape from Western medicine & a mind-set culture, allows me to be in a safe place to let the organic process of psychosis unfold.

    Coming to terms with paradox, I’ve had to slowly develop a more embodied sense of self through meditation, and feel that escape into the painless area of my brains synaptic gaps, which trauma experience energized, and trapped me in a post trauma heaven & hell.

    Developing a sensate awareness & getting “out” of my head has been key to “containing” the paradox of a mind-body split.

  4. Hinduism seems to understand this. Many of the Hindu gods and goddesses have two, opposite aspects. My favorite Hindu paradox is: “Everything matters, nothing matters.” Both parts of the paradox are true. In Buddhism the goal is to turn loose of our ego and realize that we are all one, we are all interconnected. I think it is difficult for Westerners to accept duality. Enlightenment happens when we can let go of the ego and allow ourselves to be one drop of water in the huge universe of the ocean. We are both/and, all at the same time. It is a great move forward to be able to accept this as our reality.

  5. “I noticed that the fiery coal that had been burning in my solar plexus constantly for the past 3 months was completely gone.”

    As I move through fifth week of my own organic process, this “straining” of the solar plexus, is very much a part of what seems to be trying to rise to conscious awareness. Reading Peter Levine’s unique understanding of our inherent susceptibility to trauma & thwarted natural responses which result in PTSD, allows me to go through the psychosis process, with less & less fear & confusion. Consider;

    “TUMMY TALK:
    The enteric nervous system is our oldest brain, evolving hundreds of millions of years ago. It produces many beneficial hormones, including 95% of the serotonin in the body, and thus is a primary natural medicine factory and warehouse for feel-good hormones. Amazingly, as much as 90% of the vagus nerve that connects our guts and brains is sensory. In other words for every one motor nerve fiber that relays commands from the brain to the gut, nine sensory nerves send information about the state of the viscera to the brain. Many of our likes and dislikes, our attractions and repulsions, as well as our irrational fears, are the result of implicit computations in our internal states.

    It can be said that humans have two brains; one in the gut (the enteric brain) and the “upstairs brain,” sitting in the vaulted dome of the cranium. These two brains are in direction communication with each other through the hefty vagus nerve. And if we go with the numbers – nine sensory/afferent nerves to every one motor/efferent nerve – our guts apparently have more to say to our brains (by a ratio of 9:1) than our brains have to say to our guts. (p, 121)

    When aroused to fight or flight (sympathetic arousal), our guts tighten, and the motility of the gastrointestinal system is inhibited. After all, there is no sense in spending a lot of metabolic energy on digestion, when it is best used to speed up the hearts rhythm and to strengthen its contraction, as well as to tense our muscles in readiness for impending action. (p, 122)

    THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE:

    Our nervous system assesses threat in two basic ways. First of all, we use our external sense organs to discern and evaluate threat in the external environment. We also asses threat directly from the state of our viscera and our muscles-our internal sense organs. If our muscles are tense, we unconsciously interpret these tensions as foretelling the existence of danger, even when none actually exists. (p, 123)

    Tight muscle in the neck and shoulders may, for example, signal to the brain that you are likely to be hit. Tense legs, along with furtive eyes, may tell you that you need to run and escape, and taught arms may signal that you are ready to strike out. (p, 124)

    “The first seat of our primal consciousness is the solar plexus, the great nerve-center situated behind the stomach. From this center we are first dynamically conscious.” _D. H. Lawrence. (p, 125)

    In distress and trauma, I believe that a positive feedback loop, with extremely negative consequences, is set up. Indeed, most of us recognize that primal negative emotions readily turn into self-reinforcing, runaway positive feedback loops. Here trauma is the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail, eternally re-creating itself.

    In the reciprocal enervation discovered by Sherrington, the nervous system operates primarily as a negative feedback system, much like a house thermostat. Self regulation of the complex nervous system exhibits what are called emergent properties, which are often somewhat unpredictable and rich in nuance.

    While the nervous system operates under the principle of self-regulation, the psyche operates under the emergent properties of creative self-regulation. We might say that as the nervous system self-regulates, the psyche engages with these emergent properties: that is, to creative self-regulation. (p, 130) Exerts from “In an Unspoken Voice” by Peter Levine PhD.

    People may become irritated by my continuing reference exerts from this book, yet I do believe its important to point people towards knowledge that is already available to suggest natural cause & resolution to so-called mental illness.

    Perhaps its time to turn René Descartes on his head, as Daniel Fisher suggests. Le Superior, “I think therefore I am,” might need to be re-examined soon, if we are to really shift to a new paradigm & not repeat more of the same clockwork universe logic, in our “intellectual” realism?

    As well as his awareness of the solar plexus, Lawrence also wrote;

    In the Beginning, before the Word, was Consciousness.
    The primal consciousness in man is pre-mental,
    and has nothing to do with cognition.
    It is the same as in the animals.
    And this pre-mental consciousness remains
    as long as we live the powerful root
    and body of our consciousness.
    The mind is but the last flower, the cul-de-sac.
    _D. H. Lawrence.

    I understand that many find very difficult to accept the instinctual underpinnings of our cognitive capacity, yet is it totally unreasonable to suggest that mental torment, is both unconscious, suppressed & denied nature, “acting out?” Would this be to simplistic for a “cognitively” invested, need of maintaining group harmony? Or would it be to fearful?