From July 10th to 12th , 2015, there will be a rather unique conference happening, the Shades of Awakening Online Series. Created by Dabney Alix (see dabneyalix.com) this free event brings together twelve speakers who will talk about the relationship between so-called mental disorders and spirituality. As I´ve been making videos and researching this topic since 2007, this is a huge deal for me!
Some of the speakers, such as Emma Bragdon and Paris Williams, have posted here on Mad in America. However, most others have been working at our cause in different parts of the world, in their own way, like I am here in Sao Paulo, Brazil. And what is that cause, exactly?
As all of you on Mad in America are aware, being labeled with a mental disorder can be devastating. However, for a few of us, we immediately recognized our “disorder” as a breakthrough – a re-ordering of the psyche, if you will. As it turns out, in most cases where this re-ordering takes place, there tends to be a very powerful “spiritual” component. Now, the word “spiritual” is a very broad term that is interpreted in many different ways, so let me be more specific.
The spiritual experiences I’m talking about are direct mystical experiences. They include things like (1) heightened senses (enhanced taste, smell, vision, touch and hearing), (2) a feeling of ecstasy, (3) an overwhelming sense of oneness similar to what is called Samadhi among Hindu mystics, (4) feeling that you are dead or dying, (5) that you are a saint or messiah figure of some kind, (6) that you are in a cosmic conflict between good and evil, (7) that you are here to save the world, (8) that you are being tested by God, etc.
In my own anomalous experience of 1996, my own sense of ecstasy and oneness was so powerful, that I thought I’d died and was heading for Heaven (or some sort of Nirvana). Wanting to arrive in a pure state, I took off my clothes in a hotel ballroom. Even when the police arrested me, I still thought they were taking me to Heaven. I would go on to spend four nights in the psychiatric hospital before I was released, unmedicated. I never had another relapse.
Sometimes these experiences happen to people who identify as being religious; however, the vast majority of the people who have contacted me to share their mystic encounters do not. Of the hundreds of people I’ve met online, most see themselves as having a non-religious spirituality which is much more personal and flexible. However, I have also met a number of former atheists – people who could no longer remain attached to their atheistic beliefs after having such a powerful direct mystic encounter.
Ironically, for the deeply religious people that I’ve met online, their spiritual experiences are often troubling and very difficult to integrate. To paraphrase one guy who wrote me, “I thought I was Jesus, but I’m not Jesus. So it must have been the Devil who did this to me.”
As for me, after I had my breakthrough, I simply thought that I was given a divine blessing that no psychologist or psychiatrist would ever understand. I was mistaken regarding the last part. There was one psychiatrist who completely understood everything that happened to me. His name is Dr. Stanislav Grof, one of the founders of Transpersonal Psychology. In his book, The Stormy Search for the Self (1992), Dr. Grof described all of the details of my experience, as something that is commonly misdiagnosed as schizophrenia (today most are diagnosed with bipolar one – mania leading into acute psychosis). I would go on to read six of Dr. Grof’s books, each one describing an extraordinarily all-encompassing model of the psyche, with tremendous space for many anomalous experiences that psychiatry would simply pathologize.
In a nutshell, for Grof, each of us has a non-local consciousness which begins with our own slightly paranoid, self-centered ego, but extends to encompass the entire Universe. At its deepest levels, all life, past, present and future is interconnected in a divine matrix which each of us has access to at any time through various practices. Even today, many people look at these ideas with great skepticism, but for me, they are entirely validated by my own life experience.
Dr. Grof would refer to the sort of spiritual crisis that I had as a “Spiritual Emergency,” a term which has been touched on a few times here at Mad in America, but, in my opinion, not nearly enough.
Because, if Grof’s breakthrough ideas are not included in the discussion, how are we supposed to come up with new solutions to today’s mental health crisis? Mad in America does a tremendous service to the world, by focusing on what’s wrong with the current mental health system. However, when it comes to the solutions side of the equation, I don’t see much leading edge thinking. While the often-mentioned approaches of the Soteria model, Open Dialogue and even Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT) bring some very important components to the table, I don’t see any of them leading to a revolution in our mental health system, as they have all been around for decades, and to date, have met with limited success, at best.
In speaking with some of the more active people in the anti-psychiatry/Mad Pride movement, I’m aware that some people have been turned off by transpersonal psychology and even the concept of Spiritual Emergency as “just another label.” Some people have taken exception to those in the transpersonal movement who have made a clear distinction in separating Spiritual Emergency from those who did not have a “breakthrough”… the so-called “mentally ill.” My research online indicates that this criticism is justified (I used to think that way myself). Particularly in the ´90’s, the distinction was common among transpersonal psychologists. However, in reality, many people (especially labeled with bipolar disorder) have a mix of spiritual experiences with other experiences that they see as much more paranoid and frightening. There is no true line dividing a “spiritual” experience from an “acute psychosis” – and Dr. Grof is aware of that. His more recent books help to clarify this misconception.
However, at the same time, it is also a mistake to assume that all anomalous experiences are alike. Some people have very disturbing experiences in which they find it simply impossible to function in daily life without psychiatric medications. Others, like me and Dabney Alix, will have an easier time integrating, and feel grateful for our experiences. My research online suggests that the vast majority of people will find themselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes examples.
I believe that for many people currently medicated for life, the potential for “breakthrough” exists, but in our current culture, reaching that breakthrough is very difficult.
This is why the Shades of Awakening Online Series is so important. To be blunt, I think the Mad in America culture is missing something. If we are to create a truly profound revamping of our mental health system, then we need to not only rethink that system but to rethink who we are as human beings! Are we simply biological entities moving from one transaction to another until we die? Or is there more to it than that? Are the only parts to this puzzle, Science, (Anti) Psychiatry and Community?
In the Shades of Awakening Online Series, you will meet twelve people who have had to struggle with these sorts of questions. As I’ve met almost all of the speakers, I can assure you that they all bring deep personal experience to their talk. No, we don’t agree on everything, but I think it will be very beneficial to have greater recognition of the “awakening” potential of “mental disorders” brought into the discussion here at Mad in America, and in the anti-psychiatry/Mad Pride movement as a whole.
As for me, I’ve taken Grof’s work and run with it. After producing over sixty videos about the healing potential of bipolar disorder, my new project, BipolarAwakenings.com introduces a new intensive healing retreat for people who are interested in exploring their own internal anomalous experiences as a path towards deep healing. I’ll write more about that another day.
For more details on the free Shades of Awakening Online Series, go to www.shadesofawakening.com.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.