I’d like to share some personal thoughts on the nature of the Hearing Voices group method, and the insights that this kind of support generates. Through these groups, a tradition of mutual healing is being created that honors subjective experiences, and sharing our stories with each other in this way propels this exciting movement forward.
In the UK, Hearing Voices group organizer Jacqui Dillon has demonstrated that the experience of hearing voices can be transformed through cultivating a compassionate relationship with them. Softening feelings toward the tormenting voice can be reflected back to the voice-hearer, bringing a starting point for the alleviation of suffering and spurring movement through the path of recovery. This is powerful. However, compassion can be the hardest thing to ask of a person who has spent years under the verbal abuse of angry voices. How do we generate such compassion? Is it possible to turn to an abuser and say, what happened? What has happened that made you so angry? Yet this question can open doors. If we look at examples throughout history we find that this compassion is exactly the tool that kept the tormentors from overcoming us.
In 2009 I was at a crossroads in life that brought multiple losses all at the same time. After moving twelve times in eight years in a sort of existential trial, I lost my career, moved 1100 miles leaving 6 siblings behind, watched another man move into my children’s home, and was penniless. I also was trying various religious practices, one after another, looking for a new way of being and a new community.
So losing the markers that defined me as a person was the practical truth of my experience, and eventually the symbolic truth began to emerge. At the time I was staying at a campground that offered classes with themes of self-exploration and creativity. While I was there, the top of my head began to tingle and then opened, leading to events that are associated with so-called psychosis: possession states, reincarnation feelings, communicating with animal spirits, messianic states of being, synchronicities, and an encounter with a deceased ancestor.
But this was not the crisis. This was my mind and spirit attempting to heal the situation. The crisis was the development of what had been building up objectively in the years previous. And the subjective truth that is symbolized through surreal phenomena is just as real as the objective, practical truth. It is real in the way a born-again experience is real, or the way falling in love is real. No doubt all of these experiences stimulate the human brain, but would we dissect a human brain to look for evidence that a person has fallen in love? Of course not. So how absurd that we look at the brain to see “psychosis” and we keep funding projects that search for DNA that can predict what is essentially a broken heart, or we search scientifically for genetic evidence of trauma and grief.
Eventually, the Hearing Voices group method became my way to explore the subjective truth. I was lucky to live in a place where people are actively learning about human consciousness, and several non-judgmental friends with their own lived experience steered me to groups at the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community. The truth of those extreme states was all I wanted to learn about for two years. Who can look at the practical truth when it has all come crashing down? I was lucky to find myself among compassionate people. I was heard. I was not told to ignore what was happening to me. Most people encountering these states are medicated within twelve to twenty-four hours. For me, the states continued for three months, gradually diminishing. No one urged me to get to a clinic. No one got scared.
All of those extreme states were trying to help me. The animal spirits were recreating a family, the messianic states were providing a new religion, the reincarnation feelings were helping me form a new self. I was very much in a supernatural reality, and gradually I learned that these are states that are sometimes mirrored by people who have been hospitalized and labeled as “bipolar” or “psychotic.” It took me a long time to realize that, and to get the vocabulary to discuss it, but I kept reading and learning and finally came to my own conclusions. I started a group called Living With Spiritual Emergency, and I learned from people who came to the group. I asked them, what are these states of mind in which you’re seeing birds in sort of a divine fashion? And they taught me. Often they said, “We don’t know what it means for you, but we know it happens.” We shared our stories by taking a posture of compassion and asking “What has happened?” and more than anything we found that this is an eternal human experience.
Now I co-facilitate a Hearing Voices group and at times a person will join who has a voice that has become visible. A tormentor that arrives in their apartment or is seen on the sidewalk following them. And through my reading I found that there are centuries-old traditions in other cultures in which people can create a kind companion of the mind rather than an angry tormentor; a voice that gives counsel and who arrives in times of need. I imagine this creating was done centuries ago by someone who was perhaps a monk or a meditator or a lonely person. Today there are online groups dedicated to this practice. So we know that the mind is capable of doing this from a whole variety of perspectives, and maybe, sometimes, it is forced upon us through grief. This might make for a rockier experience, when the nature of the imagined person becomes a representation of that grief or that anger from trauma.
This happened in the Early Modern period when people were accused of witchcraft. For example, a Scottish woman named Bessie Dunlop was quite poor and felt a lot of torment from two children dying and a young one very sick, all while her husband was on his deathbed. Eventually she began to see an imaginary person she called Tom Reid who would appear along the roadside and give her information on where to find food, how to make small amounts of money by retrieving lost or stolen objects for people, and how to make healing potions from roots. In essence, she created someone who came to her aid. She created medicine for herself. She then began to see people in the village who had died years earlier, and when the word got around about this, she was burned at the stake as a witch.
So it happened that I eventually saw my own deceased grandfather, and luckily I wasn’t burned at the stake! But I was creating healing for myself in some way. I saw a man float across a campground, flying like a witch. At the time I thought he was someone who could give me a new career. To me, he was bringing the possibility of medicine.
We keep looking to the future for our answers in things like scientific research while ignoring these lessons from our past, and the wisdom of our indigenous cultures. Let’s go back to listening to each other face to face with open and supportive discussion, and let’s look at what people have done in other countries in different eras. For example, what happened in that Early Modern period in England, when people saw fairies and beings created with the mind, these helpers bringing medicine? They knew that the fairies could get out of line and become tricksters, or even cruel tormentors. So they went into the forest and found a tree stump where they would leave treats and snacks and gifts to help the fairies feel happier. Compassion was used to keep the beings of this other world from becoming tormentors.
This is how to turn around torment, whether it’s torment in the hospital, among coworkers, or from a voice. Compassion can turn the world around. And of course it can be the hardest thing to ask of someone. I don’t want to underestimate the amount of pain that people are going through, but sometimes the way out of pain is to demonstrate kindness to a tormentor.
And what have these experiences of “psychosis” brought us throughout history? They’ve brought us medicine and advances in knowledge. The person Bessie Dunlop saw gave her accurate information so that she could survive. We know this realm brings us great lessons. Even Descartes himself, the father of modern scientific thinking, attributed his work to visions from an extreme state.
I saw a man fly across a campground and he was trying to bring me medicine when I needed it. PJ Travers, a young girl in Australia with a father on his deathbed and a mother who was suicidal, grew up to write stories about a woman who flew around with an umbrella and slid up banisters. This was Mary Poppins. And what did she bring? Medicine to a family who needed it. Not to be confused with medication.
These inventions of our mind are important. And what happens to people today? They go to the clinic and the first thing they are told is, “Don’t pay any attention, just ignore it, it’s illness.” The whole subjective truth needs to be honored, not ignored.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that what’s happening to you is not important. If this is happening to you, this is important. If it’s happening to your neighbor, it has to be important also. Don’t let anyone tell you to ignore the healing messages from your own mind.
Let’s create places for people to be heard and supported and taken seriously. Let’s tell them, we will not try to fix you, and yes, what’s happening is real and it’s happened to people before. The current mainstream ideas around extreme states are just a myth and countless people over thousands of years would disagree with this current thinking that is being pushed onto us.
Let’s learn from other cultures who can teach us what is not understood in the general modern, white, Christian/European, developed world. Let’s listen to the priest from West Africa, Malidoma Patrice Somé, who can tell us what these states mean. Let’s listen to Emma Bragdon, who is doing great work in Brazil working with spiritual healing. We are made of more than bones and tissue. We are made also of spirit. And at times it is murky and dark and scary, but it doesn’t mean that it is deviltry. It is part of who we are as human beings.
[Editor’s note: due to personal circumstances, the author has chosen to publish under an abbreviated version of his name.]