Why a Sufi Approach to Healing ‘Mental Illness’ Is So Powerful


From Psyche: “‘It began 12 years ago,’ Madhavi told me. ‘My face, hands and feet would get contorted; I would get very angry.’ From her purse, she took out tablets of clonazepam and lithium prescribed for anxiety and mood disorders by psychiatrists at one of India’s leading psychiatric facilities. ‘I took these medicines regularly,’ she said. ‘But it made no difference. The psychiatrists helped as much as they could. They even asked about all kinds of things from my childhood. But then they said there was nothing wrong with me.’

This is why Madhavi and her husband Raj, both devout middle-class Hindus, had driven six hours from Delhi to a Sufi shrine called Badaun in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Through a neighbour, they had learned that the shrine was renowned for the treatment of pagalpan (madness). And it was here, through rituals of Sufi healing, that Madhavi finally began to feel better. At Badaun, her husband said, ‘the thing revealed itself fully, who did it, what it was.’ Over the next few years, the couple from Delhi would become regular visitors to the shrine.

It may be contentious to affirm a Sufi cult of saints as a treatment for mental illness in this day and age. But as I spent time with mareez (patients) like Madhavi, I began to understand why, even in the 21st century, Sufi conceptions of illness and healing have remained helpful for many people suffering from forms of schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and other maladies. What these experiences of Sufi healing reveal are the complexities of a global mental health puzzle that has remained stubbornly unresolved for the past 50 years.”

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  1. One of the ways that these Sufi practices (loosely based on Islam) operate is by highlighting how humans often engage in superficial expressions of devotion to relationships and attachments. This tendency can lead people to experience significant distress when relationships take a negative turn. In Western cultures, relationships are frequently viewed as essential resources for healing, and the condition of loneliness is often considered akin to a pandemic. Even though yes the harm is considered in personal relationships but the idea of attaching to the therapist is seen as part of the healing.

    On the contrary and in more collectivist societies, the negative impact of a relationship is often perceived as a form of madness, and the prevailing approach is to advocate detachment as the only remedy. In the West, the emphasis is on attachment, while many Sufi teachings encourage detachment and the attachment to something greater than oneself, metaphorically speaking (that is why incessant and rituals are focused – things a person can do for themselves without others necessarily). For instance, recognizing that the present moment is fleeting and acknowledging that one’s absence in the future is independent of the specific relationship causing harm can be a profound perspective shift. Often, in the west, we actually pathologize the detachment process, unfortunately which just adds fuel to already vulnerable state.

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    • Thanks for your perceptive comment. Even though I wonder how current Sufism is practiced (and generally tend to look askance at contemporary mystical approaches), the idea of detachment does indeed correlate with someone having a spiritual emergency. In this state, one needs to be alone since the ego is being shattered. I agree that isolation with the proper support system would be extremely beneficial.

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      • Your response reminded me of a book called “Catch Them Before They Fall: The Psychoanalysis of Breakdown” by Christopher Bolles. Essentially, he spends days sitting with his clients until they reach what he deems a safe psychosis. I believe (though I am not certain, but sense) that Sufis engage in similar practices, allowing frustration and fear to overflow like psychosis in a secure space. Unfortunately, we significantly fall short in this aspect in our advanced society because we have taken for granted that psychosis is inherently negative, when, in reality, it is often detrimental due to a hostile environment.
        What is being proposed we do with the psychedelic therapies nowadays, should be done for those going through psychic crisis too…but we know $$$ talks.

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  2. This is coming out of McGill University OSS? That’s a hoot because in a more enlightened age, McGill University had on of the best mental health treatment facilities ever in operation under Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, who coined the term and wrote the book on “Cosmic Consciousness”. No drugs, no shocks of any kind, creative thinking encouraged, remarkable recovery rates. All squashed by money-interests by the turn of the 20th century.

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  3. Lucy Johnstone has a solution, ask what happened to you, not what is wrong with you, what are your aspirations and blocks to achieving this, not what are your delusions, the delusions hallucinations low motivation are symptoms of schizophrenia, the cause is shamed assertion in one or more areas of a individuals life,

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