Accepting Spiritual Madness

An Essay by Alice Holstein, Ed.D.

One of the important events in reclaiming my life in a positive sense was listening to Caroline Myss’ tape on “Spiritual Madness.” (Available from Sounds True in Boulder, Colorado.) Myss points out that just asking the question, “for what purpose was I born?” opens the doorway to the “job” or occupation of becoming more conscious. Doing so is actually a request that God reorder your life so that every false voice is taken away from you. This was my experience along the manic depression path. While it might be said that the psychotic person loses their footing, it was particularly the psychotic aspects that brought me to removal of pride, limited thinking and fears. The reordering of my life included the removal of small-minded behavior, concern about my reputation as a professional and attachment to what I thought I needed for happiness and fulfillment. Only by traveling through the darkness of despair and suffering could I later see that doing so was a huge cleansing of the soul.

Myss points out that spiritual madness can occur in the context of us having a fantasy notion of higher consciousness. It is, however, a sugar-coated version of the truth, for when you seek spiritual intimacy you invite the breakdown of reason in order to transcend the need for human logic. To undergo this entrance into the mystery of life we have to become separated from the world we know. (This is very similar to Joseph Campbell’s depiction of the hero’s journey as Separation, Initiation and Return.) The separation phase, says Myss, can be accompanied by depression, vulnerability, loss of jobs, marriage or relationships. Often you can’t regroup yourself; frightening things can happen. Underneath we are unhooking from the laws of cause and effect.

The second stage of mysticism, she says, is to enter the dark night where we have to go through the breakdown. This reality is not at all the fantasy picture we have of spirituality being an “ultimate pleasure cruise” of creativity, spiritual power, soul mates, clarity, insight and finding just the right job with purpose. This process of mistaken identification about the nature of spiritual growth is part of our instant gratification culture, she suggests. I would add that it is also the lack of myth in our culture that might help us understand the true nature of the hero’s inward journey to danger and trials.

What if you’re being taught endurance, asks Myss, or patience or not having material possessions? What if there is illness, betrayal, lots of pain, fear or loneliness? She points out that these are classic spiritual lessons. Most mystics had to endure loneliness and separation from the God they sought more deeply. “Endurance makes your soul come up to the surface” and gives us spiritual stamina. We may be asked to just be a “balanced light in a city” versus the big job we had dreamed of having. She points out that the divine does not play by our rules, which is the hardest part of the mystical path to get and understand. It is the path of release, not having or getting. One of the difficulties, of course, is that many of us do have to earn a living amidst the chaos and lack. Many of us do have to function in the “normal” world while we are being ripped apart inside and often outside as well. Underneath the travail and loss, however, may be the lessons that God does provide what’s needed even if this amounts to basic survival. Myss cites the story of the Peace Pilgrim who walked the country at age 52. She simply assumed that she would be taken care of and could accept whatever happened. One time there was a voice, “go under the bridge.” There she found a box with a blanket and pillow. She trusted and was guided to what was needed.

I have many similar examples, told elsewhere, such as the woman at a homeless shelter who gave me a thick-soled pair of tennis shoes in the midst of winter. These were the uncommon graces that were heart-warming and beautiful, the more so in retrospect. The real challenge, says Myss, is not to expect that we can have it all or can “create our own reality.” This is the seduction in our culture. Instead, we need to enter into these seeming negatives and try to learn the lessons. Holding our center in such circumstances can be extraordinarily difficult. This is what happens in the manic depression experience; the person does lose their center. Some of the reasons why that happens are explored in the essay, “Expanding the View of Mental Illness.”

For the mentally ill, however, trials, such as being tested about endurance or loss or removal of pride, etc. are the very lessons most often labeled dysfunctional, irrational or outright “bad.” The mental health system, friends and family and we ourselves have an idea of what life “should” be like, and it most certainly does not include sanctioning spiritual madness. Nor does it include allowing the experiences that could someday yield powerful healers such as shamans. As Stanislav Grof, researcher and author about higher consciousness writes: “In this society many of the states the shamans go through would be labeled as psychotic. The career of many shamans starts by the powerful experience of unusual states of consciousness with the sense of going into the underworld, being attacked, dismembered and then being put back together, and ascending to the supernal realm. If you look at these experiences and give them psychopathological labels, those in our culture undergoing a shamanic transformation wouldn’t typically be allowed to complete it.” (Cousineau, p. 62) Thus, breakdown may be required to really get life “right.” In addition, the mentally ill person may also have a damaged center from early life experiences that accentuates a breakdown, but they are seldom encouraged to plumb for these insights or to seek healing for them.

Myss points out that the call to mysticism today is not to retreat into seclusion in a monastery or ashram. There the physical world was taken care of for you while you avoided worldly temptations. Today, however, the new model is to realize that it’s still about release of the Self, not building it up as our egocentric culture expects, or even the therapeutic one endorses. We don’t need vows of poverty to be a mystic nor run from the world. The new model, in contrast, is still to enter all aspects of your shadow side and to learn not to sell your soul in the process of becoming a light in the world. We need support for this kind of journey, says Myss. The mentally ill never receive it.

I wish I had had this tape earlier. I wish I had had a spiritual counselor to help me be where I was in all the darkness rather than where I thought I should be. I wish I had had more people in the mental health system who knew about this process and could throw away the labels. I needed validation more than anything else, and it was only the strong searching core within me that finally pieced it together. I also needed to know more about the darkness so that it didn’t frighten me so, therefore accentuating my episodes. It would have been so helpful to have more people who understood that being a disciple can be a tough, tough road. There is, however little or no room for the spiritual in medicine or mental health beyond the passing references that they hope you are part of a faith community. That there might be relationship between mysticism and manic depression/schizophrenia is virtually unknown at this point.

Dr. David Banner, a good friend, shared the “Spiritual Madness” tape in 2003. It was another example of finding just the right thing at the right time. But my lessons weren’t over. More manic episodes ensued, and the madness was in some ways tougher than before. I spent time as a homeless person again. I suffered physical pain. I made more horrible messes. I drove my truck to Minnesota in 24 degrees below weather with a wind chill of –40. I visited no less than four emergency rooms because I was in such physical pain and trauma that I couldn’t cope. I took an expensive ambulance ride to a hospital in North Dakota where I encountered one more judgmental doctor. I added to my medical costs hugely.

The repercussions of these experiences were large. On this episode and others, however, I also found the benefits underneath more quickly. It was as if I was using chaos to grow. I began making “lemonade from lemons.” It was the desperation from one of these episodes, for example that sent me to a local Shaman practitioner who did a rebirthing session with me that uncovered my incest wound fully. It was another episode that finally freed me to be fully open about my illness, partly because I had been so publicly disruptive that it was plainly time to say at last that this was part of my experience. Medicine would say that I was getting worse over time. Now that the insights have come clear and my center feels solid, however, I say that the path had its own timing and ways. Each episode contained more fears to confront, more lessons to learn.

My friend, Wanda Poindexter, who steadfastly stood by me in this storm, said one time that madness in centuries past was considered a gift, a badge of honor that was accepted and allowed. She couldn’t find the references to this when I asked, but the truth of it is now self-evident. This does not mean that the disruptive, costly, painful experiences like mine need to become the norm, but I believe they could have been alleviated if there had been more acceptance of spiritual madness. My fears, particularly, which drove so much of my paranoid behavior, might have been lessened if someone had taken the time to listen to the so-called psychotic aspects of them without calling me crazy for this dip into the underworld. The pain of the journey could have been eased if people had listened compassionately to these so-called “terrible” things instead of recoiling from them or shaming me. In other words, accepting the fact that spiritual madness might be part of the journey toward wholeness would go a long way towards saving lives and souls.


Alice’s book, ATough Grace: Mental Illness As A Spiritual Path (Chipmunka Publishing, 2011) is available from Amazon.com in E-book or paperback.