It has been said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. In the twelve years that I have been sharing alternative wellness practices (Reiki, Christouch, Spiritual Direction), I have learned that this same fine line exists between mysticism and what would medically be diagnosed as psychosis. Later this week, PhD Psychologist, Tom Altepeter will share his professional thoughts on this subject. In the meantime, please find excerpt below from a blog posted by Seeds of Unfolding (for entire article, click on LINK.). Seeds of Unfolding is a blog created by CAFH an intentional spiritual community and center for spiritual formation and development. In this article, Tomas Agosin makes the clear distinction between mysticism and psychosis – valuable information for those in the helping fields as well as for family members of those who may be exhibiting symptoms consistent with psychosis. If you believe someone you care about may be exhibiting symptoms consistent with psychosis, contact your local NAMI chapter for help.
Even though there are many similarities between the phenomenology and subjective experiences of mysticism and psychosis, there are also some major differences. As Ram Dass said in a conference on Buddhism and Psychotherapy: “The psychotic brother thinks he is Jesus Christ and only he. I think I’m Jesus Christ, and everyone else too.”
- Attachment to the world. The mystic, through practices of self-control, concentration and study, gradually reduces his/her attachment to the world. The mystic sees the material world as transitory and values that which he/she perceives as more permanent, eternal. The psychotic also detaches from the world in that he/she focuses on inner experiences to the exclusion of socially established rules of behavior. But the psychotic is also highly subjected to profound and intense reactions to whatever is in front of him/her. His/her ego boundaries are easily broken down, and because of the incapacity to control emotions, it is easy for the psychotic to shift from one state to another very quickly, leaving the patient with a disruption of any sense of continuity in his/her sense of self and the world.
- Self-image. The mystic reduces his/her sense of self to a minimum. The mystic wants to be an infinitesimal point of consciousness, with the smallest possible ego, so that he/she can perceive life in the least distorted way. The personality is seen as a barrier, a filter that does not allow one’s consciousness to perceive life in its truest form. Humility before the enormity of the universe is a common attitude in the mystic. The psychotic sees him/herself as omnipotent and omniscient. There is a great increase in self-centeredness, with a feeling of being all-important. He/she is the center of the world, and only he/she is sufficiently important to matter.
- Ego-identity is shed by the mystic. He/she works to transcend the smallness of ego and tries to find a more expansive sense of self. The psychotic has never acquired a strong ego identity and often clings to whatever fragments he or she can find of him/herself.
- Serenity increases in the mystic through detachment to the temporal and transient. The mystic identifies with the eternal, that which is most sacred and valuable. In that deep identification, the mystic finds peace and inner tranquility. The psychotic, however, finds little serenity in his/her life. The emotional and mental life of the psychotic is completely fragmented: fear and lack of control of one’s mind are the predominant states.
- Change is welcomed by the mystic, who is open to new possibilities. The psychotic person tends to reject change, for anything new brings with it a whole set of circumstances to learn to deal with. This frightens the psychotic patient since he/she has little ego-identity or inner strength with which to meet the new situation.
- Thought processes are not disrupted in the mystical experience. In the psychotic experience thinking usually becomes fragmented and disordered.
- Aggressive or paranoid elements are found exclusively in the psychotic experience, sometimes to the point of being impossible to control.
- Hallucinatory experiences tend to be visual in nature for the mystic. Often these are described as visions of light, superior beings and beautiful panoramic phenomena of a most positive nature. The psychotic tends more often to experience auditory hallucinations, which are usually negative and frightening because they are projected, unacceptable thoughts that person has and can no longer keep buried in the unconscious.
- Limited in time characterizes the mystical experience. It is usually short-lived, but it always leaves an intense impression upon the memory and has a profound impact on the person who experiences it. It leaves one with a new sense of oneself and the world.
Psychosis can become a chronic condition.
- The consequence of the experience is the most important difference between mysticism and psychosis, and I believe that it often is the only way to truly differentiate between the two:
The mystical experience leaves the mystic more connected and involved in the world. He/she expands his/her capacity to love and to serve. The mystic becomes more appreciative of the beauty and the miracle of life. The mystical experience leaves the individual with a feeling of reverence for all life, embracing every aspect of life and death as sacred.
Psychosis unfortunately most often leaves the person more self-centered. It narrows his/her possibilities of connection with the world because the psychotic needs to protect him/herself from the anxiety that such a connection produces. The psychotic reduces his/her capacity to love because he/she cannot forget him/herself. The psychotic spends so much energy on survival that there is little psychic energy left for more.
Mysticism and Psychosis by Dr. Tomas Agosin
The Relationship Between Schizophrenia and Mysticism by Sandra Stahlman
Psychosis and Spirituality – Finding a Language by Isabel Clarke