Spiritual Intelligence in the Continuum of Mysticism and Psychosis By Kathrina Kasha Peterson
“Why is it when we talk of God we’re praying but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?”- Comedian Lily Tomlin (Fadiman & Kewman, 1973)
Using hermeneutics, heuristic and narrative methodologies, my paper explores the intersection between mysticism and psychosis, and how the perceived split may not be a split at all, but rather a construction of our metaphysical assumptions. Moreover, along with psychologists and transpersonal theorists (Jung (1964), Lukoff (1991), Laing (1965), Campbell (1969), Perry (1953), Assagioli (2000), Grof and Grof (1989)) before me, I posit that individuals experiencing a wide spectrum of consciousness (often not experienced, validated and agreed upon by consensual reality) are in fact undergoing a process of awakening to their spiritual nature. This is a process, I add, that is highly desirable and hold tremendous possibilities to the self and the world. This awakening holds both possibilities as well as dangers. Grof (1989) had termed this spiritual emergence/cy. Experiences of such nature have been labeled by religion as mysticism. The premise of this paper is contrary to the current psychiatric establishment who abnormalizes and pathologizes these visionary experiences, and instead calls it psychosis. I state that not only is spiritual emergence normal and natural, but it is also spiritually intelligent. The paper will unfold the relationship of mysticism, psychosis and spiritual intelligence.
Exploring Spiritual Intelligence
Because spiritual intelligence is a phrase not commonly used, I explored its definition by interviewing seven different individuals from varying religious persuasions: Catholic, Jewish, Tibetan Buddhist, Hindu and a Sufi. For a detailed analysis of the research, please refer to Appendix A. According to my co-researchers, spiritual intelligence is an “intelligence that orients one to the spirit”. Furthermore, “it is an ability to use spiritual experiences or beliefs to cope with and succeed in one’s life.” To further understand its complexity is the following deconstruction given by my co-researchers. “Spiritual is being in touch with a source or explanation of the unknown…being in touch with or experience of a unified presence at the heart of the universe.” Intelligence, on the other hand, is the “ability to adapt and cope with experiences in a productive or successful way.” In the process of adapting and coping, not only is the mental reasoning faculty used but also includes its other dimensions, the intelligence of bodily felt senses and emotions.
Given the above definition, spiritual intelligence is both the realization and the actualization as lived in one’s life. Because of the uniqueness of each individual, there is a multiplicity in the manifestation of spiritual intelligence. Furthermore, these manifestations may not necessarily match our ideas of what is spiritual intelligence. On one hand is the development of certain skills to hone spiritual intelligence, and on the other hand, it also “happens without cultivation or desire for it.”
There is a developmental process that unfolds in regards to learning spiritual intelligence, and at the same time, spiritual intelligence is beyond the learning in dualistic terms. From a Theravada Buddhist perspective of anatta (non self) and anicca (impermanence), there is no continuous, solid being that owns and develops skills. From this point of view, spiritual intelligence may be viewed as the ground of being. I would like to take this a step further and point out that it is not the person who is spiritually intelligent, but rather there is a spiritual intelligence within and through the person. There are times that this expression is far from what we assume to be spiritual. This is especially evident in spiritual emergence/cy.
It is crucial to emphasize the complexity of spiritual intelligence, not only as it stands alone, but more importantly as it relates to mysticism and psychosis. Each of this subject matter is complex within itself and to weave them as I am doing begs the readers to suspend their own beliefs for a short while in order to enter into a dialog.
Exploring spiritual intelligence in the context of mysticism and psychosis
In religious context, it is spiritual intelligence that suffuses mystics with their realizations and actualizations. The barriers to unification drop and as Richard Neumann (1995) adds, “…the mystic does not ask, what is reality. The mystic answers the question by discerning the results of contacts with that reality. The results are a wider, sharper consciousness and a more profound understanding of our own existence.” It is not from dualistic mental masturbation that reality is understood, but rather understanding comes out of a suffusing/unifying with a higher power called divine. This is seen in the lives of mystics such as St. Francis of Assisi and Hildegarde of Bingen.
According to Richard Maurice Bucke (1901) in Cosmic Consciousness, mystical experience includes:
Feelings of unity, feelings of objectivity and reality, transcendence of space and time, a sense of sacredness, deeply felt positive mood- joy, blessedness, peace and bliss,
containing paradox – mystical consciousness which is often felt to be true, despite a violation of Aristotelian logic, ineffability – language is inadequate to express the experiences, transiency, positive change in attitude or behaviour following the experience. (Clarke, 2001, p. 20)
Mystical experience, however, is not only felt as positive and blissful. William James (1958) briefly touches on “negative mysticism” which refers to frightening experiences, such as demonic possessions. Moreover, the dissolution of the self is not always a welcomed event, and can be discombobulating for certain individuals. There is of course what is called “The Dark Night of the Soul” in the Catholic contemplative practice as elucidated by St. John of the Cross. (Underhill, 1969, p. 381) For now, I will refer to these frightening altered states of consciousness as connecting with the “depth” rather than the “height” spoken of earlier. (Clarke, 2001) I propose that the depth and the height are both part of the same continuum, just as the mountain peaks belong in the same context as the valleys and canyons. In this vein, I propose further that the “negative mysticism” James points is the same as what western clinical psychology terms psychosis. Psychotics and mystics experience both the height and depth.
Today, there is a psychological denigration of mystical experiences as psychosis. The clinical insensitivity dates back to Sigmund Freud (1962) with his reduction of “oceanic experience” simply as the mystics “infantile helplessness” and a “regression to primary narcissism.” Moreover, the biomedical model dismisses visions in terms of chemistry and a simplification that “God may simply be residing in the brain.” Because biopsychiatry relies on these assumptions, chemical lobotomy in the form of medication is standard practice. By relegating visions as “delusions” and “hallucinations”, biopsychiatry also dismisses any exploration of its symbolism and metaphor. Sadly, it denies individuals access to its deep meanings and importance.
Because the psychotic thinks and behaves in culturally and socially unacceptable ways (lives out of the standard box), “psychosis is considered a disruption to the normal functioning of consciousness.” (Lukoff as quoted by Stahlman, 1992) Moreover, “The phenomenology (imagery, cognitions) of the psychotic condition shares many characteristics with dream experiences (Hall, 1977), hallucinogenic drug trips (Kleinman et al, 1977), spiritual awakenings (Assagioli, 1981), near death experiences (Grof & Grof, 1980) and shamanic experiences (Halifax, 1979).” (as quoted in Stahlman, 1992) To make the issue even more complicated is the fact that there is a fine line between a psychotic and a mystic. Not all individuals with visions are mentally healthy.
It is clear from the definitions listed above that what religious orders aspire to is denigrated and pathologized by clinical psychology. Given this split in labeling and the harmful impact of its consequences, it is no surprise that this is a difficult and debated topic. It is also no wonder that even though a great many individuals have had mystical experiences, they do not tell others about it for fear of being labeled mentally ill. (c.f. Greely and McCready: Are we a nation of mystics?) As William James dramatically put it, “medical materialism finishes up St. Paul by calling his vision…a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex….It snuffs out St Theresa as a hysteric; St Francis of Assisi as a hereditary degenerate; George Fox with the sham of his age.” (quoted in Clarke, 2001: 109)
So here we are walking on a double edge sword. Or to elucidate the point in another way, a psychotic man in conversation with author/psychologist Peter Chadwick retorted when discussing the investigation of delusional thinking, “You’re trying to climb rain, Peter, or sweep sun off the pavement.” (quoted in Clarke, 2001,p. 191) In “trying to climb rain”, I would like to propose as other have done before me ((Jung (1964), Lukoff (1991), Laing (1965), Campbell (1969), Perry (1953), Assagioli (2000), Grof and Grof (1989)) that some individuals experiencing these signs/symptoms (using one word over the other already presupposes an assumption that is value laden) are not “mentally disturbed”, but are actually in the throes of deep transformation that has value not only for the individuals in question, but for the society at large. The multiplicity of directions an individual can take is many. On one extreme is an evolved self that is an asset to her/himself and society, while another extreme is a disoriented and disorganized self ruminating and magnifying narcissistic tendencies. The question emerging for me is how to assist individuals in integrating their experiences that they lead a freer and happier life.
gentle drops glisten this dark hair
flat feet the shade of an old straw mat
cling to the earth
the wind blows
a soft whisper behind the ears
the spine will be a curve
like the bowing bamboo
and the shiny hair
like white noodles in day old soup
then the storm will quickly descend
the wind will then be a lover in rage
its might so strong
these eyes which reflected the moon
like the clear pond
will be curtained with heavy drapes
of her last monsoon
How is your strength, stamina, or energy level compared to five years ago? My work is about bringing awareness to specific movements in the body in order to improve and maintain the vitality that leads to an independent life.
In my work, I see clients who have difficulty sitting, either because of chronic pain, injury, Parkinson’s, MS or stroke. After a few lessons with me, numerous clients have reported experiencing powerful outcomes including: increased flexibility, pain reduction, better balance, relaxation and ease of movement. Miriam, who sees me for her stiff neck states, “the work with Kathrina has made me aware of all the subtle ways I use my body that aggravate my neck condition… What is most surprising about her work, is how something can be so subtle, so entirely pain free, and yet so effective .”
Our bodies are always changing and each part influences all other parts. Movement with awareness is a proven method to train the brain to reorganize itself from functioning with pain to experiencing more ease. The Katz Index of Independence in Activities of Daily Living defined the basic activities of daily living as bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring, continence and feeding. All these activities require getting up from a chair. As we get older, the ability to reach for objects and get up from a chair means independence, or, dependence if they become too painful to perform on our own.
Although done with ease in our early years, getting up from a chair for many older adults becomes effortful and a clear strain on the neck, shoulders and abdomen. I teach individuals to be aware of where they are straining, where the movement stops and how all parts of one’s self may be brought into moving as one. The key is to know how to function more intelligently when one’s strength and stamina are reduced because of the natural ageing process. As a result of experiencing these movement lessons, habitual patterns are replaced with healthier ones. By using different variations of sitting up slowly and gently, the individual learns how to better organize movement with less effort. One then gains the confidence to move and live life more fully.
What is a pilgrimage?
I’ve done many of the traditional pilgrimages – traveled half way around the world, prostrated with hundred of thousands of others, walked beaten trails up mountain tops, stampeded on roads so small no cars could pass.
A pilgrimage is a journey to the heart of what matters most. As I tarmack across the city by the bay, I stumble along many places of worship. Of course, most of the doors are closed except once a week, but nonetheless, I marvel at the art and architecture and most of all the inspiration that had built such places of gatherings. Are these not places of refuge where one can talk to one’s god(s)? Did I not sit silently countless times finding solace in these empty chambers? And the lights that played across the stained windows?
San Francisco – the city of Saint Francis. The city of churches, temples, places of worship. The city attracts many. There is a port for the ships that travel across the oceans, another port for the airplanes carrying people from all different worldviews. Technology is at a crossroads here. Historically, when people want to pursue dreams that were too liberal for their hometowns, they go west. This is the farthest west the land goes. Many dreams were realized here right by the span of the golden gate bridge. What has this got to do with pilgrimages? Pilgrimages are about dreams. About hopes to be nurtured as well as fear to be understood. Some pilgrims embark on journeys in order to atone for a wrongdoing done. Others pray for a hope to be born.
In the alleys of the city, I walk the streets looking for remnants. I don’t need them to keep…just to remind myself what I want and not want. A thermometer when I can’t figure out my temperature. The sirens scream. I’m just waiting in line for my time, yet I pass my days as though forever is the currency. I make do with little pleasures yet they don’t work…and still I pretend. What will it take to wake me up from my stupor? Another death? A call for a drastic change the soul longs for…where is my destiny? Hiding behind a telephone pole …
God is what? What makes an artist different from a contemplative? Do not both live the beauty of God? As both an artist and a contemplative, I see them as complementing each other, not knowing where one ends and the other begins. When I take photographs, I am more aware of the individuality and uniqueness of creation. There is nothing excluded from beauty. It simply is a point of perspective. I get intoxicated from stumbling into the natural curves of nature. The mystery is present even in technology and I am left speechless…in awe. Sometimes I think that modernity excludes awe, relegating mystery to the religious. I see life as religion. How can I not? When I look into another’s eyes, I can not help but drop my biases and prejudices. Questions vanish and I feel connected. Some may say that I am pre-dispositioned to look at beauty. I am an advocate of learning and I believe everything is learned. I learned and am learning to look and feel and taste and hear and be beauty. It is like sharpening a knife. The more you use it, the sharper it gets. Boredom is not seeing beauty. Not seeing mystery. Not seeing life.
Most wait until their retirement. As a teenager, I read a cartoon of a man who kept saying he’ll do it later…you know until retirement. Except the later kept getting postponed and the last box illustrated him under the ground with a rest in peace sign on top. This made me ponder deeply. Yet, this insight was still blunt and not enough to shake me off my plans. I had a death will when I was 15 years old. My whole life was planned! And if plan A failed, I’ve already made an alternative plan B. Between the planning and over achievement though were the revolutionaries like Emerson and Thoreau who echoed the longings of my heart. The long walks in the desert reminded me of my insignificance and at the same time kept me in touched with the sense of belonging to this grandeur and magnificence of the whole desert. Mesmerized by the magenta and wine colors of dusk, it became clear that there was more to life than the certificates of recognition for academic excellence.
There is a joy that swims in my heart and I enjoy my company. There is this curiousity that pulsates. I am alive. I am no longer ashamed to proclaim that I am a contemplative. Yes, I contemplate the beauty of life. That’s what makes me live. It is my living. Often people asked about how does one make a living? Nowadays, living means work/pay/dollars. It is forgotten that it is about living. We make our living room comfortable so we feel home, who we are when all the masks are down. Living is breathing. Living is full of colors. Living is being alive. What makes you live?
My name is Kathrina Peterson and I invite you to participate in this forum around awareness and movement. I have been a Buddhist meditator for over 20 years and have been exploring in depth what it means to develop as a human being: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This is my passion, both on a personal and a professional level. I welcome you to share thoughts around what it means to be awake.