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.
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.