Psychosis or Spiritually Emergence?
How to Distinguish Between Spiritual Emergence and Psychosis
I sometimes ask the question in therapy, “What is the difference between a mystic and a psychotic?” The answer is: “A mystic knows who not to talk to.”
I am suggesting that the difference between spiritual emergence (mysticism) and psychosis depends on whether you tell your experiences to someone in the mainstream medical system—or someone who will convince or require you to engage with mainstream psychiatry professionals who do not credit the possibility of spiritual emergence. This can be literally true.
But there is another element to of my therapy question. By knowing who not to talk with, the hypothetical mystic is able to distinguish between what is presented to them internally and what is held as “real” in the outside world. Being able to integrate and follow spiritual emergence while not insisting on any particular realities to a skeptical medical system shows an ability to work with the experiences. This can be through a psychedelic experience, Breathwork or dream state.
Without a doubt, there are many “crossovers” in the experiences described as mysticism and those recognized as psychosis.
Similarities and differences between mysticism and psychosis.
· Intense subjectivity. The person is totally focused inwardly. There is a compelling attraction to what is happening inside so that the outside world and daily ordinary aspects of life seem irrelevant.
· Sense of noesis. Something very important is happening to the person. In both types of experiences, the person’s attention is riveted with a sense that an important message or knowledge is being discovered.
· Ineffable quality. Both psychosis and mystical experience are very intense situations which the person has trouble putting into words. Both types of experience transcend the rational and usual, ordinary way of experiencing life.
· Loss of self-object boundaries. One experiences a sense of oneness with others, nature, the universe as a whole. The clear boundaries of inside (self) and outside (other) are blurred.
· Distortion of time sense. In both situations, the linear sense of time (past—present—future) is lost, with the present appearing as the only reality.
· Perceptual changes. Heightened perceptions in all sensory modalities, synesthesias and hallucinatory phenomena (especially visual and auditory) are very common.
· Intense affective experiences. Great ecstasy and great moments of terror are often described. Negative affective experiences tend to be more common in psychosis, but they can be experienced in either.
· Attempt at renewal and healing. The mystical experience is the attempt of the psyche to transcend a limited identification of self. It is the psyche’s effort to break the boundaries of the personality totally trapped in the ego. The mystic sees his/her connection with all of life, and through that new vision expands his/her identity and sense of self. Psychosis is also an attempt at renewal and healing. The person has reached an impasse in his/her psychological life, and the only way it can be resolved is through such a drastic transformation.
Psychosis Can Be
A number of other psychological professionals over the years have considered psychosis as a presentation that may be worked through if held appropriately.
Psychosis can be described as the attempt of the psyche to borrow energy and images from the archetypal realms in order to heal a fractured sense of self. Perry believed the archetypal energies could be integrated through artistic expressions such as painting, dance, other movement, and conversation.
Psychosis can be a transformational process that could be compared to a shamanic journey. Rejecting the idea that schizophrenia was a biological illness, psychosis can be viewed as a symbolic expression of distress that could be understood and processed toward purpose.
I share these transformational perspectives on psychosis but I am mindful of the practical limits of assistance that is available in this flawed world. In other words, even if all presentations of “psychosis” could be safely held for the experiencer to break through into health, in real life, it is difficult to find (or be able to afford) the necessary level of assistance. Just as importantly, our experience suggests that many people with presentations of psychosis are not able to hold the “distanced” perspective necessary to work productively with the experiences.
Differences between psychosis and mysticism:
· Attachment to the world. The mystic detaches from the material world as the source of all reality. 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 vulnerable 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 a disruption of any sense of continuity in his/her sense of self and the world.
· Self-image. 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. In contrast, the psychotic often 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.
I believe the consequences of the experiences of mysticism/psychosis are the most important indication of difference.
· 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.
Although there is no clear answer to the question of what is psychosis and what is spiritual awakening, I do believe with enough space and the proper support system one can come to a clearer understanding of there path with the help of integration.
Dr. Ryan Westrum is a clinical psychologist that specializes in psychedelic integration and other higher states of consciousness exploration. You can connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by going to healingsoulsllc.com to set up an appointment.