Mystics and mental illness

Submitted by Matthew on 13 November, 2013 - 11:58

Martin Thomas is right that some mental illness “hurts” the sufferer (“Facebook, CPA, and socialism”, Solidarity 302, 6 November 2013). The person who is depressed knows they are depressed and does not like it.

But a person experiencing psychosis — delusions and hallucinations — may not know they are psychotic and does not necessarily experience subjective suffering. Most of the suffering that such people experience is due to the specific content of their psychosis and the way they are treated by the society they live in. The social context has a large bearing on the content. In our society, stigma of mental illness and the general atomisation of society probably leads to more paranoid-type psychosis.

Some prophets and mystics, such as Ezekiel or Teresa of Avila, were probably psychotic. However, these people were honoured by the societies they lived in. They were regarded as having a direct line to God. Far from being hurt by their illness, they must have been extremely happy, ecstatic even.

But generally these people were not founders of religions. The great religious founders, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Swami Vivekananda, gained fame because of their ethical, political and social leadership.

They may have engaged in mystical practices or taken drugs to induce temporary psychotic states. But their psychological makeup was more akin to a modern charismatic political leader. If we want to assign a modern psychiatric label then these people would probably now be diagnosed as psychopaths. Psychopaths usually have a very good grasp of reality — all the better to manipulate those around them. 

The Tibetan Buddhist pantheon unwittingly makes this distinction between psychosis and psychopathy quite well. The political leaders are the lamas who run the monasteries. They are believed to be boddhisatvas, beings who have achieved Buddhahood and who come back lifetime after lifetime to run the monasteries and the (old) Tibetan state.

After they die, a search ensues to find a baby who is then proclaimed the next incarnation — they are whisked into the monastery and prepared for power. Like the British private school system, the separation from home creates an attachment disorder which is then cultivated into psychopathic personality traits, which will be useful when the child joins the ranks of the ruling elite.

Pre-colonised Tibet’s criminal justice system shows that these monks were not kind-hearted wise men on the lines that the Dalai Lama now presents to the world. 

For Tibetans with psychosis there is another path. Psychotic illness, of the schizophrenic type, usually starts in late teenage years. In the Tibetan system, when teenagers start to develop the symptoms of psychosis they are feted as “oracles” and moved to the monasteries where they are taught meditation techniques.

These techniques allow the oracle some control over when they have a psychotic episode. The community then arranges a ritual where the oracle is severely restrained by ritual costume (including a hat that can weigh as much as a small child). As the ritual begins, the oracle enters into an extremely explosive psychotic state where they rant and rave. Lay people attend these ceremonies to get their fortunes told. But in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon oracles have a very lowly place compared to boddhisatvas, and their pronouncements have the same authority as horoscopes. 

The usefulness of modern psychiatric diagnostic criteria is questionable. The “psychopath” label is particularly vague and problematic. Psychiatrists researching this field are keen to stress that some psychopaths may benefit society, and have played a huge role in shaping human history. 

Even if the founders of the world’s religions would now be diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, their endeavours were nevertheless impressive and, for their time, progressive. They are not progressive any more. Once we saw through a glass darkly, now we have modern science and a much better grip on reality.

It is a strange twist in human development that at the time when we have discovered the Higgs Boson so many of us still rely on psychopathic ancients like Saint Paul as our guide to reality.

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