Psychotic or Spiritual?

Are psychotics just contemplatives with more rigid personalities? Are contemplatives just psychotics who have integrated their experiences into a healthier personality structure?

These lines from a fascinating recent academic paper (“Lo, I Will Be With You”: Conceptual Problems in Distinguishing Psychotic and Spiritual Experience) by my Dharma-and-blood brother Hondo David Rutschman express the core of my thinking around a topic that has come up in several conversations I’ve had since Two Shores came out.  In the paper, Dave asks how Martin Luther King’s hearing the voice of God relates to the voice-hearing of a homeless and “crazy” acquaintance of Dave’s.  A main study he cites from 1993 found that when measured by the standard “Mysticism Scale” measure of mystical experience, hospitalized psychotics were indistinguishable from long-time, established religious contemplatives.  So are they misunderstood mystics, or are we psychotics “passing” as religious?  Or is there a more grey and more rich way of understanding the two?

In Two Shores, I get into a description of a meditation-induced state that, while having some elements of Dharma energy and insight, could just as easily be labeled psychotic.  I was a little bit torn about including the account in the book – it’s no fun to tell the world you’re crazy, on the one hand, and on the other it’s a monastic offense akin to patricide to claim supernatural powers (in this case a highly self-centered form of “mind-reading”).  But it was an important part of my story, as was the more severe break of a friend of mine and the still more severe break of a former monk who would sometimes visit, both of which I also recount.  All of these experiences at the time helped to shatter some of the cult-like inability I found in the Japanese monastery to honestly assess whether the practice was bearing wholesome fruits or not, so I didn’t feel I could gloss over them in the book.  As a result, I’ve found that for at least a few people that is the section they can most relate to.  Certain people, at least, seem all-too-familiar with the grey and shaky line between meditative opening and psychotic break.

So does intensive meditation lead to insanity?  And if it does, is that insanity just the deluded world’s name for the taboo of liberation, or is it a dangerous side-road that misses the vital connected and grounded compassion of authentic awakening?  How should we understand Kennet Roshi’s visions, not to mention Keizan’s?  The Avatamsaka Sutra?  Crazy, or more true than anything else?  What do you think?

For me, I have always felt called by the grounded-ness of Buddhist practice.  Before getting into Dharma, I had related to spirituality as taking place on the “astral plane,” and imagined that spiritual energy came from “above” – the opposite of the ground.  While that way of practice (I was dabbling in magic and my own distorted version of neo-paganism) offered me some important openings and really established for me that my life needed to be dedicated to spirituality, the cosmic highs had inevitable cosmic crashes.  It was at the bottom of just such a cosmic crash that I was “born again” (hallelujah!) as a Buddhist, having seen clearly that I couldn’t keep looking up to find the way.  That the Dharma offered genuine and even wildly cosmic spirituality that was at the same time always grounded in the earth beneath our feet and the physical body we inhabit, was a revelation.

So, while the “astral” experiences can continue to come or not, when they do I can glean what there is to glean from them and then simply go forward in the “real,” muddy work of the five senses, the mind, my relationships, the deep fact of my breath.  In that sense, it doesn’t matter so much whether it is “ultimately” psychosis or liberation – either way, the response is the same.  Appreciate, learn, move on.

Whether we suspect that they are psychotic or are certain that they’re enlightened, I think it’s important that we talk about our meditation practice and our experiences in meditation.  It’s not something to gossip about or to discuss lightly, and certainly not something to hold onto or reify, and for all of these reasons and more it’s sometimes discouraged.  But I think it’s going too far to wait until just the right time with just the right teacher to bring up our “dark nights” of meditation, or our powerful insight experiences.  We all have Dharma friends, and we should use them to shine careful light on what’s actually happening in our meditation.


8 thoughts on “Psychotic or Spiritual?

  1. “There is no such thing as a weird human being. It’s just that some people require more understanding than others.”

    –Tom Robbins

    I feel I have walked this path, this fence, this crack in the ice all of my life…

    From Christianity’s subtle to severe stabbings to deep fears of people and social circumstances… Often a deep fear of the opposite sex… I remember growing up in a Christian home… God was as real as the car in the driveway, as real as the subtle tensions between my parents, as real as the blood on my bicycle… Though his presence was ten times as daunting, as fierce, as ponderous… I remember staying up the majority of nights at times reading the Bible… Often locking myself in the bathroom so no one else would know…

    Maybe some boys had discovered Onanism by that point, but I was reading the story itself…

    Wandering into my parent’s bedroom at midnight, weeping uncontrollably because I thought God had told me I was going to hell… “I talked to the pastor… He said he’ll pray for you…”

    The cigarettes, the drugs, the crazy literature, the drunkenness and even the punk rock all feeble attempts to save myself from my own mind which seemed to feel things so intensely whether I wanted it to or not…

    Walking for hours throughout the night in the suburban town I grew up in, staring at the sky… Finally feeling quiet, finally feeling like I belonged, a part of the universe… What bliss… Finally stretched and bound to the rack of her majesty—all creation… Nearly erogenous… And yet the report cards said all too often “C”, “D”, “F”… With a little sidebar in pencil… He’s so intelligent… I don’t understand why he can’t apply himself…

    I’ve felt crazy, yet spiritually highly aware all my life… I’ve experienced a lot of resolution on that feeling over the past couple of years… That there isn’t as much “wrong” with me as I thought there might have been… Having moved away from my hometown and the mocking faces of the town I grew up in… Discovered exercise, Yoga and meditation and some great people who love me for who I am, the most important of which is me…

    Of course a lot of this is simply growing up, experiencing the karmic formations of childhood and then seeing them for what they really are… Slowly allowing them to unravel… But still it’s an experience of the insane versus the spiritual realm…

    We’re all a little more nuts than we like to believe… If for no other reason than simply by virtue of having an egoic consciousness which is constantly arguing with itself… I just “did” my first sesshin last month, led by a teacher who was consistently crying… I found myself thinking “Wow, this guy is a little off his rocker… To have emotions which are so tightly wound… Is that really what feeling deeply necessitates?” I think he saw me smiling all the time for the first couple of days… I was grateful to do sesshin, feeling connected, feeling love and joy… He decided to cut me down verbally in sanzen… His perception informed him that I was the one who was nuts because I was smiling…

    I don’t think there is any avoiding the label “psychotic” or “weird” or “different” or “rough around the edges” when it comes to people who experience deeply, whether that be in a spiritual, creative or intellectual sense. It’s par for the course and I think there are only our cultural moors, our conventions, labels, standards and associations which plop things into tight little convenient packages that delude us into casting aspersions at ourselves or others when something a little “off the beaten path”” comes a creepin’…

    Of course as a society we must draw the line between the savants, the gifted and on the opposite end of the spectrum the sociopaths, the perniciously insane who are a threat to themselves or others, but I think that’s usually pretty readily identifiable…
    As far as those in the teaching/role model game, I think it’s subjective based on student, based on circumstance… May be we should ask ourselves more often… “Is this insane, seemingly inscrutable speech I am enduring really upaya in disguise?”

    Or not, but bottom line, there is no map…

    “…and I shambled after them, as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only ones for me are the mad ones…”
    –Jack Kerouac


  2. This is one area where the support of sangha seems essential. I wonder what the leaders of intensive meditation course centers (like Goenka’s vipassana centers) would have to say about this. At those places, people with little or no experience with meditation are plunged into doing sitting meditation for 10 hours a day, for 10 days of silence, with little personal guidance. I would imagine there are far more mental breaks triggered there, (even though they try not to accept people with mental health issues and no one taking psychiatric meds may attend).

  3. I just downloaded a few days ago a virtual book called “Saints and Psychopaths by William L. Hamilton. It is rather long and is located at…..
    I am interested in this subject because at some level of our own making no one can verify that we are sane. I wonder if these categories are important in letting each of us experience the non-verifiable phenomena that sometimes occurs in each spiritual seeker. To have our experiences verified by others is always a a way to feel like we haven’t gone over the edge, but in truth that process is ego oriented. The non-verifiable experiences and insight we sometimes have is so important in defining our own path. Who then cares what others think about how crazy these experiences sound. Especially when they can not be verified by any other human being.
    The book i mentioned above makes some interesting distinctions between the saint and psychopath. After awhile you come to realize that the two are not the same thing but each of us share a bit of both of the labels. I recently posted some quotes that Osho ( rashneesh ) said concerning Buddhism to a Buddhist forum. What occurred afterward was a rash of posts condemning Osho of being a cult leader and basically an insane psychopath. No one was willing to discuss the ideas he had presented. For almost 30 posts there was just the debate about whether or not this man was justified in speaking about spiritual matters.
    Recently there has been a movement to remove a Zen Roshi from his position of abbot because for 40 years he has allegedly abused his position of authority by sexual improprieties and financial misdealings. Some would think that this man is a psychopath, yet others think of him as a saint. Who really knows or can prove either of the labels. we also have the example of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche who was constantly drinking alcohol and was reported to have slept with many of his students. He wrote many very popular books and started the Naropa Institute of Learning in Boulder Colorado. What about the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Saint or psychopath?
    For me these labels are like defining some action as good or bad, right or wrong. The social mores of a society determine to a great degree what is acceptable and what is not. What is appropriate behavior and what is not. I wonder how many incarcerated people are really saints……:) Great subject Thanks for posting it.


  4. Having had one such “break” at a time that I didn’t know what it was and without any support in my own culture, I took a long time noodling out what had happened. Over the many years of looking into this, much about Advaita Vedanta and Zen became available and I have come to recognise what I am – wholly (Holy) – and to be able to read the words of Jesus in the Christian bible while reading around the concepts of the bible itself. At the time of the break an acquaintance called it a “psychotic break” and a psychologist I knew wanted to have me hospitalized. I refused both and I “lived on”, as the Hopi say, even though it was shaky for a while. Today I recognise the white knuckle grip that both those people had and do still have on their own personal version of reality. The one who called it a psychotic break has gone on to be a world famous cult deprogrammer and has also been to trial on kidnapping charges for abducting a minor in order to deprogram her – upon her parents paid instructions to him. How crazy am I – what else do I need to know about him in this , even while it was a destructive cult? This same guy is now employed “professionally” to intercede at a hospital emergency room when the docs think the intake case warrants it. What is upside down here? I am however, circumspect about who I share this with. And it was, after all, only just another experience.

    Early on I found the most grounded-ness zero bullshit of practice to be actually that of Nisargadatta Maharaj. While not an equivalent of Buddhist, but very closely aligned with Madhyamaka, Nis had taught me more about Buddhism in plain terms than all the sutras combined had taught. Nis brought me to Buddhism… in a way. Now I read those sutras with some comprehension – enough anyway to faithfully fall off the page, unsupported by my ideas, thoughts and views of it…well many of them anyway. I find that this breath moves the diaphragm of the universe back and forth and that I’d die without it. I also owe much to Chan master Linji who clearly placed all those sutras in the category of hitching posts for donkeys. That, to me, is grounded as well as loving and greatly humerous. Finally how deluded it is to just be present and lit up for what is happening as it unfolds and in spite of all my plans, my culture’s plans, my parents plans, my teacher’s plans…. for it?

    Are “normal well adjusted” people only just psychotics who have agreed to a joint paradigm of delusion? In some countries, at least, there is a complete acceptance of these “psychotics” on the street and indeed their “abnormal” behavior is a kind of national pride. Admittedly, there is something similar in the US, but the difference is that in the US the acceptable religious psychotic national pride is every ready to bomb another country out of existence, literally.


  5. The distinction between the spiritual mystic and a mystical psychotic person can be endlessly argued. What it usually comes down to is (a) whether the mystic can integrate Union with the Divine (whatever it is called) into everyday life in a way that is beneficial to self and others; and (b) whether the mystic can function okay enough — hold down a job, be a loving and accountable person in family and friendship relationships, and “hold” the realms of Ultimate and Historical realities in appropriate ways. It doesn’t work to be receiving a universe expanding message from God while driving at 65 mph on a congested freeway, usually; conversely, planning what Ikea furniture you can buy while on a desert vision quest might not be the best use of that time.

  6. It’s an interesting issue. As someone who has had what I call an enlightenment experience in the past, it is something I’ve spent some time on also.

    In the psychiatric community, the gold standard of determining whether some form of mental illness exists (and the degree of severity) comes down to one question. Can the person function OK on a day-to-day basis in the social, work and household spheres of their lives? If not, to what degree is that functioning disturbed? If there is no significant disturbance, there is no illness.

    That makes sense. If you think about it, the clinically insane are not able to hold a job, for example. There would be multiple problems for them – they might be unable to arrive on time, unable to focus on the work rather than on their delusions/voices/obsessions, unable to regulate their temper when a disagreement arose, unable to keep their home/clothes clean (or be unable to stop cleaning them to get to work)…that sort of thing. Exactly that kind of difficulty is why we so often see them homeless.

    I makes sense to apply this same question to Buddhists who are having unusual spiritual experiences. Buddhism, after all, is supposed to be all about helping us to deal more effectively with reality. Therefore, if our ability to maintain our functionality increases during one of these experiences, we can know that psychosis is not our problem, however odd we might seem to others. We are simply having an unusual experience. If, however, we find our ability to maintain daily life decreases significantly for a substantial period of time along with one of these experiences, it is time to look at mental/emotional issues as being a potential problem. The difference comes down to context in the life of the individual.

    That is my opinion, anyway.

  7. Phoenix says “If you think about it, the clinically insane are not able to hold a job, for example. There would be multiple problems for them – they might be unable to arrive on time, unable to focus on the work rather than on their delusions/voices/obsessions, unable to regulate their temper when a disagreement arose, unable to keep their home/clothes clean (or be unable to stop cleaning them to get to work)…that sort of thing. Exactly that kind of difficulty is why we so often see them homeless.”

    I practiced in a monastery in Kyoto, Japan, for a period of time. There were some Japanese monks there who would fit the above description of being clinically insane. However the monastery took care of them anyway. Would this be a model for mindful living in our Buddhist communities?

  8. Yes, I was meditating and then I got psychosis. F*cking psychiatrists poisoned me with haloperidol and now I don’t care about anything, I can’t concentrate/meditate I feel soulless.

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