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.