Archive for May, 2012

To continue from Part 1… This article will discuss the similarities between mystical, magickal and psychotic experience. Psychosis is a phenomena present in several mental illnesses and IMHO is a potential in all of them: severe states of depression, mania and anxiety can and have led some patients to states of psychosis, usually delusional states. (Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.) However, in some bipolar people and people with schizophrenia, hallucinations are also not uncommon. HOWEVER, as you’ll find below, the similarities between psychotic states and mysticism are pretty shocking, and there’s not much of a hop from mysticism to magick.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I wonder if the two experiences (with differing actualities and differing results) have a common root. Mysticism and psychosis are both reinterpretations of reality, the former hopefully leading you into a truer, more whole picture (for better or for worse) and the latter a medical symptom that distorts reality. However, I can say from experience that living through such things can lead one to a greater understanding of themselves and how they fit in the world, since (at least I find) the experience of psychosis to be potentially shattering to the personality. You have no choice but to redefine yourself in such a way as to withstand the next blow.


Picture of Psychosis- Maureen Oliver

How are they similar? How are they different? Comparing and contrasting Mysticism and Psychosis

Now, I don’t want to completely reiterate what I’ve found in Tomas’ Agosin’s very awesome article (see below), but I will be drawing heavily on his criteria as well as supplementing it with my own experience. Agosin’s similarities are mainly focused on mysticism. However, it won’t be too difficult to see the similarities between magickal and mystical experience.

  • Intense subjectivity and ineffable quality. I don’t think I need to say that magickal and mystical experiences are intensely subjective, and it can be incredibly difficult explaining one’s mystical or magickal experience to another person in terms to make things easily understood…unless, of course, the person you’re speaking with has had a similar experience. Agosin says, “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. The external world is only relevant to the extent that it reflects the profound subjective experience the person is going through.”

I can stress enough how true this is. With super intense mystical experiences, the world around you just really isn’t as important, and it can take a while to get back “into the groove”, so to speak. For those of us who are mystically inclined, it can take quite a bit of internal cajoling, self-threats (“you’ll have to pay these consequences if you don’t get up and do your job…yes, I know money is an illusion, so is hunger but it’s not pretty…”) to make yourself come back to the waking world. HOWEVER, the mystic learns to balance his experiences in the waking world, to integrate them as a part of the larger picture, to see the value of his mundane life as a means to apply the lessons learned in his spiritual one. The psychotic, however, may not be able to do this in a manner that is psychologically integrating, at least not while in the midst of an episode. Agosin says that they mystic maintains a healthy attachment to the world:

  • Attachment to the world. “The mystic, through practices of self-control, concentration and study, gradually reduces his/her attachment to the world. The mystic sees the material world as transitory and values that which he/she perceives as more permanent, eternal.

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 subjected 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 the patient with a disruption of any sense of continuity in his/her sense of self and the world.”

I both agree and disagree. Not all mystics maintain attachment to socially established rules of behavior. The Aghoris and Kapalikas of India are sterling examples of this, as well as many religious practices that are counter-culture to the ruling environment. Many will say LHP people are mentally ill, when I can certainly say I’ve known more than a few mentally stable LHP practitioners who simply did not believe in the same cultural rules as the rest of us.

(Sincerely, “adhering to cultural standards” is a criteria for determining mental health…something I never agreed with and still don’t. Sometimes, counter culture is healthier that pro-culture.)

Mystical experience has also been known to break down ego boundaries, create some intense emotional states and can really make you question your sense of self. I don’t think these markers should necessarily be a criteria for determining psychotic experience UNLESS it fits with other critera, such as duration and frequency of events, as well as identifiable triggers. The mystic should be able to integrate the experience, sooner or later. (On mysticism/magick making you crazy, we’ll get to that in part 3.)

  • Sense of noesis. Mystical experience brings with it the sense of being clued into some great, wonderful secret. It brings it’s own high- ecstatic states, inner transformation, a break down of things you thought you once knew. This feels incredibly important to the person experiencing it, and a part of mysticism is being able to not only integrate what you have experienced but *sharing* what is relevant to share with others.

I tend to think that they mystic chooses to share this importance in non-harmful ways (such as writing about it, etc.) and being open to criticism as it comes. The mystic may firmly believe in what he believed, but he will accept you non-belief or even the possibility that all this is in his head. The quality of the psychotic, however, is that no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince him. As my favorite psychology professor once demonstrated:

Patient: “There’s a little green martain in the trash can.”
Counselor: “I don’t see one.”
Patient: “Not in that trashcan, the other one.”
Counselor: “Not here either.”
Patient: “Well, it’s invisible.”
Counselor: “Then how come you can see it and not me?”
Patient: “Only special people with a certain DNA can see it.”

Et cetera. One could possibly argue that initiates of some traditions, orders or paths act this way, though that is remedied with initiation in many cases. The initiates at Eleusis did not understand the mysteries until their initiations were finished- how can you understand what you don’t experience? Can you imagine explaining it to someone who didn’t believe in such things?

Initiate: “And then we drink this drink, and Persephone herself appears from the Underworld! I no longer fear death since I am a Child of the Mysteries!”
Person: “Uh-huh. Why can’t I see Persephone?”
Initiate: “You have to do other things first, prove yourself and all that stuff. Be purified.”
Person: “Why can’t I just see her now, if she’s real?”
Initiate: “There is a special set of rituals you have to go through, first.”
Person: “You’re an initiate, make her come here now.”
Initiate: “Persephone doesn’t come at my beck and call! It just doesn’t work that way!”

See what I mean? While I have no doubt in my mind that the Epopteia at Eleusis was a very real and life-altering experience, I don’t see people “not in the know” being able to really understand it.

  • Loss of self-object boundaries, disortion of time sense, perceptual changes. Mysticism, magick and psychosis are also characterized by a loss of ego boundaries. In mysticism and psychosis, there is a sense of interconnectedness: if not with other people, than perhaps a greater awareness of a person’s place in the universe. A person gets a greater sense of their true will, so to speak. There is an expansive sense of self, as if you could contain all possibilities and anything could be done. Time sense is often lost- I can think of several times that I think I’ve been meditating or in ritual for 30 minutes and a full 2 hours has passed me by. The present moment feels eternal (and actually, if you listen to the Zen Buddhists, it is eternal)…so maybe it’s rather shedding the illusion of time sense.

The mystic counters this with a health sense of self, or self image, and ego identity: not necessarily an image of the mortal self, but the true self as it relates to all aspects of the person’s present existence, including the mundane persona that we all must work with. I believe Agosin is correct when he says, “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.

Hear hear.

The psychotic’s experiences, however, seem to be more self-centered, and he believes that HE is the only one able to experience such things, that HE and HE ALONE is “omnipotent and omniscient.”

The psychotic 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 and sense of self are ephemeral to the psychotic, and they rarely have a strong sense of self.

Agosin does say, “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.” Now, in dealing with some of the Western LHP traditions, this may not necessarily be the case. I know that some Typhonian practitioners and Dragon Rouge adherents attest more to ego-exhaltation, the process of making a person a god while still upon earth. While I personally don’t agree with such, I would not go so far as to call such practitioners “psychotic”. And sincerely, I think many of us have known talented practitioners with an ego to beat the band- I know I have. I can almost CERTAINLY name several famous occultists off hand who thought more than a little highly of themselves…maybe they were the Prophet of a New Aeon or the Father of Modern Traditional/Sabbatic Witchcraft. This doesn’t make them psychotic.

I personally would look for some very marked and obvious delusions of grandeur, some of that insistence I mentioned before. There are lots of interesting UPGs floating around out there, and who are we to say what is true and what isn’t? To talk about a topic that was a rather hot one not a few months ago, there are god-spouses and there are god-spouses. There are those that claim that they are “married” to a god and they see it as a healthy expression of commitment, service and the strengthening of a bond. They do not need recognition from others, though if they do they are able to take criticism. And then there are those who insist on legalizing their unions and being honored and hailed as “husband/wife of N.” They will attack, verbally or whatever other way, their dissenters for disagreeing. Hmmmm. Big difference.

And for the record, NO, I don’t believe myself to be a god-spouse. I will write about spirit relationships some other time, but the “god-spouse” phenomenon will have to be based on observation only.

  • Perceptual changes/Intense affective experiences. Both psychosis and mystical/magickal experience include changes in perception and strong (sometimes fluctuating) emotional states. While I’ve seen many people assert that it is easy to tell the difference between hallucinatory phenomena/synesthesias and genuine mystical experience, I would like to HUGELY beg to differ. There is a often a profound difference but sometimes, the experiences can resemble each other strongly.

Remember the example I used earlier, of a person considering themselves the “spouse” of a god? There are several famous saints who have claimed to enter into a “mystical marriage” with the Christian Jesus. (The whole god-spouse thing is really an old concept, and shouldn’t be spurned on the basis of how it sounds to the modern ear.) St. Catherine of Siena was one such Catholic saint who claims to have experienced a mystical marriage with Jesus. (2) As cited from a Catholic website: “She received the stigmata in 1365, but there were no visible marks on her. In the year 1366 she had a vision of Jesus giving her a wedding ring which she wore till the day she died, at the age of 33 years. In The Secret of the Heart, by Sr. Mary Jeremiah, theologian and contemplative Dominican, we can read about the deep spirituality of Saint Catherine. He focused on her intimate and loving relationship with Jesus.” This marriage was said to be hugely ecstatic, cause both great terror and great joy in St. Catherine. New Advent defines “mystical marriage” as:

“(1)… the mystical marriage consists in a vision in which Christ tells a soul that He takes it for His bride, presenting it with the customary ring, and the apparition is accompanied by a ceremony; the Blessed Virgin, saints, and angels are present. This festivity is but the accompaniment and symbol of a purely spiritual grace; hagiographers do not make clear what this grace is, but it may at least be said that the soul receives a sudden augmentation of charity and of familiarity with God, and that He will thereafter take more special care of it…Moreover, as a wife should share in the life of her husband, and as Christ suffered for the redemption of mankind, the mystical spouse enters into a more intimate participation in His sufferings. Accordingly, in three cases out of every four, the mystical marriage has been granted to stigmatics.” (3)

There is, of course, the mystical marriage of God and the soul as espoused (pun intended) by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, but that’s another beast entirely. We’re talking about the ecstatic, visionary experience of being especially chosen by a god not only for a marriage relationship but also for a special purpose of supernatural import that will effect the salvation of the world.

Keeping in mind that St. Catherine’s stigmata were “invisible”, how do we know the pain she experienced wasn’t an intense synesthesia? How do we know this is a vision, and not a hallucination accompanied by delusions of grandeur? Had we the opportunity to observe St. Catherine, we might be able to find an identifiable trigger that brought on this experience (in my opinion, both psychosis and mystical experiences have identifiable triggers, and magick- by nature- triggers all kinds of interesting spiritual/psychological phenomena through ritual). St. Catherine obviously had a history of such experiences/epsiodes and one could see permanent alterations in her thought processes. This is the woman who went to Rome, at a time when women were expected to defer to a man’s wishes, and ordered the Pope (the de facto ruler of the Christian world) to remain in Rome! If we judge her behavior by the culture of her time, then a practitioner of mental health would have to ask if there was something seriously wrong with a “mere” woman telling the Pope what to do because “God” told her to do it.

(And for the record, I believe St. Catherine’s experiences were legit and I would have love to have been a fly on the wall during that audience with the Pope.)

There are many that like to delineate between positive and negative experiences: saying that it is the psychotic who experiences negative episodes and the mystic who experiences the positive. To that, I would like to say that the people who think so must not have much experience in either.

I do, however. During the height of my own very active mental illness, I experienced what is termed “mood-congruent delusions”: delusional ideas that coincided with my either extreme mania or extreme depression. The nature of those delusions, I don’t feel like sharing, but I can certainly share that these states were similar (though not the same) to mystical/magickal experiences I have had, both positive and negative, in feeling if not in actuality. Both were incredibly vivid and overwhelming. They could be either intensely frightening or incredibly wonderful. Both changed my perception of things around me and how I interacted with reality’s “concretes”. However, there were subtle differences between them, most of the time. During delusional states, I lacked “reality testing” and was unable to bring myself down to a rational level. During mystical experiences, I am better able to reign in my thoughts and achieve a sense of calm and levelness that I can’t during extreme episodes of illness. Following mystical experiences, I am able to examine it and listen to criticisms and consider possible alternatives (am I out of my mind again? How does the quality of the experience compare to others I’ve had? And so on). Also, mystical/magickal experience, while it tends to dissolve the ego (depending on what you’re doing), your sense of ultimate “self” remains intact- in fact, you are probably more aware of it than ever. During my own psychotic episodes, I was completely engulfed in the experience. There was no self- only the dizzying highs of my manic rage and the dragging lows of my depression, and the delusions which accompanied them at their worst.

Notice, though, I said “most of the time”. Following a period where my mental health began to improve, except in very extreme states I was able to maintain lucidity during manic psychosis, which is often a common feature in those with bipolar disorder with the tendency towards psychosis. When on (the wrong) medication to calm my mania, I experienced auditory hallucinations and remained aware that that was exactly what they were and that I should ignore them until they went away. (I am thankfully on a very low dose of the right medication now.)

Back to Agosin. He supports the concept of differences in ego identity: the loss of ego for the mystic and the expansion of consciousness, and the lack of strong ego in the psychotic and the tendency to grasp onto whatever fragments of self they can find. But I want to sincerely point out that magick/mysticism has the ability to utterly shatter the ego and leave the unprepared mystic in a sort of frightening limbo. Agosin also states that serenity is a feature of the mystic, though I would have to be honest and say fear if often a natural response as well. If you study the lives of the mystics or great magicians, you will find both in equal measure. Though, I have to admit that serenity usually prevails in even the most frightening mystical experience, whereas fear is the driving force behind psychosis.

  • Thought processes are not disrupted in the mystical experience. In the psychotic experience thinking usually becomes fragmented and disordered.”

I think I’ve gone over this before. Thought processes most certainly can become disrupted in mystical experience, though perhaps not in the fragmented way of the psychotic. They are more simplified, rather.

So what’s with all the blah blah?

There are many other differences and similarities, but I will leave that up to the reader to peruse and discover in their own time. (Though psychosis-wise, hopefully not through first hand experience.) The point of explicating all this is to illustrate how difficult it can to differentiate between psychotic experience and mystical/magickal experience, and hint at how easily one can blend into the other (which will be better explained in part 3). It’s not that I believe pagans and magickians should accept every story they hear, but maybe that they should take everything with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of compassion and respect. Many prophets of religions, ancient and modern, we undoubtedly regarded as mad by their peers, and many prophets of religions, ancient and modern, probably were. (I could voice personal opinions, but I’ll be nice and keep them to myself.) Think for yourself, question everything and don’t be afraid to decide on your own answers, but at the same time, let others decide on their own as well…wither they’re mystical or mad.

Works Cited:

1. Agosin, Tomas. Mysticism and Psychosis. Retrieved from : http://www.seedsofunfolding.org/issues/11_08/feature_english.htm

2. http://www.catholic-religion-and-more.com/saint-catherine.html

3. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09703a.htm

Picture Credit:

1. http://www.voicesforum.org.uk/expsych.htm

(I will be going back through my entries and adding picture credit.)


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