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Spiritual experiences in psychosis and schizophrenia

Spirituality and mental health are two interconnected aspects of our well-being. Many individuals draw comfort, guidance, and a sense of purpose from their spiritual beliefs. These beliefs can play a significant role in promoting mental resilience and providing a framework for coping with life's challenges.

Spiritual experiences can range from a sense of connection to a higher power or universal energy to divine revelations or encounters with entities beyond the material world.

Although all people are predisposed to spirituality, some individuals may never have transcendent or subliminal experiences. However, there are those who are more prone to these experiences because of their differences in perceiving and processing information. For instance, people with temporal lobe epilepsy have strong emotional and déjà vu experiences (Mullan & Penfield 1959); people with psychosis are prone to powerful spiritual (whether positive or negative) experiences (Clarke 2010). Sensky and Fenwick (1982) reported a strong connection between epilepsy and religious experiences. Mysticism has often been linked to schizophrenia (Wapnick 1981).

Psychosis and schizophrenia are complex mental health disorders that can significantly impact an individual's perception of reality and their overall well-being. However, within the realm of these challenging conditions, there is a fascinating and often misunderstood aspect: spiritual experiences.

Psychosis and schizophrenia can influence the intensity and control of spiritual experiences. Individuals with these conditions often report spiritual experiences that are intense, profound, and transformative. These experiences can fuel religious or mystical beliefs, providing a framework for interpreting their unusual perceptions. Understanding the distinctions between spiritual encounters and mental health conditions is crucial in comprehending the impact of these experiences on individuals' lives.

Culture and societal norms also play a critical role in influencing the interpretation and acceptance of spiritual experiences. In some cultures, distinct spiritual experiences and beliefs are deeply embedded within traditional healings and rituals. Understanding the cultural context and beliefs of the individual is crucial in assessing the impact of spiritual experiences on their well-being and functioning.

Spiritual emergency vs spiritual emergence / ‘heaven vs. hell’ experiences

Stanislav and Christina Grof coined the term "spiritual emergency" to identify a variety of psychological difficulties and to distinguish from spiritual emergence (a gradual evolvement of spiritual potential).

Whether experiences are induced or spontaneous, the outcome of the shift from the ‘normal’ constructed reality to the unknown (subliminal/transcendent) is unpredictable: it can go either way and can lead to the dark side of the soul (or “spiritual emergency”) – a turn for the dark and uncontrollable during a process of spiritual growth – ‘spiritual emergence’ (Grof & Grof 1989).

Grof and Grof (1989) identify various possible triggers of transformational crisis, including primarily physical factors (such as a disease, accident or operation; prolonged lack of sleep; childbirth, miscarriage and others); a powerful emotional experience (such as the death of a child or another close relative; loss of an important relationship) a serious of failures (at work or in a personal life); and in predisposed individuals – the “last straw” can be an experience with psychedelic drugs or a session of experiential psychotherapy; deep involvement in various forms of meditation and spiritual practice.

The dark side of this sort of experiences is well recognised in the communities of meditation and prayer; and wisdom has been accumulated to teach how to use it in a positive and balanced manner. The technology has been developed for managing the dark side of the transliminal: uncontrollable, terrifying states in which the individual can become lost in madness. Nevertheless, there are no absolute guarantees. These various traditions emphasise different aspects of such experiences. Some see a mystical experience as a means to the end, while others seek it for its own sake, and devote their lives to this way of experiencing; “to relationship with God, or however they conceptualise the ultimate within their tradition” (Clarke 2008). Clarke cites St. John who introduced the concept ‘the dark night of the soul’:

This dark night of the soul is an inflow of God into the soul that purges it of its habitual ignorance and imperfections… God teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in the perfection of love. The experience of divine love is so overwhelming that the contrast with human imperfection is almost unbearably painful.

Huxley (1956) also elaborates on two sides of visionary experiences in his essay Heaven and Hell: the visionary experience is not always blissful (heaven) and sometimes it can be terrible (hell). Both visionary heaven and visionary hell have its preternatural light and its preternatural significance, but the divine light can become burning, purgatorial fire, and significance can become appalling. He illustrates his point with the example of Renee, a young girl with schizophrenia:

For [Renee], the illumination is infernal – an intense electric glare without a shadow, ubiquitous and implacable. Everything, that, for healthy visionaries, is a source of bliss, brings Renee only fear and a nightmarish sense of unreality… And then there is the horror of infinity. For the healthy visionary, the perception of the infinite in a finite particular is a revelation of the divine immanence; for Renee, it was a revelation of what she calls ‘the Systems,’ the vast cosmic mechanism which exists only to grind out guilt and punishment, solitude and unreality”.

Huxley points out another difference in ‘heaven vs. hell’ experiences – the bodily sensations: while blissful experiences are associated with a sense of separation from the body and a feeling of deindividualisation and connectedness to the universe, during the ‘hell experience’ the world becomes transfigured for the worse, individualisation is intensified, and the connection with the body grows “progressively more dense, more tightly packed” until the person finds himself “reduced to being the agonized consciousness of inspissated lump of matter, no bigger than a stone that can be held between the hands”.

Huxley draws a parallel between such negative visionary experiences and a doctrine in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the departed soul is described as shrinking in agony from the Light of the Void, “in order to rush headlong into the comforting darkness of self-hood as a reborn human being, or even as a beast, an unhappy ghost, a denizen of hell. Anything rather than the burning brightness of unmitigated Reality – anything!”

According to Clarke (2008), there are a number of factors that can determine which way it goes: (1) the strength of the individual to withstand the onslaught of a full transliminal experience without fragmenting, and (2) the context (for example, under spiritual guidance). Depending on the outcome, some emerge deeper and wiser, while others lose their way, with their sense of self fragmented, still others may stay in the transliminal for the rest of their life (Clarke 2008). For some, the mood they are in, can be reflected in how they perceive their environment.

Spiritual experiences in psychosis and schizophrenia can have both positive and negative effects on an individual's mental health recovery. On the one hand, these experiences can provide a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope, helping individuals find solace and strength in their beliefs. On the other hand, intense spiritual experiences can also lead to increased confusion, distress, and difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

One distinguishing factor between spiritual experiences and psychosis is that usually if the experience is solicited it does not overwhelm the individual (Brett 2010; Tobert 2010). Psychosis is said to be an incomplete withdrawal from the spirit state, a failure to return to this reality, whereas the mystic is in control and come back completely to everyday reality (Tobert 2010). In the case of schizophrenia, individuals may lose control and remain in the spirit world, becoming unable to function in everyday reality:

even the blissful visionary experience tends to change its sign if it persists too long. Many schizophrenics have their times of heavenly happiness; but the fact that… they do not know when, if ever, they will be permitted to return to the reassuring banality of everyday experience causes even heaven to seem appalling. But for those who, for whatever reason, are appalled, heaven turns into hell, bliss into horror, the Clear Light into the hateful glare of the land of lit-upness.” (Huxley 1956)

The relationship between spiritual experiences and psychopathology in psychosis and schizophrenia is complex and multi-dimensional. Some argue that spiritual experiences can be seen as adaptive coping mechanisms or attempts to find meaning in overwhelming experiences. On the other hand, some argue that these experiences could be a manifestation of underlying psychopathological processes, blurring the line between exceptional human experiences and pathological alterations in perceptions.

By understanding the nature of these experiences and their potential implications for mental health recovery, we can gain insights into the intricate relationship between spirituality and the human mind, while also addressing the challenges and controversies surrounding the integration of spirituality into psychiatric care.

1 commentaire

Frank Sterle
Frank Sterle
16 déc. 2023

Whatever ‘God’ is exactly, I believe It has been largely misunderstood, especially by conservative monotheists. ... The divine, for example, may actually not need nor desire to be ‘worshipped’ — It's way beyond those frail/shallow humanlike traits.

Perhaps the Ten Commandments were/are not meant to be obeyed in order to appease/please God but rather intended for humankind’s benefit, to keep people safe and healthy. And what if ‘houses of worship’ are meant for the parishioners, divinely intended to be for the soul what health clinics/spas, even hospitals, are for the body and mind?

Also, the Almighty via Jesus may have occasionally enjoyed a healthy belly-shaking laugh with his disciples over a good [albeit likely clean] joke. Imagine the divine with…

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