I believe that extraordinary states of consciousness are not pathological and can be an essential part of the development of the human psyche.
The topic of the above-linked story should be familiar to anyone who has studied religion at the graduate studies level. Not necessarily religion as ‘theology’ but as ‘religious studies,’ where we are supposed to be able to use our critical minds to assess the truth claims forwarded by religion, as opposed to simply parroting them without thinking.
I wrote a paper related to this subject in grad studies and remember calling a professor on the phone after handing in the essay because I noticed a slight grammatical issue in one of my numerous endnotes.
Readers of my blog will note this is pretty common with me. I write, do my best, but still find typos and room for improvement in my work.
Luckily with the web that’s sort of expected and I can just note my updates in the comments area of a given post (which I often do).
Anyhow, the professor said it was “fine” and that was the end of our conversation. He ended up giving me an A in his course but it seemed he was too preoccupied with something else to really be able to appreciate the importance of what I was trying to accomplish.
My interest in this area goes back before grad studies. I also wrote a paper called “Understanding Madness” in undergraduate studies. That professor, the late Lee Beach, was a clinical psychologist and super nice guy who studied the interface of literature and psychology.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the one professor responded favorably to my work but the other, even though always winking and smiling at me in the halls, unexpectedly withdrew his support in my quest for academic advancement and funding.
Readers are probably getting bored of my harping on this particular tale, but I do think it is important.
A certain percentage of people in our world experience what we commonly call a “breakdown.” Just what this means depends on several often overlooked questions:
- What are the symptoms?
- Are all breakdowns the same or do they differ?
- Who is observing and how is the afflicted person treated?
- How does the sufferer’s peer group, family and society view the process?
- Does the person recover, get worse or do they forever remain on the apparent fringes of sanity and madness?
- If the person does recover, are they the same as before or somehow transformed into something new?
Regarding the last point, anyone with even a passing familiarity with religious studies will know that many notable personages underwent breakdowns and came out the other side not only transformed but with something entirely new to offer.
The Swedish polymath Emanuel Swedenborg and the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung come to mind. But there are many others, along with those who have argued for the possibility of positive outcomes without necessarily experiencing a so-called breakdown themselves.
Some significant authors include the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing (who advocated the term “breakthrough” instead of “breakdown”), the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, whose classic work Shamanism illustrates how many potential shamans go through an initial period of psychological imbalance and even breakdown before they emerge as spiritual healers.
Put simply, after a psychological typhoon some individuals don’t wash up on the shore a broken wreck but manage to break on through to the other side, as the American icon Jim Morrison once put it.