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Monday, 7 May 2012

1.6 – Conclusion to Schizophrenic or Saint?

'If you talk to God it's praying,
if God talks to you it's
schizophrenia' - Szasz
The literature shows that religious and psychotic experiences tend to follow essentially the same ordered structure. In Mysticism and Schizophrenia, Wapnick considers both experiences in terms of the five stages Underhill identified in Mysticism. He identifies a similar genesis for schizophrenia and mysticism, while noting that although their development is similar, the time previous to an experience differs. The path of the mystic commonly commences with an ‘awakening of self’.[1] There next comes a stage where the individual purges themselves of links to the material and social world, which brings about ‘a state of pure consciousness in which the individual experiences nothing’.[2]


Those who experience a schizophrenic or mystical occurrence experience: the breakdown of their attachments to the social world; terror as they enter the ‘inner world’; and a following feeling of peace. Wapnick adds a final similarity, namely that after their mystical or schizophrenic experience, most subjects  return to the ‘normal’ world with renewed vitality and enthusiasm. From this Wapnick concludes that what mystics relinquish is attachment to worldly things, instead of the things themselves. The significance of this final stage is also stressed in the classical Eastern tradition, with Buddha often being used as the prime example. Buddha returns to the social world, from which he had fled after having achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, thus revealing that mystics are not trying to alienate themselves from the world, but are instead trying to renounce their attachments to the social world, and their needs relating to it.

A number of scholars have concluded that there is no qualitative distinction between the mystical and the medical state, treating them both as naturally-occurring variations on the normal conscious state. As Buckley emphasises, it is true that there are many points of similarity between the experience of a mystic and a patient undergoing an acute psychotic episode: ‘The appearance of a powerful sense of noesis, heightening of perception, feelings of 'communion' with the 'divine', and the exultation may be common to both’.[3] He continues, stating that both schizophrenia and mysticism constitute a, ‘limited repertoire of response within the nervous system for an altered state experience’[4] – similar, but distinct elements.

However, although the similarity of many aspects of these mystical and psychotic experiences is striking, it should not obscure the significant – and, I would argue, qualitative – differences between them. One of the primary discrepancies between the two states is located in the time period before the vision, (or however the manifestation occurs). A mystic consciously strives for an inner experiences over a period of time, which is developed within a cultural context, whereas a schizophrenic’s experience is sudden and deep and occurs in the denial of their social functioning. Mystics struggle tirelessly to achieve a revelation of God, and it is part of their voluntary preparation for religious experience to escape from the world and to free their bodies and spirits from the preoccupations of everyday life so that they can enter into another realm where spiritual communion cannot be interrupted. It can be seen as the apotheosis of the prayerful state, in which all earthly obstacles to communion are relieved. The mystic readies themself for a religious experience by training their spiritual ‘muscles’, in a manner of speaking, which enables them to experience in safety the sudden immersion in a radically different ‘inner world’ with its very different turmoils.

Mystical experience is not of permanent duration and Hocking noted that not one mystic expressed surprise at the transient nature.[5] This absence of surprise seems to show that there is no mystical state so abstracted from the social world that the subject loses all feeling for the mundane world they left behind. Schizophrenic episodes, on the other hand, usually occur sporadically and are compressed into much shorter time periods, where the individual experiences a breakdown in social functioning and a loss of conscious control, while experiencing a complete removal from the world and the self. Schizophrenics lack the desire and mental ‘training’ of the mystics and are ‘overwhelmed, with no means of dealing with the experience and no conviction that they will survive it’.[6]

To conclude, mystics provide an illustration of the method whereby the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ world are joined with joyful and holy consequence, whereas a schizophrenic episode is an example of the fragmented result which occurs when they are separated. Resultantly, it does not appear that the Christian mystics suffered from schizophrenia. (That is not to say that some cases of mental illness did not go undiagnosed, but in the majority of instances, I believe the mystics to have been of sane mind.) While there are numerous similarities, there are also too many differences to make a diagnosis of schizophrenia legitimate.

Hocking regards mysticism, ‘neither as metaphysics, nor as an experience, but as an art: namely, as the art of worship’.[7] This squares with the historical role of mystics as virtuosi of the art of worship. Their knowledge was the result of ‘knowing’ God scientifically or experimentally (in the sense that by their physical actions they have ‘proved’ the existence of God, and entered into a relationship with him). Their tool was the protracted and arduous refinement of worship, while the schizophrenic experience, in comparison, amounts instead to a psychological malfunction. Despite this evidence, I believe that Margery Kempe may have suffered from a hysterical malady akin to depression. If it were not for the fact that she was extremely devout and actively sought religious experiences, I may have concluded that she suffered from schizophrenia, although as the above information infers, it is precisely her piety that renders this diagnosis unlikely. 




[1] Kevin Wapnick, Mysticism and Schizophrenia, p.323
[2] Ibid. p.324
[3] Peter Buckley, Mystical Experience and Schizophrenia, p. 516
[4] Ibid
[5] William Hocking, The Meaning of Mysticism as Seen Through its Psychology, p.229
[6] Ibid. p.335
[7] Ibid. p.224


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