Early in my psychiatric career, while treating psychotic patients who had experiences with powerful religious imagery, I started wondering whether the great mystics of the past would have been considered the psychotic patients of the present, and whether the patients I was caring for would have been considered great saints in the past. Is the mystic psychotic? Is the psychotic patient a misunderstood mystic?
When comparing the following two accounts, can you distinguish which one is a description of a psychotic episode and which one a mystical experience?
All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain.1
From the first, the experience seemed to me to be holy. What I saw was the Power of Love—the name came to me at once—the Power that I knew somehow to have made all the universes, past, present and to come; to be utterly infinite, an infinity of infinities, to have conquered the Power of Hate, its opposite, and thus created the sun, the moon, the planets, the earth, light, life, joy and peace, never ending…. In that peace I felt utterly and completely forgiven, relieved from all burden of sin. The whole infinity seemed to open up before me, and during the weeks and months that followed I passed through experiences which are virtually indescribable. The complete transformation of “reality” transported me as it were into the Kingdom of Heaven. I feel so close to God, so inspired by His Spirit, that in a sense I am God. I see the future, plan the Universe, save mankind; I am utterly and completely immortal; I am even male and female. The whole Universe, animate and inanimate, past, present and future is within me; all things are possible.2
It is clear to me that psychotic and mystical experiences have many characteristics in common.
Intense subjectivity. 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.
Sense of noesis. Something very important is happening to the person. In both types of experiences, the person’s attention is riveted with a sense that an important message or knowledge is being discovered.
Ineffable quality. Both psychosis and mystical experience are very intense situations which the person has trouble putting into words. One simply cannot communicate all the richness and intensity encountered. Both types of experience transcend the rational and usual, ordinary way of experiencing life.
Loss of self-object boundaries. Both experiences are often accompanied by a loss of ego boundaries. One experiences a sense of oneness with others, nature, the universe as a whole. New connections between oneself and the external world are discovered. The clear boundaries of inside (self) and outside (other) are blurred. There is an expansion in the sense of self and how one defines oneself.
Distortion of time sense. In both situations, the linear sense of time (past—present—future) is lost, with the present appearing as the only reality. The intensity of the experience in the present gives the sense that it is eternal, lasting forever.
Perceptual changes. Heightened perceptions in all sensory modalities, synesthesias and hallucinatory phenomena (especially visual and auditory) are very common.
Intense affective experiences. Both involve intense emotions. Great ecstasy and great moments of terror are often described. The more negative affective experiences tend to be more common in psychosis, but they can be experienced in either.
Attempt at renewal and healing. The mystical experience involves an expansion of one’s present state of consciousness. It is the attempt of the psyche to transcend a limited identification of self. It is the psyche’s effort to break the boundaries of the personality totally trapped in the ego. The mystic sees his/her connection with all of life, and through that new vision expands his/her identity and sense of self. The mystical experiences heal the narrow, limited concept of the self, transforming that smallness into a being more deeply connected with all of life.
Psychosis is also an attempt at renewal and healing. The person has reached an impasse in his/her psychological life, and the only way it can be resolved is through such a drastic transformation. John Percy, in The Far Side of Madness,3 talks about psychosis as an attempt of the psyche to borrow the energy and images of the archetypal layer in the unconscious to heal a broken sense of self. He describes how in acute psychosis the individual goes through a process of death, rebirth and renewal symbolically to heal him/herself.
Altered states of consciousness appear after a period of preparation or restlessness followed by a sudden realization. Evelyn Underhill describes this progression from preparation to sudden mystical experience in her book Mysticism.4 Malcolm Bowers, in Retreat from Sanity,5 describes this process of increased anxiety, altered states and sudden psychotic realization in the psychotic patient. Peter Buckley explains the similarity in the altered states of consciousness in mysticism and psychosis by “the possibility that there is a limited repertoire of response within the central nervous system for such altered state experiences even though the precipitants for entering this altered state may be extremely different.”6
Even though there are many similarities between the phenomenology and subjective experiences of mysticism and psychosis, there are also some major differences. As Ram Dass said in a conference on Buddhism and Psychotherapy: “The psychotic brother thinks he is Jesus Christ and only he. I think I’m Jesus Christ, and everyone else too.”
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.
Self-image. The mystic reduces his/her sense of self to a minimum. 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.
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 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.
Serenity increases in the mystic through detachment to the temporal and transient. The mystic identifies with the eternal, that which is most sacred and valuable. In that deep identification, the mystic finds peace and inner tranquility. The psychotic, however, finds little serenity in his/her life. The emotional and mental life of the psychotic is completely fragmented: fear and lack of control of one’s mind are the predominant states.
Change is welcomed by the mystic, who is open to new possibilities. The psychotic person tends to reject change, for anything new brings with it a whole set of circumstances to learn to deal with. This frightens the psychotic patient since he/she has little ego-identity or inner strength with which to meet the new situation.
Thought processes are not disrupted in the mystical experience. In the psychotic experience thinking usually becomes fragmented and disordered.
Aggressive or paranoid elements are found exclusively in the psychotic experience, sometimes to the point of being impossible to control.
Hallucinatory experiences tend to be visual in nature for the mystic. Often these are described as visions of light, superior beings and beautiful panoramic phenomena of a most positive nature. The psychotic tends more often to experience auditory hallucinations, which are usually negative and frightening because they are projected, unacceptable thoughts that person has and can no longer keep buried in the unconscious.
Limited in time characterizes the mystical experience. It is usually short-lived, but it always leaves an intense impression upon the memory and has a profound impact on the person who experiences it. It leaves one with a new sense of oneself and the world.
Psychosis can become a chronic condition.
The consequence of the experience is the most important difference between mysticism and psychosis, and I believe that it often is the only way to truly differentiate between the two.
The mystical experience leaves the mystic more connected and involved in the world. He/she expands his/her capacity to love and to serve. The mystic becomes more appreciative of the beauty and the miracle of life. The mystical experience leaves the individual with a feeling of reverence for all life, embracing every aspect of life and death as sacred.
Psychosis unfortunately most often leaves the person more self-centered. It narrows his/her possibilities of connection with the world because the psychotic needs to protect him/herself from the anxiety that such a connection produces. The psychotic reduces his/her capacity to love because he/she cannot forget him/herself. The psychotic spends so much energy on survival that there is little psychic energy left for more.
There are times when it is very difficult to know what it is that a person is going through, and it is only the result of the experience which clarifies retrospectively what it was.
Most importantly, I hope this discussion will make us more sensitive to the personal, subjective experience of others. We need to remain open and respectful, without judgment, helping the psychotic to heal and the mystic to live fully all the possibilities latent in the human soul.
1. Burke’s description of his mystical experience as quoted in: William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Macmillan Publishing Co., 1902, Collier Book Edition, 1961, pp. 313-314.
2. John Custance’s description of his psychotic experiences as quoted in: Peter Buckley, “Mystical Experience and Schizophrenia.” Schizophrenia Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1981, p. 517.
3. John Perry, The Far Side of Madness. Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974.
4. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1955.
5. Malcolm Bowers, Retreat from Sanity. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973.
6. Buckley, p. 521.
This article was originally published in Seeds of Unfolding, Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 1989. It is one of a number of papers written by Dr. Tomás Agosin, a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a founding member of Cafh in New York. Dr. Agosin died in 1991.