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Madness as a journey into the roots of reality

While the mental health field is just starting to acknowledge that “madness” or psychosis is often a response to trauma, I think it is important to notice that it often has other dimensions, such as a search for a deeper meaning than what is often provided by a given culture.  (Of course, these two things are often related, as a traumatized people people are more likely to be looking for deeper meanings than what they found in their defective upbringing.)

The following story, by Jason Smith, illustrates how “madness” can be a profound inner journey that can lead to great insight, even if the person is managing their life very poorly in the present.  I think an advanced mental health system would mimic traditional cultures and would respect the potential value of such states, helping protect a person while he or she is not able to handle themselves, while also respecting the potential of the process if the person is supported in a good way.

A significant region of existential crisis in psychosis concerns the relationship between one’s mind and one’s body, objects and other people. So I think the underlying philosophical premises in relation to the mind-body problem of any sort of treatment are an important aspect of how the consumer will respond to it.
Panpsychism or panexperientialism (roughly the view that consciousness or protoconsicousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous property of nature), although long regarded as too “kooky” to be given serious consideration, has now become quite a respectable position in contemporary western philosophy. Leading analytical philosophers sympathetic to this position include David Chalmers and Galen Strawson.
In terms of my own story, my interest in panpsychism had its genesis in reading of Nietzsche’s ontology of the “Will to Power”  in my final year of an undergraduate degree. I substituted will to power with emotion and arrived at the metaphysical position that “everything is emotion”.  About one week after writing an essay on the topic I entered a psychosis which included some quite sublime moments.
No doubt my interpretation of things involved a conflation and confusion of “inner” and “outer” worlds, but nonetheless it assisted me in providing a framework for understanding what was going on. At times I was experiencing everything as a field of affect-laden sensation, with no divergence between inner and outer,  appearance and reality, subject and object. Although this apprehension was more than I was capable of dealing with, the Buddha’s words in the Bahiya Sutta resonate with what I felt:

“When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress.”

Looking over my hospital notes from the time, I am struck by the contrast between the intensity of what I was feeling and the drab and clueless preoccupation of the system with “appropriate behaviour” and finding the right label to apply. The psychiatrist wrote that my “philosophical beliefs were so complex I am unable to be sure they are delusional”, whilst the psychologist, a stiff-necked man in a suit, wrote that my views “appear to be quite incoherent and without serious content”.
It was only many years later that I felt inclined to explore philosophy again in depth or to attempt to disentangle the delusions and grandiosity from what may have been of lasting value in my unmethodical ramblings and intuitions. I found that the speculative metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, was not too dissimilar from the position that “everything is emotion”. Since then, I have researched panexperientialism further and have found it to be a position which negates the barrenness and sterility of physicalism without  discarding rationality or embracing woolly thinking.
I could be wrong, but I think one of the things that has kept me well for the last 18 years has been breaking free of the  dominant Weltanschauung that consciousness, if it is imputed any existence at all, is presumed to somehow pop out of the mechanistic workings of the brain.
It would also not surprise me if the troubled and somewhat schizoid prevailing Western views of mind and body may have something to do with why there are better outcomes for people with psychotic illnesses in developing countries.
2 comments… add one
  • Ron, I agree that madness can give great insight to the individual. I think participation in creative arts such as writing, painting and music can help people express themselves and assist in the recovery process. I have been amazed by what people with psychosis can create.

  • Hi Ron,
    I would like to share some interesting info about schizophrenia with you, what is seen, what is done to protect yourself, what is felt..I have a lot of experience and can say, that life is like a puzzle.Unforgetable experience,sensitivity,natural feelings, expectations from life, feeling people´s characters…If you are little bit interested, I would appreciate you only write an email to me, then I´ll could write what everything I have experienced….Sorry for my poor English, I´m not a native. Nice day, Sylva


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