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The Shamanic View Of Mental Health

By Jonathan Davis on Tuesday August 18th, 2015
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The Shamanic View Of Mental Health

Is there another way of looking at the mental illness epidemic?

In November 2014 the peak psychology body in the UK, the British Psychological Association, released their new flagship report Understanding Psychosis and SchizophreniaIt was a watershed moment in the mainstream treatment of mental illness, containing statements such as this:

Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.
– The British Psychological Association: Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia

With mental health problems reaching epidemic proportions in the UK and throughout the western world, this document reads as no less than an admission that the current model of mental health treatment has failed; and a cry for help to anyone with an approach that may be useful. There are indeed a great many cultures who have had, and still carry, a deeper understanding of mental illness. While these perspectives don’t fit within the boundaries of rationalist reductionism, this has little relevance to their efficacy.

From American Indian shamanism* to esoteric judaism, this concept has dominated for millennia. As it has now become clear, western civilisation is unique in history in it’s failure to recognise each human being as a subtle energy system in constant relationship to a vast sea of energies in the surrounding cosmos.
– Dr Edward Mann, Sociologist

Ancient indigenous shamanic practicesAncient indigenous shamanic practice

What Is The Shamanic View Of Mental Health?

Broadly speaking any form of awareness around mental health that includes spiritual, mystic and/or mythic considerations could be included in a shamanic view of mental health. This ranges from ancient indigenous shamanic practices to yogic methods involving kundalini awakening, through to Jungian and transpersonal psychology (which draw heavily from ancient cultures). Jung, for example, characterised schizophrenia and psychosis as a natural healing process.

When conscious life is characterised by one-sidedness and false attitudes, primordial healing images are activated – one might say instinctively – and come to light in the dreams of individuals and the visions of artists… Schizophrenia is a condition in which the dream takes the place of reality.
– Carl Jung

Another foundation stone of this perspective is the phrase made famous by Joseph Campbell: ‘The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight’ (an idea borrowed from Jungian psychiatrist RD Laing).  There has been a long history throughout human culture of people having mystical experiences, and then becoming ‘weller than well’ as Dr John Weir Perry put it.  The key here is that in these instances the person completed a process that western medicine would have labelled as sickness and then medicated. They instead passed through it and went on to lead lives without relapse into ‘psychosis’, instead living a more fulfilled existence than if they had never gone though their temporary break with consensus reality. Throughout history there have been examples of people who have gone on to use their visionary insights, newly found drive and focus to create great social reform for the benefit of all.

Mystic Quote

Psychospiritual Crisis / Spiritual Emergence

Proponents of transpersonal psychotherapy, like one of its founders Prof. Stanislav Grof suggest that ‘spiritual emergence’ experiences are often misdiagnosed as psychosis and medicated unnecessarily. Grof sites 11 different types of spiritual emergencies, including the classic initiatory experience of the shaman, unitive experiences of oceanic oneness, kundalini awakening, the crisis of psychic opening, and the messianic experience common within what John Weir Perry called the ‘renewal process’.

Interpreted from this point of view, a schizophrenic breakdown is an inward and backward journey to recover something missed or lost, and to restore, thereby, a vital balance. So let the voyager go. He has tipped over and is sinking, perhaps drowning; yet, as in the old legend of Gilgamesh and his long, deep dive to the bottom of the cosmic sea to pluck the watercress of immortality, there is the one green value of his life down there. Don’t cut him off from it: help him through.
Joseph Campbell, Schizophrenia: The Inward Journey

John Weir Perry, who put these ideas into practice in a medication free facility called Diabasis, suggests these experiences are a dramatic re-ordering of the person’s psyche from a distorted state to an more ordered one.  To me this is like cleaning a messy house, sometimes it needs to get messier in order to sort everything out. Perry also said that ‘it is justifiable to regard the term “sickness” as pertaining not to the acute turmoil but to the prepsychotic personality…  the renewal process occuring in the acute episode may be considered nature’s way of setting things right.’ This is echoed by Jiddu Krishnamurti‘s statement that ‘it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’

Mental Health Labels

The Problems Of Pathology, Symptom Suppression, Stigma and Trauma

Pathology: A fundamental difference between the approach of calling these experiences mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia and ‘other ways of thinking about them’, is the very act of pathologising them. The labelling of something as a sickness, when working in the realms of the psychospiritual can have a dramatically negative effect on what happens next. Like a person experiencing an overwhelming psychedelic experience, a person in this kind of state is highly influenced by their surroundings including what they are told, for good or for ill. A suggestion that the experience is a sickness can become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Having been encouraged to see the voice, not as an experience, but as a symptom – my fear and resistance towards it intensified. Now essentially this represented taking an aggressive stance towards my own mind – a kind of psychic civil war, and in turn this caused the number of voices to increase and grow progressively hostile and menacing.
– Eleanor Longden

Symptom Suppression: The next big challenge is symptom suppression. Critics of the current model of care (who now seem to include the British Psychological Association) argue that psychiatric medication merely suppresses symptoms.

Many people find that ‘antipsychotic’ medication helps to make the experiences less frequent, intense or distressing. However, there is no evidence that it corrects an underlying biological abnormality. Recent evidence also suggests that it carries significant risks, particularly if taken long term.
– The British Psychological Association: Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia

Those of the shamanic or transpersonal persuasion go further in suggesting that medication tends to ultimately prevent the person from completing a natural experience such as the ‘process of renewal’ John Weir Perry describes. Instead this process keeps trying to complete itself and symptoms keep reappearing, and then drugs suppress it again in an endless cycle.  It’s unsurprising that the phrase ‘you have a mental illness, and you will have it for the rest of your life’ is so often heard by people experiencing psychosis.

Stigma:

They [shamanic cultures] have a cultural context. The physiological crisis, although it’s difficult, it’s believed to be… they put it in a positive light.  It’s something the person’s going to come out of and be stronger in the end, and have more abilities in the end.  The other thing that’s a big advantage is – it’s not stigmatized.
Phil Borges, maker of upcoming film CrazyWise

 

Light at the end of the tunnelIt’s something the person is going to come out of and be stronger in the end.’

Trauma: Thankfully, even in the western model there is a strong surge of recognition occurring around the fact that trauma and neglect in childhood (and in adulthood) can lead to serious mental health crisis.

We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again.Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.
– A Rwandan talking to writer, Andrew Solomon

The Bridge Between Two Worlds – Sickness or Acute Sensitivity?

Dr Joseph Polimeni states that ‘In most traditional societies those persons who were overcome by hallucinations in young adulthood were more often than not destined to become shamans’. If someone presented with symptoms we would call psychosis, the people of their tribe or village would send them for training with someone who had learned a level of mastery over the sensitivity that once overwhelmed them. Phil Borges states that ‘they have a mentor; they have somebody who has been through this process that can take and hold their hand and say listen, I know what this is all about and this is how you manage it’. In cultures around the world, before western civilisation the idea of schizophrenia as a disease was, quite simply, non-existent.  The assumption was that a person experiencing the challenges known in modern times as psychosis was in fact experiencing things that were actually real, but only able to perceived by those who were gifted.

They have a community that buys into what they’ve gone through, and not only that, they have an outlet for their talents – and many of these people have specific talents that the normal person doesn’t have.
– Phil Borges, maker of upcoming film CrazyWise

To me it is clear that we live in a culture that immediately labels these moments of crisis as sickness, and our culture has almost no level of acceptance for the people that go through it.  When face to face with a person experiencing involuntary states of non-ordinary consciousness, most of us – to put it bluntly – just want them away from us.  It’s almost as if we fear that ‘crazy’ is contagious and we want it quarantined.  It’s unfortunate that this approach may be compounding the problem, however another way forward is re-awakening.  When I look at a person in such a crisis, I see a future potential mentor for others.  The more we can assist people in passing through their dark night of the soul, the more guides we will have with lived experience to help others come through in the future. In an upcoming article I’ll be writing about how shamanic training can assist people going through ‘spiritual emergency’.

For peer support and further information of this kind you can join The Shamanic View Of Mental Illness on Facebook.

 

*We are aware that the term ‘Native American shamanism’ is culturally inappropriate. We are also aware that the term ‘shaman’ as a blanket term is contentious due to issues around cultural appropriation and will be exploring this topic in detail in a later article.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

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Words By Jonathan Davis

Amplifying personal healing and growth for collective evolution.

 

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comments

  • Lorah Yaccarino

    Is there a link to the video where you can actually see the photos of the people that Phil Borges is talking about?

    • Jonathan Davis

      I don’t think so. If you find one, we’d love you to post the link here.

  • Sherine Price

    Excellent Article!

  • Read Julian Jaynes book ‘The Origin Of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’ for more insight on the subject of this insightful article. As a mystical healer I know this practice well. What a gift to know the many worlds of The Great Mystery.

  • Lesley Butler

    I like this article very much. However I got to the line where it says that at least western psychology is recognising psychosis as trauma from ‘neglect in childhood’. (something like that). I straight away felt angry and went to make a coffee and roll a cigarette. I felt happy reading the article because it represents the way I feel – I’m a Jungian RD Laing type of person….I can’t remember the name of the RD Laing book I read when studying Behavioural Sciences at college decades ago now, but Laing talks about a girl who – I think was diagnosed schizophrenic and she thought she had an atomic bomb inside her. The conclusion was that there was a good reason why she might think this, (though I remember when I read it thinking, ‘yes this is good but still not accepting this girl’s reality’). It was also good to my ears because it identified the problem too – the problems of coping / mentoring / nurturing / protecting etc the person having ‘psychotic episodes’. All I can say is that in the current western climate, with the number of young people succumbing to suicide attempts and self-harming, there’s a generation of grieving parents like myself, who have tried, we’ve tried really really hard, there are reams and reams of us who have suffered misery in our homes and loss and grief because our children have turned against us. Neglect in childhood. Over and over again we go through their childhood, thinking what we did wrong, what our children must have been suffering…….we take the insults and the violence and worry how they might be vulnerable to predatory people and try to caution them on expressing rage and grief, we don’t want them to be shunned or rejected and so we take the knocks. We fret that under the influence of ALCOHOL and DRUGS, the use of which is promoted EVERYWHERE, they might be taken advantage of. I’m going to finish reading the article and then post again. Thanks

    • Marko Kaasik

      Unlike in the nowadays western humanistic (?) society, in shamanic view (in some extent also oriental and early Christian), the human life is not the highest value of whatever, to be protected by any measures and any cost. If “freeing the soul”, despite spiritual assistance of the community, leads to the loss of present life, this can be considered as a necessary experience for the soul to be reincarnated and proceeding its journey. Materialistic view, however, states that the personality in any form cannot exist without physical body. Actually, we don´t know, as besides of many spiritual doctrines, even the materialistic science has found some scarce evidence that its commonly accepted conception of life and death may be unsatisfactory. But even if the death is the final end, would it be a humane act to prolong the life for a few decades with cost of the spirit suffering and obscured? There is no clear answer. Perhaps there exists a way to combine the Western medication and shamanic spiritual healing, to help more suffering people to get well? It seems that both practices must be revised and developed for that. Perhaps we have to take higher risks in healing, to improve the results on average?

  • Lesley Butler

    So what I’m trying to say I guess is this. Many main caregivers who accept children as having individuality, rights and needs for confidentiality, self expression and determination, take the brunt of young people’s ‘challenging behaviour’ when things go wrong. There are many books and schools of thought and lectures and papers and plane trips and conferences and people all over the world exhaling when they discover personal/universal truths. Meanwhile there is family and community breakdown on all levels
    .
    Please, stop putting the words ‘neglect in childhood’. Or at least, if you can, add the words , ‘exposure to horror on a mass scale’, ‘parents absent from family/ non-typical family structure ( people dotted about everywhere)…prejudice….arrogance…..snobbery….NO DEFINABLE SOCIAL GROUP… low income, poverty, injustice…war… elitism…mass deception, .class consciousness…capitalism….shit food…DRUGS AND ALCOHOL
    So there are too many people with more and more approaches and not enough people helping. We have children to feed and poorly paid jobs to do. Hospital staff, social workers and teachers are overstretched. Too much is expected of too few. There are too few people with too much control, power and money. There is too much ongoing horror in the world and it’s about time we stopped blaming each other and started getting rid of the things causing the horror because it creates mass anxiety, misery and distrust. A lot of people don’t really care. They work hard to get the bigger wage packets and so they can have influence, recognition and power and attend lunches and nice holidays and provide wonderful things and create their politically correct utopias for their kids. So the people who don’t achieve this in some way are the wrong people. There’s a heck of a lot of us out here. The other day I just thought ‘WE PUT OUR OLD PEOPLE IN CARE HOMES – OH MY GOD WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH US?'( I have been a care worker most of my adult life yet felt this most profoundly the other day -the fact that care homes are considered a ‘norm’)
    The danger is I think is that a lot of people’s day to day experiences, understanding and knowledge take forever to be recognised by the establishment, who then tell us all the secrets we already know because we’ve been living it and thinking about it and watched it being destroyed or taken away. But this is just it. There’s no family / group consciousness. It’s not just the shaman thing. The shaman is part of a tribe/ group/ all working together.
    Mental health can’t be viewed holistically in a world where our leaders are engaging in talks upon talks whilst at the same time the planet is being messed with and livelihoods swept aside by big business. People are being bombed, and are killing each other and themselves out of frustration and despair. We have our lives and our people blown apart and then get it explained to us why we are the problem. Mass hypocrisy! The mind isn’t in a vacuum – is it’s home is being erased?

  • gkr44

    Too much ‘counselling’ nowadays is focused on an ‘intellectual approach’ to the problem and/or the repetitive rehearsing of trauma (actual or perceived). I feel it is more appropriate to launch forward from the ‘trauma scenario’ to see how that trauma has helped the consciousness/spiritual awareness to challenge the ‘indoctrinated perceptions of society’. Trauma ,whether physical,emotional or psychological,can alternatively be viewed as a gift,a blessing, that launches the receiver into a new mode of consciousness.It can be viewed as the seed breaking forth to grow into a blossom.
    The ‘victorian thesis’ (Freudian inspired) omits the importance of what Jung called ‘the archetypes of the subconscious’ which are most apparent during the process of trauma recovery/analysis. The ‘intellectual approach’ to the ‘labelled psychosis’ omits the potential of these archetypes in the role of healing and entrance into an enlarged consciousness scenario.
    I am aware that personal trauma I can deal with on an intellectual and psychological level.What,however, I have discovered in my 70 years of living is that the emotional memory of the trauma resists attempts at removal. It can only be successfully handled when viewed from the spiritual perspective that this is,in fact, a gift that launches me into a new consciousness. When it reappears, usually totally unexpectedly, I have found it does so in a ‘reminder mode’, challenging me to come back to the self-healing mechanism that is spiritually inherent in every person.
    It seems to me the role of ‘shamanic healing’, by whatever methodology,is a ritual,a sequential process, that facilitates the appearance of that ‘reminder mode’. Shamanic systems appear to release the imprisoned energies within the ‘patient’ so that self-healing may proceed.

    • Aiden

      Jkr44- I love your response to this article, it’s a brilliant extension to the article itself. Much appreciated!!!

      • gkr44

        thank you for your gracious comment. Yeha Noha 🙂

  • Alexander Koop

    ‘this document reads as no less than an admission that the current model of mental health treatment has failed; and a cry for help to anyone with an approach that may be useful.’ – sure, psychiatry can learn from other healing schools of thought, philosophies etc., and I fully support such endeavors – but I am pretty tired of the western medicine bashing in alternative circles. Yes, western medicine is not perfect, but they do do a lot of good too. Have you ever experienced someone in e.g. negative psychosis, becoming a real danger to him-/herself, and other around him/ her? Sometimes apparently then gifted with superhuman strength. To have medications that can sedate those episodes, or prevent them is miraculous too! There is no use in having methods of unlocking the spirit, and searching for the keys of mental sickness, if the first step in the process is irreparable damage, or even death. So I would say balance and cooperation are the key. Trying to start a dialogue by saying – ‘my healing method is better than yours, yours is pretty much useless’ is likely not going to get us anywhere. Sorry if some might feel offended by my words, or think I am coming across too strong. Love and Light!

  • Abagail Omalley

    I have a friend who was diagnosed with “SCHIZOPHERNIA” as they label it, and i have been telling him for years and i have been trying to get him to realise he is AN “INTUITIVE EMPATH ” and how he can deal with it and harness it, so any and all advice greatfully welcomed.

  • Darlene Gail Jubert

    This is one of the best articles I have read in some time. It speaks to the core of what modernity within society has promulgated by creating a simple term such as “normal!” Anyone outside of the scope of normal has fallen and continues to fall within those darker, unacceptable realms, most now fear to travel and will do ultimately just about anything to avoid, short of selling their own soul or someone else’s, which I believe some have without realizing it, figuratively speaking of course. Non conformity to the status quo has always been unacceptable and consciously choosing to not participate as others do is self annihilation if one isn’t aware of what they are truly capable of. I know and have often questioned my own sanity in my personal search and process of letting go of all those things I was told and led to believe I was. I am slowly coming out the other side of this and I still tread lightly, telling literally only one person, everything because only she understands my thoughts, my heart and my dream, my vision. Thank you for posting this article it is timely and life affirming! Namaste!

  • Ariel McCasland

    My whole goal in life is to try and understand this conceptualization of mental health and incorporate it into a personal practice of healing. I have felt this way for years as I study to become a clinical psychologist. Thank you for this article.

  • Kirk Trance Medium

    Shamanism and its current modern forms of it fill the rift and chasm between what Religion and psychology refuse to treat or acknowledge there are energies and episodes that occur that can not be explained by anything other than supernatural forces…its a vain attempt at both the psychotherapeutic and religious institutions to explain that which only A shaman or true spiritual medicine person can explain or be a channel for….great topic and great article

  • Jonathan Davis

    The western industrial civilisation is really the only group of people throughout human history that does not hold the non-ordinary states in high esteem. Every other group has tremendous appreciation of these states and they spend a lot of time and energy trying to develop very safe and effective ways of inducing these non-ordinary states. – Stanislav Grof M.D, PhD.

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