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The Shamanic View of Mental Health

By Jonathan Davis on Wednesday October 9th, 2019

The Shamanic View Of Mental Health

A Holistic Approach

In November 2014, the peak psychology body in the UK, the British Psychological Association, released its 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, 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’, living a more fulfilled existence than if they had never gone through 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 eleven 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 a 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 pre-psychotic personality… the renewal process occurring 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.”

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

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 film CrazyWise

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 crises.

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 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.

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.

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

Jonathan Davis

Amplifying personal healing and growth for collective evolution.

 

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19 Responses to The Shamanic View of Mental Health

  1. Thank you for every other fantastic post. The place
    else may anyone get that kind of information in such an ideal manner of writing?
    I have a presentation subsequent week, and I’m at the search for such information.

    • Hi there,

      I’m afraid – since I’m not the writer – I can’t direct you to other good sources on this topic, but I would recommend using Google Scholar for research if you don’t already. All the best! 🙂

      Team UPLIFT

  2. My brother took his own life, as Lisa’s did, because he couldn’t take any more hospitalisation or medication. All the meds he was on stated that they may cause worsening depression and suicidal thoughts!!! They once gave him a one-off injection that took ‘care of him’ for a month. I’d never seen him so low and depressed. It was not long after that he committed suicide.

    I have been working with Spirit, facilitating healing by releasing trapped emotions and negative energies, working initially with people with depression and anxiety. I’ve only had four clients who heard voices in different ways. They no longer hear voices. The common theme was they had multiple souls who had come into this incarnation with them. Multiple Souls are addicted to the host, or vice versa, and have not incarnated, but hitched a ride!! We only need one soul, our spiritual self, in this incarnation to do what we came here to do.

    I know that not all voices are scary and some people find their voices comforting. But for those who have voices telling them to do awful things, then the multiple souls can be returned to the spiritual realms. It took one soul clearing for three of my clients, and the fourth client, two sessions, which included clearing negative programming from the 3rd Astral Body (the part of us that dreams/travels while we sleep).

    I’d love to facilitate this in mental hospitals etc. in the UK, but working spiritually makes me a little ‘out there’ and in all my endeavours I’m told ‘we can not use your services at this time’. I’ve offered free sessions, working by distance, but to no avail. It’s so frustrating for me, as I’ve seen firsthand what people with mental issues endure. Trapped in a system that can make matters worse and possibly lead to suicide, it’s a common thing. The more stressed and anxious people become, the more drawn to them are earthbound spirits. The host can pick up emotional energies of these spirits, who have died but not moved over to the other side, and feel the emotions as if they are their own, compounding the initial symptom.

    I so hope to see things change in my current lifetime.

    Really enjoyed the article.

    Love and Light 💕✨

  3. Having gone through a state of ‘mental illness’ years ago, I came through the process more fully grounded, more of my true self and much, much stronger. Now I’m doing something that before then I told my self could never do, I’m writing, putting my spiritual concepts and thoughts into words. It has opened up another world to me, and I know for a fact that my situation at the time added to my understanding and my creative abilities. Thank you so much for this piece, it’s a piece of a puzzle I was missing…

    • Wow Laura, that’s wonderful! Thank you for sharing, and we’re really happy you found the article useful 🙂

      Much love,
      Team UPLIFT

  4. Wow – what is written here is exactly what my 36 year old daughter has been experiencing and subjected to the last 18+ years. It sickens me to think that I have been a part of all these ineffective attempts to restore her “mental health”`. All the drugs, the hospitalizations and institutionalizations, that have been a part of her life, along with the monetization of Western Medicine, angers me. I am so hoping that my meetings with Malidome Patrice Some’ this upcoming weekend will lead to a more beneficial path for her, and for my family, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to see here in the written word what I felt and believed. I realize that Western Medicine-trained psychiatrists will disagree with the message of this article, but can that narrow-mindedness be excused, or even forgiven, as their efforts, as valiant as they may seem, are driven by profit motivation as we all need to make a living (as I too did with my career in medicine and surgery).
    Joe Yrisarri

    • Joe, we’re glad the article resonated with you. You sound like a very loving and dedicated parent. Sending love to you and your daughter from Team UPLIFT.

  5. This was one of the best articles I’ve ever read on mental illness. I LOVE this perspective and connect to it, very personally as mental illness runs rampant in my family tree. I consider myself to be a “mystic” and my three clinical depressions have served to make me stronger, heal old wounds and spurred me to birth my own healing practice. However, my aunt has been medicated for schizophrenia since she was in her early 20s and my Mom is terrified of the psychosis she is experiencing now and has been in psychiatric care for the last two weeks. I personally agree with the writer that early childhood trauma and neglect are the catalysts for disordered thinking and can lead to unhealthy coping strategies. As I watch my Mom struggle, I feel that it is her spirit saying, “I’m done with this mask” but she is fighting against the human ego who is vulnerable. Thank you for sharing such a provocative perspective! 🙏💕

  6. My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and in the end took his own life rather than be hospitalised and medicated again. He never accepted that he needed medication. He said he only ever took medication to make others feel better. When he was first in the depths of his psychosis it was painful to see him. However there was an evolution and I think the psychosis also brought things to his life. This article makes sense.

  7. I hope everyone who watches this hears what Paul said about how many of those with mental illness are homeless. They chose that rather than be treated with meds that do nothing for them. Most people have no knowledge or wish to accept what really could help them. Having worked with the homeless I learned not to fear those who are mentally ill but smile and listen. May many more people come to learn the things talked about by Paul Borges. Thank you.

    Daga

  8. The most profound article. I relate to the content and know this is to be read and practiced more by psychiatry. We will have a happier healthy world💜

  9. So many thanks for the scholarship and sense making here. Dark night of the soul is my own experience of spiritual opening after returning from village mysticism in Papua New Guinea. I was then led to a spiritual teacher ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear’ is how they put it! My childhood experiences of nature and Christian teachings were thereby integrated forming the substance of my then developing art practice. The arts can translate this luminous numinous reality into this physical realm and healing happens once again being able to function through teaching and holding other soul in their breakthroughs the breakdowns.

  10. My son is diagnosed with schizophrenia and I have been looking for an alternative approach as the medication has horrible side effects

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