Is it wise to think of mental health crises as shamanic awakenings? Features positive disintegration, post-traumatic growth, and self-delusion.

Talking books and theories this time. I still haven’t been able to get hold of The Theory of Positive Disintegration by Kazimierz Dąbrowski, but it will eventually happen. In the worst case by giving my health food ration money to Amazon.

I did get hold of Kelly Brogan’s A Mind of Your Own, and while most of that was a rehash of things I already knew from antipsychiatry, ayurveda and functional medicine, this converted-to-yoga psychiatrist’s blog does include further-reaching concepts about which I still can’t decide whether to find them deep or cliche (example).

They certainly do appear in cliche form here and there.


Mental illness or spiritual breakthrough?

To make it short, the question is about whether what’s called “mental health crises” in contemporary parlance is equally well – or better – conceptualised as either the necessary growth pains of personality development (Dąbrowski; to some degree post-traumatic growth theorists) or the breakthrough moments in spiritual development (Brogan, McLaren, and lots of others including New Age shamanism).

My answer is, I think, sometimes. It’s a fairly deep question, and if you are stuck in the middle of a crisis, what you believe about it may (may; not sure) actually have an influence on whether it turns out to be one or the other.


Do I have spiritual visions or schizophrenia?

The first time I bumped into this was when I was 17 and had a modem connected to the internet for the first time. It was neon green and made futuristic beeping sounds when dialling into the server.

I also had a host of spiritual experiences, energy flow sensations in my body, visions, and visitations. On top of mysterious spiritual intuitions and intense sensory sensitivity-excitability (whether as part of artistic giftedness or of Asperger’s Syndrome, both prominent aspects of me).

These two things combined landed me on websites about chakras and shamanism; or schizophrenia. Specifically on one website that described one man’s journey of vacillating between the two in interpreting his own intense experiences (since that was a good 16-17 years ago, I doubt this digital record still exists).



I later read Loren Mosher and Thomas Szasz (The Myth of Mental Illness) – much later, in my mid twenties. On top of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, and all sacred scriptures depicting mystical experiences across world and indigenous religions I could get access to … online and in university libraries in various countries.

(I still hold a deep fondness for Mircea Eliade, despite never having gotten through A History of Religious Ideas – because it was visions and feelings, above ideas, that were haunting me – thinking back of my early time in Romania and walking down the streets described in his autobiographic novel.)


Snail on a crooked trail

All that was essentially to understand whether I’m crazy, or what’s happening – what had been happening to me in varying degrees ever since my early childhood, but above all exploded into excruciating (though at time exhilarating) intensity in my adolescence.

I’ve never found out.

I still don’t know.

Even though I know a crazy bunch of bookish and personal perspectives on it.

And it’s still happening – my life is a mix of studying neuroscience, learning about autism (Asperger’s), knowing religious psychology and having grown up steeped in every type of skepticism, with spirits and God(s) talking to me nevertheless, through nature, through self, through merely existing.

Despite having numbed myself out frequently during my life (whether through dissociation, addiction, isolation, or depression), my Doors of Perception are still perpetually open, it seems.


Got takes care of children and of fools

(and drunks on a bridge)

I’m not sure whether that’s true.

But there’s some evidence to that point.

In the tiny town where I now temporarily live, there is a bridge over a stream, perhaps three meters high. When my mum was a kid, she saw a drunk lean over the barrier to look down at the stream. He lost balance and fell into the shallow water. Then, he just got up and climbed out.

There is also plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Anyways, the point I’m making is not meant to be empirical.

It’s meant as an acknowledgment of the existence of mystery and processes of control and regulation (and occasionally care) that exceed the rational and (superficially) human. As an acknowledgment that sometimes it’s ok to proceed blindly when there is a call for it.


Unfashionable humility

Acknowledgment that even with a decent IQ, I can’t figure some things out and that I’m not the master of this. Sure, that was arrogant to think in the first place – yet that arrogance is not unique to me personally; I’d say aspects of it are culture-wide and encouraged.

Maybe, in a way, I could be grateful for this mystery having hit me so early and so frontally – though the power of it has certainly sent me spinning permanently close to the edges (and sometimes holding on to them with my nails and teeth, more or less).

Maybe that’s why even at age 12 I was fascinated with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon: “and if the dam breaks open / many years too soon“.

Yup, I know what happens then.


Jesus age

At 33 (in Poland called “the Jesus age”), I’m considering becoming more of both a child and a fool again. And see what God has to say (or do) about it, anyways.

I don’t have the energy to do otherwise anymore.

Maybe that’s what I am and why I see and feel and know all these things. When I was younger, I feared for my life and wore the mask of normal (with limited success; the only form of it available with my pitiful acting skills was and is the Mask of Mute).

A nice recent publication on masking in autistic people is Masking Magazine; I’ve also been masking being transgender, gay, intelligent, educated, sensitive (up to psychic), emotional, and having a mind and soul of my own, above all. As a child, in fear of being ostracised – though my tribal survival instincts treated that as a fear of being dead.

They sliced my (actual) self up (and mummified it) with a corresponding ferocity.

I see that now.


Is mortality liberating?

At 33 I also see that I’m mortal (I have already outlived some; and daily keep getting perhaps more days than were my “due”) … and freezing up inner vitality for survival until death makes less and less sense, logically (survival will be lost at a point anyways; but vitality can be risked in a glimpse).

Maybe risking social ostracism isn’t death, at this age. (Very likely not.)

In this position, which is stressful but could be far worse.


Let’s face it, I rambled.

And I don’t have a pointed ending for this, apart from a book list and silence.


Please share

Do you have experience of a solid crisis that was an awakening? Or quite the opposite? What’s the difference? Leave comments below for others to see, or inbox me if you have background with the topic (it’s a special interest of mine that I’m hoping to render useful to others at some point).


Books mentioned / further reading:

Kazimierz Dąbrowski The Theory of Positive Disintegration

Kelly Brogan A Mind of Your Own (and Heal the Artists save the World)

Karla McLaren The Language of Emotions

Thomas Szasz The Myth of Mental Illness

Loren Mosher Soteria

William James The Varieties of Religious Experience

Mircea Eliade A History of Religious Ideas

Pink Floyd Brain Damage

2 thoughts on “Is it wise to think of mental health crises as shamanic awakenings? Features positive disintegration, post-traumatic growth, and self-delusion.

  1. Are you familiar with Anton T. Boisen? Important, early figure in clinical pastoral counseling. Had some personal crises, came out of it convinced that the difference is the outcome. If the crisis is resolved in a positive way, then it gets labeled “religious experience.” If not, then “mental illness.” He wrote a book called “Exploration of the Inner World,” on this.

    1. hey, thanks – no, i didn’t know this figure. just looking him up. that’s actually exactly the question i’ve been pondering, whether the difference is in the outcome: no matter what causes it (let’s say, even if simply a poisoning or physical disease of some kind gives you a mental episode), if you find your way out somehow, is that now to be regarded as a spiritual transformation?

      from what i’ve read, in some cases people who have recovered from organically-caused psychoses or even other types of physical chronic illness would actually say … “yes” to that (e.g. the cases chronicled by Kelly Brogan). but i guess many would also say “no”.

      or are there actually different types of causes and processes … e.g. let’s say if it’s poisoning it’s simply a physical disease that in the end affects your mind via your brain = random suffering, nothing deep about it; if it’s caused by something more noble like a crisis of faith then it’s an existential spiritual experience even if it in effect disables you …

      if you feel like, do you have a personal opinion?

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