When Mysticism and Madness Collide

When God’s Light contains your own projections.

Sometimes experiences of what the Zen tradition calls no-mind may come too soon.  While I prefer Pink Floyd’s line, and if the dam breaks open many years too soon, Buddhism might talk about this in terms of changes of consciousness: devotion (saddha), discipline (sila), detachment (caga), and depersonalization (panna).  The later, panna experience can sometimes come prematurely.  Sometimes the subsequent integration is smoother; in my case , it wasn’t.  Nor was it smooth in the case of Bernadette Roberts, who spoke of her initial oneness experiences resulting in periods of “no feelings, no energies, no movements, no insights, no seeing, no relationships with anything, nothing but absolute emptiness….”[1]

If healthy Buddhist emptiness is a balance of both emptiness and form, then the debilitating kind is most likely a deficiency in form and a surplus of emptiness resulting in a disconnection between the two.  Integral theorist Ken Wilber calls this “more state, less structure” in Religion of Tomorrow, where state refers to stages of spiritual awakening and structure refers to psychological stages of ego development.  Amber, Orange, and Green correspond not only to worldviews in Integral Theory but to the stages of childhood ego development.  Most adults on the planet have gaps in this chain of ego development, meaning the stages of child development some level of deficiency (allergies and addictions) that play out in various ways.  Sometimes these are suppressed; sometimes they cause us great or minor torment.  In Integral Meditation[2], Wilber suggests some exercises for healing.  In this sense, the book has been quite helpful to me as it not only deals with the contemplative, it addresses the psychological. 

For underdeveloped egos, mysticism could be too much too handle.  Regular meditation can – and does – go wrong.  Here, the fundamentalist warning about the dangers of contemplative spirituality is not entirely off-base.  You aren’t going to hell but you sure might feel like hell.  It is rare, though, according to Zen teacher and neuroscience researcher Shinzen Young. He notes that Buddhism calls this “falling into the pit of the void,” and while it is does happen on rare occasion, it can be rectified.  Interestingly, the solution lies partly in seeing that an emptiness filled with discomfort is not empty at all because it’s full of discomfort. Negating the negation can bring one back to a “positive” self-state, to mystically paraphrase the old mathematical maxim.    While I have encountered several individuals who experienced this kind of “spiritual emergency,” I’ve heard infinitely more instances of “meditation doesn’t seem to be working” than “meditation worked too well.”   For most, the process appears to be slow and gradual.

The contemplative Christian phrase “resting in God” has a peaceful, non-dramatic, safe ring to it.  After all, rest is just something that sounds good to most anyone at any given time.  And God, well, your always safe in His Hands, right?   But just like self-conception, God-conception is often based on past experiences: family influences, church influences, societal influences.  The light rushing in during contemplative prayer might contain more psychologically-based material than is otherwise apparent.   For this reason, one 12-step sponsor of mine once had me write out my conception of God -- not what I thought was true, but what I wanted my conception to be. When I had finished writing, he said, “that’s your higher power.”  If exercises like don’t get done, what we may end up with is a heavenly king full of introjections and projections of our own. 

There are a host of good books I’ve read addressing such issues. There is extensive literature integrating analysts like Carl Jung into an understanding of Christian contemplative development.  The self must be fully developed and individuated before it can be transcended.  At least, the processes of transcendence cannot come at the expense of psychological maturity.  There may be some minor shortcuts here and there, but there are no major ones.     

So if you’re progress on the contemplative path and mindfulness practice seems slow sometimes, this could be the best thing.  And if you’re progress did, at times, come too quick, the undone work can still be done.   It will just be done in a different order.

 

 

Contemplative Light’s Christian Mystics class is 70% off during Lent when you use the gift code LENT2019.

[1] The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey. State University of New York Press (Revised Edition 1993)

[2] Wilber, Ken. Integral meditation: Mindfulness as a way to grow up, wake up, and show up in your life. Shambhala Publications, 2016.