My recent debate/discussion with Marian touched on the relationship between mental health and spirituality, which happens to be a topic that’s fascinated me since my hospitalization in 2000. Seems like a good time to blog about it.
My interest grew out of events leading up to and following that first hospitalization. The past few months had been rough: my career as a surgeon had ended; Mandy and I had sold our vintage San Francisco house and moved to a suburb (a decision I immediately regretted); a therapist of five years (who had led me through a lot of the childhood trauma and abuse, and who had given me a tentative sense of safety) moved to the East Coast; my one and only malpractice case settled against me; and my neck caused me constant excruciating pain. After a period in a psychiatric ward for suicidal depression, I found myself back in the ‘real’ world on new medications, but with no idea about what to do next.
After several days of escalating agitation, I spent a night without any sleep steeped in feelings of abject defeat. The next day, my consciousness was launched into a stunning series of spiritual experiences and epiphanies. They included visual hallucinations of something I understood to be God, auditory hallucinations of ineffably comforting celestial music, and ‘delusions’ of intimate connectedness with God. I felt in an intuitive way the intricate underpinnings of reality. For a brief period all time (from the first infinitesimal fraction of a second after big bang until the present moment) and all space (from an impossibly small subatomic scale out through the full span of the universe) seemed to hover in my awareness simultaneously, like an instantaneous glimpse of the full span of creation.
What may have affected me most, however, was the wordless sense that my mind, body and soul were suffused with peace. Without writing a multipage essay describing my ‘visions’ in detail, the best analogy would be that it was like standing in front of an open oven, feeling the glowing heat radiate and warm me. God’s love seemed to be washing over me in just that way.
I stayed in that place for several days, and it only gradually subsided over the next two years. Without the antipsychotics I was given in the second hospital, it likely would have lasted even longer. The experience changed my life. I converted to my wife’s childhood religion (Roman Catholicism), and was filled with the fervent belief that I had been touched by God, like Paul on the road to Damascus. (It’s important to note that my father raised me to believe that religion is mere fantasy, wishful thinking on the part of frightened and distressed masses.)
These deeply held religious convictions lasted about three years. In the ensuing six, I’ve explored a small galaxy of spiritual philosophies and beliefs. Sometimes I’m right back to the convinced atheism of my upbringing. More often, I have a vague sense that something mysterious and profound resonates through all matter and energy, a kind of mystical glue that connects and comprises everything in the universe, but is endowed with omniscient and seamless consciousness. This cosmic awareness percolates through all that surrounds us but flows like broad rivers in the matrices of our brains. Our minds hold deep lakes of this essence that both supports and subsumes the universe.
Pretty ‘New Age’, right? Like I say, I bounce around. Mostly, the popular concepts that purport to pin down spiritual reality (or its absence) strike me as both too specific and too unsubstantiated, so I just fall back on what is probably the only supportable philosophy: “I don’t know”. (I don’t refuse to engage the question in the fashion of modern agnosticism, which in my opinion leans too heavily toward presuming the absence of spiritual forces. Rather, it is my opinion that we simply cannot pin down reality at the present time. Maybe there is a mystical realm and maybe not. The humility required to remain in this stance (which is harder to achieve than it sounds) may be the truest form of spirituality.
What I can be sure of is that the experience of God exists, whether God does or not. I also know that when I act as if God is real (no matter what form I give it in my mind), I tend to feel better. So reaching a spiritual plane has definite advantages, even if the ‘supernatural’ realm is utter fantasy. Therefore, I try to buy as far into spiritual thought as I can at any given moment. Sometimes that is not very far at all. Other times, I find intimate places of serenity inside my mind and being, where my life makes sense, I feel I have purpose, and I know that love surrounds me.
What does this have to do with mental illness? More and more the mainstream mental health community is adopting mindfulness meditation. Such practice leads to a relaxed and open state of mind that stand in for the kinds of experiences religion provides at its best (without the xenophobia, intolerance, and dogmatism that religion brings at its worst). Often, therapists and other mental health workers go further and encourage practices based on supernaturalism, such as getting involved in one’s natal religion, or any spiritual community that feels right. The mental health world takes this approach because it can work.
I have found that meditation and spiritual pursuits help me to the extent I practice them. Mindfulness meditation (which means moving away from verbal thought and focusing attention on the body’s moment-to-moment experience) often feels quite calming and centering. It is right up there with vigorous exercise as a stress management tool, except it leads to a deep sense of unity with my body (and sometimes even with all creation) rather than the stimulating endorphin rush of a good workout.
If I allow myself to abandon critical thought (which is exactly what modern atheists consider an anathema), mystical forces sometimes feel both real and present. These influences, whatever they are, seem to care for me and promote my best interest (not always what I want, but generally what seems right later on). I could just be sensing hidden streams of neural activity that promote my well being. But whatever the ‘truth‘, abandoning my doubt and accepting this fount of support helps me enjoy life. It helps me maintain the commitment to keep living it.Share on Facebook