When Mental Illness Fuels Enlightenment


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.


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When Mental Illness Fuels Enlightenment — 9 Comments

  1. Wow what an interesting post!

    I am actually researching connections between religion, spirituality, and mental health for the creation of several articles or for posting on my own blog, the Mental Health Recovery Blog, so I couldn’t help but read through your entire post with fascination!

    As you used to be a surgeon I’m sure some of what I am going to say is old news to you, but I thought I might throw it your way and see if I spark any interest. I wonder if you have been a part of any recovery-based treatment plans, or if your experiences were purely with hospitals and traditional-style mental health facilities?

    I have actually heard quite a lot of what you have mentioned through conversations with the clinical staff at the Mental Health Center of Denver’s recovery-focused treatment plans. There is a new push towards a concept they are calling ‘Hope,’ which drives spirituality (whether in one’s self or in a higher power) as an important factor in recovery from a mental illness. It is interesting, because many of the mental healthcare consumers I have spoken with who are further along in their path to recovery have become very religious.

    I wonder if this is due to self-reflecting meditations? You mentioned both this and exercise. The non-denominational meditations you spoke about are now being incorporated into treatment plans that…I believe…are called dialectical behavioral treatment (DBT), which focus on meditation for self-reflection, introspection, and faith (again not necessarily in the religious sense).

    I have done some further research due to almost every recovery-based clinic stressing physical exercise for mental healthcare consumers, and have found research indicating that exercise, aside from acting as an active form of meditation and reducing stress, also produces a chemical called brain derived neurotropic factor, which research is now arguing can be responsible for actually re-growing brain cells. Which holds huge implications!

    I have also been talking with a woman who has entirely eliminated her symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia through continual meditation, exercise, and healthy living. So there is defiantly something in what you are saying! I will reference her shortly on my Mental Health Recovery Blog if you care to read more!

    I will be posting about faith and hope in mental health shortly, and I’d love to hear what you have to say about the post! I’d also love to hear more about your experience in the mental health system and whether you were in a recovery-based model.

    If you weren’t, there’s a few great articles on what the mental health recovery model is at these links:

    1) Mental Health Recovery Principles
    2) Metal Health Recovery Model
    3) Measuring Recovery in Mental Health

    I’ll also be publishing some articles shortly on ezineArticles and I’d love to hear your take on them should they get published!

    I look forward to talking with you more on the matter if your schedule should allow it!

    Warm regards,
    Lex Douvasa
    MHCD Research and Evaluation Team
    Mental Health Recovery Blog

  2. Hi Lex

    Thank you for visiting my site. Since I just began my blog recently, I am still at the stage where I get excited every time someone finds me, especially if they leave a comment and seem to have gotten something out of what I wrote. I am responding to your questions and comments in today’s blog post. Feel free to comment on that piece in order to continue this discussion. Hopefully others can benefit from our conversation or (even better) join in. I can also be reached directly via email: will@willspirit.com.


  3. Dear Will, I also find your story very inspiring. My own battle with mental illness lead me to Christianity as well. It didn’t go down very well with my psychiatrist… I didn’t want to take anti psychotics for becoming a Christian.

  4. Exactly. What used to be applauded as a grace is now defined as delusional, hallucinatory, and neurochemically deranged. Why hammer experiences of connectedness with God out of people’s minds? Even if the truth turns out to be that God does not exist, what is the harm in believing if it brings peace of mind? (Assuming one doesn’t buy into a religious philosophy that sows discord and violence.) And why should the mental health system get to impose the strict materialist stance on those who might benefit from a divine touch–even an imaginary one? I have studied science my entire life, and despite what modern champions of reason and atheism try to claim, it does not currently rule out the existence of supernatural influences (nor does it provide evidence for them, however). In the absence of proof that we reside in a world without transcendence, I choose to live as if there is a loving, omniscient consciousness embracing our universe (see my ‘tweet’ for today). I know what God feels like because of my ‘psychosis’. Having that knowledge makes a huge difference in my life, despite the fact that I remain flatly uncertain about whether what I felt was a true supernatural presence, or merely a flood of the right kind of neurotransmitters, brought on by stress.

  5. Why is the mh system suspicious of everything spiritual, and tries to turn it into “symptoms” of “mental illness”?

    Because if someone engages in exploring their spirituality, they may reach a point where they realize the vanity of labels. They may very well come to the conclusion that they are not “bipolar”, “schizophrenic”, “depressed”, or whatever else.

    Psychiatry can’t survive without all these labels. It has no raison d’être, if it can’t label people. And, of course, the labelled people have to identify with the labels they are given by psychiatry. Otherwise, they are free to define themselves. Psychiatry stands and falls with its power to define people’s being in this world for them. This power ends where people realize, that labels, psychiatric or other, are not who or what they are. That’s why “insight” as actually being a kind of creed, is so crucial, and why spirituality is indeed perceived a danger by psychiatry (everything psychiatry perceives as a danger is declared a “symptom” of “mental illness”).

    Just my two cents. :)

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  8. Thank you for your post Will, to which I can very much relate!

    I have a scientific background (biopyhsics), have had mental health issues and have had (at first quite in spite of myself, as I lean towards atheism, although humility has me back at agnosticism) deep spiritual experiencces similar to what you describe – a deep peace and universal love – in conjunction with mental health issues and completely outside its context. Although I do not claim to have a definitive answer, I think it is too facile to automatically *discredit* the spiritual experience that you and I had while *mentally ill* and only validate them when we experience them on a yoga mat (figuratively speaking).

    One of my theories is that (1) many spiritual experiences can be so profound and overwhelming at first, that you can loose yourself in them and over-react to them, only later causing mind patterns to develop that could be deemed as “mental health” issues. (2) Much of what I find in the esoteric/spirituality book sections most certainly would fall under *mental health* issues, were they not placed there and not in the psychiatry section. The point is that I frankly do NOT find a qualitative difference between some very deep spiritual experience of peace and universal love (or non-separateness etc.) I had which happen before or even during some mental health episodes, and those I had from meditation or in deep partnership and resonance with another person/woman (and we definitifely were not both nuts in the same way at the same time…).

    I think the mind can toggle between multiple states, and “enlightened” states can occur during a mental health episode, on a spiritual retreat or even taking LSD (no experience with the latter though).
    Now, as to their sustainability, it is clear that “enlightened states” that occur without any other symptoms surrounding their occurance, or without drugs, i.e. through meditation etc., clearly have greater long-term benefits for the individual as they tend to be more stable in their context. But whatever your experience is, it should not be – de facto – discredited.

    Anyway, thanks for opening up this fascinating topic¨!

  9. Manuel–

    Thanks for stopping by. It’s interesting you have a biophysics background. I did some graduate work in that field myself.

    This post was written more than five years ago, so I’ve naturally grown to see things more clearly in the time since. I agree with you that so-called psychotic episodes (or what Stan Grof refers to as Holotropic States) can install one in rarefied modes of consciousness, rich with insight. But as you point out, if such states arise in the midst of a mental health crisis, they tend to disrupt the psyche without necessarily improving it, or at least without improving it in an enduring way. On the other hand, they do open the eyes, so to speak, and can spur one to go further, toward deeper meditation, contemplation, and spiritual practice in general.

    Over time, I’ve found that my states of consciousness have come to feel less arbitrary and more chosen. Elevated modes of awareness can be entered more or less at will. The shattering quality often felt during psychiatric (or drug-induced) states diminishes, while the radiant, peaceful, loving, and unitive features of resonant awareness remain.

    Ultimately, one recognizes that such states are merely windows through which one can gaze for a time. The more one sees what lies beyond, the more one feels comforted even when experiencing life more conventionally. The view doesn’t need to be ever before one for it to have healing effect. Just confidence in this higher quality is enough. And it isn’t a question of theism vs atheism, or of any belief system. It’s simply a matter of having faith that the universe can feel loving, unitary, and wise.

    One may decide to go further, and attribute love, union, and wisdom to the cosmos itself. Or one can view such qualities as existing within consciousness alone. It doesn’t really matter what one believes, as long as one knows and has faith in what one can feel.

    I wish you well. This site has hundreds of essays, some better than others. The later ones in the WS Essays section may be of greatest interest to you. You might be interested in this post, which describes a state reached during a meditation retreat some months ago–you’ll probably recognized the landscape. If you have any questions, please feel free to keep in touch.