Mental illness is becoming increasingly problematic in modern society. In many ways, this is not surprising given the frenetic, stressful, and repetitious confinement in the modern world of work. In one sense, mental illness may be a perfectly natural, normal, and perhaps even a necessary reaction to a society mired in superficial yet highly competitive notions of power, wealth, success, progress, and ownership. In another sense, mental illness may be a form of spiritual awakening. The film Crazywise questions some our long-held notions about mental illness and challenges the idea of what being “normal” is.
Dark Night of the Soul Redux
When I wrote the Dark Night of the Soul, I focused on the experience of a dark night not as a form of mental illness, but as a liminal state that demands creative growth. The hardship and suffering within a dark night are quite real and threatening. My own experience of the dark night lasted more than a year and was punctuated by periods of searing vulnerability in which survival sometimes felt quite fragile.
Am I Normal?
The dark night of the soul articles inspired contact from an individual who provides marketing for the film Crazywise . This blog post is the first time I have decided to publish something in response to an outside request. I found a TED Talk given by Phil Borges, the producer of the film, to be compelling. In this talk, he grapples with the grey zone between mental illness and spiritual awakening.
In modern society, mental illness is equivalent to a “broken brain.” Sadly, to be labeled with a mental illness is the equivalent of being called “abnormal.” The typical strategy for mental illness is to become “normal” again, usually through the use of psychiatric-pharmacology and cognitive therapy. The problem is there is no definitive state we can call “normal.”
In other words, the answer to the question “Am I normal?” is “No, you are not.”
Mental Illness or Spiritual Awakening?
In indigenous societies, the symptoms we associate with mental illness are often considered to be symptoms of spiritual awakening. Rather than being reduced to psychotic episodes, shamans may interpret hallucinations and psychotic episodes as a form of contact with forces greater than ourselves.
Rather than labeling a person to be mentally ill and abnormal, the individual is considered to be moving through a liminal period of profound personal transformation.
Crazywise explores the intersection of mental illness and spiritual awakening in the following ways:
- It acknowledges that pharmaceutical interventions can be necessary and vital, but it does not view them as a solution;
- It challenges the duality of “normal” versus “abnormal,” and proposes that we all interpret the world through various degrees of abnormality;
- It explores that possibility that some forms of psychosis are in fact spiritual experiences that require spiritual intervention to resolve;
- It explores the role of the shaman in indigenous societies and how what we interpret as mental illness is actual spiritual awakening;
- It promotes the idea of finding the transformative aspects of psychosis that can lead to deeper insight into life.
A spiritual awakening presumes the presence of other energies and forms of presence in the world that are not readily available to our physical senses. A spiritual awakening involves an expansion of consciousness about the nature of life and how best to live a life worth living.
Although a spiritual awakening involves significant internal hardship, it views suffering as a transient state that is positive and meaningful.
Mental Health and Modern Society
Of course, mental illness does exist. The brain can malfunction. It is not possible to reduce all psychotic episodes to a spiritual awakening.
But it is also possible that some forms mental illness are forms of spiritual awakening.
World Mental Health Day is sponsored by the World Health Organization and is observed on October 10 each year. The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health estimates that in any given year one in five Canadians suffers from a mental disorder. More surprisingly they state that by the time a Canadian reaches 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have had or are experiencing a mental illness.
If mental health is a proxy for the quality of our culture, society, and way of life, then there is room for significant improvement. Mental illness is also environmental; that is to say, the way in which we are required to live can generate favorable conditions for it to arise.
In one sense, perhaps mental illness is a natural reaction to the manic surround that is modern society. If someone is deemed to have a mental illness, it is a collective concern as much as it is a personal problem.
If mental illness is increasing in our society, should this not be a cue to rehabilitate our cultural attitudes and beliefs about how to live?
Crazy + Wise
Crazywise invites us to question our assumptions about mental illness.
Sometimes mental illness might be symptomatic of living a life that is too small to inhabit. The exhaustion we feel is an expression of spiritual unrest. It also cautions us that mental illness is not always a spiritual awakening.
But there is another looming issue to consider. Given all of our self-declared progress, success, and innovation as a society, why is the incidence of mental health increasing instead of decreasing? It might be that the modern industrial growth society is an expression of a collective mental illness.
Perhaps the modern lifestyle, a set of assumptions driven by material greed at the expense of environmental degradation, is “crazy-foolish.” At the very least, a species that lives in a way that destroys that which makes life possible and risks self-annihilation is exemplary of a remarkable insanity.
Perhaps within craziness, we can better learn to find wisdom.