Insanity and Spirituality

Look back at figures such as Joan of Arc, getting directions from God, or pretty much any of the other Christian saints and you’ll notice they experience things these days we’d define as symptoms of illness. Voices, seeing what no one else can see, and having impossible things happen to you would, for a modern, be a sure fire route to medication. The pathologizing of ‘irrational’ experiences and the tightening up of what is ‘real’ and ‘normal’ has resulted in a lot of religions stepping away from their more esoteric elements. What was once fervently held belief is quietly turned into myth and metaphor.

Then along came the modern Pagan traditions, claiming that magic is possible. In the mainstream West, where miracles can only come in the form of drugs and medical breakthroughs, to speak with fairies, or rocks, or other non-human things is considered a bit nuts. It’s okay if you’re quiet about it. Western culture will tolerate the eccentric tree hugger, but Gods help you if you get caught up in the system or forget when to write off what you do.

We’re good at finding ways round it. Challenge most Pagans head on about hearing the voices of the Gods, and most of us have some good proof-of-sanity phrases to roll out. We can talk about archetypes. It’s meditation, not magic. The power of positive thinking. We’ll mention the power of placebo, the psychological impact of having the right attitude. If we’re really confident we may talk about the crazy end of physics and what that might mean for how the universe works in the first place. Of course we don’t literally hear Gods talking to us. We don’t claim we’ve really seen fairies, we just find it helpful to visualise certain kinds of life experience that way. That cone of energy is a psychological tool for self empowerment, don’t you know?

Wales, All images are public domain.

When we need to, we can and do de-mystify the ‘magic’ to prove that we aren’t crazy. Not to do so, in some circumstances, would indeed be mad. If you need to talk to a Doctor about depression, you’ll leave the Paganism at his office door and not mention that recent dialogue with Thor, or how you did a thing because it came to you in a dream. Survival as a modern Pagan means knowing perfectly well what other people find loopy, and knowing when not to mention that stuff. We don’t mention hexes to the police. We don’t tell social services that we’re under a curse. We say, ‘oh, nature based spirituality’ and smile sweetly and wait for them to go away.

If we talked about it in the wrong places, to the wrong people, we would be mad. Walking the sanity line as a Pagan doesn’t mean being deaf and blind to all supernatural experience. It means knowing when not to mention it. Keeping it private. And yet at the same time, that desire to share a more magical world view with the rest of the world creates a lot of tension. When it is real to you, when the trees do speak, and your dreams predict the future, having to pretend none of that is happening also feels totally insane. The voice of spirit does not go away just because our current culture has no place for it.

A sense of magical reality is so much more inspiring than the banal world view many people choose to hold. There is possibility for the Pagan that doesn’t exist for more ‘rational’ people. It would seem arrogant to assume that current levels of science represent a total understanding of how everything works and what it means. As we dismantle atoms, the space between matter gets ever bigger. Reality is more absence than presence. Quantum stuff leaves me giddy, confused, and disorientated. It’s a long way from Newtonian cause and effect physics that underpins how the mainstream assumes reality to function.

Online, the anonymity of internet spaces encourages people to feel they can talk more about the magic. The things we would never dare to say in person crop up all the time on message boards and blogs. I find some of that seems batshit crazy to me. The things people think they are being told to do, the visions they have, the understandings seem more fantasy and delusion than my take on a magical universe. I suspect we’ve all met Pagans along the way who we thought were a bit deranged, and the odds are good we’ve all said something that struck someone else as barmy. My reality is not your reality.

Mostly humans seem to get by in life by agreeing how the world works and all sticking to the same take. We have a long history of getting that wrong, and punishing dissent far more than inaccuracy. People have died for saying that the earth went round the sun. As a species it seems more important to us that we have an agreed understanding, than that we have an accurate one. We want it tidy and easy to understand. We want rules to follow. Sacrifice that chicken on Thursday for good crops. Take that pill for an instant cure. Obey that preacher for a nice afterlife.

The world isn’t tidy. Increasingly science is offering us ‘rules’ that the lay person can’t even get their head around. We think, believe and understand in incompatible ways, but I do believe there’s one thing Pagans have sussed more than the mainstream: The reality you believe in is the one you get. If we aren’t forced to all accept the same beliefs, it is our natural inclination to diversify. With a proliferation of ideas and beliefs, we can’t relate to each other’s perspectives easily. I write ‘Pagan’ as though that’s one cohesive opinion, but I think we all know it isn’t, and that many non-compatible ideas are held across our international community.

Labyrinth in Wales

Once upon a time, demons were real. Some places, they still are, and you can get exorcism rites to see them off. Once upon a time, the world was flat and orbited by the sun. Once upon a time, a God created the world in seven days and slipped in the dinosaur bones as a test of faith or a bit of light entertainment. Once upon a time, everything had a spirit and could talk to you, and the mysteries were real. Once upon a time, we were nothing more than physics, chemical interactions, and the biology we stand up in. In any of those scenarios, to believe a different view has meant being crazy.

Insanity has never been purely a measurement of mental health. It is a measurement of deviance from consensus. That consensus is quite capable of being wrong. Survival often means knowing how to appease the majority and being able to explore your own understanding without losing sight of what everyone else ‘knows’. That’s as true for the cutting edge scientist as it is for the Shaman. Do not forget that we have a long history of ridiculing the front runners in all fields. Art movements, new scientific thinking, new technology, new ideas about society – the front runners have always been knocked back by the mainstream. Spirituality is no different.

If you’re interested in the balance between sanity and spirituality, I can particularly recommend Judith O’Grady’s book God Speaking, which tackles the subject head-on.

Nimue Brown is an author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. She has her own blog as well as patreon. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. She has published many renowned books on Druidry including Druidry and the Ancestors: Finding our place in our own history and Druidry and Meditation.

One response to “Insanity and Spirituality”

  1. The psychiatric community strives to do its best to set aside religious and spiritual experiences and not to pathologize them. Many psychiatrists today are also mystics. Let us start with Carl Jung. I also work in the area of mental health and I read even that even healthy people could experience hallucinations, which are non-pathological. The demarcation criteria between insanity and healthy experience(spiritual or not) lies where you are critical to your experience…do you control it(or it controls you? then it may be pathological)…what impact it has on you and your life? Can you live a normal life, to work, to built relationships? If yes, then your experiences are not pathological. In fact, most authors and researchers in the area of mental health consider shamanic experiences as non-pathological.

    Long ago, when I started dabbling in the area of Paganism and Occult(this was almost 20 years ago!), I wondered and worried about my experiences. Are they real? Or they are a product of a vivid imagination or worse- psychopathology? I wondered about their reality. What is the criteria of something to be real, objective? To be experienced by somebody else. I asked many occultists to see the energies and entities I have seen and to ask to describe them. And in most cases they succeeded. They asked me to do the same for them and so I learned to distinguish between my imagination and the real spiritual visions. This continues even nowadays – very complex energy structures, currents, entities can be seen by many people. This made me convinced, that the astral plane is reality, not a fiction or abstraction. This is not valid for the hallucinations – they are preceived only by the person, suffering from them and nobody else can. Many people believe, that the shamanic and schizophrenic experiences are part of same continuum, or sometimes worse, that spiritual experiences are again psychotic, but not in a sense, that they are harmful(and could be even useful and enriching for the individual). If this is true, and if my experience with the objectivity of the spiritual experiences is true, and the schizophrenic is just a psychic, who cannot control his abilities, then he/she must be able to see the energies, I have shown to other occultists and describe them as they did. But alas, they failed my test.

    So, as far, as I know(from what I have read and experienced/tested/experimented) spiritual experiences and the psychopathological ones are very distinctive, very different. The latter(the psychopathological ones) are always destructive and devastating, this is why they are pathologized.

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