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Unlocking the positives in spiritual psychosis

Psychosis. Scary word isn’t it? These days we think nothing less of a person if they publicly disclose they get depression, or anxiety. We applaud them for being brave, although they’re not really risking anything. But admit you get psychotic episodes, that you hear voices, that you see things others don’t see? Maybe some of us start to edge away.

Psychosis is the ultimate bogey-man for our rationalist-materialist culture. It is the sleep of reason, a land of monsters, with absolutely nothing positive about it. It’s a biological flaw, which you need to suppress with medication, perhaps all your life. It’s a life sentence.

But other cultures in India, Africa, Asia or Latin America have other ways of framing such experiences, which suggest they’re not negative or positive, just something that happens to some humans along their path of development, which can be integrated positively into their lives and societies. This may be why outcomes for people with schizophrenia are worse in western cultures than in other cultures (or it may be because in developing countries anti-psychotic drugs are used more selectively, leading to better outcomes for people).

In western culture, some psychologists – RD Laing, Stanislaf Grof, and more recently the Hearing Voices Network – have demanded a re-evaluation of such experiences, so that we take the content and meaning of people’s thoughts, visions or voices seriously, and help people come to terms with them. Grof, in particular, introduced the idea that some psychotic episodes are not symptoms of brain disorders but spiritual emergencies – messy and frightening moments of radical shift in ego structure, which can be moments of spiritual awakening and growth if handled sympathetically.

Last week, I got to interview Anthony Fidler, a British teacher of Zen meditation and tai chi, about his experience of using mindfulness and connection practices to navigate through occasional episodes of psychosis / highly altered states of consciousness. You can listen to our interview on our podcast, on the Soundcloud link below or on iTunes.

I met Anthony in India in 2017, at a Zen retreat he was helping to run. I was struck by how cool and collected he seemed to be – I thought he might be a military man. I thought to myself ‘that’s how I’d like to be after years of practice’. After the retreat, we got talking, and I discovered his life story was very different from what I imagined. He was a soldier, but of a different kind. In fact, Anthony has over the last 18 years experienced occasional episodes of what western psychiatry would call psychosis – visions, voices, highly altered sense of self, time and external reality. He was initially referred to a psychiatrist for this and put on risperidone, an anti-psychotic drug, but – as he tells me in the interview – the psychiatrist showed no interest in him as a person, and the drugs made him feel far worse. Eventually, he learned to manage his intrusive dark thoughts with mindfulness, and to learn to exist in very altered states, while staying present, calm and compassionate.

He offers us a different way to cope with psychosis (if we want to use that rather loaded word, which immediately seems to bracket off this realm of experience as something deeply abnormal and terrifying). To have a psychotic episode in western culture is to be deemed a f*ck-up, possibly someone with a genetic biological condition requiring lifelong medication. But what if these states of consciousness are natural? What if these experiences can be stages of healing and growth, albeit rather messy? What if our cultural attitude to them is precisely what makes them so harmful and life-ruining?

My best friend had a psychotic episode when he was 16, and has been on medication ever since. 25 years later, he can barely conduct a conversation. NHS psychiatrists wanted to help him, but they may have actively ruined his life by insisting he take medication which is obviously not working. Other loved ones have experienced psychosis and been too afraid to seek treatment, because of our society’s phobic attitude to this realm. I myself had a two-week episode of what psychiatrists would call psychosis, following a nine-day ayahuasca retreat in October. For two weeks, I felt like I was in a different reality, and wasn’t sure if I was in a dream. But I managed to come out of that experience, and even feel like I’d grown and healed through it, thanks to the love and support of my friends, and thanks to some basic spiritual tools I’d learned over the past few years, particularly self-acceptance and focus.

We have made an enemy of aspects of our own mind. It’s our mind, our home, we need to learn to live in it peacefully, and to make friends with the wilder beasts that roam there. There are dragons within us, but with care and education we can learn to ride the dragons.

NB: Anthony does not argue that all people on anti-psychotic medication should immediately come off it. It is dangerous to come off anti-psychotic medication too quickly, and should only be done in consultation with one’s doctor.

To find out more about Anthony’s work go here.

Here’s the Soundcloud link:

Should I go on a retreat, and how do I choose one?

San Marco monastery in Florence

A friend emailed me asking about retreats, whether they’re useful, and how one goes about picking one.

It’s an interesting question, and a good one for Lent. Sixty years ago, before the spiritual revolution of the 1960s, you’d be hard-pressed to find any retreats in the West, unless you were Catholic. The Reformation attacked the whole idea of sitting in silent contemplation of God, you should be out there doing stuff (or if not, reading the Bible). The closest British Protestant culture got to retreats, before recently, was the health holiday – the spa or mountain sanatorium, or the hiking / bicycling holiday. 

Then came the Sixties, that ‘spiritual supernova’ of ‘galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane’, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it. Suddenly, retreats and transformational workshops were back with a bang, in large part thanks to the influence of a place called Esalen, on the coast of Monterey, where hip Californians would go for massage, hot-tubs, Gestalt workshops and the occasional orgy.

Today, there are a bewildering array of retreats on offer in the spiritual supermarket, as wellness tourism and spiritual tourism become bigger and more profitable trends. Wealthy Westerners don’t just want to sun-bathe and down Sangrias anymore. They want some yoga, massage, meditation and gong baths thrown in. They want some fine-tuning of their soul, then the Pina Coladas.

Would you like to see our menu? You could go on a yoga retreat, a surf-and-yoga retreat, a pet retreat, an ayurvedic retreat, a meditation retreat (Buddhist / Christian / Law of Attraction), a Ramadan retreat, a pilgrimage, a transformational workshop, a tantra or conscious sexuality retreat, a men’s retreat, women’s retreat, LGBTQ retreat, couples retreat, family retreat, a writers’ retreat, an entrepreneurs’ retreat, a plant medicine or chocolate healing retreat, a vision quest, a wild retreat…Or, like Dominos pizza, you can combine any of the above. LGBTQ surf n’ yoga retreat? You got it!

The sheer variety of retreats may put you off. It may feel a little bullshit, this combination of tourist consumerism and spirituality, particularly considering the ludicrous price-tag of some of these spiritual retreats.  $8,000 for a week’s ayurvedic retreat in India? $11,000 for a 10-day ‘entrepreneur’s retreat’ on ayahuasca? $5000 for a ‘digital detox’ week in the Algarve? Mate for £20 I’ll smash your phone and give you a Vicks inhaler, how about that.

Plenty of recent films and TV shows have had a laugh at this mash-up of the spiritual and the consumerist, from Fleabag doing a runner from her luxury silent retreat, to Don Draper coming up with the Pepsi slogan at Esalen in the final scene of Mad Men.

But this cocktail of the sacred and profane is not necessarily new: in the middle ages, monasteries were incredibly plush – exquisite gardens, gorgeous libraries, elegant chapels, and kitchens described as ‘the most distinguished temple of gluttony in all of Europe’. They made a fortune welcoming wealthy aristocrats for pampering weekends of spiritual guidance, to squeeze out the big donations. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to wind down on a pampered retreat. If you want to go to eat some delicious healthy food, drink a bit, swim, hang out with some cool new people, and also do a bit of yoga or surfing, why the hell not! 

Can retreats be useful if you’re trying to develop spiritually? Can they help if your ultimate goal is moksha, liberation from the ego? Yes, definitely so. Most religious traditions emphasize the importance of occasional retreats. They can help to:

  • settle the mind from its furious planning and ruminating
  • resist some of our usual habits of distraction, like booze, the internet, TV, chitter-chatter. This resistance of usual habits sharpens our awareness, wakes us up, and can help us develop our powers of focus, insight and self-control. 
  • turn our attention to our inner world and begin to get to know the mind better – not just the surface rolling news, but also the deeper levels of awareness.
  • learn to make friends with ourselves, to accept aspects of the psyche we usually run away from
  • discover inner resources of peace, courage, acceptance, kindness and insight, and take these resources back into our usual life
  • meet friends and guides on the spiritual path

Retreats can be challenging. We may go with the spiritual tourist mindset and be in for a rude awakening. I remember one lady at a Vipassana retreat complaining to the teacher: ‘I thought this was meant to be relaxing!’ And another guy, at an ayahuasca retreat in the jungle, who told us at the start that he didn’t really have any problems and was just there to optimize himself. Ayahuasca gave him a kicking, and he bailed out of the third ceremony, declaring he just wanted to ‘chillax with a movie’.

A retreat can feel like a little death, coming down from the usual buzz of coffee-sugar-internet-gossip-ego-planning, and just sitting there…The ego may scream for distractions, for the first day or two. Don’t just sit there, do something! But then things do settle down. And we discover a mind beyond the usual ego-chatter.

That’s the whole point – we’re not who we think we are. We think we’re our ego, and the whole game of life is to bolster the ego and gratify it, with achievements and compliments and security and so forth. Build a really good sand castle, and get everyone else on the beach to admire it. Everything in our culture supports us in this view. But there is a Great Mind around the little castle, which is free from fear and suffering, and we can sometimes discover it, get to know it bit by bit, make friends with it, and rest in in its luminosity. 

The modern ego is like 24-hour rolling news. So absorbing, so distracting! Constant headlines of triumph and catastrophe, And we’re always in the news! Like Trump, we’re fascinated by anything in which our name appears.

You see that? That’s you.

But you can look deeper than the endless clickbait headlines and ask….what is the screen on which this news is appearing? What is the TV channel? What is the light that makes the screen light up? Can you not chase the headlines but rest in the light? 

OK, how to choose a retreat. The main thing is to get over your awkwardness and embarrassment at taking your spiritual development seriously, and putting a bit of time and work into it. Don’t be embarrassed, it’s totally normal and healthy. It’s weird not to think about it or do anything about it. Think of it like a spiritual pension – you’re going to die soon, and the occasional retreat is putting a little effort into preparing for that transition. 

As with finding a therapist, you may not find the perfect retreat first time. You may do a runner a few times. I first went on retreat to a Russian monastery in my late 20s. It was such a beautiful, mysterious place, but I only lasted one night. I couldn’t handle the long, standing, Orthodox services, or the abbot’s incessant efforts to convert me (luckily I couldn’t understand a word he said). Some years later, I went to a Benedictine monastery, where there was no real programme, just regular services in Latin. I was bored and depressed. Finally, in 2016, I found Buddhist retreats which had more of a directed programme of meditation, which is what I was looking for. Very, very slow progress, but that’s OK. 

If you’re a beginner, like me, directed programmes of meditation can be really useful. If you’re not religious, perhaps try a Buddhist retreat – you could start off by finding a local Buddhist organization which offers drop-in weekday sessions, then try a weekend retreat, and then try a week-long retreat. Or you could go kamikaze and try a 10-day Vipassana retreat, which is a great crash-course, but remember, it’s not a sprint. The aim is gradual progress over the years.

If sitting meditation is not your thing, you could try a pilgrimage, or a yoga retreat, or even a week’s surfing or cycling. Or you could go on a transformational workshop, like the Path with Heart, or the Way of Nature, or a plant medicine retreat. These are much more social, and might be useful if your issues are around intimacy and interpersonal relations. But do your research first, they can be quite full-on. As I said, retreats can bring you face-to-face with your deeper issues, and for me, that sometimes involves my issues with other people, my feeling of being judged and my tendency to judge others in return. All that sh*t can come up. It’s good sh*t. It’s the manure in which your soul can grow.

Anything can be a retreat, if you bring the right intention to it. This day at the office can be a retreat, if you do it with the intention to focus, practice, and serve all beings. Washing the dishes can be a retreat. The commute home can be a retreat. A Sunday where you choose to go offline can be a retreat. The retreat is merely an artificial bracket we use to set aside a time as sacred, to sharpen our intention and help us focus on higher goals rather than the day-to-day headlines. And the true goal is to have no distinction between your level of awareness on retreat, and your level of awareness in ordinary life.

Don’t be embarrassed. Take your spiritual development seriously…while retaining the ability to laugh at yourself and the general ridiculousness of life in general, and the spiritual supermarket in particular. Accept the imperfection of all spiritual communities, there’s always a bit of bullshit, which you can use as an excuse not to work. It’s not ultimately their job to do the work for you – you’re in charge, you need to do the work. Accept whatever arises in your mind…but don’t get hung up on spiritual highs, don’t chase the fireworks. Remember, it’s just a holiday unless you bring what you learn back home and practice it there too. I’ll end with this great quote from Yuval Noah Harari.