Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency (Evans & Read 2020) is perhaps the first book of its kind, containing open and honest accounts of its contributors’ struggles through mental distress to spiritual insights and awakenings.
Some are contending with trauma from their past and arrive at spiritual insights through a perilous confrontation with mental breakdown. Others reach the same crossroads by engaging with spiritual practices and/or entheogens. What becomes apparent is the close affinity between mental illness and spiritual awakening.
Our culture regards mental illness as real enough to require intervention, but experiences of enlightenment fall under “delusion”. If spiritual awakening indeed offered a way through and out then the dominant ideology would be perpetuating mental illness rather than providing a socially sanctioned means of arriving at its resolution. Every contribution to Breaking Open re-tells a story of how its author had to find their own ways and means of achieving this.
The day before yesterday I was meditating, when it became self-evident that I was the incarnation of a long-forgotten god and should now re-introduce myself as such to the modern world. Having experienced this realisation, I took a moment to check in with myself. “Have I really bought into this?” I wondered and was relieved to discover that I had not.
The average mindfulness teacher is unlikely to issue warnings that meditation leads to experiences like this, or that the more expert at meditation a person becomes the more likely it is that such will arise. Meditation supposedly produces relaxation and stress release. Any odd effects will be regarded as due to poor mental health. However, through meditation I have arrived at veridical experiences of psychic phenomena, messages from the dead, interactions with discarnate entities, and spiritual awakenings. Yet we are not to suppose that these are what meditation might actually be for. As Louisa Tomlinson puts it:
Having a mindfulness practice is acceptable, marketed as “good for your health” and “giving you the edge”. But God forbid you go beyond the five senses into the ineffable fabric of cosmic reality. God forbid you actually have a spiritual experience. (Evans & Read 2020: 44)
In her contribution to the book Amy Pollard writes on how Brexit precipitated a breakdown. She describes herself as white, middle-class, living in North London from a socialist, feminist family, and working for a democracy charity. The murdered MP Jo Cox was part of her professional network. At the time of the Brexit vote Amy was bringing up small children and acutely sensitive to the ways babies signal their needs. “It had made me notice, with amusement”, she writes, “how many things adults do which are really grown-up versions of this” (Evans & Read 2020: 92). It is difficult to imagine anyone for whom Brexit could have been more of a disaster.
As the days and nights wore on I started becoming more sensitive. I noticed the self-soothing that was evident in the inflection of the newsreaders as they were talking. If you listened, you could hear the little tells in their voices that let you know where their attention really was – whether they were needing to connect or disconnect from you […] You could hear, in very subtle and understated ways, the pure despair of the British establishment. The more despair I could hear in the voices and bodies of others, the more panicked I felt that nobody was out there who knew what to do; and the more responsibility I felt to try to do my bit. (Evans & Read 2020: 93)
Awakening and mental breakdown are alike in that they confront us with uncontainable experiences of a truth that we must go out of our minds to apprehend more fully. Everyone, all of the time, really is a grown-up baby. Everyone really is a deity, utterly forgetful of their real name and wearing a human identity in the modern world. Spiritual insights are truths that are too big to be lived in our limited human form.
Amy’s “madness” offered me some perspective on the US Election this week: the tantrum thrown by the liberal left when it looked as if Trump might win, as if this would be somehow inexplicable or not allowed; and the inability of the dissenting right to tolerate due process as it became clear that Trump had lost. Madness erupts out of culture as well as out of individuals because culture, too, is sorely limited in comparison to what reality can throw at it.
Brexit was a bolt from the blue, a trauma that the liberal-left mindset could not contain. If Brexit could happen then it seemed no one was in control; everyone was a baby, and Amy was left struggling with the necessity to become a super-human mother who could respond to the needs of everyone. Amy described this sensitivity as “the motherhood ear”. To integrate the immensity of Brexit and the other pressures she was facing, she went out of her mind and into the realm of spiritual insight. Gradually she reached a turning point:
I had found the strength of my motherhood ear to be utterly overwhelming. It felt almost like I was controlling other people, or predicting what they were going to do. But gradually I came to see this ability not as any new power of mine […] It wasn’t so much that I was controlling or predicting what people would do; it was that noticing the interplay between me, other people, and the things around us was exploding the illusion that we are each separate people at all. (Evans & Read 2020: 98-99)
This lead to major changes and insights into an underlying reality, enabling Amy to accommodate greater and transpersonal dimensions of truth.
A few days ago I was afforded another vision, which maybe offers a useful analogy. I was in an antique laboratory. Upon a table or plinth, some kind of alchemical process had been erected: a mass of complex equipment, channelling bubbling liquids and emitting steam. The entire caboodle was sealed inside a huge glass vessel. As I looked on, everything inside the vessel violently exploded and all was destroyed. Although it had protected me and the laboratory from any damage, the glass vessel too had been utterly disintegrated. What remained was a pile of smouldering black ash and red embers, but also a sense that the alchemical process was continuing – indeed, that it was proceeding as planned, albeit in a more subdued form. My Guardian Angel appeared at my right-hand side. “The vessel cannot hold,” he explained.
I wondered if the vision were a warning, but now I think it shows things simply as they are. The process running in the laboratory remains mysterious. It explodes, yet the sense endures that it is proceeding on track. What is unfolding is therefore what is supposed to unfold, although this might not agree with our expectations.
The vessel does not hold, not because it fails, but by disintegrating it fulfils its function. It protects against the explosion yet must disintegrate with it, so that the process can smoulder, continuing in a different way.
Maybe our culture is undergoing an unknown process. Maybe the vessel of our beliefs and knowledge protects us but, to stay on board with that process, we will need to let it disintegrate so we can accommodate bigger truths. Perhaps madness is what happens in both the individual and in culture when the vessel attempts to contain rather than to yield.
Evans, Jules & Tim Read (2020). Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency. London: Aeon.