Trauma

Three days into a meditation retreat in 2015 I was screaming and retching over the toilet bowl, overwhelmed with panic and convinced I was about to die.

With the help of friends, somehow I recovered and completed the retreat with some positive gains. But things were never the same.

Occasionally, the panic would return. The trigger was usually an emotionally demanding situation I could not avoid. With basic mindfulness it would usually pass without too much difficulty.

But my next retreat in 2018 was even worse. Again, three or four days in, things turned dark. I was floored by despair and pointlessness and felt I could not go on. Once more, wise and compassionate companions buoyed me up. But I was so badly side-swiped that there was not enough retreat time left to make up the lost ground.

2015 seemed to have been about unresolved grief. In 2018 it was violent self-disgust. On my next retreat in 2019, again, it surfaced after three or four days. This time I was lying in wait. Beneath the grief and self-disgust I grasped a hellish sensation of abandonment and helplessness. It felt like a kink or flaw; not a mental state as such, certainly not a stage of insight, but something in my sense of self that was leaving me wide open and vulnerable to certain states and stages.

Unwanted, unexpected, nevertheless there it was, and it did not seem to be going anywhere. “If we would just go into finely discerned sensate reality”, writes Daniel Ingram, “and try to see the three characteristics of each sensation that makes up experience, we might begin to understand reality at a level that makes the difference” (Ingram 2018: 112). This had always been my guiding principle in meditation: focus on the nature of experience without getting side-tracked into its contents, all those clamouring personal issues and mind noise. What I had come up against was precisely that. But the sense was growing that this needed to be understood and addressed before it seemed likely my experience would change.

Other factors were steering me in this direction. A friend attained the Knowledge and Communication of the Holy Guardian Angel with relatively little meditative work, but with maximum emphasis on personal psychological transformation. This produced some of the most jaw-dropping synchronicities I have ever witnessed before his realisation of the angel during a trauma-processing session.

Before this, I would have doubted that psychotherapy could bring about awakening, even though (reading between the lines) this is specifically what Jung promised. As Marie-Louise von Franz succinctly described it:

Before one is integrated and individuated, one’s own complexes tend to come through. But if one has really worked to solve one’s own problems and the complexes are integrated, then one can connect with the collective unconscious and its wisdom can flow through one. At the end point of development (the end stage of the individuation process), the Zen masters are in such a state of harmony with the collective unconscious […] they are together in the unus mundus, so to speak. (von Franz 1979: 115)

In other words: resolve your stuff, experience synchronicities, and awaken. Exactly what had occurred with my friend.

Simultaneously, a close relationship had started to provoke some intense reactions in me, feelings very like those I had encountered on retreat. To work out how these were being triggered, I did some reading on attachment styles.

Attachment theory is a typology of human relationships, developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It postulates that our experience of caregivers in infancy establishes basic patterns of relating that persist into later life. The four basic attachment styles are:

  • secure
  • dismissive-avoidant
  • anxious-ambivalent
  • disorganised

Because my childhood was loving and stable, and I am happy in my own company, I always supposed my attachment style was “secure”. But then I stumbled across an uncannily exact description of the relationship dynamics I was experiencing and discovered the role I occupied in these was not one of “secure” attachment at all, but “anxious-ambivalent”.

This form of relating can arise where caregivers are perceived as unreliable or unresponsive. People with this attachment style are needy yet will probably have learned to express this subtly, so that others will stay close and enable them to feel safe. To maintain this, it is also important not to be seen to be comforted, for in that case the other person might assume we are okay and then go away. This is where the “ambivalent” aspect originates: indifference is used as a means to keep the other person engaged, and to prevent them from feeling over-depended-upon, but also to protect oneself against abandonment in case they do decide to disconnect. I realised how this pretence at independence and self-containment was what I had mistaken in myself for secure attachment. In truth, I was ceaselessly denying an unappeasable longing for connection. This discovery completely unseated my view of myself, but at least now the hellish sensations of abandonment and helplessness were starting to make sense.

John Bowlby (1907-1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999), originators of attachment theory.

It is not all negative, of course. People with anxious-ambivalent attachment are often loving and caring because that is how they need to be treated by others. “They are also very good at detecting when others are not interested or unhappy”, writes Helen Dent, “and they are willing to face this head on, even if it involves disagreement or conflict” (2019: 62). However, in relationships people with this attachment style tend to project onto others or things the independence and self-reliance they cannot own (Power 2019: 48). This reminded me of a recurring pattern in my spiritual practice: striving to embrace exotic states of consciousness, but once I feel my connection to reality shift then feeling threatened, shrinking back in terror, and repeating this pattern over again with too much terror ever to quite let go.

I had been in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for several years but, apart from highlighting the dynamics, this never seemed to take me directly into what I was experiencing. In the meantime, I had discovered Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM), a recently developed therapy for the treatment of psychological trauma. CRM is not currently well-known, yet a training course was conveniently offered at a venue within five miles of my home. After the first day of training I was woken in the night by a surge of those hellish feelings of neglect and abandonment, and a tiny skull that screamed: “These parents are not safe!

In the context of CRM, the skull was a wounded ego-state. These are somatic and emotional sensations arising from past distress that was so overwhelming it has triggered our basic neurophysiological survival responses: fight, flight, or freeze. CRM therapists help the client connect with wounded ego-states and then provide resources for the wounded parts to re-experience the original distress – but this time in a resourced, bearable way – the same distress that triggered the reflexes that originally created the ego-state.

CRM places neurological science front and centre to inform its approach, but it also has a spiritual dimension. Among the resources that help the client to confront distress are power animals, sacred geometry, but also “Core Self”, which (although materialistic perspectives are not excluded) is described in non-dualistic terms: “largely non-intentional, having as its object only the very ground of its awareness” (Schwarz et al 2018: 156).

In CRM, an ego-state is to Core Self as a complex is to the Self in Jungian analysis: ego-states and complexes are both what we can become aware of within experience, whereas the Jungian Self and Core Self in CRM are both empty, the underlying awareness in which contents of experience arise. The aim of Jungian analysis is individuation: integration of complexes into an expanded awareness of the Self. It seems that CRM also harbours an overarching aim:

it is important to remember that trauma release is not the ultimate goal of CRM work. The goal is to access and embody Core Self, for those who choose to do this, but often this is only possible after the trauma work is well under way. (Schwarz et al 2018: 135)

So I began working with a CRM therapist. After a while, he wondered if I were dealing with something that had origins in past-life or intergenerational trauma. Yet another strand of investigations was ongoing at this time, which I have discussed elsewhere: a strong sense of the presence of the dead, and my reception of a magickal text, Liber Pisces, concerning relationships between the dead and the living. CRM, too, has protocols and techniques for working with this kind of material.

Consciously, I had no memories of childhood trauma. What was troubling me had either originated from a very early period of my life, or could it be the effect of something that had not happened to me at all? I could not understand how trauma in ancestors’ experiences could somehow show up in mine. But it is funny, how – having now done some work in that area – presently I can barely see it in any other terms. When I turn attention to human suffering in all its current forms – violent struggles, government corruption, the bellowing hurt and rage of social media, and just that nagging background sensation of despair – I feel ancestral wounds smarting. Our pain, aggression, dissociation, numbness: these are reactions to inherited trauma, everywhere in plain view.

Thomas Hübl writes:

our shadows cannot simply be buried and forgotten; they will haunt us until we return them to life. And if we never do, they will haunt our children and our children’s children, passing each to the next in an endless repetition of karma and time. (Hübl 2020: 225)

Trauma is karma. Trauma freezes and stores the horrors of the past. The notion of the parents’ sins being visited upon the children is very Old Testament (eg. Numbers 14: 18), and it seems cruel, but in how it preserves the past the symptomatology of trauma offers a possibility of growth. We do not merely feel our ancestors’ pain, but through our reactions to it we re-live it, and so there is the possibility of living it differently.

Hübl’s book describes a theory and a practice for achieving this. In a recent podcast interview he commented:

Becoming aware of collective trauma structures is a level of awakening, basically because its nature is that it is split-off and unconscious. So even if I have deeper states of meditation I am not necessarily becoming aware of those fragmented trauma structures, because they are pushed into the unconscious. So I can have very high meditation states and still be in the same way unconscious, because I am not aware that I am unconscious. (Taft 2021: 23’51”)

The implication here is that although we might voyage deeply into refined and highly realised states of awareness, this may accrue a kind of karmic debt. We may become guilty of “spiritual bypassing” without ever being aware of it.

Rather than envisaging the alternative to engagement with our practice as indulgence of mental contents, personal psychological issues, or random mind-noise, it might be helpful to examine in what sense these are really “ours”.

Ultimately, there is no personal, separate self. From this ultimate perspective there is only karma, and when some of this remains unrecognised as ancestral or cultural trauma then we only have the option of re-living it, without ever growing beyond.

References

Dent, Helen (2019). Why Don’t I Feel Good Enough? Using Attachment Theory to Find a Solution. Abingdon: Routledge.

von Franz, Marie-Louise (1979). Alchemical Active Imagination. Irving, TX: Spring Publications.

Hübl, Thomas (2020). Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds, Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.

Power, Anne (2019). Avoidant people in relationships: why would they bother? How do partners fare? In: Linda Cundy, ed., Attachment and the Defence Against Intimacy: Understanding and Working with Avoidant Attachment, Self-Hatred, and Shame. Abingdon: Routledge.

Schwarz, Lisa, Frank Corrigan, Alastair Hull, and Rajiv Raju (2018). The Comprehensive Resource Model: Effective Therapeutic Techniques for the Healing of Complex Trauma. Abingdon: Routledge.

Taft, Michael (2021). Deconstructing Yourself: meditation and healing trauma with Thomas Hübl, https://tinyurl.com/27uppkdk (podcasts.google.com). Accessed April, 2021.

Fruition

Recently I was meditating. After a lengthy spell of practising concentration upon the breath, I have decided to return to vipassana.

There was a sense of something – a roughly cylindrical object made of flesh or plant matter. My sense was that although this might slowly decay, it would never quite dissipate. A story started up in my mind about how I would never be free from it. But instead of buying into this, I included the arising of the story into my investigation of my current experience. This felt like an effort, and resentment against the effort arose, and another story started up about it not being right that this should feel so effortful. But again, I included the arising of the story into my awareness of what I was experiencing.

Then – wham. It all released. Suddenly, shockingly, the cylindrical thing was gone. It was all gone and never had been. There was a sudden and total silence of the mind in which nothing needed to happen and never had or could.

The impermanence door aspect relates to realizing what is “between the frames” of the sensate universe […] and it tends to have a dat.dat.dat-gone! quality to it, as if all of space has stuttered three or four times in very rapid succession (about a quarter of a second or less for the whole thing) and disappeared. It is the fastest of the three and tends to be the most surprising. (Ingram 2018: 260-1)

Some of the most perplexing passages of Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (2018) are in the sections in which he describes fruition. Only gradually have I felt able to apply these to my own experience. What I have described above was a fruition through the door of impermanence. It is the first time I have managed to recognise one of these as such.

For readers unfamiliar with Ingram’s work, here is a brutal introduction: Daniel claims the status of an arahat (a term from the Therevadan Buddhist tradition applied to a fully awakened person) and provides specific descriptions of maps and practices through which the reader can replicate his attainment for themselves. Because of its strong emphasis on method, his work has found an interested audience in the occult community and among those involved in contemplative science research.

Central to Daniel’s description of how awakening occurs are the stages of insight: a cyclical sequence of changes in awareness that produces a deepening understanding of what reality truly is. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha describes how this sequence is traversed in meditation, how to facilitate the process, and thereby how to move towards awakening.

Fruition is the climactic stage in the insight cycle that I would attempt to describe as when the meditator’s awareness and reality synchronise for an indescribable instant. As Daniel describes it: “‘Reality’ stops cold and then reappears” (Ingram 2018: 256). In fruition, self-awareness vanishes because the illusion of self drops away, yet the prelude to it can take various distinct forms, which Daniel describes (metaphorically) as determined by entry through one of three possible “doors”: impermanence, suffering, or no-self. These, in Buddhism, are also known as “the three characteristics”. They are qualities found in each and every sensory and non-sensory experience and so, as such, are the bedrock attributes of what presents itself as “reality”.

All of this may sound very obscure, but the aim of vipassana is to refine our observation of experience to a degree where we can start to see some of this for ourselves, in our own way, and to the best of our ability.

Daniel has a gift for phenomenology, a disconcerting talent for unflinchingly and directly grasping the complex minutiae of experience exactly as they are with a minimum of storytelling or interpretation. For instance, regarding another, specific type of fruition he writes:

The rarest no-self/suffering variant is hard to describe, and involves reality becoming like a doughnut whose whole outer edge rotates inwards such as to trade places with its inner edge (the edge that made the hole in the middle) that rotates to the outer edge position, and when they trade places reality vanishes. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have switched places and the whole thing vanishes. (Ingram 2018: 262)

However, as a friend and fellow vipassana practitioner sceptically remarked: Whilst meditating I have never ever seen a fucking doughnut!

It has taken me a long time to understand how Daniel’s descriptions of fruition can be helpful, even if they do not match my experience. In the moment before a fruition I often experience a vision. These are like waking dreams in which I seem transported into a completely different place. You do not need a vision to have a fruition; I just seem to have the type of mind that does this. My very first fruition I described in The Blood of the Saints:

I was outside a dark doorway in a hot, desert country. I was there to interview [Primal Awareness]. He was waiting inside. But then I simply realised that Primal Awareness and I were the same thing. There was no need for an interview; I would only be interviewing myself. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go; there was bliss and hilarity. It was obvious that awareness had nothing to do with “me”, because “all this” was already “it”. (Chapman & Barford 2009: 137)

I did not recognise it at the time, but this was a fruition through the door of no-self. Compare my vision with Daniel’s barer, more functional description:

It relates to observing directly the collapse of the illusion of duality, the collapse of awareness into the intelligence or cognition of the perceived. It is a bit like staring back at yourself (or something intelligent regardless of whether it looks like you) with no one on this side to be stared at and then collapsing into that image. […] The no-self door is the opposite of the suffering door, in that everything comes this way (rather than everything going that way). The no-self door aspect tends to be the most pleasant, easy, and visually interesting of the three. It is slightly slower than the others, maybe a half of a second for all three to four moments of it. (Ingram 2018: 261)

Most of my fruitions have been fruitions through the door of no-self. More than once the vision has taken the form of looking into the eyes of a deity and all sense of separation collapsing. In an interesting variant, a beautifully cut crystal appeared. It was gradually, slowly revolving. The light was such that I knew the crystal would soon reflect a dazzling ray from one of its facets directly into my eyes. There was an exquisite, agonising moment of expectation. The crystal continued slowly to turn, and then – wham. The light hit and I was totally gone.

So regularly were my fruitions entering by the door of no-self, I set myself the task of intentionally entering through the door of suffering. I changed my practice to investigating whatever happened to be the most unpleasant sensation I was aware of. Although not much fun, it was interesting. First, I had to realise how having a crappy experience is not the same as the supposed crappiness inherent in reality itself. In fact, neither satisfaction nor non-satisfaction reside in reality, but only in the story we tell ourselves about an “I” that decides it is having an experience of one or the other. Wherever this was leading, I shuddered to imagine what sort of ghastly vision Daniel’s description of this door might entail:

The suffering door relates directly to “the mind” releasing its fixation on the whole of relative reality and allowing the whole of it to fall away completely, meaning away from where we thought we were. It can also feel like all existence is suddenly ripped away from us. In this, as with the other doors, the mind followed a phenomenon to its final and complete disappearance and didn’t do the strange, blinking-out, glossing-over thing that it typically does regarding this gap between moments. The suffering door aspect tends to be the most unsettling or wrenching of the three doors, the most death-like. It is always a touch creepy. (Ingram 2018: 261)

The vision, when it came, was recorded in my journal as follows:

Looking up at a tall building on which was an inexplicable kind of mushroom sculpture. Suddenly the whole thing was snatched away by something invisible. It was jerked suddenly away and out of sight in a manner that felt violent, cruel, and sinister – because I could not see who or what had done this. In that moment of shocking, unexpected movement, there was nothing.

The strange “mushroom sculpture”. Sketch from notebook made shortly afterwards.

Fruitions come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the mind that hosts them. In minds like mine they are accompanied by visions; other minds seem capable of registering them in a more direct or abstract mode. It also seems possible to overlook fruitions altogether, noticing them only in retrospect by the effects left behind.

If we approach Daniel’s descriptions as templates rather than specific descriptions, then, of course, it increases the risk of identifying as a fruition experiences that might be nothing of the kind. On the other hand, it offers the possibility to refine and sharpen our observation of the minute details of experience.

One day, maybe, we will all see the doughnut.

References

Chapman, Alan & Duncan Barford (2009). The Blood of the Saints. Brighton: Heptarchia.

Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.

 

Coagula

Meditation on the breath is not supposed to be relaxing. It is supposed to be intense.

The aim is to cultivate concentration, achieved by hurling every morsel of awareness at the sensory experience of the breath. Notice every wiggling blip in each fluxing microsecond. Ramp up awareness to a pitch that borders on the unbearable. Do not fry yourself, of course, but consider that the possibility of overdoing it is maybe what is needed to maximise the practice.

Abandon the risible notion that “mindfulness” is only beneficial to mental health. If avoiding hurt is the aim, it is inadvisable to embark on such practice. Care for yourself by balancing intensity of practice with wholesome activities and relationships, and with supplementary practices to generate compassion and a grounding in the mundane.

Mantra meditation is amenable to the same approach. Reject the mantra as a background murmur, as a somnolent drone, but with the white heat of attention forge your mantra into an ear-shattering tsunami of a rock opera, or a heart-melting symphony of orchestras and choirs. Make it into what you will not possibly ignore, what you cannot resist losing yourself inside.

After a few days, the drone of the fan heater than warmed the venue of our retreat had become a cathedral organ, intoning an intricate, melancholy sonata. When the retreat ended each of us could recall its tune and we hummed it together. This is the most meagre example of the magickal potential of concentration. Focus the mind beyond the level that daily life affords, and strange and wondrous realms fall open.

Fire kasina practice involves staring at a candle flame until a retinal after-image forms. Then, closing the eyes, instead of the flame itself the after-image is taken as the object of concentration. The after-image passes through a sequence of transformations: at first it is oval, then it condenses down into a bright red dot. After this it dims slowly, eventually becoming a black dot, and then the entire visual field resolves into bustling grey static, signalling that it is time to open the eyes and stare at the actual candle flame. Repeat this sequence, throwing your entire attention into all its details. Repeat over and over, for twelve to fifteen hours per day. Keep it up, take care of yourself, and after three or four days things become interesting. After seven to ten days your concentration may have reached full power, but will drain away within twenty-four hours unless you maintain the practice for a minimum of about five hours daily.

In fire kasina practice, the object of concentration floats right before your face in a way most people will find harder to be distracted from than a mantra or the breath. I know of no better method for incubating concentration, and for experiencing how, with concentration, magick arises.

By taking the after-image of the flame as the object of concentration (the so-called nimitta or “sign”) we enter a realm oddly positioned between perception and imagination because the retinal after-image is neither wholly mental nor wholly physical. In daily life we tend to maintain a sense of a boundary between “out there” and “in here”. Transgressing this, the result is magick.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), author of The World as Will and Representation (1819). We’ll get to him in a moment…

On retreat I noticed a vivid mental image: the face of a bearded god. Each time I closed my eyes I saw him clearly. The odd thing was that if I turned my head the visual perspective on him changed. Something in my mind was acting as if it belonged in the external world! This occurred only a few days into the retreat. Later came transportations into other realities, sometimes inhabited by sentient beings that – in one instance – took the form of a spider-like creature with the head of a buddha. Its legs were covered all over with asynchronously blinking eyes.

As the distinction between imagination and perception progressively fell away, there were experiences that might be described as telepathy. Once, I was able to “see” the colour and shape of a figure another retreatant was visualising. Another time, a vision showed me that someone had run into difficulties, even though he was in a distant room. Daniel Ingram reports a beam of light that surged from his body and flew across the room, into the flame of a candle, causing it to burn sideways (as he had consciously willed) for a few seconds.  He raises the question whether a witness (had there been one) would have seen the same (Ingram 2018: 555-6). As every magician knows, magick is tricksy. Its results do not necessarily manifest in straightforward, literal ways.

I am only half joking when I describe a fire kasina retreat as a long, slow journey into psychosis and (hopefully) out again. The practice chips away until there is no boundary between mental imagery and perception. Reality then assumes a curiously molten quality: vivid, and filled as usual with inexhaustible detail, but strangely malleable and to some extent shapable by conscious intentions.

Professor Hans Gerding, alongside his research in the field of parapsychology, offers counselling sessions to people troubled by anomalous experiences. In a podcast interview, Gerding described how Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1819) can be useful for conceptualising paranormal experiences.

Schopenhauer asserts that among all the objects in the universe, there is only one object, relative to each of us – namely, our physical body – that is given in two entirely different ways. It is given as representation (i.e., objectively; externally) and as Will (i.e., subjectively; internally). One of his notable conclusions is that when we move our hand, this is not to be comprehended as a motivational act that first happens, and then causes the movement of our hand as an effect. He maintains that the movement of our hand is but a single act – again, like the two sides of a coin – that has a subjective feeling of willing as one of its aspects, and the movement of the hand as the other. More generally, he adds that the action of the body is nothing but the act of Will objectified, that is, translated into perception. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2017)

“Will” in Schopenhauer refers to the inner, subjective aspect of things. Individual consciousness is what we experience as the inner, subjective aspect of our body, and Schopenhauer suggests that all things possess this aspect in some way. Consequently, he situates Will in the place of Kant’s thing-in-itself: the universe is the expression of Will presented through the Kantian categories of space, time, and causality. This approach leads in interesting directions. The most relevant to us here is the idea that perception is not a window onto reality but a means by which Will manifests. Perception is an “outward” presentation of the “interior”. Of course, the two are not separate: the “outward” is the interior’s means of viewing itself. It then becomes comprehensible how concentration upon an object (that is, inward focusing upon an outward manifestation), reinstates the primacy of Will over presentation by bringing them together. This manoeuvre is the act of magick.

Professor Gerding remarks how Schopenhauer’s philosophy provides a space in which paranormal phenomena can occur:

Here lies the world of the paranormal, because it is possible to go – as it were – in the world of the Will, and go back into the world of phenomena at another place, another time, and when this happens people report precognitive dreams. […] These paranormal phenomena can only be explained if you take his philosophy seriously. (Ellis 2020: 20’37”)

For Kant the thing-in-itself is inaccessible, unknowable. But for Schopenhauer, if the universe is the objectification of Will as perception, and if we participate in Will through our own consciousness, then (as Gerding describes) would it not be possible to enter into Will in a way that might then influence how Will presents itself in perception?

Distraction, everyday consciousness, is a preoccupation with the representations by which Will manifests. But we can also use concentration to move in the opposite direction and enter more deeply into Will. The everyday use of concentration, of course, is simply for focusing on the presentations of Will. Magick, however, is when concentration is used instead to melt down perception into new shapes malleable by Will.

Those practices that select objects situated on the boundary between body and mind (e.g. sensations of the breath, or retinal after-images) seem particularly effective at quickly breaking down perception, as Schopenhauer’s philosophy might have led us to expect. But magick, of course, is not limited to these: any act with an intention of changing how reality manifests is likely to meet the criteria of magick. It will probably also employ concentration to an extraordinary degree in order to bring about its desired effect.

References

Ellis, James (2020). Hermitix: Schopenhauer and philosophical counselling with Hans Gerding. https://tinyurl.com/ya8vmy6a (podiant.co). Accessed December 2020.

Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2017). Arthur Schopenhauer. https://tinyurl.com/y8sc6eg4 (stanford.edu). Accessed December 2020.

 

Madness

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.

Reference

Evans, Jules & Tim Read (2020). Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency. London: Aeon.