The Shamanistic Nature of Psychiatric Patients: Let Them Hone Their Gifts
The Psychiatric View of the Shaman
It’s true. Many “mentally ill” people are budding shamans. Especially the bipolars. I can say this openly because for over twenty years, I’ve lived with a psychiatric label attached to my name when all I’m really trying to do is enter shamanic states safely in order to tell my stories and connect with my muses.
When I traveled to India in 1994, I suffered from an acute form of dysentery alone on the streets of New Delhi and a compassionate taxi-driver and Sudra class man, Mahander, came to my rescue and got me to my emergency plane departure on time. Upon the return home, however, after noticing for the first time the disparity between the greed and overindulgence of New York’s city streets juxtaposed with what I just witnessed in the slums of New Delhi, an altered perception tail-spinned my mind into a spiraling tornado; and after an emotional outburst that I could no longer control after the trauma, I was thrown into a mental institution and labeled with bipolar disorder for the rest of my life.
I would not have returned home from India without the help of a family of angels who were directing my steps and providing me symbolic information in a wakeful dream state. Because the spiritual world communicates with us with the language we employ them, my DNA code seemed linked to these symbols as though only I could interpret them in a unique way. And I did arrive home after all, and I believe it was only because I listened to a guidance larger than myself, which provided me with an awareness I had never known before; and which was now being challenged in the psychiatric institution.
The psychiatric institution regards such stories as illusionary or delusional. And as anyone who walks through those mental institution doors knows, the psychiatric philosophy undermines anything that cannot be proven through empirical naturalism. Rather than considering alternative possibilities that create these states, it teaches us that there is something fundamentally wrong with all those afflicted, something innate that causes our states. My mental and physical strain in India was clearly the impetus for my mind shift. It was an enormous stressor, something traumatic and life-threatening. But the psychiatric doctors avoided the subject of India like a case of the flu, as if it wasn’t part of the equation at all. And this is because they lack understanding of alternate points of view on mental illness.
In but a couple months, the medical team handling my case informed me that they finally figured out “what was wrong with me.” This mental illness of bipolar disorder, they told me, would be with me for the rest of my life since it was a genetic, pathological illness with no cure. In the beginning of living with my label of bipolar disorder, as they had conveniently named my personality, they may have been convinced I was crazy in these states of mind, but I saw them as prisoners chained to the wall in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Shackled to their version of reality their entire lives, only seeing mere shadows of actual forms, how could they know the true light of the fire that was now emblazoned in my memory of India? I had broken free from the cave and came to know that the shadows did not reflect the real truth in the least bit. With my journey to and back from India, I came to perceive a multidimensional reality, much like what indigenous shamans perceive through the depth and power of symbols—not merely the shadowy forms of the one tiny “objective” worldview that was taken as fact at home. I realized how indoctrinated they were, locked into the matrix of a one-way interpretation of humanity’s place and purpose. Up until that moment, I had been one of them. But my new eyes were no longer accustomed to the darkness, and quickly I realized that I would no longer be a good player at their game.
I was on meds for years, and longed to be off them as they had made a mockery of my interaction with others due to many visible and debilitating side effects, which not only made me feel like an imbecile but look like too. But the truth is, Big Pharma has us by our throats and their arresting mind control of the day convinces everyone they need a long list of psychiatric medications when they often do not. At least not forever, which is what they want. Another addicted life-long customer.
I ran off to Colorado when I finally had enough, and ended up having another insane experience in getting lost in the Rockies off the trail. And in this further life-threatening situation, I again began to enter the shamanic dream state, which I had not experienced since India. In but a few months after returning to New York, I began to have vivid dreams as wisdom from faraway souls revealed secrets to me. In addition, during my wakeful hours I began to journey like a shaman as I became an open channel to receive input from distant bloodlines. Then I began to realize, under the massive stress I found myself in, a shamanic initiation had indeed taken place in those Colorado Mountains.
The Wakeful Dream State
In Native American circles, shamans were believed to connect to their spirit guides through intense ritual and brave willingness to enter another level of consciousness. Shamanism is not a religion but a set of techniques that help one navigate in a wakeful dream, (which is a trancelike state similar to an altered state of consciousness induced by psychedelics), in order to collect information and bring it back to the tribe. In their communities, they knew if a state of “mental illness” occurred, the shaman needed to commune with the other side and enter another dimension where healing could be extracted for the good of the afflicted. In the same vein, after Colorado, through ritual and meditation, in my active imagination I began to commune with humble ancestors of long ago, with indigenous populations, with our native brethren that walked this American soil before imperialistic greed raped their families and ravaged their land. Through visual images and symbolism they tried to show me their truth, stories, and profound, lingering whispers of yesterday.
Shamans can journey into the past; they experience compressed time, or a time outside of time. Australian Aborigines practice the art of experiencing dreamtime and regular time simultaneously and can enter this at will. Being in two realities at once allows a person awareness of the merging with dream time, the origin of all things, a reality where shamans believe to hold the only truth that can be trusted. Tribal shamanic cultures see the “mentally ill” as having access to two worlds—the ethereal and the physical. Shamans have the ability to serve as the bridge between realms, merging with the world of the spirit and gathering information from a spiritual source that can help those who suffer emotional or mental strain. However, those in training are guided by experienced shamans and are taught how to navigate their way on the other side and safely return back so that madness does not manifest in their psyches. Think Carlos Castaneda’s Lessons of Don Juan.
Many “mentally ill” patients essentially enter the wakeful dream state, when the dream world crosses over into reality. These ethereal zones hold dream imagery with allegorical significance. One journeys in that space by way of making meaning of the symbolism, and then builds upon those meanings to gain clarity. This can only be achieved in the mental realm but is guided by clues found in the physical realm. And in the end, only the physical world can most people see.
Psychosis and the Shaman’s Journey
On the inside of the institution, psychosis is always the worst possible pathological symptom, whether or not it’s violent, whether it’s enlightening or debilitating. A disconnect with the “way things are” does not open up a conversation, but instead slams the door in the faces of those who depend on their imaginations to help them interpret their reality, as we artists do, in order to survive. Consumers of the mental health industry often can’t make sense of their “psychotic” experiences, and then the psychiatric institution ushers themselves in as their healers and caretakers forevermore. In our lovely group therapy, instead of sharing the meanings behind the thematic elements that popped up in our psychoses, we instead were encouraged to mind probe and deconstruct each other’s thought processes. But all this over-analysis of such a private space as the mind, especially when one is mentally vulnerable, can be highly invasive.
Patients in mental hospitals appear to be walking around in faraway, dreamlike states because they are caught in timelessness. But going deeper into timelessness can only strengthen your understanding of these larger concepts, not weaken it. And yet, the psychiatric institution convinces our future artists, intuitives, healers, and dreamers that they are mentally ill, and thus, they shut themselves down and never hone their innate gifts.
Today’s Western psychiatric medicine is not in the practice of guiding the initiated home so many creative people and healers are willing to enter this state of “madness” alone, regardless of how overwhelming or precarious. And I knew too well that the dreamy context of these “psychotic” states would never be explored or taken seriously because to this institution, they don’t believe the statement of the great Romantic poet, William Blake, when he asserted that, “Mental things are alone real.”
For many years, while entering these states and getting myself inside the institution a few times, I was still just a novice shaman, and when I tried my best to put words to my mental imagery that was bursting to be told to my family and friends, I sounded like a little girl describing pictures in a toddler’s primary phonics book. I often lost any real communication abilities when it came to this inspired stuff, and I looked like a lunatic each of the few times it happened. It’s no wonder why a shamanic journeyer like me ends up in the loony bin time and time again.
Episodic Symbolism for the Bipolar Shaman
For many creative bipolars on the inside, entering these alternate layers of reality allows them to process their environment and try to interpret it sensibly, something I personally found extremely difficult to do after I returned home from India. My so-called real world never made sense again. In fact, this other reality I entered but only a few times in my life, held realer and truer memories for me. Everything else in my past falls away as illusion. The traditional psychological field refuses to even acknowledge the existence of such altered states of mind much less offer the appropriate course of action on how to deal with such psychic phenomenon.
Without any assistance over the years in learning how to deal with breaking through to another layer of reality in these bouts with “madness,” or the wakeful dream state, I was not able to harness the knowledge of such a gift nor hone any of its healing techniques. For creatives, it’s in this kind of dreamy world where inspiration sits. Its terrain is not one of logic or measurement, but rather symbolism, containing images that hold special meaning like that of a dream. Because all we are inside our minds are the symbols that remain as part of our consciousness from memories past.
And here is where one can slip and lose sight of the whole picture. Many of us who unexpectedly find ourselves in that ethereal zone, collecting our bits and pieces of symbolism in order to tell our stories, get lost along the way home to the reality we all agree upon as “objective reality.”
To others—our families and friends who are watching these “episodes”—these symbolic impressions may seem weird or disconnected, but for the shaman, the reading of these symbols is vital to discovering one’s unique understanding of how the Universe is connecting to him personally. It’s in that timeless dimension where the collective unconscious of symbolism sits, where the wakeful dream state offers us visions of past and present. In each one of my visions when I entered these states, the symbolic messages were highly personal and always meaningful, as they contained premonitions of psychic memories of the peoples of yesterday who walked the same path in finding their symbolic story of the environment in which they lived.
Dr. Joseph K. Dixon describes symbolic interpretation in his book in 1913, The Vanishing Race,
These primitive men hold time and money and
ambition as nothing. But a dream, or a cloud in the
sky, or a bird flying across the trail from the wrong
direction, or a change of the wind will challenge their
deepest thoughts. To the Indian mind all signs are
Viewing symbolic dream imagery as signs of neurosis or pathology, as Freud once had, is missing the entire meaning of the messages. Alternatively, Jung believed that dream imagery contained symbols deriving from our shared collective unconscious, from which we all can access the same meanings. It was obvious to me that the themes that consistently appeared in my psychotic states were not telling the story about my hang-ups; but rather, the dreamlike symbolism woven through my wakeful shamanic journeys was like a magical realism, which led me through the underworld and helped me understand my reality.
Many people when walking into an institution tell stories of the FBI chasing them, or they believe they are Moses, or that they are hearing whispers from the other side. But when one really gets to know these people, they are bursting with creativity and the Universe is communicating with them through symbolic dream imagery so that they can better understand themselves and their purpose.
Journeying with Creative Muses
It was in 2006, during my third hospital visit when I was shamanic journeying for ten days and nights straight while I was pregnant with my son. They couldn’t give me sleeping meds to stop my mania because it might’ve hurt the baby. On that occasion I knew full well that when I said goodbye to my family I would now enter the other side and did not know when I would return from my shamanic journey. Especially on this particular occasion, I was at a devastating loss. Because I was in the land of the non-material for so long, it was hard to find my way back; and upon returning, I was unequipped more than ever before to integrate what had happened with whom I was.
My getting lost in that world for days on end during this hospitalization felt like an eternity. My memories of that timelessness will provide me lifetimes of rich inspiration. However, while most of the imagery was positive and insightful, many visions were destabilizing so it was imperative that I was carefully watched, and I knew that. For ten days I was on 24 hour observation with my room door open as I existed in the wakeful dream state, roaming in my imagination, acting out one ritual after another, one epic dream flowing into the next, entertaining the staff and the inmates alike, all during the long nights into the following days throughout the good part of the week. But as insane as I must have looked to all peering in, I was in training. I was learning how to jump into timeless dimensions through doorways in time.
On this hospital visit, I requested a single room for the first few days of my stay, so that I could shamanic journey in private when I needed to access information to make sense of the mess I was currently in. I practiced being an owl, an eagle, and a sparrow. Practicing their natures helped me see things through a larger, bird’s eye perspective, which I needed more than ever on that flight. The owl’s spirit medicine gives wisdom from warnings and prophecies in dreams, which clearly led me there once again. My eagle yoga stance helped me create a sort of invincibility barrier of protection so that the powers-that-be in that hospital would know who to leave alone. And my sparrow power animal came to me on my nature walks and showed up in some coloring pages in art therapy class. I brought them back to my 4-white-walled room to gaze upon during my stay. This communication with spirit animals strengthens the shaman on her journey providing guidance along the way and back home.
Today, after much learning and mistakes along the way, I let the inspiration hit me as it wills. Sometimes there is none. But some inspiration is reminiscent of the powerful, ecstatic rushes of days past when I couldn’t write or paint fast enough. In these states I respond to the call of my creative muses and enter ecstatic prayer and deep trances in shamanic journeying late into the night, which is a no-no amongst the psychiatric institution. But I dare to make the journey.
Connecting with my celestial, creative muses is always a private affair and when that landscape opens up, energies from the other side can communicate—whether they are my angel guardians, or bloodline ancestors, or indigenous spirits from the world of yesterday—that Holy Spirit is alive and vibrant when I enter that space with committed intention. I’ve learned for decades how to hide my inspiring moments so that I can safely access them without people thinking I am having an “episode.” And then when no one is watching, I enter my shamanic journey without fear or hesitation.
It is sad to me that the psychiatric institution does not encourage many to listen to the whispers in the wind as I have, ones that show me the way through my intuition. Some have never been led as I have by a recurring symbol in nature that warms your heart popping up again and again at just the right moment so that you finally notice that eagle soaring above you high in the clouds; or one that leads you to see a rainbow at just the right colorful angle on a sad day. Making meaning of the universe’s magnificence through symbolism is essential when one asks for inspiration from something larger than oneself. These things are what are important in life. It’s the stuff that makes all the hardship and suffering worth it.
If you were to create a system that helped you integrate and use your gifts for service what would it be? How would it work? What would it look like?
Thank you for these thoughtful questions–they’re what I long to hear. The answers to which I am currently working on with my research and writing. There are no easy answers because an alternative has never been respected or even allowed as proper “medical treatment” for mental illnesses, which have been singularly treated with pharmaceutical drugs for decades.
To begin with, in order for an alternative system to work, it needs to begin by eliminating the words “disease,” “illness,” and “disorder.” It would put the power of interpretation into the hands of the experiencer, rather than in the hands of the omniscient knower (psychiatrist). It begins with the letting go of a presupposed trust of extreme views of the mental realm, which is pushed in modern Western medicine as only biologically based, and open up the conversation to realities in other worlds or mental realms, which would explain most, if not all, extreme “mental illness” experiences. Starting from there, it would be a system that embraces healing without psychiatric meds with the assumption that people can get well and stay well from anything related to mental stress. It would provide services that encourage self-exploration, self-acceptance and creativity. From here, there’s a lot of envisioning to do…
Someone who went through a comparable healing from psychosis about a century ago was Anton Theophilus Boisen, one of the pioneers in Pastoral Psychology. Boisen suffered an acute psychotic breakdown after he was rejected by the woman he hoped to marry. Out of his experience, he concluded that there is a window of time during the course of psychosis for therapeutic intervention. He documented his research with institutionalized patients in his 1936 book, Exploration of the Inner World. Of course, Boisen wrote his book before Thorazine was discovered so most psychotics never get a chance to go through that window of self healing.
Thank you for that information. And I believe if people who experience psychosis can find a way to harness the symbols within the experience, that window would be open for a longer period of time to heal. If we were treated with dignity instead of laced on meds, we would have even more success stories. But the mental health care system does not encopurage a personal examination of the meaning of psychosis. While sometimes it feels meaningless, in time, those symbols begin to make sense if we can remain open to it without judgment.
I love what you’re saying! I’ve been thinking similar things and ultimately realizing that I haven’t been given the toolbox to be able to integrate and be of service with my gifts to the whole. Would you be open to a conversation about this? I would to throw back and fourth ideas and see if I can create something with it 🙂
Would love to chat more …it means a lot to me to build the community needed to re-envision an alternative path for mental health issues. Feel free to email me. Find my contact info on the blog homepage and scroll down to the widgets on the right side.
How often does the shamanic journeying happen to you? My sister goes through this and we are beginning to understand what it is she is going through
Thank you for inquiring for your sister because support is everything for those who experience this. Learning about this gift is a lifelong process, but in order to live within our minds, it must be loved into growing and expanding into more, not considered diseased. I have gone through many journeys I couldn’t break out of for reasons I am beginning to understand, these are the ones that unfortunately led to hospitalizations–seven in total. But in learning about grounding techniques, I regularly enter these states now, perhaps on a bi-monthly basis, but can navigate my psyche home. I’m no longer afraid of the voices because they speak through me in love. I realize that I am an empath and that these entities are loving and filled with insight and awareness, which help us exercise out intuition. In shamanic circles this is not only taken as normal, but those who have these gifts are special and honored as the healers of the tribe. Because we deny the connection to spirit in Western medicine, there are no other shamans in our culture to guide us out of the journey if we get stuck–especially in psychiatry. However, people are trying to spread the message more from indigenous cultures. I happen to study with Evan Pritchard and his books offer a lot of truths and answers to these ideas. Give him a look at: http://www.wilkesweb.us/algonquin/index.htm