on the spectrum
Yesterday I attended an online seminar on the subject The Mysticism Psychosis Continuum, hosted by ISPS-US and featuring author and social philosopher Jules Evans.
ISPS stands for the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis, and there are branches of this organisation around the world.
Jules Evans is the author of The Art of Losing Control, which I recently read and which will feature in the first book group discussion on the Mad Studies Discord forum, on Saturday 2 April at 1pm GMT.
So: what does Evans have to say about mysticism and psychosis? Essentially he posits that they lie on a spectrum, one at each end to the other. They are similar but not the same. The mystical experience places one in an ecstatic state – whether it be a positive, blissful high or a negative, terrifying low. And the psychotic experience? It lands you up in hospital, and ruins your life.
Evans accepts the diagnostic prerogatives of the medical model. He referred to a family member with bipolar disorder and to a friend with paranoid schizophrenia. These categorisations seem to be set to one side, but never explored fully. It's as though an invisible line has been drawn, between good crazy and bad crazy. Good crazy involves religious rapture, psychedelic exploration, deep meditation and sexual passion; bad crazy involves hospitals and meds and a life gone awry.
I suppose my main critique of his thesis, and of the book, are that he seems to privilege loss-of-control experiences that are kept under control, and which avoid really losing control. Ultimately Evans wants to stay within the confines of the consensual. I don't blame him: stepping beyond the consensual risks getting locked up. He is venturing into this intellectually but stays firmly positioned in the land of the sane. The framework of a spectrum allows for a distance to be kept between the casual explorer and the earnest nutjob.
What if mysticism and psychosis are not on a continuum, but rather two aspects of the same type of experience? We understand so little about how our minds create our reality, how can we be so certain that one ecstatic experience is spiritual while the other is medical?
I can only speak for myself, and for my own experience. I've been diagnosed by the psychiatric establishment, and labelled as bipolar. (I'm still not convinced: me? Voted 'most level-headed' in my high school class? Bipolar??) And I take meds, in order to keep myself here in the consensual space where my friends and loved ones can meet me most easily. This aspect of the world is just as deeply important to me as the one I experienced when I was psychotic. But that's not to say that this consensual space is a more real reality. When my mind shifted its perspective I experienced a different aspect of reality – reality all the same. As real as anything else I've experienced. And don't ask me how: I don't fucking know. Can you prove your own experience of reality?
Maybe someday our society will make room for these ideas, and allow people to experience what they will, without fearing it and stifling it and demanding that it be kept safe from itself. Until then, we do what we can to open up the dialogue. For bringing these discussions into an online forum, and for publishing his ponderings, I am grateful to Jules Evans. I just wonder where they would lead if he actually lost control.
( Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash )