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The Relationship Between
~ Sandra Stahlman, June 1992
Schizophrenia & Mysticism:
The nature of schizophrenia, and other forms of psychosis, is still
under debate and a significant issue is the relationship between psychosis and
the mystical, or religious, experience. Throughout history this question has
been addressed by scholars from all fields of inquiry. Currently, psychologists
are looking at the similarities and differences between the experiences, hoping
to shed light on the nature, process, and treatment of psychosis. I was curious
to see what has been discovered.
The information available on mystical
experience and psychotic episodes seems limitless. This paper will focus on the
current psychological perspective which examines mystical and psychotic
experiences as a natural, universal phenomena. This is not a new idea; however,
specific to recent research is its objective, systematic nature. Looking to
define both in value-neutral, experiential terms, psychologists are scrutinizing
the biological, psychological, and behavioral correlates of the two experiences,
combining information from ongoing measurement and personal interviews and the
body of knowledge available from philosophy and the study of religion.
In order to discover the relationship between mystical experience and
psychosis, analysis must first be directed at defining each individually.
Therefore I present not only a review of the current psychological research
regarding this relationship, but also a look at theories addressing the
questions "what is a mystical experience?" and "what is psychosis?"
One topic scholars agree on is the need for a
formal definition of mystical experience; they intend to determine the
characteristics common to all descriptions of mystical experience, and have this
be a "working definition" for present research. In this manner, studies can be
related simply and without confusion of terms. Authors of the material I
reviewed began discussion with their definition of mystical experience; the
following characteristics emerged repeatedly as each author attempts to define
mystical experience: experience of unity, intense affective experience,
time/space distortion, noetic quality, ineffability, and a sense of holiness or
sacredness. In addition, the authors generally included the concept of
universality in their definitions. There are aspects of the definition which
scholars are not able to agree on; however, the recent development of tools of
measurement (e.g. scales, questionnaires) may be able to provide information to
help answer such questions.
During the early 1900's, William James wrote
about the idea of a spectrum - or continuum - of mystical states of
consciousness ranging from the non-religious to the most religiously profound
(James, 1985). Beginning with the "simplest" sort of mystical experience, James
notes the strong sense of significance and knowledge associated with the
experience, its "noetic" quality. It is one of four qualities that James uses to
define mystical states of consciousness. "Ineffable" is another characteristic
which marks an experience as mystical; the experience defies expression. Due to
its subjective nature, the experience is much like states of feeling. James
asserts that these two qualities "entitle any state to be called mystical"
(p.302). However, there are other qualities usually associated with the
experience. He explains that the experiences are generally transient. Fading
quickly, it is hard to recall the quality of the experience in memory; they
remain just out of reach. But, some memory content always remains, and this can
be used to "modify the inner life of the subject between the time of their
recurrence" (p.303). When having a mystical experience, however, individuals do
not seem to actively process the information. Instead it is a passive experience
- James' fourth characteristic mark. Even though people actively study and/or
practice techniques to produce mystical states of consciousness, once occurring,
the experience seems to happen without their will.
Later, James goes on
to suggest that these experiences occur as our "field of consciousness"
increases (James, 1980). One can assert these "simple" experiences connote a
slight widening of this field, whereas the more profound experiences come when
consciousness expands to include items usually filtered, hidden, or just out of
reach. Such could include memories and sensations. As awareness increases to
include more external and internal information, a sense of self, a boundary
between self and environment, expands, seems to dissipate. The experience is one
of unity with information formerly defined as non-self. This expansion of the
self, often referred to as loss of self, may not be beneficial for someone who
does not have a "strong" sense of self to begin with. To these people, a
mystical experience can be frightening and confusing, to say the least.
In his earlier writings, James refers to "diabolic" mysticism (p.337).
Half of mysticism, he explains, is not a religious mysticism, but cases where
"mystical ideas" are seen as symptoms of insanity. He refers to these as "lower
mysticisms," springing forth from the same psychological mechanisms as the
classic, religious sort. However, the messages and emotions are experienced as
negative. This idea does not combine well with his proposed spectrum of mystical
states of consciousness, where simple experiences are also referred to as
non-religious, but are not accompanied by negative affect. James reconciles the
difference, and concludes that the definition of mystical states must be
value-neutral. All mystical experience, he writes, whether experienced as
positive or negative, deserves recognition as available states of consciousness.
He ends debate over which is a superior form of consciousness; instead he
suggests that, like our rational states, mystical states encompass both truth
and deception, pleasure and pain.
In the essay "Religious Aspects of
Peak-Experiences" (1970), Abraham Maslow uses the term "peak-experiences" to
encompass the spectrum of mystical states of consciousness. He wishes to
secularize the experience because he feels the phrase "mystical" has taken on
purely religious connotations. To define peak-experiences, Maslow presents a
list of characteristics which encompass all varieties of peak-experience. He
describes how the experience tends to be unifying, noetic, ego-transcending; it
gives a sense of purpose to the individual, a sense of integration.
Addressing the concepts "unifying" and "ego-transcending" seems vital
because the sorts of phrases turn up again and again in literature on mysticism.
F.C. Happold (1975) writes "unless the idea of non-duality can be grasped the
range of mystical experience is incomprehensible" (p.71). "Duality" describes
the manner in which we usually perceive our self in relation to the environment.
A division of "self" and "other" occurs. "Ego" can be used to refer to that self
which we are aware of. What happens during a mystical experience has been
described as transcending this ego, or going through a process of temporary
"ego-loss." As multiplicity ceases, the experience is of a mode of consciousness
often referred to as "the One."
The notion of the One is integrated into
many cultures; religious traditions and ceremonies often focus on the
culmination of this experience of transcendence. As the experience closes, it is
subsequently interpreted by the individual's personal ideology. It follows that
if this ideology is religious, the experience will be interpreted as such.
Conversely, if the individual does not hold any religious ideology, the
experience will be interpreted with non-religious connotations. But, why did the
experience come under a religious framework in the first place. What about the
mystical experience is religious? Andrew Greeley (1974) expresses with great
emotion that the underlying message of the mystics' accounts is that "love" is
at the core of the universe (p.79). Accompanying the mystical experience is
often extreme joy, or exultation. Mystics often describe feeling so wonderful,
that they later conclude it was the working of a higher force. Sometimes the
experience is so emotionally overwhelming that it completely alters the
However, throughout history, there are accounts
of mystical experiences which are accompanied by strong negative emotions - the
diabolic mysticism James wrote of. Later James concludes that both positive and
negative forces must exist in the mystical realm. These negative forces were
commonly assumed to be demons, or the devil. This is how they were interpreted.
Could it be then, that insanity is the current interpretation of "negative"
mystical experiences? It would be difficult for a mystic to integrate into a
society which held no such role. Are some of the insane actually mystics? As I
will describe in detail later, there are now diagnostic questionnaires which
doctors can use to determine if an experience is, by definition, mystical.
Kenneth Wapnick (1980) explains that mystics tend to follow a very
structured, common process, culminating with the mystical experience. He refers
to an outline of this process created by Underhill in 1961, in which the mystic
moves from "an awakening of self" (p.323) to the purgation of attachments to the
social world and the self, resulting in an experience of "a state of pure
consciousness, in which the individual experiences nothing" (p.324). Wapnick has
added a final "step" to Underhill's outline; most mystics happily and
successfully reintegrate into the world of social attachments. Wapnick points
out that it is attachment to the social world that trained mystics renounce
through their process, not the social world itself. Many individuals devote
their lives to cultivating a mystical experience; methods of meditation, ritual,
and dance - for example - are used to induce transcendence.
individuals, the experience occurs spontaneously, in seemingly any situation,
with religious or non-religious connotations. Andrew Greeley, a priest and
author, is one of many scholars who have conducted a "census" survey to
determine what portion of the US population report having had a mystical
experience. His preliminary finding show that a substantial percent have had the
experience. He notes that they range from mild to intense, rare to frequent.
Greeley defines the experience as "something like Maslow's peak-experience, that
is, a feeling of intense unity with the universe and of one's place within that
unity" (p.12). He stresses that mystics describe the experience as more of an
experience of cognition than of feeling; the mystic comes to know something
Raymond Prince (1979) discusses four other
population surveys regarding mystical experience. All four discovered that
20-40% of those surveyed report a mystical or religious experience. Some
respondents did not know the concept of mystical experience, yet fulfilled
requirements. Findings show that the experience is more common when the
individual is in good mental health. Scholars maintain that these percentages,
along with cross-cultural evidence, warrant considering mystical experience a
universally occurring natural phenomenon.
Universality of the mystical
experience is addressed Robert Ornstein (1977). He explains that all individuals
have access to knowledge beyond the intellectual sort, knowledge that is often
ignored in our culture. Ornstein supplies many example of this knowledge -
creative wisdom and insight from dreams, body temperature patterns, chemical
reactions on a cellular level, and he postulates there are many forms of
information we are as yet oblivious to. He asserts that we are equipped with the
"tools" to access both the realms of rationality and intuition. Ornstein
presents a chronicle of the definition of consciousness throughout history. He
stresses the dialectic of theories, which tend to describe two polar facets of
consciousness, the rational and intuitive modes of operation. He suggests we
follow a lesson found cross-culturally: the most effective mode of operation
appears to be one that synthesizes the two ways of engaging the world.
Deikman's essays (1980) describe the process of "deautomatization," in
which "active" information-limiting processes which filter and analyze give way
to a "receptive" mode. Deikman refers to this process as "perceptual expansion;"
awareness includes stimuli which are usually filtered or repressed, such as our
own electrochemical processes. As such information-limiting processes are
deautomatized, boundaries of self expand to include a wide source of knowledge
previously withheld from conscious awareness - information we (our unconscious
processes) would "normally" filter from awareness. In the receptive mode we are
able to see the greater picture, as systems to discriminate and categorize are
reduced to a minimum. We are able to reconcile difference, as paradox is
tolerable. We are open to creative knowledge. Deikman applies this principal to
the unusual sensations which accompany the mystical experience. In such
instances, he stresses, it is the mode of perception which has changed, not the
external stimuli themselves. Consider the experience of time. Perceptually, a
minute can seem fleeting, or appear to drag incessantly; but, "normal" clock
time would be identical in both cases.
Robert Ornstein's discussion of
"reality" and what is considered "normal" consciousness raises an important
issue, especially as it relates to mental health. He explains that normal
reality is a consciousness which can be shown (through sensory experimentation,
for example) to be a constructed reality; in order to create a stable,
manageable environment, a sensory-filtering system develops from childhood and
continually shaped by subsequent situations. What is experienced as reality,
Ornstein explains, is actually only a representation. If "normal" consciousness
is created, he concludes, then this consciousness may be altered simply by
changing the manner of it construction. The mystical experience can be seen as a
transcendence of normal consciousness and reintegration; the knowledge gained
from the experience offers beneficial growth-potential.
point-of-view exemplifies the style, or manner, in which the subject of
mysticism has come to be studied. By describing the experience using neutral,
bio-psychological terms, scholars such as Ornstein and the others I have
referred to enable mystical experience to be studied as a universal - and not
necessarily religious - experience of consciousness. This is essential to an
accurate examination of the similarities and differences between mystical
experience and psychosis.
David Lukoff (1985)
speaks of the criteria which must be met to acquire the label "psychotic." He
"The phenomenology (imagery, cognitions) of the psychotic
condition shares many characteristics with dream experiences (Hall,1977),
hallucinogenic drug trips (Kleinman et al,1977), spiritual awakenings
(Assigioli, 1981), near death experiences (Grof & Grof,1980) and shamanic
experiences (Halifax, 1979). The fantastic or bizarre content of reported
experiences is not sufficient indication that a person is psychotic" (p.162).
What does indicate psychosis? Lukoff explains that doctors must decide
whether or not the patient's cognitions are "understandable." Psychotics are
individuals whose inner workings are not comprehensible. In addition, doctors
look to see if the patient is able to function in everyday life; do they possess
common sense? "Psychosis is considered a disruption to the normal functioning of
consciousness," explains Lukoff.
R.D. Laing (1967) criticizes this
method of diagnosis. In his book, The Politics of Experience, Laing points out
that the decision is wholly subjective on the part of the doctor. He fears that
physicians do not actively attempt to understand patients' communications, and
meanings and connections are missed - although they do exist from the
perspective of the patient. Laing supports the opinion that you cannot possibly
understand the inner mind of an individual if you do not know his or her
A college-level textbook, Abnormal Psychology: Current
Perspectives, defines psychosis as a class of psychological disorders in which
"reality contact" is "radically impaired" (p.348). The authors explain reality
contact as the capacity to perceive, process and respond to stimuli in an
adaptive manner. The text explains that psychoses can be classified as biogenic
or functional. The biogenic psychoses are those associated with known physical
causes. With functional psychoses, on the other hand, no physical cause can be
clearly identified; thus, the basis of the psychoses may be "at least partly
The functional psychoses are divided into three
categories: mood disorders, schizophrenia, and the delusional disorders. Mood
disturbances are disorders of affect; schizophrenic and delusional disorders are
considered to be disorders of thought (p.384). Disorders of affect and thought
are explained in greater detail in S. Epstein's article "Natural Healing
Processes of the Mind: Acute Schizophrenic Disorganization" (1979). Epstein
describes two common symptoms of impaired cognitive functioning: a loss of
integrative capacity and lower perceptual systems. With the loss of integrative
capacity, the ability to make inferences about size, distance, depth, and other
relational cues break down. Perceptual sensations become distorted as the
performance of the lower order functions becomes impaired. Epstein explains that
"when there is a partial breakdown of cortical control, the individual tends to
experience current situations with a sharpened intensity" (p.318). Such
heightened intensity of perceptions can be explained by the lack of
organizational capacity. Epstein notes that:
"This, together with a
release from inhibition of repressed memories and impulses, confronts the
individual with the raw data of new experiences and with unassimilated old
experiences that can no longer be ignored, and that can now be experienced
uninfluenced by the biasing lenses of the old conceptual system [ego]. The
weakened inhibitory control may also foster abreaction. The overall process
provides an unusual opportunity for new learning and the assimilation of old
learning to occur" (p.318).
However, Epstein cautions, whereas it is
evident that acute schizophrenic disorganization can be beneficial, this growth
potential is not characteristic of the whole range of psychosis; it is usually
limited to psychotic episodes which come on quickly, are precipitated by a
stress-inducing event, and last only for a short time ("acute"). The level of
everyday functioning before psychosis is also a good indication of the
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MYSTICISM AND PSYCHOSIS
does the research I reviewed say about the relationship between mystical
experience and psychotic episodes? The majority of scholars come to conclude
that mystical experience and psychosis are both examples of naturally available,
altered states of consciousness. Investigations explore the "location" of these
experiences within the range of altered states of consciousness. Efforts are
being concentrated on designing measurements systems to determine the
characteristics which distinguish the two experiences.
(1981) presents findings from an examination of reports of mystical experiences
and episodes of acute psychosis. The purpose of his study is to see what is the
relationship between the two experiences, as there are many evident
similarities. Buckley writes,
"The appearance of a powerful sense of
noesis, heightening of perception, feelings of 'communion' with the 'divine',
and the exultation may be common to both. The disruption of thought seen in
acute psychosis is not a component of the accounts of mystical experience
reviewed by the author, and auditory hallucinations are less common than visual
hallucinations in the mystical experience" (p.516).
Buckley goes on to
suggest that the two experiences are both elements of a "limited repertoire of
response within the nervous system for an altered state experience" (p.516) --
similar, but distinct elements.
Delving further into the relationship,
Buckley notes that one subtype of schizophrenia is less distinct from mystical
experience. He explains that Schizophreniform Psychosis episodes are generally
without auditory hallucinations, delusions, or impaired social relations. In
addition, the episodes are generally brief, like the mystical experience. Other
forms of schizophrenia, in contrast, may last for great lengths of time. Buckley
explains that schizophreniform psychoses are believed to be "a variant of the
affective disorders" (p.520). He suggests that what acute psychosis and mystical
experience share "is simply and ecstatic affective change which imbues
perception with an increased intensity" (p.520). Note that the term "acute"
describe brief psychotic episodes with a very short onset.
defends a similar position in his article "" when he criticizes the DSM-III-R, a
diagnostic system used nationwide by psychiatrists. Specifically he proposes a
change in the classification of psychotic episodes; he has designed - within the
system's guidelines - a new diagnostic category. MEPF for short, a Mystical
Experience With Psychotic Features would be a distinct category within the
DSM-III-R. Lukoff argues that the current version of the DSM does not
distinguish psychotic episodes which have a positive outcome. Lukoff explains
that these episodes are brief, come on quickly (acute), and often result in
"improvements in the individual's functioning" (p.157); Lukoff believes they
should be categorized and treated differently from psychotic episodes which
"indicate mental disorder" (p.157).
Lukoff proceeds under the assumption
that there are mystical experiences, psychotic episodes, mystical experiences
with psychotic features, and psychotic disorders with mystical features. Lukoff
explains that MEPF would describe "the presence of the psychotic state during an
essentially religious experience" (p.166). Three criteria for the MEPF are: an
overlap with mystical experience, positive outcome likely, and low-risk - an
"exclusionary criterion" to be implemented "only if the danger seems immediate
and severe" (p.171). Five categories define the overlap with mystical
experience: ecstatic mood, sense of newly-gained knowledge, perceptual
alterations, delusions (if present) have themes related to mythology, and
finally, no conceptual disorganization is apparent. In addition, two of the
following must be present to fulfill the positive outcome likely criteria: good
pre-episode functioning, acute onset of symptoms during 3 months or less, a
stressful precipitant to the episode, and a positive attitude towards the
experience. If these criteria are met, MEPF would be the diagnostic category to
use. It would be assumed that the experience will be relatively brief, and
beneficial (assist growth). The treatment would differ from the other psychoses,
where persistent conceptual disorganization and successful reintegration into
society is unlikely.
Lukoff presents an example case study. In addition,
he supplies references to scales and tests which may be used to make a diagnosis
of MEPF. For example, he suggests a scale and interview created by N. Andreasen
(1979) which can help determine if conceptual disorganization is present;
because, Lukoff notes, that bizarre speech does not always indicate
Questionnaires and scales can yield a wealth of
information if administered in a precise manner. Hood and Morris (1981) created
the Mystical Experience Questionnaire. It was a culmination of "the major
component criteria common in empirical studies of mysticism" (p.77). The
questionnaire items were derived from the "research of Brown, Spilka, and
Cassidy (1978), Greeley (1974), and Hood (1975)" (p.77). Examining these
sources, I found that they all were in turn, based upon the research of Stace.
In 1960, Stace created categories to distinguish the "core" mystical experience.
First Stace differentiates between "introvertive" and "extrovertive" mystical
experience, the extrovertive being "on a lower level than the introvertive
type...a partly realized tendency to unity which the introvertive kind
completely realizes" (Stace,1960,p.132). Next, examining the reports of mystics,
he generates two lists of common "core" characteristics, one for each type -
introvertive or extrovertive. Characteristics include: unity, noesis, disregard
of logic, bliss, sacredness, paradox, and ineffability. The Hood and Morris 1981
questionnaire is based largely upon Stace's conceptualizations.
Siglag administered the Hood and Morris questionnaire to seventy-five
schizophrenic adult inpatients. He describes the research in "Schizophrenic and
Mystical Experiences: Similarities and Differences" (Siglag, 1987). Participants
were chosen from a cross-section of socioeconomic status, ethnic groups and
religious orientations (p.2). Among their initial hypothesis was a prediction
that one-third of the questioned schizophrenics would respond positively to
having had a mystical experience; in addition, those who respond positively will
score equal to or greater than "schizophrenic subjects who do not claim mystical
experience, on the questionnaire's factors measure experience of unity, affect,
time/space distortion, and noesis.
Siglag tells us that 52% of the
schizophrenic respondents reported having a mystical experience, "supporting the
idea that the schizophrenic population perceive themselves as having mystical
experience at least as often as individuals in nonschizophrenic populations"
(p.4). In addition they scored significantly above those schizophrenic that did
not report a mystical experience as hypothesized. Data analysis lead Siglag to
the following conclusions:
"Schizophrenic individuals who claim to have
had a mystical experience are similar to other schizophrenic individuals in that
1. do not feel any greater control over their experiences than other
2. do not experience a greater since of coping ability than
3. do not experience any more improvement in their
relationships than other schizophrenics;
4. experience terror, fear,
depression, and a sense of insecurity.
Schizophrenic individuals who
claim to have had a mystical experience differ from other schizophrenic
individuals in that they:
1. are more likely to have experienced a sense of
unity, oneness, or connectedness in the world;
2. report more of a range of
affective experiences, and are more likely to have experienced joyful, peaceful
states of consciousness;
3. are more likely to report time-space
4. experience more of a sense of sacredness or holiness;
are more likely to see their experiences as valid and meaningful than other
Siglag explains the implications of such
findings; if it could be determined which patients were involved in the mystical
process as well as the psychosis, therapy could be directed at integration of
the "knowledge" acquired - utilizing the growth-potential of the mystical
Andreasen, N. "The Clinical Assessment of Thought, Language and Conceptual
Disorders." Archives of General Psychiatry, 36; 1979: 1325-1330.
Bootzin, Richard R. and John Ross Acocella. Abnormal Psychology: Current
Perspectives (5th edition). Random House: New York, 1988.
Brown, G.A, B.
Spilka, and S. Cassidy. "The Structure of Mystical Experience and Pre- and Post
Experience Lifestyle correlates." Presented at the Convention for the Scientific
Study of Religion. Hartford, CT. October 7, 1978.
"Mystical Experience and Schizophrenia." Schizophrenia Bulletin, 7; 1981:
Deikman, A. "Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience."
Understanding Mysticism. Image Books: Garden City, 1980
"Bimodal Consciousness and the Mystic Experience." Understanding Mysticism.
Image Books: Garden City, 1980.
Epstein, A. "Natural Healing Processes
of the Mind: I. Acute Schizophrenic Disorganization." Schizophrenia Bulletin, 5;
Greeley, Andrew M. Ecstasy A Way of Knowing. A Spectrum Book:
Englewood Cliffs, 1974
Happold, F.C. Mysticism: A Study and Anthology.
Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1975.
Hood, Jr, Ralph W.
"The Construction and Preliminary Validation of a Measure of Reported Mystical
Experience. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 14; 1975: 29-41.
Jr, Ralph W. and Ronald J. Morris. "Knowledge and Experience Criteria in the
Report of Mystical Experience." Review of Religious Research, 23; 1981: 76-85.
William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Harvard University Press:
James, William. "A Suggestion about Mysticism." Understanding
Mysticism. Image Books: Garden City, 1980.
Laing, R.D. The Politics of
Experience. Pantheon Books: New York, 1967.
"The Diagnosis of Mystical Experience With Psychotic Features." Journal of
Transpersonal Psychology, 17; 1985: 155-181.
"Religious Aspects of peak-experiences." Personality and Religion. Harper &
Row: New York, 1970.
Ornstein, Robert E. The Psychology of Consciousness. Harcourt
Brace Joavonovich, Inc.: New York, 1977.
Prince, Raymond. "Religious
Experience and Psychosis." Journal of Altered States of Consciousness, 5; 1979:
Siglag, Michael A. "Schizophrenic and Mystical Experiences:
Similarities and Differences." Presented at the 95th Annual Convention of the
American Psychological Association. New York, NY. August 30, 1987.
Stace, W.T. Mysticism and Philosophy. J.B. Lippincott Company:
Wapnick, Kenneth. "Mysticism and Schizophrenia." Understanding
Mysticism. Image Books: Garden City, 1980.
*Update*In 1994, a new diagnostic category (V62.89 "Religious or
Spiritual Problem") was added to the 4th Edition of the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual (the DSM-IV). Based upon the work of David Lukoff, Robert
Turner, and Francis Lu, this new category provides guidance to the psychiatric
community in properly diagnosing psychospiritual problems and improving
A full definition of the diagnostic category, and the history
of its proposal, can be obtained from David Lukoff's From
Spiritual Emergency to Spiritual Problem: The Transpersonal Roots of the New
(Written with the assistance of Th. Emil Homerin, Professor and Chair,
Rochester Department of Religion and Classics.)
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