"Enlightenment" and Mental Illness

Ahimsananda's picture



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One of the things Spiritual Teachers and Seekers alike need to remember is that many people searching for spiritual development are trying to escape from lives that seem like nothing but trouble and strife. This frequently means people who society regard as "mentally ill".

I once saw on a spiritual website, the question "How do you tell the difference between "enlightenment" and mental illness?" It is true that some forms of schizophrenia result in a kind of inability to differentiate between one's "own" existence and others, and a kind of "no-self" perception is held. This may indeed be "enlightenment", and if it causes no pain or behavioral problems, may go unnoticed. But if a person, by living this out, comes to the attention of the authorities, they will often be thought mentally ill, and in need of psychological help. The fact is; there may be no difference between "enlightenment" and mental illness.

All my life, I have lived with what is known as Asperger's Syndrome. Now, Asperger's is not mental illness. It is in the Autistic spectrum, but undiagnosed, it often is mis-diagnosed as mental illness. Asperger's, like most autism spectrum conditions, causes social problems; inability to make friends, socially inappropriate behavior, obsessive interests in one or two, sometimes eccentric pursuits. My "obsession" has always been God and spiritual interests, even as a child. Asperger's was not unknown when I was a child, but it was not an "accepted" condition until the 1990's, so few psychologists and psychiatrists knew much, if anything, about it. I did not find out about it until I was over 60, so struggled with it, unknown, all my life. In spite of the struggle, or more likely because of it, I developed spiritually more than any other aspect of "my personality". In recent years, studies have been done with people on the Autism Spectrum, in regards to spirituality, with fascinating results. I myself, having worked with autistic people, have seen many unexpected spiritual insights.

To return to mental illness, it is important to understand that spiritual insight could be interpreted as such by those uninformed. I have seen many autistic, "mentally ill", and others "treated" rather than listened to. It is so easy to label all that are different as "disturbed" or mentally ill, rather than think that they may have a special insight, or be "open" to the "real". A perfect example is the great avatar Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna did not act in a "conventional" way. He saw visions. He jumped and shouted during worship, and even became "monkey-like" during his Hanuman "period". By today's Western standards, Ramakrishna would be considered mentally ill, maybe to the point of hospitalization!

Again, I would site Ramana Maharshi. In his teens he "viewed" his own death, was "awakened" by the experience, and went silent. He was "lost" in meditation for some time. If others had not looked after him, he could have died. This would seem like mental illness in the West, even by the standards of his own time.

Having read interviews of a number of "enlightened" teachers, I have found that many have experienced mental illness, or had alcohol or drug problems. Even without illness or substance abuse, many have had troubled lives with "addictions"
to a variety of unhealthy behaviors. These teachers very often found that a crisis, or "life shaking" event, brought about their "awakening". This is something they, and all of us must keep in our mind, especially if we presume to "teach".

As teachers, we need to be aware that for many spirituality is an escape. We must see that some seekers may indeed be mentally ill. I read just today about a young woman who sees herself as "enlightened". She has reached an intellectual understanding that she does not exist, and sees herself as one with God. She expresses that she thinks she IS God. She seems to believe this, and sees herself as "fully in control". This is the problem with telling seekers that "you already are enlightened". Spiritual "beginners" are just starting out on a journey many don't understand. The compulsion to "seek" comes before any understanding. To tell such a seeker that they are God, or that "you are already awakened", as Papaji used to do, is very dangerous. Another well known teacher told a seeker who was happily married, that there "is no doer", and no sense of responsibility for our actions. This confused the seeker, who went about behaving as he chose, engaging in sexual affairs, feeling that he had no need to worry, as there was no doer. He lost his wife, and suffered a breakdown. A true teacher will know who is serious, who is after self "enhancement", and who is mentally ill. The teaching will be tailored to the seeker.

The important thing to remember is that "enlightened" behavior is not always "normal" behavior. Those who follow their own drummer, are often outcast. Look at the Christ. He lived the truth and came smack up against authority. Today, we may not crucify the Christ, but he would surely land in a Psychiatric facility! As teachers we have to have compassion.

If your reason for teaching is anything other than compassion, then you may not be a "real" teacher. A great description of the "incarnation" of the Christ, is that God loved mankind so much, that he "became" the "object" of his love: man. Just as a "person" realizes that they are Love (the Absolute), and then is confronted with the enormity of "living that out", a teacher must realize that the "call" to teach requires him to be compassion, and to recognize each "seeker" for who they are, and what they need. Mental illness and "realization" often go hand in hand. It takes compassion to see the difference, when there is one.