We have no tradition of shamanism…of journeying into these mental worlds. We are terrified of madness. We fear it because the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of madness. – Terrence McKenna
Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. – Ronald Laing
What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke
Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. – Blaise Pascal
They say in the village that an unruly youth is asking in his own way for someone to guide him. – Malidoma Somé
I’m hoping to reframe this business of fear and denial, but I need to mention two themes first:
1 – Soon we will begin the transition to the Dark time of the year, and this will propel us directly into the absolute core of the issue: Boo! Don’t be scared! The roots of Halloween are in the profound depths of Old Europe – Samhain and All Soul’s Day. But for most Americans, it is a festival of innocent consumption, with annual spending of $5 billion.
Or perhaps we should speak of consuming innocence. Every year, millions of children confront the schizogenic double bind that utterly discounts their emotional intelligence. Boo! Scared you! Well, don’t cry, it’s only make believe! Death is everywhere but no one needs to grieve! Perhaps adults enjoy the emotional release of horror films, and yes, I’m a curmudgeon, but this is child abuse on a massive scale. Boo!
2 – As I wrote previously, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real sources of terrorism, Americans are allowed and “encouraged” to fret about issues that the media choose to present.
You want real fear? As my mother used to say, I’ll give you something to cry about! Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) implied that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union could instigate nuclear strikes without being destroyed itself. What mad genius invented that acronym! As I wrote in Chapter Eight,
…consider this 1960 statement by General Thomas Power, commander of the Strategic Air Command: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.” Was it the joke of a psychopath or cynical hyperbole deliberately intended to maximize anxiety? Or would only the former do the latter?
Apparently, the U.S. “National Security Community” is no longer afraid of nuclear war, because now they seem to believe – not just Republicans, but Democrats as well – that they can win one. Are we mad to not label these people as mad?
Or is it simply easier to manage our anxiety with Islamophobia than to ponder our own male suicidal fantasies that could destroy us all?
We are all stressed out, to be sure. Vast numbers of us are – or should be – dealing with PTSD. And thousands of the mentally ill really have been saddled with abnormal brain chemistry even before they were born. That leaves many others: the rebels, the inattentive, the under-achievers, the gang members, the white nationalists, the forty-somethings still living with their parents.
“Mad,” after all, has other meanings: angry, rabid. What if we were to think of mental illness as an unconscious attempt by a socially powerless person to unite body and feeling (or if we were to substitute “uninitiated” for “psychotic”)? Then we might see madness as an unconscious, natural (if painful and usually unsuccessful) attempt to heal oneself, to restore balance. And this, according to Malidoma Somé, is precisely the intention of ritual.
As Jung taught, the society that emphasizes extreme Apollonian, rational values and represses the Dionysian sets up a dynamic in which the god can only return in the symptoms. The return of Dionysus can appear as emotional dismemberment. For centuries of modernity, however, such experiences have typically occurred outside of any ritual containers. Schizophrenics enter liminal space alone, without guides, and receive only drugs or incarceration.
John Weir Perry saw schizophrenia as a natural renewal process. Many of his patients described visions consistent with the ancient symbolism of kingship and initiation. Joseph Campbell wrote that such fantasy “perfectly matches that of the mythological hero journey.” From this perspective, madness becomes an inward and backward process, under the dubious guidance of the mad god himself.
But we absolutely need to think mythologically, not literally. James Hillman mentioned that in historical accounts of persons who went mad but also had religious experiences, most took their revelations literally. They experienced death, apocalypse, crucifixion, sexual inversion, fertility and rebirth. A mythologist would identify all these visions as images of initiation. Those who did recover saw past the literal to the metaphoric.
But so many get stuck in what Robert Moore called “chronic liminality,” as illustrated by the myth of Ariadne. Many heroes entered the underground labyrinth, only to be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus defeated it because he had kept in contact with the world above by means of Ariadne’s thread, which enabled him to return to the light (normal consciousness). Those who have no thread of connection to community remain below in that “labyrinth of transformative space,” but only partially transformed. Later, Ariadne herself was rescued by Dionysus and became his wife.
Moore insisted that many pathological states are nothing other than failed initiations in which people could not think metaphorically. One of his clients was lucid enough to admit, “I need to die, before I kill myself.” This man knew intuitively that the most tragic of failed initiations is suicide, the heroic ego’s literal response to the symbolic challenge of transformation, and the inability to move madness into art.
“A shaman,” wrote Terrance McKenna, is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands…of years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon.”
Traditional Africans still perceive mental distress as a call for help. Indeed, madness is a sign that the community (who know nothing of “family systems therapy”) is sick. They perceive crazy people as undergoing crises resulting from the activity of spirit and protect them, hoping that their healing will benefit the community. To them, the spirits of a sick world speak through the most sensitive of us, those with the most fluid boundaries.
Malidoma Somé, an initiated elder of the Dagara people, writes that his people perceive mental disorders as spiritual crises that can potentially signal “the birth of a healer.” So this is “good news from the other world.” Beings from the other side of the veil are drawn to people whose senses have not been anesthetized, whereas modernity
…has consistently ignored the birth of the healer…Consequently, there will be a tendency from the other world to keep trying as many people as possible in an attempt to get somebody’s attention. They have to try harder…The sensitivity is pretty much read as an invitation to come in…(In the West)…it is the overload of the culture they’re in that is just wrecking them.
Through ritual, Dagara communities attempt to help such persons reconcile the energies of both worlds – “the world of the spirit that he or she is merged with, and the village…” Ideally, such persons eventually become able to serve as bridges between the worlds and assist the living as healers.
Somé utilizes spiritual terminology that we might feel a bit uncomfortable with. But in fact, many western psychologists have understood this wisdom for decades, beginning with Jung and later with Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology and Laing and the Anti-Psychiatry movement.
More recently groups such as Mad in America, the Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network, Mad Pride, Mind Freedom International, and the Network Against Psychiatric Assault emphasize social justice, patient’s rights and political action. This includes questioning the idea of “normalcy” with an alternative: “neurodiversity.”
Yes, it is possible (and necessary) for an enlightened community to enfold troubled individuals, keep them from hurting themselves, identify the sources of their distress as their innate purposes struggling to emerge, and ritually guide and welcome them as initiated members, as in the deepest sense of the word, citizens.
But this evokes deeper questions: Are there any such communities anymore? Can broken people heal others in a broken world? Can uninitiated adults initiate their youth? In a culture of madness and death, can anyone be truly healed unless everyone is? When myths change as gradually as they do, how much time do we have left? What do we do about it? How do we rise above it?
Stop. Go back.
Notice what you took from that last question. Consider that “rising above it” is often a euphemism for denying that problems even exist, or that they really affect me, and that our characteristic American practicality often propels us far too quickly from realization of the truth – and the difficult process of grieving fully – into thoughtless “action,” as I write here.
I am not suggesting that joining with likeminded people to engage in political action is wrong or ineffective. And we certainly need to invite the Other – all Others – back within the pale, both literally and metaphorically, for their good and ours. But it’s worth asking whether the Other would even want to be part of what Greg Palast has called an “armed madhouse.”
What I am suggesting is that we need to consider John Zerzan’s observation: “To assert that we can be whole/ enlightened/healed within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness.” Or as Hillman put it:
…waking up to the insanity of the way we have structured ourselves rather than doing something in the world to make a change. That’s the old-style American way: Let’s fix it! I’m not talking about fixing it. I’m talking about making a change in the mind that realizes, My God, I’m crazy!
Rather, he says, we have to develop (or re-develop what our ancestors had) an aesthetic response to the world:
Once we waken our aesthetic sense and are not an-aestheticized, as we are, by all the distractions…we would be able to see and appreciate the beauty in the world. Now the moment there’s beauty, you fall in love with beauty…and if you fall in love with something, love the world, not through Christian moralism, about “You must love the world,” or an economic one that says, “Sustainability for our own benefit, therefore we’ll live longer.” That is not it. It’s got to be something much more profound that touches the heart…if you realize that our job on the Earth is to love it, to fall in love with it…and you only fall in love with it if you’re aesthetically alive to it.
Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” May it be so. Bertolt Brecht, however, began a poem with, “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” He insisted that we break through the walls of denial, to comprehend how dreadful our plight actually is, to feel how much we have lost. Yet pessimism can create its own reality. Expecting the worst, we are very likely to find it; then hope can turn into despair. Or we can fall into a polarizing anger that replicates conventional demonization of the Other. Brecht knew this, too. In the same poem, he wrote:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh.