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The Relationship Between Schizophrenia & Mysticism:
A Bibliographic Essay
6/92, Sandra Stahlman

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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 (eg 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 individual's lifestyle.

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.

For other 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 previously unknown.

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.

Ornstein's 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 writes:

"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 background.

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 psychogenic" (p.348).

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 prognosis.


What 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.

Peter Buckley (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.

David Lukoff 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 disorganization.

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.

Michael 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 they:
1. do not feel any greater control over their experiences than other schizophrenics;
2. do not experience a greater since of coping ability than other schizophrenics;
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 distortions;
4. experience more of a sense of sacredness or holiness;
5. are more likely to see their experiences as valid and meaningful than other schizophrenics" (pp.10-11).

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 experience.


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