But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Origin of My Interest in Early Christian Psychology

If you read my blogged essays in sequence, you have probably guessed by now that I live with a bipolar challenge myself. My interest in the early Christians relates to my first hypermanic episode I had at the age of thirty-seven. During my recovery, still hanging onto some delusional schemes, one of the things I could not get my head around was the quasi-religious content of much of the phantasms during the two months that I was out of service. The auto-suggestions, which now looked idiotic and frightening to my intellect, because surely I was out of control, came seemingly out of nowhere. I was religion-free. Prior to the transport, I had no history either of involvement with a church or intellectual interest in religious texts. Throughout my life I have been a voracious reader, in history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and good fiction. Before the onset of acute bipolarity I did not read in religious studies. Other than the Bible, which I read with Isaac Asimov’s ‘Guide’ as a historical document, maybe the only two authors that had remotely to do with religious ideas were T.D. Suzuki and Alan Watts. Oh yes, one more. Once, when I forgot to pack a book or two to read on a 6-hour flight I picked up ‘Holy Blood Holy Grail’ in an airport bookstore. It looked like the only eligible title among the Harlequins, Micheners, Get-Rich-Quick-manuals, Hollywood biographies, diet scams and other assorted trash. Actually, I don’t know why went for the Baigent crew title. Maybe because it was a bestseller; maybe because I thought it was a comedy like Monty Python’s.

After my episode, I saw four psychiatrists. None of them wanted to discuss anything that was important to me. I had the strangest bodily feelings during the episode; at one point, during the peak of the euphoric excitement my body filled with light and dissolved, as it were; it was the most incredible thing I ever experienced. I wanted to remember that state. I was afraid of losing the memory of being like that. That fear was as strong as that of reliving the horrors the brain produced after the sea of light that poured into my body out of nowhere. One of the shrinks I saw said he could not help me with that. (Actually, he could have by explaining to me terms like 'photism' and 'synaesthesia'.) He told me that whatever I thought and felt during the feverish days was not at all important. ‘You will acknowledge it yourself once you get better’, he said. Get better ?, I thought, ….bud, you wouldn’t listen but have come down from getting the best. I have seen the world to come. What do you think you can give me to help me get better?? The idea that I could be restored by a cocktail of poisons to myself – not just to some sad joke of me as a briefcase-toting executive zombie - was absurd. It was more absurd than that God himself sent a Spirit to save the world from destroying itself, and then left me to witness its collapse, after being jeered at, spat upon and flogged by everyone’s stupid ego, including my own, and leaving me to my own devices to deal with the shame and confusion, in the aftermath.

I felt I needed to hang on. Hang on to whatever it was that hit. In the deepest recesses of me I felt there was something in that sudden shattering of the world I thought I knew. I was still crazy as a bedbug. Even after I cleaned my place of the witness of my phantasms, I wanted to remember everything. I believed. I had to believe this was not just a random thing, not just the creepy idiocies which appear as soon as you open your mouth about your visions or try to put them down on paper. There's got be some sense in this nonsense.

I remember one of those dreadful panic attacks that threatened to kill me in those weeks. An indescribable fear descended on me and sent me into a frenzy. I was walking past a bookstore when another huge premonition of the End arrived. I stumbled in and fighting the paralysis the fear sent into my limbs I started to pull out books at random from a shelf. Then my eyes fell on Susan Sonntag’s I, etcetera. Trying to steady my shaking hand, I parsed the sleeve. There was a quote from Nietzsche: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Immediately relieved and resolved to find strength to live through the terror and the perplex, I walked out of the store with the prized promise. A few steps down the street a store clerk caught up with me: ‘are you going to pay for the book ?’ Here is a confession: for a long time I believed that I was actually led to enter the store to find the relief in on the sleeve of that particular book. Yet, it was the paranoid thought process insisting that reality was being pre-arranged with myself as a focal point of God’s attention that not only sent me into paroxysms of terror but also provided the relief and the growing confidence that I can cope with my predicament and cope without drugs. Strange mess I was in. A few days later while taking bath I suddenly realized that Nietzsche, for all his wisdom, ended up in a lunatic asylum. I jumped out of the water. For ten minutes of eternity I could not find my breath.

The last of the psychiatrists to whom I was referred after the initial diagnosis at a clinic near Montreal General, was actually a likeable fellow. I will call him Dennis here. In his forties, tall and balding, he had a cheerful disposition. He knew how to turn on a confident grin, which I am sure, was disarming to most of his female patients. ‘So, you are a computer programmer’, he grinned after he’s taken down my story, ‘got the bug, worked nights and could not sleep…waking up in the middle of the night with some bright new coding solution to an intractable problem, eh….then went kind of depressed and couldn’t get it up, ….and then had a mystical experience,… who was in it ? Boddhisatva ? Come here, I’ll show you something…’. He launched from his swivel chair and opened up a drawer of one of his filing cabinets. ‘Oh come, come , you want to see this!’ I got up, and he began rifling through his files. ‘Here’s one,’ he said and pulled up a folder half way. ‘Don’t look at the name tags, I am trusting you….another one……m m m m, where are they ? Here my friend is another..here and here and here.... These are my programmers, all of them. Call it the hazard of the profession. They gave me pretty much the same story as you did, they got the bug, forgot to nap and their brain chemicals went out of whack. No problem, we know how to fix that’. Dennis pushed down the folders, theatrically slammed the metal drawer, and seated himself breaking eye contact.

I sat down and said, ‘Jesus’. ‘Sorry, what was that ?’, asked Dennis who was jotting something important into my file. ‘You asked me who was in my mystical experience’, I said. ‘Yes, yes, of course !’, he finished writing and started explaining that these things, (the mystical experiences which some manics have), are culturally conditioned. People who are Christians will have Jesus in them, Jews their prophet of choice, Buddhists Buddha, Moslems he never treated but he felt sure they had Mohammed in them. ‘But I am not religious,… normally’, I countered, but already began to mess things up. A debate ensued in which Dennis determined that my mother was a Catholic like his, and therefore I had somewhere in my head stored up the Jesus lore from my childhood, which bubbled up during the episode of excitement. ‘Did you actually see Jesus ?’, Dennis asked with what felt like a sly intent. I resented the patronizing tone, and his utter lack of ability to connect on a human level with whatever it was that made me come to him. The same thing as with the other shrinks. ‘No it was not like seeing a person’, I was perplexed again, trying to explain my exile from right reason, ‘it’s nothing like that. It’s more like a strange presence that kind of gets hold of you’. Dennis went on poking: ‘well did this presence which you say was Jesus, …did it talk to you ? Did you hear his voice ? Again, I tried to assure him that I did not hallucinate a color print of a blond-hair guy with a nimbus around his head, a lamb in his arms, and a puzzled facial expression. Not that. I remembered having both visual and auditory hallucinations during the episode. Jesus was not in them. After a few days of excitement , I sometimes felt I was awake and dreaming at the same time. I tried to explain the in-and-out somnambulist state into which I had sank in place of the normal cycle of sleep and wakefulness, and how unreal it felt. It was like being in another world. But Dennis was not into it. He assured himself that Jesus left my skull, leaving my cognitive gear relatively intact. He asked me if I lost any weight. I told him I lost a lot through the two months of the ecstatic ordeal, but that I was more less eating normally now. How much is a lot ? Twenty pounds ? Dennis raised his eyebrows. Well, I replied, I haven’t weighed myself but all my clothing seems three sizes bigger, and I still forget to eat at times. ‘Forget,… you still forget’, he muttered back. He shook his head sizing me as post-psychotic but still quite vulnerable . A mood stabilizing medication was in his opinion necessary. I looked depressed to him. My response was that I was going to think about it. When I saw him next time he was displeased with my decision and said he really could not do much for me.

Many years later, I recalled my difficulty in giving Dennis a coherent account of the headspace which at the time freely associated my strange and different way of interacting with the world with the name Jesus. In a book comparing the experiences of the prophet Mohammed and Teresa of Avila (Maxine Rodinson: Mohammed) the Carmelite nun was asked by her confessor to explain her visions. She said she sees nothing during her mystical union with Christ. 'Since you see nothing', asked her confessor incredulously, 'how do you know it is Our Lord' ? She replied that she saw no face, that she knew it was Our Lord and it was not an illusion....'one sees nothing, within or without...but while seeing nothing the soul understands what it is and where it is more clearly than if you saw him....The soul hears no word, either within or without, but understands quite clearly who it is and where he is and sometimes even what he means to tell. How and by what means [the soul] understands, it does not know, but so it is; and while this is happening it cannot fail to know it'

The Psychiatrist Who Helped

Finally, I did find a psychiatrist who answered many of my questions. He was from Montreal, which was coincidence I took as one of those confirmations there was some kind of Providential plan in all of my psycho extracurriculars. Actually, doctor Bucke was dead at the time I contacted him, having slipped on ice and succumbed to his brain injury back in 1902, many years before my own little brain figured out how the wet breast connected to the cooing noises above . It was Richard Maurice Bucke’s seminal work ‘Cosmic Consciousness’ which was the lithium I was looking for. Dr. Bucke believed that human mind was fast evolving, and that the great mystical experiences of such religious founders as Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and great minds like Dante, Francis Bacon (who he believed wrote the Shakespeare plays and poems), Blaise Pascal, Spinoza, William Blake, Swedenborg, Diderot, as well as many of Bucke’s contemporaries, had the advance spiritual faculty which manifested itself as a sort of peak experience of cosmic gnosis, which eventually will be made available to the masses at large.

The book helped to put me on the right track. First, of course, I was greatly relieved I was not judged insane by this doctor. He evidently did not think me too conceited in claiming I had Cosmic Consciousness since, evidently this thing was now made available to fairly ordinary eccentrics like myself. Some people may shake their heads on reading this, but they do not realize how important it is to someone who had the familiarity of the frightful thing of falling into the hands of the living God (Hbr 10:31). One is looking to find a workable external view to make sense of the experience. It just won’t do to say, ‘ don’t worry about it, take the meds and you will be ok. Think of it just like any other illness.’ Because, it is not like any other illness – this one is about who you are, and how you feel about yourself, and how people react socially to what you supply to them as your self-image. You need to integrate this experience because you own it: it is yours to figure out, because if you don't it will figure you out. Just like Thomas said in his gospel: Blessed the lion whom the man eats for the man will be like a lion, and cursed the man whom the lion eats for the lion will be like a man. (IOW, if you master the experience of madness, you will be empowered by it, but if it allow it to overtake you, you will be reduced to beastliness).

Bucke wrote: ‘it seems that every, or nearly every, man who enters into cosmic consciousness apprehension is at first more or less excited; the person doubting whether the new sense may not be a symptom or form of insanity. Mohammed was greatly alarmed. I think it is clear that Paul was, and others to be mentioned further were similarly affected’. Bucke uncompromisingly endorsed the experience of cosmic consciousness: ‘the masters taught by it, and the rest of the world by them through their books , followers and disciples, so that id what is here called a form of insanity, we are confronted by the terrible fact (were it not an absurdity) that our civilisation, including all our highest religions, rest on delusions.’
Naturally, today I can tell you that Bucke’s ideas are dated, and that he as a psychiatrist was behind in the study of what in his time was known as ‘circular insanity’. (as discussed e.g. by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, which came out some six years before Bucke’s book. ) They more or less follow the intellectual preoccupation of his time in which nearly everyone believed in eugenics as a way of improving the lot of humanity. This was as true of the racial theories on the Right, that spawned Hitler’s tutors like Count Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, as of the communist Nirvana on the Left. Trotsky famously promised that socialism would breed, in a few generations, men with the body of Spartacus and the mind of Aristotle. But I would not be able to tell you all that, if I did not find someone or a scripture, i.e. a book in which I placed confidence when I was vulnerable because it could manage the unexplainable. And R.M. Bucke’s compilation was just that scripture for my recovery. Doctor Bucke’s most famous charge was Walt Whitman, who was both a patient and a family friend who on occasion lived with the doctor's family in his home. Whitman said he owed the doctor his life. To the doctor, Whitman was the most shining example of cosmic consciousness he encountered. Today, one of the foremost contemporary experts on the Bipolar Disorder Kay Redfield Jamison (herself a sufferer) classes Whitman as one of those ‘Touched With Fire’ of mania.

The Beginning of my Quest for Illness as a Hobby

I actually said that once. Someone asked me once if I was questing for another historical Jesus. I said, ‘far from, if I am questing for anything then it is to convert my illness into a hobby’. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness inspired me to extend my reading to books on mysticism, occult and religion. I started to get more focused on Christianity, around 1988. On rereading the New Testament that year, I noted a great number of interesting, uncanny, parallels between the symptoms of manic-depression and some of the happenings in the gospels. I kept tending to my mules (computers) while researching, but I had another episode in my first winter in Ottawa 1989, after the company I worked for as a divisional IT manager was sold and I was let go. The second hypermanic high was actually much more benign than the first one and had very little of the dreadful terrors I had experienced the first time. I came out of it without depression: on the contrary I felt quite confident, quit smoking cold turkey, got into tennis and running, and started to date again (He who is able to receive this, let him receive it). Jesus agreed to be put on the back burner, as I married, had two kids and suddenly found myself with a lot of other stuff to do. I more or less made vague plans to return to my hobby seriously once I retired.

On a trip back to Montreal in the nineties, I ran into Lyn, a friend of my neighbour who knew me at the time I screamed of the coming mayhem in the streets and smelled of urine. She seemed genuinely surprised and kept glancing to my right during the first few words of greeting. “What a beautiful little girl,” she exclaimed about my precious Tamy in tow, “ how old is she ? four?, ah what a cutie you are , is she yours ?”. When she received an answer in the affirmative, she seemed to struggle with the next query that overwhelmed her. It didn’t take a mystic to figure out what she was thinking. “So the thing you had, it’s ok now…right ?.... I hope. ”. Lyn, I remembered, was not exactly shy when working on her sensational reports to friends. I pretended I did not understand: “What thing is ok ?” . She just could not help it: “well you know, Jiri, the imbalance you had when you lived in the house above Louise”. I suspected this was still an unsettled account with my former friends. Whenever I met them, I could tell the brutality of my initiation into mysticism was still haunting them. “Oh that Lyn,… that thing settled itself a long time ago”, I smiled and as she sighed a sigh of relief, I turned to Tamy and putting on quickly the grimace of the lutin m├ęchant she so loved , I sang with a runaway pitch: ‘Naaaaaaw, daaaddy’s still nuuutty as a fruuuitcake”.

1 comment:

  1. The experience of Mark Vonnegut, the son of the author Kurt Vonnegut, is well worth reading about. Mark came from a family background that had more than its share of eccentrics and "crazies". In the late 1960s he got a college degree in religious studies, and thought of becoming a Unitarian minister. Adrift after university, he was a founding member of a hippie commune in British Columbia. In the early 1970s, he had three acute episodes of what at the time was diagnosed as schizophrenia, but which now seen as an intense and incapacitating manic phase of bipolar disorder. Vonnegut relates his experiences and hospitalization in his 1975 memoir The Eden Express (still in print). In his recent book Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, Vonnegut remembers his later life as a pediatrician and a fourth manic episode a decade and a half after his earlier breakdowns. In his manic phase, Vonnegut talked to God, and bargained with him about the fate of the world. Vonnegut emphasizes the apparent reality of what was going on in his head: "Thoughts come into the mind as firmly established truth. There is no simile or metaphor. There's no tense but the present. The fantastic presents itself as fact."