2.15.2010

A Tentative Call for a Probationary Re-Introduction of Discipline into (the) Human Psycho-Spiritual Experience(s)

One of the interesting things Alan Watts said about LSD (listen below) was that LSD does provide the transcendental/mystical experience promised by the mystical traditions of all religions. But LSD is more dangerous, according to Watts, because the mystical traditions all package their "gift" within a discipline.

So when a person says the Jesus prayer, or does Kundalini Yoga, they are given paths to a higher consciousness. But when/if that experience comes, those who have practiced the discipline will be prepared to "interpret" their experience, whereas those who have taken LSD may be altogether blown out of the water. So when a practitioner of Yoga has the same experience of higher consciousness that a Christian mystic might have, the Yoga person will talk about his third-eye opening, while the Christian may speak of salvation or Jesus. The person on LSD, having no framework of expectation, may lose it and start talking about alien abduction or spinning some similarly socially-unacceptable narrative.

And I think Watts is onto something. I'm in the middle of a dialog with a trusted friend about the matter of psychological diagnosis and prescription meds, etc. In his view (correct me if I'm wrong, friend!), a psychological disorder like "Manic Depression" may not be understood as effectively in spiritual terms as it is in psychology. Manic Depression (the artist formerly known as "bipolar disorder") is a very specific diagnosis, with subdiagnoses available:
But the argument I'm interested in has involved wondering what kinds of effects (in the patient) are brought on by the expectations associated with these clinical/psychological terms.

Listen to the first two paragraphs of Jonathan Edwards' personal narrative:
I had a variety of concerns and exercises about my soul from my childhood; but had two more remarkable seasons of awakening, before I met with that change by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things, that I have since had. The first time was when I was a boy, some years before I went to college, at a time of remarkable awakening in my father's congregation. I was then very much affected for many months, and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul's salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys; and used to meet with them to pray together. I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion. My mind was much engaged in it, and had much self righteous pleasure; and it was my delight to abound in religious duties. I with some of my schoolmates joined together, and built a booth in a swamp, in a very retired spot, for a place of prayer. And besides, I had particular secret places of my own in the woods, where I used to retire by myself; and was from time to time much affected. My affections seemed to be lively and easily moved, and I seemed to be in my element when engaged in religious duties. And I am ready to think, many are deceived with such affections, and such a kind of delight as I then had in religion, and mistake it for grace.

But in process of time, my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin. Indeed I was at times very uneasy, especially towards the latter part of my time at college; when it pleased God, to seize me with a pleurisy; in which he brought me nigh to the grave, and shook me over the pit of hell. And yet, it was not long after my recovery, before I fell again into my old ways of sin. But God would not suffer me to go on with any quietness; I had great and violent inward struggles, till, after many conflicts with wicked inclinations, repeated resolutions, and bonds that I laid myself under by a kind of vows to God.
Now, obviously, we may disagree in our diagnoses here, but it's not unprecedented to diagnose historical figures in contemporary psychological terms (see Kay Redfield Jamison on Herman Melville's manic depression in Touched with Fire). I see pretty clearly that Edwards is rolling back and forth between what a contemporary psychologist might call "delusions of grandeur" and a kind of discouragement recognizable as depression. And he does it over and over again throughout his autobiographical narrative. But because he had been reared in the discipline of Calvinism, he interpreted his own symptoms in Christian mythological terms.

Finally: I am not arguing (at least not now) that Christianity handled this mental/spiritual phenomenon better than psychiatry currently does. In fact, I suspect that contemporary psychiatry does better than contemporary Christianity with a problem like this--with one caveat. Psychological terminology generally diagnoses disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as chronic, essentially "incurable" (though treatable), disorders. The Christian interpretation (and the Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, etc.) allows for the possibility of "rebirth."

So what I'd like to see is a comparative analysis of sufferers of the same disorder (say manic-depression) who are "primed" in different frameworks. How does a Kentucky-mountains Pentecostal church handle a person with manic-depression, and does that person do better than a person who is diagnosed by a psychiatrist? Acutely? In the long-term?

I'm planning a follow-up post based on Kay Jamison on Herman Melville's bipolar disorder. Stay tuned. Sayeth Melville:
"...he who has never felt, momentarily, what madness is has but a mouthful of brains."

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