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“Mysticism and Schizophrenia” by Kenneth Wapnick

Mysticism and schizophrenia have often been linked in psychiatric literature. Some writers have suggested that mystics demonstrate a special form of schizophrenia or other psychopathology. (See, for example, Alexander, 1931; Freud, 1961; and Menninger, 1938.) Others write of schizophrenia in highly metaphorical, quasi-mystical language focusing on the experience of psychosis, which leads many to conclude that they are proselytizing for schizophrenia as a valuable and even desirable experience (Bateson, 1961; Laing, 1965, 1967). In a more objective tone, William James noted the similarity between the mystic and schizophrenic experience as far back as 1902.

Kenneth Wapnick

He distinguished between two kinds of mysticism; a higher and a lower. The former included the classic mystical experiences, while the latter James identified with insanity, which he termed a “diabolical mysticism.” James (1958) concluded that in both forms is found.

The same sense of ineffable importance in the smallest events, the same texts and words coming with new meanings, the same voices and visions and leadings and missions, the same controlling by extraneous powers. . . .

It is evident that from the point of view of their psychological mechanism, the classic mysticism and these lower mysticisms spring from the same mental level, from that great subliminal or transmarginal region of which science is beginning to admit the existence, but of which so little is really known. That region contains every kind of matter: “seraph and snake” abide there side by side [p. 326].

In a 1965 paper delivered before the R. M. Bucke Memorial Society, Prince and Savage discussed the mystical experience in terms of Kris’ concept of regression in the service of the ego (Prince & Savage, 1965). Almost parenthetically, the authors noted a “plausible link” between psychosis and mysticism, and suggested that psychosis was a “pressured withdrawal” with an incomplete return, while the mystic’s withdrawal was more controlled and his return more complete.

Though the similarity of many aspects of these two experiences is striking, it should not obscure the Though the similarity of many aspects of these two experiences is striking, it should not obscure the significant differences between them. It is the purpose of the present paper to clarify these similarities and differences so as to more fully understand the nature of these two processes. The nature of mysticism will be presented through an outline of the “typical” mystical experience and the mystical life of St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Spanish Catholic. The schizophrenic experience will be illustrated by excerpts from a first-person account of a schizophrenic episode.

Due to the nature of the experiences to be described below, it will be necessary to use the original metaphoric language of the reported experiences. These words and terms, though personal and experiential, are nonetheless more expressive of the particular experiences than precise, objective language that inevitably transforms the experience.

However, it must be remembered that words like “inner,” “outer,” “death and rebirth of self,” “God,” etc. are metaphors that attempt to express the experience in words, but are not to be taken literally as the experience itself.

Indeed, the very struggle of John Perceval during his psychosis was to realize that the voices he heard were metaphorical, not literal. As he wrote: The spirit speaks poetically, but the man understands it literally. Thus, you will hear one lunatic declare that he is made of iron, and that nothing can break him; another, that he is a china vessel, and that he runs in danger of being destroyed every minute. The meaning of the spirit is that this man is strong as iron, the other frail as an earthen vessel; but the lunatic takes the literal sense [Bateson, 1961, p. 271].


Mysticism is usually characterized as the experience of Unity, or what Stace (1960) has called, “the apprehension of an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the sense nor the reason can penetrate [pp. 14-15].” Equally characteristic, however, is the orderly quality of the mystic’s development. In a classic statement, Underhill (1961) described mysticism as:

the name of that organic process which ... is the art of [man’s] establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute. The movement of the mystic consciousness towards this consummation, is not merely the sudden admission to an overwhelming vision of Truth: though such dazzling glimpses may from time to time be vouchsafed to the soul. It is rather an ordered movement towards ever higher levels of reality, ever closer identification with the Infinite [author’s emphasis; pp. 81-82].

Every mystic appears to undergo the same basic “ordered movement,” and it is this commonality that binds the Christian mystic to the Hindu, the atheist to the Sufi. For purposes of discussion, commentators have found it convenient to delineate the successive stages of this movement. These stages, which as described in the literature vary in number from three to eight, are not to be taken literally, nor as descriptive of the experience of any one mystic; rather, they are intended to be diagrammatic of the “typical” mystical experience. The five stages described by Underhill (1961) provide a framework that lends itself to a workable outline of the mystic’s experience and is used as the basis for the present discussion.

A sixth stage seems necessary to describe the process completely and is added to Underhill’s five stages.

1. As experienced and reported by the mystics, this is the sudden conversion that follows a long period of great unrest and disquiet. Known as “The Awakening of the Self,” it is the sudden realization of a strikingly new and different emotional experience that seems to exist beyond sensation, and that carries with it the awareness of a “higher,” more desirable level of experience. James referred to this conversion as the break-through of the transmarginal consciousness, the sudden “possession of an active subliminal self.”

2. After the mystic experiences this deeper level of consciousness, he finds that his former patterns of living are no longer satisfying. He feels that they must be purged or mortified, what Underhill refers to as “The Purification of the Self.” In the language of James’ dichotomy of levels of consciousness, the new subliminal consciousness with which the person has just come into contact is markedly different from the everyday consciousness of his ordinary experience. Thus, the behaviors that involved his everyday functioning in the social world are not applicable to this more personal experience and so must be discarded.

The extreme ascetic practices of many mystics that occur during this stage are designed to purge the individual of his need for his old connections to the social reality. Once this is accomplished, the process of purgation or mortification ceases. As Underhill points out, despite its etymology, the goal of mortification for the mystic is life, but this life can only come through the “death” of the “old self.”

“Mysticism and Schizophrenia” by Kenneth Wapnick is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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