An insider exploration of Yoga and Nonduality, and the intersection of spirituality and experiences labeled psychosis or prodromal. Mental health integrates evidence from all disciplines and does not ignore inconvenient truth. Look within and find the direct path to your own truth.
I have really appreciated the MIT trained cognitive psychologist and University of California professor Donald Hoffman since hearing him speak a couple of times at conferences. I recently read a book review and interview with him in Psychology Today available here.
The article discusses how Hoffman helped develop a mathematical argument that our perceptions most likely do not reflect reality.
He expresses how in a sense all we see is a hallucination, generated by our mind, that does not resemble reality. It may be useful like icons to click on the computer screen, but reality is something much different in the hardware and processes behind it.
He came to the perspective exploring mathematical models for perception about 8 years before I started seeing reality in this way as well. I was in a sensation and perception class at the time digesting these concepts along with integrating the information with what I had recently learned in organic chemistry about the building blocks of physical matter. Mind blowing!
My seven-year-old daughter loves to help pump
gas as much as my safety sense will allow. I told her she could go ahead and
press the 87 button as I put the nozzle into the filling inlet of our Prius. I
squeezed and locked the handle of the nozzle on so my hands wouldn’t freeze in
the January night cold of Maine, and looked up to admire the new station’s
sign. As my mind often swirled with details of busy family life I had only
noticed the large Atlantic Farms name before. This night I allowed my eyes to
notice the smaller words: Gas N’ Grass. I burst out laughing like I did 25
years ago when I experimented with cannabis as a psychology undergrad. Did I
read that right? The small letters went on: Munchies, CBD, Education – oh yea,
I read that right.
For over 25 years I have been interested in
psychosis, or experiences people have that are different from the consensus of
people around them, and troubling enough to either the individual or the
surrounding people to be brought to the attention of psychiatrists, the lifeguards
of our society. They are then given a stigmatizing label from the American
Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
(1) (DSM-5), and heavy tranquilizers in an attempt to suppress the experience.
What fascinates me is how so many will talk about spiritual subjects including
miraculous powers all the way up to declaring themselves God, Jesus, or Buddha,
yet the dominant view in society is that it is crazy talk from a broken brain.
Neuron malfunction. While the lack of functionality of people in extreme forms
of these psychosis states is unquestionable, up to half of those same people
disagree it results from a broken brain (2). Could there be any truth or
meaning in what they say?
The term yoga is now commonly recognized and
the poses or asanas are taught at gyms, mini-malls, and studios to over 36
million people (3) in the U.S. alone. What might yoga have to do with drugs and
symptoms of psychosis? Most standard 200-hour Yoga Alliance (4) registered
teacher training courses utilize elements from a text, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali
(5). Patañjali’s sutras are a summarization of yoga philosophy and practice
from the time it was composed over 1600 years ago and up to 2400 years ago depending
on which historical Patañjali gets credit as the author. This text contains
references to special powers that can come by being born with the potential for
them, by serious yoga practice, or to some people who use drugs or herbs. Cannabis
in particular is used in India by some yoga practitioners called ascetics (6)
who withdraw their attention from worldly concerns and inward to find God. Cannabis
is so intertwined with yoga culture it is considered the sacred plant of Shiva,
the god of yoga. What is striking is the DSM-5 that defines disorders with a
psychosis component including schizophrenia, schizoaffective, and bipolar,
indicate that belief in the same special powers Patañjali noted is a key
diagnostic symptom of psychotic disorders called grandiose delusions.
Examples include the ability to read minds, hear or see things at a distance or other dimensions, heightened sensory abilities, learn about past lives, or the potential to understand any language. Is this getting too woo woo for you? Have you ever thought or dreamed of someone across the world just before they contacted you out of the blue? In the person who becomes aware of these abilities, the skills to use them may not be developed or sustainable. Some may just realize the potential for those abilities and become afraid that others are reading their minds. Telepathy or mind reading is a known side effect of meditation by advanced practitioners. One of my meditation teachers in India described how disturbing the experience was to become aware of the thoughts of others.
Another psychosis symptom listed in the DSM-5,
hallucinations is worth mentioning. Hallucinations can be related to any of the
senses but are most commonly auditory. They are experiences while awake where
someone hears something that someone else next to them with working ears does
not hear. It could be voices or even a ringing sound, which is interesting as
this is so common that hearing a ringing sound is a question we ask kids with
the early or prodromal psychosis intervention screeners. The early psychosis
intervention (7) programs target teenagers and young adults based on the
premise that if we can identify people who might get debilitating psychosis
earlier while they are still rational, they will be in a state where they will
more likely believe that their brain is broken. Then they will be more willing
to take tranquilizers to attempt to stop the sounds without the need for
coercion used with half of the people with the more end of the line psychotic
disorder label of schizophrenia.
Yoga has a different early intervention program
of sorts with guidance outlined both by Patañjali, and very specific guidance
of what to do with ear ringing in another text. The additional text suggested under
the Yoga Alliance’s (4) Yoga Humanities category of training is the Hatha Yoga
Pradipika (8), a text from around 600 years ago that goes into a bit more
detail than Patañjali on some of the physical practices of yoga. This text
refers to this ear ringing sound like bees or tinkling bells and additional
sounds including drums or ocean like sounds as nada or an inner sound. This
sound is heard when a person turns their attention away from sensory world
experience as is done on purpose in yoga in preparation for meditation. The
prescription from this text is to meditate on the sound and turn the attention
to more subtle sounds that arise to continue the students’ developmental
The most authoritative commentator on Patañjali
(5) mentions that lunatics and hysterics can experience this sensory withdrawal
called pratyahara in which the inner sounds will come about, though they may
not have control over the experience as a practiced student of yoga could. In
people who ultimately get labeled psychotic there are many reasons withdrawal
from the sensory world can happen such as being a target of bullying, racism,
sexism, or abuse. Indeed, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (9) data
found people 5 times more likely to report hallucinations as an adult if they
reported several experiences of trauma as a child. Among other potential
reasons is an internal call to explore more interesting dimensions of
experience than our materialistic consumer culture offers, and some will use
drugs like cannabis or psychedelics to have a similar turning inward
What should someone do when they become aware
of special powers through drugs, yoga, or birth? Should they run around
attempting an enthusiastic but fumbled explanation of their newfound awareness
to whomever is nearby before they develop the skills to use those powers? Patañjali
has specific guidance regarding the special powers. It is suggested that rather
than expend effort to develop the skills to use these distracting powers like
mind reading or heightened sensory abilities, the serious yoga student should
turn attention away from even these powers and continue meditating to complete
their development into self-realization or spiritual liberation and
To get to this spiritual liberation through
yoga after withdrawal from the external sensory world there is a sometimes
scary, ungrounding, and devastating deconstruction of the person’s concepts of
themselves, and an outside world surrounding them. Every concept a person had
acquired in their life gets questioned, even the concepts of time and space in
an outside world. Unguided this can take even years in a disabling state before
one comes out of it with a new and expanded sense of self with which to
reengage in worldly life. The awakening person’s deconstruction of the concepts
of themselves and an outside world has a striking parallel in the DSM-5. The
DSM-5 offers depersonalization and derealization when one experiences the lack
of reality of oneself and their surroundings that commonly occur in people who
get labeled with psychotic disorders. Are they signs of a potential developmental
process that intense yoga practice can bring to spiritual realization or signs
of an incurable broken brain in need of tranquilizers and a low stress
environment to prevent worsening?
The self-realized person has both the old sense
of individual self separate from others with which to interact with the world,
and the additional experience and perspective of being in relationship with
everyone and everything in the universe. They often experience everyone and
everything as being all one consciousness, one self with a socialized sense of
separateness. While the one self is often called God, the sense of separateness
is popularly associated with ego. Perhaps some of those labeled with psychosis
and proclaiming to be Jesus have had a taste of this experience of God and
themselves being one.
In recent years there has been a growth in
cannabis legalization to the point where you can apparently get gas n’ grass on
your drive home, and a growth in research of psychedelics, both clinical and
individual citizen research. It is high time to get some other options out
there for people to give a more normalizing language from yoga culture to their
experiences, and practices to develop their potential rather than a fall into
hopelessness and dependence on our social security system. The territory of
special powers can be full of pitfalls both from someone’s own traumatic
history and internal access to transpersonal experience beyond their personal
history or understanding. If Patañjali is right regarding drugs, with
legalization there may soon be many more people attempting to navigate and
getting stuck in this tricky terrain.
Joseph Campbell once said the psychotic drowns
in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight. Why not give the
lifeguards a hand and teach the knowledge and skills of yoga to those so
inclined so they can learn to swim and turn the potential disaster of their
lives into a delight.
1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
2. Schwartz, M. A., & Wiggins, O. P. (2005). Psychiatry fraud and force? A commentary on E. Fuller Torrey and Thomas Szasz. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 45(3), 403-415.
3. Yoga Journal & Yoga Alliance (2016). 2016 yoga in America study.
In case you had any doubts, mental health disorders are socially constructed and reflect a job of the mental health profession to enforce the dominant cultural norms. The disorders and their check list criteria are voted on by psychiatrists, who by the way are largely being paid by drug companies. I recently re-listened to a Madness Radio interview available as a podcast as well as here of the psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl, author of The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia became a Black Disease.
wanted to remind myself of some of the things I previously heard about Schizophrenia
before the 1960’s being associated with frail or nervous housewives who were distressed
about their role or embarrassing their husbands. These days there is a common
association of violence with the Schizophrenia diagnosis. How did that happen?
Could it be systemic racism?
The interview highlights how in the 1960’s there was an increase in the professional literature of case studies of angry black male protesters suffering from new manifestations of Schizophrenia with symptoms such as hostility, aggression, and violence. Then in 1968, aggression and hostility were added to the schizophrenia diagnosis in the DSM manual of mental disorders.
Dr. Metzl discussed how black protesters were locked away in mental institutions. Black men would experience paranoia about the police and doctors, another symptom of schizophrenia. Black Lives Matter protesters in the past couple of weeks have brought to light the black and brown people’s justified fear of police, not paranoia.
In the Hearing Voices Movement, people are experiencing profound and substantial recovery after experiences that usually get labeled psychosis in clinical settings. Experiences such as having visions, experiencing different realities, and hearing voices. It felt so important to bring awareness of this world-wide established and growing approach to wellness to clinicians, so I wrote an article specifically for the American Counseling Association that was published by them as an online exclusive last month and is available here.