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What if enlightenment is a mental illness?

Updated: Jan 30

What if #enlightenment is a mental illness?

I see patients diagnosed with “mental illness” every day I work in the ER. Major depressive disorder. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. And many more. We have elaborate diagnostic criteria that must be met for patients to be diagnosed with these illnesses. The criteria for schizophrenia, for example, include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, and more.

When we read descriptions of enlightenment, we find that many of them could confirm “symptoms” that are consistent with these diagnostic criteria. We could easily imagine an elderly man clad in orange robes who might say that there are no physical things, only consciousness. Or who might say that he doesn’t exist as a separate individual. He may say so without any desire to explain himself, content to live what he directly perceives. In the "right" setting, this would readily qualify such a person as delusional. Next, he may have also opened up the faculties latent in every human being. He may glimpse and even live among perceptions that experts publicly say we should not have. Our friend has just met another diagnostic criterion: having hallucinations. If he is in a society that values his new experience, he may be garlanded and provided meals to sustain him at this “higher” level of function. Instead, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia and medicated.

As an alternative, imagine that prior to this shift in his experience, he had earned a PhD in philosophy. He had been exposed to a tradition such as yoga that not only recognizes explicit stages of shifts in the mind, but also encourages them. Instead of being overwhelmed by the experience, he communicates and adjusts. His new insights propel him further as an insightful professor of philosophy and yoga practitioner.

The first person is “mentally ill" and a threat. The second is an enlightened sage who leads us forward. Which is he?

Surely, there is a range of experience that covers what we call spirituality and enlightenment, just as there is with schizophrenia, depression, and “mental illness” in general. But there is one thing all these have in common—medical science knows little about their inner workings. To study medicine and psychiatry today is to yield to the hypothesis that brain and body come first, and only then does mind appear. Through this undeclared and unexamined medical philosophy, we develop the rationale to deliver physical drugs to alter neurotransmitter concentrations and behavior.

What would we do if we had to consider the notion that a human being is not primarily a physical thing, but rather a phenomenon that can be explored and accessed in new ways?

Depending on where you live, the maturing mind just may be diagnosed as being “mentally ill.” That should be enough to wake us all up.


One of the comments I got on the post above was to cross reference spiritual emergence versus spiritual emergency versus psychiatric emergency. I don't buy those categories.

If we start with a materialist model, body-based model, brain-based model, and single lifetime-based model, we are setting the stage for emergencies.

If we start with a society that insists everyone has to prove their worth by working and producing something that someone else will pay them for so that they can have housing and food, we are setting the stage for emergencies.

If we start with a society that honors things and products over people, animals, plants, and nature, we are setting the stage for emergencies.

If we start with educational systems that believe repeating the same concepts from generations past is intelligence, rather than being aware of and navigating all aspects of the field of awareness, we are setting the stage for emergencies.

Whether an experience is "spiritual emergence," "spiritual emergency," "psychiatric emergency," or another neologism depends largely on the knowledge and courage of people in the surrounding environment. Because of this, I don't buy the concept of distinguishing among these categories. I think it's too low a bar. Instead, let's take the next step forward, say what we know and don't know, and take the initiative to learn what we don't know.

It is up to us to improve our knowledge, to have the courage to explore the frontiers of consciousness, and to bring that knowledge to the professionals and everyone else in our society so that we need not invent convenient categories such as spiritual emergency versus psychiatric emergency that anchor ignorance in place.

There is no foundation to talk about "mental illness" or "mental health" sufficiently if we are not wading into and stabilizing in ever-wider pools of consciousness.

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