Home Links Articles & Archives What is Ayurveda? What is Yoga therapy? What is Yoga? History Publications Teaching Schedule Blog Facebook Bio

Psychotic and Mystical States of Being:

Connections and Distinctions
Caroline Brett
Abstract: Previous analyses of descriptively defined psychotic phenomena have concluded that they can occur in benign spiritual experiences as well as pathological states. Attempts to forge a distinction between psychotic experiences in spiritual and pathological contexts on the basis of the form or content of the experience (broadly described) can be disproved by counterexample; distinguishing on the basis of negative or positive consequences of the phenomena for the individual can be seen to beg the question. In the present paper, it is argued that examining the fundamental conceptual organization of psychotic and mystical mental states not only elucidates the observed similarities between them, but can highlight the differences, and the processes by which negatively evaluated pathological features can be seen to emerge. Oriental philosophical systems such as Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, and Tantric Hinduism, provide conceptualizations of mystical states of mind, from which a model can be drawn, while the epistemologies of these systems provide an illuminating metaphysical perspective on both psychotic and mystical experiences. It is concluded that mystical and psychotic experiences can be distinguished not only by emotional and behavioral consequences, but by real differences in the states themselves; certain features, such as loss of subject/object boundaries and loss of the relative dimensional structure of perception, are common to both processes.

IT HAS LONG BEEN RECOGNIZED that there are similarities between spiritual and psychotic experiences. Both kinds of experience are "altered states," and a wide variety of phenomena are common to both: for example, radical change of belief, time distortion, perception of and communication with supernatural entities, perception of meaning in events and purpose in life, social withdrawal, and so on. Moreover, the content of both kinds of experience can bear striking similarities, religious themes being common in psychotic delusions, and the epistemological revelations of spiritual experiences often contrasting sharply with the everyday view of reality.

Any analysis traditionally begins with definitions of the terms used, but of course both spiritual experiences and psychoses come in many varieties, and there is no universally agreed definition of the terms themselves. However, in practice there is broad agreement as to which individuals are described as psychotic, and there are certain commonalties found across diverse accounts of spiritual experiences that allow generalizations to be made about these kinds of states.

Some commentators have wanted to collapse the two definitions into each other by claiming either that all spiritual experiences are psychotic or symptomatic of some pathology, or that psychotic [End Page 321] experiences should not be viewed as pathological but rather as spiritual experiences that are pathologized by society (Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry 1976; Laing 1967). Alternatively, it could be held that the only distinction that can be drawn between the two is on the basis of harm to the individual: thus, an experience of an altered state that leads to a positive outcome, or can be interpreted and integrated in a positive light, will be a spiritual experience, and psychotic experiences by definition are those altered states that lead to a negative outcome.

In the present paper, spiritual or mystical experiences are those states in which the form of experience is altered from normal consciousness, resulting in a new understanding of the basic nature of reality, life, and the individual. Psychotic experiences are those states that also flow from alterations of the form of experience, but result in a pathological interaction between the individual and the world. Therefore, according to these definitions, phenomena occurring in a spiritual context may be identical to those traditionally viewed as symptoms of psychosis, but cannot be seen as psychotic in themselves. By examining more closely the phenomenology and the organization of the experience of the psychotic and the mystic, as well as the epistemology of spiritual systems, the present paper aims to examine these phenomena in both contexts.

The paper investigates the form of experience involved in the early psychotic state, specifically the "delusional mood," 1 and the form of experience involved in mystical states, drawing from Eastern spiritual traditions, with the purpose of elucidating the relationship between the two categories of altered state. Similarities in conceptual structure, corresponding to similarities in the existential stance of the individual, are demonstrated. Conceptual differences are also identified, highlighting factors that can be understood to give rise to negatively evaluated, pathological features of experience, which can lead to a diagnosis of psychosis.

Zen Buddhism provides a model for the cognitive reorganization involved in a mystical or transcendent state; the Tantric systems of Tibetan Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta provide models of both mystical and pathological states, in terms of the development and possible imbalance of spiritual energies. This analysis focuses on one particular subset of mystical experiences because the phenomenology of mystical states in the Eastern tradition appears to match that of the delusional mood in both intensity and specific features. Comparing both the phenomenology and the models suggests possible causal factors that could contribute to the processes of cognitive reorganization, which lead to either benign mystical or pathological psychotic conditions.


The recent growth of interest in the philosophical aspects of psychopathology has led to an acknowledgement of the limitations of the definitions of such symptoms as delusions as is found in the DSM-IV (APA 1994). The search for alternative conceptualizations of delusions (as the paradigm marker of psychotic states) has brought up the issue of the relationship or distinction between spiritual and psychotic experiences.

Empirical studies comparing religious and deluded individuals call into question diagnostic criteria for delusions that emphasize the content (i.e., bizarreness or falsity) of beliefs to classify them as pathological, whereas anthropological writings indicate that similar mental states may be classified as disorders in some cultural settings, and religious experiences in others (Peters et al. 1999;Peters, Joseph, and Garety 1999; Bhugra 1996). This indicates that comparison of the content of beliefs cannot distinguish spiritual from psychotic ideation.

On the other hand, certain differences in the kind of experience have been suggested: for example, the mystic avoids grandiosity and delusions of omnipotence, which can characterize psychosis; delusions of persecution and auditory hallucinations are also prominent in psychotic but not mystical experiences (Greenberg et al. 1992). Chadwick (2001) points out that in the mystic, the intuitions that occur in the altered state appear to emanate from the self toward the world, whereas in the psychotic, the intuitions [End Page 322] tend to revolve around the intents of the world toward the self. For example, the mystic notices that "there is great harmony and oneness between all things" whereas the psychotic notices that "people and the world are all together in communication against me." Thus, the mystic is concerned with how the self fits into the universe and the psychotic is concerned with the meaning of events in relation to the self. This implies a slightly different organization of experience or stance toward the experience, which may influence the repercussions of the initial altered state.

According to other authors looking at the subject, the major differences seem to lie in the interpretation and meaning given to the experiences, and in the emotional and behavioral consequences of such experiences (Peters 2001; Jackson and Fulford 1997; Saver and Rabin 1997). Usually, spiritual experiences have adaptive and life-enhancing consequences; in psychosis similar phenomena often lead to social and behavioral impoverishment.

For example, Peters and colleagues (1999) and Peters, Joseph, Garety (1999) conclude that delusions can be differentiated from religious beliefs, not by content, but by such factors as the extent to which they are believed, how much they interfere with one's life, and the emotional impact. Greenberg and associates (1992) conclude that a diagnosis of psychosis rests on factors such as duration of the state, ability to control entry into the state, and deterioration of habits, rather than the phenomenology of the state itself. For example, mystical experiences are usually transient and resolve completely, without leaving residual social difficulties or isolation, in contrast to psychotic states, which generally persist for a long period and may leave residual dysfunction and social withdrawal.

It must be noted that the distinction cannot be made purely on the negative or positive evaluation of the experience by the individual, because some psychotic patients have a positive attitude toward their experiences (Chadwick and Birchwood, 1994). They may deliberately stop taking neuroleptic medication or ingest cannabis or other drugs to induce a delusional atmosphere or restore their psychotic state, presumably because they feel it is preferable to their nonpsychotic reality (Peters, 2001). In contrast, some of the intense spiritual experiences described by Jackson and Fulford's sample were neither solicited nor controllable, and were initially very frightening for the individuals.

Jackson and Fulford (1997) conclude that psychosis (descriptively defined) cannot be differentiated from mystical experience on the basis of either form or content, but depends on the way in which the phenomena are "embedded in the values and beliefs of the person concerned."They describe a "cognitive problem solving model," which suggests that altered states can be triggered by intense stress or existential crisis, and that if the resultant paradigm shift provides an "insight" that is utilized to solve the initial problem, the process will be self-limiting and pathological.

This seems plausible, but raises certain questions: which kinds of interpretation of unusual experiences are pathological? What is the interaction between the original phenomena and the "values and beliefs" that shape the interpretation? Why do some altered states lead to the formation of delusions that have negative emotional and behavioral consequences, such as delusions of persecution, whereas other altered states have a positive or neutral impact, and therefore any beliefs formed as a result of the experience are unlikely to be classified as delusions? It is with the aim of investigating these issues that a closer analysis of the organization of experience in psychotic and mystical states is undertaken in this paper.

The conceptual analysis of the structure of experience and "existential stance" involved in psychosis is focused particularly on the delusional mood, in which alterations in perception, cognition, and sense of identity are evident. This avoids any equivocation regarding the status of particular delusions (which can be viewed as either constitutive of psychosis, or resulting from or reparative efforts after psychosis), as well as considerations of their content. The analysis draws on models of the structure and development of the "ordinary" mind provided by Kant, Husserl, and Piaget. [End Page 323]

Similarly, the analysis of the organization of mystical experience draws from the systems of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and Tantric Yoga, because they provide detailed conceptualizations of the cognitive reorganization involved, which are directly and pertinently comparable to the phenomena of the delusional mood. This contrasts with the more descriptive analysis of form made by Jackson and Fulford (1997), for example, who drew attention to the similarities between the phenomena reported by religious experiencees, and diagnostic criteria of delusions, thought insertion, and auditory hallucinations. Jackson and Fulford conclude that a distinction cannot be made on the basis of form, but they do not examine the inner conceptual structure of the case studies experience.

In fact, it might be relevant that, in the reported case studies given by Jackson and Fulford, the unusual experiences described by the individuals seem to occur in a relatively circumscribed way; that is, they describe auditory hallucinations, instances of thought insertion, and revelations consistent with primary delusions, but they do not report subtle yet global alterations in their subjective experience of time and space, or selfhood, for example. Although their experiences involved a sense of direct and personal communication with external agents, they did not involve more fundamental changes in perception of the external world or the relationship of the world to themselves.

A Conceptual Analysis of Psychosis

To start to unravel "the paradox of delusion," it is necessary to examine assumptions about the nature of mind and its relationship to the world. The classic view of psychosis assumes that the relationship of the mind to the world is a given, and that delusions can be identified on the basis of their falseness, incorrigibility, and certainty (APA, 1994). All of these criteria can be called into question for a variety of reasons: for example, the falsity criterion assumes that delusions consist of statements about external reality that can be proved false. In fact, a significant proportion of delusional beliefs are of the sort that lack any clear empirical content, or do not refer to "external reality" as such, and therefore the issue of truth or falsity is either not applicable or unlikely to be solved.

It has proved extremely difficult to formulate an alternative satisfactory definition of a delusion that reliably distinguishes pathological beliefs or belief formation from "normal" beliefs (Garety, 1985). Holding a delusion with absolute conviction cannot be deemed pathological in itself, because all beliefs that are personally significant tend to be held with absolute conviction (Maher, 1988). A confirmation bias, which allows us to be impervious to contradictory evidence and only notice information that confirms our preexisting beliefs, has also been shown to be a feature of normal cognition (Alloy and Tabachnick, 1984).

An alternative approach is to examine the form rather than the content of the psychotic state, which is understood as an altered state of consciousness that may demonstrate a particular structure of experience. From this viewpoint, delusions can be seen as schemata or belief structures that represent attempts to interpret and organize the perceptions that arise in the psychotic state. Although delusions may be a main observable sign of pathology, on this view they are not the primary source of pathology: this can be seen to be the state, or structure, of psychotic experience, which may be reflected in delusional beliefs. This paradigm shift avoids the distortions introduced by assuming that delusions are simple instances of stubborn error concerning some objective state of the world.

To analyze the features of the psychotic state, it is necessary to describe a system or taxonomy of the normal mind, with which a comparison can be made. Several authors have made use of Kant's analysis of the organization of experience, as well as drawing from the models of Husserl, Hegel, and Piaget (Wiggins, et al., 1990; Spitzer, 1990; Hundert, 1990b; Graham and Stephens, 1994b, 1996; Klein, 1990).

The Structure of Mind:
Subjectivity, Categories, and the External World

There is, or should be, a close link between the philosophical and psychological levels of analysis [End Page 324] of the nature of mind (Gallagher, 1997; Mishara and Schwartz, 1997). In cognitive psychology, the epistemological framework is sometimes called constructivism, the main point being that the world's nature is not the starting point of cognition, but its expression. This is echoed in the models of Kant (1781/1934) and Piaget (1937/1954), both of whom were concerned with the contributions of "thoughts to things" (Hundert, 1990a, 38). Likewise, Husserl's phenomenology emphasizes the constitutive functioning of the mind, postulating a constituting subject that constitutes both the world and itself as part of the world.

The organizing activity of the subject should not be overlooked (as is often the case in the "empirical" worldview), because the subject becomes aware of connections in the external stimuli only to the degree that he can assimilate them by means of existing structures. These structures can be seen as a kind of grammar: structural qualities that allow data to be organized into concepts amenable for cognitive operations (Klein, 1990). Not only can the parameters or dimensions of the external perceived world be seen as the product of the schemata into which representation is organized, but also the experience of the self as an entity acting in this external world must be seen as the product of schemata of cognition. Awareness of the self as an entity, and the boundaries of the self in contrast to the external world, must be constructed and maintained as the background context for incoming stimuli.

Kant viewed the structures or Categories as epistemologically a priori, in the sense that, once a concept is constructed, it is applied to experience and immediately externalized so that it appears to the subject as a perceptually given property of the object and independent of the subject's own mental activity.

However, as Piaget demonstrated in his studies of the development of cognition, there is a reciprocal relationship between the environment and the individual's experience of the environment, whereby the structures of experience adjust to reality through accommodation, and reality is assimilated to existing structures. Hegel described the development of cognition as a process through which "reason examines its concepts, seeking ever broader contexts of experience" (Hundert, 1990a, 40). Piaget conceptualized the process as thought turning in on itself at each stage, one schema incorporating another through progressive decentrations. He described the development of four categories of understanding in the first 2 years of a child's life: object, space, time, and causation. Of these, the category of object is the subject of most of this discussion.

Husserl's phenomenology divides intentive processes into active and passive/automatic. The active subject is what is experienced as the agent or ego, and the passive processes are undirected and intend objects in the field of perception. Husserl identifies something akin to Kant's categories described above, as an urdoxa: a primordial, unshakeable certainty in the fundamental features or dimensions of the world and myself. Thus, whereas mental life consists of change in the world and self, these changes occur within limits because certain aspects are experienced as invariant.

Husserl describes the construction of an external world of objects as involving two kinds of process: first, multiple automatic intentive processes that are synthesized to produce objects with manifold features and gestalt coherence; and second, mental life automatically ascribes ontic statuses to objects and their properties. Thus, objects can display indefinitely many degrees of reality and unreality, whereas ontic statuses are understood to interact in a structure of compatibility. This means that the world has a basic unalterable ontological status, and so a particular property's ontic status may alter if an incompatible property is experienced with a certain ontic status.

The self is constituted in a similar way by the constituting subject: mental life automatically intends its own processes. In addition to intending its objects, it intends future mental processes, and past phases of the same mental life. Thus mental life unifies itself through this inner time and experiences itself as continuously the same over time; the extended self is the contiguously unified totality of subjective experience.

Kant emphasized the reciprocal nature of the developments of the capacity to have unitary [End Page 325] subjective experiences and the capacity to experience unitary permanent objects; in other words, in creating the conceptual structure of a stable autonomous world (objectivity), the concept of the self is created concurrently (subjectivity).

It is postulated that the development of the subject/object boundary is born of the frustration of desires or lack of fit between experience and expectations: the infant adjusts from undifferentiated solipsism to differentiated realism on the basis of a painful lack of control over events (Hundert, 1990a). Objective reality, as the achievement of a subject, is the conceptual structure wherein objects of perception are viewed as existing regardless of one's perception of them, regardless of one's own existence. It must be achieved by eliminating the effect of the changing features of the subject's position with regard to the object, and therefore the concept of the subject existing independently of the objects of perception is presupposed. The development of the concepts of the self and the external world therefore entails a disregarding of the fact that both reified entities are abstracted from the bare process of awareness.

Much recent psychological investigation has been focused on the development of the child's theory of mind, which occurs by about 4 years, and may be a very important schema by which the child interprets his social reality (Baron-Cohen, 1992). It could be argued that the notion of the self as the bare subject becomes elaborated with the development of the theory of mind, as the child develops the notion of subjective experiences or representations of the objective world that can be contrasted with each other. As the child learns to conceptualize another's false belief, the epistemological organization of the child's experience can be expected to shift as he or she appreciates the idiosyncrasy of his or her own subjective viewpoint. This development can be understood to be crucial in orienting the child in social or intersubjective reality.

These analyses of the structure and activity of the mind are models of normal functioning; Kant believed that his categories of understanding were "necessary conditions of any possible experience." However, it appears that they are one set of sufficient conditions for one particular sort of experience: sanity, by the standards of Western rationalism. The following section examines how the psychotic state or delusional mood can be conceptualized.

The Delusional Mood

The delusional mood is one in which the perceptual world seems to have undergone some subtle but all-encompassing change. The world may seem strangely insubstantial, or mutable, and bathed in a kind of aura of particularity, meaningfulness, or knowing. Events and features of the world may seem intimately related somehow to the subject, either in the sense that they are signs directed at the subject or in the sense that they have been caused by or otherwise affected by the subject's thoughts or intentions. These features have been described by Sass as "the subjectivised domain" of the delusional mood: an apt description, because they can be interpreted as representing a loss of the concrete self-existence of the external world, and a mingling of the subjective or mental aspects of experience with the external, material aspects.

Below are some examples of statements that have been made by people experiencing the delusional mood, which give a flavor of the subjective phenomenology (taken from Spitzer, 1990):

It is like a constant sliding and shifting that slips away in a jelly-like fashion, leaving nothing substantial and yet enough to be tasted, or like watching a movie based on a play and, having once seen the play, realizing that the movie is a description of it and one that brings back memories and yet isn't real . . . For what is, is, and yet what seems to be is always changing and drifting away into thought and ideas, rather than actualities.

For me the substance has become spirit.

Things do not feel real. There is something between me and the things and persons around me; something like a wall of glass between me and everything else.

everything that happens is in reference to me . . . For instance, when I read a book or a newspaper, one thinks that the ideas in them are my own; when I play a song or an opera arrangement for the piano, one thinks that the text of the song or opera expresses my own feelings. [End Page 326]

Time has disappeared. Not that it is longer or shorter, it's just not there; there are bits and pieces of time, shaken and mingled; often there is no time at all.

Things are not seen by me, only by my eyes.

I am closer to the soul, to Dante's Paradise, in that world, but I feel removed from life, devoid of emotion, and detached from everything.

Thus, the delusional world involves fundamental transformations in the conceptual structures of space, time, and identity, and in the perceived nature and reality of consciousness itself. Various schizophrenic phenomena, such as depersonalization, passivity phenomena, ideas of reference, and derealization, can be understood as related within an interpretative framework that examines the altered structure of experience, rather than the specific content of delusions or hallucinations.

The Psychotic Mind:
Structure, Phenomenology, and Pathology

The structure of experience involved seems to be one in which the application of the categories is disrupted. Thus, the contents of experience are not perceived via the stable structures that confer the status of substance to external objects, and mental to the internal self. As the categories are understood to be intimately interdependent, the frameworks of time, space, substance, and causal interaction, which ordinarily underpin cognition, may all be distorted concurrently in the psychotic state.

According to the Husserlian phenomenology, this can be understood as the erosion of the constituting subject, leading to a disintegration of both the constituted world and self (Wiggins, et al., 1990). This is described as resulting in a situation of ontological insecurity, as the urdoxa is shaken, and the invariant and necessary features of experience are perceived as dissolving or unreliable: the fundamental ontology of reality has grown unclear. As the synthetic processes are weakened, objects lose their gestalt coherence, and the features of the world and the self are no longer inviolably differentiated. The syntheses of inner time, too, are attenuated, meaning that the present phase of mental life will only weakly intend past and future phases of itself. Thus, mental life will reside primarily in a present awareness, which is experienced as simply enduring, without being contextualized by a receding past or approaching future.

Sass (1994) made an extensive analysis of the delusional mood in his book, The Paradoxes of Delusion, drawing upon the philosophy of Wittgenstein. He suggests that the characteristics of the psychotic state can be understood as the result of consciousness turning in upon itself, away from practical and social activities, and away from the input of the body and emotions. The result is an experiential position akin to the philosophical doctrine of solipsism, which is related to phenomenalism in that it denies objective material entities and reduces existence to thought: "The stance of passive concentration gave rise . . . to a pervasive sense of subjectivization, of experiencing experience rather than the external world, to a feeling that . . . " everything that happens is in reference to me " . . . Such experiences of delusional and subjectivized reality seem to be embedded in a form of consciousness that is hyperacute, hyper-self-conscious, and highly detached . . . " (40).

Thus turning the attention to experience itself rather than the world leads to the impression that the world is just a perception, an ideational phenomena, and is thus dependent on one's own mind for existence in some crucial way, or else is a private, inner phenomenon. Additionally, the perceived world may appear devoid of life in itself, like scenery that has no substance or independent existence.

According to Kant's analysis, an alteration in the status of the external world should be linked to a corresponding alteration in the status of the self, and indeed we have seen this is the case. A widespread feature of delusions is the involvement of a sense of actions and thoughts as under the scrutiny and control, or in the presence or possession, of some other agency, as well as feelings of the negation of the self, unreality, or unaliveness.

Sass comments that the logic of the solipsistic position entails that a self cannot be found in subjectivity itself, because if there is no differentiation [End Page 327] between one's experience and the world in itself, there can be no contrastive identity. Therefore, trying to grasp this position conceptually (and thus take an ontological stance as a subject of experience) yields an epistemic or ontological paradox. The resultant shifting between the experience of one's own consciousness as both a constituted object, and the ultimate, constituting subject can be seen reflected in both delusions of omnipotence and grandiosity, and delusions of control, passivity, and negation.

Moreover, the counterpart to the subjectivization of the external world is the reification of the ideological domain. Sass dubs this "phantom concreteness": when thoughts, ideas, and sensations seem reified, substantial, and objectified. It appears, therefore, that the conceptual structures that confer substantiality to objects of perception are still exerting some effect, albeit in a fundamentally altered way.

It could be hypothesized that some process of the mind continues to apply the category of object (in contrast to subject), although the focus of attention is turned onto subjective experience itself. Thus subjective experience itself, in being observed, is put at a distance from the subject in the kind of "decentration" that Piaget described. Following this line of reasoning, as the "objectifying" process is turned on mental processes themselves, the conceptual space that the self as subject can fill gets smaller. The "active" processes of the mind are objectified and alienated, and the "passive" element of the mind, the bare subject, contracts. 2

As has been noted, this objectification of the subjective contents of experience can be linked to grandiose delusions: for example, the belief that the entire world is related uniquely to oneself or that its continued existence or the unfolding of events depends on one's mental processes. The claim to a completely private unified objective world contradicts itself because, in essence, "objective" means public. The solipsistic stance of "the world is necessarily my world because only I experience my experience" is not only tautologous but incoherent, because there is more than one center of consciousness in the world. Sass (1994) comments that our claim to be self-contained in one's psychology is an impossible claim in that survival requires relationship to others.

It is this self-containment that clashes with the subjectivities of other people in contact with the psychotic individual. From the existential stance of the psychotic, it is impossible to take into account the differing subjective viewpoints of other people. The loss of "objectivity" entails a loss of the appreciation of "intersubjectivity." This manifests in profound difficulties for the psychotic in dealing with other people: there may be no perception of other people's having viewpoints at all, subsumed as they are into the psychotic's private subjective world; alternatively, they may be perceived as sharing the viewpoint of the psychotic (epistemologically, if not spatially), and expressions of a differing viewpoint may be interpreted as deception or subterfuge, overlaying the individual's real intentions. However, the psychotic's delusory framework solves the paradox of the existence of other centers of consciousness, the tension created between the psychotic's epistemology and other people's is surely central to the pathological nature of the state.

One prominent aspect of the delusional mood that has not been accounted for by these analyses so far is the intense significance or meaning of events or features of the world for the person. Not only are events perceived as closely related or referring to the individual, but they may be experienced as having some symbolic or metaphorical meaning that is perceived quite immediately and incorrigibly.

It is possible that symbolic meaning is a structure or category of cognition, and that it may develop as a framework to organize representational stimuli, such as language, art, or symbols. Things refer beyond themselves only to a subject who interprets them as such, but once the framework that holds the interpreter and the interpreted apart has eroded, the symbolic meaning of events or features may appear self-subsistent. The role of the self in constituting the connection between the sign and its meaning will not be taken into account automatically, because of the reorganization of the place of the self in relation to experience, and thus the psychotic may conclude [End Page 328] that the meaning was inherent in the object, or that the meaning was indicated or revealed to them by some cosmic order or other agent.

Alternatively, or additionally, perceiving meaning could be seen as the most fundamental activity of mind, without which there is no coherence and unity to perception. Specifically metaphorical meaning could be understood as reflecting the basic assimilation of independent events, objects, or relations into preexisting conceptual categories or schema by analogy. The conceptual context provides meaning in terms of more basic patterns of relations than in nonpsychotic cognition, in which the urdoxa provides the unexamined assumptions that frame the more context-specific, self-independent, relative significance. Thus, in the delusional mood, the previous frameworks of meaning have been eroded as the dimensional structure of experience dissolves, and thus the "meaning feeling" (Chadwick, 1992) is the necessary emergence of new patterns of meaning.

This may also manifest in the feeling that meaning is elusive or hidden: that there is some absolute meaning behind events that should be discovered if possible. This urge could lead the individual into a pathological process of searching for meaning at the inappropriate level of analysis: in other words, trivial or practically insignificant events in the world may be interpreted in terms of their relevance for fundamental or cosmic processes, because they are not perceived within the relative context of mundane human action. It is likely that as new frameworks of meaning are constructed to maintain coherence, they will reflect the most basic psychological and emotional organization of the individualthe themes of the subconscious, in psychoanalytic terms. Thus all events in the world will appear intimately bound up with the preoccupations and themes of the self.

A Conceptual Analysis of Mystical Experience

Spiritual Systems:
Models of Experience and Reality

He who by discernment has effaced all objectivity is one established in the Reality of Awareness. He is the Fire of Awareness and the wielder of the vajra. He is the Hero who has done away with death, cancelling time itself. (Ramana Maharshi, Supplement to Reality in Forty verses, verse 23)

Various Eastern philosophies, such as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and Tantric Yoga, include detailed conceptualizations of the kinds of altered states usually labeled mystical. These explain the relation between the mind and the world, and the fundamental nature of the world and the self. In these cultures, the spiritual dimension is inextricably linked to the material one, and mysticism is an accepted form of human experience. Thus the psychic anatomy is as precisely described as the physical. In this way, they offer models or systems through which the relationship between spiritual states of consciousness and psychotic states can be elucidated. It is important to note that the conceptualizations provided offer a very different normative ideal of sanity, but accounts are also given of mental disorders, with explicit connections given between spiritual practice and disorder. The symptoms and signs given as markers for pathological states are easily recognizable, indicating that some similar states are recognized as illness in both Western psychiatric and Eastern mystical cultures.

Buddhist Epistemology

A brief outline of the epistemological positions of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism will demonstrate the alternative perspective on psychosis which is provided by these philosophies. 3 Although there are various divergences between the forms of Buddhism, particularly with regard to practice, there is an extensive core of common ground, which is also shared to a certain extent with Tantric Yoga, which I shall discuss below.

Buddhist epistemology is based fundamentally on the category of relatio, in contrast to the ontology of the Platonic-Aristotelian system, which can be described as being based on the category of substantia. The relationship between the mind and the world is of prime importance; from this viewpoint it is inappropriate to make an a priori division between the two on the basis of some sharply distinguishable essence that the mind or objects in the external world could be [End Page 329] considered to have. In other words, the mind and the world are viewed as intimately interrelated in Buddhist thought, and thus a conceptual analysis of the structure of mind cannot be carried out independently of a conceptual analysis of the structure of the world at large.

One crucial feature of Buddhist epistemology is that the true nature of ultimate reality diverges from its appearance to mundane perception. The material world is viewed as illusory, in the sense that distinct self-subsistent objects do not exist, but are fundamentally impermanent and interdependent. Objects in the external world have no intrinsic properties whatsoever, because all properties are relational and therefore have no intrinsic and real identity. All that truly exists is a unity (Brahman, the ground of all existence), which is a kind of nonarticulated field or pregnant voidit is empty of "things" because nothing has independent existence, but it manifests in the plurality of the phenomenal world. This applies equally to minds as to objects in the external world, because the distinction between subject and object is held to be as illusory as the distinction between one object and another. Because everything is looked at from a relational point of view, subject and object are relative to each otherthere is no Ding an sich.

Life is a continuous being without a beginning or an end . . . It is an artificial attitude that makes sections in the stream of change and calls them things. Identity of objects is an unreality. (Radhakrishnan, 1951)

It follows from this that the Buddhist notion of the self is in stark contrast to the Western concept. Both the Platonic-Augustinian tradition and the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition affirm the existence of an individual soul. The Buddha proclaimed that the notion of self is false and that there is no individual or abiding self apart from a cluster of factors.

The concept of a soul as the substrate of the changing states of consciousness, or of a thing as the bearer of attributes is a myth. There is no unity holding together the states of the attributes. (Mahadevan, 1974)

It is claimed that the only continuous thread is bhava, or continuity of consciousness over time. There are only mental states: thoughts, emotions, memories, sensations, and perceptions. There is no I behind them, and yet without them there is no sense of I. The I is the result of the basic unifying tendency of life (principium individuationis): every living being tends to organize a unity, and in the case of humans this confers self-consciousness. This principle constructs a separate, enduring ego that is in contrast to the rest of the world, but the separate self is an illusion.

What is the relationship of the ego as subject to the mental states it is subject to? Mental states are regarded as objects by the self, which looks at them from the outside. But this division is an illusion, because all mental states are subjective, and not objects of a subject; the self is nothing but a series of mental states, and as such is indefinite.

The Nature and Structure of Mind in Mundane and Mystical States

In Buddhist doctrine, consciousness is conceptualized as an interactiona relationship between the subject and an object. As a dynamic system of factors and processes, the mind can function in various modes or states of organization and can be developed toward the cognitive and affective state described as enlightenment through a system of techniques such as meditation. The worldly or mundane consciousness is seen as ignorant, because it produces an illusory view of reality, and it undergoes radical restructuring during spiritual practice. Ignorance can be eliminated by fostering "mindfulness, law, energy, bliss, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity" (Ramaswami and Shiekh 1989, 102). These foster panna, which is understanding or insight, an intellectual tool. Importantly, it is not knowledge. It is described as referring to a conscious clarification of facts, laws, and doctrines; to understand it is to see relations and connections. It is interesting to note that extrasensory perception is viewed as a valid means of knowing: for example, two dassanas (ways of perceiving) are defined as knowledge and insight of salvation and knowledge of things as they are.

The difference in organization between the mundane and transcendent states is best described in this context in philosophical language, because the proliferation of terms used in the Buddhist [End Page 330] doctrines frequently causes problems of translation. The analysis below is based on Zen doctrine (Izutsu, 1982), to which the exhaustive taxonomy of mental factors and processes is not central. The rise of prajna (the transcendental cognition) consists in a complete transformation occurring in the ego structure of the subject, which is the counterpart to the transformation of the perceived world. Thus subjective stages of cognition imply the presence of a corresponding ontological dimension.

The mundane consciousness produces the empirical worldview (in Western rationalist terms, the sane view). It is characterized by a sharp opposition between the subject and its objects, a dichotomy of reality. Thus, the empirical ego posits itself as an irreducible ego substance, and simultaneously posits irreducible object substances out there in the external world. The empirical ego can be viewed as the subject, the center of perception, thinking and actions. However, behind the subjective experience of the world is hidden a more basic factor upon which it depends: the awareness of the experience that illuminates the world-directed awareness. In other words, behind the I see in I see this there must be I SEE myself, where the capitals signal a more fundamental process of awareness.

Viewed from the standpoint of prajna, the object is perceived by virtue not of self-subsistence, but of the activity of the same process that underpins the empirical ego. In other words, within the object (which to the mundane view seems self-subsistent) is I SEE the object. This may appear paradoxical, but it is a means of describing how both sides of the relative pair of object and subject are manifestations of the same process or energy of awareness.

Thus, in transcendental cognition, there is a unification of subject and object in the process of awareness. The phenomenal world as it appears to transcendental cognition is charged with a peculiar kind of dynamic power, which may be indicated by the verb SEE. This kind of cognition can be illustrated by the example of an artist or musician who is so absorbed in the creative process that any distinction between the subject and the object dissolves into the pure act.

This somewhat obscure SEE is the ultimate RealityBrahman. It is claimed that it can make itself felt in the mind of a person living in the empirical "dimension" of existence. The first symptom is a feeling of unease about the nature of reality as it is seen, a vague feeling that the true reality of the self and external things is of a different nature. In religious doctrine this is seen as the start of the aspiration toward enlightenment. In psychiatric doctrine, this may be seen as derealization or some similar pathological symptom.

From here, subjective experience loses its solidity, and the empirical form is perceived as a pseudoreality. The individual will turn away from pseudoreality and be drawn toward whatever might be the "real" reality. However, it is maintained that the truth is not attainable through a purely mental process, in the sense of representation, imagination, or thinking, because it is not a matter of cognition in the narrow sense understood from the mundane perspective. This may seem to contradict the description of enlightenment as a cognitive state, but the crucial point is that in some forms of mental organization, certain mental processes cease. For example, during meditation, different concentrations are achieved, in which various forms of cognition, such as discursive thinking, cease. If one merely proceeds along the stages of self-cognition, the self will continue to recede, because it will remain an "object" known or to be known.

The discriminating intellect perceives things in terms of their identity. In the epistemological dimension accessed by transcendental cognition, the identity of objects is seen to go absolutely beyond the determinations and delimitations of the identity seen from the perspective of the discriminating activity of the relative intellect. Thus both "A is A" and "A is not-A" can be maintained simultaneously.

In the nullification of individual things in the void, or Nothingness, the ego (which has hitherto been distinguishing itself from others) becomes nullified, and its representation as a self-subsistent entity dissolves. This is not unconsciousness; it is the loss of awareness of the empirical ego, but awareness itself remains. In this state, it said that things lose their essential delimitations, reflect each other, and are reflected by each other endlessly. [End Page 331] This awareness (earlier denoted by SEE) is described as light or illumination, and is also referred to as Mind. But it is crucial to appreciate that this does not mean the kind of mind that individual persons have. It is reality before it is broken up into the basic dichotomy of subject and object, mind and thing. The mind as understood in the ordinary sense is an abstraction; the subjective aspect of the Mind-Reality grasped as an independent factor and posited as an individual, self-subsistent psychological principle. Thus, "all things are but one mind" does not mean that the mind as ordinarily understood produces or creates all things out of itself. Rather, out of the Mind-Reality emerges subject and object. The mind as understood in the ordinary sense is in this view only an element indistinguishably fused with its "objective" counterpart into the unity of the Mind-Reality as a totality.

Tantric Systems

Both Tibetan Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism involve the concepts of energetic processes that underlie the functioning of both the physical and mental aspects of the person. A vital force or energy (prana; ch'i) is said to move in channels throughout the body, and it is affected by multiple factors, both environmental and psychological. This energy consists of three different elements, corresponding to different physical and cognitive functions. Alterations in the flow disturb or alter the mental or physical processes that depend upon it. It is thought to be channeled, controlled, and developed in the practice of meditation, and disrupted or blocked in disease.

Tantric Yoga diverges from Buddhism in that it involves the concept of the goddess, who is understood as manifesting on all levels of the universe from the physical to pure consciousness, and therefore is related to many levels of conceptualization, including the philosophical or abstract (Frawley, 1994). In this sense, the system allows a synthesis of philosophical or conceptual analyses of mental states with the functional model of the mind such as is represented by the concepts of the different energies, and their psychological aspects.

The process of yogic transformation (akin to the rise of prajna or enlightenment) is described conceptually, psychologically, and functionally in terms of (1) the action of the spiritual energies, which correspond to psychological factors; (2) the forms of the goddess, which represent the ultimate aspects of reality, and what is passed through and understood during the process. As the various spiritual energies are developed, the corresponding cognitive functions develop, resulting in the emergence of an altered cognitive organization that allows for an altered experience of realitythe ultimate reality, according to the epistemology. The forms, although they may have the appearance of deities, can, in their abstract conceptualizations, be linked to Kant's categories of understanding, and the way that the structure of experience alters in psychotic experiences as well as spiritual ones.

Tantra, like Buddhist thought, characterizes the world as the manifestation of consciousness, and therefore the dualistic conception of the reality of the world in contrast to the unreality of mental concepts is viewed as delusory. There is little real distinction between the Buddhist doctrine that the material world is illusory and the tantric philosophy that grants a reality to the external world, because in both cases the external world is viewed as a kind of mental dimension, and the basic reality transcends such distinctions: consciousness is the sole reality in the universe.

The Spiritual Energies

The life-sustaining flow is divided into the energies of Prana (air), Ojas (water), and Tejas (fire), each of which corresponds to a different aspect of mental functioning. Tejas corresponds to reason, which carries out discriminative perception and functions in a quantitative manner to create a materialistic idea of reality. Active processes involving will or volition depend on Tejas. Prana corresponds to feeling, which can be understood as the passive, receptive aspects of the mind: it is not reactive, but allows for conscious awareness, knowing, relating to or uniting with objects of experience. The ability to move thoughts and perceptions depends on Prana. Ojas supports Tejas and Prana, and corresponds to an [End Page 332] underlying capacity for patience and mental endurance. The energies must be kept in dynamic balance for healthy mental functioning.

Two further components of mental functioning are Soul and Ego. Soul is the aspiration toward truth, and Ego is the power of identification, the division between subject and object. Finally, the Sensate Mind coordinates sensory and motor functions, and is dominated by reactive emotions.

During the process of yogic transformation, the energies are developed through diet and meditation practices. As the energies are developed, the cognitive functions develop, and if one factor increases out of proportion the balance will be disturbed and disorder can result. It is important to develop sufficient Ojas to sustain the development of Tejas and Prana. It is particularly affected by environmental factors such as poor diet, fatigue, emotional strain, changing circumstances, and so on, all of which burn up Ojas. Moreover, equanimity must be maintained throughout the transformation process, negative emotions must be eliminated, and negative energies avoided.

It is emphasized that if Tejas or Prana are developed without the appropriate grounding in purification and equanimity, an exaggeration of normal human drives such as excessive anger or sexuality can occur, or the individual may develop messianic ideation. Proper understanding and training in a yogic system should precede or accompany any attempts to produce altered or expanded states of consciousness, because dangers occur when one tries to use the mind or ego to achieve results (Frawley, 1994).

The Forms of The Goddess

The 10 forms can be divided into two groups: one group represents the prime principles of existence, consisting of Time, Space, The Word, Light, and Energy; the other represents the methods of transformation, consisting of Perception, Knowledge, Voidness, Stillness, and Delight. (All the forms are closely interrelated.) Moreover, they can be divided into the Terrible and the Benefic, indicating explicitly that this system acknowledges the potential dangers and unpleasant aspects of spiritual experiences. Each form represents both the relative aspect of the dimension or process, such as is perceived in the ordinary state of mind, and the absolute aspect, such as is perceived in the transcendent state of mind. The meditation practices associated with the perception or encounter of each form illustrate the organisation of experience, and can be compared with the analyses of mind in the preceding sections. A brief summary of the significance of the forms is given in the endnotes. 4

The relevance of the tantric system can be illustrated with a few examples of the points of comparison between the descriptions of the delusional mood given above, and the meaning of the goddess forms. For example, an aspect of Kali is the apprehension of absolute Time, in the sense of perpetual changeless duration, which resonates with the alterations of time perception, notably the sense of timelessness or extended present described by some individuals in psychosis. Moreover, an encounter with Kali is said to involve a deeply unsettling or terrifying negation of form, knowledge, and desires: this reflects the sense of the unreality or hollowness of the physical world and the loss of previous interpretational schema seen in the delusional mood, as well as the physical disturbances of appetite, libido, and sleep that frequently accompany it.

Tripura Sundari represents a kind of cognition in which universal themes or significance are revealed in relative perceptions, through the loss of constraint by concepts of time, space, and relative significance. This can be interpreted as the same phenomenon as the perception of metaphorical meaning in events (delusional perception), and this kind of cognition is facilitated by a meditation approach which also culminates in a loss of subject/object boundaries.

Chhinnamasta represents the realization of the illusion of embodied existence and the thought-composed mind: in other words, the painful process of ego sacrifice. The meditation approach is to turn the attention to the process of perception itself, and there are obvious comparisons to be drawn with the subjectivization of the physical world and ego disturbances that are core features of the delusional mood. [End Page 333]

Comparisons, Similarities, and Implications

From the Eastern spiritual systems examined, a basic structure of mystical experience can be extracted. The attention is turned inward, away from involvement in practical or worldly matters, so that the process of perception itself is the focus of attention. The thoughts and perceptions that arise are passively experienced, leading to nonidentification with these mental events. The discriminating aspect of the mind perceives that the self as subject is not identical with any mental event, but is an abstraction from pure awareness, which illuminates every mental event. Consequential to this are the realizations that the true nature of reality transcends the subject/object dichotomy, that the self is not a discrete entity and has no definitive boundaries against the world, and that the division of the world into entities is a function of the mind. This existential stance constitutes a radical alteration of the structure of experience, so that the old ontology of the material world in contrast to an independently existing self is unsustainable.

The similarities between this state and the psychotic state or delusional mood are immediately apparent: the shift of attention away from practical and social worlds and away from sensorimotor activity, the loss of distinction between the subjective and objective worlds, the concurrent erosion of the experience of self, and the loss or serious weakening of the prior ontology that depends on the cognitive structural framework of time, space, substance, identity, and so on.

Moreover, the epistemologies of the systems examined validate the experience of psychosis, in a sense, in that the material world, and the embodied, thought-composed, independently existent, and discrete self are held to be delusions of the ordinary mind, obscuring a more unified fundamental reality that transcends the relative phenomenal world perceived via the categories of understanding. Accounts of the delusional mood that describe the world as illusory, so much empty scenery, or pervaded by knowing chimes with this view of the phenomenal world as a manifestation of pure awareness. Psychotic notions of mental efficacy are also mirrored in these religious systems in that the causal power of thought is seen in visualization practices found in Hindu Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism.

Finally, in the Tantric Yogic system we see reference to both the bliss of the transcendent vision and the terror and anxiety that can be caused by the shift in cognitive organization. Psychotic episodes sometimes begin with a period of ecstatic revelation before the fear and confusion more usually associated with psychosis start to emerge. Moreover, a sense of rebirth or awakening may accompany the initial stage, which might be interpreted as delusory, but is taken quite literally in the spiritual systems.

However, despite the different normative ideal of sanity, the tantric systems acknowledge the dangers of spiritual experiences, and give accounts of mental disorder in terms of imbalances of spiritual energies, which relate to altered experiential structure as well as emotional and physical symptoms. 5 This attitude is not peculiar to tantra; in North American Indian thought, mystical experiences come in two kinds: the beautiful and the dangerous. In diverse religious traditions, one finds the notion that mystical experiences should only be approached with caution, with thorough grounding in basic spiritual practices, and wherever possible with guidance from appropriate teachers or religious groups.

Jewish (Kabbalistic) mysticism is no exception: risks are considered to be posed by entry into ecstatic states, loss of boundaries, and revelations that are unverifiable. In particular, it is suggested that novice mystics may suffer dangerously extreme emotional responses of elation or despair from their mystical experiences of expansion or contraction of self. Quashayri (an 11th century mystic) stated that expansion is the greatest danger, leading to grandiosity and solipsistic delusions. Thus distinctions are drawn between beneficial and pathological altered states of consciousness, even where there is an extensive common element between them.


Although exhibiting a very similar conceptual structure, a psychotic state differs from a mystical [End Page 334] state in the following ways: (1) a maintenance of the ego structure, albeit in a distorted or fragmented fashion, and a concurrent maintenance of some subject/object distinctions; (2) less ability to control attention; and (3) less ability to maintain equanimity, demonstrated by emotionality, confusion, and anxiety. These factors impact the subjective experience of the individual in ways that can be understood to lead to the formation of the kinds of delusions to which a psychotic label is attached.

All the systems examined emphasize the need for groundwork to be laid before the ontological shift takes place: as the old ego structure (represented by the assumption of a discrete self to whom certain experiences belong) is threatened by the new ontology, negative emotional reactions to the experience may occur. Only if the ego structure can be relinquished (in the sense of a suspension of attachment to or identification with certain aspects of experience), and equanimity maintained throughout the process, will the transformation occur without problems. The dangers occur if the ego structures are not abandoned, so that residual subject/object distinctions and self-identifications are experienced. If this happens in the altered state, when attention is turned inward on the subjective experience, the experience will become distorted: a self will be identified either in the totality of perceptions, leading to the expansive experience that the world is constituted entirely by oneself alone, or else the self will be identified with the bare subject, leading to the contractive experience of negation and loss of will.

In other words, if when the ego structure is threatened by the undifferentiated experience of awareness, the intellect attempts to reestablish objects and thus reify the self, a unification of perceptions by reference to a self may occur, leading to the perception either that the world consists of the self, or that the self constitutes the world. Alternatively, in attempting to find the self as subject in awareness, and failing (because there is no differentiation within this experience), the intellect may dichotomize the experience into a negated or empty self and an active world. If the individual attempts to interpret the experience in terms of mundane schema (the epistemological organization of which will be incompatible with the undifferentiated experience), it is possible to see how delusions of grandeur and omnipotence on the one hand, or delusions of passivity, control, or observation on the other, could emerge.


Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. (Zen proverb)

This examination of mystical and psychotic states of consciousness has brought out some general points regarding the nature of the mind and the locus of pathology in psychosis, as well as the distinctions that can be made between the states. First, the mind seems best viewed as a dynamic system of processes capable of operating via different existential organizations. This can be seen in the developmental changes that occur in childhood, as well as in the changes that can be effected through meditational practice. It follows that psychosis need not necessarily be viewed as the result of a physical disease process, because alterations of the dynamic system can be achieved through intentional causation as well as nonintentional causation. 6

The relationship between spiritual and psychotic states seems to be very close, because they exhibit similar organizational features and may be caused by the same kinds of processes. Both spiritual and psychotic experiences can occur spontaneously, and practices intended to bring about spiritual experiences may cause psychotic states if the practice is not well supported. Moreover, altered forms of experience that occur spontaneously may be identical to spiritual states, but may transmute into psychotic states depending on the response by the individual.

The pathology that differentiates the psychotic from the benign mystical state lies not in the content of beliefs, or even in the broad form of experience, but in a few interrelated commonsense factors. It consists of an inability to return to the ontological framework of consensus reality; in psychological isolation, and inability to accommodate to the subjectivity of others; in a [End Page 335] focus of interest in the mental realm and loss of practical concerns that leads to paucity of action and neglect of self-care.

These factors can be seen to be related to differences in the organization of experience that in turn can be related to various causal factors. As discussed, maintenance of the ego structures or processes of self-identification during the alteration of experience caused by turning the attention inward leads to a state in which the individual is seeking meaning in the very connections that her or his own mind is generating, or in other words, approaching her or his own subjectivity from a distance, as if it were an object. This isolates the individual in a kind of goldfish bowl of her or his own subjectivity, unable to act and cognize in direct interaction with the external world, because all events are perceived via the reified filter of her or his necessarily self-referential preoccupations.

Moreover, if the ego structures are maintained, attempts will be made to reify the individual's sense of existence and identity by creating models that conceptualize the position of the self with regards to the (fluid and self-reflective) world. Because the epistemological dimension apparent to the individual in the altered state will not be amenable to capture in ordinary conceptual terms, because it essentially transcends the divisions and contrasts made by the discriminating intellect, this project is doomed to failure. However, because the fundamental identity of the individual is threatened, finding an epistemological framework that lends ontological security becomes of absolute prime importance to the subjective survival of the individual.

As these cognitive structures are laid down, each layer forming the basic assumptions upon which further cognitions depend, they relax the ontological insecurity and are too valuable to the ego in terms of shoring up personal identity to be abandoned. However, reflecting as they will the distorted epistemology of the mystical vision objectified, they will be incompatible with consensus reality, which depends on a different epistemological framework.

The ego structures are likely to be maintained if the alteration in consciousness is not prepared for or expected. Thus, if a neuropharmacologic or neurofunctional alteration is caused by physical or environmental factors or psychoactive drug use, an initial mystical state may be very likely to precipitate a pathological psychotic reaction. Interpretation in terms of religious themes and concepts, as is seen frequently in psychosis, can be understood as representing the best fit with the mystical experiences undergone, although they can be pathological or not, depending on to what extent the defense of the ego depends on them. Therefore, experiences interpreted as religious can be psychotic, even though they have a genuine affiliation to religious experiences.

Benign mystical experiences therefore can be seen to involve an identical disintegration of the mundane worldview, but the experience can be passed through and reintegrated because an appropriate perspective is taken toward the process. This seems to consist most centrally in the suspension of identificatory processes, which facilitates a truly nondualistic attitude toward experience; this in turn allows for a fundamental transformation in existential perspective, without expansion or contraction of the sense of self, or a loss of central coherence. Thus, in psychosis there may be an objectivization of thoughts that leads to an ascription of externality or alien provenance; in mysticism a lack of identification with thoughts leads to freedom from blind reaction to their content.

In the wake of mystical experience, there is no persistent or damaging loss of interest in the physical or mundane world, because it is appreciated that the transcendent vision lies at the basis of mundane cognition, and is not separate from it; the world as it appears to the transcendent vision is identical to and manifests in the mundane world. Most important is the ability to maintain equanimity during the disintegration of the familiar ontology, to remain unattached to any particular idea or belief that may emerge as a conceptualization of the experience, and to avoid externalizing the process by perceiving the changes as originating in the world (of consensus reality) rather than in the self. 7 Because the experience represents perception without the filter of cognitive frameworks, it should be left implicit [End Page 336] as the basis for ordinary cognition, not made explicit (and distorted) as factual statements. This is reflected in the Zen paradox, which seeks to communicate the way rational thought cannot capture total reality (Watts, 1957).

In contrast, the psychotic invests the conceptualization of the experience with great emotional significance, because it serves the purpose of contextualizing and reifying the sense of identity, which is under threat. This acts as a pressure to maintain the new schemata, even when they conflict with events and the schemata of other people. What is sometimes described as poor reality testing might be better described as the failure to accommodate to the frustration of desires or expectations. The delusional pattern of cognition is to accommodate in a way that elaborates on the existing structure, rather than supplanting it (Leeser and O'Donohue, 1999). Thus a pathological feature could be identified as the inability to drop the new model and to tolerate the consequent loss of structural stability and personal security.

Finally, it is fruitful to step back from the close-up view of the form of altered experience and look at the psychotic or mystic in the larger context of society. As has been noted, the crucial feature of the psychotic is the tension between his subjectivity and that of other people, and the paradox that other people pose for the psychotic epistemology. Because the person in psychosis is perceiving events colored heavily by his new interpretative framework, which effectively externalizes his personal emotive themes, it is extremely difficult for him to take into account other people's perspectives.

This amounts to a dropping out of the matrix of shared frames of reference that constitutes the public domain of intersubjectivity. This is probably the prime factor that leads to the labeling of a person as psychotic, although it can be seen that the mystical vision may also be incompatible with intersubjective reality, because it involves a different ontological framework. Successful communication involves adopting a shared frame of reference with the other person, and the psychotic tendency to assimilate and not accommodate to conflicting frameworks means that she or he falls prey to a vicious circle of social isolation and incomprehensibility. Conflicting paradigms presented by other people's subjectivities, and particularly doubt and skepticism, could be expected to threaten the already undermined subjectivity of the psychotic person, leading him or her to reify and elaborate his or her framework in defense. The fundamental loss of trust in others, and of others in the psychotic individual, may frequently fuel paranoid ideation.

To conclude, therefore, it appears that a detailed appreciation of the deep connections between mystical and psychotic experiences may be of relevance to the understanding of the psychotic condition. This can only facilitate greater empathy with those in apparently incomprehensible psychotic states, as well as encouraging therapeutic strategies based on examining the individual's emotional response to and metacognitions about psychotic phenomena. It also supports a reconsideration of the implicitly assumed working definition of psychosis.


Caroline Brett is currently pursuing a doctorate in Psychology examining processes involved in clinical and nonclinical incidence of anomalous experience. She read Philosophy & Psychology at Christ Church, Oxford, graduating in 1998. In 2000 she studied for the Master's of Science in Philosophy of Mental Disorder at King's College London and the Institute of Psychiatry. She can be contacted at Caroline Box P 067, Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF. E-mail: c.brett@iop.kcl.ac.uk.


1. The differentiation of prepsychotic from psychotic symptoms is not firmly established, but the delusional mood has been chosen as a common early state, involving a cluster of related perceptual and cognitive changes, which frequently seems to precede (and possibly underlie) the emergence of frank delusions or hallucinations.

2. This is a speculative model, and the concepts employed may benefit from some elucidation. The model assumes that ordinary self-aware cognition involves a constant integration of active generative processes and passive receptive processes that are effectively two sides of the same coin of agential consciousness. The model is based on the observation that subjective mental events include both goal-directed cognitions generated according to the agenda of the agent, and an awareness of stimuli from both external and internal sources. The self is both agent and subject of its own mental processes. Therefore, if the focus of attention is applied to subjective mental contents, and these are apprehended by means of conceptual structures or categories, specifically the subject/object distinction that creates the self-existent external world and internal self, the self-generated contents of cognition could be objectified and experienced as alien. The passive processes of the aware subject, which ordinarily intend the full scope of externally and internally derived stimuli, [End Page 337] which are represented as objective, and subjective, respectively, now intend this representation. The self as subject remains, but in a contracted role.

(There is no assumption of isomorphism between this conceptual model and the neurologic mechanisms that might implement it: that is, it is not assumed that there are two separate mechanisms, one of which generates cognition and one of which is aware of or represents cognition, because this would be to import illegitimate intentional concepts into neuropsychology.)

3. For a more detailed exposition of the epistemology and philosophy of Buddhism, see Watts (1957), Wallace (1996), and Izutsu (1982).

4. The 10 Forms of the Goddess are as follows. Kali represents Time, in the relative sense of transience and mortality, and the absolute sense of perpetual changeless duration. The state of mind conceptualised as an encounter with Kali is said to be frightening to the ordinary vision, and involves the power of the negation of form, knowledge, and desires.

Bhuvaneshvari represents Space, both physical and mental, in the relative sense of place, direction, and measurement, and in the absolute sense of the matrix in which things grow. The meditation approach is to cultivate an attitude of uninvolvement with the objects of perception, so that one becomes a passive witness.

Tara represents The Word, in the relative sense of the differentiation of meanings through sound, and the absolute sense of the creative vibration that is the basis of all relative meaning.

Tripura Sundari represents the Light of perception that is manifest in relative perceptions: freed of the concepts of time, space, and relative significance, it is said that each perception reveals the eternal presence and becomes a universe in itself. The meditation approach is to cultivate the experience that there is no differentiation to be made between the perceiver and the perceived, and in this state of unity, the mind is stopped and enters a blissful state.

Bhairavi represents Energy, in the relative sense of speech, and the absolute sense of unarticulated will power. She is connected with the arousal of Tejas, which burns away the illusions and limitations of egocentric existence, and her power is said to be terrifying. As such, she is an awesome force that should not be aroused unless the individual is ready.

Chhinnamasta represents Perception beyond the ordinary mind: the realisation of the illusion of embodied existence and the thought-composed mind. The meditation approach is to attend to the perceptual process, and thereby to withdraw self- identification with thoughts and objects, with the result that the world is perceived as a shifting pattern of perceptions that thought divides into objects, but that do not have substantiality. The process is described as extremely frightening and even physically painful, and is said to remove the person permanently from the realm of ordinary existence. The initial stages of the process are liable to cause doubt and anxiety, as one loses one's ordinary sense of identity. The pain of the ego sacrifice is said to cause a radical reorganisation of the energies (and thus mind), which is experienced as rebirth.

Matangi represents Knowledge in the sense of articulated thought, particularly maverick or mystical thought, inspiration.

Dhumavati represents Voidness, in the absolute sense of unmanifest potential energy before the impulse of Will; self-illumining reality free of the duality of subject and object. In the relative sense, she represents the wisdom of ignoring or forgetting opinions and beliefs. The meditation approach is to become detached from apparent realities, to withdraw from the familiar or known: this is achieved by discarding thoughts and focus on objects, and attending to the background presence in which they occur.

5. Mental Disorder according to Tantric systems is as follows. The Eastern spiritual systems outlined describe various mental disorders that are associated with spiritual practice. These disorders as described appear similar to psychotic symptoms and disorders as identified by Western psychiatry, although they are never identified by the content of beliefs, only by physical symptoms, manner, and appearance of the individual. The framework of the tantric systems allows both nonintentional causes (e.g., diet, physical fatigue or stress, and insomnia) and intentional causes (e.g., dynamic imbalance caused by the practice of meditation, emotional or mental stress, and life changes) to play a role in the development of these disorders through the impact of either kind of factor on the energetic processes. The factors that impact on the energetic processes correspond very closely to the factors identified by Western psychiatric practice as precipitating psychotic breaks.

Tibetan Buddhism describes a specific kind of disorder that is associated with improper meditation practice. It is most likely to arise in meditators who are improperly instructed in methods designed to concentrate the mind, who develop an altered state (concentration) without first dealing with negative emotions and fears, who do not balance discrimination-perception with feeling-awareness so that concentration involves effort, or who worry about spiritual progress when the mind is already concentrated to such a degree that external sensory inputs no longer occur. The main features of this disorder are racing thoughts, anxiety, restlessness, an inability to concentrate effectively on another's words, and reluctance to answer questions. The mind and speech jump from subject to subject, [End Page 338] often before one thought is completely finished. This is an example of intentional factors causing disturbed mental functioning that appears to resemble a kind of manic psychosis.

According to the Tantric Yogic system, imbalances of the three elements of Prana, Tejas, and Ojas can manifest in mental disorders. Because the elements are affected by both physical and mental factors, certain disorders can be caused by spiritual practices, indicating again that psychotic states can be viewed as "intentionally" caused dynamic imbalances. However, it is held that temporary imbalances may occur as adjustment phases in the process of liberation from ordinary consciousness. Unusual pranic movements, the experience of powerful emotions, visions, hearing inner sounds, contacting gurus and deities telepathically, and so on, are not necessarily recognised as signs of disorders in this system, implying that genuine spiritual growth may lead to mild psychotic symptoms.

Excess Prana is said to cause loss of mental control and loss of sensory and motor coordination, with possible tremors or erratic movements. One feels ungrounded, out, and as though one is losing one's mind or sense of identity. Anxiety and palpitations may occur, along with insomnia, a general experience of disequilibrium, or hyperventilation.

Excess Tejas is said to cause an overly critical and discriminating mind, with pressure of speech, possible delirium, and pressure or pain in the head. Clarity is excessive or destructive; anger, irritability, and enmity are possible, as well as pathologic doubt. One can become manipulative, dominating, fault finding with others, and may have delusions of power and knowledge as well as paranoia.

When Ojas is deficient (it is burned up by high Tejas and Prana), the mind and emotions are unstable, one is easily bothered by lights and noises, and there is fear, anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. One lacks confidence, is unable to concentrate, and memory becomes poor. There will be little consistency to thoughts or balance to emotions. Nervous exhaustion or mental breakdowns become possible.

One way to conceptualise the relationship is to see Tejas as power, Prana as velocity, and Ojas as capacity: if you develop the either of the former without sufficient Ojas it is like trying to put 1000 watts into a 100-watt bulbthe bulb will burst.

One category of serious disturbance is that of Kundalini disorders, which involve wrong movement of Prana, causing disturbed mental or neuromuscular functioning, or premature development of Tejas. Depending on the laterality of the channel, the Kundalini energy becomes redirected into, either grandiosity and a domineering attitude are displayed, or unstable emotional states and deranging psychic abilities. If the energy switches back and forth, Vata (Wind) disorders are created, with insomnia, hallucinations, fear, and anxiety.

Thus the tantric system accounts for psychotic disorders in terms of the spiritual energies, which can also be related to the conceptual account. A distinction is drawn between healthy or pure spiritual experiences, and the genuine but one-sided or pathologic experiences that may stem from flawed spiritual practice or other environmental and psychological factors.

6. Whether this interpretation is suitable for all or only a subsector of psychotic states is beyond the scope of this paper; however, it is not incompatible with biopsychosocial models, which emphasise the role of genetic and neurodevelopmental factors in the aetiology of psychotic disorders.

7. The writings of Stanislav Grof express very similar conclusions regarding the factors that distinguish the psychotic process from the mystical one. In Beyond the Brain (1985, 303-7), Grof writes:

Functional matrices that are instrumental in psychotic episodes are intrinsic and integral parts of human personality. The same perinatal and transpersonal matrices that are involved in psychotic breakdowns can, under certain circumstances, mediate the process of spiritual transformation and consciousness evolution. The critical problem in understanding psychosis is, then, to identify the factors that distinguish the psychotic process from the mystical one . . . The individual's capacity to keep the process internalized, 'own' it as an intrapsychic happening, and complete it internally without acting on it prematurely is clearly associated with the mystical attitude. . . Exteriorization of the process, excessive use of the mechanism of projection, and indiscriminate acting out are characteristic of the psychotic style in confronting one's psyche . . . Psychotic states thus represent an interface confusion between the inner world and consensus reality . . . An experience of unity with the divine that is well completed and integrated involves a sense of deep peace, tranquility, and serenity . . . Schizophrenic patients, on the other hand, tend to interpret their experiential connection with the divine in terms of their uniqueness and their special role in the universal scheme of things. They evaluate the relevance of their new insights in terms of their identification with their everyday personalities or body-egos, which they have not surrendered.


Alloy, L. B., and N. Tabachnik. 1984. Assessment of covariation by humans and animals: the joint influence of prior expectations and current situational information. Psychological Review 91:112-49.

American Psychiatric Association (APA). 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: Author. [End Page 339]

Baron-Cohen, S. 1992. Reading the eyes: evidence for the role of perception in the development of a theory of mind. Mind & Language7:1-2.

Bhugra, D. 1996. Religion and psychiatry: context, consensus and controversies. New York: Routledge.

Chadwick, P. 2001. Sanity to supersanity to insanity: A personal journey. In Psychosis and spirituality: Exploring the new frontier (pp. 75-89).Ed. I. Clarke. London: Whurr.

Chadwick, P. 1992. BorderlineA psychological study of paranoia and delusional thinking. New York: Routledge.

Chadwick, P. D. J., and M. Birchwood. 1994. The omnipotence of voices: A cognitive approach to auditory hallucinations. British Journal of Psychiatry 164:190-201.

Frawley, D. 1994. Tantric yoga and the wisdom goddesses. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Fromm, E. l970. Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism. New York: Harper & Row.

Gallagher, S. 1997. Mutual enlightenment: Recent phenomenology in cognitive science. Journal of Consciousness Studies 4:195-214.

Garety, P. A. 1985. Delusions: Problems in definition and measurement. British Journal of Medical Psychology 58:25-34.

Graham, G., and G. L. Stephens. 1994. Self-consciousness, mental agency, and the clinical psychopathology of thought insertion. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology 1:1-12.

Graham, G., G. L. Stephens. 1996. Psychopathology, freedom, and the experience of externality. Philosophical Topics 24, no. 2:159-182.

Greenberg, D., Witztum E., and Buckbinder J. T. 1992. Mysticism and psychosis: The fate of Ben Zoma. British Journal of Medical Psychology 65:223-35.

Grof, S. 1985. Beyond the brain: Birth, death, and transcendence in psychotherapy. Albany: State University of New York.

Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. 1976. Mysticism: Spiritual quest or psychic disorder? New York: G.A.P. Publications.

Hundert, E. 1990a. Philosophy, psychiatry and neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hundert, E. 1990b. Are psychotic illnesses category disorders? In Philosophy and Psychopathology. Ed. Spitzer, M., and B. Maher. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Izutsu, T. 1982. Toward a philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Boulder, CO: Praja Press, 1982.

Jackson, M., and K. Fulford, K. 1997. Spiritual experience and psychopathology. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 4:41-65.

Kant, I. 1781/1934. Critique of pure reason. Trans. J. D. M. Meiklejohn. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.

Klein, P. 1990. On the development of categories. In Philosophy and Psychopathology. Ed. Spitzer, M., and B. Maher. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Laing, R. D. 1967. The politics of experience. Harmondsworth: London: Penguin.

Leeser, J., and W. O'Donohue. 1999. What is a delusion? Epistemological dimensions. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 108, no. 4:687-94.

Mahadevan, T. l974. An invitation to Indian philosophy. New York: Humanities Press.

Maharshi, R. 1997. Supplement to Reality in forty verses, in The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi (1997) ed. Arthur Osborne. York Beach: USA Red Wheel/Weiser.

Maher, B. A. 1988. Delusions as the product of normal cognitions. In Delusional beliefs. Ed. T. F. Oltmanns and B. A. Maher. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Mishara, A., and M. A. Schwartz. 1997. Psychopathology in the light of emergent trends in the philosophy of consciousness, neuropsychiatry, and phenomenology. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 10:383-9.

Peters, E. 2001. Are delusions on a continuum? The case of religious and delusional beliefs. In Spirituality and psychosis: Exploring the new frontier. Ed. I. Clarke. London: Whurr.

Peters, E. R., S. Day, J. McKenna, and G. Orbach. l999. The incidence of delusional ideation in religious and psychotic populations. British Journal of Clinical Psychology 38:83-96.

Peters, E. R., S. Joseph, and P. A. Garety. 1999. The assessment of delusions in normal and psychotic populations: Introducing the PDI (Peters et al. Delusions Inventory). Schizophrenia Bulletin 25:553-76.

Piaget, J. 1937/1954. The construction of reality in the child. Trans. M. Cook. New York: Basic Books.

Radhakrishnan, S. l95l. Indian philosophy. Vol 1. New York: Macmillan.

Sass, L. A. 1994. The paradoxes of delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber and the schizophrenic mind. London: Cornell University Press.

Saver, J. L., and J. Rabin. 1997. The neural substrates of religious experience. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 9:498-510.

Spitzer, M. 1990. Kant on schizophrenia. In Philosophy and Psychopathology. Ed. Spitzer, M., and B. Maher. 1990. Philosophy and psychopathology. New York: Springer-Verlag. [End Page 340]

Wallace, B. A. 1996. Choosing reality: A Buddhist view of physics and the mind. New York: Snow Lion.

Watts, A. W. 1957. The way of Zen. New York: Pantheon

Wiggins, O.P., Schwartz, M.A., and Northoff G. 1990. Toward a Husserlian phenomenology of the initial stages of schizophrenia. In Philosophy and Psychopathology. Ed. Spitzer, M., and B. Maher. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Back to articles

Contact about this site