Insane for the Light: Psychosis and Mysticism

St. Teresa of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila

“Everyone has to have a spirituality and everyone does have one, either a life-giving one or a destructive one. No one has the luxury of choosing here because all of us are precisely fired into life with a certain madness that comes from the gods and we have to do something with that. We do not wake up in this world calm and serene, having the luxury of choosing to act or not to act. We wake up crying, on fire with desire, with madness. What we do with that madness is our spirituality.”

Ron Rolheiser, The Holy Longing.

 “The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight”

Joseph Campbell

“This prayer is a glorious foolishness, a heavenly madness where the true wisdom is learned; and it is for the soul a most delightful way of enjoying.”

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582 CE)

“The psychotic brother thinks he is Jesus Christ and only he. I think I’m Jesus Christ, and everyone else too.”

Ram Dass

“Jesus is sitting on the bench in the waiting room. He wants to talk with you.”  Parish office manager Bill Wallace had a wry smile. The first sips of good coffee were bringing me to a more alert consciousness. “Jesus”, I said in the Spanish pronunciation. Jesus was a very common name among our parishioners here in the Logan Barrio of Santa Ana, California.

“No, Jesus is waiting for you”, stressing the Anglicized pronunciation.

OK! I open the heavy security door that guards the inner offices from the waiting room. I see a slight, thin, heavily bearded Anglo man, about 50 years old, sitting on the wooden bench, eyes closed as if nodding off. He sees me and his eyes widen with a smile.

“Good morning. Would you like a cup of coffee?” I ask.

“Yes, with four packs of sugar and some cream.”

We both hold our coffee and I sit next to him.  He has been on the street a long time and the smell is  strong.

“I am Jesus Christ and I have come to talk with you and give you my blessing.”

The flight of ideas flood forth. How does he breathe between this rapid firing narrative? He tells me how he had been sent to bring blessing and to fight the devils in our midst. He tells me what God says to him, especially at night: how clear God’s voice was for him. After a while, fatigue seems to set in. I make him a hot Cup A Soup. The intensity fades. He becomes quieter, able to listen to me.

“Where did you spend the night?” I ask.

“Under the carport behind Legal Aid”.

At some point I have to go to a meeting. I thank him for visiting me and ask for his blessing.

Over the next weeks I meet “Jesus” again. He was panicked and frightened. Demonic voices assaulted him. He asked me to pray that God would drive these evil voices out of him. He frequently comes to the community lunch the Catholic Worker serves up in the inner courtyard of the church. Other times I pass him with a friendly greeting on a busy city street. He returns to visit me. We seem to build some trust and I am able to get the County mental health team to come by and do an assessment.  He goes off with them, medications are given at some point and a plan unfolds to get him off the street into a shelter.  Jesus stayed a few nights, I understand, but escaped back to the streets and stopped taking the medications.

Buddist monk

Buddist monk

I remember it was March, during Lent. I arrived for the early morning mass, parking in the Jack in the Box lot behind the church. Several police cars were in the lot, a huddle of officers. I approached them to find out what was going on, and they nodded toward a small patch of grass on the edge of the parking lot. A yellow tarp covered a human body. It was Jesus. He had died during the night of some kind of seizure, we later found out. I asked if I could pray for him. I knelt beside him, my knees soaking in the wet grass. Thick raindrops pattered on the heavy yellow tarp.  I never did learn his real name.

This memory bubbled up into consciousness last night, after I returned from the world religions class I teach at Saddleback College, Mission Viejo, CA. I had presented the first lecture and discussion on Hinduism, beginning with an exploration of mysticism. This is a very bright, vocal class this semester. One student asked “What is the difference between mystical experience and schizophrenia or psychosis?” We pondered that question over the next half hour, and the energetic dialogue echoed into my last thoughts before sleep. When I woke up this morning, the memory of “Jesus” popped into consciousness.

In his Varieties of Religious Experience, William James explores a continuum of mystical consciousness from the non-religious to ecstatic religious experiences. He presents these four characteristics:

v Noetic: not a “peak experience” but a life changing encounter. Life is never the same after this.

v Ineffible: the experience defies expression. Due to its subjective nature, the experience is much like a state of feeling

v Transient: the experience quickly fades. It is hard to recall the details of the encounter. They remain just out of reach. But some memory content always remains, and this can be used to “modify the inner life of the subject between the time of their recurrence.”

v Passive experience. Even though many people actively study and/or practices techniques to produce mystical states of consciousness, once occurring the mystical experience seems to happen without their will, coming as a surprise when they least expect it.

Black Elk, Sioux shaman

Black Elk, Sioux shaman

Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill adds to these defining characteristics of mysticism another quality:

v  Direct intuition or experience of God“A mystic is a person who has, to a greater or lesser degree, such a direct experience—one whose religion and life are centered, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.”

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism.

I warned my students that as we enter the world of other religious traditions, with Enlightenment philosophy and the scientific method in our mental DNA, we carry a skepticism about ecstatic religious experience. As Max Weber observed, the West has demystified our spiritual heritage.

To create a secular measure of mystical experience, Abraham Maslow writes about “peak-experience,” presenting a continuum of characteristics.  He concludes that these experiences facilitate a sense of integration within an individual.

(Religious Aspects of Peak-Experiences, 1970).

Father Andrew Greely and Father William Johnston speak to us from their personal experience that at the core of mystical experiences is an encounter with love, which brings great joy.

As we study Buddhism and Hinduism, my students will learn that the mystic moves from an awareness that life is transient and impermanent. From the awakening of the soul, through various vehicles as yoga and meditation, quieting the mind, breath and body, becoming detached from things, one may eventually come to the deep place of “pure consciousness” and union with Ultimate Reality/God.

Kenneth Wapnick concludes that there is a final step to this mystical process:  usually persons who have a deep, direct, noetic encounter with the Holy are able to reenter life and integrate the experience into their life with others.

But the question from my students persists: what is the difference between mysticism and psychosis?

Mysticism and psychosis seem to inhabit a similar space.

“I suggest that psychosis…and profound spiritual experiences which is often described as mysticism follow a common process which encompasses euphoria, bewilderment and horror in a sequence that is actual for some of the time and potential for others.”

The Relationship Between Schizophrenia and Mysticism”, Sandra Stahlman, 1992

In psychosis, the person loses touch with reality and cannot integrate the experience.

Dr. Tomas Aqosin, a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, shares these helpful contrasts between psychosis and mysticism:

Hindu Sadhu

Hindu Sadhu

Similarities between psychotic and mystical experiences:

  • Intense subjectivity: the inward focus is so strong that the outside world is unimportant.
  • Noetic: this is an important experience where special knowledge may be revealed.
  • Loss of self-object boundaries. Boundaries between self and the outer world can be blurred; a feeling of unity with nature, other persons and the universe.
  • Distortion of time sense. The present moment becomes the one reality.
  • Perceptual changes: perceptions intensify with hallucinations and visions.
  • Intense affective experiences: Ecstatic emotions, contrasting experiences of fear/awe/dread with deep longing/love/ecstasy (see Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.)
  • Attempt at renewal and healing.  The mystic encounters an expanded consciousness, deep connections with all aspects of life. The psychotic has come to blockage in their life and the way forward is through radical inner change.
  • Altered states of consciousness


  • Attachment to the world: the mystic becomes less attached to the world, seeing its impermanent nature. The psychotic detaches from the world to focus completely on what is going on within; ego boundaries dissolve, emotions can change quickly; diminishing sense of connection to the outer world.
  • Self image: the mystic reduces focus on self, centering on the vast, expansive world/universe. “The psychotic sees him/herself as omnipotent and omniscient. There is a great increase in self-centeredness, with a feeling of being all-important. He/she is the center of the world, and only he/she is sufficiently important to matter.”
  • Serenity: the mystic is connected with the Holy/Ultimate Reality, which gives peace and serenity. The psychotic, because of the emotional and mental chaos, is possessed by fear and anxiety.
  • Change: is the new reality for the mystic. The psychotic fears change, because it increases fear and anxiety
  • Hallucinatory experiences: the mystic encounters radiant light, “superior beings” and enchanting beauty in nature. The psychotic has auditory hallucinations that are frightening and negative.

Dr. Agosin concludes:

“The mystical experience leaves the mystic more connected and involved in the world. He/she expands his/her capacity to love and to serve. The mystic become more appreciative of the beauty and the miracle of life. The mystical experience leaves the individual with a feeling of reverence for all life, embracing every aspect of life and death as sacred.”

 “Psychosis unfortunately most often leaves the person more self-centered. It narrows his/her possibilities of connection with the world because the psychotic needs to protect him/herself from the anxiety that such a connection produces. The psychotic reduces his/her capacity to love because he/she cannot forget him/herself. The psychotic spends so much energy on survival that there is little psychic energy left for more.”

Many times, we don’t know what is happening within a person until after the experience can be reflected upon.

Through the help of science today, there is compassionate help for those struggling with mental illness. And we are living in a time in Western culture of a great awakening of spiritual seeking.

I am walking up the climbing, twisting, winding cow trail through dense creosote brushes along Olancha Creek in the Eastern Sierra. Ahead of me is Olancha Peak in the Sierra Nevada to the west (which appears on the label of those Crystal Geyser water bottles); behind me, Owens Lake.

“I shouldn’t be here,” the inner voice speaks. “I should be home with my family. This is selfish of me to be here on this desert retreat.” The memory is from fifteen years ago. Erik had finished another long cycle of seizures, vomiting, hardly eating or drinking over many days, ending up with a week at Mission Hospital, Mission Viejo, CA. Jan and I were shell-shocked numb, drained by another emotional rollercoaster. Another chapter of the horrific struggles of our son had ended; some sense of stability was with us for a while, but for how long? Things could change so quickly.

I had planned this retreat several months ago. I really shouldn’t be here. The more I think about it, the more I miss my family. I want to hold Erik on my lap and love him. I am at the end of my emotional rope again. This horror movie is stuck on replay. Where can I find a toehold of hope?

I am breathless as I climb; the altitude is getting me. Have to stop frequently to catch my breath, lungs burning; got to wait for that beating heart to slow down. I finish a third bottle of Crystal Geyser water, ironically as Olancha Creek gurgles over rocks and boulders right next to me. Over several hours of hiking and climbing (I lose complete sense of time out here), the brain shifts into neutral, the nagging voices vanish, only the sound of wind whistling through the creosote and the rushing creek. The Sierra Nevada looms closer and closer now, blanketed with thick snow. I begin to see the colors. Late afternoon sun reflects rose and amber on the Sierra, a golden sheen on the rocks ahead. Such beauty. Have to stop and take this in. I seem to be completely alone. The sun is a like a gentle heat lamp basking me with warmth. The empty mind opens to other phrases bubbling up from where?

“The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who trust in his constant love.” Psalm  147. The gospel song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,”

I feel alive. Is this the endorphins from a long, grueling hike?

God is here. God’s love is here. I am remembering the other times in the past when God was there, when I was at the end of my rope and hope.

“Thank you God for the doctors and nurses who cared for Erik. Thank you for the medicine. Thank you for Jan who is my teammate is this battle for Erik’s life. I know we are well past the predictions of his life span, but he is with us. Every day is a gift. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for this beautiful place, for your love for me.”

Walking in this desert place, I have holy help in shaking off the dark voices of despair and confusion and opening my heart to the eternal, loving Presence that is always with me and you, even though we forget.

My friend, Father Ron Rolheiser, reminds me:

“All of us have our own form of psychosis, of mental illness, of personal sickness, wound, dysfunctional history, idiosyncrasy, and plain quirks which distance us from each other. It is not a question of: Are we alienated? It is only a question of: In what ways are we alienated? All of us, as Thoreau says, live lives of quiet desperation and, I might add, of not-so-quiet frustration. All of us spend most of our lives waiting for something else to happen to us. Ninety-nine per center of our lives are spent in a restlessness of one form or the other, waiting for a fuller moment.”  In Exile, 1994-11-09

May my testimonies of encounters with God’s consolation encourage you to continue your pilgrimage in hope, grounded in gratitude for all those times in the past when God’s love enfolded and guided you.


The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902 and A Suggestion About Mysticism, William James

Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill New York: The World Publishing, 1955

Mysticism and Psychosis, by Tomas Agosin, Seeds of Unfolding, Vol VI, No 4, Fall 1989.

Mystical Journey: An Autobiography, William Johnston (Orbis Books, 2006).

The Holy Longing, by Ron Rolheiser.

Mysticism: Holiness East and West, by Denise and John Carmody (Oxford University Press, 1996)

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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5 Responses to Insane for the Light: Psychosis and Mysticism

  1. Leigh Tobias says:

    Your blog is indeed continued life blood and inspiration!

    Thank you,


    Leigh Tobias, Ph.D. FIPA


    462 N. Linden Drive #334,Beverly Hills, CA 90212

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  2. Mark Ross says:

    Yes! Thank you Fr. Brad! My prayers of hope & healing, Jehovah Rapha are with you, Jan & for Erik! Amen! Jesus, Amen!
    Mark Ross

  3. Karen Goran says:

    Thank you, Fr. Brad. I appreciate the clarifications of the differences between mystics and the ‘psychotic.’

    When you were speaking the the omniscience sense of the psychotic ones, it often seems that the mystic’s sense of the
    omniscience imparts a sense of humility. (Would you agree
    or disagree)?

  4. Tanya Tokarski says:

    wow.. I love this.. I had a forced spiritual crisis and was locked up on a section and force fed drugs which killed my soul..
    I knew I was having a spiritual crisis and awakening.. even told them but they wouldnt listen
    Thank you for this
    love and light

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