Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mysticism and Mental Illness: A Quaker Book Review

Book Review written by Poodledoc:

Dancing with God Through the Storm: Mysticism and Mental Illness
by Jennifer Elam

When a person has a profound, life-changing psychological experience, sometimes there is confusion as to whether this is a mystical happening or the person is “crazy”, as though what happened is a manifestation of mental illness. How do we, as Friends, support the individual, help them to become clear about the distinction between something wondrous and something that may be pathological in nature. And, in terms of support, does it really matter what we “label” the experience?

Jennifer Elam, a Quaker psychologist, explores the differences (and similarities) between mysticism and mental illness in this book through interviews with over 100 individuals, mostly Quaker, who shared their very moving personal experiences.

As you might imagine, these experiences varied quite a bit. For some, there was a diagnosis of mental illness and the person struggled through hard times, but eventually reached clarity on the spiritual aspect of the experience. Often this struggling occurred alone. For others, their Meetings were very nurturing as the individuals explored these difficult things. Often, with loving support, the individuals were able to share their experiences with the Meeting without fear of being labeled “crazy”. There is a stigma about both mental illness and mystical experiences in our society, and that stigma, unfortunately, carries over to Quaker Meeting. As one of the interviewees put it: “Some see it as a reaction to stress, saying, “You need to take care of yourself.” Others see it as a spiritual experience, saying, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

Ms Elam makes a distinction about what she regards as mental illness and what she regards as spiritual experience. She contends that there is a small area of overlap. However, pathology and mysticism appear very distinct in most of the people interviewed here. She shares many of the stories of her subjects, in their own words, and talks about how these issues are part of the individual’s life journey. For example, Elam suggests that depression is not “bad” or a “breakdown”, but part of a transformation in our lives. While she does not minimize how difficult and painful depression can be, she opens up new ways of seeing the experience. She has a gift of being able to help the reader place these experiences in the context of their life. Or, for those accompanying people on this kind of journey, the same wisdom can be useful as well. And, she discusses how to determine if it is safe to share these experiences with specific people.

There are several things I enjoyed about the book. Although she provides her definitions of mysticism and a mental illness, this book is a query for us to make a personal decision about what may be two sides of the same coin.. I enjoyed reading about the wide variety of experiences people had as they “wrestled with God”, as the author puts it, and about how these experiences inform our lives. And how do we, as a Meeting, stay open to member’s experiences, messages, and struggles in these areas, without being fearful and placing a label to keep the person, and their experience(s), at a distance?

In closing, here’s a story from one of the other interviewees:

“When I was eight or nine, I had a profound experience. It was very important and real, but I have not shared it until now. I was scared it would be ridiculed.
My dog was ill. I wanted it tended, but it was too late. It had to be put to sleep. As a youngster, I was quite upset that I hadn’t been able to stop the dog’s death. I went into the woods, cried, and then fell asleep. Later, an enormous light awakened me; it illuminated the woods and comforted me. I did not hear voices as such, but there was a knowing: ‘You are loved. All will be well.’
I had to walk fifteen minutes to get home. As I walked, remembering the light, feeling the knowing, I resolved to help the rejected and neglected people of the world.
It has taken until now, at age 65, for me to share these valuable experiences in my life.”

Had this person felt safe to share her story earlier, who knows how many others it would have inspired?

Sometimes the Light comes from the darkest places in our lives. This book explores how we can share these experiences to become spiritually stronger and in the process, bring gifts to our community, making it more loving and spiritually accepting.

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