In ancient cultures of an introspective nature, such as the Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American traditions, the concept of mental illness was entirely non-existent until the Occidental way of perceiving the world began to pervade the globe. Only recently has the term “mental illness” been used at all, and whatever the reasons for its use currently, there has been a monumental surge in the amount of mental illness the world over. In the Hindu tradition, it was said (before the mixing with Occidental reason), that an insane person was one in closest proximity to God. How strange, that a deranged person might be considered closest to the totality which pervades all of existence…or is it? Have we lost touch with reality as we drift farther and farther away from our religious and philosophical origins? Have we become estranged from ourselves, the results being mental illness sprouting like wildfire? Or are the ways of the past only primitive and underdeveloped ways of dealing with the human psyche? And what, at root, is the cause of mental illness on the first place? Due to the size of this monumental inquiry, I have separated this work into smaller, more digestible pieces. The first will discuss the relationship between mental illness and religious and philosophical experience. The second will delve specifically into the work of current psychology and a number of clinicians who all attempted to explain the phenomenon of human mental suffering. Thirdly and finally, the reaches of the final amalgamative solution will be explored, in which the combination of philosophy, religion and psychology will be used to derive some sort of conclusion (if there is one to be derived at all.)
Part 1: Religion, Philosophy and Theology in Relation to Mental Illness
Before the young and hopeful science of psychology was born, human beings relied heavily upon spiritual experience and philosophical insight for introspection. Humans by nature are introspective and whether we would like to be it or not; we are constantly subconsciously questioning and analysing our own minds. The human brain remains the most complex and misunderstood form of carbon-based life in the known universe, and rightfully so; it is said in Zen Buddhist scripture (Soto Zen) that an object can never be the object of its own knowledge. The intricacies of the human psyche run deep beneath the earth, and far into the sky. It occupies the middle position in the world, for we are the perceivers that perceive; in fact in many religions of the Orient it is argued that at our base consciousness is all we ever are and can be. For eons human beings have looked within for answers to the most fundamental questions, and only recently have we begun to scratch the surface of our immense collective awareness. Part of this scratching of the surface has been the exploration of mental illness, ailments of the mind which prevent a human being from functioning within the hierarchical structures we have imprisoned ourselves in (for good reason).
But before the rise of psychology and its various schools of thought, the clergy was used (in innumerable forms) for suspiciously therapeutic use. “At their root, all forms of therapy are a variation of Catharsis, which stems from the Greek tradition…” (Carl G. Jung Modern Man in Search of a Soul). In churches, temples, and other spiritual places of gathering; the clergy, priest, guru, or other spiritual leader in the community always provided wisdom and insight. They also provided the participant the art of the confession, upon which the very foundations of psychotherapy have been laid. The process of the confession and the catharsis are at root one on the same, and thus serve the same purpose, if only under the guise of difference of symbolism and nature. It is the common perception to distinguish religion (and its practices) entirely from science; however, it is clear that throughout history, religion, philosophy, and spirituality have been the science of the psyche. There are of course, very fundamental differences however between the perception of religion as it is commonly found, and the manner in which I am currently speaking of religion. Dogma, tradition, and decay pervade the religious systems of old, just as they pervade any sort of structured system. True religion is not the systems that come about due to the spiritual experience, and for this reason I refer to religion as this: A system of ideals, symbols, and stories which abstractly pertain to the spiritual essence of the human psyche, and thus by extension, the Universe itself. This is the essence of religion. Myth is a large component of religion as well, and by extension the process of the hero’s journey, but this is discussed later in part 3. It is necessary to get to the core nature of religion in order to see its fundamental effects on the human psyche, and indeed, if religion itself is the very cause of humanity’s many neuroses. One must retain extreme caution when delving into the religious and philosophical realms, not because their head may be lost in the clouds, but actually because of the deeply transformative experience of true spirituality and one-ness. The essence of religion is in fact one of the best avenues to rediscovery of the self. Spiritual awakening, ascendancy, descent into the underworld and the unconscious; these are all experiential phenomenon that are fundamental to the formation of human behaviour and thought patterns. It is for this reason that those lost deep in the realms of alcoholism recover eighty five percent of the time after having a transcendental religious experience. What the experience is facilitated by, is almost irrelevant, as there are myriad ways (much being far easier than you’d think) to bring about transformation of consciousness, which in the end is the consequence of religious experience. Shamanic cultures have been in contact with the realities of this transformative sort of experience for tens of thousands of years, and the means which they all choose is the use of psychedelic plants. Interestingly, a single high dose psychedelic experience (particularly of psilocybin found in P. Cubensis) can cure depression, and even rid patients of the need to smoke, both of which are mental illnesses which end millions of lives in Canada alone every year.
The religious experience, whether shamanic, Buddhist, or Christian in nature all facilitate transformation. It is this process of transformation that is also symbolized in the practice of catharsis, confession, and thus modern psychotherapy. Philosophy, though different from the religious experience in a number of ways, is also capable of facilitating the consequence of transformation and curation of a mentally ill patient. But where arises the patient’s mental illness in the first place? From the primarily religious perspective, it is losing touch with God, and not in the sense that one is not religious, but rather in the sense that one has become detached from the fundamental aspect of being. This view has been tainted over years of dogma and false belief, rather than faith, the difference between which is an important one to make. The possibility that en masse mental illness is indeed caused by a disconnection is true, but the connection with “God” is only the religious term which is available to us in our culture. In Jungian and psychoanalytic terms, it could be said that man on the whole has become estranged from his unconscious, both collective and individual. The explorations into the self of religion and philosophy, and to some extent theology, have lost their power; but there remains the craving for knowledge of the self. Look for evidence of this to the collective rise in interest in psychology, and even more occult practices such as astrology and obscurantism; these have been adopted in the place of religion, and where there is no spiritual water to fill the well of the human mind, there sprouts depression and anxiety like wildfire. In one study done by Jordan Peterson (PhD.) there was a direct correlation found between those who displayed Nihilistic modes of thought (accompanied almost always by an atheist frame of belief), and the accompaniment of mental illness, which included anxiety and depression. It is yet to be determined where this correlation comes from, or why it exists at all, but it is there.
In Western culture, there has been a rise in mild mental illness the likes of which have never been seen previously in history. At the same time, at the turn of our age there has been an en masse rejection of religious and philosophical thought. None of the younger generations know who or what to believe, and so are predictably stuck in a metaphysical limbo; neither believers or non-believers. In contrast, there also exists groups of extremists; people seeking some counsel in the nature of an absolute ideal, which they, in the uncertainty of their own existence believe is fundamentally and indisputably correct. The air smells of hypocrisy and self-deceit, and it is most rank in the political and modern educational landscapes. The absolutist nature of ideals such as Marxism, fascism, and other extreme ideologies are dangerous psychologically and physically in that their mass acceptance has led to some of man’s most heinous crimes. In psychological terms, the ideals of Marxism and fascism in particular are breeding grounds for narcissistic behaviour, and the phenomenon of projection (Maps of Meaning Jordan Peterson.) Unfortunately however, one cannot address individual cases of mental illness by taking the religious and philosophical approach alone. The topics are too broad and have the central problem of being applicable to entire cultures. In order to truly find the root of a person’s mental illness, one must take into account the individual’s situation as a whole in the present, past and future. Otherwise one may mistakenly diagnose treatment of therapy to an individual who needs medication, or perhaps another form of counselling.
The context of modern-day mental illness, however, must be kept in mind. The spiritual starvation and deceit rampant in man’s modes of thought are both causes and results of a general mental illness¸ which arises primarily from man’s egocentrism, and estrangement from himself. Unlike the situation which I described above, when one takes too broad a look, we have taken the opposite approach as a culture; in which the ego, which represents the individual personality including memories, waking thoughts and feelings, and the sense of continuity and identity, takes center stage. The issue arises when the spiritual and cultural context are not taken into account, and thus one is served a sentence of a lifetime of mind addling medication, to further feed the industry that pharmaceuticals has become. This in fact only leads to more mental illness: addiction, depression, anxiety and anti-social behaviour. It is for this reason that Carl Jung dedicated his life to using both approaches to help and guide his patients through their psychic journeys. Despite the effectiveness of Jung’s approach, it is still deemed unscientific and “hokey”. It will be some time before his approach will reach any level of acceptance, for as a whole humanity is too stuck in its own egocentric mud to see beyond the needs of the ego, and into the mysteries of the unconscious.
Religion and philosophy, however; are not the ultimate solutions to any problem, mental or physical. Throughout history, the structural aspects of religion which are no longer individual (the church) have been the causes of many of humanity’s neuroses, including the phenomenon of slavery, and the oppression and genocide of entire races. Once any ideal, religious, philosophical, political, or scientific becomes defined as the ultimate conclusion, it instantly begins to take on a tyrannical form. This form of tyranny, however, is not the cause of oppression in of itself, but rather it is the following and creation of it by human beings that enable it to become an excuse for malevolence and unnecessary tragedy. It is the fault of the human being which follows such tyrannical ideals, not the fault of the ideal itself. An idea even set in stone; is still just an idea. It is the human enacting and behaviour based on the idea that makes it exist to any extent more than just being an illusion, and even then, it can be argued that all ideas are illusion. (This viewpoint is taken by the Buddhist philosophy.) Either way, the responsibility for the existence and participating in an atrocity/injustice lies on the shoulders of no one but those who believe in its absolute validity and justification. Ask a Maoist general if the genocide committed in late 20th century China was for good reason, and they will say “of course” without a second thought. This is the power of the cowardice of humanity, which takes its hiding hole in the recesses of absolutist and extremist ideas, which in turn are the result of the ultimate contextual neuroses: the human condition. The condition of self perception, and self knowing. To know that we know. It is from this central point where the entire discussion of humanity’s mental illness stems. Beyond psychology and philosophy, and indeed any labels given to the myriad topics discussed here, there lies the phenomenon of perception. The fundamental bittersweet gift of humanity which begets us the blessings of our world, and the sins of our collective indulgences and ignorance. This is the ultimately contextual phenomenon which pervades all mental illness; the idea that there is such a thing as mental illness at all.
So, keeping the spiritual and collectively uncoinscious condition of our time in mind as the background for our painting, it is now time to paint the picture of mental illness and its direct individual causes, and what might be done to cure it on the whole. The intra-psychic collective context is the soil from which neuroses spring, and today we are going to be smelling the strange flowers of humanity’s afflictions of mind and soul.