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Spirituality And Mental Health


fatherman
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A recent discussion on spirituality has raised questions about mental health. That perhaps a spiritual person is a delusional, mentally ill person. This is of interest to me because I receive treatment for a mental illness: bipolar. So I'm always trying to create a lifestyle to supports my mental health. I'm very careful about what I eat. I swim several times a week. I always take my meds. I take every supplement that is shown to support mental/neurological health. I go to therapy I meditate....and strive to be spiritually healthy.

 

I have chosen to live my life according to the principles that Jesus Christ taught and lived by. I confess that I am as big a sinner as I am a believer. I have done many things that have hurt myself and others over the course of my life. This sinful (or hurtful) behavior has only exacerbated my mental health issues in the past. But it is the belief that if I confess my sin to God and commit myself to repenting (turning away from) that behavior that I will find the grace to let it go and try again. I choose to live within a spiritual community (a church) where I am supported and where I can express myself in worship (to stand before someone or something in complete awe and gratitude).

 

I did a little reading and found many studies and papers whose findings suggest that people who are spiritually active are more likely to be mentally healthy. Here's an interesting one. It has a little bit of an agenda, but the citations are strong:

 

Spirituality and mental health - Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Oct-Dec

 

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755140/

 

Here are a few excerpts of note:

 

" Lack of spirituality can interfere with interpersonal relationships, which can contribute to the genesis of psychiatric disturbance"

 

"Recent studies show that religious beliefs and practices are supportive to cope with stresses in life and are beneficial to mental health"

 

"religiosity kept children from smoking, drinking and drug abuse by buffering the impact of life stresses"

 

"parents who were more involved in church activities were more likely to have harmonious marital relationships and better parenting skills. That in turn enhanced children's competence, self-regulation, psychosocial adjustment and school performance"

 

" maternal religiosity and mother-child concordance in religiosity were protective against depression in the offspring"

 

"In a 12-year follow up of all articles appearing in American Journal of Psychiatry and Archives of General Psychiatry, 72% of the religious commitment variables were beneficial to mental health; participation in religious services, social support, prayer and relationship with God were beneficial in 92% of citations.[19] "

 

 

So, here's the push back. How can I believe something like the existence of God (in the orthodox sense), which Science does not support, without being considered delusional? And if I'm delusional, doesn't that make me mentally ill? Perhaps it's a delusion that I'm willing to submit to for the sake of my well-being. If that's what's happening, then I'm cool with it.

Edited by fatherman
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In the immortal words of one of my favourite singers, Ben Harper:

 

my choice is what I choose to do
and if I'm causing no harm
it shouldn't bother you
your choice is who you choose to be
and if your causin' no harm

then you're alright with me

 

'Delusional' or not, if somebody's personal beliefs makes their life better, then I'm all for it. Where I think it enters dangerous territory is when it tells others to do the same or believe the same (and even worse when threats come into it - i.e. if you don't believe what I do look out). But without that negativity, then I could care less if somebody was 'delusional' or not.

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I was a monk and lived in India, the Middle East and Africa and when I left, I read that a test they used in the United States to see if people were delusional was to ask them who was the president. Mentally, I think I was the most balanced I had ever been, but I would have failed that test. I was not around newspapers, radio or TV. Therefore, delusional is relative. At an Esalan seminar I attended for health care professionals the main theme was the Shaman of old was a respected member of society, but in modern times they are committed for mental help.

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Soma. I've long since been open to mysticism, and I've had a fair share of mystical experiences. But lately, I've reverted back to primarily an intellectual state. That started with my treatment for bipolar. I closed that door thinking that it might keep the crazies away. It's been years since I had an episode, and now I feel like it is safe to open up again.

 

I haven't shared any of those experiences, because I worry what people would think. It's hard to convey them, much like trying to describe a dream that only you can understand...if indeed you understand. PCs tend to reject it and conservatives have litmus tests for whether it's divinity or devilry.

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Soma. I've long since been open to mysticism, and I've had a fair share of mystical experiences. But lately, I've reverted back to primarily an intellectual state. That started with my treatment for bipolar. I closed that door thinking that it might keep the crazies away. It's been years since I had an episode, and now I feel like it is safe to open up again.

 

I haven't shared any of those experiences, because I worry what people would think. It's hard to convey them, much like trying to describe a dream that only you can understand...if indeed you understand. PCs tend to reject it and conservatives have litmus tests for whether it's divinity or devilry.

I think maybe you have your answer right there: "I've long since been open to mysticism, and I've had a fair share of mystical experiences. But lately, I've reverted back to primarily an intellectual state. That started with my treatment for bipolar."

 

Most people with bipolar that I've talked to on forums say that religion/spirituality/mysticism makes their problems worse. There seems to be a feedback loop so that bipolar feeds mysticism which feeds bipolar which feeds mysticism until they end-up hospitalized or whatever. Most of these people felt that atheism helped them stay healthy.

 

My mental health problem doesn't match any of the classifications. I suspect my problem is a mild mixture of several things (mostly depression). Due to the depression, I have always had a feeling that life seems pointless. I've wanted to grab God by the throat and make him tell me what life is about (even though I was a weak atheist). Every 10 years or so from childhood to now, I would have experiences that made me think there might be something beyond physical reality. Then I had a breakdown about 5 years ago and interpreted the hallucinations as God talking to me - except the message was confusing and Christianity was confusing. As I started recovering psychologically, the hallucinations became less frequent, and I felt that God was disappointed with me for not listening or understanding. I had been fantasizing about becoming a Orthodox monk even though I was too old. I didn't now how to pursue that goal (fortunately), but I did give away most of my savings (unfortunately :( ). After a year or two I stopped attending church and started investigating non-Christian explanations for my experiences (multidimensional beings, etc.). Then I learned about psychosis. For several years, I called myself an atheist, but I would have anxiety attacks whenever anything reminded me of my paranoid delusions. Then about 6 months ago, I finally got better. I suspect that if I had been a totally non-spiritual atheist when I had my breakdown, then maybe it wouldn't have been so bad. On the other hand, maybe I would have imagined the CIA was trying to assassinate me or some other non-spiritual paranoid delusion. FWIW. :)

Edited by overcast
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overcast, Thanks for sharing that. I like your sense of humor in the last line. Only you know what is best for yourself and it is good you have professional advice on your situation. There is nothing wrong being an atheist or an intellectual. In fact I think the atheist who are sincere humanist are better than many Christians. Don't be hard on yourself, saying weak atheist. You are what you are and are very courageous going through your evolution. I admire your walking on the edge and accepting what comes and what goes. At this moment in my life I am reading, enjoying and expanding my horizons reading about Quantum Physics so I admire people with an intellect. You are a seeker on many levels so I hope you enjoy the journey.

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I think maybe you have your answer right there: "I've long since been open to mysticism, and I've had a fair share of mystical experiences. But lately, I've reverted back to primarily an intellectual state. That started with my treatment for bipolar."

 

Most people with bipolar that I've talked to on forums say that religion/spirituality/mysticism makes their problems worse. There seems to be a feedback loop so that bipolar feeds mysticism which feeds bipolar which feeds mysticism until they end-up hospitalized or whatever. Most of these people felt that atheism helped them stay healthy.

 

My mental health problem doesn't match any of the classifications. I suspect my problem is a mild mixture of several things (mostly depression). Due to the depression, I have always had a feeling that life seems pointless. I've wanted to grab God by the throat and make him tell me what life is about (even though I was a weak atheist). Every 10 years or so from childhood to now, I would have experiences that made me think there might be something beyond physical reality. Then I had a breakdown about 5 years ago and interpreted the hallucinations as God talking to me - except the message was confusing and Christianity was confusing. As I started recovering psychologically, the hallucinations became less frequent, and I felt that God was disappointed with me for not listening or understanding. I had been fantasizing about becoming a Orthodox monk even though I was too old. I didn't now how to pursue that goal (fortunately), but I did give away most of my savings (unfortunately :( ). After a year or two I stopped attending church and started investigating non-Christian explanations for my experiences (multidimensional beings, etc.). Then I learned about psychosis. For several years, I called myself an atheist, but I would have anxiety attacks whenever anything reminded me of my paranoid delusions. Then about 6 months ago, I finally got better. I suspect that if I had been a totally non-spiritual atheist when I had my breakdown, then maybe it wouldn't have been so bad. On the other hand, maybe I would have imagined the CIA was trying to assassinate me or some other non-spiritual paranoid delusion. FWIW. :)

 

I believe there is some truth to the notion that mysticism, in some regards, can be problematic for someone prone to mania. I used to meditate (Kriya yoga) daily and sometimes at length. It creates a powerful altered state. Some of the exercises stimulate the same part of the brain that mushrooms and LSD trigger. I'm not sure if what I experienced were hallucinations. They were mental images. But they were vivid. When I began my treatment, my caregivers wanted me to stay away from drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and mind-altering yoga/meditation. The high you get from this form of meditation (similar to kundalini) feels no different than a drug high...better in fact. And drugs can trigger mania and psychosis. So I quit.

 

That doesn't mean I haven't had a mystical experience since then. I did have a powerful one late last year after my son attempted suicide, and I believe that it was authentic. I might have easily dismissed it, but I believe in a God that reaches out to the hurting.

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I was first introduced to meditation 29 years ago when I got sober in AA. There is sometimes a lot of other stuff that goes on with an alcoholic, such as depression, anxiety, etc. In a twelve step program, meditation is the eleventh step, and I think there is a reason for that. There is quite a bit of preliminary work prior to engaging in a solid meditation practice, namely, the first ten steps! In contemplative Christianity, these preliminary steps could be referred to as the "purgation stage" (purification practices in Buddhism).

 

Along with my work in that program, I was in therapy for the first six years of my sobriety and only after did I begin a serious meditation practice. I guess my point is that there are many things that can be adjunctive to our mental health. Probably just one thing isn't going to do the trick for some of us. The other thing is that it can take a very long time for some of us to "get well". That usually doesn't go over well with people I share that with. Everyone wants the quick fix and to feel good all the time and right away. But, at least in my case it didn't work that way.

 

The trick is to stay motivated over time and realize that time is illusory anyway, so it doesn't really matter how long it takes. Now, it seems to me that I've always been emotionally/spiritually healthy, and everything in the past was merely a dream.

 

Peace.

Steve

Edited by SteveS55
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  • 1 month later...

This is an important thread and I appreciate the honesty and compassion of everyone who has spoken on this topic. Fatherman, my heart goes out to you with regard to your son's attempted suicide.

 

Mental health and its relationship with religion and spirituality is a messy, difficult, painful, chronic reality and I don't disagree with any of the comments that have been made here.

 

My personal journey of cataphatic mysticism has been, in many ways, an attempt to sidestep many of the mental health problems that can accompany an intense spiritual journey. I have no history of major mental illness, but I've worked in the field, and I have great empathy for anyone dealing with depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, addiction, and other illnesses. It scares the crap out of me when I read the spiritual advice given by some teachers and gurus. I read some of their teachings and can't help thinking . . . there's a recipe for major depression, manic episodes, even full-blown psychosis. The recovery period can be very long, as SteveS55 points out.

 

As a practising mystic, I work like a dog to look after my brain. Part of my practice is to avoid all alcohol. This isn't a popular cultural choice, but it's a choice I've needed to make. I also don't meditate. I engage in active contemplative work, but not forms of meditation such as stillpoint.

 

I greatly respect the approach of the Twelve Step Program, and I also wish that psychiatry and mental health issues were treated with the utmost care, compassion, and respect they deserve.

 

Thank you again, everyone.

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