Don’t Pathologize Religious Experiences

Jules Evans, a journalist and writer with a deep interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, writes a piece for Wired Magazine on the tendency of religious or out-of-the-ordinary experiences to be “shifted to the margins of our secular, scientific, post-animist culture and defined as pathological symptoms of a physical or emotional disease.” Evans cites a new study in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology that compares “psychotic-like phenomena in clinical and non-clinical populations” and finds that context is vital in determining how that experience is treated and integrated into someone’s life.

The Dream of Solomon by Giordano.

The Dream of Solomon by Giordano.

“It is not the OOE [‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experience] itself that determines the development of a clinical condition, but rather the wider personal and interpersonal contexts that influence how this experience is subsequently integrated. Theoretical implications for the refinement of psychosis models are outlined, and clinical implications for the validation and normalization of psychotic-like phenomena are proposed.”

This leads Evans to call for a more pragmatic approach from health care professionals when confronted with a patient’s experience of an ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experience. Positively noting support organizations like the Hearing Voices Network that help people integrate and find support for what they are going through.

“Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?” We can evaluate the worth of a revelatory experience without trying to find out if the experience “really” came from God or not.”

I think these developments are important, because revelatory, shamanic, magical, and liminal experiences are often a vital part of modern Pagan religious practice, though we are hesitant to share or describe these experiences with outsiders, particularly with health care professionals, for fear that we might, as Evans puts it, “receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia and be prescribed debilitating anti-psychotic drugs.” This could lead to situations where someone who is truly in distress might avoid a mental health professional, resulting in bad outcomes for the patient, and for that patient’s community.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

To be sure, Pagans often find the contextualizing and integrative help they need solely from their immediate community. Using unexplainable experiences as a positive and productive driver in their lives, framed within the context of religions that honor mystical experiences. As Evans points out, many productive and influential people have acknowledged having an extra-ordinary experience that placed them on their life path, but such a destiny could be destroyed if recounting an unusual experience to the wrong person leads to institutionalization. Evans explicitly ties this phenomenon to the witch-hunts.

“By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.”

It seems obvious a balance must be struck. People who are experiencing harmful, or debilitating, out-of-the-ordinary experiences need proper treatment, while those who are simply confused on how to contextualize and integrate an unusual occurrence into their existing lives might only need some support, either from a therapist, or a sympathetic community. Current diagnosis guidelines in the United States under the DSM-IV seem pretty clear that intervention hinges on whether the experiences “significantly hinder a person’s ability to function” not on the nature of the visions or experiences themselves. This necessitates that a doctor (or therapist) visit becomes a safe space where the patient relaying OOEs knows that intervention would only happen if their quality of life started to suffer. An equilibrium needs to be established so that those of us who do invite or honor out-of-the-ordinary experiences can trust that there’s a safe place to turn should we feel that such experiences are no longer beneficial, and are instead symptoms of a disorder that needs outside intervention.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The problem is that some people whose OOEs lead them into clearly self-damaging behavior (not to mention anti-social or even physically dangerous) sometimes believe they’re doing just fine, though they are clearly in need of intervention.

    That’s a tough sentence for me to type. A mind-blowing OOE got me into Paganism, and from time to time I have emotion-laden intuitional illuminations that might as well be classified as recurring OOEs. Yet I know, from my wife’s practice, of patients with OOEs who need to be institutionalized for the good of themselves and society, but who think they’re doing just fine.

    I believe it was Thomas Szasz who said, “If you talk to God every day you’re classified as devout. If God talks to you once, you’re classified as schizophrenic.”

    BTW we are in the same boat as BGLTs, in that the most recent DSM revision has been under the cloud of possible re-pathologizing of homosexuality due to some unfortunate appointments to the revision committee. The recent book, “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Movement” characterizes the historic standoff between homosexuals and psychiatrists as “war” — as described by the homosexuals! If that opens up again, at least we may have allies.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      CORRECTION: My wife assures me that the DSM problem I raised in my final paragraph above is no longer a problem.

      • Mia

        Wasn’t that revised for the 4th edition to state that homosexuality isn’t an illness in of itself?

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          I couldn’t say offhand which edition, but that revision was made some time ago. There was some concern about what the upcoming edition would say, due to who got appointed to that committee, but it no longer is a concern.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

            Sometimes, it seems that psychologists will not be happy until everyone has a diagnosis.

  • Melissa

    It is helpful, when looking for a therapist, that one understands the different types of therapy available and to interview therapists before becoming a client.  Certain types of therapy would not assume that OOEs are pathological and a good therapist, regardless of modality, would never assume pathology either.  Transpersonal, Psychodynamic and Jungian Psychologists tend to be safer in this regard than say Cognitive/Behavioral Psychologists.  But if you are getting therapy via your health insurance, you may not have the opportunity to choose.  However, most therapists use a combination of various different types of therapy.  

  • Gareth

    I remember hearing of one women who throughout her life experienced hearing voices and having visions. She tried the medical approach, where it was a disorder that needed treatment with drugs, this was unsuccessful. She tried the Christian faith healing approach, where it was caused by demons and her own sinful nature, this only made things worse. Then she discovered Paganism, where she found a framework where experiences could be interpreted as positive and normalised without being grandiose. She still had the visions and the voices but he were no longer detrimental nor did the totally dominate her life. 

    The line between divinity and insanity is a thin one.

    • A S

      I like what you say about “without being grandiose”. This articulates something very important about religious experience! It makes me think of what Caroline Myss calls the “ooh-ah” syndrome of experiencing miracles. We are not special for having such experiences necessarily. Indeed, we should expect them, and notice them in everyday life; expect and see that the world is a wonderous place, and that we, too art Goddess/God. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1315448416 Aepril Schaile

        Just wanting to sign the above reply post with a non-anonymous login: Aepril

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    You should take a day off more often. This is brilliant.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Zac.Strix.Nebulosa.Kolb Zachary Kolb

    I’m right with you Jason and this article. I’ve long held the standpoint that experiences “out of the mundane” need to be looked at in terms of the context they arise from, both religiously, and in a person’s life. That fear that a lot of pagans have with telling a counselor or other medical professional is a very valid fear, one I’ve had to deal with that arouse personally involving a friend of mine and her near institutionalization due to her talking with a counselor about some problems she was having, and aspects involving her religion involving her communion with her spirit guides came up. The professional wrote her off as having a schizophrenic break with reality, which was extraordinarily far from the truth. Thankfully it was peaceably resolved and she didn’t get sent away.

    I know the situation my friend went through was not an isolated incident, and from my own familiarity with the psychology department at my university there have been a number of steps to try and clean up how a diagnosis is reached. This is especially in regarding whether what the patient may be going through is actually causing harm to themselves, to others or is even causing them duress. Add in the fact that more mystical and esoteric forms of religious experiences and experiences out of the mundane have a much wider understanding then say ten or fifteen years ago, which I know has caused some professionals to change how they go about interacting with patients, and something like what Mr. Evans is writing about has solid ground to be come the norm. In all it gives me hope that when I talk to my counselor that I won’t be worried about talking about experiences I’ve had for fear of being labeled a nutter.

  • LeohtSceadusawol

    How do we tell the difference?

    Normally, to corroborate an encounter with something, there are other testimonies that back up the claim, but I hear of so many differing interpretations of deities that such a thing seems impossible for corroborating a (Pagan) religious experience.

    Without that, are we to assume that the (antagonistic) atheists are correct and that all these ‘divine revelations’ are, in fact, merely delusion?

    • Jason Hatter

      We don’t know,  because unfortunately, the scientific method doesn’t apply well to the spiritual realm. 

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         It’s problematic, isn’t it?

    • Pagan Puff Pieces

      I think part of it is just accepting that we’re always going to be at least a little irrational and delusional… and that’s just fine. 

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         That is fine, but part of it is convincing others that we are not entirely irrational and delusional, is it not?

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          If you did deeply into any critic you’re going to find a level at which s/he, too, is irrational and delusional. It’s easiest with our religious critics; they believe in the supernatural (God). Even the militant atheists are committed to something they cannot prove, the non-existence of God. An agnostice but hostile psychiatrist may be a harder case, but ask hir if s/he would commit Albert Schweizer or Thich Naht Hahn.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             I don’t worry about the critics, unless they have the ability to exert some form of direct power (in the form of “He’s crazy, lock him up for the protection of society”).

            Unfortunately, it would seem that direct power is slowly being turned our way.

    • Leea

      A good therapist or psychiatrist would look at the whole of his/her clients life and functioning. Someone who cannot work or has lost a job, has separated from family members because of behavior, is not taking care of him/herself, not eating, sleeping…and is hearing voices or seeing visions probably needs intervention. As an aside-in my experience-most true psychotics who hear voices are hearing things like “kill yourself” “you don’t deserve to live” “you are filth”-very, very negative things. Visual hallucinations are also, usually, very dark and ugly. 

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         That doesn’t answer the question, though.

        “Someone who cannot work or has lost a job, has separated from family
        members because of behavior, is not taking care of him/herself, not
        eating, sleeping…and is hearing voices or seeing visions probably
        needs intervention.”
        That describes some holy men, doesn’t it? Christianity, notably, glorifies these things as part of the ‘religious experience’, be it Moses, Jesus or the average monastic existence.

        I wasn’t asking about when intervention should come in, but how the difference between an external religious experience and an internal delusion is decided.

        Do we presume that all ‘demonic attacks’ are delusions, for example (when I was growing up, a family friend was the local Anglican exorcist. Obviously, some people saw even negative OOEs as external.)

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         That doesn’t answer the question, though.

        “Someone who cannot work or has lost a job, has separated from family
        members because of behavior, is not taking care of him/herself, not
        eating, sleeping…and is hearing voices or seeing visions probably
        needs intervention.”
        That describes some holy men, doesn’t it? Christianity, notably, glorifies these things as part of the ‘religious experience’, be it Moses, Jesus or the average monastic existence.

        I wasn’t asking about when intervention should come in, but how the difference between an external religious experience and an internal delusion is decided.

        Do we presume that all ‘demonic attacks’ are delusions, for example (when I was growing up, a family friend was the local Anglican exorcist. Obviously, some people saw even negative OOEs as external.)

        • Leea

          Whether someone is having a delusion and needs treatment, or is experiencing a religious experience has to be looked at both objectively and subjectively.  How does the person in question describe the experience? How is the experience affecting the person in his or her activities of daily living? What are others seeing?  There is no simple theraputic determinant for when someone needs help. There are truly some holy men, as you describe, who seem to fit this criteria. One difference, as I mentioned in my OP, is HOW the experience is playing out. When someone is hearing voices encouraging them to kill themselves or others is a huge red flag. Someone who is functioning well but who spends time with angels, or the fey, isn’t so much. 
           In your question about demonic attacks, for instance-is someone describing a dream, or series of dreams? Does he believe he is being attacked and targeted? Is it causing him discomfort? Is it altering how he related to loved ones and friends? Does he want help? Is he willing to be tested for the presence of tumors? Dementia? Drug reactions? There are no simple answers. Each persons experience has to be looked at in it’s whole context. Obviously that doesn’t always happen. Someone who comes from a very fundamentally religious family may go the exorcist route. Or may not tell anyone. Or may separate themselves from humanity.  Ultimately, I think the person experiencing the OOB’s and his/her close family and friends will determine what happens in the context of therapy.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             “Whether someone is having a delusion and needs treatment, or is
            experiencing a religious experience has to be looked at both objectively
            and subjectively.”
            What if they don’t need treatment? How then do you tell the difference between delusion and religious experience?

            That is what I am asking.

            Just because it may be positive, doesn’t change the source.

  • Shakti_Luna

    Well written. I also agree these issues must be addressed as there is a fine line between OOE and psychosis

  • Deborah Bender

    ” This necessitates that a doctor (or therapist) visit becomes a safe
    space where the patient relaying OOEs knows that intervention would only
    happen if their quality of life started to suffer.” Bearing in mind that this is a paraphrase of the contents of the article, I’d like to observe that “quality of life” is a value-laden judgement and therefore partly culturally determined.

    Some people’s non-ordinary experiences prompt them to abandon their careers, families and entire social networks to become revolutionaries, reformers, artists, ascetics or wandering prophets. Besides prompting radical lifestyle changes, these experiences may motivate the individual to focus on a particular activity or mission to a degree that will strike most outsiders as obsessive.  Given that the family, the entire society, or the individual himself may be psychologically disturbed to some degree, who is qualified to judge?

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Same reply as above. Would they commit Albert Schweitzer or Thich Nhat Hahn?

  • Obsidia

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart!  There is so much of the human brain that is not yet known, because of the narrow definitions of sanity in the modern world!  And we NEED those parts of the brain HERE AND NOW!

    Right now, I’m reading the book “Growing Up Psychic” by Chip Coffey.  It is about Chip’s work with psychic children and it’s amazing how many of them were immediately put on medication simply because they had psychic experiences.  Chip works with them and their parents and campaigns for the acceptance of psychic experiences as natural human talents, like musical or artistic talents.

    Another great book is “The Oversoul Seven Trilogy” by Jane Roberts, which is a fiction which covers many points of modern Psychiatry’s quest for the truth.  The book presents a vision of Aspect Psychology, which brings psychic and religious experiences, visions, dreams, past life memories, etc. into the definition of a SANE human being.  (For an overview of Aspect Psychology, see Jane Roberts nonfiction “Adventures in Consciouesness.”)Both of these books explain very well about the difference between using these experiences and talents in a sane way and and insane way.  I have known several people who were wrongly medicated or even sent to mental hospitals….it’s time for “the science of the mind” to grow into something that truly HELPS people rather than simply makes them “comfortably numb.”

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    I am reminded of a recent example of the rhetoric of “pathologization” right here in our Pagan community. I am, of course, speaking of Caroline Tully’s recent screed in The Pomegranate, in which she clumsily invokes the paradigm of “cognitive dissonance” (a kind of psycho-pathology) in an attempt to equate  Goddess worshippers and critics of Ronald Hutton with UFO cultists.

    • Obsidia

       I think that’s a good example, Apuleius.  In a way, it’s a kind of bullying strategy.  If someone disagrees with me, I can just call them insane.  (And who’s to say that UFO believers are not having a sort of religious experience either?)

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         Who’s to say that UFOs (as being of extra terrestrial origin) do not exist?

        • Thelettuceman

           It says something about this society that people are more willing to believe that ancient peoples were worshiping and viewing UFOs without realizing it (Biblical accounts of angelic beings, the Sun Disk Aten, etc.) than are willing to believe that modern peoples had some kind of religious/spiritual entity encounter. 

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             I know.

            Especially if you consider that it is far more plausible to suggest that an extra-planar entity managed contact than an extra terrestrial entity travelling either long enough, or faster than light to make contact.

            I can get the need for people to attempt to ‘explain’ the unexplainable, but I think that sometimes they ignore the obvious.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I believe it was Terrance McKennon who said UFOs were the angels of the 20th century, ie, things people see that symbolize a larger world than that of ordinary experience.

        • LeohtSceadusawol

          You heard of the ‘Mowing-Devil’?

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mowing-Devil

          It does somewhat show how ‘traditionally’ unexplainable phenomena gets given an explanation relevant to the local contemporary culture.

        • Jay

          I think UFO encounters are more likely equated to tales of people’s encounters with fairies, i.e. abductions, time displacement, etc.

          In fact, I just caught a glimpse of Supernatural episode about this very thing.  People were being kidnapped by fairies, elves, etc., but were misinterpreting them as UFO abductions.

  • Amanda

    I’m lucky that the last “mental health professional” I went to was a Jungian, so he was very pagan-friendly, even though he himself was not a pagan. Sure, he thought that the gods were all manifestations of my unconscious mind, whereas many pagans believe the gods have a separate existence, but the important thing is he didn’t think me talking to invisible people was necessarily a BAD thing. In fact, he sometimes encouraged it!

    It was actually quite reassuring, because sometimes *I* worry that I might be crazy. It was great to have a professional conclude that the gods seem to be having a positive influence in my life, and actually encourage me to try to contact them MORE.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      The important point is, your Jungian’s conviction that the gods were products of your unconscious mind, did *not* conclude from that that your mind was not in good health. Before I became Pagan I knew personally some of the researchers who teased out of living humans the evidence that religion arises from the healthy brain. Their book is “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.”

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel that the “Believing in the supernatural/divine is delusional, but they are healthy delusions” argument is really patronising.

        I am a hard polytheist. I believe in multiple (species of) entities as objective aspects of reality. I do not believe these things are merely psychological constructs of my subconscious/ego/id/whatever. (Well, in fairness, I believe those exist as well, but that’s another story.)

        To have someone tell me that my beliefs are delusions, simply because they do not share them, as opposed to demonstrating verifiable evidence, is somewhat arrogant and extremely patronising. All that says is that their perception of reality is the ‘correct one’.

        How is that any different to religious evangelism?

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          The difference is that the modest psychologist only wants to be assured that your “delusion” is supporting rather than messing up your life. The religious evangelist wants to change your beliefs.

          And the modest psychologist may actually believe you, but that takes hir beyond the scope of hir field.

          • LeohtSceadusawol

             They both want to change your beliefs.

            The shrink will call your beliefs delusions. Perhaps not directly, but that will invariably be the case.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Testimony of others on this blog suggests that not all shrinks are like that these days.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             Perhaps, but I am still trying to find where the line is drawn.

        • Amanda

          I understand what you’re saying, but I believe “delusion” is a bit too harsh. I’ve been to a lot of therapists, and this was definitely the best one, so I am feeling like I should stick up for him a bit.

          My therapist and I had a disagreement on what my gods “actually are” but that didn’t matter on purely practical terms. The only thing that matters to my therapist and my professional relationship with him is what effect they have on my life.

          In a nutshell, I don’t care what my therapist thinks the gods are. It’s not like I can force other people to believe in gods they have never encountered. It turned out he was a Christian, but he never tried to get me to believe in Jesus. The important thing is that he respected my beliefs, didn’t automatically dismiss them as silly delusions, and most importantly, didn’t automatically think they were harmful or pathological.

          Maybe if there were a bunch of pagan therapists out there things would be different and I could raise my standards a bit, but I was just happy to have someone who didn’t look at me like I was sprouting a second head when I told him I was a pagan, and instead went, “oh! Paganism is great!”

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             “My therapist and I had a disagreement on what my gods “actually are” but that didn’t matter on purely practical terms.”
            It matters to some.

  • Fionnbeith@gmail.com

    This is near and dear to me, as well. Once, in the midst of heavy Shamanic practice, I had a psychiatrist ask if I’ve seen or heard things that are “not there.” I knew precisely where she was heading with this, but I was way ahead of her. I said, “No.” That was at the end of my first marriage with my ex in the room. She knew of my practice, looked at me, and said nothing. That could have been very bad as divorce was looming and she proclaimed to have recently been reborn through baptism.
    I’m beginning a masters course in psychology and intend to make this one of my specialties in helping to heal.

  • Guest

    Full disclosure: I am not a health care professional; however,  I am someone who has dealt with mental illness in her family.  On thing I’ve noticed among people with mental disorders as well as among those possibly having OOEs that they are not integrating in a healthy way, is that they are all too ready to talk about their extraordinary experiences, comparing themselves to saints, famous psychics, religious leaders, etc. (depending on their personal beliefs).  They are sure that their experiences are remarkable and that you should be very impressed by them.  If you suggest that they are having a garden-variety religious experience such as ordinary mortals sometimes have, they are deeply offended.  Oh no, they are in a special, rarefied group!  If you say “That happened to me, too” and provide details, they will be quick to embellish their original story, and to dismiss YOUR experience the way an adult might dismiss the imaginations of a child. 

    On the other hand, a person who has had an OOE and is trying to integrate in in a healthy way will say something like “That happened to you, too?  Oh, thank goodness it’s not just me!”

    Of course, your mileage may vary…

  • Wiccanlez

    Since an Ooe quite literally saved my life during a car accident, I’m not someone who is going to throw any stones at anyone who has an OOE. I might not be here if a voice hadn’t told me not to “stay still” as my car rolled three times and landed upside down. The next day when we cleaned the car out my dashboard Kwan Yin was missing her head and the tow truck drivers at the yard couldn’t believe I crawled out of a pancaked car, especially with no help.

    • Veracity

      I’ve had the same sort of thing.  My compact was T-boned by a Lincoln and as the car was spinning I heard a voice in my head saying “Steer into the skid.”  I was 18 and had only been driving for 6 months and had never heard this before.  My car spun 180 degrees and skidded across 4 lanes, bumped the curb, turned 180 degrees again, recrosses the 4 lanes, and bumped the other curb, finally coming to a stop.  The police later said steering into the skid saved my life.  If I had not done so, my car would have jumped the curb and rolled down a hill into an empty swimming pool.

      Sine then, I have never considered anyone who hears voices “crazy.”  I don’t care where the voice came from, whether it was a delusion or not.  I’m just grateful.  

      • Harmonyfb

        Oddly enough, my OOE experience with auditory phenomena is relatively trivial – I went to buy a newspaper one day, and heard a voice directing me to buy the lesser-liked of two papers. So I did, and read it, and thought, “Well, I don’t know what that was about”.

        Then I heard it again, saying ‘read the classifieds’.  I opened it to a page advertising a 4-harness floor loom for $120 (minimum used at the time should have been $500-750).

        My birthday present from the universe, that was. So now I pay a LOT of attention to those little voices.

    • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

      One of mine was similar.

      I was rear-ended by a fully loaded trailer truck doing 60 whereas my little 96 Ford Contour was stopped. If a Voice hadn’t said, “Look out,” and then “DUCK.” I most likely would have been killed when my car was launched across two lanes of traffic and rolled into a ditch.

  • Mia

    I do wonder if this would be any different were societies in North America and Europe not Christian. Sometimes it feels like the relegation of irrational experiences to the fringe of secular society is a backlash against the dominance of Christianity, as science has a tense history with that particular religion. I’m generalizing, but there seems to be similarities between the atheist/Christian battles and the science/Christianity battles. They both leave little room for a pagan perspective.

    However, given how some of my friends have fared, and the re-evaluations of shamans and others into a more acceptable and positive situation by psychologists, I am optimistic about the future of psychology being more accepting of people like us.  There is no way to test the nature of the spiritual experiences themselves, but there is a way to observe the experiences’ effects on the person. At least some seem to be taking a much closer  look at their patients now, instead of jumping to conclusions based on snippets of information.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Mia: “Sometimes it feels like the relegation of irrational experiences to the
      fringe of secular society is a backlash against the dominance of
      Christianity, as science has a tense history with that particular
      religion.”

      The tension isn’t just between “science” and Christianity, but between any form of free intellectual inquiry and Christianity. This goes back to the earliest days of the rise of Christianity to power in the ancient world, which led, for the first time in human history, to the attempt (largely successful, unfortunately) to control how people think. In the West we are still struggling to put that page of our history behind us, and the fact that so many Westerners (including a great many intellectuals and scientists) blindly accept the false dichotomy of “Christianity or Atheism” is a sign of how far we still have to go.

      • LeohtSceadusawol

         Isn’t psychology the art of telling people how they should think?

        (It can hardly be called a science, when science can’t really prove the existence of the mind.)

        • Mia

           No, it’s the study of the mind. Telling people how they should think is another thing entirely (insert your preferred religion or politics joke here).

          Now with advances in neuroscience, psychology can easily be a hard science with regards to research. With regards to therapy it’s more of a soft science or a social science.

          But it is a science nonetheless.

          Besides, science doesn’t PROVE anything. Non-scientists, like news writers, in everyday speech are the ones who use that language, often incorrectly when referring to scientific research. From day one we (the scientists) are told repeatedly “nothing can ever be proven, only disproven”.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             Science is based on empirical evidence. It is these evidences that scientists seek to ‘prove’ their theories.

            Since there is yet to be any empirical evidence of the mind, hard to have a science dedicated to it.

            So, when psychology tells someone that they are delusional, they are not telling them that their thinking is ‘wrong’, then?

          • Mia

            The “mind” is a concept that includes the brain, the body’s biochemistry,  nerves, and our resulting actions. We have empirical evidence for all of the above and we use that evidence in psychology, ethology, neuroscience, medicine, and biology in general. Other fields of study, like religion, may also add spiritual or soul-based ideas to the concept of mind.

            Besides, science is based on, not consisting only of, evidence. We collect evidence, and also interpret that evidence to form HYPOTHESIS. Theories, as I’ve said many times before here, in a scientific sense are a big deal, and therefore are rarely developed. You need a ton of evidence from across many sources and time in order to upgrade a hypothesis(es) to a theory.

            I cannot be a psychology class for you, so if you actually do want to learn what it is instead of arguing against it, you’ll have to take one on your own time. Regarding “delusional”, a proper psychologist or psychiatrist will make that judgement only after studying the patient, and it is a medical judgement with specific definitions and requirements at that. Moralistic interpretations, like what you wrote, is a figure of everyday speech and would be inappropriate for this situation. Do some therapists attach their morals? Sure, but a good one will minimize their own bias  as much as possible in order to focus on the patient.

          • Sunweaver

             ::putting my scientist hat on::

            There are many aspects of psychology and psychiatry that can be measured, quantified, and studied as a hard science. Additionally, it should be noted that not all science follows the scientific method like you learned in school. Sometimes science is observational and descriptive and not experimental.

            As in any other science, there is always much room for the interpretation of data and observation and though we scientists do our very best to be objective, we do have biases and will view information through the lens of our experience. We are people, after all.

            Psychology necessarily uses observational data based on case studies, but MRIs and biochemical studies are on the rise as we develop cheaper, better instrumentation and techniques. These methods are a little more quantifiable, but it’s still going to take us a very long time to understand the brain. It is, after all, a very complicated organ.

          • Amanda

            Wow you have a serious thing against psychologists, don’t you?

            All psychotherapists care about is whether your thinking is enhancing your life or damaging it. It has nothing to do with whether you are right or wrong. That’s why a good therapist isn’t supposed to judge your religious beliefs as right or wrong, and only look at if they help your life or harm it.

            Don’t get me wrong, I know there are some bad psychologists out there, but I am also very grateful to one I had many years ago that pretty much saved my life. If it’s “telling someone their thinking is wrong” to talk a person out of suicide, then I’m all for that.

            As for the science of psychology in general, I’m confused on how you think gods have an objective reality but the mind doesn’t, or that you can’t at least observe the effects of the workings of the mind, such as behavior and, I don’t know… people TALKING about how their minds work.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             I didn’t say the mind does not objectively exist.

            I said it cannot be proven to objectively exist (at the moment). Biologists acknowledge this.

            Gods cannot be proven to objectively exist (at the moment).

            It has a LOT to do with whether you are right or wrong, as far as I am concerned.

            Hypothetical example time (as I can’t explain myself properly):

            If  a person is being verbally abused, do you make them deaf, or do you deal with the bullies?

            Now, if a person is hearing voices, do you deal with the ability to hear those voices or do you deal with the voices?

          • Pagan Puff Pieces

            Funny you should put it that way.

            It seems me that when someone is being abused, the response typically more the equivalent of making them deaf. 

            So, even though we can pretty easily prove that the bullies are actual physical entities we can touch and see, and even if we see the abuse, or its aftermath, happening, our response still doesn’t depend on them actually existing or not.

            (I kind of feel that even if we looked through a telescope and saw the sun being pulled by a chariot, that wouldn’t prove the existence of the divine but simply make it a scientific phenomenon that proves nonexistence)

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

             Magic is merely the science of tomorrow.

    • NoBodE

      It’s rather ironic that christianity got its green light to attempt to take over the world because of a vision that came to Constantine. Then, later, when Joan of Arc had visions, she was burned at the stake.  It would appear that ,according to christian minds, visions that help you dominate others are good while those that disagree with accepted christian mindset are bad.

  • Zay

    I fully agree that there need to be more therapists with an understanding and acceptance of OOEs. I had a friend who had a profound shamanic experience and turned to me (just a witch, not a therapist) for help understanding it. That was great until things started going downhill for him- it occurred to me too late that his already-diagnosed bipolar brain was twisting things.

    • Zay

      I struggled to try to find a sympathetic therapist for him, who could treat the illness. Buti was way, way too late. He killed himself shortly after. The lesson I clearly learned was that mystical experiences and mental illness can masquerade as each other and it is so important to stay vigilant for your friends and seek professional help if there’s any doubt. There are lots of therapists who are Pagan- how can we find them?

  • Ravenbirch

    As a therapist, and Pagan, I’m hopeful that cultural sensitivity continues to be emphasized in continuing education, as this will help many providers to pause and explore whether a client’s experience is positive or detrimental.  Given my own experiences in the non-ordinary, I actually have to remind myself to be objective in an entirely different way.  It’s always best for a provider to stay focused on the context, rather than their unfamiliarity with what a client is referring to.

  • guest

    Much of the problem of pathologizing OOEs may be related to the business of insurance.  Insurance companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for their share-holders.  Of course, the way they do this is by limiting benefits to consumers.  One way insurance companies have drastically limited coverage of emotional distress is by requiring that “mental health” (or worse, “behavioral health”) treatment be limited to “medical necessity.”  This in turn means that, in order for your insurance to cover therapy, your therapist has to give you an Axis I diagnosis.  You have to be “mentally ill” to have insurance cover “mental health” treatment.  There are many therapists and counselors (there is a distinct difference) have opted out of insurance.  Often the fee is comparable to the co-pay you may be required to pay when you use your insurance.  So, if you’re looking for a therapist or counselor who is less likely to pathologize your OOE, you may start by looking for one who is willing to work on a fee-for-service basis.  If you don’t like your therapist by the third session, or don’t feel the therapist understands your perspective, that’s the clue that this therapist is not for you, and look for a new one. 

  • Verac1ty

    As someone who has been mistreated by some sloppy practitioners in the mental health community, this article more than speaks to me – it says what I have been saying for years.  Have patience with me, this is a long story, but there is a pertinent point.

    I had the unfortunate experience of having an allergic reaction to medication diagnosed as a mental health condition.  I started out having problems sleeping and a small amount of anxiety.  My helpful GP gave me an antidepressant that would promote sleep (because we all need a pill to fix our problems, right?) and instead of helping my sleep problems got worse and my anxiety got MUCH worse.  Rather than checking to see if I had an allergic reaction to the pill (which I later found out was the case), he switched me to another antidepressant… and another… and another… and another.  Three months and TWELVE antidepressants later, I was a basket case, depressed, extraordinarily anxious, and desperate for relief of these symptoms.  At this point my GP finally decided this was beyond his scope and sent me to a therapist with a psychiatrist whose only job was to write prescriptions and never even learned my first name correctly.  Unfortunately, he never told them that I started with a lack of sleep and a bit of nervousness – the therapist assumed I had been in my current condition before any medication had been tried.

    After 6 months of therapy, several more meds (including an incredible amount of anti-anxiety medication that would have calmed several wild horses), and little progress, my therapist hit upon a diagnosis.  During one session I described a workday as “manic.”  He literally clapped his hands and pulled out the DSM – I was definitely bipolar!  Next comes high doses of mood-stabilizers added to my regimen.  I was now on 4 drugs – including an anti-psychotic for anxiety! –  for what started as some sleepless nights and nervousness, all at high doses, and the therapist considered that I was making progress because I was too drugged up to complain – quiet apparently equaled progress.  Never mind that I also had hallucinations, had gained an incredible amount of weight (one medication they tried piled on 35 pounds in less than a month), and turned a small back injury into a debilitating and disabling condition because I spent a couple of years drugged up and flat on my back.

    After 3 years of this “intensive therapy” I began to fight for my survival.  My personality had disappeared beneath all of these drugs I was assured were vital to my well-being and that I would have to take them for the rest of my life.  My own research showed that bipolar symptoms can be induced by high doses of mental meds, especially in someone who shows allergic reaction to antidepressants – and allergic reactions included worsening insomnia, worsening anxiety, agoraphobia, suicidal tendency, listlessness, hallucinations, short term memory loss, and several other symptoms I had been complaining of throughout my treatment.  With the help of a terrific pharmacist and my very supportive husband, I tapered off all of my meds (which took six very long months) and got my life back.

    What I didn’t get back keeps me disabled – I know have permanent damage to my back and residual anxiety and insomnia, plus my lack of movement for an extended period has caused damage to my vagus nerve, leading to a whole host of current and potential future health problems.  Despite my best efforts in the last 6 years of recovery, I will never work again.  I became disabled at the age of 35 because nobody bothered to check and see if I could be having an allergic reaction to medication – they were too busy drugging me into silence to listen to me, and if I complained I obviously needed more drugs to keep me quiet.
    Now the point:  after going through all of this, I am now TERRIFIED of being given antidepressants and anti-psychotics.  While those close to me know exactly what happened and will follow my wishes, I am well aware that if I am ever checked into a hospital and my medical history is checked, it will show a past diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the high doses of medication that were “required” to treat me.  If a member of my family is not there to protest, I can be given these medications against my will – this is not paranoia:  if I am in anything like mental distress it will be attributed to bipolar disorder because of my medical records.  I have already had a hospital try this only to be shot down by my family – have you ever tried to convince the medical community that one of their own misdiagnosed you, especially with a mental illness?  Mental illness is the one time when the medical community can treat you against your will and can choose to ignore your attempt to check out against medical advice.Before this happened, I would have scoffed at the possibility.  Now I know it can happen.  This doesn’t mean the doctors would be trying to mistreat me; it means they would trust my records more than they would trust me.  After all, it’s on record that I have been treated for a mental illness.  And I will never let anyone feed me mental pharmaceuticals in an effort to be “helpful” to me again.  I will not let anyone have control of my life that way.Given this history, one can understand why I am reluctant to discuss any OOEs I have, being well aware of the very thin line between OOE and being sectioned.  And it’s sad that I am far less likely to share my positive experiences for fear that someone will think I’m crazy.  My personal opinion about OOEs is the same as my opinion in discussions about coincidence versus omens, and anything that cannot be “proven”:  bottom line, it doesn’t matter where one believes the experience came from.  If it’s helpful, it’s healthy.  If it’s harmful, it’s not.  Does it matter if one believes that a raccoon gave them the secrets of the universe if it has made their lives easier or fuller or more positive?  Is the origin of the experience more important than the outcome?

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

       From what you’ve said, I would say yes, the origin is important.

      If the origin of your condition had been properly diagnosed/ascertained, you would be in a very different position than you are now.

      The origin often makes all the difference.

      On a more personal note, I would like to think that the (objective) truth is important. I don’t much like the idea of living a fantasy. I would much rather be in possession of truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1315448416 Aepril Schaile

    This post kicks ass, Jason. Thank you!

    It used to be normal to hear voices from the gods. Now we consider it the exception, or, detrimentally, illness. 

    I think of the Julian James book from the 1970′s: The Origin of Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind:
    http://www.amazon.com/Origin-Consciousness-Breakdown-Bicameral-Mind/dp/0618057072/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341955978&sr=1-1&keywords=bicameral+mind 

  • Sunweaver

    I, as well as dear Pagan friends of mine, have had difficulty with non-Pagan therapists in that much time in therapy is spent educating the therapist instead of addressing the problem at hand. The problem is not that I speak to many gods on a daily basis or that I believe in dragons and fairies. The problem is [insert problem here]. With me it’s mainly OCD and attendant anxiety (which is pretty much under control, thank the gods!).
    I ended up looking into Zen and Mahayana Buddhism for my psychology needs because it did a better job of addressing the root problem without judgment of my spiritual/religious life or necessitating the use of several expensive talk sessions to explain my beliefs to the therapist.

    The very simple line between whether an experience is pathological or spiritual/religious lies in the question, “Is it a bug or a feature?” Easy-peasy.

    My belief is that the gods want us to strive for excellence and OOEs that help us do that would be from them. Those that are harmful do not come from the gods.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

       Not all gods are benevolent.

  • Leea

    I have been reading with interest the various experiences many have had with “OOE’s”. I did want to comment that as a psych nurse-these type of protective voices/messages are far different from what therapists consider problematic. Those problematic voices are of the command, suicidal and or homicidal type.

    Another quick comment for those who have been expressing their frustrations with having to educate their therapists on their religion. Although I in no way am advocating lying or obsfucating-if you are seeing a therapist because you lost your job, house, loved one, have anxiety because of such, etc-other than saying, if asked, that you are spiritual, or celebrate an earth-based religion-it shouldn’t really be germane to the treatment….at least IMHO.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

       “I did want to comment that as a psych nurse-these type of protective
      voices/messages are far different from what therapists consider
      problematic. Those problematic voices are of the command, suicidal and
      or homicidal type.”
      I get that they are different on the positive/negative scale, but how are they different on the psychological/spiritual scale? Bear in mind that not all interactions with spiritual entities are positive.

      • Leea

        Leoht, with all due respect, and I mean that….I think it is perhaps impossible to answer your questions on a forum over the net. Maybe sitting down with a psych professor sometime would help…or maybe, if you have never been, visit a homeless shelter.usually one can pretty quickly pick up on folks who need mental health help vs. those who may experience OOEs and don’t…good luck to you on your quest for answers…

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          That is my point, right there. I think it is impossible to answer my questions.

          Current science doesn’t have the ability to answer those questions, and the default is to go with what is provable.

          It reminds me of a saying I heard many moons ago:

          “Only the insane have strength enough to prosper; only those that prosper truly judge what is sane.”


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