This chapter appears as Chapter 7 in Isabel Clarke (ed.), Psychosis and Spirituality: Exploring the New Frontier, Whurr Publishers, London, 2001, pp. 107-25
'Psychopathology', 'Psychosis' and the Kundalini: 'postmodern' perspectives on unusual subjective experience
We should not try to 'get rid' of a neurosis [including psychosis], but
rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach us, what its
purpose is. We should even learn to be thankful for it, otherwise we...
miss the opportunity of getting to know ourselves as we really are... We
do not cure it - it cures us. C.G. Jung (interpolation and emphasis added)
The threatening ambiguity of mental disorder (Who is mad? Who is sane?)
leads us to take our system of perceiving mental illness for granted when
it is just that system which should be the object of study, since it
defines our experience of mental illness. J.D. Blum (emphasis added)
Despite the existence of major philosophical objections to the conceptual coherence of the notions of '(ab)normality' (e.g. Freides, 1960; Buck, 1990, 1992a; Caplan, 1995; Smail, 1996: Chap. 3) and 'psychopathology' (e.g. Halling and Nill, 1989; Parker et al., 1995; House, 1997c), their ubiquity in both popular and academic contexts suggests that there are emotionally rooted, anxiety-driven reasons for their longevity in discourses about human behaviour and experience. Starting from a critique of the concepts of psychopathology and (ab)normality, and the assumptions that underpin diagnosticism in the mental health field, I will argue that what is commonly called 'psychotic' experience may typically constitute:
* a struggle towards meaning-making (cf. Howarth-Williams, 1977: 172; Bannister, 1985; Barham, 1993);
* a meaningful process (Lukoff and Everest, 1985; Halling and Nill, 1989; Jenner et al., 1993), typically operating at many levels, rather than some kind of 'abnormal malfunction' of the (physical) brain (as asserted by materialist 'theories of mind');
* and rather more speculatively and controversially, a harbinger, albeit often a highly distressing one, of qualitative advances in human consciousness which, as yet, the 'ordinary' Cartesian ego consciousness of modernity finds it difficult if not impossible either to contain or make sense of (e.g. Laing, 1967; Harvey, 1987).
I will draw extensively on the phenomenon of the so-called 'kundalini awakening experience' to illustrate these arguments.
A constructivist, postmodern perspective on the notion of '(ab)normality' views it far more as a fear-induced, socio-emotionally rooted linguistic category whose unacknowledged function is to reduce anxiety in the face of the Other's radical difference, than as an objective description of an independent reality existing separately from our own emotionally driven 'construction' of it. This in turn leads into interesting philosophical questions about perception, objectivity and subjectivity, 'the real', and 'theories of truth' - issues which will emerge from time to time in what follows. There are a number of (interrelated) factors holding the conventional psychiatric approach to abnormality and psychopathology in place, whose common theme is what I call 'the ideology of modernity'. Not least of these factors is the way in which the medicalisation and pathologising of what I will call 'unusual subjective experience' (hereafter USE) conveniently locates it outside of the 'comfort-zone' of what is familiar, predictable and 'normal' - in turn distancing mental health professionals from direct engagement with the challenging, often disturbing subjective experience of their 'patients'.
In this medicalisation of USE, then, a perverse alchemy seems to occur, whereby such experience is surreptitiously transformed into what is an essentially circular and self-fulfilling diagnostic system (Parker et al., 1995) - a mechanistic lexicon of allegedly scientific terminology, legitimising an ideology whose spurious scientific authority, in turn, self-fulfillingly becomes the guarantee of its own existence within a professional 'regime of truth' (cf. House, 1999a). (Several mischievous commentators have comically dubbed such a process 'Pervasive Labelling Disorder' [Buck 1992b] and 'Professonal Thought Disorder' [Lowson, 1994].) Mary Boyle's painstaking (and brilliant) unpicking of the evolutionary history of the concept of 'schizophrenia' (1990, 1996) is highly revealing in this regard. As William James dramatically put it, 'medical materialism finishes up St Paul by calling his vision... a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex... It snuffs out St Theresa as a hysteric; St Francis of Assisi as a hereditary degenerate; George Fox with the sham of his age' (quoted in Goleman et al., 1985: 188). An increasing number of commentators are indeed highlighting the blindness of the modernist scientific worldview to the spiritual, mystical, non-material dimension (e.g. Smith. 1976; Berman, 1984; House, 1999b).
It follows from these arguments that the distinctions between 'psychotic', 'unusual' and 'mystical/transpersonal' experience are not only far from clear-cut, but might well be fundamentally misguided and philosophically unsustainable. The great Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti's life-long struggle with what he called his 'Process', together with a more general examination of the phenomenon of kundalini awakenings, will be envoked to illustrate these challenging arguments. In the course of the discusion, I will have cause to weave into the argument: social constructionism and postmodern, so-called 'deconstructionist critiques' of positivist science House, 1999c)); critical perspectives on 'madness' and 'psychosis'; and the phenomenon of 'spiritual emergence/y'). (Cross-cultural and historical perspectives in psychiatry are also very relevant to the arguments in this chapter (e.g. Benedict, 1934; Kleinman, 1988; Lipsedge, 1995; Heinze, 1999), but they are dealt with elsewhere in this book: see Chapter(s) xxx.)
I maintain that a radical shift in world-view, from naive technocratic scientism and towards a postmodern, more spiritually informed 'new paradigm' perspective opens up creative, liberating and potentially healing avenues for thinking about and understanding the widest spectrum of human subjective experience. And rather more speculatively, I will suggest that USEs' most important evolutionary feature may be their constituting an early, falteringing uncertain manifestation - albeit often a highly distressing and scarcely containable one, both individually and culturally, - of qualitative advances in human consciousness which, as yet, the Cartesian consciousness of modernity either pathologises as 'irrational', or else finds it difficult if not impossible to contain and 'hold'.
Thus, subjective experiences like fear of difference, and the felt emotional need for security and predictability, can be seen as historically specific features of the human psyche at this point in the development of human consciousness; and perhaps those people who somehow allow themselves (or are in part a vehicle for some greater spiritual-evolutionary process?) to challenge and transcend our 'normal' consensual perceptual and experiential constraints (be they mystics, Krishnamurtis, or so-called 'schizophrenics' or 'psychotics'), far from being psychologically 'deficient', can plausibly be seen as the harbingers of qualitatively new 'paradigm advances' in the development of human consciousness. This is not to deny, of course, the suffering and traumatic biographical factors involved in (notice I am not saying 'caused by') at least some USEs (e.g. see Glass  on 'multiple personality disorder' and 'schizophrenia'), but to suggest that such suffering also has a wider, evolutionary or transpersonal function, which should not be ignored in our decisions about how to respond individually, professionally and culturally to such experiences.
It is argued, then, that the real practices of conventional mental health treatment are uncritically rooted in the ideological world-view of modernity with its attendant metaphysical assumptions. And if Rom Harre is right in arguing that personal identity 'amounts to the assimilation of socially available theories and templates' (quoted in Parker et al., 1995: 89), and if 'How we reflect upon and define ourselves is determined and constrained by the structures of knowing available to us' (p. 88), then 'psychiatric patients, through the course of repeated assessments, come increasingly to define their experiences in accordance with a professional definition of 'psychiatric illness' (p. 89). In short, 'clinical discourses impact upon individual autobiography, thereby influencing both the types of subjectivity and identity that are brought into being' (ibid.: 73). Professional elites and their 'regimes of (professional) truth' are seen as constructing people's realites through language, and 'the ubiquity of particular types of discourse makes it impossible for their subjects to "think" or even imagine an "elsewhere"' (ibid.: 75).
Finally, the 'treatment' implication of these arguments is that rather than USEs being routinely (psycho)pathologised, with brain-altering, psychotropic medication often being prescribed for those undergoing such experiences, it is far more fitting that attempts be made to understand with the person, in appropriately and sensitively containing environments if necessary, what their experience might be indicating, presaging or portending - in cultural-evolutionary perspective as well as in purely individual biographical terms. Such assistance bears some resemblance to the Grofs' work on 'spiritual emergence' (1987, 1990), and will likely require qualities far more akin to the shaman or the 'spiritually realised person' than to the skills of the mental health diagnostician.
For Levin (1987a), the 'cultural-evolutionary perspective' is crucial: for 'the diagnoses of clinical medicine are not scientific statements of fact referring to "real" disease entities; rather, they are theory-laden representations... products of culture; symbols of our time, constructs of the "rational" discourse we call "medicine"' (74-5, original emphases). On this view, which unambiguously eschews a one-sidedly materialist world-view, all human maladies are reflections of and commentaries on our culture and the 'ego-logical' Self (Levin's term) which has produced it.
Social Constructionism and Krishnamurti's 'Process'
...it is hard for us in the West to recognise that much of what we see
'out there' is our own work... - mental additions to what the senses
actually record Mary Scott
In making a bridge from the foregoing discussion to considering the kundalini awakening experience, (social) constructionist viewpoints on human experience become relevant. If we accept that in some sense, attitudes to unusual subjective experience - both our own and that of 'expert' professionals - can at the very least contribute to creating these experiential realities and the way they subsequently play out, then it is clear that the psychopathologising mentality of professionals within conventional psychiatry will very likely have a profound effect on those who are undergoing USEs. Thus, in the case of kundalini experiences, Sannella (1992: 111) writes that 'Disturbances must... not be viewed as pathological. They are, rather, therapeutic inasmuch as they lead to a removal of potentially pathological elements'. Sannella also reports the case of a writer whose spontaneous trances greatly disturbed him. He recounts how 'I had communicated to him the attitude that his trances were valid and meaningful. Because of my acceptance of his experience, he was able to accept it' (ibid.). And most importantly, 'The trances ceased to control him as soon as he gave up his resistance to them and their underlying forces' (ibid.) - not least, I would surmise, because in the very giving up of his resistance, there was less ego-presence left to experience being controlled by the trances, and concomitantly, more free space for whatever process needed to happen to unfold, unencumbered by fear-driven, ego-rooted resistance. In general, therefore, pain, tension and imbalance 'result not from the process itself but from conscious and subconscious interference with it. Helping a person to understand and accept what is happening to him or her may be the best we can do. Usually the process, when left alone, will find its own natural pace and balance' (ibid., my emphasis). I will return to the issue of ego-control below.
It is worth noting in passing that, in embracing such a constructionist approach we are concomitantly moving away from the materialist objectivist world-view, in which matter and mechanistic malfunction, rather than consciousness, are assumed to have causal primacy in creating our realities.
It can be argued, then, that people's experienced incapacity to contain or "stay with" their own exceptional subjective experiences might itself be a significant function of our culture's socially constructed notion of 'normality', rather than being due to their own intrasubjectively authentic and appropriate response to their own experience. In my own work as a counsellor and psychotherapist I have been repeatedly struck over the years about the extent to which much of clients's anxiety is rooted in their fear of 'not being normal'. Jiddu Krishnamurti's (or K) experience is seminal in this regard. His life-long 'Process' (as he called it - Holroyd, 1991), which at least one biographer (Michel, 1995) has compared to a Kundalini experience, offers us a fascinating way into some of these issues. The crucial point is that this experience was clearly extremely challenging and distressing for K: he was routinely, and for many decades of his life, in very considerable, scarcely bearable pain, had regular out-of-body experiences, and found it impossible (or, more precisely, inappropriate) to cast his experience into 'objective' analytical language. And had he not himself known that he must allow his 'Process' to take its natural course, and had he taken his 'symptoms' into the psychiatric system for 'treatment', then he would no doubt have been treated with the full range of psychotropic medication, which may well in turn have done a great violence to K's experience, and its central importance for his own particular 'journey'. It may also be that the individual's attitude towards their USE may itself significantly influence whether it manifests as a mystical-transformative or 'psychotic' experience: as Grof (1987: 476) writes, 'While a "mystic" keeps the process internalized and does not relate to the external world until the experiences are completed and well integrated, a psychotic resists the process, projects its elements on the external world, and confuses the inner and outer reality'.
K lived into his 90s - so clearly his refusal to countenance any formal medical-psychiatric treatment for his 'condition' didn't seem unduly to foreshorten his earthly life. (Indeed, I would argue, his undefended facilitation of 'The Process' almost certainly greatly enhanced it.)
The Kundalini Awakening Experience (hereafter, KAE)
the dominant scientific paradigm is still intolerent of the realities
encountered in the kundalini process and spirituality in general.... we
must begin to look again... at much of what scientism has tried to debunk
as meaningless and worthless fantasy. ...we must embark on... the
demythologizing of the myths of scientific materialism.
Psychiatrist and ophthalmologist Lee Sannella, M.D. (1992) has explored at some length the existing literature and evidence on the KAE, particularly with regard to its association with so-called 'psychosis' (a term the scientific validity of which, incidentally, Sannella seems to accept quite uncritically). He points out that KAEs, with all their 'psychotic'-like symptoms, 'seem pathological only because the symptoms are not understood in relation to outcome: a psychically transformed human being' (1992: 7). There are echoes here of Rosenberg's important argument (1984) that we only call behaviours 'psychotic' when we are unable to understand their logic or point of view - in which case we tend to jump to the conclusion that the limitation lies with the sanity of the other, rather than with our own limited framework of understanding.
Gopi Krishna's account of his own KAE (1971) provides copious evidence about the subjective aspects of a KAE. Krishna himself refers to how his 'thoughts were in a daze' (p. 14); to his disturbance, depression, fear and uncertainty (p. 15); and to how 'a condition of horror, on account of the inexplicable change, began to settle on me, from which... I could not make myself free by any effort of my will.... [T]henceforth for a long time I had to live suspended by a thread between... sanity and insanity' (pp. 16, 17). Much later, we read that 'a life and death struggle was going on inside me in which I, the owner of the body, was entirely powerless to take part' (p. 152).
Sannella refers to the effects of a KAE upon thinking:
Thinking may be speeded up, slowed down, or altogether inhibited.
Thoughts may seem off balance, strange, irrational. The person may feel
on the brink of insanity... and generally confused... The individual may
feel that he or she is observing, from a distance, his or her own
thoughts, feelings, and sensations. (1992: 98, 99).
Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are also typical in a KAE; and in this case we can see all too clearly how the seemingly incompatible world-views of modernist materialism and so-called 'New Paradigm' thinking (House, 1997a) clash head on. Conventional psychiatry typically interprets OBEs as delusional and therefore fictional - for to accept them as in some sense ontologically 'real' would undermine the very foundations of our Western materialist understanding of the relationship between the brain and consciousness (ibid.: 102; cf. Fenwick, 1999). In his appendix to MacIver's book (1983), in which she graphically describes her OBEs, Sannella wrote that 'her journeys into the hidden levels of reality had a positive, healing and revelatory effect on her life' (quoted in Sannella, 1992: 102). Finally, psychic capacities are commonly reported by those undergoing KAEs, which, if authentic, would again require an explanation going far beyond our currently prevailing materialist neurophysiological framework.
Sannella comes close to endorsing the kind of critique of the modernist paradigm supported in this chapter, when he cites Jacques Lacan and Berman (1984) in stressing the historical and evolutionary specificity of our notions of ego, self and rationality. For Sannella, 'The ego-bound rational consciousness is ultimately unfit for life... [W]here [ego and reason] are made the principles by which life is lived, they become destructive... [B]oth ego and reason are recent appearances in the history of consciousness. And both are destined to be surpassed by superior forms of existence' (pp. 19-20, my emphasis).
The issue of control is closely related to that of ego, and the approach to control in KAEs may have profound lessons for our response to USE more generally. In the era of modernity, the metaphor embraced by conventional medical-model psychiatry is that of cure, or 'fixing the malfunctioning machine', rather than trusting and facilitating the inherent wisdom of the person's healing or transformative process (cf. the work of legendary healer-cum-analyst Georg Groddeck - House, 1997a). In making this claim I am of course assuming a qualitative continuity and commonality between KAEs and what are labelled 'psychotic' or 'schizophrenic' experiences more generally. Certainly, in the case of KAEs, it seems unarguable that attempts to control the process lead to more pain and distress rather than less (it was Krishnamurti who said that ego-driven attempts to control reality typically bring about the very opposite of their original intention). Thus, the female psychologist quoted by Sannella did try to control her KAE, and found that 'pain during the physio-kundalini cycle might be caused by conscious or subconscious resistance to the process' (1992: 97). And Sannella himself goes on to argue that resistance to the KAE can 'result in hysteria or a state akin to schizophrenia' (99, my emphasis; see also p. 109). This observation in turn suggests that it is perhaps not the symptoms that accompany USEs per se which are the problem, but rather, our ego-fixated attempt to resist and avoid pain, discomfort or suffering, which in turn disrupt and complicate what would otherwise be a transformative or healing process. And on this view, conventional psychiatric 'treatment' will tend to be routinely iatrogenic rather than healing and healthily restorative (cf. Breggin, 1993). I return to this issue below in my discussion of what I call a 'spiritualised cognitive therapy'.
Thus, the state of dissociated detachment typically accompanying a KAE can become severely unbalanced 'when deep psychological resistances, fear, confusion, or social and other environmental pressures are present' (p. 99). Moreover, Sannella implies that the stirring up of 'the sediments of the unconscious' is an intrinsic aspect of the KAE, confronting a person with 'just those psychic materials he or she wishes to inspect least of all' (ibid.: 98-9). Thus, in depth-psychological terms, repressed or unresolved traumata seem very likely to erupt in the course of a KAE - which suggests that the KAE may be a multifaceted process that includes both the deeply personal and the transpersonal. Again, then, it is clear from this how the symptoms of a KAE could easily be (mis)diagnosed as 'psychopathology' with the underlying generative psychospiritual process being completely missed within a medical-model framework.
For Sannella, then, the KAE constitutes 'an aspect of psychospiritual unfolding' - 'part of an evolutionary mechanism, and... as such it must not be viewed as a pathological development' (p. 9, my emphasis). And Gopi Krishna viewed the KAE as that which 'enable[s] human consciousness to transcend the normal limits..., to transcend the limits of the highest intellect... - the final phase of the present evolutionary impulse in man' (quoted in ibid.: 12; cf. Krishna, 1974). For example, there is 'the ecstatic unification of subject and object' (p. 31), which transcends the dualistic split consciousness of the Cartesian ego, and which the epistemologies of the 'new science' are increasingly beginning to embrace (e.g. see Bortoft, 1996; House, 1999b). According to Sannella, once Gopi Krishna's active kundalini was stabilised, 'it formed the basis for the gradual development of extraordinary mental gifts, creativity and tranquillity - [and] to all kinds of mystical experiences' (p. 51). Gopi Krishna himself goes as far as arguing that the KAE is, inter alia, 'the real cause of all so-called spiritual and psychic phenomena [and] the master key to the unsolved mystery of creation' (quoted on p. 20; Krishna, 1974).
It is clear that in the course of a KAE, the sometimes profound emotional changes that occur are often mistaken for 'mental illness'. Thus, Sannella gives us the following female psychologist's description of her KAE:
she felt, during meditation, as if she were two feet taller than her
normal self and as if her eyes were looking out from above her head
...[S]he was sure she knew what people were thinking... At times she
questioned the reality of her experiences, wondering if they were just a
crazy episode. (p. 72)
We are further told that she was determined to avoid psychiatric help, being afraid she would be labelled and treated as insane (ibid.). Certainly, Sannella quotes many cases where those undergoing a KAE heard voices (pp. 79, 83, 85, 143) or had profound fears about their own sanity (pp. 60, 64, 72, 87, 88, 113, 115).
The fact that what Sannella refers to as 'the intellectual-emotional component of the transmutative experience' (p. 24) is very variable suggests that each person's unique personal history and way-of-being in the world puts a correspondingly unique 'spin' on the way the KAE manifests for every individual who undergoes the experience. Where there are 'inherent weaknesses' and 'negative environmental factors' present (ibid.: 153), it is in these cases where a KAE can so easily become conflated with 'psychosis'. Here is Sannella again: 'our Western culture cuts off the tender shoots of the delicate plant of feeling with the cold sharpness of mechanical insensitivity..., [and] in this way, the entire system is thrown out of balance, and harmonious development becomes impossible' (ibid., my emphasis). Echoes here of the many devastating critiques of biological psychiatric treatments of 'psychosis' - e.g. Johnstone, 1989; Breggin, 1993; Newnes et al., 1999. Certainly, regarding Swami Muktananda's KAE, 'it is easy to imagine the diagnosis if he had approached a psychiatrist instead of a guru for his help' (p. 50). Scott expresses a similar view when she states that 'evolutionary disorders' (her term) are best not treated medically: rather, the aim should be to 'discover what transfers of control are taking place within the personality..., with a view to assisting inner growth rather than removing symptoms by medical means' (1989: 180-1). She goes on to urge that science 'admit mind into physics, [and] psychics, sensitives and intuitives onto its advisory panels and into its laboratories' (181). For 'So thoroughly are we now embedded in matter that there can be no further development unless [man] can free himself from some of its dead weight' (p. 240).
It seems that those undergoing a KAE who possess no previous theoretical framework for understanding it are very likely to fear for their own sanity (p. 34) - and certainly more so than those who do have the anchor of such a psychospiritual framework. Both Sannella (p. 31) and Jung (quoted on p. 18) refer to the autonomous, self-directing nature of the KAE; and no wonder this can so easily lead to a self-experience of 'madness' in a (Western) evolutionary conjuncture which tends to fetishise ego-control, and creates an 'abnormalising', pathologising discourse around any experience which either lies outwith conscious ego-control (Gopi described being 'completely at its mercy' - p. 51), or contradicts the rationalist logic of the dominant materialist world-view.
Gopi Krishna'S KAE
...if an adept seems to 'act mad' it is just because people around him do
not see what it is all about, as they are lacking the adept's frame of
reference.A. Bharati (quoted by James Hillman)
Perhaps the most detailed personal report of a KAE is that laid out in Gopi Krishna's Kundalini: the Evolutionary Energy in Man (1971), referred to above. For current purposes this book is particularly useful because it contains an illuminating 'running commentary' by Jungian analyst James Hillman, which, not least, attempts to build a bridge between what often seem to be the incompatible world-views of Eastern mystical/transpersonal experience and Western (depth) psychology. Thus, Hillman refers to how 'we call those psychic events for which our theory is inadequate, "alien", placing them in patho- or para-psychology, [while] we call radical theories (like those of Kundalini yoga) "mystical speculation" when the poverty of our psychic life fails to produce the empirical data on which the psychological theories have been erected' (pp. 42-3).
In his introduction, Frederic Spiegelberg refers to how Krishna's account illustrates the 'acceptance of everything that happens inwardly' - including despair and 'depressions and dangers almost to the point of ruination' (1971: 7). Certainly, many of Krishna's experiences seemed to be phenomenologically indistinguishable from what are in Western psychiatry diagnosed as 'psychotic' symptoms. Thus, for example, Krishna's experience of 'immersion of the ego in [a] stream of light is a common theme of religious mysticism, and also of psychopathological derangement' (Hillman, p. 69); Hillman compares Krishna's reported experiences with 'states of psychological dissociation, in which consciousness appears to break up into multiples of itself' (p. 70); and other events occurred 'which we call in the language of psychopathology, "depersonalization", disorientation", "alienation"' - and which are common to so-called 'paranoid', 'schizophrenic' and 'epileptoid' states (ibid., original emphasis). Indeed, Hillman is convinced that had Krishna presented at a Western psychiatric clinic, he would have undoubtedly been diagnosed as having a 'psychotic' episode (and no doubt been 'treated' accordingly).
In an absolutely key passage of his commentary (pp. 70-2), Hillman points out that the world-view of Western psychiatric medicine has nothing other than its diagnostic categories for understanding these experiences, and that Krishna was fortunate to possess a non-pathological framework of understanding with which to make sense of what was happening to him. He makes a similar point later, when he states that it was 'the ideational context', 'the supporting frame which kept his experience from going wrong', and which enabled him to integrate what was happening to him (p. 94). Indeed, for Hillman 'it is conceivable that some of the experiences described in Western psychiatric interviews could also be viewed as the beginnings of enlightenment rather than as the beginnings of insanity' (p. 71) (note that even Hillman seems to be assuming a valid qualitative distinction between 'mystical enlightenment' and 'insanity', to which I do not necessarily subscribe - though a bit later he does acknowledge 'How close the borderlines are!' - ibid.). But 'in the West, we are so lacking in an adequate context [for these experiences] that we do indeed go to pieces at the eruption of the unconscious, thereby justifying the psychiatric view' (p. 95). Though Hillman, being a Jungian depth psychologist, envokes the metaphor of 'the unconscious' as an explanatory principle at this point, other, more transpersonal explanatory factors could of course also be envoked. Certainly, it was clearly valuable for Krishna 'to feel that what he was going through... had... a universal meaning' - a 'transcendent purposefulness' (pp. 95, 96).
Echoing a view I strongly advocate in this chapter, Hillman states that, in Western diagnostic psychiatry, 'what a person has, his diagnosis, has become more important than who a person is' (p. 71, my emphasis); and for Krishna, 'He did not want to be treated; [and] to be "cured" of what he had would have meant loss of both who he was and why he was... [B]y avoiding professional help, and by staying within the guidelines of tradition he guaranteed his own sanity' (ibid.): for 'If [his experience] were... argued away, diagnosed as sick, a whole world would collapse' (p. 131). Moreover, Hillman points to the disempowering, infantilising dynamic intrinsic to the professional medical-model relationship, where 'All health is on one side, sickness on the other... Gopi Krishna did not split the archetype of the healed one and the wounded one' (pp. 71-2).
In a passage which has strong commonalities with Krishnamurti's teachings, we are also told how Krishna managed to stay with his own ambivalences - 'believing and doubting, feeling himself lost and found at the same time. This ambivalence was his balance' (p. 72). And relatedly, in a later passage Hillman touches on a similar theme which leads into fundamental questions about modernity and human consciousness: 'The balance is delicate indeed: too little ego and there is no observer, no central point; too little consciousness apart from ego and there is too little objective field of awareness apart from subjectivity, too little impersonal sensitivity and compassion' (p. 156). Krishna clearly responded to his KAE in a way very similar to the way K embraced his 'process' (referred to earlier): 'He let the ego sleep in its world of dreams; he observed merely what was going on, trusting... and letting the process transform him. Rather than let his ego integrate the luminous other world, he let the luminous other world integrate him. His approach... was just the reverse of what we assume in the West' (Hillman, pp. 176-7, my emphasis).
In considering the Jungian approach to the evolution of consciousness (e.g. Neumann, 1954), for current purposes the crucial point is that 'the ego only plays one of the roles, since the consciousness of other archetypal components... is also an aim of the work' (ibid., my emphasis). In the current era of modernity, typified as it is by scientism, materialism, 'control-freakery' and narcissism (e.g. Lasch 1979; Levin, 1987c), it is arguable that human consciousness has become grossly unbalanced in the direction of ego (over)development. Such an insight not only explains why, at both individual-experiential and cultural levels, we find it scarcely possible to contain so-called 'psychosis' and its accompanying loss of ego (in the process pathologising and 'treating' it as an 'illness' to eradicate), but more generally, perhaps those who do experience such (often deeply distressing) ego-loss - for whatever reason and in whatever circumstances - are expressing a crucial species-wide evolutionary imperative from which we must be open to learning.
Perhaps until 'ego', along with all its accompanying ideological assumptions and practices, is prepared to reflect critically on its grandiose pre-eminence and hegemony in the human psyche (as is thankfully beginning to happen in much 'new-scientific', postmodern epistemology and transpersonal thinking), then 'unusual human experience' will continue to be pathologised, scientifically medicalised and subjected to the fear-driven bludgeon of objectification and normalisation. Perhaps this is the key insight towards which those who have been so critical of medical-model psychiatric practices - Foucault and other 'postmodern' critics, Laing and Cooper and the 'anti-psychiatrists', Szasz, the Asylum magazine collective, Johnstone, the Grofs, Breggin, Boyle, Parker et al. (1995) and Newnes et al. (1999) (to name but a few) - have been struggling in recent decades. It is extremely difficult for those steeped in the ideology of modernity and scientism to accept that the KAE, or USEs more generally, might be in principle impossible to describe in language (Krishna, p. 13), or that 'the ego cannot grasp the totality of the event' (Hillman, p. 155) - or indeed that 'the ultimate development of the ego is its submission to, even immersion in, a field of wider psychic consciousness' (ibid.).
Certainly, I agree wholeheartedly with Hillman when he writes that for Western therapists/analysts/healers, 'the distinction between ego and consciousness means a re-thinking of our therapeutic aims' (ibid.) - which the deconstructive and transpersonal 'turns' within the psychology and psychotherapy worlds (if not yet psychiatry) are thankfully beginning to address, as the legitimacy of the old modernist paradigm is increasingly called into question (see, for example, Grof and Grof, 1990; Kvale, 1992; Schaef, 1992; Nelson, 1994; Anderson, 1997; Parker, 1999; House, 1999a, 1999c, 2000, and the burgeoning global membership of the Scientific and Medical Network). For Levin (1987b, following Kovel), 'our institutional channels for responding to schizophrenic suffering only render the mad doubly mad' (p. 13). Certainly, the approach to KAEs described in this chapter certainly suggests alternative possibilities for responding to USE which Western psychiatry could meaningfully pursue - approaches which have already been successfully tried and tested (e.g. Perry, 1974; Lamb, 1979; Soreff, 1985; Grof and Grof, 1990; Mosher, 1996).
Concluding this discussion of the kundalini, it seems that the KAE is probably multiply determined, being simultaneously a 'purificatory process' (Sannella, 1992: 107), a process of healing deep unconscious psychic material, and a transmutative process into a higher, qualitatively new level of consciousness. On this view, all those USEs that are typically labelled 'psychotic' and treated biologically with psycho-active medication may well have a crucial transpersonal evolutionary aspect that conventional 'treatments', rooted in the old Cartesian paradigm, not only completely miss, but actually do a profound violence towards. However, the chances of alternative, supportive-facilitative modalities gaining ground are at present small, given the massively entrenched vested material interests in the modernist status quo, manifested by the burgeoning global pharmaceutical industry and its close relationship with the professional institution of Psychiatry (e.g. Breggin, 1993; Jenner et al., 1993; Newnes et al., 1999). As Newnes and Holmes (1999: 274) bluntly assert, 'capitalism [as an instance of modernity? - RH] rather than altruism seems to be the dominant force in the shaping of modern psychiatry'.
Krishna himself was only too aware of 'the low, insistent voices of innumerable doubts that have to be satisfied... in the light of modern knowledge before... the possibility of development of a higher state of consciousness in a normal man can become acceptable to a strictly rational mind' (p. 240) - or that an evolutionary mechanism exists, 'ceaselessly active in developing the brain towards a pre-determined state of higher consciousness' (p. 245). Certainly, 'So many questions flood in - metaphysical, historical, religious' that it is little wonder that Western psychologists and psychiatrists are 'unable to cope' (Hillman, p. 251) from within their modernist world-view.
Towards a 'Spiritualised Cognitive Therapy'?
[Spiritual change] involves a continuous process of seeing in new ways.
In particular seeing suffering in new ways. The suffering that comes to
us from outside is only suffering if we see it as such and fight it as
something forced upon us against our will.... The conflict is... between
our essential nature and the ego.... It is at mental levels that the
disruptive influence comes in. The fault... is in... that part of [the
mind] which gets caught up in ego-distortions, erros of judgment made by
the conscious self about the nature of things.Mary Scott
At this juncture an interesting link with cognitive therapy (CT) suggests itself. I have written at some length in the therapy literature about the often mechanistic and un-holistic nature of much 'technique'-orientated cognitive therapy (e.g. House, 1996a), with its tendency to privilege the 'cognitive' over the 'emotional' and the spiritual. While I still hold to the main substance of those criticisms, I also believe there to be an important role for a type of 'spiritualised' cognitive therapy, which: (1) transcends CT's narrowly cast empirical-scientific world-view; (2) which is strongly informed by constructionist theory and postmodern deconstruction; and (3) which embraces some limited aspects of Albert Ellis's 'rational-emotive' therapy (RET) approach. On this latter view, a central source of people's distress is their (culturally sanctioned) assumptions, attitudes and beliefs about what is "(ab)normal" - which they apply like a template to themselves, discover a mismatch between their belief(s) about 'normality' and their own self-experience, and then distress themselves about the mismatch. On this view, such 'secondary' distress is, then, at the very least an active contributor towards their experienced 'symptoms' of distress - and, at least sometimes, even the central factor. (There are clearly some important parallels in all this with K's teachings, Zen philosophy and spiritual-contemplative practices more generally.) On this view, then, it is people's anxiety-driven, normality-fixated, ego-bound response to their experience of themselves which becomes the problem (part of which may be related to death/annihilation anxiety), and not the experience per se. Grof (1987: 476) is saying something similar in suggesting that 'the difference [between psychosis and healthy mysticism] seems to be less in the nature and content of the experiences than in the attitude, experiential style, and ability to integrate these experiences'.
I am also tempted to argue that there may always be some kind of spiritual, transbiographical (but by no means random) dimension to any and every unusual/exceptional subjective experience (ibid.), and that to ignore this (which medical-model diagnostic psychiatry routinely does) is to miss perhaps the most important aspect of those experiences, and - far worse - to do an untold violence to those people whose experiences are subjected to the blunt 'chemical cosh' of materialistic psycho-chemical treatment and objectifying regimes of professional 'truth'. This in turn suggests that a facilitator-therapist 'must be prepared to acknowledge and confront successively material from all these levels. This requires great flexibility and freedom from conceptual orthodoxy' (ibid.: 463, emphasis added).
We fall ill for our own development.Rudolf Steiner
It should be clear from the foregoing that there is a profound methodological danger in deducing causal, generative 'mechanisms' from observed symptomatologies - and particularly when one is unaware of the 'truth constructing' effects of one's tacitly held metaphysical world-view. In the specific case of the kundalini phenomenon, for example, if it were not for the existence of a well testified transpersonal context of meaning for it, then in response to this 'condition' (as we have seen) Western materialist psychiatry would diagnose 'abnormality' and '(psycho)pathology', rooted in the 'malfunctioning machine' metaphor of conventional Western medicine, even more routinely than it does already. More generally, we should continually remind ourselves that the forms of explanations we embrace to account for unusual human experience will be, at the very least, significantly determined by the prevailing (modernist) Zeitgeist - which, in the case of modern Western science, is essentially positivistic, mechanistic and materialistic (e.g. House, 1999b). Moreover, and contrary to the incoherent assertions of some apologists for mechanistic science, the latter inevitably entail foundational and irreducible metaphysical assumptions just as assuredly as do the most spiritual or transpersonal of world-views (House, 1997a, b).
It should be noted that, contrary to popular anecdote, I am certainly not claiming that kundalini phenomena are a typical, ever-present aspect of what is commonly termed 'mental illness': for as Greyson (1993: 54) has shown, 'an unselected sample of psychiatric inpatients reported an incidence of physio-kundalini symptoms no different than a normal control sample'. However, just because the speculative assertions of some commentators, that large numbers of psychiatric in-patients suffer from misdiagnosed kundalini awakenings, may well be unwarranted (ibid.), it by no means follows from this that 'psychiatric' suffering in general is not at some important level a kind of spiritual/transpersonal experience, that a narrow positivistic world-view inevitably misses. On this view, the psychiatric category of 'mental illness' may be highly questionable as a legitimate 'scientific' concept (cf. Parker et al., 1995; House, 1997c) - a viewpoint which even writers sympathetic to a transpersonal world-view can so easily fall into. Thus, for example, Greyson writes of 'differentiating kundalini awakening from mental illness' - 1993: 56; and Lukoff writes that 'differentiating psychotic from spiritual experience is not easy' - 1985, cited in Krippner and Welch, 1992: 213 - with both views clearly assuming a valid ontological distinction between 'psychosis' and 'kundalini/spiritual awakening'. It is all too easy for aspiring 'new paradigm' thinkers to delude themselves that they have transcended the modernist paradigm (e.g. House, 1996b); and perhaps the visionary healer, Georg Groddeck (House, 1997a), was pointing to something similar when he wrote that 'it is impossible to get human thought habits away from their beaten tracks' (1930, quoted in Schacht 1977: 11).
Some encouraging progress is being made towards the depathologisation of USE. First, the important work of the International Association of Spiritual Psychiatry (IASP) is of considerable note, founded as it was in 1994 to promote the integration of the spiritual dimension into modern medicine, psychiatry and psychology (see, for example, O'Callaghan, 1996; Smith, 1996-7). Psychologist David Lukoff has also done some important work in proposing, and having accepted, a new diagnostic category for the DSM-IV (APA, 1994: 685), 'psychoreligious or psychospiritual problem' (Lukoff et al., 1992; see also Lukoff, 1985: 160-2). Yet of course, such a development courts the danger of colluding with, and thereby tacitly legitimising, the diagnostic ideology of conventional Western psychiatry, Thus, Harvey (1987) has convincingly demonstrated that, far from the DSM offering a 'standardized symptomalology and diagnostic system... based on "neutral" clinical observations and mere "descriptions", [the DSM] relies on an implicit but powerful prescriptive, normative, metaphysical foundation that is never examined' (pp. 324, 325; cf. Johnstone, 1989; Farber, 1993; Caplan, 1995). And Harvey concludes that 'to embrace Western metaphysics and impose its standards of normality without awareness and without questioning is surely a form of blindess within a profession that takes pride in the emancipatory power of its insight' (p. 326). Finally, following the relatively fallow 'latency' period since Laing, there is again a steadily mounting and formidable literature quite fundamentally challenging to the foundational metaphysical assumptions of psychiatric diagnosis (e.g. Harvey, 1987; Boyle, 1990, 1996; Parker et al., 1995).
Within a truly postmodern approach to healing and transformation, it is paradoxically only when we really face up to the reality that, as the great precursor of postmodernity Georg Groddeck put it earlier this century, 'everything important happens outside our knowledge and control.... It is absurd to suppose that one can ever understand life' (Groddeck, 1951: 84), that we will be in the position of humility, from which way-of-being true, grounded, embodied 'knowledge' will quite naturally become available to us. Following the psychoanalyst and mystic Wilfred Bion, it might well be that the most effective healers are precisely those who do not (need to) take preconceived beliefs and defensive 'clinical gazes' into their work with clients or 'patients', but rather, are able to enter into their professional healing relationships in a relatively undefended way that privileges the healing power of intimacy (House, 1996a) and the immediacy of the real I--Thou encounter, as opposed to the objectifying practices that the diagnostic procedures of conventional psychiatry typically entail. In true Trickster spirit, Parker et al. mischievously write that the rigid discourses of psychiatry could themselves be termed 'psychotic' (1995: 126), with its proponents perhaps suffering from the condition of 'Professional Thought Disorder' (Lowson, 1994). Certainly, in an increasingly post- or trans-modern age, our very taken-for-granted notions of what a healthy 'self' consists in are coming under formidable challenge (e.g. Gendlin, 1987; Cushman, 1995; Heinze, 1999), and any progressive and enlightened approach to USE simply cannot afford to ignore these profound changes in our evolving subjectivities. As Levin (1987b: 12) has it, 'we continue to think of "the self" in ways that impose conformity and do not promote new forms of subjectivity'.
In this chapter, then, I have challenged what Walsh and Vaughan have called 'our arbitrary, culture-bound definitions of normality' (1993: 1), in a wide-ranging critique of our ideological constructions of 'ab/normality' which routinely masquerade as objective scientific fact under the prevailing Zeitgeist of modernity (Woodhouse, 1996). I agree with the philosopher William James that 'most people live... in a very restricted circle of their potential being' (quoted in Walsh and Vaughan, op. cit.) - and to such an extent that rather than what I have termed 'unusual subjective experience' being embraced in our culture as an opportunity and an invitation to enlarge that circle of being, it is routinely psychopathologised, chemically surpressed and brutally categorised as 'abnormal', and in need of remedial 'treatment' by a mental health industry whose procedures and assumptive base express the anxiety-driven, security-fixated ideology of modernity which still holds sway at this juncture in the development of human consciousness.
Levin succintly sums up the position taken in this chapter:
[S]eemingly psychotic experiences are better understood as crises related
to the person's efforts to break out of the standard ego-bounded
identity: trials of the soul on its spiritual journey. The modern self is
nearing the frontier of a historically new spiritual existence.... It is
time for a real paradigm shift.(Levin, 1987b; 16)
We could do far worse, finally, than to follow the wise words of Plotinus, who, in many ways presaging the recent upsurge in Goethean science - Bortoft, 1996), urged us to 'close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing... a wakefulness that is the birthright of us all, though few put it to use' (quoted in Walsh and Vaughan, 1993: 1).
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