by Mike Colagrossi
is viewed and
Many abnormal behaviors that are considered by
western psychologists to be mental illnesses that
require treatment are seen in a much different and
even positive light in non-industrial or "primitive"
Things like hearing voices, hallucinations, and
other unconventional behaviors are seen as the start
of a spiritual awakening. Many of these individuals
go on to become spiritual leaders and shamans of
Alan Watts and Terrence McKenna both commented on
and were concerned about industrial definitions and
treatment of mental illness.
Culture is the arbiter of our conscious
To say that it influences
how we think and act would be an understatement.
For the non-inquisitive
or complacent mind, it can set us into the inane doldrums of
prefabricated patterns we take to be both our day-to-day reality and
how we even view our own psyches and world around us.
It comes as no surprise that it also has a significant effect on
what we consider to be a normal psychological disposition.
In many traditional societies, mental distress is seen as a
transitional period from one state to the next in order to confront
a change in that person's life.
It's very unlikely that strange or novel behavior is seen as
indicative of an underlying mental disorder. There are many cultures
that don't even have words for what we call experiences like
depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Certain psychological phenomena such as possession or
mania, which for the most part, Westerners feel the need to
stamp out and put back in line with the rest of society and
cure, are instead seen in a much different light in more
The linguistic hang-ups we have when defining these other states
of consciousness needs to be explored.
We can look towards
shamanic cultures and other
psychological schools of thought to help us out with this endeavor.
another way to view mental illness?
Vincent Van Gogh
It's a given that,
...aren't going to jive
with some reductionist scientist's view of mental illness.
Even so, there is a small strain of scientists in the overall
psychiatric field that acknowledges
that the prospect of diagnosing and treating mental illnesses isn't
that cut and dried.
The British Psychological Association released a report a few
years back titled 'Understanding
Psychosis and Schizophrenia'.
It contained a statement
Hearing voices or
feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a
reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation.
Calling them symptoms
of mental illness, psychosis or schizophrenia
is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and
In other words, just
calling a different state of consciousness a mental 'illness'
can bring about unintended consequences towards either treating or
interacting with the individual with the supposed disorder...
This report went on to say that:
"There is no
clear dividing line between 'psychosis' and other thoughts,
feelings and beliefs: psychosis can be understood and
treated in the same way as other psychological problems such
as anxiety or shyness."
"Some people find
it useful to think of themselves as having an illness.
Others prefer to think of their problems as, for example, an
aspect of their personality which sometimes gets them into
trouble but which they would not want to be without."
cultures, experiences such as hearing voices are highly
breaks and other mental disorders in a different perspective
Throughout a person's life, they're bound at least once to
experience an overwhelming event. This might trigger a change in
psychological temperament either for a short period of time or
The following actions we, as a collective culture, take determines
the outcome of this individual's future.
Picture a transcendent or frightening experience either brought on
through a psychoactive chemical substance or traumatizing event -
whatever it is, it has brought a novel change in that person's
Many diagnosed individuals speak about visions and very unique ways
of viewing the world. It's a mix of both the incredibly blissful and
talked about this in his seminal psychedelic work detailing his
experiences with mescaline.
The Doors of Perception, he
"I have spoken so far
only of the blissful visionary experience? But visionary
experience is not always blissful. It's sometime terrible.
There is hell as well
When people are able to
integrate these experiences into their psyche and create some grand
work of art or creation, they're often lionized and considered
heroes, geniuses and pioneers.
Even though, upon further western psychological inquiry, they could
very well be considered mad or be placed on the psychological
DSM-5 mental disorders spectrum.
If, on the other hand, they fall into,
institutionalized and prescribed with whatever chemical
suppressant is 'en vogue' at the time.
It is quite clear that cultures determine what is right and
what is wrong, and subsequently what is normal and
Are mental illnesses
invented or found?
A student of psychology just needs to consult what many
psychiatrists decree sarcastically
as the holy bible, the DSM-5, which lists all mental
illnesses known to exist.
There is debate in the community as to the validity of this
For example, here are a couple of mental illnesses that were once
considered real and that we no longer call as such.
Say… where'd they all go?
Alan Watts once compared
psychological experts as having the same authority as the medieval
Both are elevated in
society and are the ones with the sole truth, which they
dispense from their high towers in the form of what we now call
Yet, as we're going to
see, this is a particularly naive view that is not always used as a
way to treat the individual, but for the purpose of ensuring
industrial society stays, to a point, culturally homogeneous.
Role of the
psychotherapist in treating mental disorders
Before we can move on to how primitive cultures entertain and
integrate the individual back into society after a mental break,
it's helpful to view how industrial societies work this process.
Again we look toward some of Alan Watts' wisdom in which he saw how
psychologists focused not on integrating the individual, but instead
making them fit into the society.
This is exactly the
opposite way in which more pastoral and native cultures go about it.
Alan Watts states:
therapist stands with society, he will interpret his work as
adjusting the individual and coaxing his 'unconscious drives'
into social respectability.
But such 'official
psychotherapy' lacks integrity and becomes the obedient tool of
armies, bureaucracies, churches, corporations, and all agencies
that require individual brainwashing.
On the other hand, the therapist who is really interested in
helping the individual is forced into social criticism.
This does not mean
that he has to engage directly in political revolution.
It means that he has
to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms
of social conditioning, which includes liberation from hating
this conditioning - hatred being a form of bondage to its
Watts goes on to say
"[Good] doctors try
to get rid of their patients - clergymen try to get them hooked
on the medicine so that they will become addicts to the church…
You don't make
medicine a diet."
This is where the break
between how more holistic and spiritual cultures view mental illness
as compared to scientists who instead diagnose and disperse medicine
to patients when a disorder has been found.
has, for the most part, been interested in changing the
consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals.
The disciplines of
Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the
consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people," writes Alan
cultures deal with aberrant behavior
Panther Spirit and Shaman,
by Omer Haciomeroglu.
Many of the terms we use to diagnose mental behaviors we don't
understand have also changed throughout the years, as evidenced by
the constant reshuffling of the DSM-5 and other psychiatric
The late and great ethnobotanist and writer Terence McKenna
had a rich and first-hand experience with many shamanic tribes.
Throughout his years of
psychedelic study and incursions into far-flung realities with
Amazonian tribes, he found a rich tradition of integrating
the so-called mentally disturbed into elevated positions
that were fundamental to the well-being of primitive societies.
"We have no tradition
of shamanism. We have no tradition of journeying into these
mental worlds. We are terrified of madness.
We fear it because
the Western mind is a house of cards, and the people who built
that house of cards know that, and they are terrified of
Other societies are not
so frightened by the prospect of madness or even certified
shaman is someone who swims in the same ocean as the
schizophrenic, but the shaman has thousands and thousands of
years of sanctioned technique and tradition to draw upon,"
"In a traditional society, if you exhibited 'schizophrenic'
tendencies, you are immediately drawn out of the pack and put
under the care and tutelage of master shamans.
You are told:
'You are special.
Your abilities are very central to the health of our
society. You will cure. You will prophesy. You will guide
our society in its most fundamental decisions'."
McKenna compares this to
how we deal with schizophrenia.
"Contrast this with
what a person exhibiting schizophrenic activity in our
society is told.
'You don't fit
in. You are becoming a problem. You don't pull your own
weight. You are not of equal worth to the rest of us. You
are sick. You have to go to the hospital. You have to be
locked up. You are on a par with prisoners and lost dogs in
So that treatment of
schizophrenia makes it incurable."
These different systems
for dealing with an undeniable part of the human condition can help
us pave the way for a future that doesn't demonize or ignore a
fundamental personality aspect for many people...