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By Brianna Wiest
Shamanic practices see mental illness as a sign of an awakening mind. They believe it’s what happens when two incompatible energies merge into one field, creating discord. Ancient, indigenous cultures considered it to be a signal that someone is beginning to bridge the divide between this world and the next. Sufferers weren’t feared as “crazy,” they were revered, and given proper spiritual counsel to help them manage their new influx of information.
The ancient Greeks considered mental illness as one being “touched by the gods.” Aristotle stated in his perspicacity: “There is no genius without having a touch of madness.” In Neolithic times, they used Trephining to cure mental issues. It was a procedure in which a hole (a trephine) was chipped into the top of an individual’s skull. Practitioners believed it created an exit point for the lower-vibrational energy to release, and the higher to enter. In ancient Mesopotamia, priest-doctors (note that they were one in the same) successfully treated patients with religious rituals. Even today, many Eastern practices such as Buddhism still teach that mental illness is not seeing one’s “true nature,” or having an incorrect or imbalanced view of reality.
Of course, it goes without saying that many of these practices were ineffective at best and problematic at worst. The point, however, is that severing the connection between the divine and the sick mind is relatively new in history.
Today, science tells us that there’s a neurological correlation between genius and mental illness. The most commonly known is that the center of the brain that controls rumination – or in other words, worry – is the same one that controls creativity. When you do one, you activate the other.
We also have an extensive canon of artists, healers, thinkers and innovators from all backgrounds, religions and walks of life who have cited their deepest struggles as being the catalysts of their awakenings. These people seem to identify a purpose for suffering, one that’s not redemption in the next life, but beauty in this one. Rumi said the wound is where the light enters. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said one must know defeat and suffering and struggle to know appreciation and sensitivity and understanding. Khalil Gibran said pain sears the most incredible characters’ hearts. Fyodor Dostoyevsky said it is through suffering that a large intelligence and deep heart can be born. C. Joybell C. said that we are like stars: we think we’re dying until we realize that we are collapsing into supernovas, to become more beautiful than ever before.
But statistically, we are more mentally ill than ever before. Despite revolutionary advancements in modern science and medicine, we are not able to heal people faster, or sometimes, at all. Though treatments usually improve quality of life, they have by no means cured these types of disorders. When they reoccur, they become chronic and life-threatening over time. It is seen as taboo to suggest that it is possible to “get over” mental illness, or to heal from it altogether. It offends those who have sought every treatment, tried every avenue, and still found themselves suffering. In many cases, just legitimizing these kinds of illnesses as something more than a sour mood or bad attitude is a challenge in itself.
Some tenets of modern culture could be to blame for this. We are uniquely disconnected from one another, and even more severely from ourselves. We are drunk on individualism (ego), our blueprint of a “good life” being a map of personal success, superiority and envy. We typically neglect what we really need: love, community, purpose, belonging, wellness, health.
What is the difference between a homeless man who claims to speak to God and a saint who says the same? To a skeptic, nothing – they’re both insane. But what about the tangible beauty, the undeniable way that some people use the most devastating parts of their life to alter reality? Striking revelations that innovate entire industries, unexplainable inspiration that fuels entire novels that heal thousands, if not millions?
Is mental illness a debilitation that renders you incapable of living? In some cases, yes. But like anything functions on Earth, the darkness must be balanced by just as much light. In this case, that “light” tends to be an unusually profound ability to perceive beauty, and insight. It will break through now and again.
Life, as the Buddhists say, is suffering. The way out is “right thinking.” Perhaps that is not synonymous with “positivity.” Perhaps it is revelation. Perhaps the very people who suffer the most in this world are the ones who have the ability to show us what isn’t right about it. Perhaps the most profound spiritual awakening of all is being able to feel what human beings are capable of – and how far we are from realizing it.