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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Religion and Mental Health.

This has the potential to be a controversial post but if you've been reading me long then you know that I don't shy away from such posts. However, I don't mean to offend anyone with this post. Overall I'm just really curious about the subject. I'm not saying anything below is true or false because I don't know but I do find the subject fascinating.

I don't mean to belittle any particular religion. I'm just wondering about things. Probably thinking too much as I tend to do. So please forgive me in advance if I offend.

From time to time I contemplate the cross-roads between religion and mental health, two of my favorite subjects. As many of you know I live with a mental condition called Schizo-Affective disorder which is a combination of Bipolar type 1 and some symptoms of Schizophrenia. One of the things that is common amongst many mentally ill is a strong religious/spiritual connection yet often we are misunderstood (by some religions) as having "demons" possessing our minds.

This is a touchy subject but I've been wondering if some of the great spiritual leaders in history had mental health conditions/challenges. For example, was Jesus mentally ill? I don't mean to single him out but he is the one I'm most familiar with given I was raised Christian and spent 22 years as a Christian. I'm not saying that Jesus was indeed mentally ill but there are some intriguing connections. He saw visions, claimed to be able to talk with an invisible god and claimed to be the son of that god. In addition to believing that he had supernatural powers (we don't know if he did or did not have these gifts).

There was no understanding of mental illness in those days and therefore I can see why people would think that someone who claims to see visions and to be able talk to god would seem other-worldly, special and mystical since not all of the people showed those inclinations. And it makes sense that they would see those who were completely insane to be "possessed" for a lack of any other explanation for their behavior.

This all being said, even if Jesus and others had mental conditions doesn't mean that they were any less inspirational, amazing or transcendental. And having struggles with mental health doesn't preclude one from having a deep spiritual connection and as long as that spiritual connection is beneficial and not disruptive to one's sanity and safety then I think it's a gift. In fact some of the most spiritual people are those with mental health struggles because they are often more able to transcend the logical mind that holds us all hostage to some degree. Shamans for example are spiritual leaders of nature based religions who are initiated and receive special insights after surviving a personal psychological crisis.

As for the Buddha he seemed to be part psychologist as the religion that evolved from his teachings is one that is very beneficial to those suffering from mental conditions. It seems to be the religion that most addresses the mind and its formations. I guess that is why it is often called the "religion of psychology." However, the Buddha himself had some supernatural experiences that could be argued to have been hallucinations--who knows. Yet even if they were hallucinations it doesn't necessarily take away from their meaning and power.

This all being said, most religions have the potential to help those with mental struggles but there are some damaging teachings in certain religions that are still evident such as demonic possession. As well as teachings that people with mental illnesses have them because they are being punished for some perceived wrong doing. Or that it is a sign that they have a weak mind which is total ignorance because myself and many other mentally ill folks that I know have contemplated deep issues that many living on the surface haven't even considered let alone come to terms with such as death.

Anyway, just something I've been thinking about.

~Peace to all beings~

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17 comments:

Ginger said...

i don't think that jesus was mentally ill. i do think that the true, good man that lived on this planet has become part legend merely through the story telling that was compiled in a large book that has been translated to someone's whim numerous times. that said, you do have an interesting theory.

thank you for the explanation before the post james, i appreciate your tact. jesus is a good buddha and is my guruji.

Inner Oddness said...

I love studying and contemplating subjects like these. Whether or not Jesus dealt with a psychological issue or not, you're right in saying he was no less inspirational. People may take offense about a person implying an inspiration leader may not be in the best mental health, but seriously, look at some of the people we vote into public offices!

Whether or not Jesus or anyone else of historical and/or spiritual importance had mental disorders or not, it is us, the people, the masses, who place them on the pedestals of importance. How we translate their teachings tells us more about ourselves then about the ones who taught them.

I have been dealing with a friend of mine who is displaying symptoms of a personality disorder, and I couldn't help but laugh at this odd irony:
we live in a society where we are considered sane if we are open to the possibility that we may be insane, and considered insane if we refuse to believe that we are nothing but sane.

thank you for the lovely comments ^_^

Greenwoman said...

My opinions about mental illness come from several personal experiences. I have suffered from depression off and on throughout my life. Also there is alcoholism in my family and I myself experienced its grip actively in my younger years. I worked for years with the developmentally disabled and mentally ill also. And I have a number of friends with severe mental illness, among them multiple personalities and borderline personalities. I also have simply neurotic friends...some of them are just worry worts or folks who have attention deficit disorder.

I have observed some things that seems common in all these upsets to thinking and viewpoint about interacting with reality.

One is, that people with mental illness often have very powerful souls.

Another is any dysfunctional pattern of thinking creates an atmosphere around us...just as great clarity does.

These patterns, be they clear or dysfunctional attract further energies like it, if the person in question does not have a strong mindful practice....even then the pattern of thinking can be very difficult to manage and even a powerful mindful practice can still not keep it all at bay...and so these patterns and the resonant ones that are attracted to the original one get fed by emotions. Because our encounters with reality around us has reinforced something that either makes us happier or causes more suffering.

I believe that there is all sorts of intelligence. These intelligences resonate with like energies and thought patterns. So they will go hang out with those which give them the comfortable atmosphere...feeding them with the comfortable emotional energy.

The person with the mental clarity and the happy emotions will attract very positive entities around them. Sometimes very powerful entities take a shine to a wise happy person and befriend them, bringing great peace to the person and all those around him/her.

The person with lots of miserable thinking patterns will tend to attract entities which feeds their misery further. Sometimes a very horrid entity comes to stay with the person with the cloudy thinking because there's such plentiful misery energy to consume...and they stir more misery around the person, bringing more food and power within reach.

This is why shamanic people claim that people with mental illness were possessed...but I have always believed that the process starts with the mind...not the other way round.

Human souls are born in innocence. We do not have original sin and therefore we do not have evil spirits just taking up residence in us to do evil or something. That just doesn't make any sense.

It is the mindfulness practice which can support the medicines and the healthy lifestyle. It is the healthy lifestyle which can entrain the energy around you the way a happy rhythm effects mood. I think that some habits, rituals and spiritual practices are purifying and help send these negative entities on their way by 'poisoning' the food source with love and joy. *winks*

A personal opinion only...

Thank you for this post James. You've added some things to contemplate. And you've said things in a loving manner. Bless you. ((hugs))

G said...

The Buddha taught that we are all mentally ill to one degree or another until we transcend these illusory egos and realize our Buddha-nature.

Becoming our own psychologist, to some extent, and examing the desires & attachments that help form the personality is to practice the Buddha Way. Whether we consider the illusory self to be sane or insane isn't really the point in the end, for our true nature is beyond such an impermanent process as the ego.

Be truly well in the Dharma,
G at 'Buddha Space'.

Dhamma81 said...

I think our society once again trys to find some sort of rational "scientific" explanation for everything even though it is my belief that there are some things science cannot ever explain. People do not have room in their hearts for any kind of transcendence when our society tells them everything spiritual or religious is some sort of half baked myth or way of coping in a purely rational material world.

I don't doubt that some people in the religious world are or were mentally ill, but even so, sometimes the message they have seems clearer and more compassionate then some of the so called sane people out there.

Even if Jesus had a disorder of some sort his Sermon on the Mount and some of his parables were spot on and pretty lucid as far as I'm concerned.

G. was right in saying that the Buddha said that we are all insane to one degree or another. From the perspective of someone like the Buddha the purely rational and narrow material view of things is actually considered wrong view as is our constant search for a true happiness in things that grow old, get sick and die.

I have wanted to be a monk for years, but to most of society that would seem crazy because by and large they don't believe that any sort of true happiness is possible at all so it seems futile and pointless to them. To me it has always seemed a beautiful ideal that you take on a noble search to find a happiness that doesn't harm anyone at all, from the tiniest insect all the way to your fellow beings.

The Buddha says that a happiness like that is actually possible through human effort, but in a society like ours its hard to find support in that search because they just don' believe it is even a possible or worthy goal. So who is crazier, the Buddha or the society we live in that thinks the ends justify the means in almost everything from medical research to the holding of political power?

I personally believe demonic possession is real although probably rare with most cases being able to be explained. I don't know if you have ever seen that program "Ghosthunters" but some of the video footage of apparitions are pretty convincing. I don't know whay anyone would try to fabricate some of the stuff they pull up considering the two guys who do the show try to debunk everything.

In the Buddhist cosmology, both Mahayana and Theravada there are descriptions of beings from other realms as well as descriptions of hell realms that are not just mental states. I have never seen them personally, but I take on faith that what he was talking about is true. After all, societies from all corners of the globe from the dawn of time have stories of other beings, some of them not so nice. Can we really in our Western arrogance chalk it all up to something modern science can now put the lid on?

This is a thoughtful and insightful post and an enjoyable read. Hope I don't come off too harsh here as it is not my intent to do so. Be well in your practice.

They call him James Ure said...

Ginger:

i do think that the true, good man that lived on this planet has become part legend merely through the story telling that was compiled in a large book that has been translated to someone's whim numerous times.

Couldn't agree more!!!

Inner Oddness:

I love studying issues like this too. I am fascinated with the cultural, philosophical connections with religion/spirituality.

Yes as I said in my post I think that the mentally ill are often more spiritually in-tune than the general population. Thus partly why I have this theory.

GW:

Well said that like energies attract. Many people believe that all symptoms of a mental disorder are negative, not so. Thus someone like Jesus might have had a mental disorder but it gave him mystical insight that others weren't able to access with a regular mind that isn't as able to transcend itself.

G:

Yes, the Buddha did indeed state that we are all mentally ill. There are those, however, who have extra mental challenges that stem from a physiological misfiring within the brain. There are though those who have mental disorders from their experiences such as being abused.

Quite right that we are beyond such labels but I do think it is important to discuss such matters in a worldly way. Otherwise we can not fully help those who have to suffer from a biological brain disorder.

Unfortunately we don't live in a utopia society where we can afford not to involve ourselves in worldly matters. Unless we live as a monk. That being said, yes it is true in the end that we must over-come such labels and dualities.

Dhamma81:

I understand your position and would agree that science doesn't know everything and that we shouldn't rely simply upon science to live our lives.

However, I do believe that science is spot on in that mental disorders are very real and that medicines can greatly help find peace. That's not to say that spirituality isn't an important piece to the puzzle because it is. My battle plan in regards to my mental disorder is part medicine (science) and part spiritual (meditation, chanting and mindfulness).

You said, I don't doubt that some people in the religious world are or were mentally ill, but even so, sometimes the message they have seems clearer and more compassionate then some of the so called sane people out there.

I couldn't agree more and that is why I said something very similar in the post.

I agree that the purely material view is extreme and not staying in the middle but I don't think I was advocating that view in this post, nor in my blog in general. For example I mentioned in the post that many mentally ill are sometimes more able to transcend the logical (material) mind.

I don't criticize your belief that the specific realms are real but personally I don't believe that they are. I do hold out the possibility that they are real(I hesitate to rule out the possibility of a lot of things) but from my experience and study they are not.

And faith is something that I have had struggles with in the past from growing up Christian. I don't necessarily think that having faith that the supernatural elements of Buddhism are real is essential to realizing liberation. Just my opinion though.

I do though have faith in some areas but I don't think one is required to have faith across the board (Think Kalama Sutra). That would be blind faith in my opinion.

Yes many religions and cultures believe in supernatural beings and places but that doesn't necessarily make them right or wrong. I think the bottom line is if the belief helps or hinders ones spiritual development.

Personally believing in the supernatural is not something that matters to me that much. I'm not saying that it is stupid for others to believe in the supernatural but for me it isn't something that I feel the need to embrace.

Either way I think the goal is the same to avoid them (whether real or states of mind/being) because they create so much suffering. It's just that people understand teachings differently partly due to karma, the Kalama Sutra and partly because that some people understand teachings differently.

Perhaps this means that I'm not a "real Buddhist" (whatever that means) but that doesn't really bother me. I have to follow what I believe and not dishonestly follow something that I don't believe. I did that for too long as a Mormon.

There are so many different branches of Buddhism that are different from each other but still accepted as part of the Buddhist community. If a new western Buddhism is forming is it being criticized and delegitimized because it is new like the Mahayana branch was once? Or is it a matter of hard line dogma?

Dhamma81 said...

"However, I do believe that science is spot on in that mental disorders are very real and that medicines can greatly help find peace. That's not to say that spirituality isn't an important piece to the puzzle because it is. My battle plan in regards to my mental disorder is part medicine (science) and part spiritual (meditation, chanting and mindfulness)."

I agree with you there. I'm sure there are people out there who truly feel better using a combination of medications along with other things like a spiritual practice. I am certainly not one of those folks who thinks all forms of medication for brain disorders are wrong. That would be extreme, especially when many people are helped in profound ways by that kind of treatment and may not be able to function in society without it.

My sister has been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and although I may sound kind of extreme and conservative at times I would never suggest that she go off her meds to simply meditate instead, it could be dangerous depending on the severity of her illness.


I don't know much about western Buddhism because it is so new. I think it will be a while before a real Western Buddhism establishes itself. As long as it deals with the Four Noble Truths and adheres to basic standards like the precepts and the Vinaya for the monks it could rightly be called Buddhism.

As you said, supernatural beliefs are not neccessary to consider oneself a Buddhist. The Four Noble truths are not about the supernatural at all, so if you believe in it then fine but if not it isn't the most important thing.

There are too many suttas/sutras in both the Theravada and the Mahayana school that make references to other realms and other beings in those realms for me to personally discredit or pass them off as simply Joseph Campbell style mythology/psychology stories although I am not saying that you feel that way.

We are both on a the path to transcend suffering for all time so whether we get there in the exact same way or not is not as important as simply getting there. In the end, putting an end to suffering and helping those we can along the way is all that matters whether we follow, Zen, Theravada, Mahayana or whatever. I wish you well.

delusional said...

First of all I consider myself mentally ill and I do see a psychiatrist. Some people call me crazy chris. I know there are many differences between various mental illnesses so perspective may be at issue for me. I could never consider Jesus as mentally ill, rather mentally liberated from the typical world. liberation form worldly (human) views could be interpreted as menatal illness but may not be a true definition, if a true definition exists.

From my viewpoint as both someone with mental issues and pot smoking issues. In all honesty I would more closely tie what jesus said (not including later changes made by paul)to be more what I feel after pot use than my typical mental state of mind while in an episode.

I know some would say pot use would lead to mental issues and may violate THH's 5th precept, my opinion on Jesus' teaching is that if it causes you to sin cut it off. Alcohol clearly in my case in excess causes me to sin. The other sometimes leads to deep meditation and mystic feeling of nirvanna. I am soemewhat bitter because the latter has been taken from me so this post may be quite opinionated.

But I do believe it is a distinction to be made within the context of this post. I do not think jesus smoked pot nor mentally ill, however I think his philosophies more mirrors a contemplative pot smoker (not a partying pot smoker) more than a mentally ill person.

delusional said...

Some of the televangelists though, thats another story. Some seem completely certifiable, yet they draw huge followings.

Dan Stanton said...

I think that mental illness does let one experience a stronger spiritual connection.

In my own case, I think I am mildly depressive, so I really identify with the statement: "Everything is meaningless." Though, this is only true from an outside perspective; in other words, humanity could end in some world-wide catastrophe, but the universe will keep on going. The universe could end, but reality will still be there. Reality could break down, throwing everything into chaos or complete nothingness. The source and continued existence of things are entirely conditional. For a long time, I didn't want to accept this: I thought that if there is no meaning to it, then why do anything? The existential crisis crippled all self-motivation, leaving me a creature chasing after hope and pleasure while running from fear and pain. I can say that sometimes the thought of what I thought had meaning within this void of meaninglessness still fills me with a revulsive dread to which I can only respond with awareness and acceptance.

I've slowly started to come around to creating my own subjective meaning. Everything being meaningless doesn't preclude us from imbuing our actions, emotions, and relationships with meaning. But the depression that gets us to see that "everything is meaningless" is helping us to see the way things are.

I also like your connection of mental illness to non-rational thinking because, for me, rational thinking is like having my voice in my head or constantly figuring things out in my head. Under this definition, rational thinking is not peaceful, despite the outward appearance of peace. The non-rational thinking of mental illness may not be a mental silence, but if the mental phenomena are not happening in a compulsive chain of logic, there may at least be more silence between each mental event. And, now that I've been thinking about it, my own separation between rational and non-rational is conditioned. That is, from a different perspective, rational thinking may be non-rational thinking and vice versa.

I also agree with G, and Buddha, that we all have mental illness to some extent. However, I think this statement goes deeper than just that people live within an illusion, not knowing reality. I also think that the physiological misfirings that are the root cause of serious mental illnesses also occur, to a lesser extent, among apparently "normal" people (and G may have been meaning this already). It's just that when misfirings (those caused by genetics) are weak enough, they can be somewhat useful, but when they are strong, they are debilitating so that it makes a "normal" life impossible.

Love and Peace

arulba said...

Perhaps what we, today, call mentally ill isn't actually an illness at all? It simply functions as illness within the confines of current society? (A societal disfunction rather than a personal one?)

It is often argued that the most creative had some amount of bipolar disorder and that all great creative societal reformations are preceded by a general societal melancholia. But we immediately medicate both these days and may be stiffling our creative abilities by deeming such conditions "disorders" or "illnesses" as a blanket personal condition rather maintaining the broader perspective of the relationship of individual to society.

david said...

Appreciate the question, though I think in Jesus's case no one could be more sane.

I like this old zen master's explanation; Deluded people are deluded about enlightenment, and Enlightened people are enlightened about delusion.

I think the test of a guru, is not what they say, or even what they profess .. but what it feels like to be their presence.

I know that when I have been in the presence of the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh.

I know many followers of Neem Karoli baba said this "It was not just that being in his presence, I knew he loved me unconditionally... but it was that I too loved everyone unconditionally. And this sense of love came and went with his presence"

Karla said...

Well Jesus would either have to be a lunatic, a liar, or Lord to have lived the life He lived and made the claims He made about who He is. I believe Him to be Lord and I think there is good evidence to support that. As Lord, He is the Great Physician and Scripture reports that He healed all kinds of sickness and diseases.

You say you were a Christian for 22 years. What brought you to Eastern Religions?

They call him James Ure said...

Dhamma81:

I don't know much about western Buddhism because it is so new. I think it will be a while before a real Western Buddhism establishes itself. As long as it deals with the Four Noble Truths and adheres to basic standards like the precepts and the Vinaya for the monks it could rightly be called Buddhism.

As you said, supernatural beliefs are not neccessary to consider oneself a Buddhist. The Four Noble truths are not about the supernatural at all, so if you believe in it then fine but if not it isn't the most important thing.


Very well said and I totally agree with you on this.

Delusional:

Yeah many of those televangelists scare the crap out of me. They seem more like cultish businessmen than spiritual leaders.

I too have a mental illness and like what you said about mental liberation. And I do agree with you on pot. I think it should be legalized and the problem isn't the substance itself but attachment to it.

Dan:

I think that mental illness does let one experience a stronger spiritual connection.

I do too for the most part. I have had some amazing spiritual experiences that I don't think I would have had if I had a "normal" brain.

That being said, having a mental illness isn't a fun enterprise most of the time.

Arulba:

Perhaps what we, today, call mentally ill isn't actually an illness at all? It simply functions as illness within the confines of current society? (A societal disfunction rather than a personal one?)

I think to a certain extent, yes.

I am one of those creative types who happen to have a mental illness and I can't say indeed that my creativity has been reduced because of the medicines. But I know that my condition is so severe that without them I would soon kill myself.

David:

I like this old zen master's explanation; Deluded people are deluded about enlightenment, and Enlightened people are enlightened about delusion.

Well said. Thank-you for inserting that into the conversation. It's very insightful.

Karla:

I admire Jesus greatly and agree with much of what he taught. His teachings share much in common with those of Buddha. As for why I left Christianity and embraced Buddhism? That's a long story...

knowl said...

I have observed some things that seems common in all these upsets to thinking and viewpoint about interacting with reality.How we translate their teachings tells us more about

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juliana said...

Providing care to a loved one with dementia and the death of that loved one are generally considered two of the most stressful human experiences. Each puts family caregivers at risk of psychological problems. Although research has suggested that religious beliefs and practices are associated with better mental health in older people, little is known about whether religion is associated with better mental health in family caregivers.
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viagra online said...

Greetings They call him James Ure!
I think that mental illness is a problem that is affecting most of people,so why not help? We gotta do it right away!

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