Cracked up. Small and broken and beautiful — these lovely pieces reside in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Julia took this photo while playing hide and seek with the angels, during a period of “ecstatic vision.”

The Spiritual Gift of the Oregon Shooter

“The key thing is that the most important mystic in your life is you” — Matthew Fox

As I write this there are people in Oregon mourning the deaths of their loved ones. There has been yet another mass shooting in the gun-toting USA, by yet another furious young man with ‘mental illness.’ Indeed, what could be unhealthier than the state of mind provoking such a bloodbath?

Disturbingly, I can relate to what the killer must have been experiencing, the dreamlike disengagement of the psychotic break. I’ve been ‘mad’ twice now, and each time my state of mind was flavoured deeply with an emotional state: the first time I was immersed in fear and remorse, the second time it was joy and gratitude. I would guess that the mad gunman was immersed in rage and self-righteousness, when he pointed his gun at each victim, and watched each body go down.

“I think we need to distinguish between the ‘madness’ of ecstatic vision and the ‘madness’ of psychic anguish,” says Sascha DuBrul, one of the featured interview subjects in The Spiritual Gift of Madness (Inner Traditions, 2012.) Written by maverick psychologist Seth Farber, the book argues for a revolutionary social and spiritual movement led by those who have experienced madness. While offering a critical stance toward the psychiatric profession and its insidiously co-dependent pharmaceutical industry, the book stalls on the author’s inability to get out of his own way, so determined is he to issue a rallying cry. Romantically idealising the altered state of madness fails to acknowledge its shadow side, the potential damage it wreaks.

Farber explores his premise through a series of interviews with figures he considers to be the movement’s leadership contenders: mainly individuals involved in or connected to the Icarus Project, an online community promoting ‘Mad Pride.’ In its own words:

The Icarus Project is a support network and media project by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness. We advance social justice by fostering mutual aid practices that reconnect healing and collective liberation… The Icarus Project seeks to overcome the limitations of a world determined to label, categorize, and sort human behavior. We envision a new culture that allows the space and freedom for exploring different states of being, and recognizes that breakdown can be the entrance to breakthrough. We aim to create a language that is so vast and rich that it expresses the infinite diversity of human experiences. We demand more options in understanding and navigating emotional distress and we want everyone to have access to these options, regardless of status, ability, or identity.

It’s easy to see why Farber is drawn to the vision articulated by this courageous and encouraging community. But in seeking out revolutionary leaders, Farber misses the point of spiritual enlightenment. A movement relying on individual leadership must be fuelled by followers — those who are willing to surrender their personal autonomy, personal responsibility and personal power. Yet these are precisely the ingredients needed to engender one’s own spiritual growth. A leadership model is ultimately incompatible with the notion of a spiritual revolution.

His interview subjects inevitably pick up on this. DuBrul gently chastises that

I can totally see that you want to write this book; you see the importance of what you have in mind that can connect the dots — that this is really important for the movement — but I’m sure that a part of you is also like, “I want the movement. I want the movement, I want the people, I want to be part of the movement that doesn’t exist yet, and I’m trying to create it.” I’m maybe reminding you of what you already know. It is all around us, and that’s something that you tune into, it’s a frequency that you tune into, that universal love story where it’s like you and God, and here we are in our universal love story… but don’t let ego get in the way. (p.233)

Another interview subject, David Oaks, tells Farber that “it comes down to the fact that we are all in the same boat. Nobody has a grip on reality. Therefore, we need everybody’s heart and mind onboard in making decisions together… We are all interdependent, not just the people who get labelled mentally ill or consumer or survivor — everyone. The Psychiatry distinctions obscure our commonalities.” (p.96–97)

And Paul Levy, in a later chapter, suggests to Farber that “if we’re talking about Mad Pride and having these visionary gifts and awakenings, you can’t take out of that equation that you are a member of the human community and that part of what gifts you are bringing forth have to do with helping our species and the greater collective field to heal and to wake up. I don’t see any way to separate that from your own personal healing.” (p.359)

These refreshing people refuse to wear the mantle of leadership; they maintain that ‘we are all interdependent’ and that the spiritual revolution Farber craves is already accessible to anyone willing to ‘tune into’ it. As DuBrul says, “Let our Mad Pride movement be grounded in humility and kindness for each other in our diversity of life experiences, a recognition that social movements need good communicators and organisers more than charismatic leaders and messianic visions…” (p.253)

My own personal experience drew me to the beguiling title of this book. Madness is indeed — or can be, anyway — a spiritual gift, bittersweet with its own brand of healing and learning. I regard my altered-state journeys to be mystical experiences as valid and profound as those celebrated in the lives of saints and prophets. As Farber observes, “the mad experience is typically… a visionary experience; the ‘psychotic’ is plunged into the myth world, the collective unconscious, into the deeper nonrational levels of the psyche.” (p.111)

Farber also draws heavily on the work of R.D. Laing, “who startled the world… with the claim that the mad were mystics and that schizophrenics were saner than normal people.” Laing believed that “psychotics were pioneer explorers of the inner world [and that] madness was a potential death-rebirth experience.” For Laing, “madness constitutes a descent into the primordial chaos of the inner world, which makes possible a reconstruction of the self.” (pp.120–22)

The issue at stake however is not the psychotic experience itself so much as the culture in which it takes place. Western society places mental phenomena within a paradigm of biological pathology which insists that there is an objective and single shared reality from which madness strays, as a form of ‘illness.’ Other non-Western and indigenous cultures respect psychosis as a unique type of valid and valuable experience from which the community may learn information or receive guidance. So the Icarus Project itself establishes a cultural alternative to the medical paradigm, declaring that psychotic experience may be accommodated in Western culture as a form of ‘creative maladjustment.’

For this to make sense, though, one must also allow for ‘destructive maladjustment’ — and here we’d look again to our man in Oregon. As uncomfortable as it feels, he is indeed our man, and we are collectively responsible for the society which drives some of its members into such a dark place. This is precisely what Oaks means when he says “we are all in the same boat.”

As helpless as such tragedies make us feel, we really do have it in our power to change the world for the better. Paul Levy tells Farber, “You can’t be a spiritual practitioner without being a political activist, and you can’t be a political activist without being a spiritual practitioner; we’re at the point where they really have to cross-pollinate each other.” (p.354) This notion is echoed by political activists such as Scilla Ellworthy (Pioneering the Possible) and James O’Dea (The Conscious Activist.) Our world’s complex problems cannot be solved through the quick fix of a messiah-led Mad Pride movement; the challenges we face involve everybody on earth and demand that we all of us own up to our personal involvement within a shared reality and to our individual connection within the interdependent whole. The shooter in Oregon is one of us. How did we let this happen?