Is There Any Spiritual “Truth” in Insanity?
I don’t know how to tell this story. It’s non-linear, and it is quite literally insane. People might accept it more readily if it were about something trendy, like a psychedelic trip, which we could all comfortably chalk up to me being temporarily out of my mind… but I was stone-cold sober in every one of these interactions. That’s what makes it so unsettling. Then again, maybe that’s also what makes it so potentially… healing.
I’ve hesitated to write this lest anyone think I’m glorifying delusion. I’m not. Psychosis is a serious and potentially dangerous mental health condition that requires professional counseling. I know that. Still, some moments of delusion that I’ve witnessed over the years have left me with questions I can’t shake. Questions not just about the nature of the mind, but also about the “spirit” part of the “mind/body/spirit” equation.
And those questions are always worth asking.
Let’s start at Starbucks. People’s Square. Shanghai, China. Early-2014. I was minding my own business (writing as usual) when a likely-homeless man came in and sat down at my table to strike up a chat.
He wore athletic pants and a t-shirt in the usual locations on the body, while another rumpled garment (a windbreaker?) sat inexplicably atop his head. The windbreaker partly obscured his face like a makeshift psuedo-veil, which he tugged and twisted periodically, rotating it a few degrees in either direction. He desperately needed a shower; each time his lower body shifted, an overpowering odor of unwashed scrotum wafted up and accosted me in the face.
And when he spoke, he oscillated eerily between whisper-like mumbles and almost-normal volume; between Chinese and English. I repeatedly reminded him that I couldn’t hear the whispers or understand Chinese… but this hardly seemed to matter.
People began to stare. I couldn’t blame them. I wasn’t inclined to send him away, though. I was a crisis counselor back then (not a professional, but a trained volunteer); polite conversation with unsettled people was par for the course. Moreover, I was used to Chinese strangers trying to score free English practice, and I usually played along (briefly) out of courtesy; I felt this hapless guy deserved the same.
But there was also another reason: I was transfixed.
Because he began alluding to another lifetime.
Apropos of nothing, the man began to spout, and sometimes to insist on, things like:
“You are from Poland.” (I am not, and didn’t say I was.)
“How do you know German?” (I did not, and didn’t say I did.)
And the question that made my skin crawl:
“Do you like stars?”
See, what he had no way of knowing (or did he?) was that life had taken me — a former number-crunching academic—on a very strange ride in my late-20s, which dismantled my skepticism about reincarnation. Years of uncanny and persistent “coincidences”—including nightmares, spontaneous mental images, and comments from psychics and healers—had woven a narrative: that “I” was once a young Jewish woman. From Poland. Who also, somehow, knew German. During WWII.
Hence, when he started dropping enigmatic references to the details of that lifetime, I found him immediately harder to dismiss.
My mind spun with questions. Where was he getting this from? Why was he voicing it? Did he read it in my aura — was my spirit so bruised from its wartime misadventures that I still wore the damage invisibly about myself? Alternatively, did his soul “recognize” me from that lifetime? In his being potentially both psychic and psychotic, which was the chicken, and which was the egg? And why did the universe spring this interaction on me in the first place?
I still don’t have the answers. And sure, we could say that his comments and questions were pure coincidence, and that it’s silly to take them seriously. But let’s be real: what were the fucking chances?
Specifically, what are the chances that a deranged man would wander into a cafe in China, poised to ramble about Poland and German and stars, and just “randomly” happen to choose the one person in the place for whom those ramblings would feel, weirdly, true?
The erstwhile number-crunching analyst in me finds those odds astronomical.
So, part of me wanted to tell him, “You have a gift. You’re reading my soul. I was from Poland. I did know German. And I loved many ‘stars’—that fell. But that was another existence.”
Validating his delusions wouldn’t have helped him, though. He was too unhinged for that. So I didn’t.
A barista at last appeared, resolving my tense, cosmic stalemate between wonder and unease; he issued a Mandarin-language command I couldn’t understand, and my “companion” got up and left. An air of disturbance hung in his wake. Shaken, I felt like I’d just been punked by the cosmos… or witnessed a glimmer of some rare truth.
But a truth about what?
About me? About him? About insanity?
Perhaps the nature of the aura?
The immortal soul?
No idea. Life’s playbook offers no explainer on: “When Crazy People Say Prophetic Things.” (Actually, life’s playbook is utterly blank.)
I didn’t want to sit in the swirl of those questions. So I packed up and left. I never saw him again.
Do I like stars?… What the fuck…
But I still remember him.
Before we proceed, there’s something else you should know about the past life, because these details will soon become relevant:
Along the years, I also “figured out” that “I” spent some time working in a bakery during the war. And that “I” ultimately also joined the resistance — work that entailed sexual liaisons with Germans… until “I” eventually came under Nazi suspicion and was apprehended in a humiliating fashion that included taunts of “whore.”
So, let’s fast-forward now. To Germany.
After Shanghai, I moved to Berlin, and in early-May, 2018, a neighbor began showing signs of psychosis.
First came the “FCK NZS” (“Fuck Nazis”) sticker on my mailbox one afternoon. I didn’t make much of it, other than to worry initially about whether it was a racialized aggression; my roommate was a person of color, and I am sometimes (correctly) read on sight as having some Jewish ancestry. But since the Nazi reference didn’t become a theme, I relaxed.
Over the months, though, other harassments ensued. And escalated.
There came the word “HURE” — “whore” — carved into my unit’s mailbox, and later into its door. The woman scrawled “HUREN HAUS” (“whorehouse”) in red lipstick in the elevator, and smeared the lipstick in various places around the building. While her behaviors weren’t exclusively focused on the apartment where my roommates and I lived, our door and our mailbox got the majority of the direct-to-unit attention.
She didn’t only fixate on this “Hure” / red lipstick idea either; among other bizarre behaviors, she also dumped baking flour in front of our door.
I could reassure myself, “It was all just random. ‘Hure’ is a common insult. She was troubled. Poor lady.” I never spoke to her about past lives; we were never even friends. Still, for however random her themes looked to others, the sexualized epithets and the flour sort of struck me as “making sense” in a weird, parallel-reality sort of way. (Not that I’m “validating” it, of course.)
Unfortunately, the situation resolved more dramatically than the one at the Chinese Starbucks; the police eventually had to intervene one day after she assaulted me, at which point she articulated some very definite, bewildering delusions. I can only hope she gets the help she needs.
And just like I know that Starbucks Guy’s mental illness wasn’t “about” me, neither was hers. Still, I can’t help but wonder:
What inspired her to dump flour at our — uniquely our — doormat? Or carve our mailbox and door with the word “Hure”? Or leave a “FCK NZS” sticker on our mailbox?
Was that all just a coincidence too? I believe that certain patterns of coincidence are too persistent and internally cohesive to be pure coincidence.
I believe there comes a point where it becomes irrational to keep trying to rationalize such things away.
But you can believe what you will.
I’m not here to suggest that psychotic people are gurus, teachers, or healers in disguise, whose ramblings should be trusted. I think that psychotic people — like anyone else — can have innate spiritual gifts (just as they can have any other innate and valuable talents)… but also that some of what occurs inside the mind — anyone’s mind—is nonsense that doesn’t need to be fixated on.
I’ve seen that psychosis, unchecked, can ruin a sufferer’s life (at least temporarily, and to say nothing of what it can do to others’) and that therefore they need compassionate, qualified, professional mental healthcare. I’m not making light of that.
Rather, what I’m here to do — besides share these stories that left me haunted by a sense of wonder — is to ask:
What exactly is going on in minds so untethered from general-consensus reality? And is it possible that people who have lost their grip on that reality might, in fact, be bumping into other realities, from earlier, or parallel, times?
At least once in a while?
I’ve had too many bizarrely oracular encounters with untethered minds to offer an arrogant, self-assured, wholesale “No.”
And those questions, yes, are radical—but the answers could stand to help us better serve people with non-normative psychiatric experiences. The famous psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung, who coined the term “synchronicity” (a coincidence so meaningful that it seems like more than random chance), believed in concepts like the “collective unconscious” and that psychotic people sometimes drew symbols from it. Jung himself also decided to spend a period in his life exploring his own disturbing, symbolic visions, ultimately compiling these adventures into a tome now known as The Red Book. Jung would later say that the period was foundational for much of his life’s work. Nonetheless, he realized how “crazy” The Red Book seemed, writing:
“To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.”
But what if the soul — individual or collective — speaks to us more easily in the moments when our minds are most untethered from reason? And what if, by treating delusion not just as a mental health emergency but also an opportunity to mine the psyche for spiritual insight, we might empower people even more?
If you don’t have people who will accommodate your experiences, support you, and help you make sense of what’s happening, then you’re probably much more likely to struggle.[…] (I)f passive drugging, sedation, and silencing is the cure response, then an active understanding, exploration, and integration of the emotional and social meaning of the person’s experience is the recovery response.
I would add here: perhaps we should also seek to integrate spiritual meaning.
I’ll close with a brief story about my mind. When the time came for me to teeter precariously just above psychosis—thanks to a horrendous reaction to an antibiotic back in 2015—I had an important advantage (beyond the fact that my mind was otherwise generally healthy):
I already had a spiritual framework for analyzing my psyche. And I knew — thanks to Starbucks Man — that “craziness” might sometimes come laced with insights on the soul. After all, that which people in the modern era might call insanity, ancient shamans might have called a spiritual experience.
So I examined my inventory of crippling, acute phobias of the time (e.g., fears about my eyesight, or anxieties about eating) and realized I could connect them to traumas from a past life. (The usual past life.) In the process, I learned things I never expected to learn about myself or my own shadows—and the discoveries helped to heal wounds I didn’t realize I had.
Horrific as it was to ride out the medicine’s side effects, the experience was ultimately empowering. And even if my thought process was pure nonsense, it helped that I could tell myself, essentially:
Your “irrational” fears and their triggers are symbolic of unfinished business in the story of your soul. The terrors belong to another reality, and even though they feel fresh and frightening to you now, that reality is not your current one; those things can’t hurt you right now. So, witness your mind, without judgment. Understand. And release. Your soul is speaking, and once you get the message, it will all calm down.
We’re not all — and not always — equipped to mine our own disordered psyches for symbolism or “past-life” clues. Diving into dark and delusional nights of the soul, un-assisted, can be dangerous for some people; they might take their delusions more seriously than any delusion deserves. Or they might not take them seriously enough to seek help. I don’t suggest that we abandon conventional counseling in favor of spiritual counseling. Not at all.
That said, I doubt that a conventional psychotherapist would’ve encouraged me to try creating a past-life narrative in order to navigate my struggle, and that would’ve been a shame. I’d have missed a gem of an opportunity; being able to find some comprehensible “truth” in my fears and to “distance” them from my daily life empowered me. I felt less threatened by those fears and, thus, more capable of processing them in the first place. In other words:
Attaching my “crazier” ideas to another time and place prevented them from hijacking my here and now.
So was that, really, so unhealthy?
What if mental and emotional health problems reflected not just biochemistry, neurochemistry, emotional experiences, and social experiences—but also experiences of the soul? What if deeper healing were to be found by combining conventional mental health therapies with spiritual ones? What if, basically, the “spirit” part of “mind/body/spirit” wellness wasn’t just lip service?
Experts have already identified, anyway, that certain fears (even non-psychotic ones) can symbolically reflect our most cherished values. And it’s common knowledge, too, that unprocessed trauma can play a role in the workings of the disordered mind.
But what if our “crazier” thoughts also sometimes pointed to other lifetimes? Or psychic gifts?