Yogic Madness

"Our greatest blessings come to us through madness, providing the madness is divinely inspired." - Socrates

Mystics throughout the ages have been persecuted for their experiences, which to the normal mundane consciousness are insanity, yet to the sage, are ecstasy. Christ was crucified on the cross, St. John of the Cross was imprisoned for fourteen years. Joan of Arc and the witches of Salem were burned at the stake, as were many others. All have been persecuted and harassed by the mundane populace for their vision, which arose as a result of inner work. Due to this lack of understanding, many of the esoteric doctrines were hidden from the majority of people.

Of course, this was long ago. We live in a more enlightened world today, far from the barbarous atrocities of the past, or do we? War and poverty still exist, as do insanity and madness. People who are shown to be crazy, relative to the norms of our society are locked up until they are 'better'. Yet, by what criterion are they judged insane? How do we know the difference between insanity and the ecstasy of enlightenment? Is it by the superficial external appearances that we sense with our limited sensory apparatus, or is it by some deeper inner fear that, we are motivated to judge others insane, because they do not behave like the majority? Some of the people in the west who are locked up as insane would be recognised in the east as having undergone higher spiritual experiences. Therefore, it is now up to science to determine some definite, concrete and reliable ways to differentiate between the broken, insane mind and the opening, enlightened mind.

Some way must be found to objectify psychosis and spiritual experience because numbers of people experimenting with esoteric disciplines are beginning to awaken the tremendous force of the mind, the dormant potential within each one of us. Many are doing this without guidance and as a result fall prey to fear. Fear transmutes the experience of ecstasy into a nightmare, and when these people seek medical help, they are labelled psychotic or ill and are treated with drugs and electro shock therapy. When they reappear in society, most of them are far below the state of consciousness they could have attained if someone with experience, strength and knowledge had guided them through their dark night of the soul, their spiritual awakening.

Taming the kundalini

Lee Sannella, MD, psychiatrist, and author of 'Kundalini: Psychosis or Transcendence?' has set up a Kundalini Clinic in San Francisco, USA, which aims to research the arousal of kundalini, the latent subtle energy in the body 'that causes psychological and spiritual growth when awakened'. His clinic is the first of its kind and is designed to provide the following services:

  1. Treatment through various body therapies, hypnotherapy and psychiatric counselling
  2. Education on the kundalini process
  3. Differential diagnosis (medical and psychic)
  4. Referral to appropriate resources
  5. Research.

Though the process of spiritual awakening usually occurs without incident or interruption, it may happen that blockages and impurities in the body create symptoms which mimic various neurological and psychiatric conditions. These problems necessitate careful diagnosis to differentiate shakti (energy) arousal and pathology. For example:

"In a darkened room a man sits alone. His body is swept by muscular spasms. Incredible sensations and sharp pains run from his feet up his legs and over his back and neck. His skull feels as if it will burst. Inside his head he hears sounds and high pitched whistling. Then suddenly a sunburst floods his inner being. His hands burn. He feels his body tearing within. Then he laughs and is overcome with bliss."*1

The kundalini experience is a psycho physiological transformation which is misunderstood today only because few people have achieved it, though now more are doing so. However, when we remember that the physical birth process involves tearing of tissues, loss of blood, increased blood pressure, and so on, then it is not surprising that the spiritual rebirth may also have apparently violent and painful initial stages. The important point to remember is that the outcome of such experiences is, in the first case, a new human being, while in the second, it is said to be a fully mature, enlightened human, a new-born godman.

Sannella cites the case of a 59 year old writer, Flora Courtois who had spontaneous spiritual experiences as an adolescent, in which she fused with nature, resulting in her becoming preoccupied with how visual perception occurs. A teacher sent her to a psychiatrist, thinking that she was mentally disturbed, and this led to a short, but upsetting hospitalisation. Depression with suicidal thoughts entered her mind, but one day ended when, "the focus of my sight seemed to have changed; it had sharpened to an infinitely small point which moved ceaselessly in paths totally free of the old accustomed ones as if flowing from a new source".*2 An ecstatic trance followed, lasting many days, and although immersed in ecstasy she could easily continue daily activities.

Courtois' case is of special interest because of the near tragedy resulting from ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of her teacher. Fortunately all ended well, when in 1967, using Zen meditation techniques, she is said to have gained enlightenment, as verified by the Zen master Yasutani Roshi. Others are not so lucky, however, and may spend many years in institutions under drug and electric shock therapy.

Views on madness

Allan Cohen, Associate Professor in Psychology and Parapsychology at John F. Kennedy University, USA, runs an office and an advisory service for the treatment of drug addiction. Though classical in his early teaching, he found that many clients did not fit the textbook pattern he was used to. He states:

"Traditional psychology has not been able to deal very well with unusual experience. In fact what we usually do in the field is categorise it as psychosis, as mental illness... For example, people who thought that they could read minds of others- and could- and were quite upset about it; people who heard voices and yet in no other way were psychic or maladjusted... people who ordinarily would have been diagnosed as schizophrenic but whom I treated either... for a spiritual crisis or sometimes for such exotic things as spirit possession."*3

The above cases are of course, of the rarer types seen by most psychiatrists. Most people who seek psychiatric counselling are miserable, depressed and very anxious. Deeper investigation reveals that these people are normal in most respects, for example, they do well in school, college or university, they get along well with their peers, their sex life is fine, but still they are miserable. Their main problem is that they don't know who they are, or what the purpose of life is. These types of cases come under the heading of altered states of consciousness, spiritual crises of an existential nature. They cannot be treated by ordinary psychotherapy, but are ideally suited to yoga and spiritual disciplines. Psychotherapy on the other hand offers reassurance and can be very valuable in terms of giving support rather than treatment, so that the individual does not give in to his anxiety and fear, but rather feels that he is experiencing something positive which will lead him towards growth and maturity.

Cohen cites a case in which ten minutes of successful psychotherapy saved a man from possible psychosis. A steel worker was in a car, his wife was driving. Suddenly he felt a tremendous pain in his stomach and a terrible, sick feeling. He screamed for his wife to stop and not to go any further. It turned out that one mile from the place where this had occurred, there had been a traffic accident in which a person sitting in the passenger seat had been impaled in the stomach.

After this experience the man felt that he was on the edge of losing his mind. Cohen explained to him that many people have these experiences; "that probably he was in a relaxed mood, that he was a little psychic, a little pre cognitive, and what he had done was to emphatically experience this thing that had happened a mile further on; and that... he was not losing his mind, he was OK. In ten minutes this case, which could have gone into a serious nervous breakdown was avoided."*4

The success of this therapy can be attributed to Cohen's positive approach to the experience. He told the man that he was all right, and not sick. If he had reinforced the steel worker's negativity, the therapist himself could have precipitated mental disease in his client. The traditional therapeutic role is based on animal experiments and propounds the view that human beings can only hope to adjust to the world and their internal desires. This is a negative and defensive view, which only applies to animals. Cohen's approach approximates the yogic approach, which is positive and accepts life's experience as valid and potentially growth supporting. Growth occurs if the experience happens within the correct environment and the right mental attitude is cultivated. The best conditions are under the guidance of a master. Cohen states that his clients are precious individuals, "who, no matter what else they are doing, were in a process of growth and the development of higher consciousness - moving towards more profound kinds of realizations - and the fact that they happened to be disturbed could be used as a lever, as a spring board for development, as a learning experience."*5

The old psychiatric view is dangerous if it is not seen in its correct perspective. Certainly there are pathological states of consciousness which are best looked after through the psychiatric mode. However, if we are to evolve into higher realms of understanding there are modes of consciousness that, though they differ from the norm, are as valid to the survival and growth of the individual, and society as our normal waking consciousness.

Much research is at present being done in an attempt to map these altered states of consciousness and to put them into a valid and acceptable scientific mode. As psychiatrists begin to learn more about the mind, they can see that much of what they thought was disease is just experience beyond the range of normal. Also they are beginning to hear of yogic techniques which are designed to alter our consciousness, but in stable and progressive steps, thus avoiding any danger of imbalance and disharmony. Many psychiatrists are beginning to abandon the view that mental disease is incurable, as they themselves expand their consciousness to realise that the traditional psychiatric view is limited, but that they can overcome and surpass this limitation. Thus the view that the psychotic period of a person's life is a 'waste of time' is being replaced with the view of it being a process of growth and learning.

Today psychiatrists have two choices: either they can tell the patient to see that his experiences are delusions and that tranquillisers are the only way out; or they can validate these experiences and try to help the patient put them into perspective in a relaxed and aware way. The techniques to put these experiences into perspective are not taught in medical schools but they are contained in such disciplines as yoga and the systems concerned with meditation.

The long run

In the long run we must ask the question: Is there any real difference between madness and psychosis, or is it that the forces at work in each are the same, but the reaction of the individual to the force differs so that the outcome differs, according to preparation, expectation, beliefs, and so on? Yogic philosophy states that it is the same energy, kundalini, which can lead to ecstasy or to madness, and that this energy is within each of us. Therefore it is necessary to have guidance and the correct training before setting out on the spiritual path, the long and circuitous run.

C.G. Jung tells the story of the monk who took a fantasy journey into a forest - wild, unknown and savage. The monk loses his way and tries to return, however, his path is blocked by a dragon. The dragon is kundalini which Jung says takes us on our most fantastic adventures. However, at times when we want to turn back because the going gets rough, this dragon blocks our path. The aspirant knows that if he leaves the path, the spirit of divine adventure will go out of his life and he will lose his interest in and his reason for living.

Jung states: "When you succeed in awakening the kundalini, so that it starts to move out of its mere potentiality, you necessarily enter a world which is totally different from our world. It is a world of eternity."

However, Jung also warns that this same force, if claimed by the ego to be its own creation, can lead to ego inflation, false superiority, obnoxious behaviour or insanity.

The answers to our questions as to how to distinguish insanity from enlightenment can only be answered through experience- if we are after truth. At a more practical level though, many answers will come through technology and machines. Already work has been done to correlate the hard facts needed to convince people of the necessity of using yogic techniques for health, peace of mind, total understanding and intuition- the reverse side of insanity.

The further within we journey on this long and circuitous path the more we will meet truth. However, truth hurts sometimes- especially when we are not ready for it. Thus, each of us must start off slowly, gradually strengthening the body and mind through the techniques of asana, pranayama and dhyana. Yoga helps us to become familiar with the inner world and its components, so that when spontaneous experiences of the mind or spirit come we are equipped to handle them. With experience we will even be able to consciously generate these experiences and add a new dimension to our lives.


*1, *2. Lee Sannella, MD), 'Kundalini- Psychosis or Transcendence?' San Francisco, 1976.

*3, *4, *5. P. Fry & M. Long, 'Beyond the Mechanical Mind', The Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, 1977, pp. 64-70.