Extreme States of Mind

Helping the developmentally different.

Voices in the Wilderness and Sacred Madness

Spirituality and extreme states of mind.

There have been those in various generations who were voices in the wilderness, who through very unconventional ways brought attention to the problems and oppression of society. These individuals were possessed with sacred madness. Many of these individuals were initially reviled, and labels cast upon them, only later to be revered and their message embraced. In the Christian realm, we can look at the story of St. John the Baptist, that voice crying out in the wilderness, convicting the society around, and unfolding higher spiritual truths. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, there is St. Xenia. St. Xenia displayed ultimate humility, and she gave all her possessions to those in need. St. Xenia would wander the streets of St. Petersburg wearing the military uniform of her deceased husband. There is also St. Symeon Stylites, who lived for many years atop a pillar and would speak scathingly about the corruption of the society at the time.  In the Zen tradition, was Han-Shan, a brilliant poet who when anyone would approach him to discuss Zen would only respond with hysterical laughter.  In the Buddhist tradition, there is the term, ‘yeshe cholwa” or ‘sacred madness’. Those said to possess yeshe cholwa were seen as those who had been able to break away. They are able to challenge power and orthodoxy, and teach lessons through a unique way of utterance and example. They call others to reflection. In the Sufi tradition, we have Nasruddin. Nasruddin had been to speak. He asked, do you know what I am going to say? The audience replied “no”. So Nasruddin said, ” I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” he and left. The people asked him to return the next day. He asked the same question, and the people replied yes. Nasruddin said, well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time! and he left again. The people did not know what to make of this, so they asked one more time if he would speak to them. Again, he asked, Do you know what I am going to say? Half said, “yes” while the other half said  “no”. Nasruddin then told them, ” Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t.” and again he left. In Hinduism, we have the term ‘avadhuta’, one who has cast off all conventional ways in order to come closer to spiritual reality.

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What would modern psychiatry make of these voices in the wilderness? What would they say of those who would dare to radically challenge their society and its standards? They would be locked away, forced drugs, labeled, never understood. And maybe it is time, that we realize that those who we may be labeling presently, may also have an important message, that their experience no matter how unconventional, or unusual, eccentric, may have meaning, it may actually say something we need to hear and pay attention to. Often those labeled as ‘seriously mentally ill’ are also speaking out about the oppression they have endured and that of our society. Maybe we can begin to appreciate them, to journey with them, seek to understand, and to put aside all our assumptions and judgments, to embrace the madness, and even go as far as to see the experience as sacred, as something necessary for some. We can begin to see the experience as breakthrough rather than breakdown. 


Dan Edmunds, Ed.D., D.D., B.C.S.A., is affiliated with the International Center for Humane Psychiatry and the European-American University.


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