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Day 12: Michael Cornwall on Being Present to "Madness"

The future of mental health interview series, day 12

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Michael Cornwall

EM: You come out of a Jungian tradition. Can you tell us a little bit about what in that tradition still speaks to you?

MC: The Jungian tradition is still very relevant to me even though I'll be 70 next month, because about fifty years ago I went through what psychiatry calls psychosis, for about a year. I went through it gratefully but hellishly, without treatment or meds. I described that personal experience in an article called- "Initiatory Madness" on

While I was just barely emerging from that dark night of hostile hallucinatory voices, strange psychic experiences and perceptions, plus an ever-present super-charged otherworldly terror, I ran across Jung's collected works.

From reading the first page I instinctively knew that he personally was no stranger to the personal trauma infused, but strange spirit-filled nightmare dreamscape I'd barely survived.

Jung's newly available "Redbook" chronicles his own transformative journey through madness. Reading his collected works and autobiography "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" in the 1970's was like finding a coded map of a fellow traveler who knew the mad alien world I was swallowed up by.

Jung knew that the fragile ego of waking consciousness that we all depend on precariously floats above a deep, unfathomable abyss. He writes of "A deep source that is not made by consciousness and is not under its the mythology of earlier times these forces were called mana, or spirits, demons or gods. They are as active today as they ever were."

Words like that confirmed and validated my own experience of the mysterious heart of darkness inner journey I had endured and finally emerged from a very different man.

In that Jungian depth psychology paradigm, that highlights a vital but so very often overlooked aspect of extreme states, the mythic/archetype fueled heaven and hell of subjective emotional experience, is so often in response to the horror of war and torture, our own very personal traumas, and the human existential dread of death.

But our hunger for ecstasy and mystical experience is part of our sacred human birthright too. Those powerful benevolent forces can animate our extreme states too. Numinous light exists too. There is very real, abiding love that we can have for ourselves and others, and that love energy can bring deep peace and hope for a better day.

With that hope as my talisman I've sat and walked alongside with people in madness for about forty years now- sometimes as a trembling servant, a midwife, or comrade wound stauncher—in the face of that boundless mystery.

But as much as I value the Jungian tradition, I care as little about constantly and dogmatically being immersed in Jungian theory, or for promoting his reified status as a demigod, as I ever would have about elevating the DSM and the social institution of psychiatry to its very powerful position. Psychiatry has tragically failed to scratch the surface of understanding or knowing how to compassionately respond to human emotional suffering.

EM: You also come out of the R. D. Laing tradition. Many of our readers will not be familiar with Laing. Can you tell us who Laing was and what in Laing’s work continues to speak to you?

MC: I ran across Laing's writings about the same time I found Jung's. Laing was another rebel psychiatrist who totally turned his back on his training and indoctrination. His vision of sanity and madness was broad, deep and allowed for human and spiritual darkness too. Laing saw the 20th century's war ravaged world as our mad dwelling place for what it really was, and saw right through to the core of how that modern existence can easily create a hell realm zone of alienating despair in each of us, a societal soul wound that can all too easily slip us into extreme emotional states and madness.

Laing was fearless—and without blame he showed that our modern families (including his own) were naturally casualties of a failed western culture. He saw how our culture is based on the corrosive values of shame, guilt and intimidation, and operates against the backdrop of a relentless modern social Darwinism. Laing wrote the genius "Divided Self" in his early thirties. When I read it I felt like he'd been reading my most intimate soul condition.

Laing and Jung both had the X-ray vision that cuts through the veneer of supposed civilized rationality and the self-congratulatory falsehoods of failed institutions like psychiatry that degrade and oppress all who deviate. They both courageously reveal the ever mutating, lottery style collective fantasy of what gets defined and clung to as normal and virtuous.

EM: You take a special interest in the overreaching of social controls in enforcing the current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders.” Can your share some of your thoughts on that?

MC: Well, from when I was slipping into madness in the 1970's until this second that I'm typing this, I never believed that such a shallow narrative as psychiatry has coughed up could ever in a million years explain what an overpowering, mysterious and unbelievably shattering experience that my own madness journey was for me.

So, I've never seen anyone else's emotional suffering of any kind through that distorted, untrue lens either. I don't believe in the disease model of mental illness—or in the concept of mental illness. I wrote an article "Does the Psychiatric Diagnosis Process Qualify as a Degradation Ceremony?" on

For some simplistic philosophy of empiricism that informs western science and that's embodied in its too often jack-booted tool of deviance control, psychiatry, to be the best we can offer in the way of wisdom, is itself the damning proof of the smoke and mirrors and scientific snake oil pawned off on a hypnotized public.

Blatant human rights abuses are too frequently the fruits of psychiatry. ECT, toddlers, kids and teens on meds, forced in-home treatment, etc., all are human rights abuses. I've been speaking out against these abuses for decades as have many of the authors in this interview series.

EM: You provide psychotherapy for people in so-called psychotic states in medication-free sanctuaries and community settings. Can you tell us a little bit about that work?

MC: I was blessed to have a chance for years to be with people as a kind of midwife while they went through the madness they needed to go through in 24/7 med-free sanctuaries. I wrote that up on "Remembering a Medication Free Madness Sanctuary."

I completed doctoral research on the Jungian med-free madness sanctuary, Diabasis House, founded by my friend John Weir Perry. I still spend every week in my office with people in extreme states who are taking or not taking meds. Imagine waiting, your heart harmlessly open and receptive to whatever emerges emotionally and energetically from another in their journey of madness or emotional suffering of any kind.

That's the practice—being there, quiet when silence is wanted by the other, or engaged in a non-stop conversation if that's what they want. An hour sometimes passes where I don't say a single word! My heart open, my tears falling if moved to tears- no cares interfering about diagnosis or theory or doing doing doing. Just being there with love. It's really that simple. I've led gatherings at Esalen institute the past five years and other places that focus on compassionately being with people in extreme states.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

MC: I'd try what I described above about listening while being receptively loving, while at the same time allowing oneself huge disbelief about what the disease model of psychiatry says is true, and to watch the video I have on YouTube under my name about responding to others in emotional pain with loving receptivity.


Michael Cornwall, Ph.D., went through madness fifty years ago and has been available to others in emotional suffering and extreme states for almost 40 years. He's an Esalen Institute workshop leader on compassionately being with people in extreme states, and a writer on Michael sees people for therapy in person and via Skype. He can be reached at


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health, visit here.

To see the complete roster of interview guests, please visit here:

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