Dabney Alix on Spirituality, Shamanism and Mental Health
On the future of mental health
Posted April 9, 2016
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 Dabney Alix
EM: Recently, you launched a project called, Shades of Awakening which looks at the transpersonal concept of spiritual emergency. What is spiritual emergency and why is it important to the future of mental health?
DA: Spiritual Emergency, a term coined by Stan & Christina Grof, describes a process of deep psych-spiritual transformation in which a person experiences drastic changes to their meaning system (i.e., their unique purposes, goals, values, attitude and beliefs, identity, and focus) typically because of a spontaneous spiritual experience. This may include experiences that would otherwise be perceived by the current mental health paradigm as hallucinatory or delusional.
Many who experience extreme spiritual states have been viewed through the lens of psychiatry as psychotic. In 2003, I was hospitalized and medicated after a 10-hour-long meditation that led to a series of ecstatic unity states of consciousness.
My personal path of healing from the stigma and trauma by the mental health “treatment” I received began when I started to see my experiences, not as indicators of a broken brain, but as opportunities to transform and heal my own psyche, step into greater purpose and achieve higher states of consciousness. I am lucky to say I have never needed any form of mental health treatment since.
I believe that the future of mental health lies in creating strength-based narratives that reinforce and empower an individual in their healing and personal growth, i.e. transpersonal psychology and a greater acknowledgement of spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency as valid non-pathological human experiences.
EM: Tell us a bit about Shamanism and how it relates to mental health?
DA: Shamanism is an ancient healing practice, actually the oldest form of indigenous medicine, practiced for thousands of years in every part of the globe. It is based in the understanding that there are layers of reality, including spirit realms, to which one can relate to for personal power and community healing.
In many traditional shamanic cultures, shamans were “initiated” through a process of sickness, which looks in many ways like what we in the west call to be Madness: delusions, hearing voices, fear and terror, extreme abnormal behavior, etc. It was understood that if an initiated Shaman were not trained and mentored they would become lost in the spirit realms, become sick or even die.
I believe that some of our most brilliant naturally born visionary healers and shamans are mis-labeled and medicated instead of being taught to master their abilities. The key here is not in creating a shamanic narrative for others, but simply in validating a variety of cross-cultural and spiritual perspectives on “psychosis” that welcomes people to find meaning that supports their own world-view and helps them heal and grow. In many ways, it’s not so different from the basic principle of freedom of religion.
EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of diagnosing and treating mental disorders and the use of so-called psychiatric medication to treat mental disorders in children, teens and adults?
DA: While there are many truly caring people working within the current dominant paradigm, it is important to understand that it was founded on the assumption that those suffering from mental and emotional distress were inept, a danger to the gene pool, and needing to dominated and controlled. Any time you have a current system that operates with these historical roots, it’s important to question and rethink said system at every level or else face these unconscious historical assumptions repeating themselves.
The other noteworthy point is that western medicine as we know it developed from a reductionist, mechanistic world-view that basically said, “the world is made of independently moving parts and if you can identify and isolate the broken part, you can replace it and fix it.” Science has shown us that living systems do not work this way - and instead are a symphony of processes working together in an infinitely complex way. We still do not know much about the relationship between consciousness (mind) and matter (brain) when it comes to the human experience.
Therefore, taking a reductionist, mechanistic approach as is done in psychiatry (low serotonin = depression) to the set of complex human experiences leaves out a whole set of psycho-social factors. In many ways it is unethical to continue “treating” a human being as if he or she were a machine easily reduced to one or two neurotransmitters, when there is little empirical evidence showing that these “treatments” actually work beyond a placebo effect.
When we talk about shifting the current paradigm of mental health, we’re really talking about shifting our entire worldview from a reductionist-mechanistic one to a holistic-integrative one. Not an easy task, but thankfully, it is happening more and more on every level of society - across disciplines.
EM: What is the role of community in the healing and recovery process?
DA: Not that long ago, BELONGING was a survival issue. People who didn't have a tribe or who were asked to leave one were sentenced to either death or a lifetime of struggle. In the current dominant view of stigma related to mental illness, many are left feeling ostracized, misunderstood and alone. Often what I hear as one of the biggest challenges of those who have been given a mental health diagnosis is a sense of loneliness and disconnection from those closest to them. This can be especially exacerbated if an individual is looking to create spiritual meaning from their experiences and finds their point not only invalidated by the very authority figures they are entrusting with their care, but also by family members as well.
In my personal and professional experience, creating communities of mutual understanding, with a shared language is absolutely crucial. This is one reason why there has been such a rise in peer support. People are hungry to belong and I believe that this sense of social safety is crucial in the healing and recovery process.
Dabney Alix is a visionary healer, coach and speaker. She leads workshops and trainings online and in person and mentors her clients to step powerfully into their purpose, voice and contribution in the world. She is also creator and host of Shades of Awakening, an online hub and platform for exploring spiritual narratives to madness.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here
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