Recently, presidential candidate Marianne Williamson was criticized for a series of tweets stating that antidepressants were over-prescribed. The New York Times sought her out and questioned her on her beliefs. She responded by referring to her book Tears to Triumph. The Times then cited the following passage from the book:
However deep my suffering, I didn’t want to be anesthetized as I went through it. Like an expectant mother who wants to give birth naturally, rejecting drugs during labor because she wants to experience “natural childbirth,” I wanted to be fully available to the depths of my pain. Why? Because I knew it had something to teach me. I knew that somehow, in some way, my suffering would lead to a blazing new dawn in my life — but only if I was willing to endure the deep, dark night preceding it.
Williamson is not alone in this perspective. In fact she may be onto something very tangible in neurological terms. According to Michael Persinger’s inter-hemispheric intrusion hypothesis, mystical experiences can result after an overload in the areas of the brain responsible for conveying emotional distress. Because of the overload in the regions responsible for emotional distress, the electrical activity “spills over” into other areas, the combination of which produces euphoric mystical encounters or experiences. To further elucidate this point, Todd Murphy writes:
This pattern of activation is seen in many classical stories of mystic experiences. The night before his enlightenment the Buddha was tormented by the “daughters of Mara.” Jesus met Satan in the desert, and the next episode in his life finds him out among the people, actively recruiting disciples. St. Teresa of Avila endured horrible pain from illness before her visions of God began. The Hindu saint Ramakrishna had visions of the goddess Kali after an episode of despair so bad that he seriously considered killing himself.
There is an evident disconnect between the psychiatric perspective on the inner life and spiritual or holistic approaches to the trials and tribulations of the human experience. Much of Western medicine, at least in its earliest formations, was (and is) focused on symptoms and their elimination. Because Western medicinal approaches are evidence-based and usually require extensive clinical trials prior to approval and treatment recommendations, it is, more often than not, highly effective. Western medicine is a pinnacle in patient care and treatment outcomes.
At the same time, in its narrowed attention on symptoms and their elimination, Western medicine can be faulted for being blind to a holistic approach to health and symptom etiology. More intuitive and traditional bodies of medicine, such as those devised in ancient Tibet, India or China, often address the mental and spiritual dimensions of health in a way that was completely disregarded in the modern Western tradition until very recently.
When it comes to Generalized Anxiety, for example, Western Psychiatry may identify an overactive locus coeruleus (LC), which supplies norepinephrine to the forebrain (1) as the cause, and may entirely miss or fail to address that a specific patient has become hyper-vigilant due to social isolation (2), for which the remedy may be behavioral change. A psychiatrist may prescribe one or a combination of medications to regulate what appears to be a neurological dysfunction without addressing any underlying environmental, nutritional or behavioral circumstances.
A Kabbalist practitioner on the other hand, may assign meaning to the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety in a completely different way, so much so, that the term Generalized Anxiety ceases to be appropriate altogether. For the Kabbalist, what psychiatry calls Generalized Anxiety, may be perceived as an indication that they are on the verge of a spiritual breakthrough. Much like Williamson, and just as Murphy demonstrates is the general pattern with distress that precedes mystical experiences, a Kabbalist may actually be excited by the distress. The meaning they assign to the experience is starkly different from a psychiatrist making a diagnosis. The Kabbalist may reason that as their spiritual capacity to contain the light of the creator grows, there are bound to be pains associated with that process, like a baby growing teeth, or a fetus getting pushed through the birth canal. Of course, the psychiatrist may think that these very narratives are part of a pattern of disordered thinking which medications can suppress as well.
In the end, when it comes to something as intimate and personal as inner life, whose narrative are we to believe? That of the psychiatrist or that of the mystic? And ultimately, whose narrative we believe will have a substantial effect on how the reality of distress is experienced and potentially relieved. Even more titillating is the prospect of combining the psychiatric perspective with the philosophical dimensions of spirituality.