My grandfather died when I was twenty-one. Upon returning home from his memorial mass where I gave his eulogy, I experienced an altered state of consciousness when crossing the Bay Bridge. My skin tingled, I felt an energy push out of my skin, and I felt a new cleansing energy fill me to replace the old energy. At first the experience concerned me, for I was driving after all, but I signaled a lane change, safely changed lanes, found that I was still aware of my surroundings, and decided it was safer to continue driving that to stop in the middle of the bridge. I went on to experience at will, usually by staring into a candle flame, a series of altered states that felt either cleansing or seductive. Ever since that time, I have identified with mystics.
Since I had a history of severe suicidal depression, I realized then that if I saw a psychiatrist and described my experiences, I would likely have received a diagnosis of mental illness. Because I ascribed religious meaning to the experiences and believed that God was calling me to some purpose, such as seminary training or a ministry of some sort, I did not seek psychiatric help. Instead, I attended the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at Newman Hall, the Roman Catholic community at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a student. I went back to my family’s religious roots to make sense of what I had experienced. Today I understand that my mystical experiences can also be explained as symptoms of the manic and hypomanic states of bipolar disorder.
My current belief system is not limited to a Christian viewpoint, though I do love Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. Never have I ruled out other religions, or secularism for that matter, as valid and valuable belief systems. Honestly, if you seek truth and love, you’re going in the right direction. I am open to any explanation or definition of a higher power, whether that be a scientific explanation, nature itself, consciousness, existential freedom, humanism, pantheism, Western monotheistic concepts of God, or Eastern religions and philosophies. For simplicity, I use the term God to encompass all meanings of higher power or greater order, including most importantly love, truth, and universality.
That said, when I was thirty, I went on a one-week contemplative retreat, the topic of which was the Christian mystics. I had no idea that going on a contemplative retreat meant spending a week in near total silence. I went on the retreat because of my interest in Christian mysticism and left with a new discipline – contemplative prayer. This discipline, practiced by the mystics, gave me a new way to pray, to open myself to God’s love, and to experience God’s presence in my life. In the busyness of life, I often forget the lessons I learned on that retreat, and find that I must return to mystic visionaries to remind myself that I, that we all, can have a close, personal, sometimes maybe even exhilarating and ecstatic, relationship with God (or whatever concept that most closely reflects the meaning of truth, love, and universality).
The retreat was a much-needed respite from a very challenging year. Before the retreat, my maternal grandmother died. For the three weeks she was in a coma, I had been extremely ill with a gastrointestinal virus, unable to keep down food, and lost too much weight. When I gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s memorial mass, family members were shocked at how gaunt I was. I had to reassure them that I was not anorexic. Just after the retreat, a good friend from high school died of AIDS, hitting me particularly hard and triggering depression. Finally, in my job working with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents in day treatment, a six-foot-tall sixteen-year-old boy attempted to rape me during session, disconnected the phone when I tried calling for help, and blocked my exit from the office when I tried to leave. I managed to get out physically untouched, but the emotional trauma affected me deeply.
The following day, I was unable to get out of bed. My depression was severe. I called my parents for help, and they advised I see a medical doctor or psychiatrist for medication. What followed was multiple medication changes over a few months. After taking tricyclic antidepressants, I ended up unable to sleep for a week with full-blown mania. Flying through my mind at a speed making it impossible to process the content, I had simultaneous streaming thoughts in binary (ones and zeroes), about chaos theory (advanced physics), and about Christian mystic saints. At the time, I could observe the thoughts and wonder as to their meaning. I felt like I was channeling knowledge, that somehow, I had tapped into a vein of mystical wisdom, but had no way of knowing whether the thoughts were wise or whether they were nonsense. I was familiar with the Christian mystics, having studied them and identifying with their experiences. At only the most rudimentary level, I was familiar with the work of physicists and theologians linking chaos theory with theology. I knew the ones and zeroes represented binary code, but I had no way of reading or unlocking the code.
Mysticism can most simply be understood as the direct experience of God. Mystics seek to directly experience God through physical and contemplative states. Can God be known by reason or the five senses? Perhaps. Apologists and scientists use reason. Those who find God in nature, through the senses. The soul can also experience communion with God through direct, personal experience, intuition or insight. Throughout history there have been mystics claiming to have known God through visions or other revelations. Many have argued that these mystics suffered from neurological or psychiatric disorders, which may very well be true. Regardless, I for one find inspiration in their experiences and in the wisdom they gained and subsequently shared with others. Mystics continue to inspire and to raise questions as to the cause of their mystical experiences. Were they suffering from the symptoms of mental disorders? Were their visions the result of severe austerities including self-imposed near starvation and sleep deprivation? Or, were their experiences divinely inspired?
As a former psychotherapist and as someone who both identifies with mystics and has struggled with the sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying symptoms of a brain disorder, namely bipolar disorder type II, I believe that mystical experiences can be both divinely inspired and biologically based. God speaks to us, loves us, holds us close to Her/Him/It, in our illness, amid hardship and suffering, as well as in health and joyous celebration. She/He/It is there when we soar high, as well as when we fall.