Spritual Practice Versus Mental Illness: a Divine Comedy

An intense meditation retreat was the occasion for my first panic attack. The triggers have been various, but in each episode there has been an overwhelming need to escape, yet nowhere to go, and a feeling of being completely alone.

Mindfulness therapies and techniques are currently lauded as a panacea for emotional distress, yet stories circulate of practitioners running into dangerous psychological difficulties through meditation. “An underlying psychosis” is the explanation rolled out by those with an interest in preserving the reputation of mindfulness. Meditation veterans tend to the view that run-ins with psychosis are part of the territory, more likely to be encountered the longer we explore, regardless of our baseline nuttiness.

Perhaps all spiritual practices are both a cure and a poison; they can dramatically improve mental health, but also they put it at risk.

Dante, be thou my guide

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a text operating on many levels, but fundamentally a poetic description of three spiritual realms. In Hell, the damned suffer torments from which they can never escape. Every moment is a desperate longing for relief that can never be realised. The damned are isolated in their suffering for eternity. During a panic attack, I know how this feels.

Heaven everywhere is paradise, / Although the Great Good’s favour does not rain / In one mode. As, when one food might suffice / Yet craving for another might remain, / We thank our stars and yet we are bereft. (Paradiso, Canto 3.)

In Heaven, the blessed are perfectly fulfilled. Even though they are situated at various distances from God, their wills are aligned with God’s. The soul in Heaven furthest from God is as fulfilled as the closest, because all rejoice in divine will (“True Will”) as their own. I know that paradoxically complete fulfilment of non-dual emptiness, which is just my own paltry experience of it.

Purgatory speaks most to the spiritual practitioner. Here, souls endure torments not dissimilar from Hell, but do so willingly. Suffering operates as a penance for sins, which gains the souls entrance to Heaven. Indeed, Purgatory guarantees Heaven; it is simply a matter of time and effort.

Maybe it’s significant how Purgatory has no explicit basis in Christian scripture, but was a doctrine developed later. Given Heaven and Hell, Purgatory is a means of transition; less of an end-point, more of a methodology.

Dispelling the stench of Sunday school

To prevent anti-religious hackles from being raised, we can read these allegorical realms not in terms of “should” but “is”. The compulsion upon souls in each realm is imposed not from outside but arises from its own nature; a soul in Purgatory does not “have to” burn off its sin, but might be said to be in Purgatory if and when it does. If the word “sin” is difficult to tolerate, then “psychological issues” or “karma” will do instead.

There is no way ahead / Unless you brave the fire and feel its sting. / So enter, holy souls, and then be led / With open ears by what the voices sing. (Purgatorio, Canto 27.)

As meditators, we endure long hours of discomfort, frustration and despair; countless dark nights in return for luminous glimpses. No one forces us to do so. The ups and downs of my spiritual practice are due to factors personal to me.

These “sins” are my own psychological issues; in actuality, I am never lost and abandoned, but something in my nature makes it seem so. The fault lies in me, even though it is not necessarily my fault. It is simply that I am the fault, although – ultimately – there really never was one. If Heaven is free of sin, then Hell is where we live out its full effects. And if something different happens in Purgatory, it’s because here we confront our issues willingly and with awareness. Spiritual practice is the atonement of sin. Whereas some atone because they think God demands it, the rest of us do it just because we know it works.

Famously, at the entrance to Hell is written: “Abandon Hope All Who Enter”. The only difference between Purgatory and Hell is the fact of an exit, and with the hope this offers in Purgatory all the horror is vanquished. What is hope, other than knowing that what we must confront will one day change?

Psychiatrists, awaken!

Russell Razzaque is a psychiatrist who experienced awakening after taking up meditation. He noticed significant parallels between his own experience and that of his patients. In Breaking Down Is Waking Up he formulates a model of psychological suffering as an inversion of awakening. Whereas spiritual practice gradually dismantles the ego, in mental illness the ego reacts to psychological stress by expanding, but eventually cracks appear as the ego collapses under its own weight: “as it was not a process that was sought, planned or gradually worked towards – with any awareness of a reality beyond the ego – the experience becomes a frightening and distressing one” (Razzaque 2014: 142-3).

Small hope of pausing to take stock / Of whether anguish might not soon abate / At least a little, and no hope at all / Of peace. (Inferno, Canto 5.)

In the same week I was reading Razzaque, I attended a talk by Daniel Hadjiandreou, a psychologist who (admitting a tendency to take things to extremes) practised for seven hours straight a meditation technique supposed to be practised for only one minute per day. The result was a traumatic dissolving of reality that necessitated a difficult process of recovery. His talk provided a number of simple, psychological techniques to help anyone affected by experiences of “unshared reality”.

I highly recommend Razzaque’s book; it is a radical re-visioning of psychiatry in relation to spirituality, and is likely to be of practical use to anyone undergoing psychological difficulties on a spiritual path. But I do not share his view of mindfulness and meditation as necessarily beneficial. Whereas, for Razzaque, meditation was a gateway into Purgatory, for Hadjiandreou – initially, at least – it was an entrance into Hell.

Razzaque suggests a continuum between enlightenment and psychosis; Dante offers a model of three distinct realms. The advantage of Dante is an explanation for how practice is evidently not the sole determinant of experience. Mindfulness is commonly presented as universally helpful, and next in line (it seems) are psychological treatments combined with psychedelics. Yet for every person whom these assist through Purgatory and into Heaven, some will be led straight into Hell.

Forgive us our trespasses

Someone with a tendency to take things to extremes practices meditation. Discovering another reality, the current one seems totally false, and must be utterly meaningless…

Someone who grew up in an over-protective environment undergoes ego dissolution. It feels like complete abandonment and eternal separation…

Our own psychological issues filter the experience of what lies beyond ego. What comes from inside the ego can seem to be what is “real”, in which case there is no way out from it and suddenly we are in Hell. The purgatorial pledge to confront our sins has been swept away, and, with it, hope.

Whatever our practice, sometimes it plunges us deeper into Hell. Dante’s model reminds us of the importance of reference points. Maps are helpful: knowing where you are and where you are headed can sustain the purgatorial sense of an exit, the consoling knowledge that, one day, this too will pass. Also helpful are guides: through Hell and Purgatory Dante has Virgil by his side; but for navigating Heaven, only Beatrice will do. Different guides offer different perspectives, and it needs to be recognised what those perspectives are.

Psychotherapy has proved helpful for uncovering my “sins”, the issues that distort my understanding and plunge me into Hell. My therapist seems to have little appreciation of spiritual practice. She questions my self-exploration outside the therapeutic context. But she has helped me through difficult times, and I have found her insights grounding. She is more of a Virgil to me than a Beatrice; for spiritual guidance, I turn elsewhere.

What Dante offers is an unwelcome illustration of an unfashionable truth: that spiritual practice alone is insufficient. We must also atone for our sins, in the sense of recognising our own psychological stuff, a means of preventing us from mistaking it for reality. As long as we can do this, hope is preserved, and the exit into Heaven guaranteed.


Dante Alighieri (2013). The Divine Comedy, translated by Clive James. London: Picador.

Razzaque, Russell (2014). Breaking Down is Waking Up: Can Psychological Suffering be a Spiritual Gateway? London: Watkins.


Our Fundamental Mode of Being

The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram
The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

In The Spell of the Sensuous (1997) ecologist and philosopher David Abram examines how our minds have become severed from sensory experience, and – consequently – our bodies disconnected from the natural world.

The blame for our current ecological plight he allocates predominantly to alphabetic writing, which destroyed the link between meaning and its basis in our physical participation in the processes and qualities of the natural world.

When linguistic signs become based on arbitrary vocal sounds (in contrast to pictographic symbols), then: “the larger, more-than-human life-world is no longer a part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the system” (1997: 101). Consequently,

our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs […] Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses […] become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (1997: 267)

Specifically, it was the ancient Greeks who led us into this sorry state. “Socrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own words” (1997: 109). Myths and stories formerly provided a union with nature, which Plato’s writings undermined and destroyed. In an oral culture, a term such as “Justice” always has a context: it is expressed in stories as a specific occurrence, as an event that actually took place. Yet “Socrates attempts to induce a reflection upon the quality as it exists in itself” (1997: 111), and so we arrive – via Plato – at the sense of Justice as a thing-in-itself, an abstract entity with an existence somehow independent from the physical world. There is now scope for belief in a realm of ideas separate from nature, and Abram’s complaint is that we have become increasingly lost in this Platonic invention.

Abram’s book has been influential. His evocation of the role of sensation and perception in human cognition is powerful and compelling. He offers a philosophical foundation for shamanistic and ecological magicks. Yet I am troubled by his demonisation of Platonism, and his privileging of the body and nature above soul and intellect.

If, as Abram suggests, the invention of phonetic writing sealed us within a world of human signs, excluding the other in the body, in non-human species and the natural environment, then our conception of soul or spirit is a harmful, autistic delusion.

However, surely by coincidence, the very next book I read after Abram’s makes a similar but opposite argument. In The Primitive Edge of Experience (2004), psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden writes of a basic mode of human experiencing that he names “the autistic-contiguous position”:

Sequences, symmetries, periodicity, skin-to-skin “molding” are all examples of contiguities that are the ingredients out of which the beginnings of rudimentary self-experience arise. (2004: 32)

The elements of this level of experience, which first appears in early infancy, are perceptual sensations of bodily contact, hardness or softness, being rocked, rhythms of appearances and disappearances, all of which: “have nothing to do with the representation of one’s affective states, either idiographically or fully symbolically. The sensory experience is the infant” (2004: 35).

The Primitive Edge of Experience, by Thomas Ogden
The Primitive Edge of Experience, by Thomas Ogden.

Yet whereas Ogden concurs with Abram that the use of language or symbolisation detracts from experience at this autistic-contiguous level, in Ogden it lacks the Edenic quality evoked by Abram’s writing. For Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is “preparatory for the creation of symbols” (2004: 59), and to dwell exclusively within it presents a dilemma of becoming “entrapped in sensory experience” (2004: 78). For Abram, the sensory is primary and language is an autistic detraction. For Ogden, sensation attracts the label of “autism”, yet without any sense of pathology, because this type of non-reflective experience provides an essential “bounded sensory ‘floor’ […] of experience” (2004: 45), “the beginnings of qualities of who one is” (2004: 54).

For Abram, the turning in upon human signs results in alienation from the body. But for Ogden, the turning in upon sensory experience results in a basic sense of self on top of which further maturational developments may accrue. Both writers are exploring similar territory, but from opposing points of view. Placing these authors beside one another, perhaps we start to see how this “autism”, the reflexive turning in upon oneself, is perhaps not by definition detrimental. And perhaps neither is sensation or symbolisation necessarily malign or benign. Increasingly, it may seem that we are labouring beneath a false opposition between the body and spirit.

Abram himself recognises a flaw in his privileging of the sensory and those indigenous means of apprehending the world that are deeply rooted in it. “If our primordial experience is inherently animistic,” he wonders, “how can we ever account for the loss of such animateness from the world around us?” (1997: 90). The argument that x is our primary mode of being, but that x has been forgotten, contains a glaring contradiction that the forgetting of x is evidently more primary than x itself. In that case, perhaps the ecological crisis is not a consequence of the invention of writing so much as the forgetting of nature because our (even more) primary mode of being is, perhaps, forgetfulness. Indeed, for Ogden, the autistic-contiguous is a “position” (2004: 11), a kind of stance or attitude that may be lost, or into which we may fall at any time, if more sophisticated levels of being are placed under stress. Our fundamental mode of being is maybe neither sensory nor cognitive, neither bodily nor spiritual. Perhaps our fundamental mode of being consists in not having a fundamental mode of being.

Enlightenment traditions present themselves as the antidote to habitual forgetfulness. Techniques for realising the absence of a fundamental self rely on cultivating a turning inwards, a kind of intentional autism that contrasts with the reactive type that both Abram and Ogden evoke. Within enlightenment traditions, it does not appear to matter what the objects of that turning inwards might be, whether sensations, thoughts or meritorious actions. The intention is to realise how whatever fills experience is not fundamentally what we are, because it is not invulnerable to forgetting.

Applying this to magickal practice, my view is that magick is wherever we find it. There are body magicks and shamanistic nature magicks. But there are also word and number magicks, and magicks of abstract contemplation. They are not of equal value, but neither is one of them necessarily of greater value than all the rest.


Abram, D. (1997) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage.

Ogden, T.H. (2004) The Primitive Edge of Experience. London: Karnac.