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Mental health

Mysticism and schizophrenia

Hemant Kapoor

Editor's note

This article attempts to bring out some of the differences between the mystic and psychotic. It can be confusing for modern psychologists who rely on external behaviour and have a tendency to club experiences of an unusual nature together into one category. In both, the mystic and psychotic, the shell of the ego, in which our soul lies trapped, bursts at some point and there is a rush of certain unusual experiences of a mixed nature. The difference is that the mystic is swimming upwards in the sea of cosmic consciousness to find his or her true spiritual centre, whilst the psychotic is gravitating downwards to the abysses and caverns of nature and drowning in them. Thus while the mystic has simply landed in intermediate worlds, the psychotic becomes possessed by forces and powers that are of a dark and obscure character. Also sometimes there is an actual overlap of the two since Nature abounds in all possibilities. We should not be deceived by appearances and confuse one for the other. A psychologist needs experience of inner worlds to interpret and know the difference.

Mystics claim access to supernormal states of consciousness. The question that immediately assaults the rationality of the natural man is whether these experiences are actually supernormal or merely abnormal. Again, what separates the mystic from the schizophrenic and both from the natural man? In this article, I have tried to address these questions by bringing together and correlating some psychological viewpoints with the ideas of Sri Aurobindo — mystic par excellence.

Schizophrenia is generally characterised by non-normative behaviour. This unusual behaviour may be a severe withdrawal from ordinary life, or major emotional changes or defects in memory or perception. Some of these symptoms are often exhibited by mystics also. This has prompted doctors and intellectuals to view them under the same light. Ken Wilber (1), a well-known Western psychologist, quotes two schools of opinion on schizophrenia and mysticism.

Those belonging to the first school look upon schizophrenia as an illness, a sickness, a pure pathology of the worst sort and tend to view all mysticism similarly. “The psychiatrist”, he quotes from a recent report,“will find mystical phenomena of interest because they demonstrate forms of behaviour intermediate between normality and frank psychosis; a form of ego regression in the service of defence against internal and external stress(2).“

The second attitude quoted by Wilber regards schizophrenia as not being pathological but super-healthy (3).This view is partial to mysticism and believes that transcendent states are ultra-real. As Norman O. Brown has put it , “It is not schizophrenia but normality which is split-minded, in schizophrenia the false boundaries are disintegrating ...Schizophrenics are suffering from the truth ...The schizophrenic world is one of mystical participation; an indescribable extension of inner sense(4).“

Before analysing these conclusions let us examine the mystic’s view of the matter. At an early stage of sādhanā, spiritual discipline, the aspirant becomes aware of a duality in his consciousness. He realises that consciousness in him revolves into two parts: the aspect of Puruśa or conscious soul and that of Prakṛti or Nature. It is a fact that the Puruśa leads and the Prakṛti lags in the movement of sādhanā. Indeed this division may be so great that nature can no longer express the delight of the Puruśa in the normal modes of behaviour. Then is created the jada, bala, unmatta, and pisṣāca types of realisations, i.e. the inert, the childlike, the mad or perverse, the devilish. All these can easily pass as symptoms of schizophrenia. Thus we see that the yogī may exhibit schizophrenic habits and be inwardly liberated but outwardly deviant. Small wonder then that leftist intellectuals have dubbed Sri Ramakrishna the paramahamsa, as a pathological case, a schizophrenic.

The transition from the natural man to the yogī is marked by a passage which is not always safe. Sri Aurobindo makes it clear:

“Certainly, the practical values given us by our senses and by the dualistic sense-mind must hold good in their field and be accepted as the standard for ordinary life-experience until a larger harmony is ready into which they can enter and transform themselves without losing hold of the realities which they represent. To enlarge the sense-faculties without the knowledge that would give the old sense-values their right interpretation from the new standpoint might lead to serious disorders and incapacities, might unfit for practical life and for the orderly and disciplined use of the reason(5).“

As a mystic progresses in spiritual evolution, he encounters gaps, reversals and incommensurability of consciousness. The first of these is the passage from the external egocentric view of life to the true psychic view. This gap can be construed as a grey area where neither the inner self nor the ego is in entire possession of the consciousness. This area, which is subliminal to the normal consciousness, is capable of a much greater play of truth as well as falsehood. A proper understanding of this region would give us a deep insight into the phenomenon of schizophrenia, an insight which far surpasses that of the diverging and conflicting views of modern psychology. For this purpose, I include extracts from a letter of Sri Aurobindo on the subject.

“The sadhak feels himself freed from the normal limits, projected into a wonderful new world of experience, filled and enlarged and exalted... Very easily he is carried away by the splendour and the rush,... he may not realise at once that he is still in the cosmic Ignorance, not in the cosmic Truth, much less in the Transcendental Truth.

“There are worse dangers in this intermediate zone of experience. For the planes to which the sadhak has now opened his consciousness ... send a host of ideas, impulses, suggestions, formations of all kinds, often the most opposite to each other, inconsistent or incompatible, but presented in such a way as to slur over their insufficiencies and differences, with great force, plausibility and wealth of argument or a convincing sense of certitude. Overpowered by this sense of certitude, vividness, appearance of profusion and richness, the mind of the sadhak enters into a great confusion which it takes for some larger organisation and order; or else it whirls about in incessant shiftings and changes which it takes for a rapid progress but which lead nowhere. Or there is the opposite danger that he may become the instrument of some apparently brilliant but ignorant formation; for these intermediate planes are full of little Gods or strong Daityas or smaller beings who want to create, to materialise something or to enforce a mental and vital formation in the earth life and are eager to use or influence or even possess the thought and will of the sadhak and make him their instrument for the purpose. This is quite apart from the well-known danger of actually hostile beings whose sole purpose is to create confusion, falsehood, corruption of the sadhana and disastrous unspiritual error. Anyone allowing himself to be taken hold of by one of these beings, who often take a divine Name, will lose his way in the yoga. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the sadhak may be met at his entrance into this zone by a Power of the Divine which helps and leads him till he is ready for greater things; but still that itself is no surety against the errors and stumblings of this zone; for nothing is easier than for the powers of these zones or hostile powers to imitate the guiding Voice or Image and deceive and mislead the sadhak or for himself to attribute the creations and formations of his own mind, vital or ego to the Divine.

For this intermediate zone is a region of half-truths — and that by itself would not matter, for there is no complete truth below the supermind; but the half-truth here is often so partial or else ambiguous in its application that it leaves a wide field for confusion, delusion and error. The sadhak thinks that he is no longer in the old small consciousness at all, because he feels in contact with something larger or more powerful, and yet the old consciousness is still there, not really abolished. He feels the control or influence of some Power, Being or Force greater than himself, aspires to be its instrument and thinks he has got rid of ego; but this delusion of egolessness often covers an exaggerated ego. Ideas seize upon him and drive his mind which are only partially true and by over-confident misapplication are turned into falsehoods; this vitiates the movements of the consciousness and opens the door to delusion. Suggestions are made, sometimes of a romantic character, which flatter the importance of the sadhak or are agreeable to his wishes and he accepts them without examination or discriminating control.... This is a zone which many sadhaks have to cross, in which many wander for a long time and out of which a great many never emerge(6).“

Analysing the diverging viewpoints of modern psychology and examining phenomenologically the behaviour of schizophrenics, it appears a plausible hypothesis to suppose that schizophrenics are carried into the subliminal region of consciousness which Sri Aurobindo terms the ‘intermediate region’. This yogic view emerges from an objective knowledge of the supraphysical worlds.


1. Wilber, K. The Atman Project.Theosophical Publishing House.

2.Group for Advancement of Psychiatry. Mysticism : Spiritual quest, psychic disorder. New York; GAP.

3. Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience.New York; Ballentine.

4. Brown, N.O. Love’s Body.New York; Vintage.

5. Sri Aurobindo. The Life Divine. SABCL Vol. 18. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, pp. 52-3.

6. Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga, SABCL Vol. 23. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, pp. 1039-43.

Hemant Kapoor is an engineer and sadhak at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.

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Sri Aurobindo