Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Schizophrenia and Nothingness

Earlier, I was listening to a Buddhist priest of a Japanese sect talk about the overlap of Shinto and Tendai Buddhism. He mentioned the practice of praying to one's ancestors (I think this is Shinto, but practiced by a fair number of Japanese Buddhists). A member of the audience asked whether the priest himself did this. The priest confirmed that he did, but in response to some incredulity by the questioner explained that it was a form of contemplation -- a way to address a problem by invoking the wisdom of elders. Or something like that.

Then he said, "It's not that you expect to hear a voice responding to you saying, 'Tell your son the exam answers are A, C, and 28.' If you hear voices in Japan or the United States, you're schizophrenic."

It made me squirm. His answer was a little bit defensive and a fairly natural. "Sure I pray, but that doesn't make me crazy." Crazy, as we all know, means hearing voices. First, point of information, some people hear voices and are not schizophrenic. Some people hear voices and are not mentally ill.

But what really needled me was that in the world of shamans that shinto and perhaps buddhism arose from (according to this same priest), there was no schizophrenia. The shamans communed with the supernatural. Some people could walk both this and the spirit world.

I had a client who told me he was schizophrenic in that he understood why he was diagnosed that way. He considered himself to be in communication with another realm of being and believed that this power of his made it very difficult for him to function in this world. He saw that he was crazy by objective measurement. So he accepted the antipsychotics. But he described himself as a creative schizophrenic and further conversation with him revealed that he did see things other people could not see. Beings in the room, lights, etc.

I wished for him that he could have been born in a time when his difference was not seen by society as a loathesome disease, but a gift. We treat him as if he is possessed by a demon that can only be exorcised by a cocktail of poisonous magical pills.

Once, while I was talking to him, he stopped talking mid-sentence and closed his eyes. I waited as he stood in front of me, a look of peace on his face. I waited for what seemed like minutes as the chaos of the psychiatric ward swirled around me. And then he opened his eyes and continued the conversation. I asked him "what happened there"? He smiled blissfully and said he couldn't really explain it and then said "I think I was levitating." He looked a little unsteady on his feet and explained that it took a lot out of him.

He was in fairly good shape. There are others whose personalities seem to have been shattered and mashed back together with malice. Incoherence, rage without apparent provocation ("Hello" "Fuck you. Get the fuck away from me."), uncontrollable weeping, hypersexuality / sexual preoccupation (Guess what? I'm pregnant. And it's yours!), debilitating delusions (the toilet is angry with me, so I can't use it). The person may have the constituent parts of a personality, but it is wildly out of whack. Sometimes they can tell you about who they once were. Sometimes they really were.

The severe mental illness I'm describing seems like a sort of mind death or at least mind crippling. It illustrates just how illusory the "self" really is. "I'm a nice person" or "I'm an executive" or "I am Joe Smith" might be true right now, but there is no guarantee that they will be true tomorrow.

Which brings me back to my shenpa when the priest made light of hearing voices. This hit me hard because I identify with my schizophrenic clients. They fight battles you cannot imagine. They face the perilous choice of a lifetime of debilitating drugs or a life battling both the voices and the medical establishment, with no clear path to healing. They stagger or fight through the worst slums of this world and the mind. They are often caked with suffering. I identify with the hopelessness, cynicism, outrage, and avoidance they demonstrate.

And I identify with them because I fear mind death. I fear I will lose my self.

So the priest's joke disturbed me because it reminded me of the inevitability of my death. It was as if someone failed to pay the proper respect to my ancestors.


Anonymous said...

Good post--sb29

vacuous said...

I agree. Very thoughtful. Interestingly, the priest's words didn't strike me the same way. Maybe he was being defensive, but the way I heard it, it was more in the way of friendly advice. I.e., that prayer does not usually proceed as a conversation with a voice in your head. Some people might think they're doing it wrong if they don't hear anything, or some people might tend to objectify an other, whereas Buddhism teaches that I and other are part of the same essence. But one thing I've noticed is that I tend to project the most charitable interpretation on external phenomena, and other people will often have interpreted a situation completely differently when we compare notes afterward.