Dr Kaye Gersch PhD


psychoanalytic psychotherapist | clinical supervisor | couples therapist

Mysticism: Psychosis and Gnosis.

Thesis by Kaye Gersch for Master's programme 2002

“The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary: without the commentary we are unable to understand aright the true sense and coherence of the text, together with the moral it contains”

(Essay “The Ages of Life” 1891, Schopenhauer, 2014).

In this thesis I investigate liminal experiences, especially those classed as mystical experience, which are problematic to the experiencer because they do not fit the prevailing paradigm - the prevailing ways of assessing experience which operate within the culture at large, and the psychology professions and mainstream religion in particular. My specific investigation is of the states of knowing, or luminosity and liminality, which I refer to collectively as mystical experience. I looked at these from the two perspectives of psychosis and gnosis - the most polarized ways of making sense of these experiences within our society. I also look at other cultures and their way of dealing with these states, and compare and contrast them with Western culture. This is primarily a philosophical and theoretical investigation, and I neither elevate or deny the suffering of psychosis, or indeed any form of disintegrating darkness experienced during a deep rift in the psyche.

In popular culture, the word mysticism is often used to convey something vague, romantic or nebulous, insinuating something untrustworthy or insubstantial. Mysticism as a derogatory appellation is sometimes used by those who espouse true belief in an absolute doctrine, about anything outside this doctrine. This is not what I mean by mysticism, as I explain.

Research into mysticism is important to me because I have had experiences which were thought psychotic by some and gnostic by others, and as soon as I was able to gather my thoughts together sufficiently, I wanted to know upon what they had based their assumptions. I wanted to know where I personally fitted within the body of knowledge, so that I could come to a more comfortable understanding of my own 

experience, and also that of others. As a therapist I am frequently presented with problematic dynamics by my patients which involve spiritual experience, so I also knew that I was embarking on research which was ‘for the others’ as much as for myself. I wanted to know what had engendered these experiences, and whether they fitted within my ideas of the spiritual life. I am reassured to read that the lives of others are similarly shaped. As Sholem says, “The center of what a mystic has to say always remains a shapeless experience, spurring the mystic on to his understanding of his religious world and its values" (Religious Authority and Mysticism, Scholem, 1965, p. 10).

In doing this research I was therefore attempting to find a place for myself in the human community through a body of knowledge. In this sense it was a personal search for validation and meaning, and joining others in and through their experience and thought. What I investigated is the question of how much of what is thought of and diagnosed as psychotic is part of a transformative process. I also investigated what it is about experience of the numinous that makes it either gnostic or psychotic. Conversely, I investigated the possibility that what may be thought of as mystical and transformative within a religious context may have elements of the psychotic. Does it matter, and in what way? If an experience is to be regarded as transformational, the question arises: transformation to what, from what?

In my approach to this thesis, I followed Jung’s proposal that the best way to move toward a difficult question involving the unconscious is by a ritual circling, and by multiple routes. I circled around my subject from many points of view, in trust that a greater meaning would reveal itself. This plural approach enabled me to discover many truths rather than the one truth.

This plural approach means that each chapter stands alone, and is not necessarily reflecting a development from the previous chapters. Having said this, however, the final chapter is a restating and culmination of all that has gone before.

What follows is a brief synopsis of each chapter.

Chapter One: Do we have an innate Spiritual Instinct?

“Among one-dimensional men, it is not surprising that someone with an insistent experience of other dimensions, that he cannot entirely deny or forget, will run the risk of either being destroyed by others, or of betraying what he knows” (Laing, 1959, p. 11).

I argue that spiritual experience is an instinct, which is largely repressed. I agreed with Freud that a repressed instinct gains an accretion of shame, and propose that this fact accounts for at least some of the hesitance and embarrassment with which a person speaks about his or her spiritual life, particularly if it does not conform to general belief around spiritual ideas. Interest in spiritual experience is common, but contemporary people do not necessarily, or commonly, look for its fulfillment within a religious hierarchy. I provided a framework for defining the mystical by following William James’s, namely that these experiences are noetic, transient, ineffable and passive. But since these same qualities can be attributed to the psychotic experience, I add the categories of compassion, joy and the lived life. I am then in a position to compare and contrast the experience of the psychotic ‘delusion’ with that of ‘true’ mysticism. To do this I examine the experiences reported by a modern woman, and that of St Theresa of Avilla. In determining why an experience might be understood as either psychotic or gnostic, I show that the phenomenology of mysticism cannot stand alone as a means of distinguishing true mysticism from psychotic delusion, and an understanding of context is needed also.

Chapter Two: On the Way to the Wedding.

“We had the experience but missed the meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness. I have said before

That the past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generation – not forgetting

Something that is probably quite ineffable”

(The Dry Salvages, Four Quartets Eliot, 1944, p. 28)

I look at why personal spiritual experience especially mysticism might be so compelling. I demonstrate the ways in which the enchanting, numinous and ecstatic are either experienced or repressed, and the consequences of so doing for both the individual and the collective. I posit that mysticism is a polar opposite to, and a compensation for, the dryness of economic and psychological rationalization, and as such is an enchantment which revivifies both the individual and the culture. I see this need for enchantment as in inner imperative towards being, in the Heideggerian sense, where Dasein or presence, is about man as the site of the revelation of Being. I discuss the possibility that both gnostic and psychotic experiences are ways to vivify the personal experience (towards being) outside of the collective consensus. I use the metaphor of the Hero’s journey as a way to present the possibility of validating experience outside of the collective consensus, and the bringing back of this experience into the collective, whether through psychosis or gnosis.

Chapter Three: Paradise Lost: Religion, Object Relations Theory and the Psychology of Mystical Experience.

"New psychic contents commonly rise out of chaos, which is the sine qua non of any regeneration of the spirit and the personality"

(vol 12 Jung, 1977 para 96 )

I discover something of the psychology of religion and the way in which this relates to the question of psychosis and gnosis. Concepts that have been used within contemporary psychology to express our fundamental experience of separation, also frame our religious belief. I refer especially to object relations theory, and the idea of the Transitional Object (T.O.), and compare this with ideas from various spiritual traditions. If we look at religion in a fundamentally psychological way, religion operates in much the same way as transference. I investigate the role of ‘God’ as a Transitional Object in relation to the ideal of one-ness, wholeness, and connectedness. I also discuss another possibility: that this idea of God is a reaction formation against the unspeakable Other. Overall I intend this chapter to shed light on why the idea of unity and wholeness might be important to us, both the analytic and spiritual perspectives. This chapter also gives me the opportunity to discuss how an object relations view (rather than the Jungian view, which I propose in the following chapter) adds to the overall understanding of the desire for oneness and unity. This goes some way to fulfilling my desire for a pluralist approach, as I have found that one single schema does not allow for sufficient complexity to cover my ideas about psychosis and gnosis.

Chapter Four: Mysticism in History

“Of the twelve cases … that I have studied in depth, three of the four men, and six of the eight women experienced frankly religious, messianic callings” (Perry, 1974, p. 71).

I discuss some of the prevailing attitudes in the past to mysticism and mystics, how this might be different today, and the implications of this change. I propose that the phenomena of mysticism actually changes in response to the interpretation which it is given. I look at the phenomenology of and interpretation of mysticism in different cultures and eras. I am aware of “'style criticism'”by which experience of past eras is treated with contempt… Perhaps we can think of evolution rather than improvement” (Allen, 1962, p. xxvi). I speak more specifically about heresy and orthodoxy as complementary yet opposing forces, and how these attitudes relate to the individual psyche and to our interpretation of what is delusional and what is gnosis. I emphasize that what has been attributed to saintliness in the past is sometimes being reinterpreted as psychosis today.

Chapter Five: The Dark Borderland: Liminality and mystical experience

"Rather than what is pathology in mysticism, we ask what is mystical in its intent in psychosis?" (Perry, 1974, p. 96)

I investigate further the idea of liminality. I provide this further discussion in order to clarify what is happening for the gnostic as well as the psychotic. I propose that liminaIity is the metaphorical territory that is experienced by both the psychotic and the gnostic, and give specific differences in the outcome of these liminal experiences. I will present the transition of midlife as an example of liminality that occurs for everyone. I discuss Sufi methods as providing a structure that intentionally engages the liminal, and apparently deals with both a psychotic or gnostic outcome with equal facility. I present the concept of the Dark Night of the Soul, and it’s psychological as well as spiritual implications, as an example of liminality.

Chapter Six: The Coat of Many Colours - Individual Difference and Mystical Experience

“The activation of the inferior function, especially in the beginning, can be clumsy to the extent of appearing to be psychotic”(von Franz in Hillman & Von Franz, 1971, p. 44).

I look at mystical experience in the light of personality type, using the typology proposed by Jung. I examine the extent to which the peculiarity of an individual’s psyche affects whether and how he or she will have numinous experience, and whether this will be interpreted or experienced as gnosis or psychosis. I highlight differences as to how the shadow and the inferior function within each psychological type relate to individuation and spiritual experience. I find such differentiation particularly useful in judging whether psychosis, or certainly borderline manifestation, could instead be seen as the activation and development of the inferior function.

Taking the whole issue of the personality types a step further, I also demonstrate that what Neumann and others have termed homo mysticus can be seen as a natural consequence of the development of the inferior function. This adds another dimension to chapter one, where I introduced the subject of mystical man. Jung described this natural development as the Transcendent function.

Chapter Seven: Killing the Buddha: Chaos Theory, Foreclosure, Psychosis and gnosis

"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." Koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, the founder of the Rinzai sect.

I delve into chaos theory to speculate further as to how and why chaos and order might be experienced as such within the psyche. I remind the reader that those things outside the province of the ego are best approached by a ritual circling. I refer specifically to Neumann’s discussion on approaching the unconscious. “The problem of the creative unconscious, the central problem of depth psychology, is at the same time the central problem of mysticism and mystical man. Since the creative process takes place outside of consciousness and must therefore be looked upon as an experience at the limits of the ego, any attempt to approach this central and pivotal vortex is a hazardous undertaking. It is in the very nature of such an undertaking that its object cannot be captured by the direct intervention of consciousness, but that one must seek to approach the center in question by a sort of ritual circling, an approach from many sides" (Neumann, 1969, p. 376). It is my intention that this seemingly unrelated subject add further distinction between gnosis and psychosis. To do this I develop Lacan’s idea of foreclosure. Using some of the fundamental principles of chaos theory, I undertake to demonstrate that all theories and all paradigms of knowledge act as a foreclosure, but that chaos theory offers the (almost impossible) possibility of a source of meaning which lies outside the symbolic order. In this chapter I find a further way to delineate what is psychotic by using the concepts of the symbolic and the semiotic, developing the ideas of Lacan and Kristeva.


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