VISIONARY EXPERIENCE OR PSYCHOSIS with JOHN W. PERRY, M.D.
The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is visionary experience and its relationship to psychiatric labeling, or what might commonly be thought of as madness. My guest, Dr. John Weir Perry, is a Jungian psychotherapist, the author of numerous books and most recently a book called The Heart of History. Welcome to the program, John.
JOHN WEIR PERRY, M.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here.
PERRY: It's very good to be on this program.
MISHLOVE: In your research, in your scholarship, you're looking at visionary experience and how it is manifested through history. I suppose one might say that throughout history great visionaries have been accused of being mad.
PERRY: They have. There have been many who have been actually insane, and many who give that appearance and yet who actually were tremendously creative and were the creators of new cultural thrusts. So it seems that in times of culture change, that's when the visionaries come up, and they have a task to do in that case.
MISHLOVE: It seems as if we're almost always in some form of culture change or another.
PERRY: Yes, but then there's a different degree of it. A rapid, acute culture change is the result of either foreign invasion or new conditions within the culture that necessitate a whole reexamination of the basic values and the basic outlook, the world view. So that's a much more cataclysmic kind of change, and during such times you could say first that the collective psyche is stirred, and visionaries are those people who experience it more vividly and are more articulate.
MISHLOVE: What would be an example of one such person?
PERRY: Well, there are certainly many, but one right nearby here in eastern California was one a hundred years ago, the originator of the Ghost Dance. Now, this was a time when the Native Americans were getting very discouraged and looking for some hope, and he was out on a mountainside one time in a storm and saw the whole earth rolled up like a carpet, and also saw it cleave apart, so that the known earth went down inside this cleft. For three days there was no familiar earth. And after three days the earth was recreated again and the Native Americans were living with the ancestral spirits and with the Great Spirit, and had redeemed and reformed society, a whole new start. Now that became something, the Ghost Dance, then enacted ritually.
MISHLOVE: He communicated the vision to the other Indian peoples who were very moved.
PERRY: Communicated it, and they recognized in it right away the meaningfulness for them.
MISHLOVE: They went on the warpath, as I recall.
PERRY: Well, the dance spread from coast to coast, and yes, there were a good many uprisings as a result. It did give hope for a while. Naturally, the conditions were --
MISHLOVE: It had a catastrophic ending, that particular story.
PERRY: It did, unfortunately. And many of these bad experiments, you know, they're efforts to revive the culture. There was a much more successful one in the East, the Seneca. A man named Hanson Lake was an Iroquois-Seneca clan, and he had a visionary state in which he was sick, and he was taken up into the heavens and walked through the Milky Way, which was the pathway of the deceased, and he also saw the threat of the world being destroyed. He himself went into the realm of the dead, in other words, and he saw that if a certain light in the sky, which was a toxic substance, was allowed to reach the earth, this was a great sickness and the whole population of the earth would be destroyed by this. And he met the Great Spirit and was indoctrinated; there were angels who gave him instructions. When he came out of this, he became a very strong leader and reformed the society, gave it a renewed vitality, and they became a people. They had been a slum culture up to this point.
MISHLOVE: And this was as a result of a dream?
PERRY: It was a visionary state -- what looked like a coma on the outside.
MISHLOVE: I see. So you would distinguish this from a dream.
PERRY: I would. Often these people get actually physically ill. He was in a coma and his whole body went cold.
MISHLOVE: Like a delirium.
PERRY: It was. He had a little hot spot left here; that was the only place on his body that was warm. And as he began to revive the heat spread back through his body and he was able to start to speak again.
MISHLOVE: It sounds very much akin to what some people would call a kundalini experience in the yoga tradition.
PERRY: It can be. A tremendous energy gets moving through this. I think the great difference is that typically in a visionary state of this kind, the visionary goes through a death experience and an experience of world destruction -- perceives it, or actually is in the middle of it -- and it's that that seems to indicate the basic reorganization of himself and of his culture both.
MISHLOVE: Would you say, however, that Hitler was such a person?
PERRY: Unfortunately there are many bad eggs who were visionaries. Yes, he took a long training, of course, with peyote and a guru.
MISHLOVE: Now this I didn't know.
PERRY: Oh yes. He went through the whole trip.
MISHLOVE: I mean, many people who are skeptics of the whole new-age, mystical, spiritual trend these days suggest that what we're doing is we're creating the same kind of social conditions that existed in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler -- opening ourselves up to superstitions.
PERRY: Yes. I think the great difference, of course, is that Hitler's beginning and his whole following were totally dedicated to power, which is not typical of the ordinary visionary. That's a special thing, that the visionaries have a different sort of message to give in different eras of time. That's what my book is going to be about.
MISHLOVE: And we're certainly in a period of social transition right now.
PERRY: That's why I'm interested in it and I'm writing about it. And I'm particularly worried as to what we do with our visionaries -- you know, clapping them all away in places where they're shut up in hospitals or clinics, or medicating them, or recommending they go into therapy and get over this state.
MISHLOVE: I mean, even the Indian leader who came up with the Ghost Dance vision and led to the disaster for his people, he was in touch with a certain social reality at the time which needed to be expressed in some way.
PERRY: Oh yes, dedicated to his culture.
MISHLOVE: I guess there are those who seem to feel that we must face the problems around us rationally, that we must not retreat into the subconscious, into visionary experience, into escapism. You seem to be saying just the opposite.
PERRY: And for the reason that the humanistic kind of rational thinking -- thinking out a good program for society, good reforms and good policies -- that comes from the top of the head. And what fails to happen then is the stirring up of the motivations. In order for a real change to occur there has to be a deeply motivated population, and that means that the deep psyche has to be involved. It's there that the creative ideas come from, in very symbolic terms at first, just images. But they have a lot of energy in them and a lot of persuasiveness, and when people hear a visionary leader when it's time for one of these revolutionary changes, there is a sort of mass movement that sweeps through a population, and an enthusiasm.
MISHLOVE: Well, do you think that some of this is why a leader like Reagan relies to a large extent on the mythology of evangelical Christianity and the notion of fighting the evil empire?
PERRY: It's an effort in that direction, I think totally misguided, from my point of view, because it takes an old religious form and tries to refurbish it in sort of modern clothes. In a special way, I think -- I'm not talking of the churches in general here, but just of the particular political kind of Christianity that gets to Washington -- that that's making use of an old form to give a new message, and I wouldn't be surprised if in our time we needed a basically new mythic statement, a different way of seeing our world.
MISHLOVE: Do you see this emerging in your own work with people? As you work with their dreams do you see a new vision evolving?
PERRY: Yes. It depends how deeply their psyche is stirred, whether the archetypal psyche is -- that is, the mythic psyche. The more deeply disturbed people are, you could say, the more purely mythic the content that comes into play. Now, the preferable thing is in ordinary therapy to get somebody with a stirred-up psyche and you're able to assimilate that and bring it into consciousness and understand it. And then it moves slowly, it moves along week by week, and it takes a few years, and that gives plenty of time to assimilate those into actual living, translate the images into living. But in the deeply disturbed ones that are more cataclysmic, what is commonly called a psychotic state, we prefer to call it still a visionary state.
MISHLOVE: In other words, one of the points that you want to make here is that we do people an injustice by labeling them as psychotic, as mentally ill, as having a nervous breakdown.
PERRY: We do, indeed.
MISHLOVE: How would you characterize it instead?
PERRY: Well, the reason for labeling that and calling it psychotic, calling it crazy, is that the ideation is considered bizarre -- you know, that it's strange. Well, if you say that, it means mythic thinking from the start of time is bizarre, because one thing that most psychiatrists don't realize nowadays, since everybody gets medicated in these states, is that they never hear that kind of thinking.
MISHLOVE: I suppose when one uses a label like bizarre, it almost presumes that the everyday reality which we take for granted is not bizarre. And that may be a form of madness.
PERRY: Yes, that's the hooker -- that there's an alternative reality which is mythic, which has to do with a world of archetypal phenomena, and for a person in a disturbed state, that's the real world at that particular time. That's his reality or her reality.
MISHLOVE: And you're suggesting that that's a valid reality.
PERRY: That's a valid reality for a period of time. Here we're talking about acute episodes of this kind, acute onsets of visionary experience that last a few weeks. And if they're properly handled they don't become that miserable state of low-level chronic withdrawal, the discouraged outlook and the loss of hope.
MISHLOVE: So what you seem to be saying is when a person begins to experience this so-called craziness, this psychotic break, the worst thing is to try and stop it.
PERRY: That is the worst, and the second worst thing is giving it the label that you're mentioning. When it's called crazy, that is the moment of the person feeling crazy for the first time. I've heard many people describe swimming around in this mythic world, in this visionary world, and being overwhelmed and sometimes frightened, but mostly feeling very high with it, and as soon as they're told that this is craziness and they must be medicated and locked up, then they feel very crazy and are crazy.
MISHLOVE: Because they buy into the social reality.
PERRY: They buy into it right away.
MISHLOVE: And the social reality is real. I mean, if people say you're crazy --
PERRY: It's very real indeed, yes.
MISHLOVE: In the Soviet Union, if you're a political protestor, you get labeled as crazy. And many of these people, I suppose they lose their hold on whether they are crazy or not.
PERRY: They're very deviant, and there's a chasm between them and the other people. So it seems that the difficulty of a psychosis is that interface between one's state and that condition, and then their surroundings. Because the surroundings also during the withdrawing and the recoiling and the fear, both parties -- say in a family, both the person who's going through this and the rest of the family -- are both withdrawing from each other because this chasm is opening up. So then the needed thing, rather than a diagnosis and stopping the whole thing, is a receptive, comfortable kind of listening to it.
MISHLOVE: Although I suppose the people who are involved in this situation want to protect themselves from the impact, from the power of it.
PERRY: That varies. There are a great many who want to go into it, and who feel very cheated if they're taken out of it too fast. They feel quite angry if they are.
MISHLOVE: I don't mean the patients now, or your clients. I mean the relatives, who feel like they want to live their normal life.
PERRY: It's very upsetting to relatives. And that is really the reason why this has, I think, to be treated like an initiatory experience, for instance. Typically in initiation rites the child is taken out of the usual context to live in the bush, or wherever it is, for a time, for a while.
MISHLOVE: With a shamanic teacher.
PERRY: With a teacher. Goes through that whole experience of rebirth, death and rebirth, and comes back new. That has to be apart. And I think these people have to be apart for a while.
MISHLOVE: One might even say that in that kind of a context, the person who goes through the visionary process and heals themselves comes out stronger, more vital, more alive, more powerful than had they never had this so-called sickness in the first place.
PERRY: When it goes right that is the way it happens; I wish I knew what proportion come out that way. But when it happens it's quite dramatic. The old self really does die off, you could say; they outgrow it. And where they had been inordinately preoccupied about prestige and rather afraid of relationship up to this point, when they come out, the warmth is there; the trust relationship, the warmth is there, the lovingness. And that's really the fruit of this whole process.
MISHLOVE: People who have been through the experience are then able perhaps to recognize and to guide others through it as well.
PERRY: Yes. We had a facility here in the city that operated this way, and on our staff were some people who had been through it that way; some had had other kinds of experience of death. But yes, when somebody's been through that they have a kind of feel for the meaningfulness of it and are able to receive it without fear, and really tune in on it.
MISHLOVE: Do you think that people, once they've had this visionary, so-called psychotic state, and they're allowed to go through it, are they then free from the effects of it later on? Do they have relapses? Are they able to function?
PERRY: They are able to function very well, often. What we found in our facility here, called Diabasis, was that the people in this acute state, if they were received in the sort of spirit of openness and caring and readiness to listen, all this, within two or three days came down from being quite psychotic to being quite rational. Then the process was still going on, but they felt more like people in therapy than people in an insane state.
MISHLOVE: Now, there are those who say that what causes so-called madness is a family dynamic -- that the person who is going schizophrenic, psychotic, is doing it really to save the other members of the family. Now what happens when this person heals themselves of that condition and is returned to the original family environment?
PERRY: There's a lot to thrash out, and it depends very much how the family are able to take that -- whether they are able to meet that with the encouragement of the staff, let's say, and deal with it, or whether they keep trying to dismiss it and put this person back into the status of patienthood.
MISHLOVE: Family members might rather the person be drugged.
PERRY: Yes, often.
MISHLOVE: You recommend not using drugs.
PERRY: Not only I, but you know, one time I was invited to the Stanford Research Unit, which does biochemical research on psychotic states, and I was a little timid about this because that was the sort of ingroup of medication treatment.
MISHLOVE: Very prestigious organization.
PERRY: Very prestigious. And when I got through, they said -- at that particular time; I wouldn't say this year, they did in 1978 -- that this was the right way to handle first episodes, the way we were doing, without medication. Let the person go through it, and then if it tends to become chronic, if it goes down, sure, medicate. But I think that is a point of view that is really totally out of acceptance right now. There's a tremendous preoccupation, as you know, with brain chemistry now, and assigning everything to physical causes, and as long as that's prevailing, there's not much patience for this sort of treatment.
MISHLOVE: And yet if one looks at history, which you have, there are many great, rational thinkers, great scientists like Newton or Swedenborg, who were also visionaries -- who had this totally irrational, visionary side to them, which they allowed to flower. I suppose part of the skill is knowing how to cultivate the irrational side, the mythic side.
PERRY: It is; to translate it into the rational.
MISHLOVE: Without confronting people in a way that's going to be offensive to them. It's more of a social skill than anything else.
PERRY: I think. A very amusing example of that, I think, is Descartes, who said that a couple of angels revealed the new mathematic to him. Not many years later he was saying the imagination must be absolutely, strictly cleansed out of science -- that anything that has to do with visions and imagination is simply not permissible in science. So he was in his own contradiction about this.
MISHLOVE: What do you make of that?
PERRY: I think it's what you're talking about. I think for the adaptation to society and a new trust for the new young science like this, it had to be preserved. So to mix it up with some of the old gobbledegook of just plain religious --
MISHLOVE: So he was politically astute in that sense. And I suppose Newton, who was an alchemist, in much the same way sort of cleansed his scientific writing, so that he kept these two compartments of life separate, but both still very much alive within himself.
PERRY: Yes, and the visionary state, then, in politics or in society, let's say, would need that also. You know, in politics there was in China a man named Hung -- Hung Hsiu-ch'uen -- who about a hundred and thirty years ago had a visionary experience. He was sick; the family thought he was dying, and he had six weeks, forty days, of visionary state, while he was in this deathlike state. And when he came out of it he was stronger, firmer, but it wasn't for six years that he knew what to do with this experience, in which he visited the heavens in the usual fashion and talked to the Great Spirit, so to speak. Now, he then became aware that this was a religious experience with a religious implication, and had a part to play in Chinese society. So he gathered a following, he led the Taiping Rebellion, which is the one that took over Nanking in the south, and set up an alternative government for several years, and he almost became emperor. So he was very successful in translating visionary states into political form and military conquest, in that case.
MISHLOVE: But given the delicacy of our current situation right now, the threat of nuclear warfare, it would seem to me that the kind of visionary experience that is called for today is different than this. We don't need another Ghost Dance or a Taiping Rebellion.
PERRY: We don't even need another cult, I guess, do we? You know, we're sort of allergic to cults since the recent disasters with cults. So that probably is not going to be the way, but we do have to understand our mythic thinking, when it comes to how we use the A-bomb, or nuclear energy in general.
MISHLOVE: It seems that what we really need at this point is some form of global understanding, where we can live together.
PERRY: Yes. I think this is where the visionary experience becomes relevant in politics right today -- that the inordinate fear that we have of world destruction is an image that you see in people's dreams; you see it in people's psychotic states, visionary states. And fundamentally, according to the history of it, it has to do with culture change -- that the end of the world is the end of the culture form, not the actual globe, and that then the regeneration of the world is the regeneration of the culture with a whole lot of new outlook, new values, new world view. And this is what I think we're really afraid of.
MISHLOVE: But we're at a point in history now where we can't play around the way we used to. History has changed, I think, with the development of nuclear weapons.
PERRY: That's right. Time gets short. Something has to really be done about this soon. And if we could translate our fear of the nuclear winter, let's say, and destroying the world that way, into the thing I think we're more afraid of, which is changing our cultural preferences; if we really develop, actually, an ecological kind of society, and actually have a different point of view toward the international world, then this is a whole new mentality we're talking about.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be referring in this interview quite a bit to the Native Americans. Do you see them as something of a model for us to look toward?
PERRY: In a sense, yes I do -- in the sense that I think we need to heed what visions are telling us. And Native Americans always are very respectful even of what a big dream or a vision has to say to the society. I think we need that.
MISHLOVE: Would you recommend people, for example, sharing their dreams over breakfast?
PERRY: Yes, there's that, and like the Senoi people. But also we're including here, I think, poets who can naturally speak out at that level and render it to the people, and artists also can convey it. So there are many avenues in which the visions would be appearing to people and through which they can be expressed.
MISHLOVE: At this point in time in our culture, the visionary side is sort of an alternative to all of these nice boxy looking buildings that we live among -- rectangular houses.
PERRY: Yes, it's very stark, isn't it? We're in probably the most materialistic kind of extreme that a culture could reach, and very individualistic in the sense of people being out for themselves. So this view of the city you're describing as stark and rectilinear is very expressive of where we are with our rationalistic culture -- materialistic.
MISHLOVE: So what you're suggesting, John, if I can summarize, is that part of us demands that we move away from this, that we develop an appreciation for the mythic, that we sense that what we call madness, what we call insane, what we call crazy, is really a healthy part of ourselves trying to express itself. And if we can come to understand that, we can as a society and as individuals achieve greater integration for ourselves -- that we can move forward as a culture --
PERRY: That's it.
MISHLOVE: -- into a brave new world, so to speak.
PERRY: Yes. And if there's going to be, as you were saying earlier, really profound change, I think it has to come right from the depths of the psyche. That's the level that needs listening to and assimilating.
MISHLOVE: John Perry, thank you very much for being with me. It's been a pleasure.
PERRY: It's been a pleasure for me.
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