*Based on reading I've done on the subject an there's important distinction between a Shamanic practitioner and a person who suffers from a mental illness. The Shaman chooses to enter non-ordinary space and volunteers to interact with things which are not detectable to most people. He/she makes a choice. A person suffering from a mental disorder does not make a choice about what they see/hear and, often, how they react/interact with what they sense.*
This feedback touches on a dilemma common to many spiritual paths. the_mad_elf is correct by textbook definitions. There is another reality though.
To begin with, let me say that there such a thing as debilitating mental illness. This New York Times article is a window into that world. There are many factors - chemical, emotional, genetic and so on. I cannot speak to these. They are not to be taken lightly. I am NOT saying that all shamanists are potentially mentally ill, nor am I saying that all mentally ill people have shamanic potential. Instead, I will be generally speaking of those ecstatic or transcendental states that are either misinterpreted as illness or share clinical traits of mental illness.
I'll also say that the material here is BIG. There are enough nuances to fill a book, but I'm up for a challenge. I know my readers are also.
What is mental illness? As pointed out in another blog, the definition of mental illness is a fuzzy area defined by a given society or group. Even within a society, one group may see a mental state as "normal" while another sees the same state as "an abomination of psychiatric and moral deviation". One could make the root statement, "a mental illness is a state that endangers the person and those around them". While this seems reasonable, this definition falls short in face of extreme sports, parachuting, frat parties, cliff diving, and so on. Perhaps a better definition would be, "a mental illness is a state that degrades and lessens the quality of life for the person". This definition seems more reasonable, but does this mean that we are all mentally ill when a bad job, bad relationship, or cold fries decrease our quality of life? More over, these are only factors. In the end, the definition of mental health is left to the society and/or it's medical institutions.
When is a person "touched by God" and when is a person completely loony? Is the senior really seeing dead relatives or are they in a senile state? Consider that both could be possible. The person 'touched by God' is a bit loony. The senior, in their senile state, is seeing dead relatives. Now that we see that society defines illness, it is not difficult to see that the relative diagnosis of mental illness and otherworldly abilities are not mutually exclusive.
What can the experience of a shamanist be? While all shamanists do not experience all of these situations, they are common to the large body of shamanists.
- hearing voices and talking to unseen beings.
- claim to be able to heal, divine the past and future, control the weather and travel to fantastic places.
- advisors and mentors are departed ancestors, inanimate objects (trees, rocks), animals (seen and unseen), "ghosts" and elemental beings.
The function of religious experiences, meditation and inward questioning spring from an experience of mythic identity that that comes unasked. It may take its form from unconscious problems, fragments of systems and past history. Lacking a “symbolic musculature”, the individual may become psychotic, as all parts of the unprepared psyche are “supercharged”.Larson's "symbolic musculature" is the result of a support structure that affirms that a person is not going crazy. IMO this is a big challenge in the Western world. The new-age and neo-pagan belief systems open many doors. The things found behind those doors are not always clearly defined or understood. Casual exploration of the "bigger world" can bring a person face-to-face with realities that they have no preparation for. Conventional spiritual systems are more likely to condemn the 'afflicted' than explain the new realities. This is (mostly) done out of ignorance instead of spite. It is the lucky seeker who finds the spiritual harbor to explain the otherworldly realities that are out there waiting to be found.
The differentiation between spiritual connection and mental disconnection can be a fine line. One person's "mental illness" is another person's power. the_mad_elf's original element of choice may be blurred. Can a person live with the voices or do they just want them to stop? Is there a support structure for the person entering a space of greater spiritual awareness? Additionally, the society will have it's own arbitration on the state of the person's mental health. Even in society, the definition of mental illness is a fuzzy area. The shamanic experience can be quite demanding. People may very much want to close the doorways to new vistas. Only the individual can make this decision. After a choice is made between Spirit and the shamanist, the blurred line of vision and 'madness' begins.