Crazy Wisdom:a Bad Romance?

images Psychotic or Spiritual? is a post on Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s blog No Zen in the West. Some time ago I reviewed some excerpts of his book Two Shores of Zen. The post on Jiryu’s blog concerns a paper written by Hondo David Rutschman  called “Lo, I Will Be With You”: Conceptual Problems in Distinguishing Psychotic and Spiritual Experience.

These writings bring up hugely important points regarding the intersection of Buddhism and conventional psychology as well as the perception of events involved in meditation and Buddhist practice.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time it will be somewhat evident that I’m no fan of trying to mix conventional and particularly clinical psychology, the scholarly discipline and practice with Buddhist practice. Oil and water in my view.(here and here for example) (see also comments to this post for additional points) Some of the points about this uneasy mix I’ve been trying to clarify-which is why I’ve written so much about it as I’ve worked my way through the tangle, but upon reading the two above-mentioned pieces something clicked into place that does clarify the main reason why this mix is a Bad Romance.

Discussion of the meaning and relevance of spiritual experiences goes back a long way. One book that I encountered as an undergraduate was William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. [available free online in HTML or as a downloadable text] The article above also references this work.  In that book William James discussed some of the manifestations of religious experiences such as raptures, trances and the like in the context of some well known religious figures such as Joan of Arc and some of the other Christian saints as well as mystics from other traditions. Apparently lots of people felt that religious experiencers were a little eccentric if not crazy. In time though, just like in shamanic traditions, these situations became incorporated and explained and even further, accepted by the religious contexts in which they occurred.

Secular, scientific culture does not accept the “differently consciousness-ed” individual quite so well. Deviations from an amorphous, as-yet-to-be-defined norm are treated as maladies or problems to be corrected, whether they are problematic to individuals or not. Unfortunately if they are not problematic to the individuals initially, they will soon be made problematic by social ostracization and pathologization of the different conscious state. A socially enforce “normal” is inflicted one way or another. I wonder if this is why folks get so bent out of shape when the topic of awakening comes up…”Ohh don’t talk about that” Try walking into a psychiatrist’s office and say you’ve had a kensho type experience-you’ll most likely leave with a handful of prescriptions for anti-psychotic pills.

Western psychology knows very little about the human mind. Neurologists haven’t even worked out the majority of the mechanics yet never mind the function of those mechanics and their interactions with each other, with genetics, with environment or with socio-cultural situations.  I say this as someone who studied psychology as part of the larger field known as ethnopsychiatry, (example of applied theory here) [which is generally subsumed under medical anthropology]  for 7 years in pursuit of a PhD.  What became evident to me during that time was that psychology is mainly guesswork.

[I wrote a paper one time with the basic theme “Psychology is not a Science” . This was not very well received by some of my professors. It summarized my general attitude at the time and contained some rather elegant reasoning.  That was pretty much the beginning of the end of my formal studies. I was a –“gasp”– non-believer. That’ll put the scarlet letter to all your academic endeavors pretty quickly. I re-applied about 10 years later to try to salvage some of that coursework into some kind of advanced degree but did not get accepted. Academia is a very small world with a long memory. ]

On that note, of what the psychologists, neurologists, social theorists etal know, here is a quote from recent areas of research examining the intersection of biology, neurology, culture, particularly visual  and technological culture and environment. Franciso J. Varela and Evan Thompson are two philosophers of science whose thesis has been quoted in The Neurobiopolitics of Global Consciousness by Warren Neidich who is an artist, theorist and trained biologist.

The nervous system, the body and the environment are highly structured dynamical systems, coupled to each other on multiple levels. Because they are so thoroughly enmeshed – biologically, ecologically and socially – brain, body and environment
seem better conceived of as mutually embedding systems than as externally and internally located to produce (via emergence as upwards causation) global organism-environment processes, which in turn may affect (via downward causation) their constituent elements. (p.10)

Neidich continues in that paper to outline the multi-directional and multi-dimensional influences of both culture and biology. The notion of the discrete mental action–self-arising, self-contained is rapidly losing ground in theoretical circles. Could this signal the death of the ego as we have known it? I hope so.  Seems like a few in the weighty academic realm  are on the verge of glimpsing some of what Buddha’s students have been going on about for millenia.  Better late than never I suppose.

The author ends with an interesting hypothesis along with a warning. [for the phil. nerds in the crowd-emphasis mine]

I would also hypothesize that there exists an envelope of possible formulas of output from the brain, a kind of virtual potential in the Deleuzian sense. As intensive culture evolves into more complex formations, it produces new dispositions that, when selected and coded by the brain, unlock that potential.
The brain is a becoming machine. The paradigms of neural plasticity and neural Darwinism provide the crucial frame for its continual renewal – but also perhaps for its eventual subjugation. (p. 13)

“Virtual potential” could perhaps also take the name Buddha nature?!  By subjugation the author is talking about co-opting the mental sphere particularly by culturally exploitative forces such as advertising. I would not buy into the notion of brain as machine, currently or developing, since the author himself distinguishes 3 interactive entities which he labels brain, mind, world, the latter indicating society/culture, but I’ll leave that alone for the moment.  [My question would revolve around what the term “mind” signifies, so I have to read more of this author’s work] I would take some issue with the apparent necessity of “intensive culture” or the “cultured brain” being the “intensive brain” [in the article]  in terms of complex formations to increase the probability of accessing that virtual potential and posit that a redefinition of intensive in terms of concentrative effort aka meditation could also unlock that virtual potential. [This is an important distinction which I want to take up again in another nerdy post some time. ]

Psychology as it stands has some utilitarian value in maintaining social order as well as seating people comfortably within a delusional niche but the level of theory involved is so woefully superficial that it takes real effort to ignore the gaping holes and believe it enough to put it into practice. Visit or volunteer at a local hospital’s psychiatric ward and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Instead of physical restraints chemical restraints are used. And there’s still no clue about how to deal with the person underneath all that restraint. The neurologists are slicing and dicing with the MRIs and CAT scans, finding more anomalies than commonalities, yet in many instances cannot say what came first, the physical anomaly or the othered conscious state nor why. And they also cannot posit what is to be done about it should the person find that othered state distressing. In other words there is no cure because no one can even agree on the nature of the disease.

imageThe only kluge-y solution is to try to make people behave “normally” that is like everybody else by whatever means are available. Only everyone else doesn’t behave uniformly if you really pay attention. There is only an ideal of normalcy, not an actual normalcy.

Uniformity. How horrific. How unnatural. No two things in nature are exactly alike ever. Not even identical twins. Even a clone has a tiny degree of genetic replicative fading. [Dontcha watch Star Trek?]

There is a tension between the Buddhist objective and the psychological objective. The transitoriness and instability and illusoriness of the ego and the reification and even solidification of egoic processes may be tied to the same starting point but they proceed in opposite directions

insubstantiality of ego <———0———> solidification of ego (ego stability)

[This is also why much post-modern psychoanalytically based philosophy (DeLeuze, Foucault, Batielle etc.) is somewhat contrary to Buddhist philosophy though it does explain much of ego-based social process. And perhaps this also explains some of Zizek’s antagonism towards what he views Buddhism to be.]

So to pacify ego or to see through it’s insubstantiality is the question for those who label themselves Buddhist-based psychologists.

I am not against the relief of psychological suffering. Nor am I against some of the primitive methods currently in use. I am very much against ECT though even done under anesthetic as it’s just barbaric. Much of the current thinking places people into a perpetual patient role even when they get better. Many people with mental illnesses can get better. Many people with othered consciousness do not even view themselves as “sick” . Temple Grandin is one example, there are many more.  And it often unnecessarily places people into that role even if they are not “sick” but are having adjustment difficulties to life changes or grief or other “normal” experiences.

There is just so much more work to be done in the field of human consciousness yet the surety of the doctor who talks at a patient for five minutes while scribbling out another prescription is laughable. But don’t tell them that. It’ll spoil their ego trip and they’ll have to write prescriptions for themselves. Oh yeah, quite a few of them already do that. (here, here, here, here)

The inclusion of a few Buddhist methods or theories into conventional psychology does little to relieve suffering on the meta levels. What is required is some real “crazy wisdom”.

Here is part of Chogyam Trungpa’s discussion about crazy wisdom:

Crazy wisdom in Tibetan is yeshe chölwa. Yeshe means “wisdom,” and chölwa, literally, is “gone wild.” The closest translation for chölwa that we could come up with is “crazy,” which creates some further understanding. In this case “crazy” goes along with “wisdom”; the two words work together well. So it is craziness gone wise rather than wisdom gone crazy. So from that point of view, craziness is related with wisdom.

The notion of wisdom here is very touchy, and we will have to get into the technical aspect of the whole thing. Wisdom is jnana in Sanskrit and yeshe in Tibetan. Yeshe refers to perception or to enlightenment, which exists eternally. Ye means “primordial”; she means “knowing,” knowing primordially, knowing already. The idea is that you haven’t suddenly acquired knowledge. It isn’t that somebody has just told you something. Knowledge already exists; it is here and we are beginning to tune into that situation. Such a thing actually does exist already. Wisdom isn’t purely manufactured by scholars and scientists and books.

So the notion of enlightenment is the same as that of wisdom.

The entire teaching is Crazy Wisdom Untamed and unconditioned enlightenment. That is crazy wisdom. That is the human “virtual potential”.

Image notes

The little guys in the images are from Vodaphone ads in India-they are called Zoozoos-they do have personalities and are a little more distinctive in the actual ads

Musical Interlude

Lady Gaga-Bad Romance


9 comments on “Crazy Wisdom:a Bad Romance?

  1. Ever read RD Lainge? When I was a freshman in college, I read “The Politics of Experience” and found the work quite brilliant. I read later his book “Knots.”

    Prior to my finding Buddhism, I had developed my own notion of “mental health,” in which I asserted that language is the key. Our mental states are defined by the language that we use, as is our personality. So when we latch on to some mental thought (internalized words) we can either let them pass by, or we grasp them. If the mental process supports or encourages a maladaptive behavior, we begin to manifest that behavior (phenomenon are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart) and our mental activity continues to evolve and further develop that mental “thesis” until we no longer recognize its origin. Thereby, mental illness can be learned; a mentally ill parent can model the behavior to his or her child. The parent may continue to have some functional behavior that he or she may not have been diagnosed, but the child will usually develop the maladaptive thinking to a higher level, developing more asocial behavior and come under greater notice of the larger population, thusly be described as odd, crazy or dangerous.

    When I found the Dhamma, I believed that much of what I had theorized had been verified. To overcome delusion, we must tame the mind so that we can focus it on skillful activity. Skillful activity yields skillful results. Kamma, however, may be playing a continuing role, which may explain why some mentally ill individuals are so difficult to work with.

    None of what I’ve written here has really been well-thought out. This is just my reaction to your post, this is what it brought up in my mind. It may be something worthy of further investigation, or it just may be a lot of distracting simsapa leaves. But for now, I am focused on the topic of racism. Still much to do there.

    thanks for the post :)

    • Your point about languages is very important Richard. You’ve probably encountered some of the research that is currently in the news. Like in this New York Times article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? which is practically a history of the fields of psycho- and socio-linguistics.

      Thanks for bringing up Laing too. I’ve found him to be provocative and interesting and have read much of what he wrote. I just looked up his bio on Wikipedia and there’s a note in there which says:

      “Laing’s influence was blamed for a fall in the number of those training to be psychiatrists during the early seventies but his ideas are not currently espoused by the psychiatric establishment. Significant critiques of his ideas have been published by contemporary psychiatric authorities”

      So it seems he’s still rather out of favor. Of course the establishment wouldn’t want him or his ideas around. He wrote about things which included milieu therapy which basically stated “Change the environment, change the person.” and he validated the experiences of those differently conscioused rather than dismissed them as they still do today. He undermines their entire belief system and now of course the pharmaceutical industry that has spent so much time lobbying that psychiatric establishment.

      Thomas Szasz is another of the anti-psychiatry crew who has done astonishing work. He perhaps better articulated his position than Laing did and is still somewhat influential possibly because of his position within the establishment as well as his manner.

      If you read the latest additions to that article it is clear that some of his positions are beginning to be validated even though the establishment continues to rail against them.

      This brings me to another approach that I found very interesting. Dr. Edward Podvill developed the Windhorse approach which is based on Buddhist principles. Now I read his book The Seduction of Madness just shortly after it came out and was astounded. It was incredibly helpful to me in understanding what my then husband was going through having been diagnosed a long time before with bi-polar and PTSD. Reading that book also got me studying anything I could find by Trungpa and eventually Abhidhamma.

      The website for Windhorse Community Services states:

      “The Windhorse therapeutic approach was developed in 1981 by Chogyam Trungpa and Dr. Edward Podvoll. It is based on the Buddhist understanding of fundamental sanity and the inseparability of one’s entire life from one’s environment, while integrating applicable Western psychology. ”

      “applicable” is the point. Much is dogma.

      This approach is not popular at all with the establishment since it again challenges the very belief system that psychiatry and psychology is founded upon. Most of which is based on the faulty notion that a person is a discreet self-contained, self-sustaining entity. Socio-cultural influence or even environmental influences in a larger view are almost completely discounted. The current texts may say having a family member with a mental illness is a predictive factor but this is never examined. The assumption is one of genetics and milieu is ignored.

      That is one reason I was glad to read the article I cited in the post, even though it is pretty much philosophical it does transcend disciplines and I found it in the Twitter stream of a very progressive psychologist that I follow. ( @hyblis Dr. Leon Tan)

      So many of the problems that come from understanding the situation have to do with each discipline staking out it’s turf and not allowing ideas from other disciplines. That’s one thing I found to be very strongly emphasized. People were even contemptuous of including theories from other disciplines since only they have the “truth” and others were merely theorizing. That turf battle still goes on today. It is the home of “the expert”. We desperately need multi-disciplinary approaches to problems rather than these hothouse closed off fear and ego based battlefields.

      Here’s some links for those with further interest:

      On R.D. Laing (a rather slanted article written and edited by those who seem to have an ax to grind-check out the discussion page for the article-one commenter calls him “a basket case” If he is still so unpopular now consider how unpopular he was when he was still alive and challenging those around him. It was really heated)

      Windhorse Integrative Mental Health

      Windhorse Community Services

      • To add another point. It may seem that mixing Buddhism with psychology is a multi-disciplinary approach but by what I’ve seen it is psychology that takes the lead with a little bit of Buddhist spice added. Rarely are any of the basic tenets of psychology challenged by Buddhist thought. Psychological theory is a given while Buddhism is seen as speculation that may and is often used to bolster up the psychologists opinion.

        Just to be clear.

  2. I won’t try to comment very deeply here, just say that I agree with your college paper’s premise completely. Psychology (as I’ve seen it practiced and expounded anyway) is and maybe even should be glorified guesswork and can be useful, but more so when it’s flexible, intuitive and experiential than when it’s treated as (and hardened into) a science, especially a mimic of the science of medicine which revolves around the practical framework of the body as a machine. But the psych is not the body. I think psychology goes wrong at exactly the same place religion often goes wrong–the junction of dogma and the unknowable. Too bad your professors missed the point.

    • In terms of theory if psychology were a science there would be a certain amount of predictability. The answers to some questions would be quite evident. For example:

      Why do some with an alleged predisposition for illness not manifest that while others do?
      Why are there marked differences between related individuals raised in similar circumstances? (one could cite birth order effect or other such theories but these are guesswork)
      And about a million other questions.

      And cataloging a big list of symptom clusters (the DSM) doesn’t in any way identify either the causes or the cures. It’s just making a big list. And the prevalence of misdiagnoses based on that catalog really speaks to it’s lack of usefulness.

      In terms of utility there is something to be said for facilitating self-reflection which is what most psychological clinical practice is all about. From that point of view having someone trained in human observation and psychological functioning is useful but as you say much is intuitive and has to be based on the clients experience of reality and not solely on rather piecemeal theory.

  3. I sat through a dharma talk given by someone (nameless) who is part of an endeavor to create dialogue between Buddhism neurology and psychotherapy.

    This person has been teaching for decades. When he spoke of mindfulness, he framed it in terms of relief of suffering and the quest to be happier.

    I can only hope that in later talks he plans to give, he will tie this in with what is ditinctive about Buddhadharma–the use of mindfulness to support insight into something very much larger than the practitioner’s ‘self’, but insight into dependent origination and that there is no inherantly separately existing self and that insight into this flux (and we cannot even privilige it as a ‘this’ as opposed to a ‘that’ but can only pretend it that it is a ‘this’ as opposed to a ‘that’–that is the actual end of suffering.

    The kick is how to swim and relate and be social in this sentient life as one tries to see into all this and then after one has begun to see into all this.

    Having said this, I wish we could have a project in which Buddhadharma could be taught from the sutras and with sitting and work practice, with no reference to modern psychological theory.

    Hundreds of years ago, in cultures with no western psychology, many -persons found Buddhadharma of assistance and became practitioners.

    So why in the West is there this peculiar need to use science and fields such as psychology to make Buddhadharma more accessible?

    Buddha didnt refer to any of this when he taught, and enough people paid attention and began using the tools that the path continued after Buddha’s death.

    He didnt need to add anything to make it more appealing or ‘accessible.’

    My hunch is that he taught in a situation where everyone, rich, middleclass and poor, were daily confronted by death and suffering.

    How many of us today have seen a dead person’s body–as is, not at a funeral home?

    In Buddha’s day, wars, epidemics, floods occurred with no outside help from Doctors Without Borders.

    An acquaintance described something he saw when he was called in as a disaster response specialist after the tsunami in Sri Lanka.

    Among the many terrible situations he had to deal with, was this: a multitude of elephants whose limbs had been fractured by flying debris. The huge creatures were screaming, and there was zero way to fly in nearly enough veterinarians to anesthetize, splint those massive limbs and then give the months of after care needed.

    My acquaintance, a tough man who cried like schoolgirl when he had to put his own cat to sleep–he had the awful job of arranging to mercy shoot those wailing fractured elephants and then to dig burial pits for them.

    Later, he was in a helicopter and the pilot pointed out a line of dead persons by the seashore. Down below, just offshore, was a gleaming line of white froth.


    Buddha and his contemporaries saw stuff like this. And for hundreds upon hundreds of years, Buddhists saw stuff like this, bore stuff like this.

    And kept the practice alive, because Buddhadharma could stand up to the sitautions like this.

    Id say the only role for self psychology in relation to Budhdadharma is to put itself out of business. To get a person far enough that he or she can face the lack of non inherant separate existence and
    not go screaming down the street.

    A final note on ECT: It is these days a treatment of the utter last resort.

    In her memoir Madness: A Bipolar Life, Marya Hornbacher, who stated that she suffers from an unusually severe form of bipolar disorder (and I want to emphasize hers is the most severe form and was untreated for years)–she begged husband never to permit ECT. Then, finally, she herself requested ECT because after years of horrible and indescribable physical and emotional pain from depression, she decided she herself could not take it anymore.

    This is the rarest of rare circumstances. And the vast majority of persons carrying a diagnosis of bipolar will never at any time need ECT.

    But for some forms of grievous medical/psychiatric illnesses in circumstances where all else has failed, drugs or ECT may be the treatment of choice.

    When Hornbachers condition stablizes, she notes that among the many things she must do to remain grounded are exercise and in addition to minding her medication, getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, abstention from caffiene, alcohol and recreational drugs, she states that that yoga has been particularly helpful for her.

    But to be capable of doing the yoga, first she has to do the many other things needed to manage a physical illness that happens to have a mightily disruptive effect on her mind and emotions.

    • Programs like MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) are conventionally useful to those in immediate distress. Of course, as you point out in the long term, for ultimate relief of suffering the full strength Buddhadharma is required. (that sounds like an ad slogan)

      To realize how we build things up to distressful proportions is rather like preventative medicine rather than a simple treatment of symptoms after the fact.

      Quite true that to acknowledge death is one of the things many don’t really have to do on a regular basis. We attend the social reunification ritual of the funeral but death gets “prettified” in many of those instances.

      A while back I wrote a post about the first time I saw a dead body outside of a funeral. My uncle owned a funeral home and as a curious 6 year old I’d wander around in the work area that was adjacent to his home. One time I opened a door and saw a guy laying on a table. He was being prepared for his funeral. I thought he was sleeping. Since then I encountered what I call remnants of death such as the blood all over the sidewalk and snow where a friend had been beaten to death the night before about a block from my place.

      The time I was first saw a dead body “in society” was about 9 years ago in New Delhi. Walking through Connaught Place and a man was lying on the edge of the sidewalk. It looked as if he had been pushed there so as not to impede traffic. Shortly after the dead body van (they are even called dead body vans and listed as such in phone books) came and loaded him up in the back. Since then I’ve seen quite a few-being carried through the streets, burning at the ghats, at hospitals, being washed by family members and laid out in homes awaiting their cremations and so on. It has quite an effect on what one may have previously considered to be important.

      There are many in our “modern” society who face this every day-police, medical personnel, soldiers, coroners, clergy, doctors yet no one really wants to know about their experiences of dealing with death. They generally don’t talk about it outside of their groups. It’s like a big secret and the toll it takes on them is horrible. PTSD, burnout, suicide, addictions, family disruption and so forth.

      We tend to live in a world that tries to deny or at least distract us from death. And that leads towards a rather shallow existence. The thing I find about dealing with death more directly is that it leads to a much deeper experience of life. But there has to be social support for that rather than being surrounded by denial.

      Your points are many and good ones. One in particular:

      “…Buddhadharma could stand up to the sitautions like this.

      Id say the only role for self psychology in relation to Budhdadharma is to put itself out of business. To get a person far enough that he or she can face the lack of non inherant separate existence and not go screaming down the street. ”

      It is a paradox that the weaker the grasp on ego becomes the stronger the person becomes in other ways. Engendering another level of existence for lack of better terms right now.

      ECT may be effective in some instances, however in general it needs to be much more refined. For every success there are numerous failures that don’t improve the quality of life. It’s like using a sledgehammer to unlock a door because you don’t know where the key is. Neurology has a lot more work to do there.

  4. I will suggest this:

    If one is a Buddhist teacher, giving a lecture for the general public, go on the assumption that for some persons, your talk may be the one presentation they may ever hear concerning Buddhadharma.

    So, if one is going to mention mindfulness, it would be important to put this into the context of Buddhadharma–precisely because mindfulness has become such a commonplace buzz word in the culture and too often is used to refer to methods of mere pain relief, whereas Buddhadharma is far larger than mere pain relief.

    Great is the matter of Birth and Death
    Time is fleeting, gone, gone
    Wake up, wake up
    Do not waste your life!

    (Inscription written on the hammer sounded in Soto Zen monasteries to wake up or summon the community to the zendo for zazen)

    The Great Matter of Birth and Death/Dependent Origination is very much wider than pain relief.

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