How could an enlightened state of mind be confused with psychosis? How could legitimate mystical experience, which a person relates to their further spiritual awakening, be dismissed as mere pathology? This issue relates to how we define mental health. In my view, our mental health is too often viewed solely in terms of what we perceive as rational behaviour. This leads many people, including many health professionals, to dismiss any form of mystical belief as illegitimate. Mystical experiences are partly defined in terms of being virtually impossible to describe in words, and as being influenced by something beyond our will. They cannot be reduced to ready scientific explanation. To many, this means that they don’t exist.
So, what do we make of people having visions, or seeing ghosts, or hearing voices, or thinking a radio program is sending them a personalized message, or having a compelling belief that they know what is about to unfold? In usual psychiatric parlance, these experiences are confidently described as illusions, hallucinations, ideas of reference and delusions. By definition, such experiences represent signs of psychosis. Indeed, when accompanied by signs of deteriorating functioning or wellbeing, it is truly important that people seek help from mental health professionals.
However, in other circumstances, such phenomena might represent legitimate extraordinary, or even sacred, experience. This alternative view is rarely considered in mainstream mental health care settings. This is despite such paranormal phenomena being recognized by a wide range of cultures across the millennia as potentially representing aspects of a fuller, elevated experience of the human condition.
These issues have intrigued me for a long time. As a clinical psychologist, I entered the field as an atheist. I believed that any belief in a deity or other paranormal experience represented an uninformed, superstitious bent, or a weaker, untrained mind. But then something changed. As a 25-year-old skeptic I was introduced to the notion of synchronicity, or markedly uncanny and meaningful coincidence. I read about it in a book called The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson. I was intrigued to learn more about why a number of scientists had turned further to mystical thinking in response to findings of quantum physics. Until then I had assumed that any scientist worth their salt would be agnostic. Then it happened. Whilst reading about synchronicity, I started to experience an explosion of remarkable coincidences that I could not dismiss as random.
Fast forward 20 years to 2005. By this stage I’d long come to view synchronicity as an important, core aspect of my life experience. I’d long felt that remarkable coincidences were related to a hidden order or organizing force in the universe, which seemed benevolent in further pointing me towards my destiny. I came to see synchronistic experience as an affirming “tick from the universe” that I was on the right track in pursuing the path I was on. I didn’t discuss this much with many of my clients, as this would extend well beyond my mainstream clinical psychology practice. However, it was clear from occasional comments that numerous others, including clients, shared similar views.
Then in 2005 I faced a cluster of wicked problems associated with circumstances around my mother’s impending death. My usual rational ways of dealing with a range of challenging circumstances would not be enough. I had a compelling feeling that I would need to mindfully and deliberately draw on synchronicity, and what I termed “the power of supra-rational thinking”, to find a way through. This worked like a charm. As a result my wicked problems were resolved. Ever since, I’ve considered how I dealt with things at that time, supported by the mystical experience of synchronicity, to be the greatest achievement of my life.
But there was a hitch. During that period it was clear to others that my thinking seemed different. I commonly read particular meanings into newspaper headlines, or the words of songs, as though they carried a particular personal message. I felt that I could predict some future events, seemingly against rational expectations. I felt that I was gaining greater insights into the nature of the universe. Accompanying this, I displayed a number of recognized “hypomanic” tendencies, including heightened energy levels, decreased need for sleep and heightened symbolic thinking beyond the rational. Actually, I had deliberately intended a number of these changes to address the wicked problems I faced, as I explicitly stated to many others.
A number of friends, and especially those exposed to medical training, had an increasing conviction that I was psychotic. Their solution was to try to get me to see a psychiatrist to take medication. It made little difference that I felt that my admittedly unusual strategies were already leading to an uncommonly favourable resolution of my wicked problems. Fortunately, at my request, my friends gave me a couple of days to show that all could be back to normal before I see a psychiatrist. In those two days everything did return to normal, including my sleep. I was intrigued that my friends had witnessed this “recovery”, but did not seem to acknowledge it as an anomaly in their worldview. My return to normal occurred without drugs and without seeing a psychiatrist. According to mainstream psychiatry, this should not happen.
To this day, I think of my experience as being like a “hypomanic wellness”. After all, if an illness is defined by behaviour which involves costs in such areas as productivity, wellbeing, finances and relationships, how would we characterize a process which mostly led to clear benefits in each of these areas? One example during this period was resolving a longstanding conflict and addressing a key work issue: I found a builder for our main work premises in very synchronistic circumstances that more than funded the two months I took off work to spend time with my dying mother. I also completed a deliberate experiment to see whether I could alter my brain chemistry in a way that was quickly reversible, and developed ideas about placebo effects, neuroplasticity and brain functioning that have added greatly to my motivation and creativity in my therapy work over the 12 years since. For personal and family reasons, I shall not spell out some of the even greater benefits that resulted from pursuing this path, as I do not wish to offend others. Although I did not abandon rationality and logic, my primary principle was that if I kept experiencing extraordinary synchronicity that seemed to be guiding me, I would continue on that path.
This is my personal tale of psychosis versus satori, a term referring to a form of enlightenment or transcendent states of mind whereby people have a sense of being part of a unified consciousness. In this state the usual “rational” sense of boundaries between ourselves and the world around us may dissolve. Ironically, this perspective conforms more accurately to what quantum physics tells us about the true nature of reality: ultimately everything is reducible to an undivided consciousness where seemingly disparate objects are related in nonrandom ways.
The mental health field is gradually changing to allow more consideration of spiritual or mystical phenomena, or sacred experience. I think it needs to change much further. This has emboldened me to write about my own satori experience in The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity: Enhance Your Mental Health with the Power of Coincidence. As a mainstream clinical psychologist, I’ve attempted to relate the marked advantages of going beyond the rational to further appreciate our intuitive awareness of a fuller reality – one that incorporates transpersonal experience. It is a contemporary view that follows in the tradition of William James, Abraham Maslow and especially Carl Jung in acknowledging numinous forces that help shape our life experience and personal destiny. I believe that acknowledging such experience helps us to be more whole, more alive, and more well.
There are admittedly traps to avoid. Two major traps involve thinking that one’s experience of extremely remarkable coincidences are unique, which can predispose people to thinking they are extra special, referred to as psychic inflation, or otherwise to thinking that they are crazy. In many cases, neither is true. Remarkably uncanny coincidences with great personal significance are common to many people, even if they might not openly talk about it. As a clinical psychologist, I am interested in conveying just how common and normal such experiences are. They are also very useful as an avenue to exploring a spiritual dimension in our lives.
In my book I have attempted to describe some practical ways to help differentiate between psychosis and satori that are rarely considered in mainstream mental-health settings. It is an important distinction. One circumstance represents a person being at risk of harm to themselves or others, whereas the other alternative may involve experiencing an enlightened state with uplifting attributes and positive outcomes.
I am struck by the greater extent and ease with which my clients report their own transpersonal experience, including synchronicity, now that they know I have written a book on the subject. Previously they generally kept such stories to themselves, lest they be judged mad. My own experience shows that their fears were not baseless. I have included many of their stories in The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity. Apart from anything else, when we can acknowledge those meaningful aspects of life that go beyond the rational, life is more energized, rich and fascinating.
For mental health tips on e.g., positive psychology, anxiety, depression and trauma reactions, listen to Chris’s new podcast, Lockdown: Character strengths and silver linings.
– Chris Mackey is a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and is the principal psychologist at Chris Mackey and Associates, with 40 years’ psychotherapy experience. He received the 2019 Australian Allied Health Impact Award for his clinical research and media work.
Chris is the author of The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity: Enhance Your Mental Health With the Power of Coincidence (see www.synchronicityunwrapped.com.au for additional articles including Synchronicity in a jar, radio podcasts, etc.). His short videos on synchronicity are available here.
See Chris’s main practice website resources page for other blogs and information promoting an uplifting view about mental health and wellbeing.