“A shaman is someone who swims in the same ocean as the schizophrenic; the difference between the two is that shamans know how to swim in it.” — Terence McKenna
It should come as no surprise that people who practice shamanism have for centuries been mislabeled by outsiders as delusional or otherwise mentally unbalanced. After all, we talk to people who "aren't there" and follow their advice, our knowledge is holistic and intuitive instead of linear and canonized, we spend much of our time in rituals, meditations and practices that make little sense to those not in tune with the spirit world, and we tend toward introversion and eccentricity. But is there any truth to this "craziness" assumption? I'll be fair. Many spiritually attuned people are also very sensitive and ill-adjusted to mundane life, which means we're more vulnerable to psychological trauma. I myself deal with a layer cake of depression, anxiety and PTSD exacerbated by my apnea. So yes, I do technically fit into that box society labels "crazy". But the real question, when you get down to it, is not "do shamans often live with mental illness?", but rather "does their (potentially) living with mental illness invalidate shamanic experience and insight?"
Let's talk about bigotry for a moment. What is the quickest way to publicly undermine someone's point of view? Convince others that they are "crazy". In the minds of many people, mental illness removes a person's agency entirely. People with diagnoses, even non-psychotic ones, are considered less than full adult: an irrational inconvenience who must be humored and kept out of trouble, and whose presence is embarrassing by association. To be labeled as "crazy" is to be surrounded by people who will dismiss your thoughts, feelings, and often, your rights. The vast majority see nothing wrong with this; their prejudice is ingrained to the point of being almost unconscious. Add to that the lurking suspicion held by the general public that anyone with a psych diagnosis must be an inch from some news-making act of hideous violence, and you'll understand why the average person doesn't go around admitting to being on psych meds or seeing a therapist.
In reality, a person dealing with depression, anxiety, or even serious psychoses is almost never some gun-polishing loon with a head full of razor blades and poop. We're people dealing with an extra-painful problem which we can't get away from, which can make it hard for us to act normal or cope with life—and that is it. The reason that so many people assume that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, disruptive and good for nothing is that most of us do everything we can to fly under the radar, and only the truly sick people can't manage it. The reason we do everything we can to hide our illnesses is so we don't have to deal with a bunch of ignorant, prejudiced people assuming we're all a hair's breadth from becoming the next Elliot Rodger. Basically, by driving our functional members into the closet, society ends up only seeing those of us too broken to hide—and then assumes we're all like the ones you see on the street or the evening news.
In short: the idea that living with a mental illness invalidates someone's experience and insight is a direct result of widespread prejudice against mentally ill people. It has little bearing on shamanic work, unless the shaman is actively allowing any mental health issues to interfere with his or her work. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen. But part of being a responsible adult is making sure that your personal shit interferes with your life-upkeep as little as possible. This applies whether you're a CEO coming in every day during an audit even though your marriage is falling apart, a parent looking after kids while nursing a broken foot, or an intuitive worker advising someone while depression is trying to chew your self-confidence out from under you. You take care of yourself, you get help as you need it, but you do the damn job and you don't half-ass it. So it is with spiritual work as well.
But how do you avoid letting mental health issues affect shamanic practice? The same way that you winnow out ego-trips and flights of imagination in the search for spiritual insight: by carefully considering the information that you get from your experiences for veracity, quality and usefulness.
I once lived in a rooming house in Alameda that had a "handyman" living onsite. This guy had literally used meth to the point of permanent brain damage; his teeth were falling out, his mentality was unstable and immature, his memory made goldfish look brilliant and worst of all, he often hallucinated while using. The hallucinations terrified him, and he would come to me, knowing I worked with spirits, for reassurance that he was "actually seeing spirits" like me and not, well, hallucinating. I really had my suspicions about what he was going through, because even though he seemed receptive to actual spirit work, the whole "all my money goes toward meth" thing really pointed at another cause. So instead of answering him directly, I came up with a series of questions for him to ask himself when he "saw something". I have since expanded this list, and often use it to check myself against even if I feel fine.
1. How are you right now? Are you short on sleep or have low blood sugar? Are you upset to the point where you can't think straight? Are you having physical symptoms beyond mild chills and hair pricklings? Try taking care of yourself before resuming spirit work. Yes, physical extremes of exhaustion, hunger and the like are sometimes used to contact the spirit world, but without the skills and experience, you're more likely to end up "witnessing" your own random brain-crap.
2. What's in your bloodstream? Did you recently ingest anything known to cause hallucinations or paranoia? Are you sure? I'm the last one to knock someone for using entheogens, but there is a difference between using an intoxicant in a specific ritual way to reach out to the Divine, and using it for fun or from habit. Using any entheogen for its spiritual purpose takes practice and in some cases (as with Yaje), real training. Otherwise all that any drug in your system will do, for the most part, is amplify your flights of fancy or express things that exist nowhere but in your own head. These can be fun and useful, but the noise to signal ratio will remain pretty damn high until your body, mind and spirit really get to know the entheogen in question.
3. When does this happen? Do you see things and receive insights randomly? Near bedtime? When you first get up? When you are very tired? Sleep deprivation is another way to attune your mind to spirit, true, but that has to be done in a conscious, focused manner. If you're completely worn out and seeing weird stuff at the corners of your vision, chances are that it is a hypnagogic hallucination—basically a bit of dream leaking over into your waking consciousness because you're super exhausted, are falling asleep, or just barely woke up.
4. Does attempting to focus on the spiritual communication clarify things or make the "communication" disappear or become incoherent? This again is a sign that you're having some sort of brain hiccup. A spirit or ghost generally responds to discovering it has gotten your attention by trying harder to keep contact instead of flitting away, though this is not always true. But severe lack of coherency and relevancy are big red flags.
5. Is it consistent? Do similar spirits show up and identify themselves regularly? Are their opinions consistent or do they constantly give conflicting advice? Does what they say conflict with something you know to be true? Does a spirit manifest whom you know, yet end up behaving completely off from anything in your experience or their legends?
6. Is it constructive? Do the spirits give good advice or babble inconsequentially? Do they advise you to do things that are destructive, negative or pointless, or does their advice help? Is it something you couldn't have known yourself, but which works for your situation?
7. Is it confirmable? If a spirit instructs you on a certain matter and you follow what they tell you, do you get a good result? What does practical research on that matter tell you? Have others who have worked with this spirit had similar experiences?
8. Does it scare you? Spiritual encounters can be pretty unnerving, especially when you're first getting used to them. But there's a difference between the apprehension of dealing with the unknown, the intimidated feeling of dealing with a powerful spirit, and the kind of terror that uncontrolled hallucinations often bring on. Yes, there are spirits out there that can evoke that level of fear—but you shouldn't be messing with them any more than you should be messing with meth!
9. What is your relationship with the spirit in question? Have you ever seen them or worked with them before? Do you know for certain who they are and what their nature and character is? If so, are they behaving in character? For example, anyone who as worked with Athena knows that she's hardly likely to show up in a chainmail bikini or a frilly pink dress (although if you work with, say, Eris, she may show up in both if she damn well pleases—or a gorilla suit, or anything else she wants. Tricksters, what can you do?). So if you're approached by a being who claims to be a certain deity or spirit but acts wildly out of character for them, you should probably question the genuineness of the experience. Alternatively, it could be another spirit messing with your head (I did mention tricksters, who are usually shape-shifters). Either way, the experience can be really fun, but don't expect to get anything useful out of it (unless the trickster slips in some bit of wisdom while you're laughing your ass off. They do that. But either way, take nothing that is said in a vision like that at face value).
10. Is there any self-consistency in your vision? If you are hallucinating or dealing with hypnagogic images they will tend to shift constantly in a manner that does not hang on any particular theme. For example, a jaguar spirit normally may shift in your mind's eye from an image of a jaguar, to one in another position, to a jaguar cub, to a carved jaguar statue and so on. A jaguar spirit will not suddenly turn into a rain of cookies, a singing cabbage, a Shadow Person, etc. and never even go back to being a jaguar again.
These kind of self-consistency tests are also used in lucid dreaming attempts. In order to determine their current waking or dreaming state, a person turns on or off the nearest lamp or light switch. If it does not respond, it is a clue that that person is dreaming. The same basic method can be used to tell spirits from hallucinations, fancies and dreams. If you go from speaking with your spiritual patron to being chased around by a flying gumball monster, well...whatever is going on, it's not an actual spirit. Generally when stuff like that happens to me, I realize that I'm nodding off and that the image is basically a pre-dream dream.
11. Do you have any neurological conditions that might affect your consciousness? I spoke recently with a person who had the horrifyingly unenviable experience of growing up in a very religious family while regularly experiencing intense "spiritual visions" caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. She described many as profound and very beautiful, and readily encouraged, examined and interpreted by her devout family. What came out of them was utter drivel, requiring spectacularly creative interpretation to reap anything of "value" from them, but because of her illness, they were utterly convincing.
For the sake of fairness, some individuals appear to have both epileptic symptoms and spiritual experiences at the same time. Another individual who suffered from multiple forms of epilepsy was Anneliese Michel. However, she also satisfied enough of the very strict conditions needed to authorize a Catholic exorcism, which is not easy, and includes details that epilepsy could not explain, such as professing secret knowledge about those attending the exorcism, revulsion toward spiritual items and speaking in languages the subject does not know. Felicitas Goodman, who covered the case in The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, theorizes that although Anneliese was epileptic, she was also an untrained medium facing a profound spiritual experience. Goodman, whose works often focus on her study of the trance state, shamanism and the human mind, explains that the trance state refers to a specific mental state which allows spiritual and psychic receptivity—but which can be hampered or negatively altered by certain psychoactive substances. She concludes that the anti-epilepsy medications (Tegretol, specifically) taken by Anneliese during her exorcism may have prevented her from entering a proper trance state, which would have allowed her to respond to the exorcism and resolve her spiritual crisis.
In the end, having a condition which causes visions and strange impulses would be very frustrating for any medium or shaman because it throws a lot of very convincing noise into the mix. That does not, however, mean that someone with TLE or another issue can't have a spiritual experience. It just means that they need to struggle even harder to work out what among their visions is real and valuable.
12. How emotionally invested are you in a certain interpretation of your vision? This is the biggest pitfall of all. Nothing can distract you from the truth like wishful thinking at the wrong moment, and if you're desperate for a specific answer, it can kill your ability to interpret and accept the actual message from the Divine. It can be so hard to resist this, especially if a friend or loved one is the one relying on you to find them a positive and hopeful answer. But you always have to remember that sometimes the thing the spirits need to tell you most is not what you need to hear emotionally at that moment, what the people you care about need to hear, or what your pride wants to hear. That's just how it is.
The most brutal example of this I can recall happened to an associate of mine in Tacoma who had just gone through a bad breakup. She entered trance to beg for guidance and ended up exploding in frustration because the only message she got was "tie your shoes now". She stormed out of her third-floor walk-up, stepped out onto the staircase, and...woke up in the hospital with a concussion and a fractured wrist. Culprit? Her Hello Kitty sneaker laces. After that, she always stopped and listened, and checked her shoelaces.
In the end, any shaman, whether neurologically and psychologically "normal" or not, is going to have to face these kind of questions when interpreting their and their clients' visions. If the shaman is facing an actual psychological or neurological illness, yes, it does make this somewhat harder, just as it makes everything in life somewhat harder. What it does not do is invalidate the knowledge, experience and skill of the shaman in question. The idea that it would is a simple matter of social prejudice.
Hopefully this list will help you when reflecting on your own trance experiences.
************Next Up in Shamanism and Mental Health: The shamanic approach to mental health issues, the significance of mental health crisis in shamanic spirituality, and the significance of rituals such as soul retrieval in the treatment of mental illness.