Friday I attended a professional ethics conference focused on diversity. As is too often the case at such conferences, diversity was broadly defined and rigidly illustrated, essentially leaving out disability and Native America. It did not help my mood that although the hotel in which the conference was held is nominally accessible, the doors allowing access to the room being used were not and I found my crutches, and thus myself, caught between closing doors.
Unusually, I vocally protested, stating clearly that I was angry to once again be erased in multiple ways at a diversity training, throwing to the proverbial wind my concerns about my colleague’s opinions of me. After the conference concluded I found myself wondering just who had stood up and pointedly acknowledged the bias and racism inherent in the presentation.
This morning I was out early, camera in hand, determined to photograph the expanse of water that is usually our calm, slow river. Looking out over the inundated floodplain I was reminded that natural processes, including minds, are both broadly predictable and highly variable and complex. We are all immense entities interwoven with the universe at root, and inevitably embodying the unfathomable richness and simplicity of All That Is.
I was also reminded that only a thin line separates “I” from “Not I”, and that being engulfed by the “Not I” can be a terrifying experience. It is also an experience that lies at the very core of mysticism.
We navigate these Immensities via the use of metaphor. Such journeys are not without their perils. One can easily allow guiding metaphors to solidify so one becomes encased in concrete, or lose oneself in the vastness of a metaphor and experience something akin to psychosis. The trick seems to be to engage the metaphorical while standing firmly in embodied experience.
Of course, this is no easy task or practice as one discovers when confronted with the diagnostic practices associated with contemporary psychotherapy. In our office bookshelves live several additions of the manual used to diagnose mental health issues, The DSM, or The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Each volume is thicker, often by a good deal, than the last, reflecting the ever-growing reach of the processes of assessment and diagnosis, and the conversion of experience from normative to pathological. Much of the research that underlies these shifts towards pathology is funded by pharmaceutical companies who have discovered mental health to be an unusually lucrative market.
Pathology and illness are themselves metaphors, abet at times very useful ones. They are also metaphors that easily lend themselves to the concrete: we have illnesses, or more accurately, illness have us. Modern ideas of pathology tend to be all-consuming, totalizing in their erasure of our lived experiences and sense of personal identity and agency. They join with a host of other reductive ideas and ideologies to make it very difficult for us to remember that we are not our disabilities, ethnicities, genders and sexual preferences, or illnesses.
It seems to me that in this epoch when ideologies that diminish the human are becoming increasingly dominant, we may be particularly well served by the shamanic metaphor of standing with feet firmly planted in multiple worlds. From such a vantage point complexity and diversity of experience become normative. For example: it matters very little whether my ancestors are present to me as introjected parts, through my inheritance of their genes, or through my connection to the spirit world. (I suspect they are present in all of these overlapping spheres.) What matters is their continued presence in my lived experience.
Experiences of the immediacy of something larger and more complex than our everyday selves are reported across cultures, and while questioned in Western scientific medicine, are generally taken for granted as normal and to be expected. We are internally complex, diverse, and immense. We are Nature! Mysteries happen! When we can allow ourselves to stand in the Mystery of our Being, we can resist even the most insidious ideas and ideologies, including those associated with psychiatry.