“Dark Nights of the Soul”- Phenomenology and Neurocognition of Spiritual Suffering in Mysticism and Psychosis

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Review of General Psychology 2007, Vol. 11, No. 3, 209 234

Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association 1089-2680/07/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.11.3.209

Dark Nights of the Soul: Phenomenology and Neurocognition of Spiritual Suffering in Mysticism and PsychosisHarry T. HuntBrock University Phenomenological, clinical, and neurocognitive levels of analysis are combined to understand the cognitive bases of spirituality and spiritual suffering. In particular, the dark night of the soul in classical mysticism, with its painful metapathological loss of felt meaning is compared with the anhedonias central to the negative symptoms of schizophrenia and schizotypicality. Paul Schilders early understanding of instabilities in the body image, as our core sense of self, offers a key to both the disorganized hallucinatory syndromes of psychosis and to the relative enhancements of body image/ecological self in spirituality. Expanded versus deleted felt presence/ embodiment, as outwardly indexed in measures of physical balance and spatial abilities, becomes the general dimension underlying integrative versus disintegrative transformations of consciousness. Dark night suffering can be seen as a semantic satiation leading to a relative deletion of experienced presence in the context of its previous enhancement, a focalized version of the more general anhedonic despair shared by clinical schizotypy and aspects of a larger secularized culture. Keywords: presence, body image, ecological self, spirituality, schizophrenia

I. PHENOMENOLOGY: ENHANCING, DELETING AND REALIZING THE ECOLOGICAL SELF The following analysis unfolds from the intersection of two questions, each pertaining to the nature of spirituality and its seemingly inherent relation with human suffering and psychopathology. The rst question refers to what transpersonal psychologists such as Maslow (1971); Wilber (1984), and Almaas (1988) have termed metapathologiesWilliam James (James, 1902) preferred theopathiesthat can be specically stirred up by intense spiritual/mystical experiences. Spiritual metapathologies can show the same inner dynamics and phenomenology as schizoaffective conditions including grandiosity, painful social withdrawal, and especially here, despair and loss of all sense of meaning. Yet, despite considerable inner suffering the person can still more or less function within ordinary social lifeas in such key precursors to modern new age spiritualities as Nietzsche, Thoreau, Jung, Heidegger, and Gurdjieff (Hunt, 2003). The term meta is justied here in that true clinical psychosis inuences the entirety of ones life and typically leaves none of the room for major cultural innovation shown by such gures. So our rst question: How is it that highly developed mystical spirituality shows these specic parallels to the continuum of schizophrenic and schizoaffective conditions? The overall social and personal context of mysticism and psychosis could not be more differentwith the former basic to the sense of felt meaning and purpose in human existence as a whole and the latter reecting the extremity of its collapse. We will see below, however, that their various subphases can be so similar that the schizoaffective psychoses can be used as a window into the nature of spiritual sufferingand certainly vice

Harry T. Hunt, Department of Psychology, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. A preliminary version of this paper was presented at Brock University Conference on H. Hunts Lives in Spirit, September 24-25, 2004. I thank David Goicoechea for organizing those meetings, Linda Pidduck and Dr. Marian Fojtik for editorial assistance, and Prof. Sid Segalowitz for helpful references. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Harry T. Hunt, Department of Psychology, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, L2S 3A1. E-mail: hhunt@brocku.ca 209



versa. These comparisons are not intended to pathologize spirituality, but are offered very much in the spirit of H. S. Sullivan (Sullivan, 1953, p. 32), on schizophrenia, that we are all simply more human than otherwise. There has long been the sense, in psychology from James (1902) and Freud (1933) to Sass (1992), and in neurology from Goldstein (1963) and Luria (1972) to Sacks (1987), that the extremities and sufferings of psychosis can illuminate fundamentals of the human condition otherwise difcult to see as such. The second question, and the one to be our initial focus, follows from a consensus among many analysts of spirituality, including Emerson (1844), James (1902); Heidegger (1927, 1962); Almaas (1988), and Hunt (1995), that the core of numinous or mystical experience lies in its nonconceptual, directly felt realization of an immediate sense of Being, presence, or thatnessalso related to the sheer suchness of Zen satori experience (Blofeld, 1962). In other words, if we follow the phenomenological analyses of Rudolf Otto (1923) and others (Stace, 1987; Studstill, 2005) that there is a cross cultural core to the world mysticisms and shamanisms that Otto termed the numinousa sense of awe, wonder, and mystery in response to a sensed contact with an allencompassing somethingthen at its core will be the experience of Being itself. This is the felt sense of a sheer facticity, thatness, or isnessthe wonder and deeply felt gratitude that there is something rather than nothing. James (1902) was one of the rst to conclude that it was the immediacy and fullness of this direct experience, more than its varying conceptualizations in multiple religious traditions, that conferred the ground, purpose, and meaning basic to all spirituality. This notion of a cross cultural core (Otto, 1923) or perennial philosophy (Smith, 1976) underlying the very different schematizations of the world religions has come in for criticism from cultural (Katz, 1978) and cognitive (Boyer, 1994) constructivists (see also Hunt, 2006). However, the demonstrated cross cultural similarities in hunter-gatherer shamanisms (Winkelman, 2000) imply a deep structure for human religious experience, perhaps akin to Chomskyean deep grammar for language. Otto himself analyzed numinous feeling into multiple dimensions (dependency, awe, mystery, oth-

erness) such that their selective cultural schematizations could already account for the diversity of religious beliefs so fundamental to social constructivists. Meanwhile, the ostensible overlap among the more developed experiences of the world mysticisms (Studstill, 2005) further highlights the commonalities already foreshadowed in tribal shamanisms. So our second question becomes: How is the experience of Being/isness underlying this core sense of numinous awe and mystery even possible for us as human beings? What are its cognitive and feeling roots in human self reference, given that its outward trance, aesthetic, and ritual expressions seem as specic to our species as language itself?

Levels of Self and the Experience of BeingThe beginnings of an answer to how Being experiences are possible for us, and why they would have this personal and social impact, comes from exploring both the differentiation and nested interpenetrations among the multiple levels of the human experience of self. Cognitive and developmental psychologists such as Neisser (1988), Meltzoff and Moore (1995), Butterworth (1995), and Gallagher (2005), while using differing vocabularies, largely agree in distinguishing: (a) a primary ecological or bodily self, prenoetic and basic to perceptual-motor navigation and posturalspatial orientation; (b) a self referential or social sense of self, rst emerging with the cross modal mirroring capacities of even newborn infants and fundamental to the gradual interpersonal development of taking the role of the other (Mead, 1934) and theory of mind (Premack & Woodruff, 1978); and (c) a further and uniquely human meta cognitive, noetic, or introspective capacity that allows the discrimination and gradual representation of inner cognitive processes and states of consciousness, and follows from Vygotskys (1962) mid childhood development of inner speech and its felt sense of semantic meaning. The neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder (1935), who will be so central to our later discussion, was perhaps the rst to show that the human sense of self was a complexly nested system involving all three of these levels,



based on spatial/parietal, emotional/frontal, and postural/cerebellar layers of the central nervous system. More recently, Gillihan and Farah (2005) go so far as to suggest that this wide distribution of self across the nervous system, as also variously demonstrated by Damasio (1994); Gusnard (2004), and Saxe and Wexler (2005), strongly argues against any ultimately unitary system of self. This is consistent with William James (1890) conclusion that any inclusive ground for our different inner selves can be found only in the ongoing stream of consciousness itself. Because that can never be entirely encompassed by our self referential awareness, the fringe thereby created becomes the opening for both our vulnerability in sense of self and the open ended attempt at ground and context that would be the core of human spirituality. More specically, then, Neissers (1988) discussion of a primary proprioceptive selflocation of the organism in terms of an ecological self, common to all creatures moving within a perceptual surround, is derived from James Gibsons (1966, 1979) formulation of perception in terms of an ambient ecological array. Rejecting static understandings of basic perception, Gibson insisted that the essential functioning of the senses is based on the movement of a creature through its surrounding array. Such active navigation creates an open horizon ahead, out of which streams ambient gradients of surfaces and textur