Spirituality and Mental Illness

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Is the suppression of spirituality in the West the reason for our struggle and suffering labeled as mental illness? Are we medicated to numb the pain and psychospiritual protest related to the felt wrongness in our modern lives? Here’s what I learned from my trip to India…

In a story called The Magician’s House by Jan Dean, Genet makes a deal that seems impossible to refuse. She agrees to work for the magician, lighting the fireplaces for a year and a day in exchange for her heart’s desire. Over her tenure, the house grows and grows with the fireplaces multiplying into the hundreds, until the house is all there is on the earth. When it comes time for her wish to be granted, she asks simply for the gift of forgetting home and the good green world that was, as there is now no home to return to.

Does this story have relevance to our American lives today? I think so. We are awaiting the granting of our heart’s desire, slowly realizing the bankruptcy of the promise.

To have been led down the perilous path of greed, shortcuts, and glittering promises is to risk a rupture with the natural emergence of a sacred design. It’s a posture that says – I will architect my experience because I know best what I need. There comes a time when we must reckon with the costs of our desire to “cheat the system,” where perhaps we beg to forget what it is that was lost in the process. So that we can arrive at a place where “missing is any sense that anything is missing.”

• • •

I thought of this tale as I rode with my fellow kundalini yogis on a camel cart down the dusty streets of Neemrana village in Rajasthan, India. The scene was psychedelic in nature. There were splashes of every color tracking across my view, cows lounging in the road, peacocks yelping, packs of dogs, lumbering donkeys, people in repose on the ledge of three walled rooms, children playing together, women washing clothes in a bucket, and every imaginable transportation methodology from bike to moped to rickshaw to car, all moving in a structured amoeba-like chaos.

Not unlike a kundalini exercise where the mind is calm amidst a very active body and breath pattern, the busyness was external to and in the greater context of a kind of calm and contentment that was powerfully transmitted. As I looked around, I felt awash with the resonance of a pervasive peace, ease, lightness, and simplicity. Taking it all in brought a swell of an unnamable emotion in my heart. Tears came to my eyes.

This would be one of many experiences I would have in my ten days in India that would bring me into direct contact with a soul-level knowing that we are living in the West with something very important missing from our life experience. It was as if, perhaps, we had been granted that wish of forgetting the wonder we had once known but lost contact with after we collectively embraced the promises of modern medicine, technology, and credit-based economies.

An Atheist’s Journey

When I was 13, I chose not to be confirmed a Catholic to the dismay of my practicing father. An expression of my budding faith in the religion of science, my intellect had little tolerance for the seemingly childish fairy tale stories of denominational religion. I thought of religious orientation, frankly, as a weakness. When we die, we rot in the earth and that’s the end of the story. Life is hard and bad things happen, so get educated and prepared. Danger lurks, but especially around the lazy and naive. This was the mindset that ushered me into my professional life as a physician.

Of course, my trajectory was not to be tracked along the iron rails of a medical career, and the unexpected twists that would emerge could only be referred to as an awakening. First, my intellect had to be humbled by an experience that challenged everything I had known, then my ego had to be broken by earth-shattering loss. I then had to experience the wonder and glory of a life lived in the flow. I have developed a deep awareness around the baited traps that the patriarchy sets to ensnare the hypertrophied minds of today’s Western women. I know what it is that we are up against, and I know that it feels like a reclamation of our wildness. A reunion with our bodies and sensuality. An establishment of a sisterhood. I have learned that when we let go, when we surrender, everything we need and want comes to us effortlessly.

Faith in a Land of Scientism

Every morning, I get down on my knees and touch my forehead to the ground in humbled gratitude for one more day in this life. I call on my guides (out loud!) and I work to quiet my mind so that my heart can receive the light of the universe.

Me. I do this. The former belligerent atheist.

While the word God still makes me wince a bit, to me the cosmos and divine order are my God.  I am animistic in my spirituality now, believing there to be soulful energy in all things, people, and elements. And sometimes it appears in such blindingly overwhelming intensity – the endless inexplicable miracle of this life – that I can only weep.

The American Way

Sure, I know some people who feel and live this way too. But my country doesn’t know me and it certainly doesn’t know spirituality. And my country is commandeering the consciousness of traditional people throughout the world.

Predicated on the belief that technology and science are the objective bottom line of truth, American religions adhere to this split between the material and the spiritual, allowing the material (aka the body and the planet) to be controlled by the dominant corporate forces without consideration. My friend Charles Eisenstein writes:

“If you take for granted a universe of generic building blocks, devoid of the qualities of a self, devoid of an internal intelligence or evolutionary will, then our license to manipulate nature and materiality suffers no limit except for that posed by perverse unintended consequences that we can, in principle, predict and control with just a little more information and technological know-how.”

This fundamental disconnection from the sacred in our bodies, in our environment, and in each other leads us to fill the void with secondary satisfactions such as addictive foods, sex, power, and money. Like Eisenstein says, chewing gum to sate hunger.

India: where God is not dead

When I immersed myself in the experience of India, visited family homes, spoke to children, ate their heartfelt offerings of food (it wasn’t easy but I kept it gluten, dairy, and sugar free!), and prayed in ashrams and temples, I felt endless rushes of energy moving up my body. It was something like joy, but more like simply feeling alive. I had never been among so many people who live devotionally. Who pray with gratitude first. Who trust in the divine order of things even as they struggle with basic needs. Their energy was intoxicating.

On one day, we had the opportunity to visit with a family of three sisters, one brother, and two parents. Their smiles, on encounter, came from a place of authenticity that I had rarely experienced. They welcomed us into their home, which by American standards looked like an austere cave adorned with choice fabrics. We noted that the entropic structures in these Indian towns and cities somehow left the impression that these buildings had been bombed, though amazingly they had not.

We sat on the family’s beds collected in one small downstairs room. Beds arranged in this way because the only bedroom in the house had been given to their sacred Sikh book, the Siri Guru Granth. Singing and playing devotional kirtan music since they were 4, they treated us to a performance that made each of us feel that our hearts might somehow explode.


They showed us the fact that loving creation allows them to love each other, and to love all that comes in their path. When the son asked me about my job, I seized up, certain that the notion of a psychiatrist would make no sense whatsoever to him. The idea that there are professionals trained to manage and alter the human experience through pharmaceutical drugs – to someone who has faith in all that comes, in the many ways that divinity can be expressed, and in the dividends of a commitment to integrity…to this person, Prozac would not compute.

This is what India showed me.

It showed me what my American soul had forgotten…which is that there is something more beautiful, more sacred, more wondrous available when we live connected to our trust in something larger. Because this something larger lifts us up out of our limitations, our smallness, our distractions, and holds us in a web of the collective so that there is never something random, awful, and unlucky that can simply just happen. So that there is always meaning and ok-ness.

Miracles in Our Midst

Before my trip, I was gifted The Journey Home – a story of an American secular Jew who went on a teenage pilgrimage to Europe only to meet his destiny as a Swami in India. He spends time with yogis and mystics who can levitate, bend steel bars with their eye sockets, stop their own hearts for thirty minutes, fast for a month, and materialize ash in their hands. But he states:

“True spirituality is to realize God and be godly, not to show off one’s powers. Because they don’t appreciate God’s power, people are fascinated by these kinds of feats…Everywhere we look, we witness the unsurpassable miracles of God, but because we see them constantly, we take them for granted. Picking up a seed, I examined it. God has put a gigantic banyan tree in this tiny seed and each tree produces thousands more seeds. That’s a miracle. And in a single cloud, so light it floats in the air, He stores enough water to flood an entire city. When a male and female come together to procreate, they have no engineering plan on how the child will develop at each stage. It just happens. What a miracle. Every species of life is empowered with amazing talents to fly, swim, run, climb tree, walk up walls, or create civilizations. Could all of this be happening by random chance? Creation is nothing but one amazing miracle after another.”

When you are connected to the gift that is this life and the irreducible miracle that abounds in every aspect of it, it becomes easier to see that there are struggles, but that there are lessons and meaning in those struggles. That the notion of mental “illness” grows in a soil that ignores all of the reasons that we should be breaking down and falling apart from diet to the toxicant exposures of a raped planet to repressed trauma. Eisenstein writes, “The reason that conventional psychiatry – whether pharmaceutical or psychoanalytic – is powerless to substantially help the vast majority of patients is that is does not, and cannot, recognize the wrongness of the world we live in.”

Psychiatry says something is wrong with you – your genes, your chemistry, your perceptions, your behavior. You are broken and you need Pharma-fixing. It has never been more clear to me that the Guild of Psychiatry is one of the greatest threats to a soul’s journey, perhaps simply because there is no acknowledgement of the soul. This is why I believe that avoiding and coming off of psychiatric medications is the greatest form of initiation to self that exists in the West today.


And so it’s no wonder that as American fear-based consciousness permeates the globe, so does its mental illness constructs – so that it provides both the sickness and the “treatment.” Headlines are claiming that mental illness in India is on the rise, and awareness generating campaigns to medicate Indians are underway.

Is this a new form of imperialism? Bio-imperialism?

It would make sense that as we enter this darkest hour of the old story, the forces of disconnection would be working to desecrate this most sacred land and its people.

Perhaps that’s why we have polio campaigns in India – an oral polio vaccine deemed too dangerous for the first world – which in 2011 alone was responsible for a documented 47,500 cases of vaccine-induced paralysis. And we have 30,000 Indian girls experimented on with the HPV vaccine thanks to the philanthropic efforts of the Gates Foundation. And then, of course, there’s Monsanto’s efforts to commandeer the agriculture of the nation resulting in the suicide of literally hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers who suffered the choke-hold illegalities of Bt cotton. In India, you cannot patent life. Monsanto doesn’t care.

But Monsanto, Gates, and Pharma are just the ugly heads of a monster we have all co-created. They are the ever growing house whose fireplaces we agreed to tend so that we could have our wish granted.

As I watched the siblings  – who don’t have a sink in their bathroom – on their smart phones gifted by adoring Westerners, I felt the pang of what will be syphoned off from their traditional consciousness and sucked into the vortex of a digital existence.

Perhaps what I am sensing is present in India – this deep fabric of spirituality – is actually in its death throes and I am romanticizing a tragedy. I don’t know. But what I do know is that our struggles as Westerners, particularly those struggling with poverty, are made all the more poignant because we are struggling without this fabric – flesh robots on a dead rock in the middle of nowhere. And everything hurts so much more because of it.

Women Awakening

Perhaps, as the Dalai Lama said, it is the Western woman who will save the world. But not until we reclaim ourselves, remember what is lost, and channel our reclaimed wildness into a kind of collective healing that our minds cannot even fathom from where we stand today.

We moved through a microcosmic iteration of this on the fourth day in India. A fellow yogi I’ll call Rachel was immobilized by nausea, diarrhea, and pain. She was pale and dewy with stress sweat, and the group was desperate to support her. There was talk of the hospital and even our local friend suggested a visit to the doctor.

I demanded an opportunity to support her without medication intervention. Other healers and sisters in the group came to her aid as well. I knew, in my heart, that if she aligned with her body, she could move through this. If only she didn’t resist, and we didn’t collude in creating the conditions of a battle.

This was an instance of multiple discrete co-existing narratives, all plausible, simultaneous, and even contradictory.

  • She was attacked and invaded by a nasty germ courtesy of dirty food in a dirty place
  • She was weakened and vulnerable so she succumbed to a passive exposure that her body can’t handle
  • She needed to purge and detox in a way that her body took an opportunity to do
  • She invited a psychospiritual initiation that could only be fully engaged if she shed the fear required to move through a process

The meaning of her experience was for her to determine; it would be a reflection of her consciousness. What I learned when I looked into her eyes was the same thing I feel with my intrepid patients – that when I give them permission to own their experience, they access an endless reservoir of strength.

And she did that. She moaned and cried, vomited, and lost control of her bowels. But within 12 hours, she emerged. We joked that it felt like she had birthed the most beautiful baby and we were all here to ooh and ahh over it.

She demonstrated a woman’s fearless capacity to surrender to a process, and because she did that, it is now easier for every woman on the planet to meet that challenge in the future. This is the morphic resonance of fearlessness.

Contrarily, if she had taken antibiotics, she would have, in my estimation, prolonged and complexified her illness because the body will never be suppressed. Then when she finally recovered, she would have credited the antibiotics – the emblematic sacrament of the patriarchy – with her life and stability. What a loss therein.

We need to know what is possible beyond the bounds of our imposed Western framework. The paradoxes embedded in our assumptions of what it is to not have the “gifts” of Western abundance. We need to remember what we never knew that we forgot.

It’s time.

Call it faith. Call it spirituality. Call it zealotry.

Our consciousness creates the reality that reflects it. If we feel apart, other, afraid, and deadened, we will live in a world that reflects and perpetuates these energies. Push out of your comfort zones, explore, and experiment with new ways of thinking, relating, and feeling. You may find that epic beauty dwells in the most unexpected places.

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More