Traditionally we see mental breakdowns as negative things that as a society we try our best not to talk about. But while they can be greatly disturbing Breaking Down is Waking Up author Dr Russell Razzaque believes that breakdowns can also offer a profound journey to spiritual awakening.
Did you know, for example, that three quarters of people who have had an experience of severe mental illness now consider themselves to be highly spiritual? Here Dr Razzaque explains the awakening we can all go through, but first we have to clarify – who is it that goes on a spiritual journey? What exactly do we mean when we say ‘I’?
Who am I?
It’s a question we start asking ourselves as infants and, somewhere deep down within the recesses of our mind, never stop asking for the whole of our lives. The reason for this is that the notion of who we are is not actually easy to answer. Am I my labels – occupation, relationship status, nationality etc.? But those surely change over time, as does our story and self-image – what we enjoy, where we holiday, what our goals are etc. So what is the constant thing that “I” am? Is it our body?
Well, that’s changing all the time too; actually in more ways than we might realise. Our stomach lining, for example, lasts for no more than 5 days. Our red blood cells last 4 months, our liver has a turnover of about 12-18 months, and our entire skin is replaced about once a month. Indeed, our whole skeleton is replaced once a decade. Yet, if you ask anyone, are you the same “me” that you were 5 or 10 years ago, they will invariably say “of course I am!” But what exactly is it that is constant and separate? Is it our inner world? Well, that changes even more rapidly than the outer one with, we are told, 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts running through our mind every single day.
Furthermore, the idea that we are in any way a separate entity is challenged by the most rudimentary understanding of biology. Take an oxygen atom. When we inhale it, it admixes with the rest of our chemical make-up and becomes an essential part of this supposed “me”. It’s still an atom of oxygen, though. So changing its status from “out there” to “me”, at some point in its journey, is purely a matter of definition – i.e. language – and not inherent to the nature of reality itself. Here, therefore, we see that we have decided to label things “me” and “not me”. It is not that things actually exist that way. And it is through a lifetime of being taught to label and define things in this way that we have learnt to see the world in only that way. But it is not the way things are, it is a perspective we have chosen to take.
This works fine(ish) for us most of the time, but every now and then odd things happen, like synchronicities, that challenge this model of the world that we have taught ourselves to believe. And for some people a significant challenge to this paradigm occurs when we have an experience of major psychological distress. The “me” that we have built up has a host of negatives ideas, experiences or stories attached to it, and ultimately the construct itself begins to breakdown. This is when we can start to experience things like depression or even psychosis. This is also why many of the descriptions of these kinds of experience are similar to the descriptions mystics provide of spiritual awakening. Because, one way or another, they are both modes of breaking out of the sense of “ego”. That is why, laced within every breakdown is also a form of wake up. Any psychiatrist will tell you that a large proportion of the clients they see have very strong spiritual themes incorporated into their symptoms. In fact a survey showed that about three quarters of people who have had an experience of severe mental illness now consider themselves to be highly spiritual – a figure that is undoubtedly many multiples higher than that for the rest of the population.
Understanding such experiences in this way – seeing the value in them, as well as the suffering – can, I believe, make a lot of difference to the people who have had them. But, equally important is the fact that the whole of society can learn from people who have peeked through the paradigm the rest of us find ourselves in day to day. In fact, the way in which we have been living our lives, closeted within this sense of “me” Vs “other” and all the competition, consumerism, and environmental damage that comes with it, suggests that openness to new paradigms and different ways of understanding our reality might not only be beneficial for society, but perhaps even essential for our ultimate survival as a species.
Dr Russell Razzaque is a psychiatrist with sixteen years’ experience in adult mental health, and has come to a startling conclusion: mental illness, to which every one of us is vulnerable, can also be a form of spiritual awakening.
Discover more in his new book Breaking Down is Waking Up: Can Psychological Suffering be a Spiritual Gateway?