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Dear Friends...I would like to share a chapter of my next book. The chapter is called ENCOUNTERS WITH ARTISTS, PSYCHOTICS AND MYSTICS.

This chapter is part of my book titled


I have been working on this project for nearly twenty years and writing this book for five years. I have already written most of the book nearly 500 pages.

I realize that i am sending you a long chapter nearly 50 pages (alongside the table of contents to give you an idea of the scope of the book) but I am optimistic that you would find it intellectually stimulating. I will look forward to your comments, as it would help me finalize this chapter as well as the book. If you people are interested I might share some of the other chapters in the future. i am very excited about the book as I have put a lot of energy and passion. In this book I am trying to integrate my experiences as a poet with my experiences as a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. I hope you receive my gift of love with the same warm feelings as I am sending it. ...sincerely sohail





































































How are creative people different than traditional people?

Are creative people like poets, writers and artists more vulnerable to have a nervous breakdown?

Is there an intimate relationship between creativity and insanity?

Why do mentally ill people hear voices of gods, angels and spirits?

How do we differentiate between psychotics and mystics?

Is there a mysterious relationship between creativity, insanity and spirituality?

These are some of the questions I have been trying to answer all of my adult life and to answer those questions I have been studying artists, psychotics and mystics with keen interest. I am quite fascinated by their unique and extraordinary life experiences. I believe these three groups of people have intimate encounters with creativity, spirituality and insanity that transform not only their personalities but also their lifestyles and those of their families and communities.

To have a better understanding of their personalities and develop a greater insight into their lifestyles I interviewed dozens of poets and artists, read the biographies of numerous saints and mystics and treated a large number of schizophrenics and manic-depressives in psychiatric hospitals especially those who had creative potential and experienced auditory hallucinations with religious and spiritual contents. Now that I look back on all those interactions, studies and interviews I am fascinated with the observation that in spite of their obvious differences they had some significant similarities. All of them had unconventional thinking and non-traditional lifestyles. Because they were different than most of the people around them they were judged by others sometimes positively and other times negatively. At times those differences became a blessing while at other times they became a curse. Some poets and mystics were loved and adored while others were penalized and persecuted. Some mentally ill people were treated with compassion while others were ridiculed and ostracized.

During my detailed interviews and discussions that followed, I was surprised that most:

… poets I interviewed had no interest in psychiatry

… psychiatrists I worked with were not interested in life stories of mystics


… priests I met did not have a keen interest in science and psychology. I wonder whether the time has come to build bridges between different disciplines and create a language and understanding by which poets, priests, psychologists and psychotherapists would be able to communicate with each other. I think the time has come to explore the dark sides of creativity and spirituality and bright side of insanity. Based on my interviews, readings and contemplation I am hoping to identify the salient features of creative, spiritual and psychotic encounters and then discuss how those encounters changed their personalities and transformed their lifestyles. This book is a humble attempt to fulfill that goal and my life long dream. I hope this book will build bridges of understanding between different traditions and break down walls between various disciplines and help readers in solving mysteries of creativity, insanity and spirituality and their fascinating relationship with each other.


As I followed my passion to have a better understanding of the lives of those extraordinary people, it was important for me to hear about creative, mystic and psychotic encounters directly from those people who experienced them before I read any theoretical formulations about those experiences. I always valued experiences more than analyses. So I started my journey by approaching poets, short story writers and novelists from the East who have been living in the West and had been quite successful in their writing careers. They were quite well respected in the Asian communities in Pakistan, India, Europe and North America. I chose twelve writers and then traveled to different cities in Canada, USA and Europe to interview them in detail discussing not only their creative and immigrant experiences but also how those experiences affected their personalities and lifestyles. I was quite pleased by the enthusiastic response I received.  



During my interviews while I was listening to different poets I realized that for most of them their creative encounters were a source of joy, excitement, and jubilation. It was a good omen. It meant that their muses were alive and well, healthy, and productive. Experiencing those moments of creativity and giving birth to a poem was quite remarkable. Some could feel the aura and hear an echo in their minds, hearts and souls. Some felt restless, even irritated. It was like experiencing creative labour pains and then the poem was delivered. They had to take some time off from their day-to-day activities to write down the poem. For some when the labour pains began, they often delivered twins or triplets, producing two or three poems at one time.

For some poets the whole experience was unannounced. It was like a precipitate labour. They had no advance warning.

In the following pages I am going to present some parts of my interviews with Ashfaq Hussain and Iftikhar Arif, two well respected Urdu poets and then share my impressions about those interviews.

When I asked Ashfaq Hussain if he remembered the day and the circumstances when he wrote his famous poem ‘A Love Poem For My Son’ he said:

“My poem about my son is a very personal one. My son was two or three years old at the time. One day my wife and son had gone out; I was missing him, which inspired me to write that poem. I don’t remember the exact details of the event. I don’t think I even knew what I was going to write when I picked up my pen and paper. I must have thought of my son, the temporariness of life and the meaning of our existence. All those things which are not obvious in my poem must have been floating in the back of my mind. I am not saying that I consciously wrote that poem about those issues. All I am saying is that I must have contemplated them at one time or another. I must have thought that children grow up, they become teenagers, then young adults, then grow old and die while life goes on. Many people like myself think about those issues, but at that moment when I was missing my son all those feelings and ideas got transformed into a poem. Maybe I was consoling that I myself might not be living one day but that my son might still be alive. I think it did not take me more than twenty minutes to finish the poem. But that is an ordinary thing. I think the angle that makes that poem special is that it also reflects one aspect of the immigrant experience. I think I must have been preoccupied with my cultural heritage at that time. I must have wondered whether we should thrust our heritage onto our children, set them free in the new society, or thirdly, should we try to strike a balance between two cultures. I think all immigrants share similar dilemmas and problems. Sometimes we like our traditions although we admit that some of them are wrong. Those are the traditions of feudal times and the era of slavery. To break the outdated traditions is a challenge for each immigrant parent. When I was addressing my son I was actually addressing the next generation. It was just expressed in a personal way.”


With your eyes, I

will see those days

which have yet to come.


With your feet, I

will run very fast

on dream-pathways

which are still obscure.


With your hands, I

will touch those mountains

whose very thought

makes me breathless.


Those mountains and those roads

on which you walk

a new era

this is yours.

I will not even see

this new era

but my eyes will kiss

its every moment,

with these bright eyes.


In your eyes

like light I shine

like love I abide

like a dream I am alive

in your beautiful eyes

all my dreams

hide in a special corner;

and if perchance these dreams

bloom with fragrance of flowers

in their sweet-scent

you should keep

all the letters of my name

with care.  Translated by: Shehla Burney

When I asked Iftikhar Arif about the nature and experience of the creative process, he said, “Different writers and critics have different ways of explaining the creative process. Some people feel satisfied after they finish writing. Others feel happy that they completed a beautiful poem. But in my case, since I have gone through a lot of pain in my life, when I finish a poem I feel sad. I suddenly realize what I am going through. If something is bothering me and making me uncomfortable inside, there is restlessness in me, a lot of tension, a disturbing feeling, so when I write it becomes tangible. It becomes very visible in my poetry.

Let me give you an example. I remember one day I was at a New Year’s party in Pakistan. Some of my old friends were there. I had gone to the party alone. Many people stopped and talked to me. As midnight approached, the time when friends and lovers and spouses kiss each other, I noticed that the women around me who were my good friends, started to leave. I was very hurt. I felt uncomfortable,  so I asked my driver to take me home. It was hardly a half hour’s journey, but in that period I wrote the poem “Barhavan Khilari” which translates “The Twelfth Man”. When I finished the poem and read it to someone I started crying. I realized that I was the subject of the poem. It turned out to be a very personal poem. For me it was not a catharsis, it was a realization of my unfortunate situation.”


In the season of brightness

Countless spectators

Come to spur on

Their favourite teams,

Gather to inspire

Their own idols.


I stand aside

Alienated from it all

Deriding the twelfth player.


How different he is,

That twelfth man!

Amid the game,

The noise,

The roar of acclaim,

He sits alone

And waits -

For the moment to come,

For the time to come,

For that incident to happen

When he too can play

With shouts of praise,

Tumultuous applause,

Words of support

Just for him,

And he’ll be one of them

Respected like the rest of them.


But that rarely happens.

People still say

The bond between game and player

Is for life.

But even lifelong bonds can snap,

And the heart that sinks

With the last whistle

Can also break.

And you, lftikhar,

You too are a twelfth player,

You wait for a moment,

For a time,

For an incident.


You too lftikhar

Will sink ---

Will break.


Translated by The Poet and Brenda Walker

When I reflected on the interviews I became aware that Ashfaq Hussain and Iftikhar Arif had both delivered their poems in less than half an hour. For them to compose the poem did not take a long time. It seemed as if the Muse came, delivered the creative gift and left.

It was also not the voluntary process for both of them. They were just aware of a feeling, a feeling of missing his son for Ashfaq Hussain and feeling of being lonely in the New Year’s party for Iftikhar Arif. Those feelings triggered something in their minds and they connected with their Muse that was residing in the unconscious mind and when a strong feeling in the conscious mind like the fishing rod went deep in the ocean of the unconscious mind, it hooked the poem like a fish and within a short time the fish was brought to the surface. The pen became the fishing rod and the poem was delivered on the shore of the blank page.

It is interesting for me to see that both poems are personal and not personal at the same time. They have multiple layers and like pieces of art can be understood, appreciated and interpreted at multiple levels.

Ashfaq Hussain’s poem alongside the personal dilemma also reflects the cultural dilemma of immigrant parents who wonder about the future of their children. Being a positive person rather than being nostalgic and pessimistic, he is optimistic about the future. His poem reflects his faith in his immortality in the form of his son. He offers hope to immigrant parents that their children will go farther and higher in life than their parents and although the first generation of immigrants offer sacrifices, their future generations will receive the rewards and have a more successful life. That poem offers hope to all parents that their children will continue the journey of evolution.

Ashfaq’s poem also tries to overcome the fear of death by seeing oneself in one’s children. In this way Ashfaq’s personal poem also becomes universal and can be enjoyed and appreciated by all human beings.

While Ashfaq’s poem is the poem of hope and optimism, Iftikhar Arif’s poem is the poem of painful realization. That poem highlights that life is a game and our happiness and success is connected with someone else’s tragedy and pain. Our fortune is related to someone else’s misfortune. That poem brings to our awareness how human beings are dependant on each other and how for our rise in life we have to wait for someone else’s fall. That is the duality of human life, existence and condition. Because of such profound realization Iftikhar Arif’s personal poem becomes universal and all human beings from all walks of life and cultures can relate to that.

While Iftikhar Arif’s poem makes us feel sad, Ashfaq Hussain’s poem also makes us feel optimistic. In this way those poems, those creative gifts of the muse, those creative encounters bring us closer to our deeper and higher selves. They help us get in touch with our dilemmas and dreams. In this way the poets and artists by getting in touch with their unconscious welcome us to get in touch with our own creative side of our mind and personality that I call Creative Self

After interviewing a large number of creative people in my personal life and creative patients in my professional life as a psychotherapist I have come to the understanding that all of us, as human beings have two sides to our personality

A, Traditional Self / Conditioned Self

Traditional Self is the outcome of our familial and cultural conditioning and is guided by should, must and have to.

B, Natural Self

Natural Self reflects our true and authentic nature and is guided by like to, want to and love to. It is not uncommon for many people to experience conflicts between their Traditional and Natural Self. When Natural Self is nurtured it can develop into Creative Self in creative people and into Mystic Self in spiritual people.

Creative people share the Traditional Self with people around them as it reflects the conditioning of the community and the times to which they belong to. Traditional Self helps creative people to have a routine and stability in life. It helps look after the survival issues. On the other hand the Creative Self is personal and unique. Creative Self has a special relationship with the Muse. When the Muse is kind and generous she brings the creative gifts in the form of poems or paintings or plays.

Where does this Muse reside?

Many psychologists believe she resides in the unconscious mind and lives in the right side of the brain. While the left side of the brain which is logical and rational and objective helps us live day to day life, the right side of the brain is busy developing the Creative Self and expresses itself in the form of dreams in common people and in the form of pieces of art in creative people.

For Creative people the creative encounter is expressed in the form of creative products.

Sometimes when the creative people read their own poems or see their own paintings or watch their own plays they are surprised as if someone else gave birth to them.

It seems as if there is an interesting and mysterious relationship between Traditional and Creative Self in creative people. For some people Creative Self only expresses occasionally while for others the Muse visits frequently bringing creative gifts to the Traditional Self.




A number of years ago I attended an international conference in Brazil to present a paper on Psychotherapy with Immigrants. After presenting my own paper I attended a number of other workshops, seminars and lectures in the conference. One of the presenters was a team from Iceland who had studied the families of people suffering from mental illness. Their conclusions were that the number of creative people including writers, artists, scholars and intellectuals in the families of people suffering from mental illness were two to three times more than the general population. I was quite impressed by their findings. Their results helped me understand not only my own family but also the families of many of my patients. Those research workers wondered whether insanity and creativity were inherited through the same gene.

Since then in my clinical practice I have tried to identify those patients suffering from schizophrenia, bi-polar affective disorder and depressions who have creative potential and have never been able to express it consistently and successfully.

While I am writing this I am remembering one of my patients Maureen who had been suffering from Depression for a couple of years before she saw me. She had seen a number of doctors and psychiatrists and treated with a wide range of anti-depressants but her Depression had not responded. After getting her history and seeing her a few times in therapy I realized that she was an accomplished artist as a young woman. She used to teach painting but after her marriage and being involved in family responsibilities she had let her art go in the background. Now that her family responsibilities were over and her husband had left her unexpectedly, she had been feeling depressed.

When I saw a connection between her Depression and her creativity, I encouraged her to start painting again. In the beginning she was reluctant but on my insisting she took out her brushes and paints and easels. I asked her to sit in front of blank canvas for half an hour twice a week. The first six weeks she kept on waiting for her Muse to come back. But after six weeks the Muse got enticed and seduced and she was rewarded for her patience. She started painting and in the next couple of years that she was alive she created more than a couple of dozen paintings and sold each one of them for more than 300 dollars. One day I found her staring at me. When I asked the reason she told me that she was making my portrait and was staring at my eyes as she wanted to paint them perfectly. After a couple of weeks she presented me with a wonderful portrait acknowledging my help to re-introduce her to her Muse. Maureen has passed away but her painting still hangs in my living room reminding me the intimate connection between creativity and insanity and possibility of re-connecting with one’s Muse even after a break of years even decade.

While I was working with Maureen I studied a number of biographies of writers and artists including Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Freida Kahlo, and many others who were genuinely creative and suffered from different forms of insanity.     


While I was interviewing writers and artists and listening to their

creative encounters, I was also curious about the lives of sants, sadhus and saints and study about their mystic encounters. So I decided to read their biographies. During my research I came across two saints of twentieth century who were born in India and during their lifetime claimed to be the re-birth of Buddha. The first one was Dr. Honda, a professor at University of Toronto, who named himself Maitreya after his spiritual enlightenment and called his book of revelations The Gospel of Peace. He shares how the book of revelations is different than the book of poetry by stating,

The birth of every scripture seems to be tied with, and is a product of, spiritual re-birthing of the individual, of experiencing the state which is known by a variety of names, as I said in the beginning: the nirvanic state, enlightenment, satori, self-realization, un-ul-haq, illumination, re-birth, realizing the supra-mental or cosmic consciousness.”

(Ref 1 p 116)

As a student of human psychology I was curious how the mystic was similar and different than the poet. I wanted to know how does the mystic feel about his extra-ordinary experience, his unusual encounter and what is his subjective interpretation of his unusual experience. Maitreya shared his experience and interpretation in these words,

“ Then, about two months later, around 4.00 in the early hours of the morning I was awakened by the same divine presence, and a voice spoke to me ‘take thy pen and write. ‘I’ shall speak to you the last book The Gospel of Peace. Start with the beginning.

There was no beginning. ‘I’ never created anything. There was no moment of birth, nor shall be one of death; of the universe. Do not be confused and write ‘I’ never created anything outside and apart from MYSELF…” (Ref 1 p 116)

There seem to be a number of differences in the encounters of poets and mystics. Poets were in touch with their Creative Self, their unconscious, their Muse, while mystics claimed to experience divine presence and had some communication with gods or angels or spirits when they connected with Mystic Self. For some their God, their creator resided outside the universe the creation while for others their God resided inside them, deep in their unconscious, as He was present in every part of the universe.

For poets their creativity was part of their humanity while for some mystics their spirituality was part of their divinity.

The other mystic of twentieth century was J. Krishnamurti When introduced to Annie Bessant and Charles Leadbeater, members of Theosophical Society in India, they saw spiritual aura surrounding Krishnamurti. Leadbeater was a clergyman well known for his powers of clairvoyance. He claimed that he came in touch with the previous incarnations of Krishnamurti and saw him a fountain of compassion and wisdom. Annie Bessant took Krishnamurti under her care like a mother and introduced him to the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society. She later took Krishnamurti to England for higher levels of spiritual training.

After entering the Esoteric section Krishnamurti’s spiritual experiences began. He would enter trance states, have extraordinary visions and then write to Mrs. Bessant, his spiritual guardian. After meditating regularly his mystic encounters became the beginning of his spiritual enlightenment. Some experiences were very painful, traumatic and bizarre. Most people around Krishnamurti were unable to fully understand those experiences but were very supportive of his mysterious journey. They believed that he was experiencing the awakening of his spiritual self, generally known in the spiritual world as Kundalini in which the person experiences transformation of consciousness not accessable to ordinary people.

In one of the letters to Ms. Bessant he wrote about his mystic encounters in these words,

“The climax was reached on the 19th. I could not think, nor was I able to do anything, and I was forced by friends here to retire to bed. Then I became almost unconscious, though I was well aware of what was happening around me. I came to myself at about noon each day. On that first day while I was in that state and more conscious of the things around me, I had the first most extraordinary experience. There was a man mending the road; that man was myself; the pickaxe he held was myself; the very stone which he was breaking was a part of me; the tender blade of grass was my very being and the tree beside the man was myself. I almost could feel and think like the roadmender, and I could feel the wind passing through the tree and little ant on the grass I could feel. The birds, the dust and the very noise were a part of me. Just then there was a car passing by at some distance; I was the driver, the engine and the tires, as the car went further away from me, I was going away from myself. I was in everything, or rather everything was in me, inanimate and animate, the mountain, the worm and all breathing things. All day long I remained in this happy condition…I have seen the glorious and helping Light. The fountain of Truth has been revealed to me and the darkness has been dispersed. Love in all its glory has intoxicated my heart; my heart can never be closed. I have drunk at the fountain of joy and eternal Beauty. I am God-intoxicated.” (Ref1 p 101)

For the next few months Krishnamurti continued to have these mystic encounters. During a number of those episodes he became semi-conscious and his friends had to look after him so that he did not hurt himself. Many times he would fall to the floor and experience seizure-like states. On other occasions in his trance, he regressed and talked like a little boy. On one occasion he talked about the death of his mother, revealing that it had really bothered him extensively as a little boy. He recovered from those mystic encounters a transformed man. During one of mystic episode he became convinced that he would lose his mind and become insane.

They know how much a body can stand. If I became a lunatic, look after me…not that I will become a lunatic. They are very careful with the body. I feel so old. Only a bit of me is functioning. I am like an India rubber toy, which a child plays with. It is the child that gives it life. (Ref 1 p 103)

When I read Krishnamurti’s description as a psychiatrist I have no doubt in my mind that he had visual and auditory hallucinations, loss of ego boundaries which are symptoms of mental illness and symptoms of out of body experience and seizure-like activities which are indication of temporal lobe epilepsy.

The question is whether Krishnamurti have encounters with spirituality or insanity or with insanity as a stepping-stone towards spirituality on the journey to enlightenment. The question is what a psychiatrist would have done if he would have examined him during those encounters. Would he have left him alone or admitted him to a psychiatric hospital and treated him with shock treatment and anti-psychotic medications and then what would those medications done to him from a psychological and spiritual point of view. Would they have helped or hindered his personal and existential growth.

While I was reading the biography of Krishnamurti, I came across one of his contemporaries Guru Rajneesh, who was also born in India and had claimed to have achieved spiritual enlightenment. Rajneesh’s early phase of spiritual journey had some similarities with that of Krishnamurti. They both had mystic encounters which had features similar to psychotic encounters. Rajneesh’s biographer James Gordon describes his transformation as a young adult in these words,

“Soon he seemed more basket case than beatnik. He continued to challenge the received ideas of his friends and teachers, but his precocious self-assurance disintegrated. He felt alone and insecure. He suffered from disabling headaches. “For one year” he recalled ‘ it was almost impossible to know what was happening…Just to keep myself alive was a very difficult thing, because all appetite disappeared. I could not talk to anybody. In every other sentence I would forget what I was saying.’

He said he ran up to sixteen miles a day ‘ just to feel myself’ and spent days at a time lying on the floor of his room counting from one to one hundred and back again. He sat in high trees to meditate. Once, he reported, his body fell to the ground but his ‘consciousness’ stayed in the air, connected by a glittering silver cord to his navel. He felt the ‘connection…between his physical body and the spiritual being…disintegrate.” During this year his hair and beard were wild, his eyes preter-naturally bright.

Rajneesh had the sense he was going through an extremely important change. His concerned parents believed he was going crazy. They took their son to one physician after another. In the West, indeed in modern India, there would have been little doubt about Rajneesh’s condition. To most observers the situation would have looked less like an ordinary adolescent identity crisis and more like an incipient psychotic episode. Doctors would probably have hospitalized him, tranquilizers might have been prescribed.

As it happened, Rajneesh was seen by a Vaidiya, a traditional Ayurvedic physician, who construed his symptoms differently. The Vaidiya believed that the symptoms were those of divine intoxication, that the apparent breakdown was actually a kind of breakthrough. Rajneesh, the Vaidiya said was ‘reaching home’.

Rajneesh said that on March 21, 1953, at the age of twenty-one, he did ‘reach home’. He became enlightened…’a new energy’ ‘a new freedom came’…’There was no gravitation’ he said years later, ‘ I was feeling weightless…For the first time the drop had fallen into the ocean…I was the ocean…The moment I entered the garden everything became luminous…alive…beautiful”. He sat under a Maulshree tree. There was no time, and ‘the whole universe…luminous, throbbing, became a benediction.’ (Ref 2 p 25)

As a psychiatrist one of the fundamental questions is:

How can the mystic encounters be separated from the psychotic encounters of schizophrenics? Who needs treatment and medications and who does not? While I was reading the experiences of Krishnamurti and Rajneesh I was thinking about one of my young patients Paul who suffered from schizophrenia and used to be preoccupied by religious and spiritual matters and as his condition deteriorated his life started to disintegrate. He had very poor self-esteem. He believed he was ugly and nobody liked him. Unfortunately his condition did not respond to medications, psychotherapy or even hospitalization.

One day he showed me one of his poems, which read

Here at home

Come inside my name in hell

Let me give you pain and agony so you won’t feel well

Over in the distance across the flames of darkness you can hear a bell

I welcome you into my fear I see you like it I can tell

Up from God in heaven above I was defeated and fell

Down to the stinking creating God made

I sit here down on earth a demon of hade

I hate man’s soul and make him to fade

Into the night the dark gloom and shade

Death destruction is my name and confusion and death on earth all of it will I claim

The war pains grace in man’s head---take a look around and know my name

The name of satan is of hell, fury furnace, reign

God is but a dove, yet I am the dragon

and crush his weak wings all over each I claim suffering and life,

love of greed I sing

I love the danger of battle the screams of man in my ear I love to hear it ring

Against spikes and stakes---God’s people will I crush and fling

Come into me satan and darken my soul

Down here in my hell for inside my home.

This young schizophrenic was so tormented by his psychotic encounters that after a few months of writing that poem he committed suicide.

Silvano Arieti, a famous American psychiatrist, comments on the differences of psychotic and mystic encounters.

‘Mystical experiences seem to correspond to what are called hallucinations and delusions in psychiatric terms---it is easy to confuse religious mystics with psychotic patients especially those psychotics who have hallucinations and delusions with a religious content” (Ref 1 p 118)

Arieti feels that there are marked differences between them. He writes,

“The individual who experiences them [mystic encounters] has a marked rise in self-esteem and a sense of his being or becoming a worthwhile and very active person. He has been given a mission, a special insight, and from now on he must be on the move doing something important---more important than his life.

In mystical experiences we have a tradition of auto-hypnosis. A subject puts himself into a state of a trance and projects power to the divinity---the hypnosis is time limited and totally reversible.

The hallucinatory and delusional experiences of the schizophrenic are generally accompanied by a more or less apparent disintegration of the whole person. Religious and mystical experiences seem to result in a strengthening and enriching of the personality.” (Ref 1 p 119)

John White, editor of a book What is Enlightenment?, believes that a nervous breakdown with auditory hallucinations, loss of ego boundaries, paranoia and other symptoms of mental illness might be a transitory step towards a breakthrough. Those people who cannot go to the next stage become mentally ill which those who are lucky to have a strong personality, supportive friends or an experienced spiritual teacher might be guided to the next stage of mystic development and achieve nirvana and enlightenment. He believes that the journey of spiritual enlightenment can go through three stages: ‘  from arthonoia through paranoia to metanoia. We grow from arthonoia—that is, the common, every day state of ego centered mind—to metanoia only by going through paranoia, a state in which the mind is deranged with (that is, taken apart) and rearranged through spiritual discipline so that clear perception of reality might be experienced. Conventional western psychologists regard paranoia as a pathological breakdown. It often is, of course, but seen from this perspective, it is not necessarily so. Rather, it can be a breakthrough—not the final breakthrough, to be sure, but a necessary stage of development on the way to realization of the kingdom’.

Paranoia is a condition well understood by mystical and sacred traditions. The spiritual disciplines that people practice under the guidance of guru or master are designed to ease and quicken the passage through paranoia so that the practitioner doesn’t get lost in the labyrinth of inner space and become a casualty.

Because metanoia has by large not been experienced by the founders of western psychology and psychotherapy, paranoia has not feel fully understood in our culture. It is seen as an aberrant dead end rather than a necessary precondition to higher consciousness. It is not understood that the confusion, discomfort, and suffering experienced in paranoia are due entirely to the destruction of an illusion, ego. The less we cling to that illusion, the less we suffer.” (Ref 1 p 120)

It is interesting to note that neither do all psychotics have mystic encounters nor do all mystics experience a psychotic breakdown.

Krishnamurti after experiencing mystic encounters developed a mystic personality and defined a new role in his life. In Feb 1927 he wrote to Leadbeater,

“ I know my destiny and my work. I know with certainty that I am blending into the consciousness of the one Teacher and that he will completely fill me. I feel and I know also that my cup is nearly full to the brim and that it will overflow soon. Till then I must abide quietly and with eager patience. I long to make and will make everybody happy” (Ref 1 p 103).

In April 1927, Mrs Bessant said to the Associated press in the United States, “ The Divine Spirit has descended once more on a man Krishnamurti, who in his lifetime is literally perfect as those who know him can testify. The World Teacher is here.” Mrs Bessant’s life-long dream had come true. Her spiritual student had finally graduated.

After Krishnamurti started a new road towards enlightenment, his first step was to denounce all traditions, all cults, all religious institutions, all teachers, all centers of authority including his own Theosophical Society. In August 1929 he announced his resignation from the Society in the presence of Mrs. Bessant and started his solitary journey. Describing his vision for the future he said,

“The vision is total To me that is liberation” (Ref 1 p 104)

After that announcement and for the rest of his life, his teachings were based on his philosophy which he stated as,

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any other path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect…Truth being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized, nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path” (Ref1 p 104)

After his resignation, his teacher Mrs. Bessant expressed a desire to resign from the Society and become his disciple but Krishnamurti refused to accept anyone as his disciple, even the very loyal and dedicated Mrs. Bessant.

Krishnamurti, for the rest half a century, travelled around the world giving lectures, meeting people from all walks of life sharing his knowledge, experience and wisdom. Those who consulted him for their problems included three generations of prime ministers of India, Jawarlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi. People who admired his knowledge and wisdom included Dalai Lama, Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, R.D. Laing, Joseph Campbell and many more.

On the other hand Rajneesh became quite notorious and was known as the sex-guru and pseudo-mystic.

Rajneesh had to leave India and established a commune and a cult in America. For a while he was successful that he had accumulated, among other trappings of wealth, a fleet of 99 Rolls Royces. However, he got into legal difficulties with the local community and was asked to leave the country. Unfortunately his motherland refused to take him so for a few years he wandered around in different parts of the world until his death in 1990, ‘allegedly as a result of either poisoning or from full blown AIDS’ (Ref 3 p 65). In the years since his death, millions of people have visited his Ashram in India. Interestingly the leader of the movement is a Canadian by the name of Swami Mike, son of a British Columbia judge. According to one report, the average revenue generated in that Ashram in Poona, India is nearly 50 million dollars a year.



While I was contemplating about the similarities between creative encounters of a poet, psychotic encounters of a schizophrenic and mystic encounters of a saint and wondering as a secular humanist whether the creative gift of the Muse, and the voices of God and Satan have the same origin, our own unconscious, I remembered a number of my patients that I looked after in the last twenty years of my clinical practice who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. Before they were properly diagnosed they had seen numerous doctors and visited different clinics and hospitals and were treated with a wide range of antipsychotics, antidepressants and anxiolytics with no beneficial effect. Those patients had been a mystery for their families, friends and physicians alike. They could be divided in two groups

A, The first group experienced auditory hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder and loss of ego boundaries. The content of symptoms was persecutory. They were diagnosed as schizophrenics and treated with antipsychotics but unlike other schizophrenics these symptoms seemed to appear and disappear mysteriously unrelated to taking medications.

B, The second group had a religious and spiritual flavour to their psychotic symptoms. They heard voices of God and believed they had special powers and were the chosen ones to deliver a special message to the world. Their families were quite perturbed by the whole experience. They were unsure whether their relatives were saints or psychotics. Patients believed they were having a spiritual breakthrough while the families believed they were having a nervous breakdown.

Interestingly after EEGs were done and these patients were diagnosed as suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy and treated with anti-epileptics like Tegratol, those symptoms came in control and those patients started leading a healthy, happy and stable lives. Later on they felt embarrassed talking about their psychotic and mystic encounters. One of them called them ‘disturbing and confusing nightmares’.

When I met those patients and heard their stories from them and their families I wondered about the role of temporal lobes in the dynamics of creative, psychotic and mystic encounters. And then I came across Dr. Robert Buckman’s book CAN WE BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD. In that book he presents an enlightening review of the literature and research done by a number of neurologists. He brings to our attention that Temporal Lobes play a significant role in all those perceptions and experiences that we associate with creative, psychotic and mystic encounters. He shares the activities of right and left temporal lobes in these words, ‘ The left temporal lobe functions as a major component of your language skills and (depending on the part of it we are talking about) some aspects of your motor skills. Damage in this area (for example from a stroke or a head injury) usually produces major difficulties with speech (as with aphasia or dysphasia) or certain types of difficulties in moving or doing things (sometimes called a dyspraxia)…temporal lobe on the right side of your brain…[has] something to do with the person’s perception of reality and of himself or herself…problems in the right temporal lobe produce disturbances of perception and experiences.”(Ref 4 p 115) Many of these changes are proven by the EEG [electroencephalography] invented in 1940s and since used in studying epileptic patients and sleep problems in normal people.

Based on EEG studies Buckman highlights that human beings can be divided in three groups depending upon the sensitivity of temporal lobes.

Those people who have highly sensitive temporal lobes suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy as they have spontaneous firing of the neurons of the temporal lobe. Dr, Hughlings Jackson studied those epileptics and discovered that their auras, hallucinations and out of body experiences were not much different than what was reported by saints in their mystic encounters. During those epileptic seizures the auras ‘…include some very particular sensations and experiences. These may include any ( or several) of the following: auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), déjà vu (the feeling of seeing something before), visual hallucinations, experiencing funny smells, a feeling of particular peace, a sensation of deep understanding or of profound and significant knowledge and a feeling of being outside one’s body.’ (Ref 4 p 118)

One such example was Fyodor Dostoessky, a famous Russian writer, who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy and shared his experiences in these words,

“All of the forces of life gathered convulsively all at once to the highest attainable consciousness. The sensation of life, of being, multiplies ten-fold at that moment, all passion, all doubts, all unrests, were resolved as in a higher peace: then a peace full of dear, harmonious joy and hope. And then a scene suddenly as if something were opening up in the soul: an indescribable, an unknown light radiated, by which the ultimate essence of things was made visible and recognizable. All this lasted at most a second”.  ( Ref 4 p 120)

Based on the experiences of temporal lobe epileptics some neurologists wonder whether many saints and mystics like Joan of Arc suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.

Dr. Wilder Penfield, the Canadian neurosurgeon “mapped out the functions of the various areas of the brain” and discovered “ When he stimulated the motor areas, patients experienced involuntary movements or twitches of the arm or leg or lips or some other part of the body. But when he stimulated the temporal lobe on the right side, there was no movement of any part of the body. Instead, the patients reported a wide variety of significant experiences, perceptions and/or feelings. The phenomena reported were basically the same as the auras accompanying temporal lobe seizures---feelings of great peace, of deep understanding, of consciousness of another being, of sensations of taste, sight or sound and so on.’ (Ref 4 p 122)

Those people who have temporal lobes more sensitive than average but less sensitive that epileptics have creative encounters and become poets and artists and actors as it is easy for them to enter imaginary worlds and create characters or play roles of other people.

‘…drama, poetry and other creative acts: activities that require the person to ‘get into’ another world or another mode are associated with high temporal lobe scores.’ (Ref 4 P 133)

Even those people who have average temporal lobes and do not suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy and are not poets or actors, when their temporal lobes are stimulated by electrodes in the laboratory they have similar experiences. Rather than having epileptic fits they have perceptual and sensory experiences similar to the ones shared by the mystics. When M.A. Persinger did experiments on volunteers by stimulating their temporal lobes he noticed, “…Sometimes the sensations were visual or auditory, sometimes they were complex experiences, sometimes they were based on actual memories; sometimes they were fundamental and deep-rooted feelings. Many of them, however had to do with a feeling of peace, of serenity, of being one with nature and often of being in the presence of another consciousness (another being). Some people felt that they were near the presence of aliens. Others experienced deeply spiritual or religious feelings. Some reported that they were in the presence of god, and some heard his voice.”(Ref 4 P 126)

How do we understand all those similarities? Julian Jaynes tried to explain those encounters based on his theory of Right/Left Brain functioning. He believes that the Temporal Lobe of the Left Brain deals with language while the Temporal Lobe of the Right Brain deals with sensory, perceptual and aesthetic experiences. He believes that psychotic, creative and mystic experiences originate in the Right Brain and when messages are sent to the Left Brain, the Left Brain does not own it and feels as if those messages came from the outside and depending upon the personality and philosophy of the person and the culture interpreted in different ways. Buckman explains, “ In 1962, a scientist, historian and thinker named Julian Jaynes popularized the idea that our minds all work in a ‘right-brain /  left-brain’ manner…In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-carmel Mind Jaynes comes to some startling conclusions.

He suggests that consciousness---awareness of one’s self as a person and personality---did not evolve steadily or even early in the human mind’s history. Jaynes suggests that what we nowadays regard as ‘our own thoughts’ were originally perceived by the thinker as voices coming from the spirits of dead ancestors. Jaynes proposed that thoughts originating in the right side of the brain crossed over into the left, where they were not recognized as the person’s own but seemed to arrive  from outside.”  (Ref 4 p 134) Dr. Robert Buckman concludes his discussion by stating his opinion “ If the limbic system [that includes temporal lobes] is activated by means of the temporal lobe, a person will have an experience of the spiritual or divine type. God is---literally--- a state of mind.” (Ref 4 P 146)

After reviewing the literature and life stories of people it seems to me as if  human beings from all walks of life and cultures  have a wide range of creative, psychotic and mystic encounters but the interpretation of those encounters depend upon the belief structures of those people who experience them and the families and cultures they belong to. There can abe three separate interpretations or a mixture of them:

Secular people, families and cultures associate them with their own brains and unconscious minds and associate the echos, the auras and the voices with the gifts of Muse.

Spiritual people, families and cultures associate the same experiences with spirits, angels or God residing in their own unconscious.

Religious people, families and cultures explain the same experiences by associating them with the traditional concept of God and the Creator who is outside the universe and sends messages to special chosen people who are recognized as saints and mystics and prophets by their communities.

As a psychotherapist and a secular humanist I believe that those extra-ordinary experiences are part of our humanity while associating them with God and divinity is part of mythology that we have culturally inherited over the centuries. As a psychiatrist I believe that it is important for us in our personal and professional lives to identify

A, those artists and mystics who do not experience emotional problems and suffer from nervous breakdowns

B,those patients who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia and offer them the best treatment we can offer to decrease their suffering

C, those people who want to follow the creative and mystic paths and develop their creative and mystic self and are going through a psychotic state as a part of the journey. It might be better to offer them support and encouragement rather than offer them traditional psychiatric treatment and give them anti-psychotics. But it would be important to follow them for a while to see whether their personalities are strengthened or weakened by those extra-ordinary experiences.

D, those people who need psychotherapy to encourage their mystic and creative potential as they suffer because they have not been able to express their creativity and get in touch with their spirituality.

I believe time has come for poets, psychologists, priests, mystics and psychotherapists to work together so that they can serve humanity to the best of their abilities by understanding the personalities of artists, psychotics and mystics and then help them become the best they can and share their creative gifts with their families and communities. I believe that those gifts belong to the whole humanity.

Dr. K. Sohail

Jan 2005



1.      Sohail K …From Islam to Secular Humanism Abbeyfield Publishers Totonro Canada 2001

2.      Gordon James…Golden Guru The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh The Stephen Green Press USA 1987

3.      Sohail K …The Myth of the Chosen One White Knight Publishers Toronto Canada 2002

4.      Buckman Robert CAN WE BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD Penguin Books Canada 2000