LESSON 3.7 Visionary Experiences
Table of Contents
Description • Associated Clinical problems • Treatment • Case Examples • WWW Library
Visionary experiences involve the activation of the unconscious archetypal psyche which then dominates consciousness. This is the part of the mind which produces dreams and also myths. Anthony Wallace, PhD  an anthropologist, has documented several cases where individuals underwent what seemed to be psychotic episodes and subsequently developed an entirely new mythology and way of life for their social group. For example, in late 1700, Handsome Lake created a new society among the Iroquois Indians on the basis of the visions he had while incapacitated for 6 months.
Visionary experiences have played a pivotal role in the evolution of cultures, particularly when rapid cultural change is occurring due to foreign interventions or indigenous changes. Cultural turmoil activates the psyches of many individuals and sometimes creative cultural innovations emerge from this process (See John Perry, Far Side of Madness).
Mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Mythic Image has traced the process whereby new visions (often expressed in new myths) have guided human cultural evolution. First came early homo sapiens' fascination with fire, then with the animal world and the world of the planted seed. This was followed most recently by a far-reaching fascination with the planets and the stars. Campbell has argued that the pursuit of these realms in myth has directed human activity and enabled humans to surpass themselves.
Neither reason, nor environmental contingencies have determined our collective and individual destinies, but as the poet Robinson Jeffers called them, 'visions that fool him out of his limits.' (Campbell Myths to Live by p. 249)
The psyche continues to generate myths that speak to present situations and issues, often speaking its myths through the voice of dreams. But another potent source of cultural and personal mythmaking is the psychotic mind.
In Perry's view, a visionary experience can be a renewal process in which components of the psychotic individual's make-up are undergoing change.. The psychosis can serve,
as the psyche's own way of dissolving old states of being, and of creatively bringing to birth its new starts-its own way of forming visions of a renewed self and of a new design of life with revivified meanings in one's world. (John Perry, Far Side of Madness p. 11)
Associated Clinical Problems
When the psyche is activated to such an intense degree during visionary experiences, the individual can appear quite psychotic. Beliefs that meet the DSM-IV criteria for delusions, particularly grandiose ones, as well as hallucinations are usually present. At Diabysis, where people in visionary states were allowed to go through the full cycle of their visionary state, most resolved in 6-8 weeks without medication. For many, the experience became a turning point in their life toward growth. Yet during the acute phase, when psychotic symptoms are usually present, the individual can be seriously disabled and can benefit from residential treatment.
Psychotic symptoms do indicate the need for special care. Judgment can be quite impaired and persons in the midst of visionary experiences can act recklessly and endanger themselves as well as others. Unlike other forms of spiritual emergence in which people are usually able to function in consensus reality, persons having visionary experiences can require round-the-clock surveillance. One of the main options needs to be considered to provide a safe container while the person is going through the experience. Several model residential programs have been developed including Kingsley Hall, Diabysis and Soteria, none of which, unfortunately, are open today.
In Far Side of Madness, John Perry, MD described his treatment of a 19-year-old male at Diabysis who presented with a number of grandiose delusions including that he was an "ace airman" and a second George Washington leading the defense of the country against the Russian communists who were trying to capture the world. At other times, he was Emperor of the Germans, Prince Valiant, and Christ. Yet Perry viewed these grandiose delusions as part of a positive transformative process in which the psyche is engaged in a mythic process.
Even though a psychiatrist, Perry did not prescribe any antipsychotic medication to squelch the psychotic symptoms. Rather than suppress or ignore the expression of the patient's psychotic experiences, Perry encouraged it since
therapy should follow the psyche's own spontaneous movements. . .you work with what the psyche presents. (p. 136)
While the patient was in residential treatment at Diabysis, he met with Perry three times a week. In an early session, Perry had this patient draw, and a number of images of death emerged including being cremated, and being buried and clawing his way out of the grave. The whole psychotic renewal process took about 6 weeks, although the patient spent some additional time at the residential treatment center integrating the episode.
Expanded version of the "ace-airman" case described above
The Myths in Mental Illness case is an example of a visionary experience as well as a mystical experience.
Russell Shorto's account from GQ Magazine of the visionary experiences of a 23-year-old college graduate. He went through a spiritual emergency that resulted in hospitalization and spent several months in recovery before he was able to return to college. Also included are his own reflections on this experience and the many parallels he found to the experiences of mystics and spiritual adepts throughout the ages.
WWW LIBRARY of Religion and Spirituality
The WWW LIBRARY of Religion and Spirituality contains interviews with John Perry, MD and articles on visionary experiences.
1 Wallace, A., Stress and rapid personality changes. International Record of Medicine, 1956. 169(12): p. 761-774.
Quiz QUIZ EXERCISE 19: