Hysteria and the Holy Life

     (This is yet another "teaser" from an upcoming book—this time from the third volume I have in the works, "Buddhist Ethics, Buddhist Practice." The first, Essays in Theravada Buddhism, is already for sale on Amazon.com, here; and the second, Philosophical Dharma, essays on philosophy not particularly Theravadin, should be up within the week. This third one is the last that I will publish in a mad scramble to get things done after my transition, although I have at least two more, which are equally good, if you please, on the back burner, so to speak. But I really am in a state of having a hundred things to do all at once. For example, more than a month after my exit from the Bhikkhu Sangha I still do not have a pair of long pants or a pair of shoes that are not monk sandals.

     So in addition to giving glimpses of what my new books contain (and the first one really has turned out well, considering that it was my first attempt at editing and self-publishing), I have been giving myself a break from writing new blog posts, because I've been writing other things, and doing other things, and just plain scrambling. The next post on this blog will be totally fresh though, insh'allah. I do feel the conscientious need to keep blogging with new content, so no worries that I'll be recycling into the indefinite future.

     Anyway, the following is one of the meatier and more important, methinks, of the essays I have written on the matter of human depth psychology and the unnaturalness of sainthood. A saint sacrifices his own humanity to some degree, and often his health, physical and emotional, although of course being a genuine saint is arguably worth some dysfunction and even an early and painful death. We pays our money and we takes our choice...and pretty obviously, most of us do not choose to be saints, and even most of us who do are not entirely successful at it. And one of the reasons why we aren't successful is because our subconscious mind and our human nature resists it, sometimes vehemently.

     And so without any further ado, here is the article.)

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Hysteria • Psychiatry a psychological disorder (not now regarded as a single definite condition) whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization), selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. The term has a controversial history as it was formerly regarded as a disease specific to women. (—New Oxford American Dictionary)


     It may be, for all I know, that the psychology of Sigmund Freud has become obsolete by now. I have read that just as Galileo invented modern science with regard to the external world, so Freud invented it with regard to the internal one—and I would guess that very few physicists nowadays consult the works of Galileo in their researches. I'm pretty sure there are still Freudian psychologists walking around out there, but 21st-century cognitive scientists who are attempting to turn psychology into a "hard science" might not give them the time of day.

     Even so, I do think many of Freud's observations on the workings of the human psyche still hold true, and that much of his theory may be more empirically consistent and valuable than, say, the Abhidhamma philosophy of orthodox Theravada Buddhism. For example, his interpretation of dream symbolism is good and interesting. He says that if we dream about a building it generally represents our own body or "self." This would explain why my father told me once that it was only after he grew old that he began having dreams about being inside dilapidated old buildings that were falling apart. Exploring a large building room by room, as in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, is a common theme in my dreams; and although in a few dreams the building clearly symbolized the world or (in one strange dream) even the entire Universe, I am somewhat of a subjective idealist, and do not clearly differentiate between the world and "my own person."

     Freud also says that water in a dream usually symbolizes religion or Spirit. I have spirit-oriented water dreams sometimes, as have other people I have known who have spiritual or religious inclinations. Once, many years ago, an Australian monk friend of mine had a strange water dream that he did not consciously understand, but when he described it to me the meaning seemed clearly obvious: He dreamed that he was in a canoe, paddling around in a lake or large pond. He sat at one end of the canoe, and at the other end were three or four large gorillas. The gorillas were peaceful and behaving themselves very nicely; but my friend was afraid to go back to shore, because then the gorillas might jump out of the boat and run amuck, causing who knows what kind of trouble. So he kept paddling around and around in the middle of the lake, wanting to go back to dry land, but too worried about the behavior of the apes actually to do it. As I say, my friend claimed not to understand the meaning of his own dream, but it seemed pretty clear to me: The water represented Dhamma, and being in the canoe symbolized living the life of a monk. He was feeling frustration in the monkhood and was tempted to drop out, but he felt that his old bad habits or "defilements" (the gorillas) would once again become relatively unrestrained and out of control. As it turned out, not long after he had this dream he actually did drop out of the monkhood. Whether his gorillas ran amuck or not I don't know. (By the way, if the good fellow who had that dream reads this, I'd like him to know that I'd be very happy to hear from him after all these years. He may have had a canoe full of apes; I still have a rowboat full of dogs. Mostly hounds.) The idea that our own mind may create symbolic worlds that our "conscious" waking egos do not understand is very intriguing, and may have deep metaphysical implications, especially to subjective idealists or those who accept the Buddhist conception of Karma…but maybe I'll dive into that some other time.

     What I would mainly like to discuss in this little article is Freud's interpretation of hysteria. According to him, we all have deep animalistic urges, like desire and fear, which in a civilized society we are not allowed to express. It simply wouldn't do for a man walking down a city street to attack anyone who bothered him or to rape any woman he found attractive. We Must Restrain Ourselves. But restraining these urges, as a general rule, does not make them go away or disappear. Instead, they are pushed underground—into the subconscious mind—where they gradually accumulate and build up pressure until they eventually percolate up to the surface in the form of neurotic symptoms. Freud thought that any civilized person was bound to be neurotic, and he considered himself to be no exception. He apparently believed that only a naked savage living in a wilderness could be really mentally healthy; but he was apparently unaware that naked savages in jungles tend to be heavily burdened with fearful superstitions and taboos, possibly even more so than are modern Westerners. Thus it seems to be human nature to be mentally ill.

     Following is a classic case history of this kind of phenomenon, which I read in a classic psychology book, the title of which I no longer remember: It seems there was a young woman who worked as a typist or secretary in an office in a Germanic city a hundred years ago or more. Every day she walked to work by the same route, which passed a certain plant nursery. Now it may be that the young woman was very pretty, because every morning a certain young man who worked at the nursery would stand at the entrance to watch her walk by. I suspect that women have an innate talent for knowing when a man is checking them out, something akin to radar (or maybe men just don't realize how obvious their ogling can be); and perhaps this man too was attractive, as the young woman, deep in her heart, seems to have liked his attention. However, he was beneath her socially, as she worked in an office while he was a manual laborer; and besides, this was at a time when society required young ladies to behave in a modest, demure fashion. So there was little chance that she would deliberately choose to encourage this man, much less make the first move. Then, one fine day, as she was on her way to the office, she collapsed. She couldn't move her legs. She was suddenly paralyzed. And where? Right across the street from the entrance to the plant nursery. Her subconscious desire for this young buck of a man had built up enough pressure to break through to the surface and attempt to take matters into its own hands, so to speak. Of course she was examined by a doctor, and of course she had nothing at all physically wrong with her to cause the collapse. It was a classic, textbook case of hysterical paralysis. 

     If Freud's principle of neurotic hysteria applies to all people in civilized society, then it stands to reason that it would be more obviously applicable in relatively morally inhibited cultures. Consider, for example, the Spaniards of the 16th century and the English Puritans of the 17th, with their hysterical fears of witches, heresy, and the Devil. Many people were burned to death by howling mobs in those days, often for no greater crime than eccentricity or bad luck. And if this phenomenon is more likely in morally inhibited lay societies, then presumably it would be most likely in the most morally restrained societies of all—societies of monks, nuns, and other saintly religious renunciants. Carl Jung in his essay "Answer to Job" (well worth reading by anyone interested in the moral evolution of the biblical God), touches upon this idea in his discussion of Saint John the Evangelist, author of the extremely violent Book of Revelation:

The "revelation" was experienced by an early Christian who, as a leading light of the community, presumably had to live an exemplary life and demonstrate to his flock the Christian virtues of true faith, humility, patience, devotion, selfless love, and denial of all worldly desires. In the long run this can become too much, even for the most righteous. Irritability, bad moods, and outbursts of affect [e.g. apocalyptic visions] are the classic symptoms of chronic virtuousness.

     I could give many case histories suggestive of restraint-induced hysteria in monks that I have known, or know of. Here are just a few examples. I once new a junior Western monk who began rather lax in his practice, not knowing any better than to follow along with what the Burmese monks around him were doing, but who eventually became as strict as was possible for him, and who evidently had a personality which tended to greatly value self-control anyway. Over the course of several months he grew more and more irritable and hard to satisfy, with his long-term plans also changing at an accelerating rate. One monastery was too lax, another was unacceptable because it was close enough to a highway that he could hear trucks, two more were intolerable because they had electric generators that ran (and made noise) for a few hours each day, and so on. Finally, triggered by an illness, he dramatically catapulted himself out of the monkhood in an emotional outburst that left his supporters, and his main Dhamma teacher, aghast. A more "psychosomatic" case is a relatively senior monk I met who couldn't meditate because whenever his mind would start to settle into samādhi he would have violent neck spasms, his head jerking to the side again and again, which of course wrecked the meditation. He seemed not to have these spasms at other times. Not long after I met him he dropped out of the Sangha; and I was informed that shortly thereafter he fell madly in bed with a young woman—and I would guess that his neck spasms went away, or were at least greatly alleviated. There is also the well-known case of the late venerable Ñāṇavīra, who developed a condition which many rascally laymen might envy, and which was so distracting to him that it was an important factor in his decision to commit suicide. He considered the condition to be a strange side effect of some dysentery medication that he took, although I suspect that in modern medical jargon it would be called a "hysterical conversion reaction."

     I am not asserting that any of the above mentioned monks was necessarily hysterical, let alone unhinged. But even if their symptoms were indicative of hysteria it would to some degree be to their credit, as at least it would suggest that they were conscientiously self-restrained. Lax monks, who simply allow their apes to run amuck anyhow, tend not to have such problems. And anyway, Freud says we're all neurotic.

     There is one case history that I can be fairly certain about, and that is my own. At a time when I was doing the most intensive meditation practice of my life, alone in a forest in NW Burma, I began experiencing a peculiar irregularity in my breathing. (Just remembering it can trigger a mild case of it, as is happening now.) It was as though I were forgetting to breathe enough, requiring me to inhale very deeply, followed by a big sigh. The urge was somewhat similar to a yawn; and sometimes I would have to raise my shoulders and twist my upper body to one side in order to inhale deeply enough to cause the urge to "reset" and temporarily to disappear. If a certain stretching sensation did not occur in the area of my sternum, the urge would remain, and I would have to try again. When it was most intense I could be wakened from sleep by this strange urge; although it almost always occurred when I was awake. It eventually became rather troublesome and distracting. Some time after this I found myself at a monastery equipped with a physician's diagnostic guide, so I looked up my symptoms. Sure enough, it was there—it was simply called dyspnea, or "difficult breathing”—and it even mentioned that some people have to contort their body while inhaling to make it feel "right." Then, to my chagrin and humiliation, it said that this condition is almost always a hysterical conversion reaction, or, in other words, a psychosomatic hysterical condition. 

    I'm pretty sure I've exhibited other forms of hysterical behavior also. For example, for years I had a habit, which I hope is pretty much broken by now, of writing aggressively confrontational letters to people, systematically, ruthlessly pointing out to them their own foibles and self-contradictions. I offended a number of people this way; fortunately I wrote an average of only about one of them per year. Finally I concluded that it was a kind of neurotic symptom, venting my own suppressed frustration with the world onto someone else.

     A lesson to be learned from all this business about suppressed urges making trouble is that our animal instincts and unskillful habits—our "defilements”—do not want to die, and will fight for their own survival, much like any animal will. Also, the delusive "self" will resist being replaced by wisdom, and will endeavor to sabotage our attempts to cultivate it. This is one of the main reasons why people have difficulties in their meditation practice—subconscious fear of Nirvana.

     Not only relatively strict Dharma practitioners, but even highly advanced saints may exhibit hysterical behavior. And this observation is made after totally setting aside the questionably saintly Martin Luther who flung his ink pot at the Devil; the fanatical Heinrich Suso, who was instructed by "angels" not to touch his own body, not to bathe, not to wash his clothes or bedding (which consequently swarmed with lice), to wear underpants lined with needles, etc., etc.; and the rather eccentric Saint Gertrude, who was visited repeatedly by Jesus Christ Himself, largely for the purpose of indulging in amatory flirtation with her. (Interested readers may find relevant details on Heinrich and Saint Gertrude in William James's brilliant classic The Varieties of Religious Experience.) I mean that even extremely advanced masters may exhibit hysterical symptoms.

     Consider the case of Saint John of the Cross. He is my favorite Christian saint; and by Buddhist standards he would be called a true meditation master, a master of fourth jhāna. If it is at all possible for a Christian to be fully enlightened, then I would consider San Juan de la Cruz to be a likely candidate for it. He spoke with authority, as from his own experience, about the Stage of Perfection in which all self-will has been eradicated. Yet he also considered himself to have received celestial visions and divine communications from God Himself. He wisely instructed his disciples to disregard all visions and divine communications, saying that a true contemplative should dismiss anything that arises, profane or sacred. (As the Bible says, even the Devil can appear as an angel of light.) Yet he appears to have taken some of his own communications from God at face value. According to her own autobiography, Saint John's mentor, Saint Teresa of Avila, was so prone to see supernatural visions that at one point her father confessor advised her to make the sign of the cross, in case it were the work of the Devil, whenever she saw one, and she became so weary of making the sign again and again that before long she began simply carrying a crucifix around with her to hold up to the apparitions. Yet she was clearly a very advanced Saint, a kind of inspired moral genius.

     It is probably no mere coincidence that the greatest saints seem unusually prone to have celestial visions, each in accordance with the belief systems of their own traditions. Hallucinations may inspire sainthood, as was perhaps the case with someone like Joan of Arc, but I think it is more often the other way around. (Also, "revealed scriptures," some of which are of great profundity, could be called "channeled documents" in New Age language, and in the language of modern psychology could plausibly be called manifestations of hysterical dissociation.)

     Getting closer to home for Theravada Buddhists, there is the case of venerable Ajahn Mun, possibly the most renowned meditation master of modern Thailand (although in his day it was still called Siam). He is apparently believed by millions of Thais to have been fully enlightened, and many Westerners trained in Thai traditions share this belief. He has set a sort of precedent with regard to certain somewhat controversial monastic behaviors, such as eating cheese in the afternoon and smoking tobacco: many Thai monks appear to trust that if such behaviors were good enough for an Arahant like Ajahn Mun, then they are good enough for any monk. On the other hand, if a Westerner with some capacity for skepticism reads venerable Ajahn Mun's classic, bizarre, surreal biography (written by one of his chief disciples who is also considered my many to be fully enlightened), he or she encounters information that is rather difficult to assimilate. To give some examples, it is stated that the venerable Ajahn announced the dates and times that he had attained each of the four stages of sainthood; that he had interactions with a fault-finding cobra dragon and a gigantic, forest-dwelling demon; that wild tigers would literally line up along his walking meditation path to watch him pace back and forth; that so many gods and goddesses came to him for darshan at night that he often went without sleep, and had to attend to them in batches because there were too many to attend to all at once; and, last but not least, that he was visited on numerous occasions by long-deceased fully enlightened Buddhas, each with a retinue of hundreds of long-deceased fully enlightened Arahants. If even only a fraction of such alleged details originated with the honest words of Ajahn Mun himself, then I would have little choice but to consider the possibility that he was just as prone to hallucination as his venerable peers in the Roman Catholic Church. 

     Really though, I am not at all implying that even if Ajahn Mun considered himself really to have been visited by crowds of gods, goddesses, and dead enlightened beings, and even if such considerations were (at least superficially) delusional, that he was not nevertheless fully enlightened. And that in addition to having a ferocious temperament and probably being addicted to a drug, nicotine, besides. (He was allegedly a chain smoker.) I am in no position at all to decide whether he was or was not enlightened. The situation definitely has fascinating implications.

     One might object that hysteria is a kind of mental illness, and that an enlightened being might be physically ill, but never mentally, as enlightenment implies mental perfection. But one should bear in mind that the human mind is not designed by nature to be enlightened, but to be delusional; so it stands to reason that an Arahant could seem rather abnormal or dysfuncional, especially when unenlightened people are judging him.

     Or, one could say that an enlightened being could not possibly be hysterical, as he or she would have no desires, frustrations, or fears at all to be repressed. But consider a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person with OCD may, for instance, wash his hands fifty times a day or more, until the skin of his hands is cracked and bleeding. He can't resist the urge, and just can't stop doing it. If he undergoes treatment (which nowadays may involve a kind of Buddhist mindfulness practice) he may be cured of his trouble, but the obsessive/compulsive urges may not entirely disappear. The actual cure consists of his learning not to take the compulsive urges seriously, and not to react to them by acting them out. They will become much reduced through lack of reinforcement, but they do not necessarily go away completely. It may be that enlightenment is like this also, at least for some people. After all, we are conditioned by human nature, with all its desires and fears, and so on; and it may be that this doesn't just disappear at the moment of enlightenment. 

     Or let's say that an Arahant has psychic power and can know what other people are experiencing in his or her own mind. If that being "feels into" the mind of someone experiencing desire and fear, then he or she will be in some way experiencing desire and fear too, right? Even ordinary compassion may be said to be like this: One feels another's suffering.

     Finally, it might also be objected that an enlightened being absolutely could not be delusional, since delusion is the exact opposite of enlightenment! However, if one considers that the so-called "Real World" is also illusory, yet is taken at face value, at least superficially, by virtually all saints and sages, then for an enlightened being to take at face value an illusion peculiar to himself seems not quite so strange.

     But it's pointless to argue about what enlightened beings are like, so enough of this.

Sigmund Freud, Ajahn Mun, and Heinrich Suso
(with Heinrich holding one of his instruments of self-torture)


  1. Interesting post as usual, lot to chew on.
    Since you have mentioned him, what are your thoughts on ven. Nanavira writings? Especially the book Clearing the Path - if you have read It.

    1. I read Nanavira a long time ago, and I liked his personal letters better than his Dhamma book. He struck me as a hyperintellectual who thought that he had cogitated himself to the state of an Ariya, and he had approximately zero appreciation for mysticism. So I was influenced by him to read some other books (like F. H. Bradley), but I really do not have a very high opinion of him as a Buddhist thinker.

  2. It could be said that mental illness is unbalance. In the case of saints or monks, how do you reconcile the middle path with their very unbalanced way of living. Modern psychology has a whole host of precise clinical diagnoses that can be used to observe these cases. Psychosis, ocd, hysteria, suppression, etc...

    How do we reconcile this extreme lifestyle and way of thought with the middle path? The two seem to be complete opposites. Even monkhood seems to promote clinging to extreme rules and unbalanced way of life that can cause neurosis in even moderately-minded monks with no aim towards sainthood.

    1. As Freud said, even just restraining oneself, like not raping every attractive woman we meet, is conducive to neurosis. You can say it's a no win scenario to some extent, because even an unrestrained savage is not sane.

    2. Aside from the way of the monk, the fakir, and the yogi, one might consider the Fourth Way described by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Gurdjieff may have been enlightened, and he was certainly an inspired Trickster.
      Ouspensky was a sad case who nose dived after Gurdjieff slept with his wife.

    3. Yeah I read Ouspensky's Tertium Organum and although he had some interesting ideas I was not impressed with his capacity for logic.

    4. Ouspensky wrote a tract called The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution which is more terse and readable than his other stuff. An associate of Ouspensky named Boris Mouravieff claimed that Gurdjieff stole his ideas from the esoteric tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy and tried to right the ship so to speak in his trilogy entitled Gnosis, volumes 1-3. In some respects it resembles the tiny bits I've heard/read about abidharma (?).
      Average laymen/old guys like me are better off abandoning all this in favor of the 5 Precepts and the most basic vipissana and/or chanting with no great expectations, I suppose.
      Just restating the notions above with a few tasty morsels thrown in...

    5. An interesting and pleasant exchange - if I may jump in with my five cents worth - I read Ouspensky when I was in my 20s and was impressed with the ideas but not with his own elaboration upon them. These ideas were new at the time and many writers from that period really didn't have a full grasp of them before setting pen to paper. From our perspective it's easy to criticize but Ouspensky was viewed as a force for many decades after his writing, and I think rightly so.

      As for Gurdjieff's works I tried reading one book but only managed to get as far as when I tried to read Marx - page 5. At the time I put it down to translation but it could easily been his terse writing style - having said that, I suspect now his writing would be far more intelligible to me - Marx never will be.

      As for Boris Mouravieff I read his books and was highly impressed. Even today they have much of interest to offer. I was particularly struck by many of his explanations, especially those regarding time. Definitely worth taking off the top shelf for a second read.

      And as for old guys I think anyone who is above average intelligence will look for something else other than what society offers via it's mainstream media and crass culture - whether one chooses to chant, meditate, or read all are potentially worthy for quality of life, I can't really see that one is better than another.

    6. I have read that Gurdjieff deliberately made his books difficult to understand, as he felt that people should have to work for understanding, not just have it handed to them. I assume there is some of the old law of economics, that the harder it is to get something the more it is worth.

  3. Mental illness is no mental illness, that's why we call it mental illness.


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