Hallmarks of a Mystical Experience

William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, delineated four major hallmarks of what might be described as a mystical experience.

  1. Ineffability: the individual just can’t put words to the experience, verbal description does not – cannot – do it justice or even begin to portray the authority, significance or nature of the event.
  2. Noetic Quality: the experience appears extremely significant and important for to the individual and it carries a kind of deep authority, inner knowing and personal truth.
  3. Transiency: the mystical state is not sustained as in it’s peak, but fragments, traces, parts, a felt sense and innate knowing – these do persist and are subject to ongoing development, meaning that the insights/wisdom/truths can deepen in richness and significance over time.
  4. Passivity: it is not by the individual’s active will or direction that the mystical experience occurs. Rather, the individual will is suspended for a time and it is as if the individual is ‘moved’ by something larger than him or herself (such as a higher power).

Clearly, this describes an experience that is quite enormous, powerful and outside of ordinary life experience. This is something that is remembered, owned, held tightly and nurtured. Something that becomes precious, guiding and indeed transformative in one’s life. A deep truth, knowing, reality or beauty may be revealed that is intrinsic to something ordinary, everyday and obvious. The experience of such states can be immensely powerful and transformative in one’s personal journey as well as for collective wellbeing. Does such a state have to have anything to do with religion?

It is possible but uncommon to enter such an altered state of consciousness without intention in everyday life, perhaps but not necessarily while listening to music or being in a sacred or natural space. However, there are various ways to prime for such an experience. For example, one way is through a meditation practice, another through Guided Imagery and Music, and another is through facilitated breathwork. Another increasingly acceptable and accessible way is through the use of sacred plant medicine, such as magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and ayahuasca which through their psychedelic (that is ‘mind-manifesting’) properties may occasion such mystical experiences. While mystical states and religion can seem confusingly intermingled, they are not the same thing. There are many religious people who have never had a mystical experience of this nature, while there are stalwart atheists who have. It is a human experience, not owned by any denomination, school of thought, medical practice or form of therapy. It is true that such experiences may absorb a kind of religious quality, depending on many factors such as the individual’s life experience, the place the experience occurs and even the music playing during the event.

Have you ever experienced an altered state, a mystical state or a spiritual state that relates to James’ conception?

For more information about altered states of consciousness, psychedelic integration, guided imagery and music, mind expansion, transformation and mystical states, please contact me to find out more.

References:

Griffiths, Roland & Richards, William & Mccann, Una & Jesse, Robert. (2006). Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance. Psychopharmacology. 187. 268-283. 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5.

James, W. (1902), The varieties of religious experience. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

Pollan, M. (2018). How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence. New York: Penguin Press.

Grinding Into The Pain

Embracing Pain

What happens when Pain visits a little too often, a little too long? Like an obnoxious guest who overstays her welcome, talking and talking without listening, eating and eating without offering. Well perhaps this is uncomfortable, but just bearable. After all, it is not all that uncommon. And then perhaps, what if Pain decides to visit a great deal too often and a great deal too long? What if the visitor decides not to leave? What if the talking and the eating just don’t stop – on and on and on. What are we to do then? What happens when we are held hostage?

Do we have any control over pain’s inevitable and suffocating visitations? According to the Stoic Epictetus,

Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing. Even more, the things in our control are by nature free, unhindered and unobstructed, while those not in our control are weak, slavish, can be hindered, and are not our own.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1-2

The pain of loss, grief, depression, neurochemistry, external events such as motor car accidents and more – these are not in our control. This may be disheartening or even crushing when fully realised. Why am I forced to sit by while Pain visits the full reign of hell upon me? Why am I not allowed to eject Pain, to revoke visitation rights? How can I escape? Why am I not even permitted to escape my own home with what little I have left? This is a brutal invasion!

As the Stoic relates, the sense of control sought in our bitter fight against Pain is won in our thinking, our choices and our exposure to that which will help us reframe our attitude toward our relationship with pain. Ultimately, our gains are made in our own relationship with and to pain. To those experiencing true, unadulterated suffering, this idea may be received as trite or it may even be impossible to imagine. However, even where chronic mental, emotional or physical pain are involved, the ‘Enemy’ that is Pain can change into something new, something more approachable, something we can negotiate with and engage with in a more balanced relationship. Pain does not have to remain the Enemy, it can become the Teacher, the Healer, even the Beatific Vision. Never losing it’s identity as Pain, and never lessening or coming under our control, Pain’s visits – even those long, excruciating and seemingly never-ceasing visits, can be experienced differently, without fear and without loss of control. The transformation and growth, even healing, that Pain can bring – if we let it – is illustrated in the lines below.

What is pain but a reminder that we are

grinding into the ground

flung into the fight

grating against the wound

slicing into the light

walking the two worlds

lost in daylight, found in night

taking the clean medicine

gaining vision, losing sight.

There are practical steps to forging this new relationship with pain. These really depend on the individual, but in general it is not an overnight process. Meditative practices, including mindfulness techniques and yoga help many. Exercise and diet/nutrition – as insufficient as that seems in the face of enormous pain – can play a large role in re-negotiating your relationship with Pain. Broadly, relationships, spirituality, talking, creating, music, nature and stillness are all ways to explore this different way of relating to Pain.

I wish you well on your journey. For more information on renegotiating your relationship with Pain, contact me by clicking here.

Bipolar Lifestyle Support

“… despite how bipolar disorder may leave one feeling, there is realistic and attainable hope for balance, positivity, health and meaningful living.”

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with bipolar disorder? Struggling with uncontrollable mood fluctuations, unpredictable energy levels and unpleasant medication side effects? Treatment options failing you?

Bipolar is a complex disorder. The medical model offers some assistance with various medications, but it often falls short of providing lasting relief. In order to survive and thrive in daily life, it is essential that a treatment is integrative and holistic, taking the entire person and their unique story, symptoms, strengths, needs and desires into account.

I help people establish and maintain healthy, positive lifestyles, manage symptoms and concerns as well as facilitate a deeper knowledge of the Self. ‘Lifestyle’ factors are far more important than they are often given credit for. Diet, exercise, sleep, mindset, daily structure and relationships are some examples of lifestyle factors that influence the progression of the disorder and maintenance of wellness.

Practical and experienced, empathic assistance is greatly beneficial for establishing and helping maintain positive lifestyle factors, managing symptoms and medical/non-medical treatment options, providing accountability, reality-checking and validation.

Along with receiving practical advice and lifestyle assistance (where necessary), my clients embark on a process of deeper engagement with the Self, wherein we utilise verbal dialogue and creative, symbolic work. It is a process of meaning-making. Together, we will trace your self-story (sometimes called a personal mythology), which is a meaningful, individualised life-narrative based on your particular experiences, beliefs, personal symbols and meaning-making process . We map this purposeful, unique and continuous self-story onto your current experiences and defining beliefs, as well as connecting the story with larger, archetypal (or universal) psychological and spiritual patterns. This provides us with a mythological or spiritual heritage, so to speak.

Essentially, this process elevates the struggle (depression, mania, psychosis, broken relationships, internal battles, self-harm, addiction, shame, intrusive thoughts etc.) and affirms the Self and it’s various, oft-unrecognised accomplishments.

You can discover meaning, transformation and different perspectives, behaviour change and a sense of your connectedness to a larger pattern or story. You can rediscover ownership of your experiences, your life narrative and the direction you choose to go. You can find hope and confidence for facing the future, or even the present.

Any teens or adults can engage in this process, no matter the current mood state.

Bipolar disorder is associated with a relatively high prevalence of suicide and should be taken very seriously. Besides the risk of suicide, the impact that various mood states can have on an individual’s relationships, commitments and self-worth may also be devastating. However, in spite of, or perhaps because of extreme mood states, individual’s have an unusually great opportunity for self-mastery, connection, creativity, awareness and self-knowledge, which in turn radiate outward in relationships and affect the world in positive ripples.

The message is this: despite how bipolar disorder may leave one feeling, there is realistic and attainable hope for balance, positivity, health and meaningful living. Accessing this knowledge is admittedly extremely difficult at times and experienced, empathic support can be invaluable to gaining greater traction on one’s life or maintaining wellness.

For more information on Bipolar Support, please click here.

~ Melissa McWalter Ellse, HPCSA registered arts therapist (AT 0001350)

Peddling Blossoms

The Full Circle Peddling Blossoms - blessing poem

Give up what you do not want, now.
Give up what you do not need.
Strip down; strip yourself down to bare, raw, bone essentials.


Beg the wind to blow away the excess and then plead for it to take away even more –
yes, even that which you thought you could not live without.
Strip down to the Imperishable I,
the Eternal Essence,
the bone-deep, soul-deep brutal burning that no fierce gale can sweep away.


And when you are only a kernel, a seed, a bare, tiny fraction of the earth, your very existence will call out with pure, raw potential
and you will be heard.
You will be heard by the mountain, by the river and by the sky.
You will be heard by the smallest creature, by the widest expanse and by the deepest, chasmic depth.


You will be allowed passage into fertile ground, granted the right to flow, to go
where previously you were too large and cumbersome to tread.
The immensity of your promise in this world will be borne within your humbled and holy frame,
Borne through the long season, the longest night and the darkness of the dirt that you must endure.


And then, as it should be, and as it is, you shall begin to expand, upward and downward, inward and outward, rooted in life-giving, life-promising earth,
rising true toward the sun,
renewed and blessed.
You will be blessed.

Intention Setting for 2020

Now available: Creative INTENTION SETTING 2 hour session in preparation for and contemplation of 2020. Choose awareness and intention as you embrace your potential and invite prosperity. This is a tried and trusted process with the powerful effect of consciously and unconsciously guiding you toward your goals and desires. Mark the passage from one year to the next in order to step more fully into your potential.

Mixed creative media (pastels, collage etc.), intentional use of music-listening to stimulate the process and verbal reflection and contemplation. All materials provided. No ‘creative’ experience necessary.

Available for adults or teens. Individual or group bookings available in Cape Town.

To book, click here.

Travel Safely: Psychedelic Guidance

Psychedelic Guidance Cape Town

After a long period of enforced dormancy, some psychedelics (such as LSD, psilocybin, ibogaine and ketamine) are emerging as breakthrough treatments for a variety of serious mental health conditions. During the long relegation to ‘illegal’ and ‘dangerous’ status (which many of these substances still hold in most countries, including South Africa), individuals seeking alternative treatments or psychedelic-induced mystical experiences have had to make it on their own, without profession guidance on their mind-altering journey.

Why guidance?

“Institutionalized use of psychedelics in religions of pre-modern societies worldwide reveal the central roles of these substances in the evolution of spiritual experiences, cultures, and religions” (Winkelman, 2017). The ancient wisdom traditions that use/d various psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms), for their medicinal and transcendent properties knew that a certain factors were not just important, but necessary for safely and meaningfully entering into the induced mystical or spiritual state.

In pre-modern cultures, ritual and ceremony cannot be divorced from the use of mind-altering substances. Various culturally relevant preparations and enactments are essential for the containment and enhanced meaningfulness of the journey. Nor would one expect to make one’s own way through a psychedelic experience without the use of an experienced guide, usually a shaman or similar, who themselves has mastered the ‘two worlds’ and is capable of holding and guiding the intense and vivid journeys of others. Further traditions are often forgotten by the modern, solo traveller, such as those leading up to the experience: fasting, if necessary, other medical implications (such as medicines that may need to be discontinued before use), the environment in which the experience will occur and the individual’s mindset (known as set and setting: both of which research has found to be markedly important for the outcome of the experience), and even the time of day that the ceremony is performed. Mindset is incredibly important when entering an altered state of consciousness; fears, anxieties and doubts should be addressed long before the experience is underway. There may be certain longer term preparations than need to be made, such as developing a mindfulness practice, meditation or yoga.

A psychedelic revolution has been gaining momentum for some time now, and until certain measures are in place, modern day, city-dwelling individuals are frankly forced into unsafe, hardly optimal conditions if they seek these experiences. Because of the increasingly complex yet somewhat spiritually flattened society we live in, there is more that a ‘modern-day’ guide needs to take into consideration than a traditional, pre-modern ‘small village’ guide. This versatility and adaptiveness on the part of a modern guide is essential in order to safely and meaningfully guide different individuals with different intentions, backgrounds and world views who are seeking psychedelic-induced mystical experiences.

In truth, not everyone can, should or needs to embark on a psychonautic journey. For those who do, the services of a trusted, sober, experienced guide makes a qualitative difference. Unfortunately, there are now individuals who pose as guides with little understanding of the psychological, environmental, spiritual and biological factors at play and because psychedelic experiences are in no way regulated, an individual seeking a guide may be none-the-wiser.

Language associated with psychedelic-induced and naturally-induced mystical experiences (‘total awareness’, ‘complete ego dissolution’) is becoming commonplace, as more individuals engage in contemplative practices and exploratory psychedelic experiences. This is both encouraging, as it is indicative of people seeking more awareness and deeper, more meaningful engagement with their realities. However, one must also note the fact that a forced, complete and sudden break from one’s familiar reality holds the potential to be at minimum unpleasant or worse, outright dangerous. No person should use a psychedelic, mind-altering substance without seriously considering the implications and the possible outcomes. This is a process which can be undertaken with a guide, in order to determine if the experience is optimal for you and how it can be most meaningful, beneficial and safe.

For more information, Cape Town, click here.

Tips for a Happy Holiday: Bipolar Christmas Planning

bipolar christmas coping strategies

Christmas is a difficult time for many people. There are financial obligations, family obligation and often many end-of year events that lead up toward Christmas, increasing the feeling of time-pressure and burnout that may already be present.

One of the reasons Christmas time is particularly difficult for individuals with bipolar disorder or depression is the lack of structure that permeates holidays. For those with bipolar disorder, having a predictable structure, a routine, and goal-oriented tasks are known to be extremely helpful for stabilising moods and preventing relapses or spiralling out of control. When the usual work/school structure falls away and no preparations have been made for the holidays and how one will cope, symptoms such as depression, mania, high levels of anxiety and even suicidality can crop up.

Because structure is important for your mental-wellbeing, it is a good idea to begin planning your routine for the holidays now, before the open, lazy days are upon you. I suggest you make a calendar (or update your calendar) based on the following suggestions and the coping strategies you already use. Here are some questions to get you thinking about possible ways forward:

  1. Is there a project you have been putting off that you can dedicate some time to each day? Schedule time to work on it into your calendar. This may be 2 hours daily, 30 minutes daily, or even 60 minutes every second or third day. Decide what you want to commit to and ensure that you have a regular entry for this activity in your calendar.
  2. Are there Christmas gifts or cards that you can make instead of buy – saving you money and providing you with a meaningful activity at the same time?
  3. Is there a friend or relative (or more than one) who you can meet with regularly, perhaps weekly for coffee or a walk, and schedule that meeting into your calendar? Alternatively, can you set up some meeting dates for during the holidays with various individuals?
  4. Can you ensure that your exercise routine remains relatively structured despite the ambiguity of holiday days? (If you don’t have an exercise routine, now would be a good time to put one into practice. Begin with a walk every day – or as often as possible – if you are starting from scratch.) We know exercise has strong mood benefits and it is obviously also great for keeping in shape and general physical health. If you are taking a break from exercise for a while in the holidays, I encourage you to continue with a light form of exercise like walking in order to still gain the mood benefits.
  5. Can you use social media and TV watching in an intentional manner: for example, as a reward for engaging in structured and meaningful activities, instead of opting for TV or Facebook in long, unregulated sessions? Too much social media is linked to depression and screen time easily sucks real time away. Because of this, one’s daily structure is disrupted and feelings associated with depression may emerge. This is true for most people, but those with bipolar disorder should be extra-aware of their screen time.
  6. Are there decisions you need to make about Christmas itself – which events you will go to, which you won’t, which you’ll host, which you won’t? If you feel you need to avoid certain shops/malls (or even people!) on certain days (such as busy Christmas Eve), make note of that now and schedule accordingly.
  7. Are you able to ensure that you have an exit strategy (such as taking your own car) for events that you are anxious about or hesitant to attend?
  8. Can you plan some ‘me-time’ activities, scheduling in a few things that you really enjoy and that feed your soul? Ensure it is scheduled in your calendar because these are easily the first things to fall away when demands compete; if you have kids, can you find someone to help you by looking after them during the scheduled ‘me-time’? Fit your activity to your pocket: a walk on the beach is free!
  9. Can you try keep to a regular sleep schedule, as much as is possible? This regularity is extremely helpful for maintaining a stable mood and sleep itself is revitalising and regenerating during times of wellness and ill health.
  10. Can you avoid over-indulging with alcohol? Too much alcohol consumption will certainly affect the mood negatively and if coupled with lack of sleep and lack of structure, the outcome may be damaging.
  11. Can you keep a journal, with as much or little detail as you like, in order to help track your thoughts, feelings, sleeping habits (monitoring that you are not losing sleep significantly) and general mood? This is also very helpful in the long-run, as you can reflect on your writings in the future and realise coping strategies, helpful activities or even triggers that you were not initially aware of.

I encourage you to begin working on a schedule that takes these questions into consideration. The holidays can be a happy, relaxing time but may need some extra thought and planning for those with bipolar disorder.

For more bipolar support, book a session by clicking here.

Sunrise

Friend, this Peak you face is high and the climb is brutal.
When you look up, you will see darkness; when you look down, you will see darkness – I won’t lie to you.
Yes, you know this is a long, dark, cold night,
and you feel each step, each breath, is a fight.
I won’t lie to you, my friend.

You will continue the climb in these conditions, harsh, unforgiving, painful.
You will continue because you want to see.
You will continue because you have to.

Friend, when your last reserves’ last reserves have been depleted,
you will turn inward and find coldness;
you will turn outward and find coldness.
I won’t lie to you.

Listen closely, my friend, to what will happen next:
First you will feel, then you will see.
Slowly, the cold, the dark, the timelessness will be erased.
Life will become vivid and warm again.
Friend, your reserves will be restored, you will be restored.
I won’t lie to you, you will not know how to speak of your experience.
For those who have faced the Peak, it is called the Sunrise.

Discovering Meaning in Transition

If life is a journey, most of us can identify transitional points along the way and perhaps some of us are negotiating these now. Transitions bring change, transformation, creativity and hope but they are often made of loss, confusion, illness and anger. You can, however, harness the power of transitional moments or periods in your life, heal and move into new spaces, finding meaning in the journey.

I am privileged to have been witness to the courage of my clients: those learning to embrace new things, those accepting themselves or others, those finally saying no, those finding their voices, those learning to let go, those walking the difficult path of grief and those navigating the treacherous waters of mental and physical health problems.

Clients have said that the sessions validated where they currently are and gave “permission to go into the future”.

Discovering meaning in transition is essential in order to tie our story together and make sense of who we are. This allows us to walk a full circle and brings a sense of completion to each journey we take, whether it be relationship-oriented, career-oriented, health-oriented or self-development-oriented. Only from this space of self-knowledge can we make sense of what we want, where we want to be and where we have come from. The process of meaning making and engaging with ourselves so deeply and honestly is difficult at times – sometimes it seems easier to forget or ignore parts of who we are or where we are. Yet our core or essence — our true self — wants to enter into conversation with us and bring transformation, healing and integration. During these conversations, we begin to discover meaning in transition and it is a rewarding, memorable journey, unique to each individual.

I use a variety of approaches in my practice to facilitate the discovery of meaning in transition including:

ARTS THERAPY – MUSIC THERAPY

DREAM WORK

MANDALA ANALYSIS

GUIDED IMAGERY, SOUND AND MUSIC

VOICE WORK

ECOTHERAPY

DEEP RELAXATION SESSIONS

Sessions are 60 – 90 minutes and aimed at adults and some teenagers. My practice is located in a beautiful garden studio in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa. Please click here to book a session.