Mysticism and Schizophrenia

Commentary on Kenneth Wapnick's

~Sandra Stahlman, 1992


In his article "Mysticism and Schizophrenia," Kenneth Wapnick discusses the similarities and differences of the mystical and the schizophrenic experiences. He discusses each type of experience within the framework of Underhill's "five-stages"; as examples, the personal accounts of a mystic and a schizophrenic are examined to clarify the underlying processes. Wapnick concludes that both schizophrenics and mystics follow basically the same developmental path, but differ in preparation for that process.

Wapnick explains that mystics tend to follow a very structured, common process, culminating with the mystical experience. He gives us an outline of this process created by Underhill in 1961. The mystic moves from an "awakening of self" (pg.323) to the purgation of attachments to the social world and the self, resulting in an experience of "a state of pure consciousness, in which the individual experiences nothing"(pg.324). Wapnick has added a final "step" to Underhill's outline; most mystics happily and successfully reintegrate into the world of social attachments. Wapnick points out that it is attachment to the social world that mystics renounce through their process, not the social world itself.

Wapnick presents an account of St. Teresa's mystical experiences as an example of the process. After the lifelong, arduous, painful task of abandoning attachment, Teresa experienced "the complete cessation of external involvement and the experience of 'Union with God'"(pg328). Wapnick makes particular note that the hardest "stage" to experience came just before experiencing "union;" void of ties with the social world, Teresa felt great fear and panic of being all alone, lost.

In comparison is the schizophrenic experience, which initially follows Underhill's outline. However, difference emerges when preparation is considered. Mystical experience usually occurs after long years of dedicated effort. Mystics train their "muscles" gradually, so to speak, to withstand the rush of experience from the "inner world" (pg.334). In other worlds, the mystic, in conscious control, prepares for the experience ahead. On the other hand, the schizophrenic is lacking that preparation; "he is overwhelmed, with no means of dealing with his experience and no conviction that he will survive it"(pg.335). The schizophrenic has no control over the experience of the inner world. In addition, Wapnick explains that while schizophrenics are later able to reintegrate into society, they are not able to carry over the "lesson" of the experience. Their "inner potential" is usually left