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Related Topics
Healing the SplitReview - Healing the Split
Integrating Spirit into Our Understanding of the Mentally Ill
by John E. Nelson
State University of New York Press, 1994
Review by Maria Christoforatos
Oct 2nd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 40)

In the search for how psychosis might be reinterpreted Healing the Split investigates "neuropsychiatry" and Eastern philosophy (specifically, Hindu kundalini theory) and achieves a riveting and comprehensive appraisal.

Nelson begins with scrutiny of the research and assertions offered by psychiatry commencing with the obsession with the "anatomy of madness" to the fixation with the "chemistry of madness". While Nelson is critical of many points raised by the antipsychiatry movement (chapter four is devoted to this), he nonetheless is firm about the limits of psychiatry. Healing the Split acknowledges the inconsistency of the biochemical model to explain psychosis without denying the marriage between mind and neurotransmitter.

However, Nelson diverges from the ambitions of neuroscience and psychiatry and proposes that a search for the location of consciousness and "insanity" is erroneous. Instead, consciousness might best be visualized as a hologram wherein the mind operates via "resonance" and bears upon not only time, but space, and hence affects matter (and vice versa) in ways that are usually ascribed to the miraculous or mysterious. Nelson predicts we will transcend the current "crude" methods and the next stage of physical therapies will "manipulate consciousness by intervening at the holographic-frequency realm itself". This is the goal of all esoteric disciplines, he adds, and affirms quantum physics theorists and mystics alike in the belief that consciousness is a "field" and not necessarily a location (157).

As backdrop to the core of the book, Nelson uses the term  "the spiritual Ground" (or "pure spirit"): the source of all knowledge, experience, matter, and being. An ASC (altered state of consciousness) is considered the result of one's "porous psychic boundaries" ingesting information from "the Ground", and not necessarily, as traditional psychology posits, the rise of subconscious material related solely to the ego (9).

To illustrate how one navigates "the Ground", Nelson utilizes the kundalini model and picks up where Lee Sannella left off with the seminal research text Kundalini: Psychosis or Transcendence (1976). Kundalini, or "union with the divine", is symbolized by a serpent, coiled at the base of the spine and when awakened, is thought to travel through the body (from base of spine to, and through, crown of head) via seven "lotus-like wheels", termed chakras. Each chakra acts as a  "funnel" that mediates the physical and subtle realms and transmits a particular quality in the fulfillment of one's spiritual potential (162).

Kundalini is usually heard to occur with spiritual disciplines, triggered through crisis, or creates a crisis in the experience of the phenomenon itself. Healing the Split explores, in meticulous detail, the psychological and spiritual qualities that a person is said to manifest as kundalini unfolds through each chakra and the person experiences "pure spirit".

It is worth noting that while Nelson outlines a very particular journey and hierarchy of inner experience, the concept of kundalini has been used as an extended metaphor in many respects. Therefore, Healing the Split may be a dash misleading for those who seek introductory and traditional information about the kundalini phenomenon. Nelson creates a new chart with his contemplation upon spirit, neuroscience, and madness and so the metaphor and premise become wild at times, although I'd argue this is the right of pioneers in a field.

On the other hand, for those who are familiar with kundalini theory, Nelson's transpersonal perspective offers enriched insight at times. For example, Nelson suggests that while the fifth chakra is associated with universal symbols, the opening of the sixth chakra (located just above the eyebrows) is the most challenging of all, from a developmental point of view, for one gains direct access to the forces carried by those symbols "embedded" in "the Ground". (314)

Although Nelson views the chakras as enablers of "archetypes", Nelson does not work in the Jungian tradition. Even so, Nelson's book is somewhat comparable to the work of forerunner and Jungian psychiatrist John Weir Perry (1976). Perry also translates psychosis as an experimental, involuntary journey that nonetheless flows along a specific emblematic path via ordained sites on the interior map. Perry argues that psychosis, by its nature, is overpowering and the person must be aided humanely and assisted to integrate.  Nelson, on the other hand, falls into the category of transpersonal theorists who make a distinction between crises of a spiritual nature in the guise of psychosis and intractable psychosis.

While Nelson passionately advocates the least invasive methods in the desire to bridge someone to consensus reality, he still promotes the use of neuroleptic drugs for those who are at the "regressive and lower levels" of chakra experience and who, in Nelson's opinion, develop "schizophrenia." It is quite quirky how despite the sophisticated metaphysical paradigm employed and misgivings about the biochemical model, Nelson remains anchored in psychiatric logic in this way.  Nelson suggests meditation as a way to fortify "porous psychic boundaries" though there are a number of criteria for who is and is not suited to meditative work, again based upon whether a "malignant ASC" (the least charming term I've heard in quite a time!) or a genuine "spiritual emergency" is at work.

Although such distinctions are important, the psychotic versus spiritual emergency polarity does raise some questions. In the effort to chart and affirm subtle aspects of being and readmit spirit into the human experience, do the same transpersonal therapists who speak so insightfully of the limits of psychiatry risk creating a new type of reductionism? Is it accurate to assert that the "higher aspects" of spiritual experience are hindered by psychiatric intervention yet the "lower" or "malignant" manifestations are rightly treated as psychopathology?

These concerns aside, Healing the Split is a powerful and insightful resource when approached as a map of the interior landscape that people may travel through. This book has great potential to increase the empathy and understanding of caregivers and psychiatrists, provided the practical suggestions are considered alongside the wishes of the person undergoing the crisis.

Works Cited

Perry, Weir John, Roots of Renewal in Myth and Madness, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco:  1976.

Sannella, Lee, Kundalini: Psychosis or Transcendence, San Francisco, Calif. : Dakin, 1976

© 2007 Maria Christoforatos

Maria Christoforatos, a poet, apprentice perfumer, and scholar (University of QLD), currently resides in Australia.


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