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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Schizotypal Shaman

If you have a spare 80 minutes, check out this fascinating Stanford lecture video on the Biology of Religion, which could more aptly be called, "How religiosity is the healthy trait expression of schizophrenia and OCD."

Not being a follower of any ritual based religion (my Tibetan lama has removed the ritual aspects of the religion from our sangha's practice), I don't myself see the benefits of the traits linked to OCD. But for those people who find peace within ritual and believe in its transformative power, hopefully you find no insult in the linkage to OCD. You really have to watch a good chunk of the video for the connection to be clarified, but he is definitely not pathologizing religion.

In fact, he starts with examples of how biological traits of physical illnesses also have valuable protective abilities within a society. Sickle cell anemia results from a trait that protects against malaria. Cystic fibrosis from a trait that protects against cholera. Tay-Sachs traits that protect against tuberculosis, and so on. It is the small portion of cases where the trait is excessive that disease results. Because the trait normally expresses in a healthy way, it gets passed on to future generations (many people with the trait still reproduce).

The need to "get it just right" is the key point of the lecture. In traditional tribal cultures, the shaman who goes into a trance, speaks to spirits, and thereby draws in healing energy in a ritual that the next day has the sick person get up from their sick bed totally well, or allows them to forewarn of the need to make a change in the tribe's behavior which months later turns out to save all their lives, this shaman is using the best of the traits of schizophrenia to benefit everyone. The schizophrenic who babbles to himself during a part of the hunt where everyone needs to be quiet in order to catch the game, gets exiled. There is a world of difference between highly well adapted traits that make super capable and maladaptive disorders that make one incompetent when it comes to personal survival and tribal survival.

As someone who possesses some such traits (channeling healing energies like Reiki and Johrei, having some truly miraculous healing experience in my treatment of AIDS patients, etc.) and who has also experienced some of the more difficult aspects of them within modern culture (the need for personal isolation within a culture that demands constant social contact in order to achieve), this lecture had a particularly strong resonance within me. It makes me feel both vindicated and condemned. Great to think my biology falls in that "just right" range where I can use the traits beneficially, but still so very hard to live with Shamanic ability within a culture of skepticism. And to have it be biological means that like the autistic, there is really no amount of trying and learning that will ever get me to a point where I don't need to be alone so much just to be at peace.

Fortunately, a tendency towards religious belief also seems to be a very strong buffer against depression. It is thought to relate to religious belief's ability to soothe the pervasive human need for a sense of control over one's environment. Humans don't like it when cause and effect relationships are obscured so that they have no sense of what they need to do to get what they want and avoid what they do not want. In fact, an internal "locus of control" is a well-established psychological determinant of mental health, as opposed to feeling buffeted about by circumstances beyond one's control or a victim of fate.

Lastly, the lecture points at one other pathology whose traits offer some positives when expressed in a mild and adaptive form: temporal lobe epilepsy (to be distinguished from other forms of epilepsy). With TLE traits the person may have a tendency to write a lot and to be fascinated with philosophical/metaphysical topics. It's not that they are necessarily moved by the subjects or applying them in their lives. They are simply fascinated by the mental musing and synthesis of ideas about the subject through writing.

This is a trap of the religious life that many good teachers will point out. Many Buddhists I think particularly fall prey to the down side of this one. They get stuck at a love of the ideas, but do not practice them in their daily lives. They can ruminate and theorize endlessly about the value of compassion, and then be rude to every single person they meet without seeing any incongruity between the two. Yet surprisingly, the same could be said of many atheists. They are just as fascinated by religious ideas, simply from the standpoint of refuting them. They can go on for hours (or write volumes) about all the reasons why religion makes no sense, and they will if you give them an ear.

Similarly, Catholic spiritual leaders back in the 16th Century could be found warning about the practice of empty ritual and how it was important to not let the meaning and spiritual experience of the ritual be lost. Congregations were told to guard against the people who would be attracted to the religion by the structure of the ritual but essentially have no heartfelt embrace of it.

I suppose we should also add to the list of "warnings of pathology masquerading as the healthy balance that produces a benefit to the community" the new age teacher who wants to convince everyone they are speaking for God (the one and ONLY God) as a unique and special messenger. This would be the distortion of the shaman role in the community. The traditional shaman is never thought of as having a special relationship with God. It's more that they have a job that few people are needed to fill, and that few can fill, but it's still just a job within the community.

I can't really present you with any conclusion from all this that goes beyond what has already been said. I think the point is just to present these ideas for you to reflect on with your own experience. For me, I think it leads me to a place of greater acceptance around my solitary nature. I had recently begun thinking I really needed to somehow overcome that, but this research suggests continued attempts would be just as futile as past ones have been. Rather, I should see the value in having the other traits that go with that, and commit myself to making good use of them.

If you find any of yourself reflected in this post, I hope you find an insightful yet empowering conclusion as well. Peace and blessings be with you.

Update 9/14/09 - Comments have just been added to this blog, and this article can now accept reader comments.

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