The following blog post was first published with Expanded Consciousness.
“You are Jesus! You are Buddha!” Master repeatedly shouted into the microphone. His voice bounced around the small, dark room where I was being initiated, or brainwashed, or maybe even becoming enlightened. There were about twelve of us students, but I knew his words were for me. He was affirming something I had already intuitively understood, if only through psychosis.
I thought I was Jesus before, back during my first manic episode. My ego had suddenly evaporated. I felt infinitely expansive, incomprehensibly blissful, and somehow like myself for the first time in my life. It was like waking up from a bad dream, a dream where I believed that this mind and body was all that existed. Before, I would need to wait until death and travel to heaven in order to meet God. But in a matter of moments, I had instantly seen the light. God was inside me, and heaven was right here, and I didn’t have to die to know it either.
I didn’t care what the doctors said. I met God that day, no matter how many times they told me my brain was broken. So what if I ended up being arrested in my college dormitory and stripped in my jail cell demanding that the officers come look at my naked body as proof that I was not of this world? I knew it seemed crazy. But couldn’t the same be said about Noah and his arc or Moses and his burning bush? Was my experience really that different? Only God knew the truth.
“You are Jesus! You are Buddha!” It felt good to hear those words over and over again. It never made much sense to me that God would send His only child and then make us all wait in agony for the day He’d come again. Maybe it wasn’t Jesus’s death that was so important. Maybe His life was the lesson. Maybe He came to show us how to live as God intended. Maybe He came to teach us that we were just like Him, if only we could realize it.
My short stint in the yoga cult marked just one of my bizarre encounters with divine insanity. Over the course of about a decade, I would travel in and out of lucidity as I wrestled with this overwhelming existential and spiritual quandary: “Am I crazy or enlightened?” You would think this question would be fairly straightforward, but the more I studied spirituality and various mystical encounters, the more muddled the question became.
Every story of God-realization, enlightenment, and transcendence was marked by some ineffable recognition of the vast expansiveness of self, one in which the illusory separation between the infinite universe and the finite ego fell away. I had no doubt about it; this was happening to me. The problem was I also fit every clinical criterion for the acute manic phase of bipolar disorder.
Spiritual self-help books and conversations with therapists only pointed me back to the same question: “Am I crazy or enlightened?” Eventually I would concede that I was indeed crazy. Stripping naked in my jail cell; believing policemen to be the Pharisees taking me to my crucifixion; trying to levitate and perform miracles; insisting to my father that God had impregnated my mother and that he should probably get a paternity test; these events were obviously not indicative of spiritual attainment.
But what about the fleeting, yet undeniable, spiritual revelations? For the first time in my life, I could see that religions were manmade. I understood that God was an actual experience, not some lofty theological idea. I could feel my own awakened heart, a total union with nature, and an overwhelming state of love that felt more real than anything I had ever known. Could this all be merely the result of swirling brain chemicals, glitches in a faulty neurological makeup?
It wasn’t until I enrolled at Naropa University, a small Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college in Boulder, Colorado, that I began to find some perspective. In Buddhism, there is the belief that all human beings have Buddha nature, that this basic goodness is not exclusive to the Buddha Himself. I started applying this wisdom to Christianity. Perhaps when I was so sure that I was Jesus, I was encountering my own Christ nature. It was the combination of grandiosity and religious confusion that deluded me into thinking I was the only one.
For years, I operated through a new and liberating interspiritual outlook. I practiced Buddhist meditation and continued praying to the God of my Christian faith. I believed Jesus Christ to be humanity’s supreme teacher, though not the only one, and I looked to Buddhist psychology as a way of illuminating religious distortion. My old wounds and buried trauma were slowly revealed as I learned to practice loving kindness toward myself. I could see that my ego was the prime culprit, both interfering with my health and my willingness to heal.
Now, I wish I could say that spiritual and psychological comprehension were enough to cure me of bipolar disorder. I wish I could say that grandiose delusions were merely the result of ignorance and confusion. Even though I had come a long way, I still had another manic episode. Without medicine, it seemed there would always be another episode. In mania, I still thought I was the chosen one. I was still paranoid that I would be assassinated. I was still certain that the government was about to promote me to some top-secret position overseeing global alliance. I still believed that I alone could save humanity from its history of suffering.
When it comes to mental illness and spirituality, the two appear to be intimately connected. Just visit any psychiatric hospital, and you’ll meet a handful of modern-day messiahs. It’s hard to admit, but when I feel most spiritual, chances are I am flirting with a bipolar relapse into mania. On the flipside, when I feel least spiritual, I am probably descending into the depths of another kind of bipolar relapse: depression. My mental health and spirituality go hand-in-hand. It has become nearly impossible for me to see where one ends and the other begins.
“Am I crazy or enlightened?” I’ve come to realize that the either-or debate of spirituality and psychology, of mysticism and madness, is a false dichotomy. Nearly all spiritual practices are a way of producing an altered state of consciousness, and many faithful are seeking a new relationship with reality. Mental illness does not negate spiritual experience any more than nature negates nurture. Today, I know there were times I was crazy, but I also suspect there were times I was relatively enlightened. Ultimately I’ve realized that insanity and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive phenomena. In some cases, they might even be the same.