Fine line between enlightenment and mental disorder

Suddenly there was a fracture between the world and me. While my body was still in the world, my mind had become a disengaged observer…It was as though all the constituent parts of me were still working, but an essential and vital element of my self, of my person, was missing.

I’m conscious even as I say this that I must have a functioning inner life; one that is capable of articulating this experience. But the capacity to knit that awareness into a narrative that I can occupy and own is missing.

This article on Aeon by Anna Ciaunica and Jane Charlton pathologizes the experience as DPD=Depersonalization Disorder.

Symptoms of derealization include:

  • Feelings of being alienated from or unfamiliar with your surroundings — for example, like you’re living in a movie or a dream
  • Feeling emotionally disconnected from people you care about, as if you were separated by a glass wall
  • Surroundings that appear distorted, blurry, colorless, two-dimensional or artificial, or a heightened awareness and clarity of your surroundings
  • Distortions in perception of time, such as recent events feeling like distant past
  • Distortions of distance and the size and shape of objects

But this shift in perspective is not negative for everyone who undergoes it.  It is at least akin to and perhaps congruent with the result of ascetic disciplines for detachment from the body.  It seems related to the reports of psychedelic experiences in which a person feels to be outside his body, outside his usual identity.  And there are mystics who tell us that this wider perspective is closer to reality, and that the embodiment of self is a kind of delusion or dream.

The self that feels, that thinks, that is reading this screen—this is not a real entity, but an illusion of the mind.  This is the mother of all truths, and this ability to adopt a perspective outside self is the basis of spiritual enlightenment.

video by Leo, at

Related is the feeling of detachment from agency, as though it is not oneself who is making choices. This can be an alienation from self and avoidance of responsibility for one’s actions; or it can be “going with the flow”, a resonance with larger forces that shape reality, or even surrender to the will of God.

So, is the loss of the sense of self an ultimate psychological tragedy, or is it liberation from suffering, carrying with it courage and empowerment and perhaps seeds of a cosmic love?

I welcome your thoughts…


Sohrab Hura, Magnum Photos

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