Between Sanity and Madness

By Oz

Therein lies the distinction between sanity and madness...people whose behavior places them outside the boundaries of conventional good and evil are diagnosed as mentally ill. [1]

People who are mad are said to live in a world of dissociative realities. As a Witch in the twentieth century civilized world, I have walked and lived in many different realities. Some of these are considered real by almost everyone, many are very private, and some I have shared with only a few others. I once was privileged to spend time among the Native Hawaiian people. It was the first time I ever operated for any great length of time within a society that related to the invisible spirit world as a completely natural and interactive part of everyday reality. The contrast between that and the world I and most Witches usually live in opened my eyes profoundly. I had never before realized just how much of my own truth and my own world view I was usually forced to keep hidden. Like many people, I had learned to parcel my own realities into sections: those which I experienced internally and in magickal circles; and the others in which I lived my everyday life. In many ways, the time I spent with these Native practitioners was like a journey into a fantasy realm where there was no such separation. Returning to the mainland, I at first found myself depressed and withdrawn. Gradually, I returned to my old ways of living, maintaining my pretenses, and carefully watching how I described my experiences to others. But have always remembered how it was to simply speak of my mystical experiences as they occurred and to exist with my disparate realities unified.

When I learned that this book's theme was "Between the Worlds," my first thought was the "two worlds" of acceptance and doubt between which I have fluctuated since I first discovered myself to be a Witch more than twenty-five years ago. My twin poles of acceptance and doubt have to do with confidence in the "reality" of my own mystical experiences and even in my own sanity. Often the challenge has been to accept my own experiences as valid even when they do not fit into the range of possibilities accepted by the general public. Defining myself as a Witch means constantly examining my own psyche and comparing my own reality constructs to the reality consensus of the rest of the world.

I have given many interviews to newspaper and broadcast journalists, and in all of them, the media have been trying to get a taste of what a "real Witch" is like. The one question that is asked more than any other is, "What makes you think you're a Witch?" I hate that question. I finally came up with the glib reply, "Well, what makes you think you're an Episcopalian? (or whatever)" Of course, I am telling them that Wicca is a religion, but what the original question implies is that there is some unusual, perhaps even false or illusory, assumption about oneself that is a prerequisite to the self-labeling of "Witch."

I was married once, and the marriage got into trouble. I decided to see a psychiatrist for help. My husband went to the shrink first, and when I went to see this doctor later, he said, "Your husband tells me you think you're a Witch. Do you? You know, we have some people in the hospital here who suffer from that delusion. It's a very serious problem."

I was young then, 25, and not yet connected to other Wiccans, so I was afraid to speak the truth. This was a poignant reminder of what much of the world still thinks about Witchcraft. It also stirred deep memories of having been condemned for my beliefs before.

But I was still younger the first time I heard sounds from other worlds and other realities. I had my first visions at about age 12 or 13. At that time I was very active in a Protestant church. When I told the minister about seeing unusual appearances in the night sky and being able to correctly recite unfamiliar Bible passages, I was given the opportunity to give "witness." I told other youths of these miraculous experiences, and they were seen as evidence of the presence of the God of that church in our lives. Soon afterwards, I became disenchanted with Christianity, but the "miraculous" experiences continued. By the time I was 17, I was hearing otherworldly voices regularly although they were often unclear and disconcerting. I also began to experiment with meditation and trance states, with some interesting success. A friend whose father was a Rosicrucian taught me about seeing auras and specific techniques to make use of a Ouija board. I was also going through intense adolescent emotions around the breakup of my parents' marriage. I began to dress strangely and spend long hours sitting in trees contemplating Zen koans.[2] My behaviors were deemed abnormal at the Presbyterian boarding school I attended. I was sent to a shrink.

This doctor was a Freudian psychiatrist and a member of the LDS (Mormon) Church. For several sessions he attempted to get me to talk about what he believed were secrets that I was keeping from him. He told my parents that he suspected heavy drug use, even though at that age I had never done more than drink a little beer. He gave me a written personality evaluation. When he analyzed it, he declared it void and accused me of having lied on the test with these words: "No one could be that crazy." This accusation had a profound effect on my susceptible adolescent mind but was not nearly as damaging as what was yet to come.

One day I went into his office, located on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He sat behind a big desk in front of a picture window that had a great view of the mountains. I liked looking at the clouds that drifted behind him in the vast sky as he spoke. Sometimes I would get lost in the shapes which were infinitely more interesting than him. I was angry that day, and found myself not wanting to answer his questions. It seemed that his questions always carried some deeper implication, and I felt as though I would rather plead the Fifth Amendment than answer them. He was persuasive, however, and he was usually able to get me to either open up and speak or begin crying in response to some of his assertions. On this particular day he kept following this track about whatever it was that I wasn't admitting to him. I don't remember the exact line of questioning, but I will never forget that one question when he finally asked it.

"Do you hear voices?"

Just four words, yet the weight they carried was ominous even to the naive young woman I was then. At first I didn't answer, but he took my silence as consent, and when I couldn't stop the tears from coming down, I knew that he knew.

He did not simply give the official diagnosis as schizophrenia. He called me "hopelessly schizophrenic." He told me I should be institutionalized, and prophesied that I would never live a normal life (thank the Goddess he was right about that, at least!). He said that because of my condition I would be unable to attend college and would never be able to "make it in the real world." When I declined hospitalization, he took my case to a judge and attempted to have me legally committed. I was spared that by my mother's intervention, but the effects these pronouncements had on my psyche were deep and long-lasting. A monster of self-doubt had taken firm footing within me. I didn't feel crazy, but if this man with a title and position said I was, could he be totally wrong? And what about the other two doctors he called in to confirm his diagnosis--were they all wrong about me, or was I wrong about myself?

I did indeed go to college, and there I did very well for there I discovered Wicca and other Witches. That was when I found out that I was a Witch. I say I found out because for the first time in my life I found other people who had experiences like mine, who believed in the same constructs of life, morality, and the universe as I did. I also found a psychic who gave classes, and I began to study and develop my intuitive and visionary skills. The mysterious voices came more clearly, and their names and personalities emerged. The strongest one was that of an ancient Goddess who has been my guide through all of this. Still, I was always careful about whom I told of my experiences. I now knew to share this world with only very few, and to pretend to the rest of the world that the surface "me" was all that existed. That pretense often kept me from pursuing my gifts to the fullest. I was learning much about what it can really mean to be a Witch.

When the "Burning Times" began to draw to a close and the Europeans ceased to torture, burn and hang Witches, many historians explained that Witchcraft had never existed, that it had only been a "hysteria." The accepted books declared that Witchcraft had been nothing but a delusion existing in the minds of those misguided souls who did not understand the nature of empirical reality. For much of the world this is the "official" perspective on Witchcraft today. The attitudes that surrounded this conclusion still permeate our culture and especially our institutions.

There has always been a desire in humanity to name scapegoats. The majority religions divide the world clearly into two camps: that which is good, and that which is evil. The Inquisitors considered themselves the agents of the 'good' who were simply doing battle against and attempting to eradicate the 'evil' wherever and in whomever it appeared. This violent war of people against people eventually began to not be tolerated by the more humane leaders, but the idea persists. Today the war continues to be waged in different ways. The current Satanism phenomenon provides one object of attack. Witchcraft continues to be identified with evil and Satanism, as is apparent in many public statements by fundamentalist Christians and erstwhile media whizzes. While Witches work to correct this misapplied identification, the belief persists among many that no matter how we define or describe our nature-based, positive religion, it is still inherently evil. Evil is seen by many to be anything that leads humans away from the one and only true and right experience of life. The experiences that Witches are seeking are in themselves proof to others that we are not in the way of "goodness." We admittedly converse with "unseen entities," and deliberately seek out altered states of consciousness. We consider the worlds of visions, visualization, dreams, and synchronicities to be just as real and important as other experiences of life. Like shamans in other cultures, we develop our abilities to contact and interact with spirits, guides, and deities. We do not dismiss the validity of an experience because it is not experienced by others or doesn't fit into any particular delineation.

The modern Western culture has come to identify "rightness" and "goodness" with a singular experience of life defined around ordinary waking and sleeping consciousness. The anthropologist Michael Harner calls this "cognicentrism," or the tendency to assume that one's own usual state of being is the optimal one. Given certain exceptions for divine and saintly beings, who mostly live in the past, other experiences or definitions of reality are defined by this paradigm as delusion. Not an alternative or even a mistake, mind you, but a delusion. That graceful and natural interaction with the spirit world that I experienced among the Native Hawaiians has been systematically eradicated from our "civilized" world and replaced with this idea of delusion. The word "delusion" is further equated by the new judges of mental and experiential "goodness" (the psychiatric community) with another negatively defined experience, that of hallucination. Hallucinations again are evil in that they are considered misleading and false and are induced either by undesirable drugs or undesirable brain conditions. "Hallucinations" can also include day-dreaming, imagining, fantasy, fictions, invention, and fabrication. While some hallucinations may be awesome or terrifying, at the other end of the spectrum are childhood imaginary friends, adult dreams of glory, imaginary interactions with celebrities, "the voice of conscience," and playful and romantic fantasies. [3]

It is important to look at hallucinations and delusions because these words describe that by which most psychiatric professionals deem insanity. In at least one survey of clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts, the overwhelming majority said that hallucination was the single most significant item in diagnosing schizophrenia. [4] Clearly a judgment is being made as to what delusions and hallucinations are "acceptable" and what are not. But who is making these judgments and by what criteria? A person with greater social power than the hallucinator judges the hallucination, and this power is often used to degrade and devalue persons. For example, the diagnosis of insanity has been frequently employed for a significantly higher proportion of poor and minority people. [5]

It is noteworthy that psychology as a school arose during the centuries when the Inquisition was drawing to a close--the eighteenth and nineteenth. As heretics were no longer being tortured to confess their alliances with the devil, lunatics (literally those of the moon) were being locked away for the crime of madness. The official sentence, or diagnosis, was "dementia praecox," meaning insanity of childhood, referring to the belief that many first became ill during adolescence. By the end of the nineteenth century there was a new word that labeled those whom the industrial societies could not accept: schizophrenia. Dementia praecox continued to describe the insane until the term was replaced by the term schizophrenic after World War II. This was presented as a scientific definition, but all too often it has been used as a moral judgment. As one doctor writes, criticizing the medical use of the schizophrenic diagnosis as it exists today: Under the ideology of the medical model, psychiatry provides this extra-legal social control. Politically, this model justifies the involuntary incarceration of those people found not guilty of crimes but regarded as strange, threatening or dangerous.... "Schizophrenic" symptomatology often takes religious form. But what is sane religion and what is insane? It is considered sane to pray to an invisible God whose existence cannot be objectively demonstrated. If that God answers back, however, it is a symptom of mental illness. [6]

Schizophrenia, dementia praecox, insanity: these are ideologies whose definitions and applications have arisen from the dominant morality judgments of the Western urban culture, and they affect each and every one of us. Whether or not we accept the written and defined models as they appear in medical texts, all of us are haunted to some degree by a fear of these ideologies, a fear of craziness. We are afraid of it in others, and we are afraid of it in ourselves. We have been taught to be afraid of those experiences that are not clearly defined by the majority mind. We grow up afraid of wild things, wild people, and the wildness within our beings. Wild men, Witches, Witch-doctors and other "lunatics" lurk in our childhood ghost stories and adult nightmares. Perhaps greatest of all, however, is the fear of our own insanity, waiting there among the other wild things to overtake us.

Wicca has been said to be the shamanic religion of our European ancestors. We know that the shamans in today's indigenous societies often experience a range of realities that is far beyond that of most people. I and many other Witches, like shamans, hold conversations with non-physical beings and fly on imagined and visualized journeys. Many modern Pagans eagerly explore these worlds through diverse approaches despite a societal fear that "dabbling in the occult" can make you crazy. When I first began to work with a Ouija board, my friends told me rumors of people who had ended up in mental institutions because they got mixed up in "the occult." In college, I heard of one student who volunteered to be institutionalized after he was said to have been toying with the "black arts." Many Witches spend so much time in these pursuits that their magickal crafts become their lives, often with great drama. What really determines whether these explorations and lifestyles are merely harmless fantasy, useful spiritual practice, or dangerous mental dysfunction?

I received a diagnosis of insanity at a tender age, and for many years I experienced the damage that this had on my spiritual work, my developing abilities, and my self­confidence. From then on, my days were embellished with what others called "delusion" and "hallucination," including fantasy journeys into the astral realms. In my dreams, I walked with Goddesses and guides who became as real to me as my own lovers and children. I continued to pursue psychic studies and my work in the Craft, finding this a compelling and beautiful path. Yet a doubt about the authenticity of these encounters, implanted by my first encounters with traditional psychiatry, became a shadow that was always with me. In college I studied Tarot, dreams, and comparative religions. My life included daily meditation and interaction with the entities who had begun speaking to me at an early age. In my twenties, I focused on personal ritual and development of my psychic skills. I also kept paying taxes, going to PTA meetings, and picking up the groceries, although usually these activities seemed somehow farther from my own sense of truth. I spent important developmental years in a coven of three people. We worked primarily on a skill that is called "mediation," in which a spirit entity speaks through the human's voice, while the human retains full presence and conscious self-control. And yet, when I fell seriously in love, I was afraid at first to tell the man that I was a Witch, afraid of what that might mean to him. I was not so much afraid that he could not understand the true nature of Wicca, but afraid that I might be exposing some hidden and unacceptable side of myself. Was I afraid to admit that I might be crazy?

In 1979, I received guidance that I was to begin teaching. I started classes in Wicca, and within a year I and several friends who began to teach with me had over a hundred students. The classes spawned circles and rituals. These led to larger gatherings, and eventually birthed a Wiccan and Pagan community that functions to this day. In the circles in which I worked, we did healings with great success. I counseled and performed spells for those in need. In private, I continued my personal spiritual growth in my daily communications with my spirit guides. Usually this was a source of great support as well as teaching for me. I was taught specific energy and healing methods and ritual techniques. I received information about ways to improve all my psychic skills, and received enlightening answers to questions about everything from human relationships to life after death. But still the doubts would return. I remember once when I was in a difficult emotional phase of a relationship. After days of arguing and processing, I went to my guides in a meditative trance seeking advice. The voices came clearly, but the meanings of the words seemed very distorted and disconcerting. Although I knew that strong emotions could cloud psychic communications, I was desperate for some guidance or consolation. I promptly descended into a deep depression, crouching in the bedroom corner and crying. As I began to review my life, I looked at all I had believed and done "because the little voices said to." The old fear came up, and I began to ask myself, "What if this is all a delusion? What if I have made it all up?" Self-questioning turned to panic as I felt my senses of certitude and sanity slipping away. I was truly afraid that I was losing my grip on reality, or realities. Suddenly I did not know which reality to accept or whether anything I had done so far with my life was objectively valid or not. I flatly rejected what I had heard, thinking to myself that these voices were nothing but madness anyway. Dark times like this came less and less often, but still they came.

I spent many years traveling to Pagan gatherings, often presenting workshops or rituals. The rituals I performed were usually orchestrated with the assistance of the spirits and Goddesses who guided me. Frequently these rites were well-received, and many people reported profound experiences of joy, realization or transformation. There was great satisfaction in the work and in utilizing the combined efforts of spiritual entities and human agents. Once, after organizing a week-long mountain gathering and then leading the main ritual for some eighty people, I fell into an exhausted let-down depression in my tent. I cried for hours, and once again struggled with the demon of doubt, awakened through no other apparent stimuli than the weakness of total fatigue. It seemed that no matter how satisfying the work was or how encouraging the response, I could sometimes still succumb to the fear that everything I was doing might be the product of self-deception rather than divine guidance.

My experience is not singular. I have spoken with other Wiccans who have had similar difficulties while placing themselves in the hands of psychiatric and medical professionals. The unfortunate outcome is often an ongoing internal battle with self-denying voices. The nature of self-doubt is that it goes hand in hand with deeply spiritual and mystical journeys. All great and small mystics have confessed their moments of spiritual crisis and questioning. But for those whose very beliefs, experiences and religion are put in question by the greater society, self-doubt takes on a larger meaning. Many people in the Craft fear that their mystical experiences may be symptoms of actual or impending insanity, for the world around us encourages us to consider this. That which we call inspirational has repeatedly been labeled by others as fraudulent. The self-questioning thus created parallels our greater cultural denial resulting from subtle and often not so subtle judgment of the greater society on shamanic experience and Witchcraft in general. Despite the fact that 90 percent of the world's cultures have religious institutions for the exploration of altered states of consciousness, it is commonly assumed in both anthropology and psychology that shamanic states and those who experience them are pathological. The shaman has been called mentally deranged, an outright psychotic, a veritable idiot, a charlatan, an epileptic, a hysteric and a schizophrenic. Until recently, according to the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, comparable Asian meditative and yogic states were regarded as pathological and practitioners as neurotic or psychotic.[7]

People who find themselves pursuing the paths of Wicca and other Neopagan ways repeatedly have experiences that test their faith in themselves. These uncommon events can place them in a state of moral confusion or concern about their own mental abilities. A friend of mine called me just last week. She had been temporarily laid off at work, so she did a ceremonial spell to restore her employment. Three days later her boss's brother died, and she was called back in to work while her boss left town for the funeral. She felt terrible, and asked me if I felt that she was responsible for this death. A young friend of my daughter's came recently to ask me for guidance. She said she had a way of "knowing" things that others didn't know, and that it "freaked her out." My partner has a close friend who is a very gifted shamanic practitioner although he has never received any traditional training. This man can heal, but when he first discovered that he could do this and didn't know how he did it, he was constantly tormented by a fear of his own insanity. He feared that what others perceived as a gift was really a self-delusion.

Miracles are the work of shamans, and they are often part of the experience of Wicca as well. Many Witches have amazing experiences, and these can challenge the very constructs of one's reality. We once performed a healing circle for a man who was hospitalized in a death-like coma. The doctors said he would never speak or walk again. The moment we closed our circle, several miles from the hospital, we later discovered was the exact time that he sat up and asked for water. He later fully recovered. Some years ago I received a package on my birthday. Inside was a gift, and a card that read, "Hello. We have never met, but I had a dream about you." It was from a woman, a Witch who lived 800 miles away, who had dreamed my name and the state I live in and was then able to locate my address. When later we met in person, we found our lives were completely parallel and we have been friends since that day. Once I was told by the voice of a Goddess to prepare for a ceremony at a specific site in a remote mountain area, to be performed with special ashes. When I asked how to find the site and how I was to get the ashes, I was told to just wait and see. A few days later, lightning struck a peak in that precise mountain area and cleared a perfect circle, ringing the area with ashes. As I watched the site that evening on the television news, I wept. It was very hard to believe. That event really challenged even my conceptions of reality. Sometimes miracles can make you feel crazy.

The psychiatric model feeds this fear that our experiences may not be real or acceptably valid, and replaces it with a belief that what is real is a sickness. This ideology is then used to promote the prevailing interests. The doctor I previously quoted further says, "The main social function of public psychiatry is to provide a mechanism for covert, extra-legal social control.... This is accomplished by redefining deviant and undesirable conduct as mental illness. [8] Many generally unwanted behaviors can be taken to be symptoms of schizophrenia, and schizophrenia thus becomes the cause of the unwanted behaviors. This supports an idea originally put forth by nineteenth century physicians that unwanted conduct can be caused by a disease process.[9] Truly, "Organized psychiatry has engaged in a massive campaign to convince the public that advances in medical science have discovered the physiological causes of such 'real' diseases as ... schizophrenia, mania ..." [10] The profession and the public have been convinced that the ongoing research conducted towards discovering the source of these diseases is proof that the diagnosis is valid. "A vast bureaucratic network at federal, state and local levels legitimizes biochemical conceptions of deviant conduct, including schizophrenia ... government bodies ... allocate funds in support of research the aim of which is the control of crazy people." [11]

Are we really the victims of a modern-day Witch-hunt perpetrated by the psychiatric authorities? When I began to discuss these issues with my Wiccan and Pagan friends, I found there were many supportive responses, indicating that direct persecution in the name of "the God named Sanity" does exist at least some of the time. A woman in one of our circles who works in a psychiatric hospital told me of Native Americans who are institutionalized there for having had visions. I met an older woman at a Midwest Pagan festival who told me she had been institutionalized at age four for seeing things that "were not there." She is now a leading professional psychic in the Chicago area. What is definite is that the psychiatric profession's ideologies perpetuate a perception in our culture that miraculous and out-of-the-norm experiences are strongly suspect, to be kept hidden, and if possible denied. What a contrast from the worlds of ancient and indigenous peoples in which such moments are viewed as sacred.

The thought of wondering whether or not I was, am or could be insane was still with me as I began to write this chapter. Over the years, I have become very comfortable with my life, and appreciative of its productivity, joys and miracles. With the help of much experience and several good teachers, my psychic and communicative skills have grown. I have learned more about how to understand the interactions between worlds as well as how to interpret them. Accordingly, I developed an attitude that if I am insane, it must be a very good thing. Looking around me at people whose lives are dictated by following the majority reality consensus all the time, I see those whose patterns of thought and living define the parameters of sanity. I have felt that such a life could never fully satisfy me. Now I sought to understand more about the nature of true insanity as compared to the mystical experiences of life. I contacted two Pagan friends who are both trained therapists to ask them what they thought about schizophrenia, the politics of diagnosis, and the mystical life of Witches, shamans and other visionaries.

I spoke first with Tara Webster, a psychiatric social worker and licensed clinical social worker currently practicing in the Bay Area. Tara is also a Wiccan and Ceremonial Priestess, ceremony and workshop facilitator, and co-founder with her husband Sam of "Crescent Ritual Works." I knew Tara to be someone whose mystical experiences closely paralleled my own, so I was most interested in how she reconciles her personal experiences with her profession in psychiatry. She works with many schizophrenics. She said she believes actual schizophrenia to be a biological and genetic disorder characterized by auditory and visual hallucinations. The voices heard by the schizophrenic are often critical, condescending, or paranoid in nature. Schizophrenia is also characterized by disorganized thoughts, extreme withdrawal, and living in a world of complete delusion or in a constant fear state. Comparing schizophrenic experience and a shamanic or magickal one, she explained that the schizophrenic has no choice or control in their experience of the other world. The shaman, Witch or psychic, by contrast, does not experience only fears and shadows and can navigate in these other worlds. Tara pointed out that while the psychic experience can have some similarities to the psychotic or schizophrenic state, it is very different in nature or flavor. In the psychic experience one is able to feel quite natural, to organize the experience, to draw information and make sense from it, and to come away from it, analyze it, and question it. The schizophrenic is not able to explore other possible sources for the experience, to question the experience, or to resist a compulsion to act as their experiences lead them. Both their experiences and actions are often shame-based, intrusive and can even be self-destructive. She described the experience of one schizophrenic who would hear fire sirens, approaching footsteps and pounding on his door each time he would engage in solo sex. He furthermore believed that infrared cameras were watching him at these times and thus suffered great guilt and distress.

I spoke also with Nancy Black, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and senior training therapist in Albuquerque. Nancy is a nationally recognized workshop leader who teaches guided imagery and in recent years has discovered the Goddess to be an important part of her work. Nancy also works regularly with schizophrenics. She defines schizophrenia as a cluster of diseases characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and most of all thought-disorder--specifically the splitting and fragmenting of logic and perceptual experiences. She pointed out that schizophrenics have a separation of affect, a split in reality, between experience and response. This makes them unable to respond as an integrated whole. In comparing the psychotic or schizophrenic experience to the mystical or psychic, she stated that psychotic means "not according to Hoyle,"[12] and can include those experiences brought on by withdrawal from alcohol or chemically induced hallucinations.

By contrast, the psychic experience could seem hallucinatory but is not considered an illness. The psychic experience is distinguished by a resourcefulness, an elasticity, and an ability to return to normal after the experience. She also said that schizophrenia is usually frightening, nightmarish and shattering, projecting harshly critical and negative parts of the self. She said she had never heard of a positive experience in schizophrenia, that it always carried a sense of negative energy. The important distinction between that and even a frightening initiatory shamanic experience is in the recoverability. Schizophrenics will continually insist on an experience of everyday reality that just doesn't fit, Nancy pointed out, such as the CIA having wired their teeth for sound. "Thought disorder, which can be relatively subtle distortion of logic, language and meaning, is virtually diagnostic of schizophrenia, and is not found in shamanic or psychic or altered state experiences, " she said.

A recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion concurs with these opinions. Comparing the shaman to the schizophrenic, the author points out that the shaman is usually effective, displaying superior energy, memory, and knowledge. This is inconsistent with the deterioration common in schizophrenia. While an acute schizophrenic experience can be one of the most devastating experiences any human being can undergo, the shamanic experience may be either painful or joyful. He also points out that an initial, or initiatory, shamanic experience can look very much like schizophrenia, but that it would be a mistake to diagnose it as such. The shaman recovers from this experience. In this article, the author specifically compares shamanic, Buddhist and yogic altered states to the altered states of schizophrenia. Witches know that the altered states of these other mystical traditions are very much like our own. He finds the schizophrenic experience to differ from the other altered states in these categories: awareness of environment, ability to communicate, concentration, control, self-sense, affect and content. Clearly, he summarizes, "There are major differences between the states of consciousness found in shamanic journeys and in acute schizophrenia."[13]

But what about the politics of insanity, and those who are misdiagnosed? Nancy says, "In my experience American psychiatry frequently labels schizophrenic that which it doesn't understand. There are many other kinds of experiences in alternate realities or altered states of consciousness that are not literal, logical or left-brain, but should not be called schizophrenic."

"Absolutely," says Tara, "it's repressive. Schizophrenia is incredibly over-diagnosed. It's used on teenagers who are rebellious due to abuse, and can be used to control people who are just exceptionally creative. Sometimes instead of taking time to see who really fits the criteria, they just prescribe heavy medications that can cause side effects. It's definitely very over-used."

Obviously, even many psychological professionals are questioning the validity of the traditional labeling of the insane. "Schizophrenia is a hypothetical construct, an unconfirmed hypothesis....[it] has been subjected to repeated empirical tests and has been found wanting," says one medical doctor who has examined the matter in depth. He goes on to say, "The rise and fall of theories of schizophrenia led me to conclude that such theories have a half-life of about five years ...most schizophrenics cannot be differentiated from most normals on a wide variety of experimental tasks....The disease construction of schizophrenia is no longer tenable. That construction originated during a period of rapid growth of biological science based on mechanistic principles. Crude diagnostic measures failed to differentiate absurd, unwanted conduct due to biological conditions from atypical conduct directed to solving existential or identity problems."

Referring to research to determine the precise physiological diagnosis of schizophrenia, he notes, "The failure of eight decades of research to produce a reliable marker leads to the conclusion that schizophrenia is an obsolescent hypothesis and should be abandoned."[14]

Through my readings and conversations on this topic in preparation to write this chapter, I have become clearer about the state of my own sanity, even as defined by traditional standards. I also feel I can now reassure other Witches and mystical practitioners who might be in doubt about their own. No matter how amazing or challenging your mystical journeys, or how imaginative or dramatic your experiences of "other" possible realities, if you can come out of your experience and wonder about it, you are not clinically insane. In other words, if you are journeying in impossible worlds and sitting around wondering if you might be going crazy, then you probably are not. Is it then only those of us who are sure they are not crazy that we have to worry about? Certainly not, as long as their experiences are leading them in a direction of positive self-growth, self-awareness and healing. There are gigantic differences between the magickal encounter and the mad encounter. While some truly initiatory experiences may come unbidden or may be frightening or confusing, without fail they will lead to an ultimate positive outcome. The schizophrenic or insane experience does not. A Witch, magician, or shamanistic practitioner learns to project her will into the shaping of magickal experiences. The ability to use the will is supported by the experience and grows as the practitioner becomes more enabled to relate the other-worldly occurrences to her own life.

On the other hand, the voices and visions of the schizophrenic may be as real as those of the spiritual practitioner, but both the sources of these voices and their ultimate effect are different. We of the Craft would say that the voices of the insane person come from a different and undoubtedly lower realm. These are the voices which control and condemn, and are thus the voices of the lesser and undesirable spirits of the universe. The typical helplessness and deterioration of the schizophrenic are symptomatic of involvement with what the Qabalah calls the "qlippoth," or demons of matter. The magickal practitioner learns to discriminate in involvement with the other realms and to be selective as to which entities to listen to and work with. He or she desires communication with spirits of the higher realms, those who teach, guide, and heal. The biggest difference between madness and sanity in magick might then be most simply said to depend on your ability to master and utilize the unseen and imaginative realms rather than to be used by them.

Wicca as a practice I have found to be universally directed towards pleasure, learning and the praise of nature and deities who bestow blessings upon us. This is combined with a healthy respect for all life, both visible and invisible, and a belief in evolving one's own abilities to walk consciously in all worlds. Albeit we all experience the more than occasional "suffering to learn," it seems to me that the mysteries of Wicca are about as remote from true schizophrenia or insanity as they can possibly be. It is time for us Witches to finally reject the word "delusion" in connection with our spirituality and to fight this misconception by eliminating it from our own minds and the minds of those who have the power to judge us.

In the best of all possible worlds, Wicca and psychology support and enhance one another. Interestingly enough, they are closely allied in many ways. After my torturous experiences at the hands of shrinks in my early life, I later found a psychotherapist who actually helped me heal these psychological wounds. He used primarily the techniques of hypnosis, visualization, and Jungian active imagination to help me restore confidence in my own mind and its experiences. These are exactly the same techniques I had been taught in psychic classes and Wiccan circles. This particular therapist eventually attended my Wicca classes because he recognized the similarities between psychology and the occult. Today's therapists are using the age-old techniques of nature-based, shamanistic religions more and more and with very positive effects. Trance states, guided journeys, and archetypal guidance are common features in today's therapeutic sessions. Many Witches work in the therapeutic professions and find the two practices to be consistently beneficial to and supportive of one another.

I asked Nancy and Tara how they reconcile their own work with their spiritual beliefs and practices. Tara replied, "They are incredibly wedded. I don't buy the 'medical model.' Psychological training is process-oriented and has much to do with self-awareness. Magick gives me a world of tools to use in my practice, such as using entities and guides to ask for help. If I talked to other psychologists about this, I might be called crazy. This wouldn't be generally accepted. But magick and psychology have a lot to offer each other. You can get into trouble if you get into magick without knowing yourself. Psychology can help with that, and exploring the self magickally can really help."

"I am a student of shamanism and I find it rich and alive," says Nancy. "It is allied with the imagery I've already learned. It's the next step in my personal and professional growth. I've always used imagery, right-brain experience, and dreams in my work. The same part of the mind that taps these also taps shamanic trances which can be used for both technique and content. Sometimes in my work with survivors of abuse, I am able to access and use imagery of the Goddess. I find it enormously powerful in helping to heal."

My own experience of walking between these worlds has frequently been a journey of doubt and confusion, yet it has ultimately become one of growth and learning. As a Witch, I have become used to having one foot in one reality and the other foot in another reality. This has beneficially increased my perceptual reach. Because I consider there to be far more possible truths in the world than conventional thought allows, my range of experience has included that which most people could never know. There has been pain in not being accepted for this, and the inner turmoil of self-questioning. This is par for the spiritual course. In alchemy, this is like the heat of friction that causes transformation: the continual unsettling force of my dilemma has by its intensity kept me constantly seeking new answers to these questions, new ways to resolve both inner and outer conflicts.

In Witchcraft, when we cast the sacred circle, we say that we are stepping between the worlds, to a place where life and death, joy and sorrow, dark and light, meet and make one. This also refers to the circles of our lives, where even the lines between sanity and madness may grow dim. Witches, like others on shamanic paths, stand often in the portal between worlds, on the threshold of the mighty ones. Traditionally we are the caretakers of these doorways, and it is our task to keep the doorways open. Perhaps by helping to keep the ancient wisdoms alive, we can help to eradicate some of the delimiting ideas of the dominant culture that wish to restrict the human experience to only the literal realms.

"To the extent that we view humanity through the lenses of 'scientific' psychiatry, we shall see ourselves as objects whose structure, character and functions are slavishly determined by laws of cause and effect."[15]

We shall not, say the Witches.


Oz is a practicing priestess of both Wicca and hermetic magick. Her training paralleled that of many indigenous practitioners: she was led through a series of synchronistically significant life trials, challenges, and mystical encounters, each bringing her insights and awareness about the vast realm of possible realities available to humans. Combined with study, teaching, and shared work with others both inside and outside the Craft, these experiences have shown her that living in this world can be greatly enhanced by an expanding awareness of that which lies beyond life's normal experience. At times she devotes herself to navigating through the next evolutionary adventure; during respites, she shares what she has learned through ritual, workshops, classes, and writing. She has contributed to previous books in the Witchcraft Today series as well as to Llewellyn's Golden Dawn Journal series. Developing Witchcraft, Paganism, and magickal schools as viable mystical expressions for twenty-first century journeyers is one of her passionate desires. Learning how to continually redefine her life as a spiritual path seems to be her karma. She lives in an old adobe house on an oasis of green in the New Mexico urban desert , sharing it with a daughter, a man, six cats, a dog, a peacock, several assertive Goddesses, and the spirit of Pan.



[1] Leifer, Ronald, M.D., "The Medical Model as the Ideology of the Therapeutic State," The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 11.3-4 (Summer-Autumn 1990): 252.

[2] A Zen koan is a phrase or parable that provokes deep thought, such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

[3] Sarbin, Theodore, Ph.D., "Toward the Obsolescence of the Schizophrenia Hypothesis." The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 11.3­4 (Summer­Autumn 1990): 262-263.

[4] Sarbin 262.

[5] Sarbin 263-266.

[6] Leifer 247-252.

[7] Walsh, Roger. "Phenomenological Mapping and Comparisons of Shamanic, Buddhist, Yogic, and Schizophrenic Experiences." Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 51.4: 739-742

[8] Leifer 249.

[9] Sarbin 260.

[10] Leifer 255.

[11] Sarbin 275.

[12] This expression comes from references to Edmond Hoyle (1672-1769), an Englishman who wrote a rulebook for various card and board games, new editions of which are still being published.

[13] Walsh 739-761.

[14] Sarbin 259.

[15] Leifer 257.

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