In the Middle: Between the Mudang and Modern Medicine

by Bill
(Rohnert Park, CA. U.S.A.)

Korean Mudang (Female Shaman)

Korean Mudang (Female Shaman)

Mania is an extreme. But the reality is, there are many more organic similarities between a so called normal brain, and a manic-depressive one. We all have a stewing and brewing unconscious which certain cultures accept and others are in denial of, or even, afraid of.


According to Prof. Jack Pettigrew what happens is that in the manic-depressive the "normal" hemispheric switching of brain gets stuck. The so called normal cycles intermittently between a left hemisphere emphasis (manic, linear, goal driven but over-positive), and right hemisphere emphasis (depressed, holistic or total-view but negative, lethargic); An ongoing check and balance.

When either a person has a perspective which is self defeating, leading to more stress, or actually has a stressful situation presented to them, there is a tendency within all human beings for the emergency system to go on, for the brain to run hot. So in a real time emergency, the fact is most human beings can get a little berserk which brings up the most primal and powerful impulses, and locks the brain in the left hemisphere temporarily. For both warrior societies and shamanism the symbols seem to overlap. The Medusa was also the aegis on the Athenian Greek warrior shields, and her tongue is protruding much like the Archetypal Kali. When mania erupts, the limbic and even the lowest part of the brain arises, if untrained, unaccepting and with inverted views, it is a terrifying primal experience full of symbolism and competing chaos...much like the imagery of snakes darting around on the head; Very imaginitive...often ritualistic, cunning (Metis).

The problem with someone with no context for this, as Western views have largely stripped external imagistic forms, is that it seems alien to even their own religious experience. We feel that it is an unacceptable and frightening regression. Or we feel a new found power, which based on a former insecurity complex and isolation, we feel a kind of messianic narcissism. In a total defensive mode, I can see the trained police person's alarm that this glazed eyed person has likely more chance of being an inverted berserker than a compassionate shaman type.

In Korean Shamanism you have the Mudang (South Korea) or Kangshinmu (North Korea) who are typically initiated into the tradition after a Spirit Sickness called "Shinbyeong". The description of Shinbyeong (different forms) are as follows:

"The Mudang cannot eat and becomes weak physically and psychologically. In another type of shinbyeong, these basic symptoms are preceded by physical illness. In yet another, the shinbyeong is caused by a psychotic episode. In a type of shinbyeong that is relatively rare, the Mudang's mental state becomes weakened by an external shock."

What is most interesting is the duration of the sickness, matches the duration of training for the shaman...

"The symptoms of the shinbyeong can last a surprisingly long time: an average of 8 years and as many as 30. Physical symptoms progress to include mental illness."

What this all means, is that even within shamanism where they have a highly structured context for bipolar, and that the ancient motif of the ill becoming healers is in place, IT TAKES A VERY LONG TIME OF TRAINING. There is no instant cure, or it does not mean one is some kind instantaneous "special" benefit to society.

While in fact mania IS a potential for spiritual awakening, we Bipolars have to acknowledge a kind of getting back to basics and a kind of structural working backwards to return a kind of humility within the illness (especially manics). It actually may be true that yogis, or some secret tantras are unleashing the very same primal energies to see a kind of "grand oneness", but we have to acknowledge the controlled and safe and contextual settings that both shamans and yogis have.

So if you've had your first, or second episode, it is actually merciful (though honestly traumatic) that the Pharma/Doctors have interceded to "stop" the cycling, because indeed with repeated kindling, the brain CAN burn out. But that does not mean that we can't acknowledge that psychosis has a tradition of being an overly fearful experience for the Western mind, and that Eastern and Shamanic traditions will naturally resurge to provide a proper context. Even though Jung lectured on Kundalini, it has been acknowledged by eastern practitioners that even he didn't really have the context or capacity to understand or even explain it.

For myself, it took quite awhile to surrender to the actual "merciful" aspect of the pharma dumping on a psychotic condition, because not having trust between patient and doctor is not a good thing. We are very fortunate to be living in this time where there is at least an opportunity to explore and bridge gaps, and I think that there IS a possibility of less meds, or even drug free, but it is none other than an exceptional change in view...which includes surrendering to the meds now and again.

We can still retain some equanimity in the heart of a storm, we still have that indestructible humanity in the most sullied of situations.

Chiron's advice on how to defeat the Hydra "To stand by kneeling, to conquer by surrendering, to gain by giving up". Always remember the doctors and therapists are human too, and it is our two way relationships which heal.

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Dec 06, 2009
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Cross Cultural Perspectives on Mania
by: Ben Schwarcz

Bill - thank your for sharing your thoughts. Lots of rich material to explore. Looking at cross cultural perspectives on mania, trance states, shamanic initiatory experiences and the like, definitely open up all sorts of new possibilities for understanding our mental health. I'd love to see a discussion sparked by these ideas!

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