Visions Versus Hallucinations
A spiritual vision is usually a very pleasant, uplifting experience. People may “see” God, angels, saints, or indescribable light. Such a vision usually brings a new direction to life and leaves the individual with a “lighter” countenance, a greater joy in life and more love to share with others. Visions may occur spontaneously, in a normal state of consciousness, or they may occur as part of an altered state, a mystical state of union, or during a kundalini experience.
Visions of deceased loved ones, mother, father, husband, or wife, happen all the time and it is the “normal” experience in some cultures. Whether or not it is “objectively” true that people are visited by the departed on a regular basis, the experience is common, especially in non-Western societies, where the visitations are considered normal. In Western society, grief counselors regularly reassure bereaved people that seeing and talking with departed loved ones is part of the grieving process.
People who are approaching death often experience visions of deceased relatives who have appeared to them to help them in their transition. Karlis Osis and Erlunder Haraldsson studied this phenomenon in a variety of cultures and found that “death-bed visions” are nearly identical from one culture to another.
Schizophrenics tend to hear voices much more frequently than they have visions, which are almost never pleasant when they do have them. Their visions are part of a psychotic thought process. They feel controlled by the vision. This may sound odd, but they have a psychotic relationship with their hallucination. Most psychiatrists would say, “A hallucination is psychotic itself,” and, of course, I disagree. The “normal” person doesn’t have a psychotic reaction to a vision. He may be frightened by a ghost – or even by the sight of the Virgin Mary – but he is not likely to feel as if his mind is being controlled by the vision. In all my years in clinical practice, I have heard a schizophrenic describe a vision as spiritual on only one occasion. She hears voices as other schizophrenics do, but also has glorious visions of saints and holy men – visions that bring her great peace. Yet, she is quite the exception to the rule.
People with borderline personality disorder can have any experience and “rotate” through all states of consciousness. They can have wonderful spiritual experiences and they can be floridly “crazy,” which, of course, makes a psychiatrist’s job very difficult. I have found that borderlines can have “split graphics.” They may see an angel and the devil at the same time. It’s a function of the split – the inability to integrate “good” and “bad” – inside their personality. The image is as split as their heart and soul is split. Borderlines, who may have purely spiritual visions or purely psychotic visions, experience visual hallucinations much more frequently than do schizophrenics.
A psychotic hallucination is a projection from one’s unconscious mind into the outside world. For example, a borderline may be filled with conscious and unconscious murderous impulses. Those impulses can be projected outside himself or herself. One borderline patient of mine hallucinated Godzilla. Godzilla joined her in the shower, ran around her house, and even ran across the highway while she was driving. Not a very safe situation for anyone concerned. Godzilla was a projection of her own murderous and angry impulses.
On rare occasions, borderlines will also see “creepy crawly” things… bugs, ants, snakes, small birds. But it’s very rare. The more fragmented the vision, the more likely it’s part of a psychotic process for someone who feels very fragmented inside. Someone who sees a single benevolent angel is better integrated mentally than someone who sees and feels hundreds of bugs crawling all over him.
Someone having a hallucination of bugs crawling all over his skin may be in a state of delirium – a disorder of brain chemistry. People in DT’s (delirium tremens) withdrawing from alcohol often have this kind of hallucination, which should be checked out right away by a doctor. Delirium is fatal ten percent of the time. In delirium, not only does one have visual hallucinations but the entire visual field is distorted – the foreground and the background. In contrast, a schizophrenic hallucination is not accompanied by a distorted background.
In order to know for certain if we are experiencing a vision or a hallucination, we first must be sure we’re not having an illusion or a fantasy. Illusions are not hallucinations. An illusion is a distortion (almost always visual) of something that is already there. For example, at dusk, we may see a rope lying on the road and think that it’s a snake. We’re not hallucinating. It’s an illusion. A mirage of a lake in the desert is an illusion. Our brain and mind are misinterpreting sensory information, because we’re not being provided all the information we need to make an accurate assessment.
In a sense, magic is a form of illusion. By sleight of hand, the magician pulls a rabbit out of his hat. There’s nothing metaphysical going on here. It’s just that the magician’s hands are so much faster than our eyes, and he fools us by directing our attention away from the “real action,” the place where the deception is going on. We’re not hallucinating. Again, we’re just misinterpreting the sensory input.
Visions are common in the stories of the lives of many saints and great mystics and for others who are spiritually advanced. Artist and poet, William Blake, wrote of his visions, “A vision is not a cloudy vapor or a nothing. It is organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. I assert that all my visions appear to me infinitely more perfect and more organized than anything seen by the mortal eye.”
One of the only things that a saint has in common with a schizophrenic is the fear of being ridiculed and called “crazy” for their voices and visions. St. Hildegard of Bingen experienced so many visions, she felt overwhelmed at the task of trying to remain silent about them. A vision of divine light instructed her to speak about her visions, however, saying to her, “You shall proclaim it as you have heard and seen it in the miracles of God.” St. Theresa of Avila, also was troubled by her voices and visions. She saw angels, cherubim, bright lights, Jesus, and many other visions, but had few people in whom to confide at first, afraid she would be called “crazy.” Later on, after she became regarded as a saint, she came to dislike the special attention showered on her, and especially disliked people looking upon her and talking about her, as a saint. Theresa’s visions were between her and God, yet, because she was unable to conceal her “raptures,” it was impossible for her to conceal her spiritual experiences from the world. Although people came to know about her visions, Theresa had no interest in sharing them with the world. She felt no pride, no greatness because of them. To her, her visions were not the point of her spirituality. Her contact with the spiritual world made her better prepared to work in the “real” material world.i In contrast, the schizophrenic becomes isolated from society, and often very attached to his hallucinations and ruled by them. The saints, however, have all learned how to live with one foot in each world.
By Dennis Gersten, M.D.
© 1997, Dennis Gersten, M.D. Excerpted with permission from ARE YOU GETTING ENLIGHTENED OR LOSING YOUR MIND? A Spiritual Program for Mental Fitness (Harmony, a Division of Crown Books, May 1997) This excerpt may not be reprinted without written permission from Harmony Books.