Extreme States of Consciousness

Arny Mindell's ground-breaking book, City Shadows, postulated a revolutionary approach to working with psychiatric disorders. Based on his findings, he began to use the term extreme states instead of psychiatric disorders, which more accurately described that what one society determines as a disorder is relative; states of consciousness are extreme relative to a given culture. As a result he discovered that the extreme states people experienced were disavowed aspects of our cultural life, what he called city shadows. Thus, working with extreme states means understanding the value of the individual's state for the culture in which she or he lives. It also means creating a dialogue between the individual's normal, or everyday self, and the more extreme aspects of their identity. Working with extreme states includes working with traditional psychiatric approaches and medication depending upon the individual process.

Take the example of a woman from a small mountain village in Switzerland with whom I worked with in the 1980s. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia after she removed all of the furniture and clothing from her household and put it in the front yard and then ran naked in the neighborhood.

Before her extreme state she would have described herself as a shy and quiet woman, a traditional housewife, with a husband and a couple of children. When I saw her after this incident she was medicated and subdued and seemed rather depressed. The second time I saw her she wasn't medicated and she was in a highly sexualized state. She had no awareness really of who I was and was masturbating. She made a very overt sexual pass at me. Suddenly, I was shy, taken off-guard. Here are the two parts of her, present in our interaction; the shy housewife and the very sexually assertive woman. There was no relationship between these two parts of herself. Here is a snippet of our interaction, we will call her Frau Schmidt.

Dawn: I am shy. I am so terribly shy when you are so sexual like that. I don't know what to do. I want to hide. I am scared of sex.

Frau S: Oh, I am so sorry. Yes, you are shy. That is the problem.

Having occupied the part of her that was shy, she suddenly flips out of her extreme state and sounds 'normal.'

Dawn: What is the problem?

Frau S: I fell in love with him.

Dawn: Who did you fall in love with?

Frau S: I fell in love with Dr. T. I can't do that. I have a husband. I have children. That is crazy to be in love with your doctor.

The conversation continued and I learned more about her story. Frau Schmidt's identity as a shy and traditional Swiss housewife was quite solid. She had marginalized her sexuality as well as her surprising feelings for the village doctor. Although married she had never been in love before and had never really allowed her own sexual self to flourish. She was a city shadow representing many women who in her generation and part of the world were trying to break out of a particular female role. Without fully being conscious of it, a part of herself was done with her traditional role, thus the very creative, yet extreme incident of removing all of her furniture from her house and making it public. Our work continued as I supported her shyness and love for her family, as well as the more forbidden sexual and assertive self she was trying to connect with.

Process Work Books Addressing Extreme States of Consciousness

Goodbread, Joseph, Living on the Edge: The Mythical, Spiritual and Philosophical Roots of Social Marginality, New York: Nova Science, 2009.
Deals with themes of social marginalization, offers examples while outlining a process work approach to extreme states.

Mindell, Arnold, City Shadows: Psychological Interventions in Psychiatry, New York: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1988.
New and exciting challenges for mental health professionals. Discusses extreme states without pharmacological interventions.

The Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, Volume 6. Number 1. Lao Tse Press 1995.
This journal entitled "Extreme States of Consciousness," has many articles on the subject. Go to www.laotse.com.

Select One of the Following:
Body Symptoms and Illness
Relationship and Couple's Work
Family Work
Extreme States of Consciousness (so-called Psychiatric diagnoses)
Comatose and Non-Verbal States of Consciousness
Working with Children and Teens
Group and Organizational Facilitation