Beyond madness is a place that can be entered many times in many different ways. And from that place new understanding and action can come into being.
Have you ever wondered at the links in western societies between madness and climate change? No? Then let me wander through it with you, gift me your indulgence as we descend into the ongoing mess that is human history.
At some point in time most or all people alive on this planet lived in alignment with nature. Seasons made sense, humanity was a humble element in an order we knew was outside us, and we worked to support Papatūānuku to harmonise herself.
Now we think we can control the seasons by working outside their rhythm. We think that we are the eminent beings on the planet and dominion is ours, so we will fix the earth mother to do what we decide we need her to do to continue our existences. There is no humility in this. There is no understanding that we are not that important. And there is fear.
How did western societies lose all connection to their original instructions?
Indigenous people the world over are protecting, reinstating and growing their connection to the land and the cycles of life. That connection has been threatened by western practices based in beliefs of superiority of understanding, of knowledge and of being. This work is being done by tangata whenua for tangata whenua and they have enough work to do. We cannot ask them to save us when our societal construct is responsible for that attempted severance.
We of the west are lost. That is not a request for pity, a demand for entitlement or a challenge to the wind. It is simply true.
My ancestry heads back to northern Europe. There are a number of current countries in that mix heading back several generations, but I do not know where I come from, where my people come from, or what they were told their reasons for being were.
In the western world there have been rising tides of environmentalism, spiritualism, and resistance to commercialism. Yet we still forage for fossil fuels, construct unsustainable gadgets and infrastructure, and artificially create food that would not thrive in a natural setting. We are disconnected from our reason for being, the world that sustains us, and from each other.
When did all this begin? It’s impossible to say. It is very easy to point to the Romans and their efficient city state, that they replicated and spread in every direction. Yet it would be difficult to argue that a drive to dominate and control arose first in the heart of the rulers of Rome. We have enough historical records to show that battles for power have been raging for a very long time. However that does not help us to know when those battles took us to attacking the life that holds us.
There may be greater benefit in delving into the why of it all. Why would some distant group of humans decide that they were the centre of everything, and all must fall under their control? This is where we get back to fear.
Anyone who has glanced in the direction of gender studies, domestic violence and sexual abuse knows that fear drives the need to control through the use of power. Any student of history or politics can point to endless examples of rulers who felt their hold slipping and the extremes they went to, and go to, to retain their feeling of being powerful, their dominion. And anyone with the briefest understanding of colonial actions knows that they rested on the argument that the exertion of power was valid to ‘keep those natives in order’.
And this is where we intersect with madness.
The indigenous peoples of western Europe had their own social constructs, and we know some things about some of those cultures. We know there were deities that were representative of, and represented by, beings of the natural world other than humans. In the western isles we know there were the druids, priests and priestesses of nature, who read the world around them as seers and healers.
We know the druids were slaughtered after the Romans came to those islands, and that the Romans conducted witch hunts in their original lands before the birth of Jesus Christ. There are ancient recorded witch hunts amongst peoples as varied as the Judeans and the Goths. And then there is the destruction of thousands and thousands of people during the Christian witch hunts of the middle ages in Europe. And, of course, the colonial United States got in on the act with the Salem witch trials at the end of the 1600’s. That doesn’t even start on how the indigenous peoples of the Americas have been treated by their various colonisers.
There are a number of patterns if you choose to see them. People who lived in harmony with nature were forcibly stopped from doing so. People who saw into and learnt from nature, things that not everyone could see and learn, were removed from this existence. People who resisted the model of domination that was in vogue were destroyed.
It is well known that the witch hunts were a masterful move in political propaganda, much like the Roman desecration of all that they identified as pagan. To maintain control there was a need to eliminate any source of fear both physically and as a source of truth and trust.
None of this is an argument that all indigenous societies always treated their mad people with what we would see as dignity and humanity. It is an argument that they do not see their mad people as a perpetual source of fear to be controlled by force.
The ancient Greeks had the view that mental and physical unwellness was the result of imbalances in the body’s humours. The Romans leapt into the world of judgment and came up with the idea of a mad person being ‘not of sound mind’. It’s not really a surprise that this casting out occurred amongst the empire building Romans, as their existence relied on them removing any other sources of knowledge and power. My mad ancestors were exactly that threat to their ordered expansion.
From the 1300s in Britain the institutional ‘asylum’ came into being, even though they were not places of safety or of comfort. They did not provide the support and guidance of those who had experienced madness before to those who were embarking into the unknown world, as the wisdom of that process had been lost.
These were places of confinement that made use of mechanical restraints and solitary confinement, places that would make any major life adjustment intolerable. And they were a place where mad people became entertainment, a paid for spectacle to fill the accounts of the asylum’s governors, much as we are to the entertainment industry today.
People are horrified to hear that mad people are still forced into seclusion in hospitals in Aoteoroa today. I sometimes ask people to imagine the very worst thing they can think of happening to the person they love most. And as they imagine their pain and grief, I ask them to then imagine being taken from everything and everyone that is familiar to them and being put into an alien and sterile environment.
I ask them what that would do to them, and how they would react. When they invariably reply with some version of ‘not very well’, I ask what it would do to them if their understandable reaction got them shut into a concrete room with a mattress on the floor, no running water, and an open cardboard container for their toilet. Any comments of ‘but it’s for their own good’ tend to disappear at that point.
In our modern western world we shove mad people at those who are described as healers. In indigenous cultures the world over, from ancient times to modern, the mad people have always been amongst the seers and the healers who support those who grow to join these communities. The mad people were, and are, members of the worlds of druids, of shamans and of tohunga. These essential members of their communities have variously been labeled ‘medicine people’ and ‘witch doctors’ by those from outside. That’s right, the feared. Those people who can experience things that are different, and who were a necessary part of their communities collectively fulfilling their original instructions.
Fear of me, and of the people in my community, have caused us to be classed as incapable and lacking capacity. You can’t trust a person who doesn’t have a sound mind, they’re broken aren’t they? And of course they’re unpredictable, so they’re dangerous as well. Just like those witches you know. We had to get rid of the witches for the greater good, so it makes sense to incarcerate the mad and to drug their experiences out of existence. They might see things about the world that would make everyone uncomfortable and that might lead to change, and we can’t be having that.
With the loss of the connection to earth, sea and sky, we westerners lost our purpose as human beings. With the loss of trust in the truths of mad people we diminished our ability to connect with the unseen world. In combination, these losses have helped us to our current existence of disconnection, of suffering and of fear.
We have come to a point where our fears of the natural world, that we have tried so hard to separate ourselves from, have come into being. Somehow, someone knew that their fear of Ranginui and Papatūānuku was so real that they and we have been fighting to allay that fear for centuries. And where has it gotten us? We know climate change is real and that it is accelerating. We know that the people who claim otherwise are the most scared amongst us, for they fear the loss of power that may come with the necessary changes.
It is past time we looked outside ourselves and asked to be able to listen to and learn from those who have retained their connections to the laws of nature. Their knowledge can guide and support us. Their practices can assist us to do our part in the greater picture, to work with the natural world so it can recreate its own harmony. We need to connect with each other as equals, and we need to see our place as a necessary part of of an undefinable existence.
And it would benefit us all if you could bring yourself to hear these well known truths from the ngākau of a mad person. If our part is to assist in seeing and in healing, perhaps it is time to let us do that once again.
Can you go back, to help take us all forward?