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Glenn Yank, MD is a Psychiatrist located in Tennessee.


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Question:
I experience something that I have not found seems to have been replicated by other people and I am wondering if it is a form a dissociation. What happens is that when I get into a stressful situation and I can’t seem to deal with the issue at hand I sort of “split” into two realities at once. I can feel myself still in my body, and at the same time I see me myself in what I can only describe as an infinite state. I see myself in an all white, completely void of anything environment in which state I understand that where I am is infinitely void of anything. It is a very comforting and safe place to be. In describing it I would say that three states occur simultaneously. There is the me sitting on the couch, the me in the infinite void and the me who sees the me in the void. Is this dissociation? And is it common? What’s going on when this happens? Thank you in advance for any enlightenment you can offer on this altered state. Donna

Answer:

Thank you for sharing this experience with me and with our readers. The experiences of Void and Light (whiteness) that you describe are better described in terms that come from spiritual and consciousness studies, or from what may be called transpersonal or integral psychologies, than in the terms of clinical psychiatry and psychology. I will discuss these as experiences, and not discuss whether they describe aspects or states of “Reality.” Please bear with me if my comments seem awkward, as I will be trying to condense a lot of complex ideas into a short response.

Experiences of the Void and Limitless Light are reported by people in many cultures. These are experiences in what is termed the “non-dual” realm of experience. “Duality” means the separation of consciousness from the object of consciousness, or separation of self and other. Thus, “non-dual” consciousness means consciousness without an object of consciousness: there is no-thing to be conscious of. This form of consciousness, which you described as an “altered state” is sought in different meditative practices, and can also occur spontaneously. Different states of consciousness have been extensively studied and written about by many writers, mystics, spiritual teachers, and scientific investigators. If you are interested in learning about different states of consciousness, I highly recommend the writings of Ken Wilber, whose work is described and sampled at his website.

Wilber’s “integral” model of psychology and spirituality is presented in overview on his site. Examples of spiritual traditions in which the concept of the Void is important are Mahayana Buddhism and the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. The existence and nature of the Void are central to the form of Buddhism called Mahayana, in which the idea and experience of “Sunya” (Sunyata) is described as the Void or Emptiness. The Void underlies the world that people perceive. Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by attachment to the things of the world and to the objects of sensory experience and thought. Thus, freedom from suffering comes from giving up these attachments. At the risk of great over simplification, one of the goals of experiencing “Sunyata” is to remind one that experiences of things in the world and the objects of perception are fleeting, and that freedom from suffering is to be found in letting go of attachments to them (much easier said than done).

Somewhat similar concepts of the Void as a fundamental principle of how the universe manifests to our senses and how we experience it can be found in the Western, Judaic mystical tradition of the Kabbalah. Without going into details, in this symbolic system of thought, the universe of things and experiences arises from “Limitless Nothingness” and the “Limitless Light” that surrounds and fills the Nothingness.

I have presented the above discussion to reassure you that you are not the only person who has had this experience, and that the experience is not, by any means, pathological. With regard to your question about whether this experience represents dissociation, your description of splitting into “the me sitting on the couch, the me in the infinite void and the me who sees the me in the void” would technically be a form of dissociation because you experience being in different mental states or in different observation positions at the same time. But saying this requires the clarification that dissociation itself is not inherently pathological, but simply means that consciousness is divided in a way so that there are more than one stream of experience occurring. Techniques to evoke this kind of dissociation are used in some forms of hypnotherapy, e.g. having a person watch them self do something in imagination. I would encourage you to practice and learn to control this experience, and see what more you can learn from it.

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© Copyright 2003-2005. All rights reserved. Contact: ShrinkTime Last edited: 07/12/03.