Professor David Yau Fai Ho is a pioneer psychologist who introduced clinical psychology into Hong Kong. He has worked as chair professor at the University of Hong Kong and was also the first Asian to have served as President of the International Council of Psychologists. Professor Ho has authored innumerous scholarly contributions in psychology, psychiatry, and education and has held professorial appointments in Asia as well as in North America. In recent years, his interest has turned to the interface between psychology and spirituality. His latest book "Enlightened or Mad? A psychologist Glimpses into Mystical Magnanimity" deals with his personal experiences of abnormality. Taking advantage of his specialty in clinical psychology, the book is both a self-study and an investigation into the concepts of madness and spirituality. David Yau Fai Ho has gradually learnt to perceive his own episodes as high points in his journey of spiritual discoveries and has  shared his experiences with readers in search of a good life and spirituality.

Interview by Evelyn Einhaeuser

You have recently published a book entitled "Enlightened or Mad? A Psychologist Glimpses into Mystical Magnanimity' Can you describe briefly what your book is about?

I had no history of psychiatric disturbance prior to age fifty-eight. Then I experienced episodes of “madness” that profoundly changed my life, numbering fifteen by now—all of exuberance, none of depression. I named them mad episodes, because manic symptoms were manifest. Yet, my mind retained its logicality and self-reflectiveness. I had glimpses of magnanimity, tranquility, and freedom from inner turmoil. I became a more colorful person, more sensitive, generous, and loving during the episodes. I was forced to ask myself, “Am I enlightened or mad?” The response to this question is a self-study of my life as a spiritual journey. I treasure the extraordinary experiences I have had during these episodes. They have enriched my life, personally and professionally, and serve as a beacon in my spiritual journey.

How would you distinguish enlightenment from madness?

I think of madness and enlightenment as possibly coexisting in a dialectical relation, not as distinct states. Informed by my firsthand experiences, I argue that the creative forces of madness may be harnessed and transformed in the service of spiritual development. The preconditions for such transformation are adequate impulse control and self-reflective thought, without which the destructive forces of abnormality may get out of control.

Acceptance is a principle that serves to guide how positive meanings may be constructed out of madness. We may keep all our thoughts and be creative, as long as we exercise adequate control over the expression of impulses in words or in deeds. Spirituality derives creative energy from madness to reach new heights; madness receives the healing, calming effects of spirituality to become benign. As spiritual forces prevail, unpleasant memories lose their destructiveness and madness becomes more benign. Eventfully, spirituality triumphs over madness, not so much by vanquishing it as by dissolving it into the total being of the person. Heightened sensibilities may predominate during madness, the extreme forms of which are mystical experiences, dramatic conversion experiences, and the like, within or without a religious context. They are intense, profound, and transcendent, yet difficult to describe. We may view them as extraordinary experiences (e.g., ecstasy, flash of insight, self-cosmos connectedness) that accompany the most dramatic forms of self-transformation, rather than as something unexplainable.

Would most people in history that had spiritual or mystical experiences be considered mad from the standpoint of modern psychology?

Take a look at the great religious leaders of the world: Together, they manifest a museum of psychiatric symptoms (e.g., hallucinations, delusions of grandeur). Whereas genius tends to be associated with manic-depression, religiosity-spirituality tends to be associated with paranoia. For instance, medical authors have long adduced biblical evidence to allege that no less a leader than Jesus suffered from paranoia. Albert Schweitzer, the renowned medical missionary to Africa, wrote his doctoral thesis, entitled The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, to refute this allegation.

The point is that psychiatry has long failed to acknowledge the positive, creative aspects of madness. I say that a life deprived of all madness is an impoverished life. And I will leave the reader to decide whether I am enlightened or mad after having read my book.

What health benefits, emotional, mental, or physical, have you gained from your experiences? 

The quest for holistic health marked many of my episodes of madness. It began in the physical realm. My posture had been a problem for decades: Spending hours in front of a computer monitor was an occupational hazard. My upper back had been slightly hunched, and my head used to stick out. I was not aware of how bad it looked until I saw some photographs in which I appeared with a “turtle neck.” I had to do something: Fight back; exercise, practice marital arts and dance to music. One day, while walking along, I noticed that my posture was completely upright. The hunchback had gone!

The benefits I have gained cannot be overemphasized: lowering of blood pressure, to the point where medication is no longer necessary; maintaining good posture, infused with qi (literally breath in Chinese, meaning energy or vitality) and so forth. Even in a state of severe mental fatigue and confusion, the wisdom of the body could be discerned: I moved around and performed tasks without conscious deliberation, as if my movements were to a large extent automatized.

Intensive exercise sharpened my proprioceptive perception, enabling me to be sensitive to tightness or weakness, even mild injuries I had sustained years ago, throughout my whole body. My kinesthetic sense was enhanced in dancing, practicing martial arts, and so forth when I entered into a state of selfless-forgetfulness. The end result was a healed body, more relaxed than I had ever known.

This physical breakthrough ignited a chain reaction in the psychological and spiritual realms. I gained health first through conquering poor posture and second through allowing myself full artistic self-expression, without regard for how well or how poorly I performed. Thus, art and health are intertwined. To me, this is a vindication of my claim that repression of artistic impulses can be hazardous to one’s health.

What is your perception of spirituality?

The idea of spirituality was born when the first Homo sapiens stumbled on the question, “What will become of me after I am dead?” For humanity, this question has driven the rise of religions, absorbed the intellectual energy of countless thinkers, and shaped the course of human development. It has become the perennial question: Like no other, it compels us to reflect on the time-limited nature of our existence. Spirituality, however, is concerned with much more than death and what happens after death. It informs humanity about the meaning of life and ways of living one's life. Nourished in values in diverse cultures, spirituality represents a distillate of ecumenical wisdom.

In summary, spirituality may be characterized as follows:  

1. Spirituality addresses existential or transcendent issues, such as those concerning the meaning and purpose of life. Conviction that life is meaningful and purposeful is quintessential to spirituality. Spiritual emptiness follows from failures of existential quest: feeling that life is meaningless, purposeless, or directionless. Estrangement and alienation are cardinal symptoms of spiritual emptiness.

2. Spirituality is a supraordinate or cardinal value underlying all aspects of life.

3. Spirituality is self-reflective in nature. It begins when a person reflects on the condition of his life, and asks, “How satisfactory or fulfilling is my life at present, and how should I lead my life in the future?”

 What have you learnt from the Eastern Traditions about spirituality and the good life?

Spirituality is central to philosophical-religious traditions that have informed conceptions of the good life in both the East and the West since ancient times. In contemporary psychology, the language of mental health and psychological well-being has replaced that of the good life. Moreover, until recently, the place of spirituality in psychological well-being has been left largely vacant. I would argue for restoring spirituality to its rightful place in contemporary psychology.

 The paths guided by different Eastern philosophical-religious traditions to attain spirituality, or enlightenment, are many. I have identified psychological decentering as a key idea that has contemporary relevance for the attainment of psychological well-being. To be decentered is to facilitate selflessness (which does not mean absence of self). Selflessness is an antidote to egocentrism and fixation. We may glimpse into the mind of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi: acting with spontaneity, freedom from fixed ideas, feeling at home in the cosmos, experiencing “losing” or “forgetting” oneself, contemplating the equality of all things and thinking of others as “I.” Likewise, Buddhist ideas of compassion and letting go of fixations or attachments speak clearly on the spirituality.

Can you explain the differences and similarities between Eastern and Western conceptions of the good life?

In the West, two major traditions in conceptions of the good life that inform current thinking and research in psychology may be identified. One is based on hedonism, a version of which is utilitarianism. The key concept in hedonic psychology is well-being. Happiness is conceived hedonically, defined in terms of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Thus, hedonism is essentially reductionistic: The good life is reduced to a matter of well-being.

Conceptual and methodological problems, as well as cultural biases, are discernible in studies of happiness based on well-being. A central issue concerns how happiness is conceived and measured. I would argue that happiness is more encompassing than well-being. Dissatisfaction with some aspects of life does not prevent people from feeling happy and grateful for what they already have; it may even propel people to change for the better and eventually lead a happier life.

The other Western tradition is based on eudemonism or eudaemonia, an ethical system that evaluates actions in terms of their capacity to produce happiness. However, happiness is not defined in hedonic terms. Rather, eudaemonia calls for living in accordance with one’s daemon or daimon (true self), as when actions are congruent with deeply held values. One would feel intensely alive and authentic, existing as what one truly is.

Clearly, spirituality is aligned with eudaemonia rather than hedonism. Likewise, conceptions of spirituality in the East resonate with eudaemonia and are, to make a strong claim, alien to hedonism. For instance, the Buddhist belief in the value of suffering would fly in the face of current conceptions of well-being.

Many people automatically think that spiritual people should also always be happy. What do you think?

Spirituality is not reducible to happiness equated with satisfaction with life or more generally with well-being. Rather, it is characterized by the capacity for depth of feelings, both positive and negative. A spiritual person is not necessarily happy all or most of the time, and may even experience anguish at times. Indeed, we may consider the inability to feel unhappiness or psychic pain (an instance of emotional numbing) as a symptom of spiritual emptiness.

As a Chinese saying puts it: “There is no greater grief than the death of one’s heart.” The capacity for depth of feelings, versus psychic numbing, is the watershed that separates emotional health from sickness. Dysphoric feelings do not necessarily incapacitate.

The attainment of spirituality is a dynamic process in which struggle, change, and transformation are central. The journey in quest for personal salvation, freedom from attachment, liberation from self-imprisonment, new directions to lead one's life, enlightenment, and the like is arduous; no end may be in sight; despair may be experienced. Along the way, however, hope invites those who take the journey to go on; tranquility, interspersed with intense feelings such as exhilaration and ecstasy, may also be experienced.

From this perspective, the Western preoccupation with well-being defined in terms of hedonism appears to be a symptom of attempting to expunge unhappiness from humanity's collective consciousness. But true happiness includes the wisdom to embrace unhappiness as part of life. It comes naturally when one is no longer obsessed with pursuing it.

Is there a contradiction between Eastern and the Western approaches to spirituality, arising from cultural differences in the conception of selfhood?

The Western tendency is to conceive of spirituality in terms of personal development and growth. The individual self is affirmed, leading to greater autonomy, self-esteem, and self-mastery. These ideas I accept. Yet, informed by Eastern ideas of the selfless self, more and more I see my spiritual journey as a movement away from the individual self to a self-in-relations (with others, nature, and the cosmos). In particularly, I see liberation from egoism as central to this journey.

No, there is no contradiction between Eastern and Western approaches. Creative synthesis works best. We can embrace both the Western affirmation of the individual self and the Eastern ideas of the selfless self. I would go as far as to say that achieving the selfless self requires a healthy, integrated individual self to begin with. Equally, selflessness enhances the health of the individual self. Therefore, embark not on a journey of spirituality-in-isolation, but of spirituality-in-communion.


Thank you.