“Am I Going Mad?” A Note on Hearing Human and Other Voices.

Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, at the foot of a Beech tree.

Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, at the base of a Beech tree.

My mentor in what I’ve come to think of as ‘post-spiritualist’ matters was an older woman who had been a nurse in the days before effective analgesics eased the process of dying.  When I met Mavis we were community work colleagues in the year of the miners’ strike (1984).  Invitations to her H.Q. -a small terraced house in the middle of Burnley- usually involved cheese and onion pie and intense heartfelt conversation.  I’d been engrossed in inner work and had been opening up psychically, so was struggling to adjust to working amongst the harsh realities of social deprivation.  She was an experienced spiritual healer and gifted psychic, working mainly with homeless and unemployed people, so those visits amounted to informal supervision sessions.

Picking up the office phone one day, and hearing Mavis’s powerful voice utter the words “keyword cosmos’, I realised I had an ally.  A diary entry from May of that year reminds me that she could be unnervingly direct at times. On that occasion she said she’d been worried about me and, as I put it at the time, “suddenly told me, quite menacingly, to BE CAREFUL”.  She then asked me “in a point blank way” what I wanted to do with my life.  Given that I was quite naïve and somewhat directionless at the time, this was helpful.  What impressed me most about her, though, was the pragmatic way in which she helped someone close to me who was in crisis.  She was warm and loving, but when necessary, could also be impressively leonine.

We became close friends, and I learned a lot from her.  I’m not spectacularly psychic in the way she was, but during that period I seemed to be being ‘shown’ things, not least when in her company.  For instance, some years later, when recovering from a complicated bereavement that left me with health difficulties, I was seeing a cranial osteopath.  One day, en route to the osteopath, I had to change buses in Burnley, and found myself at a loose end.  Strolling out of the bus station, I became aware of a voice in my head -a fully present, and fully ‘other’, but not unfriendly man’s voice- saying, over and over again- ‘the Mechanics’, ‘the Mechanics’,  the Mechanics’.  The Mechanics Institute is a theatre/arts centre in the town, but I had no idea why I should be hearing its name, least of all spoken in this rather disconcerting manner.  The voice continued and seemed quite insistent, so, since I had time to spare, I decided to walk over there.  As I approached the Mechanics a bus came down the hill and pulled up at the stop by the theatre.  Mavis stepped out and greeted me with a big grin.  When I told her why I was there she commented that this wasn’t her usual stop, so I’d done quite well.

Because Mavis was fairly isolated in her work, she would sometimes say she appreciated talking to me because so few people knew what she was talking about.  Even she sometimes wondered whether she was going mad.  Hearing voices has, of course, long been regarded as a symptom of ‘mental illness’.  I was soon to meet Professor Marius Romme and Sandra Escher who were instrumental in establishing the Hearing Voices Movement in the U.K.  Their seminal work demonstrated that there are many reasons why people hear voices.  For some people voices are not a problem, but even for those whose voices are profoundly distressing, a supportive self-help environment or appropriate counselling can often be much more effective than medication.(1)  Walking through Burnley that day I felt no sense of panic, or that anything was wrong.  I had had far more scary moments.

A lifetime’s exposure to the conventions of Cartesian-Newtonian rationality can leave us vulnerable to moments of self-doubt around extra-ordinary or magical experience.  One such moment occured last week.  The story, involving a group of fly agaric mushrooms whose habitat appeared to be under imminent threat, is too fresh to share here unfortunately.  Suffice it to say for now, that the way in which things fell into place during that walk, enabling to me have a conversation with the landowner, left me with the distinct, and -even after all these years communing with birds, mammals, trees, rocks, and so forth- slightly un-nerving impression that I’d been ‘spoken to’ by a species of fungi. Now, hearing human voices is one thing!  🙂   Why, on earth, though, should it be any more surprising that a concerned upperworld stranger might connect with the psychic mycelium* of a wood when there’s some pressing concern afoot?

B.T 24/9/14.


Prof. Marius Romme and Sandra Escher, Accepting Voices, MIND, 1993 and the Hearing Voices Network

*thanks to Matt for this useful term.


11 thoughts on ““Am I Going Mad?” A Note on Hearing Human and Other Voices.

  1. Your mentor Mavis sounds like she was an interesting person, and i would not doubt even now she may be communicating from beyond maybe through the voices in nature of birds, animals and even fungi. Its a strange world in which we live, especially this post-industrial post-reality world in which the virtual is kind and useless voices bounce off cell towers. Sometimes i think our psyche screams forth “what about me?” thus we Do hear some Real True voices in our heads…. Are we mad? Who knows? Whose concern is it but our own and the few few friends we share them with? I get blank stares even from students and friends regarding some of the things that come out of my mouth spontaneously at times, and because of this friends slowly back away hiding behind emails and such. It is what it is. The sun lightens the sky this morning behind thick fog. Another day of living and wonders…..

  2. I very much look forward to hearing your magic mushrooms story! This world–by world I mean world of business commerce and war–is totally insane!!! A clue who is responsible, it begins in 1492 when the same soul-dead mindset takes its evil over seas to the ‘new world’, and one of its actions was the prohibition of sacred vegetation for indigenous peoples, just like had happened previously in the ‘old world’.

  3. (in response to Blau ) I suppose I was realising that knowing whose voice you’re hearing (including whether or not, and to what extent our ‘own’ psyche is involved), or how you might be hearing it, matters less than the emotional tone and/or practical helpfulness of the message – or simply appreciating ‘living wonders’ …

  4. Many thanks for this Brian, a very encouraging and intriguing reflection. (I do hope you pick up the fungi thread, when the time is right.)
    I was immediately taken back, for some reason, to my first exposure to James Hillman, and to archetypal psychology, in 1985. The lecturer – now a friend – was explaining that when poets wrote of “flowers speaking to us” we intuitively understood the metaphoric truth of this statement – but, clearly, we didn’t understand it as literally hearing the flowers “speaking to us” – which would of course be madness.
    A man called Taj, who had grown up in a village in Kerala, immediately piped up that this was quite wrong, and that in his village it was understood as common sense that when you became lost in the forest, you asked a tree the way home, and the tree would tell you. There followed an unforgettable 20 minute wrestle between two perspectives, as the good lecturer attempted to demonstrate that Taj was speaking metaphorically, and Taj insisted that he was not. Finally, as if to settle the matter, Taj told how, as a young boy, he had once been surprised in a forest clearing by a leopard. “I could smell his fear, and he could smell mine, and he looked at me and said “Run home quickly before I eat you.”
    Sorry for the rambling reply, but I thought you’d enjoy the story. My own comment on it is the fact that I remember it, in detail, 29 years later.
    Funny …I read the title as “Hearing Hillman and Other Voices”, and only realised as I came to write this that I’d made a mistake.
    All best,

  5. I’m not surprised you remembered that story Matt. I’ll need to ‘digest’ the mushroom moment a bit, maybe for a few years -though here I am talking metaphorically (!). With the help of my partner, who vividly remembers first or otherwise interesting encounters with wild flower species going back to childhood, I eventually realised that encounters with our less mobile other-than-human neighbours might also be significant (!), so this was one of those really. After ‘tuning in’ I found several wonderful communities of f.a’s, including one that I’d previously walked past without ‘noticing’ ….

  6. Hi Brian
    firstly, what a pic, is that yours?
    For what its worth, who can say who or who isn’t mad! How does one even define madness anyway, without leaning on some definition that has been put together by some individual,school of thought, or group of people and what they feel constitutes ‘mad’. Does that make it so? In my opinion no, just their interpretation, their considered opinion.
    Thats not to say at all that some people are extremely troubled by inner voices.
    Plants, animals, spirits, rocks, mountains, etc, etc have spoken to Shamans and sundry magic-makers over the eons.
    It has likely always been.
    Mad?, some will think so.
    Others, will take another view entirely.
    As to deciphering the experience, consciousness – and all its facets – is far more mysterious than that. Every so called answer, raises more questions.
    Living the magic, in my opinion is the best way.
    Kindest wishes, J

  7. Yes, its my picture. I was too engrossed in the discovery of a really beautiful cluster of fungi to concentrate much on photography, but I like the blurry effect (I was using my old pentax smc takumar 50/1.4 lens, in case you’re interested). Re Madnesss, yes of course, to all of that :). With all best wishes for your springtime adventures – B.

  8. I’d certainly agree that Descartes, Newton (along with a whole load of normative psychologists!) are to blame for this… I hadn’t heard of the Hearing Voices movement before- will look it up. Congratulations on saving the fly agaric mushrooms from threat 🙂 !

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