Learning to Swim is an independent feature-length documentary about the overlap between spiritual experience and mental illness, made by some of the most experienced and respected documentary makers in the UK.
This is a deeply personal story about the boundaries between madness and enlightenment, asking the biggest questions about the nature of mental illness, spiritual practice and the nature of consciousness.
In our documentary, we follow an unfolding narrative of intense experiences, growth, and healing. Our main character has been diving deeply into spiritual practice, and having experiences of elevated and transcendent consciousness, alternating with distress and delusion. Is this a taste of enlightenment or psychosis? We follow him as he attempts to find the truth, and understand and integrate his experiences.
We ask what is the relationship between spiritual practice and mental illness – and what is the dividing line between enlightenment and madness? And show how some spiritual teachers are playing with these extremes without caring for the damage that they are doing to their students.
At the same time, it asks if we have taken a wrong turn as a society in our understanding of consciousness – and if some of those in mental distress are the unwitting casualties of a limited and simplistic perspective reflected in our mental health services.
The team behind the film believe that this is a vital story – giving context to the spiritual journey, as part of a narrative of a conscious renewal of western society that is essential to deal with our many different crises, individually and collectively.
Scientists such as Stanislav Grof, (the pioneer of consciousness and creator of Holotropic Breathwork and Transpersonal Psychology) believed that integrating transcendental states were key to our evolution as individuals and as a society, and that Western medicine’s tendency to reject or pathologise them was harming individuals and society.
This film comes as a time when the (mechanistic, biological) assumptions that have driven treatment of mental health over the last few decades – in particular our dependence on long term drug regimes – are being questioned like never before, and many within the discipline believe that a tipping point is being reached.
This is not a film for the spiritual niche or preaching to the converted. It is a film specifically intended to break through and ‘cross over’ – to bring this sometimes esoteric perspective to a more mainstream audience. The editorial team have many years making current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4, winning many top awards including Baftas and Emmys. We intend and expect that this film will ‘make a splash’ with widespread media coverage and debate.
We also believe that this is timely – that the various political, economic and ecological difficulties that we are seeing in the west are all related to the end of a certain ‘materialist’ world view, which opens a door to alternative perspectives.
“To have such an experience of transcendence when you’re not grounded as a person is a very dangerous thing. You need to work through a lot of your personal stuff before you get into something like this, or you’ll only be able to experience it in terms of your own personal stuff – just your ego trying to grab onto the experience to prove that it was the biggest and baddest ego in the whole universe. I suspect that a lot of people confined to mental institutions and prisons had experiences like this and did not know how to deal with them.”
Brad Warner, author, Hardcore Zen
The old is dying, and the new is yet to be born. This documentary is part of that birth.