5 of 9 – Spiritual Emergency Explained
By Marlyse Carroll
(Author of ‘Am I Going Mad? The Unsettling Phenomena of Spiritual Evolution’ – www.amigoingmad.com.au)
So far, we’ve explored spiritual evolution, initiations, Kundalini and enlightenment. Along the way, we’ve also acknowledged that some people have a hard time integrating the profound changes that take place in their psyche, especially when their awakening is very sudden.
In this article, we’ll expand on ways to help a person in spiritual crisis.
Transpersonal psychology acknowledges two types of spiritual crises that are vastly different from each other:
- A pre-awakening crisis called ‘existential crisis’ when it involves young people and ‘mid-life crisis’ for older men and women.
- A post-awakening crisis, or ‘spiritual emergency’.
In this article, we’ll focus exclusively on the second scenario. The type of crises that can occur as a result of a profound and/or sudden spiritual awakening involving Kundalini. Enlightenment experiences, in particular, can have very disruptive effects on both body and mind if they aren’t handled properly. For more information on these topics, please refer to our previous articles ‘Kundalini Explained’ and ‘Enlightenment Explained’
Spiritual Emergence and Emergency
The words ‘spiritual emergency’ refer to problematic episodes of non-ordinary states of consciousness, which involve intense emotions, visions and other sensory changes. Unusual thoughts and various physical manifestations can also be present.
Similar experiences can occur without bringing any psychological crisis. It all depends on how the ego handles new material. In this case, the word ’emergence’ is used.
We’re talking here about the sort of experiences that prophets call revelations or visions. To shamans they’re journeys to other realms and mystics call them illuminations. But in our society, whether they’re challenging or not to the person having them, such inner events are considered pathological and are labelled hallucinations.
Of course, not all visions or illuminations are signs of spirituality. Some altered states are caused by medical conditions, such as a brain tumor or side-effects of medications. Others are symptoms of mental illness, which is a contraction or a breakdown of the ego, not a temporary disruption due to expansion.
It is beyond the scope of this short article to expand on the differences, which are many. So we’ll stay focussed on the unsettling phenomena of spiritual evolution.
Dr Stanislav and Christina Grof, who coined the term ‘spiritual emergencies’, describe them as:
‘crises when the process of growth and change becomes chaotic and overwhelming. Individuals experiencing such episodes may feel that their sense of identity is breaking down, that their old values no longer hold true, and that the very ground beneath their personal realities is radically shifting. In many cases, new realms of mystical and spiritual experience enter their lives suddenly and dramatically, resulting in fear and confusion. They may feel tremendous anxiety, have difficulty coping with their daily lives, jobs, and relationships, and may even fear for their own sanity.’1
Am I Going Mad?
At this stage, the person in crisis has good reasons to ask, â€œAm I going mad?â€ Their family and friends might also worry greatly, which only exacerbates everyone’s anxiety.
In extreme cases, a psychotic episode of spiritual madness can take place. This crisis can last from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on how it’s handled. If a professional intervention is necessary, it’s essential to find a doctor, counsellor or psychiatrist who understands transcendence and treats it as such. Because spiritual emergencies benefit greatly from a non-pharmaceutical approach2.
Spiritual madness is the term used when a person becomes psychotic as a result of a sudden and troublesome Kundalini awakening.
So what is a psychosis?
A psychosis is an extreme altered state of consciousness during which ego-consciousness cannot handle the amount or quality of data that is bombarding it.
Since the data in question comes from the unconscious, such a crisis can happen because of spiritual evolution unfolding too fast, or for other reasons. The common medical misconception however is that all psychoses are pathological. We’ll explore this medical model in our next article.
As for now, let’s continue with spiritual crises.
Typically, profound spiritual experiences present us with transpersonal, or archetypal material. Such material represents deep unconscious forces that govern the psyche, the primal instincts, urges and images that live in the collective unconscious – all of which the ego is oblivious to, until they meet head-on, that is!
As a result of information overload, the ego can go into a state of chaos during which time it cannot make sense of anything, because its model of reality is not adequate for the material received. In extreme cases, if the ego is repeatedly flooded and overwhelmed by new material, it then stops operating as it normally does.
We become egoless, which is noticeable to those around us.
We might start behaving in ways that are not considered normal. Our speech tends to become incoherent. Intense emotions arise. Our relation to time and space can also change, becoming similar to dreamscapes. At times, we might even lose our ability to distinguish between what is consensual reality – what everyone agrees on – and what isn’t.
madness, provided the madness is given us
by divine gift”
The reason for a psychosis lies in the ego’s need to assign meaning. In order to fulfil its role, the ego needs a workable framework of references to process data and an intellectual understanding of what takes place. Yet, this can be a real challenge, because archetypal material doesn’t always have an equivalent form in the sensory world of matter.
Moreover, archetypes rarely communicate in rational ways.
Imagine for instance that you were walking your dog and it started talking to you, sharing its wisdom in plain English. At some level you would know that this is impossible, yet at another level it might ring absolutely true. Would it be plain madness or a valuable archetypal intrusion? It could be either.
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that transpersonal experiences are not intellectual concepts; they are both sensory and extrasensory, meaning that we feel them as real. Every level of our being is involved, which greatly adds to the confusion of the mind.
Here’s another example: you could be sitting in the bath at home, and simultaneously be a great warrior engaged in a cosmic battle between Light and Darkness. And both experiences – bath and battle – would feel equally real. It just doesn’t make any sense, does it?
Likewise, from a mundane Newtonian perspective we cannot understand the quantum world by being plunged into it. For instance, if we suddenly experience ourselves as empty space, or pure energy, and we know nothing of quantum physics, how can the ordinary mind handle this new awareness? It cannot, even though at the sub-atomic level, empty space and pure energy are accurate representations of what we are.
Let us emphasise here that profound spiritual experiences are great gifts. They open our mind to new ways of being, new ways of loving, new possibilities. When handled well, they become integrated into the psyche and lead to higher levels of happiness, better health and more emotional intelligence.
So what can we do to help people in spiritual crisis? According to Dr John E. Nelson, a brilliant contemporary American psychiatrist specialising in this field, the best option is to let the process run its course without pharmaceutical drugs. Unless of course the person represents a danger to themselves or others.
If the ego was functional before the crisis, a temporary breakdown just needs time and support to turn into a breakthrough.
If a previously sane individual is experiencing a serious disruption to their ordinary level of functioning, they need a temporary alter ego. A family member, friend or therapist willing to look after their basic needs whilst they cannot do it for themselves. These needs might include safety, food, hygiene and respecting social norms – such as wearing clothes to go out, for instance.
Because this is what a healthy ego does, apart from giving meaning to our experiences. It looks after our physical safety and our need to belong. To do so, it tells us what’s acceptable or not acceptable in society.
And in a psychotic state, the ego cannot fulfil all of these roles any longer. Hence odd behaviours and irrational thought patterns.
The other greatest need of an individual in spiritual crisis is to be heard and understood. So it’s essential that an Alter Ego person has the ability to listen from the heart and keep an open mind. It means no judgement of the data presented, even when it sounds very weird.
Remember what Dr Carl Jung told us: that mental and emotional disturbances are an attempt of the mind to find wholeness.
Obviously, support becomes even more effective if the listener is also able to enter into the other person’s experience and understand it to the point of helping them eventually make sense of it.
Transpersonal psychologists are trained in this area, which is called ‘integrating shadow material’. So are the phone counsellors working for various Spiritual Emergency/crisis Networks. Most countries have now got such an organisation, check the internet
And last but not least, we’ve all heard of the healing power of love. Throughout our life, and especially in times of crisis, feeling unconditionally loved is the fast-track to recovery.
Integrating shadow material means opening up ego-consciousness to different parts of the psyche. These parts may have been rejected and stored in the personal unconscious at some stage. Or forgotten, as with archetypes of the collective unconscious.
So integration presupposes that the ego eventually acknowledges those previously unavailable elements as valuable, and is prepared to use their qualities in everyday life.
With regard to archetypal intrusions – as emerging transpersonal material is sometimes called – integration means the difference between long-term mental problems and healthy transcendence. Our interpretation can lead to regression – which is a narrower, more restricted, more fearful worldview. Or it can lead to a more expanded and more loving perspective, which transcends our previous view of reality.
Integration has two components,
a cognitive one and an energetic one.
Cognitive integration means that we have an intellectual understanding of what is happening. When the ego has an adequate framework of references on which to hang unusual experiences, integration takes place much more easily.
Talking with a transpersonal counsellor is an excellent way of speeding up this process. Reading a good book on the unsettling phenomena of spiritual evolution is also an invaluable help, because it offers a cultural framework that helps the ego find meaning in what it witnesses3.
In fact, people who read such books before an enlightenment experience are far more likely to integrate the experience without a crisis. Their ego is prepared and integration takes place smoothly.
It is also useful to learn about the psyche, biology, physics, the lives of great mystics or the rites of ancient cultures. All this knowledge gives us points of reference that can come in very handy whenever we are faced with spiritual phenomena.
The book Am I Going Mad? offers this knowledge in a well-researched and entertaining way, hence its appeal.
Take a shamanic crisis, for instance
According to Dr Stanislav Grof, spiritual madness is often linked to unexpected shamanic experiences. As already mentioned, there are other triggers of course. But let’s briefly expand on this one.
Shamanism involves visionary inner journeys that have a purpose. For instance, looking for a missing piece of our soul – a valuable part of the psyche we lost at some stage due to trauma. This is called ‘soul retrieval’.
So from this perspective, a shamanic journey is not limited to ancient cultures or specific places and people. It can occur spontaneously in the mind of a sane Western executive sitting in the train on his way to work!
If he had taken some drugs, he might not worry too much. After all, this is why human beings take hallucinogenic drugs – to have such journeys!
But if this man hasn’t taken anything and doesn’t understand what is happening to him, fear is likely to grip him. The more he resists his inner experiences, the more mentally and emotionally distraught he will become. The stress might push him into such a state of crisis that he could seek psychiatric treatment. Which means he’ll end up carrying a psychiatric label for the rest of his life.
than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
On the other hand, if he knows about spontaneous transpersonal experiences, he will realise that they are a great gift from his unconscious. He will embrace the possibility of being this AND that – a mentally healthy man with a functional external life AND a rich inner life that benefits him. He will be able to observe what takes place in his psyche with interest, instead of feeling caught in an emotional tornado. This is intellectual integration.
Yet, there is another component, the energetic nature of transpersonal material. Its emergence can resemble a little spring or a tidal wave! If the inner experience is of tsunami magnitude, it’s likely to overcome the nervous system, and integration will need to start at a physical level, through bodywork. Cognitive understanding then comes second.
Bodywork is very important because it reaches places in the psyche that go way beyond the intellect. It works at the cellular level and creates an energetic bridge between Newtonian and quantum realities.
Breathwork, art therapy, dance therapy and deep tissue massage, for example, are all very useful for facilitating non-verbal integration. Music therapy also works wonders for some people in crisis, as do other energetic techniques not mentioned here.
A New Relationship
Integration, whether it is cognitive, energetic or both, leads to a new relationship between conscious mind and shadow. The end result is an expansion of ego-consciousness.
We’ve had a powerful spiritual experience. We’ve integrated it successfully. We’ve grown. We’re now ready for the next stage in our life. A stage in which we enjoy greater emotional and spiritual intelligence. Which means more love, more wisdom, more peace, more resilience and a broader range of responses to life’s challenges.
So far so good.
But what does Western medicine think of spiritual crises? What is the official position of psychiatry when it comes to spiritual experiences? This is the subject of our next article: Religion, Spirituality and Psychiatry.
- Grof & Grof, 1989, ‘Spiritual Emergency’, back cover
- John E. Nelson M.D. ‘Healing the Split’, 1994, page 257
- M. Carroll, ‘Am I Going Mad? The Unsettling Phenomena of Spiritual Evolution’, 2007
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