Spiritual Regression Explained

7 of 9 – Spiritual Regression

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. We then looked at various natural ways to deal with the state of crisis known as Spiritual Emergency, before checking how mainstream Western medicine handles such crises.

In this article, we’ll address another type of spiritual crisis that is often misdiagnosed as clinical depression.

We’re now well engaged on the spiritual path. We’ve had a few powerful spiritual experiences, we’ve integrated them into ego-consciousness and we’ve grown in noticeable ways. We have become more joyful, energetic, loving and compassionate. Life is wonderful and we only see the best in everyone and everything. We believe that this brilliant inner landscape will last forever.

If the illumination is strong enough, but not too strong, the change is permanent and enlightened living becomes a way of life. Ego and Self have found a good balance that leads to self-actualisation.

But if the flash-flood of inner light is not strong enough to be permanent, more challenges might be on the way. In most cases, even though they can be painful, they are the equivalent of taking a few steps backwards in order to jump further forward.

The Light Recedes

Suddenly or progressively, the light of divine consciousness recedes and we’re back in the dark. The ego is in control again, fighting the Self with all its might, and our psyche has become a battleground. These struggles are desperate attempts of the ego to seal itself off from transpersonal energies.

At this stage, most people feel that they are worse than ever before. They might become irritable or tearful. Inner peace vanishes, alongside creativity, vitality and joy, because so much energy is used in keeping spirituality at bay.

For as long as the battle occurs at an unconscious level, it is felt as successive waves of vague and disruptive negative feelings. But in extreme cases, the confrontation between ego and Self can be felt as a life or death battle of huge proportion and can in fact lead to suicide.

“A question that sometimes drives me hazy:
am I or are the others crazy?”
Albert Einstein

The crisis can last from a few days to many years, depending on how it is handled.

Danger meeting opportunity

We can try and suppress the pain through alcohol and/or drugs – legal or illegal. This doesn’t solve the problem of course. It only adds to our misery or delays its resolution. According to Dr John Nelson, psychiatrist and author of the book ‘Healing the Split’, a mishandling of spiritual crisis through medication can also have serious consequences. It can result in permanent damage to the personality because pharmaceutical drugs freeze the unfinished process.1 This approach can also foster long-term dependence on medication.

I’ll address here two of the worst-case scenarios which can occur at that stage. Keep in mind that they represent extreme cases. For most people on the spiritual path, regression doesn’t happen at all or takes a milder form.

  • The first crisis is known as ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’, which is the title of a canticle written in 1578 by St John of the Cross, a Christian mystic. This psychological concept was then revived and explained to us by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961), whom we introduced in the first article of this series.
  • The second possible response is known as ‘Regression in the Service of Transcendence’ (RIST).

Let us explore these two serious spiritual states of crisis in more detail.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Spiritual crisis

The divine light is gone and ego is back with a vengeance. This is a time of great suffering. We feel lost and lonelier than we have ever been. There is neither warmth nor light within us because we’re out of touch with our soul.

To our psyche, our nervous system and our emotions, it feels like we’ve been chased out of paradise and thrown into a living hell. The huge pain we experience comes from our awareness of the difference between living from love and living from fear and rage. The contrast is unbearable.

All we can see is every little bit of meanness and deception both within ourselves and around us. We notice cruelty everywhere it takes place. The world appears as a mad, dangerous, hostile place, full of mad, dangerous and hostile people, oneself included. A far cry from what we were experiencing just a little while ago, when everything was so loving and beautiful. Once again, we ask ourselves, “Am I going mad?”

Even meditations, which were once easy and profoundly fulfilling, don’t bring us any peace. In most cases, we don’t meditate any longer anyway. We feel trapped, rejected and abandoned. Deep feelings of depression can arise because we don’t see any way out of this situation.

Depending on the state of the ego and the content of the shadow, an associated phenomenon can make things even worse.

Regression in the Service of Transcendence (RIST)

Regression means that more primitive modes of thinking and feeling replace evolved ones, and it happens in the service of transcendence because it is part of the overall pattern of purification.

Quoting John E. Nelson M.D. again, he explains RIST [Regression in the Service of Transcendence] as ‘a clarion call from the larger self to the ego, proclaiming: “Old rules and habits no longer apply. Reality is not what you believed it to be. You must now re-examine and reorder your life. Nothing short of a radical transformation will suffice.”

RIST is a natural healing process that speeds up our spiritual evolution by exposing the shadow. This phase of the process is characterised by previously suppressed aspects of the personality such as rage, grief or socially unacceptable impulses becoming dominant traits for a while. This shift in the balance between ego and shadow occurs because, after having experienced a huge influx of transpersonal energy, the ego is weakened and the shadow strengthened.

Apart from emotions, lower drives such as sado-masochistic tendencies or other sexual perversions can also come to light. Instead of remaining suppressed out of consciousness, they come out in full force, both mentally and at times physically. This can be highly distressing to the person experiencing this shift in consciousness, especially if they feel unable to control their urges and emotions.

Removing mask

Their social persona has dissolved to a point where they feel weak and vulnerable, with nowhere to hide. The very forces they concealed from themselves and others for so long are now driving them. In extreme cases, being out of control is the dominant feeling.

Such a crisis is not only difficult at an individual level, it also places much strain on relationships. Family members are likely to ridicule or resent spiritual growth. “So much for your personal development and your meditation! You’re worse than you were before”, is a common judgement, which rings true.

At this stage, the amount of guilt and shame felt by the person in crisis is so serious that it can lead to desperation. So the shadow of self-destruction is also likely to emerge from the depths, looming large and visible in the psyche.

This ‘fall from grace’ step in the process towards self-actualisation is well recognised in transpersonal psychology and is aptly called ‘purgation’. It plays an important role in the creation of a permanent channel of contact between the personal and the transpersonal parts of the psyche.2

There too, if we resist the temptation to suppress the pain with drugs or alcohol and we keep doing our inner work, we soon move through it and reach a higher plane of consciousness – usually the fourth chakra.

How can we help ourselves?

Rage and anger

These painful states bring great gifts because they oblige us to face our worst fears and most destructive urges. All defences down, we meet the most ruthless aspects of our shadow, those dark forces we would never acknowledge in other circumstances.

The most important reaction at this stage is to resist harmful impulses without suppressing them. It means to consciously acknowledge the demons clamouring for recognition in our psyche. So we face them and address them. But we do NOT give them the power to ruin our life.

We choose to reinforce our higher values through our actions, one day at a time, whilst simultaneously recognising that we have the potential to do the opposite. To harm ourselves and others, to be cruel, to cheat, to lie, even to kill.

In a nutshell, the solution is to face our shadow without acting on it.

When faced squarely, the psyche’s demons soon lose their destructive power. This gives us a chance to integrate them, heal at a deep level and come out stronger when the challenge is over.

In severe cases of regression, it is important to seek psychological support. An appropriate intervention will help the person in crisis to push through the barrier and move from breakdown to breakthrough, whereas mental or chemical suppression exacerbates the problem. According to Dr Nelson again, antipsychotic drugs should only be taken if there is physical danger of self-harm.

From what I have been told, most religious officials do not receive any training in the handling of such profound spiritual emergencies. So they’re more likely to refer the sufferer to medical authorities than to address it themselves. Some might also suggest an exorcism.

Other options are available:

  • Psychologists, psychiatrists or counsellors versed in transpersonal psychology understand such spiritual challenges, as do well trained meditation teachers. So talking with those professionals can be very helpful.
  • Reading a good book on the unsettling phenomena of spiritual evolution is also an invaluable help, because it normalises such experiences, which diminishes the stress.
  • Another option is to take some time out and engage in active spiritual work by attending residential retreats such as Vipassana, for example. Other professionally run workshops might be just right too. It is important, however, to be honest with the organisers when enquiring because not all workshops or processes are appropriate at a time of profound personal crisis.
  • Various forms of bodywork, such as breathwork and dance therapy, are also extremely effective at speeding up the process of integration.
  • The most important steps though are the ones that relate to upgrading our personality. This process is called ‘transmutation’.

As a conclusion

The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ beautifully illustrates the duality of spiritual emergencies. It is composed of two signs, the first one means ‘danger’ and the second one ‘opportunity’. Obviously, ancient Taoist sages understood that a crisis is always an opportunity for positive change.

Danger plus opportunity

Today, Western science also acknowledges that perturbation is a normal stage of evolution. One that is essential to reaching higher, more sophisticated levels of operation.

Which brings us to our next article: Complexity Science Explained. This time we’ll tackle the subject of human evolution through a fascinating scientific paradigm.


  1. Nelson, Healing the Split, 1994, page 406
  2. Assaglioli, ‘Psychosynthesis’, 1971


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