Are You Experiencing a Spiritual Emergency?

Expansion by Paige Bradley

A few days ago, I attended a small event, put together by a group called the Spiritual Emergence and Other Extraordinary Experiences at CIIS.

The aim of the group was to bring together different people who shared one thing in common – spiritual experiences that are significant to them, but pathologized by the established scientific and medical community.

There were stories of people hearing voices, some having a premonition of impending doom, people possessed by terrifying fear, and even someone seeing dreadful entities from other dimensions.

But not all of them were difficult experiences; some encountered ecstatic states too. What we all had in common was that mainstream psychology deemed almost all of us as having a disorder. Yet, here we were, the ones who could easily be viewed as “crazy”, sitting in a circle together, sharing personal stories and being friendly and supportive of one another.

Often, I view my own experience with anxiety and depersonalization as a spiritual emergence. Whether or not I would choose to categorize it as an emergency is something that varies from time to time and the intensity of the experience. Spiritual emergency is defined as:

“a crisis 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]

These are the experiences that are misunderstood by modern medicine and psychiatry and have been viewed as an illness that is at best problematic to the individual, and at worst, a menace to society.

Medication is often used to suppress these experiences, oftentimes, ignoring the unwanted side effects.

Medicating a spiritual crisis

At this time, I’d like to make it clear that modern psychiatry is not consciously pathologizing all of our spiritual experiences. We try to curtail them because of the West’s innate fear of madness.

However, there are definitely people, who have psychotic episodes, where nothing of spiritual value is gained. These psychotic episodes can often result from organic impairment of the brain, for example, due to a disease. In most cases, these can be examined and confirmed by various physiological and psychological evaluations.

People, who are having a psychotic episode, have no idea of what they are going through.

In a general sense, if you are conscious of your experience, then you are probably witnessing your own transformation through a spiritual emergence.

This means, even at harrowing times, when the transformation goes through terrifying and dreadful phases, if you can understand or try to understand what is happening to you through help from books, therapists, teachers, and rationalization and reflection, then you are probably not experiencing a psychosis.

A big wave can swallow a person off the shore, trash them around, and finally, wash them back to the shore, battered and bruised, if they are lucky, but an experienced surfer can ride the very same wave with skill and agility. Similarly, a spiritual emergence and a psychotic episode are very much alike, and the quality of the individual’s experience dictates which term to be applied.

Most doctors and psychiatrists are quick to misdiagnose these experiences as an illness that was somehow caused by the patience’s defective genes or bad parenting or other traumas in life. But, there have been so many cases of people, with healthy childhoods and seemingly healthy bodies, developing these non-ordinary experiences out of nowhere.

In my own case, the extent of anxiety and depersonalization I experienced during my crisis had no precedent. The word anxiety was never in my diction before I experienced my first panic attack. Granted, I was experimenting with a whole array of psychedelics (soft drugs), at that time, but these drugs have been ingested by so many people before with very little or no brain damage that, sometimes, are used to explain this phenomenon.

These psychedelics, however, do have the potential to open our minds to a greater Mind at Large or universal consciousness.

Aldous Huxley, with his famous reducing valve theory, compared our brains to a radio receiver.

We go on most of our lives tuned-in to one single station to which the entire world is listening, called consensus reality. We are quite oblivious to the existence of other channels and stations that exist, simultaneously, in parallel to our consensus reality.

This is mostly so because we don’t need all the stations for our survival. In fact, it becomes detrimental if we perceive reality greater than what is necessary for our ego to survive. Huxley says:

“…we are animals; our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.” [2]

Sometimes, a trauma or a psychedelic experience can increase the size of our reducing valve.

Suddenly, we are flooded with all of this raw information that we have trouble processing and putting into context of our old, survive, mate, feed, repeat, framework.

In other words, we encounter what psychologist Carl Jung would call a “confrontation with the Unconscious.”

The ego, which is your sense of self, is battling these new sensations and information. It no longer is able to understand the world as it knew before and is overcome with dread and anxiety in the face of a spiritual emergence because it fears losing control (going insane) or death.

In this age of ego-dominated thinking, transcendental experiences are suppressed if they don’t fit the narrow material model of the universe or the self. Whenever an experience threatens the stronghold of the ego, it is quickly dismissed as new age woo-woo.

I have been guilty of this in the past as well. I am still skeptical of some of these new age theories out there, especially the ones that have the word “quantum” attached to it (Mr. Chopra, I’m at looking at you), but it is unwise to discount all of these experiences as nothing but pathologies of an ill brain.

The ancient cultures had a place for such experiences.

In fact, having a taste of the ecstatic fire of madness (which modern day calls mania) or hearing voices and having visions (akin to schizophrenia of our times) were deemed as gifts. These people were carefully looked after and treated with medicinal herbs and supported by shamans and the so-called witch doctors.

Some of these people would later become shamans once they were able to go through their experiences and obtain the necessary grounding and knowledge and integrate it into their new selves.

Signs of a Spiritual Emergency

There are several tell-tale signs of when a person is going through a spiritual emergence, here are some:

  • Disconnection with reality and the self, feeling as if you do not exist or the world isn’t real, what is termed as depersonalization or derealization.
  • Waves of intense emotions, such as anxiety, anger, sadness, joy, depression, or ecstatic high that arise for no reason and, often, unexpectedly [3].
  • Mood swings, ranging from extreme to subtle.
  • Inability to concentrate or finding it difficult to focus.
  • Feeling depressed, worthless, or that life has no meaning. [4]
  • Impairment of memory or blanks in memories.
  • Mind filled with thoughts that seem like they don’t belong to you. [4]
  • Uncanny coincidences that link the world of inner realities, such as dreams and visionary states, to happenings in everyday life. [3]
  • Being really tired all the time or exhausted and wanting rest.
  • New body sensations, such as tingling, numbing, trembling, and appetite loss. [4]
  • Alterations in visual, auditory, or other perceptions. Hearing voices or seeing things other people don’t necessarily perceive. [4]
  • Obsession with images of death, rebirth, cosmic conflict, or other mythological themes. [4]
  • Intense anger and interpersonal difficulties. [4]
  • Rush of energy and new sensations throughout the body and the spine, in particular. Pressure in the head, especially near the third eye. [5]
  • Increased feelings of empathy and caring for others, especially those who are in pain and suffering.
  • Ecstatic or elevated mood with feelings of joy, salvation, or union. [4]
  • New insights into the nature of being. [4]
  • An increase in sense of purpose, happiness, and contentment.
  • Increased creativity and exploration through art, music, and other modalities. [5]

Redefine Your Experience

It might be really helpful to see your mental troubles, especially the intense anxiety, detachment from reality or self, and depression, as a process of awakening.

This might be difficult to process initially because the alternative of blaming it on childhood or imbalances in the brain’s chemicals seems much easier. It means we can easily buy into the existing framework and seek mainstream support. However, if you feel this is not helping you, but doing more harm, then I invite you to view this as a higher consciousness unfolding through you.

My own experience taught me to cast off my old, materialistic beliefs of the world and embrace a worldview that is vastly complex, creative, and divine in nature.

Anxiety, some say, is what happens to us when we outgrow our model of the world, urging us to look for a roomier and less limiting one. In this way, the anxiety we experience during our spiritual crisis can be our path to liberation.

By categorizing your experience as a spiritual one, you are giving yourself more room to accept the intensity of it. This acceptance may be key in your eventual integration of such an experience.

You could resist these feelings, numb them with medication (prescribed or not), and see it as a threat to your old self, or you can accept them and welcome, with curiosity, the more integrated, individuated, emerging new self.

References:

[1]  Stan and Christina Grof, Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis
[2] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell
[3] Stan Grof, Spiritual Emergencies: Understanding and Treatment of Psychospiritual Crises
[4] Guy Albert, Phd, Exploring Self-Transformation through the Spiritually Positive Resolution of Mental Heath Crises
[5] Kundalini Emergencies

Credits:

  1. Opening image – “Expansion” – by Paige Bradley
  2. Rx Bottle – https://www.flickr.com/photos/purplepenning/6306512682
  3. Starchild – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bytheorion/17201216460

Further Reading:

  1. Breakdowns and ‘Shift-Ups’: The Relationship Between Psychosis and Spiritual Awakening
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I write about personal topics like anxiety, depersonalization, depression, discovering one's inner strength and reflections on the good life. Subscribe and get notified when new articles like this one are published.
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