What is a spiritual emergency or extraordinary experience?
This is a topic that I hold dear to my heart, and have been dedicating the past 10+ years researching, exploring, and experiencing, in hopes to better understand the human experience and to give something back to those who have struggled or currently are struggling with such experiences.
Throughout human history, mystics, shamans, religious leaders, priests, saints, and spiritual teachers have talked and shared their stories of the various spiritual/mystical experiences they have experiences. Some of these figures developed religions, philosophies, cosmologies, and guided society and culture by their visions and experiences. Many of these individuals were honored by their society because they were able to live with a foot in each world. Some of these individuals even brought back knowledge about how to heal disease/illness. Individuals who had spiritual or religious experiences in traditional cultures were crucial for survival and the ongoing evolution of the tribe or community.
Today, psychologists and psychiatrists look at visionary and some spiritual experiences as pathological, and as a product of mental illness -- suggesting that there is a biological root to what an individual is experiencing. The current state of dealing with powerful or extreme states of consciousness usually consists of heavy doses of medication such as, antipsychotics and antidepressants. It is unfortunate that mainstream psychiatry and psychology treat such experiences as so. With that said, there are times when medications and mainstream treatments are effective, but it is also important to view these experiences through a different lens and offer a different option to heal or move through such experiences.
Spiritual emergencies can be defined as a psychospiritual crisis that may arise from an array of environmental or biological triggers. During such, an individual may experience the breakdown or loss of identity or ego. Their current reality may begin to crumble in front of them, and might make them start questioning many aspects of their life, such as their belief system, who they are, and their relationship to self and others. This can provoke crippling anxiety, depression, deperonalization/derealization, or even suicidal thoughts. The crumbling of one's own identity, belief system, and reality can leave one in utter despair and cause an immense amount of fear or paranoia -- believing that they may never come back or return to a "normal" state of being.
There are many triggers that can cause or provoke a spiritual emergency in an individual. It could stem from different traumas such as, a sudden death of a loved one, a near-death experience, illness/disease, or major operation/surgery. These experiences can also be provoked by lack of sleep, physical exhaustion, childbirth or abortion, powerful sexual experiences, or any other emotional/physical trauma (Grof, 2000). These experiences don't always have to be sudden, but rather, they could be provoked by intention -- such as an individual intentionally practicing meditation or participating in a spiritual practice that is meant to bring on a spiritual experience. Such practices may include Kundalini yoga, Zen or Vipassana meditation, breathwork, ingesting sacred plant medicine or a hallucinogenic substance, and etc (Grof, 2000).
The term "spiritual emergency" was coined by Stanislav and Christina Grof. The term, as the Grof's mention, is a play on words. The word "emergency" suggests a psychological or spiritual crisis, but it also hints towards an opportunity to "emerge" from the crisis -- accessing and gaining a higher level of spiritual and psychological awareness (Grof, 2000). Grof believes that even though an individual may suffer, what appears to be a psychotic episode or budding psychosis, if supported properly, one can move through the experience and "emerge" to the other side -- suggesting radical psychosomatic and emotional healing and transformation.
One of the most important implications of the research of holotropic states is the realization that many of the conditions, which are currently diagnosed as psychotic and indiscriminately treated by suppressive medication, are actually difficult stages of a radical personality transformation and of spiritual opening. If they are correctly understood and supported, these psychospiritual crises can result in emotional and psychosomatic healing, remarkable psychological changes, and consciousness evolution (Grof, 2012, p. 121).
So what does transformation on this level look like? Grof mentions:
Among the benefits that can result from psychospiritual crises that receive expert support and allowed to run their natural course are improved psychosomatic health, increased zest for life, a more rewarding life strategy, and an expanded worldview that includes the spiritual dimension. Successful completion and integration of such episodes also involves a substantial reduction of aggression, increase of racial, political, and religious tolerance, ecological awareness, and deep changes in the hierarchy of values and existential priorities. It is not an exaggeration to say that successful completed and integration of psychospiritual crisis can move the individual to a higher level of consciousness evolution (Grof, 2012 p. 122).
There are various techniques and forms of experiential therapies that can help move one through a spiritual emergency or extraordinary experience. Depending on the severity of the experience, some may need 24/7 support and supervision, while less intense experiences could be managed by having a strong support network and the right resources -- experimental therapies and a safe setting/environment to help support the process as it unfolds.
During my spiritual emergencies, I found that by having a safe place to work through my experience very beneficial. I also found that reading books and writings oriented toward my experiences helped me to understand my own process. My self-study led me to using Holotropic Breathwork as therapeutic tool to help me integrate my experience. I also sought out a shamanic practitioner to work with -- this helped me with bringing context to the experiences. Some other forms of therapies were Reiki and acupuncture.
There are a variety of spiritual emergencies that Grof outlines. I will briefly outline common experiences that are associated with spiritual emergencies and extraordinary experiences. I may go into more detail in another blog.
1. Shamanic crisis/illness
2. Kundalini Awakening
3. Past-life experiences
4. Near-death experiences
5. Episodes of unitive consciousness
6. Psychic opening
7. Possession states or experiences with the paranormal
8. Psychological renewal through return to the center
9. UFO encounters and abductions
10. Channeling or communication with spirit guides
11. Drug addiction and alcoholism
As you can see, spiritual experiences and extraordinary experiences can cover a vast range of experiences. This list can provide some idea of the range of experience one can have, and why dealing with each experience is very individualistic in a sense.
For example, my spiritual emergency stemmed from a near-death experience. The near-death experience opened me up to many of these other realms which I never knew about. It took years of self-work and study to finally integrate and make sense of the experience.
I would like to close this by stating that not all spiritual experiences have the chance for transformation. I have seen in my work that sometimes people break through, while others can repress into their experience even further -- even with a supportive environment. It seems as if it depends where a person is at. Some people may want to work through their problems and explore a way to move through their experience, while others that suffer immense traumas may continue to suppress them even more. With my short time of working with people in extreme states, I have observed that those who suppress their emotions and traumas struggle to open up to the healing process and struggle to integrate their experiences. This doesn't mean that there isn't a chance for transformation, but rather, their process may take a longer time to unfold and to get in touch with. Lastly, some experiences may be biological, such as "organic" psychosis, and may need medical attention. Grof mentions this best by stating:
While mainstream psychiatrists generally tend to pathologize mystical states there also exists the opposite error of romanticizing and glorifying psychotic states or, even worse, overlooking a serious medical problem” (Grof, 2000).
That doesn't suggest that there shouldn't be options though. I believe that many people experiencing some sort of spiritual emergency or extraordinary experience can work through it as long as the cultural views shift. Many traditional cultures would view some of these experiences as a calling for an individual to step into the role of becoming a healer or leader. Until we begin to shift our belief system and be open minded about alternative options, our culture will continue to suppress such powerful life changing experiences that could foster transformation on many levels.
Grof, Stanislav. (2012). Healing our deepest wounds: The holotropic paradigm shift. Newcastle, WA: Stream of Experience Productions.
Grof, Stanislav. (2000). Psychology of the future: Lessons from modern consciousness research. Albany, NY: State University of New York (SUNY) Press.