The Stormy Search for the Self - Navigating Spiritual Emergency
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
To be a human being means to always in a process of becoming. We are all on a journey and part of that journey involves facing crises. Each one of us has problems, we have things that we suffer greatly from, and we have things that bother or annoy us in life. It may be our relationships, or our background, or difficulties with our jobs – there is no limit to the ways crisis can manifest in our lives.
In our culture we have a traditional idea where we look at ourselves as a victim of circumstances. But when we look at these difficulties from a transpersonal perspective we see that the very thing that causes us to suffer also gives us the chance to grow. The wound itself becomes a doorway into the possibility of transformation for us. This offers us a radically different way of looking at things. I spent 35 years working in adult mental health what I saw was a pattern where the patient comes to the doctor with problems. These might be symptoms of depression, anxiety, or psychosis – and the doctor interprets this as something that is wrong with the person. The doctor then attempts to find a diagnosis, which puts a label on the experience that the person is having, and allows the doctor to consult his training and handbook and prescribe a treatment – which is almost invariably medication or hospitalisation.
The medical model of mental health is a mechanical model – it says that there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed and it attempts to do that. Another way to look at it would be to say that there is something in the person’s psyche that is rising up, and it is signalling a way for the person to become more of who they are. While the symptoms that people are experiencing may be the same, no two people are the same. I discovered this early on as a student nurse, I realised that the people presenting were not blank slates with these labels attached, rather they were suffering beings looking to be understood, accepted, and seeking to be met where they were.
Eventually I went to study psychotherapy and trained in Breathwork with Stan Grof, and what I loved about Grof was that he was a psychiatrist who had worked with thousands of people and found through his research that rather than suppressing symptoms, if you gave the person an opportunity to express them then things changed. Expression and integration of symptoms were parts of a journey to wholeness that helped people function better as human beings. Once we suppress our symptoms, they become stuck or frozen in us, and that eventually becomes more problematic. We need to allow the feelings to emerge within us.
This emergence is a natural phenomenon – we constantly in flux, always moving on to become more than that which we are now. This change or evolution of our psyche – a kind of spiritual development - is an innate function of being human. But it is not something that we are made aware of in our culture. We are told that conformity to religious and cultural ideals is much more appealing than non-conformity. Breaking free from the cultural conditioning you have been brought up with can be a painful process – this might mean not conforming to the religion, or family, or society that you have been surrounded by. This is problematic because there is the risk of isolation, and loneliness is one of the most painful feelings, and facing these feelings can lead to what Grof calls a ‘spiritual emergency’.
Spiritual emergency can be defined as a critical and experientially difficult stage of a profound psychological transformation that involves one's entire being. It may take the form of non-ordinary states of consciousness and may involve unusual thoughts, intense emotions, visions and other sensory changes, as well as various physical manifestations. So what happens is you might start on an insightful journey, through meditation, or yoga, or therapy and you may encounter experiences that move you outside your ordinary state of consciousness. Your world view goes from seeing everything as very normal and in order, to including these experiences that transcend your framework. That can become frightening because if we have no context to understand it then we can feel very alone.
We often have no context at all because our society is very much based on materialism. We project our desire for transcendence onto immediate objects. We can all relate to the feeling that we would be happier if only we could possess the new house, or new job, or new car or whatever it might be. The real desire there is not for the material object but for a feeling of bliss and contentment within ourselves. Joseph Campbell said that many of us spend our lives climbing up the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that it was up against the wrong wall.
The triggers for spiritual emergency can be manifold, but they often begin once us as individuals and our world view are called into question. Common triggers for spiritual emergency might be going through a sickness, or through loss of a loved one, or some other big life experience that completely changes our world and we suddenly find ourselves in a crisis of meaning. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have gone to India and stayed there for 6 months or a year and they come back with their minds blown. They have had so many intense experiences that they cannot handle it. They can’t understand it, and often you will see the gurus in India don’t understand why that person has come to undergo something so intense either. Jung talked about how important it was that people in the West don’t suddenly immerse themselves in the spiritual tradition of another culture, because we can easily become overwhelmed by an experience if we lack the facilities to digest it. You also see this with people who go to South America to work with the indigenous shamans and plants there. They enter into a very deep experience and then have trouble contextualising it.
In the West we are focused on results, and that makes us act hurriedly. And sometimes we are in a hurry to have transformative experiences – we want to storm heaven, we want a shortcut to being there. Travel and all that it entails can bring us some amazing experiences, once we are equipped to have them. We can equip ourselves through a regular practice, through exercise, meditation, therapy – there are many ways to build that up in ourselves. There are shortcuts to the experience, but there are no shortcuts to maintaining that experience. My preference is to take small steps along the way, and that is the difference between entering a state of spiritual emergency, and entering a state of spiritual emergence. Emergence is a process that happens over time, and emergency is when we are plunged into a crisis.
Grof says that spiritual emergence can be understood as the movement of an individual to a more expanded way of being that involves enhanced emotional and psychosomatic health, greater freedom of personal choices, and a sense of deeper connection with other people, nature, and the cosmos. An important part of this development is an increasing awareness of the spiritual dimension in one's life and in the universal scheme of things. So in the transpersonal model you can get there without going through a spiritual emergency, but you need to be prepared to put in the work of getting to know yourself deeply. Most of us have a reservoir of emotional build up – things that stem from our relationship with ourselves and with others - that we cannot bypass, we have to face it and go through it as part of the process.
Rather than face this material we tend to project it outwards, onto things and people that we can more easily dislike. But what happens when you actually address that is that you go through a catharsis – you can take the material that is frozen or stuck and move it into awareness and discharge it. It is hard work, but there are two benefits: first you are free of the weight it – it takes a lot of energy to suppress that in your psyche, so your energy is not being used as well as it could. Secondly, once you are not holding it, you tend to stop noticing and encountering whatever that problem is on a regular basis, or at least when you encounter it, it doesn’t possess the same charge that it did. When we take responsibility for who we are, and realise our potential to change, that is part of our spiritual emergence.
It is important to remember that even the most difficult episodes are natural stages in a process of opening that can be beneficial if circumstances are favourable. Suppression doesn’t make a problem go away, it temporarily and ineffectively puts a lid on the situation for the time being. But eventually the pot boils over. It is important instead to find a safe space and a safe method to express it. In many indigenous cultures, shamans were people who had gone come out the other side of a spiritual emergence or emergency. And then they became the visionaries, mentors, and philosophers of their society. The idea in these cultures is that only the wounded can heal - if you haven’t gone there yourself you will find it difficult to be there for anyone else.
Through my years practicing as I psychotherapist, I have come to realise that I can never fix or cure anybody, but I can give people the space and context that they need to find meaning in their suffering. And every time I have worked with people that have found meaning, they have found it more bearable. Since birth we have been on a journey that involves suffering. We don’t have a handbook for contextualising this suffering, but we do have access to a lot of resources, these include the works of philosophers, psychologists, traditional sacred texts and practices, and our own insightful experience. Delve into those resources as part of your emergence, and when you come up against suffering, see if you can find the gold in it, and fit it into the context of the grand journey that you are on.
About the author:
Martin Duffy is the director of the Oaktree Charitable Trust, a nonprofit organisation that runs the Irish Centre for Shamanic Studies at Dunderry Park. Martin has worked as a mental health care professional since 1977. He is an accredited transpersonal /Jungian psychotherapist. Martin is available for one to one sessions for Transpersonal Psychotherapy, Soul retrieval and Shamanic Counselling and healing.
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