Spiritual Emergency – page 2


However, when the transformative power of the spiritual process becomes overwhelming, the person is thrown into a state of crisis or emergency. The spiritual energy moves too quickly for the person to harness and to integrate. The spiritual emergency involves one’s entire being, including the mental, emotional, and physical factors. "Spiritual emergencies can be defined as critical and experientially difficult stages of a profound psychological transformation…They take the form of nonordinary states of consciousness and involve intense emotions, visions, and other sensory changes, and unusual thoughts, as well as physical manifestations" (Grof & Grof, p. 31). The individual often experiences psychological turmoil. Some may even have thoughts of suicide. "Unless these experiences are properly understood within the context of psychospiritual growth, they might be misdiagnosed and cause the individual needless worry and potentially damaging psychiatric or medical intervention" (Feurstein, 2000, p. 1).

In such a crisis, the person is barraged with many inner changes. Their old beliefs and behaviors are challenged, as their relationship with reality rapidly shifts. They suddenly do not feel comfortable in the once familiar world, and may have problems meeting the demands of daily life. They may find it difficult to distinguish between their inner visionary world and the external world of everyday reality. Within their bodies they may feel forceful energies causing uncontrollable tremors (Grof & Grof, 1986, p. 35).

There is a continuum of psychospiritual upheaval encompassing the mild and brief episode to the severe long-term process. The intensity and duration of the experience depends on various factors, such as the person’s support system and developmental background. The chance for a positive outcome depends largely on the person’s ability to incorporate spiritual experiences into their self-concept and functioning in the world (Bragdon, 1988, p. 7). A spiritual crisis can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months, with an average of three months. When it is treated with modern psychiatric methods, the crisis can go on for years without resolution.

In her book A Sourcebook for Helping People in Spiritual Emergency, Emma Bragdon delineates criteria for spiritual emergence and criteria for spiritual emergency. In identifying the criteria for spiritual emergence as well as the crisis state, she cites the works of Christina and Stan Grof and David Lukoff. Spiritual emergence involves unusual experiences with alterations in consciousness as well as in perceptions, emotions, and cognitive and psychosomatic functioning. There is also a significant spiritual emphasis in the process. Spiritual emergence can manifest in many ways. Among these occurrences are peak experiences, kundalini awakening, near-death experiences, "past-life memories," visionary states, out-of-body experiences, the shamanic crisis, the opening of psychic abilities, increased synchronicities, communication with spirits, possession states, and states of mystical union (Grof & Grof, 1986, p. 8; Grof & Grof, 1990, pp. 4-5). In addition, the person views the experience as an inner psychological process, and is able to continue relating to others. "These criteria exclude people with severe paranoid states, persecutory delusions, and hallucinations, and those who consistently use the mechanism of projection, exteriorization, and acting out" (Grof & Grof, 1986, p. 8). According to Lukoff (1985), spiritual emergency includes the above criteria in addition to a sense of newly gained knowledge, perceptual alterations, mythological and archetypal themes, and no conceptual disorganization (pp. 167-169). According to Bragdon (1988), the chance of a spiritual experience turning into a crisis is more likely when: the person has no background knowledge to support the experience, is not physically, mentally, or emotionally flexible enough to integrate the experiences into everyday life, and/or their family, friends, and/or helping professionals view the phenomenon as symptomatic of a pathology that has no potential for being positive.

The spiritual emergency is often activated by some incident such as an illness, an accident, surgery, physical over-exertion, or prolonged lack of sleep. These kinds of circumstances can lower psychological resistances by weakening the body. The transformative crisis can also be triggered by a strong emotional experience resulting from a divorce, death of a loved one, unexpected financial disaster, or a series of failures. Occasionally it can arise with the use of a mind-altering drug or a particularly intense session of psychotherapy. There is a wide range of possible triggers. The spiritual emergency does not often occur spontaneously, but is usually preceded by a deep involvement in some type of spiritual practice. In fact, many spiritual practices are designed to bring about mystical experiences by turning the seeker inward (Grof & Grof, 1990, p. 33).

There is a difference between a spiritual emergency and a true psychotic break. People who are in spiritual emergency are still very lucid and have a sense of their own inner processes. Typically, they realize that the changes in their experiential world are due the changes they are experiencing within and are not the cause of external events. The person afflicted by a true psychosis lacks the insight that her condition has something to do with her own psyche (Grof & Grof, 1990, pp. 43-44). Because contemporary Western society generally ignores the spiritual realm, many people who are in severe spiritual emergency are classified as mentally ill, and they are hospitalized and tranquilized. This kind of treatment creates a sense of shame in the person and arrests the process of spiritual development. According to Greenwell (1990), researchers of this topic have proposed that some psychotic breaks are spiritual awakenings that have gone awry (p. 42).


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