Spiritual Emergency – page 3


Lukoff (1985) makes a case for a DSM diagnosis of “Mystical Experience with Psychotic Features” (MEPF) (p. 156). The MEPF shares some characteristics of the Brief Reactive Psychosis, Manic Episode. However, it is different, especially because of its potential for a positive outcome. The characteristics of MEPF include disorientation and instability, an intense spiritual experience, appearance of an acute psychotic episode lasting anywhere from minutes to months, and it results in a positive and transformative outcome (Davis, 1998, p. 1). Lukoff says that mental health professionals need to be capable of recognizing a mystical experience. Accurate diagnosis could reduce hospitalization and medication for people who could be treated in ways that are less stigmatizing and without side effects (p. 159-160).

However, the line between spiritual emergency and psychosis is not always easily discernible. Psychiatrist and author Peter Breggin (1991) believes that all psychological afflictions are a type of spiritual crisis. He says that madness has a negative connotation in our society, yet we also see these people as sensitive, creative, and philosophical. “They often express passionate, painful, emotion through psychological or spiritual metaphors wrapped in symbolic elements of suffering and martyrdom” (Breggin, 1991, p. 26). Throughout history, people whom we view as “mad” have often been endowed with special creative qualities. The madness of many great minds has also been the source of their creativity. For example, the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh also struggled with mental illness.

The late mythologist Joseph Campbell (1972) believed that the psychotic individual, the mystic, the yogi, and the LSD-taker are all experiencing the same depths of the psychospiritual ocean. However, “The mystic, endowed with native talents for this sort of thing and following stage by stage the instruction of a master, enters the waters and finds that he can swim: whereas the schizophrenic, unprepared, unguided, and ungifted, has fallen or has intentionally plunged, and is drowning” (p. 216).

According to indigenous and tribal people, madness is the result of loss of part of the soul. The experience of trauma causes a part of the spirit to separate off, so that the person is protected from the full impact of the wound. What is traumatic varies with each person. The cause of soul loss depends on the individual’s experience of trauma, whether or not someone else would experience it that way (Ingerman, 1991, p. 11).

Sometimes the madness is a temporary condition due to a shamanic transformation, when the person has a calling to become an ambassador of the spiritual realm and a transmitter of healing. Shamanism is humanity’s oldest spiritual and religious path. It has been practiced in many cultures all over the world. The shaman lives in both the spiritual world and the world of everyday reality. He receives knowledge from visions, dreams, and trance states. Altered states of consciousness are achieved through drumming, dancing, fasting, dehydration, pain stimulation, seclusion, restricted mobility, sleep deprivation, hyperventilation, or the ingestion of hallucinogens (Ryan, 1999, p. 65). “Shamanic and totemistic experiences thus connect the individual with deep and primordial aspects of the psyche” (Grof, 1988, p. 283).

The “shamanic illness” is what initiates the career of many shamans (Grof, 1988, p. 283). This crisis can take the form of a physical or mental affliction that is resolved in the vocation of shamanism. The dynamics of shamanism turn the crisis into a cure, thus revealing the mind’s own curative powers (Ryan, 1999, pp. 61-62). During the shamanic crisis, the initiate experiences a symbolic death and rebirth. “The death-rebirth process takes the form of the descent into the underworld, torture, dismemberment and annihilation by demons, and subsequent ascent to the upper world. Development of ESP, creative inspiration, and the ability to diagnose and heal diseases are additional typical transpersonal concomitants of profound and well-integrated shamanic experiences” (Grof, 1988, p. 283). The shamanic crisis cannot be assessed as a break with society and the world. Rather, it is an intense understanding of their depth, and the break is instead with the “trivial attitude toward both the human spirit and the world that appears to satisfy the great majority” (Campbell, 1959, p. 253). In comparison to the debilitation of an actual mental illness, a properly supported shamanic crisis produces a person of superior intelligence and refinement, with more energy and spiritual vitality than what is the norm. So the temporary imbalance of the crisis may look like a mental breakdown, but it cannot be dismissed as one(Campbell,1959, pp. 252-253). Both mental and physical illness represent a process of death and rebirth. This process is an initiation in which one dies to an old way of being and is reborn anew.

According to Bragdon (1988, p. 159), as various spiritual disciplines of different cultures gain popularity, many people are experiencing transformational crises resulting from their practices. There are now a vast array of spiritual and psychic exercises to choose from. In her book, Energies of Transformation, Bonnie Greenwell (1990) tells us that “Not only spiritual teachers but psychotherapists, psychics, body therapists, and other kinds of educators have promoted meditation practices, varieties of Tantric practices, training for out-of-body experiences, breathing processes such as Rebirthing, Holotropic Therapy, and Radiance Breathwork, and Reichian and neo-Reichian bodywork”…All types of yoga, Tai Chi, and Aikido classes are offered in many areas. Each of these practices is inclined to stimulate and intensify certain types of energies that were latent or less active in the body…”Deep relaxation processes, bio-feedback, imagery and gentler styles of bodywork can also deeply affect the [spiritual] energy system”…There has been much research into near-death experiences which are often accompanied by major shifts in energy and consciousness. There are even some reports of people becoming spiritually awakened through dreams…”A 1988 Harris poll indicated that close to 4.5 million Americans meditate. It is probable that most of these people have been exposed to at least a nominal number of processes that can awaken the spiritual Self…” (p. 6).


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