Spiritual awakening activates a significant purification of the psyche, bringing up traumatic memories and impressions. This process has the potential to be healing and growth-producing. However, in spiritual emergency so much psychological material comes up from the unconscious at once that it hinders the person’s everyday functioning for days or even weeks (Grof & Grof, 1990, p. 36).
The process of spiritual transformation is one that clears out the debris of the psyche. It forces us to confront our shadow, or dark side. “When we practice meditation and contemplation the dark side within us is washed to the surface of consciousness by the purifying and energizing effect of these exercises” (Eichman, 1991, p. 134). According to an essay by Eichman, in the book Meeting the Shadow, every spiritual practitioner must master the ability to deal with these emerging dark impulses. It is important to have moral, ethical, and spiritual integrity as well as accurate and practical knowledge. Without this knowledge, our perception of the dark side tends to be an archaic vestige of childhood fears. Confronting the shadow from this position quickly paralyzes us. “Instead, we must gather reliable information, read books, observe and analyze our personal psychologies, and in time develop a more complete picture of the nature of the dark side” (Eichman, 1991, p. 135). The spiritual practitioner needs to have an educated and mature attitude toward evil.
The negative aspects of ourselves, that are unloosed by spiritual practice must be examined and integrated as part of the transformational process. “As the repressed material rises, the practitioner is likely to experience frightening visions, feelings of terror, rage, uncontrollable ego reactions, and countless other usually minor but annoying and embarrassing manifestations” (Eichman, 1991, p. 136). The practitioner needs to be prepared for these types of reactions. Usually, the initial response to the sight of one’s personal evil is to feel guilt and shame, and to identify with this dark side, feeling like one had been exposed as an evil being. Personal darkness is an injury resulting from the intentionally and/or unintentionally cruel programming of the developmental years. The spiritual practitioner must heal this part of themelf and bring it into full function. Eichman says that by healing the dark nature we can recover great amounts of personal power and ability “for much of our ordinary powers as human beings are now hideously crippled by the personal dark side” (Eichman, 1991, p. 136). I would like to add here that we are also crippled by the collective shadow of society, the dark side of our combined energies. For example, the collective shadow of our society contains mass materialism, overconsumption, and control. According to Eichman, it is important that the energy of the dark nature be regularly released and expressed, and that it be done consciously through creative expression or ritual. This will “prevent an excess flow of psychic energy from harming family and friends” (p. 137). What happens when we deny or repress the shadow is that it surfaces in unhealthy or distorted ways.
Many of the people who begin practicing meditation, yoga, shamanic trance, etc. are not psychologically or physically prepared for the resulting effects of these practices. Spiritual emergence requires emotional, mental, and physical health and stability. The practitioner needs to prepare herself for the results of the transformative process, and must have knowledgeable people around to support the experience. Often, people in the midst of an intense spiritual experience are compelled by others to see their experiences as crazy, turning the emergence process into a crisis. However, if those around the person in spiritual emergence are supportive and helpful, and have faith in a positive outcome, then spiritual emergency will more likely become spiritual growth (Bragdon, 1988, p. 21).
Crisis intervention for spiritual emergency includes: “1. Evaluating a medical check-up, 2. Discouraging use of psychiatric drugs, 3. Providing a quiet and safe environment, 4. Providing compassionate and knowledgeable companionship, 5. Making a diagnosis, 6. Educating the client about spiritual experience and/or emergence, 7. Helping with grounding, centering, and/or catharsis,? 8. Referring the client” (Bragdon, 1988, pp. 81-82). It is also important for the client to decrease or stop all spiritual practices until the crisis has passed (Jasper, 2001).
In their book The Stormy Search for the Self, Christina and Stan Grof (1990) offer helpful suggestions for dealing with spiritual emergency. Pay attention to your dreams, express yourself artistically, do simple personal rituals, involve yourself in quiet activities, exercise regularly, and avoid over-stimulating people and situations (pp. 165-167). I also want to add that it would be helpful to see a counselor or psychotherapist who can assist in dealing with any emerging psychological issues or traumatic memories.
Bragdon (1988) says that there are not enough people writing, speaking, or doing research on the subject of spiritual emergency. There are few funds for research and little opportunity for developing the skills to help these people. There are also very few centers available to provide twenty-four hour care (p. 7). Currently, the only facilities that offer the necessary care are the Spiritual Emergence Network in Menlo Park, California and the Kundalini Clinic in Oakland California (Feuerstein, 2000, p. 1).
In his article “Myths in Mental Illness,” David Lukoff (1985) presents the case of Howard Everest. Howard was nineteen years old when he experienced what he called a “mental odyssey.” Dissatisfied with the boring and inane life that he grew up with, Howard began to travel and to read literature. In the Spring of 1973, he decided to delve into his inner consciousness. Upon returning to the home of his parents, he wrote a poem that he used to catapult himself into “madness.” He spent twelve hours in his room typing copy after copy of this poem until he had achieved a state of rapture. That morning Howard announced to his parents that he had been reborn, and that he was a child of the universe. During the next four days he engaged in spontaneous rituals to deepen his odyssey. To his family and friends, he continued to make proclamations using symbolic language. On the fourth day, his father, a medical doctor, admitted Howard to the psychiatric unit of the hospital. There he was forced to take thorazine, and he was confined within the hospital building. He was diagnosed, medicated, and treated as a patient with schizophrenia. During Howard’s stay at the hospital, his family was unsupportive, and the staff was indifferent. “Through the use of medication and the lack of opportunity for worthwhile communication, Howard’s experience was stamped-out and invalidated” (Lukoff, 1985, p. 176).
After two months, Howard was allowed to leave the hospital, whereupon he continued his mental odyssey. In order to make sense of his experience, he began reading books on philosophy, religion, and anthropology. Howard struggled for several months to regain his mental abilities. He eventually joined an esoteric Christian Church and took a managerial position at a video post-production studio.
Howard’s mental odyssey resembled a shamanic crisis of initiation. While confined in the hospital, he conducted symbolic rituals that contained universal elements. For example, he regularly faced each of the four directions and invoked what he called the “Four Forces of the square.” Practitioners of shamanic and pantheistic spirituality commonly invoke the four directions in their rituals. Lukoff (1985) compares Howard’s mental odyssey to the “hero’s journey” of mythology. The journey consists of three stages: separation, initiation, and return. Separation begins the adventure, and moves the protagonist from the everyday world into an unfamiliar place. During initiation he enters a supernatural realm where he must survive a series of tests. “Having survived the initiatory ordeal, the hero must…return to the ordinary world but with some enhanced qualities” (pp. 143-144).