How to navigate a collective spiritual emergency

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Homo sapiens is going through a collective spiritual emergency, a collective near-death experience. Executive authority is breaking down, established institutions and entrenched habits are dissolving, there is a loss of certainty and consensual reality; archetypal and apocalyptic thinking is flooding in from the margins of consciousness. For the first time ever, our collective species-consciousness is connected and focused on the same threat. We are walking together through the valley of death.

I have been researching spiritual emergencies for the last few years, and have just co-edited a book on the topic, together with psychiatrist Tim Read, who is the consultant psychiatrist both for Imperial College’s psychedelics lab and the Synthesis retreat centre in Holland. The book is called Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency.

It’s a collection of 14 personal accounts of people’s spiritual emergencies, which can be defined as messy spiritual experiences which involve extended distortions in the person’s normal ego-functioning and sense of reality. These extended bouts of ego-dissolution can be both ecstatic and terrifying. Handled wisely, they can be integrated and the person is able to flourish afterwards.

Spiritual emergencies are often triggered by either psychedelics or intense spiritual exercise, but they also arise spontaneously. And in one of our 14 stories, the emergency is triggered by a political crisis (Brexit). As more and more people take psychedelics or practice spiritual techniques, there is evidence a growing number of people are having mystical experiences (see below). Some of those experiences will be spiritual emergencies. Indeed, I personally know at least 10 other people who have had such messy, frightening experiences, where the self and reality are altered for several weeks or months. Few of them ever talked about it or found help for dealing with it.

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We need better information and resources regarding such experiences. And the rest of us can learn from their stories, when we go through our collective spiritual emergency. As environmental mystic Joanna Macy writes: ‘In periods of major cultural transition, the experience of ‘positive disintegration’ is widespread’. We can learn how to fall apart, and how to come back together.

Here is an excerpt from our final chapter, where Tim and I draw some tentative conclusions from the 14 stories. Rather than draw any definitive conclusions about what these experiences mean or point to, we instead look at what caused the crisis, what were they like, and what helped people through.

What Caused the Crisis?

There is a clear history of trauma in childhood or adolescence in 10 of our 14 stories ranging from a difficult birth, parental and family strife, early childhood or teenage illness (physical, emotional or drug-induced), childhood neglect, attachment issues, parental abandonment and loss as well as physical or sexual abuse.

There is some evidence of a link between trauma and unusual experiences like hallucinations, hearing voices and out-of-body experiences. Early trauma may lead to a fragmented ego — a false public self, a repressed shadow of trauma, and a compensatory fantasy world. The psyche then seeks wholeness through a breakdown and dissolution of the false self, which can occur any-time after adolescence.

Inherited genetic dispositions may also make people more prone to unusual experiences or altered states of consciousness. Recent genetic research suggests that traits like schizotypy, dissociation, absorption and divergent thinking exist across the general population and have a genetic basis. Inheriting a strong disposition to, say, schizotypy may give people quite a sensitive or ‘wired’ autonomic nervous system, even before trauma sensitises it further. A strong genetic tendency to traits like schizotypy or dissociation can bring gifts and wounds — it can make one more creative, and more prone to disorganized or delusional thinking. Such people are likely to become artists, healers or shamans in traditional cultures, and indeed that’s what most of our contributors have become, in one way or another. In indigenous cultures, shamanism (which one anthropologist characterizes as a sort of controlled dissociation) is often an inherited or genetic vocation. We only suggest the possibility of a genetic disposition to both spiritual experiences and spiritual emergencies — the research is still young in this field.

Beyond genetic, cultural and environmental causes, there is still an ambiguity and mystery about these experiences. They aren’t just experiences, necessarily. For some contributors, they are also encounters, with spirits, angels, God or divine reality. This could be a causative factor too — Someone seeks us out, Something breaks through. It may be that trauma, genes or environmental triggers make the ego more ‘porous’ or transliminal, more open to a spirit dimension.

Are such experiences more likely in moments of historical crisis? Jeffrey Kripal, professor of religious studies and the head of Esalen’s research centre, was interviewed on Radio 3’s Free Thinking this week, to talk about his new book The Flip, which explores ecstatic experiences. He was asked, ‘is the coronavirus the kind of extreme experience that will bring about a flip?’ He replied:

I don’t think that’s how we should think about it right now. But I’m absolutely certain that all this suffering and all of this fear and dying is producing all kinds of extraordinary experiences, most of which we will never hear, because our culture does not allow these stories.

What Was It Like?

The crisis starts with a trigger that delivers a decisive challenge to ego structures that were (probably) already precarious. The triggers range from drugs, intense spiritual exercises, the sudden loss of an important relationship or, in one case, a political crisis (the Brexit referendum). The crises quite often happened when the person is away from home, at university, or travelling abroad. Airports seem particularly triggering.

This tallies with what other researchers into spiritual emergencies have found. Catherine Lucas has also drawn a connection between such experiences and travel. Kaia Nightingale of the Canadian Spiritual Emergence Service found, in a survey, that intense spiritual exercises were the most common trigger for spiritual emergencies. Dr Willoughby Britton, director of Brown University’s varieties of contemplative experience project, has found meditation can sometimes lead to prolonged disruption of ordinary ego-functioning.

There is a build-up of tension and, at some point, a ‘flip’ into a different state of mind. Time slows down and the person’s attention is deeply absorbed in the moment. Things takes on a heightened, numinous significance. There may be an overlapping of the person’s inner and outer world, as dream or archetypal material spills out of the subconscious. This archetypal material often seems to take a mythical-religious form, as Carl Jung predicted. This may be surprising and disconcerting for the person if they are atheist. In keeping with the mythical-magical-religious theme, the person may be drawn to rituals, tests and magical objects. They may feel themselves become cosmic archetypes — God, Jesus, Eve, Ishtar — and this may lead to ego-inflation if we become too identified with these archetypes. They may see synchronicities, patterns, psychic connections and deep meanings in coincidental events.

A materialist psychologist may say this is mainly delusional, but sometimes these synchronicities are uncanny. It may be that in these expanded states we really do enter a more connected mind-space. There is research that supports the existence of psi — innate human cognitive abilities that are not recognised by mainstream science.

For some of our contributors, there is a feeling of the dissolution of the self and of material reality — this is comparable to the ‘ego-death’ many people report on psychedelics, but for an extended period of time. The person’s ordinary ego-armour (their false self) is stripped or torn away, leaving them feeling extremely raw and uncovered. They feel a deep sense of ‘ontological queasiness’ as Stephen puts it: What reality am I in? Is this a dream? Am I dead?

John Weir Perry, who ran the Diabasis recovery centre for people going through spiritual / psychotic experiences, wrote:

Whenever a profound experience of change is about to take place, its harbinger is the motif of death….In severe visionary states, one may feel one has crossed over into the realm of death and is living among the spirits of the deceased…

Material reality seems suddenly unreal and insubstantial: am I creating it with my mind, and if so, can it disappear? One contributor, Deborah Martin, writes:

The morning after the club, I woke to a world that looked entirely different. Everything in the room — the clothes, the walls, the chest of drawers — seemed strangely insubstantial, as if woven from air, as if I could huff and puff like the wolf in the storybook and blow it all down. It didn’t go away, although I willed it to…Otherness — the otherness of objects, the otherness of people — was just an illusion (or at least, that’s how it seemed). Yet I wanted those illusions back, as I suddenly understood their necessity…. [I was tortured by the fear] that this perceptual shift was somehow going to result in the entire world disappearing in front of my eyes, as if, now that I’d seen how flimsy the fabric of reality was, it could suddenly be pulled away like a stage curtain to reveal nothing but a void.

This has something in common with the stage known as ‘arising-and-passing’ in Theravada Buddhism, or the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ in Christian mysticism. Jack Kornfield, the Theravada Buddhist teacher, writes of the stage of arising-and-passing:

We actually see and feel the entire world begin to dissolve in front of us. Whenever we focus, our world of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching starts to dissolve. We look at someone, we see them arise, we see them pass away…For most of us, with this dissolution comes spontaneously a great sense of unease and fear, even an experience of terror…At this point, there can also arise very powerful visions. These sometimes involve visions of one’s own death, or the death of other people, wars, dying armies, or charnel grounds. Sometimes we look down and pieces of our body start to melt away and decay as if we were a corpse.

There can also be a powerful sense of interconnectedness and oneness. This can be ecstatic, or terrifying, or both — where do I end and other things and people begin? Do others actually exist or are they creations of my mind? If we are interconnected, can I control others with my mind? Can they control me? The ecstatic sense of interconnection can take on a persecutory edge. We can switch from feeling God-like and all-powerful to feeling small and intensely vulnerable. There may be projection of the disintegrating ego onto the outside world, which becomes charged, dangerous and cataclysmic.

Within this raw state, the person is extremely sensitive to how others react. Most of the authors speak of a sense of alienation and loneliness — who can understand what I am going through? — as well as shame and fear of judgement and labelling. There are strained relationships, break-ups, and botched encounters with ‘experts’ — religious leaders who offer glib interpretations, psychologists and therapists who seem afraid of the intensity of the author’s experience, psychiatrists who ignore the meaning of a person’s experience and simply offer psychiatric labels and drugs.

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What Helps?

As with psychedelic experiences, spiritual emergencies are best navigated with the right set, setting and integration.

First the setting. The person’s consciousness is acutely raw, sensitive and suggestive. A sympathetic, calm, non-judgemental setting helps their mind and body slow down and stabilize. Human connection and love help bring the mind back from its flight into transcendence, so that it settles into the here-and-now. The person needs a safe space for the process to work itself out, provided by friends, or family, or perhaps a religious space like the nunnery where Angela finds solace. A psychiatric facility, alas, is not always such a place, although Satyin remembers the kindness of the staff at the facility where he briefly stayed (voluntarily). Kind connection is the most important thing for grounding the soul when it takes flight into transcendence. Anna writes: ‘My healing journey has been one of getting back in touch with others, the world and myself.’

The setting is important for keeping the person safe when their ordinary cognitive functions are temporarily disabled, and they may have difficulty doing the normal things in life, like crossing the road (are the cars real?) We can also teach these survival skills to ourselves — Anthony has taught himself the rule to stay still if he feels he might put himself in harm when in an altered state. Above all, don’t forget to eat!

When we are lost, maps and charts may help us to orientate ourselves. We may find our maps in western philosophy and psychology, the spiritual teachings from east or western traditions, mythology, cosmology and more. Our contributors all managed to find helpful maps and guides, people who have been there before and can guide them through the inferno. That could be in person — a loved one, a teacher, a therapist. Or it could be a book (we have a list of the books our contributors found most helpful in the appendix). It could be an animal, who gives us non-judgemental and non-verbal love. Some of our contributors also say that God or spirits were helpful to their recovery.

As to the mindset which helps people recover, all our authors say they managed to find a frame with which to make sense of their crisis, a frame of meaning and growth. For many of them, a positive or holistic meaning emerges out of creative work, such as journaling, writing articles or books, poetry, mandala painting or YouTube videos.

This accords with the findings of psychologists who study people who experience unusual or psychosis-like phenomena — the most important factor in whether they are able to function healthily in society appears to be whether they find a positive frame for their experience, and a sympathetic community who support them in their meaning. It also accords with what cognitive psychologists and Stoic and Buddhist philosophers have long suggested about how to face adversity. In the words of Stoic philosopher Epictetus: ‘What disturbs people is not events, but their opinion about events.’

Many of our contributors say some mindfulness practice (Taoist, Buddhist, Christian, Gestalt) helped them navigate the turbulence, by keeping them rooted in the here-and-now, so they don’t get too lost in the stormy drama of their inner lives. It allows them to maintain some insight, to monitor their emotions and somatic reactions, and to reduce mindless reactivity. It helps them to accept what is happening and observe it, and to remind themselves that this too will pass.

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It helps them practice loving-kindness to themselves and to others even when they felt very broken and lost. These meditative skills work in ordinary life, and they work in highly altered states of consciousness. However, it’s difficult to learn meditation if you are in the midst of your first spiritual emergency — wait until your consciousness has slowed down and stabilized.

However, a basic mindfulness practice we can all do at any time, which many of our contributors say helped them in crisis, is to get back in touch with the body and with this material reality. Transcendence can sometimes be a flight from the body. Bring your consciousness back. Practice a simple body-scan meditation, perhaps. Place a hand on your heart and breathe slowly. Go for a walk in the countryside, feel the bark of the trees and the moisture of the grass. Try some gardening. Go for a run. Do some yoga. Pet an animal. Have a bubble bath. Have a cup of tea. Light a joss stick. Listen to some calming music. Notice the beauty of a flower. Come back to your senses.

Part of this grounding is finding an attitude of humility (from humus — earth), equanimity, and humour. Alan Watts spoke of ‘no fuss spirituality’. He meant don’t make too big a deal of these unusual experiences. Don’t be afraid of them — they’re natural, and happen to lots of people, pointing to a bigger reality than the ordinary ego, which we can slowly learn to swim in. But don’t get too attached to them either. Don’t get inflated, don’t think you’re incredibly special for having special experiences. You may have the divine in you, that doesn’t mean you’re Jesus, any more than the next person. See if you can eventually laugh with others about the strangeness of your experiences. Feeling super-special can lead to anxiety and paranoia. Ram Dass writes about ‘the trap of specialness’: ‘the temptation to cling to such experiences as achievements persists. It is very hard to understand that spiritual freedom is ordinary, nothing special, and that this ordinariness is what is so precious about it.’

The ultimate question is not ‘what freaky things happened to you?’ although this is of course interesting and entertaining. It’s ‘how did you grow, how did you serve others?’ In this sense, integration is the third important aspect of navigating a spiritual emergency. It can take a while, perhaps several years, for people to come to terms with an experience of ego-dissolution, and to find how to re-connect with and serve their community. But all our contributors have managed to do that.

You can buy Breaking Open here.

Click here for four YouTube talks by some of our contributors about spiritual emergencies.

If you or a friend is undergoing a spiritual emergency, you may find it helpful to contact a therapist who is familiar with this terrain. Therapists familiar with psychedelic integration may be helpful — you can find some through the TRIPP network, here. We also recommend the Spiritual Emergence Network, the Spiritual Crisis Network, and Emerging Proud.

Here are two more videos on this topic:

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open www.philosophyforlife.org

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