What is a spiritual emergence?
An increasingly common phenomenon, a spiritual awakening (emergence) is a natural opening that many people experience as a result of systematic spiritual practice, through unexpected peak experiences, an established faith tradition, or as a result of coming to terms with the difficulties of life.
Breaking down to breakthrough
The term ‘spiritual emergence’ was first coined by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, because such experiences often presented a chance to ‘emerge’ with a higher level of spiritual and psychological awareness – if correctly supported, instead of being suppressed. The situation may become an ‘emergency’ when the individual feels unprepared, and it becomes overwhelming, confusing and chaotic.
One of the most important implications of the research of holotropic states is the realization that many of the conditions, which are currently diagnosed as psychotic and indiscriminately treated by suppressive medication, are actually difficult states of a radical personality transformation and of spiritual opening. If they are correctly understood and supported, these psychospiritual crises can result in emotional and psychosomatic healing, remarkable psychological transformation, and consciousness evolution – Grof and Grof: The Stormy Search for The Self
Different types of spiritual emergence:
The boundaries between various states of consciousness are not as clear cut as we like to imagine, and naturally follow a sliding spectrum (sleep to wake for example). So there are many types of spiritual emergence, and each persons experience is different.
However they tend to follow general themes that fall into a few main classifications of spiritual awakening, including:
- Shamanic crisis / illness: a form of identity crisis where the individual experiences drastic changes to their meaning system (their unique purpose, goals, values, attitudes, beliefs, identity and focus).
- Kundalini awakening: according to Tantra traditions, kundalini energy rests like a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. When this dormant energy flows freely upwards through the seven chakras (energy centres) it leads to an expanded state of consciousness.
- Past-life experiences: in past life regression, people experience detailed memories of other lives, often taking place in historic or indeterminate points in time.
- Near death experience: an unusual experience taking place on the brink of death, and recounted by a person on recovery. Typically an out-of-body experience or a vision of a tunnel of light.
- Episodes of unitive consciousness: a unitive mystical experience is usually characterized by a state of ‘oneness’ that transcends sensory or cognitive apprehension. There is often an ineffable certainty that an ultimate truth has been perceived and can be applied to one’s life.
- Psychic opening: the experience of having extrasensory perception (ESP) to identify information hidden from the normal senses (clairvoyance or telepathy for example).
- Possession states and experiences with the paranormal: the experience of being controlled or dominated by perceived evil spirits.
- Psychological renewal through return to centre: the experience of dramatic sequences that involve enormous energies and occur on a scale that makes these individuals feel they are at the centre of events that have global or cosmic relevance.
- UFO encounters and abductions: subjectively real experiences of being kidnapped by non-human entities.
- Channelling or communication with spirit guides: the experience of serving as a medium between perceived spirit and material worlds.
- Drug addiction and alcoholism: both considered complex biopsychosocial diseases affecting the mind, body and spirit.
The phenomenological, personal and ineffable
As someone with a relatively narrow and secular, scientific background, my first brush with such experiences opened my eyes to whole new ways of perceiving both myself, and the world. On paper, it had often made theoretical sense – I entertained the notion of chakras or energy channels for example, but what was missing was the ‘evidence’.
It’s often said that – what you seek, you shall find, and I gave my best efforts to the hunt. After a 2 day Ayahuasca ceremony abroad, I threw myself back into London life and felt compelled to slightly aggressively pursue a synergy of breathwork, kundalini, meditation and other practices.
After a string of synchronicities and chance encounters in the 3 months that followed, I lay in bed exhausted post-kundalini session, and bathed in binaural beats. Gradually, I began to feel as though I was drifting off, while also being lifted up outside of my body, before my eyes snapped open in panic – where would I go? What if I couldn’t get back?
My feet didn’t hit the ground again for at least the next two to three weeks. Aside from bodily sensations of gaping holes opening up in my stomach from which fear came blasting out, energy seemed to be twisting itself into tornadoes both in and around my body. Was this actually happening or was it all just in my head? Struggling to get into the car, I decided to drive home to my parents.
My mother opened the door and a look of shock hit her face. As she hugged me, she screwed up her eyes and seemed to recoil from the pulsations. I found some consolation in the idea that I might not be totally alone in sensing at least some of these effects. But in general, the process was relatively isolating.
Some people describe their awakening experiences as blissful, beautiful and full of warmth and connection. Other times the process is at the other end of the spectrum, and being unexpectedly dragged into a dark night of the soul can make you feel as though you must be, or have done something wrong. This can be perpetuated by repeated attempts to rationalise what is going on, by both yourself and others.
The experience demonstrated for me, amongst other things, both the power and limitations of labels and language in our interpretations of the world, and the stories and identities that we consciously and subconsciously build, individually and collectively. Nowhere is this more evident than within the realms of mental health.
I was reminded of the importance of insight. Throughout the whole experience, I knew that what was happening was not considered ‘normal’, and that I may be the only one experiencing certain elements of it. But I still didn’t know if or when it was going to stop. Neither could I stop being so taken in by the often well-meaning, but fearful voices around me as I relentlessly searched for answers, wanting something or someone to show me the way out.
As I sat in bed contemplating phoning the emergency services, even if it meant getting pills just to make it halt, something in me remembered a solitary retreat I had bookmarked online a couple of weeks prior. One phone call to the owner, a local healer / warlock in a remote part of Spain (yup), and my flights were booked.
The moment I stepped off the plane, I felt the energy subside. Spending a week in the warmth of the countryside, away from technology and the incessant thrum of the city, I reset and re-grounded. I still struggled to find my appetite, or to sleep through the night without episodes of panic for some time afterwards, but I felt safer away from the world and could find room enough to breathe, until I felt ready to return and reflect.
Talking through taboo
A key part of integrating such experiences is connection and community. This can be difficult in a society that still views such encounters: ‘altered-states’ of consciousness and the spectrum of human experience, mental health, illness, and some of the emotions and encounters that define us, as relatively taboo. I was however, pleasantly surprised by just how many people I could source that were willing to entertain me, without instantly dismissing me as crazy.
Keen to get a broad array of scientific, shamanic or spiritual, psychological, psychedelic, cultural and historical perspectives, I reached out to whoever I could find both on and offline. Ultimately – no one really had the answers. Although I was sent some interesting research papers by figures such as Dr David Luke and Dr Rick Strassman.
It can be difficult to submit, let go and stop searching outside of yourself, but when you are eventually met with no other choice, you are forced to embrace the mystical mystery of a feminine force like Ayahuasca. And although they could not provide answers, I began to realise that simply being heard, even by willing strangers, was in itself therapeutic.
Having the phenomenon validated in some way, and knowing that others had been through similar journeys themselves, offered a sense of connection across the distance that was healing. The Maudsley Integration group in London were great for this, as were the Spiritual Crisis Network, and London Psychedelic Society.
My only caution would be to avoid expensive ‘treatments’ or promises that seem too good to be true. Trust your intuition, know that it shall pass, spend time in nature, find positive and supportive people that are willing to ask guiding questions without passing judgement, and develop a good meditation practice that helps you to centre in the eye of the storm.
Re-framing mental health
Our approach to mental health in the West has come under criticism for being ‘stuck in the dark ages’. Often lacking in a holistic bio-psycho-social approach that includes a spiritual (existential) dimension, the focus is on one dimensional organic causes, even when they often cannot be found.
While things are increasingly improving, in the worst case scenario many in-patients are still found to have high rates of relapse, suicide and maltreatment worldwide. Some of those that are successfully treated may still struggle with the chronic side effects of heavy medication, and wake up to a binary and disconnected world in which they are isolated from friends and family who no longer visit, and feel they can no longer relate.
Psychedelics, and the personal and scientific insights they provide into consciousness and the importance of a supportive and integrative container, along with their psycho-spiritual and historical context, could lead us into a new paradigm of mental healthcare. Such experiences have the potential to loosen up our usual filters and judgments, and open our hearts to deeper and more authentic ways of relating to both others and ourselves.
It is becoming increasingly evident that it is one element to be clinically cured, and another to be holistically healed.
“The narrative in which rationalist Hippocrates deposes the quack god Asclepius is long overdue for replacement. As a figure who stands for eros, and for inarticulate bodily presence, Asclepius offers an approach to health and illness that complements advances in molecular knowledge and genomic discourse. A new and healing philosophy of medical knowledge might well worship, as Nietzche expressly advises in the final words of The Birth of Tragedy, in both temples.”
 Centre for spiritual emergence (August 2020) Retrieved from http://www.centerforspiritualemergence.com/spiritual-emergenceemergency.html
 Holotropic Association (August 2020) Retrieved from https://holotropic-association.eu/what-is-spiritual-emergency
 Setting Sun Wellness (November 2015) Retreieved from http://www.settingsunwellness.com/blog/2015/11/4/gtuc8og9h5drfio3q1w78ghf80tjok
Originally written for The Third Wave Blog.