The Stormy Search for the Self
by Christina Grof & Stanislav Grof
Digest by Linda Cornett
Spiritual awakening and development is a natural evolutionary process. Some cultures recognize this, and have developed rituals to encourage inner growth and transformation. But for some people, particularly in Western cultures, spiritual awakening takes the form of spiritual emergency. This mysterious, frightening circumstance can produce profound insights, bizarre experiences and perceptions, and personality change. Persons undergoing spiritual crisis are often labeled mentally ill, and treated with drugs, psychotherapy, and hospitalization. Because of ignorance, they suffer, and their families suffer. However, this situation is slowly changing, with a new appreciation for spiritual awakening as introduced by Eastern religions, Native American traditions, and Western mystical literature. A Gallop poll says 95% of people believe in God; 43% say they have had unusual spiritual experiences. Some of these people suddenly encounter new dimensions and feel they are losing their minds. This book is for those people.
The Uninvited Guest: Christina’s Story
My own transformative journey resulted in our first book in this field, Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crises. My experience was turbulent and chaotic, but I have emerged into a clearer, more integrated, more creative existence. I grew up in Honolulu, and joined the Episcopal Church at age 12. The miracles of Christmas and Easter let me feel reverence for a Jesus who was very real and very present. Later, some of these passions faded, then reemerged in the transformative themes on art, literature and mythology. Mythologist Joseph Campbell was one of my college teachers.
I got married to a high school teacher after graduating from college, and I taught art and creative writing in Honolulu. I also joined a weekly Hatha Yoga class. When I became pregnant with our first child, I also studied the Lamaze method of childbirth. But, something unusual happened on the delivery table while I was cooperating and being coached in the delivery. I felt something snap inside me. A powerful force was unleased in my body, and I began to shake uncontrollably. Electrical tremors ran from my toes and legs through my spine to the top of my head, where brilliant mosaics of white light exploded. A new, involuntary breathing rhythm overrode my practiced Lamaze pattern. I was excited and terrified. As soon as my son Nathaniel was born, I was given two shots of morphine, which returned me to normal. I felt fearful, and very embarrassed that I had cost control of myself. A more powerful version of the same thing happened two years later, when I delivered my daughter Sarah. They have me big injections of tranquilizers, and as before, I felt embarrassment and humiliation over my behavior.
Four years later, I knew my marriage was already falling apart. Someone in my yoga class told me about a famous Indian guru who was offering a three day retreat in Honolulu. I signed up for the workshop, and met Swami "Baba" Muktananda, who changed my life. He was a Siddha Yoga disciple of Bhagawan Nityananda, and had shaktipat, the ability to awaken spiritual energies in other people. During one meditation, he gazed at me awhile, then forcefully slapped me several times on the forehead. I felt like I had suddenly been plugged into a high voltage socket. My body began to shake with a powerful force moving through me, and I was flooded with visions. I sobbed, experiencing birth, death, pain, ecstasy, strength, gentleness, love, fear, depths, and heights, like a genie finally let out of a bottle. Dark days followed. Within three months of 1975, my marriage was over, and because of it, I also lost many friends and family members. I was in a car accident, and saw my life pass before me, and had visions of being connected to everything in the universe. But that did not prevent me from losing my job, my money and credit, my sense of identity, my sense of sanity, and finally, my children. The electrical sensations continued. I was afraid, lonely, and no longer in control of my life.
I flew to New York City and made a date to meet my old teacher, Joseph Campbell. He listened to my life shattering inner experiences, and suggested I visit Dr. Stanislav Grof, at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. That is how I met Stan. He gave me his newly published book, Realms of the Human Unconscious, and I was amazed to read that many of his research subjects had experiences like mine. For 20 years he had documented 4,000 sessions of LSD (psychedelic) drug induced visions. Stan felt many of these experiences, including his own, were transformative, therapeutic, healing, even evolutionary. I was elated at the thought that I might not be insane after all.
Stan and I began a life together in California. However, the electrical tremors, shaking, involuntary rapid breathing, and spontaneous visions continued. I was also having constant pain throughout my body, excruciating headaches behind the eyes, and spontaneous visions of other times and places. Psychic events and coincidences began to manifest on a daily basis. In May, 1976, I sank into five days and nights of mental darkness. Stan assured me that this was a psychic cleansing process, and that I would emerge into peace. He told me to try and work through whatever came up. What came up was attacks by demons and monsters; I saw floating evil eyes and scenes of madness. I became identified with crucified Christ and his murderers; I lived and died through other times, wars, persecution, torture. I rolled on the floor in this dark night of the soul. After five days, I was able to perform some ordinary tasks, but the tremors, visions, and emotional ups and downs continued for months. I realized Stan’s model was not addressing my specific sensations and visions, or meaning of my experience. It was not addressing the force that bolted up my legs and spine, then swept over the top of my head and down the front of my body.
In 1977, I happened upon two books about the Kundalini awakening, and suddenly understood what had been happening to me. I learned how to facilitate the progress of this awakening through certain activities and foods. By 1980, I founded the Spiritual Emergence Network, and was telling my story in Stan’s workshops. My Kundalini oddessy lasted several more years, 12 in all. At some point, to deaden the pain and dampen the sensations, I had turned into an alcoholic. My struggles and recovery are recounted elsewhere. Suffice it to say I am in recovery, and have found new peace and meaning in my life.
God in the Laboratory: Stanislav’s Story
My own history is a bit unusual in that I was an atheist who became spiritually inclined as a result of my scientific investigations. So many times, with researchers, it happens the other way around. I was born in Prague in 1931, and grew up in Czechoslovakia. I was curious about culture and the psyche, so when I finished high school, a friend gave me a copy of Sigmund Freud’s Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis. I immediately applied to medical school, with the idea of becoming a psychoanalyst. I studied many scientific disciplines, and after six years at Charles University School of Medicine in Prague, was more an atheist than ever. It should also be noted that Eastern European schools at that time adhered to the materialistic Marxist ideology. Any concept related to mysticism would have been weeded out. In fact, mainstream psychiatric literature suggested that the experiences of prophets and founders of religions were manifestations of mental illness, and the profession seemed determined to find a pathological reason for such manifestations. I did not argue with this, but occasionally wondered why millions of people would have allowed themselves to be influenced by such visionaries if the experiences were nothing but brain pathology. While in college, I joined a small group that included three members of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and became a volunteer in the Charles University psychiatric ward, to gain more exposure to clinical psychiatry.
That lead to the unpleasant discovery that however brilliant Freud’s contributions, his psychoanalytic methods were impractical and ineffective. Treatment was restricted to a certain type of client, required months or years of time, called for a commitment to three to five psychiatric sessions a week, and rarely effected a cure, considering the time and energy involved. While I was struggling with this realization and wondering if better methods might be devised, our department received a free sample of the drug LSD-25 from Sandoz Pharmaceutical Laboratories of Basel, Switzerland. The letter said that the head chemist at Sandoz, Dr. Albert Hofmann, had discovered that the drug produced temporary psychosis, particularly symptoms of schizophrenia, in humans. The laboratory was inviting researchers all over the world to test the drug and give feedback on discoveries. It was felt that controllable duplication of mental disease offered excellent training for students of psychiatry. I was very excited about the possibilities, and in 1956, became an experimental subject.
What happened upset all my previous beliefs. I had extraordinary encounters with my unconscious psyche, and experienced visions, colorful abstractions and geometrics, and a great range of emotional reactions. During one test I was hooked to an electroencephalograph and subjected to the flashing of a strobe light. During that session, I was as though hit with an atomic explosion of brilliant light that hurled me out of my body and into space, expanding my consciousness to cosmic proportions. I experienced the Big Bang, raced through black and white holes, and witnessed astounding galactic events. The experience touched me to the core. I attributed everything to the effect of the drug, not yet believing that we all have mystical potential. Here, perhaps, was the missing link to Freud’s narrow concept of psychoanalytic treatment. I made psychedelic drug research my specialty, and was eventually appointed principal investigator of the therapeutic potential of LSD- 25 psychotherapy, at the newly founded Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague.
We scheduled sessions with patients who had received medium doses of the drug, and sometimes included artists, scientists, and others in the study. This became known in Europe as "psycholytic treatment." My fantastic voyages into the psyche lasted three decades. My world view was shaken and reassembled many times. In the end, my whole perspective has shifted toward the mystical. Time after time, I witnessed experiences identical with those described by mystics of the East. Some patients visited the mythological realms, saw deities or demons, or subjectively experienced past-incarnation memories. I did not always welcome what these encounters suggested. Furthermore, the intensity of some experiences was frightening. However, it became clear that these phenomena were in fact normal manifestations of the psyche, which often emerged after discussion of one’s childhood and infancy. When allowed to run their course, manifestations of birth or death experience, for example, were therapeutic and fast acting, compared to regular psychoanalysis. I came to believe that the psyche’s attempts to break through to consciousness and free itself from trauma had all too readily been labeled "derangement" or "mental illness." Instead of mapping new psychological territory, I was uncovering the teachings of the ancients regarding shamanic initiations and mysterious rites of passage. Next to the richness of these teachings, psychoanalytic theory seemed shallow. However, I was in the minority, and was careful what I said to colleagues.
In 1967, I was awarded a scholarship to conduct research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, in Baltimore. In America, I met many colleagues from various disciplines who had opinions complementary to mine, especially Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich, founders of humanistic psychology. We decided to launch a new movement called transpersonal psychology, which attracted many followers. I felt "at home" at last, but realized the new movement seemed even farther from the mainstream. A decade later, change was being felt in other areas of science, and people began talking about a new paradigm.
I believe the human psyche is a reflection of cosmic intelligence that permeates all creation. We are fields of consciousness, unlimited, transcending time and space. My beliefs have been reinforced by Christina’s experiences, and by observation of the effects of Holotropic Breathwork, a safe avenue to heightened experiences, which we developed.
Chapter 1: What is Spiritual Emergency?
Spiritual emergency (SE) might be defined as an overwhelming, often unwelcome or frightening onslaught of contents from the unconscious mind, as heightened, unusual or unaccountable sights, sounds, apprehensions, sensations and the like, the theme of which is mystical, archetypal, transpersonal, or well beyond one’s normal range of experience. In such circumstances, one might suddenly see angels or demons, behold panoramic visions, or experience self as the whole of the cosmos. Manifestations of spiritual emergency or "crisis of transformation" may resemble psychosis (mental illness), except that with SE, the person can distinguish between inner and outer realities, and does not project internal encounters onto outside sources. Ideally, spiritual emergence, or the natural process of inner growth and transformation, takes place in an orderly, integrated way over a period of years. But if manifestations of higher psychic content occur spontaneously and cause mental distress or physical pain and disrupt functioning, they qualify as "spiritual emergency." The emergency may be a parade of seemingly unrelated eruptions of consciousness that extend over a period of years. There will be an abrupt, unsettling shift in perception. Some SE people feel compelled to talk constantly about their new experiences.
Anything can trigger a transpersonal shift—church service, trauma, accident, childbirth, drugs, ecstatic dancing, meditation, etc. Inner receptivity is more important than the precipitating event. Balance is suddenly shifted so that the unconscious has the upper hand. One classic way of accessing higher and/or unconscious dimensions is through the opened chakras or energy vortices located in the etheric body.
To the ancient Chinese, crisis meant "danger" plus "opportunity." Psychoanalyst Otto Rank believed that human birth constitutes major trauma (crisis of danger and opportunity) that lies buried in our unconscious minds. Psychoanalytical pioneer Carl Jung believed we not only have a personal unconscious, but a collective one as well, giving us access to the same universe of experience and to each other as well. He said universal patterns of consciousness (archetypes) reside in the collective unconscious, and used the word "numinous" for highly charged, sacred, or spiritual archetypes. People undergoing spiritual emergency are overwhelmed by an onslaught of these profound, life changing patterns.
Numinous encounters are of two basic types. In the first, one may suddenly experience the world as a manifestation of one cosmic creative energy; nothing is separate. In the other, hidden realms are opened so that one encounters beings, deities, spirit guides and other wonderful or frightening forms or dimensions. These realms are not opinion but fact to those who have experienced them. Unfortunately, an individual with such an encounter will likely be labeled "psychotic" and prescribed tranquilizers by all but transpersonal practitioners. In mainstream medicine, there is no official recognition of the mystical truths or encounters underlying the religions of the world.
Chapter 2: Dark Night of the Soul
With spiritual emergency, negative, gloomy states of consciousness usually precede those of understanding and hope. Depression, mood swings, confusion (initially, in separating inner/outer events), and feelings of powerlessness are common. Some experience free floating fear, feelings of insanity, excruciating loneliness, or preoccupation with death, sometimes reinforced by apparent past life memories and/ or unwanted fantasies of dismemberment. There may be unaccountable emotional outbursts and dramatic physical symptoms such as the feeling of a huge, overpowering force moving through the body, tremors, electrical charges, rapid heartbeat, rapid changes in temperature, etc. (Many are common to symptoms of Kundalini awakening).
The experience of all engulfing, existential loneliness is made worse by the fact that the SE person is encountering states of consciousness often unknown to family and friends. One feels painfully, utterly cut off from God and self, and further trapped by the insight that death itself offers no escape. People undergoing an SE may not fit in with others. Their strange talk of strange experiences will likely cause others to withdraw, which magnifies the sense of alienation.
A change of appearance may ensue [one thinks of guru dress, costumes of Orthodox Jews, or the garb of hippies of the 1960s-70s, many of whom were thrust into altered states by drugs].
Intuition, inspiration, and imagination may reign over logic; mental re-arrangement may be experienced as chaos and insanity. At best, this is the behavior of the cosmic fool or clown, the "divine madness" mentioned by Plato, Sufism and some of the Native American cultures. There are encounters with death in many forms, including death of one’s old self (death of the ego) accompanied by profound grief; death of old roles and relationships, death of old thoughts and beliefs. Some may picture ego death as vivid dreams of nuclear explosion of the planet, etc. Because there is no replacement yet for these dying things, there is no reference point for safety or sanity. Through these spiritual trials, detachment is slowly forced upon the sojourner.
Chapter 3: Encountering the Divine
Not all experiences are dark or worrisome. Some people (not just those undergoing radical transformation) enter positive transcendental states or encounter mystical beings. Athletes have reported entering such states during exertion, and meditators have reported seeing "beyond the veil." Instead of feeling alienated, one feels connected, unified, ecstatic, peaceful, overjoyed, enraptured, blissful, etc. The experience is very healing. The realms of the divine are hard to explain, though poets have tried. One may experience places existing beyond time and space, see celestial beings, have visions of splendor and radiance, be engulfed in radiant light, etc. Whitman wrote, "As in a swoon, one instant/ another sun, ineffable full-dazzles me/and all the orbs I knew, and brighter, unknown orbs;/one instant of the future land, Heaven’s land." These heightened realms seem more real than everyday reality, and entry to them is described as suddenly awakening as from a dream, lifting of a veil, or the sudden opening of a door. Boundaries may disappear; the person and the world are the same. In these situations, the loss of ego is gentle, not traumatic. The self image may become expanded.
Such positive encounters can cause trouble for certain people, particularly those who feel unprepared or unworthy, in which case fear (or the protective ego) can interfere. Even when the experience is later interpreted as positive or a clear sign of spiritual growth, it can have spiritual or physical pain as a component. Some people find their everyday lives meaningless in comparison to the splendor of the vision, while others continue to feel unworthy of the visitation. The encounters are probably experienced alone, in private. If they should spontaneously occur at an airport, for example, the person may become disoriented or exhibit peculiar behavior. Some worry that they have a new mandate from heaven which they must fulfill; others become over inflated with importance, thinking they are singled out.
Chapter 4: Varieties of Spiritual Emergency
There are no boundaries in the psyche, so spiritual emergency can manifest in many forms. One may have any of the following: Peak experiences (as explained above), awakening of Kundalini, near death experiences, past life memories, renewal through a return to the center of self, shamanic crisis, awakening of psychic perception, communication or channeling with spirit guides, UFO encounters, and states of possession.
Peak experiences are "episodes of unitive consciousness." They might include unity, strong positive emotion, transcendence of time and space, sacredness, paradox, objectivity and reality of insight (cosmic wisdom), ineffability (can’t be translated into words easily), and positive after effects. The Kundalini force or life current is said to lie coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine. Indian sages say spiritual development requires that it rise, and when it does, higher states are perceived. It can rise partially or completely to the crown chakra spontaneously, or though meditation, Kundalini yoga, the intervention of a guru, childbirth, or intense lovemaking. In its fiery form, Shakti, it rises up the spine in the conduits of the subtle (etheric) body. It opens and clears the seven spiritual centers (chakras). One may experience rushes of energy, violent shaking, extremes of emotion, and exhibition of "speaking in tongues" or other phenomena. One may encounter beings and archetypes, hear celestial music, see beautiful geometric patterns, smell beautiful odors. Most Kundalini experiences are healing in effect. Near death experiences (NDE) nearly always result in the person taking on a universal, not secular, type of spirituality. Past life memories are especially healing, as such events explains one’s life in a new context. Such memories can cause difficulty if they meet with disbelief or hostility from others, or if the experiencer is a logically inclined non-believer, or if they emerge only partially or in guise during the daily routine. The evidence of one undergoing psychological renewal through return to the center is in dreams, fantasies and visions of fantastic battles, polarity struggles or lessons, happenings of fantastic, mythological proportion wherein one may be instrumental as a mover of the cosmos or righter of wrongs; later, the psychic "sacred marriage" of internal opposites may be portrayed as an actual (dream) wedding. One is seeking the center, the Self, the Atman. There may be dreams of an ideal world, and dreams or fantasies where the number 4 predominates. The shamanic crisis may involve experiences of journeys to the underworld or the dead, ritualistic ceremonies, rites of dismemberment, animals that later appear as power animals or guides. There is typically the experience of annihilation followed by resurrection and ascent to celestial realms. Journeys include those into hidden realms of reality. Psychic ability often includes the ability of make intuitive connections, which is often exhibited by an awareness or drawing to one’s self of synchronicity, which many mental health professionals continue to label "delusion of reference." Spirit guides and/or autonomous aspects of the self may become a part of life. Encounters with aliens or UFOs may be part of, or may precipitate spiritual emergency. And, while demonic or alien energy possession is often a very traumatic expression of spiritual emergency, it can be worked through. As the polar opposite of the divine, it can be thought of as (a removable) force trying to screen or guard the doorway to divinity.
Addiction as Spiritual Emergency
[One of the authors, Christina, was an alcoholic for many years that were— outwardly— marked by fame and fortune. She "hit bottom," faced her denial, and gained sobriety in 1986. Afterward, she realized that by medicating herself, she had been trying to avoid and prevent death— the ego death demanded by spiritual transformation. Out of her experience plus further research on addiction, the Grofs came to the conclusion that (as Alcoholics Anonymous teaches) drug (or other) addiction is also a spiritual disorder. They formulated the following teachings].
1) For many, the craving for drugs is really a craving for God or Higher Self, and some turn to drugs to relieve the stress of ongoing transformation. Addicts are under the impression that value lies outside themselves, and are swayed a drug’s ability to mimic higher states of expansion and unity where, for awhile, everything in the universe is just right. Alcohol’s other name is "spirits." Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung likened alcohol craving to spiritual thirst, and theologian/psychologist/wrier William James observed that "the only cure for dipsomania" (alcoholism) "is religiomania."
2) For many, drug dependency results in spiritual emergency. When an addict hits rock bottom, he or she psychologically dies, from long standing soul sickness and spiritual bankruptcy. At that terrifying point, all relationships, beliefs, and reference points collapse. One can no longer hide; everything is laid bare. One finally admits powerlessness, and asks for or accepts help. Then, and only then, one gains spiritual orientation, and can awaken to insight and grace. Not all addicts must drive themselves to this point before seeking help.
3) Successful treatment programs have a spiritual dimension.
4) Many addicts are sensitive or intuitive. Those who came from violent or dysfunctional families probably developed intuition as a means of survival. When this sensitivity makes them feel isolated or separated from their peers, they may take drugs to regain a private psychological state where they feel protected, or they may drink to feel like they belong, or that they are accepted by others. If such people have the biological pre-disposition, they will quickly turn into addicts.
Spiritual emergence can begin in childhood or any other time, initiated by extreme emotional or physical stress.
Chapter 6: Spiritual Lessons From Other Times and Cultures
Other cultures have recognized spiritual emergence, and have facilitated the steps to Self realization with rites of passage and powerful rituals. For instance, shamans (healers, medicine men or women, "witch doctors," etc.) enter other states of consciousness and communicate with animals, elements of nature, and beings of other realms to foresee the future, gain psychic knowledge, and bring healing to self and others. The practice is ancient and universal. The crisis of initiation that causes a would-be shaman to lose touch with reality would be considered a psychotic episode in the West, and the involuntary journeys would likewise be considered psychotic mind trips. It is spontaneous spiritual emergency, a divine calling. Things are happening. The shaman may appear incoherent or possessed, may see fantastic, mythological scenes, spirit guides, demons, "power animals," etc. Three basic steps of initiation or crisis include a horrifying descent into the realms of the dead where torture, mutilation, annihilation and resurrection is experienced; ecstatic flights to celestial regions where superior knowledge is obtained; and return (with medicine) to everyday life. The new shaman will have a lifetime of journeys, but he or she is typically a high functioning, socially well integrated person as well.
Cultural rites of passage, or induced crises, coincide with major milestones like birth, death, circumcision, puberty, marriage, and menopause. Other rites may be for initiations into secret societies or warriorhood, or other turning points. Rites of passage have three stages that may sound familiar— separation, transition, and incorporation. Separation from family can be frightening. Neophytes learn that their ceremonial journey is connected to the past, present and future of the tribe and the cosmos, that they serve a broader purpose. During the transition or initiation phase, novices experience other frames of mind through any many means: drugs, dance, chanting, pain and mutilation, sleep deprivation, exposure, exertion, etc., depending on the tribe or culture. In these ceremonies, initiates "die" as juveniles (sometimes actually fainting or collapsing) and are reborn as adults with strength and insight. They are integrated back into society as new beings with new roles.
Then, there is the mythical journey. By myth we do not mean fairy tales or things untrue. We mean myth as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell understood it— as universal imprints or patterns called archetypes, which are manifestations of the organizing principles of the psyche and the cosmos, existing in the collective unconscious, and welling up in all beings. One such archetypal transformation is the "hero’s journey," which thousands undertake, willingly or not. One receives a yearning or "call" from the forces of the unconscious; undergoes lonely separation from family and beliefs; is initiated and transformed by jarring, painful interior and exterior life events; and is finally reborn, re-integrated body, mind and spirit, and returned to life as a new being with mature gifts and understandings.
As with the shamans, the everyday hero will likely have horrifying and remarkable psychic encounters with death and rebirth through dreams, visions, traumatic events, etc. The whole sequence may take years. The key feature is destruction followed by resurrection or coming-back-together, better than before. The death and resurrection of Christ is one of the more powerful dramatizations of this pattern. Another is Jonah, swallowed into darkness and death in a whale’s belly, then released. In Greek myth, Orpheus had to descend to the underworld to rescue and release his beloved Eurydice; god of the underworld Pluto snatched Demeter’s daughter Persephone, who was resurrected (with conditions) by Zeus. Other cultures have such myths.
Plato outlined two types of madness, one as an ailment of the human condition, and the other caused by intervention of the gods (i.e. the strong pull of certain archetypal patterns). He defined four types of ritual madness, including the madness of lovers, prophetic rapture to Apollo (God), artistic inspiration by the Muses, and the ritual ecstasy of Dionysus. The last type leads to relaxation or tranquility following intense emotional states induced by drunkenness, wild dancing, chanting, drums, etc. Plato’s student Aristotle called the release catharsis, a purging or purification. Dionysus himself had once been dismembered by the Titans and resurrected after Pallas Athene rescued his heart.
The world’s great religions have myths and understandings so universal that many people undergoing spiritual emergence and emergency will hook into and experience these religiously affiliated mystical journeys. From Hinduism comes information about Kundalini and the chakras. Each chakra is related to particular consciousness, and a person undergoing rising Kundalini will have different experiences depending on which chakra is affected. Buddhism offers many teachings or maps of what to expect during meditation and spiritual development. From the Zen schools we learn that we start our journey from zero on the circumference of an imaginary circle. At 90-degrees we recognize that everything comes from and returns to nothingness. At 180- degrees we know that forms are illusory and that nothing really exists. At 270-degrees we enter the world of magic and miracles where everything conceivable is possible. At 360/ 0 the world is seen as it was in the first place, but without our attachments and judgements. Even the "higher states" around the circle are recognized as mere teaching tools. Christianity has road maps of the journey, including John Bunyan’s "Pilgrim’s Progress" and St. Teresa of Avila’s famous 16th Century work, "The Interior Castle," an explanation of soul growth culminating in mystical marriage or union with Christ. From the Sufi mystics of Islam comes al- Harawi’s 10-part path to enlightenment, "The Stages of Pilgrims Toward God," showing the virtues and hardships of each step. Another lesson comes from Simnani, who says there are seven stages of evolution from divine essence to the advent of man, and that on our return, we traverse the stages in reverse order, through ever more subtle environs.
Chapter 7: Modern Maps of Consciousness
After Stan’s years of research into fantastic inner journeys facilitated by the drug LSD, we discovered that the same (and safer) altered states could be induced by a special combination of rapid breathing, bodywork, and music and sound. We called this new drug-free method Holotropic Breathwork. Very early on, Stan had learned there was more to the psyche than what Freud and many others believed. His own investigation led him full circle, back to the mystical teachings and ceremonies treasured by various cultures and religions for centuries.
We find three major categories of subconscious content, that is, nonordinary states of consciousness. One state involves biographical experiences. In this area of the unconscious, memory from birth on is stored. Many unresolved or unfinished issues can simmer here, causing depression or illness. Therapy makes use of this level to restore health and wholeness. The bringing to light of some of these disturbing elements usually speeds healing.
Another state is perinatal experiences, (also pre-natal) rooted in actual pre-birth and birth/death trauma, as proposed by the Freudian, Otto Rank. It is the interface between the individual and the collective consciousness. Once it activates, a psychological process of birth and death begins in the grown individual. The supposition is that birth is a terrifying and frightening event, rife with the possibility of death, from the infant’s viewpoint. It constitutes a wordless trauma that later ricochets through the psyche. Upon hooking into this state of consciousness, one may encounter Death in the form of a person or deity, and be overwhelmed by scenes and themes. The progression of levels within the perinatal experience mirrors birth:
1) Amniotic universe: Positive recollections or mirrorings from the time the fetus was in the womb might manifest as dreams of floating through the universe or ocean encountering galaxies or peaceful dolphins in the sea, lush gardens of good things to eat, celestial realms. etc.
Negative womb experiences may bring dreams of darkness, toxic waste, pollution, fear of being poisoned; there may be the experience of demons, or in the case of imminent abortion or miscarriage, bloody apocalyptic visions.
2) Cosmic engulfment. This mirrors birth, where the experience might feel like one is recklessly engulfed, swallowed, or sucked into a whirlpool. There may be fear bordering on paranoia, the appearance of devouring monsters, or visions of hell.
3) No exit. This mirrors the suffocating, strangling first stages of birth when contractions press in on the fetus but the birth canal is still closed. In this dark, claustrophobic prison, there may be oxygen deprivation, pain, anxiety, terror, helplessness, existential despair. One in this consciousness may dream of prisons, tortures, and characters in situations similar to the above.
4) The death-birth struggle. This is preparation for propulsion through the birth canal, accompanied (from the fetus point of view) by pressure, torture, bloody violence, etc. Adult reliving of this stage may or may not be accompanied by sexual arousal or scenes of rape, abuse, etc. Frequently, there will be visions of deities or heroes who enter the abyss and triumph over death— including Christ and/or the cross and crucifixion. There may be satanic motifs as well as the experience or dream of sacred rituals, sacrifice, sex, repulsive biological material (blood, feces, mucus, etc.) and the like. For reasons unknown, many people have dreams of fire (self or a city on fire) before experiences of birth or rebirth.
5) The death-rebirth experience. Being born, emerging in a different world. Ego death mirrors the preamble to this stage, in that the baby’s whole world is crumbling, dying, right to the edge of the "tunnel," where there is bright light, and a new world. Both physical and psychological birth are approached with utmost fear and the certainty of impending catastrophe. This fear is what causes so many people to resist, so the ego— the only known self— won’t be annihilated. Dreams or visions mirroring this "fetal death" resulting in "baby birth" may switch from fearful motifs to radiant displays of light from celestial realms, rainbows, beautiful designs, an expansive feeling of freedom, of being engulfed by safety and love, etc. (Real life births that do not fare so well create other imprints that must be worked through).
Transpersonal experiences make up the third non-ordinary state of consciousness. These are the realms of the spiritual, mystical, religious, magical, paranormal. They exist outside time and space, where limitations of the senses are transcended. In that state, we can see through walls and walk on water. Our consciousness can apparently encompass anything or extend anywhere, past, present, or future. This reality includes guides, angels, mythological beings, nature deities, etc. Our knowledge of the human brain cannot account for the phenomena of transpersonal states, like it can the experiences of memory-bound states.
Chapter 8: Strategies for Everyday Life
Once the emergence process starts, it rarely stops. Here are some ways to handle episodes of unconscious material rises to the surface to be released like bubbles coming up from the bottom of the sea: Join a therapy or support group; make appointments with body worker trained to facilitate release of emotions; play the kind of music that expresses and enhances the experiences; keep a dream journal, later writing down what you think each image, scene and person signifies; draw, paint, sing or sculpt your experiences into form; meditate; replay some recent experiences, asking each image, "what are you trying to tell me?" as in the book, Encounters with the Soul: Active Imagination, by Barbara Hannah; invent helpful rituals, such as offering problems to the ocean, desert or sky, or create appealing cleansing and renewal rituals, perhaps with the elements (water, fire, earth air).
If the emergence gets to the point of emergency, instead of taking tranquilizers or other drugs, try the following suggestions to temporarily slow down spiritual emergence and make it more manageable: Discontinue the inner explorations, therapy, dream work, etc. Discontinue yoga, tai chi, meditation, participation in prayer or encounter groups, and inspirational reading. Change the diet away from vegetarianism or fasting to include red meats and heavier foods, or at least, grains and cheeses. Eat some sweets or honey. Get a medical check-up if warranted. Do humble physical activities, such as working in the garden, waxing the car, cleaning the house. Exercise to get grounded. Avoid persons, locations and activities that stimulate your emotions (positively or negatively) or that get on your nerves. In general "lie low" and aim for neutrality.
Guidelines For Family and Friends
Family and friends may not know the signs and symptoms of spiritual emergence. People undergoing transformation often change their appearance, habits and behavior. Introverts may become extraverts, and vice versa. Mood swings are common. Such people may reject the world as trivial and mundane, and spend time on activities removed from daily reality. They may passionately discuss their visions, dreams or insights, and may become impatient with those who do not share their interests, or hurt that they receive negative or neutral feedback. They will feel isolated or invalidated upon learning that the listener cannot relate to them, having had no corresponding experiences, or may become judgmental when a family member (who perhaps already has a workable belief system) shows no interest in "cosmic" topics. They may give unsolicited inspirational or spiritual books as presents, believing others would desire the wisdom therein, if only they knew about it. Those undergoing the transformative process, already experiencing loneliness and isolation from peers, often disown their feelings. They frequently project emotions, such as blame, onto people or circumstances. They may also project positive emotions, such as love, mistakenly feeling that love is coming from someone other than themselves. In this and other ways, the inner and outer worlds get tangled. Family and friends may become symbols of restriction, so the person leaves home, confusing inner limitation with outer limitation. In fact, the call for internal changes is often acted out externally, which is not always necessary. Persons undergoing transformation may be preoccupied with death. They may change sexual responses, or use sex as another way to access transcendent feelings. Episodes of clairvoyance and other psychic abilities are common. They may feel guided by coincidences.
Family/friends may respond with denial, confusion, helplessness, fear, guilt, judgement, or other emotions. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the situation. Make sure you want to help because you care about the person, not for curiosity, drama, or need to control or engage in false nurturing. Develop trust in the end result, and patience, allowing things to unfold. Transformation takes time. Be open, receptive, and willing to listen. Again, beware of the temptation to control the other’s thoughts or behavior. Be honest (not the same as brutally forthright). Suspend your judgement. Offer frequent assistance. Use your intuition. Do not use such words as "sick," "crazy," "psychotic" or "manic." Talk about manifestations, not symptoms; opportunity or adventure, not crisis; excitement, not fear; and episode, not illness. Offer physical comfort— holding, hugging, touching. Let yourself be flexible, and playful, not overly anxious and concerned. Give up on the idea that you can fix the situation. Some episodes, such as the reliving of trauma, may require the presence of the other sex (other than you) to help in the healing process. Last, be kind to yourself, and keep pursuing activities that are healthy and pleasurable.
Chapter 10: Who Can Help and How?
Support for active spiritual emergency would ideally include special facilities and therapists, a spiritual guide, open minded physicians, supportive family, etc. But few people have access to such an ideal assembly. At best, those in emergency can try to avoid tranquilizers, which are counterproductive and add confusion and disorientation. They can look for a therapist trained in Gestault therapy or Holotropic Breathwork (415-479-4703), or someone who has undergone a spiritual emergency. Call the Spiritual Emergence Network at 415- 327-2776. At the very least, seek professionals or friends who are versed in the transpersonal approach to life, and with whom it is easy to establish rapport. Avoid those who are dogmatic, rigid, limited, arrogant, or exclusive (who claim to have all the answers). Interview therapists as though they were applying for a job.
Chapter 11: The Homecoming
Transformation is short-circuited if the seeker cannot successfully return to ordinary life as a changed and reintegrated being, like the shaman or initiate. Reintegration can happen over a period of time, or rather suddenly. The seeker has probably had a sift in values, a resolution of personal problems, and a broader grasp of spirituality. These new qualities may not find understanding or be especially welcomed, and the seeker may find the "real world" pointless and boring. However, the mundane is also an instrument of transformation. In some cases, a new life may have to be formed if the old one proves to be too incompatible.
Here are some problems you or a friend may face during reintegration. Your new strange self will emerge automatically if you allow it space and time, so don’t get wrapped up in guilt, sense of duty or the self serving expectations of other people. Nurture yourself through diet, exercise, plenty of sleep, time alone, etc. Avoid over-stimulating or unpleasant groups of people or activities. Understand that your intensity and emotional vulnerability at this time can lead to unwise choices in partners or sexual relationships, so tread lightly. You may find yourself vulnerable to manipulation, or you may swing the opposite way and become demanding. Understand that waves of emotion and emergence flashbacks may occur. Do not project these emotions or feelings onto others (for example, leftover anger), or blame others for your circumstances.
Your new insights (if verbalized) will threaten some people and cause them to react negatively toward you. Many will not understand or be interested in your insights (having had no such transformative episodes themselves) so be prepared to face a certain amount of hostility or loneliness. Employers will likely not understand, or be receptive. To eliminate needless suffering be careful how much you tell, and to whom. Seek out others who have also undergone (or who are asking questions about) transformation.
If you suspect that you did or said embarrassing things while in the grips of spiritual emergency, accept that you were under the sway of the unruly unconscious mind, and try not to dwell on guilt or alarm. Strive for self acceptance and do research into spiritual emergence. Others have gone before you. You will learn that you have not "arrived," however. The transformative process continues to new levels as you age and grow. You will probably find yourself more grounded in the present, with less desire to prove yourself to the world, or to be recognized or appreciated. You may find new appreciation of other human beings, and a realization that you cannot hurt another without hurting yourself. You will probably have an intimate or different relationship with the divine. Many at this stage stop struggling against the universe and become more trusting of what happens. Seeking the Spirit may become a way of life in the midst of the mundane where, as the Zen master said, even after enlightenment, it behooves one to still chop wood and carries water.