There is a shift taking place in mainstream mental health that involves embracing the experience of the whole person, beyond the diagnoses therapists have been trained to assign. As we move forward in co-creating this new paradigm, consumers of therapeutic services have an opportunity to educate their providers on their multifaceted human experiences, many of which have historically been dismissed as evidence of psychiatric imbalance. Spiritual emergence, a term coined by Stanislav and Christina Grof (1989), is a natural part of the human developmental experience. The process is unique to each individual and may gradually unfold over time or suddenly arise.
Within the process of spiritual emergence, experiences of sudden, discrete episodes of spiritual emergency may occur. These spontaneous shifts in consciousness may create intense periods of mental, emotional, and even physical disruption while catapulting one into an experience of awakening. Some examples of spiritual emergency are near-death experiences, kundalini awakenings, and episodes of unitive consciousness (Grof and Grof, 1989). While some may seek out such experiences of enlightenment through spiritual practices of meditation, fasting, or use of psychedelics, often these experiences are unsolicited.
A near-death experience occurs when a person encounters a brush with physical death. During a period of unconsciousness that often lasts only a few minutes, where one may be declared medically dead, individuals describe experiencing a journey of out-of-body awareness that enables them to “look” upon their physical bodies at the scene of their death. Near-death experiencers report travels beyond the physical realm, often involving moving through a tunnel toward a bright light that usually offers them a state of profound bliss. Many also report encountering deceased relatives or non-material beings (Grof and Grof, 1989).
An experience of kundalini awakening involves a sudden surge of energy that ascends up the spine. Yogic traditions believe this flood of energy clears out blockages in service of alignment with a heightened state of consciousness. Yet, this process can also create extreme states of disruption that may include spontaneous body movements, or kriyas; erratic breath patterns; and extreme emotional states (Grof and Grof, 1989).
Episodes of unitive consciousness involve the sudden disintegration of personal boundaries and sense of merging to become one with all things. During these brief episodes, experiencers report transcending physical time and space while being immersed in an overwhelming space of peace (Grof and Grof, 1989). Those who undergo episodes of unitive consciousness describe attaining a clarity and cosmic wisdom that philosopher William James (1902) referred to as a noetic.
In addition to being transient, or fleeting, spiritual experiences can be incredibly difficult to describe with language (James, 1902). Words may not begin to fully capture their depth because such experiences bypass the intellect as they offer us a pure encounter with our true nature. Because Western culture does not yet have a mainstream acceptance of such phenomena, and because our language is inherently limited in communicating such experiences to others, many simply dismiss or avoid dealing with their spiritual experiences.
Spiritual experiences afford opportunities for greatly expanded development toward our highest potentials. But to be able to use these experiences to our benefit, they must be properly integrated.
Many fear the labels that may come from sharing their experiences with their therapists, and although most recognize these events as spiritual in nature (regardless of whether they considered themselves spiritual beforehand), mainstream religious clergy also fail to provide a safe container for experiencers to process these occurrences. Yet, these experiences are happening all the time. In my work as a researcher and therapist, I have found there are seldom people who cannot relate to having had a spiritual experience of some type. It is usually that they do not have the language to contextualize them, or that they have feared the way they may be received if they openly shared them.
Spiritual experiences afford opportunities for greatly expanded development toward our highest potentials. But to be able to use these experiences to our benefit, they must be properly integrated. Integration refers to an individual’s ability to accept and maintain awareness of one’s spiritual experience without denying, pathologizing, or rejecting it, and without preoccupation over it that impedes daily functioning. Therefore, we need to create a culture that can embrace, discuss, and support people in these processes. Like all secrets, keeping these experiences in the shadows—with shame, fear, and uncertainty—may be harmful.
As the psychotherapeutic model begins to respond to the cultural shift that values subjective experience over the diagnostic check marks that the medical model favors, it is the responsibility of the experiencer to educate service providers. Organizations such as the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (ACISTE) offer a wealth of resources for both experiencers and professionals, including peer and professional training programs on how to support the spiritual emergence process.
While it does afford moments of peak experience, spiritual emergence is not a comfortable process. The nature of our current medical system is to suppress symptoms without necessarily seeking to understand the origins of our ailments. By numbing ourselves to the discomfort—whether through indiscriminate reliance on medication or by taking on one of many forms of avoidance—we are robbing ourselves of the fodder that will transmute us as individuals, and as a species, to a more evolved natural state.
- Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. New York, NY: Penguin.
- James, W. (1902). The varieties of the religious experience. London, England: Longmans Green.
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