Nancy Poitou, M.A., M.F.T., © 1997
Published in EHE News,
Vol. 5 No. 1, March, 1998
My observations of the spiritual emergence process come not out of any formal research, but from my experience as both an experiencer and an observer. In this article I have put together what I have noticed as “phases,” “stages,” or “states” where the prevailing state of mind is in a particular process, whether it is the initial shock of the experience (Stage 1. Awakening) through the later stage of ongoing transformation (Stage 5. Integration), where the experiencer has used the experience to transform themselves and their cosmic world view. I want to acknowledge that in describing such a highly unique and individualized process I am generalizing, and I know there will most likely be exceptions.
Without reciting a complete autobiography of how I have come to observe and talk to those who are in the spiritual emergence process, it has been as a result of being a teacher, lecturer, healer, and now therapist that people have come to talk to me about their experiences. I have taught metaphysics and meditation, and taught/lectured on the spiritual aspects of being a hospice volunteer, lectured on related subjects. People began sharing their experiences with me when I began teaching in 1987 and in 1990 became a member of the Spiritual Emergence Network.
When I began my spiritual emergence process I did not know what I was experiencing. It was not until later that I read about the Grofs’ (e.g., 1989) work with Spiritual Emergency/Emergence and realized that the string of spiritual and psychic experiences I had known had a name. Exceptional Experiences has been the broadest term I have encountered for anomalous experiences and the processing of them that leads the experiencer through a personal transformation to an Exceptional Human Experience (EHE). I began correspondence with Rhea White a year ago while working on my Master’s thesis, Therapists and Existential, Religious and Spiritual Problems. The difference as I see it is that an Exceptional Experience or EE can be a single experience and Spiritual Emergence is a cluster or string of experiences that can both overwhelm and transform the individual with or without their consent. It is usually traumatic and blissful, although sometimes the experiences can also be frightening, disorienting, and shocking. When the process causes clinically significant impairment in life functioning I classify it as “Spiritual Emergency.” Many people cope quite well externally while going through this powerful internal process but experience some periodic intensifications that would qualify as “Emergency.”
The reason I like the concept of the “Experiential Paradigm” is, as I have also noticed, that even one experience can, “if honored and attended to” (White, 1997a), lead to a transformation and result in its becoming an Exceptional Human Experience. Spiritual Emergence is more like what Rhea calls a multiple EHE. Though Spiritual Emergence and Emergency is generally a more dramatic process, I think at its core it is more like the EHE Process than not.
To diverge for a moment, I believe as do others, that EEs/EHEs and Spiritual Emergence/Emergencies are a symptom of what is happening in the collective consciousness of humanity. Theorists, researchers, and therapists have stated that these breakthroughs of consciousness are increasing as a manifestation of a paradigmatic shift of the consciousness of humanity. It is also reported that either these experiences are increasing or people’s willingness to talk about them has increased. It is hard to tell which. Perhaps people’s willingness to talk about them has increased because of the paradigmatic shift in thinking about consciousness, or visa verse.
In times past, coal miners took caged canaries into the coal mine because the canaries were more sensitive to gases being released through the act of mining. When the canaries dropped dead the miners knew if they didn’t get out of the coal mine they would be next. Thus I make the analogy that Spiritual Emergence Experiencers, like the canaries, are more sensitive to changes in the air and the early warning signs of what will eventually affect all. This evolution of consciousness to the “new paradigm” has begun, and we know it because of the “canaries,” or those who are in the EHE process. Those who experience spiritual emergency may be the ones who are sensing impending change most acutely.
I could also theorize that we may all be in a spiritual emergence process, but for some it may be happening so slowly that we do not recognize it. What is called a “Spiritual Emergency” is on the more dramatic end of this continuum. It is essentially a process of spiritual awakening. Those individuals who are having the experience on the more dramatic end are the canaries in the coal mine. For whatever reasons (transpersonal or spiritual training and experiences in past lives may be some), these individuals are more sensitive to and are really a symptom of what is happening on a much bigger scale as a part of the new paradigm emerging from the collective consciousness of humanity.
Brown and White gave two views of the EHE process in the last issue of EHE News. My conception is presented here. In general I would classify this pre-stage pre-emergence/emergency into three categories. The first is that of intense emotions or physical trauma. Intense emotions may be a part of grief or as a result of intense psychotherapy, especially when the individual is processing trauma or deeply questioning his/her identity. Processing psychological trauma calls into question previously held beliefs about the universe and why things happen, especially why traumatic things happen to good people. Physical trauma can be what triggers an out-of-body experience, near-death experience, or other physical changes that awaken the Kundalini or open chakras, which set the stage for spiritual experiences.
The second could be experiences that happen completely out of the blue, as “peak experiences” are sometimes described. There is no way to identify a precipitating factor. The third could be the result of spiritual practice like meditation or experiential methods, such as holotropic breathwork or the Gateway Voyage program or the shamanic and soul retrieval training of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, or use of psychoactive substances.
1. The Awakening
Without going into a lengthy explanation of the types of experiences, this stage is the initial event and its immediate aftermath. Reality as the individual believed it to be has been shattered and therefore the ego identity has also been ripped away. If reality is not as it has been believed then they themselves are not the same either. For this reason the experience usually includes shock, because it can be both traumatic and blissful. It is usually at this time that the individual thinks they might be going crazy. One experiencer called the immediate aftermath the “Duh” stage: as the mind cannot fathom the experience, experiencers often appear as though in a catatonic state. They can be brought to attention, however, no matter how their attention is distracted. Some try to describe what they just experienced, and some say nothing. This “Duh” state is really one of shock or preoccupation. I have seen people who have an experience but are unable to talk about it in its immediate aftermath. Sometimes in the moment of the experience the individual’s facial expression is as though they are far away, not present but attending to an inner experience. Often I have seen the experiencer try to describe it verbally only to be unable to find sufficient words to describe it. They are sometimes moved to tears due to the tremendous emotional impact. Some prefer not to try to verbalize it, partly for lack of words and partly for fear of its reduction to words: a reduction that does not do justice to the experience or its impact. They often notice a numinous feel about this inner experience but have no explanation for it because the transpersonal nature of the experience is unfamiliar to them. Some experiencers cry or feel extremes of emotion. They have never before experienced anything of this magnitude. Psychological time is suspended during the experience, and the actual physical time is often short. This stage can be repeated with each new experience.
2. The Search for Understanding
Rhea White and Suzanne Brown call this stage the “Search for Reconciliation.” Another name might be the search for making sense of the experience. The first experience often has no context; nothing like this has ever been experienced before. The mind of the experiencer in the “Duh” stage is like a frozen computer. Eventually there is a reboot and the search for understanding is on. The search for understanding includes acceptance that one is not going crazy. This means that one must conclude that the experience is real.
Now that the experiencer has accepted that this event has occurred, questions arise. First, the individual wants to know what the experience was. Have others had this experience? Is it dangerous? To understand the experience a label is needed. Once the experience has a name, anxiety is reduced. For example, the individual may have done research and found a name for it With relief, the experiencer can say: “Oh this is called a precognitive vision, (past-life memory, psychokinesis, out-of-body experience, etc.”). Once a label or context has been found and the individual has a working understanding and explanation of what the experience was, he/she is often surprised and pleased to find that others have had similar experiences. This discovery is very validating for their experience. It is exciting for experiencers to find they have had an experience they did not think possible. This leads to a new phase, “The Search for Meaning,” in which the individual searches to find out what it means for them personally. Misinformation can seriously delay the process. For example, if an individual was told it was a hallucination, this can stop the individual from pursuing further answers. This stage may be repeated when the new experience is of a significantly different type than any preceding experiences.
3. The Search for Meaning
It is at this point that some experiencers may realize that they had one or more similar experiences previously that they denied, minimized, repressed, or invalidated. Now these previous experiences also are included in the search. They are reviewed and deemed important. For those whose experience was initiated by a spiritual practice, this may take a slightly different course, depending on the spiritual practice. If it is associated with a particular religion, this may make the search shorter or longer. With other particularly religious persons it may create conflict between spiritual beliefs and personal experience, and therefore make the search a longer more difficult journey. Either way, this is often like a mythological journey. If the experience conflicts with the individual’s religious or spiritual beliefs, resolving the conflict is part of this stage. For example, if one is a fundamentalist Christian and has an experience that conflicts with his/her beliefs, the experiencer may at first relegate the experience to demons or the influence of satan. This type of conflict may seriously impair the process. For some, the experience catapults them out of a previously held “religious belief system” into a more inclusive “spiritual belief system.” Occasionally, if they have been previously uninterested in religion or spirituality, they may seek their personal meaning through religion. As this process proceeds, the experiencer is often led back out of religion when they find that it does not satisfy them. However, some will become very involved in religion and stay there. I have talked to some for whom the experience had religious imagery that made their experience a conversion experience to a particular form of religion.
For others, personal meaning involves many questions, such as: Am I special? Am I destined to be psychic? or Will this happen again? Some experiencers at this stage will not accept help because the expansive state is so special that they believe they have the answers and that no one else can possibly understand or be of help to them. They are difficult to work with at this stage.
Some experiencers may seem obsessed at this stage; they can talk about little else. They may become caught up in their own spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypass occurs when personal emotional issues are avoided by diverting energy and attention to what amounts to a spiritual tranquilizer: avoiding the problem by praying, meditating, reading, or any activity related to the spiritual or religious that they feel gives them permission to avoid dealing with personal issues. This is usually a result of polarized thinking that might result in the feeling that human issues are not important and are simply to be ignored or bypassed, hence the term “spiritual bypass.” For the individual in a spiritual bypass, all things are of a spiritual nature and any problems can be solved through spiritual means. I have seen lives unravel as experiencers attended to their inner life to the exclusion of relationships and day-to-day life during this stage.
Things of the world may have little importance at this stage. The concerns that were vital before the experience seem trivial now. They may know the answers or have infinite questions but they are interested in anything related. There is usually an explosion of information-gathering and gaining a vocabulary with which to ascribe meaning to the experience. They may engage in taking on new spiritual practices or language. Their identities have been subsumed by the experience and its aftermath. The old personality is not completely gone, and the new one has germinated but has not formed. Those who do not get stuck in the pitfall of spiritual bypass may be healing themselves because they understand themselves much better now and have certainly had an experience of themselves that has broken the boundaries of the “skin-encapsulated ego” (Vaughan, 1995, p. 1). When a spiritual bypass occurs, personal problems and issues can be seen as tools of growth, and a new perspective emerges.
4. The Dark Night of the Soul
This is when the process begins to wane. This is a death experience, where neither the new nor the old personality is quite alive. The feeling of expansiveness and the belief that all problems have a spiritual solution begins to deflate. Feelings of abandonment and despair replace expansion and bliss. Sometimes depression and an attempt to reignite the experiences takes place. One is let down by the universe and the experience alone is not enough to provide meaning and elation.
This becomes an introspective time. The experiencer is torn and conflicted with questions like “Why did this happen to me?” “Why did the universe give this to me and then take it away?” Life may be colorless and uninteresting; and their before-experience interests seem boring. Like a riptide the inner turmoil may not be visible, but an interest in former activities is gone. Experiencers may feel as though they were dropped to the earth from a more ethereal region as the physical plane now feels dense and heavy to them. At the same time more mundane issues seem to arise as problems that were put on hold can no longer be avoided or ignored.
In this stage a process begins that challenges the experiencer to yet make this intense experience meaningful. Life changes may take place. Divorce, education, career changes may result from a redefining of life as values are reviewed. Some are replaced, and some are reaffirmed. A greater appreciation for human relationships and nature usually ensues. A new focus becomes apparent. The person experiences appreciation of the mundane and the challenges life has to offer.
As the spiritual reality is integrated into human life inner and outer changes take place. “Vertical spirituality” (the relationship of soul to spirit) is replaced by “horizontal spirituality” (the relationship of soul to the world or to other souls) that involves the meaning in life and of life to drive one toward altruistic activities that educate, alleviate suffering, and offer healing and hope. Rhea White (1997b) calls these projects of transcendence because they offer opportunities for the experiencer to transcend to new levels of transformation, vertically and horizontally, while engaging in them. The outer reality is aligned with the inner truth. The actions align with the ideals. Beliefs and a renewed commitment to them lead to a resolve to create an overarching attitude and sometimes personality change. The rebirth is complete. The individual’s feet are firmly planted on the earth while his/her head is in the skies. One is between two worlds no longer but living in both. There is usually more trust in adapting oneself to the flow, and greater clarity and ease as opposed to a defensive or controlling attitude that is protective of a particular ego structure.
Roberto Assagioli (1978) described three possible outcomes: (1) Enlightenment. This is complete and instant transformation (unheard of except for very rare individuals). (2) Transformation. This is most often the result with individuals who are fairly well balanced mentally and emotionally. (3) Self-Awareness. The experience and process have brought to awareness the personal issues that need to be dealt with. Should the experiencer fall into Assagioli’s third outcome category (Self-Awareness), stages 3 and 4, “The Search for Meaning” and 4. “Integration” are likely to require extended periods of time as the individual may spend time in therapy before integration is possible. This category also will include individuals with a weak ego structure that needs strengthening before proceeding. I subscribe to the theory that says you need to have an ego in order to transcend it.
For some one or more experiences do not make a spiritual emergence process. They do not complete all stages and get stuck in “specialness” (inflation) and spiritual bypass. Often they are personality disordered. But others can go on to develop empathy, sensitivity, compassion, and equanimity. They do not experience themselves as completely separate from others, and their cosmic world view is a mystical one that sees all as being interconnected. Their highest priority is their spiritual path. They see life as more of a process and themselves as a work in progress. There is less emphasis on material possessions, and they value being and relationships more than doing or having.
I don’t think we can describe stages and process without acknowledging the potential of either completing the process or getting stuck in it. This is not a judgment of “getting stuck” in any stage. “Getting stuck” may be construed as a pejorative phrase, so another term would be “stalling” or simply choosing to stick to the status quo until such time as one feels safe enough to choose to process the experience(s). Why that happens is highly individualized. Some people know that to “honor and attend to” the experience would have life-changing consequences, and they choose to put on hold the processing of the event in their lives for their own unique reasons (sometimes fear). This is one reason why some choose not to tell anyone but keep their experiences to themselves until another time.
What I have written about “The Spiritual Emergence Process” I do not see as substantially different from what Suzanne Brown or Rhea White have written about the EHE process. It is simply another perspective, the process viewed through another filter or ego. The major difference might be that Spiritual Emergence is usually thought of as a cluster of experiences that may go on for years. In Spiritual Emergence the string or cluster of experiences can become overwhelming, especially when another experience happens before the previous ones are understood or integrated. Individuals have been misdiagnosed with epilepsy (due to the seizure like the kriyas of Kundalini awakening) or psychotic (for the unusual extreme altered states of consciousness and temporary inability to differentiate between inner and outer stimuli). An Exceptional Human Experience can be a single event. A reiterative EHE process resembles the Spiritual Emergence Process. The essential result is the same, a transformation of consciousness, a more creative individual with an expanded awareness that encompasses more possible realities and an appreciation of the relative experiences of being human.
Invalidated, reduced, ignored, demonized, or pathologized therapists could be overlooking the potential in spiritual experiences. A lack of understanding of spiritual experiences could cause therapists to overlook the healing potential of these experiences that was recognized in many ancient cultures as being capable of producing profound transformational results that our western society has long invalidated. If clients bring us their experiences and we pathologize or invalidate them rather than explore them, we may lose the most powerful tool for healing, the human psyche. I invite dialogue and am interested in feedback on my observations.
Assagioli, R. (1978). Self-realization and psychological disturbances. Synthesis, No. 3-4, 148-171.
Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual Emergency. Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher.
Vaughan, F. (1995). Shadows of the Sacred. Wheaton, IL: Quest.
White, R.A. (1997a). Exceptional human experiences and the experiential paradigm. In C. T. Tart (Ed.), Body Mind Spirit: Exploring the Parapsychology of Spirituality