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Mental Health: the Psyche's Journey to Wholeness

by Catherine G Lucas(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 188 - November 2011

An Alternative Perspective

Emma was admitted to hospital repeatedly with recurring psychotic-type symptoms. Annabel was sectioned on three separate occasions and forcibly injected with high dose anti-psychotic medication against her will. Kate suffered from crippling depression on and off for 30 years, interspersed with periods of intense aliveness:
"I won't go into the horror of depression so extreme I couldn't walk, talk or eat properly for months."

Each of these women has chosen to see their mental health struggles in a very different light, from an altogether different perspective. Informed by a branch of psychology known as Transpersonal Psychology, they all see what they have been through as their personal odyssey towards healing and growth; the psyche's journey to wholeness. What is this alternative perspective?


Mental Health: the Psyche's Journey to Wholeness
Going through spiritual emergency is like the process of coal
under intense pressure turning into diamond.


Transpersonal Psychology
Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that encompasses the transcendent, the spiritual dimension, 'trans' meaning 'beyond' the personal. This growing area within the field of psychology brings together ancient mystical wisdom with modern psychology, grounded in scientific research. We can trace a distinguished transpersonal lineage, including the likes of Carl Jung, down to the work today of psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. These influential thinkers and clinicians challenge traditional mainstream models that see mental health struggles as purely illness. Their take is that although psycho-spiritual transformation can at times tip over into crisis, this is the natural process of the psyche's renewal.

Much as complementary health experts view illness as a sign from the body that something needs attention, that something is out of balance and needs healing, so transpersonal psychologists and psychotherapists see mental health crises as a sign that the psyche needs attention and healing. As Annabel says:

"My experience was a wake-up call to my own deep imbalance and need for healing."

Psycho-Spiritual Crisis
We all grow and mature physically, emotionally and spiritually, some more consciously than others. In his research Grof found that our natural spiritual development, our spiritual emergence, could tip over into an emergency. He coined the term 'spiritual emergency' for these intense and extreme times. Viewed from this perspective the psyche has a wisdom of its own; with the right support and the right understanding, it will move through to become a healthier whole. As Kate says:

"I've had many years to reflect on my process. In doing so, I've become aware that my experiences mirror Bipolar Disorder II[1] in certain ways and that certain health professionals would diagnose me as such. Along with many others, I disagree with the imposition of biomedical illness models upon such profound and life-changing psycho-spiritual experiences and believe that extreme mood shifts are an intrinsic part of the cleansing process."

Reframing Our Experience
We can only reframe our experiences and see them from this broader, more positive, more healing perspective if we know that such an alternative is available. When I ended up on a psychiatric ward at the age of 20 everybody around me was pathologizing my experience, telling me I was ill. On some level that didn't feel right;  it felt as if there was an intelligence to what was happening. But I had no alternative framework with which to interpret my experiences. It was only 15 years later when I first read Grof that I had, like many, an 'aha' moment. I realized there was so much more to what I had been through. So what does psycho-spiritual crisis or spiritual emergency look like?

Key Features of Spiritual Emergency
These experiences are phenomenally intense. They affect us on every level, physically, emotionally, mentally, as well as spiritually. The unusual physical symptoms, such as sensations of vibrating or burning in the body, difficulty getting any sleep or rest at all, can be frightening in themselves. The huge swings in emotion can feel like a violent emotional rollercoaster. The mind and ego can become totally confused as they try to make sense of what on earth is going on. Our inner world takes over, rich in symbolism and mythological themes, such as good versus evil. People often fear they are either going mad or going to die.

This whole onslaught can be completely overwhelming and terrifying. It becomes impossible to function at a normal, everyday level. Fortunately, there are usually also some very positive aspects to the experience, to help us bear with it. There may be joy, even ecstasy, unbounded love or deep compassion, or a sense of the oneness of all things, of the limited sense of self falling away.

Grof identified different kinds of spiritual emergency in his research, although typically several elements will combine in any one person's experience. The dark night of the soul is often associated with depression; some experience a temporary mystical psychosis or the complications of spontaneous Kundalini awakening.[2]

How To Cope
There are Three Key Phases to coping with spiritual emergency, which I have identified based on my personal experience of such crises, my research and also what we have learnt through the Spiritual Crisis Network.

The Key Phases

  1. Coping with the crisis: looking after mind, body and soul;
  2. Making sense of it all: using the Hero's Journey to integrate the experience;
  3. Going back out into the world.

Bear in mind that we do not move through these Three Key Phases in a smooth, linear fashion; we may move in and out and back and forth between the different stages. If you are supporting someone through spiritual emergency in a professional or personal capacity, you may find it helpful to assess where the person is in terms of these Three Key Phases. They will need different support and input depending which stage they are currently dealing with.

Key Phase 1 - Coping with the Crisis
When dealing with the immediacy of crisis, getting support is essential. It is virtually impossible to navigate these treacherous waters without some form of help. Somebody going through spiritual emergency will need a great deal of support assistance, probably 24 hours a day, at least for a limited period. If nothing else, they will need help with the basics, like shopping and cooking, not to mention emotional and moral support. This often comes from family and friends, who need to be careful, however, not to get burnt out. Professional help can come from a range of health experts, mainstream and complementary. Body work, such as massage, can be very beneficial, as can Shiatsu for helping to balance the energies that are going haywire at this time. Never delay seeking professional medical help; look for those who are sympathetic rather than pathologizing. Here is Annabel:

"One psychiatrist stands out particularly because she honoured the spiritual dimension, whilst also realizing the benefits of medication when used sparingly."

In the UK, the Spiritual Crisis Network is able to offer information and some limited support. Other spiritual emergency networks also have useful information on their websites. In the United States the Spiritual Emergence Network has been in existence for over twenty years.

The Key Tool: Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a simple, yet remarkably effective tool which helped me through my crises in 2003 and 2006. It is now being used in mainstream healthcare for a whole range of conditions, both physical and mental.

In 1986 Brian Keenan was taken hostage in Beirut, along with John McCarthy. Aspects of his experience of over four years of torture and confinement, much of it solitary and blindfolded, were not dissimilar to spiritual emergency. The overwhelming psychological, emotional and physical intensity took him to the brink of madness. What saved Keenan, what he discovered almost by accident, was Mindfulness. In his memoir Evil Cradling he writes:

I decided to become my own self-observer, caring little for what I did or said, letting madness take me where it would as long as I stood outside it and watched it. I would be the voyeur of myself.[3]

This ability to step back from our experience, gain a little space around it and cultivate the 'witness' is intrinsic to Mindfulness. It is a very simple, yet phenomenally powerful tool when coping with any challenging situation. In spiritual crisis it can be particularly helpful in coping with the fear and in connecting with our bodies, in order to get grounded.

If you are new to Mindfulness, a good starting point would be to use a Body Scan CD. This is a very relaxing, grounding and safe body awareness practice that you can do at home, lying on your couch or bed. In the UK you can order one from www.breathworks-mindfulness.co.uk.

Key Phase 2 -  Making Sense of It All: Using the Hero's Journey to Integrate the Experience
At some point we will probably want to make sense of all that we have been through. The Hero's Journey comes down to us through the centuries from ancient mythological stories. Essentially, it offers us a map or a model through which we can explore our experiences. The Hero is each and every one of us, as we belong at the centre of our own story. We go through various events, whether outer happenings or inner psychological and emotional events, which can be seen as the different stages of the Hero's Journey. Mythological themes were prominent for Kate:

"Unaware of the Greek myth of Persephone, I developed a mysterious obsession with pomegranates from the corner shop next to my lodgings and was eating one a day. As the urge to consume the blood-red seeds Persephone ate before her abduction by Hades faded, the narrow doorway to the Underworld shut behind me."

From the initial Call to Adventure to Meeting the Mentor, from the Supreme Ordeal to the Road Back and the final Return with the Elixir, we can identify the different stages of the Hero's Journey in what we have been through.[4] As we explore our experiences through writing about them, or even drawing or painting about them, we can begin to make sense of it all. We can see where we have maybe been blocked and not able to move forward; we can see what the learning is.

Because the Hero's Journey is truly universal, it is relevant whatever we have experienced. This second Key Phase of integrating all that we have been through will help us ground our learning in reality and help us feel ready to face the world again, now renewed.

Key Phase 3 - Going Back Out into the World
In this final Key Phase we renegotiate our place in the world. We will have changed considerably and this will now want to be reflected in our outer lives. We may need to make some major changes, in terms of our work, our lifestyle and more. Much may have already been stripped away during the worst of the crisis. We may have had to leave our job, a relationship with a significant other may have ended, we may have moved home. Now we can put up-to-date elements in place based on our fresh priorities; we can find a new way of being and a new way of living in the world. As Kate says:

"At last I am better able to accept the kind of person I am at a time when paradoxically in the eyes of society I am very little. Yet inside I feel like a success story. My achievements and rites of passage have been inner rather than outer and they feel solid and real."

This last Key Phase is by no means without its challenges. It can be difficult to adjust back to everyday, mundane reality after we have been to such extraordinary places. We can feel the deep longing for the interconnectedness of everything, to be one with the Divine, the Source or God. We can also be left with ongoing health problems resulting from the crisis itself and with a heightened sensitivity, which can be difficult to manage. This can be on many levels, whether sensitivity to different foods that we can no longer tolerate, or environments and energies that we cannot cope with, or a heightened awareness of others' suffering.

We may well have found a new sense of calling or vocation. We will undoubtedly have an urge to be of service in some way. At last we can feel the positive outcomes of our ordeal, we can see the blessing in the nightmare.

Opportunity
When we are in the midst of spiritual emergency it is difficult to have a sense of what a blessing it is. By the time we come through, however, we will be aware not only of the psychological growth and healing involved. These psycho-spiritual crises also give us a glimpse of awakening. They bring spiritual wisdom and insight that strengthens our sense of trust, faith and gratitude.

If we can reframe our mental health struggles in the way that Kate, Emma and Annabel all have, then the sense of gain far outweighs the pain involved. None of these three women has any sense of regret. Their lives have become so much deeper and richer, so much more full of meaning than they could have possibly imagined. Despite all she suffered, Emma's perspective on her spiritual emergence and emergency is relevant to us all:

"What I do feel sure about is that the experiences have a purpose and a meaning.  If it is my soul calling me to a life that will serve me and the planet better, then I'm doing all I can to be part of the solution."

Bibliography
Campbell Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London. Fontana Press. 1993.
Grof Stanislav & Christina (eds.). Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. New York.  Penguin Putnam. 1989.
Grof Stanislav & Christina. The Stormy Search for the Self. New York.  Penguin Putnam. 1990.
St John of the Cross. The Dark Night of the Soul. Mineola. Dover Publications. 2003.
Jung Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London. Fontana Paperbacks. 1983.
Jung Carl. The Red Book: Liber Novus. Sonu Shamdasani (ed.). New York.  WW Norton & Co. 2009.
Keenan Brian. An Evil Cradling. London. Vintage. 1993.
May Gerald G. The Dark Night of the Soul. New York. HarperOne. 2005.
John Weir Perry Trials of the Visionary Mind: Spiritual Emergency and the Renewal Process. Albany. State University of New York Press. 1999.
Vogler Christopher. The Writer's Journey. London. Boxtree Ltd. 1996.

Spiritual Emergency Websites
Australia   www.spiritualemergence.org.au
Canada   www.spiritualemergence.net
UK   www.SpiritualCrisisNetwork.org.uk
USA   www.spiritualemergence.info

Notes
1.     Previously known as manic depression.
2.     The phenomenon of Kundalini awakening, the understanding of which comes to us from the East, is being increasingly recognized and researched in the West. In Indian Vedic teaching Kundalini life-force energy resides at the base of the spine and when released moves up through seven energy centres located along the spine.
3.     Keenan Brian. An Evil Cradling. Vintage. p78. ISBN 0-09-999030-X. 1993.
4 .    For the twelve stages that I refer to in my book In Case of Spiritual Emergency see Christopher Vogler The Writer's Journey.
Front Cover: In Case of Spiritual Emergency

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About Catherine G Lucas

Catherine G Lucas is the Founder of the UK Spiritual Crisis Network, which gained charitable status in 2009. Her new book In Case of Spiritual Emergency: Moving Successfully Through Your Awakening, which includes a comprehensive section on Resources, is out now, available from www.findhornpress.com. The companion blog, which explores themes from the book is www.in-case-of-spiritual-emergency.blogspot.com

Catherine is a regular conference speaker on spiritual emergency and has featured on a BBC Radio 4 program on the subject. To listen to other radio interviews and for details of her forthcoming USA tour see www.AcademyWisdom.co.uk  Catherine is also an accredited Breathworks Mindfulness Trainer, delivering courses for groups such as the National Health Service and the Ministry of Defence, for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Catherine can be contacted at catherine@AcademyWisdom.co.uk 

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