Richard Graveling
Counsellor | Psychotherapist
PGDip Psychosynthesis Counselling
Registered Member MBACP


When Spiritual Awakening becomes a Spiritual Crisis

The term “Spiritual Emergency” was coined by Stanislav Grof when he described the variety of crises that an individual can experience when undergoing a potential spiritual transformation. Such crises can be very frightening and destabilising, seeming to threaten the very core of one’s identity. To make matters worse this category of experience is generally not understood within our Western psychological framework and so can tend to be pathologised. So, when does a spiritual emergence become an emergency? And how do we manage to cope with the symptoms?

What are spiritual experiences?

A spiritual experience can happen to anyone, though it is perhaps most commonly associated with those who are engaged in some form of spiritual practice – this might be meditation, yoga or a devotional practice such as mantra. Other factors reported to precipitate spiritual experiences are the use of hallucinogenic drugs, intense life events and near death experiences, which can lead to a reorientation in values and life direction.

Generally speaking, a spiritual experience can be understood to be a shift in perspective, where our habitual viewpoint of “me” and our place in the world gives way to a broader vision – perhaps a deep sense of love or connection with others; or possibly a realisation that the “me” one has been identified with all this time is insubstantial, leaving in its place an experience of boundless awareness. Spiritual experiences take many forms and can often feel wonderful, with the realisation that one is so much more than one imagined. It’s important to realise that they are not simply cognitive phenomena, but also involve the affective and energetic systems of the body; in this way deeply positive emotional states, such as peace, love, faith, gratitude or beauty can arise, as well as a heightened experience of energies in the body, which can at times feel blissful.

The aim of spiritual practice is largely understood to bring about this shift in perspective, where the individual gives way to the transcendental. Such a shift can be interpreted in different ways, depending on one’s framework of understanding. For example, a Buddhist may understand that the individual consciousness sees through the delusion of being a separate self, recognising its true nature as Universal Consciousness (known as the Dharmakaya); whereas a Christian may feel the individual soul to be merging with God, or the Divine Ground.

Spiritual awakening

From a psychological perspective, we could say that a spiritual awakening is a shift in an individual‘s sense of identity. One’s identification with the usual sense of “me” and the narrative which accompanies this begins to loosen, allowing the consciousness to expand and the individual to experience themselves as something more than the mundane. There might be a sense of experiencing oneself as pure presence or spacious awareness; or perhaps one might feel oneself to be an integral part of the universe, inseparable from all of life.

Such experiences can sometimes feel threatening to the existing sense of self and are not always well received. Feeling one’s habitual sense of identity to be threatened can bring up a great deal of anxiety, where one may be faced with the fear of non-existence. In addition, an expansion of consciousness is often accompanied by an influx of energies into the system – these can include strong emotional experiences and images, unconscious elements emerging into awareness, or the arising of energies within the body that can at times feel intense.

When this happens, the self structure needs to adapt to accommodate the new energies. There is a process of reorientation, whereby the self gradually integrates the shift in perspective and emergent energies, allowing more space for consciousness to manifest in a less restricted way. This can sometimes be a disorientating process, taking place over an extended period of time. The result is a freer, more fluid sense of self that is increasingly open to experience and in touch with an awareness that transcends the personal i.e. which is not rooted in personal history.

Spiritual emergency

However, if the individual is overwhelmed by such experiences and feels unable to integrate them, this can lead to a crisis – what could be called a spiritual emergency. The self structure feels unable to cope with the influx of energies and feels in danger of being completely taken over by them. Symptoms are varied, but may include the feeling of being physically overwhelmed with energy, paralysed with fear, or dissociated from reality. Such a crisis can be deeply unsettling and frightening – for some, it can feel like one’s whole life is at stake and that one stands to lose one’s very own self.

For an individual going through such a crisis, having a sense of support is vital. It’s often important to be in an environment where one feels able to go through the process without feeling judged or pathologised for one’s symptoms. Being amongst others who understand, or at least are sympathetic to our experience is likely to be a much needed support. At such a time it’s important not to expect to be able to function in the usual way, but rather to acknowledge that this is a time of transition.

Grounding is something can be of great benefit. This can take the form of connecting with the body through various forms of activity or exercise; for example, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung re-engaged with his childhood hobby of model-making to keep himself grounded when he underwent a spiritual crisis in his middle age. Being in the natural world can be another form of grounding – many people can find walking in nature and spending time outside to be restorative, helping to engender a sense of feeling supported by the world.

Perhaps the most valuable support of all is normalisation i.e. the understanding that what one is going through is part of a natural process. For some people, it can help to read spiritual literature to provide a context for their experiences. Having a framework of understanding can be a real support at what feels like a disorientating time; simply knowing that others have had similar experiences and that one is not alone can be deeply reassuring. This can then help to trust in the process that is taking place, allowing one to open up to one’s experience rather than fighting against it.

In time, if the individual is sufficiently able to stay with the unfolding process, the various symptoms can gradually begin to settle as the self reorients itself around a new centre of identity. This will often be accompanied by a realignment of one’s values and purpose in life, which can precipitate a significant change in life direction. For those who have come through the process, what seemed at the time to have been a challenge may eventually come to be seen as a great blessing.

In Conclusion

Unfortunately our western culture does not generally provide a context for understanding the phenomenon of spiritual emergence. This can leave sufferers confused about what it is they are experiencing, adding further to their level of distress. Perhaps it’s no wonder that individuals might feel reluctant to seek professional support, knowing the response they are likely to receive.

It is hoped that the growing interest in spirituality in our culture, evidenced by the increasing popularity of meditation, yoga and other practices, will help contribute to a much needed paradigm shift within western psychology. Indeed, this is already taking place within the transpersonal approaches to psychology, though these are still in the minority. Having a broader context to understand spiritual experiences would surely provide support and reassurance for those who may be struggling with a spiritual emergence.