Pathologizing Emergent Experiences + What Helps Integration
Western culture needs to change its attitude
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‘The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.’
– Joseph Campbell
Imagine you’re practicing yoga one day and completely out of the blue, you feel a surge of electricity run up your spine, and the next thing you know, you’re melting in complete and utter bliss and love, one with the Universe. After the experience, you are convinced you can feel others’ emotions, you know when things will happen before they happen, and there tends to be an overlapping between your inner and outer worlds.
You have no idea what just happened to you and immediately think that something is wrong with you. Should you tell someone? You feel like everyone’s first response, including your physician’s, will be to tell you that you’re just tired or confused. This is because in Western culture, you either agree with the mainstream physicalist worldview where such things don’t happen, or you must be crazy, delusional, or stupid.
Isn’t that kind of weird?
People have these emergent experiences all the time and have had them for millennia, across a multitude of cultures and traditions (watch this trailer for an example). They have been called various things: spiritual, mystical, energetic, ecstatic, peak, emergent, or transpersonal (as I discussed in the last newsletter). Even though Western culture pretends they don’t exist, they are, in fact, typical human experiences. There is an extensive literature about these emergent states in non-western cultures, such as shamanism, initiatory rites, and the experiences of saints and mystics.
So, what’s the deal with Western culture? Well, it’s a long history that includes the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. This great talk walks through the history of emergent/ecstatic experiences and how Western culture developed an uncomfortable relationship with them, and how, in fact, there exists a spectrum of conscious experiences ranging from mysticism to psychosis.
Before the 17th century, many societies used a variety of methods to understand reality and reach truth, such as leveraging liminal states, dreams, and mystical experiences. After the 17th century, Western culture narrowed the spectrum of consciousness, deeming the only reliable and useful way of knowing reality as rational consciousness, while all other conscious states were deemed invalid and delusional.
In an enlightened culture like ours, it’s unthinkable and embarrassing to not be in a permanent rational state. The thinking goes: why would you ever want to intentionally enter an altered state of consciousness where you can get carried away, or let your self-control defenses down by believing in things that don’t exist like spirits, angels, or God? Oh dear, that would be mad/dangerous/stupid.
But since these experiences are part of the human experience and don’t simply disappear when you ignore them, psychology and psychiatry had to place them somewhere, and that somewhere was in the mental illness bucket. While the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Edition 5 (DSM-5) contains the general modifier “Religious or Spiritual Problem,” it doesn’t have any useful information on these conditions and is rarely used. Instead, the medical community disregards them entirely, provides a biochemical explanation, or categorizes them as psychopathological – an acute psychotic episode - that requires diagnosis and lifelong medications to manage the ‘symptoms.’ 1–3
Although emergent states can be frightening, unmooring, and psychotic-like, Stanislov Grof – one of the leading researchers in psychedelic psychotherapy – and his wife Christina Grof, write about how these states can be viewed as spiritual awakenings. Their research showed that these states are often temporary (not lifelong disorders) and if carefully supported and navigated, the person is usually capable of incorporating the personal transformation into a sense of wholeness, possessing greater psycho-spiritual wellbeing, as well as improved daily functioning and mental health.3–6 Research has consistently shown that there is no relationship between emergent experiences and mental disorder.7,8
“Many individuals experiencing episodes of non-ordinary states of consciousness… are undergoing an evolutionary crisis rather than suffering from a mental disease.” — Grofs
When there is no framework of understanding for the experience – or if the only appropriate framework is that you must be crazy – then the person can find themselves in dangerous territory where they feel shame and are unable to communicate about what has happened.9–11
What does all that mean? Emergent/spiritual states are normal, meaningful, usually temporary, and there are ways to navigate them. The experiences can be used for personal meaning and growth. We can’t reasonably pathologize all these experiences and classify everyone as psychotic. I already discussed in the last newsletter what is not helpful and now I turn to what is.
There is very little, if any, empirical research on the needs, best practices, and challenges of working through a spiritually transformative experience or a bad trip, but here are the takeaways from what has been studied.
What helps an altered state calm down (from Jules Evans talk)?
- A sympathetic, calm, non-judgmental setting
- Connection, love, and touch
- Friends or caregivers to look after basic needs (e.g. food, sleep, etc)
- Supportive resources (e.g books, podcasts, friends, family, therapists)
- How you think of it really matters: finding a positive frame of meaning and growth helps, and not viewing it as a catastrophe
- Mindfulness practices to connect to the body, breath, & senses
- Attitude of acceptance and self-compassion, understanding that this too shall pass
- Attitude of humility and humor
- Practicing non-reactivity and observation (of your experiences)
- Discernment and reality-testing
What practices help with integrating intense emergent experiences?
*(See Brook, 2021 and Grof & Grof, 1971 for more helpful practices)
- Practicing compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and self-awareness
- Exploring the unconscious (work with your dreams, use artistic expression, etc)
- Finding serene environments
- Reading spiritual literature, praying, and sharing with another person
- Develop simple personal rituals
Psychiatric care and medication were specifically found to be not helpful12 and in fact were reported as being positively harmful in some cases because they prevented the person from finding meaning in the experience and subsequently growing because of it.13 New research challenges the default pathologization of spontaneous spiritual awakenings, calls for an immediate destigmatization of these experiences within psychiatry, and invites a more holistic, patient-centered approach to researching spiritual and transcendent experiences.14
What sucks for Westerners is that since there’s practically no support for and understanding of these experiences, it can feel like a catastrophe when it happens. In cultures that have rites of passage or deeper understanding of emergent states, the entire community would understand what the person is going through and would be able to assist them. In the West, on the other hand, it is likely that the majority of one’s social circle has not experienced such a state and they probably don’t know how to support one.
It’s like if you had a pineapple in your hand and kept trying to explain to someone that it’s a pineapple and you’re not sure how to eat it, and the other person keeps saying, “I don’t know what a pineapple is, but what you have is an apple, and I know that the best way to eat an apple is to just bite into it so that’s what you should do.” But, looking at the prickly, tough pineapple skin, you’re pretty sure that’s not what you should do.
Asking Westerners to reorient how they think about these states is a big ask, but it must be done. More Americans have had mystical experiences than ever before and with the psychedelic renaissance, we will see worldview-flips at a scale we’ve never seen before, so we need to rethink our attitudes, language, and paradigms around these experiences now. We need to create supportive communities, services, and broader understanding so that we don’t isolate and marginalize yet another group of people in our society. The human experience is vast, diverse, plural, and not always neatly put into boxes, so can we please incinerate the boxes?
Resources for spiritually transformative experiences:
American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences
Also worth checking out, the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium, working to get emergent phenomena reclassified in the medical field.
1. Menezes A, Moreira-Almeida A. Religion, spirituality, and psychosis. Curr Psychiatry Rep 2010; 12: 174–179.
2. Woollacott MH, Kason Y, Park RD. Investigation of the phenomenology, physiology and impact of spiritually transformative experiences – kundalini awakening. EXPLORE 2021; 17: 525–534.
3. Grof S, Grof C. Spiritual Emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. New York: J.P. Tarcher, 1989.
4. Rock AJ, Denning NC, Harris KP, et al. Exploring Holotropic Breathwork: An Empirical Evaluation of Altered States of Awareness and Patterns of Phenomenological Subsystems with Reference to Transliminality. J Transpers Psychol 2015; 47: 3–25.
5. Lukoff D, Everest HC. The myths in mental illness. J Transpers Psychol 1985; 17: 123–153.
6. Ring K, Rosing CJ. The omega project: An empirical study of the NDE-prone personality. J Near-Death Stud 1990; 8: 211–239.
7. Greyson B. Near-death experiences. In: Varities of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007, pp. 315–352.
8. Cardeña E, Lynn S, Krippner S. Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the scientific evidence. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007.
9. Bentall RP. Hallucinatory experiences. In: Varities of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007, pp. 85–120.
10. Berenbaum H, Kerns J, Raghavan C. Anomalous experiences, peculiarity, and psychopathology. In: Varities of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007, pp. 25–46.
11. Paper J. The mystic experience: A descriptive and comparative analysis. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004.
12. Brook MG. Struggles Reported Integrating Intense Spiritual Experiences: Results From a Survey Using the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences Inventory. Psycholog Relig Spiritual 2021; 13: 464–481.
13. Evans J, Read T (eds). Breaking open: Finding a way through spiritual emergency. Aeon Books, 2020.
14. Corneille JS, Luke D. Spontaneous Spiritual Awakenings: Phenomenology, Altered States, Individual Differences, and Well-Being. Front Psychol 2021; 12: 3271.