Individuals at times go through what Grof terms a ’spiritual emergency’; in this a person may develop unusual perceptions and a sense of consciousness that is part from the ‘norm’. The psychiatric establishment based on a medical model would identify such experience as pathological, label it, and prescribe a drug to suppress it. But what if this experience can lead to an awakening? I share some examples:
I met with a 17 year old male who had been abused beginning around the age of 14 months. He began to express some concerns about meaning in his life but also presented with intense anxiety surrounding feeling his actions were being watched and monitored. This began to intensify after encountering his abuser again after a prolonged period. He described his family life as often chaotic and discussed how he felt that he often felt ‘controlled.” He told me that when watching television, he thought that there was something in the center of the screen that was recording him. I initially employed some humor to the situation, and suggested that he not change in front of the television. This provoked some laughter but also helped him feel more relaxed and we soon delved into the more serious issues of his crisis. What he discovered was that his feelings of being watched and so forth were all ‘metaphors’ for the very real feelings he had of lacking autonomy in decision making and the chaotic circumstances he encountered. As this discovery was made, we were able to enter the realm of reframing and creating new meanings, and he has begun the process of emerging from the impact of his past trauma towards overcoming.
A woman discussed with me about her guilt ridden past where she had involved herself in prostitution and drugs. She related how she had an experience of hearing a voice that told her she was Mary Magdalene. The psychiatric establishment would automatically seek to suppress this experience, label it as delusion, however after hearing more of her journey and listening intently, it made perfect sense as to why she would connect with the story of Mary Magdalene, and it soon pointed this out. The story coincided with her own experience and she was desperately seeking ‘redemption’ from the shame of her past.
I was contacted on one occasion to conduct an assessment and consult with a family in regards to their son who was in his early twenties who had been involuntarily committed by his father to a state mental hospital. As I entered the facility, wondered how any in this place could not feel worthless, depressed, and mad. I entered to meet John. He appeared somewhat lethargic because of the cocktail of psychiatric drugs he was being given, but he greeted me warmly and with a smile. John began to immediately speak and told me how he was an African American infant who when he was around two years old was turned white. (John was quite pale in complexion). He then proceeded to tell me about the mind control he felt he was experiencing, that his freedom was taken away, he could no longer think for himself. I asked him who he felt was controlling his mind. His answer did not surprise me- it was his father. I later asked the mother if John’s father was a racist and if John had been abused. The answer was yes to both; the father had been linked to racist organizations. The abuse began around the age of 2. It was clear that John had a powerful message, though surrounded in metaphor. To the person only wanting to categorize behavior and ignore experience, would they have known what John was seeking to communicate?
Aaron was a delightful 10 year old boy with a great sense of humor and a lot of creativity and imagination. However, Aaron looked at himself as a ‘bad kid’. His step-mother was filled with negativity towards him and his parents were embroiled in constant conflict. Aaron had been sexually abused when he was 3 years old. The memories of his trauma continued to haunt him. Aaron developed a challenge of encopresis that was occurring on a daily basis and it only furthered the negative relationship with his step-mother. After getting to know Aaron, I began to realize that he felt stifled and was often told to be quiet and was never allowed to really express himself. He told me that he felt he could not be himself and he was afraid to share any of his feelings, he did not feel safe and secure. I saw his encopresis as a reflection of the negative emotions he so deeply wished to share and it was no surprise for me to learn that this seemed to only occur in his home environment. I felt it was necessary for him to build a trusting relationship with someone, and sought to build him up and encourage his resiliency. Though our periods meeting together were short, I hoped that it would be a period of respite, a period where he could truly be himself and express himself without any fear of judgment. I believe Aaron will face many more challenges, but I remain hopeful that pointing him to an understanding of the roots of his distress and challenges, and giving him a spirit of overcoming, and with his own innate strengths, that he will be able to survive the violence so sadly inflicted upon him.
Often times in the various crises, persons come into conflict with the dominant worldview, and they begin to feel alienated and isolated. There are some who respond to crisis through excessive worry and others who develop apathy, or complete despair. I have argued that people do not need drugs, rather people need people. It is necessary for there to exist a supportive network to help the person through the crisis so it may reach a transformative ending. It is possible after undergoing such a crisis to emerge with new insights, to develop new meanings, a renewed sense of purpose. But, it is necessary for there to be a journey, a journey in togetherness, where the person can feel safe and supported in conquering fears, to be able to face the intrusive thoughts and feelings of dread that haunt them. In this journey is the process of being able to shed the false self, to actually be able to be a human being with another human being, and to no longer feel that they must repress their feelings or must ‘play the games’ or wear the masks that society imposes upon us. To be able to come to a radical authenticity, a mastery of past traumas where we make the choice to live and be rather than merely react.
I have often used the concept of programmed dreams which I learned from a colleague. In this, the person decides to have a dream, one which will not be upsetting, but which will be an answer to a dilemma. In this process, I have seen many obtain valuable insights. For example, a young man had serious esteem issues, he fretted about how others perceived him. In his dream, he saw many mirrors with himself smashing through them all. He related to me that this dream was a ‘release’ and he felt the mirrors represented all the images others had created of him. He was no longer going to concern himself with that, these images were gone. In another example, a woman having intrusive thoughts and recurrent nightmares about past abuse had a dream where she was able to assert herself and say directly that the abuse was wrong. She said this relieved a serious burden she had been carrying for some time, as what occurred in the dream is something she always wanted to say.
These crises can be challenging, and often painful. The person may have to journey through dark imagery and confront many obstacles, but with support and the proper conditions to facilitate the journey, it can lead to an awakening, it can be breakthrough rather than breakdown.