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Breakdowns and ‘Shift-Ups’

The relationship between psychosis and spiritual awakening.

Source: dreamworld30/flickr

Over the last 10 years, I’ve spent a lot of time investigating the phenomenon of spiritual awakening. In my Ph.D. thesis, for example, I investigated the cases of 25 people who believed that they had undergone spiritual awakening. I examined the apparent causes or triggers of their transformation, the characteristics of their new state, and what kinds of changes it had generated in their attitudes and lifestyles. Since then, I’ve investigated many other cases, including a group of around 32 people who had powerful transformational experiences following periods of intense psychological turmoil, the majority of which could be classed as a permanent, ongoing "awakening."

Defining spiritual awakening

The term "spiritual awakening" is quite slippery, so let me clarify what I mean by it. I see it as a psychological shift—or transformation of being—which doesn’t necessarily have to be interpreted in religious or even spiritual terms. I actually prefer to term it simply "awakening" (as a process) and "wakefulness" (as a state), to emphasise that it can occur outside spiritual traditions. In fact, I have found that it occurs most frequently amongst people who have little or no knowledge of spiritual practices or traditions.

In the light of these factors, I define spiritual awakening as a shift into a different, higher-functioning state in which a person’s vision of the world and relationship to it are transformed, along with their subjective experience and sense of identity. This shift brings a sense of well-being, clarity and connection. The person develops a more intense awareness of the phenomenal world, and a broad, global outlook, with an all-embracing sense of empathy with the whole human race, and a much reduced sense of for group identity.

Three types of "wakefulness"

There are three main different types of "wakefulness." There is "natural wakefulness," when the state is simply innate to people, without them making any effort to cultivate it. (The poet Walt Whitman is a good example of this.)

There is "gradual wakefulness," which is usually cultivated by certain techniques (such as meditation) and lifestyles (such as following the eight-limbed path of yoga, or a monastic lifestyle).

Finally, there is "sudden wakefulness," which involves an instantaneous and dramatic identity shift, and occurs most frequently in response to intense psychological turmoil, such as bereavement, loss, failure, or severe stress.

The misinterpretation of sudden awakening

In my research, I have found that sudden awakening in response to turmoil (or ‘transformation through turmoil’ as I sometimes call it) is far from uncommon. Unfortunately, however, it is often undetected or misinterpreted. This is because sometimes sudden awakening occurs in an intensely energetic and explosive form, and causes some psychological disturbances.

The shift sometimes creates a psychological earthquake which temporarily disrupts functions such as concentration, cognition, and memory. A person may find it difficult to think clearly or focus their attention, because their minds are overwhelmed with new impressions and thoughts and visions. They may have difficulty organizing their lives, making plans and decisions, or solving problems. In extreme cases, they may even temporarily have problems speaking, and find any social interaction difficult.

As a result, "sudden energetic awakening" (as I call it) is frequently misdiagnosed as a form of psychosis. For example, in my Ph.D. research, there were five clear cases of "sudden energetic awakening," four of whom were seen by psychiatrists, given medication and/or confined to psychiatric hospitals.

This misinterpretation is a great shame, for two reasons. On the one hand, it means that the awakening process is pathologised. It is "officially" confirmed that the awakening person has "something wrong" with them or is "going mad." Any doubt and incomprehension they may have had from their friends is substantiated by the medical profession. This means that they are more likely to try to deny or suppress their awakening, and that they are less likely to receive support and understanding.

The second problem is that, if an awakening person is given medication, this may interfere with the organic process of re-stabilisation and integration that should follow awakening. Ironically, although medication may suppress some of the psychological disturbances that sometimes arise with sudden awakening, in the long term it may actually perpetuate them—that is, stop them fading away naturally.

However, although this is very unfortunate, it’s perhaps not so surprising, since sudden energetic awakening can certainly resemble psychosis. Unless a psychiatrist is aware of spiritual awakening as a process—which is unfortunately still quite rare—then it’s all too easy for them to misread its symptoms.

Differentiating psychosis and awakening

Some researchers believe that there is no fundamental difference between psychosis and spiritual awakening, but simply a fundamental experience of going beyond the boundaries of the normal self, which can become either a psychotic or a spiritual experience depending on different factors.

For example, one of the UK’s leading researchers on "spiritual crisis," Isabel Clark, believes that the most important factor in determining whether a transpersonal experience becomes "a life-enhancing spiritual event" or a "damaging psychotic breakdown from which there is no easy escape" is how strong and stable a person’s sense of self is—or in her terms, the "well-foundedness" of the self, or "ego-strength." In other words, if a person doesn’t have a strong sense of self, they are more likely to have a psychotic experience. Clark believes that, rather than making a distinction between spirituality and psychosis, we should think of a whole spectrum of "transliminal states of consciousness." Another researcher, Caroline Brett, also argues that there is no categorical difference between spiritual awakening and psychosis, and that any apparent difference results from how the experience is contextualised and labelled—that is, whether it is supported or pathologised by the person’s peers or wider culture.

However, most researchers—including me—take the view that there is a basic difference between psychosis and awakening. They aren’t just two variations of the same fundamental experience, but two fundamentally different experiences which have some similarities, or overlap to some degree.

The transpersonal psychologist Stan Grof, for example, acknowledges that what he calls a "spiritual emergency" can resemble psychosis in that there may be a sudden eruption of new spiritual energies and potentials which may feel threatening—even overwhelming—and cause disruption to normal psychological functioning. However, Grof believes that a spiritual emergency is fundamentally different in that it usually features an "observing self" who stands apart from the psychological disturbance, so that the person can rationalise and understand their experience to some degree. In psychosis, however, there is no observer; the self is completely immersed in the experience and so cannot control or integrate it. A person who is having a spiritual emergency has a sense of grounded detachment which is absent from psychotic episodes.

Another leading researcher into spiritual emergencies, David Lukoff, identifies a number of essential differences between psychotic disorders and what he calls "visionary spiritual episodes" (VSEs). His research shows that people who have visionary spiritual experiences have "good pre-episode functioning"—that is, unlike people who have psychotic disorders, they tend to be well-adjusted and integrated personalities who were free from psychological problems before. The onset of their symptoms also occurs more quickly—usually during a period of three months or less—and they usually have a "positive, exploratory attitude towards the experience." In addition, people who have VSEs are more likely to have a sense of ecstasy and revelation, and have a much reduced risk of homicidal or suicidal behaviour.

However, perhaps the difference between psychosis and spirituality is more simple and fundamental than these researchers suggest. The similarity between them lies in the fact that they both involve a disruption of the normal "self-system" and its normal functioning. When the normal self-system is disturbed by spiritual awakening, its functions become disrupted too, in the same way that an earthquake disrupts the basic infrastructure and amenities of a city. But this isn’t strictly a breakdown because a new self-system emerges—however problematically—to replace the old one. There is usually only a temporary disruption to psychological functioning, since the new self-system soon takes over (again, even if this "takeover" is a difficult process), and the awakened person soon re-learns to conceptualise, to concentrate, to communicate, and so on. What might have appeared to be a breakdown is now revealed to be a shift-up, the birth of a latent higher-functioning self-system.

But in psychosis, no latent self-structure emerges. There is simply a breakdown, without a shift-up. The normal self-system dissolves into a vacuum. There is nothing to take over the psychological functions which have been disrupted.

We could make an analogy with politics. In psychosis, it’s as if a government dissolves itself, without arranging for anyone else to take over. As a result, the country descends into chaos. Its infrastructure begins to fall apart, and basic amenities and systems no longer function. Whereas in awakening, of course, a new government takes over power.

This isn’t to say that there are no similarities between psychosis and spirituality, besides the initial psychological disturbances that sudden awakening can cause. The main point of similarity between psychosis and awakening is that they are both states in which we "step outside" the normal self-system. They are both states in which a person does not experience reality through the psychological structures and functions of this self-system. As a result, there are a few characteristics which are shared by both states—the main one being the intensified perception or heightened awareness which is often associated with schizophrenia.

But even here, there is a difference, in that, for a person with schizophrenia, heightened awareness may not necessarily be a positive phenomenon. It’s likely that they will lack the ability to control it, so that it constantly intrudes on their attention. It’s also very possible that, because of the general sense of anxiety they feel, they will interpret this heightened reality as threatening. Another similarity is the heightened energy and creativity which is sometimes associated with schizophrenia, as it is with wakefulness. But again, there is also a difference here in that a person in psychosis usually isn’t able to control their energy, and may feel overwhelmed by it.

Finally, an altered sense of time is also usually shared by both the psychotic and the wakeful state. In wakefulness, this appears as a sense of transcending the past and future, and becoming intensely present, or as an expansive sense of time, in which we feel that we have more than enough time, or time may not even seem to exist. But in psychosis, this often appears as a sense of being "lost" in time, being unable to estimate it or control it. It seems therefore that some of the same basic characteristics appear in both states, but in a different guise—in a positive manifestation in wakefulness, and in a negative manifestation in psychosis. (I don’t want to stretch these similarities too far though. Most of the major characteristics of the wakeful state—such as heightened well-being, empathy, mental quietness, a reduced need for group identity—do not occur in psychosis at all.)

This also doesn't mean that psychosis and spiritual awakening may not sometimes overlap and merge. In some situations, the relationship between them may be more complex than I suggest here. For example, it may be that there is a period of breakdown or psychosis before a new self-system begins to establish itself. Or perhaps there may be occasions when an emerging self-system is overwhelmed by psychotic disturbances, and so temporarily dissolves away before returning and establishing itself properly later.

Overall though, I believe it’s imperative that more and more psychiatrists become aware of awakening as a phenomenon in itself, rather than treating it as a form of psychosis. There are actually some signs that this is happening—here in the UK, for example, there is now a "Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group" within the Royal College of Psychiatry. So hopefully it won’t be too long before misunderstanding and misinterpretation fades away, and wakefulness begins to be accepted as a natural and healthy state—one which is actually much healthier and higher-functioning than our normal state, and which represents the future direction of the evolution of consciousness, and a movement towards a positive, more harmonious future.