Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stan Grof - Spiritual Emergencies: Understanding and Treatment of Psychospiritual Crises

Reality Sandwich has a great (though quite long) post by Stan Grof on Psychospiritual Crises (spiritual emergencies). This is a highly neglected aspect of the spiritual path that I am glad to see getting some attention. Stan and Christina have written on this topic in a couple of very good books:
Grof, S. 1988. The Adventure of Self-Discovery. Albany, NY: State University of New York (SUNY) Press.

Grof, S. and Grof, C. (eds.) 1989. Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. Los Angeles, CA: J. P. Tarcher.

Here is the beginning of the article:

Spiritual Emergencies: Understanding and Treatment of Psychospiritual Crises

Stanislav Grof

One of the most important implications of the research of holotropic states is the realization that many of the conditions, which are currently diagnosed as psychotic and indiscriminately treated by suppressive medication, are actually difficult stages of a radical personality transformation and of spiritual opening. If they are correctly understood and supported, these psychospiritual crises can result in emotional and psychosomatic healing, remarkable psychological transformation, and consciousness evolution (Grof and Grof 1989, 1990).

Episodes of this nature can be found in the life stories of shamans, founders of the great religions of the world, famous spiritual teachers, mystics, and saints. Mystical literature of the world describes these crises as important signposts of the spiritual path and confirms their healing and transformative potential. Mainstream psychiatrists do not differentiate psychospiritual crises, or even episodes of uncomplicated mystical experiences, from serious mental diseases, because of their narrow conceptual framework.

Academic psychiatry, being a subdiscipline of medicine, has a
strong preference for biological interpretations, and uses a model of the psyche limited to postnatal biography and the Freudian individual unconscious. These are serious obstacles in understanding the nature and content of mystical states and the ability to distinguish them from manifestations of mental disease.

The term "spiritual emergency" (psychospiritual crisis), which my wife Christina and I coined for these states alludes to their positive potential. In English, this term is a play on words reflecting the similarity between the word "emergency" (a suddenly appearing acute crisis) and "emergence" (surfacing or rising). It thus suggests both a problem and opportunity to rise to a higher level of psychological functioning and spiritual awareness. We often refer in this context to the Chinese pictogram for crisis that illustrates the basic idea of spiritual emergency. This ideogram is composed of two images, one of which means danger and the other opportunity.

Among the benefits that can result from psychospiritual crises that receive expert support and are allowed to run their natural course are improved psychosomatic health, increased zest for life, a more rewarding life strategy, and an expanded worldview that includes the spiritual dimension. Successful completion and integration of such episodes also involves a substantial reduction of aggression, increase of racial, political, and religious tolerance, ecological awareness, and deep changes in the hierarchy of values and existential priorities. It is not an exaggeration to say that successful completion and integration of psychospiritual crisis can move the individual to a higher level of consciousness evolution.

In recent decades, we have seen rapidly growing interest in spiritual matters that leads to extensive experimentation with ancient, aboriginal, and modern "technologies of the sacred," consciousness-expanding techniques that can mediate spiritual opening. Among them are various shamanic methods, Eastern meditative practices, use of psychedelic substances, effective experiential psychotherapies, and laboratory methods developed by experimental psychiatry. According to public polls, the number of Americans who have had spiritual experiences significantly increased in the second half of the twentieth century and continues to grow. It seems that this has been accompanied by a parallel increase of psychospiritual crises.

More and more people seem to realize that genuine spirituality based on profound personal experience is a vitally important dimension of life. In view of the escalating global crisis brought about by the materialistic orientation of Western technological civilization, it has become obvious that we are paying a great price for having rejected spirituality. We have banned from our life a force that nourishes, empowers, and gives meaning to human existence.

On the individual level, the toll for the loss of spirituality is an impoverished, alienated, and unfulfilling way of life and an increase of emotional and psychosomatic disorders. On the collective level, the absence of spiritual values leads to strategies of existence that threaten the survival of life on our planet, such as plundering of nonrenewable resources, polluting the natural environment, disturbing ecological balance, and using violence as a principal means of international problem-solving.

It is, therefore, in the interest of all of us to find ways of bringing spirituality back into our individual and collective life. This would have to include not only theoretical recognition of spirituality as a vital aspect of existence, but also encouragement and social sanctioning of activities that mediate experiential access to spiritual dimensions of reality. And an important part of this effort would have to be development of an appropriate support system for people undergoing crises of spiritual opening, which would make it possible to utilize the positive potential of these states.

In 1980, Christina founded the Spiritual Emergency Network (SEN), an organization that connects individuals undergoing psychospiritual crises with professionals, who are able and willing to provide assistance based on the new understanding of these states. Filial branches of SEN now exist in many countries of the world.
Go read the whole article.

Among the topics covered:
Triggers of Spiritual Emergency
Diagnosis of Spiritual Emergency
Varieties of Spiritual Crises
1. Shamanic crisis
2. Awakening of Kundalini
3. Episodes of unitive consciousness (Maslow's "peak experiences")
4. Psychological renewal through return to the center (John Perry)
5. Crisis of psychic opening
6. Past-life experiences
7. Communication with spirit guides and "channeling"
8. Near-death experiences (NDEs)
9. Close encounters with UFOs and alien abduction experiences
10. Possession states
11. Alcoholism and drug addiction
Treatment of Psychospiritual Crises
This is an excellent resource for anyone doing therapy or spiritual direction work.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting article by Dr. Stan Grof. I've enjoyed other articles by him (and a video listing) at his website,

Excellent blog!

Anonymous said...

Quite fascinating. I'm glad to see more people acknowledging such experiences since I think it can go a long way toward a more gentle and compassionate view of ourselves and others. And it avoids losing or negating the important spiritual work under way.

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