By Katrina Michelle, PhD, LCSW, ACMHP (written for ACISTE, Aug 2017)
I have great appreciation for the term spiritual emergence, as coined by Stan and Christina Grof, because it is so inclusive. This term embraces the sudden, discrete episodes of awakening that we refer to as spiritually transformative experiences, or STEs, and yet is still broad enough to hold those awakenings that gradually unfold over time. In his 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, psychologist and philosopher, William James distinguished between these two categories of experience, calling them “the sudden type” and “the “educational type”.
Trying its best not to be labeled as pseudoscience, mainstream American psychology is cautious to divorce itself from the term spiritual. This caution creates a deep void in a field that is intended to study and understand the breadth and depth of human behavior. Clinicians, discouraged from consulting their own intuition, are led to favor diagnostic language when framing reports of altered states of consciousness. This risky, though well-intentioned tendency to pathologize spiritual emergence phenomena can create trauma for experiencers who may begin to identify with inaccurate diagnostic labels, leading to years of unnecessary suffering.
As a result, they may also accept psychopharmacological treatment to suppress symptoms that are mistakenly attributed to regressive symptoms of psychosis. Medication is likely to stunt the progressive psycho-spiritual emergence process, which often necessitates a period of discomfort before one has the hindsight to recognize that their challenges were a necessary part of the evolutionary journey of spiritual emergence. The attitude of mainstream academia toward these profoundly transformative experiences also contributes to the lack of support for significant psychological research in this area.
Helping professionals are ethically bound to stay current in relevant scientific research. Yet, because the prevailing academic institutions have not fully sanctioned spiritual emergence research, it is also the responsibility of experiencers to advocate for themselves. We experiencers can do this by helping to familiarize our therapists and medical professionals with existing research that is written in language they can understand. Not to do so reinforces the disparity between client and therapist. This blindspot in the therapeutic paradigm consistently disempowers the client, and risks inflating the therapist’s role in erroneously framing the other’s experience as mental illness. Essentially, each person must be respected as the expert on his or her own subjective experience. Ideally, the clinician is a guide to assist the individual’s autonomous journey.
I believe that most clinicians are well intentioned, if not genuinely ignorant to the phenomenon of spiritual emergence. Most of the helping professionals I know are kind, empathic, and genuinely invested in the wellbeing of their clients. Those who work within agencies or who are contracted with health insurance companies are also severely limited by imposed constraints that require Axis I DSM-V coding to provide treatment. We must be mindful that they are working within a broken healthcare system that prioritizes profits over people. They are often overworked, underpaid, and from what I have seen over the past 15 years in the mental health field, suffering from emotional and energetic burnout themselves.
One common feature spiritual experiencers report —and one that I personally reference as the catalyst for my own journey—is the noetic insight that we are all One. As an interdependent whole, none of us is served by sitting back and waiting for things to change. We can begin to shift the cultural narrative by continuing to share our stories, our truths. While this vulnerability may put us at risk for ridicule, it is also the way we will begin to normalize awareness of these experiences for those who may have been swept up in the ill-informed system, or for those who have never found a context through which to understand their experience. For me, it took ten years before I finally disclosed my experience, and a couple more before I was given language that could hold and validate it.
I believe that we are all spiritual experiencers. It is just a matter of time before the dominant system can be perforated to embrace the integrative scientific research that will broaden the scope of how we understand the human experience that is the spiritual experience. The change will only occur, though, if we all charge ourselves with the responsibility to share, educate, and raise awareness. Talk with your therapist; participate in the ACISTE Experiencer Forum chats; read the research; share your experiences with a friend. It is these small, intentional actions that will eventually allow our culture to reach the tipping point, transform, and spiritually emerge.
For more information about the ACISTE Experiencer Forum and to join the conversation about STEs, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.