I’ve been invited to present a short talk at the Theosophical Society in Brisbane this year, and I’m going to be talking on the subject of ‘psychosis or spiritual emergency’. I have some experience of this, and I think it’s important to raise awareness that what presents as psychosis may not always be pathological.
If you have any stories or resources you would like to share so I can make the talk as comprehensive as possible, please get in touch. You can comment below, send me a direct message through any of these channels or use this contact form.
In particular, it’s going to be important that I present some information about how to identify the differences between psychosis and spiritual emergency, and also some information about how to regulate our experience if we think we’re escalating into either of these states.
So yeah, if you’re familiar with or interested in this subject I would love to hear from you. Especially if you feel strongly about anything that should or shouldn’t be included in a talk like this ~ it’s a sensitive subject, so I want to be as judicious as possible.
Working with a Somatic Experiencing therapist yesterday, I realised we have this incredible interface between the mind and the body and it’s called the imagination ~ shaman’s know this, and we too can learn the language of the body by tuning in to the imagery that comes up during emotional episodes.
When I allowed it, mine was a snake uncoiling from a clay-lump of anxiety to eat up the meat-confetti of shame that was underneath an immense well of sadness. The trauma release that followed was blessedly story-free.
The body really does know the score … and … because I love mincing metaphors … the music is light and sweet.
During a compassion meditation just now, something came up that I’m really proud of ~ and perhaps an insight I think will be helpful for anyone who has become aware they are acting out a conditioned response and weren’t able to stop. It hurts to let go of our conditioning while we are in the middle of such an emotional reaction, because when we try to let go, our ego thinks it is dying.
But it’s okay ~ compassion to the rescue!
It can hurt to renounce our egoic position because we conflate the ego with ourself and we feel like we’re letting ourselves down, but we’re not ~ we’re letting our ego get out of the way so our higher self can come through.
So I share this story for anyone who has experienced the exquisite pain of relinquishing egoic conditioning to allow a heartfulness to come through instead of the controll-y fear that a lot of us put up with inside us because of maladaptive coping mechanisms. I’ll see if I can be concise.
Today a decision was made in our family that I didn’t agree with*;
it was a decision that really, ultimately, has nothing to do with me, and getting in the way of it would have caused more conflict and tension than it was worth;
my ego/conditioning thought otherwise ~ that I should step in and dictate values, make ultimatums, control the situation and ‘fix’ the ‘problem’;
but I saw the egoic conditioning for what it was, sat myself down, selected a guided meditation that seemed appropriate (this one here) and submitted myself to a bit of ‘cultural re-education’.
I’m deeply grateful for that guided meditation, because it helped me find the space to remember I can let go of how I think reality should be, and allow reality to unfold as it sees fit, and wow, what a relief it was!
The suffering of resistance fell away, and something like a higher (compassionate) self kicked in.
I can be honest and say I wasn’t all that happy about it: there is something exquisitely uncomfortable and painful about the micro-ego-death it felt like I went through.
In my experience there is something really painful about relinquishing egoic control and recognising that my opinions about reality don’t mean shit to reality … in recognising that my conditioned ideas about how we should be raising our son are probably a bit shit.
But the pain is just my ego taking a hit, and that’s okay, necessary, especially as there is a compassion practice in my life to support that death and rebirth.
After some compassionate reflection, I feel lighter and liberated and refreshed and grateful because now there is more room in me for compassion to move in where egoic conditioning had once been “man-spreading”.
By renouncing my conditioned attachment to expectations and to values I borrowed from my parents and upbringing, I am able to move into alignment with compassionate values that tell me Zane’s mental health is more important than whether he’s going to school.
~ ~ ~
* The details are not super relevant, but sometimes they can help a person to relate to a story, so, what happened is: Zane was allowed to go out and see his mates after he bullshitted his way out of school for the second day in a row ~ after being out of school for six months. Whether this was a good or bad decision is not the point ~ he’s having a hard time lately, and forcing him to go to school would only make that worse, but I was worried that rewarding him for wagging would establish a problematic precedent. Any argument made on compassionate grounds is bound to trump what my ego thinks is best.
*TRIGGER WARNING* This post discusses childhood abuse, neglect and abandonment. If you feel distressed at anytime, try reaching out to one of the support lines listed here.
I rang Blue Knot yesterday because I found them when I searched online to find a hotline for people whose loved ones live with CPTSD. Nikki’s not been doing so well lately and it’s beginning to take its toll on me. This is something that is hard for me to say and has been hard for me to accept: it’s taking its toll on me; my wife is living with complex trauma, and mostly we manage but sometimes I run out of the capacity to cope with the challenges that come with loving and living with someone who has experienced complex trauma. Our son Zane is also living with complex trauma from being in the womb when Nikki was being abused by his biological father.
On top of that, as I was reminded by the counsellor at Blue Knot, I have my own complex trauma to live with.
I called them to get support as someone whose loved ones have complex trauma in their background, and was reminded that I need support for the complex trauma in my own background.
There is a new-paradigm understanding of trauma emerging – thanks to the likes of Peter Levine and Gabor Mate – and in this view we understand that developmental and relational trauma can result from early-life experiences that were normalised in the suburban 80s when I was being raised:
abandonment, emotional neglect and/or emotional incest, being abused and belittled by your siblings, bullied at school, bashed by thugs as a teenager … these are all experiences in my background, and this list doesn’t even account for the birth trauma itself and the trauma of industrial postnatal care for babies.
Blue Knot reminded me that all of this is real. The symptoms I described on the call were confirmed as trauma related, and I recall ticking many items on the symptoms checklist when I read Levine’s Waking the Tiger. It was affirmed on the call that as parents, we are often triggered when our children go through the age we were when we were traumatised, which is definitely happening as Zane goes into the early teenage years.
It surprises me that I know I live with complex trauma myself, yet it took me feeling my wits’ end in supporting someone else through trauma recovery to remember or have the fact of my own trauma validated. (I think there might be a spectrum distinction between “complex trauma” and CPTSD and I certainly don’t feel like my lived experience of trauma amounts to a disorder, but I certainly exhibit many of the traits.)
That’s how it goes I guess. The call with Blue Knot reminded me that the trauma I’m living with is very innocuous and hard to detect because the causal events are so normalised in our culture. On top of that, there are no physical scars I can show to prove my trauma is real, and no single causal event that resulted in traumatisation … that’s one of the things about complex trauma: there’s no single event we can pin down as the cause. I wasn’t abused in the sense that is typically understood to result in trauma – a lot of us weren’t, but still we are traumatised. Says something about our culture.
For these reasons, this kind of trauma often flies under the radar, causing a low hum of very subtle misery that is difficult to detect. The lack of self-love and -worth that results from such trauma has also been normalised, like it’s the only way of being we’ve ever really known anyway.
A similar phenomenon is operating when we compare workaholism to heroin addiction: the latter is very obviously a harmful maladaptive coping mechanism that warrants treatment and is probably a symptom of trauma; the former is a harmful maladaptive coping mechanism that warrants treatment and is probably a symptom of trauma, but fails to be recognised as such because work addiction is normalised, even celebrated, yet it can rob someone of their life the same as heroin addiction can.
So a thing that I pledge as a central purpose of Heartwards is to help shed light on this emerging new-paradigm view of trauma, and to help individuals recognise and treat the symptoms of complex trauma they notice in themselves.
If we keep just fumbling along with our pain buried in the unconscious like hands into pockets in the depths of winter, we are going to just continue running ourselves and the planet into the ground as we seek to numb the pain or fill the void by sucking the world dry in our pleasure-seeking avoidance.
The counsellor on the Blue Knot call said something about the unconscious: how we repress our pain and shame and try to hide from it.
We cannot run from it forever. I believe that if we do not embrace and heal it in this lifetime, we will just come back for another round, again and again until we learn.
Even in this lifetime, if we retain the trauma in our body because we don’t learn how to release it, we can think we are successfully avoiding it until it recurs again through a phenomenon described by Levine as “re-enactment”.
I don’t properly understand what re-enactment is or how it works, but I’m going to ask when I call Blue Knot back.
They are a team-based counselling hotline, which means I won’t get the same counsellor each time but apparently they keep good case notes to make up for this, and it means I’ll get diverse perspectives. Their catchphrase is “empowering recovery from complex trauma”.
The person I spoke to was really great, and I recommend getting in touch if you’re living with complex trauma or someone who is. Even if you’re not sure but you have a vague suspicion that something was a bit off in your early development or upbringing, I reckon it’s worth a call. You might find explanations for symptoms that have been bothering you for ages but were just kind of resigned to living with. The number I called was 1300 657 380.
The main thing I got from the call today was that we can’t support our loved ones through recovery from complex trauma when we do not have enough internal resources left in our reserves. The analogy the counsellor used was from a teacup: we cannot share tea from an empty cup. This backs up my oxygen-mask analogy: we can’t help others if we’re dead.
I have only recently been able to start refilling my teacup after a very challenging 18 months or so, especially in the last 6 months while we were living with the abuser who triggered Nikki’s trauma, which I wrote about in other posts. We resolved that we would not leave anyone alone with the perpetrator, in case she caught someone alone and took the opportunity to manipulate or concoct a story while there were no witnesses around.
The main advice from the call today was that the best way for me to support Nikki is by first taking care of myself.
This is not indulgent or selfish, anymore than putting on the oxygen mask is selfish before we start helping others in a plane crash.
We cannot help others when we’re dead – or when our own nervous system is so frazzled that every minor tension creates a flee response.
As I continue doing the work of healing my child self, I will become more able to be available for Nikki and others when needed.
If I neglect the work of healing my own trauma, I will continue fucking out when others need me most,
and worse – I will continue attracting myself to situations where the original trauma response is seeking to exhaust itself. (I think that’s the gist of re-enactment.)
Not “fucking out” … that’s the wrong language, when falling to my knees in despair is really what’s happening each time my own and others’ trauma feels overwhelming.
If I neglect the work of healing my own trauma, I will stagnate among the low hum of misery that expresses itself like puss from the unconscious, and my purpose to help others flourish will languish unrealised.
Yours too maybe.
If any of this resonates with you, get in touch or have a look around at Kokoro 心 Heart, where I’m working to promote a healthy world arising out of healthy minds.
This page of resources might also interest you meanwhile.
During my first experience of what I now understand was mystical psychosis, a friend at the time would like to say something like, “It’s called ‘insanity’ because you go in-to-sanity,” and I appreciated that because it was a kind of anchor, an affirmation that the experience I was having might be positive.
Since then I have had two similar experiences, each of increasing intensity and both tipping from what Stan Grof calls “spiritual emergence” into “spiritual emergency”. I wrote about the second episode in a post called “Psychosis or Spiritual Awakening”, and I have since learnt that I am far from the only one who believes in the potentially positive transformation that can occur if a person is appropriately supported through the expansion of consciousness that psychosis can sometimes be.
Enter the documentary Crazy Wise, whose short blurb (trailer below) reads:
Crazy … or wise? The traditional wisdom of indigenous cultures often contradicts modern views about a mental health crisis. Is it a ‘calling’ to grow or just a ‘broken brain’? The documentary Crazy Wise explores what can be learned from people around the world who have turned their psychological crisis into a positive transformative experience.
As a survivor of our lagging mental-health system who has experienced profound insight through episodic psychosis, I very much value the message of this documentary. One distinction I like to make is that if, in modern Western psychology, psychosis is ‘a break from reality’ and, in ancient Eastern psychology, reality is an illusion, then psychosis is a break from illusion. Apart from that, I will let the filmmakers do the rest of the talking:
During a quarter-century documenting indigenous cultures, human-rights photographer and filmmaker Phil Borges often saw these cultures identify “psychotic” symptoms as an indicator of shamanic potential. He was intrigued by how differently psychosis is defined and treated in the West.
Through interviews with renowned mental health professionals including Gabor Mate, MD, Robert Whitaker, and Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD, Phil explores the growing severity of the mental health crisis in America dominated by biomedical psychiatry. He discovers a growing movement of professionals and psychiatric survivors who demand alternative treatments that focus on recovery, nurturing social connections, and finding meaning.
Crazy Wise follows two young Americans diagnosed with “mental illness.” Adam, 27, suffers devastating side effects from medications before embracing meditation in hopes of recovery. Ekhaya, 32, survives childhood molestation and several suicide attempts before spiritual training to become a traditional South African healer gives her suffering meaning and brings a deeper purpose to her life.
Crazy Wise doesn’t aim to over-romanticize indigenous wisdom, or completely condemn Western treatment. Not every indigenous person who has a crisis becomes a shaman. And many individuals benefit from Western medications.
However, indigenous peoples’ acceptance of non-ordinary states of consciousness, along with rituals and metaphors that form deep connections to nature, to each other, and to ancestors, is something we can learn from.
Crazy Wise adds a voice to the growing conversation that believes a psychological crisis can be an opportunity for growth and potentially transformational, not a disease with no cure.
It really is a fantastic film, very moving and inspirational. There is a new paradigm of integrative psychological awareness emerging, and these documentaries are helping to spread the word.
If you experience or have experienced acute psychological distress, have a look at this documentary and please know there is an alternative to what the medical-system narrative might believe is the only truth about your “symptoms”.
Reach out to me if you need support, or check out the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN) of Australia, who have peer-support workers operating in Brisbane at least, and other parts of Australia. There is also a US-based SEN, and hopefully these links will get you started if you’re investigating this for yourself or someone you know from other parts of the globe.
I’m curious to know what you think of Peter A Levine’s theory of trauma.
I’ve been listening to Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and I appreciate most of all that trauma should be diagnosed and treated on the basis of symptoms rather than the events that caused the trauma. One person may be traumatised by events that are not necessarily considered traumatic by others.
What do you think?
I think it’s imperative we have a holistic, integral, new-paradigm understanding of trauma because the symptoms of trauma keep us dis-integrated and leave us more prone to dis-regulation and dysfunction.
To become awakened or fully potentialised, we need to first be whole and healthy on the mundane-psychological level, otherwise in our practice(s) we’re going to be always bombarded by those aspects of our unconscious that are always bubbling up from those parts we keep compartmentalised, trapped away in the skeleton closet.
That’s just my view though. I’m curious to know what you think.
Can we awaken or become whole without first healing our wounds?
I noticed upon waking this morning that I almost immediately began worrying, and I was able to bring myself back into the present of the body, which was a relief. It’s frustrating that my habitual tendency is to worry, because I know it just causes suffering, but I feel like it was a small win today to recognise that and make an effort to respond skilfully using some of the practices I have been taught.
Afterward I reflected on how the mind really does create (our interpretation of) reality and if we can become more aware of our habitual thought patterns and do the work of editing them, we can change (the way we perceive) reality, and by changing that perception we may as well have changed reality because the state of our perceptions determines our happiness and wellbeing more than the state of reality actually does.
This is my current understanding of what people mean when they say our thoughts create (our) reality: our perceptions are more real than reality itself. I understand this is something taught in Buddhism … “mind is the forerunner of all states” and “perceive all dharmas as dreams” … but I’m curious to know what the modern psychology and neuroscience says about this.
It could be the difference between happiness and suffering, because whether we are happy or suffering depends on our relationship with / interpretation of events, does it not?
So my affirmation today: remain mindful as much as possible, and know that awareness of thought patterns empowers me to choose how I feel; negative thought patterns do not have to be allowed their habitual free reign.
I am enough; I come back to the present through my senses whenever I remember, and by doing so I gradually become more and more aware of reality, more grounded in the present, less fixated on the past or the future.
There is an internal narrative telling me that I need to be doing more of one certain thing or another – more productive, more efficient, more materially secure, etc,
but this is not all there is, not the whole story. Mental training, emotional resilience, psychological integrity … these are things I need to prioritise as the foundational prerequisites of holistic wellness.
I’ve been prioritising what I call “happiness habits” lately and it’s doing me well. I have a routine of rituals I do each morning, and a few other must-do’s each day, but otherwise I’m trying to refrain from having expectations other than this in my day. The situation with our co-tenant persists, which makes it hard to do much each day. Sometimes if all I can manage to maintain is my meditation practice I am happy.
I was talking to Nikki the other day about how much a regular practice of compassion meditation is helping me cope with our situation, and we talked about how such foundations must be built before anything else, and I really appreciate that.
I’m proud of having got myself to a place where I’m actually feeling pretty good among the pretty shitty situation we’re in with our co-tenant. I made the affirmation this morning that
I will keep up with observing the basics and not have majorly high expectations of myself to do a lot more
because I understand that’s where we start to go wrong in our culture: we try to achieve all this stuff because we think we need to prove ourselves, but in doing so we neglect the practices of being that would have us feeling worth without having to prove ourselves;
all motivation/intention must come from a place where we already recognise our inherent worth, otherwise that motivation will become tainted by the wish to be validated by others and we’ll be chasing this forever without satisfaction because no amount of external validation can fill the void where our self-worth should be;
anything we achieve to supplement our self-worth is going to suck worth out of the worth-economy, whereas anything we achieve from a sense of inherent self-worth is going to contribute worth.
I wrote about something similar recently, in a post called “on self-esteem as a precursor for achievement …” where I mentioned how societal expectations drive a lot of us to be always achieving, never satisfied to just exist and accept ourselves for our inherent worth.
I didn’t go into how we might cultivate that sense of inherent self-worth, but I’d like to drop a few thoughts here because a big part of the narrative shift I’m contributing to with Kokoro 心 Heart is about internal self-talk, which is where our sense of worth (or lack thereof) begins.
I believe the path to a sustainable and harmonious future on this planet is paved by creating a culture of individuals who are internally sustainable and harmonious. Because individuals create culture as much, if not more, than they are influenced by culture. We are culture, and the future is determined by the state of our present.
One way we can begin to create that culture of internally healthy individuals is by looking at our own self-talk. For me, there are some essential meditation and contemplation practices that are indispensable in healing my negative self-talk, and they are:
I spend some time each day reflecting on and practising these, and sometimes I find it hard to justify the time because I feel like I should be achieving something else … anything else, just not wellbeing.
But that’s absurd, and there’s a logic to be understood here: no amount of external achievement can satisfactorily supplement the sense of worth that comes from laying the foundation of these practices first; so the foundational practices need to come first, and are justified on these grounds.
Anything extra I can do, after I have done these exercises, is just the cream on top. If I have a really productive day, that’s just a cherry on top of the cream. Please excuse the shonky metaphor, but without that foundational cupcake we’re left with just a handful of whipped cream and a slimy glacé cherry.
The understanding we live by is arse-about in Western culture: we live for the external, and neglect the internal. But the internal is all that exists. This is a fundamental aspect of the narratives we need to change in ourselves and thereby our culture.