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Spiritual Emergence Bordering on a Spiritual Emergency

Spiritual emergence bordering on a spiritual emergency defines the fine line that psychedelic journeyers commonly tread when entering expanded states of awareness. Though both experiences are rooted in a visceral unveiling of truth, lack of proper therapeutic support or preparation can make us feel untethered, even producing psychotic-like symptoms. 

In this Psychedelic Passage podcast transcript, our co-founders Jimmy and Nicholas, discuss the work of Stan and Christina Grof, highlighting the notion of spiritual health in the context of western diagnostic pathology. 

What defines a spiritual emergence and how can journeyers distinguish it from a spiritual emergency? Our hosts will examine how the timing of a spiritual emergence can translate into these often reality-blurring and physically-incapacitating experiences. 

How does social conditioning influence our predisposition to a spiritual emergency in and out of a psychedelic event, and how can we create a supportive framework in preparation? 

Later, they’ll explore how the desire for security can conflict with our search for meaning and purpose. Where does our relationship to ourselves intersect with our external perception of the world? Finally, they’ll discuss why deep intrapersonal reflection is a prerequisite for safely engaging in this type of transformational work.

Episode 16 – Spiritual Emergence Bordering on a Spiritual Emergency

Jimmy: Welcome to the Psychedelic Passage podcast. My name is Jimmy Nguyen, I am joined here by my co-host, Nick. We’re the co-founders of Psychedelic Passage and we welcome you to our podcast. 

Today, we will be talking about a concept that may or may not be familiar to folks out there, but it is the term of a spiritual emergence as it relates to psychedelics, and then also as it relates to personal growth in general. 

And I’ll start by sharing that this term and concept was introduced by two individuals, Stan and Christina Grof. Stan, he was a psychiatrist who really was one of the main developers of transpersonal psychology.

In the 60s, he held a lot of studies and conducted research surrounding non-ordinary states of consciousness, which also included the use of psychedelic medicines that induced altered states. 

He and his wife, Christina Grof, then went on to do a couple of things, the development of Holotropic Breathwork, which some folks have heard, and then they were really the pioneers of this conversation of spiritual emergence as it relates to mental health, as it relates to personal and transpersonal growth. And then also this term of a spiritual emergency. 

Today, we’ll talk about the difference between the two, and how it relates to folks who are seeking any type of healing in their life. But more specifically, how this can be brought on or really highlighted through psychedelic use. 

And so, it’s very interesting because Christina was actually a patient of his, and this is obviously a different time back in the 60s. But they wrote some really important books around this. One is called Spiritual Emergency

And then the other one that has really helped, I can at least say, for me, personally is The Stormy Search for The Self. And within that, Stan writes his section about what he’s seen with his patients of spiritual emergencies. And then Christina also shares her own spiritual emergence process, which was primarily related around the birth of her children. So, really, really, fascinating topic. 

And we hope that we can bring in some tangible insights, so if you’re going through something very similar, you may at least have some language to define what might be happening to you. And also, for you to get the support that you might need. 

So, Nick, why don’t you introduce folks to this concept of spiritual emergence and maybe some indicators, let’s say, if folks are potentially going through something like this?

The Difference Between Spiritual Emergence & Spiritual Emergency

Nick: From my perspective, spiritual emergence is really this process of personal awakening into essentially a level of awareness that transcends the ego itself. And so, in its simplest terms, it’s really an expanded state of awareness where you’re more sensitive, more aware, more precepting of what is going on around you. And not only that, but how you relate to what’s going on around you. 

When this process happens really suddenly, and when folks either aren’t prepared or don’t have the support that they need or simply just get opened up really quickly, it can result in more of a spiritual emergency, which is the extreme form of this. 

I also think it’s worth noting that a lot of times those spiritual emergencies can have symptoms or present very soon similar to what we would see for the definition of a psychotic break. I can speak to this firsthand in the sense that I had my own spiritual emergency. I mean, I’ve had a couple of despite, but–

Jimmy: [laughs] We both got a couple under our belt at this point.

Nick: But I had one distinct one after an ayahuasca ceremony that I’ve participated in. And no joke, I mean, if I had gone to a therapist or someone in like the western healthcare model, I definitely would have been diagnosed, if you will, is having a psychotic break, when in reality, from my perspective, what I was having was a spiritual emergency. 

And the more that we dig into the difference between the two, we tend to find two things is that the diagnosis difference is due to whoever’s making the diagnosis. In other words, it’s very subjective. And to me, the other differentiating factor is just how much support that you have.

Jimmy: Mm hmm. Yeah, so to be clear, mental health issues exist. Psychotic episodes and breaks do exist. But the work of Stan and Christina Grof highlights that the main modality, if you will, of western approaches to mental health and any type of personal transpersonal growth is through pathology. 

Meaning, let’s find out what’s wrong and then let’s alleviate that, which is helpful in some cases. And then there’s this overlap from what I’m hearing you say, and also the work of Stan and Christina Grof is the notion of spirituality in the context of these things as well. 

So, they can look very similarly the same, and to help define for folks what a spiritual crisis or spiritual emergence or spiritual emergency is. 

Maybe you’re questioning your purpose in this life, maybe you’re questioning your goals, your values, your attitudes, what you believe, your identity, your role, but you focus on what’s important to you. And then maybe you’ve gone your whole life believing a certain way. 

And then you have in Christina Grof’s example, the birth of a child, or in Nick and I’s example, psychedelic experience that puts to question all of that. What I hear you say, Nick, is that there are two things. One is the timing of this. I think that that is a part of what defines a spiritual emergence versus a spiritual emergency. Where for some folks, a spiritual emergence is gradual and over time.

Nick: Yep.

Jimmy: For some other folks, it’s very drastic and very acute, you get slapped up over the head a little bit with questioning all of these things. And then that would be more termed a spiritual emergency.

Nick: And the emergency is typically accompanied by like, some limiting of your ability to function because it’s so intense.

Jimmy: Right. This is why we tell folks to take at least a couple of days off of work after an experience because what if you do have these life-changing perspective shifts, and then you’re supposed to show up to work on Monday and act like everything’s cool and then answer emails. 

Nick: Meanwhile, you just had an experience where you’re not actually sure what’s reality? Is the mushroom experience you just had a reality? Or is this default world that we’re in reality? And this happens all the time?

Jimmy: Yeah, the underlying thing is, like, “Who am I now?”

Nick: Yeah.

How Social Conditioning Challenges Spiritual Emergence

Jimmy: Which can be very beautiful and beneficial, that can also be very jarring and scary for folks. And then the other side that I hear from you is, the difference between a spiritual emergence versus a spiritual emergency is how much support you get. 

And that is also spoken about in the Grof’s work where they imagine this thing called a “spiritual emergence network,” which by the way, they do have a website where there are some mental health counselors and professionals who are a part of the spiritual emergence network. 

What it says is that our society is not really built to handle spiritual emergencies and spiritual emergencies, if it’s defined outside of the realm of mental health and psychosis. 

What they said was, it’s very rare for us to be able to take a break from life to be able to take a few days or a few weeks or in some cases a few months where that you are getting care, you’re getting some space, you’re getting some room to go through different modalities in the effort of aiding your spiritual emergence. 

For some folks, this can be really dire and drastic. Meaning that some people may need around-the-clock care. May need a team of people who are shifting in and out and addressing your physical needs, your personal needs, your emotional needs, your spiritual needs. 

And so they imagined the spiritual emergence network, which– this was back in the 70s and 80s, and it hasn’t gained a lot of prevalence here. But I do find that the concept of a spiritual emergence or spiritual emergency, both, we’ll just use spiritual emergence, I guess, for this term is really prevalent, especially with people now exploring psychedelics.

Nick: Yeah. When you’ve had more and more social conditioning, and you may be in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and you’ve never actually taken the time to stop and pause and address, whether your sense of self, your beliefs, your goals in life are actually yours or not. 

And then you have an experience that upends a lot of these personal beliefs, some of which you may have held very dearly. It can be pretty confusing, and it generally makes us feel like we don’t know who we are anymore. 

And that’s a challenging place to be. And what makes it extra challenging is what you’re talking about, which is, you’re expected to proceed as if it’s all okay, and that none of this is actually happening because if you tell your coworker or your friend or even a family member that you’re working through this, that’s what a lot of the default reaction is going to be is like,” Oh, my God, it sounds like you’re going crazy.”

Gradients of Spiritual Emergence

Jimmy: Mm-hmm. Well, I’ll back up to say that there are gradients to this as well. Some folks might find spiritual emergence through specific areas and parts of their life. 

I referenced childbirth, I was just speaking to an individual who said, “Hey, my whole life I’ve been so career-focused and I’ve been really successful doing my thing. And then when I began to have children later in my life, my entire identity changed. 

And then now, I’m not the first person in line, I’m the last person in line as I should be.” And so that can be an example of the impetus of a spiritual emergence. All the way through to people who question everything.

Nick: Yeah, which can once again be a healthy process. But to me, all this comes down to two things. One is you got to have a framework to use to be able to hold it all in to navigate. And the other piece is, it’s really, really, helpful to have support. 

People who can assure you that you’re fine, that this is a healthy process and give you the support that you need. And that was extremely beneficial for me as I went through my process, as I’m sure it was for you.

Jimmy: Yeah. I was a little more knucklehead [laughs] I didn’t get as much support because I had no idea what was going on. Only after reading Stormy search for the self later was I able to go back and connect the dots and be like, “Oh, got it. Okay. I see what’s happening here.” 

And then you hear these stories about psychedelics writes about how fragile they can be on the mind and all of these things and like, “Oh, my God, did I overdo this.” 

And then after a little bit of my own personal suffering, like I suffered in this for quite a while where I’ll share with folks that I was working in banking and real estate, and I had this whole financial focus career and everything was great on paper, and I had the business expense card, I was taking clients out. 

Also, I was like 60 pounds overweight with really, really poor food habits, poor bodily habits, poor recreational habits, and I just felt so empty inside. And life got me to a point where that conflict, that inner conflict was so much that’s actually what put me in a spiritual emergency. 

And so this is an example of the spiritual emergency existing outside of the psychedelic experience. I’m for sure had at least one psychedelic experience that for sure put me into somewhat of another spiritual emergency. I really liked what you said about first and foremost recognizing that because when I was going through that I’m like, “What is wrong with me?” 

Nick: Yeah, and that’s the default, is what’s wrong with me.

Jimmy: Yeah, I’m like, I can’t even get out of bed and get to work. And then when I was at work, everything was force, everything was pressure, everything was like, “I just got power through my day and–“

Nick: Willpower. 

Jimmy: Then I would go home, and I would binge eat to fill this gap in myself. And, man, I existed like that for a while. I mean, you were there, you saw me. I existed like that for a while and it wasn’t until I was able to come to a place of a couple of things, removing the shame and guilt from this process, removing this idea that I was broken or that something was wrong with me. 

And then realizing that what really came out of this for me was my own relationship with the world. I was thinking that the world was this concrete thing, and then I didn’t fit into that. So I need to change it, change myself.

What ended up happening was, I realized that both are moldable and both are interrelated and what we share in our work. I know that this is getting a little woo-woo for our conversation but the external world is actually a reflection of the internal world, that’s what I believe. 

And so I was like, “Well, how do I–? Maybe it’s a job change, maybe it’s something with my relationships. If I can only fix my eating habits and whatever.” And then the whole thing always circled back to what was going on with me internally. 

And then once I went through this process of truly getting right with myself, then job opportunities started coming up that align much more with who I was, then relationships started showing up in support of me and in my process, who could see me and acknowledge me and normalize my process, which of course you are, like, such a big part of that, Nick, so I publicly thank you for that.

Nick: You’re so welcome.

Jimmy: [laughs] It was rough for a while. I don’t know if many folks know, but I come from a place of being depressed with or being diagnosed with depression as a teen, and I’ve had my own bouts of, suicidal ideation and all of that. 

And it wasn’t until I went through this spiritual emergence process that I realized, “Oh, all of that stuff was interconnected.” And then I also just acknowledge and respect for folks that there are mental health conditions and that there are other things out there. 

I hold the space for that too. But at least for me, in my life, the way that my mental health issues were defined, they were actually spiritual emergency issues for me. [crosstalk] 

Nick: Yeah, and it’s going to be different for everyone. I mean that’s the thing around this work because it’s going to present differently for everyone based on you and your unique life circumstances. 

But I think what I want to make just clear to anyone that’s listening, especially if you’re entertaining a psychedelic experience or have gone through one, or maybe just breathwork, meditation, any sort of expanded state of consciousness is that it can and most likely will change how you relate to yourself and how you relate to the world around you.

Jimmy: And how you relate to others, relationships to the people that you love in your life.

Nick: The willingness to know that that’s on the table, to me, is a prerequisite for engaging in this type of transformational work, regardless of the method of action, whether it involves psychedelics or not.

Are You Experiencing a Spiritual Emergence or Emergency?  

Jimmy: Yeah. So, what would you share with folks? Maybe there are folks who are listening to this now and they’re like, “Am I going through a spiritual emergence or spiritual emergency?” So, the two kinds of questions that come up for me are, how do you define it? How do you know? And then what do you do about it? So, I don’t know what are your thoughts there?

Nick: I mean there are several different definitions. I have this one from Ted Esser from CIIS pulled up. I think it’s pretty complete, it’s long, but I think it’ll paint a pretty good picture. So, I’ll read this one.

Jimmy: Lay it on us.

Nick: “Spiritual emergence refers to the healthy, life-enhancing aspect of human psychospiritual development that spontaneously seeks meaning and connection beyond one’s personal identity. 

A process that may lead to a greater capacity for wisdom, compassion, and respect for all life, as well as fostering inner security and peace. Sometimes this growth can be challenging or tumultuous, taking on the form of spiritual emergence.” 

And so there’s a couple of different components here, one that really sticks out is meaning. Deep down as humans, we’re all searching for meaning in some way, shape, or form. 

And I think that’s part of what you touched on in our own story that you shared with us is like, you originally seeking meaning through this external work. And at some point, that either wasn’t providing the meaning that you sought or something switched inside of you, or it wasn’t integrity.

Jimmy: Well, the system that was laid out for me was if I could just hit all these things that society would tell me is successful in this world, good paying job, notoriety, relationship, power, all these things, then you would finally be fully fulfilled. And the more that I sought those things, the less and less fulfilled I became.

Nick: Right. I mean, I had the same story for reference. I am also [Jimmy laughs] come from the corporate world in which I had it all on paper and was absolutely hollow inside, and that’s why I left that all behind to actually help humans. And that’s part of how you and I both ended up here.

Jimmy: Yeah, that’s why we’re homies. I mean, we say that we are on separate parallel paths. The other part that comes up to me in your share about Ted Esser’s that– it’s interesting, the way that I think about psychedelics is that it is at the intersection of a lot of different things. 

It’s at the intersection of personal growth, it’s at the intersection of science and neurochemistry, it’s at the intersection of spirituality, it’s at the intersection of transpersonal growth, it’s not the intersection, it sits at the middle of all of these things. 

One thing that I want to share with folks is, I offer you, it’s not about us telling you to believe anything, you can believe whatever you want and you can approach this from a performance enhancement perspective like, It’s your personal right. We maintain that psychedelic use is a human right, you go about this however you want. 

What I want to point out though, is that the same way that we share with folks to navigate the psychedelic experience by being present and allowing the experience to unfold without trying to put it in a box, without trying to label it, without trying to define it. 

Well, I think the same for folks when they are thinking about how psychedelics play into their life or their purpose or meaning in life. So, what I mean is this, I have plenty of folks who come to me and say, “I want to rewire my brain, that’s actually the cause of my anxiety and my distress and my panic and depression.” Valid. I’m not here to convince you one way or another. 

Then I’ve also had those same clients who go into experience and what they actually then address and deal with is their purpose in life. And their meaning in life and the role that they play.

Nick: Or their connection to themselves and to others.

Jimmy: Totally. Do I even love myself? Holy sh**, that’s a big question.

Nick: Right.

Jimmy: So this is at base level strategic because if you come in preparing one way about just rewiring your brain, and then you get blindsided by your thoughts on your relationships with others and your relationship with yourself, then you won’t be ready for it to embrace that. And so this also talks about the openness of your experiences, especially as it relates to psychedelic use. 

The Benefits of Spiritual Emergence

Nick: Yeah. The other interesting thing that we haven’t even really touched on yet is that the word spiritual is in the definition. When folks have very narrow life views, they think that perhaps this default reality that we all subscribe to is everything that’s out there. 

And then they go through an experience like this that totally challenges that because you see what’s described as being beyond the veil or the fabric of life or what’s behind the curtain. There are a number of different ways to explain this but your belief system is such that you don’t think there’s anything bigger than us out there, that can be very confusing to hold. How do you hold both? 

You’ve got this direct experience of more than meets the eye and then you’ve got this belief of, “If I can’t see it, it’s not real.” And so it inherently brings up to me this concept of spirituality which at its core is, is there something bigger out there? Is there more than meets the eye?

Jimmy: Yeah.

Nick: It’s pretty funny, I think, maybe it’s helpful if we share like we’ve had– this isn’t about religion or anything of the sort but I want to give it example for this, it’s like we’ve had atheists who come and work with us, people who don’t believe in anything, any sort of higher power or anything of the sort. And they go through an experience and they’re like, “Well, I don’t know if I believe that anymore.” 

We’ve also had it where we’ve got quantum physicists, people who’ve devoted their whole life to studying quantum physics but in a lab setting, and they want to have essentially a direct experience of what that world is all about

And through a psychedelic journey, they’re able to touch some piece of that. And that also totally transforms the way that their worldview is oriented.

Jimmy: Yeah. It was interesting with that individual, because they were like, “I feel I’ve done as much searching as I can through books and study. What’s left is now this other part of exploration.” So that was through their own exhaustive search in what is definable. 

And then what was left is the undefined. I’ve worked with people of all different types of backgrounds and religions from Mormons and folks of the LDS community, to atheists, to Catholics, to Buddhists, to people who ascribe to Hindu religions. 

And it’s very interesting because they don’t– spirituality is just defined a little bit separately from religion is what I’m hearing you say, and that there is a somewhat of a common thread on. What we’re really talking about is the fulfillment of ourselves and purpose. 

I think that’s more of the conversation as it relates to spiritual emergencies as it relates to like, “What do I actually believe as far as organized religion and whatnot?”

Nick: Well, yeah, I mean, to me, the only difference between religion and spirituality is the dogmatic piece. What spirituality provides is an opportunity for direct connection to the ineffable, to that source that’s bigger than just us. There’s no gatekeeper, there’s no dogma, there’s no inherent judgment, it’s just a pure direct experience of that place of what transcends humanity.

Jimmy: Yeah. What I love is it’s already within you. The psychedelic experience, we always say, is a catalyst, not a replacement for any of these things. Not a replacement for your healing journey, not a replacement for your spirituality, not a replacement for your fulfillment, and meaning, but it can catalyze your exploration and discovery here. 

I think the point of this conversation is that it is an integral part, I think, of discovering who you truly are through psychedelic use. I mean most of our clients, it boils down to one or two things. One is feeling stuck. And I think in that stuckness, they’re feeling like, “Oh, my life is not lining up with how I pictured it to be or how I want it to be or my fulfillment and purpose. 

I just want to share with folks that you’re not broken, if you are going through some challenging times, maybe folks during or after a psychedelic experience, the road is a little rough and rocky because they are putting a lot of these questions of the soul at the forefront and it just gets to a point where you can’t just go through the motions anymore, you got to address this stuff. 

And that can come up as panic, that can come up as anxiety, that can come up as depression, that can come up as non-motivation, that can come up as not being able to get out of bed. 

And I want to tell you, you’re okay, and that if you do want to get support out there, there are some good resources for spiritual emergence networks. There are a lot of wonderful mental health professionals out there who are also a little bit more holistic there.

Nick: And there’s some that specialize in this. There’s now whole coaching training programs for folks that want to help people through these spiritual emergence, emergencies.

Jimmy: Mm-hmm. Transpersonal psychology. We’re in a really cool age right now where this stuff was available because I would imagine that. I don’t know, if you were in the 1950s going through spiritual emergence, I don’t know what available help would be out there for you. The other thing I just want to share with folks is that this may come up in your psychedelic experience, and that’s okay. 

But one thing that I share with folks, the worst thing that you could do if you’re in spiritual emergence or more drastically, a spiritual emergency, is to back out of the process midway through.

Nick: Or ignore it, pretend it’s not happening.

Jimmy: Yeah, because that will create potentially more damage and reverberation through your being as opposed to fully allowing that process to complete and so.

Nick: I want to touch on one other thing, which is that I want to remind folks that in the definition that we read, it says that this is healthy. And so, what the benefit of going through this process, which can be messy and confusing, is that you do get to redefine who you are. For most of us, that’s actually what we seek, we’re also just not always aware of how much work is required to do that. 

But the cool thing is, and this is why you and I have gotten to where we have personally and also what we do our best to help our clients through is we’re now in a place where we’re operating out of internal integrity. 

Meaning, the goal for me is to be true to myself at every step of the way. And so many of us go through life without being true to ourselves. In other words, we’re putting other people first or we’re living based on their belief systems, or their society’s social constructs. 

This is an opportunity to rewrite all of that internally so that it actually works for you because we’re all unique, we all have different values, we all have different beliefs, different roles. 

And so, this is really an opportunity to be brutally honest with who you are and how you want to show up in the world. The irony is that deep down, that’s what most of our clients come to us seeking. But what’s often not understood is that this is the process that’s required to get there.

Jimmy: I love what you said there. I’ll also share as we wrap up that, it’s super easy to dismiss this, it’s super easy to say, “Oh, that was just a bad trip.” “Oh, that was just me not preparing enough.” 

“Oh, that’s just my brain being broken. Maybe I’m not right for psychedelics,” which by the way, psychedelics are not for everybody. Disclaimer. [Nick laughs] But for those who feel this, there is sometimes this deeper questioning. 

If you are feeling this deeper questioning, I want to share with folks. Nick and I don’t have it all figured out. We’re very much in this, our own processes. However, there is a possibility where everything can align in your life to your truest self. 

And I think that in our society, we’re told that we have to compromise, we’re told that we have to choose a career that we hate in order to have the money that we want, we’re told that we have to choose to compromise the family that we envision, our passions and our things, and it’s this whole compromise. 

And in that compromise, it denotes that you can’t be fully aligned. But I just questioned whether that’s true or not. It’s really beautiful for folks to have the opportunity to know that they have the right to go through a process. 

Psychedelic experiences [laughs] can really catalyze this. So, just heads up for folks out there, and there are people out there who got your back and who can support you through this.

Nick: I think one of the terms that people may use more frequently that denotes the same thing is existential angst. 

Jimmy: Yeah, or midlife crisis. [crosstalk] 

Nick: Right. These are all synonyms in my opinion for this whole concept of spiritual emergence because all of a sudden, you wake up one morning, and you start questioning everything. “Is this what life really is about? 

All I do is wake up and go to work every day. What am I doing here?” And that’s healthy if we’re willing to engage in the dialogue and in the process and see it through. And once again, if you learn nothing else from today, if you’re in this position and feel like you need support, it’s out there, please ask for it.

Jimmy: Yeah. Don’t do it alone, because, again, I always say your mind is very powerful. It can convince you in and out of everything. I found myself in just an echo chamber where I was going this direction, and then I turned around and went this direction, and so on and so forth. And that is just exhausting.

Nick: [laughs] 

Jimmy: Well, thank you for your insights, Nick, and thank you to all of our listeners for following along with us on this journey of spiritual emergence. That wraps up our episode, you can download episodes of the Psychedelic Passage podcast. 

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Amazon, Spotify, IHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like the show, please rate and review. You can let us know how we’re doing, if there are any topics that you’d like to have us discuss, please reach out. And thank you so much for listening.

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