Making Sense of Spiritual Emergencies
More and more, I find people approaching me in distress and confusion over an experience that’s becoming increasingly common: a kind of spiritual energy surge that Stanislav and Christina Grof have named “spiritual emergencies.” Signs of a spiritual emergency may include an ecstatic and overwhelming experience of God, a too-much-energy feeling and various physical symptoms. Spiritual emergencies may also include experiences of clairvoyance or clairaudience (seeing or hearing aspects of nonphysical reality) or out-of-body experiences where conscious awareness separates from the physical body. There may be a sharpened intuitive knowledge of things without any physical way of knowing them.
I think of these as spiritual power surges and they’re often triggered by some type of spiritual work—such as prayer, meditation or spiritual healing—but can also happen to people who aren’t doing any spiritual practice. For many of those who’ve come to me in the midst of this experience, it was precipitated by a heart-felt wish to be of spiritual service or to step more fully into their spiritual power. And—surprise!—their prayers were answered by a bigger rush of energy than they had ever experienced before. Even though this can be an exciting, even ecstatic rush, such overpowering experiences of God can feel overwhelming and frightening. Especially because the experience doesn’t always stop right away. It can feel like a faucet has been turned on full force with no way to turn it off. It may be difficult to sleep for several days or more, and some may forget to eat or have trouble maintaining daily functioning until the “surge” evens out. There may even be a delusional component—a feeling of being specially chosen by God for a spiritual mission.
As the pace of life speeds up in just about every way, it’s not surprising to see this type of experience on the increase. Our time and place in history is requiring us to adapt to inner and outer changes at an ever-increasing rate and these spiritual power surges are just one more manifestation of this.
I prefer not to define their purpose too specifically as I believe there are many levels of significance and reasons why one person has a dramatic spiritual emergency and another doesn’t, and much of it is difficult to discern from the level of our personality. One person may be spiritually advanced enough to assimilate higher vibrations of energy without the drama of a “surge” while the next may not have developed spiritually to the place of needing one (and it’s risky to assume we can tell the difference—it’s easy to confuse our ego’s judgment with wisdom). One person having a surge may be ready to open quickly to new energy while, for another person, it may reflect a personality tendency to live in the extremes of life. This latter person’s true spiritual growth might ultimately be better accomplished in the mid-ranges of life, between the highs and lows. It’s safe to assume that we can make no assessments of our own or another’s spiritual evolution based on the experience of a spiritual emergency and to feel inadequate because you haven’t had one or special because you have (or vice versa) is just your ego’s interference in your spiritual growth.
Without needing to define precisely what it means to have a spiritual power surge, there are a number of things we can do to make it into less of an “emergency.” The following offers insight into why, exactly, a spiritually ecstatic experience can become such a potentially challenging one.
The Potential Challenges of Spiritual Power Surges
These emergencies take us beyond the realm of the familiar, beyond what we fully understand. To normalize the experience, often a fist impulse is to try to process a nonrational experience through the too-small filter of our rational mind, which leads to doubts (“Was this real?”), disorientation (“What is real?”), fear (“Am I out of control?”) and even identity crisis (“Who am I in the context of this new reality?”).
They may challenge the limits of what we believe we can or should receive.
Often when we receive something we’ve wanted in a sudden and overwhelming way, along with (or instead of) rejoicing, we contract in fear. Thoughts come up that say we’re unworthy, or that having received so much, we now have more to lose. It seems nonsensical to recoil from receiving something good, yet many of us have this instinctive response that we don’t even realize is there until we’re faced with an unfamiliar abundance of some sort. A minister colleague, Jinjer Stanton, illustrated this in a story she once told in a Sunday Sermon about one of the biggest traumas of her childhood: shortly after going to live with her Aunt, for the first time in her life, she received a huge abundance of Christmas presents! Instead of being delighted, she was horrified and carried the shock of it with her long into adulthood.
It’s a responsibility.
Spiritual energy is a form of power and with power comes the responsibility of making a bigger mark on the world. This is true of all forms of power regardless of whether it comes through an abundance of money, or the heightened visibility of achievement, or in the form of spiritual energy. Suddenly we have more choices to make and people may expect more from us. We can’t help but have a bigger impact on the world around us for better or worse, which can feel like an unwanted burden if it’s unfamiliar.
The ego tries to turn the experience of Oneness into one of separateness.
The ego, as I’m using the term here, is the part of us that believes we are defined by the limits of our physical body and, thus, are vulnerable and separate. The ego only believes in the reality we can fathom with our physical senses. It operates from a place of fear and tries to control the external environment to maintain order and safety. The ego looks at the world through a filter of judgment where everything is either better than or lesser than everything else.
As we have a big experience of going beyond the confines of our ego, as we do in moments of spiritual opening, our ego automatically responds protectively to restore order and control by bringing things back into the realm of the familiar. This is normal. Expect to have big ego reactions of one sort or another following big spiritual experiences.
Typically, when we have a powerful spiritual experience, the ego’s response is “I’m weird” and “I’m special.” The “I’m weird” voice tells us we’re crazy, no one will believe us, maybe we shouldn’t believe ourselves, we’re different (and separate) from everyone else, there’s something wrong with us, etc. The “I’m special” voice tells us we’re more evolved than others, we are specially chosen, specially gifted, elevated, know more, etc. Paradoxically, these two go hand in hand. A person will probably be more aware of one of these voices than the other, but the opposite will be lurking just under the surface. The dark side of feeling “specially chosen” is a fearful awareness of responsibility and aloneness. Along with the disconcerting feeling of being “weird” invariably, somewhere in the background, lies a deep-down pride in having a “special” condition. Of course, the truth in the “delusion” of being specially chosen is that we are specially chosen for an important spiritual mission only we can do. This awareness ceases to be delusional when we recognize that everyone has been specially chosen for their own unique mission.
Bringing Spiritual Experience Down to Earth
The following are some practical steps for what to do in the midst of a spiritual power surge. These suggestions are to help ground, reframe and make use of these potentially wonderful experiences, and avoid some of the more unpleasant side effects.
Some of you may have had spiritual emergency experiences and can identify with much of this. But, even if you never have a spiritual emergency, much of this information is also applicable in a non-emergency way to differentiate spiritual practice from true spiritual growth and spiritual experience from spiritual power.
Steps for Grounding a Spiritual Power Surge
Work with your thoughts.
Stop trying to process your spiritual experience. Stop trying to understand it all at once. Give your mind a rest. Know that in order to assimilate new ideas and especially new paradigms of thought, a period of confusion is necessary. Don’t fight it. You don’t need to analyze the experience in order to assimilate it. If you try to force understanding prematurely, your interpretations are likely to fall short of the whole truth. Trust that clarity will come to you in time.
Instead of trying to interpret your experience, focus on gratitude.
If, through your spiritual work, or even through your unconscious intentions, you have asked God to open a door and finally the door opens, instead of being shocked, say thank you! Rather than allowing fearful thinking to take over, turn your attention to the gifts in your life and the blessing of your spiritual experience. Practice gratitude as a conscious discipline. Practices such as keeping a gratitude journal, writing affirmations of gratitude or saying prayers of thanksgiving will be helpful disciplines at this time because they’ll shift your mental activity from over-processing your experience to a more peaceful frame of mind that will facilitate assimilation. Gratitude will help you stay in the open-hearted devotion of your spiritual experience instead of distancing yourself from it through mental analysis.
Pay attention to your body.
We’re very conditioned to shut down when we experience intense feelings, be they painful or ecstatic ones. This can lead to unpleasant side effects from blocked energy. Without interpreting the feelings through your ego (as in, “I’m crazy, I’m special, I’m out of control…”etc.) just notice the physical sensations. Many of these are likely to be pleasurable. Enjoy them and let them get bigger. Out of control feelings are more the result of our fearing and resisting these sensations than of any real danger of losing control. Imagine the difference between standing clenched and rigid while a wave crashes against you and then becoming soft and flexible, riding the wave. It’s the same wave, but the first experience is harsh and battering while the second is smooth and flowing.
You can have a smooth and gentle experience by letting the energy moving through you “have its way.” Ask your body what it wants to do. You may want to shake or jump for joy or scream out loud or go for a run. Allow these things. These physical manifestations are simply normal responses to intense feelings and are helping your body rewire itself to accommodate a greater movement of energy.
So what can you do when it truly is inappropriate to jump up wherever you are and scream? Do it later! Even if you no longer feel in the mood, do the physical expression of the feeling anyway. Do it in as safe and private a way as you want, but allow the physical energy to come out. If we do the action of a feeling, often the feeling will soon follow, simply because feelings are essentially physical body experiences. When we put our body through the motions of a feeling we can often “shake loose” the feeling so we become aware of it at an emotional level.
Work lovingly with your ego.
None of us particularly like admitting we have an “ego,” especially those of us who are spiritually inclined. But we all do, along with smelly poop and morning breath! It’s part of our human condition. Unfortunately, the more we pretend to ourselves and others that we’re free of ego fears and flaws, the more likely they are to sneak up on us from behind and bite us in the butt! The more we try to hide our ego, the more visible it becomes to everyone else. The best way to work with the ego is with a big sense of humor and a large dose of compassionate self-love.
With this in mind, and without judging yourself, notice all the many ways your ego’s filter is coloring your experience. Reframe any perception that your experience makes you different. You are neither specially chosen, specially gifted, or weird. Your spiritual experience is simply the result of your conscious or unconscious request for more energy.
I am God…
One of the most overwhelming aspects of a spiritual power surge is the profound experience that we are God. This experience, when interpreted through the filter of our ego becomes, “I am God… and you’re not!” Without this coloring of separateness, the experience is “I am God, and so are we all!” The ego’s influence can be so subtle we may not even realize we’re broadcasting the “…and you’re not” part. One sure fire way to tell, however, is through other people’s reactions to us. If we tend to have a little following of people who look up to us and think we’re more “advanced” than they, and/or have another little following of people who judge us as being full of bull, most likely our ego is running the show.
People who are truly enlightened are well-loved but not worshipped. People just naturally feel good in their presence because what they broadcast is “I see the God in you,” rather than “I am God” (or “My group is more Godly than the rest.”) This translates across lines of differing spiritual beliefs because the unconditional love of enlightenment creates joining with others in a universal way, not just among special groups of “believers.”
Don’t make spiritual phenomena your goal.
Again, this is your ego distracting you from the point. Think of it this way, if you’ve been living in a darkened room and suddenly a light bulb goes on, instead of being overtaken by the wondrous nature of the light bulb, give attention to what is now illuminated and all you can do with more light. Don’t be “blinded by the light” by just sitting and staring at the bulb. You’ll become useless as well as blind.
Focus on how you can use this new energy.
Shift your focus of attention from the strangeness/specialness of the spiritual phenomena to the question of how this new energy, awareness or ability can serve you and help you to serve others. What are you feeling drawn to do with this energy? Doing something will help you shift out of self-absorption. Creativity is a great outlet for spiritual energy. Paint a picture, make music, dance, create a beautiful altar space, write a poem or journal about your experience. Do a service for someone. Pray for people. Send a silent blessing to everyone you meet. Do some reflection and journaling on your life purpose. Imagine what you would like your life to be like in five years. These are just a few ideas for directing spiritual energy toward your highest good. Find the outlet that brings you the most satisfaction.
There are many grounding techniques for bringing spiritual energy down to earth. Spending time in nature can be helpful. Long walks, gardening, anything that literally puts you in touch with the earth beneath your feet can help you feel more grounded. Food is grounding. Don’t forget to eat, especially heartier, substantial foods. Sea salt baths, swimming, even long showers are often recommended for cleansing and grounding. These are just a few ideas for staying grounded and there are many others.
The most grounding thing we can do, however, is to simply trust that our experience is a normal one. Our most powerful grounding tool is the choice we make in how to interpret what happened to us. Yes, our spiritual experience is a gift and a blessing—as miraculous as the sun rising every morning or a baby being born—and just as natural. Sometimes, even getting too absorbed in grounding techniques can feed into the ego’s voice telling us we’re different, we have a special condition, are fragile… and so on.
Are you crazy or enlightened?
Both in the midst of a spiritual power surge and in the more long term assimilation of spiritual experiences, we often begin to question what’s real. Having perceptions of things most people aren’t aware of can leave us with the question: are we crazy or enlightened? The answer to this lies not in the intensity of our spiritual experience, but in how well our lives are working. Specifically:
Are you taking care of yourself in terms of basic needs?
Are you sleeping and eating adequately and attending to personal hygiene? It’s not unusual for people to go without sleeping or eating much for a day or two during a spiritual power surge. If this continues for much longer, however, it’s a serious danger sign. While spiritual experience is normal, I don’t want to minimize the potential dangers. In rare instances, I’ve seen people go from an ecstatic spiritual experience into a full blown manic episode complete with hospitalization and medication. So be mindful of basic self-care. Too long without sleep in and of itself can make us crazy. Don’t be deluded into thinking that in your heightened energy state sleep and food are not important. Seek medical attention if you’re unable to function in basic ways.
Are you adequately performing the necessary tasks of living?
Are you taking care of business: your job, your family, the daily chores of life? There’s a certain amount of common sense that can easily fly out the window when we’re in the midst of an uncommon experience. If we believe we’re specially chosen by God to perform a sacred mission but we can’t attend to the minimal tasks of life, we probably aren’t going to fulfill our “sacred mission” very effectively either. This is common sense.
How Well Is Your Spiritual Path Working for You?
How is your quality of life?
To assess, in a more general way, how well you’re assimilating and using the fruits of your spiritual life, look at your overall quality of life. Are you enjoying life? Do you like your job? Do you have meaningful relationships? Do you have enough money to take care of yourself? Do you live from crisis to crisis or is there a more or less even flow to your life? As we step into spiritual power, we begin to have a heightened quality of life and an experience of peace, regardless of outer circumstances. We’re less likely to live from crisis to crisis. Having many spiritual experiences doesn’t necessarily result in spiritual empowerment and spiritual empowerment isn’t necessarily accompanied by dramatic spiritual experiences. When our ego takes charge, it’s easy to confuse these two.
Is your spiritual path leaving you feeling more connected or separate from others?
As mentioned already, enlightenment creates joining rather than separateness. Separateness comes from the ego. Spiritual growth enables us to find commonality with more, not fewer people. If your practices, beliefs or spiritual community is resulting in your feeling less able to accept, appreciate, and relate to those not in your group, it may be time to assess whether your spiritual path, or the way you’re participating in it, is truly supporting your spiritual growth.
Are you making a difference in the world?
Are you helping others? Do others feel good in your presence? The most enlightened people I know may alienate a person here or there, but for the most part are people magnets. They are well-loved and they truly make a difference in the world, sometimes through obvious channels of service work, and sometimes in very humble ways simply by leaving everyone they meet feeling better as a result of the encounter.
Look to your results rather than your intentions to show you how effectively you’re working with spiritual energy.
If you’re constantly absorbed in the drama of your life, or receiving a lot of negative attention from people, or wanting to serve but never actually manifesting this, then you’re not living from your spiritual power. A life lived in discord, isolation and dysfunction is a sign that the ego, not our higher self, is in charge, no matter how many spiritual visions and other phenomena we experience. A life that “works” according to the above criteria is a good sign of spiritual power, whether or not it’s accompanied by any dramatic spiritual phenomena.
The Power of Love
A truly spiritual life can better be measured by our love than by the intensity of our spiritual experiences. As we make love our spiritual goal—love of God, love for other living beings, love for ourselves, love for all of creation—our spiritual awakenings make more sense. Our spiritual faculties open in service to our love, to help us love more. Love quiets the fearful voice of the ego and love gives meaning to mind-boggling spiritual energy surges.
Alternately, when we aspire to spiritual adventure, working to open our spiritual faculties simply for the achievement and rush of it, we’re more easily knocked off center by the spiritual phenomena we seek. They’re more likely to diminish rather than enhance our effectiveness, power and purposefulness. We’re more apt to be seduced by the ego’s messages of specialness and separateness.
Working with Our Resistance to Spiritual Power
Having a big experience of our spiritual power can trigger an automatic contraction in fear even when we have prayed and prepared ourselves for it. A man in one of my groups once shared a story of asking God to grow back a missing tooth. Having worked with the world-famous dental healer, Dr. Willard Fuller, he had seen this happen before for people and knew it to be possible (for more on this, see www.willardfuller.com). As he prayed and opened to this healing, he suddenly heard a cracking sound in his jaw in the area of the missing tooth. Rather than relaxing and saying, “YES!” his immediate reaction was fear and to shut the experience down. Another man in this same group meeting followed up with a similar story of feeling on the brink of a dramatic physical healing—and when it started to happen, his automatic reaction was, “Not now!” Most of us don’t realize we have these built-in fear responses until we are faced with them.
We can work with these reactions and prepare ourselves for bigger leaps into our spiritual power. One of the people who was most disturbed by her first experience of a power surge reported feeling much more at peace when it happened again. Use the following questions to help you explore where you might have hidden fear responses to your spiritual power.
Some Questions for Thought
- What demonstration of your spiritual power would feel like too much for you to receive? This may include spontaneous healings and various spiritual phenomena, it also may include manifesting personal goals more quickly than you believe possible. For example, what if you awoke tomorrow with a phenomenal capacity to heal others? Or unexpectedly manifested great wealth? Or developed clairvoyance or other psychic abilities you don’t currently have? Ask yourself, how would these experiences:
- Boggle your mind and upset your belief systems?
- Challenge the limits of what you believe you can or should receive, or of who you believe you are?
- Create new responsibilities?
- Cause you to feel separate?
- Are there any ways you’ve noticed yourself feeling separate (less connected to others—not just different) as a result of your spiritual experiences or following your spiritual path? If so, what fearful ego messages do you see at work creating this illusion of separateness?
- With all of the above in mind, what is it you want in terms of stepping into your spiritual power? How much, how big, how fast…? In particular, how do you intend to use heightened spiritual power? How would you use it for your own highest good and for that of the world around you?