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Spiritual Emergency. What Is It? How Do We Cope with It?

Carly called me in a panic. She had been doing a dedicated meditation practice when “out of nowhere” she felt like her life was falling apart.

Carly called me in a panic. She had been doing a dedicated meditation practice when “out of nowhere” she felt like her life was falling apart. 

Spiritual practices are specifically designed to evoke an evolutionary leap.  When we are lucky, consciousness expands gently and we can easily integrate growing awareness and “aha” moments. During gentle spiritual emergence, experiences are gradual, fluid and mild. New insights and changes are welcomed, and are easily integrated into life.  

But, like Carly, growing numbers of people involved in spiritual practices are having difficulties related to the transformation process. The term “Spiritual Emergency”, defines a crisis state that may occur during the transformational journey of spiritual development. The crisis happens when the changes are so rapid, and so intensely demanding, that the individual finds it difficult to cope with everyday life. 

Unfortunately, in our society, individuals undergoing such rapid and intensely difficult spiritual change are often misdiagnosed as displaying some form of mental or emotional pathology and left without any support.

What does a Spiritual Emergency look like?

Many people have to encounter their shadow sides before they reach a place of freedom, serenity and equilibrium. When the emergence is very rapid and dramatic, the natural process can become a crisis, as the individual’s old ways are bombarded by profound inner experiences and rapid reality shifts, and can become a spiritual emergency.

Symptoms may include experiences such as difficulty with fairly normal tasks of everyday life during which the person may feel powerless or ineffective, floods of internal emotions that can have elements of apprehension, fear, and loneliness, feelings of insanity, addictions which result from a craving for the higher self or God, preoccupations with death and powerful visions of a daemonic nature. There can also be fearful memories of previously repressed experiences. People may have difficulty distinguishing between the inner visionary world and the external everyday life. 

Physically, individuals may experience powerful and painful energies streaming through their bodies, and they may have uncontrollable tremors. There is often an overwhelming influx of insights and experiences that can be jarring, painful, frightening, disruptive and difficult to integrate.      

Due to the abrupt shifts in perception of self and the world, there is often ambivalence towards the experiences, and a mistrust of the process. This often manifests as a need to be in control, a frequent need to discuss them, often urgently and without discrimination. Fear often accompanies a state of spiritual emergency. When a dissolution of rationality occurs during an experience of rich inspiration or imagination, one can lose the cognitive limitations that keep one constricted and unchanging.  While this is happening, linear thinking may at times be impossible. The bombardment of unblocked material from the unconscious can result in feelings of insanity.  

Many spiritual traditions consider it holy

Interestingly, many spiritual traditions recognize this time and consider it holy.  In Zen Buddhism it is called the “The Great Terror”, in Sufism, “Holy Madness”. Plato talked of “the madness that is heaven sent”, and in Okinawan culture it is described as the time when your spirit suffers, as a trial during which one cannot operate rationally.  

What can one do about it?

It is very important to see a therapist who is trained in the area and can differentiate spiritual emergencies from psychosis, in order to get necessary support.  Naturally, medical conditions that contribute to the symptoms also need to be eliminated. With the correct support, problems that arise during the course of spiritual emergency will be relieved, and there will be a reconnection with the daily world.  There will also be an increased capacity for effective functioning and profound insight. 


As a temporary containment of spiritual energy, during periods of extreme crisis, clients should discontinue those forms of spiritual practice that are designed to awaken spiritual energies. People should be encouraged to play music that allows for the expression of emotional states, practice simple rituals that they create which enable them to feel connected, change their diets to include more “grounding” foods, eliminate foods that make them feel uneasy, avoid environments and people that stimulate their process, and become involved in simple, calming activities such as walking in nature. 
Body work also offers an important and integral part of the transformational process as it allows for the release of blocked emotional and physical energies. Artistic expression of various kinds should be an integral part of a comprehensive therapeutic program. Dancing and creative movement are also powerful as they allow for the full expression of various dynamic forces in the psyche. 

What can one do about it?

In order to get necessary support, it is very important to see a therapist trained in the area who can differentiate spiritual emergencies from psychosis. Naturally, medical conditions that could contribute to the symptoms also need to be eliminated. With the correct support, problems that arise during the course of spiritual emergency will be relieved, and there will be a reconnection with the daily world. There will also be an increased capacity for effective functioning and the ability to act on profound insights.

As a temporary containment of spiritual energy, during periods of extreme crisis, clients should discontinue forms of spiritual practice designed to awaken spiritual energies. People should be encouraged to play music that allows for the expression of emotional states, practice simple rituals which enable them to feel connected, change their diets to include more “grounding” foods, avoid environments and people that stimulate them, and become involved in simple, calming activities such as walking in nature. 

Body work offers an important and integral part of the transformational process as it releases blocked emotional and physical energies. Artistic expression of various kinds should be an integral part of a comprehensive therapeutic program. Dancing and creative movement are powerful as they allow for the full expression of dynamic forces in the psyche. 

There is nothing more complex than the search for Divine simplicity. Undergoing the spiritual process, stripping away the illusions of the ego self, is the most painfully difficult journey we can take. The correct support and encouragement is imperative as one undertakes the beautiful and powerful journey to the True Self.  

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