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The ultimate dragon is within you.
— Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Above the cluttered registration tables, above the hundreds of swarming bodies, a banner strung between two oak beams declares this to be the First Annual International Conference Of The Spiritual Emergence Network. Considering my disorientation and my rising sense of anxiety, I might as well be thirteen and at summer camp again. I want to bolt, back to the Monterey airport, back to the known.
The room is filled to capacity, beyond capacity, and the conference director, a waiflike creature with a Southern accent, takes a microphone to apologize. She explains that attendance at the conference is far more than the Association Of Transpersonal Psychology expected when it sent out its announcement months earlier. I scan the group as she speaks. Definitely what my husband would call a “California crowd.” I find out later that they are mostly therapists. A smattering of business people, me among them. A few artists. Some housewives. A handful of clergy. A Zen monk. Social workers. Masseuses. They have come from as near as San Francisco and as far as Switzerland.
The soothing drawl continues, informing us that we will be divided into small groups according to the symbols we choose for our name badges. I look at the choices offered by a smiling young woman: a heart, a kite, a serpent. I take the serpent.
How appropriate, I think, for a conference devoted to the rising of the Kundalini, the embodiment of spiritual power and awareness coiled at the base of the spine, the serpent that rises, often violently and without warning. How appropriate, considering the ongoing appearance of serpents in my life of late. The snake I’d discovered in the basement one afternoon, curled among my old letters and journals. The snakes that appear so regularly and unexpectedly when I’m outdoors. And the snakelike apparition that every night for weeks has seemed to rise within me like a column, clearing everything in its path until I summon the will to stop it, certain that if it reaches my throat I will die.
I bring myself back to the Asilomar Lodge, back to the voice which is now telling us that the days will be divided among workshops, lectures, and evening ceremonies, with time set aside for us to meet in our small groups, to tell our stories.
It is clear that there are those among us at the conference who, like me, are still in the midst of their “stories.” It’s in our faces — the pathetically familiar look of a private and distant torment. It will be months before that look fades from my face, an occasion marked by my husband staring at me one morning and saying simply, “Welcome back.”
The man next to me whispers to his companion, “That’s Stan Grof.” I follow the stranger’s gaze, straining for a look. I am here because of Stan Grof. And because of an experience, now in its third month, that, without Grof’s books, without his research and written reassurances, would have led me to a hospital, perhaps a mental institution.
Grof’s work with thousands of people has convinced him that there exists a natural and even evolutionary process of the highest order — what he terms a “spiritual emergency”:
Traditional psychiatry does not recognize the difference between mystical and psychotic experiences. . . . [Yet] there exists increasing evidence that many individuals experiencing episodes of nonordinary states of consciousness accompanied by various emotional, perceptual, and psychosomatic manifestations are undergoing an evolutionary crisis rather than suffering from a mental disease. The recognition of this fact has important practical and theoretical consequences. If properly understood and treated as difficult stages in a natural developmental process, these experiences — “spiritual emergencies” or transpersonal crises — can result in emotional and psychosomatic healing, creative problem-solving, and personality transformation.
On the morning of Stan Grof’s talks, I arrive absurdly early, sitting alone among an ocean of metal folding chairs, choosing my seat with great care.
Grof begins with a brief biography, perhaps to illustrate the scope of his own evolution. He explains how, as a young medical student in Prague, he volunteered to take LSD as part of an experiment on the nature of psychoses. His experience with the drug — what he describes as a cosmic drama of epic proportions — changed him forever, forcing him to relinquish his atheism and, in the course of more than thirty years of psychoanalytic work, to accept an understanding of the world that “is basically mystical.”
He proceeds with a discussion of traditional psychiatry, “now dominated by the medical model, an ethnocentric perception which pathologizes the best of human history, ignoring all the great monastic, mystic, and spiritual traditions.” His lecture is punctuated by anecdotes, recollections of the thousands of sessions he has facilitated with clients in various states of spiritual crisis. He relates episodes of past-life regression, incidents of prenatal memories, and encounters with mythological figures.
I am so moved by one statement that I later send it to my doctor:
To be incarnate means to carry much latent pain. It is impoverishing to hold all this pain down. It dims life. A symptom-free existence is not the fulfillment of human destiny. . . . Symptoms are condensed experiences, most of which exist at multiple levels — postnatal, prenatal, past life, and so forth. We must allow ourselves to experience on all those levels in order to heal. . . . Within this context, therapy becomes the guiding force for the healing rather than the interpretation of the problem.
Afterward, during a question-and-answer session, Grof argues gently but emphatically with a woman who insists that all “so-called” psychotic episodes are actually transformative states.
“Indeed they are not,” he reiterates. “That is why we stress the importance of ruling out medical factors and psychotic states such as genuine paranoia, for example, which leaves the patient beyond our help. As we’ve said again and again, only when all other possibilities have been ruled out can we begin to consider the notion that we are dealing with a spiritual emergency.”
The woman returns to her seat, unconvinced, and I experience a wave of concern. Good ideas can be jeopardized and trivialized by zealots.
God is in the body not as you will, but as She wills.
— Max Shüpbach
I look at the circle of faces surrounding me, and at the cypress-studded, surf-pummeled coastline behind them. These are the Serpents, eight in all plus our therapist “facilitator,” congregated around a picnic table in the bright Pacific sun.
We have just heard a long, involved story from a chiropractor, a sullen-looking man in his thirties who awoke one night “feeling surrounded by a radiance,” suspended in a timeless state in which childhood memories came flooding back to him, in which he saw and heard disembodied beings. In subsequent days, he became aware of a terrifying new ability: he could “see” diseases in people. Strangers, friends, patients. It made no difference. At a distance, he correctly diagnosed heart disorders, diabetes, a brain tumor. As he explains, “I couldn’t not see the diseases. I couldn’t turn it off, whatever it was. I still can’t.” The hunted look on his face is more eloquent than his words.
Next is a therapist who endears herself to me by her introduction: “There I was, just minding my own business. . . .” Two years before, suddenly, inexplicably, she collapsed, and found herself in a region of mind populated by demons and gods, talking beasts and prophetic voices. Like many of those in spiritual emergencies, she had practiced yoga and meditation, had been on a fairly stringent vegetarian diet, had dabbled in “new age” therapies. But nothing had prepared her for this. She sent her children away to live with their father, her ex-husband, while she struggled and eventually reemerged. These days, she explained, she works full-time with clients in states of spiritual crisis.
From my readings of Grof’s work, and from my own experience, I know that these accounts are not unusual. What is unusual, what makes these people particularly fortunate, is their form of treatment. Too often, such symptoms are routinely treated as evidence of pathology; the sufferers become patients, to be patronized, tranquilized, institutionalized.
In the case of spiritual emergencies, Grof insists that tranquilizers serve only to repress the symptoms and abort the experience, resulting in an ultimate “impoverishment of personality.” An institutional setting, with its inflexible regimens and conventional treatments, has much the same effect, cheating the individual of the possibility of transformation. Grof is convinced of the need to magnify the symptoms, to face the dragons without damping the experience. He recommends sympathetic therapists and body workers, harmless calming agents (my own non-drug of choice was the Bach Flower Rescue Remedy), a careful program of nutrition, plenty of rest, mild exercise, and when necessary, the support of friends and professionals. As an alternative to institutionalization, Grof and his wife Christina have proposed the concept of Spiritual Emergency Centers, where people could be helped by friends, family members, and professionals.
Unfortunately for those of us caught up in spiritual emergencies in the here and now, no such centers exist. We are forced to improvise.
All symptoms are guides to a new world, a new way of perceiving. . . . You have to hold them, kiss them, go into the depths with them. . . . Change will happen in any case. You have no choice.
And now it is my turn. I am surrounded by expectant faces. But unlike many of those present, I am uncomfortable with these easy public disclosures of such fantastic, such intensely personal experiences.
Where to begin?
Where did it begin?
Should I start with the apparent beginning, with that frozen January night when I felt suddenly dizzy and lightheaded, when my lungs tightened and my heart spasmed, when the malaria-like tremors began? Do I tell them about the pointless trip to the emergency room? The weeks of sleeplessness, of heart palpitations, of nausea and diarrhea? Do I try to describe how for weeks I could not eat, could not cry, could only watch, dry-eyed and dry-mouthed, as hideous or sometimes beautiful beings approached, could only shake as long-buried, better-forgotten memories of my childhood and teenage years welled up in patterns, creating recurring themes that linked with each other in unexpected ways? Should I tell them how new and unwelcome talents manifested themselves? How I began to “see” entities of various sizes, shapes, and intentions? Or how, during the course of conversations and daily activities, I began to experience what I called “flashes,” cinematic impressions of what appeared to be past lives of friends and acquaintances?
Perhaps I should tell them about the misdiagnoses: the flu; hyperthyroidism; mitral valve malfunction; about the endless vials of blood drawn; the monitors, the scanners; how the results were always negative, negative, negative — a textbook EKG, renal activity normal — and on and on. Ten days into the ordeal, my own doctor, my friend and understander, a maverick well respected by his more conventional colleagues, returned finally from vacation. He looked at the reams of lab reports, put his hands on me, stood silently for half a minute, and then gave his diagnosis: “You’re going through a spiritual crisis.”
During a pause in my story, one group member asks a question I will hear several times during my stay at Asilomar. How did I move through the experiences so quickly, he wants to know, and so relatively unscathed? It’s actually two questions, one expressed, one implicit, the latter suggesting that perhaps the ordeal wasn’t quite so traumatic as I believed.
I tell him that my healing began and my hope was resuscitated by three words spoken by an acupuncturist, one of the many healers I turned to: “Read Stan Grof.”
With nothing to lose, I covered my swollen, discolored eyes with a pair of dark glasses and walked unsteadily into the largest bookstore in town.
Making my way to the psychology section, I took down Beyond the Brain, opened it at random, and was stunned to see my symptoms inventoried and described, presented in a scientific and detached narrative, as lived by scores of other people. People who not only survived the experiences but were transformed by them. I sat in the aisle and continued to read.
I was not going mad. That was Grof’s gift to me.
But I was still in the midst of a debilitating, terrifying process. I needed a strategy for healing. My desperation made me shameless, relentless. Each week, I spent several hours, and never mind how many dollars, in the company of herbalists, psychics, polarity therapists, acupuncturists, priests, psychologists, nutritionists, and crystal workers.
The world threatened to shrink to the boundaries of my body. My attention gravitated inward, to the sudden, whimsical, untrustworthy physical functions that could at any moment betray me. During all this, my work was my salvation. My small office was a haven; I insisted on spending five or six hours a day, on all but the very worst days, at work. Each conversation with a photographer or a designer was a victory. Each solid headline or sentence was an assertion of sanity. Each new project accepted, each meeting attended, was proof that I had not disintegrated.
On those days when the symptoms were too stormy, when cancellations were inevitable, my cover story was influenza and, later, uncertain diagnosis. “They can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong,” I would say.
It’s important to realize that we’re dealing with energy. Intelligent energy . . .
— Gay Luce
Later that afternoon, my story told, I retreat to my room to fill out a questionnaire that would under normal circumstances seem like a bizarre academic joke. The survey has been prepared by a protégé of Stan Grof who is making the study of spiritual emergencies the subject of his doctoral thesis.
My eyes stop at a lengthy list of boxes waiting to be checked off: “What was the nature of your spiritual emergency? Check only one. If you wish to describe another encounter, please use a separate survey.”
I run down the long, matter-of-fact list: prenatal memory, exorcism/possession state, past-life regression. . . . They look preposterous lined up on the page. And yet all have been documented as healing modalities in hundreds of case studies of spiritual emergencies — some provoked by stress or disease or childbirth or accidents or even therapeutic techniques, and others, like mine, spontaneous.
Hesitating, I finally check the box next to “Exorcism/Possession State.” This is followed by a list of symptoms ranging from disembodied voices to diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Next is a request for a “brief” description of the experience. Apparently, some people are in love with their stories.
I write about how I came to consult a psychic. Because my tremors were constant and violent, and because I was too weak to leave my bed, she agreed to work with me over the phone. The woman located an entity who had resided within me, she said, “for eons.” She insisted that this entity had directed my beliefs and behaviors in subtle ways, and was tremendously threatened by this process, this movement away from the status quo. At her suggestion, the entity began speaking through me, giving its name as Benjamin and expressing its rage. I sensed that my survival somehow depended on my ability to surrender to this bizarre process. Together, over a period of time, she and I released the intruder.
As I put down the telephone, I realized the tremors had stopped.
I move through the second form quickly, this time checking the box next to “Reincarnation Experience/Past-Life Regression.”
The setting was the office of a crystal healer. As he held his hand over my chest, the area suddenly felt as if it were filled with dry ice. “Something’s going to erupt,” he said, and erupt it did. I saw a woman warrior on a horse, surrounded by men on foot. Heavily armed, they were dressed in skins and looked like Tartars. The woman, isolated in the fray, was pulled from her horse. I felt the impact as I hit the ground. I was raped, beaten. And then someone pierced my chest, parted the ribs, and tore out my heart. Through this all I was screaming; I learned later that the therapist thought I was dying. Somehow, I was both on the table and on the battlefield.
Still holding his hand over my chest, the therapist told me to take back my heart, get back on my horse, and ride away. Several moments later, a diaphanous presence settled around me, like a protective mantle.
The tachycardia ended that afternoon. My body temperature, which since childhood had hovered around 97 degrees, moved up to a textbook 98.6 degrees, where it remains.
I look over the survey once again. Where, I wonder, is the space for all the other, less dramatic events, each one of which moved me forward? Where do I describe the rage discovered, the hurts excavated, the fears dissipated, the tears shed?
Completing the forms, I have to smile at what the people I work with would think. For years, my friends have kidded me about my double life: “by day a businesswoman, by night a granola head.”
One close friend, who has seen me through years of spiritual explorations ranging from Silva Mind Control and polarity therapy to Trager bodywork, seemed particularly worried about me. He took me out to lunch before I left for California and applied a combination of pleading and reasoning: “Look,” he said, “even King Arthur’s knights occasionally took a break. Give it up for a while.”
“Try to understand,” I told him. “In the past, I pursued the experience. Now, I find the experience pursuing me.”
As I settle into my seat on the plane, headed back toward the gray, grudging landscape of Detroit, I realize that I’m afraid, yet I also feel exonerated; my pain has meaning.
The Grofs have warned against the tendency toward narcissism that a spiritual emergency can provoke — the feeling that one is somehow special, chosen by the gods.
Clearly, I am only one of thousands going through a similar process. If we have a purpose, I am convinced it is to surrender to the experience as a kind of sacrifice to some larger good.
I, as I know myself, am not the final form of my being. We must constantly die one way or another to the selfhood already achieved.
It is now eleven months since that first attack. The symptoms are quieter, although there are occasional relapses and unpleasant flare-ups. I try to avoid what I call cosmic kicks in the ass by moving forward at a deliberate, constant pace, by refusing to stall. I keep a journal. I record my dreams. I work with various therapists.
Months back, I made a covenant with God — whatever, whomever, wherever God may be — that I would cease to struggle, that I would surrender and allow my life to unfold. There was a marvelous release in that agreement. And several days after making it, I found myself in a waking dream, looking at a giant, golden totem glowing on a white plain. Gradually, the totem moved toward me. Then it spoke. “Believe this,” it intoned. “My intention for you is not pain.”
I want to believe it, knowing full well that the work is not finished, dreading that the process is not yet done with me, hoping that it can and will be easier, certain that I have far to go.
These days, the question most often on my mind is “When will it end?” I recall Christina Grof stating that her own odyssey lasted for some ten years, a span of time I cannot even contemplate.
Instead, I try to focus on the present. How have I changed?
Finally, I have enough distance to form an answer.
I can see now the enthusiasm I have regained for my life, for my work. The deadening boredom, the months of soul sickness that preceded my crisis, have given way to a sense of urgency, a healthy restlessness. I have reclaimed a sense of playfulness. I accept now that the pain is not purposeless nor malevolent. I feel, if not always strong and certain, then at least willing to dance with the ambiguity.