Spiritual Emergence/Emergency by Paul Levy
In 1981 I was sitting in meditation when, just for an instant, a bolt of lightning flashed through my mind. I began acting so unlike my normal self that a friend brought me to a hospital, afraid I was going crazy. Though I was released after three days, the experiences that began to unfold were so overwhelming that I was hospitalized a number of other times during that first year. I was diagnosed as having had a severe psychotic break and was told that I had a chemical imbalance and manic-depressive illness. I was put on lithium and, at times, haldol (an anti-psychotic). I was told I would have to live with my illness for the rest of my life.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as I was able to extricate myself from the medical/ psychiatric establishment, though not without difficulty. If the doctors were right, I was suffering from psychosis. My own process of self-discovery eventually led me to a very different conclusion, and, given the choice, I would rather be judged sane by my own diagnosis than insane by the doctors. And so begins my story.
What the doctors and I were experiencing was a case of diverging paradigms. Little did they realize that I was undergoing some sort of spiritual awakening/shamanic initiation process. At times the process mimicked psychosis, but it was, in fact, an experience of a far different order.
In 1993, after many years of struggling to contain and integrate my experiences, I started to teach about what I was realizing. I am now in private practice, assisting others who are spiritually emerging. In a dream come true, psychiatrists consult with me and send me patients.
In wisdom cultures, both ancient and contemporary, it is understood that there are certain individuals whose craziness is a sign of passage into higher consciousness. These societies realize that such a person needs to be both honored and supported in their process. They know that the person who passes through this process successfully and becomes an accomplished shaman, healer or teacher, returns bearing incredible gifts and blessings of wisdom for everyone.
Both spiritual emergences and psychotic breaks involve going through a severe crisis. To quote the noted author Ken Wilber, "Though the temporary unbalance precipitated by such a crisis may resemble a nervous breakdown, it cannot be dismissed as such. For it is not a pathological phenomenon but a normal event for the gifted mind in these societies, when struck by and absorbing the force of the realization of 'something far more deeply infused' inhabiting both the round earth and one's own interior."
I had been doing Buddhist meditation for over a year when that lightning bolt went off inside of my brain. Within a day or two I felt like Alice who had fallen through the looking glass, finding myself "drafted" and playing a role in a deeper, mythic process, what Jung would call a "divine drama," where everything was permeated with a deep symbolic meaning.
I felt totally un-selfconscious and amazingly free. I felt the creative energy of the universe flowing through me. I was dancing on the living unfoldment of the Big Bang itself, where every moment was creative, magical and totally new. My kundalini was exploding; it was like a billion watts of electricity were flowing through a seventy-five watt bulb.
It was like my mind had spilled out from inside of my skull and was manifesting and expressing itself synchronistically through events in the seemingly outer environment. What was happening in the outer world was magically related to what was going on inside me. The boundaries between dreaming and waking, between inner and outer, and between my self in here and your self out there, were dissolving. It was as if I had become lucid and was waking up inside a dream.
I knew without a doubt that I was going through a deep spiritual experience. No one could possibly convince me otherwise. This was the key that saved my sanity. I felt that the more people I thought about, the more people I would be able to "bring along" with me, so I began imagining the whole universe. The experience was so overwhelming that I had no choice but to surrender and let go. I wasn't attached in my usual way to what the outcome was going to be. I was simply trusting the experience, which was clearly not only the right thing to do, but was the only thing I could do.
Crazy Wisdom A spiritual awakening is almost always precipitated by a severe emotional or spiritual crisis; it oftentimes organically grows out of unresolved abuse issues from childhood. This was certainly true in my case. In a fully-flowered spiritual emergence, you magically discover how to transmute these symptoms and wounds into the blessings that they are.
To people still absorbed in the collective, mainstream trance, with unquestioning membership in the consensus reality, my behavior looked totally bizarre and was very threatening. It was, I'm sure, a very difficult and problematic situation for those closest to me, as they weren't able to understand what I was going through. It was too far off their map of reality.
Painfully, most of my friends and family were very judgemental and bought into the doctors’ diagnosis that I had a mental illness. From my perspective, this was a way to "explain" what was happening to me that fit into their very limited, comfortable view of the world. In the words of the late psychiatrist R. D. Laing, "Attempts to wake before our time are often punished, especially by those who love us most. Because they, bless them, are asleep. They think anyone who wakes up, or who, still asleep, realizes that what is taken to be real is a 'dream,' is going crazy."
The experiences and realizations were so mind-blowing, literally, that at certain points I was having trouble "keeping it together." My whole personality structure was melting and disintegrating, all orchestrated towards some mysterious, unknown destination where everything was clearly being integrated into a higher and more psychoactive center.
Oftentimes my actions looked from the outside like typical psychotic behavior. For example, one time I threw out all of my father’s many medications. I felt that he really didn't need them, as he could just tap right into the source of healing itself if he wanted to. At other times, I wanted to break my eyeglasses. I felt that I didn't need them to see, that they were doing more harm to my eyes than good.
One morning, after I was acting so crazy that my father flew me back home to New York, he awakened to find me doing prostrations to him. Later on that morning I went out to the middle of the busy intersection near my parents’ apartment and spent some time bowing to the oncoming cars, recognizing that everything was the Divine.
From my point of view, I was realizing, or should I say, it was being revealed to me, that each moment was the unmediated expression of God, what I call the “Goddessence.” I remember turning on the radio and every voice I heard on the radio was the voice of this Goddessence. Every person I was seeing was the Goddessence him or herSelf. It seemed curious and confusing to me that everybody seemed to be so caught up in such limited, contracted identity states, as if they were pretending and really seemed to believe that they weren't Divine.
When you are spiritually emerging you are literally going through an archetypal death/rebirth experience, which is about nothing other than the transcendence of the separate self. I was experiencing a radical shift of identity as I began to realize my unity with the whole of creation. I remember feeling that anything that had ever been invented, discovered, or created (including the whole cosmos), had been accomplished by the "I" who I was now discovering myself to be. This realization is not conventionally comprehensible—it makes no sense as long as one is under the spell of the intellect—but it appeared to me with the force of a revelation. What I was coming to understand seemed totally obvious, as if I was genuinely seeing the truth for the first time. In fact, I was beginning to realize who I, as well as everyone, genuinely was, which was simultaneously nothing (not a thing that can be understood as an object) and at the same time, everything.
During these experiences I got to meet and intimately connect with some of the greatest enlightened masters of Tibet and Burma; and, as in a Fairy Tale, they became my teachers and guides. True miracles, experiences that were completely impossible, stuff that could only happen in dreams, began happening. Any limited conceptualizations I had about the nature of the universe were being totally shattered.
The Icarus Temptation and Other Dangers Due to the ecstacy and exhilaration of the experience, there is a real temptation, as demonstrated by the mythic Icarus, to fly too high, which is only a setup for a corresponding fall. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to be as grounded as possible during these experiences. The great psychiatrist C. G. Jung understood the importance of this during his "Confrontation with the Unconscious." He used to keep pictures of his family around, so he could remember that he was, in his words, "an actually existing, ordinary person."
Jung understood very well that one of the greatest dangers you encounter in spiritual emergence is to become inflated, thinking that you are someone special. You become identified with the archetype instead of relating to it from the standpoint of a conscious human ego. You've literally gotten swallowed up and possessed by the deeper, more powerful transpersonal forces, falling totally into your unconscious. You can become truly insane, thinking, for example, that only you are the Christ, instead of recognizing that we all have Christ nature. This is one of the places where the spiritual emergence can turn into a spiritual emergency. There is a big difference between someone who is truly mentally ill, who could be said to be drowning in the stormy ocean of the unconscious, compared to an accomplished mystic, who is being nurtured and nourished by swimming, surfing and snorkling in the healing waters of their psyche.
Jung understood that the thing which swings the balance one way or the other is the human ego’s capacity to confront and relate in a conscious way to these transpersonal forces. This is why creative work, in which you channel and transmute these deeper, very powerful, archetypal energies, is of the utmost importance.
At a certain point, the entire ordeal reveals itself to be an initiation for actualizing and giving expression to your true genius, or daimon, which is none other than your inner voice, guiding spirit and unfabricated true nature, which has never been lost. Like remembering something that's been long forgotten, you discover your unique calling, your true vocation as a Bodhisattva who is here to help other beings. You become a master creative multi-dimensional artist whose canvas is life itself.
Of course, another great danger, which I can talk about from personal experience, is to wind up in the clutches of and be diagnosed and medicated by the medical/psychiatric community. These people typically have no under-standing of spiritual emergence. One psychiatrist even diagnosed me as having the same illness as Freud’s infamous "Rat Man," saying I would need three years of intensive psychotherapy and then I would be cured! To again quote Laing, "Anyone in this transitional state is likely to be confused. To indicate that this confusion is a sign of illness, is a quick way to create psychosis....A psychiatrist who professes to be a healer of souls, but who keeps people asleep, treats them for waking up and drugs them asleep again....helps to drive them crazy."
My final hospitalization was in September of l982. I was flown back to New York and put in a hospital for three weeks. Instead of judging these hospitalizations to be a mistake, I've come to see the perfection of all that has happened. I now understand that the hospitalizations were in fact an aspect of the awakening; they were part of my journey to the underworld. There is a sense of accepting and embracing whatever has happened in my life, realizing it is all an initiation into the deeper mystery of my infinite and unspeakably magical being.
This is not to say that there is not something called mental illness. I do wonder, though, how many cases of mental illness are actually spiritual emergences gone unidentified, and hence, unacknowledged. The individual and society lose tragically in such cases.
We, as a society, need to recognize the existence of genuine spiritual emergences and learn to differentiate such cases from cases of psychosis.
Thankfully, there are explorers who are mapping this unchartered terrain for the rest of us, and there is now even a small paragraph in the psychiatrists DSM IV Book (their diagnostic manual) titled "Spiritual or Religious Problem."
As for me, I believe that we're all at different stages of the spiritual emergence process.
An artist and healer, with a passion for Dreamwork, Paul Levy is in private practice, assisting people who are spiritually emerging and beginning to wake up to the dreamlike nature of reality. Deeply steeped in the work of alchemy, shamanism and C. G. Jung, Paul is a long-time Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, and is the coordinator of the Portland PadmaSambhava Buddhist Center. He can be reached at (503) 234-6480.