Emergence versus Emergency
In the DSM-IV, spiritual problems are defined as distressing experiences that
involve a person's relationship with a transcendent being or force but are
not necessarily related to an organized church or religious institution. Sometimes
such experiences emerge from intensive involvement with spiritual practices
such as meditation or yoga, as in the Meditation
and Spiritual Practice type of spiritual problem.
The connection between spiritual emergences and
psychological problems was first noted by Roberto
Assagioli,MD who described how persons may become
inflated and grandiose as a result of intense experiences
associated with spiritual practices:
Instances of such confusion are not
uncommon among people who become dazzled by contact
with truths too great or energies too powerful for
their mental capacities to grasp and their personality
to assimilate. [1
Beginning in the 1960s, interest in Asian spiritual
practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi,
as well as experimentation with psychedelic drugs,
triggered many mystical experiences and visionary
experiencies, some of which were problematic for
Whereas spiritual masters have been
warning their disciples for thousands of years about
he dangers of playing with mystical states, the contemporary
spiritual scene is like a candy store where any casual
spiritual "tourist" can sample the "goodies" that
promise a variety of mystical highs. When novices
who don't have the proper education or guidance begin
to naively and carelessly engage mystical experiences,
they are playing with fire. Danger exists on the
physical and psychological levels, as well as on
the level of one's continued spiritual development.
Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to
Enlightenment by Mariana Caplan
Christina Grof and Stanislav Grof,MD,
coined the term "spiritual emergency" and
founded the Spiritual Emergency Network at the Esalen
Institute in 1980 to assist individuals and make referrals
to therapists for people experiencing psychological
difficulties associated with spiritual practices and
spontaneous spiritual experiences. Dr. Grof describes
a spiritual emergency:
There exist spontaneous non-ordinary
states that would in the west be seen and treated
as psychosis, treated mostly by suppressive medication.
But if we use the observations from the study of
non-ordinary states, and also from other spiritual
traditions, they should really be treated as crises
of transformation, or crises of spiritual opening.
Something that should really be supported rather
than suppressed. If properly understood and properly
supported, they are actually conducive to healing
and transformation. (Interview
with Stanislav Grof,MD
The term spiritual emergence is used to describe
the whole range of phenomena associated with spiritual
experiences and development from those (probably
the vast majority) which are not problematic, do
not disrupt psychological/social/occupational functioning
and do not involve psychotherapy or any contact with
the mental health system, to spiritual emergences
that are full-blown crises requiring 24-hour care.
David Steindl-Rast [2
a Benedictine monk who teaches spiritual practices,
has also noted that spiritual emergence can be disruptive:
Spiritual emergence is a kind of birth pang in which you yourself go
through to a fuller life, a deeper life, in which some areas in your
life that were not yet encompassed by this fullness of life are now
integrated . . . Breakthroughs are often very painful, often acute
QUIZ EXERCISE 10:
Spiritual emergency is a term developed by C. G. Jung.
Record your answers for later insertion into the Quiz.
QUIZ EXERCISE 11:
Assagioli first proposed that spiritual practices can be associated with psychological disturbance.
Record your answers for later insertion into the Quiz.
Experiences and Spiritual Emergence
Some forms of spiritual emergence can take the
form of extraordinary experiences, such as alien
encounters and NDEs. Kenneth
Ring, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at
the University of Connecticut and one of the world's
chief authorities on near-death experiences, found
that groups of people reporting alien encounters
and NDE show similar changes over time, and many
report that their lives have been radically altered
on a deep spiritual level by their NDEs and encounters
with aliens. They develop a heightened reverence
for nature and human life, and report that their
personalities are transformed as result of these
experiences. He concluded that both alien abduction
and NDE (and potentially other extraordinary experiences)
in effect alternate pathways
emphasis) to the same type of psychospiritual transformation...that
expresses itself in greater awareness of the interconnectedness
and sacredness of all life and necessarily fosters
a heightened ecological concern for the welfare of
the planet. (The
Because of the role such extraordinary experiences
as alien encounters and NDEs play in some people's
spiritual lives, they are included in this course
as spiritual problems.
for Extraordinary Explorations This site covers
the research and study of extraordinary experiences
including: Reincarnation/Past Lives, Alien Contact,
Angel Encounters, Out of Body and Near Death Experiences
(OBE's and NDE's).
Spiritual emergencies warrant the DSM-IV diagnosis
of Religious or Spiritual Problem (V62.89), even
when there may be symptoms of a mental disorder present,
including hallucinations and delusions. In this way,
Religious or Spiritual Problem is comparable to the
category Bereavement for which the DSM-IV notes that
even when a person's reaction to a death meets the
diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Episode, the
diagnosis of a mental disorder is not given because
the symptoms result from a normal reaction to
the death of a loved one.
Similarly, spiritual emergencies can be disorienting
and frightening. They can preoccupy the individual
and lead to the performance of private rituals. All
of these can present as symptoms of mental disorder.
Hallucinations, delusions, anger, and interpersonal
difficulties occur so frequently that they should
be considered normal and expectable reactions to
the spiritual emergence. Yet such spiritual problems
often lead to long-term improvements in overall well-being
The clinical literature has long recognized that some
episodes with psychotic symptoms can result in improvements
in an individual's functioning. Karl Menninger, MD,
considered by many the father of modern Amercian psychiatry,
Some patients have a mental illness and then get well and then they get
weller! I mean they get better than they ever were . . . . This is an
extraordinary and little-realized truth (Menninger cited in Silverman
, p. 63).
Many clinicians and researchers have proposed a
category for episodes with psychotic-like symptoms
but which have the potential for positive outcomes:
schizophrenics (Boisen [4
Allen Bergin, Ph.D. 
has observed that,
Some religious influences have a modest impact, whereas another portion
seems like the mental equivalent of nuclear energy...The more powerful
portion can provide transcendent conviction or commitment and is sometimes
manifested in dramatic personal healing or transformation. (p. 401)
This nuclear analogy also applies to the spiritual
emergence process. It has tremendous healing power
for the individual, and even for society, but can
also be destructive if not channeled properly. Note
that while this type of intense emergence process
is discussed under this lesson on spiritual problems,
a similar process occurs in religious conversion
experiences, many of which involve mystical experiences
(see Lesson 3.3 Mystical
experiences). Unfortunately such experiences
are often misunderstood by both the mental health
and religious professions.
Impact of Misdiagnoses
The clinician's initial assessment can significantly
influence the eventual outcome. As Greyson
and Harris  point out, the
clinician's response to a person's near-death experience
can determine whether the experience is integrated
and used as a stimulus for personal growth, or whether
it is repressed as a bizarre event that may be a
sign of mental instability. Similarly, with mystical
experience, negative reactions by professionals can
intensify an individual's sense of isolation and
block his or her efforts to seek assistance in understanding
and assimilating the experience.
Individuals undergoing powerful religious and spiritual experiences are at
risk for being hospitalized as mentally ill. Even many religious professionals
seem unable to make the distinction between genuine and pathological religious
If a member of a typical congregation were to have
a profound religious experience, its minister would
very likely send him or her to a psychiatrist for
medical treatment. (Stanislav Grof, Beyond
the brain: Birth, death and transcendence in psychotherapy).
One person who had had a near-death experience reported:
If tumultuous episodes with growth
potential and those which indicate a mental disorder
could be differentiated, the prognosis of individuals
with spiritual emergence problems could be improved
by providing appropriate treatment consistent with
their need to express and integrate the physical, psychopathological,
and spiritual symptoms.
V Differential Diagnosis)
R. (1989). Self-realization and psychological disturbances.
In S. Grof & C. Grof (Eds.), Spiritual emergency:
When personal transformation becomes a crisis, Los
2 David Steindl-Rast cited
in Bragdon, E. (1993). A sourcebook for helping people
with spiritual problems. Aptos, CA: Lightening Up
Press. p. 18.
3 Silverman, J.(1967).
Shamans and acute schizophrenia. American Anthropologist,
4 Boisen, A. T.(1962).
The exploration of the inner world. New York: Harper
5 Dabrowski, K. (1964). Positive disintegration.
Boston: Little Brown.
6 Ellenberger, H. (1970). The discovery
of the unconscious. New York: Basic Books.
7 Laing, R.D. (1972). Metanoia:
Some experiences at Kingsley Hall, London. In H.
M. Ruitenbeck (Eds.), Exploring Madness (pp. 113-121).
Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.
8 Perry, J. (1974). The far side of madness.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
9 Bergin, A. (1991). Values
and religious issues in psychotherapy and mental
health. American Psychologist, 46(4), 394-403.
10Greyson, B., & Harris,
B. (1987). Clinical approaches to the near-death
experience. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 6(1),