The following is a talk given by Catherine G Lucas at the conference 'Spiritual Care & Mental Health' organized by Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, London on 17 May 2011.
Well, I’m delighted to be here today. It’s a very auspicious day, as today is Wessak, when millions of Buddhists around the world celebrate the enlightenment of the Buddha. I’m also delighted to be here because the relationship between spirituality and mental health is at the very core of my work. So I’m always really pleased to see these issues being explored, especially within a National Health Service (NHS) context. For several years I taught trainee mental health nurses at the University of West of England – I did a part-time input on spirituality – and at the time it felt quite progressive of the programme director to include spirituality in the curriculum, whereas now, I'm pleased to say, spirituality is being taken more and more seriously within mental health care.
So, today I’m wearing three hats! They do in fact all overlap. The first is that I work as a Mindfulness Trainer. For those of you that are not so familiar with Mindfulness, this is what a Mindfulness classroom looks like!
We do a wonderful practice called the Body Scan, which is a body awareness meditation and we do it lying down, hence the mats. I’m not going to say much at all about Mindfulness today, except to say that the work has been an enormous privilege. I’ve had the opportunity to train NHS dialectical behaviour therapists, Mindfulness being at the heart of that therapeutic approach. I’ve also been very privileged to work with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
So why did I become a Mindfulness Trainer? In 2003 I went through a major spiritual crisis and it was my Mindfulness practice that helped me through. So I experienced for myself the sheer power of Mindfulness. The following year I set up the Spiritual Crisis Network (SCN) to offer information and support for people going through spiritual crisis; to help raise awareness and understanding of the phenomenon. And a couple of years ago we gained charitable status. So that’s the second hat I’m wearing today, as Founder of the SCN and you can see that there’s a direct relationship between that and why I teach Mindfulness. In fact I’ve just started offering courses specifically using a Mindfulness-based Approach for Spiritual Emergency.
The third, and most recent, hat I’m wearing today is as author of In Case of Spiritual Emergency and I’m going to draw on material from the book quite a lot in my talk today.
By now you’re probably starting to wonder ‘what is spiritual crisis or spiritual emergency?’. How am I using the term? It comes out of a branch or school of psychology known as transpersonal, that’s to say, beyond the personal or, in other words, spiritual. Transpersonal psychology brings together ancient spiritual wisdom from the various different faiths with the scientific enquiry of psychology. So transpersonal psychology is rooted in both. And we can chart the development of transpersonal psychology right back to the beginning of the 20th Century, to the early 1900s. A chapter in the book does just that, charting the development of the psychology of spiritual experience up to current times.
A key player in what I call the transpersonal lineage was of course Carl Jung. He himself went through spiritual emergency, which he recorded in great detail in his fascinating Red Book, which his family only allowed to be published a couple of years ago. He says that all his subsequent ideas and theories originated in that life-changing experience. Again, he’s covered in the book.A key player in more recent decades has been the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, who coined the term spiritual emergency.
The idea is that as we grow up from childhood into adulthood we develop and mature physically and emotionally and that we also grow, develop and mature spiritually. You might simply experience this as your values and priorities changing as you get older. Sometimes this gradual process of becoming more spiritually aware speeds up. As it does so things can get out of hand and we can find ourselves in crisis, unable to cope. There are many reasons why this might happen and the various triggers and catalysts are outlined in the book. The point is that you don’t have to be consciously on a spiritual path for it to happen to you. I remember one guy, when I was working on an acute psychiatric ward in Liverpool, who had been doing fine in life. Until his son committed suicide. And his life fell apart. When we start to question the meaning of life, the purpose of life, these are deeply spiritual questions, whether we belong to a faith community or not.
So what does spiritual emergency look like? Let’s take a look at some of the key features.
Key Features of Spiritual Emergency
• The intensity of the experience can consume our whole being
• We can find it impossible to cope at an everyday level
• Our inner world can take over and blur confusingly with the outer world
• We can have unusual physical pains and sensations and find it impossible to sleep
• We can experience a rollercoaster of powerful emotions
• There can be a sense of everything falling away, including our sense of self
• There may be ego-inflation
• Thinking can become confused as the rational mind desperately tries to make
sense of what is going on
• Symbolism and mythological themes become very meaningful for us
• Synchronicity often becomes more frequent
• We might see unusual things
• We can experience sudden and strong energies
In the book you’ll find a lot more detail on each of the key features. I’d like to come back to just one of these in particular, by way of illustration. I’d like to look in more depth at ego inflation, because I think this is one of the single most misunderstood aspects of what can happen, especially amongst the broader public. There was a media story a while ago about David Shayler, the ex-MI5 agent who revealed to the newspapers that the secret services held files on Labour Government Ministers. The story that broke more recently, in 2007, was of David Shayler living in a squat and considering himself to be a reincarnation of Jesus. Because the media as a whole has no understanding of spiritual emergency they completely missed the point. Again you can read the full story about Shayler in the book.
In order to explain a very different perspective on ego inflation I’m going to draw on the work of Roberto Assagioli, who founded Psychosynthesis. This is a spiritual approach to psychotherapy that has been very influential. Here in London alone there are at least three Pyschosynthesis training schools.
Assagioli explains very well what happens in ego inflation; that basically there is confusion between the egoic, personal self and the higher, spiritual Self. The ego appropriates to itself the powerful spiritual energies that are coming through during spiritual emergency. As the personal self experiences the spiritual self we have a sense of greatness, of expansion. It’s not that we are Jesus or the Buddha, for example, but that we are experiencing the energy of the Christ consciousness. So, whilst ...
‘…the inflowing spiritual energies may have the unfortunate effect of feeding and inflating the personal ego...instances of such confusion...are not uncommon among people dazzled by contact with truths which are too powerful for their mental
capacities to grasp and assimilate.’ Assagioli (Roberto Assagioli,Psychosynthesis, Turnstone Books, 1975, pp. 44-5.)
In Amma’s case (Amma, if you haven’t come across her, is the Indian known as the ‘hugging saint’) it was Krishna. When she was going through spiritual emergency she experienced herself as merging with Krishna. In fact she took the process of spiritual emergence to its ultimate, and very rare, conclusion and became a fully awakened, fully realised being.
To bring this into the more personal, I mentioned that in 2003 I went through a major crisis. It actually only lasted a week but it was phenomenally intense, as spiritual emergency invariably is. It operates on all levels, physically, emotionally, mentally. As we’ve seen it consumes our whole beings. I actually ended up in a wheelchair because I was so overwhelmed that my legs gave way and I couldn’t walk. I don’t want to paint a totally hellish picture because aspects of the experience were incredibly beautiful. And at one point I experienced the energy or the consciousness of the Virgin Mary, in much the same way as I’ve been talking about. I had enough insight not to tell anyone that I was experiencing myself as if I were the Virgin. The energy and the feelings were extraordinarily beautiful. I had an overwhelming sense of peace, gentleness and the deepest compassion I’ve ever felt.
So when somebody temporarily has such an experience, rather than dismissing it, we can know that something very important is happening spiritually. These are very precious experiences. My therapist at the time very wisely encouraged me to explore what that connection with the Virgin Mary meant for me. He certainly didn’t dismiss it as delusions of grandeur. To do so would be to do the person a great disservice. Which is not to deny that the person may well need mental health care. I’m certainly not saying that, but they need mental health care that is sensitive to their spiritual concerns and in particular to their spiritual experience.
So that’s just one of the key features of spiritual crisis. Not everybody experiences that. Rather than what we can call mystical psychosis some experience more a dark night of the soul. Those of you interested in depression might like to explore the literature on that and the relationship between dark nights of the soul and depression. In the book there’s a very powerful story of someone who went through over 30 years, on and off, of crippling depression. What saved her was her sense all along that this was a spiritual process, a dark night of the soul.
That’s pretty much all we’ve got time for and I haven’t even begun to touch on the most important dimension; how do we get through spiritual emergency? How do we cope? Based on my research, our experience through the SCN and my personal experience, I’ve identified Three Key Phases of moving successfully through spiritual emergency. It’s all there, in the book.
Just to say that I think many of you may also be interested in a talk I gave at another NHS conference, which I entitled ‘Psychospiritual Crisis: Where Mysticism and Mental Health Meet’. You can listen to that as a free MP3 audio recording and it’s available on the Academy of Living Wisdom website. Enjoy!