Last time you changed your car (assuming that like me you still haven’t quite managed to give the habit up) did you notice that what you had previously thought was a fairly obscure or obsolete model suddenly seemed to be everywhere? It’s like that for me with spiritual emergency. Everywhere I go I seem to meet people who’ve been through the process. The language they use may differ, but the experience is essentially that.
‘Incandescent, exhilarating, sensuous, cocky, magnificent, explosive. A raging oratorio.’ This is how Richard Mabey of The Times describes the book Wild. I recently had the privilege to not only meet its author, Jay Griffiths, but to spend several days in her company. Jay doesn’t use the language of spiritual emergency and emergence, but it seems clear to me that this is indeed what she has been through. Very early on in the book she writes:
‘The first part of this journey began by being lost. I had lost my way in a wasteland of the mind, in a long and dark depression, pathless, bleak and bewildered, not knowing which way to turn. Weeks leaked into months, lank and unlovely as greasy hair. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t write, and it felt as if I couldn’t survive the violence of my unhappiness. I had a repeated image in my mind of a little night-light guttering in the wind and I had to wrap my hand around it to protect the tiny pale flame on the brink of being extinguished. I was protecting something very ancient and unmetropolitan: something shy, naked and elemental – the soul. ...
One May morning during this long depression I was sitting in my little rented flat in Hackney, in tears. The phone rang. It was an anthropologist ... whose work with Amazonian shamans intrigued me. He asked how I was, in the kind of voice that encourages an open response. I’m drowning, I choked.
He invited me to meet him in Peru the following September, to visit shamans he knew there, and to drink ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a shamanic drug, the Amazon’s most powerful medicine, which is used to treat – among other things – depression.
Yes, I said.
Why don’t you take a few days to think about it? he asked. It would be an expensive flight, a big trip.
No, I said. I knew a lifeline when I was thrown one.
So I learned Spanish, withdrew all the money I had in the world, bought an open return, dubbined my boots and left.’
The remarkable cure that Jay experienced is of course as much to do with the skill of the shaman, which she describes in some detail, as the properties of the ayahuasca. The journey shamans go through to become powerful healers is itself a Hero’s Journey through spiritual emergence and emergency. Whether they are initiated by ritual or experience spontaneous psychosis which acts as their initiation, the process is exacting, a death and a re-birth into their new life as a shaman, as a healer.
Indigenous peoples have so much to teach us about caring for our souls, our psyches, our mental health. Their approaches cannot, however, be used out of context. Ayahuasca used on its own without an expert shamanic guide to accompany your soul on the journey can be highly dangerous. The environment too is essential. I imagine the veils between the realms to be translucent in the wilds of the Amazon. There must be precious few places in Europe where the raw energy of nature is as clear or as clean as in the rain forests.
Many indigenous cultures have shamans, although again the language, the names, may be different. In Case of Spiritual Emergency covers the Brazilian approach of working with the spirit realms to heal mental health. In the book, I also touch on the initiation, in the African jungle, of Malidoma Somé, into life as a medicine man.
Jay Griffiths is an extraordinary woman who has written an extraordinary book. Her courage spills out from the pages. And so it is for every person who goes through the process of birthing the psyche into wholeness, the process of spiritual emergency and emergence. The gift Jay gives us is that she can communicate something of that through her extraordinary writing, capturing something of the process, offering us some clues and helping us to find our way through the jungle.