Stanislav Grof on Spiritual Emergency

DR: In some cultures, what you are calling a “spiritual emergency” is a recognized part of growth and individuation. In our culture, at least its symptoms are frequently considered pathological. How does our culture move in a more inclusive direction?

SG: My wife Christina and I have written a couple of books -p; one we wrote and the other we edited. We wrote The Stormy Search for the Self and edited Spiritual Emergency, which has articles by other people, pointing in the same direction.

The basic idea is that 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.


Pranic movements or kriyas
Prana is the Hindu word for vital energy. As intense energy moves through the body and clears out physiological blocks, some people experience intense involuntary, jerking movements of the body, including shaking, vibrations, spasm and contraction.

Yogic Phenomena
Some people find themselves performing yogic postures or hand mudra gestures which they have never learned or could not do in a normal state of consciousness. Unusual breathing patterns may appear with either very rapid or slow, shallow breathing.

Physiological Symptoms
Kundalini awakening often generates unusual physiological activity which can present as heart, spinal, gastrointestinal, or neurological problems. Internal sensations of burning, hypersensitivity to sensory input, hyperactivity or lethargy, great variations in sexual desire, and even spontaneous orgasm have been reported.

Psychological Upheaval
Emotions can swing from feelings of anxiety, guilt, and depression (with bouts of uncontrollable weeping) to compassion, love, and joy.

Extrasensory Experiences
Some people experience visions of lights, symbols, spiritual entities. Auditory sensations may include hearing voices, music, inner sounds or mantras. There may also be disruption of the proprioceptive system, with loss of a sense of self as a body, or an out of the body experience.

Psychic Phenomena
A person may experience precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis, awareness of auras and healing abilities.

Mystical States of Consciousness
A person may shift into altered states of consciousness where they directly perceive the unity underlying the world of separation and experience a deep peace and serenity. (see Karin Hannigan, PhD for additional description)

The sudden onset of these experiences led many in Greenwell’s study to become confused and disoriented. Kundalini awakening is probably the most common type of spiritual emergency. The Spiritual Emergence Network Newsletter reported that 24% of their hotline calls concerned kundalini awakening experiences.

Some practitioners, such as John Perry, MD, have argued that medication only inhibits a person’s ability to concentrate on the inner work and it mutes the psychic energy needed to sustain the effort to move the process forward. When medication is used to simply repress the inner process, it becomes frozen in an unfinished state. Suppression can impede the potential for a complete working through to a point of resolution.

Grof believes using psychiatric medication in Kundalini Awakenings can result in death for the now pathologized person. Some people recommend it. Either way informed consent is necessary in the treatment of anyone.

For more information on spiritual awakenings see the Spiritual Emergence Network.

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