What teachers of meditation and spirituality need to know

A meditation practice can offer surprises, as can any spiritual exploration or path. And it’s good for whomever guides us to know about these.

What are some of these surprises?

Some are specific to a spiritual path, for instance…

Meditation or a spiritual opening leading to the lid being taken off unprocessed psychological material. This can be scary and overwhelming.

Energy system fried or destabilized. In or after a spiritual opening, high energies can run through the system and fry or destabilize it.

General psychological disorientation and destabilization.

Other wrinkles are well known from regular psychology.

Chasing states. Get a taste of a state and try to recreate it while missing the essence of a spiritual opening or glimpse.

Inflation. Seeing oneself as better than others due to spiritual openings, insights, or abilities.

Projections. Blindly projecting things out on others and overlooking them in oneself.

Giving away authority. Giving away ones own authority to a spiritual guide or organization.

When we chose spiritual guides or coaches, it’s wise to chose someone who has knowledge of these and knows how to prevent and recognize them, and can help people navigate through it or know who to refer to.

At the minimum, people who teach meditation or similar approaches (prayer, inquiry, yoga etc.) should be trained to minimize the risk of these, recognize the signs, and know who to refer to. And those who help navigate people through these should be familiar with the terrain from their own experience.

Since the second category is well known in mainstream psychology, quite a few guides have some skills and familiarity with how to work with those.

But in my own experience, not many teachers are educated or equipped to deal with the first category. For instance, when I needed guidance for grounding and stabilizing in the early awakening phase, what I found was teachers who were mostly or only trained to help people further open – which wasn’t what I needed at the time. Fortunately, I knew that I needed grounding and not further opening so I found my own way.

When I later went through the “lid taken off” phase, I was fortunately in a different situations and did find some who could offer guidance and support based on having gone through it themselves.

And I should mention that none of these wrinkles or hiccups are wrong in the big picture. They can be confusing, scary, uncomfortable, and destabilizing. But they are not inherently wrong. If they happen, they become part of the path, and – as anything else – are fuel for healing, maturing, awakening, and embodiment.

Note: There are, of course, no real “shoulds” here and no real “need” to know. I just decided to use a more conventional language. It would be more accurate to say that if people seek out teachers with this insight and experience, they can be guided through it more easily if some of these wrinkles happen for them. And teachers who familiarize themselves with it will similarly be better able to guide others, or at least recognize the signs and refer to someone else.

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Have you experienced a spiritual crisis?

I am collecting material for a project on spiritual emergencies. Have you experienced one? If so, would you be willing to contact me and share your story? Everything will be kept confidential.

A spiritual crisis is defined as:

Spiritual crisis (also called “spiritual emergency”) is a form of identity crisis where an individual experiences drastic changes to their meaning system (i.e., their unique purposes, goals, values, attitude and beliefs, identity, and focus) typically because of a spontaneous spiritual experience. A spiritual crisis may cause significant disruption in psychological, social, and occupational functioning. Among the spiritual experiences thought to lead to episodes of spiritual crisis or spiritual emergency are psychiatric complications related to existential crisis, mystical experience, near-death experiences, Kundalini syndrome, paranormal experiences, religious ecstasy, or other spiritual practices.


A spiritual crisis or emergency can also happen when the “lid” is taken off unprocessed psychological material, perhaps following a retreat, spiritual or healing workshop, a period of more intense meditation and prayer, asking to “be shown what’s left”, or a spiritual opening or awakening. This can lead to an intense period of anxiety, despair, depression, confusion and disorientation, and overwhelm.

If any of this applies to you, please feel free to contact you. I promise you and your information will be treated with respect, kindnes, and confidentiality. I know from personal experience how raw we can feel when we are going through a spiritual crisis.

Center for spiritual emergencies

Since the initial awakening in my teens, I have had a dream or vision of a center for people going through spiritual emergencies. It’s definitely needed, although there are plenty of teachers and healers and even centers that can and do help people through these phases of the process.

Here are some thoughts about how it may look:

I wouldn’t promise anything apart from support for people to go through what they are going through. Most of the time, there doesn’t seem to be any quick fixes, and especially not for people going through a dark night of the soul.

It would be interdisciplinary and holistic, with a focus on diet, mindful movement, connection with nature, healing work, and mutual support.

We would work on traumas as needed since traumas are often behind any distress and anything we experience as troubling in life. Spiritual emergencies of different types often trigger traumas, and these are what creates the suffering and struggle.

There would be an emphasis of kindness towards our own experience, along with a gentle exploration of it to see how it’s created and what’s really there (inquiry).

I have no idea if something like this will happen, or – if it does – how. It doesn’t really matter, but I do notice that the dream or vision is there gently in the background. Perhaps it will just take the form of supporting a few individuals through it, as I already have done in a small way, or it could take the form of a center run with a few other people.

The Dark Night of the Soul & The Wisdom of No Escape

A typical aspect of the Dark Night of the Soul is a sense that it will never end, or a conviction it will not end.

It’s impossible to imagine it ending. There is no way out. This boundless torture and suffering will always be here.

And that seems to be part of the process.

It’s as if life sets up an inner and outer situation where we see no way out. So our only option is – eventually, often after much struggle – to face what’s here right in front of us. To face that in us that seems really scary. To turn towards that which we may have spent a lifetime running away from and avoiding at all cost.

This situation is sometimes combined with chronic fatigue (as in my case) or other illnesses so we are confined to our bed or house, are isolated, and unable to engage in social or other activities.

In other words, we are strongly encouraged to find the wisdom of no escape.

This is a type of monasticism. We can even see it as a “forced” or amplified monasticism.

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Dark night of the soul: challenges & some remedies

The dark night of the soul has its own timing and its own life.

And yet, there are things we can do that can make it a little more bearable, and even align us more consciously with what the process seems to ask of us. (Also based on reports from people who have moved through it.)

Here are some common challenges for people in a dark night of the soul:

We feel that we did something wrong. Or that something is terribly wrong.

We feel that it will never end.

We don’t know what’s happening.

We struggle with and resist what’s happening.

We are caught in painful stories about what’s happening.

We are faced with painful stories surfacing to find liberation. These stories may be old stories recreating deficient selves, perceived threats, compulsions, wounds, trauma, and more. They are unquestioned and unloved.

We may have dread, terror, and trauma surfacing. (To find love and liberation.)

Our identities are “under siege”. Life may put us in situations where our familiar identities don’t fit anymore. (Sometimes, although not necessarily, through loss of relationships, health, work etc)

We experience periods of intense discomfort, perhaps without being able to put a label on it.

Shadow material tends to surface. Whatever is unhealed and unloved surfaces to heal and be loved.

It can feel overwhelming. Unbearable. We can’t take it anymore.

There may be losses – of relationships, health, work, and more.

We may have periods where we are unable to sleep, or get very little sleep.

 And some remedies:

Information. Talking with others who have gone through it.

Inquiry into the painful stories. The beliefs about what’s happening. The beliefs creating the painful experiences that may surface.

Meeting the pain or discomfort with kindness. Holding it in kind presence.

Resting with what’s here. Notice. Allow.

And some more things that may be supportive:

Spend time in nature. Walk. Garden.

Use your body. Swim. Walk. Do gentle physical activities that feels nurturing and supportive.

Eat well. Eat foods that work with your body. Drink plenty of water.

Nurture nurturing activities and relationships.

Receive sessions that are nurturing and supportive. Perhaps massage, acupuncture, craniosacral etc. Find practitioners who are OK with what you are going through, and don’t have a need to “fix” you. (Nothing needs to be fixed, but some activities and modalities can be supportive in this process.)

Find support from others who have gone through it, and are going through it.

Find a guide who has gone through it, and is experienced guiding people through it.

Rest. Get plenty or rest.

Be kind with yourself. Ask yourself what would someone who loves themselves do? (The answer may be very simple and for that moment.)

Be a good steward of your life, as much as you can.

Ask for guidance. Ask for support. Ask for your will be done. (Ask life, the universe, God.)

Let go of limiting ideologies, if they create stress and don’t seem to work for you anymore. (This includes ideologies about food, practices, world views, how you should live your life, and more.)

Ordinary human kindness. Ask for kindness. Be kind towards yourself and others, as much as you can.

See also previous posts on this topic, including for a list of helpful resources. (Adyashanti has talked and written about dark nights. Jeannie Zandi writes and speaks about it. There are several good books on spiritual emergencies, which includes a mentioning of dark nights. Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism has a good chapter on the Dark Night of the Soul, although colored by her tradition and times. There is a lot more information out there.)

A center for spiritual emergency

There are some resources for people going through a spiritual emergency. These include websites, guides and therapists, online groups, books, and there used to be a center in California set up by Stanislav and Christina Grof. Some spiritual centers and monasteries may also be happy to receive people in a spiritual emergency, although their level of understanding and expertise may vary (it’s important that they have a good understanding of what’s going on).

It seems that there is a clear need for…..

Better and more comprehensive information about (a) types of spiritual emergencies, and (b) what is often most (and least) helpful for people going through them.

Guidelines for how to support people going through different types of spiritual emergencies.

International and national networks of people who can guide and support, and people going through it. It would be good with some sort of filtering or evaluation of those who guide and support, including client ratings and feedback.

Local support groups. Local, regional, national and international gatherings.

Centers for people going through spiritual emergencies. Places where they can rest, feel nurtured and understood, where they can receive helpful information and support. A sanctuary. They could stay for any length of time, from a day to several months. And it would be ideal if there was a scholarship or work trade option for those with little funds.

In my experience, and from what I read, it seems that these things can be helpful:

Nature. Rest. Nourishing food. Nourishing touch.

Feeling understood. Finding others who understand, from own experience.

Finding love for the process and its symptoms. Finding love for one’s life and what’s here.

Healing our relationship with life, ourselves, what’s here.

Trying gentle practices aimed at healing our relationship with what’s here…. Loving kindness (metta), ho’oponopono, Breema, natural rest / allowing, inquiry and more.

And also setting aside – at least for a while (or forever) – practices that aims at (a) manipulation or (b) increasing the energy. Practices that aim at manipulating and “improving” what’s here inherently assume that what’s here is “wrong”, and this may disturb the process and create an unpleasant backlash. And some practices may, if inadvertently, increase or “raise” the energy, while many forms of spiritual emergencies benefit more from relaxing and grounding the energy. Of course, this is a generalization, and what’s most helpful in each case will vary. Read More

Spiritual emergency and discernment

Here is something that seems relatively common in a spiritual emergency.

Our system tends to be highly sensitive in such a phase. And there also seems to be a wisdom in the process(es) we are going through. It has its own intelligence.

So it’s important to chose advisers and modalities wisely.

For instance, I have followed the advice of “experts” against my own knowing and guidance, and it has not turned out very well. (At an ordinary human level.)

And I have had several sessions that has backfired, especially when I have gone to someone who tries to manipulate or “improve” something in me. This has included network chiropractic (ended up in bed in massive pain), craniosacral (ended up in bed for a week unable to function), breath work (again ended up in bed for several days), a psychotherapy session which turned out to be quite traumatizing for me (I had opened up about the kundalini process, and she didn’t understand it and got scared), and more. It’s also possible that a couple of diksha sessions led to the chronic fatigue I am experiencing now. (It worked very well, and did lead to a nondual awakening, followed by complete burnout and collapse.)

There are two lessons for me here:

Follow my own guidance and knowing. Even if it triggers unquestioned/unloved fear in me, and even if someone who apparently is an expert (and yet doesn’t know my situation fully) advises something else.

Be very careful with who I go to for bodywork or therapy. Also, mostly or fully avoid any approach that aims at manipulating – or “improving” – what’s gong on for me. Instead, what I have found very helpful are approaches that helps me – gently, kindly – change how I relate to it, and leaves the process itself alone. (Breema, inquiry, resting/allowing has worked well for me.)

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Illness as retreat

It seems not uncommon for people in a “spiritual emergency” to experience illness, which in turn may function as a form of retreat.

In some cultures, they recognize the symptoms of a spiritual emergence or emergency, and support it in various ways, including through retreats. In our culture, there is often not such an understanding, so illness may sometimes serves that function instead. It’s what’s possible for us, so it’s the direction life takes. (The lack of understanding of – and support for – these types of processes, may in itself contribute to fatigue and illness.)

The purpose of a retreat is to remove us from our daily routine, the business of daily life, and allow us time and space for meeting what’s already here.

And that’s exactly what an illness can do, and perhaps especially fatigue. (Which seems a typical symptom for some in a certain phase of a kundalini or awakening process.)

An illness allows us a retreat setting. It allows unmet, unquestioned and unloved things to surface in us, so they can be met, loved and examined.

And some of the things surfacing will, most likely, be about the illness itself. An illness is often perceived as a threat to some of our most cherished identities.

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The Atlantic article on the dark night

Fisher also emphasizes two categories that may cause dark nights to surface. The first results from “incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided,” while the second includes “those [experiences] which were necessary and expected stages of practices.” In other words, while meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development. Distinguishing between the two, however, remains a challenge.

– from The Dark Knight (sic) of the Soul in The Atlantic

The Atlantic published an article on the dark night of the soul, which must be one of the few articles on this topic in a mainstream magazine. It’s quite good, although they do seem to conflate spiritual emergencies (which can take many forms) with a dark night of a soul (which is one particular form of spiritual emergency). Also, I suspect an editor mistyped the title and wrote “knight” instead of “night”. (Of course, going through a dark night is a form of a hero’s journey, so the accidental? knight metaphor is not completely inappropriate.)

The paragraph above is especially interesting to me, and seems to refer more to spiritual emergencies than a dark night of the soul. Spiritual emergencies may be triggered, or seem to be triggered, by pushing or seeking to “raise” the energy etc. (Less skillful ways of practicing.) A dark night of the soul, in contrast, is a phase many go through, and seems to be a natural phase of the process. I agree that it’s wise to practice under guidance to someone sober and familiar with the terrain, to minimize unpleasant spiritual emergencies. Although when they happen, there is often a gift there too. Spiritual emergencies have their own gifts, and become part of our journey.  Read More

Self-Focus in a spiritual emergency

During this most recent spiritual emergency (a dark night), I have noticed becoming far more self-focused than before.

And I imagine this may be common for people in a spiritual emergency.

Here are some reasons why this may happen:

We need time to heal and rest.

We need to address what’s here, especially if wounds, traumas and hangups surface to be loved, felt and seen through.

We have lived a generous, selfless and service-oriented life prior to this, and it was partly from a should (and also from love and insight). This phase of self-focus allows us to find more comfort in taking care of ourselves when that’s needed, and not just living a life for others.

We may get caught in self-pity, wounds and traumas, and get self-focused in that way. This too is an invitation for us to meet what’s coming up, find love for it, and see through it. (Also, we may get temporarily caught in wounds from childhood or teenage years, which can bring back the natural self-involvement from that time in our life.)

We may be focused on the process we are in, and in supporting and understanding it. What we explore is universal – flavored by the uniqueness of our particular life – and what we learn can be of help to others later.

There is nothing wrong here. It’s a phase. It helps us learn to take care of ourselves. It helps us see through shoulds around service and even “saving the world”.

Spiritualizing pathology

In the anthology Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, Stanislav Grof writes about pathologizing spirit and spiritualizing pathology.

I don’t like the terminology so much…. it seems a bit harsh and polarized. But it’s still an important topic.

Pathologizing symptoms of awakening. Symptoms of a spiritual awakening – and perhaps especially when it takes the form of a spiritual emergency – can be taken as symptoms of a physical or mental illness, and this often happens when health professionals in the west (doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists) are involved and uneducated on the topic. This is unfortunate since a real understanding of what’s happening, and a supportive environment, is the best way of supporting someone going through this. This is a pathologizing of a quite normal – although sometimes dramatic – process of awakening. (At the same time, this experience will then be part of the awakening process, and material for inquiry and something to be loved and seen through. It may be unfortunate in a conventional sense, and yet valuable – since it has happened – in the bigger picture.)

Spiritualizing pathology. The reverse can also happen. We may not address what’s surfacing to be healed and loved.  In an awakening process, wounds, trauma, hangups and discomfort – anything in us we have made into an “enemy” – will surface to be loved and seen through. And we may use “spiritual” ideas to tell ourselves we don’t need to face it.

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Spiritual emergencies and diet change

From what I read, it seems that spiritual emergencies often lead to diet changes, and these are quite individual and may also change over time.

For me, I went from vegetarian to eating heavier food including red meat, dairy and heavier grains such as oatmeal. It has felt necessary, and nurturing and grounding. Especially slow cooked (crock pot) meat stews have been good, and also brown miso and beef broth. I have also found myself eating more chocolate and sugary foods at times, where I before almost didn’t at all.

In The Stormy Search for Self, the Grofs talk about these types of diet changes as quite common. The body needs more nurturing and grounding, so seeks heavier foods, and it also sometimes needs quick energy and seeks our sugary foods.

That said, I still find fruits and vegetables to be essential in my diet. I also make sure to drink plenty of water, usually in the form of spice and herbal teas. And my diet changes with the seasons and the day, depending on what feels right and nurturing, as it has for a long time now.

It is a little odd to find myself eating the type of foods I earlier judged others for eating. And yet, that too is part of the humbling process. I find myself eating as anyone else, I find myself judging as anyone else, and I find myself humbled as anyone else. It’s part of the human experience.

I still see eating lower on the food chain as essential for our individual health and well being, and also for the health and well being of society, ecosystems, the earth, and future generations. I don’t justify or champion meat eating just because I find myself doing that now. And I still probably eat a lot less meat than what’s typical in western countries.

A collective spiritual emergency, and possibly dark night

Spiritual emergencies happen at individual and collective levels.

A spiritual emergency is a crisis with a spiritual component. It may stretch and open us up to new ways of perceiving and being in the world. It may also be experienced as deeply challenging, requiring more of us than we thought was possible. And it eventually requires us to act from insight and love instead of from our old fear based patterns.

A dark night is a particular form of spiritual emergency. It may involve loss in many forms…. of situations, roles, hopes, dreams, and even fears. Old identifications are seen through or worn off. Wounds and traumas surface to be healed. To our conscious mind, it may seem that grace is lost and everything is moving in the wrong direction.

We are now collectively headed into a spiritual emergency, a spiritual emergency shared by humanity as a whole. We may even be headed into a collective dark night.

The Earth is going through major changes. We are about to face the consequences of our western worldview and how we have seen ourselves in relationship to Earth.

Ecosystems unravel. Large number of species go extinct. Water, soil and air is poisoned. There will be more frequent and more serious regional, and possibly global, water and food shortages.

And all of that is because we have seen ourselves as separate from the Earth, and the Earth as unlimited for extracting resources and dumping waste and toxins. We have organized ourselves collectively, in all areas of society, without taking ecological realities into account.

Facing the increasingly obvious and tangible consequences of this is, in a very real way, a collective and shared spiritual crisis. It forces us to re-evaluate our priorities. It requires us to examine and profoundly change our worldview and how we see ourselves in relation to the Earth, and to current and future generations of all species. It requires us to reorganize ourselves in very practical ways, so that what’s easy and attractive to do also supports life in a deep sense.

This spiritual crisis has already taken the form of a dark night for some, and it may do so for many more in the near future.

The Earth is merciless. It mirrors back to us our relationship to it in a very tangible way. And as with any spiritual crisis, and any dark night, this is also grace and an invitation to find a new life, to find a new way of perceiving ourselves and the world, and a new way of being in the world.


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Love and moving through

I am still in what can be called a dark night of the soul, and it’s still quite challenging. My brain feels foggy. There is fatigue. Painful emotions surface. Painful memories come up. The rug keeps being pulled out from under my feet.

And a living koan keeps coming up for me related to this.

On the one hand, there is love. Finding love for what’s here, and recognizing it as love.

On the other hand, there is aiming for it to move through as easily as possible.

Both are from kindness and wisdom. And both can clearly co-exist, are mutually supportive of each other, and complementary.

Love helps me recognize that what’s here is the divine. The divine recognizes itself as even what a thought may call difficult.

Aiming for it to move through keeps the bigger picture alive, and is a reminder to feel what’s surfacing without wallowing in it.

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Fatigue and spiritual emergencies

I wrote about this earlier, but it comes up again for me.

Fatigue is one of the common symptoms during a spiritual emergency. And there may be a few different reasons.

There is a burn out, perhaps following an initial awakening with strong energies running through the system.

There is an overwhelm due to strong energies, or wounds and trauma surfacing. Unexamined assumptions creates fear and a sense of overwhelm, this takes energy, and may lead to a sense of fatigue.

It’s part of the obscuration of the faculties (the personal will, intellect, morals etc.), it makes it so there is less energy to fuel the delusions, and this allows God (love, spirit, natural intelligence) more freedom to work on us as it wishes.

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Outline: Spiritual Emergency

A brief outline for an (so far imagined) presentation on spiritual emergency:

  1. Definitions
    • Spiritual Emergence
    • Spiritual Emergency
    • History of definitions + work in the field
  2. Types + symptoms + triggers
    • Types of spiritual emergency
      • Opening / initial awakening
      • Kundalini awakening
      • Dark night – of senses, soul, etc.
    • Symptoms
    • Triggers
  3. What to do
    • Oneself
    • For another
      • As friend, family – how best to support
      • As therapist, teacher, guide etc.
        • Before – map, types, symptoms, what to do
        • During – how to support
  4. Cases
    • Historic (St. John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Brother Suso etc.)
    • Contemporary (a) well known, (b) ordinary people.
  5. Resources
    • Organizations
    • Websites
    • Books
    • A/V

Fatigue and spiritual emergency

It seems that fatigue is quite common among people going through some forms of spiritual emergency, and perhaps especially a dark night.

I can see a few possible reasons for such a connection.

A dark night of the soul typically follows a period of high energies running through the system, for instance from an initial kundalini awakening. The system may be “burnt out” from these energies, and needs to rest and so swings back.

If primal fear & dread, or wounds & trauma, surfaces, it can be experienced as overwhelming and lead to temporary fatigue. Similarly, if there is a heightened sensitivity to certain foods, chemicals, environments etc., this may lead to fatigue.

In the fatigue there is an invitation to rest, to quiet the mind and the doing. This may allow the system to reorganize on its own, with less interference from the conscious mind. Here, fatigue functions as a modern form of retreat, or a retreat for those who otherwise wouldn’t easily slow down.

Each of these may apply to me. (a) There was certainly a great deal of energy running through my system from the initial opening, and it lasted for many years. (b) When strong emotions surface, I sometimes feel a bit flattened. Since the initial awakening, my body has been quite sensitive to certain foods, chemicals and environments, and I notice this influences how alert or fatigued I feel. (c) I was very active for years before the fatigue set in (studies, work, community organizing, art, zen and more), and a fatigue may have been one of the few things that could have slowed me down. Fatigue in combination with brain fog has also slowed down my mind, which may allow processes to take place with less conscious interference.

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Traditional teachers and spiritual emergencies

This is something it took me a while to figure out.

When I had my initial opening, which started a quite dramatic kundalini awakening, I initially didn’t know anyone who was even remotely interested in those things.  (I was a hardcore 16 year old atheist in a small town in Norway, so no wonder.) After some years, I did find books that seemed to have been written by people who had a similar realization as what was revealed to me, although I also saw that many – or most – seemed to write about things they didn’t have personal experience with. And that included some traditional teachers.

After 2-3 years, I found and went to the Tibetan Buddhist Center in Oslo and thought I would get help from one of the teachers there, but they didn’t seem to understand or relate to what I was going through. I also talked with several visiting teachers about it, and had a similar experience. On top of that, the advice they gave me – to continue my standard practice – seemed exactly the wrong advice for me. At the time, I needed grounding, while those practices brought more energy into a system already overloaded with huge amounts of energy, they opened up a system already wide open, and they brought the energy up in a system where the energy needed grounding and calming more than anything else.

I now realize that these teachers most likely had very little experience with people who had spontaneous and dramatic openings. They were used to working with people within their tradition, who had followed the progressive practices outlined for them, and had a much more gradual path. I also assume that Tibetans tend to be more grounded – both psychologically (more whole) and energetically – than many westerners are, so they are not so used to dealing with people as ungrounded as I was at the time.

This is just a reminder of the need and importance of researching spiritual emergencies, disseminating information about spiritual emergencies, and – perhaps most importantly – training teachers (in yoga, meditation etc.) to recognize and guide people through spiritual emergencies.

Spiritually Transformative Experiences

I have been reading more about Spiritual Emergencies and Spiritually Transformative Experiences (STEs) again recently. (I was very much into it in my teens and early twenties). A couple of things stand out right now. One is the commonalities in what happens to people after an STE, whether it’s an opening or early awakening, a Near Death Experience (NDE), apparent alien abduction, loss, death of a loved one, child birth, travel, sex, or much more. For me, it was an opening or early awakening in my teens, and the way it changed me is very similar to how people who experienced other types of STEs report it changed them.

Watching a documentary about Near Death Experiences, I am also reminded of another commonality. As a child before school age, I had flashes of memories of how it was before incarnation: infinite love, infinite wisdom, all a radiant golden subtle light, infinite sense of being home, infinite sense of belonging. (All of these are crude descriptions.) People who have an NDE report something that’s quite similar. And there is also another parallel: a sense that this was in the past, and not here now. I perceived it that way too, for a while. Now, I see that what was then, is also here in immediacy. All the characteristics of what was “then” is here now. A simple and sincere inquiry helped me see that:

Is it true it’s not here now?

A thought may come in and say “it’s not the same, this is much less strong”. Which leads to another inquiry:

Is it true it needs to be strong? Is it true that strong is “better”? Is it any less real or significant if it’s not as strong?

Types of dark nights, in my own experience

There are many types of dark nights in a spiritual context, and I am only experienced with a couple.

There is the dark night of the senses, where identification with the body and as a human being is loosened.

And there is the dark night of the soul, where remaining identifications are triggered, wear out, and softened or fall away.

For me, the dark night of the senses lasted for about a year. When I was fifteen, I drank a large amount of alcohol for the first and last time, and the day after, January 1st, I felt the world becoming more (and eventually very) distant. I even remember the exact situation and moment it happened. This lasted for a year, and I thought something was seriously wrong and went to see several doctors and specialists, and had several neurological tests done. Not surprisingly, in hindsight, they didn’t find anything. Now, I see that I could call it an “absorption into the witness”. It was still very dualistic, but a very simple dualism between “I” here witnessing, and the world (including my body, emotions, thoughts) “out there” quite distant from me, and appearing quite unreal, like a dream, as if I could put my hand right through it. This seemed to be triggered by the alcohol, and I had been an atheist for several years by that time. This dark night of the senses, if that’s what it was, didn’t seem “spiritual” at all to me. Prior to this, I had some years where I felt very much an outsider and awkward socially, and also “frozen” in some ways. That too may be seen as part of this dark night, or at least leading up to it. (I sometimes hear “dark night” being referred to as “dry” and losing interest in the world. I wonder if this is not another form of a dark night of the senses.)

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Being up front about the possibility of spiritual emergencies

Spiritual emergencies can take several forms, including kundalini awakening, a spiritual opening turning one’s world upside-down and inside-out, a dark night, wounds and trauma surfacing to be healed, a “dry period” of lack of interest in the world, or more.

These spiritual emergencies may happen “out of the blue” without any prior spiritual practice (as it did for me), or they may happen as an apparent consequence of a spiritual practice – whether this practice is a form of meditation, yoga, chi gong, shamanic practices, or prayer of the “true” or “dangerous” kind (for awakening, be shown what’s left, etc.).

So just as a medical doctor will inform a client about possible side effects of a medicine, especially if these side effects are common and can be severe, it’s good practice for a teacher of any spiritual practice to inform the students of possible side effects of their practice.

To me, it seems reasonable to – at the very least – offer….

A map of the terrain, including (i) the typical phases and facets of the process, and (ii) common and less common forms of spiritual emergencies and their symptoms.

And guidelines for how to navigate this terrain in general, and spiritual emergencies in particular, in the most skillful way possible.

Knowing the map will help students recognize the symptoms when they occur, and see that they are common and even to be expected. It helps prevent or reduce an additional layer of distress, bewilderment, and either inflation (f.ex. kundalini awakening) or thoughts that something “went wrong” (f.ex. in a dark night).

Practical pointers can also be invaluable. For instance, how do I prepare to reduce the chances or intensity of a future spiritual emergency? And if one happens, how do I relate to it in the best possible way? How I ground myself during a kundalini awakening? How do I help see through the distress of a dark night?

In addition, being open and frank about this up front has several benefits. It may help some students decide that a particular practice is not for them, at least not at this point in their life, and they may chose something else that’s gentler and more grounding. It gives the students an idea of how well the teacher knows about and understands spiritual emergencies, so they can chose to go to them – or someone else who is more experienced – before a spiritual emergency takes place, or if or when it takes place. And having more information about these matters out in public makes it easier for people who have a spiritual emergency “out of the blue”, without any prior practice or interest in spiritual matters, to find information, support and guidance.

In terms of education, it seems reasonable to include information about the spiritual terrain and spiritual emergencies in the school system, and in the training of medical doctors, psychologists, priests, and – obviously – teachers of meditation, yoga, chi gong and similar practices. It is already happening, to some extent and in some places, and it may be more widespread in the future, especially as there is more research in and public knowledge of this topic.

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Ways through the dark night II

I thought I would write another brief post on ways of relating to a dark night, mainly since the previous one is more of a draft and quite rambling.

Here are some pointers that have been helpful to me, in no particular order.

Find your own way. What works for some in some phases does not work for others or in other phases. We all need to find our way through it. That’s part of the lesson, it seems, of the dark night.

Take care of yourself. Eat well. Get plenty of rest. Drink lots of water (so your urine is pale). Go for walks. Do strength training. Engage in body centered activities that work for you, such as Breema, shiatsu, massage, and possibly yoga or tai chi. (Be mindful of the effects of some of these, such as yoga, tai chi and chi gong. If the energy intensifies or goes “up”, slow down or do something else.) Seek out a nurturing environment and nurturing activities. Spend lots of time in nature. Walk barefoot. Do gardening. Visualize a grounding cord to the center of the Earth. Seek healing for old wounds and traumas that may be surfacing. Finally, be careful with medications, especially psychoactive medications. Use these as last resort, and if you take any, start with very small doses as you may be more sensitive than average. (I have not been drawn to using drugs of any types, and would avoid it as much as possible.)

Do inquiry on what’s coming up – wounds, trauma, resistance, blame, self-blame and so on. Find what’s more true than your initial assumptions.

Stay with the sensations, as much as possible, instead of going into stories. Inquiry can make it easier to stay with sensations as sensations.

Do mindfulness practice. Contemporary secular mindfulness practice may be gentler, and more appropriate to the dark night phase, than many forms of meditation and some forms of body-centered practices.

Find love for what’s here. This can be as simple as saying to what’s coming up (pain, distress, anger, fatigue, pride, fear), or to our body (heart, brain), I love you, I wish you ease. We can use ho’oponopono, tonglen or metta on ourselves or suffering parts of ourselves, as well as other people in our lives, and the earth. We can place ourselves in the heart flame. We can hold satsang with what’s here. (You are welcome. Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for your love. What would satisfy you forever? What are you really?)

Devotion and prayer can be helpful. Offer it all – the pain, the situation, your body and mind, your life, your resistance – to God (Spirit, Christ, Buddha Mind). Ask for guidance. Ask for inner and outer support. Ask for the intensity of what’s going on to be reduced (if it feels overwhelming). Ask for support in meeting what’s here with love. Ask for what’s happening / your life to benefit all beings. Give thanks for what’s happening (including, or especially, that which you don’t particularly like). Do the Jesus/heart prayer combined with the breath and heart beats: “Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy upon me”. (If this last one intensifies or brings the energies up, try to do it with more ease, or wait until another phase of your process.)

Uncover a clear intention to…. find love for what’s here, heal what needs to be healed, give your mind-body and life over to the divine, follow your guidance, or whatever else seems helpful and aligned with love and clarity. This can be done through setting an intention (temporary value), clarifying your intention (more helpful), or asking life/the divine for support in uncovering a clear intention.

Gratitude can seem difficult to access during a dark night, at least at times. And yet, it’s something that can significantly ease the process. Try a simple gratitude prayer or mantra of of thank you, thank you, thank you as you go for a walk, lie in bed, or do daily activities. Experiment with gratitude lists. These lists can include only what’s easy to be grateful for. Or they can be all inclusive lists, including that which it’s not so easy to be grateful for. (Daily inclusive gratitude lists can be shared with a gratitude practice partner.)

Be mindful of the effects of any meditation and energy practices. Some forms of meditation or energy practices may be helpful, at least at times. For instance, insight meditation may help you see through what’s coming up (wounds, resistance) and who you are (the basic duality), and stability practice may support you in feeling sensations and allowing what’s here. Other times, these practices may intensify the energy running through your system, further open a very open system, and bring the energy up while it could benefit more from grounding.  

Learn the basics about spiritual emergencies and dark nights. Get to see that it’s a natural process, not uncommon at all, people get through it, and very few if any wish it wouldn’t have happened when they are out on the other side. This can bring a sense of trust in the process, and some relief from the idea that something “went wrong”. (It will feel that way, and that’s good to know too.)

Seek guidance from someone you trust, who is knowledgeable and skilled in guiding people through spiritual emergencies, and ideally who has gone through it themselves. This person can help you navigate through it a bit more skilfully. (This also goes for therapists.)

Find a community of people going through something similar, whether it’s through reading (people who recorded their stories), on the internet, or in person. These can be a good source of advice, and it can be comforting to know that others are going through the same.

Seek support from family, friends, like-minded people, guides, environment and wherever else you can find it.

Don’t blame others or the world for your pain. That’s not where it belongs, although it’s easy to lash out when the pain seems unbearable. Let people in your life know what’s going on, and apologize as needed. Also, notice and bring to inquiry any attitudes and stories that would get you to lash out and blame others.

Keep it simple. During this phase, which can feel quite overwhelming at times, keep it simple. Spend time in nature. Use a simple mindfulness practice. Stay with the sensations as sensations, the best you can. Find love for what’s here, perhaps using a simple practice such as metta or ho’oponopono. Ask for support (from the divine, from people). Write a simple gratitude list. Don’t blame yourself for not being able to engage in apparently more sophisticated practices. (If you do, that’s OK. And it’s also something you can take to inquiry.)

Give yourself a break. It’s a tough phase. There will most likely be resistance, fear, overwhelm, a sense that something went wrong, and a sense that you are doing something wrong – including in how you relate to what’s happening. That’s part of the process. It’s OK. Life is guiding the process, and it will not always look the way we expect or wish. At times, you may not feel up to doing any of the things that you know may be supportive, and that’s OK too. (It may be a relief to look at shoulds in inquiry, as well as whatever thoughts stops us from – for instance – continuing a simple practice, whether it’s mindfulness or inquiry or something else.)

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