The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.



JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is "Spiritual Crisis." With me is Christina Grof, who is author of The Thirst for Wholeness. Christina is also the co-creator of Holotropic Breathwork and the founder of the Spiritual Emergence Network. With her husband, Dr. Stanislav Grof, she has authored several books including Spiritual Emergency, The Stormy Search for Self, and Beyond Death. Welcome, Christina.

CHRISTINA GROF: Thank you, Jeffrey.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you.

GROF: Real pleasure to be here.

MISHLOVE: Spiritual emergency, or spiritual crisis, is in many ways a relatively new term in our modern vernacular -- now, because of your efforts, quite widely used. But I suppose one can say, historically speaking, in medieval times and ancient times, it was well understood that there were crises along the spiritual path, or crises of awakening.

GROF: Yes, and I think anyone who is familiar with the lives of the mystics or the saints, or even the life of Jesus, of Mohammed, that there were these dark times -- the walks in the desert, the difficulties, the struggle, the wrestling with the divine -- that appear in many different lives. And what I've come to understand is that this is a very common part of the spiritual path. It might not be as extreme as some of the statements in the lives of the saints, but for everyone who seriously embarks on a spiritual path there are times of walking through the desert, as well as times of great reward.

MISHLOVE: Well, of course there can be times of soul searching, times of doubt. But when you talk about spiritual crises, often there's a physical component to this.

GROF: Yes. Well, I like to talk about both spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency. Spiritual emergence is a natural capability of every human being -- to emerge into their spiritual self, to emerge out of the sense of limitation as an individual into a more expanded sense of self, and that this kind of spiritual identity gives sacred underpinnings to a person's life. And so spiritual emergence can happen easily; for some people they might not even notice that it's happening, and after a period of five or ten years they look back and say, "I really have changed." Spiritual emergency is something else. This is spiritual crisis. This is a time when the experiences, when the physical states that you mentioned, when the insights come very rapidly, and a person sometimes in that situation has trouble coping with their everyday life, and for a while may even need to step away from some of their daily responsibilities to give attention to this inner process that's become very overwhelming.

MISHLOVE: It seems ironic in a sense that, on the one hand, one might say that a life in which every moment feels blessed and joyful might be considered the natural state of the human being; on the other hand, we sure sometimes have to go through an awful lot to allow ourselves to have that.

GROF: Well, this is true. Wouldn't it be nice if this kind of happy, natural state were always available? But I think, from what I've seen, a lot of it has to do with the ego, with resistances, with an unwillingness to open to our true potential, for whatever reason -- self-doubt, a sense that we might not deserve what it is that's trying to happen, and many other reasons.

MISHLOVE: There's a whole energetic phenomenon associated with it. In the Hindu tradition it's sometimes referred to as the rising of the kundalini, the coiled serpent energy at the base of the spine that rises up and activates the chakras, or various centers of psychic awareness, along the way. And this sometimes -- in fact in your experience -- can be a very disruptive, even painful, process.

GROF: Very disruptive. The kundalini awakening is the context that I've been able to put many of my experiences into in order to understand it. It was a metaphor that works for me. When it started, it started for me with the birth of my first child. So there I was, in a hospital, lying on my back giving birth, and suddenly this enormous spiritual force got going in me. I didn't know it was a spiritual force at the time. It felt like being out of control. It felt like there were a lot of tremors, a lot of strange breathing that started to happen, kind of in spite of my best intentions. And I was both excited and very frightened by what was going on. This certainly was not what they had taught us about in Lamaze childbirth preparation. And that's how it began. I've spoken with other women where this is true. This is not the only place that the kundalini awakening happens.

MISHLOVE: Of course childbirth is, I think, by every account, as close as one can imagine in many ways to a sacred experience.

GROF: Well, it is. And it also can be a kind of physical-emotional emergency in a way. I mean, it's a tremendous point of stress, and we've found out in our research into spiritual emergency that very frequently when this process gets going in people, whether it's a kundalini experience or some other form of spiritual awakening, it's at a time of stress or a time of loss, emotional or physical stress. It may be when a person has a disease, or just has had an accident, or is grieving the loss of a job or a mate or a parent. Then this awakening can start. And as you say, it has very physical form sometimes.

MISHLOVE: It seems to me there's a real delicate line between the kind of experience that occurs in which you can say to yourself, "Oh, this is horrible. I'm really suffering, but I know there's a lesson in here for me. I can learn from this, and when I'm finally on the other side of it I will be a larger, wiser person," as opposed to the kind of experience where you say, "My God, I am really suffering. I just can't wait till it ends," and there is no lesson; the only hope is to end the suffering.

GROF: Well, and I think you can feel both of those things at different stages in a spiritual emergence or emergency situation, because sometimes there is a sense of such hopelessness that you lose the perspective that this is a lesson and that I'm going to come out of this different. A lot of times that will happen around what we call the ego death experience, where everything feels as though it's dying. And what's happening in that kind of an experience is that all of the old structures, all of the old ways of being, the unsuccessful ways of being, are coming to an end, and it feels literally as though, well, this is it. And in that place it's a real sense of hopelessness and despair. Again, another irony is that if the person is able to open up to that experience, to be there with the experience, that just on that other side of despair and hopelessness and dying is a whole new way of being.

MISHLOVE: It reminds me of, I think, one of the accounts of the Crucifixion, in which Christ's last words are said to be, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" right before the resurrection.

GROF: Yes, and actually when I was involved in my own spritual-emergency years, which were -- it was about twelve years of real kind of emergency difficulty, inner chaos -- I thought a lot about "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" in various stages. It felt as though whatever resources I had previously had, had disappeared. And yet, when I could surrender to that state and say, "OK, I don't know what else to do. Take me," then right on the other side of that was all kinds of spiritual help and nourishment.

MISHLOVE: Well, there are some people in the psychological-psychiatric community, people I suppose such as R.D. Laing, or Arnie Mindell, who would maintain that every crisis is kind of a spiritual process through which we grow -- every potential psychotic episode. Do you subscribe to that view?

GROF: Well, I think you can see it from many different perspectives. You know, there is the very general perspective, which is this is all a spiritual crisis -- you know, the whole life process is one long spiritual crisis or one long spiritual path, if you want to call it that. When my husband and I began to focus on the area of spiritual emergency, we put some framework on it for practical reasons, so that we could distinguish what is what we would call a spiritual emergency, a crisis of being, in a sense, and what is true mental illness, what is a psychotic experience. And we, in talking about spiritual emergency, never wanted to say there is no such thing as mental illness. So for practical purposes we try to distinguish between the two, and a lot of that has to do with style, or the attitude with which the person is treating the experiences.

MISHLOVE: The person who is having the experience.

GROF: Yes.

MISHLOVE: In other words, there is some existential choice in all of this. Even a schizophrenic could make a commitment to turning it into a spiritual experience of some kind.

GROF: Well, I'll tell you the difference in styles that we would distinguish. Somebody who is willing to somehow see this as an inner process, who may have great difficulty at times turning inward and going with the process, but still by and large will say to you, "There's something really powerful happening to me. These are the experiences I'm having." You know: "I feel like I maybe lived before, or that I'm connected with this source of energy, and I'm having all kinds of mythological kinds of experiences. Have you ever heard of this? How do I work with this?" It's a very different attitude than someone who is externalizing it all. You know, it's not about them in any way, it's about the external world. They're paranoid. It's about the CIA and the person who's bugging their home.

MISHLOVE: In other words, I suppose in the most pragmatic of terms, some people are very responsive to treating their condition as spiritual emergency, and others are simply not.

GROF: Well, I think so, and I have talked with many people who have had a so-called spiritual emergency in real crisis situations where they were scared, their family was scared, they went to the local hospital or their local psychiatrist and were admitted into a psychiatric ward. And they told me even though they received all kinds of psychiatric labels or drugs, that something in them knew that this was not mental illness, that this was something else, and that after they got out of the hospital, they continued to treat it in some way as an opportunity for self-exploration.

MISHLOVE: I suppose that already requires a certain level of self-esteem that not everybody has.

GROF: I don't know if it's self-esteem or whether it's just that there is --

MISHLOVE: An intuition perhaps.

GROF: An intuition, or -- yes, it's kind of an experiential quality to it, that if they are somehow able to hang in there and stay with the process, that they are in the process of some monumental change in their lives.

MISHLOVE: Well, I suppose on the one hand we might get people who are having a genuine spiritual crisis who become misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic, put in a hospital and given a lot of drugs to suppress their symptoms, rather than to work through them; and perhaps on the other hand you might have people who are experiencing, for all intents, a psychotic break, who end up in the hands of a transpersonal therapist who tells them, "Oh, this is a spiritual awakening; you're so fortunate," and they never quite are able to cope.

GROF: Well, I think both of these things exist. What I would like to see, and what I think has already been happening, is that the person in that situation has a choice. You know, if they come to the doctor or the therapist and say, "I just want something that's going to make this go away. I don't want to deal with it. Give me something," then maybe the best indication is tranquilizers and hospitalization. But if the person really sees it as an inner process, wants to work with it, wants guidance through it, wants support, maybe without medication and psychiatric intervention, that that should be also available to that person. What would be necessary in that situation would be some kind of a therapist or psychiatrist with a broad enough conceptual understanding that if there's an intense spiritual experience, or archetypal or mythological experience, that they would be able to support that.

MISHLOVE: And fortunately there are more and more.

GROF: Fortunately there are more and more.

MISHLOVE: Of these people. Well, you mentioned that you spent twelve years struggling with a spiritual emergency that fit the kundalini model. Can we talk more about the details of what that was really like from the inside?

GROF: Well, let me say something abou the kundalini. You mentioned it -- that the yogis see the kundalini, the spiritual energy, as feminine, that it is available to all people, that it lies dormant in all people, and that through spiritual practice or through contact with a teacher or just spontaneously, that suddenly this sleeping spiritual energy can be released through the system, and it travels through the system, kind of cleansing, opening the person to their spiritual self. It sounds very simple, but it can be very demanding when that happens. For me, I think that when this kundalini process got going I was very blocked, I was very resistant, there was a lot of cleaning out to do, and I was scared. So I kind of dug my heels and resisted the experiences much more than I wish I had, and I think that's part of what made it so difficult. I had wonderful support through it, but it was just my own resistance that made it difficult. There were a lot of physical pains in different parts of my body. It was almost as though, as the spiritual force, the kundalini, was hitting against different areas, trying to open it up, that it would result in pains of different kinds -- temporary blindness for a while, strange eye problems and headaches.

MISHLOVE: Times at which I think you described it as if you felt you might be dying.

GROF: Yes, yes, it felt sometimes as though -- and really, in a lot of ways, the old Christina was dying. The part of me that wasn't operating successfully in the world was dying. The limited, materialistic part of me was dying, in order to open up to a much broader sense of who I was.

MISHLOVE: And of course I'm sure there were concerns that maybe you were really physically ill.

GROF: Oh yes, and my strategy was that I would go to the doctor if ever I was concerned, and I would not say I'm involved in the kundalini awakening, but I'd say, "Here are the symptoms I'm having," and I'd get the tests and find out what I didn't have, and we never did find anything. And then I would work with the process. There were also emotional surges. The people who write about the kundalini talk about the physical kriyas, or the physical releases. There were also emotional releases; so suddenly, as kind of a pocket of anger or fear or shame would open up, those would come into consciousness, and I would have to work with those to kind of process them. So I see it as a kind of purging process.

MISHLOVE: Some of the traditions, I think, talk about the ten thousand visions that can occur, back and forth between heaven and hell.

GROF: Oh yes, and I certainly had my share of those.

MISHLOVE: Well, the classical antidote to the agonies of the kundalini is discipline, a spiritual discipline, a yoga practice.

GROF: Well, and I talked with various spiritual teachers during this chaos, because I found that when I was in the middle of this there were all kinds of tremors and visions which kept me from being able to do a sitting meditation practice, for example, or something very focused and disciplined. And the answers I got were that maybe it was important for a while, while it was very disruptive, to suspend that kind of a discipline, and instead the discipline became to surrender to whatever it was that I was given on a particular day.

MISHLOVE: Just surrender to your own inner process.

GROF: Um hm. And the spiritual practice was waiting right there for me when the process itself calmed down enough so that I could start focusing again.

MISHLOVE: Well, I suppose if we step back for a moment and look at what is spiritual practice, what is yoga, there are many different facets of it, and certainly at any one time in your life you can't practice them all; but the postures, the meditations, are just one part of yoga. Another part is a kind of surrender, an opening of the heart.

GROF: Um hm. Well, and I think it requires a certain flexibility to be able to respond to wherever one is in the process. For me it was very important to have some good guidance, to have some teachers along the way who knew about this process, who could reassure me, tell me I was fine, and this wasn't craziness, that this was in fact a spiritual awakening that was going on, and then to give me some ideas about what to do next.

MISHLOVE: At that point it's a question of taking it a day at a time.

GROF: Exactly, exactly. One of my big mistakes was that I began to medicate myself with alcohol, and I've talked with other people where this has been the same story, so that I severely compromised this awakening for a number of years there.

MISHLOVE: We did talk in an earlier segment about alcoholism and its relationship to the spiritual path. Now we're at a point where partially what you're saying is that in your case the development of alcoholism was in response to the kundalini arising. It was so intense you felt the need to find a way to tranquilize yourself.

GROF: Yes. Well, there were certainly other aspects to my alcoholism, but definitely that was a major factor.

MISHLOVE: So now we're at an interesting point, because there's a sense in which the antidote to alcoholism, and the antidote to kundalini, begin to interpenetrate each other.

GROF: Yes, and as we said in the earlier program, my strong belief is that one of the major antidotes to addiction is some kind of spiritual path, some kind of spiritual life, as well as doing the other aspects of recovery. For me the real turning point in my spiritual life was coming into recovery from my addiction, and it's been like a continuation of the kundalini process. Somehow, with that surrender at the bottom of my drinking career, a lot of the chaos of the kundalini settled down, quieted down, smoothed out, and now that force is available to me in other ways -- creativity, for example.

MISHLOVE: Well, I suppose it didn't have to be alcohol, but it seems as if what you're saying is that sometimes when you're going through a pitch of awakening, and especially in the context of our modern culture with all of its stimulation and possibilities, that in order to really find our core we need to, or we often do, at least, go through major crisis, or bring ourselves to major crisis.

GROF: Well, I think that's true. And so how do we handle it is, I think, one of the all-important questions. Is there support? Do we have people we can to to talk about this? Because in the middle of it it's very confusing. I think people need to reach out at that point. Part of my work in the area of spiritual emergency has been to try in some way to provide that support. That's why I founded the Spiritual Emergence Network, and that's why I've worked hard to try to have a network of centers where people can go, to go through the critical periods of their spiritual emergency.

MISHLOVE: Centers, I guess, that can combine psychological-emotional knowledge, medical knowledge, and spiritual knowledge.

GROF: Absolutely, yes. I mean, in some ways the best of addiction treatment centers can serve as prototypes for centers for spiritual emergency. The emphasis of course would be somewhat different, but there have been some very good residential treatment centers for addiction treatment, and I think some of the lessons that the addiction treatment people have learned can now be applied to those working in the area of spiritual emergency.

MISHLOVE: Well, of course fundamental, as we pointed out in our previous interview, to the recovery process, in the twelve-step program is the notion of surrender to a higher power. And that seems to be pretty much part of the spiritual path of every culture.

GROF: Yes, and in the spiritual emergency, in the kundalini awakening, to try to get the ego out of the way, step aside, and allow this deeper spiritual power, which is also part of who we are, to emerge.

MISHLOVE: Each tradition seems to give it a different label. It could be the Atman in the Hindu tradition, or your spirit guides in a Western esoteric tradition, or your higher self in a transpersonal psychology tradition.

GROF: The Holy Spirit.

MISHLOVE: The Holy Spirit, or Jesus, or -- we have many, many languages for this, many, many cultural contexts. But what you're saying, when you talk about a spiritual context, is to see the common ground in all of those.

GROF: Yes. And there have been many, many cultures throughout history who've recognized spiritual crisis, who have seen it as absolutely part of the path -- you know, some of the wise elders are ones who have been through that process, who can then help to guide and support other people who've gone through it. I think our culture has opened up to that need, and is responding.

MISHLOVE: Well, it is amazing the way our culture seems to be responding to this spiritual thirst. Christina Grof, what a pleasure.

GROF: Thank you, Jeffrey.

MISHLOVE: And thank you so much for being willing to reveal these deep and painful parts of yourself. I think it's a lesson and a blessing for all of us.

GROF: Thank you.

MISHLOVE: Thanks for being with me.

GROF: It's a real pleasure.

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