Spiritual Emergencies vs. Psychosis

Paper I Submitted for my Atlantic University TP5005 Course – July 27, 2019

Spiritual emergencies and mysticism viewed through the narrow lens of Western medicine are challenging to distinguish from psychosis. As Russell Phillips, David Lukoff, and Mark Stone note in their article, Integrating the Spirit Within Psychosis: Alternative Conceptualizations of Psychotic Disorders, “In contemporary Western society, anomalous experiences such as seeing visions and hearing voices, while known to occur during intense spiritual experiences, are often viewed as symptoms of psychotic disorders” (2009, p. 62). Some transpersonal psychologists have even “described psychosis as a natural developmental process with both spiritual and psychological components” (2009, p. 62).

When trying to define the difference between psychosis and spiritual emergencies, Grof & Grof in, The Stormy Search for Self, note that those with spiritual emergencies “are qualitatively different from those associated with organic psychoses…” The authors suggest that “the first important criterion” in determining the difference between a spiritual emergency and psychosis “is the absence of any medical condition…This eliminates those states where the primary cause is infection, intoxication, metabolic disorder, tumor, circulatory disturbance or a degenerative disease” (1990, pp. 43-44).

In her essay, The Relationship between Schizophrenia & Mysticism: A Bibliographic Essay, Sandra Stahlman identifies these characteristics to define mystical experiences that emerge from authors she’s examined: “experience of unity, intense affective experience, time/space distortion, noetic quality, ineffability, and a sense of holiness or sacredness.” She adds that “the concept of universality” was also included as a characteristic by many (1992, p. 1).

By contrast, Grof & Grof note that people “suffering from severe paranoid states, hostile acoustic hallucinations (“voices”), and delusions of persecution consistently engage in projection of such unconscious contents and act under their influence” (1990, p. 44). Stahlman, using a definition from David Lukoff, writes that psychotics “are individuals whose inner workings are not comprehensible. In addition, doctors look to see if the patient is able to function in everyday life; do they possess common sense” (1992, p. 5).

The courts decide whether they should hold non-criminals against their will by determining if they are a potential danger to themselves or others. This criteria can be used to distinquish between a spiritual crisis and psychosis. Another measure is whether the individual is concerned with the welfare of others, as they are frequently in the midst of a mystical experience. Or whether they are narcissistic and see everything in terms of personal gain.
The broad brush that many clinicians in the West paint those who may be “different” and out of the cultural norm isn’t warranted in many cases. As Grof & Grof note, “A System of thinking that deliberately discards everything that cannot be weighed and measured does not leave any opening for the recognition of creative cosmic intelligence, spiritual realities, or such entities as transpersonal experiences or the collective unconscious” (1990, p. 247).

If a person isn’t a danger to themselves or others, isn’t diagnosed with medical disease or addiction, can take of themselves, and possess a genuine compassion for others, they are functioning in a healthy manner. They might live in the woods by themselves with 30 cats and don’t like interacting with others. This doesn’t mean they have psychosis, and in fact, they may be undergoing a mystical experience.

Family members might see them as eccentric or “off their rockers,” but whether they are socially adjusted is not a criterion for labeling a person crazy or mad. Some of the greatest saints, mystics, scientists, poets, and artists haven’t fit into their society “norms,” and despite their critics, they blazed their own trail. There isn’t a reason for alarm when people exhibit such behavior. In fact, we wouldn’t have evolved to this point without them.

Grof C. & Grof S. (1990). The stormy search for the self, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.: Los Angeles.

Phillips, R., Lukoff, D., & Stone, M. (2009). Integrating the spirit within psychosis: Alternative conceptualizations of psychotic disorders. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 41(1), 61-76.

Stahlman, S. (1992). The relationship between schizophrenia & mysticism: A bibliographic essay.