Could Psychological Crisis be a Symptom or Catalyst for Awakening Experience? Donna Thomas
During this essay, I will discuss the potential of transformation through crisis. Reflecting on my own experience, I will examine the relationship between psychological turmoil and sudden awakening, exploring whether crisis is a symptom or catalyst for self-realization—or both.
According to Taylor & Egeto-Szabo (2017), the term awakening refers to an expansion or opening of awareness where our perceptions, ways of being, and vision of the world is transformed; bringing a new sense of harmony, meaning, and connection. My awakening occurred in 2015. I believe many factors contributed towards this process, including trauma, value dissonance, and a difficult bereavement; all of which culminated in burnout. Despite the difficulties, this crisis transformed my life in a positive and meaningful way. Through the darkness, a fog lifted and for the first time I had clarity about who I was. My worldview rapidly changed, however, the essence of this experience is very difficult to explain. I questioned, what had driven me towards awakening; was I innately spiritual, yet unaware? Certainly religion bore no influence and yet despite this, I found God—figuratively speaking.
Reflecting on this experience I now realise that I had failed to listen to the subtler aspects of who I was. Repressed by external expectations, this inner knowing finally erupted during a major event. Despite this new appreciation, I still have many questions and continue to suffer the same challenges as before. At my core, however, I am more stable, content, and I have developed a strong sense of purpose. I see the world with new eyes and cannot return to old ways of being.
Studies suggest the most significant trigger for awakening is psychological turmoil (Egeto-Szabo, 2017; Taylor, 2012b). According to Steve Taylor PhD (2017), those that encounter such an awakening often experience positive aftereffects. Many report feeling more resilient, appreciative, and confident. Taylor calls this phenomenon “posttraumatic transformation” (p. 105). He also indicates that shifts in perspective are not always sudden with some undergoing more gradual realisations; yet once the shift occurs, they feel born again.
So why does psychological turmoil commonly cause this phenomenon? In a book entitled, In the grip: Understanding type, stress, and the inferior function, psychologist, Naomi Quenk explains that when we experience extreme stress or fatigue, our conscious energy becomes depleted giving way to unconscious processing. This experience is known as being in the grip, and can present as “out-of-character thoughts, feelings and behaviours” (Quenk, 2000, p. 1). This book was produced as part of a series explaining the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which was based on theories developed by one of the pioneers of psychology, Carl Jung (1875-1961). The following is a personal example that demonstrates how a grip experience can manifest:
According to MBTI, I possess the rarest (and most spiritual) personality type, known as INFJ. My dominant functions, are Introverted Intuition and Extroverted Feeling. This means that I am inwardly focused, future-orientated, empathic and use complex patterns to navigate the world. Prior to my burnout experience, I experienced work-related stress and prolonged periods working outside of these natural functions. As a result, my conscious energy became tired, and my unconscious, inferior function (Extroverted Sensing) came to the fore. The appearance of this function prompted an immediate need for sensory stimuli. In this case, I pursued high speed activities such as roller coaster rides and risky behaviour such as driving fast. This is consistent with the out-of-character features described above and associated with being in the grip.
Could these out-of-character episodes account for the unusual feelings experienced during sudden awakenings? There are similarities; for example, grip experiences are relatively rare, and as stated, occur when individuals are extremely stressed. Taylor (2017) describes posttraumatic transformation as “rare” (p. 123) and commonly triggered by trauma, including intense stress. During research, Taylor found that almost 78% of awakening experiences occurred spontaneously and outside the context of spiritual practice (Taylor, 2012b). Without any conceptual framework for such experiences, individuals may not understand what is happening, limiting integration and subsequent transformation. An example may include an individual experiencing transcendental awareness during a time of extreme stress; however, dismissing this experience as imagination or mental disturbance. This indicates that awakening experiences (that do not lead to transformation) are actually more common than reported. Professor of Philosophy, Michael Washburn (1988) supports this argument, stating that while many people experience awakening, “few undergo spiritual transformation” (p. 7). In addition, those that experience awakening share similar characteristics, such as a feeling of oneness or non-duality, as well as “an intense sense of well-being and gratitude [and]…a wider sense of perspective” (Taylor, 2017, p. 106). These arguments, however, don’t necessarily correspond with theories presented by Quenk (2000), since according to MBTI, there are 16 different personality types, all of which will have a unique grip experience. As such, the characteristics that each individual will present when acting out-of-character would differ and in some cases, be at polar ends to each other. This raises the question as to whether the unconscious (and its potential connection to the spiritual realm – discussed later) is wholly revealed during a grip episode. Certainly in my case, the grip experience led me away from behaviour associated with spiritual reflection or connection.
Some theories suggest that the ego still plays a significant role in a grip experience. Nucleur physicist, Amit Goswami PhD, indicates that the ego is not only influenced by conditioning, but also the constructs we create to form our personalities. These constructs are “a function of our own uniqueness and importance” (Goswami, 2017, p. 97). This does appear to correspond with the individual nature of grip experiences as described above. Faith, like any other condition, may also hinder spiritual awareness (Baring, 2013). Goswami (2017) further explains that only when we are able to transcend the ego (and these conditions), we may experience ourselves as “unitive” (p. 95). This corresponds with the awakening experiences described in Taylor’s research; evincing their transpersonal quality. Psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof, one of the most influential figures in transpersonal psychology, explains that the transpersonal domain relates to the way we identify with other people and with aspects of nature. He describes this realm as “a source of ancestral…phylogenetic, and karmic memories, as well as visions of archetypal beings and mythological regions” (Grof, 2000, p. 20). This implies that awakening experiences may extend beyond a grip encounter.
Outside of experiences attributed to being in the grip, Quenk (2000) indicates that material from our unconscious emerges to a greater degree during mid-life. Coincidently, research studies relating to awakening experiences appear to focus on individuals in their later years. Many believe there to be a connection between the unconscious and the transpersonal realm (as described by Grof, above). Could the increased reporting of awakening experience in older individuals be indicative of the connection between the unconscious and spiritual domain? The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, referred to the unconscious as the Id. He disagreed with this connection, discounting the transpersonal level all together. He believed the unconscious realm was made up of our instincts, desires and other qualities, and to be wholly pre-egoic in nature (Sanders, 2013; Washburn, 1988). Grof (2000) concurred, proclaiming that the unconscious is limited exclusively to the domain of the psyche and distinct from the transpersonal realm. It “consists mostly of postnatal biographical material…forgotten or actively repressed” (p. 21). Jung disagreed believing that unconscious content contains our “collective nonlocal memory” (Goswami, 2012, p. 89). He recognised two fields of unconscious processing. He likened the first field, the personal unconscious, to Freud’s Id, because it contains our “feelings and tendencies which may have been repressed due to parental and cultural conditioning” (Baring, 2013, p. 249). He called the second field, the collective unconscious, a greater transpersonal field containing universal archetypal experience. This second field appears to corresponds with descriptions provided of awakening experience by Taylor (2017). Taylor stipulates, however, that awakening experiences in children are “probably more common than in adulthood” (p. 221) contradicting the mid-life theory; however, this does not discount a connection between the unconscious and the spiritual realm. It may also indicate that grip experiences may be limited to the personal unconscious as opposed to the collective unconscious, as described by Jung.
Mid-life can present its own challenges. According to psychiatrist, Dr. Tim Read (2014), at this age we are more likely to experience a crisis of meaning. Despite achieving life’s goals, we may feel a lingering sense of dissatisfaction or dis-ease, evoking crisis which is “associated with a threat to the ego” (p. 174). Read believes that during this crisis we are likely to experience low mood and may encounter various forms of numinous experience. Numinous experience is described as having a strong religious or spiritual quality, comparable with the awakening experiences that Taylor’s research revealed. For this to occur, however, the ego must “fail significantly to stop the repression of Self” (Read, 2014, p. 185). Read’s explanation coincides with a theory developed by transpersonal writer and philosopher, Ken Wilber. Wilber’s Hierarchal Psyche Structure (1990) estimates that around mid-life we enter the transegoic psychic level. This theory suggests that we are open to experiencing archetypes and unitive consciousness before moving on to a stage of psychic integration. In contrast, Washburn (1988) believes there to be a more dynamic interplay between the ego and what he calls the Dynamic Ground. The Ground consists of the creative and spontaneous source out of which the ego emerges in young childhood, then becomes estranged. His theory presents a spiralling loop where at mid-life, the ego bends back towards the Ground on the way to integration with the transpersonal. He postulates that the psychic and spiritual derive from a single source. Washburn also indicates that “transvaluation of values can lead to spiritual awakening” (P. 7); meaning that the re-evaluation of our core values against the conditions of our lives (which may occur during mid-life), may lead, in itself, to a spiritual awakening. Relating this to my own experience, I believe, value dissonance (or living a life incompatible with my values) was a major contributor to my burnout and subsequent awakening. There also appears similarities between this theory and that of a mid-life grip experience. Perhaps crisis is a symptom of awakening when these changes or realisations become chaotic or overbearing, or perhaps it is the catalyst, accelerating integration and self-actualisation.
In his theory of hierarchy of needs, psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), estimated that only 2% of individuals will reach a state of self-actualisation. Self-actualisation, a term introduced by Maslow, refers to a movement towards one’s full potential. He later extended his theory to include self-transcendence (Maslow, 1970a; 1970b). Maslow, describes this stage as “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos” (Maslow, 1971, p. 269.)
As postulated, if only 2 % of individuals reach a stage of self-actualisation, does this suggest that this higher stage of self-transcendence would be less prevalent? Maslow does not indicate that the stage of self-actualisation is a pre-requisite to transcendence; describing
instead peak experiences that possess the same mystical and unitive qualities of the sudden
awakening, again described in Taylor’s research. Posttraumatic transformation, on the other hand, could indicate a more permanent transcendental state. This experience appears to correlate with Washburn and Wilber’s transegoic stage and may be, as indicated earlier, much rarer.
Grof also makes a distinction between gradual and sudden awakenings, referring to spiritual emergence as the gradual unfolding of awareness with little disruption, and spiritual emergency as a sudden awakening that causes major disruption (Taylor, 2017). These theories may explain why individuals who have experienced sudden awakening; or even to some extent posttraumatic transformation, may continue to find life challenging. Continued self-development and spiritual practice may be needed to achieve a more permanent transcendental state.
Like Washburn, psychologist, Roberto Assagioli (1973), believed that self-realisation is the lifelong interplay between the ego and Self, suggesting that both the psyche and transpersonal realm are relevant for spiritual development. John Firman, a student of Assagioli, who helped develop the theory of psychosynthesis, stated that “exploration of the unconscious was important for developing a relationship with the Self”. However, he stipulated that the “Self…[shouldn’t]…be confused with the Superconscious” (Firman, 1996, p. 6). The superconscious, according to Atkinson (2010), is a plane “above-consciousness” (p. 163). This is described as the ultimate reality, something behind and beyond the transcendental state and human awareness. Firman suggests Self to be omnipresent but distinct from numinous content. “Self pervades all…areas of the person—lower…middle…and higher unconscious.” Therefore, he states, “we may encounter Self within any type of human experience, from healing…early wounding, to embracing…peak experience, to managing our daily affairs” (Firman, 1996, p. 15-16).
Modern day pressures may leave little space to notice these subtler aspects of who we are. “Pre-occupation…could divert attention away from our inner selves, causing us to lose connection to important values and meaning” (Thomas, 2018, p. 121). As Goswami (2017) explains, “the ego is determined and predictable” (p. 97). In essence, this makes it more available and reliable; potentially preventing deep listening or reflection. According to Taylor (2017), during turmoil our normal psychological functions breakdown. This may result in “lower levels of Ego-strength” (Stearns & Moore, 1993, p. 129). Is it reasonable, therefore, to assume that during crisis, the ego’s influence is disabled, causing natural patterns of thinking to be interrupted? During these situations, could something else enter this space? According to Goswami (2017), a person’s mind and the supramental (or the world of archetypes), cannot interact as “they give different kinds of subtle experiences–thinking and intuition respectively” (p. 39). Certainly, whilst we’re preoccupied with concern, we tend to overthink. As Goswami suggests, this may cause intuition, the channel to the supramental, to shut down. Once normal functions disintegrate, intuition may become more noticeable. Both Jung and Assagioli believed intuition is the simplest way for transpersonal content to reach us as it permits perceptions to arise from the unconscious (Assagioli, 1967; 1991). Goswami (2012) describes the unconscious as the realm of potentialities (a quantum wave of possibilities), adding that this “unmanifested consciousness…belongs to the supramental domain” (p. 89). Could the collapse of this content into our awareness explain the awakening phenomena?
Burnout, for me, presented both physical and psychological symptoms. According to Goswami (2017), illnesses such as chronic fatigue “occur even when all…physical organs are functioning properly…dis-ease can come from our vital, mental, and intuitive bodies” (p. 105).
As described, my dis-ease resulted from years of dissonance between my inner values and outer world. This was more pronounced and problematic within the context of work. Hochschild (1983) recognized the potential for burnout when dissonance occurs between corporate expectation and workers’ emotions or values. Blackstone (1992) believed that “the longer psychological pain is…hidden from awareness, the more it will affect the body” (p. 115). My disparity invoked a life-long search for meaning (which in itself was tiring); however, the more I became aware of it, the harder it was to ignore. In the end, I broke under the weight of increased work stress and the unexpected loss of a loved one. Reverend Professor, Stephen Wright (2005), described burnout as “a form of deep human suffering at every level– physical, psychological, social, spiritual– which occurs when old ways of being…no longer work and start to disintegrate” (p. 2). He considers burnout a spiritual crisis—one of meaning, purpose and connection—recognising the need for the soul to be true to itself. Vaughan (1995) concurs, postulating that burnout indicates a state of spiritual aridity. He believed that treatment calls for spiritual renewal or awakening. In this sense, crisis may be a natural healing response. “The fundamental mistake was supposing that the healing process was the disease” (Read, 2014, p. 103). Assagioli (1961) agreed stating that crisis may lead to an opening between the Self and the ego. This often results in a release; healing the conflict and suffering experienced by the individual. This may confirm to the person that symptoms “weren’t due to any physical cause but…the direct outcome of…inner strife; spiritual awakening amounts to a real cure” (p. 6).
Conversely, research by Chopko et al (2016) revealed a positive association between spiritual growth and distress. Could this explain why crisis could also amount to a symptom of awakening? As Ellis Linders, an Alef Trust tutor wrote, “Unlike most literature on this topic…I understand CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)…as a symptom of…[awakening]…as, among other functions…fatigue is a protective mechanism to slow down the amount of transpersonal content entering the body” (Linders, 2018, n.p). Similarly, another tutor, Jevon Dangeli (2013), describes transpersonal burnout as soul sickness, and believes that this state narrows our awareness. “I-consciousness is…often…masked by psychological symptoms, and lost in the rush of modern living” (Firman, 1996, p. 14).
As previously argued, however, the breakdown of functions may allow the inflow of superconscious energies “and their integration with pre-existing aspects of the personality” (Assagioli, 1965, p. 55). Perhaps in this space we develop a more authentic awareness, leading to new perspectives and subsequent healing. In her book, The Subtle Self, psychotherapist Judith Blackstone describes her own recovery:
…[it] seemed…miraculous because it occurred spontaneously…by simply relaxing…I [felt]…an inherent movement…toward balance and health. It was a movement of both… mind and body, a gradual merging of the two. [This]…was accompanied by a sense of coming alive, of moving toward truth. I felt deep contact with myself, as if my mind were awakening in every cell. At the same time, I felt communion with all of life, as if this subtle level of the mind were also the mind of the world, or…universe. (Blackstone, 1992, p. ix)
Like others, Blackstone experienced positive change. She believed that growth is motivated by our pre-existing potential of wholeness. Reflecting on my experience, I now understand that a significant factor in recovery was the realisation of my life purpose or as Linders (2018) put it –“purpose with a big ‘P’. “Sooner or later something…call[s] us onto a particular path. This is what I must do…This is who I am,” wrote archetypal psychologist James Hillman (2017, p. 1). Blackstone (1992) believes that “to have a lucid relationship with the universe, we must know what we want. Before that, the universe…respond[s] to our…conflicted, fragmented needs;…life appears arbitrary and cruel” (p. 77).
Having reflected on the literature, I was able to disprove a theory that I have held for some time regarding an exclusive relationship between being in the grip (a state when conscious energy becomes depleted giving way to unconscious processing) and having an awakening experience. Evidence suggests that they’re distinct, although perhaps not completely unconnected. Open to further exploration is the connection between crisis, awakening, and unconscious processing. I also believe that spiritual crisis could be both a symptom and a catalyst for awakening. A symptom in that it may reveal itself as a natural response to rapid spiritual growth and subsequent disparity with external conditions, as indicated by Wright (2005), Vaughan (1995) and Chopko et al (2016). A catalyst, in that it may be seen as a resulting breakdown of psychological functions allowing for the influx of unconscious material, as postulated by Taylor (2017), Grof (2000), Read (2014), Goswami (2017), Assagioli (1991), and Jung. Whether this influx contains spiritual content depends on which interpretation is accepted.
Awakening experiences may allow us to establish what we want or need. The development of new meaning can change our world view, allowing us to reach what Taylor (2017) calls a higher functioning state. For me, life just seems more authentic. I am secure as if I have “returned home to a place where I feel…comfortable…and natural” (Taylor, 2017, p. 220). As stated, my experience proved positive; yet, instinctively, I know there is more to discover. For now, however, I feel no urgency; I am content with whatever arises and after a tempestuous life, it’s a pleasant place to be.
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Professor B. Les Lancaster
Donna Louise Thomas is a serving Police Sergeant based in West Wales. She has enjoyed a varied and successful career as a Detective Constable and within supervisory roles.
In 2011 she received a Chief Constable’s Commendation for her role in a high-profile cold case review that resulted in the conviction of the ‘Bullseye Killer’. She is currently qualified to the rank of Inspector and specialises in training and detention. Prior to policing she served with the Fire Service, Territorial Army and gained a BSc. in Surveying for Resource Development.
Using her coaching skills and qualifications gained in Transpersonal Psychology, Neuro-linguistic Programming and MBTI, Donna is developing a new coaching program to assist colleagues suffering with stress and burnout.