Long before I saw the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), I vividly remember being captivated as a youth by the image of the “Star Child” on the poster, that strange cosmic fetus that blinks into life in the film’s closing moments. I was even moved to try and read Arthur C. Clarke’s original novel in the local library, immediately closing the book again with my heart already full from processing the opening sentence. It read: “Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
There’s a quote from Joseph Cambell in the introduction to the book Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency (ed. Jules Evans and Tim Read, 2020) that always halts me in my tracks in a similar way. Campbell used to say that “the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight,” hinting at the idea that internal territories of death-filled terror and cosmic wonder not only sit side-by-side, but are actually in some sense the same realm viewed from different perspectives.
At this moment in time, apparently disparate themes like these belong together for me, and I find I can’t differentiate between any of them.
The Ferry Between Worlds
It is barely 10 weeks since I returned from a Holotropic Breathwork retreat, a form of cathartic meditation where participants dive deep into their psyches with the aid of breathing and music. We supported each other to confront our own depths and to share insights and stories with laughter and tears.
When I connected with my own inner landscape, I “dreamed” that Charon, the ancient Greeks’ ferryman of the dead, had begun to use a motorboat. With a deathless grin, he casually explained that this was due to the sheer numbers of people he was being called upon to deal with these days. No sooner had I registered the grim practicality of this than the scene changed to one in which refugees were crossing the sea in countless numbers. When their cynical gangmasters cut the engines and announced that everyone would have to pay to get to the other side, I wept at the realization that what was once a well-loved myth had somehow become literalized in the most horrific way.
About halfway through our week of shared exploration, when one of the other participants checked social media on his phone in a quiet moment between sessions, he told me that airports were being closed globally and that his own flight home would have to be rearranged because the airline Flybe had just collapsed. Within the next two weeks, most of the world went into coronavirus lockdown.
Thin Places and Thin Times
The Celts used to have a term “thin places” to describe geographical locations where the veil between the world of the seen and the unseen was thought to be thinner than normal, such that people might be able to commune with spiritual realms. I’ve found myself thinking a lot recently about the concept of a “thin time.” In common language, it’s a term that’s used to describe a time of great hardship or crisis. I wonder though, whether it might also be appropriately used to describe a time when the boundary between the external world and the world of dreams or imagination becomes a little more transparent than usual.
For example, I routinely find myself empathizing with the idea of a holding place for the recently departed when work colleagues on Skype video-conferences describe their frustration at being stuck in a virtual netherworld where they can see and hear everyone else in the meeting but their own microphone is muted. Similarly, the regular doorstep gatherings of neighbors to clap and bang saucepans for front-line workers reminds me of old folk traditions that involve making a loud noise to frighten evil spirits out of the house, or else perhaps to cheer them on their way and celebrate their journey towards new life.
There is an eeriness to life in lockdown, an openness to the idea of interpreting events as unfolding in an uncanny way that is beyond our understanding. It seems to have afflicted almost everyone I know at some point in recent months.
Usually, when I return from an intense retreat, I give myself permission to be a little bit more open for a few days. It’s not uncommon for me to feel slightly more emotional or to experience the world more intensely. Coming home to a world on the brink of lockdown, it took me around two weeks to realize that I didn’t feel like I was returning to “normal” at all, and that many of the people around me also seemed to be in a slightly unusual state of consciousness. Even the news reporters on the television seemed dazed, as if they had just stepped away from a plane crash unharmed and were still in a state of shock, not quite certain whether they were dreaming with eyes open.
[Read “The Mythos of Pandemic“]
Spiritual Emergencies: Breaking Through, Breaking Down, and Breaking Open
This is all by way of introduction to the idea of “spiritual emergency.” The term was proposed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and psychotherapist Christina Grof in their book, Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis (1989), to describe an intense period of turbulent psychological transformation which results in difficulty adjusting to socially agreed reality.
Stanislav Grof had spent the early part of his career as a psychiatrist studying the effects of psychedelics in therapeutic settings, and searching for ways to expand traditional psychological models to include the extraordinary new perspectives on the psyche that psychedelic experiences appeared to open up. He found unexpected parallels both in the transitional trials of hospice patients approaching death and in what he theorized to be a special category of psychotic-like experiences that resolved when contained within an appropriately supportive framework. Christina Grof had had an extremely powerful spontaneous experience of psychological restructuring in her own life, and so the concept of spiritual emergency was undoubtedly also a child of their relationship, a marriage of ideas.
These experiences of emergent spirituality present unusual challenges in terms of recognizing and responding to positive potential, while also staying safe physically and encouraging integration through creative expression.
Contents of experiences often include unusual thoughts, heightened emotions, intense dreams, and somatic bodily processes. In some cases, they might even include hallucinations with a religious or spiritual focus, inevitably inviting comparison with experiences that might otherwise be interpreted as mental breakdown.
Breaking Open contains 14 first-person accounts of such experiences, with a focus on the ways that people made sense of them and the things that they found helpful for navigating in such spaces. Jules Evans and Tim Read generously allow the experiences to speak for themselves, avoiding psychological theories about why they might happen or what they might mean in favor of pointing out similarities and patterns, much like anthropological guides to unfamiliar territory might do.
They highlight, for example, that many individuals’ psycho-spiritual crises occurred at times of profound cultural upheaval, such as the attack on the Twin Towers, or the redrawing of the political landscape under Brexit, speculating that humanity might be undergoing its own collective process of positive disintegration and restructuring. They suggest that the study of individual experiences “teach us how to stay in the ambiguous and uncomfortable here and now, without mindlessly reacting, shutting down, freaking out, or grasping at false certainty, but instead remaining patient and open to what is emerging.”
The Perils of Misinterpretation
The dangers of glamorizing spiritual experiences and the seemingly profound insights that arise during periods of cultural revolution are legion. History is littered with any number of messianic individuals and millenarian movements that crashed and burned spectacularly in just such circumstances.
My own chapter in Breaking Open describes a time in my early twenties when I believed I was enlightened and traveled as a barefoot guru. It ended hardly three months before the world watched the Branch Davidian Sect at Waco go up in flames on the evening news, following a siege that, ironically, occurred because the authorities feared that the messianic leader David Koresh might trigger a mass suicide. I know that many of the same kind of sincere, sensitive people that I met on my own travels died inside that compound, and that many of the equally sincere and sensitive experts who advised the government could just as easily be friends and colleagues in the adult social care settings where I now work.
Bridging the Divide
These days, I’m a poet at heart rather than a prophet. That means understanding that words, even spiritual and religious ones, are, at best, just metaphors, “transparent to transcendence” as Joseph Campbell used to say.
It’s always tempting to want to be the “Star Child,” staring wide-eyed at the horizon lit up beyond infinity, and to forget that it’s a symbol of collective cultural transcendence, not a personal one. When it comes to living in my own present reality I find myself continually drawn back to the metaphorical underworld for inspiration, where I am just one soul amongst a multitude, no more nor less important than anyone else.
With a poet’s heart, I fancy that I can hear the words of the whispering ghosts, those accumulated dead that stand behind the living, much more clearly. If I stretch out my hand I can almost feel the contours of their faces. This is not a complex theory of pseudo-scientific breakthrough concerning an assumed afterlife though: it’s a translation of “spiritual” experience using the heart and the imagination.
Collectively, we’re all displaced inside our own homes right now, just like all the refugees from reality who don’t survive their metaphorical journeys across the River Styx, or who find the price to be one they can’t afford emotionally. How will we fare, existentially alone, on such a dangerous crossing?
Whether we feel them or not, the ancestors are present in the dark corners of our memories and in our genetic inheritance. The unseen generations walk alongside us at an approved social distance in that imaginative other-world, in the same places where they might once have walked barefoot. In my imagination, they’re shouting their own silent celebrations on the doorsteps of the world’s neighborhoods, offering songs of encouragement to those not yet born, and praying for those in peril on the seas of their own unconscious.
The process of breaking open and integrating allows us to communicate with our depths, to feel them, and at the same time to understand that they are no less important for not being physically “real.” On the contrary, they might, in fact, even hold the key to our survival in times of crisis.
John is the author of “The Accidental Guru,” one of the accounts in the Breaking Open anthology (2020). He has had a variety of careers, including being a graphic designer, a computer programmer, and a social worker. He has used Holotropic Breathwork and transpersonal artwork to integrate his own experiences and co-facilitates a monthly Spiritual Crisis Network peer support group.
His current projects include animating mandalas, composing a haiku a day, and writing a regular film column for the Religious Drama Society of Great Britain. He lives with his wife Ann in the north of England.