Final Paper: Healing Spiritual Emergency in Couples
Spiritual emergency (SE) is an intense process for the individual psyche. It not only impacts the individual, but also those who love this person. This paper explores some of the issues and potential therapeutic options for couples, where one member of the couple is going through a spiritual emergency. In In Case of Spiritual Emergency: Moving Successfully Through Your Awakening, Catherine Lucas (2011) writes, “I must insist on the three ‘S’s, support, support, support. It is virtually impossible to navigate the treacherous waters of spiritual crisis without support. (p. 137). There is a critical need for support during a person’s spiritual emergency. One large need for the person is holding and containment. This paper also discusses how clinicians can support couples and their supporters, and contains recommendations for the members of the couple, from a peer/personal perspective, as well. The categories in which it does this are: sexual intimacy, communication and boundaries between partners, education around SE, healing through dialogue, including the couple’s network of supporters, and medicinal approaches.
Sex is so important in a couple’s relationship, and problems in the realm of sexual intimacy can arise in a couple during a partner’s spiritual emergency. There can be a greater need for being able to clearly and kindly communicate needs, desires, and boundaries around sex. Rolland’s (1994) family systems model, in the context of illness, is a useful model for looking at intimacy issues. It looks at the role of chronic illness in one partner and its affect on the relationship. While I see spiritual emergency not as an illness, but rather a developmental process, it can be very disruptive in a relationship, and is certainly a challenging and different state of being than the norm, for both the person going through the SE and the person’s partner. SE sometimes is diagnosed as an illness, and the partner and other supporters, and even the person experiencing SE may see it as illness or illness-like, so I believe Rolland’s model can be applied and extrapolated from in the particular case of SE within a couple. Rolland uses the terminology of patient and well parter. He gives the example of the impact of illness on sexual intimacy in the following case, which has themes that are pertinent to SE:
“For those who express intimate feelings mostly through sexuality, a common pattern for men, a partner’s illness can create a serious crisis. In one case, after a woman’s operation for a bleeding ulcer, the husband continued to expect sex as a way to maintain a sense of contact at a time of uncertainty. The wife, not wanting to hurt her husband’s feelings, passively complied. Because of physical pain and unexpressed resentment at his insensitivity, she responded in a distant, unimpassioned manner. This increased his sense of desperation, and he redoubled his sexual demands, which only angered his wife further.” (Rolland, 1994).
Rolland suggests that with the case of illness in one partner in a couple, it is important to find ways to broaden the ways partners feel held and loved, beyond sexual intimacy, in the relationship. This includes engaging with fun and/or mutual interest activities. This adaptation is critical for both partners. Challenges with sexual intimacy have shown up in my own relationship, during my most recent spiritual emergency.
In her book Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil (2004), Jenny Wade discusses the shadow aspect of transcendent sex. Generally during transcendent and non-transcendent sex with my partner, I feel very safe. But during a recent spiritual emergency, I could feel his energy field entering mine, several inches above my physical body, and it felt very invasive and unwanted, but it was hard to communicate that, even with firm (possibly, seemingly aggressive) verbalization and hand gestures. He still didn’t understand my reaction in the moment. I couldn’t set an energetic boundary during physical intimacy, and that scared me. This was damaging to our relationship, but we are working on repair around this issue. I thinking nurturing and acknowledging other forms of intimacy will be helpful, as Rolland suggests. A transpersonal therapist could help facilitate this exploration.
Another tip that a therapist could share with a couple is simply slowing down the pace of intimacy and sex. In the section on precautions on the dark side of transcendent sex, Wade (2004) writes as a precaution, “Slow down. If you are aware of an unusual connection with a partner that either has led to transcendent sex or seems likely to, use good judgment, and if possible, slow down the level of physical involvement until you are reasonably sure that the level of physical involvement until you are reasonably sure that the relationship will be mutually beneficial and that the potential partner is not likely to engage in power games.” (p. 232). But it can be difficult and confusing without coaching around communication. Slowing down, organically and harshly (how it was received by my partner), while I was going through my spiritual emergence, was necessary. He did not comprehend that my energetic boundaries were being violated, and when I tried to slow things down, this catalyzed the sprouting of a seed of spiteful jealousy that had been planted before the spiritual emergence, by my flirting with other men. We had some reparative conversations during non-sexual periods, but I decided I needed to take my knowledge and skills base on how to handle this delicate situation better.
Since the issue with my partner, fundamentally, was maintaining boundaries with him during intimacy, I signed up for a somatics and boundaries workshop for couples. Since my partner and I were going through a crisis at the time, I brought a close friend instead as my workshop partner. My main takeaway from this workshop was that my body posturing on simple communications, such of those of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, generally (when not in an altered state), was not clear, or at least according to the generative somatics model and the attachment theories we were learning. I felt I was very firm with my body posturing during sexual intimacy in altered states, but perhaps because not just physical but very fluid and expansive energetic boundaries were involved, these communications were not clear. The discussions around comfort level and sexual boundaries, I realized, and was advised, needed to happen outside the act of sexual intimacy.
Just recently, after my non-ordinary states of consciousness for spiritual emergency started to integrate into my baseline reality, and after integrating the somatics and boundaries workshop, and my knowledge of visualization and energy work, and open and honest conversations with my partner., the next time him and I had sex, it felt cosmic, yet contained. There was no energy spillover. I visualized us creating a closed circuit of energy, a beautiful clockwise circle of revolving soft, ethereal but tight, white light.
Communication and Boundaries
Rolland also identifies potential trouble spots/areas that need extra care and attention with couples in this situation, which all involve communication and boundaries, including: rebalancing relationship skews, establishing healthy boundaries, togetherness and separateness. Regarding communication, one of the most relevant points I found to SE in couples was that of identifying and normalizing difficult feelings. Rolland (1994) writes: “Shameful thoughts and feelings are a major impediment to openness. Normalizing feelings such as intense anger, ambivalence, death wishes, or escape fantasies can help counteract secrecy, shame, and well partner/survivor guilt.” A therapist would be helpful in this case to coach each member of the couple to tolerate each others intense emotions and learn how to quickly forgive strong reactions that inevitable arise in the context of illness or SE. Another topic that Rolland addresses that I feel is essential to look at is that of rebalancing relationship skews. In this perspective if the onus of the illness is put only on the patient or person experiencing SE, than the relationship gets skewed. If this person bears the burden of responsibility alone this affects the dynamics of power and control in a relationship. It can breed resentment and destroy intimacy.
When my SE was present in the relationship, both my partner and I were overwhelmed, and we at times had trouble acknowledging and respecting each others overwhelm, probably because we failed to acknowledge the entity of SE in our relationship, and tried to one up each other on our level of overwhelm. Establishing healthy boundaries is also listed as very important. Just having a space to not talk about the illness or SE, in the relationship, and times designated to talk about it, can help immensely. Rolland (1994) writes, “For couples facing chronic conditions, finding a workable balance is extremely challenging. Often intense feelings of anger or abandonment are experienced at key junctures where boundaries are being negotiated.”
Experiencing SE in my relationship put a lot of caregiving pressure and responsibility on my partner, and I would get angry when he was unable to handle it. When he brought up that his nights were sleepless as well, I wasn’t very tolerating because my sleepless nights were full of productivity, and increased and renewed energy. I wasn’t very forgiving of his tiredness, fading, and breakdowns, because I was the person with the problem in my eyes, and my needs, I felt at the time, took precedence. What did help was when we started fostering a sense of separateness, so that my partner could have more space, less caretaking responsibility, and time for self-healing while I found support in other people, and learned to be less dependent and manage things on my own and practice self-care. (Rolland, 1994).
To help the “well” partner support the partner experiencing SE, education around spiritual emergency can be immensely helpful. (Lucas, 2011). Literature, such as Stan Grof’s Stormy Search for Self and John Weir Perry’s Trial’s of a Visionary Mind, and Catherine G. Lucas’s In Case of Spiritual Emergency: Moving Successfully through Your Awakening, are very illuminating to the particulars of spiritual emergency, in my opinion. My partner, partly because of his own experiences, and partly to support me, came to every event of the student alliance group at CIIS, Spiritual Emergence and Other Extraordinary Experiences. Other resources include open peer-run groups and family groups around SE. In the Bay Area, the Bay Area Mandala Project,and Bay Area Hearing Voices, Visions, and Different Realities, and the Icarus Project could all be resources. Understanding trauma’s impact on people, and how it can be related to mental illness, or re-framed, spiritual emergence is also very important. Couples and family psychoeducation around this topic is useful. (Weine, et al., 2005).
Healing through Dialogue
One way of working with the person experiencing SE in a couple, is to broaden the idea of support system to include family (of origin or of significance) and friends, and start a dialogical process with trained therapists. This process is known as Open Dialogue. Jaako Seikkula, one of the developers of open dialogue, explains that during stressful periods when a person is experiencing a psychotic episode (which could be reframed as SE) the person’s family members/supporters, known as the network by Seikkula & Trimble (2005), oftentimes gets stuck in stuck ways of thinking, and talk about and conceptualize the problems that are happening in an inflexible way. When therapists meet with the network, they attempt to be inclusive of all voices in the network, paying special attention to the include the person going through spiritual emergency, even if their speech presents as incomprehensible or even scary. This provides normalization, and brings everyone to the same level, in terms of power dynamics. The team of therapists help hold and contain the intense emotions that arise in the network field. Respect for all members is paramount, as is transparency and clear communication among the therapist team members. With this process, “New meanings emerge when new shared language starts to emerge between the team and members of the social network.” (Seikkula & Trimble 2005). This creates stronger community. These researcher believe that the strong emotional attunement that happens in this process is akin to feelings of love.
Seikkula and Trimble acknowledge that trauma is stored in the body, and that facilitating translating of body memories of trauma into emotion and words is very important for the healing process. Members of the network are held and encouraged through the process of experiencing their powerful emotions. Therapist team members attune to body posture and reactions. The body is brought into the conversation, and trauma and emotions are processed by the “alchemical” process of verbalization. Usually because of the painful difficulty of the situation, the network members start out estranged, frozen, and rigid, but through this process of communicating and freeing and naming the pain, a sense of belonging and community emerges.
My partner and I didn’t have the benefit of having an open dialogue team to help us. My partnership became very scary at one point, when we both were under the deep throes of my SE. My partner is a devout Nicheren Buddhist, and in the deepest part of my SE, he was trying very aggressively to get me to practice his religion (I think out of desperation), so much so that he was claiming I wouldn’t be saved from my insanity (it really felt like insanity at this point), unless if I practiced. It came to the point where I was accusing him of religious abuse and telling him his religion was a cult. I even started to think he was possessed by a demon, and had a visual of a demon coming out of a photograph of him. It was incredibly scary, and felt like a downward spiraling whirlpool that would never end, but eventually we, through support from friends, clinicians, and family, and our deep love, were able to come up for air, and get out of this dark, dark place. Dwelling in this deep archetypical-seeming, scary place, was torture.
One medicinal approach that helped me out of this place was slightly increasing my dose of anti-psychotic medication that I was taking and adding an herbal remedy, called NightRest, under the recommedation of my psychiatrist. NightRest’s active ingredients include: Magnesium, Sodium, GABA, Taurine, Glycine, Passionflower Leaf and Flower, Chamomile Flower Extract, Skullcap Aerial Parts, Lemon Balm Aerial Parts Extract, and Melatonin. Neither my partner, nor I were sleeping because I was up all night, keeping him up all night. This was making me and him not only more irritable and delirious, but also pushing me into more and more of a waking dream-like state. NightRest immediately helped. I went from sleeping 2 hours a night to sleeping to sleeping 6-8. With my sleep normalizing, I began my return to plane of consensus reality (with my journey outside of it, integrated), and was able to come out spiritual emergency.
Supporting spiritual emergency in a couple requires a lot of resources and support, including communication, love, boundaries, outside supporters, medicines, and more, as explored in this paper. Although, I think the most crucial ingredient to survive in a couple through SE, is hope, and keeping it alive.
Lucas, C.G. (2011). In Case of Spiritual Emergency: Moving successfully through your awakening. Scotland: Findhorn Press.
Rolland, J.S. (1994). In Sickness and in Health: The Impact of Illness in Couples’ Relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 20(4), 327-347.
Seikkula, J.& Trimble, D. (2005). Healing Elements of Therapeutic Conversation: Dialogue as an Embodiment of Love. Family Process, 44, 461-475.
Wade, J. (2004). Transcendent Sex: When lovemaking opens the veil. New York: Paraview
Weine, S., et al. (2005). A Family Approach to Severe Mental Illness in Post-War Kosovo. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Approaches, 68(1), 17-27.