No ground for the groundless?
You climbed a ladder to the sky and for a long time, you enjoyed gazing down at the world from so high up. Now that you're ready to come back to the ground, you discover that the ladder beneath you is gone. You're suspended in the air, so you can't even fall. You've been stuck up here, looking down from the great heights that afforded you a view you'd like to take with you but not be limited to.
I reached out to Stephen, a well-known mindfulness and Buddhist informed author and psychotherapist when I was in the throes of a spiritual emergency. I was dis-oriented, disassociated and de-personalized, struggling to shore up a sense of personal agency, embodiment, and most importantly, to get back a sense of solid ground beneath my feet. I was especially terrified by what became a harrowing sense of dis-reality both of my own personal identity and in-solidity of the world, because while I'd experienced depersonalization when I was young, it was just a matter of coming back to the experience of being a real, solid self when the episode passed. Once it passed, and I felt like myself again, I could go on with my day as if it never happened, re-inhabiting a sense of being me. But now, after years of entering deep states of "no self" that were re-enforced by the non-dual philosophies I'd been drawn to that saw personal identity as fictional, an illusion to be seen through, a delusional trance to wake up from, there was no longer a convincingly real sense of self to go back to comfortably being. And so many aspects of the self that I would be going back to no longer felt like me.
I had already committed to moving away from spiritual philosophies based on extreme self-negation, but I truly questioned whether I'd gone past the point of no return. Nothing could take back all of the time I'd spent dissolving myself into no one, and I was truly terrified that I would never be able to fully feel like someone again after so clearly seeing the self as just and illusion, and that I'd be trapped in a no man's land, outside of embodied personhood. I'd read that Stephen worked with a woman who had an uncannily similar history as me. She'd suffered from spontaneous episodes of extreme de-personalization throughout her life, brought on by what she called "head-on collisions" with infinity that caused reality to collapse in on itself, and were truly harrowing. As with me, she experienced a different sort of depersonalization in adulthood that was profoundly enlightening, in which experiencing the world without a self at the center was cathartic and immensely freeing, even entering states some refer to as Samadhi, within which you feel you've transcended physical form, selfhood, all particularity and merged with an infinite void. Just like me, she swung between enlightening depersonalization, and the kind described by some as enlightenment's "evil twin."
So I'd thought that if anyone could help me, it would be him, but I was sorely mistaken. When I explained what I'd been going through, the debilitating groundlessness and desperation to re-materialize solidity, he responded in a frigid condescending tone, "I know this isn't what you want to hear Jessica, but there is no ground." I would expect to hear this from reductionist non-dual "gurus" of past and present, who echoed each other's derealization of solidity. But I was appalled to hear this in my disassociated state from a highly esteemed psychotherapist and leading voice in the Western mindfulness movement. As if his ground denial wasn't disturbing enough, when I expressed my legitimate fear of spiraling into a full-on psychotic breakdown, he replied "Well you won't," in a dismissive tone bearing no trace of reassurance. And that was it. No questions about my mental health history, or things like access to social support, therapy, etc. No resources offered other than a prescription to enjoy things like the simple pleasure of sitting in a chair and looking out the window.
I know that there are far too many others like him who lack an understanding of what spiritual emergency entails and how to identify it, what the risks are (including how precariously it can teeter on the edge of psychosis) and most importantly, how critical grounding is for the experiencer. To think of how many mental health professionals give negligent advice that contradicts what is crucial for someone spinning out in a spiritual emergency is devastating, but inspiring. It inspires me to do what I can to help spread awareness about this dangerous blind spot, to encourage professionals to get the necessary training to support someone who is losing their grip on reality amidst destabilizing shifts in consciousness, and most importantly, to get trained in offering peer support to those going through it, so that less people will have to feel as alone as I did before I discovered spiritual emergency support groups and mental health professionals educated in the territory of spiritual crisis. It's lucky he never followed up with a payment link because I would have been hard pressed to pay for his disservice.
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