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Thursday, July 17, 2008 Bill Boggins, Community Member, asks

Q: What's the difference between a spiritual emergency and a bipolar crisis with psychotic features.

I've been reading about what's called, Spiritual emergency, from leading transpersonal psychologists like Dr. Stanislav Grof, M.D.  Apparently there's a condition that results from an ego collapse and is expressed as typical bipolar mania w/ psycosis features.  According to the transpersonal psychologists, many people have temporary bipolar symptoms and the process of psychosis can be a transformative experience for them.  Medication is not recommended for the person having a spiritual emergency; instead a supportive environment is recommended- a sort of non-professional "trip guide" is the common approach for treatment with this kind of problem.  I've met several people who had spiritual emergencies, but are no longer having any symptoms at all.  One guy I met, hasn't had an episode for ten years, and claims his bipolar diagnosis at the hospital was wrong.  What's the difference between a spiritual emergency and a bipolar crisis with psychotic features?

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Answers (3)
John McManamy, Health Guide
7/23/08 3:10pm

Hi, Stephen. This is a very interesting question, but one only you can answer to your satisfaction. Since you're a reader, I suggest: Augustine's "Confessions" and William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience."


I submit there are two extreme positions: 1) Those who romantacize every manic or depressive or psychotic episode. Sometimes, we are extremely sick and need medical help. 2) Those who pathologize every out-of-the-ordinary experience. Sometimes, we have a spiritual crisis or a spiritual breakthrough and need the guidance of a spiritual master.


Let's make an analogy: A little anxiety is good. It keeps us on our toes. Too much anxiety may incapacitate us. Way too much anxiety is known as paranoia or even psychosis.


We have a similar spirituality-psychosis spectrum. Herbert Benson of Harvard believes our brains are wired for spirituality. But it's also safe to say that overloading the wiring is not good and that we are talking of psychosis.


There is a phrase called "Holy Madness." Something to meditate on.



LethaChristina, Community Member
4/12/10 6:22pm

Last summer I was subjected to extreme stress--and was also in the process of weaning off 20 different prescription medicines (at my doctor's advice)... however, since no one in this city has knowledge of how to do this (finally, I consulted with Dr. Hyla Cass, M.D. and managed to do it safely and effectively--now free of them for seven months). Last year I ended up nearly dying... hallucinating... etc. which the physicians labeled "mental illness" (right!  I told them clearly what was going on--I am not a dumb forty-year veteran psych nurse)... I ended up with three psych hospitalizations (one on a med psych unit)--and no one correctly dx the problem (except me!).  This progressed to a "spiritual emergency" (I am also a vowed RC archdiocesan contemplative and had a rich and rewarding prayer life--as well as ministry) dx incorrectly as "mania"... the complications and ramifications were profound for the local Church and the medical community.  I, however, was able to do the transformational work necessary after these hospitalizations thanks to the help of my spiritual mentors and good friend (a physician) who exquisitely listened to the odessey of this journey, and a quiet light-filled cell far away from the experiences-which I had tried to do before being "forced" into psychiatric treatment.  Now in the process of a book about psychiatry's lack of familiarity with these things (causing grief and sometimes death for many of the world's potential "visionaries").  I start the beginning of education of the psychiatric community in my city.  A Sister of Providence (who have the largest Catholic healthcare system in the nation) said the medical system is being approached to change the way psychiatric care is done in their facilities on the basis of my story and research.  That said, my mission is as a "mental health advocate" by vow and profession.  God led me into "paths I did not want to go"--but He is gracious and merciful... full of compassion.  Where He leads, we follow.  "Take up your cross and follow me" to the Resurrection!

April, Community Member
9/29/09 6:08pm

I also have a lot of interest in this subject. I think one major factor that needs to be looked at is a person's spiritual practice at the time of their psychosis. If they have been on a spiritual path, then it's probably a spiritual emergency. If not, then it may be more of a spontaneous psychosis. Also, I think it's possible that a person with a fragile ego and a fragile mental health status can bring on a true psychotic episode with the intense practice of meditation. I believe I did that to myself. Also, the "rising of kundalini" can cause damage to the nervous system if done too quickly. In the book Living with Kundalini, it sounds like Gopi Krishna had the same after-effects as I did from years of meditation.

Whatever the cause, psychosis is still psychosis. I question myself all the time. What if my spiritual practice led to psychosis? What if it just brought out a hidden tendency towards mental illness? I don't really know, but if I needed treatment, I would take what was available.

Karen Winchester, Community Member
11/ 9/09 6:15am

For me, "psychosis" is a spiritual experience, but not one I undertake willingly.  I believe in a God and a Goddess and when I am psychotic I connect with them.  I underwent a psychotic experience about a week ago and recovered in a few days of taking anti psychotic medication.  This time I couldn't help thinking about the purpose of "madness", I think it is either a result of traumatic life experiences or a symptom of the materialistic society in which we live.  When things are wrong people go mad; when people were taken as slaves, the desire to escape was pathologised as a mental illness, also slaves were accused of contacting evil spirits through Voodoo and black magic (today in our society that would be seen as madness).  When the Puritan's tried to enforce a form of Cristianity that surpressed life and living (ie. music, dance and contact with earth spirits and Mother Earth) people went "mad" and were burnt at the stake for witch craft (most famously in Salem).  I have a love of God and the Goddess and because of this I have been defined as mad and having bi polar disorder.  I think the psychiatrist is mad, because of his need to feel superior he has defined himself as a reality expert and see's my beliefs as symptomatic of a brain disease.  Many psychiatrists belief that there is no God and instead worship sience, in my mind this is madness!

April, Community Member
11/ 9/09 5:12pm

Thanks Karen, I loved your post. Actually, our inner lives/inner worlds are so subjective, aren't they? I respect EVERYONE'S inner reality as reality, no matter if they are a saint or a madman. Sometimes there is a very thin line, anyways. I know a schizophrenic who has spiritual warfare going on inside all the time. I respect what he's dealing with, and while most people say it's hallucinations, it's actually real to him and so it's real. The only downside is that he can't control it, can't turn it off for a while and rest. But it's been said that the psychotic is drowning in the same ocean that the mystic is swimming with ease. At times I have had a "dark night of the soul", where I certainly feel crazy and am in a hell of sorts. It's very very spiritual and more real to me than the "real" world that we all share in common (the outer world).

Karen Winchester, Community Member
11/10/09 6:12am

I totally agree with you, I've also always respected everyones experience as real and as a result been told about spiritual and psychological warfare.  I believe that we all have a tiny piece of that greater picture, no one can totally understand God or existence in its entirety; by listening and trying to understand everyone, we can get to know more about our place in the universe. 


You don't even need to understand or believe in a spiritual world to understand certain concepts, for example I was introduced to the concept of spiritual and psychic vampirism years ago, but this is simply about how people make you feel.  Vampirism can also be described from a psychological perspective through transactional analysis, ie if you don't relate to people assertively, they can manipulate and control you through aggressive and passive aggressive behaviour; vampirism also describes the person who uses emotional blackmail in order to exert their wishes over yours.


Another concept that many people can't usually relate to is sorcery, but in my mind it means excercising control over others perception of reality and I see the media mogals as guilty of this.  In every "developed" civilisation the media controls our perceptions and it would be naieve to think that they are not acting in the interests of the people in "power".  Power itself is an illusion or game, if tomorrow we all woke up and decided we were no longer going to give our power to those in authority, authority would cease to exist!

teacherman77, Community Member
12/12/11 3:43pm

I believe that when I have experienced mania induced psychosis my worldview has expanded to include a "glimpse behind the curtain" of the spiritual world.  Perhaps the way my mind (and apparently the minds of many others) is wired has allowed these short looks into an expanded consciousness/reality.  I do find it extremely initeresting that as I research spirituality and read both new age and ancient mystic writers that they all describe feelings and experiences that are almost a perfect match to what I have been through.  The loss of ego, the feeling of interconnectedness  with everything, intense feelings of euphoria/love, and grandiose ideas of wanting to be a "messiah" of sorts and help others to experience what I was.  To me my bipolar disorder is both a blessing and a curse but I look at it as more of a blessing.  If total "sanity" meant that I wouldn't get to feel and experience what I had (did I mention the mind blowing synchronicities that even my rational friends and family were forced to admit were definitely going on around me at the time) then I don't want it.  I'd rather have my different view of reality, even if it means that "coming down from the mountain" is painful then never to have seen what I have. 

If what I've said makes any sense to you at all I hope you keep looking for your answers safely.  Remember that your Doctor's were put into your life by God for a reason as well!

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By Bill Boggins, Community Member— Last Modified: 06/16/12, First Published: 07/17/08