In 1981 I was sitting in meditation when, just for an instant, a bolt of lightning flashed through my mind. I began acting so unlike my normal self that a friend brought me to a hospital, afraid I was going crazy. Though I was let out of that hospital after three days, the experiences that began to unfold were so overwhelming that I was hospitalized a number of other times during that first year. I was diagnosed as having had a severe psychotic break and was told that I had a chemical imbalance and had manic-depressive illness. I was put on lithium, and at times, haldol (an anti-psychotic). I was told I would have to live with my illness for the rest of my life. I was one of the lucky ones, as I was able to extricate myself from the medical and psychiatric establishment. Little did the doctors realize that I was taking part in some sort of spiritual awakening/shamanic initiation process, which at times mimicked psychosis but in actuality was an experience of a far different order. In 1993, after many years of struggling to contain and integrate my experiences, I started to teach about what I was realizing. I am now in private practice, assisting others who were spiritually emerging and beginning to wake up to the dreamlike nature of reality. In a dream come true, psychiatrists consult with me and send me patients.
In ancient wisdom cultures it was understood that there were certain individuals whose craziness was the sign of a passage into a higher consciousness. They realized that the person needed to be both honored and supported in their process. They knew that the person who passes through this process successfully and becomes an accomplished shaman, healer, or teacher, returns bearing incredible gifts and blessings of wisdom and healing for everyone. To quote the noted author Ken Wilber "Though the temporary unbalance precipitated by such a crisis may resemble a nervous breakdown, it cannot be dismissed as such. For it is not a pathological phenomena but a normal event for the gifted mind in these societies, when struck by and absorbing the force of the realization of 'something far more deeply infused' inhabiting both the round earth and one's own interior."
I had been doing Buddhist meditation for over a year when that lightning bolt went off inside of my brain. Within a day or two I felt like Alice who had fallen through the looking glass, finding myself "drafted" and playing a role in a deeper, mythic process, what Jung would call a "divine drama," where everything was permeated with a deep symbolic meaning.
I felt totally unselfconscious and amazingly free. I felt the creative energy of the universe flowing through me; I was dancing on the living forefront of the Big Bang itself, where every moment was creative, magical and totally new. My kundalini was exploding; it was like a billion watts of electricity were flowing through a seventy five watt bulb.
It was like my mind had spilled out from inside of my skull and was manifesting and expressing itself synchronistically through events in the seemingly outer environment. What was happening in the seemingly outer world was magically related to what was going on inside of me. The boundary between dreaming and waking, between inner and outer, and between my self in here and your self out there, was dissolving. It was as if I had become lucid and was waking up inside of a dream.
I knew without a doubt that I was going through a deep spiritual experience, no one could possibly convince me otherwise; this was the key that saved my sanity. I felt that the more people I thought about, the more people I was able to "bring along" with me, so I began imagining the whole universe. The experience was so overwhelming that I had no choice but to surrender and let go. I wasn't attached in my usual way to what the outcome was going to be. I was simply trusting the experience, which was clearly not only the right thing to do, but was the only thing I could do.
A spiritual awakening is almost always precipitated by a severe emotional or spiritual crisis; it oftentimes organically grows out of unresolved abuse issues from childhood- this was certainly true in my case. In a fully-flowered spiritual emergence, you magically discover how to transmute these symptoms and wounds into the blessings that they are.
To people still absorbed in the collective, mainstream trance and having membership in the consensus reality, my behavior looked totally bizarre and was very threatening. It was, I'm sure, a very difficult and problematic situation for those closest to me, as they weren't able to understand what I was going through, as it was so far off their map of reality. Painfully, most of my friends and family were very judgemental and bought into the doctors diagnosis that I had a mental illness, as this was their way of "explaining" what was happening to me that fit into their very limited, comfortable view of the world. In the words of the late psychiatrist R. D. Laing, "Attempts to wake before our time are often punished, especially by those who love us most. Because they, bless them, are asleep. They think anyone who wakes up, or who, still asleep, realizes that what is taken to be real is a 'dream' is going crazy."
The experiences and realizations were so mind-blowing, literally, that at certain points I was having trouble "keeping it together," as my whole personality structure was melting and disintegrating, all orchestrated towards some mysterious, unknown destination where everything was clearly being integrated into a higher and more psychoactive center. Oftentimes my actions looked from the outside like typical psychotic behavior.
For example, one time I threw out all of my fathers many medications, as I felt that he really didn't need them, as he could just tap right into the source of healing itself. At other times, I wanted to break my eyeglasses, as I felt that I didn't need them to see, and felt they were doing more harm to my eyes than good.
One time, after I was acting so crazy that my father flew me back home to New York, he woke up from his nights sleep only to find me doing prostrations to him. Later on that morning I went out to the middle of the busy intersection near my parents apartment and was bowing to the oncoming cars, as I was recognizing that everything was the Divine.
From my point of view, I was realizing, or should I say, it was being revealed to me, that every moment was the unmediated expression of God, what I call the Goddessence. I remember turning on the radio and every voice I heard on the radio was the voice of this Goddessence. Every person I was seeing was the Goddessence him or herSelf. It seemed curious and even confusing to me that everybody seemed to buy into and be so caught up in such limited, contracted identity states, as if they were pretending and really seemed to believe that they weren't Divine.
When you are spiritually emerging you are literally going through an archetypal death-rebirth experience, which is about nothing other than the death and transcendence of the separate self. I was having a radical shift of identity, where I was beginning to realize my unity with the whole of creation. I remember feeling that anything that had ever been invented, discovered, or created (including the whole cosmos), the "I" who I had now discovered myself to be, had done. This realization is not understandable and makes no sense as long as one is under the spell of the intellect, but was appearing to me with the force of a revelation. What I was seeing seemed totally obvious, as if I was genuinely seeing the truth for the first time. In fact I was beginning to realize who I, as well as everyone, genuinely was, which was simultaneously nothing (not a thing that can be seen as an object) and at the same time, everything.
During these experiences I got to meet and intimately connect with some of the greatest enlightened masters of both Tibet and Burma, who, like I was in a Fairy Tale, became my teachers and guides. True miracles, experiences that were completely impossible, stuff that could only happen in dreams, began happening. Any limited conceptualizations I had about the nature of the universe were being totally shattered.
Due to the ecstacy and exhiliration of the experience, there is a real temptation, like the mythic Icarus, to fly too high, which is only to set yourself up for a corresponding fall. During these experiences it is of the utmost importance to be as grounded as possible. The great psychiatrist C. G. Jung understood the importance of this during his "Confrontation with the Unconscious." He used to keep pictures of his family around, so he could remember that he was, in his words, "an actually existing, ordinary person."
Jung understood very well that one of the greatest dangers that you encounter during this experience is to become inflated, thinking that you are someone special. You become identified with the archetype instead of relating to it from the standpoint of a conscious human ego. You've literally gotten swallowed up and possessed by the deeper, more powerful transpersonal forces, falling totally into your unconscious. You can become truly insane, thinking, for example, that only you are Christ or Buddha, instead of recognizing that we're all Christ or Buddha. This is the difference between someone who is truly mentally ill, who could be said to be drowning in the stormy ocean of the unconscious, compared to an accomplished mystic, who is being nurtured and nourished by swimming, surfing and snorkling in the healing waters of their psyche.
Jung understood that the thing which swings the balance one way or the other is the human egos capacity to confront and relate in a conscious way to these transpersonal forces. This is why creative work, in which you channel and transmute these deeper, very powerful, archetypal energies, is of the utmost importance.
At a certain point, the entire ordeal reveals itself to be an initiation for actualizing and giving expression to your true genius, or daimon, which is none other than your inner voice, guiding spirit and unfabricated true nature, which has never been lost. Like in a déjà vu, you remember, or discover your unique calling, your true vocation as a Bodhisattva who is here to help other beings. You become a master creative multi-dimensional artist whose canvas is life itself.
Of course, another great danger, which I can talk about from personal experience, is to wind up in the clutches of and be diagnosed and medicated by the medical, psychiatric community, who typically have no understanding of phenomena such as spiritual emergences. One psychiatrist even diagnosed me as having the same illness as Freuds infamous "Rat Man," saying I would need three years of intensive psychotherapy and then I would be cured! To again quote Laing, "Anyone in this transitional state is likely to be confused. To indicate that this confusion is a sign of illness, is a quick way to create psychosis....A psychiatrist who professes to be a healer of souls, but who keeps people asleep, treats them for waking up and drugs them asleep again....helps to drive them crazy."
My final hospitalization was in September of l982, when I was flown back to New York and put in a hospital for three weeks. Instead of seeing them as a mistake that was made, I've been able to see the perfection of all that has happened. I now understand that the hospitalizations were in fact an aspect of the awakening; they were part of my journey to the underworld. There is a sense of accepting and embracing whatever has happened in my life, realizing it is all an initiation into the deeper mystery of my infinite and unspeakably magical being.
This is not to say that there is not something called mental illness. I do wonder, though, how many cases of mental illness are actually spiritual emergences gone sour. We, as a society, need to recognize the existence of genuine spiritual emergences and learn to differentiate them from cases of psychosis. Thankfully, there is now even a small paragraph in the psychiatrists DSM IV Book (their diagnostic manual) titled "Spiritual or Religious Problem." Might it be that we're all at different stages of the spiritual emergence process?