Crises Preceding Spiritual Awakening

Last time we looked at the process of Self-realisation and how it differs from self-actualisation. In this post we explore the kinds of issues that can arise prior to awakening and what the crisis of awakening itself involves. The following notes are taken from Psychosynthesis by Roberto Assagioli:

“In order to understand thoroughly the strange experiences that often precede the awakening, we must review some of the psychological characteristics of the ‘ordinary’ human being.

“One may say of him that he ‘lets himself live’ rather than that he lives. He takes life as it comes and does not worry about the problems of its meaning, its worth or its purpose; he devotes himself to the satisfaction of his personal desires; he seeks enjoyment of the senses and endeavours to become rich and satisfy his ambitions. If he is more mature, he subordinates his personal satisfaction to the fulfilment of the various family and social duties assigned to him, without taking the trouble to understand on what bases those duties rest or from what source they spring. Possibly he regards himself as ‘religious’ and as a believer in God, but his religion is outward and conventional, and when he has conformed to the injunctions of his church and shared in its rites he feels that he has done all that is required of him.

“In short, he believes implicitly that the only reality is that of the physical world which he can see and touch and therefore he is strongly attached to earthly goods, to which he attributes a positive value; thus he practically considers this life an end in itself. His belief in a future ‘heaven,’ if he conceives of one, is altogether theoretical and academic, as is proved by the fact that he takes the greatest pains to postpone as long as possible his departure for its joys.

But it may happen that this ‘ordinary man’ becomes both surprised and disturbed by a change – sudden or slow – in his inner life. This may take place after a series of disappointments; not infrequently after some emotional shock, such as the loss of a loved relative or a very dear friend. But sometimes it occurs without any apparent cause, and in the full enjoyment of health and prosperity. The change begins often with a sense of dissatisfaction, of ‘lack,’ but not the lack of anything material and definite; it is something vague and elusive that he is unable to describe.

“To this is added, by degrees, a sense of unreality and emptiness of ordinary life; all personal affairs, which formerly absorbed so much of his attention and interest, seem to retreat, psychologically, into the background; they lose their importance and value. New problems arise. The individual begins to inquire into the origin and the purpose of life; to ask what is the reason for so many things he formerly took for granted; to question, for instance, the meaning of his own sufferings and those of others, and what justification there may be for so many inequalities in the destinies of men.

“When a man [or woman!] has reached this point, he is apt to misunderstand and misinterpret his condition. Many who do not comprehend the significance of these new states of mind look upon them as abnormal fancies and vagaries. Alarmed at the possibility of mental unbalance, they strive to combat them in various ways, making frantic efforts to reattach themselves to the ‘reality’ of ordinary life that seems to be slipping from them. Often they throw themselves with increased ardour into a whirl of external activities, seeking ever new occupations, new stimuli and new sensations.

“By these and other means they may succeed for a time in alleviating their disturbed condition, but they are unable to get rid of it entirely. It continues to ferment in the depths of their being, undermining the foundations of their ordinary existence, whence it is liable to break forth again, perhaps after a long time, with renewed intensity.

“The state of uneasiness and agitation becomes more and more painful and the sense of inward emptiness more intolerable. The individual feels distracted; most of what constituted his life now seems to him to have vanished like a dream, while no new light has yet come. Indeed, he is as yet ignorant of the existence of such a light, or else he cannot believe that it may ever illuminate him.

It frequently happens that this state of inner disturbance is followed by a moral crisis. His conscience awakens or becomes more sensitive; a new sense of responsibility appears and the individual is oppressed by a heavy sense of guilt and remorse. He judges himself with severity and becomes a prey to profound discouragement. At this point it is not unusual for him to entertain ideas of suicide. To the man himself it seems as if physical annihilation were the only logical conclusion to his inner breakdown and disintegration.

“The forgoing description constitutes merely a general outline of such experiences. In reality individuals differ widely in their inner experiences and reactions. There are many who never reach this acute stage, while others arrive at it almost in one bound. Some are more harassed by intellectual doubts and metaphysical problems; in others the emotional depression or the moral crisis is the most pronounced feature.

These various manifestations of the crisis bear a close relationship to some of the symptoms regarded as characteristic of psychoneuroses and borderline schizophrenic states. In some cases the stress and strain of the crisis also produce physical symptoms, such as nervous tension, insomnia and various other troubles (digestive, circulatory, glandular).

“The differential diagnosis is generally not difficult. The symptoms observed isolatedly may be identical; but an accurate analysis of their genesis, and a consideration of the patient’s personality in its entirety and (most important of all) the recognition of his actual existential problem, reveal the difference in nature and level of the pathogenic conflicts. In ordinary cases, these occur between the ‘normal’ drives, between these drives and the conscious ego, or between the ego and the outer world (particularly human beings closely related, such as parents, mate or children).

“In the cases which we are considering, the conflicts are produced by the new awakening tendencies, aspirations, and interests of a moral, religious, or spiritual character, and it is not difficult to ascertain their presence once their reality and validity are admitted rather than being explained away as mere fantasies, or as the internalisations of social taboos. In a general way they can be considered as the result of crises in the development, in the growth of the patient’s personality.

“There is this possible complication: the presence in the same patient of symptoms deriving, in varying proportions, from both sources; but in these cases too, the differential criterion consists in discovering the different sources.”

Next time: Crises Caused by Spiritual Awakening