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Spiritual exercises

The Princess and the Pea

I’m back from a 10-day meditation retreat, at Vajrasana in sunny Suffolk. That might seem a bit of a doss, but it’s also an investment – I really want to improve my meditation practice, for my benefit and others’, and it’s ten times easier to learn on retreat than at home.  It’s like trying to light a match indoors versus trying to light it on the top of a windy hill.

Retreats are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Let me give you a short history of my failures on retreat. The first was in 2006, when I went to Optina, the famous Orthodox monastery where Dostoevsky stayed. It’s a beautiful place, full of kindly monks and pneumatic cats. I went there in Lent, rose at dawn to go to the first service, followed the black-cowled figures through the snow, prayed with them by candlelight as the icons’ faces shimmered in the gloom. It was so romantic. And then, very quickly, it was just really hard and boring. The food was terrible, the services were long and incomprehensible, plus the archimandrite kept trying to convert me to the Orthodox faith. So, after two days, I left.

In 2015, while struggling to be a Christian, I went to a Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight. I intended to go there to meditate and do some writing. I was disgusted to discover there was no wi-fi or 3G connection. The come-down from all the stimuli of city life was unbearable. I felt so bored, sad, dead even. It was meant to be a silent retreat, but the man in the room next to me Skyped his son one evening. I shouted through the wall at him to shut up. Initially I found the church services somewhat moving, although one of the monks sang flat. But after a couple of days I just found them really boring and alienating. I began to accept that I wasn’t a Christian, I was kidding myself. So, after three days, I left.

In 2016, I went on a Vipassana retreat. It was extremely hardcore – no talking, no phones, no reading or writing, no leaving the perimeter, no contact with the other sex. Just ten hours of meditation a day. I found that I became furious with the people around me – with my room-mate, who crashed around and disturbed my sleep (one night I broke the silence to call him a wanker); or with the person who meditated behind me, who had a dry mouth and was constantly swallowing. Still, I stuck it out and made some progress.

In 2017, I went on a Zen retreat in the hills of south India. I was shown my room, and immediately asked to change room, to get a better view. I then had a lovely room overlooking the central zen garden. I meditated in the dojo, hearing only the tweeting of the birds. I began to feel a sense of inner serenity. And then music started blaring from a nearby village – tinny Tamil pop on the tannoy. It played all weekend, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night.

I could not believe it. How were we meant to meditate with that racket? I started to wonder if it was an act of sonic aggression by the village, to disturb the hippy westerners in the retreat below. How dare they ruin our Zen paradise! Eventually I went to the centre’s administrator and broke the silence to ask him: ‘what’s the deal with the music?’ I expected to hear a story about a long, bitter feud with the village. But he just shrugged. ‘Oh, they’re opening a new church. They’re always playing music, sometimes all week’. No big deal apparently.

This year, I went on a London Buddhist Centre retreat in April, and there were no major annoyances – however, I fell for one of the women on the retreat. I spent much of the retreat looking out for her, smiling at her, talking to her, thinking about her. I really thought we had something going. Then I discovered on the last day she had a boyfriend, who she lived with. The whole thing had been a story I’d concocted in my head. Another wasted opportunity.

So, this month, I went on an all-male retreat instead. The first night, the oom-pah band began. My room-mate snored like a smothered hippo. Every night I was woken up two or three times, and felt knackered in the morning. I considered my options. I considered asphyxiating the room-mate. I considered leaving the retreat. Why stay under such inauspicious conditions?

And then I came to accept that the problem, at least partly, was me. I have a very spiky ego, with sharp likes and dislikes, and one of my strongest aversions is people disturbing my sleep. That’s why I live on my own, on a top-floor flat in a quiet neighbourhood. My old room-mates will testify to the fact I’d often come down, at 12.05, and say ‘hi would you mind just keeping it down?’ They all eventually left. I will often change seats on the train because a person near me is annoying me with loud talk. I am easily irritated.

Maybe this was what I had to work with – learning to accept niggles and annoyances as part of the path, rather than reasons to leave. So I stayed, and the snoring stopped annoying me after a day. Yes, sometimes I was tired, but I still made progress, and took advantage of this incredible opportunity to practice the dharma.

While on the retreat, I read Pema Chodron’s book, Start Where You Are. She writes:

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You’d just like to have a little peace. But the more you think that way, you more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside the room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door.

What she and other Buddhists try to teach is a method for ‘ventilating your prejudices’ – learning to open your heart to what you find annoying, unpleasant, difficult or painful, so that you let some fresh air into the stale room of the ego. You let other beings into the room, even when they disturb you. And when you feel joy, you share that too. Gradually, with practice, you discover a softness, an openness, a flexibility in your mind. You discover that’s your deeper nature – that spacious heart-mind – rather than the constant reality-TV drama of your ego-talk. The obstacles become the teachers, pointing you to your prejudices and aversions, helping you work with them. The snoring room-mate is actually a helpful teacher.

I realized I was like the princess in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, the Princess and Pea. She can’t quite get comfortable, no matter how many mattresses she lies upon. There’s always something niggling her and ruining her serenity. In the fairy tale, the prince takes this ‘royal sensitivity’ as proof of the princess’ pedigree, and happily marries her. Good luck with that. Can you imagine how high maintenance she will be?

So you come face to face on retreat with your ego and its deep aversions and attachments. And that can be pretty disturbing. But you can’t kick down the walls of the ego, shake it off like a sticking plaster, or just bury your irritation. Your ego is always going to be there, and you actually need it to come with you on the journey. What we can do is not immediately believe the stories our ego comes up with, and instead see if we notice a pattern to our prejudices. We can begin to soften the thick walls of our ego, with calm and humorous loving-attention, so that eventually (hopefully!) they go from steel, to concrete, to cardboard, to paper, to thin air.

What to do in a spiritual emergency

Last month I organized an event on ‘what to do in a spiritual emergency’ –you can see videos of the talks here. Three of my friends spoke bravely and lucidly about their own experiences – psychotherapist and film-maker Anna Beckmann, poet and transformational coach Louisa Tomlinson, and Tai-Chi teacher Anthony Fidler – and Dr Tim Read, a wonderfully wise and compassionate psychiatrist, gave us his perspective.

I wrote about this topic in The Art of Losing Control, and it’s become particularly important to me after the mini-crisis I had last year, following my ayahuasca retreat. A friend referred to it as a ‘breakdown’ this week, which didn’t feel quite right, because it was also something beautiful and healing.

So what does ‘spiritual emergency’ mean exactly, and what can we do when they occur?

There is an overlap between spiritual / religious / ecstatic experiences, and psychosis. Psychiatry has historically viewed all religious experiences as pathological, labelling them ‘hysteria’, ‘ego-regression’ or ‘psychosis’ and ignoring any positive aspects. That’s partly because psychiatrists have tended to be anti-religious secular materialists, battling the church for authority over the care of souls.

However, some psychologists (and a few psychiatrists) have suggested an experience can be both spiritual and quasi-psychotic. This ‘transpersonal’ perspective was put forward by psychologists and thinkers like Frederic Myers, William James, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass and Stanislaf Grof – who coined the term ‘Spiritual Emergency’ and brought out an excellent anthology with that title in 1980.

A spiritual emergency involves the sudden collapse of one’s habitual ego and customary sense of reality, and an opening to a different reality (which one could call the subconscious, or the archetypal layer, or the dream-world, or alternatively the Self or God – it’s a movement both downwards and upwards). It can involve a powerful sense of connection to all things, perhaps a transcending of time, space and matter, and a deep sense of meaning and awe. And it can also be extremely messy, painful, terrifying and dangerous, and have psychosis-like features like mania, ego-inflation, insomnia, voices, visions, ontological uncertainty and emotional disturbance. But unlike a psychotic illness, it can be a transition to growth, if handled sensitively.

Anthony told us: ‘It’s easy to get an idea of the life journey as a tidy evolution. But there’s another way humans grow, through revolution. The personality structure that’s evolved through childhood builds up like a building. And at some point in life it can be healthy for that to collapse. It can be a moment of growth, a journey forwards. But it doesn’t look like that. It looks like a piece of shit.’

Anna told us of her experience in her twenties:  ‘It was the most horrifying experience I ever had, and also the most awesome.’ Louisa said: ‘A spiritual emergency is when there’s an opening between the two worlds – the spiritual and the material – but it happens without maps or guides. What could be a successful integration into a larger self and reality becomes instead intensely terrifying, a failed initiation, which instead of leading to transformation, leads to fragmentation and sometimes to annihilation.’

What are the triggers?

Both Anna and Louisa spoke of how unresolved trauma was a trigger for their spiritual emergencies. For me too, the turbulence I felt after my ayahuasca retreat was partly a resurfacing of trauma from my late teens and early 20s. Trauma seems to create an ego structure that is more prone to what Tim Read calls ‘high archetypal penetrance’ (HAP) states – the subconscious and the transpersonal or spiritual dimension gets through the cracks easier.

There may also be a genetic predisposition to altered states – you might have some genes in your family that predispose you to schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, which make you schizotypal without necessarily developing into a psychotic disorder. One notes that in some cultures, shamanism is considered an inherited ability, as are psychic powers – a tendency to absorption or dissociation gets passed through the genes, and this can lead to creativity and insight as well as disturbance, eccentricity and illness.

More immediate triggers include being physically isolated from one’s friends and family. My crisis occurred when I was in South America, Lou’s when she was alone in Dartmoor, Anna’s when she was in New York, Anthony’s when he was in China. Tim has written about a near-crisis he had while travelling in India. Such crises can occur at moments of difficult transition – going to university, say, or breaking up from a long-term relationship.

And then there are triggers like not eating or sleeping properly, or going on a spiritual retreat, or taking drugs. Tim says he has often encountered people who’ve had spiritual crises after attending spiritual retreats – he writes about this in his excellent book Walking Shadows: Archtypes and Psyche in Crisis and Growth, and notes that retreats often shift people’s egos but fail to help them integrate their experience in the days and weeks afterwards.

What does a spiritual emergency feel like?

Both Lou, Anthony and Anna spoke of a feeling of ego dissolution accompanied by physical dissolution – they felt they went out of their bodies, and the material world seems to dissolve. I had a similar experience on ayahuasca, as many do. It is terrifying, because you don’t know if you’ll come back, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to experience that for several days or weeks. But I wonder, too, if this dissolution of the ego and material reality is an insight into the actual nature of things – Buddhists say we perceive the world as made up of separate solid things (me, the table) where actually there is a continuum of energy. Buddhist monks try to get to a state where you go beyond the perception of solid things. But it is terrifying if that happens when you’re not ready for it.

The Rebel Powers That Do Thee Assay by Charles Sims

There’s also a collapse of boundaries – between the self and other people (can you read my thoughts, can I pick up your feelings and thoughts?); between you and the world (‘I can control traffic lights or even world events with my mind, it’s all connected to me’); between dream and reality. Anthony suggests we have at least two types of consciousness – a movie camera that projects waking reality, and a movie camera that projects our dreams. And in psychotic episodes, these two movies overlap, so the mythical movie of the dream-world gets superimposed on reality. Both Anna, Lou and Anthony had strong archetypal aspects to their experiences – religious imagery, messages, a sense of cosmic significance to their thoughts and acts. There can be intense surges of energy, powerful gusts of emotion, lights, visions, voices.

And there’s a deep ontological uncertainty. Anthony says he didn’t know if he was dead, or in some sort of altered bardo state. That was the same for me – for a week, I couldn’t work out if I was dreaming or in the afterlife. In Tim’s book, some of his case studies also don’t know if they’re dead or in heaven. It’s common on powerful psychedelic experiences to think you’re either dead or about to die. The ego interprets its dissolution as actual death. You find yourself still conscious and in some reality, but you can’t take anything for granted about how it works. In psychological terms, it’s a profound de-automatization. Your habitual automatic expectations of reality are dissolved. I would get on a plane and wonder if it would really take off or not, as if I somehow had to will it to take off (it was my dream – I was making it all happen).

What helps?

In his book, Tim Read emphasizes the importance of ‘set, setting and integration’ for navigating this sort of spiritual turbulence. This is also one of the main conclusions of my book, The Art of Losing Control.

Set refers to the mind-set one brings to the moment. In ecstatic states of consciousness – like psychedelic consciousness – our mind becomes extremely sensitive. It can swing from euphoria to terror in a moment. So you need to foster certain attitudes, above all mindfulness. Don’t worry about the past or future, focus on what is happening now. We need to try to remember ‘I’m in a spiritual crisis’ or ‘I’m tripping’ rather than get swept away by the powerful thoughts and sensations. Feel whatever you’re feeling, and observe it without attachment or aversion.

The breath is very important for this. It grounds us in the present moment, it relaxes our emotions, and it connects us to our body. Lou speaks of the ‘silvery chord of my breath’ being the only thing that connected her to her body and to physical reality. Someone once said we’re spiritual beings having an in-the-body experience – we need to connect to the body, enjoy this sensual material reality (nature is good for this too, so are hugs). It was also hugely important for me, in moments of panic, to breathe slowly, and remind myself ‘this will pass’.

A second important attitude is humility – not giving way to ego-inflation and Messianic grandiosity. Anthony says: ‘If you think you’re Jesus or the Buddha, that’s OK. But you’re also this person. And if I’m the Buddha, so are you.’ You have a glimpse of the infinite Self within you. But it’s within everyone, not just you. Relax. Don’t take yourself or the experience too seriously. You’re not controlling the universe. Have a sense of playfulness. Anthony talks about having an open and curious attitude to one’s experience – what does it feel like? How does this reality behave?

Third, we need to take care of ourselves. Yes, you’re the infinite cosmos, but you’re also this particular being in this particular body. Have patience and compassion for your ego and body. Look out for yourself – make sure you eat and sleep, don’t put your body in danger. Be polite, pay for things, even if you think it’s all a dream. Self-compassion is the key – even when I felt very alone and frightened, I rooted for myself. I was on my side, no matter how much the volatility swept away my tidy life-plans.

Painting by the sectioned artist Louis Wain

Secondly, setting is crucial. It helps if you have loving, understanding friends to support you while you are ‘transitioning’. When I came back from South America, I couldn’t tell what was real, I could barely understand conversations, and luckily my friends were there for me, and weren’t freaked out, because they’d had similar experiences (Lou is one of my best friends).  I loved getting hugs from my friends, I loved stroking my brother’s dog and cat, I loved sitting by his fire – I grounded myself in love and touch. Getting out into nature was also really healing for me. I avoided seeing people who wouldn’t get what I was going through.

Third, integration is very important. I came back to this reality within a week or so, but worked on the integration for several months, and am still working on it. I started seeing a therapist who is open to the transpersonal perspective. I found a community where I could practice meditation with others. There are also communities like the Spiritual Crisis Network and the Hearing Voices Network which offer support.

Sadly, western psychiatry is often the worst setting or integration process for this sort of experience. As Tim told us, most psychiatry is meaningless – it doesn’t accept that these sorts of experiences could have meaning, could be a stage in a person’s growth. Tim writes: ‘the medical intervention often serves to entrench stasis and impede growth’. Anna really wanted support during her crisis, but was terrified of being locked up and treated as totally mad. She was lucky, probably, not to be sectioned – most secure psychiatric wards are horrible, harsh, loveless and soulless places. Tim, who led the Emergency Psychiatry Service at Royal London Hospital, writes: ‘It is one of the great tragedies of psychiatry that our most vulnerable people are placed in the most unsuitable settings.’

And western culture is also rather an inhospitable and even hostile setting for such experiences – we don’t talk about them, and we see messy breakdowns as awful, shameful and frightening, something to hide away, rather than potentially something painful but wonderful, like giving birth!

However, just as there is a risk of materialist fundamentalism, there is also a risk of religious or spiritual fundamentalism – Anna talks about how she would feel these ecstatic experiences and hunger for them, but she came to see this was a way of bypassing her pain. We can use our spiritual experiences as ways of not dealing with this reality, this body, this life with all its messiness. Tim Read writes about one case study of spiritual narcissism, a young man who focused so exclusively on his spiritual experiences that he lost the capacity to negotiate this world. We need to balance our life in this world with our yearning for the transcendent, so we don’t become a ‘total space-cadet’ as one ayahuasca facilitator put it to me. We also need to be open to ambiguity and uncertainty, to sometimes not knowing precisely where we are on the path.

None of this is meant to deny that there are psychiatric illnesses which are mainly physical in origin, and which are not transitions to higher selves. I also know that, for some people, psychiatric medication is helpful and even life-saving. And sometimes being sectioned is necessary to protect people and society.

Tim and I are now going to put together a book of people’s first-person accounts of spiritual experiences, to answer the questions – what are they like from the inside, and what did people find helpful? The focus is on the practical things that help people, the set and setting. If you’d like to contribute, more details can be found here.

Finally, I wonder what these experiences say about the nature of reality and God. I think evangelical Christians can have a naïve view of God and the tidiness of religious experiences. You meet Jesus, who is totally loving and good for you, and instantly both this life and the afterlife are better. In fact, spiritual awakenings often feel like death, and can totally mess up your life. They’re closer to the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Burning Bush and the Book of Job, the God who turned Nebuchadnezzar into a beast and made Ezekiel lie on his side for 430 days.

What does it say about God, or the Self, that sometimes spiritual awakenings can destroy a life, can actually lead people to starve themselves or jump off a building in their search for transcendence (two instances mentioned in Tim’s book).

To me it suggests that sometimes the dissolution of the ego and the opening to the Self is incredibly rough, sometimes fatal. It can be a confrontation with a Shiva-like god – the cosmic creator and destroyer. It makes me hope that reincarnation is real, so we can hope that, while the archetypal call of the Self is sometimes harmful and even fatal to the individual, eventually, over many lives, we move towards the light. Or maybe God / the Self / the Tao doesn’t care about individuals, only the awakening of the species. Or maybe there is no God. Even if there isn’t, we can still help people navigate these rough moments of ego-dissolution, so that they can move towards positive and fulfilling lives, as Lou, Anthony, Anna and I have done.

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake