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Breaking Open (coming Spring 2020)

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Breaking Open is a multi-media performance exploring the concept of spiritual emergencies - what they’re like, how people make sense of these experiences, and what helps people through them. It will be performed in Spring 2020 in London, Brighton, Manchester and Glasgow.

A spiritual emergency (Grof 1980) is a period of intense disturbance to a person’s ordinary sense of self and reality, which can involve psychotic-like symptoms such as mania, ego-dissolution, a heightened sense of meaning, hallucinations and a confusion of inner and outer worlds. These experiences can be treated as symptoms of chronic brain disorders requiring psychotropic medication. However, they are better understood as attempts by the psyche to seek greater wholeness. If properly handled, they can be transitions to greater maturity, flourishing and wisdom. 

This is a video featuring some of the members of the performance team, talking about spiritual emergencies:

Around 10% of the population will have one or more psychotic-like experiences during their life, such as hearing a voice or seeing a vision (see Van Os et al, 1999)  while between 50-80% of people say they have had one or more ‘mystical experience’, which may involve disturbing or quasi-psychotic elements (see Evans 2017). Psychologists who study such experiences say the most crucial factor for whether such unusual experiences are benign or harmful is whether the person having the experience can find a positive interpretive frame for it, and a supportive social context (See Peters et al 2017, Clarke 2010).

Yet while indigenous and aboriginal cultures across the world have stories, language and rituals to explain, heal, integrate (and even celebrate) this experience, Western culture is sorely lacking strong — or indeed any — narratives around it. Mainstream psychiatry can sometimes deny the meaning of a person’s experience, pathologizing it as just the epiphenomenon of a brain disorder. As a result, affected individuals often find it extremely difficult to describe their experience to others and, not having a cultural framework for it, may have no way of articulating it even to themselves.

This means that a spiritual crisis — terrifying, fragmenting and destabilising as it is — is doubly devastating, as the affected individual also has the added burden of being misunderstood, misdiagnosed and sometimes even mis-medicated by GPs and mental health professionals.  Additionally, some individuals also feel that the diagnosis of ‘psychosis’ is inadequate and does not fully acknowledge the powerful and transformative elements of their experience. Intense fear, deep shame and profound confusion are common feelings attached to spiritual emergencies. Affected individuals may also worry that they are permanently ‘damaged’. 

In the aftermath of a spiritual crisis, affected individuals can sometimes look back on it as being an intensely valuable growth experience. But they may also feel regret that they were unable to access effective support, understanding and treatment at the time. They might also struggle to integrate the transformative nature of the experience into their day-to-day lives and could even feel long-term shame and confusion about it. It may even be something that they feel the need to keep secret from others.

For more on spiritual emergencies and the mystical / psychotic continuum, see:

Grof and Grof, 1980: Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes Crisis.

Heriot-Maitland 2008: Mysticism and Madness: Different Aspects of the Same Experience?

Lukoff et al 1998: From Spiritual Emergency to Spiritual Problem

See talks by some of the members of the Breaking Open team here.

This performance will build on a series of events in London on spiritual emergencies organized in 2018. Those events led to the book Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency – co-edited by Jules Evans and Dr Tim Read, and published by Aeon Books in Spring 2020. This book was the first to gather together first-person accounts of spiritual emergencies and explore what they’re like and what self-care practices help people through. 

The performance will draw on material from Breaking Open, written by the team, and will bring it to life as a multi-media performance, drawing on poetry, music, video and talks by the contributors, to immerse the audience in the beautiful, terrifying and sometimes absurd experience of a spiritual emergency. The performance will situate the topic within the context of work by Evans and others on the history of ecstatic / psychotic experiences in western culture, how such experiences were sometimes interpreted in classical and medieval times, and how psychiatry has traditionally taken a hostile position towards spirituality and spiritual experiences. It will share hopeful stories of recovery and resilience, showing what helped our performers through. 

The aim is to bring this widely misunderstood condition into the light and challenge the idea that it is taboo topic. This will be a starting point for reducing the common feelings of isolation, confusion, shame, fear, hopelessness and helplessness for affected individuals. Hopefully, the act of de-mystifying and de-stigmatising spiritual emergencies will help to aid the recovery of people currently experiencing one, and also help individuals who have had one in the past to better integrate the experience into their current lives. It could also help families, friends and mental health professionals to offer better, more informed support to affected individuals.

The Team:

Jules Evans - author, medical humanities researcher

Jules is a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London, where he researches the history of ecstatic experiences. He is the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations (2012) which was a Times book of the year; and The Art of Losing Control (2017). He is co-editor of the book Breaking Open. He was a BBC New Generation Thinker in 2013. He has presented radio shows including My Life As a Philosopher (Radio 4, 2018) and Dear Cleo (Audible, 2019). He has managed and completed grant projects for the AHRC and the Emergence Foundation. He organizes the London Philosophy Club, the largest philosophy club in the world. www.philosophyforlife,org

Dr Tim Read - author, psychiatric advisor

Dr Tim Read is an adult psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He was Consultant at the Royal London Hospital for over twenty years leading the Liaison Psychiatry service and the Crisis Intervention service. He has held administrative posts such as Clinical Director and Clinical Tutor but his main activities have always been clinical work. Tim has trained in group analytic psychotherapy (IGA), transpersonal psychotherapy (GTT) and mindfulness (MBSR). He is the author of Walking Shadows: Archetype and Psyche in Crisis and Growth published in 2014, and is co-editor of Breaking Open.

Louisa Tomlinson - author, poet, counsellor

Louisa Tomlinson is a counsellor with Children and Young People (MBACP), working with the arts, and specialising in Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. She is certified in the Therapeutic Application of the Arts and was therapeutic groups coordinator for young people with the Brighton and Hove Wellbeing Service. She is  a certified Integral Somatic Psychology™ practitioner, supervisor, and assistant on trainings in the UK and India. She is an award-winning poet, including Winner of the New Writer International Writing Competition, and has had poems published in many anthologies. She is a spoken word artist who regularly performs on the circuit in Brighton. She co-wrote a spoken word and music show at Brighton Fringe in 2016, Rise, with collaborator Deborah Martin. She is Editorial Consultant for one of the world’s largest literature festivals, the Jaipur Literature Festival, and develops emerging young writers as Editorial Director of their writers programme, running teams at their events in Jaipur and at the British Library in London since 2008. She has extensive experience in event management, having worked for The Edinburgh Book Festival, and Di Robson Art and Event Management for many years. She did a TEDx talk in 2016, about furthering the reach of therapy to incorporate spiritual experience.

Anna Beckmann - author, film-maker, therapist

Anna Beckmann is a psychotherapist and filmmaker. She is also the founder of Ongea, a psychotherapy centre used by 60+ therapists in Shoreditch, London. Anna has a private practice where she sees both individuals and couples. She also leads corporate trainings and workshops on anxiety, sleep health and general mental health awareness across the UK. Anna has spoken at a number of conferences on trauma, focusing on using creativity as a tool to work through traumatic experiences. When living in Australia she directed and performed in a collaborative theatre piece, To Still My Beating Heart. Her last short film, Mystes, played at the Barbican and won a number of awards including awards for Best Short and Women Filmmakers in the Best Shorts Competition, and an award of excellence in Direction and Scriptwriting from the Depth of Field Festival.

Deborah Martin - author, poet

Deborah Martin is a writer, poet and performer based in Glasgow. She is a previous finalist of the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize; the Poetry Rivals competition from Burning Eye Books, and the Cadenza magazine short story competition. She was also a co-winner of the New Blood screenplay competition from MPI Films. Her writing has been featured in a number of anthologies, as well as on radio, podcasts and video art. In 2016, she co-wrote and performed in the spoken word show, ‘Rise’, at Village in Brighton. In 2012, she wrote, performed in and created multimedia works for ‘Broadcast’, three one-act plays staged at Brighton’s Nightingale Theatre. She has been a featured poet at various events across the UK.

Peter Eyres - creative coordinator

Peter works at the intersection of creativity, technological innovation and science communication for communities, companies, and global institutions. He has consulted to the World Bank on the communication of the outcomes of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development; the World Business Council for Sustainable Development on their Energy and Climate Communications; and GLOBE Legislators on their communications and outreach strategy for COP15. His creative work includes consultancy & production, projection mapping, audio responsive visuals and cross-artform collaborations with Arts Council England, Maison Margiela & John Galliano; Tempered Body Dance Theatre; Media and Arts Partnership; and the Secret Garden Party. Peter holds an MSc in Innovation for Sustainable International Development from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex.