A Therapist's Spiritual Experience

by Rev. Karen E Herrick, PhD, LCSW LMSW CADC

Abstract: There is a scarcity of literature related to the spiritual experiences of mental health professionals. The book, Varieties of Anomalous Experience Examining the Scientific Evidence (2000), is one of the first formal acknowledgments of non-ordinary experiences published by the American Psychological Association (APA). This book discusses anomalous experiences one of which is a mystical, spiritual and/or psychic experience, which the psychologist theorists William fames, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Stanislaw Grof and Raymond Moody all believe is a central part of mental health. These experiences are not an indicator of psychopathology. This article discusses classic spiritual experiences, the difference between a spiritual experience and mental illness and gives the reader a basic understanding of a spiritual experience of the author.

One definition of spiritual is "of the spirit or the soul...characterized by the ascendancy of the spirit; showing much refinement of thought and feeling" (Guralnik, Ed., 1970, p. 1373). Another that is a favorite of this author is "The transcendent relationship between the person and a Higher Being, a quality that goes beyond a specific religious affiliation" (Peterson & Nelson, 1987, as cited in Turner et al., 1995, p. 437). The word psychic is described as "of the soul, spiritual, the psyche or mind...beyond natural or known physical processes" (Guralnik, Ed., 1970, p. 1147).

The book, Varieties of Anomalous Experience Examining the Scientific Evidence (2000), is one of the first formal acknowledgments of non-ordinary experiences published by the American Psychological Association (APA). An anomalous experience, then, "is irregular in that it differs from com- mon experiences, is uneven in that it is not the same as experiences that are even and ordinary" (Cardena et al., 2000,). These experiences are not an indicator of psychopathology. A mystical experience is one type of experience listed in this book. This author uses mystical, spiritual and psychic experiences as the same type of experience for this article. In evaluating these types of experiences clinically, the client's cultural perspective needs to be taken into consideration.

Characteristics of a Spiritual Experience

 Definitions vary considerably for spiritual experiences, ranging from Neumann/'s(1964) "upheaval of the total personality"to Greeley (1974) "a spiritual force that seems to lift you out of yourself."{Lukoff et al., 1992, p.678). A spiritual experience can be defined clinically by its characteristiccs, which are : 1 Ä sstate of ecstasy bliss, love and joy, 2. A sense of union with the universe and /or God and everything in existence, 3. A sense of ultimate freedoom and belonging. 4. A heightened awareness transcending space and time, 5. An awareness of the unity of opposites, 6. A revelation that carries a sense of essential authority, 7. A loss of ego functioning 8. A sense of lacking control over the evenet, and  9. A greater sense of meaning and purpose of life" (Allman 1989, Hood, 1974, Stace, 1960 as stated in Lukoff et aI., 1992, p. 678).

Evelyn Underhill does a superb job of instruction in her massive book, The Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Conscious- ness, where she discusses the IIspiritual history of man ...and the attitudes towards the unseenll (Underhill, 1990, p. 70). She stated: "In mysticism, the will is united with the emotions in an impassioned desire to transcend the sense-world, in order that the self may be joined by love to the one eternal and ultimate Object of Love; whose existence is intuitively perceived by that which we used to call the soul, but now find it easier to refer to as the 'cosmic' or 'transcendental' senses" (p. 71).

An excellent example of a classical spiritual experience is the story of Florence Nightingale, who on February 7, 1873, recorded her first call from God. She recorded three additional calls throughout her life. The first call told her that she did not have to be married, which was expected of women of her culture at that time. She went on to found the nursing profession.

There is also the spiritual experience of Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who on his knees in Towns Hospital in New York City in December 1934 asked God to take away his desire to drink. All at once Ifound myself crying out, If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anythmg, anythmg! Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy, which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me in the mind's eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in a new world, a new world of consciousness. All about me  and through me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence and I thought to myself, 'So this is the God of the preachers!' A great peace stole over me and I thought, IINo matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and His world" (Finlay, 2000, p.5). Bill  Wilson became a strong believer in God after this spiritual experience...

Psychology and the Meaning of God

William James, sometimes called the Father of American Psychology, asked in "Reflex Action and Theism" "What kind of a being would God be, if he did exist?" (James, 1956/1897, p.120). "First, it is essential that God .., be conceived as the deepest power in the universe and, second; he must be conceived under the form of a mental personality. And, God must be concerned in holding of certain things dear and those things must be all  good and righteous lliings. God's personality is to be regarded, like any other personality, as something lying outside of my own and other than me, and wnose existence I simply come up on and find.. .hearkening to our cry, can come... the essence remains unchanged" (p. 112)., Carl Jung seemed to agree with James when Jung stated God, therefore, IS unchangeable, and is called one for the reason that he changes not (Jung, 1969, p, 354).

Abraham Maslow discussed the concept of God in Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences (1970): Even the word 'God' is being defined by many theologians today in such a way as to exclude the conception of a with a form, a voice, a beard, etc. If God gets to be defined as 'Being itself or as 'the integrating principle in the universe,' or as 'the whole of everything,' or as 'the meaningfulness of the cosmos,' or in some other non- personal way, then what will atheists be fighting against? They may very well agree with the 'integrating principles' or 'the principle of harmony'" (p.45). Maslow took the concept of religious experiences and labeled them as "peak" experiences, for which he is known, in order to take them from the world of religion and make them more acceptable to the educational field.

"Despite all the negative evidence against psychic phenomena, the widespread reports of it kept James convinced that there was something to it and it should continue to be investigated" Games, 1956/1897). And in matters such as these, James felt it best to stay with the facts of personal reports wherever they may lead. Here is one such report.

                    This Therapist's Spiritual Experience

I was attending the beginning of a nine-month training program sponsored by "The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology" located in Menlo Park, California. I had applied for and received a $5,000 grant in order to become part of this long-distance program through a series of synchronici- ties. During the first experiential week of this program held in Madison, Connecticut, I was to learn about Holotrophic Breathwork developed by Stanislaw Grof with his wife, Christina. Grof (1989) stated that he did not see unusual states of mind that reach psychotic proportions as "necessarily symptoms of disease in the medical sense. We view them as crises of the evolution of consciousness, or 'spiritual emergencies,' comparable to the states described by the various mystical traditions of the world" (pp. 3-4). His Breathwork combines the use of a person's breath and evocative music so the person's entire body surrenders completely and is able to respond spontaneously to the process. The person can then give full expression to whatever the music brings out in their body.

My first Breathwork was done in a large room where I could lay down on blankets with a pillow and be comfortable. (This procedure describing the "how to" of Breathwork is found in Scotten, Chinen, & Battista, 1996, p. 369.) A partner is chosen to watch over you. I was asked to breathe first as I wanted to have my own experience freely without watching anyone first. I lay down and the instructor did a guided meditation ending with the instructions that we were to "Just breathe to the music forcefully and not to think." It was probably the only time in my life I was told not to think, for as an adult child in an alcoholic family, thinking had been my biggest survival tool. I remember experiencing floating and feeling as if I were in water, which would be the undisturbed, intrauterine experience that Grof (1998, p. 12) described in his BPM I stage. My stomach was ex- periencing all kinds of feelings; such as there were tiny hands inside of me doing extraordinary things. Everything was very positive, and I eventually pulled my legs up to the birthing position when I felt someone else's breath come into my vagina, through my body and out of my mouth. I had the thought, "Whose breath is that? It isn't mine," It was coming in between my own breaths. Then I told myself to "Stop thinking. I wasn't supposed to think." So, I did stop thinking and just let the other breath come and we both breathed for awhi1e.

It was after this that I remember the experience becoming very chaotic. Not knowing that I was in the middle of re-experiencing my birth, I had  asked my partner to push  on my feet and he "hadn't done it right," but when the trainers came over to me while I was having this experience, one of the trainers pushed on my feet "just right." I then began a very tumultuous fight, but with what I did not know. I remember flaving ilie thought, "Where is my mother?" and then again simultaneously thinking "Don't think, just breathe." If it hadn't been for the trainers saying, "You can do it. You can do it," I can't imagine how I would have done it. I now think that the transition of death must be a lot easier than coming down this small tunnel of birth that I was re-experiencing.

The Breathwork trainers told me later that once this rebirth took place that I laid there and made little baby movements on my blanket with my hands curled up next to my face just like an infant. I have often wished this experience had been video taped. When I felt ready the trainers helped me stand up, and I wearily, but blissfully, looked around the room at the twenty other attendees of this program. Some were in various stages of their own breathing processes and some were sitting quietly beside the others as sitters. These were the people I had thougnt so strange when I started this training just four days before. This was related to their different beliefs from Transpersonal Psychology such as reincarnation (which was then new to me). I now felt such love for them. I knew I was connected to all of them and that we were all connected to everyone in the world. I also'knew there was a God. This was something I had not believed in before attending this training. The feeling of awe and bliss that surrounded me is something I will never be able to explain in words (which is another characteristic of a spiritual experience). This process seemed as if it had taken about twenty minutes, but it had actually taken approximately four hours. The characteristics of a spiritual experience, previously explained that I had were: 1. A state of ecstasy bliss, love and joy (at the end); 2. A sense of union with the universe and / or God and everything in existence; 3. A heightened awareness transcending space and time; 4. A revelation that carried a sense of essential authority; 5. A loss of ego functioning; 6. A sense of lacking control over the event; and eventually 7. A greater sense of meaning and purpose in life.

After the Breathwork, I was directed to a table with drawing supplies, given a piece of article with a circle on it and, as told, I drew my rebirth. After lunch, in a group session, the facilitator told me I had experienced -a rebirth. My drawing was just a simple flower with a bright sun in the back- ground. It had to come completely from my unconscious because I had no idea why I drew it although it did please me very much when I finished. I smile now when I see it on the wall of my office, most probably because of the simplicity of it. I did not talk about my spiritual experience to anyone at the retreat, probably because "the passage through the birth canal is itself a difficult and potentially life-threatening-process" (Grof, 1998, p. 10). I was very shaken by the Breathwork. Everyone else was walking around afterwards looking so normal. I stayed at the retreat center in the evenings when the other attendees went to the movies or out on the town. At tne conclusion of the retreat, I pulled myself together in order to drive back throu~ New York City to New Jersey. Just like Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had said, I did feel as if I were in a new world; however I was very confused about what that new world entailed. It hastaken years for me to piece together what I consider to be an explanation of my spiritual experience.

The following information read during my PhD studies resonated to me of my Breathwork experience: In Jung's opinion, the circle was a representa- tion of the ultimate wholeness that was only possible to the Self. "Mandalas mostly appear in connection with chaotic psychic states of disorientation or panic. They then have the purpose of reducing the confusion to order, though this is never the conscious intention of the patient. At all events they express order, balance and wholeness" (Jung, Vol. 9, I, pp. 360-361). "Then, if ever, I believed, I stood face-to-face with God and born anew of his spirit. There was, as I recall it, no sudden change of thought or of belief, except that my early crude conception had, as it were burst into flower" (James, 1985/1902, p. 67). "To state it in terms of our own symbolism: When the new center of personal energy has been subconsciously incubated so long as to be just ready to open into flower, 'hands off' is the only word for us, it must burst forth unaided!" (James, 1985/1902, p. 210). "Peak-experiences sometimes have immediate effects or after-effects upon the person. Some- times their after-effects are so profound and so great as to remind us of the erofound religious conversions which forever after changed the person" (Maslow, 1976, p. 66).

During my training as an interfaith minister, I read the chapter in the Bible entitled, "The Acts of the Apostles" and knew again when I read "And, suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting." (Holy Bible, 2000, p. 751) that this was what I had experienced as the Spirit breath went though my body. I have felt the Holy Spirit one other time since, during a visit to a Catholic Church healing service. At that time, the Spirit was activated from the bottom of my feet, which helped to heal a herniated disc in my back.

You may be thinking, "How do you know that you weren't "crazy" at the time of these experiences?" The classic way to tell the difference be- tween a "real" spiritual experience and mental illness is reported in Shorto (1999): "One of the tip-offs to psychotic delusion, which has been known since James's time is grandiosity that a mystic (someone who has known God) is humbled by his experience, a psychotic inflated" (p. 71). Another difference between a mystic and someone with mental illness is that the former can choose to move into or out of the state of consciousness. It is important to remember that someone who is mentally ill can also have a spiritual experience. In these cases, it is often therapeutic to address the person's religious ideation. As I have worked with clients who have spiritual experiences, I have also found that a hallucination usually has no basis in fact. A spiritual experience is an individual experience and gives an answer, eventually, to the person having it. Also, with a spiritual experience, the person has good ego functioning, meaning they can tell you the same story over and over again and the story doesn't cf1ange. Tliey have sufficient inner strength to do that.

Spirituality Training for Professionals
During my PliD studies, I thoroughly enjoyed the readings from William James, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Stan Grof and Raymond E. Moody Jr. I believe these men should be studied more by therapists in order that they can better understand the spiritual experiences of themselves and their clients. James (1985/1902) in particular stated, "The divine presence is known through experience. The turning to a higher plane is a distinct act of consciousness. It is not a vague, twilight or semi-conscious experi- ence" (p. 516). It should be stressed, however, that the experience is very frightening and some people need support to help them understand it. James writings sometimes, to me, sound like quantum physics of today. He spoke of consciousness preexisting as an entity, and our various brains being disseminated in particles (James 1956, p. 51). It seems easy for me to understand that the mind of God creates us in a vibrational process especially since I have felt the vibrations!

Further training in spiritual experiences, religions of the world and Jungian and Transpersonal Psychology is useful in understanding the differences between mental illness and spiritual experiences. Maslow and Anthony Sutich began the Journal of Trans personal Psychology in 1969, which birthed a new psychology and that posited that the humanistic approach did not adequately address the farther reaches of human nature. It has been mx experience that Transpersonal Psychology includes most all of the psychologies we as professionals understand plus the addition of the spiritual concept of God. It encompasses the wider and deeper aspects of, humankind, life and the psyche.

This is the first time I have written professionally about my experience. I do so with some excitement and also a bit of fear that I will be critically judged. However, it seems timely to do so especially considering that in October 2009, the Red Book was published. The Red Book is approximately 200 parchment pages of calligraphy and visionary paintings. Many of them  are Mandala drawings, collected in red leather and recorded from 1914 Until1930 by C. G. Jung.

Jung and the other psychological theorists I have mentioned in this article  viewed spirituality as a core of mental health. In 1897,William James stated that orthodox psychology turns its back on the mass phenomena of spiritual consciousness that happens to people. Many religious institutions also disregard spiritual information that is received outside of their churches and used by individuals. They also disregard the fact that Jesus had psychic and prophetic powers and taught many of his powers to the disciples.

Individuals have a right to know that their spontaneous occurrences of a Divine nature are real and valid and that this right was highly regarded by the early Christians. As previously mentioned, the Book of Acts in the Bible, explains the fiftieth day after Passover when a great wind blew through the house in Jerusalem where the twelve Apostles were gathered. The Holy Spirit endowed the Apostles and others gathered there with a  supernatural ability to spread the Gospel to devout Jews. Three thousand I souls were converted that day. As (Adler, 2005, September 5, p. 46) stated in the Newsweek and Beliefnet.com article, "Americans are looking for per- sonal, ecstatic experiences of God." I believe these miracles or experiences are natural for people to experience because they are God's will for every person. Keeping my ministry in the field of psychology, I am interested in becoming more knowledgeable about what others are experiencing in the area of spiritual experiences. In order to help develop a consensus that these experiences do happen, we need to discuss them with each other. Won't  you contact me and let me know about yours?


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