When Spiritual Emergence Becomes Spiritual Emergency

Pain can make you want to die, can make you want to leave and shut the door behind you.


My pain makes me die and makes me live. It is my resurrection, my initiation—a great unfolding in my master plan. It opens my eyes to other people, to their profound joys and sorrows.

What happens when you die? They ask.

Well, what happens when you live?


Don’t tell me I’ll get through this and that one day it’ll be all right. I am here, now, and it is not wrong.

tibetan prayer flags, spiritual emergence, spiritual counseling

Setting Out On the Path of Meditation


When I first set out on a spiritual path, I was excited and dove very deeply very quickly. I attended a ten-day vipassana silent meditation retreat.


It was profoundly soul-opening, yet very painful. At that point in my life, my most transformative and spiritually elevating experiences were delivered in unimaginably difficult ways—mainly through explosive catharsis, chronic pain, and dissonance with my environment. I did not have the proper support or guidance, nor an awareness or understanding of my own past trauma, to make such a deep dive navigable and coherent.


On the fourth day of the retreat, I was really going through it. Not from the silence, nor the many hours of sitting in a dark hall every day, but from the food. They didn’t serve us dinner! I had such a horrible stomachache every night. That evening I was sitting in my same spot in the meditation hall, yet again contemplating the gut-wrenching pain I was in, when something in me blinked on.

What if you just felt your pain, instead of trying so hard to contract and not feel it?


I figured it was worth a go, so I did it: I surrendered to the pain I was feeling instead of fighting it. Immense power washed over me, like I had just accessed a part of reality I didn’t know existed—one where I wasn’t running away from discomfort but simply being with it. I let myself fully feel what I was feeling and in doing so, the feeling moved. Suddenly, my pain vanished. I was with it instead of against it, and that seemed to be all it wanted from me.


Whoa, life hack. Was it really that simple? Could I make pain disappear just by acknowledging it, saying, "I feel you?" I felt on top of the world. Quite suddenly, I possessed the ability to feel and move energy around in my body at will. It was a light buzzing sensation that I felt everywhere all at once— how had I never noticed it before? Had it always been there? I vaguely remember feeling buzzy like this after a particularly sweaty yoga class. . . maybe this was the same thing, what they called prana.

I didn’t sleep much that night, or really much at all for the rest of the retreat. Day and night, day and night, I was buzz-buzz-buzzing around. After a few days, I started feeling unsettled. My sensory perception was so heightened that I lost the ability to tune out tiny noises. I started feeling such minute sensations in my body that I’d never felt before—a brief contraction in my large intestine, my gallbladder secreting bile, my spleen working in tandem with my stomach.


By the last day of the retreat, I was ready to leave this miraculous but strange chapter behind. I’d had my spiritual experience and I was happy to soon be returning to my normal way of being.


The Only Way Out is Through: The Spiritual Journey Exposes What Needs to Heal


Once you start on the journey to awakening, the only way out is through. Once you begin to see the unconscious behaviors and choices you and those around you compulsively act out and the undue suffering they cause, it is nearly impossible to turn around and pretend you do not see it anymore. Those who do choose to turn away live in an impossible limbo between their old selves and the call to something greater.

Now that I had a taste of of what it meant to be with my pain, and the release that I could feel as a result of doing so, I could not turn away and return to the status quo I’d known before.


A few months later, I fell ill with a painful and crippling sickness that neither I nor the doctors seemed to understand. I couldn’t eat very much, and what I did eat caused searing pain in my abdomen for many hours.


Things just hadn’t been the same for me after that one glorious evening during the meditation retreat. Unexpectedly, my stomachaches had gotten much worse, not better. “Feeling my pain” didn’t magically seem to do anything the way it had during the retreat. Not only that, but I was, for the first time, feeling existentially exposed. Now that I had such a heightened sense of my body, my thoughts, and my surroundings all the time, it was impossible to ignore how much I suffered on a moment-to-moment basis.


I felt like I was crawling out of my skin. And I was so lonely. I found no solace in anything, nothing could distract me from the growing physical and existential agony I was enduring.


I became suicidal. It started as a trickle of a thought, something I would only turn to in my most private moments. Then it turned into a little stream, and then a river. Soon, grand rapids of suicidal thoughts coursed through the synaptic pathways in my mind, deeper and deeper, until within a few months it was all I could think about, the only thing that held any appeal. It terrified me.


Still, I kept going back. Every week I would dutifully go to my meditation group. I sought out and studied different Buddhist philosophies in and out of school. I went to another retreat.


Eventually, I was so deeply hollowed out by the dark tendencies of my own mind and the pain in my body, I finally heeded the call to stop pushing.


surfer, spiritual emergency

A Gentler Way Forward: Tending Our Personal Wounds


When I set out to know myself, to awaken to my enlightened state of being, I was hoping for an effortlessly rock-star body, a clear mind, unending money without having to toil for it, and a perfectly fulfilling relationship with an equally gorgeous partner. If I’d actually known what my process of more deeply “knowing myself” would entail when I first set out on a spiritual path, I don’t think I would ever have committed to it.

Yet, without the impetus and persistence of my spiritual sensibilities, I would not be where I am today. I certainly would not have found the inner drive or perseverance to endure years of uncovering layers of trauma that shaped the way I saw myself and the world. Nor would I have followed the call to pursue training to help others navigate the position I found myself in.


There are many avenues of thought that do not value our personal histories and pain as a sacred part of the journey, but rather see them as an obstacle to be hurdled over, pushed through. In truth, there is no reason to suffer undue difficulty as part of pursuing a spiritual path. There are many resources available to us that can greatly reduce the physical and mental difficulties that arise as a part of the transformation process.


There is a gentler way forward—one with the support of those who value embodiment and processing personal trauma as a foundational part of elevating one’s state of consciousness.


My personal journey course corrected when I began seeking the help of therapists, mentors, and coaches who encouraged me to attend to my own wounding before trying to make a quantum leap into a higher dimension of being. And, miraculously, I found that by taking a step back from spiritual practices and instead focusing on my own personal healing journey, my capacity for connecting to higher realms increased.


Attending to my nervous system and learning how to regulate my system when I went into a state of hyper-arousal offered me a level of grounded solace that my meditation practice had not. Understanding that my physical and emotional responses to meditation were rooted in my body's natural biological response to unresolved trauma took the personal shame out of my experience of extreme discomfort and allowed me to uncouple my core identity with the suffering I was experiencing. In short, healing through embodied practices rooted in the science of the nervous system actually propelled my spiritual journey forward.


By tending to the health of the roots and soil of my body, my branches in the sky above began to grow naturally and effortlessly.

A Cause for Celebration: Grounded Spiritual Growth in Community


Awakening to a new way of being and committing to a spir