Friday, February 24, 2012

Why do some people have dark spiritual / psychic openings? (ex: distressing NDEs) Hypoth #1 – unconscious mistrust

Neurological incident, illness, accident, Kundalini in general, but especially some Kundalini, the shamanic path in general, NDEs in general, but especially distressing NDEs, alien abductions, hauntings, etc. 

Why do some people have a very, very dark night of the soul on the way to an evolutionary leap whereas others have a still challenging, but much more pleasant, promptly rewarding journey?  I mean it just blows my mind some of the autobiographies out there right now of people who just *ping* started to have a psychic opening out of the blue with, yeah, some fear, but holy moly, not that much, and lots of fun and rewards right away.

In this post, we’ll look at distressing NDEs as one example of the darker spiritual path, offer one hypothesis for why some people have the darker path, and bring in psychologists Erik Erikson and Bonnie Greenwell for support.

Pluralism disclaimer – Probably, darker spiritual openings happen for many reasons, but I can’t help looking for a pattern.  Maybe there are one or two factors that are *more* correlated with the darker path.

Nancy Evans Bush is past president of the International Association for Near Death Studies, and is now semi-retired after some thirty years of research on NDEs.  She has specialized in gaining recognition and understanding for distressing NDEs, having had one herself in early adulthood, with no help at that time for processing it.  She maintains a fascinating blog at, and is also preparing a book on distressing NDEs.

Ms. Bush recently posted an extremely useful summary of what we know so far about NDEs.  She reports that approximately one in five NDEs are distressing, but there is both stigma about reporting a distressing NDE and fear of hearing about them, so the incidence might be higher.

Now, just the fact of having an NDE at all means a more distressing spiritual opening is happening in that the individual had to get very sick / injured and nearly die!  And even pleasant NDEs can cause much disruption and suffering after the fact, as survivors integrate the learnings and go through big developmental leaps.  Having said that, there is still a significant difference between the impact of pleasant NDEs and distressing NDEs. 

Based on a lifetime of study, Ms. Bush reports that NDEs – both pleasant and distressing – occur to people in all the obvious demographic groups you might think of, including all levels of education, all levels of religiosity, and all expectations about the afterlife.  Furthermore, “There is no evidence that character, religious activity, or moral status determines the type of NDE a person will have. Saints have reported dreadful visionary experiences. Criminals have reported glorious NDEs. Some individuals have experienced both” (her blog, 19 Feb 12 post).

“Pleasant NDEs tend to convey powerful messages that are common to all human experience, across religious and philosophical systems: a mandate to love, to have compassion, to keep learning,  and to be of service to others. Distressing NDEs have less focused messages but follow the ancient shamanic pattern of suffering/death/ resurrection, read as an invitation to profound self-examination, disarrangement of core beliefs, and rebuilding into a new way of understanding. (The new way commonly moves toward some aspect of the elements described by positive NDEs: love, compassion, learning, service)” (19 Feb 12 post).

There are some parallels between the variety of NDEs and the variety of Neuro-Kundalini experiences in recovery from psych meds.  Some people have short recoveries, some super-long, some people have big spiritual openings, some have more subtle spiritual shifts.  After seven years of reading hundreds of people’s accounts, I can’t see any definite demographic, personality, or psych history predictors (nor do medication factors definitely predict outcome).

One hypothesis is that people who have more distressing spiritual openings may have a very particular quality of *unconscious* anxiety from early life that has not been resolved.  General level of conscious anxiety does *not* seem to correlate with having a more difficult spiritual experience.  Nor does conscious depression or guilt.  Perhaps the key factor is unconscious mistrust of the parents / God / the universe. 

Erik Erikson, the famous 20th century psychologist, built a brilliant model of developmental stages.  Each stage is characterized by the physical and psychological challenges that human life tends to present at around that age.  If the characteristic issues of a particular stage are not resolved very well, there will be repercussions when those issues come up again later in life.

The first stage of his model is for the birth to 18-month period and is called “Trust v. Basic Mistrust.” During this stage, we learn to tolerate the inherent physical discomforts of life because, ideally, there is so much consistency and predictability in our relationships with our caregivers.  Teething happens during this stage, and, again, we learn to tolerate feeling a bit rejected by caregivers who don’t want to be bitten because there is still so much external continuity in the behavior of our caregivers.  This tolerance on their part also gives rise to trust in ourselves – in our capacity to cope with our urges and to be trustworthy towards others (Childhood and Society, pp. 119-220).

Erikson makes a rather surprising point that, as infants, we can endure and recover from quite a bit of parental error, except for one thing.  Although trustworthy parenting is desirable, the real key to creating a trusting human is to have parents who believe life is meaningful.  Erikson specifies the importance of meaning within a societal or cultural context (pp. 221-2).  I would extrapolate and speculate that it would still be OK if a parent were significantly out of step with her / his society, as long as s/he had a strong existential, teleological conviction about the meaning of life.

Bonnie Greenwell, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and teacher with vast experience in Kundalini.  She is the author of “Energies of transformation:  A guide to the Kundalini process.”  Based on her study of many people going through Kundalini, she wrote:

“….I have found that the reaction of fear is especially acute in people with a history of repressed physical or sexual abuse, who find the awakening Kundalini energy has awakened childhood memories.  Many experiences of transcendent states are quite similar to dissociative states occuring during childhood abuse so that the entire complex is reactivated.  Such people are forced prematurely into the need to do their “recovery” work, a problem that is amplified by the disruption of their normal energy and emotional states.  In addition, the patterning of feeling physical safety in the world, which should be the birthright of every human, is often inadequate due to abuse and neglect.  People who integrate this process [Kundalini] easily often have a life-long, possibly cellular, sense of safety and well-being in the world, that can be transferred into a willingness to accept and explore this new experience” (p. 272).

I want to emphasize that I *do not* believe that everyone who has a difficult spiritual opening has an abuse history.  Greenwell is not saying that, either.  Notice, rather, where her observation overlaps with Erikson’s theory.  The odds are that parents who are abusive are a subset of parents who lack a strong sense of the meaningfulness of life.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that abuse survivors who were lucky enough to have some caregiver who gave them a sense of conviction about the meaningfulness of life recover more easily than abuse survivors who did not have that crucial, mitigating help.

If there is a particular quality of unconscious mistrust in the person who has a darker spiritual opening, and if it is rooted specifically in an early caregiver’s own mistrust or nihilism about the meaningfulnes of life, then we are talking about something very specific.  We are not saying that having an anxious parent or being an anxious person correlates with a darker spiritual opening.  We are not saying that lack of religious faith or belief in an afterlife in the caregiver or experient is predictive.  The caregiver and the experient may even have had quite a lot of sense of meaning and valuing of life prior to any dark spiritual opening.  The experient may have been very high functioning, spiritual, religious, humanistic, self-respecting.  We’re not necessarily talking about a broad stroke character trait.

Indeed, this putative, particular sector of the self that carries this nihilism or mistrust may have been very unobvious in the person’s life *until* the darker spiritual opening.  Unobvious, but crucial.  Because I have learned the hard way that you can be having a fairly well-balanced, healthy, growing life and *still* be knocked upside the head by the Tao and shoved to recognize whole swathes of life and reality that you hadn’t been integrating yet.

In other words, it may be the main purpose of the darker spiritual opening to tap that untapped nihilistic, mistrustful sector of the self and push for an even deeper evolution of the individual than had been required for leading a reasonably good life.

So, this has been a psychoanalytic / psychodynamic (and existential) hypothesis.  In the next post, we’ll discuss a more transpersonal (and still existential) hypothesis.

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