Vol 2, No 2          

Butterfly in the Sun
Help for
People in
with Karen Trueheart

by Celeste Adams

In our culture, where materialistic pursuits have long overshadowed spiritual development, many people are suddenly finding themselves in a spiritual and existential crisis. Many have begun to experience profound spiritual experiences that may shatter their understanding of reality and blow apart outdated worldviews.

To address this situation, the Spirit of Ma'at spoke with Karen Trueheart, director of the Spiritual Emergence Network, dedicated to helping people through the personal crises that often result from profound spiritual experiences.

If these ideas speak to your own situation or that of a friend or loved one, this article, and the resources suggested here (see information below), may help you to sort things out, find sympathetic, professional feedback on what's happening to you, and transform crisis into positive growth and Light.

The problem: cultural misunderstanding

Extraordinary opportunities for growth and change are being thwarted by our culture's disconnection from the kind of spirituality that is such an integral part of Eastern cultures and the cultures of indigenous peoples.

Common spontaneous spiritual events include altered states, psychic openings, possession, near-death experiences, Kundalini experiences, and shamanic journeys. But many people have no context in which to understand these new experiences, and they are often unable to find people with whom to talk about them.

As a result, profound spiritual experiences are often misinterpreted as mental breakdowns, not only by psychologists, but by the individuals themselves and their friends and relatives. Because of a lack of knowledge about spiritual growth, too many people are being medicated and hospitalized for experiences that actually have the potential to transform their lives in positive ways and open the door to meaningful spiritual journeys.

Different names for similar processes

Each discipline has its own preferred terminology for the spiritual changes that are taking place. Some people use the term ascension to describe a process of purification, heightened awareness, and consciousness — a process which some believe leads us into dimensions where the light level increases in our physical body, until we reach a point where we can no longer sustain a physical body.

Others prefer to talk of a New Age, a time of a Second Coming, a Fourth or Fifth Dimensional Shift, or simply ''The Shift.'' The terms that are used by those in the field of transpersonal psychology[1] are ''spiritual growth'' or ''spiritual emergence.'' Transpersonal psychology acknowledges that in countries all around the world, people are experiencing spiritual openings, and that unless these signs of spiritual awakening are accurately understood, opportunities for life enhancement and growth will be missed.

Calls for help from around the world

People of every religious orientation call in on the SEN hotlines and receive free personal assistance and educational information on spiritual emergence. According to Karen, phone calls are coming not only from all over the US and Canada, but also worldwide. The calls are from men and women who have different ethnicities, and from people of all ages.

Sometimes a relative or friend of an individual who is experiencing a crisis makes the call. Other times it is the person who is in crisis. Those who live in San Francisco can receive regular counseling at the center, on a sliding scale. Graduate students handle the phone calls and make referrals to licensed mental health professionals in the caller's area. They are all trained in professional psychology, and they draw on teachings in transpersonal psychology and the knowledge and wisdom of the different spiritual traditions that have investigated stages and characteristics of spiritual growth.

Factors triggering spiritual crises

Many different factors are causing people to question the belief system that they grew up with. Society is rapidly changing because of the Internet and globalization, and people are being bombarded with different worldviews that they don't know how to integrate.

When I asked Karen whether or not changes in the earth's magnetic field, and higher harmonics in the ''earth's pulse'' might also be triggering spiritual awakenings, she considered it a possibility. She said that although she wouldn't be able to scientifically prove whether or not these kinds of earth changes were happening, it certainly seemed reasonable that if they were, they could affect people energetically and contribute to increased incidences of spiritual emergence.

It's not about labels

Categorization of experiences is not a main concern of the support staff at the Spiritual Emergence Network. Karen said that it's more important to be open to what people are saying and experiencing, and to help support the process, rather then giving experiences a label. The job of the staff is to listen and to accept the language that each person uses to describe his or her experiences.

''Some people call and say that they are in a Kundalini process. Someone else may call and say they are having a shamanic journey. Another person might say 'I am experiencing a dark night of the soul' '' Karen said. Two types of categories are used, however: they are ''spontaneous'' and ''intentional'' spiritual experience.

Spontaneous spiritual experience

''A spontaneous spiritual experience might happen when your parents die, or you lose your job, or have an accident. You go through an intense experience which unintentionally opened you up,'' Karen explained.

You didn't want it, or ask for it, you weren't doing a spiritual practice, or yoga, you weren't praying on a regular basis. But suddenly something happens that is outside what you thought was possible. Some of these experiences are brought on by trauma — like going into surgery and having a near-death experience. It can be something that on the face of it would seem relatively ordinary, like stopping in a cathedral on a trip, then suddenly you're inside this sacred space having a vision. It can be a walk in the woods or in the mountains, when you begin to see things in a different light. You might feel deeply connected to the animals and the trees. This might cause you to question a number of things about who you are in relationship to creation and the creative principle. This leads you to want to understand what has happened and inspires you to live in a way which leads you to more of this kind of connection, of this reality in which we're all interconnected.

Intentional spiritual experience

People who have active spiritual practices, who have a desire or intention to transform, may have intentional spiritual experiences, Karen said.

They've taken on any number of practices in order to make this happen, and sometimes they may overdo the practice, like an athlete who over-trains or stresses the system. This is happening more frequently in the West because the West does not have the same kind of container that has been traditional in other countries. There, you would only be doing intense spiritual practices if, for example, you were a committed monk. Without the container, Westerners may find they do not have the support to integrate their experiences. This can be a problem. Although the behavior is intentional, the effects may be unintentional. They may find themselves in a spiritual crisis and could benefit from the kind of support offered by the Spiritual Emergence Network.

Averting crisis through professional support

The Spiritual Emergence Network recognizes that intense spiritual experiences can create a crisis in one's life for a number of reasons.

The experience can be so overwhelming to your psyche, Karen told me, that it makes you incapable of functioning effectively in the world.

Let's say you have an unexpected death in your family. The grieving that you go through starts a number of somatic responses, including vibrating, heat, and visions. This can become debilitating. Anything that you do tires you out quickly and you feel that you are in contact with some other realm of existence.

You talk about it to other people and they think that you are going crazy. Not only do you have these profound experiences, which can be both profound yet debilitating, but your social support system is not there for you. That exacerbates the possibility of there being a crisis.

If this goes on for a long time, it can lead to significant problems. People can lose their jobs, their partners, and their friends. By the time they call us, they may be in desperate shape. Someone might hospitalize them as if they were having a psychotic break, which can create a whole other set of difficulties.

By discussing these experiences early on with professionals, this grieving person would find reassurance that they were not going crazy, but were experiencing energetic body changes which can open them up to new levels of spiritual awareness.

Somatization — energetic changes in the body

There are a number of physical experiences that people begin to have when they become aware of their own internal energies, including feelings of heat going through various parts of the body, vibrations, and uncontrolled shaking. Karen remarked that in mainstream psychology these phenomena are referred to as ''somatization'' — phenomena experienced in the body.

When we begin to open up internally, things come up that we've held in the body (whether they are traumatic or blissful), and we need to integrate and process this new information. We exist on a number of levels, and one of those levels is energetic.

''Normally, for many people, the only thing that we're really aware of is that we are material beings made out of matter,'' Karen explained. ''As people begin to do inner work, they can discover that they are made out of energy too. Once you start on a spiritual growth path you may develop an awareness of your body at a more subtle level, and this awareness stays with you for the rest of your life.

''As we become more spiritually mature in a developmental sense, we can become more aware of these energy changes. Energy is never static, it's just a question of whether we are consciously aware of what is happening.''

The phases of spiritual growth

There are phases of physical growth, mental development, and emotional development. There is also another growth track that is not as well understood in this culture, although it is becoming more understood — and that is spiritual growth.

There are characteristics of different phases of spiritual growth, just as there are phases of physical growth. ''What makes it difficult is that our culture doesn't recognize that there is a spiritual growth path, that it's developmental,'' Karen said. ''Everyone knows that in adolescence you might get tattoos, dye your hair green, and behave in ways that are a little strange. We think that's part of being an adolescent, and the culture is pretty tolerant of that. But when we reach our spiritual adolescence, and things look pretty crazy, those in mainstream culture might see this behavior as psychotic and want to medicate it. But it may be a natural growth process that's being thwarted.''

Part of the spiritual-developmental growth curve might include becoming increasingly aware of subtle energies. One might begin to see geometrical shapes, or hear particular sounds. ''Spiritual growth is as normal as physical growth,'' Karen said, ''and as normal as mental growth. It's just that spiritual development is not well recognized or understood.''

Spiritual experiences are exploding old worldviews

Spiritual crisis is happening in our culture, in part, because so many things do not fit into the rational perspective that dominates much of modern-day thought. The belief that if something can't be proven scientifically it doesn't exist has created a culture in which people are left on their own to try to understand the very real experiences that happen to them — that they have been taught can't happen.

''You have a paradigm of the way the world is supposed to work,'' Karen said, ''but then you begin having experiences that challenge this worldview. You have to change that ''containing myth'' that held you, because you've just experienced a number of things that blow it apart.''

So the Spiritual Emergence Network helps people to integrate new knowledge and new experiences into their understanding of life. It is there to help us recognize that profound spiritual experiences are opportunities for expanded understanding of ourselves and of the universe.


  1. Transpersonal psychology is the branch of study, which focuses on growth beyond ego development. It therefore includes the development of spiritual experiences and understandings.

Karen Trueheart, source of this article, is director of the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN), founded in 1980 by Christina Grof in response to the lack of understanding of psychospiritual growth in the mental health profession.

In 1998, the Spiritual Emergence Network moved to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), in San Francisco. Since its conception, the Spiritual Emergence Network has gone through a number of different phases and rebirths, but it remains the only organization of its kind anywhere in the world. The Spiritual Emergence Network offers information, referrals, and support through a nationwide network of mental health professionals who specialize in integrating psychological and spiritual growth. The Network also offers counseling services in San Francisco.

Information: People who are having any kind of spiritual crisis or misunderstanding of their spiritual experiences are invited and encouraged to call the Spiritual Emergence Network, 415-648-2610. Or you can visit their website at senatciis.org.

Spiritual Emergence Reading List

Books for Therapists Working with Spiritual Emergence

  1. A Sourcebook for Helping People with Spiritual Problems by Emma Bragdon, PhD, Lightening Up Press CA, PO Box 627, Aptos, CA 95001. Fax (408) 761-5384. 1993
  2. The Call of Spiritual Emergency: From Personal Crisis to Personal Transformation by Emma Bragdon. Harper and Rowe, 1990. See above.
  3. Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis edited by Stanislov Grof, MD, and Christina Grof. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam/Penguin Putnam Inc. New York 1989
  4. Saints and Madmen: Psychiatry Opens Its Door to Religion by Russell Shorto. Henry Holt & Co. New York. 1989.
  5. Healing the Split: Integrating Spirit into our Understanding of the Mentally Ill by John E. Nelson, MD. SUNY Press, Albany. 1994.
  6. A Spiritual Strategy for Counseling and Psychotherapy by P. Scott Richards, Allen E. Begin. APA. 1998
  7. The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot. Harper Perennial/Harper Collins, NY. 1991

Personal Accounts of Spiritual Experiences

  1. Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment by Mariana Caplan. Hohm Press, Prescott, AZ. 1999.
  2. Pathwork of Self-Transformation by Eva Pierrakos. Bantam Books, NY. 1990.
  3. Collision With the Infinite by Suzanne Segal. Blue Dove Press. 1996.
  4. Journey of Awakening by Ram Dass. New Age Bantam Books. 1990.
  5. Truth Vibrations by David Icke. Access Publications Network, MI. 1991.
  6. From Onions to Pearls: A Journal of Awakening and Deliverance by Satyam Nadeen. Hay House, Inc. Carlsbad, CA. 1996.
  7. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path by Jack Kornfield. Bantam Books. 2000.
  8. Arching Backwards: the Mystical Initiation of a Contemporary Woman by Janet Adler. Inner Traditions International. 1995.
  9. Divine Intervention: An Expected Journey from Chaos to Clarity by Susan Anderson. Beyond Words Publishing, OR.
  10. A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Story by Jean Houston. 1997.

Kundalini Awakening

  1. Kundalini Vidya: The Science of Spiritual Transformation by Joan Harrigan. Knoxville, TN. 1996. Available through: Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care, 234 Morrell Road, Suite 108, Knoxville, TN 37919. Fax: (865)531-0990.
  2. Energies of Transformation: A Guide to Kundalini Process by Bonnie Greenwell. Saratoga, CA. 1990.
  3. The Serpent Power: Two Works on Laya-Yoga by Arthur Avalon. Dover, NY. 1974.
  4. Kundalini and the Chakras by Genevieve Lewis Paulson. Llewelyn Press. Minneapolis, MN. 2000.
  5. Living With Kundalini: The Autobiography of Gopi Krishna by Gopi Krishna. Shambhala, Boston and London. 1993.
  6. The Kundalini Experience by Lee Sannella, MD. Integral Publishing. 1987.
  7. Kundalini, Evolution, and Enlightenment by J. White. Anchor, NY. 1979.
  8. Passions of Innocence: Tantric Celibacy and the Mysteries of Eros by Stuart Sovatsky, PhD. Destiny Books, Rochester, VT. 1994.
  9. Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality: A Pathway to Growth and Healing by Philip St. Romain. The Cross Road Publishing Company. New York, NY. 1991.
  10. Kundalini: Path of Spiritual Emergence (audiotape) by Christina Grof. Sounds True Publishing.

Books on Transpersonal Psychology

  1. Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychology by Brant Cortright. SUNY Press, Albany. 1997.
  2. Clinical Studies in Transpersonal Psychotherapy by Seymour Boorstein, MD. SUNY Press, Albany. 1997.
  3. Soul Psychology by Joshua David Stone, PhD. Ballantine Publishers, Wellspring, NY. 1999.
  4. Transpersonal Psychology in Psychoanalytic Perspective by Michael Washburn. SUNY Press, Albany. 1994.
  5. Integral Psychology: Conciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy by Ken Wilber. Shambhala, Boston and London. 2000.
  6. The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader by Ken Wilber. Shambhala, Boston. 1998.
  7. Pschology of the Future by Stanislov Grof, MD. SUNY, Albany, NY. 2000.
  8. Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind by Roger Walsh, MD, PhD. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, NY. 1999.
  9. Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision by Francis Vaughn and Roger Walsh, MD, PhD. Tarcher/Putnam, NY. 1993
  10. Awakening the Heart: East/West Approaches to Psychotherapy and the Healing Relationship, edited by John Welwood. New Science Library/Shambhala, Boulder, CO. 1983.
  11. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. New American Library, NY. 1958.

Top of Page Print Version