Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence?

Guest post by Dabney Alix.

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” ~ Wayne Dyer

I love this quote. I see it as particularly relevant to the complex intersection between mental health and spirituality. In the psychiatric camp, a chemical imbalance in your brain can be fixed with the right combination of drugs. In the spirituality camp, you’re on a path of growth and purposeful transformation. Maybe you’re told to, “ride it out as best you can.”

Stan and Christina Grof coined the term ‘spiritual emergency’ with the intention to draw a clear distinctions between transformative states of non-ordinary reality and psychosis.

As someone whose own experience fits many of the categories described both as spiritual emergency and as psychotic break, I wonder if it is so black and white?

In 2003, I traveled alone to New Zealand and wound up volunteering at the home of a 90 year old man who had practiced and taught Vipassana meditation for over 70 years


When I met him, there was an immediate sense of recognition and I welled up inside with an incredible sense of joy and unity, like I had been reunited for the first time with someone whom I deeply loved.

A few days later, after dinner, another guest and I decided we’d try to meditate for the first time.  We sat across from each other on the floor and held hands.  It wasn’t until the following morning (nearly 10 hours later) that we emerged from a deep trance-like meditative state.  To me, it felt like the blink of an eye.

From that moment on, I began experiencing surges of intense emotional energy – joy, sadness, anger –  and was also seeing and communicating with the old man’s wife who had just passed away only 2 months prior.

A few days later, we left his home.  After 3 or 4 days of shared mystical experience, my friend managed to find his grounding and “come back.”  I, on the other hand, experienced long stretches of total bliss met with terror that shook my whole body.  I could see energy fields around everything, had heat and light emanating from my hands and left my body for many hours.  When I returned from these journeys I experienced what I can best describe as foreign entities present, as if I had been kicked out of the driver’s seat and was watching as foreign awareness and thought processes took hold.

My memory of the sequence of events becomes quite blurry as I remember less and less of what was happening and more and more about the intensely frightening visions I was experiencing.

At one point I remember closing my eyes and seeing rapidly moving mandalas and the very moment at which, when I opened my eyes, they were still there.

I was no longer seeing or experiencing the physical world around me.

Soon after I was brought to the hospital where I remember seeing so many spirits.  They came to my private waiting room one after another and merged with my body as I watched as their illnesses, wounds and pain rise and fall in like a sunset on fast-forward.  I then “carried” each soul to a dimension that I can only describe as pure light and returned for the next.  I did this for roughly 50 souls.  In Shamanism this is widely understood as middle world pyschopomp work.

Imagine the reaction when I described this to my psychiatrist! I spent about 2 weeks in Auckland’s psychiatric unit, was put on a stiff pharmaceutical cocktail and was escorted onto a plane back to my parents house in Maryland.

The sense that I was having a deeply profound spiritual experience swiftly waned as the drugs took their effect and I descended into a deep depression.  I had to fight to get out of bed, lost all fine motor skills and sleep became a distant memory.

My depression was considered as further proof of my illness and I was encouraged to keep taking my medication if I wanted to stay sane.

At the time, there was not a single person in my life who validated my experience or believed that I was not crazy.

Later that year I attempted suicide and was promptly diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder.  Each time I tried to tell my story of what had happened, I would begin shaking and fall apart into a crying, mess.   Further proof of my illness.

It wasn’t until much later that it became clear to me that what I had experienced was post traumatic stress, not only from my extensive out of body experiences, but from the way in which my condition was responded to.

Eventually I rejected my diagnoses and further treatment and moved back to my college town of Olympia, WA where I clung happily to the mundane.  I got a job.  I went back to school and got a Bachelor of Science in Human Health and solemnly swore to never open up those magical doors again.  For years, I lived in fear of losing my ground.  One small move could do it, I thought.  One bad night of sleep.  I was unhappy, but decidedly “safe”.

There came a point at which I knew that I could no longer deny the past or the fact that I was lucid dreaming and spontaneously Shamanically journeying, yet again.


In 2007, I began working with a Shaman and Energy Healer.  I apprenticed with her for about 3 years.  She freely imparted to me her knowledge of ancient healing wisdom during which time I learned many tools and modalities, but more than anything, how to get out of the way and be a channel for spirit.

I went on to study with different teachers and developed my intuitive abilities and awareness into my everyday life.  I created a successful business as a healer and even trained other’s in stepping out into their purposeful businesses.

I focus on a bigger question that motivates me to assist people integrating from their experience. How can we facilitate others in finding meaning and a path to healing that most serves them?

We can agree that pharmaceutical drug use is more prevalent than ever. One can be written a prescription simply due to difficulties adjusting to a new job, a break-up or a geographic move. It seems like it won’t be long before you can walk into CVS and ask, “What aisle can I find the Xanax?”

Gladly more and more people are waking up to the knowing that they are more than just a brain in a body and too wise to drink the Kool-aid that says, “this pill can fix you.” If you’re reading this, then it’s likely you already know that you are a dynamic being and that the multi-dimensional aspects of our life includes a rich spiritual domain.

But when it comes to choosing a path to wellness, the question still remains, how do you leave behind the authority of western psychiatry and begin to frame your experiences in a way that both supports you AND honors your values and spiritual beliefs?

I think the answer lies in looking at the many perspectives – from shamanic initiatory crisis to dark night of the soul and creating your own narrative within a cultural framework that most resonates with you, and then going from there.

If there’s one thing I’ve found, no matter what the label, these psychospiritual crises offer a rich and fertile ground for personal empowerment and transformation and for some act as an initiatory call onto the path of a healer.

Having worked with many healers to assist them in harnessing their gifts, I’ve come to understand that almost all of them were called onto their path through illness.

Could your Illness be your Initiation?

If so, I invite you to join me for A Free Webinar this Monday 3/16 Navigate Your Awakening: Shamanic Perspectives on Spiritual Emergency.

NYA webinar 3_16

See more details and register HERE.

Dabney is a healer, coach and teacher who works with those called onto a path of healing service through a spiritual emergency, awakening or initiatory crisis. She believes that some of our most gifted healers and visionaries are infact pathologized for their gifts and therefore unable to tap into the immense potential of psycho-spiritual crisis. To learn more about her work, you can connect with her at:

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