Spiritual Emergency and the Triune Brain
Revision 1.0, Nov. 19, 1997
"This is a paper I wrote for the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN) a number of years ago. It was designed to give guidance to volunteer ‘helpers’ who assist other people experiencing spiritual emergency. Dr. Stanislav Grof’s categories of spiritual emergencies are included in an appendix at the end of this paper.
SEN was started In the 80’s by Dr. Grof and his wife. It has since become part of the California Institute for Integral Studies, directed by Dr. Brant Cortright, department head for the psychology masters program. The web address is www.ciis.edu/SEN.html.
This paper is also valuable because it outlines the basic model ISPS uses in our work. Although dated, the material in it is correct, just incomplete. I will be updating it when I get a chance.
This paper does not include the existence of a fourth brain, the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, which I’ve named the “Buddha’ brain because of how it feels experientially."
-Dr. Grant McFetridge, Dec. 1999
As Spiritual Emergence Network helpers, we’re often faced with trying to support or reassure people who are experiencing a spiritual crisis which we may or may not recognize or understand ourselves. Especially when these people are in great suffering, many of us are often at a loss to know how to help in any specific way.
In this article, I’m offering a transpersonal extension to the little known Papez-MacLean triune brain model of the psyche to explain some of the common spiritual emergencies. I will also describe a number of overlooked experiences not covered in the standard literature, overlooked because their meaning and significance is not understandable from conventional models of the psyche. I’ll finish by mentioning a number of fast and specific techniques that deal directly with the pain and suffering of the types of spiritual crises I’ve come in contact with.
Like most of us, I’ve been exposed to a plethora of psychological and spiritual models of the psyche. I found that none covered the full range of my own experience, and none could be used to invent healing techniques from some sort of underlying first principles. It wasn’t until I healed enough trauma to clearly recall my womb experience and could study the events that lead to ‘normal’ consciousness that I was able to realize the underlying triune structure of the psyche. I invite you to explore what I’ve written, test some of the implications for yourself, and improve on it. Enjoy!
Part 1: The Basic Triune Brain Model
We start with a simplified version of the triune brain model, one without any controversial transpersonal elements, yet which is adequate for working with a number of spiritual emergence categories. A very neglected breakthrough in understanding brain biology forms the basis for this model. In the 1960’s Dr. Paul MacLean at the National Institute for Mental Health, expanding on the work of James Papez, described a three part concentric layering structure to the human brain. The outermost layer is the neomammilian brain, the neocortex which is the seat of thought and most voluntary movement. The next layer inward is the paleomamalian brain, composed of the limbic system, the seat of our emotions and autonomic nervous system. In the innermost portion is found the reptilian brain, composed of the the brain stem, midbrain, basal ganglia and other structures. Each brain serves different functions with some overlap, but what Dr. MacLean postulates is that the integration, or coordination between the brains is inadequate, a genetic problem in our species. For more information, see Evolutions End by Joseph Pierce, Three Faces of the Mind by Elaine De Beauport, and for summary information see Maps of the Mind by Charles Hampden-Turner. For a complete biological description see Dr. MacLean’s The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions.
How does the triune structure of the brain apply to our inner experience? In everyday terms, we know these brains as the ‘mind’, ‘heart’, and ‘body’. Each brain has different biological functions and abilities. The ‘mind’, or neocortex, is the part of ourselves we most often think of as who we are. It perceives itself in the head, and it is the part of ourselves that forms judgments, handles short term memory, and does abstractions like mathematics. The ‘heart’ is the limbic system in the brain, yet perceives itself in the chest, probably because this is the area of it’s primary biological responsibility and sensory awareness. It allows us to feel emotions, and be either positively or negatively emotionally aware of the presence of others. Finally, the ‘body’ consciousness (or ‘hara’ in Japanese) is composed of the tissues at the base of our skulls, and probably other distributed systems in our body. It experiences itself in the lower belly, it’s area of major biological function. This brain gives us a sense of time and our ability to feel sexuality. We communicate with this brain when we do dowsing or muscle testing.
The most difficult conceptual jump in Dr. MacLean’s work is to realize that each of the brains is intelligently, independently self aware. Because we tend to assume thinking requires words, it’s difficult for us to realize that each brain actually thinks. In fact, unlike the mind, the heart thinks in sequences of feelings, and the body thinks in gestalt sequences of body sensations (described as the ‘felt sense’ in Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing). By this, I don’t mean that it’s as if there were three people inside of us. Instead, since each brain is so different, we might compare this situation to that of a living stereo system. Imagine if the speakers (mind), tape deck (heart), and receiver (body) were each self aware, each trying to run the show and puzzled because the other parts won’t do what they want them to. It would be hard to imagine how a stereo like this would ever manage to play music! And unfortunately, this is fairly close to the mark. Even though sharing much sensory data and awareness of each other’s actions, each brain tends to be in denial about the existence of the others. In fact, the brains often come into conflict, even to the point of overtly or unconsciously attempting to manipulate and control each other. A simple example to illustrate this occurs when you’re sexually attracted (the body consciousness) to someone you don’t even like (the emotional consciousness).
The final element of the basic model involves the phenomena of trauma. For almost everyone, remembered or forgotten traumas drive most of our behavior and emotional life, completely outside of our conscious awareness. Traumatic experiences are stored, and later ‘played back’ as outer circumstances trigger us. This playback is an entire bodily experience, as if our younger traumatized self is partially taking over our body. Although we habitually resist this process, this playback mechanism combined with severe early trauma results in the psychological phenomena of ‘the inner child’. From a biological viewpoint storing our responses to traumatic experiences makes sense, since we survived the experience by responding in those ways. Unfortunately, what may have been a good evolutionary strategy for our animal ancestors is a tragic problem in our complex sapient lives.
Further, although the body selects the category of trauma’s retrieved via body sensations, it is the heart which indexes these memories by the trauma’s initially experienced emotion (with an accompanying visual image) and performs the playback and record function. To continue the stereo analogy, it’s a bit like we carry around a library of trauma cassettes and our heart is the tape deck. A variety of healing techniques discussed at the end of this article use this basic understanding. For a more complete discussion on indexing and triggering of trauma, see The Adventure of Self Discovery by Dr. Stanislav Grof (the coex system), and Beyond Psychology by Dr. Frank Gerbode.
This simple model of the psyche is compatible with Western cultural biases and explains many psychological phenomena. For another viewpoint on the triune brain biological model, I refer you to Dr. Janov’s The Anatomy of Mental Illness or The New Primal Scream.
Unitive Experiences: Fusion, the Beauty Way, and Wholeness
We will first look at a group of experiences which fall under Grof’s spiritual emergence category of unitive consciousness. Although rare, these remarkable states occur when two or more of the brains fuse (merge) together. In fact, total fusion of the three brains into one awareness is our normal state as we develop in the womb. However, by birth the trauma we’ve each experienced has created the disassociation of the brains which we consider ‘normal’, and we spend the rest of our lives unconsciously searching for this internal fusion in our outer lives. Even though these fusion states are intrinsically positive and in themselves do not create a spiritual emergency, these individuals sometimes contact SEN, often expressing confusion, grief and despair as they search for some way to regain the state they’ve lost.
The most common of these states is probably that of mind and heart fusion. It might be called ‘The Beauty Way’, from the American Indian tradition, or ‘aliveness’ as Harville Hendrix does in Keeping the Love You Find, or ‘an awareness of the Immanent Divine’, from the Christian tradition. This state has the unique property that past emotional trauma no longer has an emotional effect on people, and they find themselves totally in the present. It may have lasted only briefly or for most of a lifetime, but during it they feel vividly alive, and everything around them feels vividly alive too. In a certain way, everything is beautiful, even garbage, and even painful emotions feel satisfying. However, people in this state know they are not perfect, and they still have problems interpersonally and in their lives. They tend to call SEN because they now miss a knowledge of spiritual truths that seemed perfectly obvious during the experience, and so assume it must have something to do with spiritual states. Often, they've attempted to find what they’ve lost from spiritual groups or teachers but their experience has met without recognition and dismissed as unimportant.
An even deeper experience occurs when all three brains fuse, and the word that people almost always use to describe it when it first happens is ‘wholeness’. This can be accompanied by the sensation that your body is hollow, with a feeling of total security radiating upward from the pelvis. A vivid experience of perceiving how huge the sky is overhead is a key I use when accessing this state.
Another variation occurs when the mind and body fuse without the heart. This can be particularly disconcerting, because your body feels like it’s made of air without a boundary at the skin. I’ve seen this happen in people who have done tremendous amount of inner work, but it can also be triggered by certain life circumstances. In this state, and the less dramatic state when the body and heart fuse we still experience past trauma’s emotionally affecting our lives, unfortunately. To my surprise, only fusion with the mind can stabilize the heart in the present and turn off the relatively automatic playback of past emotional trauma.
As a SEN helper, reassuring someone that you’ve heard about what they describe is very supportive and helpful. I don’t know a simple or foolproof way to regain what they’ve lost, but several techniques do exist. One that has even worked for people that have never experienced head and heart fusion before is to consciously face all the subtle reasons that you have for not being fully in the present. This usually takes a few days and outside help. I’ve seen people access total fusion at least temporarily by doing body and breath techniques that emphasize surrendering to the body’s desire to move in certain ways, or even spontaneously during sex with just the right partner as a trigger. For people who have lost the fusion state, if they can spot the circumstances that caused them to leave fusion, a variety of trauma healing techniques discussed at the end of the article can be used to eliminate the traumatic memory that had been activated. For further reading on the topic of fusion, I refer you to Tom Brown Jr.’s The Quest and Awakening Spirits.
Unitive Experiences: Shutdown, Samahdi, and The Pearl Beyond Price
A much stranger set of states, still sometimes put in the category of unitive consciousness, can occur because the individual brains have the seldom used ability to turn themselves off. During these states, the person looses the abilities that were primary to those brains. This generally occurs due to what that individual experiences as extreme trauma, or sometimes from spiritual practices. Interestingly, we don’t lose our ability to use language when these shutdown states occur.
The state that occurs when the mind (cortex) shuts down has no particular name that I’m aware of, but it presents a very seductive yet problem filled situation. The person experiences a sense of peace, calmness, feelings of simple joy in living and doing everyday tasks, a connection to spiritual writings that is very profound. This occurs because internal conflicts the person experiences due to the independent actions of the mind cease. However, the abilities that the mind specialize in, short term memory, mathematical ability, and the ability to form judgments (such as choosing between similar items in a store, or making a menu choice) are also suspended or greatly impaired. This internal lobotomy presents a real dilemma, as the individual wants the state to continue, but find themselves unable to work at most jobs. I’ve seen people stay this way for as long as a year.
The next state is called samahdi in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Here, both the heart and the body consciousnesses turn themselves off. One experiences a sense of peace and timelessness that is beyond anything possible to experience in normal consciousness. The person finds themselves almost never breathing, probably because the need for oxygen metabolism to support the chemically based thinking processes of the two shutdown brains is eliminated. Unlike the previous state, the individual can continue to work at most jobs, and in fact the memory and IQ is extremely enhanced. (One odd problem with this state is the ability to recall what we hear, such as music or conversation, so clearly it cannot be distinguished from the real thing. We can go into a state of continuous playback, but turning the playback off can be difficult.) Unfortunately, the ability to feel emotions, or connect with people other than intellectually is eliminated. Once in the state, the person can remain in it indefinitely. The desire to experience feelings again is a trigger to ending this by turning on the heart, and the body consciousness soon follows.
When we turn off both the head and the heart, we are left with a state the Sufi’s call an experience of the ‘Pearl Beyond Price’. This odd state is similar to fusing the mind and body in that we experience ourselves as if we were made of air, without a boundary at the skin. Unlike fusion, in this state our lower belly feels as if it were full, a bit like we’d eaten a large meal or were pregnant. We also loose the abilities of the heart and mind, such as being able to feel emotions, be emotionally aware of others, think analytically, and so on. Spiritual practice accompanied by feelings of dying and trying to escape our lives can trigger this state.
The previous three cases generate calls to SEN because of the ‘spiritual’ overtones to the experiences, and from the dilemma people face in trying to decide if they should go back to the cacophony of three independent brains. As a helper, it is useful to point out that lobotomizing oneself to avoid pain is probably not in their best interest, and discussing how to heal trauma and live with more self love as an alternative is a key step. Simply desiring the aspects of themselves that have been turned off is usually sufficient to end these shutdown states.
Quite a number of calls I receive have to do with this category of spiritual emergency. Although a variety of transpersonal experiences are associated with kundalini, the basic triune brain model directly addresses the part of the kundalini experience that causes so much pain and suffering for people, the activation of old traumatic memories. As a SEN helper, the standard practice of first reassuring them that the phenomena is real, recommending books to read on the subject, and discussing it’s potential course is very helpful. But beyond this, I usually recommend a variety of ways, mentioned at the end of the article, to heal trauma so they can directly deal with the problems that are suddenly disrupting their lives.
Often kundalini is accompanied by sensations of being frantic and disoriented. A simple temporary solution is to have the person put stretch their arm out in front of them, and then move it in an infinity symbol (a figure eight on it’s side), while holding the head facing forward without moving. By following their upright thumb with their eyes, so that the thumb is seen first by one eye, then the other in a smooth motion causes the anxiety to lift in seconds. Supposedly this causes the hemispheres of the brain to start working in synchronization again, but I don’t know if this is the correct reason or not.
I want to mention something else about this phenomenon I hope will spur investigation by other people. During my own kundalini experience, I did some deep psychological work, and found that I was experiencing kundalini because my body consciousness was essentially blaming the other two brains for all it’s problems. My body was pretending that by harming itself through the disruption caused by kundalini it would fix things, with a getting even at the other brains sort tone to it. However, once I faced the pain around this delusion, my kundalini experience immediately ended. Of course, I don’t know if this is commonly the case for others, but it was certainly a surprise to me and well worth further investigation. I have observed that in spite of what some spiritual literature says, many people have years of kundalini experiences with little or no observable benefits, and this may explain why - the core problem is not being addressed.
Psychological Renewal Through Activation of the Central Archetype
I haven’t worked with anyone having this experience, yet I have come across something similar in my own work that I would like to share that may be useful. During a holotropic breathwork session and for quite a while afterwards, I experienced an episode of being in the middle of a world shattering conflict between two tremendous beings or archetypal forces. Investigating further revealed the core of the experience was part of the birth trauma, where my body consciousness was contending with my mother’s body consciousness for what I felt was my survival during the hellish conditions of birth. This experience had the sensation of two gods contending because the body consciousness feels like a god to the other two brains, as one might expect given that biologically the body consciousness is primary and the other brains genetically designed as extensions to it.
(Note 1999: Since I wrote this, I’ve had a chance to test out this understanding in a few clients who were experiencing this emergency and it tuned out to be correct for them.)
Suicidal ideation is currently a category in the SEN experience list. I have heard of cases where people ended up committing suicide partially due to the lack of understanding and support they experienced while they were going through what they and their intimates assumed were episodes of insanity. Doing our service as SEN volunteers keeps such tragedies from occurring.
However, suicidal ideation can also occur as spiritual emergencies activate early traumatic material. For example, in my own case, and probably due to my own inner exploration work, I suddenly became suicidal. By accidentally touching my belly button one day I suddenly realized the feelings were radiating from that spot. This was due to the trauma of having my umbilical cord cut too soon, and at an even deeper level was due to loosing the chemical communication to my mother during the birth process. Stanislav Grof speaks about this sort of thing in The Holotropic Mind (pg. 208), and I strongly suggest having a person who feels suicidal read this sort of material to get an intellectual understanding and some sort of hope to counteract these powerful feelings. See the end of the article for techniques to heal these trauma.
Out of Body Experience (OBE)
Fortunately, our culture is now generally aware of the out of body experience (OBE) even if it is considered delusional, so SEN helpers rarely have to reassure callers about it’s existence. However, the literature on this subject contains fundamentally incorrect assumptions due to a cultural ‘blind spot’ that we almost all share. So, as helpers we can unintentionally mislead people trying to deal with, induce, or understand this phenomena.
First, to see this ‘blind spot’ for yourself, please choose a very painful memory from your past, one with a sharp image associated with it. Take a moment and look closely at the image, because there is something very odd about it that you are probably taking for granted. (Pause). Notice where the viewpoint of the image is from - it is not from your eyes! (In fact, some people may be aware that they actually have two viewpoints, one from the eyes and one from another, out of body viewpoint.) If you don’t see the image from the out of body perspective clearly, pick another trauma and see if it’s more obvious. For the minority of people who have difficulty in perceiving this phenomena, a GSR meter can be used as a feedback device to bring the OBE images into awareness by interrupting our normal pain avoidance mechanisms. These traumatic images guide much of our daily behavior, as external circumstances stimulate their recall and we almost instantly react to avoid them. It’s as if our awareness is like a pinball in a pinball game, bouncing away from these pain filled images.
The OBE images are a critical piece in understanding our psyche, and one that is not understandable with conventional scientific models. When faced at all, mainstream psychologists assume that the OBE images are some sort of mental manipulation and give it the label of disassociation, then ignore it. People who believe in out of body experience make a different mistake - they assume that OBE’s are rare, when in fact they’re happening all the time. It’s staying in your body that’s hard, not leaving it! This could be tested in a laboratory setting, using blind or blindfolded volunteers exposed to mild trauma, who had practice in seeing the OBE images.
I know of two mechanisms to become aware of your own OBE’s as you have them. To understand these, one must first realize that it is the heart that perceives the out of body viewpoint (although it’s the body which controls the location of the viewpoint). The first method is to fuse the heart and mind, allowing the mind to receive the OBE sensory data as it occurs. I’ve found I get vertigo if I try to move around while using an OBE viewpoint and my eyes at the same time. The second method requires an understanding of the transpersonal part of the psyche, and is mentioned later in that section. At any rate, the rarity of either state explains why OBE’s are mistakenly considered such unusual events - it’s noticing them as they happen that’s rare, not the experiences themselves.
Part 2: A Shamanic Extension to the Triune Brain Model
Up to the discussion on OBE’s, I’d deliberately avoided discussing spiritual emergence phenomena that couldn’t be understood with the basic biological triune model. We now add a simple extension to the basic model to account for the OBE mechanism, it’s connection to trauma, and to a certain group of spiritual emergencies. This extension moves us in a direction of the psyche that focuses on shamanic types of experiences, connection to the natural world, and the sacred.
We start by assuming that although some parts of our memories are stored biologically in the brain, the emotional portion of traumatic memories is stored on fragments of a medium shamans call ‘soul’ which surrounds and interpenetrates us. This medium can be experienced as if we were surrounded by a big water balloon whose outer membrane we move around or dissolve at will. (I have wondered if this medium has not been observed in lab settings because one automatically withdraws it from any probing.) For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into the variety of perceptual data that supports this model, but instead refer you to Sandra Ingerman’s Soul Retrieval.
During an OBE the heart experiences itself as leaving the body, in the same way that a person using a virtual reality helmet feels like they are no longer in their body. The heart has a sensation of safety in this external viewpoint, as if what can harm the body cannot harm or effect it, leading to the heart’s delusion that it is not really part of the biological organism. During an OBE, the heart uses the soul piece a bit like an external camera, with the body controlling it’s location. During trauma, a mechanism is activated which records the emotional portion of our experience on these soul pieces. A variety of techniques (mentioned at the end of the article) rely on this model for healing trauma, either explicitly or implicitly. For example, the ‘whole-hearted healing’ technique eliminates the OBE to stop the trauma storage, while the VKD technique apparently works directly with the soul recording mechanism itself, and leaves the OBE portion alone.
Occasionally, instead of hanging on to the traumatic recording, the trauma is so painful to the organism that the body actually ejects it away from the area around the body, resulting in the shamanic experience of ‘soul loss’. The shamanic process of soul retrieval is one way of dealing with this problem, although just healing the trauma itself causes the missing piece to return eventually. Incidentally, having a soul piece return can be quite a dramatic experience. These pieces can be seen by outside observers as if it were the person ‘frozen’ at that moment, like a three dimensional picture, or as clouds of what looks like pipe smoke. Although these pieces are typically created during intense trauma, individuals can also create them unconsciously or even deliberately.
Finally, do I really believe in this shamanic ‘soul’ extension to the triune brain model? Well, it fits many otherwise puzzling observations, it matches my experience, is useful therapeutically, and has long traditional roots. But as a scientifically trained Westerner, I’d feel a lot more comfortable if someone would test some of the predictions of this model in a lab. I’d also like to see instrumentation measuring the presence of the soul material, along with collaborating detail such as the biological interface and exactly how recording and playback is accomplished. Yet, as a simple approximation to a complex process, it’s by far the best model I know of, and I’ll continue to use it until something better comes along.
Possession, Schizophrenia, and Channeling
Years ago as a SEN helper I was taught that true spiritual emergencies are short term and result in higher functioning individuals after the crisis passes, and that they generally happen to mentally healthy people, probably as a developmental step (see Appendix A). In contrast, real mental illness was categorized as somehow not spiritual, as it was more devastating, permanent, the realm of therapists and drugs, and by implication hopeless. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that, for example, very disruptive kundalini and channeling experiences were occurring in people over a period of decades, and that they did not appear to be benefiting in any obvious way from them. I’ve come to reject that SEN model, and in this section I’ll be specifically addressing the connection between the mental illness called schizophrenia, the controversial SEN category called possession, and the trendy phenomena of channeling. I’ll finish by briefly describing ways to heal these problems.
First, these three phenomena are actually manifestations of the same underlying mechanism. It turns out that our bodies have the ability to pull in and hang onto other people’s soul pieces, which in shamanic terms is called ‘soul stealing’. These pieces are popularly called ‘entities’ or ‘angels’ depending on the emotional tone they carry from their formation. Unlike our own trauma pieces which we can erase or modify with certain psychological approaches, we apparently cannot do this to ones from other people, nor can we ignore them as easily. Unconsciously doing soul stealing is actually fairly common among ‘normal’ people, and is something a shamanic practitioner deals with all the time.
How these soul pieces affect us depends on a number of factors, such as how hard we resist the ‘playback’ process, how many soul pieces we’re dealing with, how intense and what primary emotion each piece contains, how often we’re triggered into playback, are we blocking the verbal content of the playback process, and so on. Thus, the condition we call schizophrenia is actually an extreme and disruptive case of uncontrollable play back of one or more of these stolen soul pieces. Likewise, in my limited experience the controversial SEN category of possession is an even more intense version of the same process, where the trauma piece(s) involved are extremely negative and dramatic. Finally, the popular practice of channeling is also a manifestation of the same mechanism, albeit done with more control and less mental disruption. This last assertion can be difficult for people doing channeling to accept, especially since people would like to believe that they have a connection to sources of higher wisdom. I’d always been skeptical about channeling after looking at the functional usefulness of what was said, but I became downright suspicious when I noticed that channeling caused minor harm to peoples bodies during the experience, a flag to me that some sort of psychological self deception was going on. However, I wasn’t absolutely sure until I’d worked out the mechanism, and a way to heal it, and had a chance to test it. Of course, it’s always possible that more than one type of channeling exists, but so far every individual who I’ve worked with has been doing what I described. (For complete references to the entire channeling phenomena, I refer you to the excellent books by John Klimo or Arthur Hastings.)
So, why would anyone do this to themselves, which in the extreme can even cause you to harm others or drive you crazy? Many healers (and Hollywood movies) have the viewpoint that somehow people are the victims of nasty or confused entities or lost souls who wonder around looking for somebody who’s defenses are down so they can move in. Realizing that we are actually the perpetrators, not the victims, doing this to ourselves by grabbing and holding on to soul pieces is hard to believe (if you can accept this stuff at all) until you understand why. The reason is actually hidden in birth and womb trauma, which is why so few people find it. During birth, and occasionally in the womb, our body consciousness associates survival with the sensation of being surrounded by the emotion(s) our mother felt at those moments. This is similar to the sensation we get when we pull in an external soul piece, and so at a deeply unconscious level we are convinced that to survive we have to hang onto it no matter what. In fact, we also tend to seek out people who feel those particular emotions much of the time for the same reason. Thus, healing soul stealing has the benefit of fixing two problems at once.
We can heal soul stealing in several ways. For example, the Hambalecha care facility in southern California uses a body centered approach which routinely heals schizophrenia, albeit slowly. In this approach, they bring the person to an awareness that they are causing themselves to be schizophrenic, and some time later they bring the person to the decision to stop doing it. If possible, I prefer any of a variety of trauma healing techniques that access birth and womb memories. This usually is very rapid, usually less than a couple of hours. Another method is to have a shaman remove the soul piece causing the problem, and although I’ve seen this approach work, I don’t know if it eliminates the underlying survival issue for a permanent cure. Probably the most pleasant way to block the phenomena, although it doesn’t cause us to give up the soul pieces, is to go into head and heart fusion (the beauty way). In this state, we no longer play back trauma pieces, including ones we pull in from outside.
Incidentally, accessing past (or future) lives can result in an experience that resembles channeling, but I suspect this is done extremely rarely. See the section on past lives for more information.
I’ll finish by briefly mentioning that there is another unrelated mechanism for what can be experienced as possession, but one that is usually experienced as much more disturbing or scary to the individual. Unlike soul piece playback, where the soul piece emotion feels like it’s actually your own, in this experience a part of the person’s body (such as an arm) may apparently move by it’s own volition, or the person may find themselves repeating a certain word, or in the extreme the person may feel that they are occasionally completely ‘taken over’ by the sensation of some overwhelming being or energy. It can be very disturbing when it’s something the person doesn’t want, and they find they cannot block or resist it in spite of all their efforts. In my limited experience, this occurs when the body consciousness briefly gains partial control of the organism, but plays out delusional material it’s holding due to some old trauma. Of course, this mechanism can manifest positively especially in the absence of any delusional traumatic material, as for example when someone suddenly find extremes of strength to save a life, or to suddenly heal oneself of some illness, or to experience themselves as an almost archetypal sexual being during lovemaking.
Hauntings, Ghosts, and Psychic Attacks
Although not strictly spiritual emergency, some SEN calls are requests for help and understanding around experiences involving haunting, ghosts, or psychic attacks. It turns out that many of these experiences are another expression of the soul piece phenomena, and can be dealt with in several ways.
I was pretty skeptical until I ran into it myself. About a year after the death of my mother, and as a result of some inner work I was doing, I suddenly felt like I was being crushed. I grew aware that my mother was ‘present’ and trying to communicate. After some work, I found she wanted me to make a promise, upon which she vanished. It turns out that during the last years of her life, my mom unconsciously created a soul piece due to her despair involving my dad and brother’s health. Apparently, this piece outlasted her, and was what I was communicating with. The underlying process is that a person unconsciously constructs a soul piece with an imprint of themselves and their desire, ejects it from the body field, and uses it to try and either defend themselves, attack others, or to try and get their way. Although I’m confident that I correctly understand the mechanism, I don’t have answers for some of the implications from this experience. For example, was her soul piece animated by my own psyche, or in some way by the woman who created it, either from the past, future, or from some other ‘realm’? Did it have a certain degree of autonomy and self awareness? Do they fade with time after a person’s death, or do they go somewhere else? With all the people in the world now, why aren’t we hip deep in soul pieces? Working out the answers to these and related questions is what makes this work so fascinating.
Thus, one doesn’t even have to be dead to create a ‘ghost’! An in fact, it’s a very common phenomena. For example, one woman created a piece as a result of trauma involving abandonment. She would unconsciously use it to defend herself from men who she felt were about to leave her, giving them a very eerie sensation of a threatening presence. Gently confronting the woman on this issue caused her to pull it back in and face her trauma around abandonment. In my own case, I found I’d created a piece due to a trauma involving trying to protect myself from being spanked by my dad which was interfering with dowsing that one of my teachers was trying to do for me. And even more seriously, I’d created a soul piece as a result of the birthing process to ‘attack’ women who reminded me of my threatening mother. Healing the generating trauma causes the pieces to be eventually pulled back in with a ‘pop’ sensation. I wouldn’t wonder if this soul piece creation process isn’t the basis of so called black magic practices, as well as the origin of some of the so called angels being channeled.
Several excellent books on the shamanic journey experience and other elements of the shamanic crisis can be readily found now, such as Harner’s classic The Way of the Shaman. However, I do want to mention one aspect of the shamanic experience I think it is important for SEN helpers to at least have heard about that is not generally found in the literature. I became familiar with this phenomenon by accident during a holotropic breathwork session while I was exploring the pain around having self identities. When I dissolved the earliest one that my body held (a delusion of being my father acquired during the birth trauma), I experienced a sensation of sacredness and suddenly my body awareness became radically different. Repeating this process in turn with the other two brains, I found myself changed to such an extent I experienced myself as something totally unfamiliar, without any similarity to the human identity I call myself.
I’ve since been able to do this from ordinary consciousness, and it appears that to my surprise each of my brains has a counterpart or extension in some other sort of ‘realm’. It’s difficult to describe, but I get a ‘visual’ impression of fluorescent blackness, timeless, and a sensation of being a bit as if I resembled something a totem pole might be trying to portray. Incidentally, I was comfortably aware of this duality while in the womb. The only reference to this state of consciousness that I’m aware of is in The Vision and Awakening Spirits by Tom Brown Jr., a shamanically trained westerner. He refers to it as ‘The Realm of the Shaman’, or “The Void’. In my limited experience this state of being is part of the key to radical physical healing, and is certainly a fascinating aspect of the human psyche.
Part 3: A Transpersonal Extension to the Triune Brain Model
If the triune brain model is correct, why doesn’t it match our everyday experience? True, we have thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, but doesn’t the Western model of a single awareness with a conscious and unconscious fit our typical perception of ourselves better? Even if the triune model is true, isn’t our seat of awareness behind our eyes in the neocortex? To answer these questions as well as understand another group of SEN categories we need to include a transpersonal element to the triune brain model.
We start by looking at what many spiritual practices are trying to accomplish. For example, Buddhist vipassana meditation asks us to dis-identify with our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. In other words, they want us to become aware that our everyday sense of self at bottom is independent of the three biological brains. This non-biological awareness, or ‘spirit’ as it is sometimes called in religious literature, is the transpersonal element to the triune brain model. In spite of our cultural beliefs that our spirit is sort of outside of ourselves and generally inaccessible, what I’m referring to is totally familiar to us, as it’s the core of our moment to moment perception of ourselves, the ‘conscious mind’ in Western terms. Yet, these spiritual practices are also trying to get us to change our consciousness, not just dis-identify with our organic being. For example, Gangaji or D. E. Harding in On having No Head talk about ‘dropping the false self’, and experiencing boundryless selfless awareness. What are they talking about, and how does it relate to our everyday experience? And even more to the point, why does everyone have a self in the first place that they have to work so hard to get rid of?
To understand this requires an awareness of another very important aspect of the storage of traumatic material that involves physical injury to the body. Some spiritual emergencies, therapy techniques, or spiritual practices that activate traumatic memories or increase one’s internal awareness can cause an experience of a terrible feeling of deficient emptiness, a sensation of lack which at a deeper level is coming from what can be seen as black bottomless holes in one’s body. These holes occur at locations in our body where we have been injured, and a tremendous amount of our behavior is designed to block our awareness of them. These holes are the origin for the storage of sequences of emotionally traumatic material which have a similar feeling to the initial injuring experience. For more information and specific healing techniques, see my web sight on Whole-Hearted Healing, or Dr. Cory Sea’s excellent Seawork: Radical Tissue Transformation, or A. H. Almaas’ work (which I don’t completely agree with) The Diamond Approach, Book 1.
The next piece of the puzzle occurs in the womb. At that time, the ‘spirit’ part of us that can be best described as pure unbounded awareness is fully merged with our body. Our sense of self is very different than it will become after birth. We experience ourselves internally as very bright and large, and we’re totally aware of ourselves and our environment. During birth, partly as a defense to the terrible emptiness of the holes that are formed at this time, we construct blocks to our own awareness. These blocks are experienced as layers right at skin level covering our body. Each layer is composed of a traumatically painful phrase and feeling, and we create different layers at each injury site. These layers overlap, expanding or contracting as the underlying trauma at each site is stimulated or relaxed in our daily life. It is our constant awareness of these intrinsically painful layers that gives rise to our familiar sense of ‘self’ after birth, and that gives us the sensation of having a boundary at our skin. These layers form the so-called ‘false self’, and it is the dissolution of these defensive layers that many spiritual practices are trying to accomplish. These layers can be dropped in just part of the body, giving rise to such experiences as Harding’s “headlessness”. When this occurs, one experiences that part of the body as if it were composed of air, with no boundary, yet the region has a sensation of strength and wellness that we’ve only imagined we could feel.
At this point in my work, it appears to me that these layers are created out of whatever pure unbounded self aware ‘spirit’ is composed of. I find it fascinating that in deep inner work, or as a result of such work our ‘spirit’ awareness can be expanded into each of the three brains, held outside of the three brains, or shifted between them individually. Incidentally, it is by shifting our spirit into the heart that gives rise to the second method for experiencing OBE’s, as we perceive the heart’s ability directly without filtered through the mind.
What I’ve been describing is in no written work that I know of. However, you can demonstrate the accuracy of this analysis for yourself in a variety of ways. One straightforward way is to simply sit down, look at your chest, and try to move your awareness into it to find whatever is inside. If you are committed to knowing the truth, and are willing to endure the pain, you can punch through each successive layer, becoming aware of what each one is composed of until you reach the sensation of ‘space’ inside your body. Once in, a slightly painful effort of will will open up the whole area of that set of layers, creating a sensation that your body in that region is made of air. However, the gap will close up again when you relax your attention. This process can also occur spontaneously, such as during experiences of extreme love. Incidentally, the eyes apparently can act as an opening in the false self, allowing ‘us’ to go outside the body, which I took advantage of in when I mentioned punching through the boundary into the chest from the outside. Of course, once in you can continue the process from the inside and punch out, which oddly is much easier.
A much more interesting but painful approach to demonstrating this analysis is to heal the underlying holes that these layers defend you against. As the holes are healed, the layers vanish. Unfortunately, adjacent holes have their defenses spread over any particular region, so a certain critical mass of healing is necessary along with a lack of stimulation to areas of adjacent trauma. (If you attempt this, I strongly recommend avoiding the solar plexus injury. Not only is it hard to heal, but removing trauma from this region unblocks one’s abilities to effect the world around us. This is a problem when the heart, which controls this ability, uses it to play out delusional material.) This was the method I used to test my understanding, but I was still very surprised when it worked as predicted! Unlike the first method, I found that these regions that feel as if they’re made of air now also feel intensely sacred.
Thus, in spite of what many spiritual groups believe, the experience of no-self is not the end of one’s work, although it certainly feels like it. For example, this can be demonstrated by pointing out that radical physical healing does not automatically accompany this phenomena, our memory of our entire existence does not become available, nor does the perception of one’s body as sacred occur. Instead, one needs to continue working in what might be considered a more shamanic or psychological direction involving internal fusion and trauma healing. Just to stress the point, I personally see this important and vital experience of no-self as potentially the ultimate escapism, since what happens to our bodies, in our lives, or the planet in general can now be accepted and ignored.
‘Spirit’ is the level of our consciousness that we use to see chakra’s with. Interestingly, the energy they put out, which feels like warm water flowing out of our bodies at the site of the chakra, will be bounced back if the false self boundary is rigidly in place, causing pain to the body. It’s feels a bit like we’d shot off a gun inside a barrel and the bullet were ricocheting around.
A number of questions remain. For example, there appears to be some sort of interaction between each of the three brains and this phenomena of the false self, since the head and heart shutdown state as described in Part 1 result in dropping the boundaries. And I find it particularly significant that apparently all humans construct this boundary at skin level during the birthing process, perhaps as a substitute for the placenta. Finally, I still don’t understand how conventional spiritual practices can result in releasing the false self even partially, a fact that points out that the organism can find a alternate defense to the holes that at present escapes me.
It is interaction in varying degrees between our blocked transpersonal awareness, our split three brains, and (when we don’t feel peaceful, calm and light) any trauma recordings being played out that gives rise to our everyday conscious experience.
Death and Dying
The grief due to the death of someone can be a devastating experience. But particularly in cases involving a death due to one’s own actions, either real or imagined, the burden can be beyond belief. As a SEN helper, I can suggest a technique which apparently allows most people to directly communicate face to face with the dead person in order to come to resolution on these issues. Rediscovered from a process used by the ancient Greeks by Dr. Raymond Moody, it was described in his book Reunions, and is gaining popularity, albeit slowly. I am not yet competent to explain the underlying processes, but from a therapeutic standpoint it appears very useful. It does not appear to use the soul piece phenomena, and so makes me wildly curious about the underlying mechanism and it’s significance in larger questions of life after death.
I want to mention another case I had of a woman grieving over the death of a very loved elderly woman. We used a trauma healing technique on her grief, and tracked it back to the birth stage before crowning. After healing this trauma, her grief over the death completely vanished and did not return. A similar event happened to me, involving injury to the arms, shoulders, and neck during birth, as well as internal separation between the body and heart. This was a surprise to me, and I now wonder about the whole phenomena of grieving over loss which we all take for granted, and I encourage others to take a look at this.
The issue of past lives can come up for people calling SEN in a number of ways. The memory may have surfaced due to a past life regression, during trauma healing work, or spontaneously. In general, the caller requires reassurance that this phenomenon has occurred for others, and references to one of the many excellent books on the subject can be made. However, in my experience one problem that can occur for SEN helpers is to assume that just recalling the past life is adequate to heal it. Since the individual usually has a tremendous sense of relief when he recalls the memory and sees why this life has had problems because of it, it is easy to jump to this conclusion. Unfortunately, the trauma needs to be healed just like any trauma does in their current lifetime.
At the risk of loosing credibility, deeper levels of the past life experience can occur especially among people doing spiritual practices, and I feel SEN helpers should at least have heard of this even if they don’t believe it. Normally, we think of the past as fixed, and the future as yet to form. However, imagine for a moment that our ‘spirit’ exists forever, and can have a viewpoint outside of time from which it sees that all events past and future have already occurred. However, change is possible because individuals can shift their awareness, or ‘spirit’, through time and act on what will have or has already occurred. Thus, one can have the experience of interacting with ones past life or future life to change events. In fact, one can actually give oneself advice and guidance from one lifetime to the next, the ultimate example of raising oneself by lifting one’s own bootstraps! An excellent example of this phenomenon can be found in Hank Wesselman’s Spiritwalker. Since most of us can hardly run our own current life, let alone another’s, I generally don’t encourage this practice.
At this point, it appears to me that traumatic incidents are carried from the past through the mechanism of ‘soul’ recording in previous lifetimes. Thus, when one fuses the head and heart, this sort of trauma does not effect us. So, is ‘soul’ carried from one life to the next, or do we create it fresh in the womb? When we return to heal these trauma we can view those lives by translating our ‘spiritual’ viewpoint into the actual past, and we get the odd sensation of recognizing ourselves and others even though we have a different ‘false self’ and body in that life. One might ask the question, would we find a familiar self no matter whose soul piece we tracked into the past? (It’s questions like this that really make this game of understanding and predicting so interesting to me!)
Specific Help Strategies - ‘Loving Yourself’
A number of SEN callers are in the midst of a crisis when they call me, feeling overwhelming emotions such as anxiety or fear. If they want to go beyond information and the support of shared experiences, I almost always teach them how to love themselves first. Although the technique does not directly heal, it almost always gives people relief from their current crisis, a feeling that they are not being betrayed by their own bodies with subsequent hope for the future, allows them a simple way to move through many difficult emotions, and it speeds up healing in techniques they can learn later.
This highly simple and effective method is found in Dr. Gay Hendricks excellent book Learning to Love Yourself. The method goes as follows. Recall something in your life that you can recall really loving. I would suggest a doll, or pet, rather than a significant other, because we want a pretty straightforward feeling, not one mixed up with rejection, punishment, etc., etc. One woman had a favorite aunt that worked perfectly. Imagine this object is in front of you, and bring up that feeling of love you had for it. Stay with this until it’s nice and strong. OK, now, turn that flow of love going outward back on yourself, like redirecting a hose of water. Sit with this until you’ve got it. A variation on this that sometimes works is to recall a physical place where you felt especially good, and use this to bring the feeling up in yourself.
Specific Help Strategies - Healing Trauma
I refer you to four excellent trauma healing techniques, along with a superb discussion on the state of this art in The Family Therapy Networker, July 1996, pgs. 21-37. The techniques described are EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), VKD (Visual Kinesthetic Dissociation based on Neuro-Linguistic Programing), TIR (traumatic Incident Reduction), TFT (Thought Field Therapy, based on applied kinesiology and acupressure points).
A variety of other techniques exist. My own which I call Whole Hearted Healing, is described at the web site www.PeakStates.com. A simplified version of TFT called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is inexpensively available through the web site www.emofree.com. Other techniques I recommend are TAT (Tapas Flemming’s acupressure technique for allergies and trauma), shamanic soul retrieval, Gendlin’s Focusing, and Holotropic (Dr. Grof’s) or Radiance (Dr. Hendrick’s) Breathwork. Other excellent modalities exist, but these are some of the better know approaches.
In this article, I’ve presented a model of the psyche that is useful in understanding and predicting psychological and spiritual phenomena, and creating helping strategies that work. I’ve tried to keep things as simple, brief, and accurate as possible, but like any work in process I expect some revisions as my experience increases. Since I’ve spoken about spiritual emergencies that I’ve had direct experience with, I invite you to apply and refine this triune brain model to other transpersonal phenomena that arise in your own practice, and let me know what you discover. Have fun!
Much material on healing not directly relevant to spiritual emergencies has been omitted. See website www.PeakStates.com for more information.
Copyright Grant McFetridge May 1997,1999
Appendix A: Spiritual Emergency Classifications
This is introductory information I wrote in 1992 for a spiritual emergency support group. The categories were taken from Grof’s work.
Definition of Spiritual Emergence(y):
Episodes of unusual experiences that involve changes in consciousness and in perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and psychosomatic functioning, in which there is a significant transpersonal emphasis in the process. It includes the ability to see the condition as an inner psychological process and to approach it in an internalized way. The capacity to form an adequate working relationship with a spirit of cooperation with people trying to assist is present.
The whole personality is usually affected. Often the person will share a “fear of going crazy”. The above criteria excludes people with severe paranoid states, persecution delusions, hallucinations, and those who consistently use the mechanism of projection, exteriorization, and acting out.
Common Emergence Typologies
1. Kundalini Awakening: Powerful psychological and physical experiences especially involving physical sensations such as variations in body temperature, experiences of energy streaming up the spine, tremors, shaking, spasms, complex twisting movements, visions of lights, involuntary vocalizations, crying, acoustic phenomena, as well as emotional and psychological upheaval.
2. Shamanic Crisis: Dramatic episode of a non-ordinary state of consciousness often concurrent with a life threatening illness or trauma. There is an emphasis on physical suffering and encounter with death followed by rebirth and elements of ascent. Usually contact with totem or power animals, confrontations with demons, descent to the underworld where guidance is received followed by an ascent to the upper world.
3. Psychological Renewal through Activation of the Central Archetype: Episode of psychological upheaval usually with strong psychotic processes. An inner experience of perceiving oneself as being in the middle of a world process (ie. fighting for the survival of the human race). Emphasis on themes of death, afterlife, return to the beginnings of creation, cataclysmic clashes of opposites or polarities such as good/evil, male/female, and Christ/Devil.
4. Psychic Opening: Experiences may include telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, out-of-body travel, visions, synchronicities. In acute episodes the individual is flooded with psychic information, overwhelming the ego.
5. Karmic Pattern or Past-Life Memories: Dramatic experiences that seem like past life times or birth events. Can be intense emotional experiences of birth, torture, death, memories of family members or ancient cultures. Often these episodes illuminate present life difficulties: irrational fears, habits, or difficult interpersonal dynamics.
6. Possession: Least understood and most controversial type of spiritual emergency. Episode when the individual assumes the facial characteristics, gestures and attitudes of someone else typically diabolical in nature. Individuals can feel victimized or invaded or controlled with corresponding fear and concern.
7. Channeling and Communication with Spirit Guides: Includes instances of communication with unseen, non-hostile beings and involves participation in a trance state that allows other entities, beings, or intelligences to speak. These entities characteristically have radically different voice and facial expressions that the individual normally has. Includes communication with spirit guides.
8. Unitive Consciousness: Experiences of inner and outer unity or harmony, strong positive emotions, transcendence of time and space, sense of sacredness, paradoxical nature, objectivity and reality of the insights, ineffability, and positive after effects. Can be prolonged and involuntary causing concern in others, sometimes even leading to inappropriate treatments such as electroshock.
9. Near Death Experiences: Involving up to 8% of the US population. Common pattern involves feelings of peace, followed by a transitory buzzing at which point one may find oneself viewing his body from above, followed by sensing a benign presence. Presence often induces individual to review his life and a decision to return to earthly life is made, terminating the episode. Other elements common.
10. Encounter with UFO’s: Typically a person experiences some form of communication, close contact, or abduction by alien beings perceived as originating on another planet. Can range from pleasant, inspiring, and even welcome to radically invasive, involuntary encounters which leave their victims filled with terror.
1. Spontaneous (rarely, usually signs such as dreams)
2. Threats to one’s life (ie. serious illness, accidents, operations)
3. Extreme physical exertion or prolonged lack of sleep
4. Perinatal events (ie. childbirth, miscarriage, abortion)
5. Powerful sexual experiences
6. Powerful emotional experiences (eg. loss of close relationship)
7. Series of life failures
8. Deep involvement in various forms of meditation or other spiritual practices (most common)
1. Provide psychospiritual framework
2 Little or no medication
3 Sanctuary over a hospital
4. Decrease or discontinue spiritual practice
5. Dietary changes
6. Exercise / body therapy
7. Contact with nature
Post Episode Functioning:
1. Symptoms last minutes, and up to months; acute onset during 3 months or less (Lukoff)
2. Functioning enhanced after most intense period is complete over previous level of functioning (Lukoff and Grof). Typically more creative, more oriented to service, new parts of self activate (Turner).
Appendix B: Womb Memories
In the womb, the three brains at first were fused (merged) together, experiencing themselves as one organism. I was actively involved in growing myself, not just following a preprogrammed DNA sequence. For example, I remember not being able to figure out what the appendix was for, and seriously considered not including it in my body. I experienced myself as quite large, bright internally, and took great delight in watching my own and my mothers biological cellullar processes. A month or so before birth, my mom ate something that was poisonous to my fetal body. While I was dealing with this internal crisis, my mind broke from the fusion and experienced itself as a separate self or entity for the first time. After the crisis passed, the rest of myself attempted to merge again, and could not. This caused the part of me directing the growth process (the body and heart in fusion) to conclude that it must have grown the neocortex incorrectly. So the body cut off the blood supply to that region of the brain to kill it and start over. However, this caused such intense pain the body was forced to desist.
An new and even more serious problem developed shortly after the split. The fetus found itself unable to be always completely in the present, as previous trauma would occasionally disrupt it’s awareness. The first time this happened, it felt like something was pushing into the mind from the side, making self awareness vanish in that area - quite a terrifying experience, and one the mind tried desperately to resist.
There were now two aware ‘selves’ in one body, but it wasn’t like two people in one box. Even though much of the sensory and internal information is shared, the mind functions differently than the body consciousness and is aware of this. In fact, I recall the mind taking a sort of naive pride in being able to think much faster than the rest, and trying to do it’s best to help. For example, it stored sequences of words that the fetal body heard in the womb in a sort of infinitely repeating loop, with unfortunately negative consequences. One of the most emotionally painful trauma’s (outside of birth) that I can recall involved shame (in the mind) and anger (in the body) because the splitting allowed the mind to initiate defecation in the womb, contrary to what the body wanted.
The next major catastrophe occurred during the birth process. During the birth, the body consciousness again broke apart into two selves. This time it was as the limbic brain, the emotional consciousness, splitting away from the body consciousness. In my own case, I can recall the heart splitting and going out of body to escape what was happening to my body. Oddly, that out of body view stored at the solar plexus injury site is of my baby body lit up brightly, surrounded by a totally black environment, as if in outer space. At birth, my brightness was gone, and my baby body looked like it was covered in soot or ink. (In the case of another woman I’ve worked with, a significant part of her fetal body was internally darkened from severe physical injury to her pelvis in utero. It’s difficult to tell if this darkening was a perception of the injury as a ‘hole’ in the body, or the appearance of one of these self layers. I suspect the former. Fortunately, most fetuses never experience great enough physical injury to darken large areas of their bodies until birth.)
By the time I was taken to the crib in the hospital, my sense of self was already restricted to what I’m familiar with now in ‘normal’ consciousness. It’s as if some sort of amnesia took place, one which is dependent on experiencing myself as no longer internally bright inside. Incidentally, as my current healing has progressed, my internal sense of brightness has increased, which has allowed me to clearly recall fetal and much traumatic material at will.
Copyright Dr. Grant McFetridge, May 1997, 1999
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