Exploring Resistance to Spiritual Emergence


56541-284824-2_120x150.jpgTHE CHALLENGE: The challenge of spiritual emergence is that it requires a definitive transformation. Although some people experiencing spiritual emergence may easily embrace the transformation, others may struggle with spiritual resistance.

Katrina Burgos, M.S.W., LCSW, ACMHP


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spiritual emergence, spiritual emergency, spiritual resistance, repression of the sublime

Spiritual emergence refers to a process of psychospiritual development that may come about spontaneously via a direct, powerful experience, or gradually, via a series of more subtle experiences over time. The challenge of spiritual emergence is that it requires a definitive transformation (Firman & Gila, 2002). Although some people experiencing spiritual emergence may easily embrace the transformation, others may struggle with spiritual resistance. I define spiritual resistance as the result of a convergence of individual and cultural factors that contribute to conscious and unconscious withdrawal from or avoidance of the process of spiritual emergence. What is the role of spiritual resistance in spiritual emergence? Why do some people seem to struggle with it more than others? In this abstract I summarize the primary literature on spiritual resistance and identify a need for further research on the phenomenon.

Exceptional human experiences (EHEs) are nonordinary, spontaneous, transcendent experiences that researcher Rhea White classified into mystical, psychic, encounter, death-related, and exceptional normal types. White believed that working with one’s EHEs has the potential to lead to profound positive transformation such as an evolution of awareness and increased sense of meaning in life. In addition to classifying and defining EHEs as well as their characteristics and concomitants, White identified a developmental process model that anticipates resistance within the transformative process (Brown, 2000). Her model includes five evolving stages intended not to be exhaustive but rather to name a general trend in the progression of EHE development. The stages are: (1) the initiating event/experience, including acknowledgement of it; (2) the search for reconciliation; (3) being between two worlds; (4) in the experiential paradigm; and (5) a new way of being in the world (Brown, 2000).

The basic premise of the model, which has since been expanded by Suzanne Brown (2000), is that the exceptional experience results in cognitive dissonance that, in turn, leads to either potentiating or depotentiating activities depending on whether the individual desires and is ready to further engage with the developmental process (Brown, 2000). Those who do not desire or who are not ready to move forward in the process exemplify my concept of spiritual resistance.

One factor that may influence an experiencer’s decision to engage with the developmental process is the intensity of the exceptional experience. William James (1902) identified two main types of spiritual experiences: the educational type, and the sudden type. The educational type of experience occurs gradually, perhaps over a long period of time. Because of the prolonged aspect, the impact of the experience may be not immediate, but more evolutionary. James’s sudden type included those experiences that occur spontaneously and abruptly without provocation. These experiences include the original 10 types of spiritual emergencies that Grof and Grof (1989) identified: shamanic crisis, awakening of kundalini, episodes of unitive consciousness, psychological renewal through return to center, psychic opening, pastlife experiences, communication with spirit guides and channeling, near-death experiences, experiences of UFOs, and possession states. The intensity of these sudden experiences can be so dramatic that the person is unable to continue functioning as before, thereby necessitating transformation (Grof & Grof, 1989). The subtlety of an educational type of experience, however, may dissuade or delay the individual from engaging with the developmental process that, according to White, begins only when one has named and begun to interact with the exceptional experience.

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