Spiritual Crisis by Theodore Tsaousidis
It is generally assumed that a spiritual crisis, if occurring, will do so after a major life upheaval or incident such as a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, accident, or significant loss. However, it has also been my experience that a spiritual crisis will ultimately come about if one is actually and sincerely doing some type of spiritual practice. In any case, whatever the supposed precipitating event, the sacred call toward transformation and transcendence to one degree or another is inevitable. It is part of the territory as one enters the arena of this mysterious life journey. An experienced practitioner knows on a certain level that this crisis, whatever it may be, is a sign that deep work and purification are unfolding, even though it can feel uncomfortable and even unfathomably painful.
In the past, those who found themselves in “spiritual darkness” were for the most part, living a monastic existence in ashrams or other communities dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual connection with the divine. They had left the duties of family behind. History is full of examples of those who have struggled with this mystical inquiry and sacred crossroad. Today, when dealing with spiritual crisis, one most likely has to find a way to function within families, jobs, or communities and to continue with daily tasks and responsibilities. It is not easy.
As we pursue a spiritual path, we are all dealing with the same issues, “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” “What is my purpose?” “Why is there so much pain and suffering?” The journey of spiritual crisis can embrace everyone in all faith traditions including the agnostic and atheist. I am not referring to religious dogma, rules, or regulations but the deep angst of needing to know how one “fits” in the universe – of knowing of things seen and unseen.
The drive behind this journey stems, and is influenced by one’s beliefs and ideas about what life is and what it is not. Thus when such angst occurs, it has generally arisen from a contemplation or situation that does not fit into our present belief system, and ultimately manifests as a spiritual or existential crisis. This is most often the result of sincere work and progress in one’s spiritual life and path.
The spiritual crisis is definitely not a static state, though when in the midst of it, one may feel like one is at a great immoveable impasse. In order to break through these impasses, one has to cultivate a resilience to burn away the limitations of our view of the world and our place in it. Logic and rationalization just disguise our old habitual ways of thinking.
For the above realization to occur, energy and effort have had to precede it. As spiritual crisis is not a static state, is also does not appear from static existence. It is an alchemical experience. There is mystery at work here, and if you are in the midst of such a crisis, then two elements have to be present within – the elements of “deep faith” and “deep doubt”. These are the positive and negative charges that generate and create energy. It’s Yin and Yang. It’s dark and light. It has to be this way. There have to be opposing forces, but working on the same team. If deep faith and deep doubt did not manifest in you, then you would not be in this awesome and fertile ground of spiritual crisis.
Spiritual crisis is ultimately about surrender. This is not throwing up your hands and giving up nor it is about nihilism. In this way, we must not mistake the nature of surrender. Surrender is about leaning into, not going away from challenges that are in front of you. As humans, our nature is generally to turn and run from anything that appears to be unpleasant or threatening. And yet, as we turn and face our fears, our anxieties, and the discomfort that that brings, as we stretch out beyond our comfort zones, we begin to change and penetrate deeper into who we are as human beings and as spiritual beings. Thus every dilemma and confusion in life (when you really look at them) can be a potential psycho/spiritual call beckoning us to travel beyond our mundane perceptions.
It is at the point when it seems there is no way through the “impasse” one is at (described earlier), that one needs to share with spiritual friends and guides who have traversed this terrain previously. What an experienced mentor does for us during this stage of spiritual crisis is to bring clarification, knowledge, and encouragement. This instills the trust and hope that even though one is experiencing this painful time, it is in fact normal – you are not going insane and there is a way though it.
It is important to note here that sharing with a spiritual guide or mentor is very different then sharing one’s journey with many other persons. This is simply because the power of this potentially transforming experience and the depth of purification and healing within it will come from “skillful containment”. In other words, holding or containing this sacred and fertile ground of experience close to you without repeatedly sharing it, will allow it to root more deeply. One may liken it to continually poking and prodding at a newly planted seed. The more it is disturbed, the less likely it will grow. Often, in these circumstances, the need to verbalize becomes a way of avoiding or numbing the discomfort and a way of escaping the ultimate surrender into the crisis of spirit.
In our modern times, instead of village healers, holy men and shamans, in whom we can seek guidance, we have doctors, religious leaders, psychiatrists, psychologists and a vast array of therapists to try and assist us in our emotional, physical and spiritual healing. We may turn to yogis, lamas, spiritual teachers, or celebrity gurus for relief of our inner turmoil. Although most “aid” in this situation is benign, some of it can be downright harmful. Unfortunately, not all spiritual or faith leaders can be of assistance in these times, nor all therapists or counselors. In extreme cass, individuals may be misdiagnosed with a form of mental illness or depression.
The true guide and teacher not only have to be on the other side of their own spiritual crisis, but also must be an example of clear morality and ethics. I urge you to be aware of the guide or teacher who may say that one must obey his or her instructions without question. A “teacher”, in the true sense of the word (including all those professions mentioned above) is someone who will have your interests and needs as his or her first priority. These authentic guides are models of compassion and wisdom, guided by integrity in all that they say and do. To do something that is not ethical or moral or against your own intuition or integrity would never be requested. You will always be guided to respond from your place of knowing and encouraged to find your own answers based on your own experiences. Underlying all their assistance and teachings is a gentleness and kindness based on mutual respect and consideration.
Although a bona fide guide or spiritual teacher is important in this journey of spiritual crisis, we ourselves have to take responsibility for the attraction toward and the search for “the quick fix”. We need to truly assess the longing for someone or something that we can acquire that will be our panacea, our happy-ever-after ending. If we are honest, it is our greed and ignorance that begins to turn our search for answers and healing into a hunt for a commodity, a thing to be procured. In reality, this “hunt of the quick fix” and the acceptance of oversimplified solutions is the complete opposite of the teachings of the great spiritual leaders. Their message is that true healing is not a thing. It is not a commodity to be acquired. It is not knowledge nor is it energy to be transferred to your body and mind by the touch of a guru. It is not a weekend retreat nor a workshop but the daily awareness and reflection of our present condition in the midst of daily living, whatever our situation. It is work, work that is simple but not easy and almost impossible without an existing spiritual practice such as meditation and/or prayer and reflection.
A word of caution around meditation if you are experiencing this state of crisis – if you are new to the practice of meditation or have not been meditating for a long period of time, you should seek out the guidance of a skillful meditation teacher. Meditating during this time may intensify your situation and will necessarily require competent direction.
Since the body/mind is not separated, you will most likely feel the effects of spiritual crisis on all levels of functioning: physically, mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally. You may experience turmoil in relationships with others and the world at large and/or have a total sense of abandonment. Your emotional life may be like a roller coaster at this time and move between feelings of blankness and numbness to darkness and despair. In fact, manifestations of all kinds of “symptoms” such as restlessness, sleeplessness, oversleeping, over or under eating, fatigue, irritability, mental fog, anger, melancholy, use of addictive substances and so on may occur. The following are some suggestions that may help and comfort you at this time.
- Take walks. Do Yoga or Tai Chi or some physical exercise with gentle moves.
- Look at beautiful paintings or photography in galleries or books.
- If you can, avoid over-intellectual pursuits, negative persons and situations including listening to the daily news.
- Listen to soothing music, read poetry and writings of authors such as Hafiz, Rumi, Maya Angelou, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tagore, Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi etcetera. Read such poems and writings not as a way to find answers, but to be in the company of fellow travelers.
- This state calls for nature in all its manifestations. Experience it deeply. Your mind and spirit have been and are overwhelmed. Touching something like a rock or a tree, listening to natural sounds, feeling the air on your skin, just looking out into nature can soothe the soul. Nature is accessible to you and indeed a part of you. Let her cradle and rock you.
- When despairing thoughts arise, learn to view them as you would the weather – be an observer, a bystander. Become a witness. Allow the thoughts to arise and then watch them change shape and disappear like clouds.
- Postpone important decisions if you can at this time.
- Try to avoid sugar and alcohol. If you must have chocolate, take only over 70% dark.
Take heart, eventually you will come to a point of calm, the storm having settled. It is important to again meet with your mentor or spiritual guide. Sharing with your mentor or guide helps to acknowledge and validate your experience. Support is always pivotal and in actuality always available in some form. This is a true hero’s journey and the territory complex. Let go of a timeline. It will take as long as it takes. As best you can, take the time and space you need to nourish and rest. Remember, you are not alone. There is support, both seen and unseen always present.
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”
Mary Stevenson, 1936.
This article is based on a series of three talks given by Theodore Tsaousidis in Toronto during the of Fall of 2007 called “The Bright Darkness”.
Copyright 2009 Theodore Tsaousidis