Fri | Dec 14, 2018

The Dark Night of the Soul: Madness or Spiritual Liberation

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2016 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Mahalia Eliah
St John of the Cross
Dr Stanislav Grof
Carl Jung

"If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable Age of Darkness. They will see that what was considered 'schizophrenic' was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break into our all-too-closed minds."

- Ronald D. Laing


A few years ago, Tom Cruise's diatribe against psychiatry on television sparked an ongoing debate.

Spiritual crisis networks throughout the world do not verbally carpet bomb this branch of medicine as the famous actor did, but they caution against the unprecedented use of antidepressants and antipsychotic medications when drug-free therapies are available with positive results.

A growing number of counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and laypersons are advocating a different approach to spiritual emergencies, or what St John of the Cross called "The Dark Night of the Soul".

They are cautioning against the abuse of psychotropic medications in treating what they classify as religio-spiritual problems. They are responding to mental illness with innovative modalities such as Dr Stanislav Grof's Holotropic Breathing (to release deep-seated traumas that cause mental imbalance). Art therapy is also used in patients said to be suffering from bipolar, schizophrenia, and catatonia (unresponsiveness). Here, symbols and images created by patients hold significant communicative and expressive value. It can be cathartic, leading to a greater understanding and integration of scattered impulses.

Proper treatment can bring enlightenment, maturity, and healthy means of self expression and functionality. The patient experiences a breakout, or liberation of the spirit.

A tragedy is turned into a triumph.

Studies have shown that the road to healing can be tumultuous.

The following details the challenging road to mental restoration:

"The transformation process of spiritual emergence can be so dramatic that it becomes uncontrollable and reaches a point of crisis, known as psychosis, inner apocalypse, and so on. Spiritual emergency is a process of healing and renewal and involves a positive transformation of the self. The process is characterised by spontaneous alternative consciousness states or 'realities' in which the person experiences unbearably distressing psychic overload involving chaotic and overwhelming sensory experiences. During the process they learn to grow beyond fear based ego-consciousness, beyond cultural conditioning and the expectations of others." (Source:

Regrettably, individuals experiencing these episodes or spiritual emergencies are misunderstood, shunned, maligned, and humiliated.

I recently spoke to Mahalia Eliah of the Vancouver-based Spiritual Emergency Service. She operates the agency's hotline, calming and directing scores of frantic calls from loved ones of psychologically damaged individuals or from victims themselves. It is a volunteer position that demands knowledge, maturity and empathy.




"People call out of despair. They are experiencing an existential crisis that could be really frightening," she says.

Here, Eliah is referring to auditory and visual hallucinations.

"Hearing voices and visions are commonplace among callers. Some are experiencing altered states, and have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, dissociation and postpartum psychosis."

She explains that the onset of these dissociative disorders can also be caused by the loss of a loved one or job, physical traumas caused by vehicular accidents, drug and alcoholic abuse, emotional and physical abuse, and overindulgence in religious and spiritual practices.

She also cites the role of genetics and physiology in mental instability.

Due to the charitable status of her organisation, Eliah is prohibited from offering psychological counselling.

But she talks, listens and redirects calls to experts in the field of spiritual emergencies.

"There is now meaningful help in this area with transpersonal therapists managing cases without resorting to prescription drugs."

She mentions the seminal work of Stanislav and Christina Grof, and other mental health workers who are markedly influenced by the pioneering accomplishments of Carl Gustav Jung in consciousness studies.

This unique approach was non-existent when Eliah, feeling a sense of "aloneness" and "being different", experienced a spiritual crisis that led to a mental breakdown.




She describes liberating herself from the grinding, destructive cycle of labelling, medicating and hospitalisation.

"At times, what is needed is a caring and accepting environment for the inner self - our true self or inner reality - to fully surface without judgement and labels. This allows the person to understand, accept and fully reintegrate the disconnected, traumatised part of the self. This is where a breakdown can become a breakthrough."

She identifies people experiencing spiritual crises as "highly emotional and sensitive with compromised coping skills".

"A nurturing environment is essential, and so, too, is learning grounding techniques to decrease sensitivity. Sometimes, it is better to disengage from scenarios and situations that can stir the senses. This is why artistic expression is needed."

She argues that "psychic states", for example, visions and hearing voices can be very therapeutic and inspirational when properly managed, and the individual understands what is happening. She mentions the unparalleled contribution to civilisation by religious figures, philosophers, artists, and scientists.

"What if these figures were labelled and drugged?" she asks rhetorically. "Sadly," she continues, "we live in a materialistic society that decides what normalcy is, and devalues the spiritual side of us that struggles to break free. Despite these challenges, Eliah remains heartened by the gratitude of callers.

"Many simply say 'thank you', and how much it meant having someone listen and understand. And at the end of the day it is about helping others who are desperate for help."

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. Feedback: or follow him on Twitter