If someone is in immediate life-threatening danger, contact emergency services.
About This Guide
Spiritual psychosis is a matter that is very close to my heart and that has been at the core of a lot of my experiences.
Psychosis is one of the most feared and misunderstood aspects of experience. It can be one of the darkest and most destructive things that can be experienced and in its very nature, it is innately mysterious.
On the flip side of this, it can also be one of the symptoms of an opening to something deeper or broader than your current paradigm.
Psychosis is in part a process of sense-making, where you have let go of your old way of looking, new information is coming into your being and you are parsing world-views and ideas that sort this information into something you can relate to.
Sometimes this process can be destructive, but when held well it can lead to growth and development. This sense-making process has the potential to heal deep trauma or open us to deeper beauty, truth and presence in life.
One of the things that supports positive outcomes is having a healthy model and practice for relating to the imaginal realm. This allows people to be in touch with deeper meaning and sense-making, without getting lost in it or it becoming psychosis.
I am currently writing a book about the imaginal realm that will describe the benefits of being in touch with this aspect of experience and include the practicalities of how to do this safely.
In the meantime I wanted to capture how to relate to these things when they have arisen more spontaneously or in an unsupported, unsafe or chaotic container, leading to spiritual psychosis.
These experiences can be triggered by a wide range of things: large doses of psychedelics, intense meditation practice, high sensitivity and openness, severe stress, overwhelming trauma or entirely spontaneously.
When I say spiritual psychosis I am specifically talking about:
- being in altered perceptual realities
- experiencing a proliferation of ideas, information, energy or sense-making
- for extended periods of time
- while sober
This is opposed to:
- having one-off experiences that may challenge or change your existing paradigm
- experiencing altered states of consciousness during spiritual practices or while under the influence of substances
- being in a different paradigm to others around you that is stable and that you can function healthily from
Spiritual Psychosis vs. Psychosis
The line between a spiritual psychosis and a psychosis can be a blurry one. They can both manifest in many different ways, but in general what I am calling a spiritual psychosis is leading to things like more openness, depth and meaning, whereas what I am calling a psychosis is leading to things like disconnection, aggression and paranoia. A lot of people who are going through psychosis will experience some aspects of both.
I believe that a lot of the difference in whether something manifests as a spiritual psychosis or a psychosis comes from the amount of trauma the person has, how we treat the person and the opportunities we give them to engage with the material that is emerging.
Giving people safe spaces to connect to and engage with the contents of their experience feels like one of the most compassionate and meaningful things we can do.
On the other hand, in the case of an unhealthy or dangerous psychotic episode, medication and other practical support can be vital for people’s recovery. Sometimes even against the will of the person experiencing it.
Emergency services and mental health professionals are trained to medicalise psychotic experiences. This does hold value for keeping people safe – medication and a physically safe place can be the first step in someone’s recovery; however, pathologising people’s experiences typically does not lead to healing or integration in the medium or long term. Also, psychiatric wards are not places that are designed for recovery, healing and integration.
I believe that a healthy, whole and balanced approach to relating to the imaginal realm, spiritual psychosis and psychosis creates the opportunity to lead to much better outcomes for everyone.
This guide introduces some of the key ways to relate to experience in this more whole way, whether you are supporting a loved one, working with people who suffer from psychosis or are going through these experiences yourself.
It is written primarily with people who are experiencing spiritual psychosis in mind, but the information may be used to relate to psychosis.
Who This Guide Is For
This guide is written as an overview and introduction for anyone engaging with mental health work or spiritual practice. It is to increase awareness of the possibility of these states of consciousness arising and how to relate to them in a whole and healthy way.
It is also a practical guide for relating to and supporting people who are experiencing spiritual psychosis. This could be yourself; a client or student; or a friend or relative.
Levels of Psychosis
I have defined some levels to help locate where the person who is experiencing the psychosis might be. This isn’t meant as a diagnostic tool or medical description of someone’s experience, but this will help you understand:
- the spectrum of what is possible in psychosis experiences
- how severe the person’s experience is
- what sort of support or way of relating is most helpful at this point
I haven’t included anything about the content of what is emerging as it can be an almost infinite range of things. I have focused on the state that a person is in and the behaviour that might accompany that.
It is worth keeping an eye on how this develops, as psychotic episodes or spiritual experiences can change over time and often unfold in phases. It’s possible to move up and down the spectrum at different times and in different environments.
The person is severely disregulated and a serious threat to other people or themselves. They are paranoid and acting out in ways that are harmful, which may include physical violence. They may be lost in their delusions completely or refusing to engage with any kind of help or support in a meaningful or productive way.
The person may be actively destructive to self or others.
The person is in quite a lot of distress. They are disembodied and struggling to connect with any kind of shared or consensus reality. They may feel very confused. They may want the experience to stop or they may be lost inside of it. It can be hard for them to establish a trustworthy or meaningful connection with others.
The person may be unable to function and incapable of looking after their own wellbeing or safety.
The person is somewhat regulated, can take care of their physical needs and is able to stay present in connection with other people, at least on a surface level. Their internal experience can be incredibly unstable and stressful for their body and mind. They may hide their experiences from others, only choosing to share specific aspects in safe connections, or they may feel attached to the experiences they are having and reify them into a worldview that they may try to impress on others. They may feel lonely, isolated, angry or afraid underneath the surface. They may struggle to make sense of their experiences or they may feel that what they are going through is meaningful or important but not know how to integrate it with consensus reality.
The person is able to keep themselves physically safe, but may be struggling socially or psychologically.
The proliferation of ideas, energy or sense-making has slowed down significantly, but still feels unstable. The person is engaging with meaningful and wholesome activities that are supporting their recovery. The person is in-tune with their own needs and self-expression as well as able to attune to connection with others. The person may experience a lot of tiredness, stress, grief, anxiety, depression or other challenging emotions.
The person is actively engaging with their recovery process. The person may need lots of time for this stage.
The person no longer experiences a proliferation of sense-making. They feel mostly healthy in body and mind and have a stable paradigm. They don’t feel an overtly oppressive sense of shame around their experiences nor a strong attachment to them. They compartmentalise their experiences. They want to move on with their life, connect with people, be well and do meaningful things.
The person has healed from the psychosis experience.
The person can include different realms, ways of seeing or aspects of experience in their worldview. Having accessed these things (either consciously through practice or from psychosis experiences), they can take the knowledge or insights from their experiences, bring them back to shared reality and integrate them into a healthy and whole understanding of the world. They have a stable and healthy paradigm. They are able to establish or maintain a personal connection to meaning that feels inspiring and creative. They will likely resist their ideas being wholly defined by rational world-views, but they are able to engage with a scientific or logical approach as part of their capacity to connect to the world and others.
The person has integrated the realms that can be accessed through psychosis or spiritual practices into their being in a healthy way and through doing this has increased their access to wisdom, wholeness and creativity.
Here is a check list of responses to psychosis, in rough order of priority.
Depending on which stage someone is in and a person’s history of behaviour, will depend how urgent any response needs to be.
It is better if any decisions or plans come from the person who is having the experience, if that is possible.
- Safety and physical needs – does this person have a safe place they can stay? Are they eating and sleeping? Can they do something that feels grounding for them, such as be in nature?
- Connection – does this person have someone they can trust who they can connect to? Ideally this is someone they can share at least some of their experiences with and they trust to be able to support them in making good decisions.
- Medication – if the psychosis is acute, reoccurring or creating dangerous behaviour, medication may be needed to bring the person back to a functioning and stable baseline. Where can this be accessed?
- Recovery plan – what does this person need to get back to a stable base? Do they feel like a recovery is possible and meaningful for themselves?
- Space for self expression – does this person have somewhere where they can talk about and process their experiences in a free and helpful way? Examples might be art therapy or imaginal practices.
- Rest and nourishment – can this person take enough time to rest deeply? Do they have access to things that will nourish them in their recovery, for example calm environments, body work and access to nature.
- Therapy – does this person have access to a therapy that feels meaningful to them? They may need to process any trauma that contributed to the psychosis emerging as well as any PTSD from the experiences themselves. This may be talk therapies, but alternative therapies, such as art therapy, may be more beneficial or used alongside more traditional modalities.
- Meaning making – does this person have access to non-judgemental and open-minded spaces or information that supports them to integrate their experiences in a healthy, holistic, empowered and humble way.
- Relationships – are the person’s support network able to be with and process their own discomfort or challenges that the person’s experiences may bring or have brought up? This creates more freedom and healing opportunities for the person who has gone through the experience.
Each of these check points has a whole world of information that could be included in it, but hopefully this gives a sensible place to start considering what is happening and what is needed in any given situation.
Depending on what paradigm and social community you are in, will depend on whether you and people around you are more likely to relate to psychosis from a medical perspective or a spiritual perspective.
Both have benefits and downsides and I have written a short list of these below.
Benefits: Focused on the individual’s immediate safety, medication can support a fast and reliable return to a stable baseline, can offer access to more traditional therapies, such as psychotherapy
Downsides: Dismisses and pathologises people’s experiences, misses important healing and integration opportunities, environments such as psychiatric wards can be damaging to people’s wellbeing and overall mental health
Shamanic or Spiritual
Benefits: Typically a more holistic and open-minded approach, can support growth and healthy integration, can offer a framework for alternate experiences and paradigms, can offer a broader range of therapeutic modalities, such as body work
Downsides: Can reify certain experiences or put them on a pedestal encouraging further delusions, is unregulated and risks taking people further away from recovery
Relating to Spiritual Psychosis
This part of the guide is about moving out of crisis management and towards compassionate holding, healing and integration of spiritual psychosis. This is the aspect of experience that I am most passionate about.
My own experiences have led me to create practices and ways of relating that allow healthy and supportive connection to be made:
- between people who are in completely different realities or paradigms
- into different realms of experience, safely
- between different aspects of a person’s experience, such as the physical and the spiritual
I wanted to share some of the core principles here that will allow people to start building connection and meaning from their spiritual psychosis or spiritual experiences.
One of the most important starting points is being able to offer people non-adversarial connection.
This gets more difficult if the person themselves is in an angry or agitated state and easier the more calm the situation is on the whole. The more you can be disentangled from their expression and needing it to be anything in particular, the easier it becomes to stay in your own centre.
The important move is to not replace overt control or reaction with covert passive aggression.
Psychosis is in part a mechanism that is designed to overcome double binds. Double binds are created from a passive aggressive control of experience, where you are not allowed to say, be or feel certain things. The control comes from implicit and subtle threats of anger, judgement and disconnection. The message is, “if you don’t see things how I want you to see them, you are wrong and I’m going to dominate until you agree”.
The things that are not allowed to be present – feelings, perceptions, thoughts, energies – then get squeezed out of awareness and into the subconscious realm. Eventually, when they are held for too long in the body and subconscious without any way of releasing they become so overwhelming that the body finds a way to express them by breaking people’s logical way of making sense of the world.
In extreme cases, people can end up in psychosis. It becomes an illogical expression of the repressed energies because there is no safe release or connection for them.
In order to allow people who are suffering from psychosis to begin to heal properly, they need to be in a non-judgemental space.
This doesn’t mean that you need to agree with their reality, but it means that you stop subtly punishing people for their feelings, thoughts and ideas.
The aim is to create freedom for people to express themselves, without needing others to agree with their stories or ideas. To hold space and create connection on an emotional level. This is what allows healing to begin.
Here is an example of how this might look like if you are interacting with someone who is experiencing delusions.
If they shared, “I can hear their voices in my head and they are going to be here to get me any moment.”
You can meet the person with genuine compassion for the emotional experience that you feel or imagine they are in, without supporting their reality,
“I don’t believe that anyone is coming to get you, but it sounds really stressful.”
Firstly this creates connection without supporting delusions and secondly it invites people down and in to their emotional and embodied experience.
How to Practice Through Spiritual Psychosis
Here is a short description of the basics for practicing with and through spiritual psychosis. The practices invite people into the aspects of experience that will help them process their experiences from a more whole and meaningful place.
These practices can also be used to access imaginal realms safely.
If you want to guide people who are experiencing psychosis you will need some training to be able to do this. It takes a lot of self awareness and inner work to be able to meet someone where they are without either bringing in double binds and subtle control or losing connection with your own centre and reality.
However, these practices do start to open up this possibility for people. As a friend or relative you can use these practice principles to help you orient towards coming from a place of compassion and curiosity, which will create the possibility for connection and openness, rather than fear, judgement or dominance.
If you are having spiritual psychosis these practice principles may help you relate to your experiences and practice through them in a whole and healthy way.
One important aspect is to make sure everyone is physically safe. When everyone can trust that their physical bodies are safe and taken care of within the container, everything else flows a lot more easily.
Start by finding a heart practice that works reliably for you. This should be something that connects you to feelings of softness, kindness, care, openness, resilience and receptivity.
It can be a more formal practice, but it also doesn’t have to be serious. An example could be watching cute cat videos and then staying with the feelings that are evoked by this.
From here direct this sense of love towards yourself and others, wishing wellbeing and freedom, cultivating the feelings of gentleness and getting in touch with a willingness to be with someone how they are.
Mindfulness & Emptiness
A really important move is to stop wrestling with experience and give it some space to breathe.
You want to practice the move of letting the controlling mind be a little less rigid and dominating, to create more space for experience to flow freely through you.
When relating to psychosis experiences or the imaginal realm there is a fine line between not undermining or gaslighting your subjective experiences, while also recognising the metaphorical nature of what you are experiencing. Things aren’t how they appear to you on the surface.
A solid base of mindfulness practice will help with this, starting from a place of being able to see thoughts as thoughts.
From here you want to recognise that the subjective experiences you are having are more like a poem, rather than being representative of a literal reality or truth.
They may be meditative experiences in the imaginal realm that can be deeply insightful and meaningful or they may be psychotic delusions that are revealing trauma that wants to be healed, but the process is operating in an imaginal and creative way, rather than a logical way.
It’s showing you something ineffable, beyond your current level of comprehension or outside what your logical mind can connect to, rather than something that you can grasp in a literal way.
An example would be that if someone has a lot of embodied trauma, this may come out in stories about what is happening in the world around them.
Or if someone has a high openness to transcendental experience they may be trying to parse ineffable and incomprehensible aspects of experience through their current human capacities.
Having space for ideas and thoughts to be moving through you like a poem releases a level of self-consciousness and self-judgement that eases a lot of suffering and allows space for this stuff to be present, without getting caught up in the ideas of what reality is.
Once it has flowed out more freely the logical mind can come back online to help sort through it and make sense of what is true, what problems need to be solved and how to handle the situation.
This practice releases the double binds that can be at the root of a lot of psychosis experiences and that oppress the healthy integration of the imaginal realm.
A simple practice for this would be to mediate and imagine that every thing that you think, feel and experience during this time is the Universe reading you a poem.
Once you can see the metaphorical nature of the subjective aspect of experience, you can notice how you are always just a human being hanging out in the present moment.
You can become aware of how even when you are connecting to visions, ideas, energies, delusions or anything else that is emerging in your experience, you are still physically in your body and mind in this moment in time.
The visions are resonating through your being in this moment and you can still breathe and ground, staying connected to the body and how it feels.
It’s worth saying that there is a risk that connecting to the body can make someone feel worse, if the levels and types of information they are parsing through their body are too much for it to handle or there is a lot of trauma in the body. They may be dissociated from the body for good reason.
The body also picks up on the subconscious and implicit energies that are present so it’s not good to force the body to be present if it feels unsafe in the container that it is currently in.
The aim is to respect the embodied aspect of experience and make space to find a healthy, supportive connection to this over time.
This could include receiving loving touch or body work, doing therapies that don’t introduce more implicit expectations and double binds or doing simple practices of relaxing the body in a safe space and holding space for what emerges when you do that.
Imaginal practice creates the opportunity to combine all of these things – heartfulness, emptiness and embodiment – into a healthy way of relating to and processing experience in the present moment.
If you can stay open, curious and present, you could engage with the content of the psychosis or spiritual experience in this way.
An example would be to loosely define something that is happening in your experience, for example:
- ‘Everything is one’
- The eyes of God
- Infinite awareness
Take this concept and drop it into your experience. Ask yourself questions about the experience and allow the creative aspect of experience to respond. For examples:
- Where do you feel that in experience?
- How does your body feel?
- What emotions are present?
- Can you describe an image of what you are experiencing?
- What does it mean to you?
- What could it mean for others?
- Does the experience have a message to give you?
You can do this with literally any idea or concept and it brings things back to a more grounded, connected, embodied place.
It takes the charge out of whether something is literally real and allows things space to express the meaning, emotions and energies that they contain.
You can also practice together in this way and there is more information about how to do this with shared imaginal practice.
It’s possible to use a bottom-up approach to imaginal practice to work with and heal the psyche. You are making space for whatever is present to emerge into the container using the imaginal to connect to and express it. This takes a lot of practice and you can start to read about that on my overview to imaginal practice.
You can also use the imagination to access positive, healing and supportive states. One of the things that can be hard when you’re in distress is to imagine a way out into wellbeing.
An example exercise is imagining bringing in some ideal support:
- Can you imagine a very wise, caring guide who is there to take care of you through this process?
- An example of this could be a support figure, a spirit animal, a guardian angel or a future wise version of yourself.
- What advice would they give you?
- If they could give you a magical healing ceremony, what would they do? What impact would it have on you?
- Is there anything else you need or would like to ask them for?
The imaginal realm creates an opportunity to connect with the depths and mysteries of experience without the pressure of having to be in a shared reality or worry about whether something is literally true. Amongst many other things, this can create freedom for people to feel their emotions and take the charge out of pent-up thoughts and ideas.
Once you have practiced with something in this way, there is more space for the idea to be integrated with a more logical or rational world-view or approach.
The common thread amongst all these practices is that you are holding experience with an open hand.
Rather than worrying about what reality is, trying to grasp hold of experience or caring what this says about you, you are focusing on the felt-senses, the movement of experience, what is currently present and the meaningfulness.
You are neither reifying nor dismissing the experience, you are meeting it as it is in this moment.
This creates a huge amount of space for people to be in different realities. When people are connected to the physical reality that everyone shares, the care they feel for self and other and the ineffable nature of subjective experience, people can meet and connect with each other’s worlds, whatever that brings.
Large doses of psychedelics can be a trigger point for spiritual psychosis, but they can also offer a safe window into imaginal and spiritual realms.
If you would like to go deeper into these aspects of experience, psychedelics can be the easiest route in.
They can also create a window into the world’s of people who are experiencing spiritual psychosis, which can help create understanding. It can be hard for other people to relate to someone who is in an altered state of consciousness. If you have taken psychedelics before this gives you a reference point to imagine some of the aspects of what this person’s current experience might be like. Both the positive aspects and the downsides of it.
Ultimately, spiritual psychosis is often a sign of deep sensitivity in someone. They are picking up on aspects of experience that most people are closed to.
In other cultures, these people would be identified as shamans and given the training to relate to these experiences. While we do not have this kind of support in our modern-culture I hope that some of these ways of practicing give a sense of how this sensitivity can be related to and honed as a gift, rather than solely written off as a sickness.
Once someone has the capacity to hold their experiences, it becomes easier to connect to the important aspects and integrate this into a healthy paradigm and worldview.
Recovering from Psychosis
Any kind of psychosis takes a huge toll on your body, heart, mind and soul. A person who is recovering will need lots of time to do this and may need to spend extended amounts of time resting or sleeping.
This is an emotional process but it’s also the physiological process of the brain recovering. Rest, sleep and dreams is vital to this recovery.
Here are some other things that can help support this recovery process.
A Healthy, Safe Life
Consider what the person needs to live a healthy and safe life. Things that this include are a cosy place to live, nutritious food, enough time to rest, access to gentle exercise or nature, social connection, access to medication if they are taking it and therapy or support.
Receiving body work or loving touch can be incredibly healing. Typically when you have gone through challenging periods of disconnection and stress, the body will still be carrying this around with you. Having someone help the body come back to feeling safe in itself is very healing.
Having a means of creative expression can be helpful for someone making sense of their experiences. Also, when someone’s paradigm has been disrupted finding gentle ways to ease back into a more consensus reality gives someone time to reintegrate into the world.
The person may want to compartmentalise their experiences, either temporarily or forever, in order to be able to function in consensus reality. Or they may feel that it’s important to find alternative paradigms that help them make sense of their experiences.
Healing vs. Integration
One of the core values of this approach to relating to spiritual psychosis is wellbeing.
For some people when they go through a psychosis their goal will be to heal and compartmentalise their experience. This can be incredibly healthy and help people move on with their lives and reconnect with what is most important in life.
For other people they will feel that the thing they have touched into or experienced is one of the things that is most important in life. I don’t believe that it is healthy or helpful to completely dismiss this sense of meaningfulness.
In this case, I would encourage people towards a healthy integration where they can connect to both the meaningfulness of the experiences they are having, a rational understanding of the world and the realities of others.
This is much more difficult to do than to go and sit in a cave and have intense spiritual experiences. These experiences get a lot more complex when they need to be integrated with modern reality. But it also has the potential to be incredibly rewarding.
I believe that we need to change the paradigm we are living in and having more people who are sensitive and attuned to other aspects of reality – the embodied realm, the imaginal, meaning, mindfulness, heartfulness and the energetic realm – are part of this change.
I believe that a lot of the reason why people don’t try and integrate these experiences fully is because they don’t know that this is possible, or how to do it. And this is one of the things I am passionate about changing.
I hope this guide has created some more possibility for doing this.
These resources give a range of perspectives that all come from a radically understanding and integrated place, with regards to spiritual psychosis and the imaginal and spiritual realms.
In this podcast Iain McGilchrist lays out the key points from his book, “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”.
He describes how the left hemisphere way of thinking – logical, rational, oriented towards problem-solving – is incredibly dominant in our current paradigm and how this actively oppresses the right hemisphere qualities – creativity, openness, oriented towards interconnection.
One of the quotes from the podcast is, “the left brain is sure that it knows more but it actually knows a lot less than the right brain.”
As someone who is very connected to interconnection and imagination, I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to have butt up against this dynamic repeatedly with people who are coming from a rational place and are sure they know exactly what you are talking about but in actual fact clearly have absolutely no idea. I am very grateful to Iain McGilchrist for laying this dynamic out so thoroughly and competently through his work.
This paper by Stephen T. Asma describes the science behind how imagination is actually the foundation of human experience, rather than logical or rational thought.
“Imagination is not just a peripheral feature of cognition or a domain for aesthetic research. It is instead the core operating system or cognitive capacity for humans and has epistemic and therapeutic functions that ground all our sense-making activities.”
Phil Borges has been documenting indigenous and tribal cultures for over 25 years. He describes what can be learned from individuals who have turned their psychological crisis into a positive transformative experience.
An American journalist shares the story of his personal exploration with psychedelics and shamanic rituals to open to a more interconnected way of being.
Amongst other things this book documents and normalises a wide-range of spiritual experiences that can emerge on the spiritual path.
It has a Buddhist lens on experience and includes some frameworks and concepts for relating to these experiences, such as the stages of insight and the dark night of the soul.
This paid online course takes you through the practices you need to come into your body. Being present in the body is the opposite of an unhealthy and disconnected proliferation of mind that manifests both in psychosis and most modern people’s way of experiencing the world.
It takes time, practice and discernment to be able to come out of the left-brain’s idea of the body and actually land in the true felt experience of being embodied. It also involves including the imaginal and emotional aspect of yourself in what you experience as the body.
This course takes you through this process of embodiment in a very rich and comprehensive way.
Jung was a prolific writer about the imagination and its healing power. He advocated for recognising the fundamental sanity in people, even those suffering from psychosis, and consciously went through his own seven year psychosis as part of his spiritual journey and growth.
This short introduction shares his life story and introduces the basic concepts of Jungian psychology: the collective unconscious, complex, archetype, shadow, persona, anima, animus, and the individuation of the Self.
The film depicts the true story of Nise da Silveira, a Brazilian psychiatrist who, inspired by Jung, created a psychiatric ward that used art therapy as one of its main forms of treatment.
Many of her patients became celebrated artists.
This books cuts through both the medicalisation of psychosis and the pedastalisation of transpersonal or spiritual states and describes how they can be understood as different manifestations of the human experience.
John Nelson creates a framework for how and why different spiritual and psychotic experiences emerge in people, weaving together both mind and spirit.
An article that describes some of the potential power of the imaginal realm; Kristen gives a really beautiful example of how dream-work, prayer and connecting with the creative aspect of being can contribute to the mystery of genius.
Leonora Carrington is a surrealist painter and novelist. This short memoir that tells the story of her descent into psychosis and subsequent recovery is a powerful first-person account of madness.
A short book of poems that touches on key moments in the story of my unravelling into the depths of the imaginal and archetypal realms, amongst other things, and the insights and depth of realisation that this cultivated.
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