When Keenan Burke-Pitts walks into my yoga class at Asheville Yoga Center, he appears to have it all together: Clean, in shape, yoga mat in hand, he quietly sets up his mat in the room. He is friendly and chats before and after class, and we part ways at the end. What I did not know is that many people are experiencing what Burke-Pitts recently confided: He’s having a spiritual emergence.
“If I were to look at myself now [from] 10 years ago, I would have never believed it,” he says. A college basketball player with a stable family and the motivation to live the American dream for success, Burke-Pitts never thought he would be feeling a profound disturbance in his life.
“There is something deeper to us that’s there, and we catch glimpses of [it], and everyone has their own subjective experience of it,” he says. “I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, and it is really confusing. I can get through day-to-day life, but this is a long, drawn-out, gradual thing for me.
“There is a paradox of life being innately meaningless and meaningful,” says Burke-Pitts. “And I have really struggled with that.” He’s experiencing a crossroad of existential questioning as well as life changes and decisions.
Brack Jefferys, a psychologist who opened The Center for Spiritual Emergence on March 28, says the center is the only one of its kind in the world. His experience there has made him familiar with what Burke-Pitts is going through. “A spiritual emergency [occurs] when people have a powerful, life-changing experience accompanied by changes of perception [with a] luminous quality and explicit spiritual themes, including surrender, death and rebirth,” he says.
Tucked in an office complex off Louisiana Avenue, Jefferys’ center provides care for those experiencing the phenomenon, defined in 1990 by Dr. Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist and founder of transpersonal psychology: Spiritual emergence or emergency is “the movement of an individual to a more expanded way of being that involves enhanced emotional and psychosomatic health, greater freedom of personal choices, and a sense of deeper connection with other people, nature and the cosmos. An important part of this development is an increasing awareness of the spiritual dimension in one’s life and in the universal scheme of things.”
Though other local mental health and wellness practitioners also address the need, the new center is fully licensed and meets state requirements for proper mental health care, Jefferys says.
Most insurance covers the center’s licensed services, he adds. “Our system is accountable, and we have standards of care, and our professional staff know how to navigate both worlds, as most of us have lived this [spiritual emergence] ourselves one way or the other.”
While patients can come for weekly appointments with Jefferys, who utilizes transpersonal, system-based and body-based methods (such as breathwork, yoga and psychotherapy), the center provides inpatient care as well as a partial hospitalization program. The Center for Spiritual Emergence is licensed by the North Carolina Division of Health Service Regulation for treating acute mental health conditions, and it specializes in helping people in a “spiritual emergency,” he explains.
The center combines licensed services for people addressing spiritual emergence or emergencies and help for those with mental health and substance use disorders, Jefferys says. It currently has seven beds in a separate housing unit and will double in size in approximately three months. The staff includes psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health counselors, addiction specialists, massage therapists, ministers and nurses to assist patients experiencing a spiritual emergency, he says.
Spiritual emergence is not a psychotic break but a spiritual crisis, says Jefferys. “Mental illness is real, and I am not trying to revise mental health,” he says. “But there is a large group of people who are having experiences not in the traditional sense but, if properly discerned, diagnosed and treated, tend to be more functional, integrated and connected. [With] a spiritual emergence, an individual [is] overwhelmed with material or emotion, having a range of visionary experiences, and perhaps a person’s current life begins to fall apart, like a marriage or career.”
Ryan Oelke, an Asheville psychologist and owner of a local spiritual creative web design company (Power Up Productions), also offers therapy sessions for spiritual emergence. His work is all web- and phone-based. Because he specializes in spiritual emergence, clients around the country seek out Oelke for guidance. “It’s not just sadness; these people are tapped into another level of humanity,” he says.
“For some people it is gradual, but some people cycle in and out. They are feeling more connected to the world and to oneness, and there is massive anxiety,” Oelke says. “You can’t muscle through it.”
Mirabi Starr’s translation of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross inspired Oelke to further explore spiritual shifts, which have been around for a long time in many cultures and religions, he explains.
A meditation practitioner, Oelke connects spiritual emergence with Buddhism. “In the Buddhist tradition, an individual is walking the path toward enlightenment,” he says. “Once that person wakes up to the oneness, then what? You are not done, you take the Bodhisattva vow, and you need to come back and recognize all the people walking the path and all the beings who are suffering and help them.”
Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and writings by Chungpa Rinpoche have also influenced Oelke’s approach to helping those experiencing spiritual emergence.
“People can get caught up in their own spirituality, spiritual ego and identity. They think they are getting somewhere that is better, but they are creating a conditional environment to experience bliss. They really are just creating a new game with their ego,” Oelke says. He recommends practicing surrender and learning how to relax and take care of the body and mind by eating and sleeping well, going on walking meditations or spending time in nature.
Jennifer Daigle, a therapist and kundalini yoga practitioner at Long Time Sun in Fairview, believes spiritual emergence is an important piece of life. “We are taught that if we are not happy, something is wrong, which is an extremely modern, new idea,” she says. “There are different phases and challenges of the human experience, but discomfort can be a desirable thing if taken in way of meaning. Though they may have diagnosable symptoms that deserve attention, the key here is to respect and support their evolution rather than to fix something.”
Spiritual emergence is the necessary gap between when a person stops relying on what they are told to believe and when they develop their own beliefs and realize there is a choice, she says. “A more subtle form of spiritual emergence is classically known as existential crisis, questioning the meaning of self and life.” That’s what Burke-Pitts may be experiencing, says Daigle.
Kundalini yoga helps her own search for truth, she says. “The name of my business is Art of Truth, and kundalini yoga reflects this in its primary mantra, sat nam … true self,” Daigle says. “Before you can be honest with others, you have to see yourself clearly. This is what some people fear the most, but also where kundalini provides a sense of safety and support.”
While some practitioners feel a huge swell of love with a kundalini “awakening,” for others it can feel alarming. Long Time Sun owner Bob Bauer says, “From my own personal experience as a practitioner of kundalini yoga, yes, I have and continue to experience many of the manifestations [of it as] described [in Stanislav Grof’s The Stormy Search for the Self]. Some are enjoyable, some not so. I’ll take the good with the bad.
“Through observation and self-reflection, [such experiences] give me a better understanding of who I am,” he adds. “I consider [them] crucial for my own personal growth as a human being.”
A spiritual emergency, Grof writes in The Stormy Search, can resemble a kundalini awakening: “There may be unaccountable emotional outbursts and dramatic physical symptoms, such as the feeling of a huge, overpowering force moving through the body, tremors, electrical charges, rapid heartbeat, rapid changes in temperature, etc. … Most kundalini experiences are healing in effect.”
A spiritual emergence or emergency could stem from a kundalini awakening, but certainly not always, Bauer says.
Individuals who are experiencing spiritual emergence fall into two categories, Jefferys explains: “One is the ‘dark night of the soul,’ a profound sense of existential crisis, where themes of death and meaninglessness may emerge, and the other one is a powerful peak or transcending experience and described as spiritual.”
Jefferys doesn’t adhere to any religious doctrine and believes such transcending events can be overwhelming as individuals try to integrate it and work through it. Staff psychiatrists at the center rule out certain medical conditions and psychotic episodes; these require hospitalization, he says. The patient must be aware of the interior experience and then be able to work with it, though it is challenging and uncomfortable at times, he adds.
Someone like Burke-Pitts might be considered a perfect candidate for care, says Jefferys: “Catalysts can open someone up, like meditating or yoga, or [the person] could have had recent trauma or loss or ingested psychedelic drugs. … Unconscious material starts to emerge, and there is insight to see psychological material,” he says.
“A spiritual emergency is like the rocks between the beach and the street,” he says. “The patient needs to develop the skill set to further integrate their experience. The Chinese symbol for change in crisis in opportunity. Change is powerful: It is crisis interfering with life, but it is an opportunity as well.”