By prof. Roberto Assagioli
Therefore it shouldnt surprise us that such a big change occurs through several critical stages, often accompanied by neuro-psychic and physical (psycho-somatic) illnesses.
Although through an ordinary clinical examination these illnesses appear similar
to those caused by different reasons, in actual fact they have a totally different
meaning and value and they must be cured in a completely different way.
At present illnesses due to spiritual causes are becoming more and more frequent, because the number of people consciously or unconsciously obsessed by spiritual needs is increasing. Furthermore, because of the more complexity of the modern man and of the obstacles created in his critical mind, spiritual development has become a more difficult and complicated inner process.
For this reason it is best to look at nervous and psychic illnesses that start in the different stages of spiritual development and to offer some indications for the most suitable and efficient methods to cure them.
In the process of spiritual realization we can observe 5 critical stages.
I. Crises preceding spiritual development
In order to understand the meaning of the unique inner experiences that usually precede the awakening of the soul, we must remember some psychological characteristics of the ordinary man. He lets himself live rather than live properly.
He takes life as it comes; it doesnt wonder about its meaning, its value and its goals. If he is vulgar, he only worries about his personal desires; he manages to find satisfaction to his senses, to become rich and to fulfill his ambition. If he is more refined, he subdues his personal satisfaction to the accomplishment of family and civil duties as he has been taught to do; he doesnt wonder on which basis they are founded or which is their true hierarchy. He can proclaim himself a religious man and believe in God, but his religion is exterior and conventional; he feels he is doing the right thing when he obeys the formal prescriptions of his church and he has participated to the rituals.
Indeed, the common man implicitly believes to the absolute reality of ordinary life and he is strongly attached to the earthly possessions, to which he gives a positive value. He considers ordinary life to be an end in itself; although he believes in a future heaven, his belief is totally theoretical and academic, we can guess it from the fact that he candidly confesses that he wishes to get there as late as possible.
It can happen though and in actual fact it happens sometimes that this ordinary man is surprised and upset by a sudden change in his inner life. Sometimes this is a consequence of delusions or a strong moral choc, such as the loss of a loved one. Sometimes there is no apparent reason and, in the middle of full wealth and luck (as it happened to Tolstoj), a faint uneasiness arises, a sense of dissatisfaction, of something missing; whats missing, though, is nothing concrete, but something vague, elusive that he cant describe.
Gradually a sense of unreality and vainness of ordinary life grows; all the personal interests that used to occupy and preoccupy us fade away, so to speak, losing their importance and value. New problems start; the person starts wondering about the sense of life, the reason of many things he used to accept naturally, the reason for his and other peoples suffering, the justification for differences in fortune, the origin and goal of human existence.
Here we have the first misunderstandings and mistakes. Many people dont understand the meaning of these new feelings and they consider them as whims, abnormal fancies. They endure them (because they are quite distressing) and they fight them in any way. They fear they will lose their head and try and re-connect to the ordinary reality that seems to slip away. Sometimes, as a reaction, they dive in them with more strength, looking for new occupations, new stimulations and feelings. Through these and other means they manage to suffocate their restlessness, but they can never destroy it completely; it keeps lurking in their deepest being, undermining the basis of their ordinary existence and it can burst out more intensely, even after years.
The status of anxiety becomes more and more painful, the inner emptiness more intolerable. The person feels annihilated; all that was his life seems like a dream, he disappears like a larva, whilst the new light hasnt appeared yet. Indeed, usually the person ignores its existence or he doesnt believe into the possibility of having it. Often a more defined moral crisis is added to this general torment. The ethical conscience awakes and improves, the person is seized by a serious sense of guilt and regret for the wrong doing; he judges himself severely and he is discouraged.
At this point suicidal ideas appear. The person thinks that physical annihilation
is the only logic consequence of the inner breakdown. We must point out that
this is a generic scheme of such experiences and their progress. In actual fact
there are many individual differences. Many people dont reach the strongest
point; some people reach it suddenly without the gradual process; in some people
research and philosophical doubts prevail, in others moral crisis is the most
These expressions of spiritual crisis are similar to the symptoms of some diseases such as neurasthenia and psychasthenia. One of the features of the latter is the loss of the function of reality, as Pierre Janet called it, another is depersonalization. The similarity is made stronger by the fact that the distress of the crisis often produces physical symptoms, such as exhaustion, nervous tension, depression, insomnia and several digestive and circulatory illnesses, etc.
II. Crises produced by spiritual awakening.
The opening of communication between personality and soul, the waves of light, joy and energy that accompany it, often produce a marvelous liberation. Inner conflicts, suffering and nervous and physical illnesses disappear, often surprisingly fast; this confirms that those illnesses were not due to material causes, but they were the direct consequence of the psycho-spiritual toil. In these cases the spiritual awakening is a cure. The awakening doesnt always occur in such a simple and harmonious way, though; sometimes it can cause complications, illnesses and unbalances. This occurs in the people whose mind is not steady, or where emotions are exuberant and uncontrolled, or the nervous system is too sensitive or delicate; or when the flow of spiritual energy is overwhelming because of its suddenness and violence.
When the mind is too weak or unprepared to tolerate spiritual light, or when there is a tendency to presumptuousness and egocentrism, the inner event can be badly interpreted. A confusion of planes, so to speak, occurs; the distinction between absolute and relative, spirit and personality is not recognized. The spiritual strength can then produce exaltation, an inflation of the personal self.
Some years ago I had the occasion to observe a similar case in Anconas mental hospital. One of the patients, a very nice old man calmly but stubbornly stated he was God. Around this conviction of his, he built the most fantastic delirious ideas, such as celestial formations to his command, great things he accomplished, etc.
Apart from that, he was the nicest, kindest and most thoughtful person you
can imagine, always ready to offer help to doctors and patients. His mind was
so clear and attentive, his actions so accurate that he had been made assistant
to the pharmacist, who entrusted him with the keys of the pharmacy and the preparation
of medicines. This never caused any problem, apart from the disappearance of
a little bit of sugar, which he took to do a favor to some of the patients.
From the ordinary medical point of view, our patient would be considered a simple case of delusions of grandeur, a paranoid form. In actual fact these are purely descriptive labels or clinical classification; ordinary psychiatry cant tell us anything certain about the true nature and causes of these illnesses.
I think its legitimate to wonder if there isnt a deeper psychological interpretation for the ideas of the above patient. It is well known how the inner perception of the reality of the Spirit and its intimate penetration with the human soul gives a sense of grandness and inner broadening, the conviction to participate somehow to the divine nature.
In religious traditions and spiritual doctrines of all the time we can find many testimonials and confirmations, often boldly expressed. In the Bible we find the explicit and resolute statement: Dont you know you are Gods? and Saint Augustine says: when the soul loves something, it becomes similar to it; if it loves earthly things, it becomes earthly; if it loves God (we might ask) does it become God?
The most extreme expression of the identity of nature, between the human spirit in its pure and real essence and the Supreme Spirit, is contained in the central teaching of the Vedanta philosophy: Tat twam asi (You are That) and Aham evam param Brahman (Truthfully I am the supreme Brahman).
However we consider this relationship between the individual and universal spirit, either as an identity, a similarity, a participation or a union, we must clearly recognize and keep in mind, in theory and in practice, the big difference between the individual spirit in its essential nature what has been called the bottom or the center or apex of the soul, the superior Self, the real Self and the little ordinary personality, the small self we are normally conscious of.
The non acknowledgment of such a distinction leads us to absurd and Dangerous
consequences. This gives us the key to understand the mental unbalance of the
patients I mentioned earlier, and other less extreme forms of self-exaltation
and self-inflation. The fatal mistake of all those who fall a prey to such delusions
is to assign to their personal and non-regenerated self the qualities and powers
of the Spirit.
In philosophical terms this is confusion between relative reality and absolute Reality, between personal and metaphysical plane. From this interpretation of some ideas of grandness we can draw useful curative rules. It shows us how useless it is to try and demonstrate to the patient that he is wrong, that his ideas are absurd or laugh at him; indeed it exacerbates him. It is better to recognize with him the element of truth that there is in his claims and then patiently try and make him understand the above mentioned distinction.
In other cases the sudden inner illumination produced by the awakening of the soul determines an emotional exaltation, which is expressed clamorously and disorderly, with screams, cries, chants and motor unrest. The people who are active, dynamic and pugnacious can be driven by the excitement of the awakening to take the role of prophet or reformer, creating movements or sects characterized by an excessive fanaticism and proselytism.
In some noble but too rigid and excessive souls, the revelation of the transcendent and divine element of their spirit inspires a need for complete and immediate adaptation to that perfection. In actual fact this adaptation can only be the end of a long and gradual work of transformation and re-generation of personality. Therefore that need is vain and it causes reactions of self-destructive depression and desperation.
In some people the awakening is accompanied by paranormal psychic
manifestations of various kinds. They have visions, generally of elevated or
angelic beings, or they can hear voices or they feel driven to write automatically.
The value of the messages received is very different from one case to another; therefore it is necessary to examine and screen them objectively, without prejudices and without being affected by the way they were received or the supposed authority of the person who claims to be the author. It is better to mistrust the messages that contain precise orders and require blind obedience and those who tend to exalt the personality of the receiving person. True spiritual instructors never use such methods. Apart from the authenticity and intrinsic value of these messages, they are dangerous because they can easily upset the emotional and mental balance, even seriously.
III. The reactions following spiritual awakening.
These reactions normally occur after a certain period of time.
As we have mentioned, a harmonious spiritual awakening inspires a sense of joy, an illumination of mind that allows us to perceive lifes meaning and goal, draws doubts away, offers the solution to many problems and gives us a sense of inner safety. This is accompanied by a vivid sense of unity, beauty, holiness of life; from the awakened soul a wave of love towards the other souls and all other creatures spreads.
Indeed there isnt anything more joyful and comforting than the contact
with one of this awakened that is in such a state of grace.
His former personality with its acute angles and unpleasant elements seems to
have disappeared and a new person, agreeable and full of amiability smiles at
us and at the whole world. He wishes to please, to make himself useful, to share
with others his new spiritual richness whose abundance he cant contain.
This joyful state lasts more or less time, but it is destined to end. Ordinary personality, with its lower elements, had been temporarily overwhelmed and numbed, not killed or transformed. Furthermore the flow of light and spiritual love is rhythmic and cyclic like all that happens in the universe; therefore sooner or later it decreases or ends. The flux is followed by the reflux. This inner experience is very painful and in some cases it produces violent reactions and serious illnesses. The lower tendencies awaken and reaffirm themselves with renewed strength; all the reefs, debris and waste that were covered by the high tide reappear.
The person whose moral conscience has become more refined and demanding because
of the awakening, whose thirst for perfection has become stronger, judges himself
more severely, condemns himself with more rigor and he can believe, mistakenly,
that he has fallen down lower than before. This can be caused by the fact that
sometimes some tendencies and lower impulses latent in the unconscious can be
awakened and stimulated to a violent opposition by new high spiritual aspirations,
which are a challenge and a threat to them.
Sometimes the reaction is so strong that the person ends up denying the value and reality of his own recent inner experience. Doubts and criticisms arise in his mind and the latter is tempted to consider all that happened as an illusion, a fancy and a sentimental stunt. It becomes sour and sarcastic; it laughs at itself and others and it would like to disown its ideals and spiritual aspirations.
Still, no matter how many efforts it makes, it cant go back to the previous stage; once had the vision the charm of its beauty remains and it cant be forgotten. It cant get used any more to live only the small common life; a divine nostalgia obsesses it and keeps it restless. Sometimes the reaction takes clearly morbid characters; accesses of desperation and temptations of suicide arise.
The cure for such excessive reactions consists most of all in clearly understanding their nature and indicating the only way to overcome them. The person enduring them must understand that the state of grace cant last forever and the reaction is natural and unavoidable. It is like making a superb flight up to the sun-lit peak, admiring the open landscape that reaches the horizon; every flight must end sooner or later. We are taken back to the plain and we must then slowly go up, step by step, to the steep slope that leads to the steady conquest of the top. The acknowledgement that this descent or fall is a natural event to which we all undergo, comforts and relieves the pilgrim and encourages him to bravely carry on to the top.
IV. Stages of the transmutation process
The ascent that we have mentioned consists in actual fact of the transmutation and regeneration of the personality. It is a long and complex process made of stages of active purification aimed at removing the obstacles to the afflux and action of the spiritual forces. There are stages of development of the inner faculties that were latent or weak; stages where personality must stay steady and meek, letting the Spirit work on it and courageously and patiently enduring the unavoidable suffering. It is a time full of changes, alternatives between light and darkness, between joy and pain.
The energies and attention of the person in this situation are often so absorbed by the turmoil that he finds difficult to satisfy the needs of his personal life. Therefore the man who observes him superficially and judges him from the point of view of normality and practical efficiency finds that he has worsened and is worth less than before. To his internal turmoil, then, are added unsympathetic and unjust judgments from family members, friends and doctors; he is not spared sharp observations on the good results of aspirations and spiritual ideals which make him weak and inefficient in his practical life. These judgments are often painful to the person who receives them; he is sometimes upset by them and falls into doubts and discouragement.
This as well is one of the trials that must be overcome. It teaches to surmount personal sensitiveness and to acquire independence of judgment and steadiness of conduct. This trial should therefore be welcomed without rebellion but rather with serenity. On the other hand if those who surround the person who undergoes the trial understand his status, they can help him and avoid many contrasts and unnecessary suffering to him. In actual fact is a time of transition; leaving a stage without having reached the new one. It is a condition similar to the larva that undergoes the process of transformation that will turn it into a winged butterfly; it must go through the chrysalis stage, which is a condition of disintegration and impotence.
In general, though, man is not given the privilege to develop the transmutation whilst protected in a cocoon. He must, especially nowadays, stay in his place in life and keep absolving his family, professional and social duties as much as he can, as if nothing was happening inside him. The hard problem he has to face is similar to those which had to be resolved by English engineers, who had to transform and widen a big train station in London without stopping the traffic, not even for an hour.
It shouldnt surprise us if such complex and hard work sometimes causes nervous and psychic illnesses, for example nervous breakdowns, insomnia, depression, irritability and restlessness. These illnesses can sometimes produce several physical symptoms because of the strong influence of the psyche on the body. When curing these cases we must understand their real cause and help the patient with a proper and suitable psycho-therapeutic action, because physical cures and medicine can relieve physical symptoms and illnesses, but of course they cant act on the psycho-spiritual causes of the disease.
Sometimes the illnesses are produced or increased by the excessive personal efforts that the aspirant makes to the spiritual life to force his own inner development, efforts that produce a repression rather than the transformation of the lower elements and an extreme aggravation of the fight, with a consequent excessive nervous and psychic tension.
These impetuous aspirants must realize that the essential part of the work of regeneration is made by the spirit and its energies; when they have tried to attract their energies with their fervor, their meditation, their honest inner attitude, when they have tried to eliminate all that hindered the action of the spirit, they must wait patiently and confidently for that action to occur spontaneously in their heart.
A different difficulty, in a certain sense opposite, must be overcome in the times when the afflux of spiritual strength is great and abundant. This precious strength can be easily wasted in emotional ferment and excessive and feverish activities. In other cases it is held back too much, it isnt translated in life and used, so that it accumulates and it can create illnesses and inner stress with its strong tension, like a strong electrical current can fuse the valves or produce short circuits.
It is necessary to learn to regulate properly and wisely the flux of spiritual energies, avoiding their dispersion but using them in noble and productive internal and external actions.
V. The dark night of the soul.
When the process of psycho-spiritual transformation reaches its final and decisive stage, it produces sometimes an intense suffering and an inner darkness that Christian mystics called the dark night of the soul. Its characters make it similar to the illness called depressive psychosis or melancholy.
Such characters are: an emotional status of intense depression that can reach desperation; an acute sense of ones unworthiness; a strong tendency to self-criticism and self-condemnation, which in some cases turns into the conviction of being lost or damned; a painful sense of mental impotence; the weakening of will and self-control; disgust and great difficulty in acting.
Some of these symptoms can present themselves in a weaker form even in the
previous stages, but then it is not the proper dark night of the soul.
This strange and terrible experience is not a pathological state, despite appearances. It has spiritual causes and a great spiritual value (see Saint John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul and E. Underhill «Mysticism», New York, 1961).
It has also been called the mystical crucifixion or mystical
death; it is followed by the glorious spiritual resurrection that ends
every suffering and illness, which it compensates plentifully, and that is also
the fullness of spiritual health.
The subject we have chosen forced us to look almost exclusively to the most painful and abnormal aspects of inner development. We dont want to give the impression, though, that those who follow the path of spiritual ascent are stricken by nervous illnesses more than ordinary men. It is more appropriate to clarify the following points:
In many cases spiritual development occurs in a more gradual and harmonious
way than the one described so far; difficulties and stages are overcome without
nervous and physical reactions.
The nervous and mental illnesses of ordinary men and women are often more serious and hard to tolerate and to cure than those produced by spiritual causes. The illnesses of ordinary men are often produced by violent conflicts of passion, or conflict between unconscious drives and conscious personality. Sometimes they are caused by rebellion against conditions or people that oppose their desires and selfish needs. Sometimes it is more difficult to cure them, because the higher aspects are too weak; there is not much to appeal to in order for them to make the necessary sacrifices and to subdue to the discipline needed to produce the adjustments and the harmony that can give them their health back.
The sufferings and illnesses of those who carry out the spiritual path, despite being sometimes serious, are in actual fact only temporary reactions and the waste of an organic process of growth and inner regeneration. Therefore they disappear spontaneously when the crisis that produced them is resolved or they respond more to a suitable cure.
The suffering produced by the low tide and the refluxes of the spiritual wave are widely compensated by the stages of afflux and elevation, by the faith in the great goal and the high purpose of the inner adventure.
This vision of glory is a powerful inspiration, an infallible comfort and an
inexhaustible source of strength and courage. We should relive such vision in
the most vivid way and as often as possible; one of the greatest benefits we
can grant to people tormented by crises and spiritual conflicts is to do the
Lets try and imagine vividly the glory and beatitude of the victorious and free soul that consciously participate to the wisdom, the power and the love of Divine Life. Lets imagine with an even bigger vision the glory of the Kingdom of God realized on earth, the vision of redeemed humankind, the whole creation regenerated and showing joyfully the perfection of God.
Such visions have allowed great mystics and saints to endure with a smile their inner torments and their physical martyrdom; they allowed Saint Francis to say: I expect so much good that all pain is delight!.
Now we have to leave these altitudes and go back to the valley where souls are in turmoil. If we consider the matter from a strictly medical and psychological point of view we must realize that, as mentioned before, whilst the illnesses that accompany the various crises of spiritual development appear very similar, sometimes identical, to ordinary illnesses, in actual fact their cause and meaning are quite different. Indeed, they are in a certain sense opposite; therefore the cure must be different.
The neuro-psychic symptoms of ordinary patients have usually a regressive character.
Those patients havent been able to accomplish the necessary inner and
outer adjustments that are part of the normal development of personality. For
example, they havent managed to free themselves from the emotional attachment
to their parents and therefore they stay in a status of childish dependence
from them or whoever replaces them, even symbolically.
Sometimes their inability or bad will to face the needs and difficulties of family and social life forces them to escape to an illness that saves them from these duties. In other cases its an emotional trauma; for example a delusion or a loss that they cant accept and to which they react with a disease. In all these cases it is a conflict between the conscious personality and the lower elements that often operate in the unconscious, with the partial victory of the latter.
On the other hand, the evils produced by the turmoil of spiritual development have a clearly progressive character. They depend on the effort to grow, on the drive towards the top. They are the result of temporary conflicts and unbalances between the conscious personality and the spiritual energies that emanate from the top. From all these elements it is clear that the cure for the two illnesses must be very different.
For the first group the therapeutic task consists of helping the patient to reach the level of normal man, getting rid of repressions, inhibitions, fears and bonds, helping him to go from excessive egocentrism, false evaluations, opinions of reality distorted to an objective and rational vision of life, to the acceptance of his duties and a fair appreciation of other peoples rights. The undeveloped, uncoordinated and contrasting elements must be harmonized and integrated in a personal psycho-synthesis. For the second type of patients the cure is to produce a harmonious adjustment, helping the assimilation and integration of the new spiritual energies with the pre-existing normal elements, that is to reach a trans-personal psycho-synthesis around a higher inner center.
It is clear that the cure for the patients of the first group is not sufficient for the second; indeed it can be harmful. His difficulties increase rather than decrease if he is in the hands of a doctor that doesnt understand his turmoil, that ignores or denies the possibilities of spiritual development. Such doctor can underestimate or laugh at the spiritual aspirations of the patient, considering them as fancies or interpreting them materialistically. The patient might be induced by the doctor to make an effort in hardening the shell of his personality, refusing to listen to the insistent appeals of his soul.
This can only aggravate his status, exacerbate the fight and delay the solution. A doctor that carries out the spiritual way, on the other hand, or at least has a clear understanding and a fair appreciation of reality and spiritual conquests, can be of great help to such a patient.
If, as it often happens, he is still at the stage of dissatisfaction, restlessness and unconscious aspirations; if he has lost any interest in ordinary life but he hasnt had a spark of the Higher Reality yet; if he looks for relief in the wrong direction and wanders in blind alleys, then the revelation of the true cause of his illness and an efficient help to find the true solutions can ease and accelerate the awakening of the soul, which is by itself the main part of the cure.
When a person is at the second stage, where he enjoys the light of the spirit and joyfully flies towards unconscious highness, we can help him a lot by explaining to him the true nature and function of his experiences. We must warn him that they are necessarily temporary and describe to him the further trouble of the pilgrimage. That person will then be prepared when the reaction comes; he is spared the big part of suffering produced by the surprise of the fall and the doubts and discouragement that follow.
When this warning is not given and the cure starts during the depressive reaction, the patient can be relieved and helped by the insurance, even demonstrated with examples, that it is only a temporary stage that he will certainly overcome.
In the fourth stage of the accidents of the ascent, which is the longest and the most multiform, the work of the person who helps is more complex. The main aspects are:
Explain to the suffering person the meaning of what is happening inside him
and show him the right attitude to take.
Teach him how we can dominate the lower tendencies without repressing them in the unconscious;
Teach him and assist him in transmuting and sublimating his psychic energies;
Help him supporting and using properly the spiritual energies that flow in his conscience;
Guide him and cooperate with him in the work of reconstruction of his personality and psycho-synthesis.
In the stage of the dark night of the soul it is very difficult
to help, because the person who endures it is surrounded by such a dense cloud,
he is so deep down in his suffering that the light of the spirit doesnt
reach his conscience. The only way to give strength and support is tirelessly
to repeat the insurance that this is a transitory experience and not a permanent
state, as the victim thinks this is what upsets him the most. It is also
a good idea to insure him energetically that his torment, no matter how terrible,
has such a great spiritual value and will bring him so much good that he will
be thankful. He is helped to tolerate and accept it with calm, resignation and
We think its appropriate to say that these psychological and spiritual cures dont exclude the subsidiary help of physical means, which can alleviate the symptoms and help reaching a good result. Such supports will help the repairing work of nature, like a hygienic alimentation, relaxing exercises, contact with the natural elements and a rhythm suitable to the various physical and psychic activities.
In some cases the cure is complicated by the fact that the patient has a mixture
of progressive and regressive symptoms. These are cases of irregular and disharmonious
inner development. These people can reach high spiritual levels with a part
of their personality but still be slaves of childish bonds or under the domain
of complex unconscious. We could say that, with an accurate examination,
in the majority of those who carry out the spiritual path we can find
like in all the so called normal people bigger or smaller
rests of such limitations.
It is a fact, though, that in the majority of cases there is a clear prevalence of either regressive or progressive symptoms.
We must always keep in mind the possibility that symptoms of both groups are in the same patient; we need to study and interpret thoroughly each sign to verify its true cause and find the most suitable cure.
From all that we have said it is clear that in order to cure efficiently the
nervous and psychic illnesses that accompany spiritual development, it is necessary
a double series of knowledge and practice. They are the point of view of the
doctor expert of nervous diseases and psychotherapy and that of the serious
scholar and pilgrim on the paths of the Spirit.
This two-fold competence is rarely associated. Since the number of people requiring such cures is constantly increasing, though, all those who are able to do it should resolutely prepare to this good deed.
Such cures would be easier if we could also prepare assistants, so that we
can cooperate with intelligence.
Finally, it would be very helpful if the public in general was informed of the main facts regarding the connections between neuro-psychic illnesses and inner crises. In this way their loved ones might facilitate the task of the patient and the doctor, instead of complicating it and oppose it with ignorance, prejudices and active opposition, as it unfortunately often happens.
When this three-fold work of preparation is done with doctors, nurses and public, a great amount of unnecessary suffering will be eliminated and many pilgrims will be able to reach with a shorter and easier turmoil the high goal that they pursue: the union with the Divine Reality.