Dr Zana Marovic, Phd

Clinical Psychologist, Johannesburg

Spiritual Crisis & Transpersonal Therapy

Spiritual Crisis & Transpersonal Therapy

In our fast paced society and culture that values youth, individuality, material things and accomplishments, more and more people struggle in their search for meaning and connection to some larger purpose. This especially becomes important when dealing with life-changing events, confrontation with mortality or pain that is mental, emotional or physical in which an interpretation may be necessary that gives meaning to the event. This sets the stage for a “spiritual crisis,” where previously held beliefs are called into question.


Spiritual  Crisis

Spiritual crisis is a common experience after a profound event where the unexpected (or unwanted) has happened:

  • Loss (job loss or retirement, divorce)
  • Separation from religion and/or culture (immigration)
  • Personal or family disaster (bankruptcy or estrangement of family member)
  • Developmental crisis (an example : “empty nest”- kids leaving home provoking major changes in parents’ life)
  • Changes in environment, health or self concept (illness, move to nursing home, mid-life crisis and aging)
  • Experiencing being the victim of a crime, death of a loved one, unusual spiritual experience.

When it happens to us the life changing event shatters a sense of safety in the world and creates conflict, confusion, disorientation or guilt. During periods of major life crisis, one’s world may be turned upside down. The assumptions that guided one’s life— that life is fair, that people get what they deserve, that God is good, that the old die before the young, and so on—are strained and sometimes shattered. This collapse in beliefs and assumptions about the world and one’s place in it has can lead to a spiritual crisis.

Spiritual crisis is recognized as a psychological disorder that involves a person’s relationship with a transcendent being or force. It is accompanied by questions related to meaning or purpose in life, such as: Why do I exist? What am I here to do? Does God exist? If God exists, why does God allow suffering? Why me? Why now? What happens when we die?

Spiritual crisis may be accompanied by any combination of the following symptoms, which include:

  • Feelings of depression;
  • Despair & loneliness;
  • Loss of energy or chronic exhaustion not linked to a physical disorder;
  • Anger, frustration & lack of patience;
  • Loss of identity, purpose & meaning;
  • Withdrawal from life’s everyday routines;
  • Feelings of madness and insanity;
  • A sense of abandonment by God;
  • Feelings of inadequacy & loss of self-confidence;
  • Estrangement from family and friends.

Spirituality and Religion

Spirituality is thought to include a system of beliefs that encompasses love, compassion and respect for life. Individuals may experience both spirituality and religion very privately within themselves, and/or through social interaction with persons and organizations.

Spirituality is a component of a personality that integrates all other aspects of personhood and is reflected in a search for meaning in life. Spirituality extends beyond the physical, material and self to a state called transcendence. Although many people consider spirituality and religion, one and the same, it is important to make a distinction between them.

Similarities. Spirituality and religion both focus on the sacred or divine (for example, divine being, higher power, God, Allah, or ultimate reality as perceived by the individual). Most people who are spiritual or religious also have a set of beliefs about the higher power or ultimate reality. In addition, there are usually specific practices that followers use to attain or enhance a sense of the sacred, or to experience an altered state of consciousness such as prayer or meditation.

Differences. The major difference is that religion is viewed as being linked to formal religious institutions, whereas spirituality does not depend upon a collective or organizational context. In other words, one can be spiritual and go or not go to church, but generally one can’t be religious and not go. This is evident from the associations that we have to these terms. If we say that someone is deeply religious, we tend to assume that person regularly attends church (part of a formal institution). If we say that a person is very spiritual, we tend to assume that person has some strong beliefs and practices, but we would not necessarily assume that he/she attended church.


Transpersonal Therapy & Overcoming Spiritual Crisis

When spiritual events occur many people have no context in which to understand these new experiences, and they are often unable to find people with whom to talk about them. As a result, profound spiritual experiences are often misinterpreted as mental breakdowns, not only by psychologists but by the individuals themselves and their friends and relatives. Because of a lack of knowledge about spiritual growth, too many people are being medicated for experiences that actually have the potential to transform their lives in positive ways and open the door to meaningful spiritual journeys.

While traditional psychology shies away from spirituality, transpersonal psychology & psychotherapy broadens the traditional understanding of psyche to include the spiritual dimensions of our being. Transpersonal psychology has a sense of quest: that all of us have a journey to make and reach that larger sense of being. Hence, spiritual crisis in transpersonal psychology is seen as potentially transforming while provides a powerful experience for personal growth, human development, and individual healing.

Transpersonal psychotherapy sees the personal presence of the therapist as a key. Therapist’s warmth and compassion, combined with a degree of softness and gentleness are essential, for a person undergoing these consciousness changes. In transpersonal therapy therapist combines traditional range of techniques with alternative techniques such as: visualization, hypnotherapy, creating sacred space, rituals, life review, working with higher self, meditation, breath exercises, etc.

Transpersonal therapy enhances clients ability to meet the challenges of spiritual crisis, resulting in ability to identify positive aspects of their difficult experience and see such crisis as growth-promoting.

Recovering from profound crisis enables one to reflect on personal values, put things in a new perspective, and appreciate more important things in life.

Positive effects of resolving the spiritual crisis might be that the person feels his/ her life is more authentic, more meaningful, the person’s thinking is ‘set straight’ or true, and his/her actions toward others are right and true. People that had been through such experience perceived themselves to be more realistic, patient, sensitive, autonomous, assertive, open, and spiritual in their everyday lives. Such insights into leading a meaningful, spiritually based life have been codified in various religious traditions, as in the doctrine of Christianity, the dharma of Hinduism, the Tao of Chinese religion, and the notions of right living, action, and intention embedded in the Yoga Patanjali’s Sutras and Buddha’s eightfold path to enlightenment.

Helpful Resources in Resolving Spiritual Crisis

  • Assess available and appropriate supports
  • Identify a comforting environment
  • Assess past coping abilities
  • Identify changes needed to improve situation and abilities
  • Access spiritual and/or religious support
  • Prayer
  • Imagery
  • Artistic expression
  • Memory, reminiscence
  • Visits to favorite nature spots
  • Relaxation
  • Transpersonal therapy/Hypnotherapy
  • Holistic/spiritual retreat.

In conclusion, spiritual crisis brings a conscious exploration and redefining of our beliefs and allows creation of an authentic and integrated approach to life. It allows us to live with greater peace not from a belief system we inherited or unconsciously accepted but from a belief system that makes sense to us and has the capacity to provide meaning and account for life events and changes, as the stepping stones that allow us to heal, grow and transform.

Emonyeni Retreat Centre