Going Spiritual or Going Nuts?

The question, a very good one, was asked

So how do transpersonal psychologists know what to tell someone who has come in for counseling?

One of my colleagues in the Spiritual Guidance program at ITP responded

I know that this is an issue in Spiritual Guidance. I have worked with individuals who have had co-morbid diagnosis – both having an existing pathology and have spiritual/paranormal experiences. It does become tough to sort through and requires a good deal of discernment along with faith in the human potential toward health and wholeness. Thus, how I (not a therapist) might answer the question below is:

First, it is important to discern the functionality of the individual (is she/he functioning in day to day life) and his/her relationship to society (is he/she being called to step outside of traditional roles and ways of being in society, much like a shaman might be called to sit at the edge of the community). Second, it would be important to discern if the paranormal/spiritual occurrences are part of a larger growth pattern for the individual. In other words, are the experiences directly related to spiritual practices? Do they occur or stop when the individual is centered? Could they be contextualized as kundalini, dark night of the soul, etc. that provides a sense of meaning for the individual? Finally, I believe it would be important to discern if the individual was a physical threat to him / herself or others. If so, then even if the person’s experiences are spiritual (such as a death rebirth experience) then that individual likely needs help by a therapist or psychiatrist. We want the person to be around in order to continue her/his development as a being. Once stabilized, then a transpersonal guide (therapist, expressive artist, spiritual guide) could work with the individual to work through the threatening material (be it images of suicide – self-transformation – or shamanic death and disintegration themes, etc.).


  1. Dr Tart,

    This is really interesting material. Thank you so much for asking these questions for me! It actually does give me a much better understanding how a therapist might approach my situation. I’m also starting to understand the approach my own counselor is taking, which is giving me more confidence in that relationship.

    I can see how one of the first things that was established in my own case was my level of functioning. I was told I score fairly highly in that respect. I hide what I experience to the best of my ability so I don’t become pushed to the edges of society, so that isn’t an issue. I don’t think my experiences are tied to any sorts of spiritual practices, because I don’t really have any spiritual practices. (I wasn’t raised to be religious.) I tend to have more frequent and intense anomalous experiences when I’m really happy. (That may surprise some people, because I’m unhappy and afraid about having these experiences sometimes. But truthfully, I started having experiences again when I felt secure and happy in my personal relationships and was happily involved in my research at university. I have a pretty good life. I just don’t want being crazy to mess it up.) I’m definitely not a threat to anyone’s safety. Even though I get very homesick for the NDE place, I truly understand what a blessing this life is. (I’ve also talked to a few people who have killed themselves, so I know what bad idea that is.) I can understand how spiritual experiences might coexist with pathological conditions. Let’s face it, such experiences could cause even the most stable individual to become at least a little bit nuts.

    I actually feel a bit better about my situation after reading the various answers to my question. Thanks again, Dr Tart. 🙂

  2. There are a lot of different types of experiences that might be called “spiritual”. When the experiences convey information in some way, one can also consider if the information is verifiable, correct, and previously unknown to the experiencer. If a person in perceiving information psychically, one would suppose the experiences are spiritual and not pathalogical.

    This doesn’t mean the experiences are not causing emotional difficulties for the experiencer. It also possible that someone who is psychic is also mentally ill. However the presence of veridical information as part of a spiritual experiences should be an important consideration in evaluating them.

  3. Dr Tart,

    How common are the sorts of problems that require a transpersonal psychologist as opposed to just a typical counselor or therapist of some sort? Do a lot of NDErs need counseling? What about people who see ghosts on a regular basis… Is that a common issue? I’m pretty sure that seeing a ghost at some point in one’s lifetime is not all that unusual, but do people typically seek counseling in such situations? (For some reason, people tell me their ghost stories all the time. I have no idea why, because I never admit to my own experiences in public. I get stories from friends, family, coworkers and complete strangers. So I know having at least one anomalous experience isn’t too uncommon.)

    I was surprised that my own counselor had never counseled a NDEr before me (as far as he knows). And yet when I’ve contacted other NDErs through organizations over the internet (IONS and IANDS have been places that I’ve made such contacts), it seems like many of us have sought help in making sense of that experience. NDErs who have worked out their issues are amazing people. They exude a kind of quiet energy that is really wonderful. But there are lots of us with issues that have a long way to go. I’m just wondering how many of us look for help getting there.

  4. “Going Spiritual or Going Nuts?”

    Some times examples can help illustrate the subject…

    A few days ago I got an e-mail from a reader of my web site who had a spiritual experience and wanted my opinion on whether she was going nuts or not. I don’t want to be too specific because I want to protect her privacy, so I’ll just say that she had a dream about someone she knew who had recently died and in the dream the spirit was earth bound wanted her to do something for him about the disposition of his body. She felt the dream was real and it persisted in her mind. It upset her because she wanted to help the spirit but couldn’t realistically do so.

    Now contrast this to someone I once met at a spiritualist church. She was not a regular member of the congregation but she came to the church because she was convinced that she was being persecuted by some kind of evil spirit or demon and wanted an exorcism to be freed from it. She felt that someone had set the spirit on her for some malicious purpose.

    I’m not a psychologist but in my opinion the first person is most likely not nuts. She was contacted by the spirit of someone she knew for a particular purpose and she felt an emotional connection with the spirit. The dream seemed real and was hard to forget. She was troubled by the experience and doubted her sanity. These are common characteristics of veridical spirit communications. I think it is very unlikely that this experience was a fantasy or a symptom of any type of psychological problem.

    For the second person, the first thing I would do is suggest she see a psychologist. (Fortunately in this case, the pastor of our church was a psychologist.) I suppose it might have been a real spiritual experience but that type of problem is very unusual. When you are being contacted by a real spirit you sense them as a person, not as some amorphous evil entity. My impression was that part of her problem was that she was seeking attention. We included her in a group healing of several sitters and several healers and she started grunting during the treatment which I never saw before or since. I think most of us thought that the healing might act as a suitable placebo for “psychosomatic” problem. Again, I’m not a psychologist, but sometimes you meet someone and you can tell they are not right in the head, and this was such a case.

  5. http://www.boingboing.net/2009/10/06/exorcisms-vs-schizop.html

    NCBI ROFL spotted this 1994 scientific paper extract describing an Indian man in the UK who blamed his crimes on ghostly possession. When exorcisms failed, he was treated for paranoid schizophrenia. That apparently helped.

    Treatment commenced using trifluoperazine and clopenthixol. RESULTS. The patient underwent remission during neuroleptic treatment, despite previous evidence of genuine possession. CONCLUSIONS. Many cultures give rise to apparently genuine cases of ghost possession. Neuroleptics may relieve symptoms of exorcism-resistant possession.

    So this might be an otherwise unremarkable psychiatric case if it were not for the fact that the prison chaplain, and several of the patient’s cellmates, saw the spirit possess the patient as a ghostly mist. The chaplain was convinced this was a genuine case of possession, as had priests from several other faiths who had previously carried out exorcisms on the patient.

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