This is an interesting topic, and it is one to tread carefully on. Not everyone is in the same psychological space, and moving through a time where the ego is dissolving away takes a certain level of care and surrender. Surrender is always key because in letting go of our resistance to inner change, we reduce the stress that we place on ourselves psychologically, emotionally, and physically. But there is a kind of tenacity and focus that is needed to learn how to let go and what to believe in, which are usually far fewer things than people think. Wisdom tends not to be as much about creating new beliefs as seeing what is already here.
However, there is another side of this discussion that revolves around people who are trying to make a spiritual awakening happen and to destroy their ego. If there is any situation where someone could do serious psychological damage to themselves, I'd place it with the group of people who are trying to get to enlightenment as a goal or are trying to mimic whatever they think "spiritual teachers" and other awakened people have, which is ironic (We don't "have" anything). In this way, there is a tendency to do more extreme things to make the person believe that s/he is getting somewhere on the spiritual path. To those individuals, I say, "stop." You are already here. The bigger issue is what you are running from by trying to get some place else. If you haven't dealt with your issues and you actually do awaken, then those issues will jump out of you in a whirlwind of intensity that you may not be psychologically ready to handle.
On this note, let's talk about what it means to be mentally prepared to let go of your ego.
The Ego, the Mind, and the BrainFor many people, they discuss the ego, mind, and brain as the same thing, but they really aren't in my book. I also make a distinction between the unconscious ego (an ego self that doesn't know that it is made up) and the conscious ego (an ego self that knows it is made up and can be un-made at any time). The ego, very simply, is a whole collection of traits, beliefs, issues, pain, and tendencies that you consider to be you (although you generally don't realize what issues and pain are hidden in the mix). The ego is a filter and lens on how you interpret your own feelings and sensations as well as what you see around you. Usually, the unconscious ego limits how we can experience ourselves and life in order to get us whatever it is we think we want and to keep us safe. Since we get so used to this unconscious way of engaging with life, just the concept that we don't have to see life the way we do is often a big jump forward in consciousness.
The Number One Ego Issue
The mind offers us the abilities to use different means of thinking, remembering, sensing, and interpreting ourselves. It is much bigger than the ego self, which uses only a selective number of the mind's tools. Consider that the ego may only use a hammer and an awl out of hundreds of tools the mind offers. The hammer could be your writing abilities, and the awl could be your ability to listen. But human beings have a lot more abilities than just that. Many of you have had the experience of finding new abilities that you didn't even know you had as you let go of issues. For instance, some of you discover that you're good at public speaking when you let go of the ego fear of speaking. So, speaking is one tool that your unconscious ego had not been using. You might not even have believed you could do it. But it was there sitting in the toolbox of the mind.
Finally, the brain is the physical stuff out of which all these things are operating. If you hurt it, the other two are impacted. That's physiology. While advances in understanding neuroplasticity show that we can impact the physical brain with our thinking, there are limits to that. So taking care of our physical brain is key, especially for those of you who bike or do other activities where landing on your head may be more likely.
Recovering Lost Parts of Your MindWith those definitions to keep in mind, you can see that the unconscious ego actually makes you lose parts of your mind. Because of incorrect beliefs, we don't use different parts of our mind, and we don't cultivate others. We may also repress memories with our unconscious ego, which sometimes seems to cut us off from other mental abilities. In this way, we trap ourselves and cut ourselves off from a whole host of abilities and thoughts. But as you become more conscious after an awakening or just through dedicated spiritual work, you can naturally re-discover these lost aspects. This can be surprising. It may even be upsetting if parts of your ego self are still strong enough to deny your self-discoveries.
For instance, if your ego self still really doesn't think you can speak publicly, you may feel this inner division of finding your voice and still hearing all these doubts at the same time. If you repressed memories from a trauma, your ego may not want to believe you very own memories. This dissonance in the mind can make people feel "crazy." If your ego self has not been properly prepared to trust what you discover, you can exacerbate the situation. You can get more upset and fight with yourself about the topic. This creates more stress on the mind.
As always, surrender is the best option to win this battle. You don't have to believe in your ability to do publicly speaking or any memory you find. They're already there. What is important is that you acknowledge what you find. In this way, you come to see that spiritual truth is much more about seeing what is than believing in something's existence. While the public speaking may not work perfectly as an example of spiritual truth, I am simply pointing towards learning to distinguish between reality and fiction.
Speaking Your Truth
Discovering More Commitment to Fiction Than RealityWhere people get into a lot of trouble is when they have a greater commitment to fiction rather than reality. Here are a couple examples that immediately come to mind:
- Trying to believe that you like your spouse when you don't
- Trying to believe that you like your job when you don't
- Trying to believe that your family loves you when they keep physically hurting you
- Trying to deny a repressed memory that shatters your story about a person in your life
Dissolving the Veils of Illusion
Holding on to MiseryWhat I've written makes sense to many of you, but still many people refuse to let go. Even when our lies get revealed to us, we tend to hold on. We prefer the lies we have been told in favor of the reality being revealed. It's usually because our ego self thinks we are losing something.
Consider the car salesman who has been doing his job for a decade, has a wife, has kids, has a mortgage, and the usual stuff that Westerners are taught to want. Then one day, he wakes up. He wakes up from a very comfortable living situation and realizes that he has been a mean, duplicitous person. He has a wife who is superficial and who is basically using him as her personal piggy bank. His children are growing up spoiled and entitled, and he hates where he lives. In this situation, this fictional person is faced with an enormous amount of change he's going to have to make within and without, and he may not want to do it. He may not want to go through the transition, and he may want to cling to the belief that he is "happy."
This leads to misery. This leads to immense inner stress, and that can lead to the body breaking down. I've seen it happen for some people where their body gives out under the stress of holding on to misery. And of course, this could mean a psychological breakdown because essentially, this person is trying to hold on to two horses galloping in two different directions. It can tear a person apart.
Discovering Your Commitment to Pain
Surrendering to DiscomfortWhen you are otherwise in good mental health, the way out of the issue is surrender. You surrender and let go of the old unconscious ego horse and go with the awakened horse. That doesn't mean the discomfort stops, but the voluntary discomfort of your resistance goes. Now you can start dealing with the hidden discomforts that have been masked and buried.
I think that a lot of people fear losing their minds in an earlier phase of the spiritual path. This is usually before they start to work on the deeper issues. Once the mind starts being employed through surrender and then mindful engagement of an issue, it seems like things start to shift. The unconscious ego self starts to break down and a new conscious ego self that is created to do inner work emerges. In this way, we see that the ego self is not a problem. It's just a tool to engage life. The conscious self-work ego knows it is made up, and it can be incredibly useful to identify and interpret what is going on with a given issue so that you engage with the issue mindfully.
If you're at that point, it's less likely you are worried about losing your mind. You've already realized that the old unconscious ego made you lose most of your mind in the first place. You've probably broken through a few issues and seen how much better you are for letting go of them. The more you surrender to inner discomfort and engage with the emerging pain, the more ways your mind, body, heart, and energy open up. Nothing is being lost. In fact, you are gaining back things from which you have been cut off.
But those of you early on haven't had these experiences, and that's why the ego's threats of losing your mind work on you. The threat of losing your mind is a way to self protect the unconscious ego, which thinks it is protecting you. It makes you attempt to avoid your issues and the inner changes that are arising. And generally speaking listening to the ego's advice after awakening is the very thing that could drive you crazy.
Burning up in the Fire of Divine Grace
Spiritual Awakening Initial IntensitiesFor those who have awakened and may have fortunately stumbled across this blog, you may have a lot of illusions being burst in front of your eyes. You may have a lot of emotions and sensations rolling through you like the example of the car salesman above. The initial weeks and months after a spiritual awakening can be profoundly unsettling, and many people who awaken have not had any preparation. It's like a flood suddenly bursting through a dam, and there's water everywhere when you had no idea that a flood was even possible. So you're sandbagging now as fast you can, but you have to engage in the right way. Too often people try to hold on, and that holding on is exactly the type of additional stress that can cause a lot of psychological distress. So what do you do?
Your awakened energy is drawing you back to a kind of purity from which most human beings stray as they try to be a person and not just grow from the space of being. So a lot of your ideas and beliefs are going on the chopping block, and they should. If you are really brand new to all of this, I have lots of blog posts to help you as well as an ebook. You can start with the aptly named "Starting Out" section, and that can give you a whole lot of ideas about how to do inner work. The "Awakening" section offers you a number of different perspectives on the different issues that can come up during the initial years after a spiritual awakening.
This blog post can help you find any answers that you may not easily find:
How to Find Answers on this Spirituality Blog
The biggest thing I would say is don't panic. I know you're feeling, thinking, realizing, and sensing a whole bunch of things all at once. It does die down, but your participation is required to really heal and grow during this transition. There's only so much that happens on its own, and there is a phase where deeper active engage is required to continue to guide and cultivate this natural flow.
Building Your Spiritual Support SystemThe earlier you are on the spiritual path, the more important building a spiritual support system is. Having a spiritual community and a good spiritual teacher can help prepare you for what may arise the deeper you go in your inner work. Learning about the spiritual path can be really useful, but within limits. Too many people think that the spiritual path is just a game of gathering more ideas. It is not. But having some ideas can be helpful so that you are clear about what spiritual truth is.
Having a good therapist is important if you already know that you have mental health issues. In general, you may be surprised by the hidden issues that emerge on your path, so you may find yourself naturally gravitating towards therapy sessions to clear those issues. There's nothing wrong with that. A lot of therapists are wonderful healers.
There are other elements to consider such as how you take care of your body and how much energy your work consumes. If you have children, you may want to consider broadening your social support system to help them. Especially if you have awakened, you're going to need A LOT time to yourself to process through things. So finding other people to help support your children while you're down in the inner depths working something out can be a really good idea. For most others on the spiritual path, a broad support network is not as critical because most people aren't having intense energy move through them twenty-four hours a day. But in general, the more support you have, the less likely you'll jump to any radical ideas and less likely you'll over-stress yourself about the inner changes you experience.
For the Over-active Spiritual SeekersNow, I want to return to the point I was making earlier about the over-active spiritual seekers who strive super hard to get somewhere. They're the ones most likely to go on crazy long vision quests, sit for ridiculously long times in sweat lodges, and do other things to somehow push their way to spiritual understanding. This is ludicrous. Please stop. Punishing the body and mind does not bring you closer to the truth. Spiritual truth is simple; we are here now. We are all connected. It is more than an experience, and spiritual truth is more than an idea. Spiritual truth encompasses all experiences and ideas. Thus, pushing yourself to extremes is no closer or further from spiritual truth than eating potatoes chips on your couch.
Now certainly, some amount of dedication is useful to come into a state of greater awareness and break out of unconscious ego patterns. But that is not something that you have to push yourself on. In pushing him/herself, the over-active spiritual seeker starts to feel crazy partially from their excessive desire to achieve something that you don't achieve. A fish doesn't achieve fish-dom. The ocean doesn't travel anywhere to become more watery. Can you imagine how crazy a fish might start to feel trying to be more...fishy?
And there is something fishy about any excessive drive or desire, including an extreme desire for a spiritual awakening. It stinks of hidden ego issues, and that's where the work is. But that tends to not be the work people are doing when they think they're attempting to achieve awakening. If someone pushes themselves too hard, they can conceivably lose their mind. It's tough to imagine, but anything is possible. Plus, not everyone has the same intellectual and psychological strength or awareness.
Oddly enough, because many seekers do not understand inner work, some may actually succeed and awaken. However, many are likely to freak out because awakening will not be anything like they thought it was. They are usually seeking blissful experiences and ideas, but the reality of the awakened self is something else entirely. Which means many people who think they are super spiritual are often the most unprepared. In being unprepared and already an extremist, they can potentially hurt themselves, including their minds.
Seeking Psychological Assistance When NeededSometimes spiritual seekers treat Western medicine as if it is in opposition to the spiritual path. But that's not true. The spiritual path embraces everything. It even embraces extreme acts to achieve enlightenment. It's just that since everything embraced, extreme stuff isn't necessary. I've rarely seen any of my students helped by doing hugely intense stuff. More often, over intense experiences hinder them from coming to deeper realizations other than the realization that that intensity is useless.
But some people may do something to their minds or feel on the verge of a psychological breakdown. To them, I say find a good psychologist, psychiatrist, or other therapist. You may need the help. If you don't have a good spiritual support network and even if you do, extra help is not a bad thing. That's not a failure. It may lead to greater success and better abilities to deal with issues that can emerge. Through the safe space of a good therapist, you may break through issues that you might have struggled with greatly or might have done damage to yourself by not seeking help.
Acceptance, Acceptance, and More AcceptanceIf there is one thing I want to end on is that there is a gentleness to be cultivated on this path. Especially when those of you who awaken are feeling the natural intensity of awakening, gentleness can help you reduce stress on your mind and all the rest of yourself. There really is no need to push anymore. If awakening has arisen, the Divine has taken over driving the car. There's no more need to do more. The Driver will show you how to drive and how to fix your car. You can learn from this natural inner drive, and eventually you'll be ready to consciously take the wheel again. All the while, you continue to surrender and accept the experiences and knowledge that arise in you all on their own.
The spiritual path and awakening are not threats to your mind. There will be times of mental fogginess, changes in perspective, arising of revelations, and more. This is to be expected. But in spiritual expansions, the key thing here is that you are gaining more understanding. Even when things are dark and difficult, after breaking through one of those periods, renewed and expanded perception tends to be your reward, at least through phases of mental growth (that's not the only part of you growing--so to is your heart center, body awareness, and energy sensitivities).
The old unconscious ego will get upset, and that's really where the mental stress comes from for most people. Just accept the sensations, energies, emotions, and realizations that come up. Then breathe. Accept and breathe. Do the inner work that you need to do, but be as gentle as you can with it. If you do, your opening mind will offer you an even greater ability to see and explore this amazing world and this amazing human life you have.
And you'll realize how crazy you'd been for most of your life before this and how sane you have now become.