Crises and self-doubt plague all of us at different times in our lives. A natural response is to want to escape the turmoil and angst, and return to solid ground as quick as possible. Yet when we can remain open to suffering, and not shut down or numb out, troubled times can become opportunities for deep transformation.
Murray Stein describes this paradox in Minding the Self: Jungian Meditations on Contemporary Spirituality:
“One may come to question the meaning of personal life as it has been felt or conceived before and to doubt the validity of self-told narratives invented in the past. As self-satisfying images break down, people find themselves stranded in a fog of confusion and uncertainty. One speaks softly then of a ‘loss of soul’. Paradoxically, however, it is in such difficult times of crisis that new psychological developments become more possible. In happy and easy times, one is less likely to look for deeper truths. Crisis changes this and can be the motivating force for pursuing greater self-awareness and consciousness.”
But in the context of an isolating and competitive society, rather than opportunities for growth, crises and self-doubt are more often signs of failure, or weakness, or even pathology. Furthermore, when anticipating rejection, or ridicule, or the lack of someone who cares and can give unconditional and nonjudgmental support, isolation and avoidance of suffering are common responses to internal chaos and fragmentation.
And when isolation goes on for too long, and the self-doubt is held silently within, a pervasive sense of alienation becomes more likely, along with extreme states such as psychoses and delusions.
It is widely accepted that isolation is correlated with these extreme states. Some have questioned if isolation precedes extreme states or is a response to them. Yet this question misses the point. Instead, we need to question how we can all learn to see crises and profound self-doubt as potentially transformative, and to safely experience them with others, including when they lead to extreme states.
In the video below, Dr. Michael Cornwall shares how loving kindness helped him through extreme states of psychosis and delusion. His deeply transformative and spiritual journey informs his work as a therapist with others experiencing extreme states. He also trains mental health practitioners in supporting people through the spiritual trial that extreme states often represent.
Rather than medicating or pathologizing extreme states, Dr. Cornwall advocates seeing them as organic responses to experiences like trauma, which when allowed to naturally progress with the support of unconditional love, can become the foundation for ongoing well-being and greater self-awareness, if not also greater spiritual awareness.
I was pleased to see that some of the ways Dr. Cornwall works with people in extreme states, such as regulating one’s own body to increase a client’s felt sense of safety, are also promoted by mindfulness based approaches to the treatment of trauma, including sensorimotor psychotherapy.
If you are interested in how mental health treatment can support extreme states and the possibilities for growth they provide, then I think you will appreciate Dr. Cornwall’s talk and gentle, humanistic approach.
Stein, Murray. 2014. Minding the Self: Jungian Meditations on Contemporary Spirituality. NY, NY: Routledge.
© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).