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    trauma, mysticism & the nervous system

    Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

    Early childhood developmental traumas, particularly early relationship traumas – birth to toddler years – can make us more susceptible & open to mystical experiences. 

    This is an exploration with no hard truths. I invite you to sit in the complexities of the unknown with me. 

    Research shows (reference here) a relationship between adverse childhood events & psychotic-like experiences. I view some psychotic experiences as misdiagnosed mystical, spiritual, experiences. And this begs the question: when talking of seeing, hearing, feeling something that others aren’t experiencing…is it psychosis or mysticism?  

    I often sit with this inquiry: what is psychosis & what is mysticism? 

    How do we discern?

    Is it just a matter of culture and the language we use to describe experiences? Or, are there really some hard differences between psychotic and mystical experiences? Even psychiatrists & psychologists don’t understand what psychosis is, yet (reference here). Seriously… and, shockingly

    So, for now, let’s say that mysticism lies on a continuum between health & illness.

    In this article, I’ll be covering 3 aspects:

    1. Early developmental trauma can lead to greater opennes to mystical experiences.

    2. Mystical experiences can be healing.

    3. There is the possibility of getting stuck in between – where you seek out mystical experiences as an escape. 

    Let’s go into #1:

    1. Early developmental trauma can lead to greater opennes to mystical experiences.

    Early trauma leads some to be more susceptible to mystical experiences. 

    Adverse childhood experiences generate disembodiment. These experiences discourage some from fully embodying themselves and their lives, because the body & life has been experienced as an unsafe place to be. 

    For example, a little child receiving “discipline” in the form of physical or emotional abuse is likely going to have boundary issues, alongside safety & trust issues. 

    Boundaries also relate to energetic boundaries in the spiritual realms.

    This works in a complex way:

    1. A lack of knowing how to set boundaries (with the spiritual realm).
    2. An increased susceptibility to boundary breaches (by the spiritual realm).
    3. Permeable boundaries means that we don’t know what’s ours and what isn’t. There is greater sensitivity to our environment. 
    4. A lack of boundaries can make altered states of consciousness more accessible, because we are more energetically porous. 

    Photo source unknown. If you know the source, please let me know so I can appropriately give credit.

    If there’s boundary issues (with family, work, etc), then there might also be issues with spiritual boundaries as well.

    Boundaries are important.

    We all know this by now.

    For some, boundary work can be a part of their integration work.

    You can work with setting up visual or energetic boundaries, using your voice with “no” and “stop”, working with the body, etc..

    The nervous system becomes easily dis-regulated with repeated adverse childhood experiences – i.e., trauma creates disregulation. If we use the Polyvagal Theory here, then the nervous system of a little one could have gone into a dorsal vagal tone (freeze, fawn, shutdown), which links to depression/anxiety, digestive issues, among many other health symptoms. There is less life force energy. There is less connection (to self & other). 

    The dorsal branch of the vagal nerve can move us into disassociation (also, disembodiment). With dissociation, I see the transcendence type of spiritual practices, where we go up-and-out of the body (out of body experiences, transcendence, heart-up spirituality where the focus is on the third-eye, visioning, communing with non-incarnate entities, light & love, etc.). 

    ☝️ this bit is important!

    And, there’s nothing wrong with disassociating. I must highlight this. Disassociation is a coping mechanism – it is a natural & healthy survival response.

    Dissociation works. It is supportive, up to a point.

    It gets tricky when we are no longer in danger, but we keep dissociating because that’s what we learned. And, perhaps, we actually crave connection but we don’t know how to get it because our system keeps leaning toward dissociating. And, this is hard.

    Curiously, spirituality can be an anti-dote to depression & an overly active dorsal vagal tone and this is where #2 comes in: mystical experiences can be healing. Not only people who have experienced childhood trauma have mystical experiences. 

    Let’s go into #2:

    2. Mystical experiences can be healing.

    Here are some potential benefits of mystical experiences:

    • transformation in daily ways of being
    • physical & emotional healing
    • a sense of purpose & meaning
    • improve your relationships
    • experiences of transcendence – Mystics feel that they have transcended the physical world. They feel free from the limitations of time and space, which offers an expanded perspective, sensing into new possibilities, & greater connection.
    • a felt sense of unity – Mystics feel that everything is connected. There is no separation between self & other, and nothing exists alone. Everything is interconnected. It is one thing to intellectualize this understanding, and another to embody it – mystical experiences can offer the embodiment of this knowing. 
    • a felt sense of positive emotions like bliss, peace, ecstasy, illumination, timelessness, joy, & universal love
    • wisdom – you may gain insights that were previously unknown to you such as on life & death
    • heightened response to problem-solving, learning, & change
    • lowering depressive tendencies
    • lowering anxiety
    • lowering dependance on alcohol and tobacco cigarettes
    • positive attitudes about life & self
    • positive behaviour
    • positive social effects
    • increased spirituality
    • greater connection to the environment
    • increased creativity
    • more open personality, which includes aesthetic appreciation, imagination, awareness of feelings, & intellectual engagement
    • allow us to dream awake, an experiential process that’s pertinent to the here-and-now which is designed especially for you.

    Plant/Drug-induced therapy in research studies have brought about mystical experiences in a clinical setting, which show data for many of the above points (here is a study). Recent psychedelic studies are showing we can proactively & predictably induce mystical experiences. 

    What is shown is that it is not the plant or medicine itself that brings about beneficial change, but the experience of mysticism

    Remember, plants & medicines are just one way of inducing a mystical experience.

    Looking at depression: Most curiously to me, spirituality is an antidote to depression & an overly active dorsal vagal tone (shutdown, freeze). Many have researched the link between spirituality & depression, like this systematic academic review shows, & this Ted Talk by Lisa Miller

    It is curious how depression is rooted in an overly active dorsal vagal tone (shutdown, freeze) of the nervous system. 

    Depression is a symptom of disconnection. How can you connect to self & other when you are in shutdown mode? Well, you can’t.

    Johann Hari makes a case for depression being a symptom of disconnection in his book, “Lost Connections.”

    If depression is a symptom of disconnection, mystical experiences are the anti-dote as mysticism provides a felt sense of connection. 

    How does this land for you? Do you resonate or not?

    For me, my mystical experiences provided a felt sense of belonging & connection to the universal Mystery. It supported me to move away from my existential angst that I was facing in my early 20s, depressive tendencies, & suicidal ideation. My embodied understanding of spiritual beliefs via my mystical experiences provided me with purpose, meaning, & the connection that ultimately healed my depression. 

    To link this to the Polyvagal Theory, my system could move from a dorsal vagal tones (shutdown, freeze) to a ventral vagal complex (optimal level of relaxation & activation, rest, digest, ready to relate others) via spiritual practice (Zen meditation & Hatha yoga). 

    The key here is that I moved in a grounded & embodied way from dorsal vagal to ventral vagal. I used practices that utilized the body to reach mystical states (yoga, movement, dance, breath & sound).

    Embodied mystical states are healing.

    Without the body is where I believe people can get stuck in-between, which leads to point #3: There is the possibility of getting stuck in the between – where you cannot understand experiences and continue to disconnect from daily life.

    Let’s go into #3:

    3. There is the possibility of getting stuck in the between – where you cannot understand mystical experiences, continue to seek them out, and/or becoming increasingly disconnected from daily life.

    This is where individuals become increasingly ungrounded & disconnected. Disembodied. Disassociated from the mundane day-to-day. 

    Individuals here crave healing. They so desperately want to just feel alright. To feel what they see others as having – fulfilling connections, authentic & free self-expression, creative life force energy. 

    People here know that mystical experiences can be healing. Yet, they aren’t able to integrate the insights from the mystical experiences, because their wiring from their adverse childhood experiences holds them back. 

    They get lost in the anxiety of seeing/feeling things that “aren’t there” (or others don’t experience), yet do not understand that they’re also holding the weight of traumatizing experiences. 

    I believe this is because there is some healing process that has not yet been resolved. I think both spirituality & psychology models of healing are necessary.

    Yes, seek the mystical experience. Get inspired. Expand. Feel the bliss & ecstasy. AND Resolve the developmental trauma that might be held in your system.  

    It’s one of those both/and scenarios, instead of either/or.

    Most of us have had some sort of adverse childhood experience. If you don’t think you have experienced some adverse childhood experience, I’d like to meet you. I haven’t yet met someone who hasn’t had some adversity in their lives. Additionally, if you don’t think you’ve faced adversity -well, unfortunately, trauma gets passed down from ancestors as well (reference here). 

    Although developmental trauma may make us more permeable to the spiritual realms, we must pendulate to healing, too.

    Both spiritual & psychological well-being are necessary. 

    I believe the body comes beautifully in this place. It’s the key that brings us to the here & now, and allows for a new experience connected to spiritual insights and release of old pain & suffering.

    If you find yourself moved by what I’ve written above and/or are looking for support on your healing journey, I invite you to connect with me. Send me a message here.

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