Psycho-spiritual Detoxification: Thoughts and Observations
Tom Kenyon, M.A.
Over the course of my nearly thirty years as a Psychological Counselor and Psychotherapist I have observed many forms of mental and emotional toxicity in both my clients and myself.
I have also observed how the body and mind deal with these types of toxins, how they show up and present themselves, and how they are transformed or neutralized during the transformational process.
In the course of this brief article, I would like to share some of these observations in the hope that they may benefit those of you encountering this type of toxicity in yourselves, and/or for those of you who are using transformational technologies with others.
First of all, let’s define our terms. The word psycho-spiritual is a conjoined term derived from the two words—psychological and spiritual. The concept here is that there is a territory where the psychological and the spiritual meet. And it is in this territory of the mind and emotions that psychological material affects spiritual experience. And it is also here that the spiritual dimensions of the individual can, and often do, affect the psychological.
Let me give you an example of what I am talking about.
Many years ago, now, I was referred a woman who was depressed. Her husband of forty some years had died about nine months earlier from a terminal illness, and with his passing she had lost her best friend and dear companion in life. Not only this, but she had been his sole caregiver for the last two years. With his passing, she had lost all interest in the world and felt increasingly isolated from her social network of friends. She was clearly in a protracted period of grieving.
During our initial interview, I inquired about her hobbies and interests to see what might be used as leverage to assist her. She mentioned, in passing, that she had been an avid gardener, but that she had given it up when she had to take care of her husband.
It was clear to me that Emma (not her real name) was now living an impoverished life that was brought about by an inability to identify herself as anyone other than the woman who had cared for her husband. With him no longer in her life, she had no idea how to pick up the pieces.
This was classic psychological material, and my primary task as her therapist was to help her find a way back into the world of human relationships and personal purpose.
I chose to guide her into a receptive state of inner attention using Ericksonian Medical Hypnosis, which makes use of metaphorical stories to activate hidden potentials for healing that reside within the individual.
I was quite familiar with the states of mind that Ericksonian hypnosis produces as I had been using it in my practice for about ten years when Emma came to me for help. But I was not prepared for what Emma did with the metaphors I created.
Since she had been a gardener, I created a story that addressed her situation through the metaphor of a plant that needed repotting.
One of the many beauties of Ericksonian Medical Hypnosis is that the unconscious mind recognizes the primary metaphors as messages about the individual. Thus, Emma understood the implicit message that the plant needing repotting was about her.
In this story, a plant had outgrown the confines of its pot and needed to be put into a larger container. When the plant was put into the new much larger pot, it (the plant) was in a state of shock because there was so much space, and it didn’t know what to do. And then I gave Emma the suggestion that the plant’s roots began to spread through the soil without the plant even knowing about it, and that these same roots began to draw all the nutrients that the plant needed to grow—automatically—without the plant even knowing what was happening.
Through this highly metaphorical story, I had created a rich ground for Emma’s unconscious to draw upon. I fully suspected that she would utilize the metaphors as ways to create new internal resources that would allow her to spread her roots out into the world and eventually re-establish social contacts (a very important psychological task). But I never imagined that this depressed woman in her early seventies would take it beyond the personal into the realm of the transpersonal.
Toward the end of the story, Emma began to gently cry. And then she began to sob. After a few minutes, during which I paused to give her space to feel her emotions fully, Emma’s sobs diminished, and she began to smile. In fact, her face looked beatific.
I ended my story, which was essentially a series of covert messages to her unconscious mind that she would discover the internal resources to come out of her depression and find new ways of relating to the world.
I then noticed that her breath had become extremely shallow at this point—a sign that she was processing something at a very deep level of consciousness.
I sat with Emma in silence for a few minutes, until she opened her eyes. She looked first to the window and the late afternoon sunlight that was flooding my office. And then she looked at me with a smile on her face.
I asked her what had happened, and she described how she had become a plant and all the messages about the plant she took to be messages about herself. Toward the end of the story, she felt herself being picked up by two male hands and taken up into heaven. It was only when she had entered heaven itself (clearly experiencing herself as a plant) that she realized the hands belonged to God.
God then spoke to her as clearly as I had been speaking to her. He told her that she had done everything that she could have done for her husband and not to worry. She was very emotional as she recounted this part of the story to me, and also offered that this was when she had started sobbing during the session.
Then, she said, God lowered her as a plant through the clouds of heaven and firmly placed her into the earth.
There are sometimes magical moments when a client successfully penetrates the heart of a fundamental issue, and in those moments there is often a sense that the issue has already somehow magically been resolved. And all that is needed is a little bit of time to see how the resolution will show up in that person’s life. We had entered one of those moments, and Emma and I smiled at each other, sensing I think, that everything would be okay.
I asked Emma, nonchalantly, if she might share with me how God appeared to her. Without missing a beat, she said matter-of-factly that he had white hair and a long white beard. And she said, when he placed her back into the earth himself, she knew that everything would be all right.
I thanked Emma for sharing this with me and scheduled a time to see her in two weeks—just to see how things were going.
The Emma that entered my office two weeks later barely resembled the depressed woman who had first stepped through my door.
This Emma was happy and self-assured. She told me that right after her session, she had gone to the gardening supply store and purchased some new pots for her plants at home. She also reconnected with old friends and informed me that her social schedule was now far too busy to take out precious time to see me again—an assessment I heartily agreed with, by the way.
Emma’s experience in my office was a wonderful example of how psychological material can be affected or transformed by a spiritual experience.
Emma’s dilemma was a common one for those who care-take loved ones for extended periods and then lose them to illness. There is often a loss of personal identity as "the care giver,” and without this sense of self-identity there is another level of loss.
One of the things I find interesting in Emma’s case is that the resolution of her depression came through the agency of a spontaneous "fantasy.” And this "fantasy,” generated from her own unconscious in response to an Ericksonian metaphor, led her into a classical transpersonal experience. By that I mean she entered into a realm of her being that transcended her personality, a numinous world in which she experienced "the hand of God” playing a role in her release from the emotional bondage of her depression.
It is here that I wish to clarify what I mean by Emma’s "fantasy.” Her experience took place in my office within the context of a psychological intervention. In this type of work, experiences like Emma’s are called "fantasies” because they are dream-like experiences. Generally speaking, these types of "fantasies” are not viewed as real by mental health professionals, but more as a kind of mental/emotional wish-fulfilling expression of the psyche. For the record, I do not actually know if Emma’s encounter with God was a mere "fantasy,” or rather a mystical intervention by the Divine itself. This is the stuff of mystery novels, in this case, who done it?
As her therapist, my goal was a pragmatic one, to help Emma get out of her depression. If the agent responsible for this was God himself, then so be it. If it was a "fantasy” generated solely from her own unconscious, then so be it.
I will say this. When Emma was deep in her hypnotic trance and encountering her impression of God, there was, for me, a palpable spiritual presence in the room, and a sense of transcendent grace. Whatever its true nature may have been, I cannot say. But I can say that I was deeply touched by the simplicity and elegance of Emma’s encounter with her own version of God.
It is also interesting that Emma’s experience of God was as an old man with white hair and a long white beard. For the record, I have worked with hundreds of individuals from many varied cultural and religious backgrounds, and in almost every case the Divine presents itself according to the person’s expectations and beliefs.
Whatever the ultimate nature of Emma’s encounter with God was, it had profound effects upon her. It effectively, in one session, stopped her depression in its tracks, and changed her behavior from one of self-isolation to that of engaging the world and her friends. This is a radical change, and occurred because Emma’s spiritual or transpersonal nature informed (or affected) her psychological nature.
In Emma’s case, her encounter with the transpersonal realms of her being triggered a release of personal freedom.
Sometimes, however, people have other types of reactions to transpersonal experiences that have been generated through altered states of perception. Such reactions are very personal and, in my observation, highly variable from one person to the next.
Several years ago, I gave a talk and a Sound Healing demonstration at a large Kongress in Germany. That particular sound session brought forward several distinct transformational energies and sound patterns. The fascinating thing about this presentation was that many people in the room felt uplifted and inspired by the sounds, while a few of those present reported that they felt nauseous and irritated by the same sounds.
The Relativity of Perception
Neuroscientists have concluded that everyone’s brain is different and unique to the individual. There are common structures and functions to be sure, but how these areas of our brains interconnect and perform is highly variable from one person to the next. Like snowflakes, no two brains are exactly the same.
Thus, our perceptions of the world are uniquely personal as well. Two persons listening to the same piece of music or sound work can easily have diverse responses. And these very personal responses are based upon how their brains process sound as well as their senses of personal identity (based on life experience and cultural belief).
We all have our own unique taste when it comes to sound and music, but what I am speaking about runs deeper than mere preference. It has to do with how we hold our perceptions of reality together.
That may be an odd concept for some—namely that we create our perceptions of reality. But for me, having worked with altered states of consciousness for many years now, the idea is self-apparent if we but look beneath the surface.
Take your perception of time. Our western techno-culture holds the consensus view that time operates independently of our own perception. And while this is true for clock-time (i.e., mechanistic time), it is hardly the case when we come to our personal perception of time (biological and psychological).
For instance, if you are at a lecture or doing something that is fully engaging your attention, time "flies by” as the saying goes. But if the task is boring and does not engage your mind, then "time crawls by.”
There is another area of human experience where the perception of time can be significantly altered—dreams. During dream activity, the brain produces a lot of Theta and Delta activity, which are slow waveforms. When these types of slow waveforms arise, there is a tendency for our focus of attention to move inward. Our perception of the external world and our sense of both time and space are altered, and the inner worlds of our perception tend to become more vivid.
Dreams can be highly unusual, irrational and often alter the nature of perceived time. You might for instance, see a clock in your dream. And this dream-clock might start acting in irrational ways. Its hands might start to spin backward, indicating that the dream is taking you back in time. Or the hands might spin forward faster than normal, indicating that you are moving forward in time. Such an occurrence in "real life” would cause us to look for what was causing the clock to malfunction. But in dreams, these types of oddities are usually accepted as the nature of dream-reality.
If you meditate regularly, or practice some form of inner attention, then I suspect you may have encountered another form of time-altered perception. It is not uncommon for meditators to report that their perception of time speeds up, slows down, or in some instances, is suspended altogether.
Interestingly, the perception of stopping time is often accompanied by a temporary suspension of the breath. For a moment, the person stops breathing. And in this window of stillness all types of interesting non-ordinary mental phenomena often take place. Yogis and yoginis in all the major traditions describe this unique state of body and mind, which is often called Samadhi in the Hindu yogic tradition.
Indigenous traditions of the world also talk about the suspension of time. For them, it is a window or a portal through which one can enter the other worlds of attention. And one of the shamanic skills necessary in these traditions is the ability to alter perceived time at will.
As a Sound Healer, I find it fascinating that virtually every shamanic tradition uses some form of sound as means to open the threshold to the other worlds. The most common of these indigenous instruments is, of course, the shamanic drum. But other instruments can be used to alter perceived time in shamanic rituals.
The ability of sound to alter perception, especially our perception of time and space, is rooted in the very neurophysiology of our brains.
Studies clearly show that when pure sound or music—without words—is processed by the brain, there is a tendency for left-hemispheric functions such as logic, language and sequencing to be temporarily diminished or even suspended. At the same time, right-hemispheric functions such as the perception of space, novelty and paradox are enhanced. From a strictly neurophysiological perspective, this explains how and why non-ordinary experiences are generated by certain types of sound—like the types of catalytic sound I create in my workshops and the psychoacoustic music I record.
Now it is here in the land of right-hemispheric brain activity—a place in consciousness, I call Woo-woo Land—that things get very interesting. Part of this has to do with the fact that when the right neo-cortex really gets going, perception morphs, and many persons report alterations in both their perceived time and space.
Some people are comfortable with and even enjoy alterations in their perceptions of time and space; other persons are threatened by them. The differentiation between these polarized reactions most likely has to do with differences in brain processing and personal psychology.
Altering Perceived Time and Space
I recall one workshop a few years ago where I taught a yogic meditation practice that alters perceived time and space dramatically. About midway through the training, a participant complained that she was experiencing too much space. In point of fact, she was sensing the space between the atoms that comprised her body and found it extremely disorienting. This signaled to me that she was in the midst of massive right hemispheric activity, and although others in the class were enjoying their own sense of spaciousness immensely, she was threatened by it.
She also reported feeling a metallic taste in her mouth, an odd phenomenon that others, including myself, sometimes experience during powerful altered states of consciousness. I personally think of it as a type of detoxification, the topic of which I will get to in a moment. But for now, let’s go back to the participant who was experiencing too much space.
Logically speaking, this person could not possibly have seen or felt the space between the atoms of her body. Our sense of sight is not capable of seeing such minute things as atoms, much less the space between them. And our kinesthetic sense of touch cannot register things that small either.
But in yogic understanding, consciousness can directly perceive such things during certain types of meditative states (i.e., during robust right-brain activity).
This particular person was threatened by the alteration of perceived space in her body. It violated her known sense of reality, and rather than being amused by it, or exploring it, she was frightened by the entire experience. Her discomfort was so great I finally helped her to leave Woo-woo Land behind, and re-enter the "reality” she was accustomed to. As she returned to "normal” her sense of spaciousness disappeared, as did her anxiety. And how did I accomplish this neurological feat? I simply had her talk about what was happening. In the process of articulating her experience, her left-brain became engaged, and as it did so, activity in the right brain decreased—ending her short visit to Woo-woo Land.
Personal History and Emotional Toxicity
In addition to our individual and unique responses to alterations in perceived time and space, there is another important element in psycho-spiritual detoxification—personal history and emotional toxicity.
One of my own personal experiences with emotional toxicity during altered states occurred many years ago when I was going through a series of breath sessions with a therapist. During one of my early sessions, I was suffused with a sense of luminous white light and a deep feeling of unconditional love, and then out of the blue, I hit a wall of deep-seated repressed memories.
One minute I was breathing a specific breathing pattern, and the next moment I was gone from the room, caught up in the swirl of emotional turmoil. My mind was catapulted back into a series of early memories, and suddenly I felt quite ill. My own breath smelled foul to me, and there was a bitter taste in my mouth.
As my breath coach guided me through this difficult morass of feelings, both emotional and physical, I suddenly had the strange mental apparition that a version of me was next to me in the act of vomiting. This vivid and odd experience lasted for a few minutes, and when the double of me that was puking his guts out finished, the physical distress I had been feeling suddenly passed.
Since then I have noticed that persons in the grips of difficult emotional memories exposed in therapy or during some other powerful transformational experience sometimes have the impulse to vomit, and sometimes they actually do so physically.
Sometimes people also report a bitter or metallic taste in their mouths and/or a foul smell when releasing suppressed emotion. My conjecture is that negative emotions somehow get translated into a type of subtle-energetic that has toxic qualities. And sometimes these energetic-toxins can be smelled and/or tasted. In my personal opinion, if such energetics are held in the tissues for too long, they may have disruptive effects on cellular health.
Please do note that what follows is a personal working hypothesis based upon thirty years of personal and clinical observation. But to be clear, this is just personal opinion and may or may not turn out to be accurate. Nevertheless, this type of intellectual map has helped me immensely when confronted with the plethora of non-ordinary phenomena that often emerge around altered states of consciousness.
The Four Tigers
I would like to postulate, here, that there are four elements (the Four Tigers) responsible for what I am calling psycho-spiritual detoxification. I refer to these elements as Tigers because when all four are stimulated, they can create a force that has to be reckoned with, much like Tigers in the wild.
We have touched upon two of them already: 1) the alteration of perceived time and space and 2) personal history and emotional toxicity. The other elements in our quartet are two different types of subtle energy pathways in the body. The first system of pathways, called meridians, was described by the Taoists of ancient China, and is used to this day by acupuncturists. The second system of energy-pathways called nadis is known and used by advanced yogis to affect consciousness itself.
My first exposure to the idea of meridians came when I was working in brain research under the auspices of Acoustic Brain Research, which I had formed in 1983 to scientifically document the effects of sound and music on brain processing.
This interest in the effects of sound and music came out of my work as a psychotherapist—namely that sound and music could deepen and accelerate the psychotherapeutic process. This realization compelled me to better understand the brain/mind processes involved since this was the early 1980’s, and there was very little understanding about the phenomenon. As I was untrained in brain research myself, I joined forces with various bio-behavioral researchers who were likewise intrigued with the idea that sound and music could be used to change brain state and alter perception.
It was during this period that I developed a unique form of psychoacoustic technology, and this required hundreds of hours of listening to different sound patterns to document their effects on the brain, especially as measured via EEG topographical brain mapping.
One of the strange effects I noticed in myself, after many hours of listening to mind altering sound patterns, was that my ear lobes would sometimes get quite sore, so sore in fact that I sometimes found it difficult to continue wearing headphones until the sensation passed.
It turns out that acupuncture meridians for many of the body’s major organs pass through the earlobes. And certain types of sound can seemingly stimulate these meridians and thus the organs they are connected to. It may also be that certain sounds can impress the meridian system in the body directly, as believed by some Taoist practitioners.
I personally feel that certain types of sound can, indeed, either stimulate or sedate meridian activity during a Sound Healing session and/or a transformational experience. And it is not uncommon for people to report distinct physical sensations in various organs during intense sound work or transformational work in general.
It has also been my observation (shared by many acupuncturists) that suppressed emotions are sometimes "energetically stored” in physical organs of the body. Thus, anger, for instance, is sometimes stored in the liver, fear in the kidneys and sadness in the lungs and heart.
During intense transformational experiences, organs of the body can dump these stored energetics (and their associated memories) into the body/mind system.
The Fourth Tiger
In my view, there is another aspect that sometimes plays a role in psycho-spiritual cleansing, and it is the subtle system of the nadis. Although mostly unknown in the West, except for students of Hindu and Buddhist yogas, the system of nadis is connected to all the major chakras of the body. When activated, they can create all types of unusual effects.
A couple of years ago, I was in Kathmandu, Nepal and went through an Initiation into Powa, a Tibetan meditation technique that trains the practitioner to pass through death consciously and to somewhat determine the conditions of his or her next incarnation. My initiator was a Tibetan Powa Master who had been a hermit for many years in Tibet. He spoke not a word of English, and I only knew a few words of Tibetan. A monk friend of mine served as the translator.
Although I didn’t know what the Powa Master was saying, until his words were translated for me by my friend, I could feel intense flows of subtle energy moving through me as the Master recited the ancient texts.
At one point, toward the end of the Initiation, I felt a clear infusion of clear white light moving through all my chakras and into the network of my nadis.
After the Initiation was over, my friend translated the Master’s final instructions, which in effect were to say that this was a powerful Initiation and that I might experience physical cleansing.
I left the Initiation and went back to my hotel room to redo the meditation so that I could remember the stages. I forgot about the Master’s last words, took a shower and went to bed. In the middle of the night, I woke up feeling deathly ill. Instead of luminous light flowing through my nadis, I felt a dark sludge-like liquid energy sloughing through me. I was nauseous and had a splitting headache. I thought maybe I had caught a flu bug or maybe I had food poisoning. My malaise lasted for about eight hours and then slowly subsided. It was only then that I remembered the Master’s parting words.
This was a classic psycho-spiritual cleansing reaction or detoxification brought on by the intensity of luminosity that had been channeled into me by the Powa Master and his lineage.
I have had other similar cleansing reactions to intense spiritual encounters, so for me, this odd incident makes sense.
When the Powa Master was reading the ancient texts, he was, first of all, calling in the living spiritual lineage of which he was a part. This energetic line possesses potency and spiritual power, and he was directing this to me. My subjective experience of this was an infusion of luminosity in my own nadis. I was quite ebullient at the sense of so much light within me.
When the text turned to instructions on the actual method of Powa, the light within me turned to clear white light, a form of luminosity that is a treasure trove for Tibetan Buddhists. When clear white light appears, it is a definitive sign (within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition) that one has entered pure consciousness itself (bodhicitta). Upon experiencing this light, I entered into a state of bliss.
While in this state of bliss, I did not really register the Master’s last words to me, which were that physical detoxification might occur.
When I awakened from my sleep, several hours after the Initiation, my nadis were not luminous. They were filled with sludge, undigested negativity, my own un-resolved conflicts, hindrances, obstacles and defilements. I was up to my neck in my own "caca” (shit).
To use a metaphor often used to describe similar processes, the waters of my consciousness had been stirred, and the mud at the bottom had been churned up to the surface.
Dealing With Psycho-spiritual Detoxification
The basic principle I use when dealing with psycho-spiritual cleansing is one of pragmatism.
First of all, when one’s "caca” is stirred up, I think it helpful if we put the stuff that is coming up for us in proper context. Although the material and sensations may be difficult to deal with, ultimately it is a good thing that repressed memories, emotions and/or toxins be cleared from the body/mind system.
A primary issue, here, centers around one’s comfort zone, and this is different for different people.
Generally speaking, with some exceptions, if a cleansing reaction is instigated through a transformational catalyst, the reaction will eventually self-resolve. What I mean by this is that when the reaction runs its course, it will decrease in intensity on its own. The art of handling psycho-spiritual cleansing is to find a way to let the sensations and the experience just be—without trying to change the content or make it more palatable.
When I went into that intense cleansing reaction in Kathmandu (as a result of a powerful Powa Initiation), I had to just let it be okay that I felt like crap. And I had to make it okay that I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed and visit Bodinath one last time before my scheduled flight—even though it is one of the most sacred sites for Tibetan Buddhists.
And true enough, after about eight hours of intense nausea and another four hours of general crapiness, the whole thing resolved by itself.
If you can find a way to allow the cleansing reaction (detoxification) to run its own course, you will be dealing with it in the most effective way.
When dealing with psycho-spiritual detoxification in general, I think it important to separate any uncomfortable physical sensations from what might be a medical condition. The reason for this is that some of the physical stuff that arises during cleansing reactions can actually mimic medical problems.
Cleansing reactions do not usually involve acute pain. So if there is physical pain, it is vital that you determine if it is a medical problem or not. If the pain is intense and persistent, I suggest you seek medical attention. Better safe than sorry, as the saying goes. When seeking out medical assistance around psycho-spiritual cleansing reactions, I suggest you be discreet.
If there is a high fever (103 degrees or more), as measured by a thermometer and not just personal self-assessment, then you should see a doctor. I say this because sometimes people get very hot when subtle energy moves through the nadis. They can even perspire or sweat from what yogis call psychic heat. This type of heat is a result of the cleansing reaction, but it does not generally raise the body temperature and rarely, if ever, over 103 degrees.
If you are feeling nauseous along with aches and pains in your internal organs, you may or may not be facing a medical condition. If the symptoms are accompanied by a fever (again as measured by a thermometer), then you might indeed be dealing with a virus or infection. But if a fever is not present, it is possibly just a strong cleansing reaction. If vomiting and fever are both present, definitely seek medical attention.
I think one of the most important things to consider when confronted with psycho-spiritual detoxification, or a cleansing reaction in general, is to accept it as normal, albeit unusual.
Use common sense when dealing with cleansing reactions. Make sure that you are not dealing with a medical situation, and find a way to just be with the experience until it resolves itself.
When you are in the grips of a strong cleansing reaction, understand that your body/mind system is striving to clear itself of negativity. Your body has its own innate wisdom and intelligence in these areas. Trust it.