The Spiritual Overdose

I’d like to talk about a topic that doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention. It doesn’t seem to be on many people’s radar: Can energetic or spiritual practices unbalance us to the point where they are counter-productive? Is there such a thing as an overdose of intentional work? And if yes, what does it look and feel like?

I spent the past week participating and teaching at the Ocean Yoga Festival and absolutely loved it. But I was also astonished by the event’s effect on me. Even though I didn’t go so many classes, I felt a definitive energetic quality that after prolonged exposure felt a bit ungrounding.

It reminded me of something I have experienced and seen when I was working with plant-medicine/entheogens.
So I guess to start off the discussion I’ll just go an give my opinion: Yes, I believe there is such a thing as a spiritual overdose in a sense. We’ll take a look what this means or can look like and then talk about some ways to avoid it, and some things we should be aware of.

To get an idea of what I mean let’s start with what it reminds me of: Maybe some of us have had or have friends in the party scene – going dancing, taking drugs (alcohol, psychedelics, stimulants) and feeling a great relief and freedom through these experiences. Maybe some of us have friends that were/are working intentionally with psychedelics for introspection, spirituality or general exploration of consciousness. If we’ve observed these people for long enough we might see that for some of these people, their ideas start feeling stranger and stranger. Their world-view seems removed from conventional reality and their ability to connect with that reality seems lessened. They can become quite sensitive, but incapable of efficiently navigating their life. They might end up with an almost vacant stare and an almost vacant personality, like part of themselves is still stuck in some kind of psycho-active process. They pass their lives in a quiet delirium, like trapped inside a bubble of their own making, always going back for more. Because that place, that dance-floor, that trip, that party, \emph{that’s} where reality happens. Everything else is just distraction.

This is a case of pushing boundaries without solidifying the foundation. Intense experiences tend to feel hyper-real to us and can be a great way to become aware of certain energies, tendencies, potentials, emotional blockages etc. But even just physiologically they involve a very imbalanced state of nervous system, an imbalanced state of the endocrine system and neuro-chemistry. Our self-perception our internal awareness as well as our external awareness are significantly altered – which is why we can then become aware of things that are otherwise hard for us to notice.

But imbalance remains imbalance. It means we’re no longer solidly connected to the ground, to our base, to our foundation. If the imbalance follows a specific design we can knock ourselves out of orbit and into a new one. A kind of quantum leap in identity or world-view, which sometimes is exactly what we want. But if it’s badly planned or not planned at all, there might be nothing else to orbit around and we simply start to float freely.

This is what I believe can happen, not only by using psychotropics repeatedly and going to parties but with spiritual practices as well. A lot of these techniques are actually quite strong – powerful breathing techniques like some pranayamas, kundalini yoga or holotropic breathing, deep relaxation with potent visualization, even certain qigong moves or meditative practices can shift things around within. If we dedicate too much of our attention only on this shifting, only on getting the biggest bang for our buck, then we can end up floating out of orbit.

And in festivals like this, every teacher wants to impress the students with a wow-effect kind of practice, so that’s why it tends to feel ungrounding after a while.

So what is so bad about that? Well, development might be about shifting your identity and differentiating from your previous state/stage of consciousness, but it’s certainly not about just throwing away the previously obtained awareness. It’s building on top of it. The self, even though it undergoes important transformations, is still there. It’s expanded, yes. It’s not discarded, forgotten, ignored or destroyed, as some of these techniques will have us believe. The ego isn’t killed, it’s transcended. It remains as a wrung on our ladder, because without it everything breaks apart, disintegrates. The same goes for all the other structures we have so tediously built up throughout or development.

Even structures we think are detrimental to our wellbeing. Even those have to be integrated.

But if all we do is push further, if all we have is the Eros energy that seeks to expand, then this expansion leads to destabilization and that usually means the opposite of living your fullest potential. Since you have no grounding, you have no leverage, your energy cannot actually go or do anything. You are like a shadow of yourself, or like a million different pieces floating around, held together by habit, but not by internal coherence or cohesion. So there can be no team-work, no focus. Without grounding there is no structure, there is no growth. There is just random peak experience after peak experience, high after high, and nothing in-between.

So as important as expansion is, this drive to grow and push one’s limits, to explore what is at the furthest reaches of our reality, it has to be balanced by a drive for wholeness, for integration: Agape. Agape is the energy or drive that pulls things together, that embraces what is and was and brings it all into a context. We ground, we integrate, we contemplate, we sit with the subtle changes that we’ve felt, without trying to push them further just yet. We allow the newness to solidify into something that can be expanded, rather than just pushing and disintegrating the entire structure. Remember, in order for expansion to happen there has to be something or someone that is expanding. If we lose the integrity of this something or someone, then there is no expansion.

In certain meditative practices we are, in a sense, working towards the dissolution of self, but these practices should always end with the re-integration of self as well. Whether that’s after one has reached non-dual awareness and one returns as the fully realized, enlightened self, or after one has sat, sliding just a bit into the subtle, maybe causal realm. We always need to come back. We usually take a moment to ground ourselves in reality again. We bring the experience back and grow from the base. We don’t replace our reality with something new, we integrate our old reality into an expanded version. Concentric circles.

Stronger practices like breathwork a la rebirthing, holotropic breathing or strong forms of kundalini yoga, but even trance-like dancing like in some ecstatic dances or interpersonal, partner exercises might require more focused integration work. A lot of emotions get stirred up, unblocked, traumas and memories get relived etc. So, pick up your journal and write a little. Take some time and just be with yourself in silence – not even trying to meditate. But just being quiet, letting the self regain its ground and discover the novel insights as extensions of its self. Other great ways to integrate are nature walks, cooking and eating nurturing meals, swimming in the ocean or just bathing in general, or even just doing mundane tasks that feel good. Playing with your dogs or pets. Creating some art just for fun. Going to bed early and getting some rest. Allowing your mind to process.

If this kind of thing is hard for you – just integrating without reaching for new knowledge or experiences – because you feel like you’re not doing enough, then you probably really need it. At least I know that’s the case for me.

And if you don’t take that time, eventually you will get that vacant look. That sensation of walking on ice. You’ll talk but you won’t really know who is talking anymore. You will seem like a shadow of yourself to others, a surface with now depth and the world will seem like a shadow to you. And don’t be fooled by spiritual terminology like “Maya – the world of illusion”: justifying your ungroundedness by saying none of it is real anyway, so why should I be grounded / pay attention to worldly stuff? I’m pretty sure that’s not what was meant.

Now the question is – how to know when Eros and Agape are in balance? How far can I push before I need to sit down and re-collect myself? There are certainly some benefits to undergo a bit of pushing, a bit of dislodging of old structures so that new ones can form on top of them, and there is certainly some room for tolerance there. It becomes problematic if we completely ignore the integrative part of these processes. Like with so many things a certain level of self-awareness is very helpful. If we start from a grounded sense of self and then start feeling a bit unstable then it’s probably time to take a break from pushing, or at least ramp up integrative processes. If our social environment is giving us negative feedback on our behavior, then that’s another good indicator to focus more on integration.

Obviously the sensation of imbalance can be hijacked by our fears, too – as we approach transformational changes the conservative parts within us will want to stop the process, so they will make you feel uneasy about continuing your practices. We can experience aversions in many disguises. Unless we are completely transparent to ourselves we cannot always know what the nature or origin of our feelings are. But generally if there is unease, proceed with gentleness. Transformations are scary to parts of us, but they don’t have to be painful. Integration doesn’t mean stopping all other activity, but it means proceeding with all (or most) of you aboard. So you invite the things that cause resistance to participate, you invite the intangible to come along, and you look at them, embrace them, until they become part of team-you.

Balance, as always, is the key!

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