I wrote the following essay for Emerging Proud, which supports folks with mental health challenges "coming out of the spiritual closet." Check out their work and continued offerings at emergingproud.com.
This is a great honor to be able to write something for Emerging Proud. When I think back on my story of awakening, I'm very careful to recognize that what I think of as “psychosis” and what I think of as “spiritual awakening” were never separate to begin with. The unity that I suddenly realized, the utter and complete wholeness of the universe and my place in it, was both excruciatingly painful and profoundly liberating.
Much of my pain came from the part of me that didn't even know it was possible to have a spiritual awakening. The pain of my life, which precipitated a break from consensus reality, invited spiritual awakening in the form of psychosis. Then, over many years, the pain of psychosis invited further spiritual unfolding—which continues today. This great dance between form and formlessness, what we think of as “mental illness” and “spiritual awakening,” has twirled me around ever since—at times like an elegant waltz, and sometimes like entering nonconsensual tango with a tornado. Balance can be hard to come by, especially without stepping on a few toes.
I’ve come to recognize my story as quite predictable, and yet every story is unique and necessary, if not for anyone but ourselves. What's so absurd and ironic about the predictable nature of awakening is that we don't get to understand how universal the experience of awakening is until we've already integrated the experience. I began with terror in the face of such a vast expanse, and now I make my living validating such chaos in others. What a trip.
In my original upheaval, a great euphoria overtook my nervous system after days of binge drinking, drug use, and failing to sleep adequately. This also followed a tragedy in which I was reminded of all the grief I had yet to grieve for my dear childhood friend, who died in a car crash a couple years prior. The euphoria seemed to erupt in compensation of a deep reservoir of sadness, as well as an existential dread of death.
I realized I lost my identity when a friend called out at to me the bus stop, “Hey Chris!” I seemed to have no affinity for my name, or even my body, and I was suddenly unashamed of all the painful thoughts that had previously consumed my mind. I confessed immediately, with a great sense of exuberance, how relieved I was to not have this body and to not be this person who was having such a hard time living.
What happened next was perhaps the most logical deduction I made the entire day: This is what God feels like; I must be Jesus. My spiritual psychosis was made more extreme, in part, by the belief that Jesus was the only one who had any conscious communion with God. I then made my next deduction: Since I'm Jesus, surely I should have some disciples. Who wouldn't want to follow Jesus? This is what we’ve been waiting for all these years, right? But the campus police, my family, my local priest, and the psychiatrists all had something different in mind. I would be hospitalized, medicated, and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Most painfully, I would be told there was nothing spiritual about my experience.
Over the years, I spent a great deal of time trying to understand what happened to me. An unshakable knowingness marked my search, even when I didn’t understand if I knew anything at all. Some quality of spirituality had permeated my consciousness to the extent that not even the most firm and consistent messages of delusion could break me of the spell. I touched Truth that day in psychosis, and my life could never be the same. My conviction felt as big as the Buddha touching the earth as his witness. I wanted validation so badly, and yet, I was okay keeping my awakening a secret if necessary. Such secrecy has a way of festering and harboring madness. I found that isolation and grandiosity go hand-in-hand. This challenge continues today, and I hope movements like Emerging Proud may accelerate the unveiling of all these secrets truths we each hold as self-evident.
My truth, which can be unpopular but is nonetheless my truth, is that I ended up accepting both conventional treatment and spiritual teachings. I want to be clear that I never accepted treatment because I thought I was broken. I finally accepted treatment because I wanted to be in contact with my world in a way that I couldn't be without treatment. This of course is not a universal truth. This truth is simply mine. None of our truths are universal truths, so long as we speak from these fallible human bodies. That’s why the earth serves as witness for all of us, because the earth doesn’t have ears and can’t hear our bullshit. All we can ever touch is this unspeakable moment.
I have come to terms with the truth that I have a different orientation—a different neurological orientation—than the majority of humanity, with regards to emotionality, sensitivity, and energetic boundaries. This orientation comes up against the current structure of society in a way that is unfavorable for my relationships and the type of love that I want to bring to the world. How I want to touch my world. If I could wave my magic wand (I already wave it, just not with much impact), the world would bend in the ways that I so often break, and we wouldn't need things like psychiatry, and we wouldn't need concepts like disability. We would all take care of each other, and if we saw someone struggling, we would see a reflection of ourselves in them to such an extent that it would be unacceptable for us to continue on the same trajectory. We would bend to each other, without breaking each other. We would bend for each other, and so be unbreakable in Love.
I ended up writing a book, The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness. I currently host a podcast, “Waking Up Bipolar,” in which I interview people like Katie Mottram, who have greatly touched my heart. When I was researching how to save my life, certain that no one else was going to be able to save it for me, I found so much relief in writings and articulations of spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency. Transpersonal psychology saved me, and I will forever be grateful to the renegades, pioneers, and misfits who were willing to call out the status quo and express something deeper and richer available to the human psyche.
Transpersonal psychology eventually allowed me to abandon my cocoon of spiritual materialism, because I could no longer continue a path of self-deception, which used spiritual emergency as a way to spiritually bypass the reality of a crippled existence. Transpersonal psychology grew big enough to include clinical psychology, just as my awakening had grown big enough to include human fallibility. If it were not for transpersonal psychology, there would be no room in my mind for clinical psychology, and there would certainly be no room in my heart for psychiatry. Nonduality knows no bounds, and so it is. I choose Love.
I started with suffering, which is simply part of human incarnation. My personal version of suffering came through a nervous system capable of producing psychosis under conditions in which others don’t experience such a thing. This spiritual psychosis woke me up from a painful dream of limited humanness, while also waking me up to the immensity of pain I enjoy today. I have come to understand that this precious human birth cannot be fully appreciated without a broken heart. These warrior tears stream unending, insurmountable joy. I have come to know that we're all waking up in a bipolar universe after all. Such is grace.
Chris Cole offers life coaching for any number of mental health conditions, specializing in bipolar disorder and spiritual emergence. He hosts the Waking Up Bipolar podcast and is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness, inspired by his own journey of spiritual unfolding and mental health challenges. Chris operates from a heart-centered transpersonal orientation, gleaned from deep insight into his lived experience combined with years of service to those navigating the intimate terrain of transformative crisis. Learn more about Chris and his work at colecoaching.com.