As I look back on my journey throughout the Master’s programme, there are three main components that mark my time at Alef Trust: personal growth, more clarity on direction in life and being able to conceptualise my mystical experiences through the material available to us. In this blog, I explore each of these components as I discuss individual areas of study offered as part of a very stimulating curriculum.

Although I have been gearing my life towards a spiritual path for quite a few years prior to joining Alef Trust, my understanding of this came mainly through life experiences instead of ever attempting to look through a more academic lens at the subjects of spirituality and consciousness. While devouring through the materials offered in the category of Contemporary Spirituality, I found myself in a euphoric state since I was finally able to match my ideas and experiences with the various research findings in spiritual awakening, shadow self, archetypes, the collective unconscious and theories on synchronicity.

In my earlier Human Rights degree, the decision to study behavioural psychology as a minor field came from recognising the fact that investigation of external behaviours alone is not sufficient to create a lasting change. However, based on my learnings throughout the Transpersonal Psychology module, I was able to gain a much deeper understanding into ‘the hazards of the self’ including spiritual concepts that are an essential attribute of the human psyche. It felt invaluable to get to know the work of key transpersonal voices such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli and Ken Wilber. Though latter prominent figure prefers the word ‘integral’ to define his work rather than transpersonal. While the discipline of transpersonal psychology honours the full depth and range of human experiences, it is also committed in applying these findings in the wider service of collective needs.

One of my goals when joining this programme was to consider how spiritual tendencies can become more practically grounded in a contemporary sense. While this continues to be an area of investigation, central among transpersonal inquiry are the practices of open awareness and mindfulness. These meditative practices, combined with psychology, can lead to an expanded view of mental functioning, challenging our usual ego identification and revealing not only destructive attitudes, but also emotional suffering that is connected to individual behaviours generating higher conception of objectivity than the one we know. The growing mindfulness movement is waking us up from our automatic nature by providing a set of tools for expanding awareness so we are more equipped in making skilful life choices. This requires paying closer-than-usual attention in order to avoid getting automatically trapped into habitual reactions created by our previous responses towards a specific situation. Our aptitude of meditative practices can be strengthened by examining our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, so we can begin to become more familiar with the non-ethical habits of our minds and therefore become more resistant to identifying with our conditioned perceptions before we allow retaliation take hold. The transpersonal field provides us with the means of moving away from living in a reaction to assuming responsibility for our part in creating that reality and therefore the power to change it.

The module on Approaches to Consciousness felt slightly more daunting as I quicky found myself in the uncomfortable but necessary theoretical incompetence stage of learning. While seemingly the most central feature of our existence, the phenomenon of consciousness remains the most fascinating yet incredibly tricky subject to define. Although this subject was once regarded to be a part of philosophical territory, as the tidal shift in understanding the brain increased, so did the willingness of science to tackle this complex subject. However, unlike the experience of euphoria felt from reading spiritually related articles, trying to match my experiences with scientific language, including wrestling with complex quantum ideas, resulted in a mental overload.

The only other greatest challenge I have faced throughout the programme was attempting to juggle master’s degree and part-time work, all the while trying to process Kundalini awakening, spontaneous arousal of which was triggered from the outset of my journey with Alef Trust. The awakening of Kundalini is a subject surrounded by a lot of hype since it produces pure bliss, feelings of oneness and creativity, while giving access to boundless field of love. However, it is also surrounded by the tales of caution and perhaps why it has been listed as one of the major forms of spiritual emergency. If practitioner is unprepared, which was my case, this can lead to an experience of total inner havoc of reliving difficult emotions of past trauma, mood swings, spells of insomnia, changes in focus, motivation and energy levels. Not surprisingly these overwhelming symptoms had ultimately resulted in a request to postpone the final year of study focusing on my research dissertation. I am truly grateful to have been in a safe container of Alef Trust. Firstly staff, who met my circumstances with so much compassion, which I’m not sure would have been available in the same way at a more conventional educational setting, and secondly students, whose similar journeys made me feel less alone.

The module on Learning through Integrative Practices has felt incredibly timely and fitting towards my needs, providing me with an opportunity to devise a programme and use different practices as an anchor to help me to go through the process in a more grounded and integrated way. I was also thrilled to be selected for some free Transpersonal Coaching sessions. This precarious existential crisis was made less daunting to go through with the support of an experienced coach whose sensitive approach helped to cope with intense emotions inspiring me to get back on track with my goals.

Exploring the pioneering research of Stanislav Grof, John Perry and Ronald Laing allowed for a much wider vision of mental suffering because it included spiritual dilemmas such as near-death experiences, psychic and visionary experiences, spiritual emergency and shamanic crisis.  It has been eye opening to also learn of an increased movement of psychiatric survivors stressing the need to stop attempting to reduce person’s distress to any one realm while continuing to relegate individuals towards a medically suppressed system of care. They explain that, when understood correctly and treated in a supportive manner, this often overwhelming process can result in a remarkable psychological transformation and higher levels of functioning. Having a cognitive grip of the situation and the knowledge that others have traversed these regions brought a considerable relief and a change in outlook to my own circumstances.

The cultural framing of ‘madness’ within shamanic traditions is also vastly different from the Western understanding. Information provided to us during Shamanic Psychology module on how traditional indigenous societies perceive and subsequently support these chaotic conditions, has certainly made me more aware and passionate about looking more broadly at issues such as mental illness. It is nearly ubiquitous among Shamans that these extreme states are a sign of a person being selected by ‘the spirits’ to a life as a healer and as such Shamans show appreciation to these voices rather than invalidating such experiences and undermining the potential value of overall health for the entire community. Throughout the forum participation, however, it became evident that even with some progress made, we in the West are not trained in how to deal with or even taught to acknowledge the existence of these extreme states. The powerful healing potential of shamanic practices is still misguidedly avoided and underutilized from ignorance, misunderstanding, and fear of the unknown.

It is not my intention to romanticize mental illness or deny the rich data already obtained by biomedical psychiatry. I appreciate the profound struggle of this delicate inner process. However, even though my own psychological disturbances could have convincingly appeared as a bipolar disorder, getting trapped in cycles of medication would have restricted my ability to function in the world. Having entered into these intense psychological trials with the support of alternative healthcare practices, I was able to emerge with a deeper appreciation for my journey and my unique purpose. I am grateful for platforms such as Alef Trust who encourage to explore and widen our current assumptions.

I can also personally attest to what a unique and timely experience it was to encounter shamanic journeying and connect with my power animal. After two shamanic journeys I have discovered that dolphins are my helping spirit and appear to represent the power of emotional release: one of the most important factors in our health and wellbeing. Many psychologists warn us that the persistent difficulty which prevents us from healing, is our collective habit of suppressing our feelings and we tend to employ destructive coping mechanisms as a long-term strategy. While having to face our pain can be extremely difficult, shamanic journeying has provided me with valuable insights into the areas of my life that were demanding my attention and care. My experience of Kundalini rising has demonstrated clearly that refusal to do so means these issues will only resurface further down the line.

Another major area of learning and one of the key reasons for signing up to the master’s programme, was Transpersonal Ecopsychology. Forum participation as well as research dissertation has helped to illuminate the significance of past experiences from contact with nature which has impacted the trajectory of my life, revealing the deeper meaning into the roots of current environmental crisis. It would be easy to blame endless economic growth for the state of the natural world that is becoming increasingly degraded, however, much of the ecologically related pain cannot be understood solely through political and economic spheres. Research in recent decades has in fact yielded substantial evidence between the interplay of unacknowledged individual trauma and environmental collapse. Severed connection with the felt sense, especially due to cycles of trauma has been an undeniable theme in my own life. The intensity of the emotional turmoil had catalyzed a life-transforming spiritual awakening which was the beginning of disintegration of the personal self and the move towards deeper levels of existence, including within eco-systemic context. Many moments were highlighted by intense joy and supreme clarity proclaimed by so many thinkers, that love is the essence of all truth. While my experience of life became more visceral, shared and sacred, this profound heart-expansion was also accompanied by deep sorrow of witnessing the impact of my resistance to emotional engagement, including in the face of so much harm inflicted on the natural world.

As I shed my defensive mechanism layer by layer, I could not help but draw parallels between the individual and the collective experience, as it currently appears that a positive collective transformation will be forced rather than planned. As I continue to heal, I cannot help but wonder what purpose does love have in an ongoing evolution of ecological consciousness? Hence why my research dissertation explored the deeper meaning of love, its value in our journey towards sustainable living, as well as identifying ways of honouring it in our daily lives which may assist us in navigating the unfolding impact of climate emergency.

Overall, this has been a great programme to enrol in for both personal and professional enrichment.  While there are many practices to unleash one’s creativity, over the years I have come to learn that it is through engaging in constant research that allows for my imagination to remain active. The subjects outlined have fuelled my curiosity even more, while dedicating time to respond to essay questions served as an instrument to continue pursuing my passion of writing. Opportunities for involvement continue to arise at Alef Trust and I am thrilled to be offering written reflections as part of their new initiative called Nurturing the Fields of Change. The aims of this latest project feel strongly aligned with my vision for social change where we engage with each other through the turning of the year, inquiring into seasonal qualities for a chance to slow down and reflect on ways that we can give rise to a future that is different from the past and which includes embodying greater harmony with the natural world. This programme I feel is also providing us a ‘training ground’ to build our resilience, to ground and inspire ourselves as times continue to intensify.

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