Noe Valley Voice March 2001

Counseling Center Remembers Your Spirit

By Heidi Anderson

For more than 20 years, the nonprofit Church Street Integral Counseling Center, operating out of a Victorian flat near 30th Street, has offered sliding-scale psychological counseling to individuals, couples, and groups in and around Noe Valley.

Now, the Church Street ICC is also the international headquarters for the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN), a group of counselors who provide information, referrals, and support to people experiencing difficulty with "psychospiritual" growth.

According to SEN Director Karen Trueheart, the organization was founded in 1978 by Christina Grof and her husband Stanley Grof, to bring understanding and respect for psychospiritual growth to the mental health profession. The Grofs maintained that "spiritual growth is as essential as emotional growth," says Trueheart. "It's part of the normal growth process, but sometimes its symptoms can be misinterpreted as those of a mental illness."

By 1994, Trueheart notes, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association had come to support the Grofs' insights by including spiritual and religious issues under its category of conditions that are not mental illness but which may lead people to seek mental health services.

"This recognition has opened the door for a specialization in psychospiritual issues," says Trueheart (her married name for 36 years and not, she says, one she adopted because of her profession).

SEN co-founder Christina Grof coined the term "spiritual emergency" to refer to a "crisis which occurs within a healthy, life-transforming process of growth and change."

Such a crisis, explains Trueheart, can be triggered by many situations, including the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, the loss of a job or relationship, major surgery, or a near-death experience.

"These events can result in confusion and a questioning of identity, your place in society, or your relationship with the Divine," Trueheart says. Other common symptoms are a sense of fear and isolation, and difficulty coping with daily life.

Trueheart says SEN counselors have helped many clients in their late teens or early 20s, who may be dealing with a difficult transition in life, such as going off to college.

"A young person, who has just left home for the first time, may go for a Saturday afternoon hike on Mount Tam and feel for the first time in their life a very strong connection to nature, almost a feeling of oneness with the universe," says Trueheart. "They may encounter an owl and see it as a symbol of wisdom, or they'll spot a lizard and it will bring about feelings of transformation for them. They may even experience what could be considered a mystical experience.

"Then they go back to their dorm and call their parent to tell them what they've experienced. The parent becomes concerned that perhaps something is wrong with their child and that this is the onset of some sort of psychotic break. That's when the parent or young person makes the call to us."

While, in some cases, clients truly do need to be referred for medication or hospitalization, often they just need to talk with a "spiritually aware" counselor for three or four sessions, to help them through the crisis, Trueheart says.

"In a culture which has not understood spiritual development, this gift of being heard and understood by a knowledgeable and supportive listener can be life-altering."

Trueheart says several clients who have come to SEN lately have been high-tech workers used to putting in a 60-hour workweek who've taken time off from their jobs to go on a "meditation retreat."

"The retreat stirs up feelings they're not familiar with," says Trueheart, "because they've never done anything like this before and they become overwhelmed."

In situations like this, SEN counselors might reassure them that their feelings are normal. They also might recommend taking a break from the meditation practice.

SEN offers a telephone referral service for people throughout the United States and Canada who think they may be experiencing difficulties associated with psychospiritual growth. The service is staffed by graduate students from the School of Professional Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) and provides referrals to licensed mental health professionals in the caller's area. People living in Noe Valley or elsewhere in the Bay Area are welcome to seek an in-person consultation at the Church Street office, says Trueheart.

"Often our clients feel a huge sense of relief afterward. Many cry because they feel so much better, knowing that the inner experience they're dealing with is valid."

For more information on the Spiritual Emergence Network, call 415-648-2610 or visit the web site at The street address for SEN is 1782 Church Street. Trueheart says fees range from $25 to $70 per session, but are "income-sensitive," depending on what clients can afford.