"Backdraft"

By Peter Holleran

   As graphically demonstrated in the movie Backdraft in 1991 starring Kurt Russell, in a structural fire immediately before a gigantic powerful explosion, a reverse draft develops. What happens is that the fire is starved of oxygen, and consequently combustion ceases, but the fuel gases and smoke remain at high temperature. If oxygen is re-introduced to the fire, i.e. by opening a door to a closed room, the heated gases suck the oxygen from its surroundings and combustion can restart often resulting in an explosive effect as the gases heat and expand.

   Just so do spiritual breakthroughs and feeling-awakenings often proceed in fits and starts, with the darkest hours often coming just before the dawn. It is as if the being needs to regroup itself and become strong enough to be able to stand the next blow to the ego and subsequent entry of grace. In other words, at specific times in one’s process or path the 'internal fire' is deprived of 'oxygen', and then without warning a “backdraft” occurs. Thus, the fire of grace both creates and fills a vacuum. It is helpful for our faith and ability to endure to understand something of this process - even though one will still very often be taken by surprise.

   Paul Brunton (PB), and undoubtedly many others before him similarly said of this type of occurrence:

   “The ability to hold on during a single dark period, when the frustrations and humiliations of poverty seem unbearable, may turn the fortunes of one’s entire life for the better.” (1)

   And in the words of Ramana Maharshi:

   “The Higher Power knows what to do and how to do it. Trust it.” (2)

   This has parallels with the phenomenon in natural forms of medicine known as the healing crisis. In this the deepest healings are said to come from a position of strength or integrity of the body-mind’s innate defense mechanisms, not weakness. Defense mechanism is meant here in a positive sense, not in a negative way, as, for instance, in a neurosis of some kind. Even in the psychological field, one paradoxically often needs a relatively healthy ego structure to endure the deeper unravelling of the core wounds and confrontation with the “shadow” elements of the personality, or one’s therapy or catharsis can can seemingly go on forever and become a way of life. Such healing crises must be earned. Again, one must be strong enough to endure or allow it, even though paradoxically, when it occurs, one may not feel very strong. The way to do this psychologically is, at the same time one seeks whatever help he needs, to have faith, persevere, and continue to function, in spite of the discomfort and difficulty posed by either life's demands or a lingering neurosis which served a protective purpose in childhood but has now outlived its usefulness. Physically, the ennervated or dis-eased body must ideally first be made healthier before a complete cure can come, often with outbreaks of unpleasant symptoms and apparent setbacks along the way. Spiritually, in like fashion, for some there may be many cycles into the 'pit' and back again before the soul or higher self is satisfied, so to speak, that the body-mind has been made into a fit vehicle for the spirit in its awakened condition (at least perhaps, as far as the karma of the present incarnation permits). In the seventeenth century Madame Guyon wrote:

   "Oh, how many times the gold is plunged back into the fire - far, far more times than seem necessary. Yet you can be sure the Forger sees impurities no one else can see. The gold must return to the fire again and again until positive proof has been established that it can be no further purified."
(2a)


   To digress for a moment, a related principle to that of "backdraft" is found in in healing fields such as homeopathy, where there is recognized a formula known as Hering’s law. (3) This was first formulated by Constantine Hering, homeopathic physician, who interestingly, had set out to discredit Samuel Hahneman, the founder of homeopathy, but became upon investigation one of his strongest advocates. Hering’s law basically states that in the process of true cure, symptoms disappear from (a) inside-out, (b) above-down, (c) from more vital to less vital organs, and (d) in the reverse order in which they appeared (i.e., the first to appear are the last to disappear). Portions of this law (specifically, "above-down, inside-out", or A-D-I-O) are applicable to chiropractic as well. In one form or another this process was known as far back as Hippocrates.

   Given this direction of cure, we can see how disease states or symptoms, through suppression, can be driven to deeper levels following these four avenues or directions in reverse.

   For example, suppose someone has a skin “disease” or condition, which is then treated with antibiotics, perhaps tetracycline and maybe a topical cream, or perhaps chronic repeated head colds are treated with antihistamines. The person experiences a relief of his ailments, but a year or two later notices trouble during pollen season; he is diagnosed as suffering from hay fever. This is treated in a similar manner and appears to subside. Yet he then develops asthma. The primary disturbance, a discord in the vibratory level of the body’s defense system, according to this theory, has retreated and regrouped at deeper and deeper levels. One can trace other conceivable like progressions, i.e., stomach ache to gastritis to ulcer to cancer. Dietary overload ( a form of wrong living or discipline) can also lead to such progressions, and in fact may be a primary cause of the first link in the cascade.

   Classically, in homeopathy a possible sign that a cure is in process in treating asthma, for example, is if a skin eruption appears. This shows that the “dis-ease” is moving towards the periphery or circumference. The brain is the most central or vital organ, after which comes the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, all the way to the muscles and skin. A rash on the skin, obviously, is much less serious than a lesion in the brain. Another example given historically in the literature of cure proceeding in a positive direction homeopathically could be if during treatment of a mental case the mental symptoms disappear and violent stomach symptoms arise. Further treatment may be in order, the remedies altered, but the direction of cure is good. The healing crisis occurs when the organism’s defense system (again, not in the sense of a neurotic defense, but in terms of the system's dynamic integrity) has acquired enough strength to generate changes in the vibration rate of the organism to neutralize interference and move it to more peripheral levels. The system always makes the best possible response it is capable of, and manifests symptoms at levels which are progressively of less crucial importance to the total health of the organism.

   In chronic conditions, in individuals of weak vitality and long-term interference patterns, the healing crisis, so to speak, must be earned. It is not that there can be no improvement, but deep healing will only occur when the defense system is sufficiently strengthened; various cycles of purification and release may thus occur over periods, of weeks, months, and years. This assumes that an allopathic approach of symptom suppression is not used, at least exclusively, but, rather, that a natural method of encouraging the body’s own defense system to strengthen and 'vibrate' at the same frequency and thus ‘cancel’ out the discordant vibratory field of the “dis-ease” is encouraged.

   Hippocrates, the “father of medicine” and one of the last initiates of the temple mystery schools of ancient Greece, gave numerous examples of this phenomenon:

   ”In a person suffering from angina pectoris the appearance of swelling and erythema on the chest is a good sign, for it shows that the disease is moving toward the circumference.”

   “In a mental disorder of a maniacal type, dysentary or anasarca is a good sign.”

   In the suffering from depression of spirits and kidney disease the appearance of hemorrhoids is a good sign.”

   “If erysipelas moves from the outside to the inside, this is a bad sign, but if the opposite happens it is a good sign.”
(4)

   Hippocrates took his work as a sacred art, proclaiming:

   "Holy things are revealed only to holy men. Such things must not be made known to the profane until they are initiated into the mysteries of science." (5)

   Other instances of Hering’s Law could be lesions on the upper torso or face moving to the fingers and nails (above-downwards) or symptoms moving from the brain to the lungs (above-downwards, and more vital to less vital organs).

   A chiropractic example would be pain leaving the lumbar region and moving down the leg (not simply radiating down the leg, as in sciatica), or any number of sort-lived symptoms following an upper cervical or cranial adjustment or alignment. The more chronic or long-lasting the condition, the more likely one will see acute symptoms arise as the pathology “retraces” itself during the curative process. Such temporary aggravations are often signs that correction in the system is being made.

   One more principle must be mentioned here. This is that it frequently requires the least amount of energy, rightly allocated, to initiate a cure. Maupercius, eighteenth century French mathematician said:

   “The quantity of action necessary to effect any change in nature is the least possible; according to this principle, the decisive amount is always a minimum or infinitesimal.”

   This concept of minimum energy finds its place in homeopathy as the law of the minimum dose, whereby the more dilutions and succussions (activations) of a remedy (even to the degree that there is theoretically not even one molecule of original substance left in the dose, only the energy of that substance (in homeopathy this would be a remedy greater than 26x ("x" meaning dilutions to the power of ten), the limitation of "Avagadro’s number"), the more potent and less toxic it will be. (3) In chiropractic we are witness to the truth of this principle in some of the specific upper cervical work where the lightest of forces, properly placed, can effect remarkable and extensive changes, by altering the hold of interfering resonant frequencies caused by bones under biomechanical stress, frequencies which are often also at the same resonant frequencies of the nerves, thus changing the neurological energy patterns in the neck, which themselves have extensive connections above, with the brain, and below, with the rest of the body.

   In the spiritual dimension, the company of a saint or sage, even for a brief moment or meeting, may be that "minimum dose" required to initiate a cure and/or realization that, while its complete fulfillment may even (according to some teachings) be several lifetimes away, will be irreversably set in motion. Shree Atmananda (Krishna Menon) beautifully states:

   “You first listen to the Truth direct from the lips of the Guru. Your mind, turned perfectly sattvic by the luminous presence of the Guru, has become so sensitive and sharp that the whole thing is impressed upon it as if it were a sensitive film. You visualize your real nature then and there. But the moment you come out, the check of the presence of the Guru being removed, other samskaras rush in and you are unable to recapitulate what was said or heard. But later on, whenever you think of that glorious incident, the whole picture comes back to your mind – including the form, words and arguments of the Guru – and you are thrown afresh into the same state of visualization you had experienced on the first day. Thus you constantly hear the same Truth from within. This is how a spiritual tattvopadesha helps you all through life, till you are established in your own real nature.” (6)

   Anthony Damiani likewise explains that, in contrast with the ordinary teacher or guru, the true sage:

   ”..works quite differently. He goes into the stillness, into the void mind. Then when he comes out, he holds your image in his mind and imagines you or conceives you to be what you really are and then he dismisses the picture. And then for the next ten lives you may be struggling to become what you really are. And the very power and concentration of his thought is so intense that it will bring to pass what he imagines you to be.” (7)

   This is not always easy. Damiani also states:

   "In the presence of the sage, a past habit which is still alive in you is brought up to the surface and now you have to overcome it once and for all...All these things within you that are blocking you from getting to the truth get activated when you get into the presence of a sage. It’s not that he comes personally there and shovels around; it just happens naturally, like a catalytic reaction...These parts of ourselves that can’t serve the higher purpose have to be taken up, brought up into the daylight, into your consciousness. They have to be understood for what they are and then they must be disowned, discarded, or completely dissolved. So very often when a person is neurotic, if he starts meditating, things are going to get worse, not better. Because these problems start coming out into the open. Those of us who have been at it a few years begin to recognize that. You know, “Why is everything going wrong? What’s going on?” But that’s exactly what to expect and it’s good, because if these things are not brought out they will always stay in what the psychologists call the unconscious, the subconscious. And when the right opportunity comes, they’ll spring out and you’ll find out, “I am not at all the way I thought I was. I’m really a grub, something horrible.” But all the time we thought we were 99% gold. So these things happen, very naturally. It’s to be expected.” (8)

   A similar process may be found in psychotherapy. Here the deep feeling presence of a good therapist may also be that "minimum dose", or energy field, that will, at certain moments, move one forward from a rough patch in his or her process of growth.

   A myriad of possible chance encounters and moments may also contain the unexpected influx of grace to move one from an apparent plateau or stagnant place of mind or heart. In traditional alchemy it is maintained that unless Nature cooperates, the "Work" will not be successful. Similarly in Buddhism there is the concept that it takes the entire cosmos to produce a Buddha or awakened one. Therefore, it is suggested that one expect the unexpected - and even the unexpectable! This is another way to say that one's faith be made firm. Faith in what? Faith that one belongs here and is part of a process that will not abandon him or her.

   The healing examples given earlier have definite parallels with spiritual transformative processes. Traditionally, sadhanas or spiritual disciplines or practices are prescribed to purify or transform body, emotions, and mind. This involves two complementary processes. One is to produce a relatively calm or sattvic personality, conducive to deeper meditative states - and also the concentration necessary to absorb higher non-dual philosophy, if that path is pursued.

   A second reason or purpose for these recommendations, however, is to plug up, or close the gaps, or holes, in the psyche, and allow the deeper purifications which the ancient Buddhist text the Vissudhimagga euphemistically called the “higher realizations” to occur. In plain language, as we minimize our ego distractions the stage is set for deeper repressed feelings and reactionary patterns to move into consciousness and be eradicated.

   Astrologically speaking, these processes are oftened triggered in a major way with the transits of the outer planets (said to be representative of the transpersonal "gods"), Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto - especially the latter - which may be felt as powerful and unstoppable, i.e., the "cosmic will", so to speak, helping one get rid of all that does not conform to it. For the earnest practitioner they represent Grace, helping them to do what they could and would never do fully or successfully by themselves alone.

   Thus, one way or another, the obstructions to our well-being, happiness and stable awakening get removed.

   For just one example of a person's role in this, let us say one makes a (non-puritanical) gesture at self-denial in a certain area. By plugging up a "hole" of indulgence, for instance, one shows faith in “right action” and a higher power is given room to create “heat” in one’s sadhana or practice, and subsequently in the psyche. A wedge is thrown into one’s fixed or exclusive identification with the ego body-mind or “biological machine”. Something deeper hiding within is then given a chance to come up for release. In psychotherapy maybe it is an embodied childhood feeling-memory maintaining an energetic lock on one's heart or feeling nature. And then one can go deeper. And so it goes. The deepest witholdings and wounds are held closest to the heart, said even the sage Ramana Maharshi, and may be the last to come out of hiding, as they are guarded carefully. That is why it is said that the healing crisis, in all of its forms, must be earned - but by cooperating with it - and also that aside from brief and unexpected spiritual glimpses much of the workings of grace are not always recognizable in its early stages, but many times operates unconsciously for a long time. This is what PB and countless others in their own words have said:

   "The psychological laws governing the inner development of spiritual seekers often seem to operate in most mysterious ways. The very power whose presence he may think has been denied him - Grace - is taking care of him even when he is not conscious of this fact. The more the anguish, at such a time, the more the Higher Self is squeezing the ego. The more he seems to be alone and forsaken, the closer the Higher Self may be drawing him to Itself."

   "The Overself's grace will be secretly active within and without him long before it shows itself openly to him...The grace may be barely felt, may come on slowly for many months, so that when he does become aware of its activity, the final stage is all he sees and knows."

   "He may be disappointed because he is not more consciously aware of being helped. The forms which spiritual help takes may not always be easily recognizable because they may not conform to his wishes and expectations. Moreover, the kind of help given in this manner may require a period of time to elapse between its entry on the subconscious level and its manifestation on the conscious level. This period varies in actual experience with different individuals, from a few days to a number of years. Its exact duration is unpredictable because it is individual in each case. God alone knows what it is, but its final eruption is sure."
(9)

   The Christian mystic Fenelon remarked:

   “One does not begin to know and to feel one’s spiritual miseries until they begin to be cured.”

   Remembrance of this quote has guided me through many a rough patch.


   How often it happens, then, that one is actually nearer to his goal as he appears to be only getting farther away from it. We seem much worse than before. This is a common feeling among mystics, and those engaged in psycho-therapeutic processes, because, in the former, the boundaries of the sense of self are disintegrating in all its dimensions and, also, in both instances, much of the ongoing emotional purgation at least initially occurs in the dark as far as our understanding is concerned. St. John of the Cross addresses both of these points:

   "The reason, again, why the soul not only travels securely when it travels thus in darkness, but also achieves ever greater gain and progress, is that usually, when the soul is receiving fresh advantage and profit, this comes by way that it least understands - indeed it quite commonly believes that it is losing ground. For as it has never experienced that new feeling which drives it forth and dazzles it and makes it depart recklessly from its former way of life, it thinks itself to be losing ground rather than gaining and progressing, since it sees that it is losing with respect to that which it knew and enjoyed. It is like a traveler, who in order to go to new and unknown lands, takes new roads unknown and untried, and journeys unguided by his past experience, but doubtingly and according to what others say. It is clear that such a man could not reach new countries or add to his past experience, if he went not along new and unknown roads and abandoned those which were known to him. Exactly so, one who is learning fresh details concerning any office or art always proceeds in darkness, and receives no guidance from his original knowledge, for if he left not that behind he would get no farther nor make any progress; and in the same way, when the soul is making most progress, it is traveling in darkness, knowing naught. Wherefore since God is the Master and Guide of the blind soul, it may well and truly rejoice, once it has learned to understand this, and say, 'In darkness and secure'." (10)

   "Wherefore, because the soul is purified in this furnace like gold in a crucible...it is conscious of this complete undoing of itself in its very substance, together with the direst poverty, wherein it is, as it were, nearing its end....Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that He may afterwards greatly exalt it; and if He ordained not that, when these feelings arise within the soul they should speedily be stilled, it would die in a very short space; but there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity. At times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened." (11)

   Jean-Pierre deCaussade further explains:

   “I know how much suffering this operation entails. The poor soul feels as if it would become utterly annihilated, but for all that, it is only nearer the true life. In fact the more we realise our nothingness the nearer we are to truth, since we were made from nothing, and drawn out of it by the pure goodness of our Lord. We ought therefore to remember this continually, in order to render by our voluntary annihilation a continual homage to the greatness and infinity of our Creator. Nothing is more pleasing to God than this homage, nothing could make us more certain of His friendship, while at the same time nothing so much wounds our self-love. It is a holocaust in which it is completely consumed by the fire of divine love. You must not then be surprised at the violent resistance it offers, especially when the soul experiences mortal anguish in receiving the death-blow to this self-love. The suffering one feels then is like that of a person in agony, and it is only through this painful agony and by the spiritual death which follows it that one can arrive at the fullness of divine life and an intimate union with God." (12)

   "God hidden in his veils gives himself with his grace in an altogether unknown way, for the soul feels nothing but feebleness under its crosses, disgust with its obligations, while its attractions are only to very commonplace exercises. The idea which it has formed of sanctity reproaches it internally with these low and contemptible dispositions. All the saints lives condemn it. It knows nothing with which to defend itself; it has light to see a sanctity which, however, brings it desolation, for it has no strength to rise to it, and does not recognize its weakness as divine order, but as its own cowardice....Experience shows us that nothing so much as this apparent loss inflames the desire of the soul for union with the divine will. What profound sorrow for the soul!...no consolation is possible....To ravish God from a heart longing for nothing but God, what a secret of love! It is indeed a great secret, for by this way and by this way only are pure faith and pure hope established in the soul...Everything one does seems the fruit of chance and natural inclination. Everything that happens humiliates the soul...Others are always admired, but we feel miles below them and put to confusion by their every action....The divine action seems to keep us far from virtue only to plunge the soul into a profound humility. But this humility does not seem to be such to the soul, it thinks it is suffering from the rigours of pure justice."

      "The most remarkable thing about this is that in the eyes of those whom God does not enlighten concerning its path, the soul seems animated by quite contrary feelings such as obstinacy, disobedience, contempt and indignation that cannot be cured, and the more the soul tries to reform these disorders, the worse they become, for they are the most proper means to detach it from itself and fit it for divine union. From this painful trial comes the principal merit of self-abandonment. In the duty of the present moment everything is of a nature to draw the soul away from its path of love and simple obedience. It needs heroic courage and love to stand firm in its simple, active fidelity and sing its part with assurance, while grace sings its own with different melodies and in different keys which do nothing but convince the soul that it is deceived and lost."
(13)

   Of course, not everyone needs pass through such a dramatic ordeal, but as one matures, something in kind may likely be experienced, and sages universally have said it is to be welcomed.

   "The spiritual way ruins the body and, after having ruined it, restores it to prosperity." - Rumi

   "That which hurts, but is profitable, is drunk by the wise like medicine. For the result, afterwards attained, becomes incomparable." - Nagarjuna

   Nor need we think these things only happened to mystics three or four hundred years ago. In either case one can always choose to abort, postpone, or temper the healing at any time: physically, through symptom-suppressive but not curative drugs, and psychologically or spiritually through consoling means of an almost infinite variety. We all know the forms they may take: exaggerated or desperate, grasping or abberrant versions of common and in themselves normal and pleasurable activities of life: food, sex, TV, vacations, relationships, hobbies, reading - or even more sophisticated forms of "spiritual seeking”, i.e., all potential distractions without number from facing in one moment or another who and what we are and ceasing to run from the hole, or existential void, at the core of our being as a separate self, as well as core wounds from childhood, familiarity with which will lead us to recognize our true self which is non-separate and interdependent with the whole. So we have no choice but let the divine physician in all its forms do this work, while we do our small part in humilty.

   As we plug up the "holes" in our life and practice, i.e., as work to expose and undermine a myriad the network of a myriad of habitual defense mechanisms and strategies that essentially keep our suffering in place - as we "live rightly," so to speak - we create a vacuum that gets filled not only by grace, but for a time for even deeper wounds to emerge for release. Thus at times this can feel like a form of "reward-punishment," but it is really an extended process of healing and being made whole once again, or perhaps for the first time.

   Need it be said that this is not a linear or "cookie-cutter" process? There are many starts and stops, backslidings or apparent failures. Throughout the vicissitudes and cycles of this extended cure, however, we become aware of inevitable backdrafts, or empty spiritual vacuums, wherein life-energy gathers itself up through cycles of back and fill, back and fill, for the next step forward, via a “healing crisis” and influx of grace.

   A metaphor has often been used to describe this growth process. Imagine one is filing down an iron bar, or trying to break a rock with a hammer. Let's stay it takes one thousand filings or blows to accomplish the task. It is entirely possible that up to the nine hundred and ninety-ninth attempt one may feel like a failure. (This is thankfully not the usual case, there are usually periods of rest and respite, growth and hints of success along the path, but it is entirely possible that at the penultimate step one may still feel be confronted with a "vacuum" and feel like a failure). But finally success comes. The question is then asked, of all these which filings or blows which one accomplished the task? And of course, the answer is, "all of them."

   It may feel often like the end, but we can trust and have faith that one day there will be the great and lasting healing when the Soul, Overself or Divine Master makes a final move and ends the travail of its struggling progeny. (And, contrary to popular opinion, even in Buddhism there is room for grace!)

   "The period of active effort is at an end; the period of passive waiting now follows it. Without any act on his own part and without any mental movement of his own, the Grace draws him up to the next higher stage and miraculously puts him there where he has so long and so much desired to be. Mark well the absence of self-effort at this stage, how the whole task is taken out of his hands." (14)



1. Paul Brunton,The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications), reference misplaced
2. Talks with Ramana Maharshi (Carlsbad, California: Inner Traditions Publishing, 2001), pp.182
2a. Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, p.
3. Dr. Constantine Hering, Guiding Systems (10 Vol.)
4. George Vithoulkas, The Science of Homeopathy (author's translation from the Greek of Hippocrates Aphorisms) (New York: Grove Press, 1980), p. 231
5. G.E.R. Lloyd, Hippocratic Writings (New York: Penguin Books, 1978)
6. Nitya Tripta, ed., Notes on Spiritual DIscourses of Shree Atmananda, Vol. II, (1953-1959) (Trivandrum, India: The Reddiar Press, 1963), p. 934
7. Anthony Damiani, Looking Into Mind: How to Recognize Who You Are and How You Know (Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publications, 1990), p. 186
8. Anthony Damiani, Looking Into Mind (Burdett,New York: Larson Publications, 1990), p. 134-135
9. Brunton, op. cit., Vol 12, Part 2, 5.269-277
10. St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, ed. E. Allison Peers (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1959), p. 154-155
11. Ibid, p. 107
12. Jean-Pierre deCaussade, Spiritual Counsels, Book Seven, Letters I, IX
13. Jean-Pierre deCaussade, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence (Glascow, England: Collins, 1974), pp. 126-128
14. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 15, Part 1, 7.242