THE ART OF TRANSCENDENCE: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE COMMON ELEMENTS OF TRANSPERSONAL PRACTICES

We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing … a wakefulness that is the birthright of us all, though few put it to use.

– Plotinus

By Dr. Roger Walsh MD., PhD.,& Dr. Frances E. Vaughan PhD., from The Journal of Transpersonsal Psychology, 25:1 – 10, 1993.

When historians look back at the twentieth century, they may conclude that two of the most important breakthroughs in Western psychology were not discoveries of new knowledge but recognitions of old wisdom.

First, psychological maturation can continue far beyond our arbitrary, culture-bound definitions of normality (Wilber, 1980; Wilber et al., 1986). There exist further developmental possibilities latent within us all. As William James put it, “most people live, whether physically, intellectually or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness …. We all have reservoirs of life to draw upon, of which we do not dream.”

Second, techniques exist for realizing these “reservoirs of life” or transpersonal potentials. These techniques are part of an art and technology that has been refined over thousands of years in hundreds of cultures and constitutes the contemplative core of the world’s great religious traditions. This is the art of transcendence, designed to catalyze transpersonal development (Walsh, 1990; Walsh & Vaughan, 1993). As such it is based on two fundamental assumptions about the nature and potentials of the mind.

The first assumption is that our usual state of consciousness is suboptimal. In fact, it has been described in terms such as clouded, distorted, dreamlike, entranced and largely out of control. This has been recognized by psychologists and mystics of both East and West (Huxley, 1945; Mikulis, 1991; Tart, 1986). For Freud (1917) it was the culture-shaking recognition that “man is not even master in his own house … his own mind,” that echoed the Bhagavad Gita’s despairing cry two thousand years earlier:

Restless (the) mind is,
So strongly shaken
In the grip of the senses:
Gross and grown hard
With stubborn desire …..
Truly, I think
The wind is no wilder.  (Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 1944)

In the words of Ram Dass (1975), “we are all prisoners of our own mind. This realization is the first step on the journey to freedom.” Or as Pir Vilayat Khan put it even more succinctly, “The bind is in the mind.” The second asswnption is that although the untrained mind is clouded and out of control, it can be trained and clarified, and this training catalyzes transpersonal potentials. This is a central theme of the perennial philosophy.

For Socrates:

In order that the mind should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world, until its eye can bear to contemplate reality and that supreme splendor which we call the Good. Hence there may well be an art whose aim would be to affect this very thing (Plato, 1945).

Likewise, according to Ramana Maharshi (1955), “All scriptures without any exception proclaim that for salvation mind should be subdued.”

Although practices and techniques vary widely, there seem to be six common elements that constitute the heart of the art of transcendence: ethical training, concentration, emotional transformation, redirection of motivation, refinement of awareness, and the cultivation of wisdom.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a synoptic introduction to the art of transcendence and its common elements in the hope of stimulating appreciation, research and practice of them.

SIX COMMON ELEMENTS OF TRANSPERSONAL PRACTICES

Ethics

Ethics is widely regarded as an essential foundation of transpersonal development. However, contemplative traditions view ethics, not in terms of conventional morality, but rather as an essential discipline for training the mind. Contemplative introspection renders it painfully apparent that unethical behavior both stems from and reinforces destructive mental factors such as greed and anger. Conversely, ethical behavior undermines these and cultivates mental factors such as kindness, compassion and calm.

Ultimately, after transpersonal maturation occurs, ethical behavior is said to flow spontaneously as a natural expression of identification with all people and all life (Radhakrishnan, 1929). For a person at this stage, which corresponds to Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1981) highest or seventh stage of moral development-a stage that Kohlberg felt required transcendent experience-“Whatever is … thought to be necessary for sentient beings happens all the time of its own accord” (Gampopa, 1971).

Attentional Training

Attentional training and the cultivation of concentration are regarded as essential for overcoming the fickle wanderlust of the untrained mind (Goleman, 1988). As E.F. Schumacher (1973) observed of attention, “No topic occupies a more central place in all traditional teaching; and no subject suffers more neglect, misunderstanding, and distortion in the thinking of the modem world.”

Attentional training is certainly misunderstood by Western psychology, which has unquestioningly accepted William James’ century-old conclusion that “Attention cannot be continuously sustained” (James, 1899/1962). Yet James went further: “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgement, character and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not.

An education which would improve this faculty would be the education par excellence …. It is easier to define this ideal than to give practical direction for bringing it about” (James, 1910/1950). Here, then, we have a stark contrast between traditional Western psychology, which says attention cannot be sustained, and the art of transcendence, which says that attention can and must be sustained, if we are to mature beyond conventional developmental limits.

Being able to direct attention at will is so important because the mind tends to take on qualities of the objects to which it attends (Goldstein, 1983). For example, thinking of an angry person tends to elicit anger while thinking of a loving person may elicit feelings of love. The person who can control attention can therefore control and cultivate specific emotions and motives.

Emotional Transformation

Ethical behavior and attentional stability facilitate the third element of the art of transcendence: emotional transformation. There appear to be three components to emotional transformation.

The first is the reduction of destructive emotions such as fear and anger, a process which is well known in mainstream Western therapy. Of course, what is implied here is not repression or suppression but rather clear awareness of such emotions and consciously relinquishing them where appropriate.

The second component is the cultivation of positive emotions such as love, joy and compassion. Whereas conventional Western therapies have many techniques for reducing negative emotions, they have virtually none for enhancing positive emotions such as these.

In contrast, the art of transcendence contains a wealth of practices for cultivating these emotions to an intensity and extent undreamed of in Western psychology. Thus, for example, the Buddhist’s compassion, the Bhakti’s love, and the Christian’s agape are said to reach their full flowering only when they unconditionally and unwaveringly encompass all creatures, without exception and without reserve (Kongtrul, 1987; Singer, 1987).

This intensity and scope of positive emotion is facilitated by a third component of emotional transformation: the cultivation of equanimity. This is an imperturbability that fosters mental equilibrant and as such it helps emotions such as love and compassion to remain unconditional and unwavering even under duress.

This capacity is analogous to the Stoics “apatheia,” the Christian Father’s “divine apatheia,” the Buddhist’s equanimity, the contemporary philosopher Franklin Merrell-Wolffs “high indifference,” the Hindu’s samatva which leads to a “vision of sameness,” and the Taoist principle of “the equality of things,” which leads beyond ”the trouble of preferring one thing to another.”

Motivation

Ethical behavior, attentional stability and emotional transformation all work together, along with practices such as meditation, to redirect motivation along healthier, more transpersonal directions. The net effect is a change in the direction, variety and focus of motivation as well as a reduction in its compulsivity.

Traditionally it is said that motivation becomes less scattered and more focused; the things desired become subtler and more internal. Desires gradually become less self-centered and more self-transcendent with less emphasis on getting and more on giving. Supportive findings from contemporary research suggest that psychological maturity is associated with a shift from egocentric to allocentric (concern f{}r others) motivation (Heath, 1983).

Traditionally this motivational shift was seen as “purification” or as “giving up attachment to the world.” In contemporary terms it seems analogous to movement up Maslow’s (1971) hierarchy of needs, Amold Toynbee’s process of “etherealization,” the means for, and result of, a life-style of voluntary simplicity (Elgin, 1981), and the means for reaching the philosopher Kierkegaard’s goal in which “purity of heart is to will one thing.”

In addition to redirecting motivation, the art of transcendence involves reducing its compulsive power. The result is said to be a serene disenchantment with the things of the world which no longer exert a blinding fascination or compulsive pull.

This is the Buddhist nibbidda and the yogic viraga and is the basis of the Athenian philosopher Epicurus’ claim that the way to make people happy is not to add to their riches but to reduce their desires.

This claim is explicitly formulated in the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth which states that the end of craving leads to the end of suffering. The reduction of compulsive craving is therefore said to result in a corresponding reduction in intrapsychic conflict, a claim now supported by studies of advanced meditators (Walsh, 1993; Wilber et al., 1986).

This is not to imply that redirecting motives and relinquishing craving is necessarily easy. In Aristotle’s estimate, “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self’ (Schindler & Lapid, 1989).

Refining Awareness

The great wisdom traditions agree that in our usual untrained state of mind, awareness-both perceptual and intuitive-is insensitive and impaired: fragmented by attentional instability, colored by clouding emotions, and distorted by scattered desires. Accordingly, we are said to mistake shadows for reality (Plato) because we see ”through a glass darkly” (St. Paul), a “reducing value” (Aldous Huxley), or “narrow chinksn (Blake).

The fifth element of the art of transcendence, therefore, aims to refine awareness. Perception is to be rendered more sensitive, more accurate, and more appreciative of the freshness and novelty of each moment of experience. Likewise, intuitive capacities, usually blunted or blinded, are to be cultivated (Vaughan, 1979). One of the primary tools for this is meditation.

Meditators notice that both internal and external perception becomes more sensitive, colors seem brighter, and the inner world becomes more available. These subjective experiences have recently found experimental support from research, which indicates that meditators’ perceptual processing can become more sensitive and rapid, and empathy more accurate (Murphy & Donovan, 1988; West, 1987; Shapiro & Walsh, 1984; Walsh & Vaughan, 1993).

As the psychiatric historian Henrie Ellenberger (1970) observed, “The natural tendency of the mind is to roam through the past and the future; it requires a certain effort to keep one’s attention in the present.” Meditation is training in precisely that effort. The result is a present-centered freshness of perception variously described as mindfulness (Buddhism), anuragga (Hinduism), the “sacrament of the present moment” (Christianity), the “draught of forgetfulness” in which one forgets the past and comes anew into each present moment (Steiner), and characteristic of self-actualizers (Maslow, 1971).

Refinement of outer perception is said to be accompanied by a refinement of inner intuitive capacities. Contemporary researchers report finding “introspective sensitization” (West, 1987) whereas ancient wisdom traditions speak metaphorically of the development of an inner perceptual organ or the opening of an inner eye: the eye of the soul (Plato), the eye of the heart (Sufism), the eye of the Tao (Taoism), the third eye (Tibetan), or the Western philosophers’ nous or intellectus. For an excellent review see Hustom Smith (1993).

When we see things clearly, accurately, sensitively and freshly, we can respond empathically and appropriately. Thus, both ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychotherapies agree with Fritz Perls (1969), the founder of Gestalt therapy, that “Awareness per se-by and of itself—can be curative.”

Wisdom

The sixth quality cultivated by the art of transcendence is wisdom. Traditionally, wisdom is regarded as something significantly more than knowledge. Whereas knowledge is something we have, wisdom is something we must be. Developing it requires self-transformation.

This transformation is fostered by opening defenselessly to the reality of “things as they are,” including the enormous extent of suffering in the world. In the words of the Psalms, this is the recognition that “our lives are only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, our years come to an end like a sigh” (Psalm 90 HRS). “Who can live and never see death?” (Psalm 89 HRS).

In our own time it is existentialism that has emphasized this recognition most forcefully (Yalom, 1981). With its graphic description of the inevitable existential challenges of meaninglessness, freedom and death it has rediscovered aspects of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth which holds that unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) is an inherent part of existence. Both existentialism and the wisdom traditions agree that, in the words of Thomas Hardy (1926), “if a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.”

Whereas existentialism leaves us marooned in a no-exit situation of heightened awareness of existential limits and suffering, the art of transcendence offers a way out. For existentialism, wisdom consists of recognizing these painful facts of life and accepting them with authenticity, resoluteness (Heidegger), and courage (Tillich).

However, for contemplative traditions this existential attitude is a preliminary rather than a final wisdom and is used to redirect motivation away from trivial, egocentric pursuits toward the contemplative practices that lead to deeper wisdom.

Deeper wisdom recognizes that the sense of being marooned in a no-exit situation of limits and suffering can be transcended through transforming the self that seems to suffer (Vaughan, 1986). This transformation springs from the development of direct intuitive insight-beyond thoughts, concepts or images of any kind-into the nature of mind, self, consciousness and cosmos.

This insight is the basis for the transrational liberating wisdom variously known in the East as jnana (Hinduism), prajna (Buddhism), or ma’rifah (Islam), and in the West as gnosis or scientia sacra. And with this liberation the goal of the art of transcendence is realized.

Discussion

These, then, seem to be six essential, common elements, processes or qualities of mind that constitute the heart of the art and technology of transcendence. Of course, different practices and traditions focus more on some processes than on others. For example, Indian philosophy divides practices into various yogas (Feuerstein, 1989).

All of them acknowledge ethics as an essential foundation. Raja yoga emphasizes meditation and the training of attention and awareness; Bhakti yoga is more emotional and focuses on the cultivation of love; Karma yoga uses work in the world to refine motivation, and Jnana yoga hones the intellect and wisdom.

However, the capacities of mind developed by the art of transcendence are highly interdependent and the development of one fosters the development of others. This interdependence has long been recognized by both Eastern and Western philosophers who held that “every virtue requires other virtues to complete it” (Murphy,1992, p. 558). Therefore, to the extent a tradition is authentic-that is, capable of fostering transpersonal development and transcendence (Wilber, 1983)-to that extent it may cultivate and balance these elements of the art of transcendence. Hopefully it will not be long before this art is better appreciated, and its study and practice are widespread.


rogerwalsh1ROGER WALSH graduated from Australia’s Queensland University with degrees in psychology, physiology, neuroscience, and medicine, and then went to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar. He is now at the University of California at Irvine where he is professor of psychiatry, philosophy, and anthropology, as well as a professor in the religious studies programme. He is a proponent of the development of “transpersonal psychology” that includes phenomena such as MER (Mystical Experiences of Reality).


vaughanbw-210-expFRANCES VAUGHAN, Ph.D. is an author, educator and retired psychologist in Sonoma County, CA.

 

 

 

REFERENCES / SUGGESTED READING

ELGIN, D. (1981). Voluntary simplicity. New York: William Morrow.

ELLENBERGER, J. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious. New York: Basic Books.

FEUERSTEIN, G. (l 989). Yoga: The technology of ecstasy. Los Angeles: J. Tarcher.

FREUD, S. (1917). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishers.

GAMPOPA. (1971). The jewel ornament of liberation. (H. Guenther, transl.). Boston: Shambhala, p. 271.

GOLDSTEIN, J. (1983). The experience of insight. Boston: Shambhala.

GOLEMAN, D. (1988). The meditative mind. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

HARDY, T. (1926). Collected poems of Thomas Hardy. New York: MacMillan.

HEATH, D. (1983). The maturing person. In Walsh, R. & Shapiro, D. J. (Eds.), Beyond health and normality: Explorations of exceptional psychological well-being (pp. 152-205). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

HUXLEY, A. (1945). Tire perennial philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.

JAMES, W. (1899/1962). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals. New York: Dover.

JAMES, W. (1910/1950). Principles of psychology. New York: Doubleday.

KONGTRUL, J. (1981 ). Essays on moral development. (Vol. I ). The philosophy of moral development. New York: Harper & Row.

KONGTRUL, J. (1987). The great path of awakening. (K. McLeod, Transl.). Boston: Shambhala.

MASLOW, A. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

MIKULUS, W. (1991). Eastern and Western psychology: Issues and domains for integration. Journal of Integrative and Eclectic Psychotherapy 10: 229-40.

MURPHY, M. (1992). The future of the body: Explorations into the further evolution of human nature. Los Angeles: 1. Tarcher, p. 558.

MURPHY, M. & DONOVAN, S. (1988). The physical and psychological effects of meditation. San Rafael, CA: Esalen Institute.

PERLS, F. (1969). Gestalt therapy verbatim. Lafayette, CA: Real People Press.

PLATO. (1945). The republic. (F. Cornford, Transl.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 516.

PLOTINUS. (1964). The essential Plotinus. (E. O’Brien, Transl.). Indianapolis: Hackett, p. 42.

PRABHAVANANDA, S. & lsHERWOOD, C. (Transl.) (1944). The Bhagavad Gita. New York: New American Library.

RADHAKRISHNAN. (1929). Indian philosophy (Vol. 1, 2nd ed.). London: Alan & Unwin.

RAM DASS. (1975). Association forTranspersonal Psychology Newsletter, Winter, p. 9.

RAMANA MAHARSHI. (1955). Who am I? (8th ed.) (T. Venkataran, Transl.). lndia.

SCHINDLER, C. & LAPID, G. (I 989). The great turning: Personal peace and global victory. Santa Fe: Bear & Co.

SCHUMACHER, E. (1973). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper & Row.

SHAPIRO, D. & WALSH, R. (Eds.) (1984). Meditation: Classic and contemporary perspectives. New York: Aldine.

SINGER, I. (1987). The nature of love (3 Vols.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

SMITH, J. (1993). Educating the intellect: On opening the eye of the heart. In L. Rouner (Ed.), On Education. University of Notre Dame Press.

TART, C. (1986). Waking up: Overcoming the obstacles to human potential. Boston: New Science Library/Shambhala.

VAUGHAN, F. (1979). Awakening intuition. New York: Doubleday.

VAUGHAN, F. (1986). The inward arc: Healing and wholeness in psychotherapy and spirituality. Boston: New Science Library/Shambhala.

WALSH, R. (1990). The spirit of shamanism. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

WALSH, R. (1993). Meditation research: The state of the art. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughan (Eds.) Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.

WALSH R. & VAUGHAN, F. (Eds.) (1993). Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.

WEST, M. (Ed.) (1987). The psychology of meditation. Oxford: Clarenden Press.

WILBER, K. (1980). The Atman project. Wheaton, IL: Quest.

WILBER, K. (1983). A sociable God. New York: McGraw-Hill.

WILBER, K. ENGLER, J. & BROWN, D. (Eds.) {1986). Transformations of consciousness: Conventional and contemplative perspectives on development. Boston: New Science Library/Shambhala.

YALOM, I. (1981). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

The authors would like to thank all those who contributed to the writing of this article, especially Sonja Margulies, Ken Wilber and Bonnie L’ Allier.

Mysticexperiences.net

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MIND FROM MATTER: PHYSICISTS ON CONSCIOUSNESS

 

by Daniel Ranard

3Quarksday.com from 1 January 2018

“I am in the world and at the same time in myself: is there geometry more beautiful?” —Abdelmajid Benjelloun

When someone learns you’re in academia, sometimes they ask questions you’re not qualified to answer. An economist friend was asked once: “Oh, so how long do eggs last in the fridge?” And so it is, perhaps, with asking physicists about consciousness. You may as well ask a philosopher, a neuroscientist, or really anyone else – after all, we all have first-hand knowledge of that spark of life inside our skulls.

But I want to write on what physicists think about consciousness. Not because they deserve special authority, but because they provide an important point of reference.

The physicist’s worldview usually contains some aspect of physicalism (asserting the only “real” things are physical things, governed by physical laws), reductionism (asserting all observable phenomena are explicable in terms of their microscopic parts), and positivism or operationalism (asserting that the only meaningful concepts are empirically testable).

And in recent generations more than any others, it seems, this web of attitudes permeates the zeitgeist. It is our inheritance from the success of 20th-century physics.

This inheritance alters the way we frame questions about the mind and consciousness. While Descartes asked how the physical realm interacts with the realm of the mind and soul (his answer: the pineal gland), today we immediately privilege the physical.

If the world consists only of the physical, how does the conscious mind arise? If your brain is a soup of electrons and protons, how does this soup come to harbor an interior experience? What gives rise to thoughts, feelings, and sense of being?

Philosophers have devised an intricate taxonomy of responses to the question of how consciousness relates to the physical world. Where do modern physicists fall within this taxonomy, especially as a community whose attitudes have historically shaped the framing of the question?

We might as well start Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist who already serves as something of an oracle within the field. In fact, when he speaks among physicists, it’s often accompanied by a hush in the room. So here’s Witten, in a video interview:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery… Understanding the function of the brain is a very exciting problem, in which probably there will be a lot of progress during the next few decades. That’s not out of reach… But what it is we are experiencing when we are experiencing consciousness, I see as remaining a mystery….

In short, Witten subscribes to:

View #1: “It’s a mystery – that’s all I can say.”

Anticlimactic, maybe. But a strength of science is that its wisest practitioners only make scientific claims when they are capable of addressing a question scientifically. Witten is careful to distinguish two different types questions about the mind. One can first ask: what are the inner workings of the brain, physically and biologically, and how do these give rise to behavior?

Like most physicists, he assumes that scientists will eventually answer this question. The brain is a complicated physical system, but it’s governed by the same laws as all other matter. Meanwhile, there’s the second question of how the brain gives rise to conscious experience. What is the nature of your interior world, and how is it related to physical matter? This question Witten is unwilling to answer. Many physicists share his agnosticism.

It may seem Witten hasn’t said very much. But at least he maintains there’s some mystery. Compare that with:

View #2: “There’s no mystery – there’s no mind, only matter.”

The physicists’ legacy of physicalism frames popular questions about consciousness. If you believe the world consists of only the physical, then consciousness will present a puzzle: how do you account for the mental realm we inhabit? We have seen that one response is to claim agnosticism. But another is to stick hard to physicalism.

Such hardline physicists account for the mental realm by simply denying it, or denying the validity of the question. Their view is something like what philosophers call eliminative materialism.

It stems from the long and fruitful scientific tradition of only asking questions that can be empirically verified. You don’t ask, “What’s an electron really like?” or “What is the essence of the quark?”

These questions are dismissed as not only useless but also truly meaningless, questions about nothing. Instead, one asks, “What happens when you measure the electron in the following way?”

Likewise, many physicists reject typical questions about consciousness. If the ineffable interior life of conscious beings is not something we can ask valid questions about, then does it really exist?

To these physicists, you can’t ask, “What is Alice really feeling inside her head?” — a question with no verifiable answer. Instead, you ask questions like, “What will Alice say when I ask her what she’s feeling inside her head?”

The second question does have a verifiable answer, and one that you could hypothetically predict using the laws of physics, assuming you can solve the equations governing the particles that constitute Alice, calculating how her mouth will move in response to the question.

Physicists with View #2 will satisfy themselves with questions of the latter nature, while dismissing questions of the former.

To them, the “mind” is just another sort of abstraction, a useful bit of language. The question of how the mind arises from the brain is no more philosophically troubling for them than the question of how a “cloud” arises from a collection of water molecules hanging in the sky.

View #2 can be hard to stomach. To many of us, it certainly feels like there’s something special going on inside our heads. It feels like our thoughts have a special sort of existence that clouds don’t have. If one accepts that intuition, it leads the physicist to:

View #3: “Consciousness is a mysterious property that emerges in certain physical systems.”

For these physicists, it’s possible to admit that consciousness is a special sort of phenomenon that occurs in certain physical systems. Particles arranged in the shape of a table aren’t conscious, but particles arranged in the shape of a person usually are.

Somehow, a particular motion of particles gives rise to a special interior world, a mind. At the same time, one can maintain that this “mind” has no causal control over the matter that composes it: it’s what philosophers call an epiphenomenon, a phenomenon outside of the causal order. Many physicists are somewhat epiphenomenalists, I think.

If you accept that the mind is real and not some simple abstraction, and you believe it’s a consequence of certain physical arrangements of matter, the question becomes: what arrangements of matter give rise to consciousness?

This question may be difficult, but at least it is (some believe) meaningful. One physicist who’s taken a stab at the question is Max Tegmark from MIT, in his speculative paper “Consciousness as a State of Matter.”

I won’t claim Tegmark is an epiphenomenalist of otherwise classify his philosophy, but he does ask the question: which sort of matter is conscious, and why? For a critical look at some related ideas, I also recommend the analysis of Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist and part-time physicist.

I suspect that Views 1, 2, and 3 loosely cover the majority of physicists. Then again, maybe you’re better off asking the economist how long you can leave your eggs in the fridge.


DanielRanardDaniel Ranard is a PhD Student at Stanford University at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

 

ARE MYSTICS PSYCHOTIC?

Are you a Who or a What?

Questions and Answers.

 

QUESTION: Are mystics psychotic?

ANSWER: A neuroscientist called Persinger suggested in the late 1980’s that the mystic experiences of Reality are psychotic incidents, mentally created if I understand him rightly. So far as I know there hasn’t been any research of significance on the theory. However, Dr Persinger did help develop an electronic helmet which he said reproduced the presence of God.*

Q: Does it?

A: I doubt there’s any mystic experience in history that would claim to be able to invoke any god, certainly not by physical means.

By the way, the use of the culturally and socially ambivalent word God suggests the good doctor has not had the personal mystical experience of Reality himself, nor read the literature on it that goes back 8,000 years if the dating of the Yoga Visistha epic is anything to go by.

Scientists of today, physicists, metaphysicists, psychologists, even theologians and philosophers seem far more receptive to the fundamentals of the phenomena of mystic experience than to any suggestion of psychoticism.

There seems to be a growing awareness of scientific experiment versus mystical experience. Scientists now appear to be on the brink of realising humans might not be the centre of existence, that only mystical experience explains anything of the ultimate reality of which humans are only a part.

Anyway, much of this is not known by the general public. What’s your interest?

Q. To be honest I’m not interested, It’s science fiction to me. I just heard someone discussing you.

A. Sounds like a dismissive discussion! (laughs). How about you? Are you happy with who you are? Do you have any interest in what you are?

Q. What I am? What do you mean, what I am?

A. Sorry, didn’t mean to pry … If you don’t know it doesn’t matter …

Q. No! What do you mean by that, by what I am? Isn’t that rather rude? Aren’t you just supposed to explain, teach, or something?

A. Some mystics are inclined to teach I think, but no, I’m not a teaching mystic – not a priest, monk, guru, prophet or master.

In buddhism, there’s a tradition of the enlightened staying behind to teach.** Other enlightened buddhists don’t teach. They’re called to continue their pilgrimage without human distractions, to what buddhists call Nirvana. If I was a buddhist I would be the latter I think. Anyway, spiritual Reality is caught, not taught. It is counterproductive for you to be “taught” what is only eventually available to you when you are ready and only Ultimate Reality knows that. You’re in good hands. All is well.

But if you have spiritual questions that my experiences might help in developing yours I will always be available.

However, while you’re still a Who not a What you won’t have any spiritual questions to ask yet.

By the way, I’m not being rude. Humans often take facts as insults. I’m being far more serious than that.

* Read More: For more information, see our post where philosopher and author Douglas Lockhart discusses psychoticism and mysticism. Dr Nicki Crowley also discusses the subject from a psychological point of view in Are Mystics Psychotic? Part II. For even more on this subject, check out the PSYCHIATRY category of this blog.


** A pratyekabuddha, or paccekabuddha, is the so-called “silent buddha” who does not try to share his realization with the world. Pratyekabuddhas are said to achieve enlightenment on their own, without the use of teachers or guides, by “dependent origination”, (spontaneous rebirth?). Traditionally, Paccekabuddhas give moral teachings but not enlightenment. (See unedited descriptions in Wikipedia).

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ARE MYSTICS PSYCHOTIC? Part Two of Two

 

Psychosis or Spiritual Emergence? – Consideration of the Transpersonal Perspective within Psychiatry

by Dr. Nicki Crowley

‘Fool’s gold exists because there is real gold’ ~ Rumi

As we progress into the 21st century, psychiatry is broadening its repertoire to further understand the problem of madness.

Psychosis as an altered state of consciousness (ASC)

Our deepening understanding of brain, mind and consciousness leaves us no option but to expand the neurobiology of psychosis to incorporate the concept of consciousness; its nature, levels, dimensions and dynamics, and the impact this function plays in the development of challenging, abnormal states of mind.

Psychosis has been defined as ‘any one of several altered states of consciousness, transient or persistent, that prevent integration of sensory or extrasensory information into reality models accepted by the broad consensus of society, and that lead to maladaptive behaviour and social sanctions. Our deepening understanding of brain, mind and consciousness leaves us no option but to expand the neurobiology of psychosis to incorporate the concept of consciousness; its nature, levels, dimensions and dynamics, and the impact this function plays in the development of challenging, abnormal states of mind.

Psychotic phenomena such as delusions and hallucinations, described and classified in ICD10 and DSM VI 3, follow clinical observations, which in western society are understood as symptoms of illness. This is based on the assumption that we understand the nature of ‘reality’, and that there is a narrow band of ‘normal’ perception, outside of which there is little useful potential. That certain dramatic experiences and unusual states of mind could be more than part of a purely pathological mental state, and hold some potential for personal growth and transformation is the subject of this paper.

Spiritual emergency, consciousness and the transpersonal perspective

Observation from many disciplines, including clinical and experimental psychiatry, modern consciousness research, experiential psychotherapies, anthropological field studies, parapsychology, thanatology, comparative religions and mythology have contributed to the concept of ‘spiritual emergency’ a term that suggests both a crisis and an opportunity of rising to a new level of awareness or ‘spiritual emergence.’

This term was first coined by Stan and Christina Grof who founded the Spiritual Emergency Network at the Esalen Institute in 1980. Its remit was to assist individuals and make referrals to therapists for people experiencing psychological difficulties associated with spiritual practices and spontaneous spiritual experiences. Grof describes a spiritual emergency:

‘There exist spontaneous non-ordinary states of consciousness, (NOSC) that would in the West be seen and treated as psychosis, and treated mostly by suppressive medication. But if we use the observations from the study of non-ordinary states, and also from other spiritual traditions, they should really be treated as crises of transformation, or crises of spiritual opening. Something that should really be supported rather than suppressed. If properly understood and properly supported, they are actually conducive to healing and transformation’.

In order for psychiatry to appreciate the relevance of this perspective to the medical diagnosis and treatment of psychosis, it is necessary to move beyond our materialistic, biomechanical focus on brain function and start to expand on the concept of consciousness – that fundamental yet intangible core aspect of ‘aliveness’, within which is held our perceptual awareness of experience. Medicine, psychiatry and traditional psychotherapies hold the assumption that consciousness is a by-product (or epiphenomenon) of the brain and cannot persist independently of it (the productive theory of consciousness). The transmissive theory of consciousness holds that consciousness is inherent in the cosmos and is independent of our physical senses, although is mediated by them in everyday life. So the brain and the psyche can be thought of acting as a lens through which consciousness is experienced in the body.

This forms the basis of the transpersonal perspective, which received its initial articulation by thinkers and scholars in the field of psychology, Carl Jung, Robert Assagioli, Ken Wilbur and Stanislav Grof amongst others. They recognised the limitations of the field of psychology and sought insights and teachings from the spiritual traditions and certain philosophical schools of the east.

The term ‘transpersonal’ is used here to refer to psychological categories that transcend the normal features of ordinary ego-functioning, that is, stages of psychological growth, or consciousness, that move beyond the rational and precede the mystical. At the root of the transpersonal perspective is the idea that there is a deep level of subjectivity or pure spirit that infuses all matter and every event. A common metaphor throughout the spiritual wisdom traditions refers to this consciousness, or living spirit, (be it called Brahman, Buddha-Mind, Tao, or The Word) as having been breathed into all being at the moment of creation as a manifestation of divine nature. It is necessary for sentient life, because experience and awareness are possible only through the activating power that flows from this Source.

Transpersonal theory is a way of organising our experience of ‘reality’; it is not that reality itself. It relies on the phenomenological observations of inner subjective experience and instead of merely pathologising those which do not fit into expected socio-cultural models, attempts to set them in the context of the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Primal Religions) with some of the philosophical (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Kierkegaard) and psychological (Jungian, Humanistic, Existential) schools of the West.

Spiritual Emergence and the Transpersonal Levels

Spiritual emergence can be seen as a natural process of human development in which an individual moves beyond normal feelings and desires of the personal ego into the transpersonal realms of increasing relatedness to a Higher Power, or God. It is an acclimatisation to more subtle levels of consciousness.

In The Atman Project 7 Ken Wilber has described three levels of transpersonal experience, in ascending order: Subtle, Causal and Atman. At these levels people have access to a fluid creativity from a higher order of inspiration than that of the personality.

The Subtle level is that level of conscious awareness which includes extrasensory perceptions indigenous to the body, as well as those apparently separated from it such as out-of-body experiences and psychokinetic phenomena (objects moving without a physical catalyst.) The experience of this level is thought to be related to a system of energy centres in the body called chakras in Sanskrit, that are of a more subtle order than physiological organ systems, and subsequently activate a higher order of perception than that possible from our five physical senses. Experiencing awareness of dimensions beyond physical, objectified reality is often the basis for accessing a deeper, revitalised inner meaning of oneness in connection to others.

People have experienced Causal level consciousness as ‘peak experiences’ secondary to spiritual practice, inspired by music, taking mindaltering substances or following emotional trauma, childbirth or during intense sexual experiences. It is described as a state of perfect ecstasy, untainted by any distracting thoughts, desires or moods. The Causal level includes the awareness of Subtle and material dimensions, going beyond them to a fuller realisation of union with ‘God’, where there is said to be no sense of time, only eternity.

The Atman level is beyond the Causal, but including all dimensions below it. This dimension of consciousness is said to be so completely immersed in the Highest Power that nothing else exists in awareness. It is described as bringing perfect ecstasy beyond emotion. Indications of the Atman level exist in mystical religious texts where it is referred to as being beyond description.

Experience of these transpersonal realms does not necessarily precipitate a crisis. These intense intra-psychic experiences can phenomenologically appear similar to pathological psychotic states, but given the appropriate context, sensitive guidance, and opportunity to integrate the experience, individuals can reach higher levels of awareness and functioning following such an experience.

This transpersonal perspective affords us an opportunity to build a modern scientific theory of ‘madness’ around a radically expanded view of consciousness, and allows us to differentiate extraordinary states of consciousness that are more adaptive than the ordinary state, from alterations that restrict one’s ability to function in the world.

 

The Future

Although scientific technology has furthered the success of some medical specialities, of concern for Psychiatry is the singular lack of resolution of depression, anger and violence amongst our patients, indeed in society as a whole. Despite the fact that modern science has all the knowledge necessary to eliminate most diseases, combat poverty and starvation, and generate enough safe and renewable energy, we remain living in an often violent, disparate world.

The problems we are facing now are not merely economic, political or technological in nature. They are reflections of the emotional, moral and spiritual state of contemporary humanity 20. One of the few hopeful and encouraging developments in the world today is the renaissance of interest in ancient spiritual traditions and the mystical quest. People who have had powerful transformative experiences and have succeeded in applying them to everyday life show very distinct changes in their values. Perhaps this development holds potential for all of us, since it represents a movement away from destructive and self-destructive personality characteristics and the emergence of values that foster individual and collective survival.

In 1999, The Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) founded a Special Interest Group in Spirituality and Psychiatry, to serve two needs: the creation of an enabling forum where psychiatrists could meet and explore the relevance of spirituality to mental healthcare, and to acknowledge the fact that user-led surveys had indicated that they felt the lack of spiritual dimension within psychiatry, and to work towards alleviating this. (http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/college/sig/spirit) The recent development of the Spiritual Crisis Network in the UK also indicates renewed interest and motivation. (http://www.spiritualcrisisnetwork.org.uk/)

In Conclusion

Psychiatry must meet the challenge to broaden its repertoire. We can now include recent findings in medical and neuroscientific research, together with the ancient wisdom of the perennial philosophy, and consider the implication that has for understanding an expanded cartography of the psyche, which includes the transpersonal dimension.


Dr. Nicki Crowley, MB ChB MRCPsych., qualified from the University of Birmingham Medical School in 1993, with an interest in neuropsychiatry and complementary and alternative medicine.  She subsequently specialised in psychiatry, training with both the Royal College of Psychiatry (UK) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry between 1995-2003.  She gained entry onto the GMC specialist register in 2003 and has worked as an NHS Consultant since then. 

THIS PAPER WAS AWARDED THE ESSAY PRIZE FOR 2005 BY THE EXECUTIVE OF THE SPIRITUALITY AND PSYCHIATRY SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, ROYAL COLLEGE OF PSYCHIATRISTS, UK. The above text is an extract from Dr Crowley’s paper.