Transcendent Spiritual Development

So far, we have concentrated on the differentiation of the subtle intuitively based structures of the circular level. However we are also concerned very much with the integration of the personality. Indeed, the whole driving force behind development during this level is the intense desire for spiritual integration.

In a religious context, much attention is now placed on progress in relation to prayer. At the linear level, prayer will be limited by many rigid concepts and images. However at the circular level, with the more intuitively based structures, there is an enhanced facility for more advanced forms of meditation and contemplation. The positive stages (supersensory and suprarational) can fruitfully be looked on as periods of advanced meditation.

Too often meditation is considered solely in the context of culturally defined religious symbols. However in the supersensory stage, all perceptions serve as spiritual images continually raising the mind to God. In the suprarational stage a deeper type of meditation is possible where conceptual symbols now serve as powerful archetypes of God.

The mirror stages, being more vertical, are more directly concerned with contemplative experience. In the (mirror) supersensory stage, perceptual activity is greatly eroded, so that one's prayer consists of a heartfelt desire without phenomena which is contemplation. However, it is especially during the (mirror) suprarational stage (i.e. the dark night) that enormous growth in contemplative ability is manifest. Like a chain reaction that is impossible to contain, one becomes completely absorbed in an unconscious effortless form of dark contemplation, which threatens to overwhelm the ego altogether. One, now no longer - self consciously - prays. Rather the spirit, which is cosmic and universal, prays through one.

It is very important to explain therefore, why - despite this extraordinary growth in authentic spiritual awareness during the dark night - that one is ultimately reduced, to a state of total frustration and hopelessness.

There are really two complementary types of spirituality. The type that develops almost exclusively during the circular level is of the transcendent variety. This is an other-worldly approach where God is seen essentially as outside and superseding creation. Therefore union with God is here interpreted as requiring detachment from all conscious phenomena. Fundamentally this assumes that the cognitive mode is superior to the affective mode. The senses associated with the affective mode are seen as pertaining to "lower nature", '"flesh" and the "base instincts" which more than anything else threaten the life of the spirit. In extremes, this leads to a strong anti-body philosophy. Reason (which is associated with the cognitive mode) is seen as the appropriate means - guided by the spirit - of disciplining bodily desires and exercising due control over the troublesome senses.

As we have seen, in a direct sense the affective mode relates to the unconscious while the cognitive mode relates to the conscious process. As the feminine and masculine principles are in turn related to the unconscious and conscious processes respectively, we can define transcendent spirituality as essentially the expression of the masculine principle. Not surprisingly, as this principle in turn dominates Western patriarchal culture, in formal terms the major religions continually tend to overemphasise the transcendent approach to spiritual development.

Instead of an equality of modes an unmistakable hierarchy is presented. At the bottom there is the affective mode and the role of the senses; in the middle is the cognitive mode and the role of reason; at the top is the volitional mode and the role of the spirit.

Immanent spirituality on the other is very much a this-worldly approach where God is understood as residing within nature. Union is now seen as involving a total participation in created reality. There is considerable emphasis on the affective mode, the role of spontaneity and feeling, and the immediate as opposed to the eternal present. It tends to be more personally based and appreciative of the value of the senses and of natural bodily desires. Here the significance of affective and cognitive modes is reversed with the consequent danger of too much emphasis on personal emotional response. Though it is always present in certain religious movements (e.g. charismatic) and popular devotion, because of its informal nature it rests uneasily with the more structured demands of institutionalised religion and is often repressed.

In mystical terms, St. John of the Cross provides (in his formal synthesis) the most uncompromising version of transcendent spirituality. His symbol of the mountain in describing the nature of the spiritual journey aptly demonstrates this trait. Union with God essentially is to be achieved through successfully rising above all created things. Initially, the committed spiritual disciple is exhorted to exercise absolute control over the senses and the lower appetites. At a later stage the same control is urged in relation to any pleasure arising from the intellect and even spiritual activities. Indeed natural consolation deriving from any practice whatsoever has to be denied. Now in many ways this single minded commitment is heroic and admirable. If pushed to extremes however, it is potentially highly dangerous for it can lead to a fundamental misunderstanding of the unconscious.

Let me attempt to illustrate this basic difference as between transcendent and immanent approaches, with respect to their respective treatments of the role of erotic fantasy in the spiritual life.

From the transcendent perspective, though such fantasy may be considered inevitable there is a tendency to treat it as an alien intruder of the body (i.e. temptation) to be resisted and controlled. Until recently, in ascetic literature, rarely were the words erotic or sexual ever used, but rather indirect and attitude loaded terminology such as "promptings of the flesh", "bad thoughts", "evil inclinations", "the devil" etc. Now the basic assumption here is that the body is on a lower plane than the spirit and indeed incompatible with it. Reason (guided by the spirit) is the recommended means of keeping this "lower" body in check. Too often this leads to a considerable mind-body split, so that in successfully resisting sexual desires the spiritual disciple unwittingly represses them, gradually losing touch with basic instincts. This can often surface later indirectly in the form of troublesome and poorly understood emotional symptoms such as resentment, anger, frustration and indeed depression.

Now from the immanent perspective, there would be a far more positive interpretation of the role of sexual fantasy. It would be considered as a natural - and indeed invaluable - expression of a vitally important part of personality. Thus instead of suppressing it we should listen in carefully, to try and understand what it is telling us regarding our emotional needs and desires. In other words it acts as an essential emotional barometer enabling us to keep in touch with our basic humanity. Of course the opposite danger here is that too permissive an attitude may be adopted, so that we are unable to transcend this merely bodily level of experience.

Of course both approaches are complementary. Without immanent development, in the attempt to spiritually advance, inevitable repression of the body will be involved. Without transcendent development, we are in danger of becoming too tied to the body losing even the desire for spiritual advancement.

The linear level - as we have seen - leads to specialisation of the rational paradigm, where already considerable repression of bodily instincts takes place. It is perhaps understandable - given the dominance of reason - that someone with a gift for authentic spiritual advancement (i.e. the need to move on to "higher" levels of understanding) will view this in transcendent terms. Thus the circular level represents above all, specialisation in transcendent spirituality where unfortunately a greater degree of emotional repression is likely as a temporary consequence.

Very few in practice are gifted with the desire to pursue these spiritual heights. Therefore it is important that they are not hindered in their quest by inappropriate advice. Now, the programme of St. John is ultimately unbalanced and if followed conscientiously is likely to lead to so much repression that it could culminate in severe psychological problems. Indeed, I believe that the trials depicted by St. John in his terrifying descriptions of the "Dark Night" are at least in part pathological due to a faulty representation of the spiritual process.

I find it highly relevant that he never completed his formal synthesis. In dealing with the later stages of the journey, he increasingly relies on lyrical poetic verses. Both these verses and the commentary based upon them display considerable erotic content. It is as if he was exploring deep affective regions of his personality - formally repressed - now in much need of expression. These lyrical descriptions are very valuable in their own right. However, these is a marked discontinuity as between the formal intellectual synthesis applying to the earlier stages and the poetic approach applying to the final stages. In other words, whereas the formal synthesis is based totally on a transcendent (masculine) spirituality, the poetic approach is based to a considerable degree on a more immanent (feminine) type approach. However St. John does not adequately reconcile these complementary poles of spirituality.

Indeed, by and large this same criticism can be made of many forms of Eastern mysticism, where formally - if not always in practice - progress in the spiritual life is portrayed in unduly transcendent terms.

It is this important matter that I wish to address.

Evolution and Involution

The basic principle of (psychological) relativity is very simple but has profound consequences, which are rarely fully appreciated. The self is in continual dynamic relationship with the world. This implies twin complementary poles, so that positive movement in terms of one pole, inevitably implies - in relative terms - negative movement in terms of the other. Thus for example if time is moving forward in the world (relative to self) then time for the self is moving backwards (relative to the world).

Properly understood therefore time is relative, simultaneously always moving forwards and backwards (i.e. in both positive and negative directions). Now, as we have seen at the linear level, there is great confusion on this point, where most people would interpret time as moving solely in a positive direction (i.e forward for both self and the world). Putting in another way progress or evolution both of self and the world are seen as moving in the same direction forward in time. We can see this tendency also in the standard linear stages approach, so characteristic of developmental psychology. Here the child is seen as progressing from '"lower" through increasingly "higher" stages of development until adult maturity is reached.

Indeed this tendency usually carries over into transpersonal psychology where so often further progress is represented as journeying progressively through even "higher" stages till ultimate union is reached.

However, properly understood - in relative terms - positive movement always coincides with negative movement; progression coincides with regression; evolution coincides with involution.

Now I have tried to allow this insight inform my own outline of the circular level. Here each positive stage of development is balanced by a corresponding negative stage.

Now I have tried to allow this insight inform my own outline of the circular level. Here each positive stage of development is balanced by a corresponding negative stage. Thus psychological evolution does not take place in a positive linear direction but rather in complementary positive and negative directions (i.e. in a circular fashion).

With the supersensory stage, there is the unfolding of a remarkably enhanced illuminated view of creation. In other words, during this external stage, considerable evolution in understanding of physical reality takes place (in relation to the personal self). Unfortunately, coincidentally - in relative terms - involution (i.e. negative evolution) of the internal self takes place (in relation to physical reality). This steady divergence in terms of evolution of both poles is the very source of the increasing stress and conflict that builds up during this stage.

During the supersensory mirror stage there is a reversal in the direction of development. Now there is considerable evolution in understanding of the internal self (in relation to the world). However this now implies involution of the world (in relation self). This is why in dealing with the world, one moves in a backward direction, with many past achievements and skills being literally undone.

During the suprarational stage there is now a remarkable illumination in mental creation (i.e. the conceptual structures used to understand reality). However this once again involves involution of the personal self leading to inevitable conflict and strain in experience.

The suprarational mirror stage (i.e. dark night) brings the final reversal. There is now enormous evolution in the personal self with corresponding involution of the physical world. Thus an incredible degree of stress and tension results which has a dramatic and remarkable explanation.

Simultaneously, two points or singularities are finally approached. On the one hand, the self has evolved spiritually to that point or inner centre of being with all (conscious) ego stripped away. On the other hand, physical reality has simultaneously involved through the immense gravitational collapse of the psychological black hole to a physical point representing the beginning of creation. One simultaneously - in psychological terms - has reached the goal or end of self evolution, and the source or beginning of physical evolution. But instead of joy, one experiences only failure and an existential crisis of the first magnitude.

The Second Conversion

The circular level solves one problem i.e. the twin directions of experience. But there is another problem which is left largely untouched i.e. the twin modes of all experience. Again a simple and obvious insight has profound consequences.

Just as there are twin complementary directions to all experience, there are also twin complementary modes to all experience i.e. the cognitive and affective respectively. Though the importance of both is recognised during the circular level, they are understood in a confused manner, with the affective largely reduced and interpreted within a cognitive (i.e. rational) paradigm. As I have already stated, the cognitive mode relates directly to the conscious and the affective to the unconscious processes respectively. Now in practice in our culture, "reality" is basically defined in terms of cognitive scientific criteria. "Fantasy" - with implicit connotations of being unreal - is reserved for unconscious affective experience and is largely split off from "reality". Thus for the affective to enter - scientifically defined - reality it must be effectively reduced to the cognitive mode.

Of course scientists rely on the senses (requiring the affective mode) for their observations. But then such data is cognitively translated as if their modal origins were irrelevant. Thus for the scientist both theoretical constructs (based on the cognitive mode) and sense data (based initially on the affective mode) are interpreted as relating to the "real" world. However, once we accept that in fact the cognitive and affective modes are qualitatively different, then theoretical concepts and corresponding sense data do not belong to the same reality. This point is absolutely fundamental and indirectly - as we shall see later - of profound relevance to modern physics.

The basic problem underlying psychological development at both the linear and circular levels is that it is largely interpreted within an underlying rational paradigm. Though the unconscious is largely important at the earliest stages of development, it is quickly repressed as conscious rational specialisation takes hold. So before long the assumptions underlying the highly arbitrary rational paradigm unconsciously largely determine one's view of "reality".

Though at the circular level one sees clearly through one of the fundamental confusions (i.e. the direction of experience), modal confusion still exists. Thus though a more highly refined intuitively based rational paradigm is employed (i.e. the suprarational ), modal reductionism takes place.

One essentially considers the rational conscious as a superior mode to that of the affective unconscious. Therefore instinctive impulses springing from the "lower unconscious" are considered inappropriate in terms of this new spiritual life of the "higher conscious", and are largely censored. Where the affective is permitted to enter experience, it undergoes considerable sublimation and cognitive translation (i.e. operates under the control of reason). Thus as the circular level progresses emotional experience becomes increasingly transcendent and spiritually refined. This in turn leads to much unconscious repression, so that may finally even reach a stage, where no longer troubled by primitive desires, one wrongly interprets this as clear evidence of healthy spiritual progress.

In simple terms, primitive instincts are associated with the need for both survival and procreation. These relate to the individual masculine principle and social feminine principles respectively. One obvious manifestation of the survival instinct is the desire for food. It is no accident that in our time eating disorders are so often associated with women. Because of the cultural suppression of the masculine principle in women, they can have greater problems in establishing an individual self identity. Eating disorders then represent a primitive response to the failure to achieve this identity. On the other hand sexual disorders represent the corresponding failure to achieve an adequate sense of social identity. Not surprisingly, men because of greater suppression of their feminine side, often have considerable problems in this area.

During the mirror supersensory stages - due to the direct threat to emotional life - a man may for a while have problems in terms of intimate physically erotic impulses. During the more serious mirror suprarational stage, where is there is an extreme level of purgation of the "masculine" cognitive ego, instinctive behaviour is largely concerned with the need for survival and security. Thus one may find oneself constantly craving food, a home, or job in a primitive attempt to preserve some natural sense of self. Again one interprets spiritual progress in terms of the willingness to control these desires. Indeed it is precisely - in the manner recommended by St. John of the Cross - because of a single minded determination never to compromise with nature, being always willing to take the difficult option, that the problems with this approach are brought to a head.

Thus the depression and bitter sense of failure so characteristic of the dark night is in large part due to undue repression of physical nature as a result of the desire for transcendent spiritual transformation. In more technical terms, it amounts to an unbalanced interpretation of modes, not allowing the affective to speak for itself, but only through cognitive translation, where it is brought under the control of reason.

The resolution of the dark night crisis thus requires a second conversion. Normally, as we have seen, religious conversion is seen in transcendent terms as a movement from natural desires in the direction of spirit. However with the yang pole (i.e. the transcendent) now reaching its extreme, there is the need to move in the opposite direction towards yin (i.e. the immanent) back to the natural.

This often comes only after a terrible crisis. In an increasingly desperate state psychologically, one still keeps hanging on in faith, attempting to transcend one's circumstances. However, facing now the existential failure of one's deepest conviction, one finally lets go of faith itself. In that dramatic moment nature is mysteriously reborn, and with it the first glimmering of renewed hope.