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THE HEALING NEEDED IN OUR WORLD:
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES ON BUDDHIST MEDITATION, NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION, ECO-PSYCHOLOGY, AND PATHS TO A NEW CONSCIOUSNESS
An Individualized Capstone Project Presented in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
THE HEALING NEEDED IN OUR WORLD:
PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES ON BUDDHIST MEDITATION, NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION, ECO-PSYCHOLOGY, AND PATHS TO A NEW CONSCIOUSNESS
has been approved
The Healing Needed In Our World:
Psychological Perspectives on Buddhist Meditation, Nonviolent Communication,
Eco-Psychology and Paths to a New Consciousness
Modern world conditions are calling out for transformational change in societies, cultures, businesses and individual persons. This paper examines and explores some definitions of the phenomena of becoming a whole person. Specific obstacles to holistic transformation, healthy worldviews, relational sanity, and psychological healing are pointed out. Wisdom traditions from Western and Eastern psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and history are described with reference to potential contributions to healing modalities as well as to the need for further psychological and spiritual development. In particular, modes of consciousness are identified that lead to healing and wellbeing as well as to limiting conditions in these two disparate cultures. The possibilities for the integration of East and West today are unprecedented. An opportunity exists to incorporate the best of these traditions and contribute to a holistic approach that combines contemplative methods of living with psychological sophistication. The global view of healing and transformation is accompanied by environmental pressures such as population growth and resource depletion that have approached the limits of sustainability. Two complementary healing modalities, one from the East and one from the West, are offered here to integrate the inner life and the outer life, the feminine and masculine, being and doing, into much needed balance. In this way the healing needed in our world can be celebrated by co-creating a new culture of genuine peace and elementary sanity.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Waking Up………………………………………………………….. 6
The Healing Century………………………………………………... 7
Change and Growth…………………………………………………. 8
East and West……………………………………………………….. 9
Life Span Development……………………………………………...10
Evolution of Consciousness………………………………………….11
Spiritual Development………………………………………………. 12
Are We Failing?………………………………………………………13
Two Tools………………………………………………………...…. 14
Integral Psychology……………………………………..…………... 15
Nonviolent Communication…………………………………………. 21
A Culture of Separation………………………………..……………. 23
The Big Picture……………………………………………………… 27
Fixed Views…………………………………………………………. 28
Personality: Path or Pathology………………………………………. 29
Dualistic Perception…………………………………………………. 30
A Global Perspective…………………………...…………………… 37
An Individual Approach…………………………………………….. 38
The Problem of Certainty…………………………………………… 41
The Cosmic View…………………………………………………… 48
Why Psychology? ………………………………………………….. 51
Ten Percent…………………………………………………………. 55
The Age of Reason…………………………………………………. 57
The Seventeenth Century…………………………………………… 60
The Enlightenment………………………………………………….. 62
The Tyranny of Reason………………………………………...…… 63
The Birth of the Modern Ego……………………………………….. 64
The Big Split………………………………………………...……… 72
Restoring the Subjective………………………………….…………. 75
The 1960’s……………………………………………….………….. 76
Paths to a New Consciousness………………………………….…… 77
Buddhist Meditation………………………………………………… 85
Spiritual Bypassing………………………………………………….. 88
Why I Became a Buddhist…………………………………………... 91
My Two Spiritual Teachers………………………………………….. 94
Ascending & Descending Spirit…………………………………….. 101
Nonviolent Communication………………………………………… 103
The Healing Needed in Our World:
Psychological Perspectives on Nonviolent Communication, Buddhist Meditation,
Eco-Psychology and Paths to a New Consciousness
In planning a Capstone Project thesis I have tried to think through what is the most important element for me in psychology. The answer I have come to, for my own personal life and for what I see happening in our world, is the process I would call the evolution of consciousness. This is the key to healing. While consciousness, for me here, simply means what we know, what we are aware of, evolution of consciousness implies change and growth. There is a sense of waking up, an expansion of what we are aware of. However, because motivation is involved, this is not necessarily a straightforward process--for while change seems to be inevitable, growth remains optional. Part of a healthy process of evolution must involve what we call healing and growth--waking up to new dimensions. Some call it a change of heart; I will identify and discuss the details in a psychological framework.
In order to heal our life, our behavior, our relationships and our planet it seems we must evolve rather quickly toward a new, more life-enhancing consciousness. It is my perception and experience that it is possible to invent, discover and learn innovative heuristic (empirical, experiential, subjective) tools that, when put into practice, can enhance awareness and address the evolution of consciousness in direct and effective ways. I will describe from personal experience some of these tools, and the insights they are based on, in this paper.
For me, psychology is about engaging legitimate suffering in a conscious way that invites healing, growing, making ourselves whole. The root of the word healing, or health, is wholeness. This is something like a cohesive sense of wellbeing supported by expanded awareness. The meaning of healing implies that we are not whole or, rather, we act and think in ways that are fragmented, confused, disturbed and not whole. Often these ways are life-alienating, ways that are limiting, harmful, destructive – certainly not opening to our full human potential. This implies a need for change, for openness, and for evolution, a notion that is not embraced by everyone. I will investigate the notion and process of motivation, change, growth, healing and wellbeing in this paper.
The Healing Century
Perhaps in our past human history the need for change in the way of growth was not felt very keenly. As people and societies evolved there was always much suffering, violence and oppression but there were places to move on to, to escape to, whether it was new geography, evolution of new ideas, new energy, or new societal structures (such as democracy). Nowadays there is no place to go, and yet people are still unhappy and suffering planet-wide. It appears to me that the only next frontier available is to be found through the inner life. Awakening to the inner life is a subjective experience. This inner dimension of reality and experience has been officially denied in our Western modern era due to the rise of objectification (Berman, 1981).
Objective thinking has dominated Western culture during the development and amazing growth of the industrial/rational mind. This techno-scientific explosion has resulted in the rise of material comforts and convenience. However, the amazing advances in science and technology have created a shadow element. They have been created at the expense and eclipse of the inner subjective life (Wilber, 2000b) and the development of a decent spirituality. In my experience it is only through awakening to the inner life that healing and growth can occur. It appears that the shadow element has created a call for balance and aliveness in the 21st century that the Dalai Lama has called “the healing century” (Ekman, 2008) . There is an urgency to this call that is related to survival matters in planetary, human, animal and plant species health (Brown, 2009).
The picture I see is we are in a period of great transition whose outcome is unknown. In essence, perhaps we could agree that while all our natural support systems (food, energy, climate) are in decline (Brown, 2011), the notion of a healthy individual person on a dying planet is losing much traction, or should be. In this way, I think psychology is challenged to widen its boundaries toward more inclusive possibilities, relationships and world-view. Already psychology is moving toward integration in areas of spirituality, transpersonal development, sensitivity to nature and ecosystems, and a more comprehensive recognition and aliveness within subjective phenomena such as, for example, recovering the suppressed inner life of feelings and needs (Rosenberg, 2003). According to Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson (1983, p. 19): “It is the feminine qualities that bring meaning into life: relatedness to other human beings, the ability to soften power with love, awareness of our inner feelings and values, respect for our earthly environment, a delight in earth’s beauty, and the introspective quest for inner wisdom.”
Change and Growth
Practical, experiential tools and methods for the evolution of consciousness are necessary to create and implement a new consciousness in real life, in real people, in real experience, relationships and behavior. Some effort and motivation are also required. Selected methods and tools will be explained based on my long experience with Buddhist meditation and nonviolent communication (NVC). Since I have personal experience with these tools, including observations of others in practice groups as well as teaching others, then it seems reasonable that I am in a position to report on their effectiveness. These social tools have to do with communication skills, relationship dynamics, introspective techniques/practices, and the development of awareness. Reporting on these specific practices that are designed to awaken subjective experience and expand consciousness will serve to ground some of the general observations made regarding the healing needed in our world.
A powerful point of change and growth to be discussed will concern examining the conventional notions of personal identity and personality. The area of motivation for change will also be considered from the point of view of resistance. Although motivation for change is somewhat mysterious, it seems that the dreaded experiences of pain, anxiety, hurt, frustration, dissatisfaction, and distress are necessary catalysts. I will describe typical obstacles and immunity to change (Kegan & Lahey, 2009) imprints like self-protective structures (defenses), limiting core beliefs and fear of the unknown. Concepts of Buddhist philosophy that pertain to the practice of meditation will be explained as they relate to the evolution of consciousness (Trungpa, 1976).
East and West
What is innovative and unique about my approach to the selected topics in this paper is the inquiry into how Buddhist meditation practice can help Western psychology, and also the reverse – how psychology and psychotherapy can help Buddhist practices enter the West (Preece,2009). I realize this inquiry is a work in progress and is not new or entirely unique to my work; much insightful investigation has already been published and some of these will be acknowledged in the review of literature to follow. However, the cultural and societal differences between East and West are formidable and difficult to bridge for effective integration. Asian teachers of philosophy and meditation have an ongoing need to better understand Western society and the peculiar suffering and neurosis of individuals interested in Buddhist ideals, especially in regard to individuation. And even though, as Joseph Campbell (1972,) noted, “…the individual in the Orient is to this day bound and restrained from the realization of a truly individual personal life” (p. 62), I believe, psychology must continue to expand its conventional boundaries to incorporate the spiritual wisdom of the East. Essentially, a highly developed psychospiritual approach to healing our world is necessary for integrating various traditional splits that can no longer be tolerated, such as between mind and nature, mind and body, science and religion and equally between objective (ego) and subjective (contemplative) modes of being in the world. The search here is about finding balance between seductive extremes.
Life Span Development
An important foundation concept for this paper that will be referred to often is life span development. It is important to realize and implement the relatively recent acceptance of the fact that people can continue to develop and change over the entire span of their lives. Identity and personality are mutable, changeable and can evolve with both intention and aging. Such awakening, change, and evolution must be seen as healthy and not resisted as unconventional, non-ordinary or pathological. Individual change fits within the larger picture of our human societal developmental stages such as, for example, the liberation movements of women’s rights, release from slavery to equality, from colonization to state sovereignty, from nationhood to world-centric, all of which were characterized initially by resistance, oppression and domination. Even though these movements are characterized by change, they are nowhere near complete, as domination, repression and colonization find ever more subtle and clever domains in human behavior. Another example might be how men’s subjugation of women is also reflected in our destruction of nature in the mindless pursuit of material resources as well as the continuing colonization of foreign lands, markets and people.
Evolution of Consciousness
All human development and evolution of consciousness is about change. I have observed how important human developmental tasks, over the life span, can remain latent and dormant until stimulated and awakened by education, pain and/or hard times. Of course, there are different stages of possible human development and I will address two broad categories of them in this paper. The two categories are conventional ego-based development, and the somewhat esoteric and unconventional, yet quite ordinary, development of a genuine earth and sky spirituality. For example, spiritual development can range from awakening from a purely self-centered outlook and behavior to cosmic consciousness, from pre-personal to transpersonal. Even though change is resisted and not valued or desired in so many ways I will demonstrate how certain kinds of change are essential - beneficial, healthy and necessary for survival.
A preliminary stage or category of human development deals with attaining maturity in cognitive and emotional literacy, marked by changes in awareness, identity and behavior. These can involve therapeutic uncovering of limiting core beliefs and early childhood wounding that affect functioning on gross and subtle levels both in relationships and individual well-being (Karen, 1994). This development takes place in the ego-based realm of personality and identity issues. What is being dealt with here is the question of a whole, healthy person and opening to the capacity for honesty, self-knowledge, and some degree of empathy. Change in this category will involve recognizing, challenging and opening directly to experiences of emotional confusion, discomfort and stuckness, and beginning to question conventional notions of boundaries in personality, identity and reality.
The other more advanced level of development I will address is the spiritual dimension. This is characterized by emotional freedom (as opposed to solidified hang-ups) and fluidity, as well as transpersonal, egoless and transparent experiences of being, and enlightenment – open and undefended manifestations of compassionate behavior and wisdom realizations regarding one’s true nature and the nature of mind and reality altogether. I will offer my experience of interacting personally with Asian teachers who manifest these qualities and will describe the impressions gathered and the effect on my life path.
Awakenings of these kinds are available to everyone and are pleasurable, difficult, liberating and marked by a sense of inner richness. Although a genuine spiritual path can appear to be simple and exciting, it is not easy. There are no guarantees. For, unless a solid sense of self has been developed through completion of essential ego-based developmental tasks, then spiritual pursuits can become a tempting diversion and avoidance of these necessary and difficult tasks (Engler, 1993). In other words, some will seek to bypass emotional deficits and other wounding issues buried from the past in pursuit of an escape trajectory upward through an ascending spiritual search that can become unsettling and dangerous (Welwood, 2011). Conversely, a genuine spiritual path can uncover and show up various personal shortcomings where behavior and understanding are not in accord. Thus spirituality is an interactive evolutionary path that must confront the temptation of developmental bypassing in an honest harmonization of heaven and earth qualities. The integration of spiritual development and psychological sophistication seems to be the essential task for the healing needed in our world.
One phrase I use to refer to spiritual development is “transrational individuality”. It is transrational because it is beyond the grasp or understanding of rational mind, outside the box, so to speak. Yet it is individual because it expresses the personal and unique aspect of each person albeit in an expanded context of impersonal (non-ego) or cosmic vision (Wilber, 1996). This may seem like an impossible paradox and yet it expresses a truthful aspect of human nature. Copious and endearing expressions of this experience can be observed among the writings of Eastern and Western poets, artists, and spiritual adepts the world over as well as among the rituals and ceremonies of indigenous peoples everywhere and in all times. References to some of these illuminated subjective expressions will be presented.
The evolution of consciousness and the healing into wholeness that I will elaborate on in greater detail concerns the movement and expansion of these seemingly esoteric practices into the general population. Waking up from compartmentalized and narrow-minded approaches to living marked by ignorance and resulting in suffering and destruction can no longer remain the province of a few bright individuals. The earth is calling for more and more of us to grow up and wake up to our full emotional, biological and spiritual development. This is our rightful heritage; this potential is our means for survival in today’s constrained and overpopulated world.
Are We Failing?
Perhaps I can paint the picture that I am inspired to investigate in this Capstone project more clearly by saying it this way. Even though we humans have pursued science, including psychological science, to dizzying heights and depths, still we fail to stop warring against each other and fighting like spoiled children in the hallowed halls of government (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993a). Clearly we are failing. Even though we have followed enticing and delicious psychoneurochemical trails deep inside the physical brain, we are unable to resolve conflicts and give up the enduring destructive and dissociative need to hold enemy images and the actions that follow from this inhuman delusion interpersonally, collectively and internationally. Clearly we are failing and in dire need of healing. Even though we have had the arts of psychotherapy available to the Western world for over 100 years and have enjoyed material comforts, conveniences and technologies unknown to historical millennia, we continue to ravage and plunder nature and less privileged people, torture our enemies, and kill non-white civilians with swift military rationale and impunity. Clearly we are failing. Clearly the best intentions of our righteousness has brought increasing failure on all the crucial fronts of civilization – food, energy, climate, relationships and wise use of natural resources…resulting in an increase of anxiety, insecurity and suffering (George, 2009; Brown, 2009). All this indicates gathering clouds of evidence of an ongoing need to transform the modern world in the interest and direction of the psychological and spiritual values of health, healing and wholeness, as well as the socio-spiritual values of compassion, cooperation, decency and survival.
Even though we may appear to be failing on many fronts, the possibilities for timely transformation and change are everywhere available, conditional as always upon motivation.
It is in light of these rough circumstances that I have chosen to describe two specific psychosociospiritual tools here that a person might use in working toward and through the two broad categories of psychological and spiritual human development. These two tools are the methods of nonviolent communication (NVC) developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg (2003, 2005), and the Asian Buddhist teachings, including the practice of meditation, that I received personally from Japanese Zen (Suzuki, 1970) and Tibetan Buddhist (Trungpa, 1973) traditional meditation masters. These two social tools appear to combine what is best in each respective culture, as well as happily addressing the blind spots carried in each culture. NVC is a specifically Western set of techniques for communication, interpersonal skills, and mindfulness of language--experiential practices descended from the American Humanistic clinical psychologist Carl Rogers (1961), whereas the Buddhist teachings were developed in Asia for over 2,500 years among several countries and different cultures. I will explore in some detail how these two tools can combine to produce results in a holistic and subjective pursuit of human development and the evolution of consciousness.
Another recent contribution that I will describe attempts to bridge and connect psychology and spirituality; this is the work of Ken Wilber who, after decades of synthesizing the best of knowledge from Western philosophy and psychology, while also exploring Eastern spirituality, has developed an integral psychology (2000b). It appears to be a natural and clear integration of Western knowledge characterized by objective thinking modes and grounded spiritual disciplines steeped in subjective truthfulness. This seems to me an important overview and integrative approach involving a collection of insights that seek to balance objective and subjective worlds by integrating alienated modes of thinking into the actual experiencing of our life-world. Integral concepts, first introduced by Sri Aurobindo (Wilber, 2000a), promise to awaken us from limiting separative mental fixations and dualistic thinking and thus enhance the evolution of consciousness in the direction of spiritual awakening. Behavioral, emotional and relational developmental stages, and spiritual development via integral insights will be explored in more detail. The concept of integral psychology appears to be a seminal insight in educating ourselves about the complementary goals of East and West healing aspirations.
In this paper I will challenge psychology to embrace an expanded worldview to aid an inquiry that encompasses the whole picture, as I see it, of what is needed in our world. I will look into why healing is needed, where it is needed, and clearly identify the blockages to healing, wholeness and harmony. This will include keeping in mind the notion of wholeness, as mentioned and defined earlier, as I describe the damaged areas of our lives and our environment with reference to the stage of human evolution as I see it at the present time. Therefore, in addition to anthropocentric and egocentric psychology, as well as human-centered earthy spirituality, a modern definition of wholeness must include viewpoints expressed in the growing field of eco-psychology (Roszak, 1992 & 1995). Sensitivity in relation to the earth, its creatures, plants and cycles have often been part of the world view of indigenous peoples and now must become integral to modern life everywhere that survival and intelligence are to coexist.
From this it can be understood that the notion or view of wholeness implies an ecological attention to the many sides of our human predicament. Deep ecology is another phrase or idea or discipline or mode of attention and inquiry that will serve as a map of my field of investigation into the manifold problems, crises, and solutions facing humankind in this new millennium. This introduces the problems surrounding the profound misunderstandings of the relation of mind to nature. Mind and nature are not separate, just as mind and body are not separate but integrated and synchronized in the awakened person (Campbell, 1983; Bateson, 1979). In this respect, since it is the evolving human being that interacts with the natural world and with others, and it is the mind that directs these actions, then the evolving world of psychology is a reasonable and necessary place to begin my inquiry. I believe that the main aim of psychology and psychotherapy is to reduce suffering and distress and increase self-understanding. In this respect it shares a common goal with spiritual disciplines. It could be said that psychology and spirituality are each, at bottom, an evolving science of mind. Trouble is that there is not good agreement as to what is science, and what is mind!
Fortunately, the definition of the field of psychology is manifold, always expanding, broaching new frontiers of relevant engagement. Nowadays psychology’s borders have widened beyond one’s own skin to include biology, neurological science, chemistry, spirituality, nature, ecology, environmental concerns and the ever-expanding fields of human development on its way to spirituality. In order to encompass the integration of all these aspects into a practical view of wholeness I will consider perspectives that are historical, intellectual, psychological, philosophical, ecological, spiritual, and inter-relational. These topics of focus are all necessary for examining the developing person within the context of the health of our worlds--both social and natural, relational and ecological, personal and interpersonal.
Everywhere I look I see the need for healing; people are broken, unhappy, struggling, confused, defended, blaming, complaining, seduced by enemy images and maintaining a learned separation and lack of community that is not healthy. As a direct result of these symptoms our natural world is damaged beyond belief and all natural support systems, food among them, are in decline (Brown, 2011). You wouldn’t necessarily know this by listening to mainstream news media or visiting a supermarket. But research going on under the surface seems, at times, to be confirming that the unsettling truth that denial is more important than survival and health.
Healing is a journey that traverses a lot of territory and a long path of adult development. This path can take a person from a self-centered, narrow-minded, rigid and divisive dualistic mind setup, that may include arrogance and inflation requiring isolating protective structures and projection of enemy images, all the way over to embracing the softness, ambiguity, humility, authentic presence and kindheartedness that characterize genuine spirituality. It is a never-ending journey, endlessly unfolding our innate capacity for waking up to a healthy life-world, a non-self-centered awareness that connects self and other in the embrace of compassionate behavior. This I think is a fair description of the path of human development that requires the expansion and evolution of consciousness and that will be the subject of my inquiry.
Many followers of Carl Jung believe that in alchemy is to be found the most complete story of our time. This is because it recognizes the shadow aspect of our being. That is, alchemy is a metaphor for the fact that in each of us there is a hidden, rejected part (von Franz, 1976). Alchemy has been essentially described as transforming base metal into gold. The two tools and methods that I will describe in this paper have been used (by myself and others) to substantial effect in uncovering, identifying and recovering the rejected and unwanted aspects of ourselves. This is a process of transformation, and alchemy is an apt metaphor. In this case, the base metal is the alchemist, which is oneself. The developmental aspect proceeds by the growth of awareness, what we are conscious of. With the correct use of the right tools this process is fairly straightforward and does not have to be perceived as mysterious or mystical.
Jungians like Edinger (1992) have described one of the salient tasks of the process of human development. This is termed individuation whereby part of the task is the recovering of wholeness by withdrawing our projections back from where we have scattered them out into the world (Edinger, 1992). We must collect them and own them as parts of our original unity or wholeness, which is the gold symbolized in alchemy. Projections represent the rejected, intolerable, unconscious, fragmented and unwanted parts of our being that we so cleverly and with subtle self-deception assign to others. Blame and complaining are examples. The dark deceptions inside the fiery alchemical vessel describe a dynamic process where projection of our shadow aspect reveals we are living a fragmented self that is not enjoying wholeness. I will report on my own experience by self-reporting as well as observation of others.
Another activity that I will engage, in the manner of qualitative research, is to assess and discover how meditative spiritual practice can be used unwittingly in the service of ego. This is one of the pitfalls and a danger of an adventurous spiritual ambition. The enticing pursuit of so-called higher realms of being can invite people to unknowingly bypass (Welwood, 2011) certain important developmental tasks properly belonging to realms of ego-development. Emotional immaturity can then be hidden beneath a veneer of spiritual achievement and valid cosmic realizations. Retreat into the spiritual isolation of bypassing can be an escape from the process in individuation, from the trials, pains and difficulties of impaired relational skills and of engaging the world in vital ways. An interest of mine is to determine whether, and to what degree, the healing of old wounds, and their echo in habitual patterns of dysfunctional emotional and cognitive reactions, is necessary before embarking on spiritual practice and development.
Some believe that meditation can do it all but I have not seen this to be the case. I would like to understand how and why some people reach for the spiritual dimension of life out of the pain and difficulty of getting along in the world. This seems natural and is not to say that it is always an invalid reach or a mistaken approach, however it often will be seen to have escapist overtones (or undertones). That is, it can be viewed as a strategy to avoid what Jung termed “legitimate suffering”, the avoidance of which is neurosis (Jung, 1971). A substantial corollary to this, of course, is that the mainstream world of culture and society is often not very hospitable to wholeness and healing because of its own systemic dysfunctions connected with objectification and materialist preoccupations. This dysfunction repels many people and drives some to seek comfort, security and wholeness elsewhere. Many social innovations such as 12-step addiction recovery programs, feminist groups and environmental activist organizations have been created as small healing communities in response to a felt sense of social alienation.
The call to wholeness can be a difficult path toward awakening that may involve to good effect a combination of psychotherapy, spiritual practice, community involvement, ecological awareness and honest engagement with the big world of suffering and joy. When the role of the family is involved, additional values around support, affection, motivation and individual differences must be confronted.
I will also be interested to inquire about the actual effectiveness of merely prescriptive instructions such as are to be found in Buddhist teachings and taught as ideal human potentials. I will compare the effectiveness of prescriptive instructions that, for example simply preach and encourage compassion and wisdom, to methods that are directly based in direct encounter with actual relational dynamics. Prescriptive instructions, while not misleading in any way, may not be effective by themselves in creating change in people, although as aspirational ideals they may function as an inspiring cognitive gateway. In my experience, I have discovered contemporary communication methods that offer effectiveness in uncomplicated, fundamental and simple ways. However, these ‘simple’ ways are not easy to learn or practice because they involve undermining and unlearning ingrained and deeply conditioned habits of speech, intentionality and awareness. Because of the profundity of change often observed to be manifested with guided practice I call this method ‘elemental communication’ as it can cut through defensive habitual patterns of blame and avoidance with little fuss.
An example of elemental communication, or compassionate communication as it is sometimes called, in contrast to purely prescriptive teachings and instructions, is the concrete how-to instructions and practical relational awareness tools found in nonviolent communication (NVC) methods. These techniques and practices directly engage feelings and needs in an alive and present-moment experience. The direct contact with feelings in the embodied experience of nowness has an elemental quality about it. Whereas meditation practice is done in relative peace and virtual solitude, NVC practices are applied to relational dynamics and in situations where stimulation of emotional reactions is often surprising and unpredictable. In this way, NVC methods have the effect of unearthing hidden and rejected parts of one’s life-world. I will investigate, explain and describe how the triggering and stimulation common in relationships can be handled in immediate empathic ways that bring out an alive healing truthfulness, a change of heart and an alive and growing awareness that lies on the path to wholeness and wellbeing.
In addition to these situations of interpersonal, concrete relational dynamics and the practical awareness tools that can be applied, the practice of Buddhist meditation is another kind of awareness tool, a practice with healing potential. In contrast to relationships, this practice takes place in solitary situations. Buddhism is not just prescriptive instructions alone; it offers a transformative practice, something one can experience for oneself. Sitting still and facing one’s own mind while resisting conventional distractions and seductive escape impulses is a powerful tool for making friends with oneself. This means experiencing a friendly, healthy perspective toward one’s thoughts and emotions, as well as experiencing mind and world in a more spacious and unconventional manner. Rare and important insights arise during meditation. These can help unravel persistent and limiting identity fixations, primitive beliefs about reality, emotional confusion around craving, attachment and clinging, as well as clues about one’s defensive styles. Sustained meditation practice can reveal important lessons about self-care (or the lack thereof) and compassion in general.
Although these are deep and slippery subjects, I will use interpretive methods of inquiry to help augment my biased perceptions and reach toward descriptive but perhaps not definitive conclusions. After all, the qualitative subjective domains I am interested in exploring are only communicated via interpretation. Objective proofs and factual data are not helpful here unless interpreted as data with a soul (Brown, 2010b). I feel excitement about this opportunity to investigate, explore and document areas of healing, wholeness and consciousness that have been helpful and useful in my own life experience. Since I work with NVC practice groups, as well as having experience teaching meditation to individuals and groups, I am confident that as I bring observations from those community situations into my writing that some benefit will result.
The Healing Needed In Our World:
Psychological Perspectives on Buddhist Meditation, Nonviolent Communication,
Eco-Psychology and Paths to a New Consciousness
We haven’t really flashed yet as a culture on the importance of inner exploration, transformation of personality, character development, the importance of insight, the visionary tradition, intuition, and the fact that you can’t really have a whole person unless you develop these capacities as well as the analytical and rational.
-Eugene Taylor (1994)
A Culture of Separation
Western civilization is arriving at a transitional moment in its collective, social and personal development. This transition, marked by the possible dissolution of a long downward spiral into separation, alienation and a nearly exclusive preoccupation with materialism, is now facing an opportunity for an awakening and an integration of further human potential. This opportunity is driven, in part, by pressing environmental concerns that threaten the survival of species as well as the balance between humans and nature. Moreover, the convergence of various crises, from workplace dissatisfaction to climate chaos, from food security to overpopulation, are helping to birth this transition as well as promulgating denial, distraction and avoidance (Eisenstein, 2007).
As indicated in the title above, the subject matter here focuses broadly on the healing needed in our world. This approach requires a recognition and discussion of the problems and obstacles, a kind of diagnosis of the ills facing both individuals and world cultures now. In connection with this a remedy is proposed here by presenting information on three topics advocating expanded views that are not found prevalent in mainstream culture. One of the topics, eco-psychology, recognizes that the human relationship with nature is at a dangerously low ebb of understanding and behavior. Another topic, meditation, offers training in self-reflection and deep understanding that is outside the scope of most modern psychotherapy. A third topic, nonviolent communication, presents skilful means and methods that can quickly and effectively generate compassionate communication and wellbeing in relationships of all kinds.
On October 23, 2010 the following advertisement appeared on an Internet web page: “Real World Getting You Down?—Distractiva--Ask Your Doctor if Distractiva is Right for You!” It is not clear whether this was a real ad for a psychiatric drug or some kind of joke, but its not-so-subtle message can be interpreted to imply that we live in a culture of separation and alienation where coping is supported by increasing drug use and other escapes. Is our world falling apart? Is anybody paying attention? There are many reasons to believe the general answer is yes to the first and no to the second question. However, a balanced view will require a sophisticated approach because implied in this troubling picture is the idea that any possible, effective healing must involve a transformation in worldviews. Further, the problems of separation and alienation are culture bound as well as individual, collective as well as personal. This presents a special and new problem for psychology because it is no longer a matter of individual or personal therapy or fixing up, nor is it a matter of facilitating personal adjustment to the status quo. The healing called for in our world today is revolutionary and unprecedented; it is cultural and will require a leap in the evolution of consciousness. This is an entirely positive outlook, calling for deep change in both personal and collective worldviews as well as individual identity.
The urgency in such a view is obvious in the emerging common-sense outlook that the prospect of a healthy person on a stressed and dying planet—our polluted earth whose natural elements are being used up faster than they can be replaced—doesn’t make any sense at all. The problems that the world and all people are facing now are systemic and deep (Brown, 2009). They reach down into the very ecological fabric of our relation to nature, our own minds, and to our survival (Rozsak, 1995). In a way it is a spiritual crisis, if spirituality can be defined in terms of the qualities of a whole, fully developed person and civilization living in balance with nature. Waking up to sustainability and the depletion of natural resources in the physical world must be integrated by healing into larger and flexible identities in the personal, social and spiritual realms. The paradigm of a private, separate, individual ego endowed with a separate-self sense is an excessive legacy of two centuries of the rise of science and industrial development and this worldview, now outmoded and unsustainable, is being questioned on all fronts.
With regard to this crisis, the American poet Gary Snyder (2008) offered this social commentary, “Almost all of the later high civilizations have been the sort of social organizations that alienate humans from their own biological and spiritual heritage” (p. 44). Buddhist dharma teacher Dr. Reggie Ray (2008) expressed a similar concern that our institutions have hit a wall; they no longer support life in a changing world because of continuing addiction to disembodiment, disconnection and alienation. Sociologist Dr. Brene Brown (2010a) has similarly observed that, “We numb vulnerability, and we are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history”. Sociologist Brown (2010a) further notes that, “When I ask people about connection, they tell me about disconnection. For connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.” Lack of the experience of healthy connection applies, of course, to disconnection from nature, from each other, as well as from ourselves. Even though separation and individuation are indeed a healthy stages of human development there are many cultural forces at work, such as consumerism, that encourage a pathological fixation on self, abnormal narcissism and disconnection (Kernberg, 2000).
Surely, something in our world is calling out for personal healing, ecological transition, and social transformation. A common thread that ties together such descriptive notions as disembodiment, separation, alienation and disconnection is the low level of development of the awareness, and the lack of identification and honest expression, of feelings and emotions (Ekman, 2008; Rosenberg, 2003). Even in the business world of sales and selling, where communication is key, author and sales professional Michael Oliver (2002) exclaims that, “…feelings in our Western Society where logic prevails don’t count for much” (p. 7). Oliver (2002) also asserts that intellectual guidance for feelings is needed to help make sense of what we are feeling, indicating the wisdom associated with integration and balance.
The story of our culture of separation is not a new story. It goes way back and surfaces in one form or another in most civilizations, sometimes with a flavor of religiosity. In addition to the Christian myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Fall from innocence and paradise there is the following legend printed on the menu of a Korean restaurant in downtown Sedona, Arizona called the Mago Café (Mago means mother earth or soul of the earth):
Ancient Korean legend has it that the original human beings had a perfect existence in the Land of Mago in the beginning of humanity. However, because of the corruption of its original character and divinity, humankind was cast out of the castle to live a material and imperfect existence. According to the legend, it is our life’s purpose to collectively make our way back to the Land of Mago, our spiritual home.
Separation and reunion appear to be life tasks represented in mythologies the world over.
In light of these commentaries, what are the scale and dimensions of the healing that might be needed or considered: individual, social, cultural, political?
The Big Picture
It is true that massive changes in worldviews can happen in somewhat mysterious ways as demonstrated by the abolition of slavery, the American civil rights movement, the fall of the Berlin wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and recently the overthrow of dictators in North Africa known as Arab Spring. Although liberating mass movements and civil uprisings can happen seemingly spontaneously, actual psychological healing applies to persons. In other words, individuals who can learn by education and self-reflection, and experience transformations of personality and identity that give rise to changes in worldview and behavior that lead to revolutionary cultural change. Usually change is preceded by painful situations or feelings that can be internal or external, personal or social.
A general outline of the stages of basic patterns of personal change in worldview may be illustrated, for example, by transformation from selfishness to altruism, from self-centered concerns to compassion, from self-serving actions to empathic connections, and from strictly human-centered concerns to earth or nature-centric relations. Each of these transformational patterns involves an awakening from a dominant left-brain world of logic and intellect to the right-brain world of feelings and intuition and body-centered awareness. These healthy transformations are characterized by a psychological shift from limitation to a sense of expansion and liberation. It will also be noted that all of these are personal transformations, and all of them are relational in essence and scope. Psychologist, teacher and author, John Welwood (2011) notes, “We need to work on relationships. I see relationship as the leading edge of human evolution at this time. It’s the arena where it’s hardest to remain conscious and awake” (p. 4). Relationship to self, relationship to other, and relationship to nature are all areas in need of transformations of consciousness requiring education involving applications of depth psychology and spiritual development.
Many of the problems that exist in the Western world are embedded in the culture; they are due to systemic and structural flaws in our partial and incomplete ways of being and perceiving. What I mean by that is certain preferences, beliefs and choices, along the path of evolution, have been adopted on a wide cultural or religious scale so that they have become fixed in the human personality and are taken as “reality”. It is as if by default or a lack of other kinds of education that these preferences and choices are taught and passed on to succeeding generations as truth, reality, “how it is”. This is sometimes called conditioning. For example, the most basic “fixed view” is an idea of a separate-self sense that coalesces around the formation of ego, or the sense of “I” (Chodron, 2009; Sasaki, 1983). When the formation of a healthy ego is allowed to crystallize into solid, inflated, or conditioned beliefs about identity, then a strong separation between self and other arises and this can result in bloated arrogance, intolerance of differences, rigidity, prejudice, feelings of unworthiness, enemy images, unhealthy dependency, dysfunctional identity, etc.
Looked at through the lens of the big picture of evolution of consciousness we can perhaps see some temporary necessity or advancement of a protective need in these limiting choices involving separation tendencies. But such preferences, choices and beliefs can unfortunately become fixed as worldviews that then determine a whole host of behaviors. The original need has dropped away, yet as a result identities soon become habitual patterns frozen for life. This pattern can be observed in both cultures and individuals. Often a choice or belief is adopted from a menu of possible ways of seeing the world and this results in a defended personality that emphasizes only one aspect of human potential while closing off other possibilities (Psaris & Lyons, 2000). Although this partial and incomplete aspect of human development may appear functional enough inside the bubble, from other perspectives it can seem pathological.
Personality: Path or Pathology
The formation of a stable, predictable, reliable and dependable personality is usually assumed to be the pinnacle of human development in Western psychology as well as in the conventional culture. However, when viewed against a background of the farther reaches of human nature and a developmental map of spiritual development, certain limitations of this assumption become apparent. For one thing, in order for personal growth and development to happen, it is not possible to have or attain a stable and predictable personality. In fact, personality can become a defense against psychological and spiritual growth (Miller, 1981; Preece, 2006; Sasaki, 1983; Trungpa, 1976; Welwood, 2000).
The notion of “path” is often used in spiritual development teachings to indicate progressive realizations that accompany the expansion of one’s consciousness throughout the life span. Path is also the sense of working with what is given in neurosis, rather than simply rejecting aspects of personality that might be deemed troublesome, confusing, pathological or painful. In order to negotiate such a personal developmental journey the idea and experience of a stable and fixed personality must be seen through (Psaris & Lyons, 2000). One of the first steps is to actually see personality as transparent, mutable and flexible, rather than as a fixed item. Clinical experience in psychotherapy uncovers numerous, prolific and profound examples of how personality forms first as a protective or defensive structure that allows one to survive difficult and painful episodes in early life (Welwood, 1991). This suggests that personality, or identity structure as it is sometimes referred to, is to be seen as a lesser structure characterized by adaptation and flexibility (Welwood, 1986). Personality can be understood as a combination of the picture we form of ourselves as well as the impression we wish to convey to the world of who we think we are or wish to be seen as. As an adaptive mental structure, personality often draws on a native strength or core ability to form a persona that aids in surviving and thriving in life (Campbell, 1972).
However, using personality as a mask or defense has limitations because while it is adaptive and has value as a defense, it also distorts and obscures the natural and authentic essence of our ordinary being as well as our larger being. In a life journey along the path of true healing the pathological aspect of personality as a defensive structure must be seen through so that it becomes transparent and undefended. In this way relationship intimacy, as well as spiritual development, can be accessed and a mature sense of wellbeing can be developed from the old bones of inner conflict, defensive personality, pain and dissatisfaction.
A major important example of this inner defensive personality ego structure is when we choose to see our world through the so-called “objective” framework of a frozen mental reference point, a singular and rigid identity. Here objects in the world perceived through the senses are seen as having a separate, solid, detached and permanent existence outside of, and independent of, our self that is doing the perceiving. This “self” is then reified, .seen and maintained as separate, independent, solid, detached and permanent. This conventional, widespread and popular way of seeing the world, or reality, is sometimes referred to as duality or dualistic perception where a solid “me” or “I” over here interacts with a solid world of separate and discrete objects over there (Trungpa, 1976).
This duality is often taken for granted in Western culture as “the way things are”. Although it is a powerful way of seeing the world and can be highly functional in a mechanical or utilitarian sort of way, it may not be a healthy worldview or even the most accurate way of being and perceiving. It produces a powerful, solid and rigid structure of perception, personality, and being. It is this view that, as the basis for the scientific paradigm, for example, came to dominate the Western worldview during the last few centuries. Unfortunately, it also serves as the basis for incomplete and limiting relationships of all kinds (Berman, 1981; Welwood, 2011). It is not difficult to see the flaw in this dualistic set-up. From the point of view of the big picture of human development, the global view, it is unfinished, incomplete, and also dangerous in the ways it can generate conflicts that lead to harm.
While this dualistic mental framework serves a purpose in its own right, and is found to be satisfactory by most people, there is yet an underlying dissatisfaction contained within it (Brach, 2003; Epstein, 2006; Trungpa, 1973). Again from a global perspective there is some sense of being incomplete in adopting this representational function of the mind or ego as an exclusive worldview (St. Exupery, 1943). How we learned to see the world determines many of the choices we make in life, from how we treat other people to career choices, and ultimately how fulfilled and satisfied we become with our life choices. Fortunately, from the big picture point of view, evolution seems to have a way of developing and creating dissatisfaction, much like the increasing pollution and exhaust smoke from a power plant or a car engine (Father Dave Denny, 2011, personal communication). In other words, a strategy that once appeared as advantageous later shows up as a dissatisfaction that can motivate and propel us forward to the next stage of the human evolution of consciousness.
The scientific paradigm based on the ascendance of the independent reasoning mind and its attendant objectivist worldview has supported the Western world’s cultural development for 300 years and has been a most powerful creator of material progress. The scientific paradigm is based on exercising the powerful rational mind to its maximum potential so as to think through problems, investigate the phenomenal world through the senses, and to manipulate the findings to produce satisfactory results in the form of useful theories, inventions, machines, products, etc. Then, through the power of success, conditioning, and material conveniences a kind of assumption sets in that this way of seeing the world, of gaining knowledge, becomes culturally reinforced as the only way, the “right” way. However, by selecting a partial or incomplete worldview in this way, a blind spot is set in place that begins to create its own pollution, so to speak.
A graphic example of this rational scientific paradigm and limiting world-view is revealed in the following maxim taught to graduate students in the fields of study and professional work ranging from physics to sociology: “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” This unfortunate dictum taught throughout research academia is a proclamation that features serious limitations. It discourages and thus cuts off the world of feeling and intuition that are needed for healing and integration that allow a whole person to exist and thrive (Brown, 2010b). It follows that if science and research proceed with something less than the whole person as the guide, then what is lost is the moral compass and the spiritual heart of what it means to be human that can guide human behavior toward what is beneficial for all.
Thus, this tragic and powerful dictum, a claim that elevates one mode of consciousness, the super-rational brain, over the body, feelings and intuition, seems way out of balance. This is not to devalue or make wrong anything about the rational mind. It is a fine instrument of humanity. The point I am making is only to say that focusing on the prospect of the power and talent of only the rational mind, that part of the mind functioning within a dualistic and objective framework, is an incomplete, frustrating, and ultimately painful view. It sets up worldviews based on the thinking and reasoning mind without reference to the larger picture of wholeness. It is becoming more obvious this is not only incomplete but also limiting and dangerous. It is dangerous precisely because it is incomplete. It is leading and conditioning people to succumb to partial views of reality based on ego identity and bias without questioning what is missing. In this way, narrow opinions and attitudes and prejudice are formulated that are neither healthy nor whole and have the potential to be harmful. An example of this is the formation and projection of enemy images.
The result is that the narrow outlook of the dualistic worldview that permits the formation of enemy images thrives on the limitations and damage that flow from that kind of thinking. At some point, when certain mental fixations are no longer actually needed for survival, they simply stall the process of evolution of consciousness. What is incomplete about this is that it leaves out the other half of human being, human potential, and that half, although submerged in the Western world, is now crying out for attention and mature psychological development on a world cultural scale in order to bring into balance the wholeness of being (Bortoft, 1996). Moreover, today this balance of wholeness seems to be, more than ever, a precondition for sanity, healing and survival. This potential, this other half of human being, is about expanding perception beyond the rational portion of the mind. In order to take its place in this discussion, this “beyond the rational” part of the mind first needs to be recognized as “something missing”, and it needs a name.
This other half of life that is submerged and missing in conventional Western society may be named “subjective”, in contrast to objective. It includes the interior aspects of our life-world and being. The interior potential of intuition, emotions, feelings and the dark body of repressed and unconscious contents is often avoided because it is messy, not predictable and cannot be controlled like the orderly and linear talents of the rational mind. Although the mental factors of control and prediction are assets of the rational mind, these must be let go, or let down, when accessing the subjective, interior realm of feelings, intuition and direct experience. Western culture has edited out this interior realm while some world cultures appear to thrive in its perennial wisdom (Berman, 1981).
One way to conceive of the contrast between these two realms--the subjective and the objective--is to recognize that the objective mind thrives on separation of perceiver and perceived. This divided consciousness creates alienation and distance, and divides the world into discreet and separate objects. In contrast, the subjective realm is the feeling side, the interior aspect that seeks connection, relationship and nurtures compassion, vulnerability, intuition and the expanded sense of being we call spirituality. When these two sides of human nature are harmoniously balanced then we can speak of a whole person.
Another way to view and grasp these two different but complementary modes of consciousness is to apply alternative names to describe them, like thinking and feeling. The objective and rational mode of the thinking consciousness that gives rise to one way of seeing the world, is sometimes known as the analytical or intellectual mode. Here the use of intellect to perceive objects in a linear and sequential manner is favored, and this is also conditioned by the structure of language in the sense of seeing the world as a collection of detached objects. Modern language, composed of the subject and predicate, supports and conveys just this sense of linearity that unmediated, subjective existence and the direct felt sense of experience do not have (Bortoft, 1996: Gendlin, 1981). A linear sense of perception is thus cultivated that does not match the subtlety of whole, real and direct experience. This mode of consciousness, of seeing and thinking, usually tends toward utilitarian analysis and abstraction. When perception and thinking operate in this analytical mode of consciousness, then a sense of separateness and disconnection is cultivated which can well support certain narrowly focused mental tasks like problem solving (engineering), investigation of material reality (science and medicine), and manipulation of ideas (law, philosophy and politics).
Complementary to this analytical mode is the feeling mode of consciousness. Feeling is a mode of consciousness (Moss, 2010). Both thinking and feeling are contained in balance in the holistic mode of consciousness that, as mentioned above, is suppressed in the modern world (George, 2009; Goleman, 1995; Jung, 1958; Sardello, 1992). This mode, characterized by wholeness of being and perception, is nonlinear, simultaneous and intuitive and is concerned more with relationships and connection, rather than focusing on detached objects of perception. And, as physicist Henri Bortoft (1996) explains, the importance of relationship is not really perceived, but is only a “shadowy abstraction” (p. 63), when the focus is on the discrete elements of perception as in the analytical mode of consciousness. The big picture of wholeness of reality, then, emerges when “relationship can be experienced as something real in itself” (p. 63). It is like seeing a bird in the sky; it is not so interesting when just seeing the bird as object. But when you can see “flying” then the holistic mode of consciousness is operative (Bortoft, 1996, p. 63). Similarly, experiments on perception conducted by cognitive scientists observed that when asked to look at an aquarium, Western people tend to see and describe the individual fish whereas Asian people tend to see the colors and forms of the whole aquatic environment.
The experience of a relationship as such is only possible through a transformation from a piecemeal way of thought to a simultaneous perception of the whole. Such a transformation amounts to a restructuring of [modern] consciousness itself. (Bortoft, 1996, p. 63)
Sociologist and shame researcher Brene Brown, again, lends meaning to these ideas when she says that we are wired for connection. Her research leads to conclusions that reinforce notions like, “Connection is why we’re here and it gives purpose and meaning to our lives” (Brown, 2010a). Brown identifies a main obstacle to relational connection as persistence of the hidden shame emotion because it blocks vulnerability. She identifies shame in this way: “Is there something about me, that if others see it, I won’t be worthy of connection” (2010a). Being really seen is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable we must have a sense of worthiness, a strong sense of love and belonging (Brown, 2010b). It is worth repeating here the earlier main point about relationship where psychologist John Welwood (2011) states: “We need to work on relationships. I see relationship as the leading edge of human evolution at this time. It’s the arena where it’s hardest to remain conscious and awake” (p. 4).
Discovering an alternative to the modern scientific paradigm of so-called objectivity, Western physicist and wholeness philosopher Bortoft is inspired by and writes about Goethe’s holistic way of science. This connection is similarly recommended by others who observe that the good medicine found in the wholeness-of-consciousness and the wholeness-of-nature is the basis for the healing needed in today’s world. Similarly, others have indicated that relationship is the ashram of the 21st century (Masters, 2011).
A Global Perspective
A discussion of the healing needed in our world today implies a transitional global perspective that is transcultural, transrational and multidisciplinary. In addition to this wider worldview, a brief glance back at the historical perspective to see where we’ve come from, how we got to these modern times, as well as the outlook for our future will help inform and frame the discussion. A wider view is necessary to recognize that our modern times carry a deep shadow and that many are beginning to suspect that the problems inherent in modern Western civilization are visibly outweighing the benefits (Berman, 1981). Perspectives on this are no longer limited to regional concerns but have shifted to global awareness, a perspective made necessary and urgent by incorporating the ecological view of expanding populations, shrinking resources, air-water-soil-and-ocean pollution, man-made climate chaos, and communication traveling at the speed of the Internet. It is widely understood that we are entering a major transitional era where the healing needed in our world is emerging across all boundaries – physical, scientific, ecological, emotional, relational, spiritual – and is taking on a necessarily holistic dimension (Wilber, 2000). This widening understanding has been explored across a range of disciplines including conventional psychology, philosophy, anthropology, science, ecology, history, sociology, eco-psychology, transpersonal psychology, and integral psychology (Berman, 1981; Brown, 2009; Brown, 2010a; Brown, 2011; Merchant, 1980; Roszak, 1992; Tarnas, 1991; Walsh & Vaughan, 1993).
Mature developments in Western psychology as well as contemplative disciplines and spiritual practices coming to the West from Eastern cultures now offer striking and strategic insights into specific modes of individual and personal healing the world over. At the same time the deterioration of the environment – again, due to overuse of the earth’s resources, pollution, poverty, and the impact of population growth on the land – is pushing the need for a larger social, cultural and relational healing into a realistic and empowering urgency worldwide (Brown 2009). Our broken relationship to nature is in as much need of transformation and healing as our distressed relations with each other and with ourselves (Roszak, 1992). Psychologists Walsh & Vaughan (1993) have emphasized that:
We have created a global situation that demands unprecedented psychological and social maturation. In the past we could consume without depletion, discard without pollution, multiply without overpopulation, and fight without fear of extinction. In other words, we could act out our immaturities whereas now we need to outgrow them. Our global crisis, like the transpersonal vision, calls us to grow up and wake up. (p. 267)
An Individual Approach
In spite of any perceived urgency there are multiple ways to look at healing and the need for healing. Not everyone sees it the same way. If someone is lying on the ground bleeding the obvious first need is to stop the bleeding. However, the need for either individual or social healing may not be at all obvious, often appearing different to different people. This difference has much to do with where a person is on the scale of human development--the process of unfolding one’s human potential, expanding perception, opening consciousness to perceived differences, as well as tolerating and embracing situations and people that seem strange or different (Jung, 1958).
There are many ways to say this and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke articulated the spectrum of development most beautifully when he wrote: “I want to unfold. I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am untrue” (quoted in Welwood, 2000, p. 87). This has to do with the unfolding of experience toward wholeness of being. There are many developmental models, both East and West, and they all seem to point to expansion of consciousness, a spacious widening of the circle of our awareness. What does this have to do with healing? True unfolding nearly always involves facing difficult feelings, conflict, and the emotional pain and chaos that we would prefer to avoid. Widening our circle of awareness to move beyond avoidance to include conscious experience of legitimate suffering, then, lies at the core of the healing process.
Healing implies that some part of us is incomplete, damaged, missing or unseen and this often involves facing the task of integrating the dark side of the body and the inevitable unfolding into recognizing, meeting, accepting and welcoming our feeling the pain of the wounded emotional body. Typically and tragically, however, strategies like a preference for keeping busy, maintaining a bright affirmation of self and world, or else a perpetually angry and complaining (blaming) outlook, are chosen in order to avoid legitimate suffering. Jung (1971) famously declared that neurosis is the avoidance of legitimate suffering. This implies an awakening of the heart outside the purview of only the thinking mind. It becomes an unpredictable and slippery slope because people view motivation and even survival from different angles, and the important capacity for self-reflection varies across all personal styles and levels of functioning. Part of the resistance to deep self-reflection work, again, is the avoidance of emotional pain that is alive as frozen hurt somewhere in the wounded emotional body (Gonzales, 2010).
Compelling research into the origin of individual emotional wounding in the family has been done in the area of psychology known as attachment theory by the pioneering investigations of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (Karen, 1994). The conclusions about health and maturity from these deeply insightful researchers appears to lie in the connection between emotionally healthy adults and the quality of the attachment bonds of affection, warmth and mirroring that had occurred on a consistent basis between primary caregivers and the earliest experiences of new human beings. The range of attachment qualities were identified and given names in the research: securely attached, avoidantly attached, and ambivalently attached. These observations allowed accurate prediction of sociability and personality factors later in life. By identifying and comparing typical patterns of both secure and anxious (or insecure) attachment, speculation could be offered about how cultural roots of anxious and insecure attachment with an avoidant caregiver during early infancy and childhood can result in an avoidant society and a culture of separation and alienation.
The definition of healing in any dictionary is related to wholeness, directly implying that something is missing, damaged, incomplete, and not whole. Part of the healing process, perhaps the first step, is to identify what is missing or not whole. This “something missing” approach is best done from an individual and personal perspective otherwise we risk drifting into speculation and abstraction. There may be a sense of harm or lack, a loss or confusion of functioning, identity, sociability or wellbeing that calls out for healing. There may be a sense of personal dissatisfaction or a hollow, empty feeling, an underlying feeling of estrangement and inauthenticity that haunts an otherwise materially comfortable life (May, 1983). Identifying and defining the problem applies at the personal level and also at the social levels where individual people, institutions, and governments interact.
However, identifying and realizing the core problem at the root of modernity’s failure is no simple task. Personal problems become embedded in the social fabric and that in turn creates a culture of toxic norms which then conditions subsequent generations to conform. Although the personal and the systemic sociopolitical realms interact, the focus on healing in this paper will be more in the individual person because all behaviors arise from one’s body, speech and mind and seem to reside ultimately in the house of personal motivation and choice. This is where psychological healing and transformation can take place, but also where many intransigent obstacles are lodged.
The Problem of Certainty
A core obstacle to healing, change and the evolution of consciousness might be viewed as the problem of certainty. This is a problem that lies within an overbearing, super-rational and rigid mind. The mental attitude and rational fixation of certainty per se blocks openness, ambiguity and tolerance as it provides, for example, fertile ground for the creation of ‘enemy images’ among other inconvenient, dangerous and catastrophic defense mechanisms. Resentment, blame, guilt, shame, anger and retribution stand ready to accelerate a hard defense to perceived or actual slights. This popular way of thinking, this deadly and outmoded phenomenon — the temptation of certainty, blame, being right, and other defensive tactics--blocks the change, permeability and flexibility in thinking that facilitates the healing offered by transformation. Transformation is a movement toward wholeness along the developmental trajectory. The habit of falling into the temptation of certainty blocks our capacity for deeper self-reflection and wholeness because it feeds a misplaced and misunderstood “need” to be right.
Certainty is the opposite of reflection—which is defined by Maturana & Varela (1987) as the process of seeing ourselves and “knowing how we know” (p. 24). However, cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch (1992) has indicated that in Western psychology the mind is not considered “an instrument of knowledge about itself” (p.107). This implies that self-reflection has been blocked and invalidated in official realms of academic and scientific psychology. On the other hand, some cutting edge cognitive scientists have been more adventurous by encouraging us to gain the open door of healing and employ self-reflection and to “put aside our daily tendency to treat our experience with the seal of certainty, as though it reflected an absolute world” (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 25). This is an invitation to embrace the fluidity aspect of consciousness. It is a movement and an opening in academic psychology that indicates official recognition of the multi-state nature of consciousness as well as the flexibility and mutability of identity. These recognitions are progressive hallmarks of the development of consciousness and the path of healing into wholeness.
The narrowing down of our experience via “the seal of certainty” cuts us off from personal growth, restricts the intellectual value of paradox, and inhibits the evolution of consciousness that is marked by expanding perception and the capacity for a compassionate worldview. However, growth, evolution, uncertainty, paradox and expansion of being can make us dizzy because we are invited to leave our familiar nest of solid beliefs, linear thinking, the protective structures of ego that may be no longer necessary, our defenses, and the comfortable but limiting cocoon we are nesting in (Trungpa, 1984). The outcome or reward for becoming responsive to this invitation to a larger view of our world is greater warmth and compassion, and a satisfying, deeper fulfillment of our most basic need for belonging and connection. This can manifest as a felt experience akin to a breeze of delight. But when cut off from the basic and healthy curiosity of self-reflection, our world becomes limited and freighted with conflict, blame and complaints, with pain and suffering that we do not adequately understand. This selection or choice of a limiting life is not necessarily seen as a problem by people who welcome a safe, unexamined and unchallenged life. This is where unacknowledged fear and hurt are buried under a daily materialistic diet of frivolous, busy, entertaining and speedy preoccupations. Living life thus in the convenient comfort zone may not be perceived as a problem by a majority of people – until they vote. Then, when a narrow and limited view of life infects the populace and elects and entraps world leadership so as to endanger and threaten the welfare and survival of the world of both people and nature, then some sense of world healing calls out for attention on a larger scale.
Self-reflection, then, is a most human endowment to be used as a mode of healing for both the individual and the world. The path of self-reflection is a therapeutic element to be encouraged and adopted for the healing needed in our world. At this point reflection is offered here as a general prescription; later in this paper specific and precise tools that actualize it in life practices that one can actually do will be presented. “Reflection is a process of knowing how we know. It is an act of turning back on ourselves. It is the only chance we have to discover our blindness.” (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 24). However, Maturana & Varela (1987), authors of The Tree of Knowledge, a book on newly understood cognitive research, neuroscience, and social communication emphasize that:
This special situation of knowing how we know is traditionally elusive for our Western culture. We are keyed to action and not to reflection, so that our personal life is generally blind to itself. It is as though a taboo tells us: ‘It is forbidden to know about knowing.’ Actually, not knowing what makes up our world of experience, which is the closest world to us, is a crying shame. There are many things to be ashamed about in the world, but this ignorance is one of the worst. (p. 24)
In opposition to the tempting contractions of certainty is the challenging open space of self-reflection and its claims of ineffable experience. This naked, open space of mind is challenging because of its wavering uncertainty that consults something deeper than the rational surface, the depths where our brightest splendors of experience lie hidden (Roszak, 1969). It is like the eye trying to see itself. Self-reflection can question and challenge a fixed and certain identity that may be narrow, limiting, unsatisfactory and dangerous. Such reflection, if we are willing to go into ourselves, invites us to open to the unfamiliar new ground of our human potential for development. This is truly a dizzying and scary life space that might seem like a fearful hallucination to some. Maturana & Varela (1987) explain that this is so because:
We tend to live in a world of certainty, of undoubted, rock-ribbed perceptions: our convictions prove that things are the way we see them and there is no alternative to what we hold as true. This is our daily situation, our cultural condition, our common way of being human. (p. 16)
Opening to the wider, larger world of the freshness of wholehearted and authentic presence that accompanies self-reflection is quite the opposite from a steady diet of certainty. It is a world where personal chaos is viewed as extremely good news because it opens the door to discovery, growth and change (Trungpa, 1976). This view has been a hallmark of perennial philosophies and spiritual adepts for centuries. The American transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1926), gave his voice to this tradition when he commented,
I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false, I unsettle all things. (p. 170)
Emerson seems to possess a vision that sees beyond the rubric of certainty. He explains further, “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back” (p. 170). Yet he goes on to qualify this “incessant movement” by referring to “some principle of fixture or stability in the soul” against which the daily changing consciousness of the experimenter is playing out (Emerson, 1926, p. 170).
It is obvious that Emerson possessed a natural tendency toward self-reflection. Welwood (2000) offers some detail to this by outlining three distinct kinds or levels of self-reflection that he terms “stepping back from unconscious identification” (p. 106). The first level is termed conceptual reflection where one simply takes a new look and thinks about one’s experience perhaps using, for example, frameworks like developmental theories, maps of consciousness, or spiritual aphorisms.
A second, more refined approach, according to Welwood (2000), is phenomenological reflection or “meeting experiencing directly” where concepts are put aside and attention is put on what is felt and perceived, working directly with experience in the present moment (p. 109). And a third more subtle approach is termed “witnessing”, employing mindfulness that is simply attentive to the “ongoing flow of the mindstream, without concern about the particular contents of experience that arise” (Welwood, 2000, p. 110). In this case, the word “experience” refers to sensory perceptions, thoughts and concepts, feelings, and body sensations. This third level of reflection is marked by a significant shift from identification with our thinking over to simply identifying with the awareness of our thoughts (ie., witnessing).
When we have somehow acknowledged the problem of the temptations of certainty then the perspective of these other more expansive and deeper ways of being open up to our seeing and being. Some Zen meditation masters offer a hint of this way of being, characterized for example by “don’t know mind” or “beginner’s mind” (Suzuki, 1970). In this way, we might then see how clinging to certainty and the associated limitations it places on openness, tolerance and warmth of personality can feel like alienation and separateness. These limitations are widely perceived as the dis-ease of our time (Tarnas, 1991, Watts, 1961; Wilber, 1979, 1996).
Our culture of separation and alienation has its roots in the historically liberating, yet undeniably limiting, development of consciousness that goes back three hundred years in Western history with the rise of the mental/rational superstructure. As we have seen, clinging to reason and certainty as the only reliable, valid source of knowledge gives rise to alienation (Berman, 1981; Brach, 2003). Elevating reason to this status also gives to certainty, a seeming measure of validity, and confidence, while at the same time closing off permission and experience for accessing the inner subjective experience of feelings, values, intuition and the softer voice of the heart. The soft voice of the heart, of awakening to the body and feelings is necessary for healing to be realized (Becker, 1973; Brazier, 1997; Chodron, 2009; Gendlin, 1981; Preece, 2009).
A common theme that calls out for healing and that has accompanied the progression of the modern world for the past two hundred years has often been widely identified over and over again as alienation (Kierkegaard, 1941; May, 1983; Nietzsche, 1969). This persistent sense of self-alienation and its emotional counterpart, anxiety, found cohesive, modern expression in mid-20th century during the timely flowering of existential psychology and philosophy, popularized by Rollo May and Jean Paul Sartre. Existentialism took the focus off individual conflicts such as had been the focus of Freud (1937) and Horney (1945) and integrated personal experience into a broader context of social disconnection from meaning. In this sense of a relational context existentialism was an important precursor to the humanistic psychology movement that followed (Rogers, 1961). The general concept of alienation was first introduced to the modern world (after Kierkegaard) at the beginning of the 19th century by the German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831). Psychologist Nathaniel Branden (1979) summarized Hegel’s message in terms of “self-alienation” thus:
The history of man, maintained Hegel, is the history of man’s self-alienation: man is blind to his true essence, he is lost in the “dead world” of social institutions and of property, which he himself has created, he is estranged from the Universal Being of which he is a part—and human progress consists of man’s motion toward that Whole, as he transcends the limitations of his individual perceptions. (p. 208)
Reflected in this commentary is a sense of human beings lost in our own social creations, our own egos, our own repressions (Freud, 1937). There is also the opposite sense of possible psychological and spiritual development toward healing and wholeness that is destined to transcend the limitations of the individual ego and individual perceptions anchored in fixations on certainty and being right. These important historical themes of alienation and separation, as well as transformation and transcendence, are related to the evolution of consciousness, to wholeness and healing, and to our current transitional era. This insight will be developed as we proceed. It may not be too simplistic to say that alienation can be viewed as the psychic pollution created by the rise and dominance of the super-rational/mental and linear worldview, the scientific paradigm that has permeated Western culture for the last three centuries.
Although there are many sides to this complex situation, it can be helpful to view our current post-modern transitional healing journey and challenge alongside another major transition – the challenging historical one that birthed the modern Western era some three hundred years ago (Merchant, 1980; Wilber, 1996). When we look at these two transitional periods that mark the beginning and the end of our modern times (i.e., from pre-modern to postmodern era) we will find that they are each characterized by profound changes in worldview. Evolution of consciousness, we find, is invariably marked by profound changes in worldview, moving away from various incomplete models of certainty and oppression, toward more holistic modes of perception, identity, freedom and liberation. A historical perspective can provide important information, context and background material about further evolution of consciousness and changing worldviews. Though the current transition facing our world on a global scale has uncertain features and is beset by much suffering, uncertainty and dangerous conflict, it too is on the leading edge of a challenging evolution of consciousness and changing worldviews. Interpreting these two evolutionary movements through the lens of psychology and spirituality can bring deeper insight into the value, character and benefits of change (Kegan & Lahey, 2009).
The necessity for change is nearly always prompted by some level of functionality that is not working, and by a need to engage innovative, emerging areas of human potential and consciousness. This pattern of profound change happened in a big way three hundred years ago and it is happening on a different scale of consciousness again now. While both of these grand transitions are characterized by evolution of consciousness, the present transition is peculiar in that it is marked by a global or cosmic perspective involving the integration of East and West. This syncretic integration presents peculiar challenges as well as dynamic, positive and explosive potentials for world evolution.
The Cosmic View
What is the cosmic view? What could be the meaning of that? Some might think of outer space as the cosmos, not of this earth. It might imply something vast or grandiose, relating to the whole universe perhaps as an orderly and harmonious whole. These are some basic hints found for ‘cosmic’ in most dictionaries. There is a sense of out of the ordinary, away from our familiar ground. The cosmic view usually refers to something exterior, outside the human person; its usual sense is not taken to refer to inner space. However, in psychological and spiritual contexts, the cosmic view points to an inner experience of mind and being that transcends ordinary everyday, purely practical egoic functioning and reason. It points to realms of consciousness that expand beyond the narrow confines of small, linear and limiting worldviews and connects with an experience of vastness and depth that is beyond familiar and ordinary ego functioning. This expansion of consciousness and perception is sometimes referred to as spiritual or cosmic. Perhaps a metaphor from actual physical outer space will assist in conceptualizing the human potential implied by the word ‘cosmic’.
When we look at the world as a whole, what do we see? Perhaps we see a big round ball floating in an unfathomable sea of darkness called infinite space. From this vast new perspective of outer space our planet earth is seen to be half in darkness and half brightly lit up by the sun. To people living here on earth this is experienced in common as the cycle of day and night. Psychologically speaking, this play of dark and light can be seen as an apt metaphor for some pressing questions involving the status of human development in our time. For although there are many dark areas in the modern spectrum of human consciousness, behavior, and thought, there are also deep reservoirs of untapped goodness, moral strength and bright spirit waiting to be found in each human heart (Roszak, 1992; Trungpa, 1988).
Coming closer to the earth we might see vast expanses of blue and green, oceans and forests. If we’re looking at the dark half we see great expanses punctuated by electric lighting, tiny dispersed villages showing dots of light or masses of glowing lights emanating from cities. In either case, the amazing beauty of the earth and its dark mysteries are communicated to us from a distance. We also see great plumes of smoke emitted as waste products from huge fires burning up the last hours of ancient sunlight, also known as fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) that emit toxic chemicals and metals, carbon dioxide, and methane gases. These earth pollutants might invite us to question the mindset or sanity of people living on planet earth. Although the natural earth looks beautiful, the smoke plumes are questionable.
Whatever the activities that are taking place on earth, the cosmic view has value in the context of human development because it points toward a dimension of the inner life that has infinite possibilities. The expansive view of our world as infinite is in contrast to a limited worldview that sees the physical, material world as the ultimate reality, that sees perceptions as solid and ego-confirming, and sees personal identity as a fixed item. This narrow view sees life as a finite game bounded by certainty, the field of reason, and its consequent materialism. Until recently Western philosophy, psychology and science have been dominated by this limited view (Mack, 1993). Yet this is not to minimize or deny that view, per se, as Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughan (1993) describe so eloquently:
We are astoundingly ingenious creatures. We have gone to the moon, split the atom, unraveled the genetic code, and probed the birth of the universe. Indeed, modern civilization stands as a monument to the boundless creativity of the human intellect. Yet, while evidence of our intellectual and technological genius is all around us, there is growing concern that in other ways we have seriously underestimated ourselves. In part because of the blinding brilliance of our technological triumphs, we have distracted and dissociated ourselves from our inner world, sought outside for answers that can only be found within, denied the subjective and the sacred, and lived in a collective trance – a contracted, distorted state of mind that goes unrecognized because we share it and take it to be ‘normality’. (p. 1)
In this view the authors speak of the two sides of human nature as we know it: the inner world of subjective reality, of egolessness and the sacred, and the outer world of intellect, ego, objective reality, and technology. One side, the rational, is highly developed, but an integrated balance with the other side, the inner and the sacred, is lacking (Mack, 1993; Masters, 2011). Our developmental journey is yet incomplete because, as Walsh & Vaughan (1993) suggest, there are:
…latent but unexplored creative capacities, depths of psyche, states of consciousness, and stages of development undreamed of by most people. In order to meet this challenge psychology is called upon to extend its reach into spirituality, to expand its vision and practice to embrace the grand adventure of healing the human spirit into wholeness in our lifetime. (p. 1)
The cosmic view, then, is a model of human developmental potential that is perennial and ongoing, ancient and modern, driven by inner necessity that points to the oneness and non-dual states of consciousness that are glimpsed by humans now and then. The cosmic view, yet to be fully integrated into Western psychology, also reminds us of the healing potential that exists in the human heart when body and mind are synchronized together and whenever man and nature exist in harmony. This view from outer space suggests that our inner space is also bound by the polarities of dark and light, of heaven and earth. This is the wisdom of the cosmic view.
The lights we see in the dark areas of the earth indicate human activity. There are people on the earth, people of many kinds, races, colors, ethnic groups, religions, all with different levels of development with respect to intelligence, morals, feelings, wealth, poverty, awareness, spirituality and social relationships, all engaged in various activities. As we look closer at these people we’d like to understand something about what they are doing; are they peaceful or violent, happy or confused, wise or foolish, self-destructive or sustainable? These are the larger questions to ask of any people, and perhaps some meaningful answers can be obtained by looking through the lens of psychology. In all the levels of human activity there exists a wide variety of toxicity, or neurosis, as well as sanity.
Why psychology? Because, in general, the practice of our one-hundred-year-old psychology has demonstrated the proven capacity to look beneath the surface and unravel unseen conflicts, potentials, sufferings, deceptions, subtle repressions, and motivations of people with the purpose of improving their lot and reducing suffering. Psychology may not always deliver on this potential, and may not open doors to spiritual perspectives, but it does indicate that there is some waking up activity or drive taking place. There is a drive for self-knowledge that is a Socratic, Freudian and Jungian ideal. In general, the drive for self-knowledge as an individual right of persons has not long been recognized or allowed in the West as a civil right. Except for a privileged few with artistic or intellectual talent this has unfortunately and too often been a case of exclusion.
Much investment, struggle and progress has been made throughout the twentieth century in the individual rights of persons to awaken to the innate drive for self-knowledge and freedom, and to develop the conceptual tools, methods and insights available within psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. As Jacob Needleman (1983) writes, “Modern psychiatry arose out of the vision that man must change himself and not depend for help upon an imaginary God” (p. 4). Thus psychology has been emerging as a craft of living, a mode of being-in-the-world, almost as a handicraft piece of work completed by an apprentice. This is how Jung saw it as he stated in a brief letter in 1959, a year or two before he died. He indicated that to know one’s shadow is the apprentice piece and to get along with the anima (union of opposites) is the masterpiece for the psychological craft of living (Giegerich, 1991). Getting to know one’s shadow, and integration of the shadow, is an essential piece of work in the craft of living and perceiving psychologically. Giegerich (1991) stated: “The dark aspects, what we hate as incompatible with our ego-personality, what we fear as a threat to our self-image and to our piece of mind; this is what is teaching us, both patient and analyst, to become psychological” (p. 87). Jacob Needleman (1983) further elaborates on the advancement of modern psychology:
Over half a century ago, mainly through the insights of Freud and through the energies of those he influenced, the human psyche was wrested from the faltering hands of organized religion [and I would add, from the overwhelming hands of the Industrial Revolution] and was situated in the world of nature as a subject for scientific study. The cultural shock waves were enormous and long lasting. But equal to them was the sense of hope that gradually took root throughout the Western world. To everyone, including those who offered countertheories to psychoanalysis, the main vision seemed indomitable: science, which had brought about undreamt-of power over external nature, could now turn to explaining and controlling the inner world of man. The era of psychology was born. (p. 4)
However this may be, Needleman (1983) further observes that, “although psychiatry in its many forms pervades our present culture, the hope it once contained has slowly ebbed away” (p. 5). He explains that although “questions about the meaning of life and death and one’s relationship to the universe” of course remain, psychology has not been able to respond “from a level of universal knowledge and intuitive relationship which perceives certain cries for help as the seed of the desire for self-transformation” (Needleman, 1983, p. 5). Crossing the bridge from psychology over to the desire for and necessity of self-transformation, thus locating some of the psychological problems of modernity in the realm of a grounded spirituality, is the topic of this discussion.
The birth and rise of psychology and psychotherapy, the widespread and popular modern quest for self-knowledge has been intimately connected to the Industrial Age of the past 150 years. During this time the drive for self-knowledge was limited and largely put on hold in favor of the rush to material conquests, comforts and convenience. But this materialistic repression of the drive for the development of further human potential created, out of itself, a deeper need to explore the mental life and the inner life beyond the pressures of alienation. The pressure for this evolutionary step toward healing into wholeness has been building through the decades under the accumulated weight and pain of a one-sided materialism (Wilber, 2000b). More recently, the drive toward wholeness and spirituality has included not only resolution of inner conflicts, lifting of repression, and concern for healthy ego development, but also has drawn much attention to the primacy of body-centered feelings and felt experience (Gendlin, 1981), shedding light on the dynamics of relationships and intimacy (Welwood, 1991), as well as overcoming alienation by exploring much more deeply the blockages of separation and the desirable qualities of warmth, human connection and relationships (Brown, 2010; Rosenberg, 2005; Welwood, 1996).
The world is spinning around and around and yet most people don’t know it is spinning. Peirre Teilhard de Chardin perceived, in an oft-quoted sentiment, that “Humanity has been sleeping – and still sleeps – lulled within the narrowly confining joys of its closed loves.” The cosmic view of inner space and its embodiment is not prevalent, not generally popular, in spite of popular psychology books and the striking image of planet earth viewed from outer space published by space agencies a few decades ago. Spinning around, people are generally caught in a small materialistic vortex, trance or worldview. People in various parts of the world have different cultures, worldviews, governments, relationship to nature, and religions. Some understand their place on earth by ceremony, ritual, animistic or shamanistic practices. Many live, or have lived, according to a collective ethos while others sport a cult of individuality embedded in an urban-industrial world complex. It seems that most people, wherever and whoever they are, make choices and decisions according to the particular piece of the world they see, are open to, and that they are educated about. This is natural, necessary, but perhaps not sufficient. And many still live under oppressive military regimes that restrict choices and limit individual decisions. Wherever people live on the earth it seems their worldview is often restricted by obstacles that are external, communal, and/or repressed by internal blockages. That worldview may be presently narrow or wide. However, the cosmic view is a personal development, a healing view and a potential available inside each person. The assumption of this possibility underlies the best and most advanced disciplines of psychology and spirituality and will be described more fully later.
The psychology of interest here was born and nourished in the Western world of Europe and North America relatively recently and for very specific reasons is connected to industrial development, as noted above. These two areas and populations of the world are ruled and administered mostly by white people, mostly older white males, although some of that is changing now. We are thus narrowing our view with Western psychology and psychotherapy down to these two geographical areas, dominated by mostly affluent white populations, which total less than ten percent of world population. The psychology we are speaking of was developed and nurtured by a relatively small percentage of Earth’s population. Other areas of the world like South America, Russia and Asia may practice Western psychology but major contributions continue to be made from the two main areas of focus here, North America and Europe (including Australia). With a focus on these two small areas of world population we have shrunk our cosmic view down to ten percent, but the impact on world politics, economics, energy use, pollution, agriculture and business is global and is hard to overestimate, at least up until the recent and dramatic rise of China and India. The specific reason why psychology and the need for psychotherapy have attained such large stature in the West is particularly due to the rapid rise in technology, science and the urban-industrial complex (Roszak, 1992). This seems somewhat counter-intuitive because these material developments had often promised to bring relief from all kinds of suffering and inconvenience: an end to poverty, affluence for all, and other miracles. Unfortunately, for some strange reasons we shall look at next, this is a promise that appears to have turned back on itself. To ask what has gone wrong, if anything, is not to complain or hold a pessimistic or negative view, but perhaps it is in the very best interests of science and psychology. And it is to utilize the very power of psychology to look beneath the surface of things as they appear, and ask questions.
To expand to its full potential then, white psychology must become integrated with wisdom traditions from other cultures (Ray, 2008). A truly integral psychology will, and must, open fully to the perennial psychologies and wisdoms of distant cultures as the world becomes more and more a global culture. As the speed of technology and communication increasingly brings news of world conflicts to everyone, so must the speed, breadth and vision of psychology expand in order to provide a healthy and sane paradigm to heal the world’s psychological blind spots. Power must give way to cooperation in order to nourish a worldwide wisdom based upon a healthy outlook where everyone’s needs matter. As will be shown, the psychological tools to realize this dream already exist.
The view of planet earth from outer space, however spectacular, seeming to float weightless and beguiled by the play of light and shadows, is but a metaphor for the cosmic view that can potentially be revealed from within the depths of the human heart. If we look back a few hundred years in Western history we can begin to see this unfolding of a wider rational view of freedom and authenticity stirring in a few brave souls.
The Age of Reason
The transitional change that ushered in the Age of Reason some three hundred years ago was characterized by differentiation, in the sense of splitting of mind and body or of subject and object. This was a necessary evolutionary development that restored dignity to a Western civilization that had been organized around social cohesion, oppression, superstition, fear based domination, and a kind of darkness that supported an ethos of participatory consciousness with nature inside a larger social nightmare (Wilber, 1996). As a belated complement to this, the transitional change called for in our time is characterized by a need for some reverse social engineering, so to speak, that takes up a higher order of the integration of mind and body, mind and nature, and subject and object. So the pattern here that characterizes our modern psychological historical development was first to split mind and body apart to restore dignity and freedom of thinking, and to develop the power of the human brain of reason. Therein lies the separation, the alienation, and the development of a particular anxiety that marks our modern history. The restored dignity and freedom of thinking came with a price, that is, it has suffered through the development of only certain aspects of human differentiation and freedom. And now the next phase of this development is about mending this split and bringing back the psychic integration of subject and object, mind and body, humans and nature at a higher order or level of sophistication, depth and width.
The focus on the importance of these two major cultural transitions and psychological shifts, one historical and the other presently current, is not to dismiss or deny other major changes in the development of human civilization. For example, the discovery of farming ten thousand years ago brought in the age of agriculture, and the more recent industrial revolution created massive lifestyle changes in material comfort and convenience. But whereas these agricultural and industrial developments involved external innovations in tools and energy use, the development of reason as a separate psychic force of differentiation (and the subsequent dissociation that gave rise to alienation and our present need for integration) now calls for further psychological developments, inner development utilizing tools of consciousness, thus giving rise to the next cultural evolution of consciousness. This is the message of wholeness and spirituality.
In general, the reason the change that took place three centuries ago with the dawn of the Age of Reason brought a certain dignity to humanity is because it sorted out various fusions and confusions of the prior mythic Middle Ages and pre-industrial society. These differential distinctions represent a huge benefit to the socialization and freedoms of human beings. It did this by bringing reason and vision to bear in order to evolve by differentiating between culture and self, between empirical science and superstitious dogma, between intellectual freedom and the oppressive abusive cruelty so well described here:
Pre-industrial society was hierarchical, authoritarian, and unjust and characterized by a degree of bullying and submission that we would find intolerable. Personal freedom was severely limited. And the opportunity to rise above the conditions into which one was born, to even hope for a materially better future, was almost entirely absent. But although existence was precarious in many ways, with poor nutrition and primitive medical practice placing life and health at risk at every turn, and although personal misery and psychological disturbance could no more be averted than today, people experienced a kind of security that until our era could be taken for granted in most stable societies. They were guided by traditions and values that they accepted for the most part without question. And they belonged; they had people they could count on and a milieu they felt a part of. (Karen, 1994, p. 412) (italics mine).
The current revolution in worldviews, already underway but by no means anywhere near complete, is about integrating the parts of humanity and human experience, lost during the emergence of the modern scientific paradigm. “The world we have lost was organic.” (Merchant, 1980, p.1). The parts of the organic world we have lost are necessary for evolving a whole (holistic, organic) human being capable of world-centric cooperation and compassion, as well as transcendent wisdom beyond egocentric concerns and self-centered demands.
Navigating this challenge in our time will require a revolution of consciousness, an evolutionary step of apparently great exertion. It marks the rise of a new, expanded consciousness whose task it is to identify the missing parts and create a whole human being. This type of awakening to change, although subject to great resistance and immunity (Kegan & Lahey, 2009), is likely to be accomplished by a combination of education, political will, economic pain, ecological catastrophe, declining resource availability, individual suffering, spiritual awakening, and perhaps the grace of a determination to survive and grow and adapt into a vision of a healthy, peaceful coexistence with nature and all people.
Although this might sound like an impossible and idealistic mix of necessities, practical tools to be explained herein are available that can lift individuals, groups, communities, and cultures to common levels of compassionate spirituality and brilliant, empathic communication. These explicit and simple tools for awareness, for growing up and waking up, are widely available and will be described in detail later on. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it is becoming clear that the primary pressure for a great awakening is likely to come from our earth environment: the darkening specter of environmental pollution, depletion of earth’s resources, large-scale catastrophes, shrinking economies, and unrestrained population growth. In this case, a society embracing the wisdom needed for interpersonal skills, of relational truths, emotional awareness, moral and spiritual growth might blossom from the nurturing sensitivities, the urgency and the larger views of eco-psychology. “The need is great, but so too are the opportunities. For the first time in human history we have a transpersonal vision and all the world’s paths beyond ego to help us awaken” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993b, p. 267).
In order to appreciate the magnitude of the psychological and cultural changes that lie ahead it may be useful to engage in some detail with understanding the scope of the massive change in worldview that took place three hundred years ago and set the modern world on a path of development characterized by both good news and bad news (Wilber, 1996).
The Seventeenth Century
Our original culture of separation can be traced back 300 years to the beginning of the seventeenth century. At this time a distinct movement in the evolution of consciousness can be observed with the powerful emergence of the rational mind as a tool for investigating the laws of nature and for separating from the limitations and abuses of the preceding medieval times.
The 17th century in Europe started off with a bang with Giordano Bruno, wandering priest, scholar and writer, being burned at the stake on February 17, 1600 in a public square in Rome. The Italian Inquisition, charged with banning books and circumscribing the words and beliefs of intellectuals, found Bruno guilty of heresy after nearly ten years of questioning, trials and imprisonment (Ogg, 1960). When the Pope was consulted he condoned this public execution by fire of the Dominican priest for his pantheistic beliefs, for his free thinking spirit asserting an infinite universe of immeasurable space and time, for his adamant refusal to recant, and for his agreement with Copernicus that the earth spun around on its axis as it made a yearly orbit around the sun, contrary to the heliocentric dogma of the day (Ogg, 1960). Heresy, a fixed law punishable by death at the time, is defined as belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (Christian) doctrine, or opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition, 2004).
The persecution of Bruno, along with the trials, threats and official suspicion surrounding other giant and expansive philosophers and thinkers of the time, like Copernicus (1473-1543), Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo (1564-1642), Descartes (1596-1650), Spinoza (1632-1677), and Newton (1643-1727), epitomized the dehumanizing sociopolitical conditions that laid the groundwork for the Scientific Revolution, said to have begun in 1543, the year of Copernicus’ death (Ogg, 1960). It wasn’t until the 18th century that this groundbreaking work blossomed into the so-called Age of Enlightenment, also called the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. This brief snapshot of 17th century Europe is meant to indicate a starting point or baseline of human development when religion, superstition, mythic worldview, and fear were beginning to be replaced by the linear and separative function of reason and the powerful way of knowledge it discovered.
It is a line of development that is still evolving, passing through the Age of Reason onward through the Industrial Age, up to the present when its fruits are showing ominous signs, such as the very survival of civilization, that are surfacing when viewed through the recent sobering lens of holistic ecology, environmental degradation and population growth. When our earth/planetary life support system is thus threatened with damage it seems psychology cannot avoid expanding beyond conventional boundaries of scientific rationalism. We have reached a time now when psychology must offer a ‘standard of sanity’ that takes into account people’s relationship to these ecological factors, for these indicate an urgent survival need to awaken to a sense of wholeness and caring for our global earth household (Brown, 2009; Roszak, 1992). Perhaps this is a call for psychology to extend its purpose and mandate out beyond the frontiers of reason to the fundamental problems of humanity that are, at their root, spiritual problems (Welwood, 2011).
The 18th century and the Age of Reason or Enlightenment accomplished a huge step in the development of humankind. For one thing it seemed to put to rest an era when it was a serious danger to speak your mind or to embrace and connect with your own experience, whether inner knowing or outer perceptions. Previous centuries were dominated by a mythic relationship to reality, sometimes called mythic-membership or participatory consciousness because it supported a sense of belonging and inclusion in nature, in work, and in community. “Personal freedom was severely limited” (Karen, 1994, p. 412). This gave rise to great art and architecture that expressed an aesthetic based on devotion and innocence. At the same time the era of Church hegemony, superstition, oppression, cruelty and torture, domination and the near total suppression by feudal elites was dissolving into a new era that proceeded to restore a new dignity to Western mankind. Clear thinking, differentiation, the ascendance of reason, the investigation of nature and the laws of nature, science, invention and experiment yielded the basis upon which the subsequent Industrial Age was made possible. In spite of new kinds of oppression springing up the advances of reason and the rise of clear rational thinking also eventually made dramatic inroads in the liberation movements for the abolition of slavery, for women’s rights, minority rights, the rise of a middle class and a host of civil rights as democracy made its torturous climb through the twentieth century.
The Tyranny of Reason
The Age of Reason was celebrated as it brought major advances in intellectual freedom, civil rights, and the scientific discoveries that resulted in practical improvements in every aspect of life, from sanitation to locomotion, from communication to refrigeration. However, the rise of a rational superstructure to guide the life of humanity away from medieval abuses, and the understandable excitement surrounding such an era, lasting about two centuries, overlooked an important piece of the psychological and spiritual edifice that constitute the whole human being. Restoring human dignity and human rights was a major accomplishment during this era for it helped to differentiate between superstition and fact, between belief and experience, between dogma and existence, between myth and reason (Wilber, 1990). It restored ownership of the soul to the person instead of the mediated and controlling influence of the church and state. This good news also contained some bad news.
However liberating, useful and effective the tool of reason was demonstrated to be, it eventually took on the character of a new kind of oppression. As the so-called Enlightenment paradigm woke itself up to the clear, objective and controlling powers of the rational mind it began to promote dismissal and mistrust of the subjective side of human experience (Berman, 1981). It is as if the cure became an illness; it provoked a new kind of illness that we are still living with, still waking up from. This devaluing of one-half of the holistic human potential, the subjective, began to take on the narrowing aspect of a tool much like a hammer that sees everything it encounters as a nail. If the tyranny of objectifying reason in the role of philosophy and science had a powerful salutary effect on the material world, it also had a cost--the compensatory and devastating effect on the wholeness of being and the resulting fragmentary eclipse of the human soul that has persisted until the present day (Sardello, 1992). Thus, the official Western worldview became colored, lopsided and biased toward the powerful rational and masculine talents of mankind at the expense of the softer side: the experiential, feminine, intuitive, interior, soulful, conscious connection-with-nature that are important parts of reality (Johnson, 1983). The inner reality of direct experience and feeling was, and still is in mainstream Western culture, dismissed as unreliable, messy, unpredictable in comparison with the certitudes of the scientific worldview.
This dismissal of the validity and value of subjective, interior, direct experience is understandable from the point of view of balance. The rational scientific paradigm took great pride in dismantling the lovely and innocent, but much abused, participation mystique of the mythic worldview of pre-industrial times (Berman, 1981). In the evolution of human consciousness it was time to swing the pendulum the other way, get some distance from abuses and limitations inherent in the mythic Middle Ages, and now bring forth the powers of reason and differentiation that had lain largely dormant for centuries.
Birth of the Modern Ego
The new powers of the rational mind that began to embrace a much needed task of differentiation and the restoration of the dignity of the individual also gave birth to the notion of the “self”, a reflexive pronoun whose original meaning derives from ideas or words like separation or apart (Webster’s, 1978). The concept of self is somehow inherent in the development of an independent thinking mind that can differentiate, compare, and manipulate symbols in thought. This independence and separation is an important stage of development in a mature person as well as in a culture. The developmental stage of this independence takes its proper place along a spectrum of human development that can generally be characterized as a progression from dependence to independence to interdependence. The third stage, interdependence, is characterized by a relaxation of neurotic isolation and the capacity to care for others, or compassion.
As the notion of a separate self developed along with the rational mind through the centuries it was, around 1900, analyzed deeply and cleverly by Freud who gave it the name in his German language of “Das Ich” which literally means in English “the I”. During the English translation of Freud’s work the Latin term “ego” was chosen to represent Freud’s original term, Das Ich or the “I”. Thus the word ego was adopted into the psychological literature and then gradually emerged into popular usage (Welwood & Wilber, 1979).
Given this perspective, then, a simple definition of ego is a sense of “I”. However, the ego does not submit to simple definitions, in spite of what Freud (2001) said, “Normally there is nothing we are more certain of than the feeling of our self, our own ego” (p. 65). Any discussion of ego is bound to be slippery because the word and the concept mean different things to different people at different times. That is, whatever ego is, and whatever “I” means, its relationship to inner and outer worlds changes depending on the level of personal development of the individual as well as of an observer (Freud, 2001; Wilber, 1979). And beyond the slippery slope of the personal developmental spectrum, there is the issue of whether or not one views the sense of “I” from a strictly objective and structural viewpoint, as Freud and many of his followers in psychoanalysis did, thus arriving at a solid definition from an outside observer point of view. Complementary to this view is the subjective experience of “I” and how one handles or relates to that sense of “I” from within one’s needs, desires, beliefs and behavior. Along the spectrum of human development or unfolding, our experience of “I” can move from very large to very small. Thus ego definitions move from simple to complex.
There are different levels to the idea, the meaning and the definition of ego. One generally accepted understanding ego is that of a basic level of an organizing function within the psyche or mental life of a person (Kernberg, 2000; Engler, 2000; Welwood, 2000). This aspect of ego is devoted to basic functioning much like the biological systems in the body such as the circulatory system, the autonomous nervous system, digestive system, and so on. This basic layer or level of ego’s purely functional aspect is a mental/perceptual system that processes information from the five senses and also includes the mental thinking and organizing activity of consciousness that connects with thinking, behavior and motoric activity. Here ego is seen as a psychic structure, more or less stable, natural and necessary that organizes various functions of the operating system of being human such as identity, will, memory, impulses, reason, decision-making, libido, perception, beliefs, behavior, etc. Welwood (2000) explains that, “A psychology of awakening, which recognizes the larger realm of egoless awareness, could recognize the functional ego as a transitional mental structure that serves a useful purpose in human development” (p. 37). He continues, “It is an interim caretaker, a managerial function created by the mind for the purpose of navigating in the world” (p. 37). This basic level of understanding of ego as a center of consciousness, organization and action is a somewhat static conception of ego and is not the end of the story.
It is helpful to identify another level of ego activity beyond the rather automatic functional level. This other level consists of representational images that may be formed by a voluntary activity of the mind whereby pictures, images, identities, ideas, symbols, beliefs and opinions can be fabricated. Here ego moves away from being a noun – a kind of structure – and takes on the quality of a verb, an activity we do that can constrict or expand our world. Part of the confusion around the word ego has to do with not distinguishing between the two distinct meanings of the word ego, between the basic functioning of consciousness and the creative aspect, the imaginal creation of representational images like identity and beliefs.
When ego acts like a verb it can manufacture contractions of self-image and produce defensive reactions in response to fear or threats or desires. This dynamic view of ego that can fabricate ideas, beliefs, and identities can limit one with contractions and withdrawals of a defensive nature, or can expand into images and beliefs of self-importance, inflation and arrogance. Furthermore, the dynamic activity of ego can compound its activities into holding mental fixations that can then inflate desire into craving, grasping and clinging.
When ego becomes a problem these destructive aspects can turn into demons that indicate to some that ego is evil and must be treated as a battlefield, a struggle of good against bad, right against wrong. This broad description of how the concept of the slippery ego can develop from a purely functional cognitive system into a grand problem that can wreak destruction and havoc on the individual and the human race can now bear a closer look.
When ego becomes a problem it is a matter of distortion and a mistaken view of the concepts of self, identity and the sense of “I”. A mistaken view happens when these roughly equivalent concepts of our dynamic psychic functioning become frozen into a static picture of ego as a separate, solid, permanent, substantial thing. Ego then becomes a cognitive cloud, a bubble, a reference point that we take to be the only reality. However, ego is not a thing, it is a process. Our life force is not the static picture of frozen identity and solid ego structure that strict conceptual behavior can lead us to believe. Rather, it is an ever-changing heap of functions that move and flow against the background of a larger sense of life (Trungpa, 1973). Our whole life force is in constant change and movement within the larger context of life and death. The contractions and limitations of a solid or inflated ego concept is a defense against this simple holistic truth. Jung famously said that religion is a defense against God. So, in this sense the ego notion has hit a wall, the high wall of insanity against which it struggles indefinitely until some crack in the wall appears.
This crack in ego’s wall of concepts, certainty and defense is often called spirituality. Contrary to Western psychology, spiritual traditions around the world hold the view that the self or ego or a sense of “I” is a fiction, not real, a delusion, a false concept that has no existence in ultimate reality (Trungpa, 1976). Perhaps in a narrowed down sense of reality we may entertain the existence of a self, as a fictional concept of how we perceive reality from within a dualistic framework, but the reality of egolessness, the basic non-reality of ego, is often the basis for an authentic spirituality. Spiritual traditions base the notion of breaking through the dualistic barrier into experiences of non-duality on glimpses during meditation and other contemplative experiences. Even Freud (2001), toward the end of his life wrote that, “The ego we are aware of now is…only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling – a feeling which embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable connection of the ego with the external world” (p. 76).
When ego becomes a problem is when the fruits of its separative function get frozen and rigid, opposites are maintained as inner or outer conflicts, and there is no surrender to wholeness. Ego basically means the thinking mind, and it can be used or abused. The tyranny of the thinking mind, from this point of view, is a basic Western vulnerability, a disproportionate imbalance that manipulates objects in the external world while maintaining a dualistic split between those exterior objects and an interior object we call the self. However, the worlds of Eastern spirituality offer a different view that seeks to subordinate the exclusively thinking mind to a larger panoramic view that includes myth, symbol and a spacious worldview that some call oneness (or not-two) and that arises from the direct experience of meditation.
The difference between Western and Eastern psychology is captured in the notion of ego strength on the one hand, and egolessness on the other hand. Authors John Welwood & Ken Wilber (1979) explain:
Western psychotherapists have emphasized the need for a strong ego, meaning by that maximal competence in dealing with impulses, conflicts, and environmental demands without lapsing into anxiety-ridden behavior or withdrawal from situations. On the other hand, the Eastern notion of egolessness, as developed particularly in the Buddhist tradition, attempts to go beyond the notion of a strong ego by stressing that ultimately there is no such thing as an ego, a separate self, and that full human life can only be realized in light of this basic fact of existence. Just as an Eastern person with only a superficial knowledge of Western psychology might misunderstand the therapeutic goal of developing ego strength, so too a classical psychoanalyst would probably view egolessness as an invitation to psychosis. (p. 93)
The view of ego as a separate self object is a necessary fact of life for functional organizing activities yet, from a spiritual development perspective, this narrow functional aspect takes place against the ultimate view and background reality of the mysteries of oneness, non-duality, and the perennial wisdoms of many older cultures. To maintain only the feeble certainties of an objectivist view of life is a modern problem that some Western psychologist thinkers have seen through as they strive to articulate the spiritual aspects implied in psychology. This type of transparency signals a developing maturity in Western psychology as the centuries-old wisdom of the East begins to seep through the walls of the scientific view.
The necessary objectification of the world by worship of the god of reason has led to the disenchantment of everyday life and an assault on nature as recorded by numerous poets and thinkers from Blake to Whitman, from Kierkegaard to Wilber, and from a range of psychologists like Jung, Maslow, Rogers, May, Perls, Walsh & Vaughan, etc. (Berman, 1981; May, 1969; Wilber, 1995). A history of the perils and costs of the primacy of objective thinking was recorded by science historian Morris Berman in his 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World. In that book Berman (1981) argued that our problems of disenchantment and alienation are not social and economic in nature but rather are due to a discovery he found “profoundly disturbing…that something was wrong with our entire worldview” (p. 15). Reading this book some years ago I found a perfect match between what Berman was describing and my own experience as an undergraduate student working toward my degree in Science and Engineering. Berman’s explanations of the developing Scientific Revolution over the centuries shed major light and brought huge recognition, articulation and relief to the pain I had felt during the science part of my college education, lacking deep humanities as it was, and the murky confusion I felt long afterwards in my quest to discover and learn what was missing.
The objectification of our world was set in concrete first and most famously by the writings of the mathematician/philosopher Rene Descartes who convinced the world early on of the absolute separation of mind and body, of subject and object. In this view, the facts of nature could best be apprehended and understood by creating distance between the phenomenon or object of study (including the body) and the rational, analytical portion of the mind. This worldview of separation of observer and observed brought to a decisive end the centuries-old participatory and mythic view of the world based on mental and emotional identification with the objects of perception.
The new scientific view set up a fundamental and limited dualism that, among other things, saw material things as absolute, positively fixed and solid, and saw facts as immutable and values as mostly irrelevant (Wilber, 1995). This dismissal of values is captured in the change of attitude from ‘Why do something?’ to only ‘How to do it?’. This view saw the world of nature and things as basically dead and subject to the will and manipulation of the rational part of the mind. This is fundamentally an ethical problem, and a serious mistake. The infamous statement, “I think, therefore I am” concretized this worldview and set rolling forth a seventeenth century dictum and beyond as to the nature of mind and of reality that dehumanized man’s relation to nature, justified the assault on nature resulting in modern environmental crises, and led to an alienation, isolation and disenchantment of the modern soul (Jung, 1933).
A more accurate or humanistic revision of Descartes’ statement might read, “I think, therefore I’m not” or “I feel, therefore I am”. This is because to define one’s being or existence only in terms of thinking is a harmful disconnection between mind and body as well as between mind and nature. It is pure speculation and does not locate one’s existence in the present moment. Such a schism or disembodiment promotes a serious dislocation in the realms of spirit and wholeness. Whatever the virtues of the objective thinking apparatus, it conveys a sense of abstraction that may serve very well for the heady sports of mathematics and engineering, law and medicine, but does not serve the discipline of wholeness or competence in relationships where the body and mind need to be synchronized. A sense of belonging and participation in nature was lost to society and to individuals with the ascendance of the reasoning mind. The direct body experience of feelings and emotion is a closer match for experiencing wholeness in the body-mind connection because feelings take place in the body and also happen in the present moment of nowness. It is not widely recognized that feeling is a mode of consciousness.
Descarte’s error, then, was in splitting mind and body apart, a movement in the evolution of consciousness that harbored good news (the restoration of dignity and independent thinking) as well as bad news (alienation and separation from nature, self, and other).
The Big Split
The last 300 years have been plagued, psychologically speaking, by what I would call the big split. There is a schizoid sense to this that communicates a sense of disconnection, alienation and emotional aloofness. The essence of the split is an enshrined duality that separates the perceiver from the perceived. Different words are used to describe various splits in a divided consciousness such as subjective/objective, absolute/relative, me/not-me, ego/egoless, observer/observed, etc. During the time of Descartes there was a lot of excitement generated over the power of reason to examine nature objectively and take things apart to understand how they worked. People began to feel a sense of mastery, dignity, independence and power that came from understanding the laws of nature discovered in gravity, motion, acceleration and astronomy by way of applying the distance and the separation afforded by abstract reasoning and discoveries in mathematics. This awakening of the power of the reductionist reasoning capacity of the human mind to differentiate man from nature, and separate thinking from experience was a huge break from preceding mythic/magic cultures and brought both good and bad results into the modern era (Wilber, 1995). Thus, the Age of Reason forcibly removed itself from the closeness to nature and the ‘participation mystique’ that was enjoyed by earlier cultures immersed in myth, magic and archaic worldviews. This ‘enjoyment’ in mythic cultures was, as mentioned earlier, seriously hemmed in by authoritarian rule, rigid class structures, ubiquitous threats of cruel punishment, deprivation of social freedoms, the loss of personal expression and the right to speak one’s mind.
However, the excitement connected with this abrupt evolutionary rupture that separated the reasoning mind from the body, from nature, and from interior emotional connections and the intimacy of experience was not shared by everyone. Some began to sense something was missing with the distance from nature and phenomena that was required by the powerful application of the objective, rational method of scientific investigation. This ‘something missing’ gave rise to feelings of disenchantment and descriptions of a disqualified universe (Mumford, 1967) that grew simultaneously with the momentum toward the penetration of nature and her secrets solely for utilitarian purposes. Unmistakable and eloquent voices such as Kierkegaard, Blake, Nietzche, Rilke, Kafka, et al., described in many different ways the alienation they saw and felt that accompanied the scientific rationality and that buried the human soul under the advancing wave of material progress. The part of the human psyche named the soul, for lack of a better term, was being compromised and shut out of the rise of this new rational enterprise of the human mind of progress (Jung, 1963). The separation of reason from experience, of subject from object, gave rise to amazing advances in the material world as the Age of Reason set the stage for the Industrial Revolution with the discovery of coal and the invention of the steam engine, and then oil later on.
The differentiation of reason from the messy world of interior feelings, emotions, values and morals has produced vast improvements in the comfort and technological conveniences of modern life in some sections of the Western world. Having established that this is undoubtedly true and valuable, the essence of psychology requires that a wider view on these developments be taken that goes beyond adjustment to the status quo and embraces the whole picture of human life. Rather than sing the praises of the wonders of technological advancements alone, we must set a task to open the door to the notion that there is more to life than the values of control, utility and predictability that underlie science and the paradigm of materialism. This is a door that will lead to questions about human development and healing in the direction of the interior world of feelings, emotions, values, personal expression and spirituality.
The relationship of healing to human development over the life span is about uncovering and undoing blocks and obstacles to development. Personal and individual development is about recovering natural human potential, or wholeness. Psychic and emotional blocks and obstacles are conditioned habits of thought, beliefs, and ingrained habitual patterns of behavior that can be changed though education, guidance, effort, insight, determination and right motivation. The natural human potential for caring and compassion is dormant in everyone, whereas the blocks to these attitudes and behaviors are learned by conditioning and suffering. When some part of healing is actualized then a new stage of development may be ready to manifest. This progression of unfolding has been termed by Ken Wilber “transcend and include”, which means previous developmental tasks completed, or nearly completed, are not abandoned but are integrated into the next stages of realization, achievement and accomplishment (Wilber, 1979, 1996).
It would be difficult to overestimate the scope of the damage done over the last three centuries by the tyranny of reason and the elegant and ultimately disempowering rational superstructure set in motion by the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Theodore Roszak (1969) has shown how many modern intellectuals, poets and philosophers have called into question the conventional scientific worldview and in so doing have set about undoing the foundations of the technocracy. However, since my focus here is seeing life through the lens of psychology, the damage may be summarized by referring to the eclipsed features of the subjective life-world (Sardello, 1992). This statement calls for a definition of what is meant by ‘subjective’.
Restoring The Subjective
The meaning of the word subjective is not well or uniformly understood. To some it can mean poorly formed and unsubstantiated opinions, and/or primitive beliefs about reality. To others it might mean getting lost in feelings and emotions that can cloud the clarity of objective reasoning and clear thinking. To scientists it is often demeaned as ‘mere’ subjectivity as if to say that next to the powerful mind tool of reason it is only an expression of the weaker side of human nature responsible for all kinds of error, uncertainty, confusion and distortions. And in a certain sense they are right, but that is not the end of the story. These judgments are only symptoms of repressed contents.
What is subjectivity then? What I mean by it here is an active awareness of the inner life of intuition, feelings, needs, values, body sense, vulnerability – all of which are “messy” compared to objectivity. Yes, unfortunately it’s true. And for healing we now need to create a balance, to develop the skills of subjectivity (or heart, same thing). A core skill here is to be able to tolerate, manage and develop a positive relationship with experiences of openness, ambiguity and uncertainty. These are earth-based, feminine, relational skills in contrast to the dominant (and dominating) male skills of command and control (Johnson, 1983).
The skills of subjectivity are what we need most in our world now. The manifestation of these heart skills is long overdue. They are the most important aspect of the healing needed to shift the social center of gravity toward wholeness. The healing needed in our world is simply to bring back the value, depth, and wisdom qualities of a disciplined subjective world. For these skills to develop and manifest we need specific tools, education and lots of practice to discover and uproot persistent and toxic habitual patterns of life-alienating speech and behavior (Rosenberg,2003, 2005). The essence of subjectivity is the heart. We need, for healing, to awaken the heart to its full potential of openness, compassion, bravery and wisdom (Trungpa, 1984). To awaken the heart means to realize and manifest wisdom, which is seeing things as they are, rather than being deceived and distracted by unconscious projections and wishful thinking. It means awakening ourselves from self-centered preoccupations to the skillful means of friendly helping behavior that spreads out to nature-centric and world-centric dimensions. This kind of awakening does not come easily. It is difficult to change entrenched habitual patterns held in place by developmental gaps, fear and mistaken beliefs about reality. Old patterns of anger, blame, depression, guilt, shame and shutdown create difficulty when they assert themselves in conflict and other encounters. But it essentially means awakening to our natural basic goodness that we already possess but is buried under centuries of neglect in the West.
The culmination of all this Western cultural and historical development dominated by science, materialism, and the super-rational mind seemed to come up to an abrupt challenge in the mid-nineteenth century. It came to pass that the pollution created by the excessive and top-heavy mental hubris of the past 300 years that began to run out of steam and was now being challenged simultaneously on many fronts at once (Roszak, 1969). A turning point in the evolution of consciousness was broached that was in many ways as powerful and influential as the turning point reached on different terms in the seventeenth century. The growing arrogance of a purely mental supremacy met a powerful and growing disappointment and disenchantment regarding the missing elements of the intuition, the body, the feminine, the unconsciousness, nature and other repressed aspects of consciousness. It was as if the wounded and damaged emotional body of individuals and our culture began to be recognized with the rise of a more refined awareness as repressed elements burst through onto the scene visibly for the first time in centuries. By the early 1960’s a restlessness and creativity was emerging that spread like a virus through Western culture, and ultimately most of the world, into psychology, business management, music, education, foreign policy, media, entertainment, religion, philosophy, art, widely popular expressions of anti-war, and especially environmental activism and its connection with nature. Western culture had hit a wall and was in dire need of transformation on all fronts. The supremacy of cerebral cognition was being challenged on all fronts and a long-delayed exploration of non-intellective powers was boldly announced to the world. This was essentially an inchoate cry for balance in Western culture. The large movements in the evolution of consciousness that concern us here are the developments of existential, humanistic and transpersonal psychology, eco-psychology, the introduction of Eastern philosophy and spiritual disciplines such as meditation and yoga, as well as consciousness raising relationship education and disciplines like nonviolent communication.
Paths To a New Consciousness
There are two paths to birthing a new consciousness that I have experience with learning, practicing as well as teaching. One path may be called the path of healing and the other the path of awakening (Welwood, 2000). The specific path of healing referred to here is embedded in Western psychology while the path of awakening arrived rather recently on Western shores from more than twenty-five centuries of development and practice among the mountains and plains of the inscrutable cultures of Asia. What is happening here in the global collision of these two disparate cultures is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Western culture has utilized the powers of the reasoning part of the mind to probe deep into the secrets of nature to create tools for material comfort and convenience while Eastern cultures have plumbed deep into the mysteries of the contemplative experience of being to create tools for wisdom and compassion. Yet, somehow these two seem destined to meet each other, in subatomic as well as contemplative space, in surprising agreement about the nature of mind and the mind of nature. While there are serious gaps in each of these culture’s ways of relating to human development, relational competence, and issues of world peace, war and nuclear annihilation, and environmental degradation, a prescient integrative potential is visible and holds promise for melding the best of each into an advancement to achieve a new global consciousness that can bring benefit to everyone. At least this is the visionary potential that is rising to the surface in these troubled times.
The path of healing that I am going to describe is the long journey from the head to the heart, from intellectual corners of confidence to the spacious fields beyond ideas of right and wrong. Between the path of healing and the path of awakening there is some crossover, in fact there is a theoretical unity, yet competence in one path does not necessarily yield competence or maturity in the other. Whereas psychology seeks to build up a firm and functional ego of stable identity, object constancy, coherent personality and relief from anxiety, meditation and spirituality seek to dissolve and dismantle the ego as a necessary process to access higher states of maturity, unity and consciousness, kindness, and ultimately, functioning. These developmental tasks are often misunderstood and mishandled because ego in each case means something different.
In general, in the path of healing the emphasis or goal is to establish a functioning unit of personality and identity while seeking relief from gross suffering, compulsion, anxiety and fragmentation of purpose and meaning. In the path of awakening, after having somewhat accomplished the path of healing, the process is to bring awareness to deeper structures of identification including primitive (ie, false or mistaken) beliefs about self and reality, subtle blockages and defenses, and then to realizing the perennial wisdoms of the larger indivisible realms of consciousness and awareness. Here the process is to move beyond personal identification with thoughts, representational images and perception outward to an expanding sense of connection and compassion with all that is. This is the path of non-duality, often referred to as “oneness”, but perhaps it is better described as simple “not two”. This is because to name something sacred and huge sometimes has the result of limiting it to a concept when what is needed is direct personal experience. An important step along the path of awakening involves, according to Buddhism, a gradual awareness and acceptance of the truths of human suffering, impermanence, and egolessness, known as the “three marks of existence” (Trungpa, 1973) or “indisputable truth” (Nyima, 1996). A detailed discussion of the deeper meaning of these items is beyond the scope of this paper. These “three marks” are sometimes translated into other terms such as: discomfort, change, and nonself.
There are many ways the path of awakening and the path of healing can become mixed up, distorted and dangerously misunderstood. One of the most prevalent ways is to use the concepts and allure of spirituality to avoid completing the important developmental tasks along the path of healing that are concerned with mental stability, inner conflicts and personal ego development. The escape that is often sought from these tasks is called “spiritual bypassing”, a term coined by psychologist John Welwood in the mid-1980s while closely observing himself and the students in his spiritual community. Spiritual bypassing is defined as using spirituality to bypass or avoid painful feelings, unresolved psychological wounds, and developmental tasks (Masters, 2011). This is explained in more detail later.
Contrary to popular belief Buddhism is not a religion in the conventional sense. It is a way of living, a way of being, a wisdom way that teaches the basic elements of sanity and dignity. The most elementary teaching of what is known as Buddhism is that at our core we are not broken, that the sane and healthy aspect of every person is indestructible. These ancient and enduring 2,500-year-old teachings say that each human being already has the seed of waking up to the potential of basic goodness, sometimes called buddha-nature. The Sanskrit word buddha actually means “awake”, so buddha-nature means waking up to our nature, to our awakened heart. Waking up to our full human potential and the relief of unnecessary suffering are the shared concerns of both Buddhism and psychotherapy although significant differences can be expected.
Authentic Buddhist teachings are based upon experience in meditation and meditative awareness rather than purely on belief, speculation, philosophical theories, research data or opinion. Basic goodness and awakening and buddha-nature are words and concepts that point to the actual experience of health, sanity and wholesomeness (Trungpa, 2005). Although existing at the core of human life and experience these qualities are often clouded over and covered up by distortions of all kinds: a strange brew of primitive beliefs about reality and emotional blockages that stem from less-than-fortunate cultural and family conditioning, past wounds to the emotional body, and perhaps karmic propensities. These cognitive and emotional obscurations, so the teaching goes, can be seen through by a sustained practice of meditation along with persistent daily life mindfulness and study.
Just as in Western humanistic psychology, a path of development is presented in Buddhism that outlines the farther reaches of human nature. Along with this basic similarity there are also cultural and structural differences between Western psychology and Eastern spirituality. Although these teachings have been presented as a storehouse of “knowledge” by many great Asian spiritual masters over the centuries, the concrete manifestation of this knowledge is up to each individual person in any particular culture, time and place, and according to one’s own motivation, effort and ability. Although this is ancient wisdom, its perennial expression must be brought forth alive and anew in the present moment.
Buddhism has entered many cultures and the success of the implementation of its teachings depends on the willingness of the citizens to acknowledge and work with their own particular hang-ups and local neuroses in the context of greater vision. Buddhism does not offer a quick and easy path to personal salvation or nonviolent thinking but it does offer a map, a vision and a practical path for our journey to sanity, peace and wellbeing.
In the Eastern homelands of Buddhism the basic tenets of the teachings are embedded in the culture as ethical precepts of caring for others. In addition to this, a monastic core of meditating monks and nuns largely set an example of the development of human nature via discipline and practice of these values – holding the experiential basis of the teachings to the fire, so to speak.
During the many centuries of Buddhist meditation practice and experience, life in the various Asian countries was physically demanding and difficult, often teetering on the edge of survival. People were constantly engaged in manual labor growing crops for food, tending to animals and building dwellings. In addition to, and perhaps due to, the hard and earthy life of an agricultural based economy, people lived a more or less communal life where the survival and safety of the group depended on forming and maintaining close community bonds of cooperation and sacrifice (Trungpa, 1973). Despite differences and conflicts the communal aspect of Asian life was predominant in a way that does not encourage individualism or individuation as we know it in the West. The social and family life of Asia was, and still is, based on roles and rules that often eclipse individual, relational and personal development as well as personal choice. Individual preferences were not particularly encouraged during the many centuries of Buddhist development in Asia. Nevertheless, the rugged and earthy communal life contributed connection, warmth and a grounded quality to the Asian personality, something that seems to be essentially missing in the West where separation, individuality and disconnection appear to be cultural and personal artifacts of modern life (Brown, 2010b).
In contrast to Asian communal values, the Western cultural development has pursued individuality as a core value. While individuation can be a healthy path and outcome in a culture of individuality there is also the potential danger in developing a culture of separation and alienation. As a response to the inherent problems in the pursuit of a materialist individuality, middle-class Westerners are drawn to Buddhism for healing, a sense of belonging and for spiritual reasons. This situation often results in a hungry and shortsighted goal-oriented approach in contrast to the Buddhist emphasis on simple here and now awareness. The problems of excessive individuality already mentioned are the sense of separation, disconnection and alienation (May, 1983), the loss of fulfillment of the need for belonging, and the consequent disruption of the arc of personal development. It seems that the communal developments in Eastern cultures are prone to a deficiency of individuation while the individuality values of the West are vulnerable to separation from nature and the loss of real community. In either case, their special cultural achievements also seem to display a place of arrested development to some observers.
In general, it seems fair to say that Eastern cultures have something to learn from the West, and Western cultures have something to learn from the spiritual teachings of the East. As mentioned in the epigraph by Eugene Taylor (1994), Western culture has not yet valued the importance of inner exploration, transformation of personality and the visionary tradition, thus cutting off important paths to becoming a whole person. The West has developed and enjoyed a plethora of material benefits and conveniences as a result of highly developed capacities of analytical and rational talents, but these aspects of human development alone have not yielded much in the areas of wisdom and compassion, happiness, unbounded kindness, unconditional warmth and deeper forms of intelligence such as intuition and emotional awareness (Ekman, 2008).
As people in the West seek healing to overcome suffering due to feelings of disconnection, separation, alienation and depression, two tracks along the path of human development are available. One path is healing in the various schools of psychotherapy; the other path is in the area of spirituality or the path of awakening. Again, the path of psychotherapy and healing is characterized by developing and integrating a stable personality so that an acceptable level of functioning may be achieved. The tasks involved in the path of healing involve facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks (Welwood, 2011). These are very large tasks often understood as a lifetime undertaking marked by various levels of success and achievement as reflected in workable relationships and a sense of wellbeing. But from a cosmic viewpoint, or from the point of view of Buddhist philosophy, human development at this level of personality and personal development is regarded as lacking, necessary but not sufficient.
From the point of view of spiritual development a well functioning personality structure as the final goal is questionable because it tends to fixate on one rather static view of reality (Graf von Durckheim, 1971; Welwood, 2000). But, in fact, life is always changing in a dynamic dance of life and death, of impermanence and suffering, that can only be embraced and appreciated from a place of larger vision. Personality is an ego structure whose development takes on a horizontal or flatland dimension as it works to fit into existing norms of functioning in a particular culture. Spiritual development, on the other hand, has a vertical dimension as it works with visionary human potential, seeing and developing in ever widening paths beyond ego (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993). The vertical dimension is marked by experiences of spacious and pure being rather than only the human capacity for ‘doing’. Spirituality is further marked by a quality of letting go of fixed ideas about identity and limiting beliefs of how the world works. Spirituality pushes the boundaries of certainty in pursuit of non-dual consciousness or oneness with all of existence. When one sees the world from this spiritual vision qualities like compassion and wisdom arise as natural insight that is freed from dualistic or subject-object bound perception.
However, just because spiritual experience is characterized by a larger vision does not mean that the ordinary phenomenal world is abandoned or devalued. On the contrary, the ordinary world is experienced as more vivid and meaningful than before. In this way, spiritual attainment not only transcends but also includes the ordinary and mundane world, yet from a more expansive view (Wilber, 1995). As psychologist Jack Engler (1993) famously once remarked, “You have to be somebody before you can become nobody,” (p. 119) referring to the necessary development of a strong foundational and functional ego structure before any meaningful and coherent spirituality can be unfolded in one’s experience (Engler, 1986, 2000). This is easier said than done.
While Western psychology and psychotherapy tend toward strengthening and stabilizing the ego personality structures of functioning and identity, Buddhist meditation is intended to dissolve fixations and clinging to versions of reality, selfhood, and identity that tend to narrow one’s outlook and experience of being whole and fully alive. Simple Buddhist meditation is a solitary practice of sitting upright on a cushion or chair with legs folded in front and a conscious posture of maintaining a straight back and spine. The physical posture is an important element for practicing mindfulness of body. The next level of awareness or mindfulness involves focusing the mind’s attention on breathing, letting the breath flow in and out naturally while just simply feeling the breath, following the in and out rhythm. This attunement with the breath is often called concentration, but simple attention to the breath is to be a relaxed and spacious mindfulness without the forceful holding-on effort implied by concentration per se.
The next level of this meditation practice of mindfulness is how to handle the thoughts that inevitably arise constantly. The practice here is to simply notice that thinking has occurred, label it ‘thinking’ and bring the attention gently back to the breath. Interrupting the thinking process like this is a technique to disempower thinking, to dismiss all thoughts as just thoughts regardless of their content, and to develop a new habit of identifying with the awareness of the thoughts rather than identifying with the contents of the thoughts (Masters, 2011). This meditation practice is intended to bring connection to the body as a central aspect of aware experience. It is meant to bring balance to a disembodied state of being and to synchronize the body and mind altogether (Trungpa, 1976).
“Meditation practice is based on dropping dualistic fixation, dropping the struggle of good against bad. The attitude you bring to spirituality should be natural, ordinary, without ambition,” says Chogyam Trungpa (1976). He explains further:
You do not try to use meditation techniques – prayer, mantra, visualization, rituals, breathing techniques – to create pleasure or to confirm your existence. You do not try to separate yourself from the technique, but you try to become the technique so that there is a sense of non-duality. Technique is a way of imitating the style of non-duality. (p. 45)
Meditation works on the ego’s tendency to become a solid entity, a permanent wall of beliefs. The main point is not that ego is bad but that its conceptual power and its organizing power, when employed as a contraction, a protection, a defense against perceived threats of non-existence, can become reified and thus distort, manufacture, and fabricate beliefs and thinking patterns that are destructive or limiting. This wall must be taken down brick by brick in order for health and wholeness to manifest. The spacious quality of meditation and the stillness of the meditation environment allow the practitioner to view directly the insubstantial quality of thoughts, the defensive nature of beliefs and the impermanent nature of changing reality. As Welwood & Wilber (1979) explain:
Meditation, properly practiced, does not try to get rid of ego and its alienation, but rather creates a situation in which one can see how one manufactures and maintains both the identification with a self-image and the inner struggle this entails. (p. 111)
The experience of stillness in meditation is the first stage of calming the mind and can allow a feeling of delight or relief to arise. After the mind and body are settled in this way a second stage begins to develop that is commonly called insight. This stage of insight meditation can bring one to the edge of experiences characterized by terror in the sense that one’s familiar world of comfort, defenses, beliefs and protections secured by a busy, meaningful life begin to become disorganized, transparent and fragmented. The stillness of meditation opens one to the experience of a relatively unguarded mind as the larger space of meditative awareness and careful mindfulness of details invite less certainty and more transparency. As the experience of this larger space begins to develop and one begins to identify with the world of spirituality as a seductive place of all things good, and of oneself as identifying with the ideal of spiritual goodness, as opposed to the bad world of materialism, then the ego can be cast in the role of enemy, something to struggle against. This struggle of good against evil is especially highlighted in some Christian cultures and is investigated in great detail in Jungian psychology as hidden shadow contents that lie obscured behind ego consciousness. However, although we work with growth, development, and healing, any kind of dualistic struggle or battle is explicitly disavowed and leveled in Buddhist spiritual practice as explained by Chogyam Trungpa (1976):
Generally, when the idea of ego is presented, the immediate reaction…is to regard it as a villain, an enemy. You feel you must destroy this ego, this me, which is a masochistic and suicidal approach. People tend to think this way because, usually when we speak of spirituality, we tend to think that we are fighting the bad; we are good, spirituality is the ultimate good, the epitome of good, and the other side is bad. But true spirituality is not a battle; it is the ultimate practice of non-violence. We are not regarding any part of us as being a villain, an enemy, but we are trying to use everything as a part of the natural process of life. As soon as a notion of polarity between good and bad develops, then we are caught in spiritual materialism, which is working to achieve happiness in a simple-minded sense, on the way to egohood. So the dualistic wall is not something we have to destroy or eliminate or exorcise. (p. 68)
This message about the Buddhist approach to spirituality and meditation seems to be about seeing through the dualistic barrier and suggests the same union of opposites as are found in many cultures around the world and emphasized explicitly in Jungian psychology. However attractive and seductive this may seem, there are many misunderstandings and pitfalls on the spiritual path. Some of these dangers, in the form of escapes away from proceeding toward conventional maturity, are articulated brilliantly in the concept of ‘spiritual bypassing’.
Between the two tracks of healing and awakening there exists a natural affinity or unity, that is, healing on the emotional level can be helped by progressing along the spiritual path of awakening, and vise-versa. Although in theory and in the best of worlds this would seem to be true, in practice it often does not work out that way; these two tracks are often disconnected. This is due to a widespread phenomenon in American Buddhist communities and other Western spiritual groups called “spiritual bypassing”. This term was coined thirty years ago by psychologist and Buddhist meditator, John Welwood (2011), to describe a process he observed happening in Buddhist communities and in himself.
Buddhist teachings prescribe ways of being, ways of living with compassion, gentleness, wisdom, peace and harmony with oneself and others. Yet these prescriptions are just that, prescriptions. For most people and most meditators they do not include specific how-to instructions that, for example, are crafted to deal explicitly with Western modes of neurosis and emotional discomfiture. One can meditate for decades and still not touch or uncover core emotional wounds such as shame introjects from childhood (Bradshaw, 1988; Miller, 1981) that inhibit feelings of self-worth and that carry limiting beliefs of self-hatred as well as blame behaviors that habitually make self and others basically wrong (Preece, 2006; Ray, 2008). They are general prescriptions that do not actually describe specifically how to actually access and manifest behaviors that are congruent with the teachings. They need to be translated in order to address the particular habits and neuroses of a particular culture. Specifically, the Western world is neither adept in communal culture nor literate in the expressions of feelings and needs (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005) and the Eastern world is not trained or educated to recognize or deal with these kinds of deficits.
Due to this prescriptive nature of the teachings it is necessary for the local citizens to be enough at ease with themselves to reach up and meet the Buddhist teachings halfway, so to speak. Instead, and as part of this meeting-up process Buddhist teachings coming into the West are met with a barrier due to certain developmental deficiencies in the population of the host country that often misunderstand and distort the meaning of the wisdom teachings. As a result people tend to view these spiritual teachings as a saving grace and as a seductive way to skip or bypass emotional literacy, relationship skills, competency in identifying and expressing feelings, especially painful feelings and unacknowledged needs, as well as other important developmental and therapeutic tasks and goals. When one enters a spiritual path without some healing of the wounded emotional body it can be an invitation to misunderstandings, confusion, disappointment and disaster. Author Welwood describes some of these specific pitfalls of aspiring Westerners treading the spiritual path (Welwood, 2011):
In my psychotherapy practice, I often work with dharma students who have practiced (Buddhist meditation) for decades. Often they have developed some kindness and compassion for others but are hard on themselves for falling short of their spiritual ideals, and their spiritual practice has become dry and solemn. Or being of benefit to others has become a duty, or a way of trying to feel good about themselves. Others may unconsciously use their spiritual brilliance to feed their narcissistic inflation and treat others in manipulative ways. (p. 4)
Welwood (2011) describes in further detail how spiritual pursuit can be a form of me-fixation that fuels shame:
People with depressive tendencies who grew up with a lack of loving attunement in childhood have a hard time valuing themselves, and they may use teachings on no-self to reinforce their deflation. Not only do they feel bad about themselves but they regard their insecurity about whether they’re okay as a further fault – a form of me-fixation, the very antithesis of the dharma – which further fuels their shame or guilt. (p. 4)
Welwood (2011) further describes how meditation practice can invite disconnection and a misunderstood stance of detachment:
Meditation is also commonly used to avoid uncomfortable feelings and unresolved life situations. For those who are in denial about their personal feelings or wounds and who have a hard time expressing themselves in a personally transparent way, meditation practice can reinforce a tendency toward disconnection and disengagement. It can be quite threatening when those of us on a spiritual path have to face our woundedness, or emotional dependency, or primal need for love. I’ve often seen how attempts to be nonattached are used in service of sealing people off from their human and emotional vulnerabilities. It’s painful to see someone maintaining a stance of detachment when underneath they are starving for positive experiences of bonding and connection. (p. 8)
Psychologist Welwood (2011) has, in these brief statements, penetrated to the very core of the main barrier to Buddhist spiritual teachings reaching into the West and transforming its vast potential from a self-obsessed, materialist consumer culture, with its reputation for war-mongering and creating enemy images in our collective psyche, into an influential peaceful example of co-existence via skilful diplomacy on the world stage. Ideals such as this may seem farfetched and ineffective given our present level of understanding but the healing potential of Buddhist meditation for the world to evolve into paths beyond ego, self-obsession, immature individuality, violence and harmful behavior has barely begun in the West. Although there is no guarantee implied, psychotherapy is paving the way for many individuals to become conscious and aware of emotional wounding in order to prepare for a mature spiritual path of development that fosters true connection between people. Realization of these goals of compassion and wisdom is the legacy of the human being called Buddha who lived a full spiritual life 2,500 years ago. This legacy is now spreading throughout the Western world due to the diaspora of Tibetan spiritual masters displaced in 1959 from their homeland by the cruel and brutal ongoing territorial invasions from neighboring China (Trungpa, 1966). There are many misunderstandings of the Buddha’s teachings in the popular mind but as more Westerners practice and study there are already signs of clarifying the correct understanding of this ancient spiritual path of wisdom for the healing needed in our world (Batchelor, 2010; Preece, 2006; Rahula, 1959).
Why I Became a Buddhist
I began to notice in my early 20’s (after college) an uneasy feeling in me. It was a kind of dissatisfaction. I began to notice that things in life were not as solid and permanent as they were cracked up to be. Not only that but there was a lot more suffering in the world and in me than was generally admitted in conversation, in society, in the media, etc. I began to suspect there was this huge conspiracy in our world whose purpose was to keep the truth of some very important aspects of life buried out of sight. I suspected or knew that there was something false going on, there were cracks in the logic everywhere; yet I knew deep in my experience, in my heart, my soul that there is some kind of truth in the world that could be contacted and lived with.
After trying to connect with this truth, whatever it was or might be, through the study first of science, then living the artist’s life in theater arts as an actor, wanting to find the genuine in a gesture, then trying to break through the veils with drug experimentation, I finally discovered Buddhism and the simple practice of meditation. Here was a culture where the all-important Western preoccupation with a self-image that was supposed to be separate, independent of others and nature, and permanent, was seen through and transcended or expanded outward. This was not only the philosophy but was to be experienced through the simple and difficult disciplined practice of meditation. It was simple because it transcended the familiar and troubled world of only personal egoic thinking, and difficult because the discipline of sitting still in meditation for long periods was unfamiliar, boring yet wonderfully spacious. This was a totally new experience for me.
The notion of a narrow self-centered attitude or belief was dissolved into a larger reality where undivided consciousness included connection with truthful experience that had been blocked in me, but I had always intuitively known was possible and alive in everyone. Truth is a loaded and difficult word to apply to inner experience, so perhaps truthfulness, as in connecting with inner experience, is a better word to describe authentic experience (Wilber, 1996). In any case, it is difficult to say what this inner truth is. For me, I felt connected to an unusually alive experience of the living now where my psychological baggage was no longer dominant, relevant or burdensome in those moments.
The inspiration for meditation practice was not found in philosophy or words but in the bodily presence of my two Asian meditation teachers. Something about them was quite unusual yet also strangely familiar. Looking upon their presence communicated to me directly what I was searching for and what I knew to be possible and true in people and in life’s potential for spiritual development. I discovered this for myself as shown in the following experiential example.
One day during my first monastic Zen
three-month training period something happened to me after the noon
meditation period. While still sitting on the cushion, waiting for the Zen
style lunch meal to be served, I experienced an amazing realization. The
spacious, open quality of meditation was still lingering and I was idly
looking at a splash of sun that came through a window onto the floor.
Suddenly, as the hair on my shaved head stood up and goose bumps spread
throughout my body, I had a powerful, distinct, and simple flash of
realization about an obvious fact of life heretofore unnoticed: that it is
“always now”. I was moved to the core by this insight and decided to check
it out with the Zen master, Suzuki Roshi who was in residence. I asked him
if this flash of realization was an enlightenment experience. When he said
yes, I asked if this was what life was like for him all the time. He
smiled and said, “Well, it’s like when you hear a bird sing.”
These words from Chogyam Trungpa (1971, personal communication) outline the missing piece, the fruition that Buddhism is offering to the West:
Since all things are naked, clear
And free from obscurations, there
Is nothing to attain or realize.
The everyday practice is simply to
Develop a complete acceptance and
Openness to all situations and emotions.
And to all people – experiencing
Everything totally without reservations
And blockages, so that one never
Withdraws or centralizes onto oneself.
My Two Spiritual Teachers
When I was in my late 20’s I began a search for the ineffable. Well, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing because it actually began long before that, long before I stumbled onto the Buddhist path. What I did know from way back in childhood was that I wanted to come into the experience of connection away from the world of disconnection. When I say “stumbled” I don’t mean exactly by accident. Perhaps it was by some unseen guiding hand. I do not want to sound mystical, so let me explain in a bit more detail what went before.
Developmentally speaking I can say that during my childhood I felt frustrated, a deep frustration because my loving, enthusiastic, innocent energy was not seen, valued or met by family, my mother and father. In fact it was often ignored or even punished. They were good enough people but had not had the education or upbringing that nurtured them fully and properly. They did their best but didn’t know how to meet the deepest nurturing needs of their children. They had never learned emotional parenting or the developmental needs of children from their parents. I never saw them kiss or hug or express affection to one another, for example. Everything was sort of practical which you might expect from people who came of age during the Great Depression. Scarcity and ‘doing’ seemed to be the main events of those sad days. My parents weren’t sad but they were dominated by a sense of duty and repression. So the shared emotional experience of love was squeezed out in our family even though physical necessities were always adequate. Needless to say, I felt frustration as a child, wounded, hurt and angry, not recognized for who I was, a bundle of wild, exuberant energy in need of much guidance, support and encouragement.
During adolescence and through the high school years I fared pretty well, unaware of the angst and depression that many teenagers complain about. I loved high school, belonged solidly to a peer group of wonderfully bright and friendly boys and girls. I would say I thrived in that atmosphere, discovering and enjoying the happy getting and giving that was not possible in my family of origin.
After high school I earned my way through four straight years of college where pretty much the same atmosphere of camaraderie and glory was adorned with a new set of wonderful friends. They were intellectual, funny, poetic; we enjoyed each other so much. When it came time to leave college I walked around the bucolic rural university campus environment with a strangely new feeling of nostalgia and longing. These were sad moments of a kind I had not felt deeply before. I was about to lose the happy college years that were balanced with rigorous and consistent study toward an engineering degree, avid participation on the varsity swimming team, a love of learning, and a deeply satisfying level of friendship and bonding with several young men and women who were studying the humanities curriculum. I was always attracted to the sensitivity I loved in these friends while at the same time easily grinding through my scientific curriculum.
I had the best of both worlds during those days. When still a teenager I had a vision one day, one moment, that was something like a deep certainty, a strange feeling wherein I glimpsed what was to be my dominant task in life. This feeling of certainty reached deep inside me and, while not specific, had an outline of truth that seemed to burn like a flame in me. It was not an insight into a particular career or work but rather it was an urge to realize a certain kind of insight or knowledge. Perhaps this was simply the urge to awaken, to realize my self and my own vast potential as a human being, rather than just accept the local circumscribed life that I grew up in.
Searching the world and myself to find a handle for this vision it seemed early on that science, connected with the practical aspect of engineering, would be what I was looking for. I supposed that the engineering part had to do with an urge to find out how the world worked, to solve problems in the external world of mechanics and buildings, let’s say. As a teenager everything was external because I had not woken up to an interior life. Although I had experienced suffering, it seemed I was immune to suffering; the world was my playground and laboratory to learn from. There were signs in my last years in college that perhaps I would not like working for this outside world of mechanics after all but decided to finish my degree anyway. During my first job as a San Francisco Bay bridge designer I began to feel sure that working with engineers on structural projects as a civil engineer was far removed from something in me that wasn’t even close to being satisfied.
A couple years of travel including brief Army service and a marriage somehow brought me into raw contact not only with deeper suffering but also with the world of art and artists and something in that field sparked interest and nourishment for me. My wife was as actress and I was soon drafted to play the lead role in a movie with her. This began three or four years of a career in stage and theater acting as well as an enthusiastic participant in political street theater and antiwar social activism in the late 1960’s San Francisco and New York. However, gradually something about actors and acting began to feel shallow and hollow to me and I began to have that similar disconnect to acting and performing as with engineering. I came to the conclusion that, for me, acting was a second-rate art. I was beginning to feel again a deep existential suffering about the disconnection I was feeling and experiencing.
Since many of the artists, musicians and actors I associated with were attracted to the use of drugs, thus began my third attempt, after science and art, to find the liberation I was looking for. During a period of a year or two I tried every drug imaginable, usually in the company of talented and famous artists of one kind or another. Sprinkled among the society of lost adventurers of the spirit and the artist community were some truly lost souls. I began to wonder if I was going to end up in that camp. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I ended up with a serious illness called hepatitis, auspiciously donated to me, I think, from the host of denizens with whom I shared the drug culture during that short period of my life. Needless to say, this illness brought me low and into a profound encounter with death and my own mortality. For a brief period I was truly down and out, having lost my strength, my vitality, my inspiration. At some point I was living at the flat of two women actress friends during a deep winter in the late sixties, going in and out of my down situation. One evening they told me they were going to a Christmas Eve lecture by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center. They invited me to come along, and having nothing better to do I said, yes.
We entered the old wooden former synagogue on Bush Street near the Japanese district on this dark winter holy night, climbed the creaky wide staircase, and since we were a bit early I walked up to sit in the front row of chairs that were placed in front of a low dais platform that was decorated with flowers, statues, incense, candles, etc. As I sat down I noticed on the far right of the shrine a large dark metal gong. Next to the gong was what looked like a human figure seated, not moving, dressed in a brown robe-like garment. It appeared to be a man, slight of build, whose shaved brown head struck me as so similar to the metal gong. Neither of these round somber objects moved. They were joined as if in a profound silence and stillness, so striking to me because I had never noticed such stillness before anywhere or in anyone. This atmosphere was gradually made more powerful as the realization dawned on me that the slight human figure was indeed a person and not a statue.
More people gradually entered the mellow softly lit room and soon the chairs were all filled. After several minutes, the gong hit with a leather mallet resounded a ring soft and sharp all at the same time. The slight human figure moved for the first time and began to stand up. It was a man with a soft gentle demeanor who bowed to the shrine, lit a stick of incense, and stepped off the platform onto the floor facing the assembled audience. He spoke for maybe an hour, and I do not remember a word he said. However, several things about his being, how he talked, how he moved began to stir and touch something in me. Several times during his talking he burst into laughter with such a wide, sincere, total and complete laughter as I had never seen before. There was no embarrassment, shame, or defensiveness anywhere to be seen or felt in this man’s being.
What was shocking to me was the juxtaposition of his complete and utter stillness combined with his most open and complete laughter. What I did not consciously realize until much later is that what I saw in this man’s presence, his way of being, radiated something to me that captured my soul. It was as if something in me was exclaiming, “At last, there you are; I’ve been looking for you all my life and now I have found you!” In some strange way I suppose it was for me like looking in a mirror.
Reflecting on those moments now, after learning meditation and studying with Suzuki Roshi for four years, including four 3-month-long Zen meditation training periods at the monastery known as Zen Mountain Center located at Tassajara Hot Springs deep in the forest --three days walk east into the coastal mountains from Big Sur-- I realize that what I saw in him was a hidden and lost part of myself. What I had been desperately searching for through my science, art, and drug journeys was standing right there in front of me, in the unlikely form of a Zen master, and I had the good fortune and the good sense to recognize it.
I had never actually seen a person without defensiveness before but always knew it was somewhere in me, in everyone, because I remembered this special quality from my own childhood. Even though the adults I knew seemed to be self-protective, I never forgot this unconditional open quality that adorned my childhood and always really wanted it back in my life. And because I always knew what it was in some vague way, I recognized it immediately when displayed in the personal presence and being of this elder Buddhist teacher.
From a mythical perspective this story is one where I had now been given a broken sword, like the archetypal fledgling king, and was obliged to learn how to re-forge or discover the real sword that would restore to me the power, knowledge and destiny I had glimpsed as a teenager, even as a child. This encounter with Suzuki, as it turned out, was to be the realization of a certain insight into the truth of life and the path of my life creation. Now I had a handle on it. Although this was not at all clear to me at the time --I am a slow learner, have had a lot to learn and a hard time learning it-- it appears in retrospect to be what my life of meditation, first inspired by glimpsing Suzuki Roshi, meeting his presence and actually seeing him, has been partly about.
After four years of meditation and study, including two years of strictly disciplined monastic life in the Zen Buddhist community, I began to feel nourished in a new and deeper way as never before. However, as I was learning and thriving in that environment, there was something about the community of American Zen students and practitioners that began to feel unnecessarily restrictive and repressive to me. Although the discipline was clean, pure and nourishing, there was, for me, a feeling of immaturity in that the feelings, needs, and the full expression of intellect and the curious mind were not encouraged or even acknowledged among the Zen practioners.
About that time I was introduced to some newly recorded dharma talks by a young Tibetan meditation master who had recently arrived in America (in 1971). This man, Chogyam Trungpa (1966), had as a teenager narrowly escaped the brutal Chinese crackdown in Tibet in 1959. He had been born in a cowshed in Eastern Tibet, discovered as the incarnation of a previous Tibetan Buddhist master, and trained since early childhood in a monastery for a leadership role in the monastic system of Tibet.
In 1971, when I first met Chogyam Trungpa, he was traveling around America after several years studying Western culture at Oxford in London. He was now occupied in doing what he was trained to do: giving Buddhist meditation and dharma talks wherever he was invited by a rapidly growing following of Western students. He said that his mission in life now was to transplant Eastern buddhadharma on North American soil. Once again, I felt a direct connection as if I was meeting, and being shown, a lost and buried part of myself. With both Shunryu Suzuki and Chogyam Trungpa I encountered a vast and deep sense of being that was without arrogance or defense. It was something I had never before witnessed in any human being and I became interested in learning how to actualize that quality in myself.
Ascending & Descending Spirit
When meditating at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center I remember distinctly realizing or seeing that the real meaningful and mature experience of meditation was in a downward direction. I would think, no, this is not about getting high; it is about getting down to what grounds us and all life, down to where the water flows. I was certain of it. Thoughts about a descending aspect of a body-centered spirituality began to coalesce around an intuitive sense arising from being physically grounded during long periods of sitting meditation.
These thoughts gave words and pictures to my experience. The image that resonated was how water moves down from creeks into rivers and thus flows mightily toward the sea. My sense of true meditation was thus about getting down to where the water flowed. Earth and water; it had little to do with the air element. Getting high, or higher up into some imagined spiritual real estate, was not at all resonant with my sustained and continuous experience of meditation. Getting high during those days was the language of the subculture of mind-expanding drugs as well as the preferred mind direction of the New Age philosophy and sentiments. People wished to break free personally, emotionally, politically and perhaps getting high in the sense of rising above the conceptual and emotional distortions and primitive beliefs, the materialism of Western culture, is entirely understandable. But when one submits to an urge to grow and develop psychologically and spiritually when embarking on a yogic discipline of sustained meditation practice with an Asian lineage master, one discovers there is a whole lot more to personal transformation than getting high. In fact the ascending path of wishful thinking, instant peace, comfort and gratification, or any kind of grasping after concepts and ideals is seen as an escape from the point of view of the actual practice of Buddhist meditation. This point of view is about connecting with nowness and with embracing what is. The descending current of awareness of going down into the body, feeling the body, being grounded in the body brings an ineffable experience of awakening that is beyond concepts. This grounding experience felt like good medicine for me and for the disembodied society I lived in.
While an ascending current of transcendence is definitely part of spiritual development, it is never complete unless tied to the earthy downward direction into the body, grounded in nature and the feminine aspect of receptivity. The pursuit of an ascending direction and getting higher spiritually has a masculine upward-moving aspirational quality, but when not grounded in earth connection it can manifest an escapist, dominant, avoidant and arrogant quality. The feminine quality of earth is essential to grounding a mature spirituality. Some aspects of Asian spiritual cultures offer an image to depict the connection between heaven, earth, and man. This is to emphasize that the sanity of human beings is never complete until the open space of sky is fully integrated with the solid, humble, open and receptive quality of earth (Trungpa, 1984). It is a question of balance and the integration of opposites interior to one’s being that brings wholeness and the healing needed in our world.
A practical Western psychological method of combining masculine and feminine energies to enhance relational maturity and brilliant communication is called nonviolent communication. I have five years training and experience facilitating several ongoing group experiential learning gatherings. A balance is achieved in these gatherings where the masculine energy of “honestly expressing” feelings and needs is balanced by the feminine energy of “empathically receiving” what feelings and needs are alive in another person (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005). This is a disciplined and alive participatory practice of uncovering deep layers of shadow and repressed material that is a simple, refined, profound, moving yet safe encounter with one’s own depth psychology.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a healing modality usually practiced in groups. Founded by Marshall Rosenberg, NVC is a worldwide organization of trainers, teachers and educational materials dedicated to improving communication and relationship skills in the service of peace, wellbeing and justice. The word “nonviolence” has a long and noble history stretching back through Mohandas Gandhi to early Christian, Moslem, Hebrew and Buddhist literature and language. Jesus and Buddha, for example, were both proponents of the practice of nonviolence.
The word nonviolence is rendered in Sanskrit as ahimsa which means non-harming. The tradition of expressing a strongly positive message by way of a negation may be explained as referring to something so huge and sacred that there is no word that can encompass or describe it. Gandhi himself explained his use of both the word and the strategy of nonviolence to mean unconditional love (Miki Kashtan, 2011, personal communication)). Most people do not think of themselves as violent, so the word nonviolence may not make intuitive sense at first. But when it is explained further that even the use of the word ‘should’ is considered to be one of the roots of violence, then the full subtleties of the subject of violence and the roots of violence open to wider understanding
When we learn how to refrain from the various forms of violence, such as oppression, blame, domination, manipulation and control, then a larger space opens up to make room for the inner transformations that give rise to tolerance, love, generosity, warmth, caring for others, compassion and wisdom. It is within this general framework that Marshall Rosenberg (2003, 2005) created Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a method of mindfulness of language and relationship skills that allows our natural giving and compassion to seek awareness and expression in ourselves and in the world. Rosenberg was fortunate to get his PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) when Carl Rogers was a professor there. Rosenberg says that during his entire 21 years of education no one ever asked him how he felt (Rosenberg, 2003), thus impressing upon him the general absence of emotional competency, connection, and awareness of feelings in our society (Goleman, 1997; Ekman, 2008). In contrast to this, Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic and client-centered psychotherapy impressed upon the young Rosenberg some new and alternative views of psychology that contributed the seeds of what later developed into the methodology and training of nonviolent communication (NVC). One of these alternative skills was the importance of deep listening in contrast to the mainstream objective therapeutic posture of diagnosis and evaluation (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005).
The bare bones of NVC revolve around blame and empathy. Blame is an objective stance that points outward, locating conflict exterior to oneself. Empathy takes a subjective approach, pointing inward and locating conflict and its resolution in the human heart. These two poles outline a journey of discovery in the evolution of consciousness. The blame approach manifests as criticism, complaining, judgment, defense, enemy images, and reveals nothing about one’s interior. In contrast to blame, empathy is another way to communicate that reveals what’s going on inside and expresses interest in what is going on in the other person. Empathy is about connection as opposed to separation; it is subjective, revealing, soft, and willing to be vulnerable.
The essence or heart of NVC is a process of uncovering. The main psychological perspective for NVC is its focus on growing one’s capacity for empathic presence, self-empathy as well as empathy for others (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005). This presence is the learned adult ability to uncover and express authentic, elemental feelings and needs in the present moment. Feelings and needs are not something we have been educated to recognize, much less express easily in our culture. This is because the West is an ego culture dominated by the thinking mode of consciousness whereas feelings and needs actually exist in a fundamental way outside of the normal predominant ego structure. Feelings are recognized as a valid and important mode of consciousness. NVC, like any growth therapy or depth psychology, operates by and benefits from the educational value of pain. This is because what is uncovered is what we rejected, our hated and unwanted shadow contents. Coming to terms with the hated other and the uncomfortable parts of ourselves is the only way to achieve wholeness. These hidden psychic contents are uncovered via the integration of contradictory inner psychic contents (Edinger, 1992; Giegerich, 1991; Griffiths, 1982; Horney, 1945; Neumann, 1990).
The essential NVC process is phenomenological reflection and direct experiencing. It is an existential practice of identifying and honestly expressing feelings and their connection to universal needs. This process is meant to uncover and replace habitual cognitive and behavioral patterns of compulsive thinking, judgment and criticism, blame and self-importance (inflation), shame and guilt. It is a sincere and refined process of developing the mindfulness of language and the intention to honestly express these core aspects of our being in a responsible and conscious manner. So, honestly expressing (to oneself and others) by uncovering and discovering feelings and then tracking those to needs is the essential process of NVC. This uncovering and tracking is a basic therapeutic procedure (Welwood, 1991). Empathic presence is first practiced within oneself as self-empathy and then extended to others. Empathically seeing and receiving the feelings and needs others are experiencing in their being, beyond of whatever they may be saying, is one of the advanced skills and capacities to be learned in NVC practice.
During this uncovering process many things get in the way. Old ingrained habits of thinking, believing and defending die hard even when they are presently limiting, dysfunctional, painful and no longer life-serving. For example, one of the biggest core obstacles uncovered in identifying and honestly expressing authentic feelings and needs is the issue of self-worth and its attendant feeling of shame. Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable. Sociologist and shame researcher, Brene Brown (2010b), defines shame thus: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (p.39). In this light it is perhaps not difficult to see how we developed a compensatory personality to cover over our cracked and flawed personality that is hidden from view (Psaris & Lyons, 2000). Stepping beyond the tendency to hide parts of ourselves from view and allow vulnerability to arise in the face of the unknown is one of the most basic processes of healing and an important, albeit uncomfortable, experience in practicing NVC.
According to Rosenberg (2003, 2005), a core NVC inquiry is, “What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively?” (p. 1). Rosenberg describes his work in developing NVC as a lifelong examination of that question alongside another query about what empowers some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature even under the worst circumstances. In this sense, he uses the term nonviolence to refer to “our natural state of compassion, when violence has subsided from the heart” (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005. p. 15). In his own words, Rosenberg explains:
Nonviolence is founded on language and communication skills that strengthen our ability to remain human, even under trying circumstances. NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of being habitual, automatic reactions, our words become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are perceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in a given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative. As NVC replaces our old defensive patterns in the face of judgment and criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. (p. 3)
When experiencing this “new light”, people often feel unfamiliar, awkward, lost and uncomfortable. It is a new space of being and of expanding consciousness. Very often this practice of inquiry into our interior experience invites a disorienting chaos and emotional discomfort that precedes discovery; it also may invite the confusion of challenging our fixed identity. NVC practice brings refined awareness to old behavior patterns of hiding from ourselves and others, while uncovering hidden shame and other defensive and habitual patterns. Thus NVC practice invokes the specter of both awareness and change, neither of which are guaranteed to be comfortable. In fact, we find that we become comfortable with being uncomfortable when doing this work of change that flows from expansion of consciousness. Encountering the edge of real change often activates resistance as our immunity to change kicks in. Overcoming habitual patterns and encountering fear of the unfamiliar and unknown depths of our being is a large contributor to this. NVC invites us to expand beyond our familiar stories and identity to embrace a wider relational perspective on both self and world. In spite of the fears and discomfort, following the NVC process through to genuine discovery and change can be an exhilarating, energizing and wonderful experience.
As our awareness grows beyond our limiting concepts of personal identity that freeze us into old patterns of speech and behavior that no longer serve us, paths to a new consciousness begin to open up. Consciousness in this case means becoming aware of the dark interior life of elemental feelings, universal needs, and beliefs that no longer serve us. Elemental feelings are raw sensations in the body such as pain, joy, fear, hurt, sadness, grief, and happy-for-no-reason. Emotions such as anger, irritation, regret, impatience have a strong cognitive element that drive actions and are not really elemental feelings. The way I am using the word feelings here implies feeling sensations deep in the body whereas emotions are more reactionary and surface manifestations of cognitive events like disappointment, disrupted expectations and challenged beliefs. Other reactionary behavior often includes judgments, criticism and diagnoses of another’s behavior. The reactionary emotion of anger, for example, is said to be a cover for the underlying elemental feeling of hurt, (Rosenberg, 2003). This distinction between feelings and emotions is not meant to be scientific or black and white as there is some crossover. But it is a useful distinction to help realize that under almost all anger lies hurt and under hurt often lies fear, whereas the actual cause of the anger emotion is usually to be found in thinking a particular judgmental thought that makes self or others wrong (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005). According to Andrew Schmookler (1988), when enemy images form in our heads in this way, bombs are never far away.
Consciousness here also means growing the awareness of our intentions and of how we use language, skilfully or not, in expressing our intentions in relationship communication. Mindfulness of language is an important aspect or technique in NVC practice. Language can be observed directly as a potential red flag or pointer to our habit of using certain words that carry partly hidden blame intentions that we may not be conscious of. Thus expanding consciousness can uncover deeper intentions and responses in us that are beneath reactionary behavior and that are connected to compassion.
Usually our use of subtle or gross forms of projective blame is viewed as our precious internal habit of wanting to be right. This reveals a defensive structure/posture manifested by ego as a protection from deeper, possibly painful, body feelings and connection to actual unmet needs. In addition to the process of encountering deep feelings, personal beliefs about self and others are also challenged. Rosenberg (2003, 2005) says that in order to avoid these challenges we conduct our relational and interpersonal life as a life-alienating game being played, a low-level and disconnecting game identifies as “Who’s right?” He invokes the centuries-old Persian poet Rumi who wrote, “Somewhere out there beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there” (p. 15).
Blame is one of the toxic elements of relationship speech, thoughts and language that arises from unresolved psychological and emotional wounds and that results in the formation of enemy images in our head. Blame represents a basic unhealed and unintegrated split within us that locates the parts of ourselves we don’t like in exterior objects, a phenomenon commonly known as projection (Edinger, 1992). The type of blame indicated here is a projection onto another of what legitimately belongs to oneself, as opposed to the quasi-legal aspect of blame defined as accountability for wrongdoing. According to NVC principles, the emotional states of blame, anger, guilt, shame and depression are tragic expressions of unmet needs. The implication is that when one’s needs are recognized, clarified, seen and expressed clearly then confusion, toxic emotions and reactive behavior are rarely present or necessary. Rosenberg emphasizes that in our society there is missing a general literacy regarding feelings and needs. We are not educated in how to connect with these basic human components of healthy communication. Instead, due to a variety of conditioning influences, we often react with a host of defensive behaviors in the face of judgment and criticism from either ourselves or others.
The practical work, the purpose and the learning of NVC, is to transform wounded and painful “reactions” into genuine “responses”. Responses are characterized by authentic presence and genuine connection with one’s real feelings and needs. Learning to tell the difference between a mindless habitual reaction that fosters disconnection, and a mindful response that is connected to authentic presence within is a basic skill to be learned in practicing nonviolent communication. The authentic and empathic presence referred to here means simply to be aware of and connected to one’s real feelings and needs.
Applied NVC also works in a skilful way to foster awareness of how we are stimulated in relationship exchanges. When we are living a disembodied life encouraged by a disembodied culture (Ray, 2008), and when we are carrying unresolved wounds in our emotional body, then we tend to react from a defensive place when stimulated in relationship exchanges. NVC teaches how to acknowledge and transform superficial emotional reactions into genuine truthful responses that communicate authentic feelings and needs from an undefended place. Thus, NVC is a transformational discipline.
NVC recognizes and identifies four different options for receiving and responding to a difficult-to-hear message. These four options, or ways of reacting and responding, can be divided into two categories depending on what the response reveals about the interior life and intention of the speaker. The first two options are reactions characterized by blaming self or blaming the other person. Inner contents are not disclosed but are conveniently projected outward. These are often shame symptoms of being unwilling to be vulnerable or seen (Brown, 2010a). This could involve an avoidance of feeling shame, for example, by focusing one’s attention only on the other person and not revealing anything about what’s going on within oneself. So with the first of the four options is to send a blame message to the other person, as in “You are wrong, it’s your fault”. The second option is to blame oneself as in, “I am wrong, it must be my fault”. So, with the first two options one blames either oneself or the other person. These two blame reactions are notable for not revealing anything about what one is feeling, thus short-circuiting healthy relationship communication involving disclosure, connection and vulnerability. This behavior results in what Rosenberg (2003, 2005) terms “life-alienating” communication. These first two options are further characterized by “reacting”, or coming from a dark, unhealed and wounded place, rather than the next two options that are characterized by “responding”, or coming from a relationship-connecting place of honesty, mindfulness, truthfulness and expanded consciousness. The first two options of blame, defense, attack or withdrawal are reactions that are externalized rather than consulting the interior living energy of the human heart, the true feelings and needs of the self.
In contrast to this, the next two categories of these four options for responding to a difficult-to-hear or negative message are characterized by consulting the authentic, truthful and genuine interior life of the person. These are described by Rosenberg as (2003, 2005) “shining the light of consciousness” on one’s own feelings and needs (p. 50). This is the third option for connecting with a genuine response and it focuses on uncovering what’s going on within. The fourth option, then, is shining the light of consciousness on the feelings and needs of the other person. This is a wonderful alternative to our cultural habit of forming enemy images. These two honest and real (ie, not deceptive or hiding) responses are learned and nurtured by embracing an empathic presence.
Empathy is not defined here as feeling for another as in sympathy, but is characterized by “being with” the interior aspect of self or other. It is a kind of intuitive knowing and bodily presence, a felt sense (Gendlin, 1981) that is totally engaged in present moment body and mind awareness. It can be truly accessed only by dropping any personal agenda such as investment in giving advice, thinking about something from the past or future, offering an abstract external analysis or story line from the head. This empathic unfolding can also be described as compassion. When applied within to self, empathy requires precise awareness of one’s in-the-moment feelings and needs. When directed toward the other, empathy requires deep listening: dropping any personal agenda of offering sympathy, fixing a perceived problem, problem solving or offering solutions. In this case we listen for the feelings and needs being expressed, regardless of what is being said, listening to what is meant behind the words being spoken.
This NVC description of the four options for either reacting or responding to a difficult message that may be carrying a perceived insult, a criticism or a judgment, constitute a baseline of awareness that serves as a background for entering into the actual practice of positive life-serving relational communication. Further, the first two options of blame carry the old consciousness of shadow projection while the third and fourth options call forth a transformational new consciousness of taking responsibility for one’s own feelings and needs, and avoiding taking responsibility for the feelings of others.
Following these baseline instructions outlining options for how to respond, the actual NVC method or process employs what are called the four components. These are honest expressions of observations, feelings, needs, and requests. These four components of effective communication guide and empower the honest expression of feelings and needs in a skilful manner. This is a method or model of mindfulness of language, a technique for increasing consciousness in relational communication. These four components are expressions of language reflecting inner awareness and connection in the form of four sequential statements about our actual observations, feelings, needs, and requests. It’s about taking ownership or responsibility for what’s going on inside us. In the four components there is the idea and process of transforming expressions of blame into an internal sense of empathy as an effective way to communicate. We ask ourselves, “What am I feeling at this moment, and what unmet (or met) need is connected to that?” The path of transformation of consciousness here extends from an externalized reference point based on an habitual posture of hiding oneself -- protecting oneself from being vulnerable and being seen, which is a shame-based behavior (Brown, 2010a) -- to an internal reference point where one feels empowered with a free choice to reveal the internal contents of one’s being, revealing and communicating feelings and needs in a skilful, direct, honest and empathic manner.
The four components delineate a procedure for expression, for growing and maturing along the path of consciousness and waking up to our interior aliveness, utilizing mindfulness of language and intention. It involves learning the skill and courage to honestly express that. Rosenberg (2003, 2005) terms this aspect of relationship skill development “life-enhancing” communication.
The four components that lie at the heart of NVC – honestly expressing observations, feelings, needs, and requests -- represent a sequence of language that honestly and accurately express discrete parts our interior life. The four components are used to enhance intentional and authentic dialogue, and to create connection between human beings. Feelings and needs are not visible and must be communicated using words, facial expressions, body language and the intuitive sense.
The procedure taught in NVC, usually most effective when practiced in group work, is to first state an observation. This is a neutral statement about whatever behavior or words were observed from another person that triggered or stimulated a reaction in oneself. Such a neutral observation is often not easy to manifest and deliver because people habitually tend instead to deliver judgments, evaluations, diagnoses, criticism that contain traces of blame. Most people find offering a neutral observation difficult because they mingle emotional reactions of a defensive nature into their observation that skew the observation with accusations, blame and bias.
Cleanly offering a neutral observation that triggered an emotional reaction sets the stage for the next step: honestly expressing one’s feeling. It sets the stage because a truly neutral observation lessens the chance of stimulating an immediate defensive reaction in the other. Any trace of blame that is loaded into an observation has a good chance of triggering a defensive reaction in the other person when what we want is to increase our chances of being heard and getting a compassionate response back. It increases the possibility that the second statement of the four components, the honest expression of one’s feeling, will be received without triggering defensiveness or a sense of being blamed in the other person. A neutral observation can begin with these words, “When I observed…”
After the observation is cleanly stated, then a truthful feeling statement can be expressed such as, “When I observed such and such, I felt angry, irritated, happy, hurt, scared, etc.” Such naked and honest expressions of feelings are not usual in our society and can evoke scary and uncomfortable sensations of vulnerability. They can also be taken as something other than at face value by the other person. For this reason it may take great delicacy in combination with honesty and straightforwardness to express an honest feeling. Many times the difficulty lies in not knowing exactly what it is one is feeling. Since our society is not known for its feelings literacy or emotional skills (Ekman, 2008), the honest expression of feelings is akin to evolving a new culture inside the shell of the old, inside our conditioned habitual patterns, inside of our own body awareness. Therefore, this approach can be shocking or scary, thus inviting us to hide our feelings at the great cost of not enjoying the liberating and wonderful experience of connecting authentically with self and other.
Once the actual feeling is recognized, identified and expressed then the task of connecting the feeling to a real need begins. Recognizing and identifying needs is a crucial piece of NVC consciousness work. The needs referred to here are universal needs such as love, autonomy, community, rest, choice, recreation, respect, support, connection, space, integrity, being seen and heard, sexual expression, affection, understanding, etc. (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005). The language used for bridging from the feeling statement to the expression of the associated need goes like this, “I feel ABC, because I need, value or want XYZ.” The word ‘because’ is highlighted for the reason that the expression of any feeling in NVC is connected to a need that is either met or unmet. In fact, it is a principle here that all difficult feelings are tragic expressions of unmet needs.
A key aspect of needs, however, is that their expression must not imply that any particular person do or say any specific thing. The good reasoning behind this is that a large part of the NVC training is to learn to take personal responsibility for our own feelings and needs. For most people this practice is revolutionary because of its ability to untangle many a web of ongoing hurt, confusion, disconnection and misunderstanding. In NVC practice we do not imply or connect another person as being the cause of our feelings, nor to the satisfaction of our needs. This is an important boundary. Taking responsibility for our own feelings and needs is found to be healthy here, the best medicine for clear, effective and satisfying interpersonal communication. This principle may sound obvious and simple but it will nearly always be found not easy to practice and manifest. For many this about entering unknown, uncharted, unfamiliar and scary territory.
If we are not to connect our needs or our feelings to the other person in our relational communication, then what is the meaning and purpose of the relationship? There must be a way to connect our inner life of feelings and needs to the other person, otherwise how can there be an interpersonal relationship at all. The answer to this lies in the fourth component, requests. If our need is unmet then it is of course reasonable to request that another person do or say something to make our life wonderful. To do this we make a request of what we want the other person to do or say that would help or satisfy us, that would meet our need, and that might make life wonderful. This request, phrased in such a way that asks for something specific from the other person, a concrete action that can be performed in the present moment rather than at some vague future time or place (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005).
A strategic problem often arises in the practice and manifestation of the four components. Each of them can be mishandled in an unconscious or habitual manner that implies further learning in how to apply NVC in the way it is intended. For example, hidden within our “request” can be a subtle demand that the other person meet our need. The way we can test and discover if this is happening is to look at our reaction if the person says “no” to our request. If we get angry or upset, this reveals that our request was actually a covert demand. Similarly, the expression of needs can come out as a strategy to get needs met, rather than an open and honest expression of an actual interior need. In the same way, the expression of feelings is often avoided, or made not clear, by stating a thought instead of a feeling. And the clear, neutral expression of observations is all too often distorted into a judgment, complaint, criticism, evaluation or diagnosis of the other person’s behavior. Thus in NVC practice we recognize that such distortions elicit defenses, misunderstanding, shutdown and disconnection.
NVC consciousness can also be extended into other areas of personal and interpersonal difficulty. For example, what can we do when a need is not met? Appropriate practices of mourning and acceptance are taught to handle difficult feelings when needs are not met. It is taught that everyone’s needs matter and are regarded as beautiful expressions of living energy. Mourning is an appropriate response to any kind of loss. Other areas of skilful expression that are taught and practiced are: how to say “no” in NVC, the protective use of force, counseling others, expressing anger fully, expressing appreciation in NVC, giving from the heart, freeing ourselves from the effects of past experiences, and developing relationships based upon mutuality, mutual respect, compassion, and cooperation.
There are many subtleties and challenges involved in expressing ourselves in NVC language and intention. A new, insightful and caring consciousness must be cultivated to overturn old habits that produce more disconnection than connection in our relational lives. It is entirely possible for most people to enjoy the relational connection we would like in our social life with consistent motivation, training and practice in the method outlined above. This method may be effectively used for conflict resolution, but NVC is much more than that. It is a personal process of awareness that can increase our sense of wellbeing and reduce much unnecessary suffering. By changing the old habitual consciousness into the wider view offered by NVC then our suffering and limiting beliefs can be healed rather quickly. And when applied to schools, communities, and to education in the wider world then NVC can make major contributions to community cooperation, peace and justice.
NVC founder Marshal Rosenberg (2003, 2005) believes that nonviolence means allowing the positive in you to emerge. He has helped many people around the world see that “the enormity of suffering on our planet requires more effective ways of distributing much-needed skills than can be offered by a clinical approach” (p. xiii). This pioneering psychologist asserts that, “Our ability to distinguish our own feelings and needs and to empathize with them can free us from depression.” (Rosenberg, 2003, 2005) concludes that, “We perceive relationships in a new light when we use NVC to hear our own deeper needs and those of others” (p.3).
It is my experience in practicing the two disciplines described above – Buddhist meditation and nonviolent communication – that Western and Eastern practical wisdom have actually come together and demonstrated a model for an integral psychology of sanity for Western society. This is achieved by successfully and effectively meeting the universal human needs for both intimate connection and spacious relationships. While NVC emphasizes the courage and bravery of honestly expressing, seeing and sharing what is alive inside oneself and others, in terms of feelings and needs, Buddhist meditation provides a spacious container for holding the intensity often encountered when unfamiliar depths are touched. Thus two core human needs of space and connection may be addressed in intelligent and caring encounters to realize and manifest the wisdom and compassion that is the potential and birthright of all human beings. In this way paths to a new consciousness are realized for the healing needed in our world.
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