by Ovidiu Brazdau
This is a collection of research notes about Growing Up journeys. I use an experience-based terminology to describe the developmental dynamics related to Self-identity, and I try to speak directly to the lived experience, without using complex linguistic frameworks, such as “bottom-up theory” or “phenomenological approach”.
There are many personal observations and hypotheses included in this research. However, they are pieces of knowledge, pieces that build an experience-based framework of understanding. You are invited you to see for yourself how the mechanisms described here manifest in your life.
Table of contents
II. THE PERSPECTIVE AND ITS NON-CONCEPTUAL COMPONENTS
Perspective and language habit
Attentional flexibility. Attention to attention itself
Time and space
The object-less imagery
Attending to present moment
Samyama, absorption and “full empathy”
III. SELF, IDENTITY AND VERTICAL DEVELOPMENT
The ego and the illusion of self
Subpersonalities and systems thinking
Psychological maturity and the developmental stages
Descriptions of post-conventional stages of ego development
Vertical development or peak experiences
Temporary and persistent non-symbolic experiences
Transformational counseling and non-dual psychotherapy
Depersonalization, ”locus of identity” and diffuse-objective attention
IV. GROWING UP AND DEVELOPMENTAL DYNAMICS
Growing up and waking up
Exploring and re-programming the automatic patterns
Exploring the shadow
Spiritual-framework absorption – the glimpse of transcendence
The growth mindset
Highly sensitive persons and overexcitability
Balancing Aliveness: depression vs. anxiety
Daily practice and ”self-directed neuroplasticity”
Spiritual teachers, channeling and our inner master
Spiritual emergencies, mental illnesses or inner awakenings?
Psychosomatics and conscious embodiment
Kundalini awakening and psychosomatic re-balancing
How to relate to the inner growth process
Image by Jeff Carreira, http://philosophyisnotaluxury.com/
The research quest while developing the consciousness quotient was to look into the conscious experience, and find the key elements of the structural changes related to the levels of conscious awareness. I tried to answer the questions “what changes?” and “how it changes?”, incorporating all the experiences that I know of from various cultures, and the knowledge from spirituality and science.
I tried to see how each type of experience is useful for our evolution as a species, examining what the purpose of that experience for our collective evolution is, and how people integrate all types of experiences to become fully conscious and in harmony with life.
It was quite a challenge to operationalize the conscious experience without using the word “conscious”, when I created the items of the Consciousness Quotient Inventory. I explored the identity of concepts from psychology and spirituality and tried to find their essential features, so that people with various worldviews and cosmological understandings could see beneath their specific orientation and identify the core elements of their experiences.
I included here a selection of key findings and researches from various fields, along with my views. The filter for selection was simple: I selected those people who have a very clear understanding of that topic, people who talk from their own experience and/or have excellent knowledge. You can use the links in the text for a more in-depth exploration of some concepts. The researches I recommend here were useful for me during my inner journey, and most of them were big wows for me at that time. What I did during the learning process was to explore new perspectives by finding their essential ideas, comparing them to my experience, experiencing their view, integrating them, and further explore their meaning. I spent time exploring them deeply, which allowed me the opportunity to connect personally with some of the authors or people who generated specific ideas.
I have learned a lot from scientists and from brilliant explorers, who shared their insights on internet blogs, and also from my friends and students who shared their inner growth journeys. I am thankful for each one of you.
To be conscious means “to have a degree of witnessing awareness and a degree of freedom of choice when thinking, feeling, sensing and interacting with people and the environment”. An essential element of the conscious experience is intentionality, the mindset which allows a person to choose deliberately what behavior to enact and what attitude to select. ‘More conscious’ (a higher Consciousness Quotient) means a higher degree of witnessing awareness and being less automatic in thinking-feeling-sensing, together with a higher degree of choice when initiating a behavior. The witnessing perspective, which leads to the ability to observe the inside and outside worlds without engaging with them, is one of the key factors of the Consciousness Quotient construct. ‘Witnessing awareness’ is usually described as the ‘I am experience’, ‘the observer experience’, ‘just being’ (as opposed to ‘doing’), ‘awareness of awareness itself’ and ‘no-mind’.
The previous paragraph is the operational definition of the conscious experience, validated using the scientific procedures, and it represents the fundamental premises of the Consciousness Quotient Inventory (CQ-i). Being conscious is the opposite of being on autopilot, but humans are on autopilot more than 70% of the time, and do not realize they have lost their free will, their freedom to choose how to react to what’s happening to them.
Inner automation plays a crucial role in our everyday life, but on our development journey, it is necessary to access our automatic programs, to “re-write” them by adding “the free will subprogram”, and after that, to let them become automatic again. For people at the beginning of the inner journey, this may look like a state of hyper-vigilance or a permanent self-reflection that requires permanent attention and energy to deal with what is happening. And this is what it looks like, indeed. But after a while, it becomes natural and automatic in a good way. Like a good agent-program I know it’s there to support me. In fact, awareness is always present here, there is no need to consume energy to pay attention. Attention naturally goes where it’s needed, without consuming too much energy. We don’t have to remind ourselves to be aware, as we are already aware. But the attentional schemes need to be trained.
Not being on autopilot requires us to become passively reflective, so that we feel ourselves and look at ourselves in every moment. A first step for de-automatization is the post-event self-observation, being conscious after the event occurred. When we observe ourselves during the event, acknowledging our actions moment-by-moment, we gain better clarity levels. As if we would have a mirror in us, which reflects us in every second. This is a process we call “the witness” or “witnessing awareness”. In other words, it is the awareness being aware of itself.
The witness is neither a conceptual structure, mediated by language, nor a super ego that analyzes what is happening. It is simply a mirroring process, active in all life processes on Earth, and translated into our psyche as the experience of being alive and wide-awake. Some researchers call it fundamental awareness, pure consciousness or non-symbolic awareness. The witnessing awareness mode is described by the first person reports as a constantly fresh look into the present moment, as a new zeroth-person perspective, where there is only a present-centered experience.
The witnessing awareness mode is a part of a new mirroring/self-reflective system that appears to be active on a large scale in the human race, a new human evolutionary feature, slowly developing in humans. In the following table, I present some of the main differences between the non-conceptual Presence Self and the body-mind-emotion Self that we are accustomed to ”). My thanks to Carlo Monsanto for sharing some wisdom while discussing this list.
A zero reference for mental activity
Real Self, Witnessing Self – “I”
Stable Witnessing awareness
I, witness patterns, choose or accept mental patterns
Witness mind and personality
Witness feelings and sensations
De-automation, paying attention to present moments
One mode of pure awareness,
Witnessing experience, Aware of awareness itself
Knowing by contemplation (still need the mind to interpret)
Allows increased perceptual processing and unconscious processing (faster)
Supported by receptive attention (attend diffusely to the whole field)
Direct experience through awareness, independent of ASC (e.g. natural connection with the environment)
Just watching. Voluntary control over thoughts and ego.
No repressed ideas in unconscious, letting go of any emotions and thoughts, good or bad
No desire to control, relaxed decision making
Accepting all emotions
Feeling of interconnectedness with all life forms
Process of transformation through increased acceptance of life
Felt as real freedom (I am as free as I can be)
Know all the states
Observing surroundings, Perceptual visual data
Experiential therapies and techniques
A spectrum of mental activity
(Observing) Self – ego
I am me
Dynamic mental awareness
Self, Experience of patterns of thinking and feeling
Observer – First-Person
Cognition, thinking. Personality traits
Aware of external/internal stimuli, Feeling, Sensing
Automatic behavior and cognitive patterns
Consciousness, conscious and unconscious content and processing
Knowing by thinking, feeling, sensing
Conscious and controlled processing
Supported by concentrative attention
Doing, Thinking, Feeling, Sensing
Imagining a need for enlightenment
Altered states of consciousness (ASC)
(e.g., expanded consciousness)
Mystical experiences. People report a disconnect from thought processes and ego
Unconscious formed of repressed negative ideas, emotions
Control of thinking and emotions
Selecting good emotions
Feeling of separation, ego
Love for close friends
Process of transformation through higher-order thoughts (higher level of abstraction)
The idea of freedom
Remember the states, state-dependent memory
Wandering in thinking
Switching modes: surroundings/thinking
Self –image rational psychotherapies
All the skills and traits listed on the left side are related to the non-conceptual self. Some of them can be trained, e.g. diffuse attention, open focus, dividing attention, attention to space, visual thinking, supporting “being mode” vs. “doing mode” (e.g. by simple exercises of delaying with 30 seconds any impulse we have). We can learn to access this meta-reflective-perceptual-non-symbolic “layer”, using its framework, its terminology and learning its ways, like learning a new language. Starting from simple blocks, we can build our pathways into this new world of meta-perceptual interconnectedness.
Several neurological theories may explain the experience of being wide-awake-while-witnessing. In my opinion, a good candidate is the Orch-Or theory, launched by Stuart Hameroff and developed together with Roger Penrose and other researchers. Hameroff’s theory claims that the microtubules in the cells create a resonance communication field, which he says is actually consciousness. Anirban Bandyopadhyay, an Indian researcher working in Japan and the US, presented a study at the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in 2013, in which he confirmed empirically that the microtubules have resonance features. Until 2013, we knew that neurons communicate through axons, now we also know they have a wifi-type of communication, through microtubules. Adding psychology to the theory, this my hypothesis: the perceptual-non-symbolic experience may be related to the microtubules communication (faster frequency processing), and the consciousness experience (awareness+cognition) may be related to the neurons communication (slower frequency processing).
This perspective of witnessing awareness as a different vibratory mechanism, to which we, as a species, are slowly gaining conscious access, is somehow related to the panpsychism theory and morphogenetic field. Still, Susan Blackmore’s scientific criticism of the claims regarding the voluntary access to the collective field is also valid, the collective field is here, of course, we are all a part of it, but for the moment the proved way to influence it is by our actions, not by our thoughts,
Jayne Gackenbach and Charles Alexander have conducted several studies examining the relationship of dream lucidity to witnessing (pure) consciousness.
Charles Alexander: “the significance of the experience of pure consciousness is that it provides the foundation for the development of stable higher stages of consciousness or ‘enlightenment’. Witnessing of deep sleep indicates that the inner wakefulness of pure consciousness is now beginning to be maintained even during the most extreme conditions of mental inertia — dreamless sleep. Indeed the first stable higher stage of consciousness termed ‘cosmic consciousness’ — is defined as the maintenance of pure consciousness throughout the 24-hour cycle of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep.”
The experience of witnessing while sleeping was described to Charles Alexander by one of his subjects:
“He said that ordinary dreams are on the surface of the mind and that the lucid activity of reflective thinking and discrimination and acting upon that content is in a more settled state of mind, but that witnessing is at the source of the mind. Awareness is identified with the state of being and these other things are relative degrees of excitation above this silent state of awareness. He did say that he thought the duality of lucidity, the reflection on the content of dreams, was more abstract, more de-embedded than ordinary dreams, which of course it is. Lucidity is relatively liberating. You realize it’s only a dream and step outside of a constrained reality. Then witnessing would simply represent, I think, the next step outside of that, to the source of thought entirely”.
Gackenbach describes three types of sleep consciousness experiences:
- “Lucid dreaming” was described as a dream in which you are actively thinking about the fact that you are dreaming.
An example from a Transcendental Meditation practitioner: “During a dream I will become aware of the dream as separate, then aware that I am dreaming. Then I begin to manipulate the story and the characters to create whatever situation I desire. At times, in unpleasant situations, I’ll think as the dreamer ‘I don’t have to put up with this’ and I change the dream or at least ‘back out’ of the involvement.”
- “Witnessing dreaming” was described as a dream in which you experience a quiet, peaceful, inner awareness or wakefulness completely separate from the dream.
“Sometimes, whatever the content of the dream is, I feel an inner tranquility of awareness that is removed from the dream. Sometimes, I may even be caught up in the dream but the inner awareness of peace remains.”
- “Witnessing in deep sleep” was described as dreamless sleep in which you experience a quiet, peaceful, inner state of awareness or wakefulness.
“It is a feeling of infinite expansion and bliss and nothing else. Then I become aware that I exist but there is no individual personality. Gradually, I become aware that I am an individual but there are no details of who, where, what, when, etc. Eventually, these details fill in and I might awaken.”
In her studies, Gackenbach reports that “across samples lucid dreams were experienced more frequently than either witnessing dreams or witnessing deep sleep. This finding favoring the higher incidence of lucidity relative to witnessing also held across level of dream recall and supports the notion that lucid dreams are easier to access no matter what ones training or personal skills and therefore may represent a developmentally prior state of sleep consciousness leading eventually to the experience of pure consciousness“.
Image by Jeff Carreira, http://philosophyisnotaluxury.com/
The elements presented in this research refer to the “structure” of the conscious experience, not to its content. As a metaphor, I see these inner configurations as a set of lenses with various colors and opacity levels, through which the multi-layered witness is watching all the layers simultaneously. These configurations “modulate” the perceptual field (physical, subtle or causal), and as a result, the conscious experience may be larger or smaller, more profound or not, with more or less flexibility.
Using wisely the perspective, the attentional schemes, and the connection with the space in which all life exists, we can participate in the present moment with more richness, and we become able to connect with multiple layers of reality. Seeing-perceiving the patterns of interactions allows us to experience a deep navigation of reality, through the never-ending layers of fractal reality streams.
The perspective is our vantage point of view, the specific way we use our resources to look around. A wider perspective means to see a larger context, to see a higher complexity. Susanne Cook-Greuter, in her researches on psychological maturity, mentions that in the mature stages of ego development, people realize that their perspectives are “local, partial, context-dependent and culturally conditioned”.
When we create our perspectives, everything gravitates around the words we are using, because the words we use create an informational feedback loop which modifies the non-conceptual structure. The conceptual structure can sustain, limit or expand our perspective (and “create” future experiences).
During the inner growth process, it is good to accept by default that there are always many points of view over the same subject. Postmodernism has brought us multiple views on the same phenomena and respect for others’ points of view. The transition from one perspective to multiple perspectives happens by integrating the polarities, by going from “or/or” approaches, “this or that”, ”me or others”, ”good or bad”, to an inclusive view, integrating “this and that”, ”good and evil”, ”me and the others”. Working with polarities is recommended in developmental counseling or transformational coaching to support the vertical development and build up new ways of thinking.
In Susanne Cook-Greuter’s theory, language habit has the following attributes:
– “It constitutes a universal, all-pervasive dimension of human existence
– It is innate but needs activation and modeling by expert speakers in early childhood to emerge
– It is a learned behavior that becomes automatic and unconscious once acquired
– It bundles the flux of sensory input and inner experience into labeled concepts shared with one’s speech community
– It is so deeply engrained that speakers of any given language are not aware of the reality construction imposed on them by their language
– It can become a barrier to further development if it remains unconscious, automatic and unexamined.”
The perspective we take on a situation, using words, is so powerful that, as time goes by, we all feel what we think (after the necessary time in which our brain forms new neural structures on that specific language structure).
In the ego development theory, Susanne Cook-Greuter describes six types of perspectives. The perspective “pattern” begins in childhood with a narrow focus, and during development, it widens more and more: the first person perspective is a focus on the self; the second person perspective is a focus on self and other; the third person perspective is a focus on an observer who can focus on another self and other(s) and so on. So, we need to ask ourselves the question: If the perspective doesn’t reflect objective reality, what is, in fact, reality?
People in the ego-aware stage begin to abandon the pattern of knowing through perspectives. The new way is perceptual, non-conceptual, and it is primarily focused on listening to the world as it is, without trying to label it, using existing patterns. We still need the mind, though, and people in the Unitive configuration can easily switch around different perspectives, without being conditioned by one of them in particular.
Attention is the “scanner” that connects us with various sources (internal and external), making all this information available for our awareness and the conscious experience. In the transformation process, it is necessary to break the addiction to “narrow” focus (tunnel vision) and to use a type of attention that is called “diffuse” attention, or attention to the big picture. Another term that I found in the literature is “full view vision”
Lester Fehmi, a researcher at Princeton who studied the synchrony of the brain wave activity, discovered that if we embrace the entire perceptive field, including the peripheral vision, we get a whole-brain-alpha-synchrony.
In his paper “Attention to attention”, Fehmi concludes that,
“how we pay attention determines significantly and immediately our experience, physiology, and behavior. How we pay attention determines our subjective experience of our own identity and our objective experience of internal and external sensation and perception. Also, we can learn to flexibly choose and determine how we attend. Certainly most of us have the ability to choose the direction of our narrow attention, in order to choose to experience any subset of available stimuli at any given time. With training, we can also choose to broaden the scope of our attention to include a more diffuse and integrated background awareness of available stimuli, even in multiple sense modalities simultaneously. Moreover, we can choose to flexibly pay attention in other ways which help us function more or less well in specific conditions.”
He described four types of attention, based on the narrow/diffuse category, but also adding another characteristic – our connection with the world we observe. We can have an objective style, looking at things as if from outside, as an objective observer, or we can be immersed/absorbed in the experience, being in contact with all the objects in our attentional field.
The four types are narrow-objective, narrow-immersed, diffuse-objective and diffuse-immersed. The style that includes all of them is called by Fehmi “open focus” attention: “Open Focus includes diffuse, narrow, objective, and immersed forms of attention – all occurring more or less equally and simultaneously, with a concurrent awareness of their presence. The ultimate goal of Open Focus training is to attain the attentional flexibility adequate for moving freely by degrees among and within attentional styles, including all, at times, simultaneously and equally”.
Breaking the addiction to narrow focus is the first step for becoming more conscious. In western societies, we were educated to pay attention in a narrow-absorbed way. How to do it, then? Try contemplative exercises. However, many of the contemplation practices don’t instruct the participant to connect with the object of attention, but to remain a detached observer, so I would say learning Open Focus style would be a good starting point for training the attentional mechanisms.
A simple exercise that I used with my students is “dividing attention”, This is an attentional schema that allows us to attend simultaneously to various visual objects (in a diffuse-visual-way described above), and in the same time to attend to our other senses – touch, hear, smell, our inner body sensation, our feelings, and our thinking. Then we can add the collective perspective above all this and observe, e.g. the differences between our own emotions and the emotions we perceive from the environment and people around us. Then we can add the temporal line, noticing the differences between the information we access from past, present, or if our internal processing has taken us into future predictions. In time, using this exercise in various settings and moments of the day, we can break the narrow focus addiction and embrace a richer perspective. A visual practice that creates the full view vision is to keep a narrow focus on the horizon line, and then slowly embracing the peripheral vision of the world below and above and the depths between the eyes and the horizon.
Keeping a percentage of attention to the attentional stream itself, all the time, creates a subjective experience of being wide-awake while the thinking-feeling-sensing-acting happens. In other words, it’s about being present with the meta-attention and watching how the attentional schema creates content for our experience. In spiritual terminology, this means we can watch “Maya” itself dancing as it manifests. When we simultaneously pay attention to the global content, and to the attentional mechanism itself, we discover that space is full of information, and this informational-awareness is available all the time.
The idea that attention is a “spot” is still the current paradigm in psychology, but it looks like the attention is more flexible than we thought. Dave Carmel, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh observed that attention is not something like… a “beam”, but rather, attention is a kind of “optical fiber” channel, with thousands of sub-channels that can acquire information from the environment, no matter if they are in the “narrow spot” or not.
For the non-conceptual self, there is only one time: now. For the cognitive self, there are 3 forms available, past, present and future. The Man from Earth is a movie that gives an excellent example of what a larger time-view can do for our perspectives.
An exercise I like, and it is quite challenging, is the practice that requires focusing our attention in the here-now, while we talk and recall memories and information from the past. Especially when we talk about meaningful emotional experiences from the past, they tend to conjure our attention and to make us re-live the past, forgetting about the present. Still, through practice, one can learn to focus and simultaneously keep both the past and the present. To do this exercise, just begin to tell a story from the past, including all the emotional aspects, while paying attention to the present moment environment. And try to stay both in the present and in the past. This will help you differentiate between the information sent to you by memory engrams and the information sent to you by here-now stimuli.
For space (the physical space, distances), ask yourself: “What social identities do you usually have during the course of a day?”. There are multiple options as answers, in an increasingly wider spatial perspective: I am a partner in a couple relationship; I am a member of a family; I am a member of a group (e.g., sports team, political party, club, job, friends, etc.); I am a member of an ethnic group; I am a citizen of a country; I am a member of the human race; I am a human being on a planet called ‘Earth’; I am a life form existing in the universe. A documentary I like, related to spatial filter, is The Overview Effect.
Attention-to-space reduces the importance of the ego, and brings in the feeling of interconnectedness. Fehmi’s research showed that,
“appropriately shifting emphasis from narrow to diffuse and from objective to absorbed styles of attention, to the feelings of pain and body and space simultaneously dissolves even the most extreme pains. Most notable among pains that have dissolved in response to this technique are those in relation to birthing, kidney stones, interstitial cystitis, endometriosis, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, back pain, headaches, colitis and phantom limb pain. It is not unusual for this pain dissolving attention technique to bring about long-term remission of symptoms. In addition, emotional pains such as anxiety, panic, depression, feelings of guilt, loss and failure also have dissolved.”
Attention to space brings a new type of awareness, more relaxed and with an inclusive way of being. Attention to space is an important link to spiritual experiences, described by mystics all over the world as the-void-like-nature of human beings, which is not void, in fact, but full of love. This is a theme repeating over and over in many spiritual texts. Sensing-the-void is the passage from sensing ourselves to sensing the world in us, as we all inhabit the same space. Many psychedelic experiences with DMT evoke journeys into a vast inner space, a space populated with energies and helical and spiral patterns, accompanied by feelings of joy and beauty.
In his EEG research, Fehmi discovered that the most reliable production of alpha synchrony occurred in response to the “object less imagery”. He found that questions referring to the multisensory experience of space, nothingness, emptiness or “absence” often elicit large amplitude and prolonged periods of alpha activity:
“when we pay attention to space, there is nothing to apprehend; by giving attention to this ungraspable space we eventually become aware of the previously unnoticed chronic act of gripping or physical tension, which is associated with our habitual bias toward narrow and objective forms of attention. Awareness of gripping is a precondition for the motivation to intentionally release this same gripping tension. When this habitual attention-related tension is released, attentional scope broadens and supports an awareness of also being immersed in a perceived vast and pervasive surround. This surround, or ground of experience, had so far been excluded from awareness by our narrowly objective attentional bias toward gripping the contents of limited fields of experience, i.e., a limited scope of sense objects.”
Fehmi’s descriptions are an example of how mystical and scientific realms can converge, sometimes:
“after opening our attention, while including our already present narrow objective attention to sensations in the center of our new open awareness, we experience a surround of immersed attention, of a vast three dimensional space, nothingness, absence, silence and timelessness. The perceived surround, the scope of our attention is not only expanded, but is experienced with greater immersion. Thus, the ground of our experience is reified, realized as a more pronounced sense of presence, a centered and unified awareness, and identity with a vast quality less awareness in which all objects of sensation float, as myself. As we continue to experience space and sensation more intimately, more simultaneously and equally, we deepen the absorption of our attention in the totality of present experience.”
An exercise that helped me develop my attentional flexibility was the conscious use of the visual saccades. I used to bike through the city, while listening on headphones some songs that gave me an observer attitude. E.g., for me, “You once told be” by Andain creates a brainwave synchrony that allows me to watch how the attention is driven by the stimulus in the city. After a while, I was able to watch the attentional “narrow” stream, while it was moving from one stimulus to another, without losing the attention the global picture, including my internal sensations and my feelings, and the sensations and emotions generated by people and space around me.
An observation related to this process: DMT seems to increase the ability to maintain attention to the tunnel vision and the global vision simultaneously. It happened that I participated in a Santo Daime ceremony during the time I was practicing this exercise, and in one break during the ceremony I observed how each receptor in my retina is a kind of high-resolution camera. Billions of high-resolution pixels were forming the visual field, each pixel containing (perhaps) infinite information in it. And at the same time, the narrow vision was bringing me an extra amount of data from the area where it was scanning, directed by external stimulus. The level of let go was amazing. And the HD resolution was far from anything I experienced before. After this event, I became interested in exploring how the DMT-generated-synchrony is influencing our way of paying attention.
Nowadays, there is an increased acceptance for mindfulness techniques, and for eastern teachings of “just being” instead of doing. They advocate for being “in the now” and not use overthinking. But here is my question: in what now? In which stream of “now” do we participate? Using the perspective and the attentional schemes, we can simultaneously access many types of information.
Living in the present moment is not something that can be done entirely through abandoning reasoning. On the contrary, it takes clean perceptions, a sharp mind, and educated attention to get a nice present-moment-experience.
I like Terri O’Fallon’s description of reality levels, as I can understand it from a psychological perspective:
“1. Gross state: awareness of the concrete, anything one can experience with external senses or their extensions (e.g., microscopes, X-rays, telescopes, etc.)
2. Subtle state: awareness or witnessing of the subtle, or anything that one cannot generally measure with the external senses, including thought, emotion, imagination, daydreams, dreams, interior sounds, interior vibratory experiences, and so on.
3. Causal state: awareness of or witnessing of the very subtle, formlessness, or emptiness.
4. The Witness: that which is aware. There is a progression of awareness from (a) instinct to (b) simple direct awareness to (c) the Witness that is aware of objects of awareness to (d) Turiya, which is the capacity to witness 24 hours a day, even in deep sleep.
5. Unity: awareness merging with gross, subtle, and/or causal realities. This definition recognizes different levels of unity for one can unite only the form that one has the capacity to be aware of.
6 . Nondual: the interpenetration of emptiness and form. This recognizes different levels of non-duality, for one can be non-dual only with the concrete, subtle or causal forms one is capable of apprehending.”
Terri O’Fallon considers that it is relevant to make distinctions between awareness and the level where the object of attention is.
“Is the object of awareness a concrete (gross) object? Is it a subtle object? Is it a causal object? We can observe people who are aware in the moment of a concrete object, but are able to be aware of a subtle object only reflectively after the fact and were not yet able to access this awareness at will. Furthermore, one could be living within the perspectives of the Concrete Floor and have gross, subtle, and causal states; but the object of those states would be generally concrete because one had not yet inhabited the perspectives of the Subtle Floor. For example, someone coming from a concrete stage of development might be aware in the moment of a concrete experience, such as an itch or delicious food.
By contrast, this person might have reflective awareness (a subtle state) about itches or food he or she has experienced. On the other hand, this person might have awareness in the moment that he or she is thinking about food, which would be a subtle state (awareness of thinking). However, in all of these cases, the final primary object of the person’s awareness is still a concrete object. This is the basis of the Object of Awareness pattern, which iterates from the object being concrete, to subtle, to causal. Thus, one could also be in a subtle state such as a day-dream or imagination, having a subtle object (such as a hypothesis, or a plan or a strategy, or a subtle experience of the divine). This would be a subtle state with a subtle object and wouldn’t be accessed unless one had the capacities to take the perspectives of the Subtle Floor (tier). Or one might receive a download come through them of a map of consciousness, where self is not the center, and this might be described as a subtle state with a causal object (download from outside of the self) which becomes available when one can take the perspectives of the Causal Floor.”
The shamanic experience is an example of a subjective experience of here-now, with causal/nondual structures of experience, with concrete content. In the shamanic visions, most of the information extracted from the “now” is related with physical aspects (nature, animals), and does not include so much subtle content, because their ego is primarily connected to the concrete structure. This distinction is described by Ken Wilber when he talks about the pre/trans fallacy.
Samyama is a process of perfect and continuous fusion with the object of attention. Or, in other words, knowing an object by completely merging with it. In Yoga Sutra, it is said that this process leads to jnana, correct knowledge, or direct knowing. In modern terminology, we can say that a perfect perceptual, emotional and cognitive empathy will lead to a correct understanding-as-perception.
For some people, the transition to new contents brought-in by absorption flows is not so smooth… as they may experience, all of a sudden, absorptions in a landscape they see, or in a sound, causing a kind of “black-outs” and losing contact with external surrounding (if this happens when they are driving, well, it’s not okay). This is a sign that the witnessing awareness starts to activate, and the person is experiencing a new way of connecting with life, based on full connection, rather than thinking, feeling or sensing.
I met a 23-y.o. person who was having spontaneous blackouts during the day, after entering the world of non-duality by watching interviews on Conscious TV for a school project. She was taken to a psychiatrist by her mother, they did an EEG examination, but the best interpretation was that “it is unclear, there may be some epilepsy-like waves”, and the doctors prescribed some drugs. In my opinion, this was a temporary side-effect of her internal opening, so I advised her to train the witnessing style. After some months, her non-conceptual self became more stable, and she was able to remain present during these moments of spontaneous deep connection. She gained the ability to witness her-self being absorbed, as it was happening, by keeping some percentage of the attentional resources outside the absorption flow.
Intention is a lens through which we pre-define the perspective-taking process (intention = choice + committment). Intention is closely related to the system of values and attitudes we have towards life. Reorganizing the personal life-values is a vital process of personal development, as the values offer the framework for each stage of ego development. Each stage has its values that generate experiences through “chosen values” as filters. At each stage, the values become an automated guide of our actions, and they influence every thought-action. I like the system of values developed by Gurdjieff (or attributed to him).
What I observed in my work is that, rather than making an intention for “something”, I could use broader intentions, such as “I wish to live the experiences that I need, in order to change”, or “I trust life and I am heading towards where I am needed”.
But, I don’t think that using intentions all the time is necessary, because ultimately, the intention is also a way of “controlling” the perception of reality. I mean, it’s ok to use intentions for essential actions, from time to time, but, in the end, an internalized life value can set the direction and give us more space to relax during daily activities. I noticed that in groups such as “we-create-our-world-and-we-manifest-abundance”, who use the intention as an everyday tool, they seem to have a constant inner pressure… there is a lot of attention and energy invested in this process of “creating-the-world”.
Image by Jeff Carreira, http://philosophyisnotaluxury.com/
The ego is not an “illusion”, it is a fundamental part of our inner life, a dynamic structure that can be changed and adjusted. I prefer to think of it as a self-organizing-tool. An intelligent tool which transforms its own shape through preferences and choices, and reinforces its strength through repetition of preferences and choices, over time.
I use “ego”, “I” and “self” as synonyms when I refer to the experience of having an identity structure. One of the research objectives was to reduce the complexity of thinking about inner growth, and to maintain a first-person experience level in the psychological terminology. I selected concepts that connect directly with the experiential reality (I call them first-level concepts), and I have put aside the second level or third level of concepts, as much as I could. Therefore, I try not to use so many theories that come in complex packages, such as id, super-ego, higher self, soul, transpersonal self, true self.
I like Lester Fehmi’s definition of self-identity, based on attentional mechanisms:
“I am an awareness of how I pay attention to all the contents of all modes of my attention, therefore I am. That is, I am aware equally well and often simultaneously of the various ways I pay attention and their various contents (sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, smells, thoughts, sense of time and the awareness of space into which they come into being, float and subsequently diffuse), and therefore I am.”
The ego is formed as a result of our interactions with some key events/activities in our life (e.g. job, relation with parents, food, friends, sex life). These events created specific patterns of thinking, feeling, sensing, and acting, related to that event. In time, they form a web of patterns that activate in specific circumstances. These mini-identities are the subpersonalities.
From the conversations with people and the discussions with my students, I concluded that a person has around 20 to 70 subpersonalities, depending on the complexity of their life. You can think of them like clothes we wear in relation to different people or situations: myself in relation to my parents, myself at work, myself as husband/wife, myself on vacation, etc. When a subpersonality is active, we become that subpersonality, accessing its emotions, traits, fears and joys.
In the inner growth journey, observing the subpersonalities is the premise for becoming an authentic human being. In time, we can integrate all the subpersonalities into one; we can be in contact with the totality of us in each moment. To do this, first we need to notice the subpersonalities, then to create a system of life-values that can apply to all subpersonalities and then, we get a coherent structure by being authentic all the time (but adapting our behavior to each specific context).
Changing our inner world requires a constant noticing-observing of patterns, and the understanding of how these patterns connect and work together within systems. “Systems thinking” is a fundamental skill for post-conventional ego-stages. Some of the systems which can be analyzed during inner growth are: the body, the food, the emotions, the relationships with other people, the mind, the way we talk, the ego etc. Maybe the most dramatic transition in our personal development is when people can see their ego as a system and stop the compulsive identification with it.
Systems thinking allows us to detect that some patterns flow in association with others, and they form a more extensive system. This idea is very well described in Kegan’s subject-object approach. After we connect the dots and see the entire system, we can go to the next level, like a jump from 2D to 3D. At the new level, the system becomes an object again, and we see it from outside. Then the process repeats until the object is integrated, and the system becomes a part of the current subjective experience, and so on… until we connect everything with everything. This associative mechanism is quite automatic and unconscious when the inner growth engine starts. Eventually, it leads to associations between ideas, objects, symbols and archetypes, as the inner growth process goes deeper and deeper. The final part of this beautiful associative drive to evolution is to see the associative mechanism itself as a system, and get out of this never-ending fractal loop (or “house of mirrors”), and dive through life using the witnessing awareness.
In the beginning, the theories and the researches of western psychology have focused on the evolution of personality, from basic levels to self-actualizing, which was considered to be the most mature evolutionary stage. These approaches include Piaget, Freud, Erikson, Kohlberg, Maslow. Since the 80’s, a new series of theories and researchers described post-autonomous stages of ego development, including in their models some inner configurations previously related to mystics. These approaches include Grawes, Kegan, Loevinger, Wilber, Back & Cowan, Washburn, Wade, Grof, Torbert, Joiner and Cook-Greuter.
Susanne Cook-Greuter created my favorite theory, developed with an experience-based terminology. Some interesting validating data regarding her theory is available in a PhD thesis at Fielding Institute in the USA, written by Dane Hewlett. He describes 25 individuals, each of them analyzed from the perspective of their ego development level.
Susanne Cook-Greuter presents the basic principles of the ego development theory in “Nine Levels of Increasing Embrace in Ego Development: A Full-Spectrum Theory of Vertical Growth and Meaning Making”:
“- [Ego] Development theory describes the unfolding of human potential towards deeper understanding, wisdom and effectiveness in the world.
– Growth occurs in a logical sequence of stages or expanding worldviews from birth to adulthood. The movement is often associated to an ever-widening spiral.
– Overall, worldviews evolve from simple to complex, from static to dynamic, and from ego-centric to socio-centric to world-centric.
– Later stages are reached only by journeying through the earlier stages. Once a stage has been traversed, it remains a part of the individual’s response repertoire, even when more complex, later stages are adopted as primary lenses to look at experience.
– Each later stage includes and transcends the previous ones. That is, the earlier perspectives remain part of our current experience and knowledge (just as when a child learns to run, it doesn’t stop to be able to walk). Each later stage in the sequence is more differentiated, integrated, flexible and capable of optimally functioning in a rapidly changing and ever more complex world.
– People’s stage of development influences what they notice and can become aware of, and therefore, what they can describe, articulate, cultivate, influence, and change.
– As healthy development unfolds, autonomy, freedom, tolerance for difference and ambiguity, as well as flexibility, self-awareness, and skill in interacting with the environment increase while defenses decrease.
– Derailment in development, pockets of lack of integration, trauma and psychopathology are seen at all levels. Thus, later stages are not more adjusted or “happier.”
– A person who has reached a later stage can understand earlier world-views, but a person at an earlier stage cannot understand the later ones.
– The depth, complexity, and scope of what people notice can expand throughout life. Yet no matter how evolved we become, our knowledge and understanding is always partial and incomplete.
– Development occurs through the interplay between person and environment, not just by one or the other. It is a potential and can be encouraged and facilitated by appropriate support and challenge, but it cannot be guaranteed.
– While vertical development can be invited and the environment optimally structured towards growth, it cannot be forced. People have the right to be who they are at any station in life.
– The later the stage, the more variability for unique self-expression exists, and the less readily we can determine where a person’s center of gravity lies.
– All stage descriptions are idealizations that no human being fits entirely.”
It is good to know that most of us are simultaneously living on multiple stages, a subpersonality may be on stage #4 and another one on stage #5. Only after the inner harmonization process has reached a certain point, we can feel, act and react authentically, from a unified perspective.
In the Autonomous stage, the personal goal is to be “the most one can be”, i.e., one makes the best of himself/herself. In the Construct-aware (Ego-aware) stage, the aim of the person is “to be aware”, while in the Unitive stage, the purpose is just “to be”.
The following descriptions are excerpts from the ego development theory, developed by Susanne Cook-Greuter.
“Focus: Self-development, self-actualization; creating a meaningful, coherent, objective self-identity.
Self-Definition: Autonomous, multiple roles; self-generated core- identity; aware of many defenses. Sense of self-esteem, empowerment. Rational mind and intellect; though as mediated through language.
Dominant center of awareness: Rational mind and intellect; though as mediated through language.
Range of awareness: Aware of body/mind as system, aware of context dependency and personal interpretation of internal and external events.
Method of knowing: Reasoning, rational analysis aided by some intuition: one assesses, evaluates, judges, compares, measures, contrasts and predicts.
Example of self-reflection: “I am – well-balanced professional human being, definitely on the path of self-actualization and self-fulfillment.”
An important skill that appears in this stage is the ability to observe the subpersonalities within ourselves and in other people.
Ego-aware (Construct aware) stage
“Focus: Exploring the habits and processes of the mind and the way one makes sense of experience through cognition and language.
Self-Definition: Complex matrix of self- identification, at the same time questioning their adequacy. Description of self in stages.
Dominant center of awareness: Rational mind plus intimations of transcendent awareness, and intuitive knowledge during peak moments.
Range of awareness: Aware of the limits of symbolic and codification and rational thought; aware of ego and conventional reality as constructs. Keenly aware of difference between map and territory.
Method of knowing: Rational awareness with awareness of the mechanics of thought, symbolic codification, construction of meaning, contemplation of limitations of present way of knowing – existential paradox.
Example of self-reflection: ”I am – sensitive, honest, striving to always love others . . . reflective . . . sometimes to the point of being unable to get out of endless loops, striving to take responsibility for myself.”
People in the ego-aware stage are able to observe cognitive and emotional processes in others, and to mirror them in real time. They see the patterns as they unfold, and they can help other people recognize them more easily.
Susanne Cook-Greuter differentiates between two sub-categories in this stage:
- a rational category (rationally-directed) when the person is still very much connected to their thoughts, and uses logical thinking as an essential way to understand the world;
- the second category is less cognitive (intuitively-directed), marking a change in the meaning-making way. The person feels a deep connection with the surrounding environment, and notices that they don’t require the use of thinking so much, to make sense of what is happening.
Dane Hewlett, a researcher who analyzed these categories, was wondering if the thinking-feeling dichotomy parallels these two sub-categories. In my opinion, people are becoming “psychological androgens”, in order to integrate their experiences.
“Focus: Non-evaluating, integrative witnessing of ongoing process of experience.
Self-Definition: Description of self as in constant flux and transformation.
Dominant center of awareness: Metarational, postrepresentational, immediate, integrative awareness and direct experience of what is.
Range of awareness: Aware of perceptional flux and changing levels of awareness; life as is; aware of “illusion” of a permanent, individual self and object world. Cognizant of witness-Self.
Method of knowing: Contemplation, witnessing of continuous flux; subjective experience of non-symbolic mode of direct knowing; intellect and intuition are used, but not overvalued.
Goal: To be.
Example of self-reflection: “I am – alive, trundling along, making sense as best as I can, diversifying and expanding while consolidating and contracting.”
In the ego development theory, there are two types of development:
- vertical development – a structural shift in the way of meaning-making
- horizontal development – an exploration of the world using the same configuration of being-thinking-feeling-sensing-acting-relating.
The horizontal development is needed to integrate the vertical configuration upgrades. After people change their ways of meaning-making, it is necessary to spend some time using this new way, until it habituates. Neurons need time to form new neural networks, and during this time, both ways are available. Prioritizing and using the new ones, this in the challenge.
During “peak experiences”, or “altered states of consciousness” people can temporarily access more complex configurations, and may acquire that configuration, for a while. Usually, this happens due to an event that provided the energy for the shift: it can be a love story, a life event, a traumatic event, a near-death experience, a “mystical” or spiritual event, it can be a temporary result of some exercises such as yoga, meditation, dance, shamanic rituals, or a result of using various substances or psychedelics. During the peak experiences, people can “jump” from a stage-4-configuration to a stage-8-configuration. For several hours, days, or months, the world is experienced differently. Then, the energy is consumed, and the configuration gets back to its center of gravity.
What is the differentiating marker between someone stabilized in a configuration, and someone who is temporary there? In my opinion, the main element is the associated emotion. For a person habituated in stage 8, maybe the everyday feeling is tranquility, because the body-mind is accustomed to this configuration, and there is no need for spikes of energy, such as bliss or joy. A person who temporarily accesses the stage 8 configuration usually floats there on a euphoric energy spike. There is also the possibility of briefly embracing versions of inner peace in any stage, through the non-conceptual self, which is available at any stage, at any moment.
Even after a stage is habituated, a regression of the ego center-of-gravity to a less complex stage may happen, due to stressful life events. In these situations, the ego returns to the last stable configuration. I think of this as a positive defense mechanism.
“Ego Development Stage Does Not Predict Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience” is a PhD thesis by Jeffery Martin, where he concluded that for accessing a unitive conscious experience, a person doesn’t have to reach a post-autonomous stage of ego development. Martin uses the term “non-symbolic” to refer to a range of experiences known as nondual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experiences, peak experiences, transcendental experience, unity consciousness, union with God. This idea was suggested by Combs and Wilber, who proposed that non-symbolic experiences are accessible across a wide range of developmental levels, directly challenging the orthodox view that they represented “higher” developmental levels.
Jeffery Martin introduced 3 types of non-symbolic experiences, based on their length: Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience (having the experience for more than a year), Ongoing Non-symbolic Experience (below one year), Temporary Non-Symbolic Experience (momentary experiences, days, weeks).
He lists the following characteristics of a Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience:
- Persistent shift in your baseline state away from anxiety, fear, worries, etc. to a fundamental sense that everything is okay
- Fundamental ‘okayness’ or contentment
- Sense that you don’t need to add anything to yourself, but that its okay to explore
- Reduced or eliminated mental chatter
- Increased or total freedom from thoughts impacting mood
- Increased or total focus on Now, rather than painful pasts and anxious futures
- Increased mental capacity/improved decision making and problem solving
- Increased sense of connectedness and possibility
- ‘Life Flow’ instead of ‘Task Flow’
Jeffery Martin grouped the non-symbolic experiences in 4 “locations”, based on various criteria including sense of self (sense of agency), cognition, emotion, perception, memory.
“The first hypothesis was that individuals who self-report persistent nonsymbolic experience would be found to exhibit a range of psychological developmental levels, specifically tested here as ego development using the Washington University Sentence Completion Test (WUSCT). This hypothesis was supported. The data showed that participants who self-report persistent nonsymbolic experience do not all score at the highest stage of ego development, but rather across a range of developmental stages (5-Self Aware to 10-Unitive)…
It is possible that the decades of work on this measure by researchers like Cook-Greuter have succeeded in detecting a category that appears to match descriptions of persistent non-symbolic experience but have not yet reached the point where participants can be correctly placed in it. It is also possible that no measure involving language may accurately detect persistent non-symbolic experience. However, the amount of work put in to the Washington University Sentence Completion Test by Cook-Greuter and others and their success in creating a category that seems to match the experience must be recognized. It is more likely, as Cook- Greuter suggests, that what is being reported here are different phenomena.”
In transformational counseling, the counselor has to be at least on the same ego development stage as the client, or on a more complex one, to understand their client’s transformation. This is also valid for therapists and psychiatrists: if a client has an experience of ego deconstruction, and the experts are not themselves in a post-autonomous stage, they will be unable to see the big picture and the therapeutic approach will not be ok.
In her explorations on nondual psychotherapy, Kaissa Puhakka writes:
“those who have tasted the natural wellbeing associated with a momentary disappearance of the self may try to recapture it, and if they are therapists, perhaps set up conditions that could bring it about for their clients as well. Such efforts, however, proceed from the standpoint of the self as a distinct and enduring identity. From that standpoint, the disappearance of the self—nonduality–is something to be captured or attained by some sort of technique or spiritual practice. The one who is doing the capturing or attaining is, of course the very self that constitutes itself, paradoxically, in the very act of trying to capture or attain. Many spiritual practitioners have found themselves dead-ended in this paradox…. The practitioner, hoping to “go into” nonduality, “gets into” trying to dissolve the self instead. But the self cannot dissolve itself. It cannot really even allow itself to dissolve, for that, too, sets up a duality between the one doing the allowing and the state that is supposed to be achieved by doing it. Notice how “allowing” can be a mental attitude that fixates the self”.
Working with post-autonomous transformation is quite unusual, because the counselor has to abandon their own ego, as the client experiences an ego-death/change. Otherwise, the counselor will unconsciously “fixate” the client’s ego, and this would stop the transformation process. That’s why for people in psychotic episodes, the classical therapeutic approach does not work. In these situations, the therapeutic approach is rather an unconditional presence, which doesn’t require the establishment of a “rapport” between the counselor and the client..
Kaissa Puhakka: ‘”Nothing is required of the other in nondual presence—not even that the other be present. The last point is very subtle and its significance is easy to miss. I had missed it for many years without, of course, realizing that I had missed it. As a therapist, I felt my job was to help my clients to be present with me. I tried to use the relationship with my clients therapeutically, to bring them into presence through relationship with me. Then one day I realized that I had been working on an assumption all along. This assumption was that I could not be in contact with my clients unless they were in contact with me. That contact is mutual and reciprocal seemed intuitively compelling, and so I had never questioned it, never even realized that I had accepted it as a premise to “come from” into the therapy work.
But one day I realized it, and the realization freed me up to be present and connected unconditionally, regardless of whether my client was present “with me.” My fixation around reciprocal presence was unraveled and my self was free to “go into” nonduality in the presence of another, to be in full contact with her even when she was not with me. Nondual presence has no requirement for reciprocity. It did not require me to withdraw from it because my client did. It did not require me to be or do anything. And just as important, it did not require anything of my client. I had “understood” before that nonduality is unconditional and requires nothing. But now that understanding had a new depth and a new presence in the therapy room”.
During inner growth journeys, validation is useful. “You’re not great until someone says you are” explains the theory of social validation. In my occasional transformational counseling practice, I paid attention to validate the persons I was working with, by acknowledging the shifts they made. But usually, this is what happens: when a person gets an upgrade, in the first days, they meet the same friends, and often they cannot see the change in real-time. They unconsciously “fixate” the old ego, not validating the changes that have just happened. If the change is a vertical one, and no friend is on that stage of complexity, there is no one around to validate the transformation. Validation gives us stability and trust that we are on the right path.
It seems that it is good to find someone who can “see” that we have changed, that we are “awake” in a new way. It was useful for me to occasionally announce my life partner that something has changed in me, and what is was, and I asked her a few times to be careful with me, not to unconsciously reinforce my old ego.
Depersonalization reflects a change in the locus of identity. In the inner growth journeys, depersonalization may relate to the activation of the witnessing awareness, the ability to observe and witness the entire body-mind as a system. When it first appears, there is a shift in the locus of identity: people see themselves as if from outside, and the entire life looks like a dream. When the persons are stuck in this state, usually fearing the new experience, and they don’t have a protective environment around, they may end up by getting a psychiatric label, instead of being happy about the newly opened doors.
Depersonalization disorder consists of persistent or recurrent feelings of being detached from one’s body or mental processes, usually with a feeling of being an outside observer of one’s life. In The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, depersonalization is often categorized as a reaction to severe stress. The DSM-IV conceptualizes depersonalization as a dissociative disorder, and dissociation is a typical response to trauma. The DSM-IV also lists depersonalization as an element of posttraumatic stress disorder and think of depersonalization as a coping mechanism.
The type of attention that is associated with depersonalization is the diffuse-objective type. In Les Fehmi’s description:
“The diffuse focus-objective mode of attention is one in which multisensory experience is simultaneously and objectively present, a potentially vast multidimensional objective awareness. An array of objective sensations hang suspended in the midst of a more general diffuse awareness of space. Playing in a band, appreciating a panoramic sunset, going for a walk or driving a car – these are among the activities for which an appropriate relational strategy may emphasize diffuse focus-objective attention”. It is like watching all that happens without being involved in it, and that can create the illusion of a kind of “depersonalization”.
In the inner growth process, the temporary experiences of depersonalization are just glimpses of the non-conceptual mode of being. “Depersonalization” can begin as an external observation, and gradually the observer experience can trigger the activation of witnessing awareness mode.
Image by Jeff Carreira, http://philosophyisnotaluxury.com/
There are two main developmental paths available to us: the Growing Up path is about learning to harmonize our “Self”, while the Waking Up path is about adding new depths and facets to our conscious experience of “Being”. An important task of my research was to introduce a conceptual link between these two approaches, using an expanded definition of the conscious experience.
Below I describe these two paths, using a comparative model inspired by Ken Wilber:
- Growing Up Paths. Inner Growth Journeys:
Conventional perspective (western psychology), oriented toward creating a healthy ego/self.
Key words: ego development stages, mature personality, shadow topics, multiple intelligences.
Interpretation of the spiritual experiences, levels of development, from “me” to “integral”.
- Waking Up Paths. Awakening Journeys:
Contemplative approaches (eastern spirituality), oriented toward a better connection with “the source”.
Key words: true self, unified self, authentic self, meditative traditions, awakening.
Direct experience, perceptual (meta-perceptual), opening to multidimensional awareness.
The Growing Up path, operationalized in the CQ-i as “Inner Growth”, includes traits, skills and abilities related to the evolution of personality, paradigm shifts, unlearning and learning (through pain or by open learning), openness, the language updating process, accepting criticism, abandoning old perspectives and embracing new ones, noticing resistance to change, learning after peak experiences, detecting the cognitive biases related to learning (e.g., confirmation bias), resilience, awareness of one’s level of development (e.g., using ego development theory), and an ability to sustain new patterns of thinking/feeling while old habits slowly lose their grip (awareness of the process of neuroplasticity).
Ikigai, a wonderful Japanese concept, may generate useful insights during the inner growth journeys. I also like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
How long does it take to transform vertically? Nobody knows for sure, maybe a good estimation would be 5 years from one stage to another, if the circumstances are favorable and the person is open to change. And a minimum of two years, if the person is included in a special transformative process focused primarily on stages of ego development (such as the Terri O’Fallon’s program at Pacific Integral).
From my experience, people who decide to take the “positive disintegration” approach advance more rapidly through transitions, but they also need time for integration. Now, taking into consideration that we need 1 to 8 months to change a habit, and we have to change many habits of thinking, feeling and sensing, I would say that at least 1-2 years are needed for the integration of a new global perspective. But it all depends on the transformational potential and the life context. If the person decides to take the hero’s journey, and has a life-context that allows for this, then in 5 years it is possible to get a glimpse about the next levels. However, life is not only about having a mature structure of the ego; life is also about deepening the connection with life, awakening to new perceptions, and exploring experiences, all sorts of experiences.
Can ”unconscious” patterns and content become conscious? Yes, the process of inner growth is about re-programming the automatic patterns of feeling-sensing-thinking-doing-being. In the spirit of modern psychology, I prefer to use “automatic” functioning instead of “unconscious”, as it better relates to the subjective experience of change.
The process of inner growth is a large-scale re-programming of all these automatic patterns. Some automatic structures of the psyche are available for re-programming easily, some of them aren’t, due to the self-defenses that make us negate, reject or simply ignore some experiences and their significance. This unseen content is what psychologists call “the shadow”. Accessing the shadow and allowing its content to contribute again to the conscious experience is a necessary step for development.
Switching from automatic pilot to conscious functioning requires an in-depth exploration of our ways of being and interacting, and usually it takes many years. It is as if the person opens all the past memory systems-of-engrams, re-explores the situation, re-arranges the content by including the ignored content, re-frames the significance of the engram, and then close the engram and let it participate again in the daily conscious experience, without paying attention to it. During the inner growth process, we all discover blind spots in our autobiographical memories. Eventually, after years of practice, there are no more (significant) blind spots.
How to re-program the patterns? First, we need to notice the patterns. There are two ways of noticing the patterns: post-event (after it happens) or during the event (witnessing while they happen). I think an active self-reflection is essential (with the help of a counselor, or not). After witnessing awareness is trained, people can notice their patterns in real-time, and that leads to an acceleration of the growth process. Although, sometimes it feels like “letting go, to be re-written by the harmony around”.
During re-programming times, it is good to keep in touch with harmony by keeping good contact with nature, listening to inspirational music, or just being silent and watching the birds. Besides, trusting the process and allowing new patterns to emerge is the right attitude. While reinventing us, a common fear is related to our own disintegration. The ego cannot let its decay to take place. The intention “I am allowing myself to disintegrate” is itself a more subtle way to keep the ego in-place, to maintain the ego “integrity”. To relax the ego, this process needs to unfold without expecting anything. Evolution happens naturally, if we let go, and let it.
A technique that can be used in various moments of the day is asking myself the question “why I do this?”, or, set up a daily reminder with the question “why I do this?” on a computer or mobile phone.
Some principles for working with automatic patterns are described by Matt James, in an article published in Psychology Today, with the title “Conscious of the Unconscious”:
“The unconscious mind preserves the body: One of its main objectives is the survival of your physical body. It will fight anything that appears to be a threat to that survival. So if you want to change a behavior more easily, show your unconscious how that behavior is hurting your body
Runs the body: rather than telling the unconscious what perfect health looks like, try asking it what it knows and what you need for better health.
Is like a 7-year old child: needs very clear directions, and takes your instructions very literally. Therefore, if you say, “This job is a pain in the neck,” your unconscious will figure out a way to make sure that your neck hurts at work! The unconscious is also very “moral” in the way a young child is moral, which means it is based on the morality taught and accepted by your parents or surroundings. So if you were taught, “sex is nasty,” your unconscious will still respond to that teaching even after your conscious mind has rejected it.
Communicates through emotion and symbols: To get your attention, the unconscious uses emotions. For example, if you suddenly feel afraid, your unconscious has detected (rightly or wrongly) that your survival is at risk.
Stores and organizes memories: The unconscious decides where and how your memories are stored. It may hide certain memories (such as traumas) that have strong negative emotions until you are mature enough to process them consciously. When it senses that you are ready (whether you consciously think you are or not!), it will bring them up so you can deal with them.
Does not process negatives: The unconscious absorbs pictures rather than words. So if you say, “I don’t want to procrastinate,” the unconscious generates a picture of you procrastinating. Switching that picture from the negative to the positive takes an extra step. Better to tell your unconscious, “Let’s get to work!”
Makes associations and learns quickly: To protect you, the unconscious stays alert and tries to glean the lessons from each experience. For example, if you had a bad experience in school, your unconscious may choose to lump all of your learning experiences into the “this is not going to be fun” category. It will signal you with sweaty palms and anxiety whenever you attempt something new. But if you do well in sports, your unconscious will remember that “sports equals success” and you’ll feel positive and energized whenever physical activity comes up.”
De-automatization involves a new way of being, a new skill: the ability to observe the defenses and to skip using them. Allowing all kinds of experiences to flow through us is a natural way to integrate and accept them. Interpreting the experiences we don’t like as “negative” is a choice that stops the development process.
Working with the shadow is a part of the archetypal exploration of the psyche. In Jungian-Senoi Dreamwork methodology, developed by Strephon Kaplan-Williams, working with “adversity” archetype is useful in order to gain a balanced archetypal structure.
Fear is a natural response to intense “adversity”, and it takes some time to accept the fears and to connect with adversity. Sometimes the masculine-hero energy is needed, sometimes the feminine-hero is necessary. I prefer to look at fears as “versions” of reality, so that the negative can be explored as a polarity.
A method I used, for exploring some deep automatic patterns, was to immerse deeply in content, in a ceremonial way. For example, when I wanted to explore a fear, I allowed some time (hours-days) when I let my mind and emotions to wander freely in contact with the content. During that time I was writing, dancing, drawing, going to work, allowing what was coming. In this ceremonial approach, setting a “lifeline” for coming back is necessary. We need a person who can bring us back to real life if the content is overwhelming. This full immersion in the automatic content is a powerful and effective way to get in contact with the rejected or ignored content, but it needs a lot of hero energy to do it. And a safe place, so that one would be able to scream or dance naked if they wish to, without any anxious neighbors around to call the emergency line.
Spiritual bypass is a term coined by John Welwood to describe a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.
In an interview, Welwood explains,
“when we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits…
Trying to move beyond our psychological and emotional issues by sidestepping them is dangerous. It sets up a debilitating split between the buddha and the human within us. And it leads to a conceptual, one-sided kind of spirituality where one pole of life is elevated at the expense of its opposite: Absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling.”
A better conceptualization of this phenomenon may be “spiritual-framework absorption” (my thanks to Thomas Jordan[36b] for suggesting this conceptual positioning). What happens is that sometimes, the search for transcendence may lead to energy openings that need to be framed in some way, and using a spiritual framework may be the only way of coping with this positive increase in overall quality of experience. The biases emerging from absorption into spiritual framework may include “compulsive goodness, repression of undesirable or painful emotions, spiritual narcissism, extreme external locus of control, spiritual obsession or addiction, blind faith in charismatic leaders, abdication of personal responsibility, and social isolation”
An example of a perspective bias specific to spiritual-framework absorption is the idea that “thoughts are just thoughts, observe them, but don’t pay attention to them”, when the meditation-perspective is used outside the context of meditation practice. In our everyday life, our emotions and thoughts are useful, as they direct our attention to the topics that we need to connect to.
A growth mindset could include openness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, accepting criticism, accepting paradoxes, the frequent usage of “I don’t know (yet)”. All these need to be fueled on a daily basis when the conscious transformation-wave begins, and in time, they will provide an automatic framework for facilitating the inner growth.
Authenticity and radical honesty with ourselves are necessary, to integrate the subpersonalities and to create a workspace for our unconscious information to manifest. We could ask ourselves “Is this what I am really experiencing, or this is just a frame I created for myself, a personal veil that I put on automatically?. “Can I use some other words that are more related to my inner experience?”. “Am I labeling the experience using my actual mindset, or am I using an old mindset that is blocking me from experiencing the present moment?”
Unconditional acceptance of life is also necessary, although to me, this concept looks a bit over feminized by the spiritual / new age approaches. I would add some masculine in this: there are moments when we need to fight and be a hero, and not accept the actual status quo. We also need social activism and setting the limits in relation to some people around us.
In the inner growth journeys, we must defeat their psychological inertia and modify the inner defense mechanisms that maintain ego stability. The ego is a consequence of evolution, that’s why the process of changing is not gratified by nature with joy, but with fear and frustration. Some people tend to see this inertia as a negative aspect, or negative energies, that “attack them”. Some negative emotions are emotions resulted from the system inertia, which naturally defends the ego. But, there are also positive emotions (e.g. enthusiasm), released as an evolutionary support to overcome the inertia.
A lesson that I’ve learned is to stop trying to completely solve an issue that appeared during inner growth journeys. I realized that each issue is, in fact, multi-layered, and has multiple causes. Usually, it takes more than one cycle of exploration to solve a problem. An issue may repeat, each time with another facet, depending on the actual level of understanding and harmony. Even if we use the mind-heart powers of discrimination, some issues are so intricate and related with other topics, that the only way to solve them for good is to grow up as a whole and become more mature with our entire being.
During inner growth, everyone has times of high sensitivity. The term “highly sensitive person”, as used by Dr. Elaine Aron has four main attributes: depth of processing; over aroused (easily compared to others); emotional reactivity and high empathy; and sensitivity to subtle stimuli. When people work with their emotional system using witnessing awareness, they discover new depths of sensitivity, experiencing full empathy and full connections with the target of the attentional stream.
Kazimierz Dabrowski developed an interesting approach in the theory of positive disintegration:
“Dabrowski’s theoretical framework views psychological tension, anxiety, and depression as necessary for growth. He addresses five types of hyperexcitability: psychomotor (physical response to stimuli, often seen as hyperactivity); emotional (emotional hypersensitivity); imaginative/imaginational (intense fantasy life that sometimes disrupts reality); sensory/sensual (sensory hypersensitivity); mental/intellectual (Highly active mind, or an exaggerated search for explanations and a tendency to intellectualize problems in everyday life).
The person with a higher potential for development will experience growth as a loosening of the stable psychic structure accompanied by symptoms of “psychoneuroses”. Dabrowski called this process positive disintegration, he declares that psychoneurosis is not an illness and he insists that psychotherapy is automatic when the person is conscious of his development.”
“To Dabrowski, real therapy is autopsychotherapy; it is the self being aware of the self through a long inner investigation; a mapping of the inner environment. There are no techniques to eliminate symptoms because the symptoms constitute the very psychic richness from which grows an increasing awareness of body, mind, humanity and cosmos. Without intense and painful introspection and reflection, development is unlikely. Psychoneurotic symptoms should be embraced and transformed into anxieties about human problems of an ever-higher order. If psychoneuroses continue to be classified as mental illness, then perhaps it is a sickness better than health”
I found his theory very useful for understanding what happens inside the people with a higher transformation potential, who decide to allow themselves to be transformed deeply. For these people, there is no try. Only do. Or do not.
A perspective I like is related to how much energy we have to invest in the process of transformation. I found a nice explanation in a blog post by Steve Bearman “Depression, Anxiety, and the Mismanagement of Aliveness”. In Steve’s vision, depression and anxiety are polarities of aliveness, the force of life that lives through all of us. He wrote:
“Imagine depression and anxiety as opposite poles on a spectrum. Depression is characterized by a lack: low energy, low motivation, less meaning, less pleasure. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a kind of overabundance: too much energy, restlessness, hypervigilance, overactive thoughts… Aliveness is the key to the entire system of depression and anxiety. Instead of asking what to do about depression, find out how to come more fully to life, how to liberate aliveness when it gets trapped. Instead of asking what to do about anxiety, learn how to withstand the relentless intensity of being alive”.
For Steve, depression and anxiety are fundamental human experiences, because being alive is something we all need to learn. “The old paradigm, by framing depression and anxiety as illnesses, has freed us from self-blame. An illness is no one’s fault. It is no one’s fault if they don’t yet have access to all the aliveness they need. It is no one’s fault if they are overwhelmed by the aliveness they experience. These are challenges everyone eventually faces. We all need help to master aliveness. We can all help one another.”
The concept of “self-directed neuroplasticity” means that we can intentionally change some functioning of our brain with our minds. We can embrace new ways of being just by thinking and feeling them in our mind, visualizing how we want to be. Because of this stimulation, repeated over time, the brain will create new neural connections, and the anticipated experience can become real.
It takes between 1-8 months to do this, according to some researchers. During this interval, the old patterns and the new ways of being-thinking-feeling-sensing-acting exist simultaneously. During this intermediate times, there is a method that works well: focus your attention on what new you wish to create, not on what you want to change. This is what is needed to reinforce the new neural connections. With time, old patterns, that are not used anymore, will disappear, and the new ones, cultivated with care, will become the default mode.
Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist interested in self-directed neuroplasticity, says that the way we think can produce temporary changes in your brain and later lasting ones, according to the principle “neurons that fire together wire together”. Building new synapses in the brain through intention is incremental, and the key is attention: “neuroplasticity is heightened for what’s in the field of focused awareness, attention is also like a vacuum cleaner, sucking its contents into the brain. Directing attention skillfully is therefore a fundamental way to shape the brain – and one’s life over time”. However, it all depends on daily practice. The new synapses need to be sustained on a regular basis, until they become permanent, or they will be lost.
When working with visualizations to create new synapses, we need to engage emotionally in the experiences we want to have, not just to think of what we want. That’s why when doing visualizations, it is important to imagine how we want to sense and feel, and to imagine them as if we already lived the experience. The richer the visualization is, the more complex synapses are forming in the brain.
Neuroplasticity also happens when we begin to live new experiences on a regular basis, e.g. doing meditation to calm down the mind. But there seems to be a limitation to neuroplasticity: our brain creates new networks, indeed, but all these configurations are dependent on the context in which they were created. If we do meditation in the meditation room, the new patterns will be 100% available only when we are in the meditation room. That’s why spiritual traditions also say that spiritual practice must be done all the time. In hesychasm, they say the prayer of the heart needs to happen all the time in the disciple, not just during the ceremonies.
Daily practice is also essential for changing our default brain setting from “reactive-survival” mode to “responsive-natural” mode, allowing us more choice for the way we live our experiences. Although it is considered an outdated theory, the triune brain theory shows that we have three modes of functioning, the reptilian brain which is reactive and reflexive, the mammalian brain which is related to emotions and social behavior, and the human cortex which takes care of the abstract thinking, language, empathy and cooperative planning. When not threatened, these systems create an experience of calm (reptilian), contented (mammalian) and caring (cortex). In its natural mode, the brain is responsive and creative, and we feel gratitude, peace and love. We need to learn to skip the “reactive-survival” mode in our daily life, leading to ignorance and suffering, and to stimulate and sustain the responsive mode.
How to rewire each mode of the brain? As a general advice, Rick Hanson mentions the following actions: seeing clearly; have compassion for yourself; take life less personally; take in the good; deepen equanimity. These are Rick’s advises for educating each brain mode:
- Reptilian (avoid system): cool the fires; recognize paper tigers; tolerate risking the dreaded experience.
- Mammalian brain (the approach system): be glad; appreciate your resources; give over to your best purposes.
- Cortex (attach system): sense the suffering in others; be kind; act with unilateral virtue.
I don’t think that we necessarily need a teacher or a master during the inner growth process. The master-disciple relation is just a way of learning, among many other ways. I think that emotionally relating to a teacher while still using critical thinking is the right way, especially for people who want to transition to post-conventional configurations.
Moreover, I don’t think that abandoning the mind to the “inner master” (that is supposed to have intuitive powers), is always a right choice. Until the psyche has been harmonized, “cognitive intuition” is not a certified access to the inner knowledge. Until the psyche has not undergone a “cleaning” through personal work, the information we call “intuition” is just as biased as our usual psyche. We may have the sensation of being free while intuition happens, but this is just a sensation of being free from the ego chains.
Until we clean the doors of perception and the windows of mind, the “felt” or “sensed” answer when asking our heart or our body is biased by our unbalanced configuration. In my opinion, the best “inner master” is the collective. But, as there is no way to access its wisdom directly, we need an ego to translate it, we need a feeling-thinking-sensing configuration to deliver the message. If we are blue, we will receive “”blueish” translations. If we are “light itself”, we will receive “lightly” information. There is no such thing as a perfect translator. We are all biased by our own configurations.
As an overview, I don’t think that there is a “collective perfect wisdom”. Earth is a collective organism with its intelligence still developing, so, listening to our most profound sources of information is just listening to the current status-quo of our collective psyche. If I want to find an answer or a solution, I listen to my ego but also to my automatic or unconscious functioning, I listen to what my “gut” and instincts tell me, I take into consideration what my feelings tell me. For me, intuitions are just valuable choices, not “the right” option.
The “channeling” phenomenon is a side effect of this intuitive-like connection with our own reservoir of information. Bashar, for example, can channel the information from his psyche only when he enacts one of his subpersonalities, and the other identities are silent. For me, his ego has an inability to integrate these grand ideas about himself and the world. After all, he could say, “Hey world, look how wonderful I think you are! Let’s think freely and dream big!”, without playing the “smart alien drama” Instead, his ego hijacked this process of connecting to the collective mind. He prefers to be a “chosen one”, instead of being just a human, with a brilliant mind. But, I do like Bashar’s ideas about goodness and being a human, he adds a nice diversity in our daily life.
Once I met a person who had an out-of-body experience, and since then, his transformation process continued. In his daily life, he is a successful businessman. But he feels like there is a great wisdom within him, that can only be shared through writing, not speaking. His configuration adapted to this interconnectedness-awakening, by creating a “white and pure” subpersonality, in contrast to the daily ego configuration, which is stressful. Here is what his “lightly” subpersonality told me in an e-mail, when I asked how the collective mind works:
“If you want to know about the collective minds, think about an ocean. How many drops do you think are in all oceans together? If you are a drop in that ocean, do you think you easily can communicate with all the other drops? I think you believe you can, but how shall you know who is who, the drops seems to be one ocean? The answer is easy to say, but difficult to do. The answer is that you are one with all the others. When you feel that you are one with all the others, you are they. When you are them, you feel them all as many different thoughts“.
Now, isn’t that a nice piece of wisdom? I think it’s good that people are delivering these messages to the world. Perhaps in time they will be able to allow themselves to be great all the time, not only when they are “channeled” by some wise-looking information.
I would like to comment a bit about nondual teachers. I like a lot some approaches (e.g. ShantiMayi), and I do not like others (e.g. Tolle or Mooji). It is not the teachings that I do not like, it’s their methods that I don’t like. E.g. I think that Mooji creates unconscious emotional conditioning in his disciples, by showing himself as a wise guru. And the vibe is like, “you are already light”, but unconsciously, the message is “you still need to come to meet me, to be the light”, and there is the idea of “wake up! wake up!” and the followers are always in the cognitive mode of “searching” for something.
Of course, the devotional atmosphere is opening our hearts, and I like Omkara’s songs. However, the unconscious energy is mostly “remember who you are”, instead of “you already are what you need to be”. The emotional flow is not “you are here-now, go home and enjoy life”, but rather, an emotional longing for being here-now. During this longing, there is no ego, and the person feels free. When the longing is no longer active, freedom is gone. And the disciple feels the need to connect with the vibe again, listening to some music or some recordings, or staying all the time with the master.
As a side-observation, I invite you to watch some spiritual teachers and see if they speak about the transformation process in objective terms, like using the first person for their own experience, or second-third person. For example, Tolle says many times, “you are”, “you do”… e.g. “some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.” Of course, this is the standard public speaking training but, to me, his inner self is talking to himself. I mean, he seems unaware that, from the vantage point where he looks to be, the teaching style is not appropriate. Looks like Maya is so good that it hides Tolle from Tolle.
From a psychological perspective, many spiritual communities are promoting a weak ego and total abandonment into perceptions and sensations, in order to “feel” the divine essence. What I learned from transpersonal psychology is that one needs a healthy ego before being able to abandon it. The ego needs to be fully developed, and later, in the post-autonomous stages, it becomes possible to relax its grip. Prematurely abandoning the ego grip may lead to psychosis. In other words, personal development is needed, before the transpersonal development can begin.
In his book Rational Mysticism (2003), John Horgan explored the human nature of some enlightened people. Here is a description of Andrew Cohen, among others,
“Cohen describes enlightenment as a form of not-knowing. And yet his guruhood, his entire life, revolves around his belief in—his knowledge of–his own unsurpassed perfection. To borrow a phrase, Cohen is a super-egomanic. His casual contempt for us ordinary, egotistical humans is frightening, as is his belief that, as an enlightened being who has transcended good and evil, he can do no harm… If Cohen settled for being human instead of perfect, he’d probably be a better teacher, and a better man”.
Time showed that Horgan was right.
In my opinion, if used ceremonially, for getting personal insights, entheogens produce beneficial effects. For me, they are tools that have opened many doors of perception.
“Set and setting” plus intention are the key elements that can make the psychedelic experience a sacred one. “Set” refers to the psychological configuration of the journeyer; “setting” is the context where the experience takes place. Like the lyrics of a song, “You can be whatever you want when you’re high”, but after the high is over it takes constant work of personal development to access the new configuration all the time, not only when high or in an altered state of consciousness.
“On programming psychedelic experience”, an article written by Ralph Metzner and Timothy Leary concisely explains how the mind can be reprogrammed to support the process of personal development.
Regarding the aliens, as seen in the psychedelic visions, a valid explanation is offered by James Kent, a researcher of mystical experiences induced by DMT. He explains how the patterns of the visual imagery during DMT-induced states are based on fractal patterns. In the introduction to his book Psychedelic Information Theory. Shamanism in the Age of Reason, he wrote: “the book is a formal deconstruction of psychedelic hallucination, expanded consciousness, and shamanism, and as such it attempts to move topics which have traditionally been classified as metaphysics into fields of physics and mathematics”. He presents arguments that the aliens/angels people see during DMT states are nothing more than their own imagery, based on physiology. In a comment on Sex, Drugs, Einstein, & Elves he wrote:
“I think in general people like to romanticize the DMT state and make it more than it is because they desperately want there to be a hidden hyperspatial world filled with mischievous sprites and god-like entities. However, when one closely studies the experience over and over again over time you come to see that a lot of the romanticized notions are not what is actually happening in the state, and people tend to “editorialize” the content of the experience in hindsight in order to make it into something more than what it actually is.”
Christina and Stanislav Grof have introduced the concept of “spiritual emergency” or psycho-spiritual crises in order to describe some moments of dramatic transformations. Stanislav Grof wrote:
“many of the conditions, which are currently diagnosed as psychotic and indiscriminately treated by suppressive medication, are actually difficult stages of a radical personality transformation and of spiritual opening. If they are correctly understood and supported, these psychospiritual crises can result in emotional and psychosomatic healing, remarkable psychological transformation, and consciousness evolution”.
He lists some types of experiences that can be considered as spiritual emergencies: Shamanic crisis; Awakening of Kundalini; Episodes of unitive consciousness (Maslow’s “peak experiences”); Psychological renewal through return to the center (John Perry); Crisis of psychic opening; Past-life experiences; Communication with spirit guides and “channeling”; Near-death experiences (NDEs); Close encounters with UFOs and alien abduction experiences; Possession states; Alcoholism and drug addiction.
Since the introduction of the “Religious or Spiritual Problem” in DSM-IV, this perspective is expanding slowly to the mainstream psychiatry, too slow I would say. Spiritual crises are natural responses to unusual life circumstances, happening during inner growth process.
On the topic of spiritual emergency, I highly recommend some documentaries: ”Bipolar or waking up” by Sean Blackwell, Open Dialogue, describing the amazing work of Jakko Sekkula and his team in Finland, and Healing Homes, about the Family Care Foundation in Sweden. David Lukoff’s website on ”spiritual competency” and the spiritual emergency network are beneficial for advanced reading.
For the therapists and the families of people who go through these transformations, there is an excellent handbook by Courtenay Young – ”First contacts with people in crisis & spiritual emergency”. He writes:
“Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is all to do with someone else. Yes, they may be having a crisis, even a spiritual one, but it will almost inevitably affect you as well, and thus some of this material will become part of your process, your life, your transformation. Your reactions will reverberate with them and facilitate or hinder their process; and you will also affect others. The ripples spread once the stone has been dropped in the pond. And how we use this material is also very important. We can view our glass as half-full, or half-empty. A crisis can be an opportunity, a side-track, or a disaster”.
Courtenay Young has a small residence where takes care of people in spiritual emergencies. His book is based on his experience of working for 17 years as a residential psychotherapist at the Findhorn Foundation, a spiritual and educational community of about 1,000 persons, in the north-east of Scotland.
Centers such as Diabasis, developed by John Weir Perry, have shown that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can be “treated”, if the transformation process is carried on. People can get un-stuck from the symbolic world, if the symbolic journey is completed, and the reconstruction of the new ego begins.
The story of John Weir Perry is amazing:
“He was a Jungian psychiatrist who founded an experimental residential facility called Diabasis, in San Francisco, California, during the 1970s. This was designed as a comfortable home where young adults, who were experiencing the initial days of their first “acute schizophrenic break”, could live in and be empowered to go through their Apocalypse on the way to greater health and happiness. The results were amazing: without any treatment by medication, electroshock or locked doors – but with opportunities for painting, dance, massage, meditation and conversation – full-blown “schizophrenics” were able to go through their ego-death and emerge on the other side, as Perry put it, “weller than well.” Instead of being sent to a mental hospital and/or being expected to taking medication for the rest of their lives, these people would live at Diabasis for the first three months, spend three more months in a half-way home, and then return to the outside world, with few if any relapses of their schizophrenia!”
“What we did at Diabasis was specifically to set up what we hoped would be the most ideal, least toxic (smile), least damaging environment for a person in the visionary state. First off, this means a home. You need a place with friendly, sympathetic individuals who live there. These people have to be companions, have to be willing to listen and not be frightened and not be judgmental about it, and not try to do anything to anybody. One has to let the visionary process unfold itself spontaneously. Under such conditions, to our surprise, we found that our clients got into a clear space very quickly!
We had started out with the notion that we would surely be in for a lot of bedlam with all this “madness” going on, but actually, the opposite was true! People would come in just a crazy as could be on the first day or two, but they would settle down very soon into a state of coherency and clarity. Often, when I would come in for a consultation at the end of the week, I would see someone who had been admitted in a completely freaked-out state just a few days before, sitting at the dinner table indistinguishable from anybody else; sometimes I couldn’t tell if this was a new member of the staff, or one of our clients. The calming effect of a supportive environment is truly amazing!”.
For Perry “schizophrenia” is a self-healing process, and the reason why we have “chronic schizophrenia” diagnostics is in fact a cultural issue; it is the society’s negative response to what is actually a perfectly natural and healthy process, sometimes including visionary experiences.“What makes this visionary state appear so very psychotic is that an individual with a paranoid ideology or ideation tends to identify with everything that comes up from below, and one is very apt to get confused”.
“[At Diabasis ] the whole environment was organized into various “spaces.” One of these – a -very important one – was called the rage room. This was soundproofed and padded, for the individual’s own protection, and we put things in there that they could whack to pieces like old cottons and mattresses. But the door was not locked; it was not like the padded cell in the mental hospital, where the person is isolated against his will… We set it up so that if a client was having strong feelings of rage, he or she could share it with a staff member, particularly the counselor or primary therapist, and thus deliver it. This was found meaningful.
The anger is a very important part of the growth of the ego, you see. We also had the opposite: a room for quietness and meditation. This was equally important, for integrative purposes. We had an art room, but I must say, people didn’t seem to spend much time there (chuckle). These so-called “sensitive personalities” were all hanging around the dining room table, doing watercolors or modeling in clay, and giving creative expression to some of the imagery inside their head. We also had a sand tray and figurines for sand play therapy. It works like a dream: you set up a dramatic scene, move the figurines, or tell a story. This avenue of expression is easier than painting. It’s very dreamlike, so it hits the visionary state very well. We also had poetry… Another thing we provided was a variety of body movement sessions, dance and martial arts, with skilled facilitators. And finally, we had interviews at least three of four times a week, for an hour and a half to two hours each, with the primary counselor/therapist. But really all of these creative outlets put together became part of the interview itself – verbal expression combined with image expression in these various media. Now throughout all this there was nothing scheduled, nothing mandatory. It was all informal. We’d just respond to things as they came up.
Our only house rule really was “No violence to property or persons!” The clients could dash out nude into the street if they had to; we didn’t like it, but they did! You see, we wanted them to be in this house of their own free will. They had to realize their own desire to belong in the house, and they did. So this whole approach is essentially one of releasing, rather than suppression. We allowed everything and encouraged its expression – not toward chaos, but toward communication! Communication tends to order. This is a most important point in psychiatry, but the common opinion is that it is very dangerous… When you actually do it, however, you find exactly the opposite is true: people get over their preoccupations very quickly. The whole point here is to deliver the visionary content to somebody and to be able to appreciate its symbolic relevance to the inner process of personal and social renewal. Once it’s delivered, the process keeps moving by itself. It’s really unfortunate there is so much misunderstanding about it all. The truth is really very simple”.
In my opinion, these visionary states are a re-connection with the archetypal levels of the psyche, including culture-related archetypal symbols. And it usually happens before the first ego death. If the person can manage to deal with this first ego death, they can embrace a flexible ego, leading maybe to a moment-to-moment death and rebirth. But, when this relaxation happens for the first time, it is quite a challenge. If the experience happens to a person who is in a supportive group with some knowledge about transpersonal psychology, shamanism or human development, then the person may be helped to transition through the dark night of the soul, to a new configuration.
If the person is in a pre-conventional or conventional environment, the chances are they will frighten everyone around and maybe send to a hospital where they will get a “psychotic” label. It is not easy to hear someone saying: “I am Jesus today”, or “aliens have implanted a transmitter in my brain, and all my thoughts are being transmitted to everyone”. Apparently, these are delusions. To me, they are insights from a new ego, more complex and interconnected, but the individuals are using the old terminology and the thinking structures of the old ego, being unable to make a correct meaning out of the experience.
In an interesting study that explored the styles of education in the families with individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, the researchers discovered, using a questionnaire-based interview, that mothers of male schizophrenics checked more often such items as:
“Children should be taken to and from school until the age of eight just to make sure there are no accidents; A mother should make it her business to know everything her children are thinking; If children are quiet for a little while a mother should immediately find out what they are thinking about; Children should not annoy parents with their unimportant problems; A watchful mother can keep her child out of all accidents; A parent must never make mistakes in front of the child; Parents should sacrifice everything for their children; Children who take part in sex play become sex criminals when they grow up; A child should not plan to enter any occupation that his parents don’t approve of; Some children are just naturally bad; A good way to get children to obey is by giving them presents or promising them treats. Spanking a child does more good than harm”.
Some children manage to escape this coercive atmosphere, some don’t, and their psyche is just coping with the pressure, trying to evolve as a natural instinct. I know a family with two girls, both diagnosed with schizophrenia around the age of 18. The main reason that started the story was… they went out naked in the street and apparently, they lost the coherency of thinking and behaving. I met one of the girls when she was in her twenties, she began to study psychology, in an attempt to prove that she is not mentally ill. Then I found out that her father used to keep her locked in her room, and verbally abusing her and her sister, since their childhood, and their mother was not intervening to protect them.
Schizophrenia is rooted in transgenerational psychological patterns. To facilitate the healing in a person that has schizophrenic symptoms, one must look into the family-style of thinking-feeling-sensing-behaving. Studies showed schizophrenia might be transmitted through generations, in the sense that unbalanced patterns of thinking-feeling-sensing-behaving are transmitted from parents to children. To close the circular evolution and start a vertical transformation, a generation must assume the healing and change their psychological patterns. If not, the transgenerational line will repeatedly produce schizophrenic-like children. These children are not the problem; they are the cure for the transgenerational “lie”. Fortunately, shamans knew this and when a person had the symptoms, they were embracing the change with respect. Looking from this angle, the family tree of the person with schizophrenia will continue to try to heal itself, and the psychospiritual crises will appear again and again in individuals, until the family-tree heals itself.
In the personal development process, integrating past experiences happens both in the body and in mind. Each thinking pattern has a relationship with an energy pattern in the body or in our emotional structure. Just intervening on one side will not produce a stable change. That’s why I think that visualizations, in which people direct energy to heal some parts of the body, produce only placebo effects. To clean the cognitive and emotional imprints in the body, we need to use the body, not to visualize energies in the body.
For me, inhabiting the body had reached a new level of sensibility when I began the contact improvisation classes, a form of dance based on free associations and authentic movement. And the Feldenkrais classes were very useful, helping me reconnect with parts of the body I didn’t imagine that it is possible to be felt.
Rosemarie Anderson describes the evolution of body awareness during the development of the personality in her Body Map theory. She compares the ten stages of body awareness development to the corresponding nine stages of ego development described by Susanne Cook‐Greuter.
Speaking about her model, Rosemarie underlines,
“early axes involve somatic and sensorial enmeshment; middle axes are characterized by increasing differentiation of body, mind, and spirit; and later axes reflect integration and ultimately unification of body, mind, and spirit in awakened consciousness. From a transpersonal perspective, despite our personal preferences, all dimensions of life and death are holy and no one axis is more sacrosanct than another. There is nothing more or less sacred about maintaining one’s safety and well‐being than about full awakened consciousness”.
Connecting with our body is essential in the “symbolic journey” process, when the cognitive energy becomes very powerful, and the connections are so attractive that people tend to detach themselves from their body and from the outer world. Cognitive “enlightenment”, without integrating this experience in the body, very often leads to situations when people temporarily disconnect from the physical world and live only in their minds (in psychology, we call the process “Ego inflation”).
In “Don’t Trust Your Feelings: Somatics and the Pre/Trans Fallacy”, Steve Bearman explores how the somatics can be integrated with a higher development:
“Somatics opens up a new developmental world, especially to people who missed these developmental pieces growing up. It is akin to training a person who has never developed their mind in the arts of perception, memory, logic, language, and lateral thinking. If you have been stuck in your life and stuck in your head, somatics can expand your world. If you have tried to work on yourself in counseling by thinking and talking, but failed to get where you wanted to go, somatics can be the vehicle that gets you there. If the head has been the problem, the body seems like the solution, but it isn’t. This is where the confusion begins. Rationality has its limits, especially when it comes to re-organizing a person’s inner experience, one of the basic goals of counseling. It seems that the way beyond these limits comes from embracing the non-rational, but it isn’t…
Let us, however, let soma be soma and nothing more. It’s so exciting to get our bodies back, and it should be, but taking up permanent residence at the lower levels of human development will not help us to integrate the pre-rational with the rational. Until such an integration occurs, the worthy goal of trans-rational development will be beyond our reach… Development never ends. Transcending rationality, and becoming our larger selves, is a developmental goal many people never reach. Somatics helps us prepare the ground. Don’t confuse it with the sky.”
Carlo Monsanto describes the patterns of the body sensations, produced as a result of some specific emotional flows:
– “Fear-control (controlling): distrust, restless, controlling, tension, stiffness, cramp, contraction, stinging cold/sudden temperature change, electric-like sensation, giddiness, nausea, bloated (aversion)
– Sadness-anger (victimizing): burning, uncomfortable heat, prickly/oversensitive, irritated, swollen, inflammation.
– Rejection-disassociation (isolating): heavy, blocking, pressing, disconnecting, absent, lethargic, too much sleep, constantly feeling tired.
– Powerlessness (paralyzing): a combination of all three pre-emotional responses: feels painful, blocked, tensed. As if paralyzed.”
This is one of the exercises developed by Carlo Monsanto:
“Close your eyes. Begin by noticing everything occurring inside your body. Can you feel the difference between the left and right side of your body? One side may feel heavier or larger, more present or absent, shifted moreforward, up, or down; more or less tense, painful or heavy. Now, witness what you sense in the left side of the body and then the right. Allow yourself to notice all that you can sense physically and emotionally. By being aware of everything, all at once, our mind attaches to “space”. By recognizing and acknowledging what you sense, experience is transformed and the mind becomes quieter. As your mind stops searching for resolution, it calms down. The key here is not to react to, but to recognize and acknowledge what is noticed. Through fully conscious awareness, which is neither internal or external, and a heightened form of discernment, you learn to recognize these inner felt or pre-emotional responses. Be open to see how what you sense and feel is transformed, as you bring more awareness to what you feel. Within your mind and body, notice everything that´s calling your attention. If you feel your emotions are overwhelming, you may also be able to notice that you’re afraid of losing control over whatever you’re not-yet used to “allowing”. Notice if you resist and deny what you are feeling. Go through this process simply noticing and allowing.
Are you able to notice what you think, sense, feel and intuit without “trying” to change or solve it? Our mind remains restless if these pre-emotions are not adequately absorbed by choiceless awareness, which is ever changeless or in stasis. Restlessness disrupts our ability to focus. It makes us feel unsafe and insecure. What’s more, our mistaken sense of reality may make us misinterpret our circumstances and relationships, imagining obstacles where there aren’t any. Notice how you are experiencing from a place that is always open and receptive. As you learn to see “what is” – without the need to change “what is”, you will notice how being a discerning embodied witness reorganizes even the most troublesome responses – forever. While you stop being reactive, you become more self-directed. This is a tried-and-true way to free yourself; to connect and communicate openly with others, integrating (healing) those patterns that tend to disrupt the relationship between people, transforming fear and other patterns into more transparent ways of relating interpersonally.
This illustrates how you can awaken your own awareness to rebalance your mind and body through discernment and pattern recognition, even integrating patterns that tend to disrupt interpersonal relationships. This enables us to communicate more authentically and work together more effectively. When you are free from being influenced by pre-emotional responses, you stop mirroring the world, and acquire freedom of choice. You’ll be able to better manifest what you envision.”
In some people, the process of re-harmonizing the entire being, body and mind, generates a phenomenon known as kundalini awakening (or pranotthana). A person I interacted with had been undergoing this energetic cleaning process for several years, a process that manifested by shaking and spontaneous yoga postures and dances. The person did not know yoga, but the postures that came naturally were perfect yoga positions. The body told her what to do and she simply went with the flow. After identifying a few asanas, I gave up. She didn’t allow me to record her on camera, but I found something similar to her gestures on the internet[58b]. Exploring with this person, I concluded that the phenomenon was an automatic cleaning of emotional blockages in the body. The person had sexual and emotional trauma, which had imprinted itself in the energetic patterns of the body. The spontaneous yoga movements helped her. Sometimes she would move as if she was collecting information from some invisible field and would
position it in some other part of the field.
I found the most detailed explanation of the kundalini awakening experience in Biology of Kundalini, a book by Jana Dixon. I like a lot her clarity, below some excerpts from her research:
“Since kundalini awakening is most often just something that happens, we don’t have a whole lot of say over how “mature” we are when it strikes. However by its very extreme nature, kundalini will force greater maturity and lucid adjustment to reality in order to survive. Along with the sense of danger inherent in the dissolving of ones known self, there is also a buoyant faith that arises from being so lit with Spirit and at one with the Universe. Kundalini arousal and the ongoing development of the nervous system make us more sensitive to the inner and outer worlds. The self-directed force of kundalini purifies accumulated stress caused by our past habits (samskaras) and traumas. Friction and difficulty during awakening occur not so much from the process itself but from our conscious and unconscious interference with it due to not understanding what is going on.
Kundalini burns off much of the primary reactivity imprinted from our family of origin and early life experience. With kundalini the opportunity for change is increased because our neurological slate is wiped relatively clean, but it depends on our will, faith and environment as to how far we can grow. If we do not change our habits to reflect the Self’s true interests, we will continue to rebuild the conditioned reactive self we thought ourselves to be. We spend our entire lives thinking we are an entity that was created by our parents and culture…but are we really that entity? I mean they don’t even know us, they only know their projections of us. The Grail of course is the true Self that is beyond all such imposition.”
“It is the unusual nature and intensity of metamorphosis which forces respect, awareness, awe and faith. Fear is unavoidable with the hyperactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and the unknown quality of what is happening and where it’s going. But in the end passing through this fear leaves one with such an altered perspective and physiology that one essentially transcends the collective fear. Only then do we have any power to dispel consensus fear and increase love in the world. We become karma eating machines, offering cellular forgiveness.”
“Those who have had a childhood of abuse, neglect of dysfunction, tend to have more catastrophic awakenings because their systems are built for repression and dissociation. This is not always the case but it is a pattern. One can imagine that the more loving-touch and self-validation, the child receives the more efficiently wired their nervous system will be, and the fewer psycho-somatic and emotional blocks they will have. But consciousness will out no matter what the formative structure.
The nature of one’s individual awakening not only depends on one’s past history it is also determined by one’s future history. That is, what one is to become and experience is already at play in one’s present. In-forming us trans-temporally in ways the rational mind cannot perceive. The tree is already inherent in the seed. The future magnetically draws us toward it. One could call this, the karma of the future.
It seems like the more open, surrendered and evolved one is, then the more challenge one is faced with in incarnating one’s soul. So here’s the rub…the more spiritual preparation one does, the larger the flow of kundalini coursing through one. But if we don’t have some form of yoga and meditation, then we are upstream without a paddle and are battered about on the rapids with no sense of control over our boat. Traditional spiritual practices were developed to both bring on an awakening, give one the strength and skills for navigating the awakening and to substantiate the awakening in the life of the individual and his/her relationship to the world.”
On one side, inner growth requires openness, cognitive and emotional flexibility, accepting the criticism, accepting uncertainty, getting used to paradoxes and accepting “I don’t know” as a valid answer. Yes, there is a lot to allow. On the other side, trusting one’s process of transformation and abandoning the control are the attitudes needed for sustaining the transformation process.
How does it feel when we change? Alison Crosthwait noticed that profound change involves bearing a process, which we do not yet understand. And we have to bear its speed – fast, slow, or something in between. This is her experience:
“Sometimes my brain goes fuzzy or suddenly empty; Sometimes I feel depleted. And thirsty. Like my psyche just had an intense massage; Sometimes I feel jacked up and manic; Sometimes I feel butterflies; Sometimes my shame is activated and past regrets, mistakes, and vulnerabilities take over with an insatiable vengeance. When I can catch this I call it backlash; Sometimes someone says something unexpected and I consciously try to take it in. To let it change my cells; Sometimes I cry about something I have never cried about before; Sometimes I have a dream or a fantasy and part of its meaning hits home and I know this is a marker of an incremental shift; Sometimes someone in my life puts words to a change and I recognize it as true but previously unarticulated. In talking the change takes shape; Sometimes I have an extra glass of wine that I don’t need or want. Later, I can identify this extra glass as a response to new feelings that seemed unmanageable even though unworded; Some of these changes are about my conscious self. Some are about unconscious shifts that I cannot fully articulate; And sometimes there is no perceptible sign of anything.”
Referring to what we fell when other people change. Alison Crosthwait says,
“when others change it evokes feelings in us. This gives us the opportunity to change. When I feel wild with anger at my friend’s new assertions I have the opportunity to explore that, express it, reflect on it – to live on the edge of it. This is my chance to evolve in response to my friend’s growth… Change has a ripple effect. Our change into the world. And the change of others into us and the world”.
Some of her experiences in relation to other people’s change:
“I hear something new in their voice. A little more strength. Or less questioning of their right to speak; They express emotion just a little (or a lot) more forcefully – anger, love, sadness, joy – it has more color and texture; My heart skips a beat with excitement and possibility as I realize that I am not trapped in one way of being with this person but that together, not just me but together, we are always creating something new. Together we are healing; I feel wildly angry, irritated, or annoyed at a limit, boundary or observation the person makes; I feel afraid and insecure at a limit, boundary, or new expression from the other person; I feel nervous or agitated around them or when thinking about them. I wonder about them; They say something that startles me. Something I haven’t heard before from them; They make a big change that they have been struggling with for a long time; I feel loved in a new way – perhaps more directly or openheartedly”.
During inner growth, the moments of uncertainty may be more frequent than the moments of stability. The more we abandon ourselves to the process, the more rapid the transformation is. However, it is impossible to predict how the transformation occurs, as each person is unique. We all pass through some benchmarks, but how we arrive to the multidimensional now-here, that’s unique.
It took me some time to accept that I am in a process that keeps deploying constantly, day and night, consciously and unconsciously. A few years ago, I made the decision that every time I realize that I am stuck in a fixed perspective I will change the outlook again.
Conscious experience map
In this mapping, I introduce a visual way to look at the interconnected subsystems which shape our conscious experience. Witnessing is a multilayered process, there is no such thing as “the one witness “. Witnessing is a self-reflective mechanism, embedded in reality, and it’s active in every layer. There is witnessing in the cognitive structure, there is witnessing in the body, there is witnessing in the sexual energy, etc. The feedback mechanism is embedded inside each system/layer, it is not a functional trait of the “Sahasrara Chakra”. Or, if I bend the chakra model properly, multidimensionally, there is a correction needed to the model: there is a Sahasrara seed inside all other chakras.
There is no up and down, vibrationally speaking. Wave-like experiences and Particle-like experiences can be lived simultaneously if attention is trained to function globally (e.g. open focus training), which allows simultaneous streams of awareness to become one system. A good concept describing the diversity of information is multidimensional awareness. E.g. paying attention to attention itself all the time, and also paying attention to Time, Space, Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, Social-Relational, etc., in a relaxed awareness space, accepting everything, plus extra details from narrow attention flow.
A non-linear visual metaphor for developmental stages
In this visual metaphor, the 15 facets of the conscious experience are presented as shapes and colors. The main layers are Non-conceptual self (e.g., feedback loop, witnessing, spatial awareness), Information-cognition self (e.g., mind, citta, samskaras, vasanas), Energy self (e.g., chemical flows, life force, emotions, drives), Physical self (e.g., body, collectives of cells, Nature, Earth). These are described by Perspective-taking, Clarity of discrimination, Multi-modal integration, Inner growth, Awakening skills, Habitual patterns, Social-relational interconnectivity, Language use, Quality of experience, Spirituality-harmony, all integrated as a Global Self-identity structure.
The developmental process means including previous shapes, as described by the developmental theories that present the development process as an inclusion of the previous stages, which become available perspectives, in an ever-increasing repertoire of conscious configurations, showing that e.g., “conformist” stage structures are included in the “autonomous” stage structure, but there is a lot of variability in the ways this “inclusion” happens. In vertical development, it seems to be more important to develop a healthy configuration for each stage (a healthy stage structure), so that each stage structure could be used in harmony, when needed. Each stage has its flavors, and when individuals evolve to a new stage these flavors participate in the global repertoire of experiencing the present moment.
References and notes
 On this topic, I like an interview with Tanya Luhrmann, she talks about how people in religious cults experience what they believe in.
 Some detailed video explanations are available online.
 Some other useful perspectives about nondual psychotherapy are available in two volumes, “The sacred mirror” (2003) and “Listening from the heart of silence” (2007).
 For more information about cults and spiritual abuse, visit “The Guru” website.