Who are we, as human beings? The incompatible definitions provided by Western religious and scientific orthodoxy are pessimistic: the sinful creatures of an incomprehensible God, or wholly-material beasts evolved by random physical processes. Modern psychology was built on this foundation, and only recently have some psychologists acknowledged a fuller, more positive picture of humans as physical, psychological, and spiritual beings. At the same time the artificial split in the West between science and religion, and between the physical and spiritual, is beginning to heal as scientists increasingly draw on world traditions for insights into the human condition and our place in the universe.
To escape religious control and persecution, Western scientists eventually excluded the metaphysical and nonphysical from their explanations of the material world. As a scientific discipline, psychology in the first half of the 20th century accepted as axiomatic materialistic 19th century theories. One example of this posture is behaviorism, which concerns itself entirely with neurological reflexes and stimulus and response mechanisms, seeking to predict, control, and manipulate behavior. Its theories are based largely on animal experiments and dismiss introspective human activity as irrelevant.
Far and away the most significant psychological school for popular culture is classical psychoanalysis founded by Sigmund Freud. He modeled his ideas on materialistic physical and medical sciences, proposing a deterministic, reductionistic, mechanistic view of human nature resting on the theory that innate low instincts form the basis of the human psyche. The strongest drive was sexual, followed by aggressive and death drives. Freud concluded that the human psyche is composed of the individual unconscious and id (base instincts), from which come the ego and superego, all dominated by underlying instincts -- any higher human behaviors were either acquired or imposed, not natural.
Although many of their theories have been modified, superseded, or discredited, behaviorism and psychoanalysis remain influential. However, both make the error of generalizing from superficial levels of human consciousness to the nature of the entire human being. Rejecting such schools of thought, Abraham Maslow spearheaded humanistic psychology in the early 1960s. This movement points out the fallacy of basing theories mainly on findings from animal studies or neurotic and psychotic patients, because these ignore our uniquely human aspirations and noble faculties. Maslow focuses instead on healthy, self-actualizing people, believing that humans have an inborn hierarchy of higher values and needs, as well as a tendency to pursue growth. He also proposes that mystical or "peak" experiences are supernormal rather than pathological, and emphasizes personal freedom, the ability of individuals to predict and control their own lives, the unity of mind and body, and the importance of interpersonal relations.
In 1976 Maslow went further, formulating the principles of transpersonal psychology on the basis that spiritual experience and higher human needs and faculties cannot be reduced to, or derived from, base instincts. Transpersonal psychology recognizes spiritual and cosmic aspects of human consciousness, and the potential for the evolution of consciousness. It builds on the ideas of Carl Jung, who stressed the importance of the unconscious, mysterious, mystical, nonrational, and creative elements of consciousness and proposed the existence of a collective unconscious to which all mankind has access. A wideranging school of thought, transpersonal psychology recognizes realms of experience beyond the physiological, biographical, and individual, and takes into account cosmic, spiritual, past-life, and prenatal experiences, as well as shamanistic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, myths and archetypes, etc.
The return of a spiritual dimension to psychology influences the ways in which symptoms of "mental illness" are viewed and treated, as well as what we consider human growth to be. For example, seeing human beings as more than their everyday self implies a different attitude towards the ego:
the main problem is not to protect and build up the ego but to create a supportive framework within which it can be experientially transcended. The experience of ego death and the ensuing unitive experiences . . . then become the sources of new strength and personal identity. -- Stanislav Grof, Beyond the Brain, p. 16
The value of transcending the ego is widely recognized in the Orient, where the need for competent guidance and instruction on such a quest is taken for granted: very real dangers await one who rushes to experience unfamiliar states of consciousness alone and unprepared. Facing our whole self means eventually encountering our negative, self-centered, uncontrolled thoughts and emotions -- which are active entities, not mere abstractions. Once we leave the relative safety of physical body and ordinary consciousness, we meet such inhabitants of ethereal, causal realms. If we cannot recognize these self-made energies for what they are, and have not transformed the aspects of ourselves which produce and feed them, then we can easily become their victim, open, in extreme cases, to astral possession, insanity, illness, or even death. The following firsthand account, by a person who temporarily lost his mental equilibrium in the process, describes this situation vividly:
In my attempt to penetrate the other world I met its natural guardians, the embodiment of my own weaknesses and faults. I first thought these demons were lowly inhabitants of the other world who could play me like a ball because I went into these regions unprepared and lost my way. Later I thought they were split-off parts of my own mind (passions) which existed near me in free space and thrived on my feelings. I believed everyone else had these too but did not perceive them, thanks to the protective successful deceit of the feeling of personal existence. I thought the latter was an artifact of memory, thought-complexes, etc., a doll that was nice enough to look at from outside but nothing real inside it.
In my case the personal self had grown porous because of my dimmed consciousness. Through it I wanted to bring myself closer to the higher sources of life. I should have prepared myself for this over a long period by invoking in me a higher, impersonal self, since "nectar" is not for mortal lips. It acted destructively on the animal-human self, split it up into its parts. These gradually disintegrated, the doll was really broken and the body damaged. I had forced untimely access to the "source of life," the curse of the "gods" descended on me. I recognized too late that murky elements had taken a hand. I got to know them after they had already too much power. There was no way back. I now had the world of spirits I had wanted to see. The demons came up from the abyss, as guardian Cerberi, denying admission to the unauthorized. I decided to take up the life-and-death struggle. This meant for me in the end a decision to die, since I had to put aside everything that maintained the enemy, but this was also everything that maintained life. I wanted to enter death without going mad and stood before the Sphinx: either thou into the abyss or I!
Then came illumination. I fasted and so penetrated into the true nature of my seducers. They were pimps and deceivers of my dear personal self which seemed as much a thing of naught as they. A larger and more comprehensive self emerged and I could abandon the previous personality with its entire entourage. I saw this earlier personality could never enter transcendental realms. I felt as a result a terrible pain, like an annihilating blow, but I was rescued, the demons shriveled, vanished and perished. A new life began for me and from now on I felt different from other people. A self that consisted of conventional lies, shams, self-deceptions, memory images, a self just like that of other people, grew in me again but behind and above it stood a greater and more comprehensive self which impressed me with something of what is eternal, unchanging, immortal and inviolable and which ever since that time has been my protector and refuge. I believe it would be good for many if they were acquainted with such a higher self and that there are people who have attained this goal in fact by kinder means. -- from Karl Jaspers, General Psychopathology, quoted in R. D. Laing, Politics of Experience, pp. 134-6
What are these "kinder means"? Mystics, sages, and spiritual teachers of all times and cultures have succeeded to some extent in this inner enterprise. Psychologists who seriously investigate such phenomena are also developing therapeutic means to help people bring about a positive resolution. However, these modern practices are still in the experimental stages, and some therapists and psychologists turn for inspiration and guidance to the world's spiritual traditions, the repository of human mystic and spiritual findings, each of which offers methods that prepare seekers for transcendence.
Buddhism, for example, is fundamentally a practical program leading to the realization of absolute consciousness and an untrammeled perception of reality, and its sophisticated psychology has great practical application for those engaged in self-exploration. In considering what human beings are, Buddhism emphasizes that our sense of egoity is an illusion or delusion built up over lifetimes of misperceiving reality in material spheres. Each person is a center around which are collected bundles of qualities which are modified during each life, thrown off at death, and attracted back to that "center" when it incarnates again, drawn to earth life by desire for material existence.
In this sense the ego we identify as ourselves is an illusion, built of thoughts, emotions, memories, and habits of consciousness. Our existence is a stream of consciousness-energies that we continually set in motion, though we perceive ourselves as relatively permanent. In the same way, our body appears relatively unchanged for long periods although its substance is in a constant state of flux. As G. de Purucker remarks:
There is no enduring, everlasting soul which passes from life to life dipping, as it were, into human bodies alien to it. The idea is a phantasm of the imagination. But there is consciousness expressing itself in manifold forms, each incarnation being but the karma, the fruit, of that which immediately preceded it. This is what Gautama Buddha meant by his teaching that an eternal and immortal soul existing within a man, and after his death existing eternally in the heavens, is an illusion; for all that remains of a man at death is his karma. What a man is at the instant of physical dissolution is himself, that is to say his karma, the result of what he was the previous instant. Not one of us is the same in every identic respect that we were one second ago; much less are we now what we were a year ago. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 419
Every entity, event, or quality results from a preceding cause. By our decisions and actions we make ourselves and control our destiny. Human growth lies in transcending our limited sense of self or ego, and so obtaining an ever-clearer perception of reality through purifying and sharpening the consciousness.
In Buddhism, the "kinder means" involved in this process center on the discipline of the Eightfold Path set forth by Gautama Buddha himself -- right views, right resolve, right speech, right behavior, right occupation, right effort, right contemplation, and right concentration. These practices eventually harmonize all aspects of one's life, while disciplining and purifying the consciousness. Of equal importance is practice of the transcendental virtues -- generosity or love, virtuous precepts, patience, fortitude, indifference to pleasure and pain, meditation, and intuitive wisdom; sometimes inflexible courage, discrimination, and perfect illumination are also added. Practice of these qualities cuts at the root of egoism and illusion.
When one is freed from attachment to self and to the various worlds of manifestation, and has thoroughly disciplined and purified himself through right living and thinking and the practice of the transcendental virtues, he moves beyond the delusions of material worlds. It generally requires sustained effort over many lives for a human consciousness to become so awakened or perfected. On reaching this state of enlightenment, the person must choose whether to enter nirvana -- an absolute and unlimited state of consciousness -- in order to escape the sufferings of this world and enjoy aeons of bliss; or whether to remain behind in order to benefit all other lives in their journey toward eventual transcendence.
This is the decision that lies hidden behind all efforts at growth, all ambitions and aspirations, all desires for transcendence and spiritual accomplishment. And the choice of paths hinges on the motive for seeking: personal success and salvation, or altruism and all-encompassing love. Which goal is nobler? "Compassion speaks and saith: 'Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?"' (H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence, p. 71).
While any decision about nirvana lies far beyond our present horizon, the goal we will elect then is being anticipated now, at every moment, in the underlying motives for our actions and way of life. In fact, it is ultimately on our orientation toward self or selflessness that our success or failure as human beings depends.
Today the axioms and theories that have long bound Western thought are increasingly being called into question. Current views of human nature run the gamut from the traditional Christian and the materialistic to Freudian, Darwinian, humanistic, transpersonal, and those of the world's traditions -- in endless combinations. What a smorgasbord is set before us! From it we must determine what is healthful and realistic, what poorly prepared or poisonous, and what the product of wishful thinking or little thinking at all. A new Western synthesis is being born that combines experience and scientific findings with elements from the metaphysical heritage of all humanity. A legion of constructive and destructive practices and tenets are seeking scientific and popular acceptance, and it is often difficult to discriminate among them. Coming decades will establish whether the emphasis rests on the spiritual or the sensational, self-discipline or self-indulgence, knowledge or superstition, and self-centeredness or altruism. By refusing to accept theories -- scientific or other -- on faith or authority, but judging them carefully for ourselves, each of us can participate consciously in this process whose keynote is "know yourself."
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)
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