Spiritual Growth through Transpersonal Psychology

Review on Ken Wilber's "The Atman Project"

by Guhen Kitaoka

I. Prologue

The common prejudice says, and my own prejudice was, that psychology can never study or analyse the process of spiritual enlightenment, because that which is a part (i.e. mind) of something (i.e., enlightenment) has intrinsic impossibility to explain the process of its wholeness.

It seemed to me that Western psychology was unable to go further than Eastern psychology, as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh states: "(Western) physiology or psychology, which are observations from without, have not led to a knowledge of our inner bodies. It is only the physical body that they know about." (1)

But Ken Wilber's "The Atman Project" shattered my misunderstanding about the subject. In this book, he proves that from the point where he is Atman (cosmic consciousness, wholeness, Nirvana, Moksha, God, or whatever it is called), he dares to look down at the lower evolutionary stages and is able to explain the whole process and patterns of all the spiritual levels, including the levels which are beyond human mind (the transverbal and transpersonal levels, in Wilber's terms).

He is capable of doing so, mainly for two reasons:

1) He sees that evolutionary beings undergo repeatedly the same growth pattern in each stage, transcending one after another to finally become God. (He calls this recurrent pattern Deep Structure.) What is different in each level is only the details of its deep structure. (They are the surface structure, according to him.) So, he can obviously apply the deep structure and the surface structure even to higher levels than the human mind.

2) Although it is absolutely impossible to analyse the mind by the mind (or in the mind), there is a possibility - however slight this possibility is - to do so using the mind (or being out of the mind), just as a linguist can study, and find out a grammar of, the language. It is nevertheless obvious that the prerequisite of this possibility is that "The self identifies with that (higher) structure, differentiates itself from the lower structure, hence transcends those lower structures and thus can operate upon them and integrate them." (2)

I will detail below these two points.

Anyhow, since I am also on the spiritual path, aiming at my own spiritual enlightenment and will use my therapeutic career to help other people's growth as well as mine, I would like to go deeply into transpersonal psychology which is definitely the psychology of enlightenment.

II. Evolution

For Wilber, the evolution of all sentient beings is the Atman Project, that is to say, a process in which they are returning back to the place where they come from. And he sees a miniature version of cosmic evolution in a human being's growth, from infancy to adulthood. (3) He also says "Psychological growth or development in humans is simply a microcosmic reflection of universal growth on the whole, and has the same goal: the unfolding of ever higher-order unities and integrations." (4)

Wilber divides the process of evolution into 9 stages (Pleroma, Uroboros, Typhonic Self, Membership Self, Mental-egoic Self, Centauric Self, Subtle Self, Causal Self and Atman), if I simplify his diagram. Although this categorization is arbitrary - as he says "[The story of the Atman Project] is finally a lie in the face of that Mystery which only alone is," (5) it is principally based on Eastern psychology. - For example, Rajneesh divides the process of spiritual growth into 7 categories (physical, etheric, astral, mental, spiritual, cosmic and nirvanic). (6)

Wilber finds the same process pattern in every evolutionary stage, as I quoted above. His analysis on the Atman Project is so extensive that I had better quote his own summary metaphor about evolution, though it is fairly lengthy; "On the first floor of the building of consciousness is the pleromatic and uroboric state. The mode of time is totally pre-temporal: no past, no present, no future - only pleromatic ignorance. This is not a trans-temporal state; the infant does nor transcend time, he is totally ignorant of it. (N.B.: it is also prepersonal.)

"On the second floor is the typhonic self - the primary process, the prana-id, the emotional-sexual being. Here there is no linear time (no past and no future, but only a simple present). The mode of time is embedded in this simple present, ignorant of linear time. (N.B.: pre-temporal, prepersonal)

"On the third floor is egoic time - linear, historical, syntactical, with a past, a present, and a future. (N.B.: temporal, personal)

"On the fourth floor is the centaur. The mode of time is again the immediate present, but it is trans-linear present. The centaur is grounded in the present while still aware of linear time. (N.B.: trans-temporal, trans-personal)

"On the fifth floor are truly trans-temporal realms. This is utter Eternity, which is aware of the immediate passing present, which lasts only a second or two, but the eternal present, which - lasting not at all - underlies and embraces all duration. (N.B.: also transpersonal)"(7)

And here is the scheme about the deep structure of each level of evolution:

For example, "The body-ego (on the second floor), by differentiating itself from the material environment, transcends [it],and thus can perform physical operations upon that environment." (8)

The above having been said, it is not less understandable at all that people who are on the fourth and fifth floors can operate upon and transcend the material environment, the body and mind, than that the mental -egoic self can use the material environment and the body.

III. Involution

The greatness of Wilber is that he doesn't talk only about involution but also about involution.

Although he says that involution is just a reverse process of evolution, he explains extensively, using the notions of Eros, Thanatos, Agape and Contraction (9), why beings, while experiencing Nirvana just after their death, have to come back to the amoebae level, only to reverse the process.

Supposing that the evolution process of all sentient beings would be the same whether in life or after death, it could be said that, since all beings are evolving at any given time, they come back to life and continue to evolve only up to the point where they have evolved before their birth. - In other words, if they were unable to bear ultimate ecstasy of Nirvana just after their previous death and "fall down" to take the form of amoebae, they have to repeat the same evolution process until it becomes unbearable to them, which determines again their evolutionary state after death.

On the contrary, if beings can continue to transcend even in Nirvana after death, they would not need to come back to life only to repeat the same lengthy process and would stay at their level forever. (By the way, this is enlightenment.) In this sense, life is nothing but a preparation for death and vice versa.

Wilber summarizes: "Evolution (...) is a remembrance of involution -a rediscovery of the higher modes which were enwrapped in the lower ones during the soul's flight from God."(10)

When Barry Long says that beings after death make a blue-print about what they will do in their next life and then after birth experience the details according to the blue-print (11), it sounds quite odd. But if I rephrase his words like "All deep structures blue-print) are remembered, (...) whereas all surface structures (i.e., details) are learned,"(l2) it starts to make sense to me.

IV. Only Now

As far as the therapists' work for clients is concerned, even Wilber doesn't seem to care about levels higher than the centaur. This is mainly because therapy and its techniques are there only to help people go to the edge of, or just to the front of the gate of, enlightenment and it is only themselves and never other people that can take a quantum leap or open the gate of enlightenment. - It is their own work.

But it is all the more important that therapists must concentrate on helping people transcend the mental-egoic level (Third floor) to go to the centauric level, because almost all of them seem to be stuck at this level in modern societies. And once they come to know the "knack" of how to transcend it, it will be easier for them to continue to transcend the even higher levels because what they will have to do is basically the same - although this time they will not be able to have any direct help from other people.

Then, how can the mental-egoic stage be transcended?

In order to transcend this level, the most efficient way is to teach people to reframe their perspective. Wilber says "The translation (i.e., reframing) of "seeing reality as present" is commonly used (as in Gestalt Therapy -"only now is real"). The individual learns to see thoughts of yesterday as present occurrence, and anticipation of tomorrow as present activities. (...) To the extent that the individual succeeds globally in this translation, he then transforms to existential time; the whole abstract and ghostly world of linear time - now that it has served its purpose - collapses into the intensity of the present. The individual simply continues this translation (the "working through"), until the transformation is more-or-less complete and is generally grounded in, but not confined to, the living present."(l3) or "The (humanistic) therapist will pit his existential translation against the client's egoic translations until the ego can transform as centaur. That is, the therapist acts as a pacer of transformation, replacing the now "fizzled-out" forces of the society and parents. The therapist strategically frustrates and disrupts the old egoic translations (...), while engaging and teaching the new and higher centauric translations."(l4)

I have never encountered more pertinent statements about why a Zen master continues to tell his disciples "There is only now. Be here & now !" than the above.

Incidentally, knowing that transcendence of levels higher than the centaur can be achieved by the individual alone, Wilber mentions briefly about the work to be done for further evolution; "The mystic seeks progressive evolution. He trains for it. It takes most of a lifetime - with luck - to reach permanent, mature, transcendent and unity structures. At the same time, he maintains potential access to ego, logic, membership, syntax, etc. He follows a carefully mapped out path under close supervision. He is not contacting past and infantile experiences, but present and prior depth of reality." (l5)

I could add here that, to help the individual's translation at each level, the therapist (and/or the mystic) must give him symbols which shatter his rigid conditioned patterns and make him seek for identification with higher levels. (16)

Since all human beings at this very moment are found somewhere in between total relaxation and total contraction of Atman, and are in each split moment either evolving or involving, the ultimate work of the therapist and of the mystic is to encourage people to be ready to die in each moment and make them recognize that the death which they were once afraid of turns out to be nothing but their resurrection on another higher level; which is the very meaning of the Atman Project.

Wilber seems to stretch too far the psychoanalytic notions like Incest, Castration, Oedipus Complex, Eros, Thanatos etc. to adapt them in his own theory, but his standing point holds principally relevant to me and enabled me to have a journey which is "finally a lie in the face of that Mystery which only alone is" (if I may quote this again).

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(1) "The Psychology of the Esoteric" (PE) p76
(2) Ken Wilber, "The Atman Project" (AP) p40
(3) c.f. "AP" p2
(4) "AP" p2
(5) "AP" pxi
(6) c.f. "PE" p60
(7) "AP" p77
(8) "AP" p21
(9) c.f. "AP" p168
(10) "AP" p175
(11) c.f. "Ridding Yourself of Unhappiness"
(12) "AP" p42
(13) "AP" p58
(14) "AP" p144
(15) "AP" p158
(16) c.f. Ken Wilber "A Sociable God" p13, p105

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- R. Bandler and J. Grinder, "Reframing"
- W. Y. Evans-Wentz (editor), "The Tibetan Book of Death"
- Lao Tsu, "Tao Te Ching"
- Barry Long, "Ridding Yourself of Unhappiness"
- John Rowen, "Ordinary Ecstasy"
- Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, "The psychology of the Esoteric"
- Ken Wilber, "The Atman Project"
-     -     , "A Sociable God"

This paper was written by Swami Guhen in 1988, as part of his graduation theses for The School of Hypnosis and Advanced Psychotherapy (SHAP), London, UK.

(c) 1988-2000, by Guhen Kitaoka. All rights reserved internationally.