The Ontic Descent
The human self is a construction: a fiction masquerading as a ‘real’, authentic and integrated being. For some, stumbling upon such a discovery about the illusory nature of one’s self can be difficult and disturbing. When this artificial construction, under the light of a focused examination, begins to wither and fade, denial and avoidance are the usual reactions. This we refer to as an ‘Ontic Opening’, which often leads to a full Ontic Descent. During Ontic Descent, a death must take place, and during this ‘dying’ phase, there is great danger. However, there is also great opportunity for a rebirth into a more developed, complex, intuitive, and occasionally mystical level of being.
The Ontic Process
Society and Culture
DE-STRUCTING THE SELF
A Good Death
Ontology is a branch of philosophical metaphysics that examines existential questions involving the distinction between reality and appearance, the nature of being, and the fundamental composition of ultimate substance. An individual experiencing an Ontic Crisis suffers a major disruptive shift deep in his psychic composition. This shift can sometimes lead to a reconfiguration at a healthier, more developed, individuated, and authentic level of living. There usually is also less emphasis on, or concern for, qualities of happiness, success, or social adjustment. Most personalities and self-identities are composed of organizing schemas, which are internally developed and molded by the paradigms of that person’s social/cultural environment, including the primary language used, and various family and ancestral influences. However, some people have an inherent potential for psychic growth – for self-actualization – as opposed to a more fixed self, motivated as it often is by needs for security and constancy within the life experience. In those individuals, powerful and often covert forces arise with the awareness that they are not in agreement with, or participating in, the normal consensus reality.
The Ontic Crisis can be a period of tremendous confusion, pain, and lack of control. It is experienced as a dying of the ‘self’ as the self-matrix becomes painfully visible, as if under an x-ray fluoroscope – dissolving, reforming, fading and then reconfiguring with frightening fluidity. It is a period of tremendous confusion, life disruption, difficulty, pain, madness, and lack of control. It is also however a time of intense introspection and focused awareness of one’s life process and arrangement. As the individual is torn from the fabric of his or her previous life and its connection with society and stable relationships, a chaotic swirl of comparisons and contrasts, dreams, memories, and reflections churn within one’s awareness.
However, even as the individual is torn from the fabric of his or her previous life, connections with society and stable relationships, it can be a time of amazing insight, focus, and clarity of vision — if one stays present for the ‘birthing’ of the new self. However, before the birth, and at the same time as the new form begins to emerge, a death must occur and be intimately experienced. This becomes a time of retreat and separation from the normal, stable world and the previously normal, comfortable self. As this new stranger is being created, often a separation from one’s old life, including previously significant people, is essential. One’s work patterns, interests, social attachments, and just about everything else, is challenged, scrutinized, and often discarded like old, worn-out clothing.
Key questions are asked during such a crisis: What is this life, my life? How did I come to be? How do I continue being, living? What supports me? How is it possible that my body, my vitality, my aliveness, and beingness continue to develop seemingly by themselves, mostly beyond my control? What is the nature of this awareness, this ability to look back, reflect and consider? What is this me-ness? Is there a purpose? Is there a destiny for me? Is there a reason to all of this pomp and swirl? How am I to be with others? How are we separate, distinct, and also all so very much a part of this living and aliveness? Why can’t others see, perceive, question, engage, and query in the way that I do? Am I alone? Are there others who can understand my process, my confusion, and me?
These are primarily Ontic Questions – questions related to being, beingness, existence, and reality. The sense of there being an observer watching this period of fragmentation – not in control, but still somehow holding a center – is the best indicator that a progressive growth experience is happening, and not a regressive or pathological decline. There is a particular outcome that distinguishes this experience from the regressive experiences. The Ontic Traveler emerges after the successful conclusion of this ‘wild ride,’ as a reintegrated, further developed, complex, and insightful person. The product is now rarely and truly an adult – a mature, individuated, highly functioning misfit who does not dance within the consensual reality of mass consciousness.
The Ontic Process
This guide is arranged around three distinct components of the Ontic Crisis:
Self-Construction: We begin with an examination of the makeup and composition of the individual self, which is the vehicle that sets out to travel the Ontic Journey. This invisible construction is essentially a loose gathering of paradigms, filters, illusions, meanings, values, and beliefs that form and organize what we typically refer to as the ‘self’.
Self-Destruction: Then follows the phenomenon of the Ontic Break and the subsequent Ontic Crisis. This period of breakup, and the fall toward a final ‘dissolution’, is the ‘dark night of the soul,’ the annihilation of self-described in spiritual literature throughout the ages. As we shall discover, it can also be a natural part of the process of life, a dying of the old form so that a new, expanded, evolved and integrated being can be conceived.
Re-Struction: The final stage is the revival and reconfiguration of the self, a renaissance characterized by mystic aliveness and clarity of understanding about the difficult process that has been successfully negotiated. It is the story of life.
What is the stuff of self, the uniquely human condition, intangible, and without measurable form, that remains an unexamined assumption for most? It is inscrutable and difficult to define. It is even more difficult to explore the components that make up this scaffolding that supports and defines the typical self. All of these various parts, influences and connections, whether material, intellectual, biochemical, social, or psychological, contribute significantly to the self-gestalt – its wholeness.
Beginning with the body, there are the factors of gender, health, body-type, age, race, family, clan, and nationality. Language, cultural values, and memory traces come strongly into play. Group affiliations such as religions, educational systems, and political parties contribute to the creation and maintenance of these complicated constructions we think of as ourselves. One’s working environment, level of worldly achievement, and personal philosophical explorations all have important influences on self-construction. These sentient bodies we occupy grow and develop with blinders on. These blinders contain numerous screens that sift the continuous flow of information entering into the five sensory conduits of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight.
The data that seep through are processed by our unique and highly evolved intellect, blending our individual biographical and genetic configuration with the on-going, minute-to-minute sensory information constantly bombarding us from the outside world. It is a fact that the light waves and sound waves actually existing in the outer reality are far wider than the narrow spectrum that our senses can intuit. Thus, the thing we call the self, ‘me’, or ‘I’, is not a thing in any tangible material sense, but rather a network of connections and influences. This gathering of influences takes on the characteristics and feel of ‘realness’. Its creation and continuity, when deeply explored, is amazing and miraculous; but upon a further inspection of the ‘self’, we discover that, in fact, it’s not there.
This process of looking deeply into this arrangement we call the self has been written about eloquently since the beginning of human history. Nevertheless, very few even begin to commence the process and fewer still follow it to its conclusion.
Society and Culture
A natural starting point in the deep investigation of self is an examination of culture and society.
“We develop traditions and customs, pass laws, build institutions, and formulate foreign policies and personal ways of life based on our largely unexamined mental patchworks. In doing all this we actually create a kind of social reality – a world of stone and steel, national boundaries, international treaties, laws and social customs – which amounts to a great collective self-projection, in which as it has been said, there is nothing natural about 99 per cent of the things we do.” Johnson (1956)
Cultures can be large, as in nation or race, or small as in family and ancestral line. Socio-cultural qualities are fed to us like mother’s milk and an individual’s self-definition within this larger group is usually blurred and indistinct.
“Any society, in order to survive, must mold the character of its members in such a way that they want to do what they have to do; their social function must become internalized and transformed into something they feel driven to do, rather than something they are obliged to do. If this ‘social character’ loses its coherence and firmness, many individuals would cease to act as they are expected to do, and the survival of the society in its given form would be endangered.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
This rich, churning, fermenting pool of humanness, which is so instrumental in forming the self-structure, afterward supports, nurtures, and protects it. Individual cultures operate somewhat like laboratories full of frenzied chemists.
“The ongoing necessity of keeping chaos at bay. All social reality is precarious. All societies are constructions in the face of chaos. The constant possibility of anomic terror is actualized whenever the legitimations that obscure the precariousness are threatened or collapse.” Berger & Luckman (1966)
“The function of society is to repress Eros; to induce a false consciousness of security; to deny death by avoiding life; to cut off transcendence; to believe in God, not to experience the Void; to create, in short, one-dimensional man; to promote respect, conformity, obedience; to con children out of play; to induce a fear of failure; to promote a respect for work; to promote a respect for respectability.” Laing (1967)
“This is the psycho-cultural phenomenon of the organization man. It is the one reason that castration is no longer the dominant fear of men or women in our day, by ostracism. The real threat is not to be accepted, to be thrown out of the group, to be left solitary and alone.” May (1983)
Cultures are environmental pools of language, beliefs, customs, moral values, and myths that surround and attempt to mold individuals into fairly homogenous, orderly, and functional forms of being.
“Culture, with its systems of knowledge, languages, beliefs, and values, bestows upon each person a patrimony of concepts which becomes part of the individual himself.” Arieti (1967)
Culture furnishes us with something called schemata. These are patterns of structural organization used by people to integrate experiences in order to better understand their lives. Every person who is thinking and interacting within a cultural environment is using these various schemata to connect with entities around them, interpret incoming data, manipulate that data, or more simply put, engage the world. All cultures provide numerous ready-made schemata so that there is continuity of perception and interpretation within like groupings.
“From a culture’s point of view, it is far better if your everyday mind, the habitual, automatized way you think and feel, is shaped to reflect the culture’s consensus beliefs and values. Then you will automatically experience the right perceptions and interpretations, and so it will be ‘natural’ to act in the culturally appropriate way, even when there are no agents of social coercion around. When you automatically think, behave, and feel ‘normally,’ when the internal workings of your mind automatically echo most of the values and beliefs of your culture, you have achieved cultural consensus trance.” Tart (1986)
Successful membership in any society requires adherence to the mainstream social doctrine, remaining lockstep with the dominant hidden and imbedded philosophical perspectives, mythology, and religion (ours happen to be economics and ‘sci-osophy’).
“The effect of society is not only to funnel fictions into our consciousness, but also to prevent awareness of reality. Every society, by its own practice of living and by the mode of relatedness, of feeling and perceiving, develops a system of categories, which determines the forms of awareness. This system works, as it were, like a socially conditioned filter; experience cannot enter awareness unless it can penetrate this filter. I am aware of all my feelings and thoughts that are permitted to penetrate the threefold filter of (socially conditioned) language, logic, and taboos (social character). Experiences which cannot be filtered through remain outside of awareness; that is, they remain unconscious.” Erich Fromm
All people, according to their genetic predisposition, are significantly influenced and, in many respects, actually formulated by and through their participation in cultural and familial relationships.
“Most of our lives are spent in consensus reality, that specially tailored and selectively perceived segment of reality constructed from the spectrum of human potential. We are simultaneously the beneficiaries and the victims of our culture. Seeing things according to consensus reality is good for holding a culture together, but a major obstacle to personal and scientific understanding of the mind.” Tart (1975)
As Kant saw it, the innate forms of human perception and understanding impose an invariant order on the initial chaos of raw sensory input. Through his epistemological concept of the a priori, Kant believed that the primary quality of humanness is the ability to organize and process sensory input in a predictable and consistent fashion.
“The Happy Consciousness comes to prevail. It reflects the belief that the real is rational, and that the established system, in spite of everything, delivers the goods. The people are led to find in the productive apparatus the effective agent of thought and action to which their personal thought and action can and must be surrendered.” Marcuse (1970)
But how many wouldn’t gladly trade their souls for ‘The Happy Consciousness’? It’s a fair bargain by most measures.
“Various kinds of personal discontent make it difficult or impossible for an individual to find meaning in his life within the consensus reality of the culture. If he acts out these discontents, he may be classified as neurotic or psychotic, as a criminal, or as a rebel, depending on his particular style.” Tart (1975)
“‘To be’ requires giving up one’s egocentricity and selfishness, or in words often used by the mystics, by making oneself ‘empty’ and ‘poor.’ But most people find giving up their orientation too difficult; any attempt to do so arouses their intense anxiety and feels like giving up all security, like being thrown into the ocean when one does not know how to swim.” Fromm (1981)
“The belief that life is incomplete without goal fulfillment is not so much a tragic existential fact of life as it is a western myth, a cultural artifact.” Yalom (1980)
Societies encourage people to remain asleep – first through fantasy and then through capture within the social-cultural forms of reality.
“Not to move forward, to stay where we are, to regress, in other words to rely on what we have, is very tempting, for what we have, we know; we can hold onto it, feel secure in it. Only the old, the tried, is safe; or so it seems. We are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent – people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying hard to save.” Fromm (1981)
Societies provide answers as well as the acceptable questions.
“We have every reason to be insecure. When the ultimate basis of our world is in question, we run to different holes in the ground, we scurry into roles, statuses, identities, and interpersonal relations. We attempt to live in castles that can only be in the air because there is no firm ground in the social cosmos on which to build.” Laing (1967)
The Ontic Traveler is therefore viewed with suspicion and distrust, as a rebel or deviant, a ‘weed’ as in Alice in Wonderland. Our world is culture-bound and limited by multitudes of assumptions that create the consensus reality we apprehend as the western world in the twentieth century.
“Inasmuch as a person lives in a culture in which the correctness of Aristotelian logic, is not doubted, it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for him to be aware of experiences which contradict Aristotelian logic, hence which from the standpoint of his culture are nonsensical.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
This is the dark side of cultural systems, because reliance on these embedded tools leads to a pre-programmed person, instead of a self-aware, authentic individual.
Language is the elementary tool that we use to build the concepts, beliefs, models and paradigms that are the building blocks of the self-structure. We start with an alphabet, then build letters into words, then grammar and syntax, all of which finally yields our language.
Everyone is the beneficiary as well as the victim of the language he was born into. We are beneficiaries in that we have access to the written and oral record of other people’s experience. We are victims in that this limited reality is oftentimes our primary reality, this reduced awareness our only awareness.
“He is under the illusion of being in touch with the world, while he is only in touch with words.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
“All one’s life one has been tricked, all unaware, by the structure of language into a certain way of perceiving reality.” Whorf (1956)
Language drives perception. Consider this statement for a moment then try a test. Try to perceive without using words and language. Imagine now if all language structure could be suddenly stripped away. There would be seeing and sensing but would there be perception? We would certainly perceive in a very different and maybe quite wonderful way, but would this be useful to us as members of the human community?
“Every individual is … apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things – a common problem in communication called reification of the abstract.” Huxley (1954)
Levi-Strauss uses the term ‘semantic-universe’ to describe our intellectual-scientific-technological fabric of reality. Our ‘real world’ is, to a large extent, unconsciously constructed on the language habits of the group. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language convention of our community predisposes us to certain choices of interpretation. Language contains the coding for experiencing life in a particular way.
“Any time we either produce or understand any utterance of any reasonable length, we are employing dozens if not hundreds of categories: categories of speech sounds, of words, of phrases and clauses, as well as conceptual categories.” Lakoff (1957)
Language is an essential shaper and perceptive filter for experience. Our awareness and our perceptions are driven, informed, influenced, and shaped by language. It is an essential component of the way we connect with our life and reality, shaping our very being. With its tremendous influence, however, language also becomes problematic, especially because its effect, influence and reality usually remain hidden below our awareness. We use it to construct our virtual worlds and then confuse these words with their representations.
“Language contains an attitude of life, is a frozen expression of experiencing life in a certain way. Language, by its words, its grammar, its syntax, by the whole spirit which is frozen in it, determines how we experience, and which experiences penetrate to our awareness.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
“The problem is the incompatibility of experience with language and the consequent forgetting of experience or its distortion by the cliché of language.” Schactel (1959)
Is language then the master or the slave? It is both – an essential and potentially dangerous component of our self-construction and also the water in which our perceptions and intellects swim and swirl. More than the water in our cultural swimming pool, language may be the primary determinate of how and what we perceive and experience. Generally speaking, it may be said that an experience rarely comes into awareness for which the language has no word or description. If we cannot put it into language, we may not be able to perceive or acknowledge or actually even see it.
“And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which culturally ordained forms and categories are embedded by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness.” Whorf (1956)
Concepts are ideas, schemes, and thought constructions – the intellectual building blocks for developing our individual and collective realities. It is impossible for anyone to think without using concepts. These statements about reality have no reality of their own. They reside in an unknown place called memory continuously defining our universe.
“We begin to realize that the world which has been the solid foundation of our being is equally a construction of our awareness. We have learned from infancy to see it a certain way, and although we alter that some over the years, essentially we accept what we have been taught and believe that to be the intrinsic nature of being. It is not; it is our construction.” Walsh & Vaughan (1980)
An integrated conceptual system will include beliefs, values, drives, desires, and fears. Most people become completely identified with, and attached to, their conceptual systems. These systems create and even constitute our experience strongly paralleling the statement, ‘the medium is the message.’
“There has been an increasing awareness of the power of models and beliefs to shape perception, especially when they are implicit, assumed, or unquestioned. Models come to function as self-fulfilling, self-prophetic organizers of experience.” Walsh & Vaughan (1980)
The self seems to be primarily contained and structured within a kind of sub-psychic conceptual map. A map is certainly a useful tool as long as it does not become confused with the actual territory. In human life, this confusion is commonplace. We use this conceptual framework to apprehend, explain, and anticipate the world.
“We must intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half-opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.” Huxley (1954)
Humans are indeed constructions – psychically, intellectually, and emotionally. They are contrived and formed of numerous influences described by categories such as perception, concepts, beliefs, schemata, and values. At a much deeper level, the perceptive filters shape and finally yield the self-product: its paradigms, language, symbology, fears, drives, and needs. Almost all of these aspects reside at a very unconscious and elemental substructure level, but nevertheless comprise the underlying formative framework which eventually gives rise to the conscious surface self.
“The world is – as is the self – a construction as much as a discovery of consciousness.” Bugental (1978)
“It is unlikely that we were born with some kind of a real self that we can discover; rather, we construct our own idea of ourselves within from the different kinds of information available.” Ornstein (1986)
At the beginning of our investigation into the essence of being, we start to develop doubts about our uniqueness, about the deep sense of independence that many of us cherish as the real authentic us. We are like the android in a science-fiction story, who suddenly becomes aware he is a man-made machine and the reaction is often shock, disturbance, and denial. A favorite pastime of the creative intellect is to make the abstract into the real.
The only problem is that we soon forget that these concepts do not really exist except as thought forms and ideas. We have categories for everything and we construct our idea of ourselves from different kinds of information available.
“Concepts do not only reflect and report our experience; as meanings, not merely as verbalistic structures, they are constitutive of experience.” Fingarette (1978)
“We must intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.” Huxley (1954)
Most of us function within ‘Newtonian Worlds’, believing that we are real, unique, autonomous, integrated, and in control of our lives and destiny. Nonetheless, our investigations strongly suggest otherwise – that we are primarily contrived social/cultural and fictional selves. It seems possible that there may be little reality to the self – certainly not the integrated, autonomous reality that we would like to believe exists.
We are in effect, self-processes – constantly changing, reacting, and experiencing. Or else we are phantasms and illusions – phenomenological shifts, just a loose gathering and swirl of these influences mixed with memory traces and emotional reminiscence.
“Man has a profound need to believe that the truth he perceives is rooted in the unchanging depths of the universe; for were it not so, could the truth be really important?” Smith (1985).
Yet how can he so believe when others see truth so differently? Is this really is an objective Newtonian World? Perception is our way of creating, interpreting, and molding realities, using the tools of language and concepts, to which we then assign meaning, values, danger, or desirability. If we, as individuals, are creators of our world, what, then, is independent objective reality?
“We can only perceive what we can conceive …. We tend to see only what can be incorporated into our established frame of reference, and tend to reject anything not fitting.” Pearce (1971)
Consider the story of the landing of Cortez. Apparently the Aztecs saw Spaniards floating along the beach in mid-air because they were unable to perceive horses. The horse was a completely unknown entity for which they had no frame of reference and they were unable to perceive or acknowledge the horses cognitively. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe perceptual patterns of significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way.
“All perceptual judgments, not just introspective ones, are ‘theory-laden’: All perception involves speculative interpretation.” Churchill (1988)
However, as we shall see the ‘real’ is in no way consistent, immutable, or fixed, but is simply fluid, adaptable, and often incoherent. These are characteristics quite the opposite of what most people normally associate with the definition of real.
For Berkeley, the principle was, ‘esse est percipt’ (to be is to be perceived). Watzlawick (1984)
“Bishop George Berkeley argued that material objects have no existence save as the ‘objects’ or ‘contents’ of the perceptual states of conscious minds. To put the point crudely, the material world is nothing but a coherent dream.” Churchill (1988)
This reflects the core of the theory of idealism – that reality only exists as it is formed and ‘created’ by the perceiving mind. Otherwise all that remains is an incoherent, disorganized mass of matter and energy. It is frightening to consider how we float within the private universe of our own personal perspective – little bubbles of reality that may at any time burst and plunge us deeply into the Ontic Rift without the comfortable support of our meaning structures.
“Meaning is saved, but the self is sacrificed.” Tillich (1952)
“We call “real” the world as viewed from our preferred orientation.” Fingarette (1977)
It seems possible that true objectivity may not exist, and that there is only human perception, which is subject to all the influences, limitations, and confinements of its structural forms. Paradigms provide a matrix of conceptual perceptions, supplying seemingly natural and sensible ways of looking at the world. Clusters of concepts create models and clusters of models create paradigms.
The paradigm is the Big Daddy of perceptive filters. So big, in fact, that these paradigms can disappear into the ground of our perception and often remain quite invisible. Paradigms shape perception in self-validating ways, and every paradigm argues for the truth of its assumptions. Whatever lies outside its scope will tend to be viewed from its perspective and thus be falsified or distorted. Paradigms tend to perform useful organizing functions, but if their hypothetical nature is forgotten, as it usually is, they tend to function as distorting perceptual filters.
“Scientists engage in development of an esoteric vocabulary and skills, and a refinement of concepts that increasingly lessens their resemblance to their usual commonsense prototypes. That professionalization leads, on the one hand, to an immense restriction of the scientist’s vision and to a considerable resistance to paradigm change.” Kuhn (1970)
Thus, there is a fortress or bunker quality to the paradigms. But why is there so much resistance to modification or revision of these fundamental theoretical systems? It is because our self-concepts are often predicated upon these very paradigmatic principles. Therefore if the paradigm changes, our own fabricated ‘selves’ will crumble also. It then becomes often a matter of self-preservation to preserve the paradigm. The paradigm rides powerfully beneath the surface of our perceptions providing consistency and continuity to our beliefs, our value systems, our motivations, and our ways of living, always resisting change and encouraging homogeneity.
Once a paradigm becomes implicit, it acquires tremendous yet unrecognized power over its adherents, which out of necessity and self-survival have become true believers. We seek consistency and predictability and we constantly attempt to avoid insecurity and disintegration. It is called survival and it is the primary instinct. What happens when one’s belief in the integrity and constancy of ego and self, one’s belief in a perceived stable reality, and one’s belief in God begin to falter?
“Ego suffers from a deep-seated suspicion of its own ‘nothingness.’ The suspicion impels the mental ego to construct a self-concept, in which, the mental ego hopes, it will find a sense of being.” Washburn (1988)
“Although Shakespeare stated and the existentialists reiterate that ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ people must live as if this were not true.” Bugental (1967)
Shakespeare’s Macbeth was correct, but people seem to desperately require meaning and hope in their lives nevertheless. As Watts suggests, both of these functions usually arise as a manifestation of an underlying metaphysical premise.
“Almost everyone, however unlearned, has some metaphysical premise, some usually unconscious opinion to which he clings very dearly, and which lies at the root of his psychological security.” Watts (1975)
Seriously probe and cast doubt on the core position or belief of another individual and you will usually get a negative, defensive response. Question or feel doubt about your own core and you have the beginning of an Ontic Crisis. Is it really possible to believe any longer that we can live in an objective Newtonian World? Yes, of course, because it is the world of ‘common sense.’
“Nietzsche once remarked that whoever has a why of living will endure almost any what, and this may explain our incessant need to construct a viable why, a model of the world that answers at least the most urgent questions of existence. When this attempt fails, we fall headlong into despair, madness, or the terrifying experience of nothingness.” Watzlawick, (1984)
With such cracks in the primary model, our reality begins to falter, but we still frantically look for meaning somehow, somewhere. Isn’t that what hope is all about? If there are no meanings, no values, no source of sustenance or help, then man, as the creative magician that he is, must invent, conjure up meanings and values, sustenance and succor out of nothing.
“It was all a machine yesterday. It is something like a hologram today. Who knows what intellectual rattle we shall be shaking tomorrow to calm our dread of the emptiness of our understanding?” Laing (1982)
“Is there a reality that is not framed or formed? No. Reality is always coming through a pair of glasses, a point of view, a language – a fantasy.” Hillman & Ventura (1992)
The act of perception is the art and craft of the framer. All perception is framed. The important question then becomes not what is included, but what has been left out. This filtering and framing activity does not result in growth but is for self-preservation and the preservation of the status quo. “I think I am real. I sense, I respond and am responded to, so therefore I am, and I am able to indulge in hope”. But it must be admitted by one who has fallen into the Ontic Break, that hoping will never assure existence nor create a stable, dependable reality.
“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is my self-of-selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all – what is it?” Jaynes (1976)
“Indian metaphysicians have long taught that the world as we perceive it is “Maya”, a word related to the root meaning of ‘show,’ ‘display,’ ‘appearance.’ Maya is often likened to ‘veils’ that interpose between our perceptive organs and reality, causing us to perceive only the surface, the outer appearance.” Metzner (1980)
From the perspective of modern quantum physics, there is a complete divergence between our outer appearance of solid matter and the quantum reality of vast empty space populated by dust size particles of energy appearances, but even this scientifically proven fact is unthinkable for most of us operating from within our carefully constructed versions of reality. We operate under the illusion that we are in touch with the world. In fact, we are only in touch with words.
“In the natural history of the living human being, ontology and epistemology cannot be separated. His (commonly unconscious) beliefs about what sort of world it is will determine how he sees it and acts within it, and his ways of perceiving and acting will determine his beliefs about its nature. The living man is thus bound within a net of epistemological and ontological premises.” Bateson (1972)
So as we dig deeper into Maya and further from the myth and illusion of a constant, objective, predictable realness, the quantum waver and rift in our Newtonian Perception begins its unsettling quake and quiver.
“Our minds are abased when we contemplate the abysmal, amazing, wonderful discrepancy between what is going on, in, between, and around us, and our capacity to conceive it. We fumble for metaphors and paradigms, which are less analogous to the processes of reality than the barking dog resembles the Dog Star, or the howling of a wolf resembles the moon.” Laing (1982)
“They see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave? The truth can be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. And what would follow if these prisoners were suddenly released from their shadowy world? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of that behind his so called realities.” Plato
For those few so possessed or inclined towards Ontic Contemplation, this attempt at parting the veils of Maya is necessary and unavoidable. The answers may never be found, but individual consciousness nevertheless requires this play of questioning. Our culture rarely doubts the correctness of Aristotelian logic, and it is exceedingly difficult to even be aware of, let alone indulge in, experiences that contradict that logic.
So, who am I? What is this process, this life, and, who are you? These most basic perennial questions mark the beginning of a deep interior inquiry. Ordinary learning is predominately a conditioning process and can be a wonderful, useful tool. However, often this conditioning of the self can imprison us within social form and expectations. We can be rendered into somnambulistic autoforms following prescribed programs that may serve an orderly society, but do not serve the truth of our existence.
“Ordinary men are not at all conscious: they are complete automatons, completely programmed by their environment to automatic reactions, and they do not maintain awareness of themselves as discrete entities and react with free volition, even though the potentiality for this is available.” Tart (1975)
We hold onto and patch up the quaking self through identification and attachment. This involves the merging or blending with a particular group, activity, belief system to the degree that you become that thing and it defines your being.
“Sanity today appears to rest very largely on a capacity to adapt to the external world, the interpersonal world, and the realm of human collectives.” Fadiman & Kewman (1973)
“What we call a good adjustment, and what has been described very nicely as being able to fit into the right harness, that is, getting along well in the world, being realistic, common sense, being mature, taking on responsibility.” Maslow (1986)
“But our particular problem in the present day, as we have seen, is an overwhelming tendency to wear conformity. The radar directed person, who is desperately trying to live by what the group expects of him, will obviously think of morality as “adjustment” to the standards of his group. In such times ethics tend more and more to be identified with obedience.” May (1953)
“Clinical study of this capacity confirms beyond a doubt the opinion, e.g., of Fromm (81) that the average normal, well-adjusted person often has not the slightest idea of what he is, of what he wants, of what his own opinions are.” Maslow (1954)
We can identify with an almost infinite number of possible distractions: The pleasures of gluttony, sensuality, money, power, fame, family, hobbies, collections, professions, political parties, and churches can fill our consciousness. We latch onto pain and illness, memories of success or misfortune, hopes, fears, and schemes for the future. This propensity for deep identification means losing any possibility of creative individuality through a complete submersion within one’s society.
“The clinging to any reality at all as “the reality” is the definition of insanity.” Dass (1987)
This Society, to which we are so thoroughly attached, and with which we are so thoroughly identified is often referred to metaphorically as if it were a distinct, living being. It exerts tremendous control over our individual lives, and possesses, like any other living being, a strong survival instinct. Society is about indoctrination, cohesion, and conformity. It is a machine created to serve its own on-going survival, and it is often an arbitrary and ruthless taskmaster, requiring abdication of individuality in trade for its beneficence. Society is a beast born of fear and collective instincts. It can be a vampirish specter, requiring the life force of its members so it can remain preeminently powerful, and in control for the perpetuation of the collective structure. While occasionally reflecting our higher and nobler aspirations, society often reflects an energetic image of our collective neurosis.
“People affected by this condition are generally very conservative in their views. They cannot be daring; they cautiously travel along beaten paths. Although restricted in their outlook, they are not necessarily unsuccessful in their dealings with society. On the contrary, in many instances they give the impression of being ‘well adjusted’ and successful in every respect. Inasmuch as they tend to adhere strictly to conventional habits, they become stereotypes to a somewhat comical degree and are often portrayed as humorous stock characters in plays, movies, and novels.” Arieti (1967)
These are the imitators, the slaves to convention, those caught within the lock-step life. This is the essence of inauthenticity, the antithesis of individuation and although it is a frightening prospect to those who ‘see’ it is just the usual, normal life to those swimming within its waters. Schactel now speaks to a different form of adaptive conformist – the clever fellow who ‘knows the ropes.’
“The first example is that of the pseudo-realist, ubiquitous in modern civilization. He knows all the answers, knows how to handle everything, often even knows what is “behind” everything. Nothing astonishes him, nothing gives cause for wonder and nothing is mysterious to him. His world consists of objects-of-use. Thus, he succeeds in avoiding the disquietude and anxiety of the unknown which the full encounter would cause him, although he is not aware of this.” Schactel (1959)
Consider the proposition that the self does not and cannot exist, nor even be conceived of independently or out of socio-cultural relationships. Although this level of involvement and dependency on society can easily be viewed with abhorrence, it is eminently clear there are also tremendous and necessary advantages and opportunities, not only for sustenance, support, and protection, but also for stimulation, learning, and relationship. In other words, societies can provide us with a kind of vitality needed to function in the ‘real’ world, particularly with the demands of commerce and achievement required by western culture.
We are not referring to something that appeared suddenly at this moment in history, but simply the current manifestation of millions of years of human evolution and development. We as individuals and as social beings are the end product of a lineage of billions of prior humans who have struggled and passed on this legacy, which we now husband and modify in our time.
“Experience can enter into awareness only under the condition that it can be perceived, related, and ordered in terms of a conceptual system and of its categories. Every society, by its own practice of living and by the mode of relatedness, of feeling, and perceiving, develops a system of categories that determines the forms of awareness. This system works, as it were, like a socially conditioned filter; experience cannot enter awareness unless it can penetrate this filter.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
We as individuals and societies do this primarily for one reason – self-preservation. It is done not for growth, evolution, greater complexity, and diversity, but simply preservation of the status quo and the self-quo.
“Our ego is the most important object of our self-property, for it comprises many things: our body, our name, our social status, our possessions (including our knowledge), the image we have of ourselves and the image we want others to have of us.” Fromm (1981)
Our sanity seems to rest largely on our ability to adapt and believe in the external world, as we perceive it. What we call a good adjustment is this ability to fit into the right harness, to get along well, to have realistic common sense and to take on responsibility. To fit in with the conventional world of (superficial) normalcy is clearly the societal ideal: it is sought after, rewarded, and encouraged by most of our institutions. The ‘normal’, perfect citizen is really not functioning in a conscious, self-reflective condition, but is in effect quite somnambulistic. He often has not the slightest idea of what he is or what he might really want. He is asleep. “In the alienated state of mass communication, the average citizen knows dozens of TV personalities who come smiling into his living room every evening – but he himself is never known.” May (1969)
“All of these types of embedded structures are examples of automatic routines or sets by which the mental ego, unbeknownst to itself, organizes or interacts with experience as embedded structures, they have the effect of screening, filtering, or repressing, and hence submerging into unconsciousness, many stimuli that otherwise would be accessible to awareness.” Washburn (1988)
The somnambulistic and slavish adjustment to the forms and rules of social expectation can reflect a more sinister condition, an almost pathological soulless state, which seems to affect masses of people. Although restricted in outlook, they are not necessarily unsuccessful in their dealings with society. On the contrary, they can appear well adjusted and successful in every respect. They know all the answers; they can handle everything. Nothing astonishes or gives cause for wonder; nothing is mysterious. Thus they succeed in avoiding disquietude and anxiety, which a full encounter with the unknown would cause, although they are not aware of this.
“The minute you identify with your models, roles, or any characteristic, any individual difference, change is really fierce. Freud saw the psychosexual stages of development as real and Adler saw power as real and Jung saw archetypes as real and they are all relatively real, like Newtonian Physics is relatively real and, in the same way, Einsteinian physics is relatively real.” Dass (1975)
“‘Being’ for most people is an attachment to a model in one’s head.” Dass (1975)
“Among modern teachers, Gurdjieff in particular has emphasized the mechanical, somnambulistic quality of our everyday consciousness: We have no awareness of our mental processes; they simply flow along, following the automated lines of habitual conditioning. We think we are awake, but in fact we are asleep, dreaming that we are awake.” Metzner (1980)
This adaptation, this conformity, this unconscious state, because it is ‘normal’, can also be ideal and optimum. It can be safe and easy – at least as long as nothing intrudes to ‘wake up’ the sleeping dog and turn the peaceful, stable, ‘happy’ life inside out. However, it can also be seen as sub-optimal, painful and dysfunctional. These states of normality, conformity, and adjustment often fit very appropriately under the heading of pathology.
“To be a ‘normal cultural man’ is, for Kierkegaard, to be sick whether one knows it or not.” Becker (1973)
“The pathology of normalcy.” Fromm (1955)
Good adjustment for any individual is generally assumed to depend more or less on his feeling, thinking, and acting pretty much as other people do, of liking what they like, hating what they hate, believing what they believe – without knowing why. None of this is ‘bad’ in any way except when misapplied to individuals who really require the polar opposite in perspective and treatment. What these conventional approaches consider normal is actually, from the broader Ontic Perspective, a case of developmental arrest.
“Much of what we would think of as ‘adaptation’ or ‘adjustment’ or ‘conformity’ certainly has an important component of inauthenticity.” Bugental (1965)
“Our ‘normal’ ‘adjusted’ state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities.” Laing (1972)
All cultures and societies are inherently sick to some degree. They all are to a significant degree anti-individual and counter-creative. Societies must be somewhat retarding and stultifying by necessity, to insure order, stability, and continuity for the mass of the citizens. When we encounter an Ontic Initiation, which is a process of heroic self-exploration and eventual individuation, awareness, insight, or glimpse into that larger reality, may be the undoing of someone trapped in such a somnambulistic world. If that person contains the seeds of individuality and consciousness, then he or she will likely experience significant life changes at some time.
“The faithful remain children instead of becoming as children, and they do not gain their life because they have not lost it.” Campbell (1971)
Not everyone is given the opening and opportunity to glimpse other options, possibilities, and universes. And exactly why some people become conscious and awaken to deeper expansive states of awareness while the vast majority does not is a mystery. There are no satisfactory answers to this question other than simply citing grace, destiny or soul process, which is not particularly useful from an academic/scientific perspective. The path to consciousness requires courage and also the ‘will to power’, but what is not readily evident is how people happen to develop or access this level of potentiality.
“Courage is the capacity to meet the anxiety which arises as one achieves freedom. It is the willingness to differentiate, to move from the protecting realms of parental dependence to new levels of freedom and integration.” May (1953)
“To be oneself. A man who is himself looks and behaves like a madman to those who live in the world of illusions; so when they call a man an idiot they mean that he does not share their illusions.” Metzner (1979)
“Nietzsche’s will to power is neither will nor power, that is, neither will in the psychological sense nor power in the sociological sense. It designates the self-affirmation of life as life, including self-preservation and growth. Therefore the will does not strive for something it does not have, for some object outside itself, but wills itself in the double sense of preserving and transcending itself. This is its power, and also its power over itself. Will to power is the self-affirmation of the will as ultimate reality.” Tillich (1952)
The will to power is simply the life force that bursts through the inanimate inertia, takes up matter and forces it to move, to live, to animate and be in the service of life. “The ‘Will to Power’ is built into every individual because it is inseparable from life itself. ‘Wherever I found life,’ writes Nietzsche, ‘there I found the Will to Power.’”
“Courage is the basic virtue for everyone so long as he continues to grow, to move ahead. The existential confrontation with death is probably the most powerful, potentially impactful experience for wakening a sleepwalking human being.” May (1983)
Courage is difficult to access in the face of chaos. When chaos is perceived, when disintegration, powerlessness and madness stare back at you from over the edge, what is the usual response? We tend to stay where we are, or regress, clinging to our known world where we can feel somewhat secure.
“Because I am afraid of the death of the total body-mind, I have to be careful in life – I have to hold back, inhibit, and freeze my entire being.” Wilbur (1980)
When one glimpses the inevitability of death and its potential offering of transcendence and reformation in a moment of Ontic Clarity, the terror generated might be so great as to squelch that very potential. The person may be thrown permanently into regression and avoidance of engaging an expanded life. The evolution into an unknown larger possibility usually requires some degree of loss and death, and the fear generated by this prospect can be a tremendously powerful guardian of stasis and perpetrator of regression.
The threat of ostracism, of being left outside, separate and alone, is the ultimate fear, and it can be the toughest aspect of the Hero’s journey until the separation is fully engaged, when alone instead becomes ‘all one.’
“The world inhabited by ordinary, nice, unregenerate people is mainly dull (so dull that they have to distract their minds from being aware of it by all sorts of artificial ‘amusements’), sometimes briefly pleasurable, occasionally or quite often disagreeable and even agonizing.” Huxley (1944)
“Everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness – agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same.” Becker (1973)
“We worship diversion and entertainment from a wide range of modern opiates such as movies, television, the conventional press and the more titillating tabloid press. In fact, almost all leisure activity has become the commercialized diversion, simplistic pabulum, legal or illegal, of the modern age. The model this culture works within is a model of gratification through external agents, getting more from the environment, man over nature, control and mastery for gratification, for creating your own personal heaven in which your ego stays paramount, your ego is ‘god.’” Dass (1976)
There is much comfort in belonging, being a part of the larger social organism, a member of a large extended family. Jung speaks of the natural petrifaction process whereby, over time, a form of mineralization permeates all living material until it becomes a stone image of what was previously vital, soulful … alive. This form has the advantage of unchanging permanence, reassuring to those who abhor uncertainty, evolution and messy vitality, but try as they might they will always find that life is inseparable from vitality.
“The growing person is forced to give up most of his or her autonomous, genuine desires and interests, and his or her own will, and to adopt will, desires and feelings that are not autonomous but superimposed by the social patterns of thought and feeling. By complicated process of indoctrination, rewards, punishments, and fitting ideology this social task by and large is so effective that most people believe they are following their own will and are unaware that it has been conditioned and manipulated.” Fromm (1981)
The ego is a reflection of its particular social object of attachment and identification. In our culture, dominance and possession seem to be generally the highest de facto values, and the ego is the product of these values. A contract exists between the individual and society to support each other in the ruse. A charade is necessary because it helps create the appearance of general stability, predictability, and consistency. It provides at this basic level of form and function a certain degree of security, material comfort, meaning, and purpose for the individual while insuring wholeness and continuity for the social order. It is an unconscious, unwritten conspiracy; and the price paid is the surrender of soul and the eventual petrification and decline of the social entity itself.
The successful Ontic Traveler is a hero serving the continuous renewal process necessary to life itself; but ironically, his path is not supported or even recognized by modern western culture. The process of standing against the common wave becomes the initiatory gauntlet; a character test of strength, persistence, and adaptability. Although not all will follow this Ontic Progression to its ultimate conclusion, it is possible to embrace a potentiality, an opportunity and a freedom that comes with understanding ourselves as beings that are flexible, adaptable and available. If that is the case, then we must begin to learn to ride this capricious process of beingness and existence that we call the Ontic Crisis.
DE-STRUCTING THE SELF
“Hades’ rape of the innocent soul is a central necessity for psychic change.” Hillman (1975)
We are now confronted with the necessary and inevitable process of letting go of the self-structure and its illusions, the loosening of its ultimate power over us. It is unsettling to discover the unstable underpinnings of much of what we as human beings hold dear and often sacred. We have stepped into the quicksand upon which we regularly base our beliefs and meanings, our drive for happiness – our very reality.
“Every creative possibility in individual development involves some killing of the past, some breaking of past forms or patterns; to move ahead raises the unavoidable specter of isolation from one’s fellows and one’s previous patterns; one is tempted to remain in the familiar and the safe, not to venture. But one achieves selfhood only by moving ahead, despite conflict, guilt, isolation and anxiety.” May (1967)
As we leave behind our reassuring and stable beliefs, the whole journey becomes tenuous and lonely. Some speak of nature itself as a language-made affair, ever prone to collapse. Fear of this collapse may be the most potent fear of civilized man.
“Is there any sense in wondering who or what I am and why I am here? Did I begin before or after, or at, the conception of the first cell of me? Shall I end before or after, or at my death? Am I dead or alive? Am I asleep or awake? How can I be certain this is not a dream?” Laing (1976)
“Any honest thinker has to admit the insecurity of all metaphysical positions, and in particular of all creeds.” Campbell (1971)
“Can we today afford the luxury of having ‘a’ reality? Can we still preserve the belief that there is a ‘real world’ upon whose definition we all agree? I am convinced that this is a luxury we cannot afford, a myth we dare not maintain.” Rogers (1980)
Have you ever met a person who said that they held no beliefs, or at least that all the beliefs in his quiver were only convenient, impermanent tools in a Newtonian Universe? As we leave behind our need for reassuring and stable beliefs, the whole journey becomes very much more tenuous and lonely.
“Mystic phenomena were a consequence of a deautomatization of the psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli.” Tart (1969)
Is it possible to carry within one’s consciousness, prominently displayed, the question: “Is life meaningless? Does anything, including myself, really exist?” The anxiety created by this consideration is the opening and the precursor to an often times brutal fear and terror that can follow when self and reality crumble and tumble toward the abyss.
“All reality is relative. Each reality is true only within given limits. It is only one possible version of the way things are. There are always multiple versions of reality. To awaken from any single reality is to recognize its relative nature.” Ram Dass
“Everything that constitutes for us the world – its brute stubbornness, its continuity, its logical coherence – is a flow of phantasms, a gossamer of Berkeleian impressions.” Smith (1985)
At this point in the process, as the previous apparent solidity and dependability of our reality structure cracks, and begins to implode, subtle mystic openings, and possibilities sometimes arise, and for some, this will point toward the Ontic Path.
“Parallel in many ways to the dream-sleep metaphor is the ancient notion that everyday consciousness is a shadow play of illusions and images, and that the transformation of consciousness involves the transcending or dissolving of this web of illusions.” Metzner (1980)
When the veils begin to part, the scene starts pixilating, fluttering, shimmering, and we realize there is no firm, predictable, stable reality. We see that all experience and perception is constant change, flow, emergence, and mutation; and that it is multifaceted, multidimensional and utterly subjective. However, at the heart of modern psychology, there is the intention to develop and strengthen ego structures. It is considered an ethical imperative that the ego/self be integrated, strong, congruent and ‘reality-based.’ The ego is a useful organizing tool for functioning within the social world, giving us a sense of identity and personality, a secure place in the world. This tool is, however, limited and flawed, and must be revised or discarded when it is no longer properly serving the truth.
“There is a real possibility that we may be helping the individual adjust and be happy at the price of loss of his being.” May (1960)
“In our culture, the self that is persistently and intensely expressed and experienced as breaching the reality of others will be called crazy.” Estroff (1981)
As the contents of our consciousness are categorized and filed away by the egoic organizing principle – hopefully in a useful manner – the end result is still disparate parts, and not an essentially integrated being. The walking Ego is like Pinocchio the puppet, awkward and disjointed before he became a real human being. Most people never reach a state of adultness or maturity. Retreat from maturity is the operative strategy used by the majority of people who engage in uncomfortable and disruptive openings of Ontic Exploration. There are many well-developed and socially encouraged strategies for retreat and reversal, from religious sanctuary, to forms of addiction, entertainment, suicide, sleep, sex, and madness.
“It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens; there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” James (1961)
For the person who is destined to experience this Ontic Crisis and arrive at the other side of it as a whole and evolved person, destruction of the ‘self’ is what is needed, like discarding old, worn, ill-fitting clothing. In nature, destruction is often the necessary process for clearing and cleansing before new life can erupt and flourish.
“In shamanic and yogic traditions, there exist practices of intentional fragmentation in which practitioners purposefully allow themselves to be divided and dismembered – psychically. This kind of conscious, guided dismantling of ego structures is regarded as part of the work of learning to function in different realities.” Metzner (1986)
This would be the kind of experience recommended within a shamanistic form of psychology. But in our present-day therapeutic model, if Humpty-Dumpty were to fall and crack open, he would be put back together, patched up with psychic super-glue and made almost as good as new. Rarely is there conscious, active encouragement of psychic disintegration or annihilation, which might serve to initiate the process of authentic renewal and reformation.
In truth, the ideal of security is impossible. Even if it could be attained, it would yield only a fixed, immutable, and ultimately lifeless condition. But this is precisely the desired state for many – to stop their world, holding it rigid and fixed, twisted into a frozen smile, an awkward poise. The place of Being beyond personality, or the ‘Ontic’, is certainly an area largely ignored, because it is an inherently insecure, fluid state.
“Attempts to awake before our time are often punished, especially by those who love us most. Because they (bless them), are asleep. They think anyone who wakes up, or realizes that what is taken to be real, is a dream, is going crazy.” Walsh & Vaughan (1980)
Existentialism was the philosophical sweetheart of the cafe intelligentsia of the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, propelled by the French writers Sartre and Camus, who developed and mainstreamed the ruminations of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and later Nietzsche. It was a radical shift in philosophy away from disembodied notions of logic toward the direct and immediate qualities of human existence and experience. It asked the penetrating questions about human beings not within the tombs of academe, but outside, in the sordid streets of real-life ‘quiet desperation’ and despair. Questions were raised about being and nothingness, personal isolation, meaning and purpose in life, and the inevitability of death.
“Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come and go. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked onto days – an interminable, monotonous addition.” Sartre
“They will have to find something else to veil the enormous absurdity of their existence.” Sartre
Heidegger spoke to the certainty of death and the ultimate meaningless of life. Sartre wrote about the contingency of the universe and human life as a ‘futile passion’, and Kierkegaard on the absurdity of the human situation and Camus on the indifference of the universe.
“Considering man’s position in the world, his separateness, aloneness, powerlessness, and his awareness of this, one would expect this burden to be more than he can bear, so that he would, quite literally, “go to pieces” under the strain. Most people avoid this outcome by compensatory mechanisms like the overriding routine of life, conformity with the herd, the search for power, prestige, and money, dependence on idols – shared with others in religious cults, a self-sacrificing masochistic life, narcissistic inflation – in short, by becoming crippled.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
“As regards the state of existential anxiety, previously mentioned, few know how to bear it, and therefore it is usually fled from, in the various ways adopted to appease it: external activism, from violent sport and reckless car-racing at the physical level to the struggle to contrive the triumph of some ideology; by admiration and imitation of “idols”, such as cinema stars and heroes of the boxing ring and football field. Others seek self-forgetfulness and satisfaction in immoderate sexuality, or be means of alcohol and drugs.” Assagioli (1975)
These questions about the authenticity, about the mystery of being in the world, are certainly parallel to the beginnings of the Ontic Quest. Many people are forced to engage basic existential considerations of loneliness, mortality, and despair due to traumatic shifts, challenges, losses, or radical reorganizations of their lives. Those who survive the danger, the challenge, and the opportunity are better for the experience, even if they return to the so-called ‘normal life.’ They will move on with greater clarity, less delusion, and perhaps more self-fulfilling activity than before. But for a few, the existential crisis can be the opening into a much longer process full of difficulty, challenge, and risk – an entry point into a deepening of the Ontological Process. Only in such an environment can the Ontic Journey begin, for such a journey requires a certain radical opening to the depth and breadth of the human experience, including its darker aspect.
“The existential ‘anxiety of doubt’ drives the person toward the creation of certitude in systems of meaning, which are supported by tradition and authority.” Tillich (1952)
This is not the fleeting identity crisis brought on by the normal vicissitudes involving job changes, relationship crises and the like. It is rather a deeply considered, personal investigation of existential realms, concerns, and conflicts. Personal autonomy, authenticity and self-actualization become foremost, and there is an overwhelming need to understand the ‘meaning’ of life in the world. We must confront and wrestle with personal bodily mortality and finitude, without the common religious platitudes to help us avoid that issue. And we must find the courage to be in spite of the prospect of a lonely and unexpected death.
“The first stage of regression in the service of transcendence consists of a set of such states of mind or feeling as alienation, meaninglessness, anomie, “nothingness”, worthlessness, anxiety, and despair. During this period, the world loses its meaning, life loses its purpose, and the self loses it presumed substance and value. The period is one of disillusionment and alienation from the world. Worldly engagements are suspended, and worldly identity and justification are lost. The process leads, it seems, nowhere and to nothing – except to existential exile and despair. But in fact the first stage leads toward a recognition, by the mental ego, of its “nothingness” and guild, and from there is some cases to an inner conversion.” Washburn (1988)
“We recognize the lost, confused, don’t-know-where-I-am feeling that deepens as we become disengaged, dis-identified, and disenchanted. The old sense of life as ‘going somewhere’ breaks down, and we feel like shipwrecked sailors on some existential atoll”. Bridges (1980)
Death is the metaphor for an ending to the unaware, ignorant, childlike innocence contained within the simple, conventional, unexamined consciousness of the old life. The death of that perspective, that limited reality, has begun as the process of transcendence and transformation toward a larger, more complex, and aware staging gets underway.
“Heidegger states that when one is brought back from “absorption in the world” and objects are divested of their meaning, one experiences anxiety at confronting the world’s loneliness, mercilessness, and nothingness. Thus, to escape uncanniness we use the world like a tool and absorb ourselves in the diversions provided by Maya – the world of appearances. The ultimate dread occurs when we confront nothing. In the face of nothing, no-thing and no-being can help us; it is at that moment when we experience existential isolation in its fullness. Both Kierkegaard and Heidegger were fond of word play involving ‘nothing.’ ‘Of what is man afraid?’ ‘Of nothing!’” Yalom (1980)
Isolated, alone, and separate – why is this awareness so terrifying? Because if it were true then we would be alien to our own universe. We would not belong here, not be part of this world, just a grotesque mistake of nature to be eventually killed off and forgotten. All of this is true and then also not true when we hopefully begin to see and understand that we are also very much a product and manifestation, an organic reflection of the vast and incredible life process which creates and nurtures us. Out of that churning, this fleeting and separate consciousness is folded back into the generative form and the process continues.
“When the egoic hero sets out to look for treasure and conquer the world, the existential hero sets out to look for truth and conquer fear.” Vaughan (1985)
Such struggles are part of the existential inquiry, but a significant difference arises between this examination and the further exploration required for an Ontic Crisis. The questions posed and the essential perspective and orientation of each are different. Existentialism is concerned primarily with life now in this embodied moment in history on planet Earth – with the joy, pain, and sorrow of the human creative experience in its raw, essential, and unveiled form. It involves ‘being in the world’ as opposed to playing with hypothetical, theoretical tinker toys. When one becomes entangled in an existential crisis or opening, it may be more than can be borne by that individual. He faces the prospect of ‘going to pieces’, and he may be compelled to avoid this outcome by means of various escape routes.
“Most people avoid this outcome by compensatory mechanisms like the overriding routine of life, conformity with the herd, the search for power, prestige, and money, dependence on idols – shared with others in religious cults, a self-sacrificing masochistic life, narcissistic inflation – in short, by becoming crippled.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
“As regards the state of existential anxiety, previously mentioned, few know how to bear it, and therefore it is usually fled from the various ways adopted to appease it: external activism, from violent sport and reckless car-racing at the physical level to the struggle to contrive the triumph of some ideology; by admiration and imitation of “idols”, such as cinema stars and heroes of the boxing ring and football field. Others seek self-forgetfulness and satisfaction in immoderate sexuality, or by means of alcohol and drugs.” Assagioli (1975)
There results a neurotic anxiety because we have given up our authentic ‘Being-in-the-world’ to illusory hopes for security, and the avoidance of tragedy. There is a reduction of our total capacity for Being into a smaller vessel that is mortally afraid of freedom.
Within the early staging of the ‘crisis’, although the psychic unity of an individual may be profoundly shaken, retreat is still possible. However, some individuals are not so ‘fortunate’ to be able to regress and escape and therefore must continue to separate and fall.
“A change – sudden or slow – in his inner life may take place after a series of disappointments; not infrequently after some emotional shock, such as the loss of a loved relative or a very dear friend. But sometimes it occurs without any apparent cause. The change begins often with a sense of dissatisfaction, of “lack”, though not the lack of anything material and definite; it is something vague and elusive. To this is added, by degrees, a sense of the unreality and emptiness of ordinary life. All personal affairs seem to retreat as they lose their importance and value. The individual begins to inquire into the origin and the purpose of life; to ask what is the reason for so many things he formerly took for granted.” Assagioli (1965)
It is an ending process, where the old sense of life as meaning something and going somewhere begins to break down. The Ontic Traveler feels shipwrecked on an unknown island. It is a death-in-life, an ending to the ignorant, childlike innocence contained within the simple, conventional, mass-consciousness of the old life. The death of that perspective, that limited reality, is the beginning of the process of transcendence and transformation to a larger, more complex and aware state of being. At this place of awareness one sees clearly that there is no-thing to hold on to, and no-thing that can save. This is the realm of the Ontic, the world of being, devoid of things, concepts, ideas, structures and creations. Nothing ….
“Insofar as our identity is originally built as a defense against nonexistence, the prospect of letting it go faces us with our primal fear of death and the unknown. The path of life’s forward movement always leads from the known, familiar place that we presently inhabit into a larger unknown that lies ahead of us.” Welwood (1986)
This can be a terrifying awareness, and yet when we (hopefully) begin to see and understand that we are also very much a product and manifestation – an organic reflection of the vast and incredible life process which creates and nurtures us – we can move on in a progressive, rather than regressive, manner.
“The individual comes to realize through these experiences that no matter what he does in his life, he cannot escape the inevitable: he will have to leave this world bereft of everything that he has accumulated, achieved and has been emotionally attached to. The similarity between birth and death – the startling realization that the beginning of life is the same as its end.” Ring (1974)
“What is myself?” or simply, “What is self?” “What is my process, my emergence?” People often say we are born without an instruction manual. I disagree. I think we are all born with a general kind of flight plan that is individual and unique to each of us. However, if we are to actualize that destiny or possibility, we have to be somehow open to the discovery that such a template does indeed exist and a breakdown and death of sorts has to be lived through and transcended. The level of Ontic Awareness on the other side of this death is our natural-born destiny, but it is a mature state and requires a passing of childhood.
“Kierkegaard would have called it the “sickness unto death”: a sickness that concerns the Self; a sickness in which the Self experiences itself as un-whole, split beyond consolation, and threatened with the specters of a deepening and even more hellish disintegration.” Levin (1987)
“The fear, then, is not of dying, but of losing what I have: the fear of losing my body, my ego, my possessions, and my identity; the fear of facing the abyss of nonidentity, of ‘being lost’.” Fromm (1981)
It is amazing how so many people take for granted their livingness, as if they had always been alive in this form instead of only a short few decades. It is also amazing how little help there is for the maturing human beings attempting to navigate these churning waters. It is natural that there would be attempts at flight and avoidance by the unschooled traveler, and that the courage ‘To Be’ is so hard to find.
“It can’t be over stressed, one final time, that to see the world as it really is can be devastating and terrifying. It achieves the very result that the child has painfully built his character over the years in order to avoid: it makes routine, automatic, secure, self-confident activity impossible.” Becker (1973)
“Yet there are moments when the curtain of reality momentarily flutters open, and we catch a glimpse of the machinery backstage. In these moments, which I believe every self-reflective individual experiences, an instantaneous defamiliarization occurs when meanings are wrenched from objects, symbols disintegrate, and one is torn from one’s moorings of ‘at-homeness’”. Yalom (1980)
This is banishment in the worst sense because only the banished knows what is happening. They disappear while surrounded by the world of bustling normalcy, but they are not being seen or seeing as they become completely disconnected from life.
Dissolution represents the period of psychic dying when the self becomes fluid and formless. It is the period of the most radical change, when the chrysalis is neither caterpillar nor moth, previous self or new self. It is a time of disintegration and terror, when the old form dies and dissolves into the becoming of an unknown new form.
When the time is ripe, and often without warning, the final fall of the last vestige of the old self begins a dizzying descent. Like a roller coaster, it is nothing less than a freefall toward the abyss.
“People who are in such a crisis are bombarded with inner experiences that abruptly challenge their old beliefs and ways of existing, and their relationship with reality shifts very rapidly. Suddenly they feel uncomfortable in the formerly familiar world and may find it difficult to meet the demands of everyday life. They can have great problems distinguishing their inner visionary world from the external world of daily reality.” Grof (1990)
“Most people in transition have the experience of not being quite sure who they are any more. This experience corresponds to an important element in most passage ceremonies: the removal of the signs of the old identity and the temporary assumption of a sort of nonidentity.” Bridges (1980)
This emptiness is increased by the addition, little by little, of a feeling of the unreality and the futility of ordinary life. Personal interests that previously occupied the bulk of her attention start to fade, their importance and value diminish. New problems present themselves that prompt him to question the direction of life. He wonders about many things which formerly were accepted naturally: the reason for his and other people’s sufferings, the justification of the inequalities of fortune, the origin of human existence and its purpose.
“In other times and places the person in transition left the village and went out into an unfamiliar stretch of forest or desert. There the person would remain for a time, removed from the old connections, bereft of the old identities, and stripped of the old reality. This was a time “between dreams” in which the old chaos from the beginnings welled up and obliterated all forms. It was a place without a name – an empty space in the world and the lifetime within which a new sense of self could gestate.” Bridges (1980)
“During the initiation of birth, the trauma is important in activating many physiological and psychological systems. Just as the effort put forth by the chick to peck its way out of the egg is necessary for the chick to gain strength for physical survival, the crises surrounding birth are fundamentally necessary. If the chick is helped by someone who good-heartedly opens the egg … the chick usually dies.” Joy (1990)
Immersed in the flames, she doesn’t know what is happening or when, if ever, it will be over. He doesn’t know if he is going crazy or becoming enlightened, and neither option is one that can be easily described or discussed with anyone else. Letting go of the need for stable and satisfactory answers is a big part of the dissolution process. Can I allow my existence without a tangible external structure? Can I let go, release and float at least for a while? There is the realization that she will have to leave this world bereft of everything accumulated and with emotional attachment – the startling realization that the end of life is really the same as the beginning.
“Authentic despair is that emotion which forces one to come to terms with one’s destiny. It is the great enemy of pretense, the foe of playing ostrich. It is a demand to face the reality of one’s life. The “letting go” that we noted in despair is a letting go of false hopes, of pretended loves, of infantilizing dependency, of empty conformism which serves only to make one behave like sheep huddling in a flock because they fear the wolves outside the circle.” May (1981)
“With the dissolution of meaning, Tolstoy experienced a dissolution of the foundations on which his life rested: ‘I felt that the ground on which I stood was crumbling, that there was nothing for me to stand on, that what I had been living for was nothing, that I had no reason for living.’” Yalom (1980)
With the realization of my total surrender, how can I possibly continue to exist – to live and breathe? I have given up and let go of myself completely, so what can still be holding me together?
“It is the egoic annihilation of ‘ceasing to be’ that is the true sine qua non of death-fear, and hence the most feared component of death.” Garfield (1975)
“When people are immersed in the ego-death process, they often feel overwhelmed and ravaged, as though all that they are, or were, is collapsing without any hope for renewal. Since the identities of such individuals appear to be disintegrating, they are no longer sure of their place in the world or of their validity as parents, employees, or effective human beings. Outwardly, old interests are no long relevant, ethical systems and friends change, and they lose confidence that they are functioning reliably in daily life. Inwardly, they may experience a gradual loss of identity. They sense that their physical, emotional, and spiritual selves are being unexpectedly and forcefully shattered. They may feel that they are literally dying.” Grof (1990)
“True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality.” Fadiman & Kewman (1973)
This descent into dissolution, this annihilation of self, is a very dark, difficult, and necessary ‘night’ for the soul. Those who have gone all the way through this process, and have left behind some record of their experience, all say that despair and depression are an absolutely necessary prerequisite before we can ‘hear’ and ‘see’ the next level. To discard this despairing self and to step into the unknown future takes real courage. We will feel a nameless dread, a serious loss of initiative and a sense of utter meaninglessness.
“The ego controls you through your fear of loss of identity. To give up these thoughts, it seems, would eliminate you, and so you cling to them.” Sartre (1956)
“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33)
“Virtually every religious tradition knows of a period of protracted trial that typically attends spiritual awakening. This period is variously described as the dark night of the soul, the spiritual desert, the state of self-accusing (Islam), the great doubt (Zen), the ordeal of dying to the world, the descent into the underworld or into hell, the encounter with Kali (Hinduism) or Mara (Buddhism), and the passion or death of the self.” Washburn (1988)
There is often a necessary separation from home and family, from the ‘familiar’ world of relatives and friends, the world of our culture or tribe, of convention and stable expectations. The call may be a subtle inner prompting – a vague sense of needing to leave, to withdraw from external commitments and to ‘make some changes.’ It is the awakening of those dormant potentials that have been quietly waiting to be activated. All that is really known at this point is that there is an overwhelming drive away from the secure known toward the unknown.
“The dreaded confrontation with existential anxiety, this night journey, dark night of the soul, or confrontation with the Void. What must die are the ways (we have) given substance to being and to the world. For the person in this house of death, one feels oneself on the brink of dissolution and the world on the verge of destruction.” Bugental (1978)
“There was nothing: nothing but my terror, my aloneness, my emptiness. To draw a breath was to stir the griping cauldron of my stomach’s torment. And breath itself was reluctant. And so I leaped.” Bugental (1965)
The process of transformation cannot always be undergone in seclusion and peace. Friends and family do not usually understand what could possibly be happening to this person. Most people are not able to be understanding and encouraging of this kind of transformation – just the opposite. They just want the old, known stable and familiar personality to return. This contributes greatly to their pain but is an important part on the initiation. They may find it difficult to meet the demands of everyday life, including basic livelihood, as well as social and family obligations.
“But most radical of all, the very Ontological foundations are shaken. The being of phenomena shifts and the phenomenon of being may no longer present itself to us as before. There are no supports, nothing to cling to, except perhaps some fragments from the wreck, a few memories, names, sounds, one or two objects, that retain a link with a world long lost. This void may not be empty. It may be peopled by visions and voices, ghosts, strange shapes and apparitions. No one who has not experienced how insubstantial the pageant of external reality can be, how it may fade, can fully realize the sublime and grotesque presences that can replace it, or that can exist alongside it.” Laing (1967)
They may find it difficult to distinguish their inner, visionary life from the world of external, ordinary reality. There will continuously be the demand from that conventional world to ‘bring in a therapist to get them straightened out.’ It clearly is a process not befitting all, especially when there are no tangible rewards, no acclaim – just a process of constant opening into greater realms of the unknown.
“In a typical transformation process … the everyday world of reality, family, and culture may be experienced as strange and unfamiliar (“not of the family”). Seekers or travelers, having obtained some insight, or even a small glimpse into higher realms of consciousness, having seen the daytime sun outside the Platonic cave – may feel lost because they can no longer relate to the old, illusory shadows within the prison – cave. They become wandering strangers, filled with longing for a faraway home, the memories of which lie in the heart. Generalized, this feeling becomes one of life on earth as exile, banishment, or expulsion from a paradise state, of being lost and abandoned.” Metzner (1986)
In other times and places, in cultures more spiritually aware than our own, a person in this transitional state left the village and went into an unfamiliar stretch of forest or desert. Like the Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree, and Jesus in the desert, the person would remain for a time, removed from the old connections, bereft of the old identities, and stripped of the old reality. This is a time between ‘realities’ when all familiar forms and definitions are obliterated. It is a place without a name – an empty space in which a new sense of self and reality could gestate.
“When one’s customary ways of orienting oneself are threatened, and one is without other selves around one, one is thrown back on inner resources and inner strength, and this is what modern people have neglected to develop” May (1953)
What May speaks of is the great degree to which our western culture, particularly in the modern and postmodern period, has not embraced or encouraged a perspective that would recognize and honor this process, or assist with its inherent difficulties. We do not live in a culture that encourages wisdom and metaphysical exploration. We are generally still trapped in the scientific, empirical material paradigm; and so how are people to develop inner resources or strength? Where are they to receive the deep sage training and instruction? Our identities are built as a defense against non-existence, but the path of life is precisely this: A forward movement away from the known into the unknown that lies ahead of us.
This difficult process is a passage towards a new self-arrangement, and an awakened renaissance of life. If it is viewed within this context, the Ontic Voyager can receive great comfort and reassurance that their experience is not just an anomalous and unique aberration. They are sharing a special opportunity offered to a few individuals in each generation.
“He feels like an interloper, living between the cracks; his landscape is curiously fluid, and he must survive a succession of trials.”
“The Separation: … ‘awakening of the self’ … no matter what the state or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always on a mystery of transfiguration – a rite or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for passing of a threshold is at hand.” Lukoff (1985)
For those who have not retreated or escaped back into the old patterns and unconscious ways of being, this taste of the Ontic Death process can provide a lasting initiation, and forward thrust toward renewal, regeneration, and inspiration that can remain with them forever. There is an effective point of no return where it is simply not possible to retreat or undo. The old reality, perspectives, and ways of being are no longer available. The chrysalis has developed too far.
“Crisis has the potential to activate rich and mature states of awareness, with capabilities that are not stimulated in unstressed and overly protected (individuals). Difficult circumstances are the basis of great maturational potential if the psyche has been initiated in a way that permits the individual to embrace the necessary sacrifices.” Joy (1990)
“The flood of anxiety is not the end for man. It is, rather a “school” that provides man with the ultimate education, the final maturity.” Becker (1973)
It is retrospectively easy to throw out reassuring comments about the eventual benefits of riding out the terror of psychic dissolution and transformation. But for the individual in the midst of the anguish and disintegration, this offering of platitudinous assurances can provide little comfort, and also has the ring of insincerity and even untruth. It must be recognized that:
“Every creative possibility in individual development involves some killing of the past, some breaking of past forms or patterns; to move ahead raises the unavoidable specter of isolation from one’s fellows and one’s previous patterns; one is tempted to remain in the familiar and the safe, not to venture. But one achieves selfhood only by moving ahead, despite conflict, guilt, isolation, and anxiety. If one does not move ahead, the result is ultimately stasis, and a life of ordinary misery.” May (1967)
The ubiquitous and pervasive anxiety in modern life is an indication of how common and prevalent the denial of living in our culture is. This anxiety is manifested when we remain stuck, denying the cycling process that allows constant ‘dying off’ and renewal and thus refusing the unique flow of a complete human life. It is the unfortunate disowning of the potential of a newly invigorated and full life.
“Many who do not comprehend the significance of these new states of mind look upon them as abnormal fancies and vagaries. Alarmed at the possibility of mental unbalance, they strive to combat them in various ways, making frantic efforts to reattach themselves to the “reality” of ordinary life that seems to be slipping from them. Often they throw themselves with increased ardor into a whirl of external activities.” Assagioli (1965)
Growth is always a foray into the unknown.
There are many accounts of near-death experiences wherein the survivor tells of a transformative experience that has resulted in his or her living with a radically altered perspective. Inner potentials are actualized sometimes to an astonishing degree. The Ontic Crisis parallels this experience, even without an actual, physical brush with death. It is when we’re able to dis-identify from the ego that we set the process of inner liberation in motion. The near-death experience can be a quick and elegant opening toward transcendence – an instant way of dis-identifying from ego. In the throes of death, the transient nature of ego becomes manifest.
“The process is expressed as a dissolution and reconstruction. It is the nature of the center to undergo periodic disintegration and reintegration, expressed as death and rebirth, world destruction and recreation, and cultural revivification.” Perry (1976)
“The psyche grows by renewals – death and new life, revolutions and overthrows of what has been, and the burgeoning of the new forms dislodging the old ones.” Perry (1974)
This is the basic, constant cycle of all life at its many levels. When dissolution and renewal stop, there is stasis and entropy – no potential, no energy – a base dying that is the cessation of life and vitality. In the case of human beings, this ‘dying’ is often not physical, but psychic. It is a death of possibility, vitality, and forward movement, a smothering and muting of the life forces often towards a condition commonly known as ‘walking wounded.’ Unfortunately, it just takes a trip to the nearest shopping mall to see the myriad of faces of those who never successfully fought their way out of their old psychic containers.
“Any major change needs a breakdown.” Hillman & Ventura (1992)
The Ontic Engagement and journey is soul process. The soul, which holds the template of potential for an individual, sometimes cries out for actualization and fulfillment. It wants to live in spite of the risk, pain and danger always present at these rarefied levels of process. But the voice of the soul is subtle and can be easily drowned out in the din of worldly diversion and involvement. Radical responses are required from a successful voyager – resolution, courage, and a willingness to constantly ‘die’ while walking ever deeper into the mystery.
A Good Death
Life ceases when the process of dying and clearing stops. The reason that we cease being born is that we stop ‘dying’ in our attempts to retreat and ‘hide out’ in the snug harbors of stasis and complacency. The hero of ancient myth was the person who traveled into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and then returned alive. And this experience is a natural part of human potentiality, and not reserved for a few ancient sacred icons, however much their stories serve as demonstration, guide and a teaching for those able to hear it.
“An awareness of death shifts one away from trivial preoccupation’s and provides life with depth and poignancy and an entirely different perspective.” Yalom (1980)
It’s remarkable how most of us take the experience of ‘living’ for granted, almost as if we have always been alive instead of just a few years. And, it’s usually not until the ‘door of life’ is about to be slammed shut that most people begin to see and appreciate the uniqueness of this transient and temporary gift.
Though many will choose to return to the safety of their previously known world, some will, by grace or otherwise emerge into a new way of being. It will take time to integrate these revisions into a renewed and smoothly functioning form of self-organization. The journey has been tough and the weary traveler needs time to reflect, ponder and consider all that has transpired.
However, even smelling the hot breath of the reaper can be forgotten and denied with the multitude of distractive choices available to modern western man. But whether war, a near death experience or a death sentence from a physician, death in its various forms can shift people from their settled complacency toward very different potentialities.
“The most profound analogy for the radical transformation that is possible for human consciousness, is that of dying and being reborn.” Metzner (1980)
Although it is easy to lose the ability to function competently in ordinary situations and relations, this need not be so. The process of entering into the other world from this world, and returning from the other world, can be as ‘natural’ as dying and being born. It is also a process that sometimes can be navigated without preparation or guidance, just as death and childbirth. It is the cycle motif that is expressed in all natural forms of life, from the changing of the seasons, to continuous creation and destruction of peoples and planets.
Consider the natural climate changes that have occurred on our planet throughout geological time. It is also easy and comforting to recognize this as nature’s process, and that we are simply a natural part of that. If we observe the animal and plant life all around us, we see these beings apparently do not suffer the birth and death process in the same way that we do. The ego, although we identify with it in such an all-consuming degree, is not a vital function of our organism or of nature altogether. Hopefully we can put it in its proper place as a temporary, flexible and useful tool, serving important human purpose and process. So the ego doesn’t need to be destroyed – just kept in its place. This may require an act of faith in the beginning, especially when we find ourselves enveloped within existential despair. However, later we might see that this despair is a ‘graceful’ opportunity not for loss or dissolution but for new life.
This is a place of transformation and greatly enhanced life – if one does not retreat to a former compromised and partial existence. Constantly facing death and remaining awake will insure a life of incredible honesty and vitality. But it will require great effort not to be reabsorbed. The individual with the quality of rare authenticity can make a valuable contribution to his fellow beings, if he is not sacrificed and destroyed in the process by a frightened and ignorant conventional society.
“To live is to be born every minute …. Physiologically, our cellular system is in a process of continual birth; psychologically, however, most of us cease to be born at a certain point.” Fromm, Suzuki, & De Martino (1970)
For someone to rise above the social constraints, norms and expectations of their group is a heroic effort. It is a very difficult process unless the individual is able to see and hold himself within the realm of the larger numinous relationship, dancing with its possibilities. These self-actualizing people cannot be considered ‘well-adjusted’ in the usual sense. They are rebels – quiet and otherwise, but also the growing tip of the vibrant, alive, creative aspects of society and culture. These individuals cannot manifest their lives in a way that normal conventional society thinks they should, nor can they adopt a defined cultural role. In fact, they must refuse attempts at definition in any form. They are indefinable.
“I am on the verge of a terrible emptiness and a miraculous freedom. The nothingness of being, the transitoriness of substance, the endless possibilities of awareness are so shocking to recognize.” Bugental (1978)
We are told from childhood that we must set life or career goals in order to be a fully functional and successful human being. The belief that life is incomplete without goals and goal-fulfillment is a western myth, a cultural artifact. From where do the apparent need for goals and self-definitions usually originate? From the socially and culturally conditioned ego, of course. Such goals are a great device for keeping people occupied and on the socially approved track. They also yield up the products of production, progress and performance that can be materially enhancing to the society. Many people following this track can reach a place of partial satisfaction, complacency, or stasis. Our society encourages this as ‘the pathology of normalcy.’
“The values and strivings of those past worlds no longer interest him save from the historical standpoint. Thus he has become “unhistorical” in the deepest sense and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live entirely within the bounds of tradition. Indeed, he is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that he stands before the Nothing out of which All may grow.” Campbell (1971)
If a member of the group is not one of us, he is ‘against’ us, an enemy, a threat to our general continued survival and process. Like a virus or a foreign cell, when such a rebel is recognized, society begins to call upon the immune defenses to develop the antibodies—the rational family members, support groups, friends, or churches to help reverse the deviance. Finding one’s authenticity and uniqueness as a separated outsider in our culture and society is not easy, even though the United States is still a most open, flexible and tolerant country. The Ontic Deviation is a difficult road to travel.
“Though, in principle, self-actualization is easy, in practice it rarely happens (by my criteria, certainly in less than 1% of the adult population).” Maslow (1968)
And is it worth it? From the outside it seems to be a solitary, lonely, unconventional existence not full of the expected gaiety, excitement, and emotional happiness of conventional aspiration. It appears to be mostly quiet, calm acceptance of an easy, independent participation in life – not so special when viewed from the exterior. But living life at the heart of the mystery, without egoic restraint, is its own reward. Being united with the continual process of creation takes one beyond depression, past memoric assaults or vainglory, chaos and even emptiness. It is an occasion of great liberation when one transits from being afraid of nothing to the realization that there is nothing to fear.
“The full terror of the experience of the world is liable at any moment to crash in and obliterate all identity as a gas will rush in and obliterate a vacuum. The individual feels that, like the vacuum, he is empty. But this emptiness is him.” Laing (1972)
It is a deep initiation, and as with all real initiations, must include a degree of trial, pain and failure. The most significant trials will also have the highest level of attrition. It may not seem fair but that is the way of nature. Only those who have successfully entered into the realms of the mystery can truly know this. These realms can be known to only a few, and those few know that this experience cannot be conveyed, but only tasted personally in an intangible way. The subtle realms bypass the sensory channels and remain hidden, although they are everywhere present.
“The mystic who tries to speak logically and formally of unity consciousness is doomed to sound very paradoxical or contradictory. The problem is that the structure of any language cannot grasp the nature of unity consciousness, any more than a fork could grasp the ocean.” Wilbur (1985)
To the uninitiated who have not tasted morsels from the mystical realm, the descriptions and reports from mystical voyagers can sound incomprehensible – the utterances of madmen. The structure of language – any language – cannot grasp the nature of unity consciousness, any more than ‘a fork can grasp the ocean.’ Although the wise and clever mystic knows when to remain silent before he is locked up, he is also able to maintain access to the ego and its practical uses in order to function within ‘normal’ reality. Sometimes he can even describe something of what he sees and understands. These attempts at describing the indescribable have been, throughout human history, the basis of the world’s religious traditions.
“Life is renewed by death because it is again and again set free from what would otherwise become an insufferable burden of memory and monotony.” Watts (1975)
The exhortation to carry death on your shoulder is intended as a constant reminder that one is, at this continually emerging moment, gloriously alive. Nothingness becomes the medium for liberation and enlightenment from within the Ontic Realms. Although physical death will arrive at some unknown moment in our future, it will not be an ending – just a transformative opening and return to a new and also very old plane of life and being. This extraordinary realization is compensation for the Ontic Traveler.
“One can summon the courage to wish one’s life only by facing one’s death.” Wilbur (1980)
Continuing to the end of the Ontic Process, we reach a non-place, existing theoretically outside even the condition of non-being. It is a no-place beyond being and emptiness. It is called no-thing. These states or conditions of negation are important to hold consciously within one’s Ontic Awareness. They are essential for complete definition, manifestation, and full realization of their opposite conditions: form, structure, and empirical substance.
“At the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At this darkest of moments, come the light.” Campbell (1973)
“Desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounds him without opening or end.” James (1961)
It can be a difficult balancing act to hold to this level of paradox, but we must realize that mysticism is paradox, so it must be engaged. The ultimate paradox is to leave yin and yang and be able to step beyond the polarity of being and non-being, and then to finally abandon even paradox. The experience can either be eerie and terrifying or eerie and wonderful. It is a matter of degree of surrender.
“The essence of my being is that I am subjective awareness continually in process. I cannot identify myself with any substance (for example, my body), anything I produce (my words in these pages), any supposed attribute (my interest in others), my past, my prospects for the future, my thoughts of the moment, or anything else. In short, I am no thing, nothing.” Bugental (1976)
“‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ – The ultimate reassurance – and the ultimate terror.” Laing (1961)
“Certain individuals who have survived the ravages of chaos seem to gain a depth of maturity, compassion, and a rich spirituality that is completely absent in people who are naive and untraumatized. Such chaos is a contemporary rite of passage, or initiation, that was previously handled through sacred rites and vision quests to select out those individuals who have the interior resources to become Teachers, Priests, Healers, and Sages.” Joy (1990)
“The amalgam of dying, being born and giving birth results in a sense of destruction of the old personality-structure and the birth of a new self. This process bears a striking similarity to the events described through the ages in shamanic initiation, rites of passage, temple mysteries, and in the ecstatic religions of many ancient and preliterate cultures.” Grof (1980)
Death is the great cleanser.
“The structure of nature may eventually be such that our processes of thought do not correspond to it sufficiently to permit us to think about it at all …. The world fades out and eludes us …. We are confronted with something truly ineffable.” Smith (1982)
“This transcending orientation can prove at once frightening and exhilarating. Just as it bestows greater choice and freedom, so it exacts the price of our sense of familiar, comfortable knownness. Endless possibilities unfold before us, but the certainty of calling any one real is denied us.” Bugental (1965)
If we have finally reached the place of being both alive and awake, we will also discover that, surprisingly, life has not really changed much at all. This is reflected in the classic Zen story, where it is taught that before enlightenment ‘there is a mountain.’ During practice, the mountain seems to disappear. When the process is complete, there is the mountain again. This is a strong indicator of a sublime, quantum shift, when everything can be gone, and yet also paradoxically remains the same.
“And this is not a work that consciousness itself can achieve. Consciousness can no more invent, or even predict, an effective symbol than foretell or control tonight’s dream.” Campbell (1973)
“The whole thing is being worked out on another level, through what is bound to be a long and very frightening process, not only in the depths of every living psyche in the modern world, but also on those titanic battlefields into which the whole planet has lately been converted. We are watching the terrible clash of the Symplegades, through which the soul must pass.” Campbell (1973)
Having developed authentic maturity, one becomes as a child, retaining a freshness of perception in a world renewed and intensely alive.
“It seems as if the whole world, almost everyone that you know, is asleep. Only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement.” Joe vs. The Volcano.
And when I am able to see ‘me,’ watching ‘me’ watching, then the veils begin to part. To dwell within Ontic Consciousness is both profound and profoundly simple, requiring nothing but relaxed expansive attention. Although there is no place one has gone and nothing to do, one has nevertheless traveled down a long and difficult road. The ‘real’ man is the one who has moved beyond his existing condition or form, like a reptile shedding its skin. It can grow no larger in its current confining form. If the human being is to continue living in a genuine, authentic sense of moving forward or emerging and expanding, then transcendence will be a constant process. The truly alive individual must learn to continuously step out and beyond the current and confining old forms and into the freshness.
“This process is a mystery, tremendous and horrific, because it smashes all of your fixed notions of things, and at the same time utterly fascinating, because it’s of your own nature and being.” Campbell (1988)
This is perhaps the most startling part of this process. All of it is totally beyond our control as individual beings caught within the deep swirl of destiny and these incredibly mysterious forces at play. As enlightened, scientifically-imbued humans living at the beginning of the third millennium, we still believe in the illusion that we, as rather simple, unconscious, ego-driven beings, really control our own destinies in a linear, empirical universe. Our hubris is laughable.
But to glimpse or begin to recognize and appreciate the complexity and depth of the subtle non-empirical mystical worlds and forces a difficult and dangerous journey must be undertaken. Only upon the successful completion of a journey, which may take the better part of a lifetime, does the clarity of what we are describing become manifest and understood within a full and deep knowing. The mysterious realms of the Ontic Universe flow through us, within us, around each one of us, and each person rides a unique wave – but only a few can see.
The primary challenge, once you are able to begin perceiving Ontic Reality, is to learn the skills of the Taoist boatman – to find and understand your particular current, and then in a simple way to ‘row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,’ merrily, consciously, appreciatively now, for life can be a wonderful dream. The unlimited realms of being are laid out before you … just waiting to be discovered.
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