In addition to the foremost psychologists mentioned by the leader of the French Transpersonal Association, Europe offers a precious spiritual tradition, mainly among Christian sources, and both contributions are relevant for the development of research in the field.
The ego-Self axis in European transpersonal psychologists
The common element to four of the above five European transpersonal pioneers is the conception of the ego-Self axis.
Carl Gustav Jung. Widely overcoming the narrow psychoanalytic concept of personality, based on the mechanistic, materialistic and biomedical model, Jung defined the Self as a totality, embracing individual and collective unconsciousness and synthesising all of their polarities in a wholeness. He pointed out that the Self is not only a totality, but also a center transcending the ego and operating on it. Such a paradoxical description of the Self as a wholeness and transcendent center is widely described in the Upanishads, the last part of the Vedas, the ancient Hindu sacred texts, on which is founded the Advaita Vedanta tradition, providing the largest source of knowledge of the nature of the Self and Self-realisation. Jung used a symbolic language to define the Self. The symbol he used is the circle, an archetypal figure of entireness, where the circumference represents all the forms of individuality and the center the point to which all refers. In other words, the circle represents the Self as the center of an extension that includes all human components, and that maintains and holds in equilibrium the entire psyche and the personal ego7 .
Comparing the totality of the Self to the fragmented ego expressing itself as a mask or persona, Jung used another metaphor, noting that: as the earth turns around the sun, so the ego turns around the Self8 . As a central and transcendent principle, the Self is like an interior guide of superior order: differentiated by the conscious personality, it is a higher subject acting as a regulating factor, inspiring the ego and bringing it to maturation. The Self operates beyond the psychological contents and independently from conscious efforts.
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Roberto Assagioli. The father of psychosyntesis shared with Jung the conception of the ego-Self axis. In his view, the Self is behind, or above, the conscious ego, and exists in an area of reality which is different from the flowing of psychological phenomena and from organic life: the Self cannot be influenced by their contents but its own influence can deeply modify the psycho-physical conditions.9
Assagioli recognised that the Self has a permanent nature and is interconnected to universal life: in other words, the Self has a universal and transcendent nature that is beyond the limits of death and finitude. It is the archetypal essence of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, and the seat of the manifest spiritual virtues which originate from an undifferentiated and indivisible reality (Spirit, Consciousness, Summum Bonum).
Compared to Jung, Assagioli goes beyond theory and proposes a practicable experiential goal. With him, Self-realisation becomes connected to applied and transformative spirituality: he referred to it as the goal of psychosynthesis and the highest meaning of human development.
Assagioli emphasised that Self experience is different from Self-realisation. The former is a temporary and transitory experience, which can arise when ordinary consciousness is deconstructed for various reasons, such as meditative techniques, deep visualisations, as well as traumas or experiences of deep love. Far more than a transitory experience, Self-realisation is instead the ending point of the developmental process of integration of all the unconscious potentialities: it is the highest stage of identity and consciousness.
Victor Frankl. The meaning of ego transcendence is implicitly found also in the theories of Victor Frankl, the Austrian codifier of logotherapy. In this context, the human dimension goes beyond the psychological patterns and includes a higher noetical area: suffering is related not only to psychodynamic causes, but also to noetical disturbances resulting in existential frustration and inner void and despair.
Overcoming the behavioristic perspective, according to which individuals merely obey or react to external stimuli, the Austrian psychotherapist stressed the free capacity to address the issues of life and to realise the specific meanings of an individuated existence. The need for meaning is independent from others and is an expression of human nature and a sign of mental health. The lack of meaning is behind the many corruptions of modern life and the repression of the need for meaning has a relevant role in the genesis of neurosis, and also of suicide.
The meanings pointed out by Frankl refer to the actualisation of the human potential, consisting in the unconscious talents of intelligence, creativity, and values: the psychology which addresses meanings is a “high psychology”, that is different but complementary to “depth psychology”.
The search for meaning is what produces the shift to ego transcendence: namely, putting oneself in relation with something higher: ego transcendence is based on universal values and meanings, which include the action of helping others. In this context, the evolution of human growth shifts from that of Homo sapiens, who moves between success and failure, to that of
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Homo patiens, who understands suffering as a mean of evolution toward a higher and wider way of being in the world.10
Carl Durckheim. Foremost psychologist and spiritual teacher, Carl Durckheim11 proposed an inner path that takes example from the great self-realised Masters and balances the two cultures of meditation and psychology. Deeply connected to the dimension of the sacred, Durckheim finds that love of God gives meaning to inner life and that spirituality nourishes the search for mystery inside the intimate Soul.
To Durckheim, the ego dimension is out of the great unity of the Self, and unifying the ego-Self dichotomy is the highest meaning of life. Overcoming ordinary personality and discovering the unifying essence of the Self is the issue of real maturity and optimal mental health. The goal of transcending the ego is realised through the path of initiation, that requires silence and action: silence for the time of inner search, and action for activating creativity to the service of life. Joining contemplation to action and service is the basic and fundamental way to realise transpersonal development.
The level of the human being and the expression of the Self are mirrored in the relation with life when action produces well-being and harmony. The supreme grade of human development manifests itself as a constancy in overcoming egoism: the more elevated is the grade of the human being, the more his/her life is determined by unity in behavior, feeling and thoughts. In this context, unity is not a philosophical term or an abstract theory, but a practical way of living, consisting of intuition, cooperation, love, and service. Durckheim stresses the power of liberated human beings, who are witnesses and messengers of the transcendent, superior order of life. These human beings of “high rank” are unattachable and authentically free from the boundaries of any kind of attachment to material and mental dimensions.
Dedicated to healing suffering, and differently from an Eastern guru, Durckheim has been a spiritual psychotherapist, who has used the psychodynamic, analytical methods, combined with the best of a real religious life.
Ego transcendence in Christian spirituality
The theme of ego transcendence is present in all these pioneers of transpersonal psychology, but the way to reach it has long been testified in the spiritual tradition. Since the very beginning, and up till now, the transpersonal movement has mostly approached Eastern traditions, rather than Western ones. Why has this been?
This cultural choice could be related to the explicit reference of Eastern traditions to a transformative spirituality associated to optimal mental health and development. Eastern sacred texts contain deeply differentiated methods of mental awareness and transformation, which help the healing processes at both the psychosomatic and the psychological level. Moreover, as it is
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particularly true of Patanjali’s Yoga tradition, they consist of progressive techniques which are most helpful for the difficulties of the neophyte, whereas Christian tradition teachings are apparently more fit for advanced meditators at an evolved stage of trans-ego development. At the present time, research in comparative Eastern and Western spirituality seems to be an urgent task, as it can deeply contribute to the understanding of the transpersonal processes and methods.
In my experience as a transpersonal psychotherapist and researcher in developmental theories, with a Christian background and a deep experience as seeker in the Yoga-Vedanta tradition, I have found common and complementary elements in Western and Eastern spirituality, relevant to transpersonal development and optimal mental health. In a developmental perspective, Hindu teachings are crucial for the integration of cognitive translogical structures (for example, the process of discrimination in Vedanta develops superconscious intuition), whereas Christian mysticism is especially precious to open the heart chakra and for the deep transformation of egocentric feelings towards altruistic and unconditional love. The combination of the wisdom of Vedanta with the agape of Christianity seems to unify the masculine and feminine polarity of spirituality and for this reason can represent an integral way for transpersonal development.12 In a healing perspective, both Christian and Hindu practices produce positive mental qualities and well-being.
In this article I will point out some basic Christian assumptions which I found relevant for transpersonal purposes in both a developmental and a healing perspective. They are taken from Meister Eckhart, St.Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, the Fathers of Philocalia, and from two anonymous jewels of Christianity, The Imitation of Christ and The Cloud of Unknowing.
The common denominator in these Christian sources is the idea that the spiritual path is composed of three basic stages: purification, insight, and unification with God. In this context are cultivated and developed virtues and mental qualities which are deeply relevant for ego transcendence and liberation from suffering. The most important ones are humility, devotion, surrender to God’s will, and mental silence. These spiritual qualities, which are the basis of the Christian path, are also precious for the transformation of mental factors of ignorance and separation, and their practice can have a direct application in psychotherapy.
Humility. In Meister Eckhart13 humility is described in terms of forgetting oneself: this is very similar to the Eastern concept of disidentification or detachment. Forgetting oneself does not mean that we must loose the love for ourselves or separate from our needs, but that we have to transcend the arrogant personal importance and the blind assumption that only our ideas are valid. A similar concept is found in Thomas Merton14, who points out that we have to detach not from things but from ourselves in order to see God. The obstacle is our separate will.
Both the Eastern and the Western tradition consider egocentric intentionality as a boundary preventing from the integration of transpersonal potentialities, till Self awakening.
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Personal will (meaning with this not the indispensable mental function but the praxis of an activity dominated by egocentric aims and attached to its pleasures and possessions) is the real enemy of spiritual unity.
In Christian mysticism, two are the grades of humility: one comes from contemplating human fragility, and the higher one from contemplating the perfection of God.
In the Cloud of Unknowing15 humility is described as the true knowledge and full awareness of one’s own ego as it is. A similar concept is found in St. Teresa of Avila16, who describes humility as the virtue that allows us to see ourselves as we are. As humility is connected with knowledge, it is also connected with awareness and insight on the ego’s unconscious dimensions: in fact, if we reach humility, we are no longer disturbed by what we are, we stop defending ourselves from our shadow and accept to see our real nature. In other words, the condition of humility, as acceptance of oneself, permits to overcome the defensive mechanisms, which create perceptive filters that obscure the vision of oneself.
In that it permits the acceptance and knowledge of oneself, humility is the main quality of clear vision, psychological integration and mental healing.
In the absence of humility and presence of pride, illusion and suffering develop: any psychotherapist knows that the super-ego pathology, which constellates the neurotic and narcissistic conflicts, is full of pride and therefore void of humility.
Pride is a main factor of inner hate, as it builds omnipotent expectations and motivations which damage the peace of the mind and create inner conflicts. The narcissistic struggle against one’s unacceptable limits and defects is a characteristic of the proud mind which creates separation in the inner world: substituting pride with humility is a task of psychotherapy, in order to create healing factors which alleviate mental conflicts.
Devotion. Like humility, devotion is a main quality for the Christian lover of God, applied as an expression of reverence toward God and all His creation. Devotion has an implicit meaning of all-pervasive and inclusive love for nature and humanity: it fosters ecological concern, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. Moreover, devotion is an attitude of pure intentionality which represent the essence of spiritual transformation.
In the Imitation of Christ17 it is said that the basis of the elevation to God is the intention to reach Him: right intention is the devoted attitude of looking beyond the visible reality, including one’s body and desires, toward the invisible essential goodness. In the Vedanta tradition, devotion is considered as an ardent will for liberation from ignorance, expressing itself as unceasing search for one’s real nature (the Self, or immanent Divine). In this context, devotion is at the service of self-realisation. The more devotion donates a pure and selfless intentionality, the more it donates a heart full of love. The Christian pure intentionality, as the Vedanta ardent will for liberation, is the cry of the heart for the unity with the Sacred, and such a state of spiritual desire pushes toward right action and loving feelings.
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From an ethical point of view, intentionality, as the ardent direction to realise the divine qualities, releases consciousness from ego attachment and promotes a redirection of desires and choices from egoistic projects to altruistic and loving ones.
Besides being an ethical quality fostering the loving relationship with God, devotion is a fundamental tool for developing intuition: transpersonal insight is the gift of an open and loving heart. In fact, the space of mind where devotion exists as an attitude or pure intentionality toward the Sacred, qualifies itself as a state of silent receptivity where intuition starts to develop. Like humility, devotion is also a quality of mental healing, as it dissolves solitude, insecurity, and weakness.
Surrender. In the Christian path, devotion is the door to surrender to God’s will: the peak of realisation of inner peace. It consists in accepting everything that happens in life, as it is and as it comes, with trust and serenity, listening with hope to the teachings of life. Such a deep acceptance brings the human being closer to the Truth, and also builds calmness, another quality of mental health.
The awareness produced by humility, the sense of love and insight produced by devotion, and the serenity produced by surrender to God, are also qualities of mental health which open to unity and interpersonal harmony.
The person who experiences humility, devotion and surrender becomes less and less concentrated on personal needs and more concentrated on the needs of others, thus forgetting personal difficulties and problems while becoming attentive to those of others.
Such egoless and altruistic attitude opens to Service and is also a way of healing one’s wounds: helping others and forgetting oneself produces an openness through which it becomes possible to receive transcendent healing energies; moreover, it gives meaning to life, dissolves fear, and increases freedom.
Mental silence. In the path of ego transcendence, both in the Eastern and the Western tradition, it is easy to encounter obstacles and pitfalls. The Christian sacred texts advise the seeker of God that even Service, which is the essence of egolessness, can became an obstacle for spiritual evolution, if one is attached to the idea of being a good person: in such a sense, Service might reawaken pride and personal importance. The advice is to consider oneself as a useless servant, to be protected from the ever-present risk of pride. The real spiritual ascender knows that what really matters is not what one does, but what one becomes by doing. The real aim of Service is to acquire virtues which can be means of transcending the ego’s prison.
In order to avoid pitfalls, the Christian purification teaches that it is necessary to live in solitude and silence, dedicated to prayer and meditation. The condition of mental silence is also mentioned in the Hindu tradition as a basic qualification for Enlightenment.
Patanjali18 states that “Yoga is the suspension of mental contents”: Yoga, which means unity of the individual soul with the universal soul, requires the dissolution of mental contents and
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the absorption in the void, as pure awareness without thought and images. Like Patanjali, St. John of the Cross points out that, as perfection consists of the unity of the soul with God, in order to realise it the mind must be released from sensorial reactions, intellectual thinking and imagination: any kind of mental process is an obstacle to the divine unity and must be dissolved. As the Eastern masters, St. John19 describes how personal attachments to sensorial desires and temporal possessions prevent from the silence of mind and produces weakness, affliction, anxiety and unawareness. In other words the path of purification of will, thought, imagination, feeling and sensation leading to silence, develops qualities of spiritual insight and a progressive freedom from suffering.
For the Fathers of Philocalia20, absolute solitude (Hesychasm) is the fundamental mean to develop mental silence, preventing stimuli which capture attention and move the flow of thinking .In Hesychasm, solitude is cultivated living in a cell: this is not only a concrete environment but metaphorically is the private inner space of prayer and meditation. The cell is the inner dimension where the meditator abides and leads the spiritual practices: it refers to a consciousness state of introversion and attention to inner movements, which submits the person to the so-called inner struggle against the mental enemies or egotistic drives.
In the spiritual path, the more virtues develop, the more knowledge and healing develop. Purification fosters gratitude and love for God, but also peace of heart and interpersonal harmony.
Mental health beyond the egocentric suffering
As already mentioned, the integration between psychotherapy and spiritual teachings offers an expanded framework for spiritual growing and mental healing21. Such an integral model is neither just another way of dealing with psychopathology nor another school of psychotherapy: it is a larger perspective for developing psychological diagnosis and therapy, which reveals the role of egoism in mental suffering and the role of spirituality for mental healing.
In this integral perspective, transformative spirituality is a means for ego transcendence and a healing factor for egocentric suffering. Transformative spirituality emphasises the fundamental role of love as a factor in the solution of conflicts, as well as of wisdom as a factor of peace, freedom and creativity.
In this frame of reference, two main categories of practices are relevant:
1. The Eastern practices of awareness and observation, in order to understand mental processes and overcome the illusory perceptual filters which create boundaries of consciousness.
2. The Christian practices of virtues, in order to develop positive states of mind.
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Observing the sources of mental suffering. In the awareness and observation path, it is possible to realise how egoistic factors can be harmful and produce mental suffering. For example, greed for pleasure and the focus on obtaining only gratifications, avoiding any frustration, is the root of existential anxiety and hostile defence against the world.
The need for ego assertion is at the very root of rage, fear, hate, and rebellion. The stronger the reference to oneself, in terms of “I like / I don’t like; I want / I don’t want“, the more the person is weak and dependent on others: such a dependence is a fundamental fragility consisting in the incapacity to bear the normal sorrows and failures of life. In other words, egocentric vulnerability is directly proportional to the feeling of personal importance: from the strong attachment to oneself come possessiveness and the anxiety of loosing things, and therefore dependence and agressiveness.
In the egoistic mind, solitude is always present: no-one in the world can warm the solitude which inhabits a heart closed by egocentrism! Moreover, passions, such as desires and aversions, create a basic feeling of insecurity and fear: the stronger the egocentric drive, the greater the terror of being disappointed and deprived. Resentment, jealousy, envy and competition are factors of egocentric suffering, present in those who are unable to accept that their will can be defeated.
The anxiety of abandonment is a result of the egoistic pretense that others must nourish one’s inferiority and frustrated needs: such people tend to become satellites of others, and expect love and food from them, in the illusion that they have the power to nourish them. From the egocentric attitude, particularly the pretense of being perfect, comes also the feeling of inferiority and shame for one’s limits and defects: such a narcissistic context, connected to the idea of perfection, is based on the will for power and can be found in persons who are extremely concentrated on their ambitions.
Integral psychotherapy teaches that optimal mental health can only be reached beyond the boundaries of ordinary egoistic attitudes, starting with their building rocks: pride and avidity. Real poisons of mind, they are at the very root of the sense of separation from the unity of life: they build ignorance and are the sources of all other factors of suffering.
One who is possessed by avidity and pride experiences the stress of competition, fear of failure, fragility and touchiness in interpersonal relations, anxiety for the future. One who is enthralled by avidity and pride experiences the worst state of dependence and weakness. Possessiveness and defensive attitudes are the effects of avidity and pride: they develop dishonesty and violence as means to compensate for the ego’s insecurity.
The practice of virtues as purification. Overcoming the suffering created by such poisons of mind reacquires a process of mental purification, which is nothing else than a cultivation of spiritual qualities: in Christian terms, the practice of humility heals the wounds of pride, which are intolerance, fear, and competition; the practice of devotion heals the wound of possessiveness and liberate from the sense of separation from others; the practice of surrender to God’s will
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heals the wounds of pride and avidity and releases from any personal desire.
The purity of mind reached trough humility, devotion and surrender allows the archetypal forms to start being integrated. Courage, strength, will and creativity are reflections of humility and devotion, as mental stability and lack of anxiety are effects of the surrender to God’s will.
In the spiritual path, both East and West, liberation from egocentric suffering starts when consciousness becomes inhabited by attention to mental contents. It then grows through the awareness of the duality of evil, or egocentric illusions, and goodness, as altruistic creativity. Liberation is eventually realised as the joyful expression of a non-ego state, when personal importance is abandoned and we live concentrated on cultivating virtues.
Liberation becomes a state of invulnerability when surrender to the divine will is attained, as the serene acceptance of the good and evil of one’s experiences, beyond attachments and aversions, in the joyful reverence for all that occurs in life.
Spiritual teachings help us understand that ego transcendence, through transformative spirituality, donates not only an ethical way of being but also optimal health and lasting joy. In the path of ego transcendence through dissolution of the egocentric boundaries, the themes of mental health, consciousness expansion, and development of virtues, appear in a continuum and demonstrate the interface between psychology, spirituality and social ethicity.
Ego transcendence is that which our world really needs in order to foster peace: beyond ego there is unity with the interrelated life of universe, the embracing with the infinite and the harmony with the Sacred.
By observing life in the perspective of unity with the Sacred, any concern disappears and the ever-present inner joy awakens.
When, in the permanent joy, the archetypes of the Self appear as the essence of beauty, goodness, and truth, all that has been looked for in the external world stops existing: any external expectation dies and the feeling of deep fulfilment and gratitude takes the place of any personal drive.
In the harmony of a purified mind, ego transcendence permits us to be what we really are: no longer a false and weak identity struggling for power, success and wealth, but a lasting channel of the Divine power and joyous witnesses of His beauty.
To strive toward this ultimate goal is the spiritual task of transpersonal research and its real meaning, that any seeker is to keep in mind and pursue, with the best of efforts, talents and love