The Spiral Self

Cycles of human learning and development from birth to death

Abstract

The argument is made that the processes of human learning and development — as described by the leading writers in transpersonal, developmental, and archetypal psychology — can be synthesized into a single model — symbolized as a “spiral self” — and used as a context for human development and learning.

This spiral model suggests that development follows a cyclical pattern of loss, transformation, and renewal. In the following paper, this model is proposed and described, and long-time hospice volunteers are interviewed to see if their experiences of loss, transformation, and renewal reflect this model and whether or not their attitudes toward loss, transformation, and renewal have changed during their years in hospice work. A phenomenological perspective was used in the research and in-depth unstructured interviews were conducted.

This paper is intended to benefit those who seek a wider context for human learning and development. It will also provide a theoretical model for understanding why volunteers in the hospice movement — by countering a common societal fear of death — choose to renew their commitment, repeatedly, to new clients, fully aware that they will eventually suffer an ultimate loss when their clients die.

November 1992. Revised July 2004, December 2013.

Part I. Spiral as Metaphor

Chapter 1. An introduction

In this paper, I will present a synthesis of several perspectives on human development and learning. I will focus, in particular, on a metaphor which represents the development of consciousness as a spiraling process — a series of transformations from one self-identity through progressively expansive new identities — a cyclical process which requires both loss and renewal, separation, and reintegration.

Our popular culture (1992) lacks rituals to help us through the denial of loss, a denial which prevents the natural process of lifelong healing to proceed. In this introduction, I will present the model, in brief, and later clarify each element.

According to the perennial philosophy — a distillation of core mystical teachings found in many cultures around the world — all aspects of creation follow a single dynamic pattern of change. The earth, humans, animals, insects, and plants all follow a journey which can be symbolized by a spherical spiral (See figure 1). The attributes of that spiral — its center, its axis, and its cycles — can be used to describe the rhythms of consciousness which infuse our lives.

Figure 1: The spiral model of the self

According to Wilber, the perennial philosophy, a term coined by Leibniz, is a worldview which “has been embraced by the vast majority of the world’s greatest spiritual teachers, philosophers, thinkers, and even scientists. It’s called ‘perennial’ or ‘universal’ because it shows up in virtually all cultures across the globe and across the ages. We find it in India, Mexico, China, Japan, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Tibet, Germany, Greece” and it has been espoused by “Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Newton, Pasteur, William James, Jung, Einstein, and Bohm” (1991b, p. 77; 1981, pp. 4-5).

In the context of this thesis, the word consciousness will be used in a very specific manner. According to the perennial philosophy—as presented by Wilber—underlying the cosmos is a single, ultimate, unified Absolute, which can be called the One, the Tao, the Whole, Godhead, Buddha-nature, or Brahman. In this paper, following Wilber, we will call it consciousness. Like a white light which is divided by a prism into its constituent colors, consciousness also includes all the forms of manifestation which derive from the One light.

From this perspective, then, consciousness is not solely a product of the finite human brain as commonly proposed in western science — a worldview which often reduces all realms of nature to matter. Rather, consciousness is the “energy” or “force” which interconnects every manifestation of creation as we know it.

The cycle metaphor (figure 2) appears all around us — “from the realms of the subatomic to the interstellar, in an endless variety of entities, forms, and formulae” (Jung, Psyche and Symbol, in Foster and Little, 1989, p. 129). The day cycles between sunrise and sunset bringing us to a new day again. The month cycles between the new and full moons bringing us to a new month. The year cycles between spring and fall bringing us to a new spring once again.

Figure 2. The cycle of consiousness

Furthermore, after the cycle spins through the phases of loss, transformation, renewal, and equilibrium, it begins again. According to the perennial philosophy, our lives cycle between birth and death and return to new life again. Civilizations cycle between their creation and demise, only to be created anew. Our universe is in the midst of a cycle between the Big Bang and the Big Whimper and will begin again.

This “round,” however, doesn’t simply return to the same point and repeat exactly the same growth again; it moves toward the poles of the sphere. In the evolution of human lifespan development, for example, our growing edge starts at one pole, that of birth, and cycles around the axis, expanding through mid-life in greater and greater sweeps, ever recapitulating the phases of balance, loss, transformation, and renewal. Then, in the second half of life, consciousness converges on the axis, spinning toward the other pole of death and enlightenment (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The axis: lifespan human development

The axis around which the cycles spiral pole to pole is infinitely graded, like a rainbow, between the infinite extremes of creation, such as subject and object, heaven and earth, evolution and involution, Yin and Yang, breathing in and breathing out, sorrow and joy (figure 4). All conscious beings exist concurrently on all of these parallel planes of consciousness simultaneously, even though we are only aware of a limited range at any one time.

Figure 4: The axis

This spiral journey traverses the circumference of a sphere which, in the case of human consciousness, defines the boundary between our identity of self and our sense of environment (figure 5). For Jung, the circle is a symbol of the bounded self which “expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between man and the whole of nature” (Jung, Psyche and Symbol, quoted in Foster & Little, 1989, p. 129).

Figure 5. The boundary between self and other

Furthermore, each axis is itself part of a larger cycle — each connecting with the other — which revolves around another axis (figure 6). For example, the perennial philosophy states that beings do not simply end at one extreme of development; following death, they are reborn. And these spiraling spirals spiral around other spirals. In other words, creation consists of infinitely gradated, interlocking spirals of energy and consciousness, cycling on a multitude of planes.

Figure 6. The interlocking order of the cosmos

The spiral — which defines the boundary of the sphere which represents the psyche-self — revolves around a one-dimensional center that represents the boundaryless center of the Cosmos (figure 7). It is the One point which includes everything that is, ever was, and ever will be. In various traditions, it is called by many names: Godhead, the Tao, Buddha-nature, Brahman. Scientists identify it as the point from which the universe emerged after the Big Bang and to which it will return.

Figure 7. The cosmic center

In the first part of this paper, we will look at each of the four dimensions of the spiral journey — the cycle, the axis, the boundary, and the center — through the eyes of transpersonal/ spectrum psychologist Ken Wilber, neo-Piagetian developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, mythologist Joseph Campbell, archetypal psychologist Carol Pearson, and mystic scholar Jill Purce. We will propose a vision of wholeness which includes the cycle of loss, transformation, and renewal (the dimension of personality), the spectrum of consciousness (the dimension of development), and the light of consciousness (the dimension of spirit).

In the second part, we will hear the voices of fourteen men and women comment upon this spiral pattern as long-term caregivers in a local hospice program. We will hear about their losses — personal experiences of losing of loved ones — and their renewals — creating new relationships with dying strangers. Finally, we will muse about the various facets of transformation for both individuals and communities, for they are inextricably interconnected.

 

Chapter 2. Around the cycle

The Journey of Self-transformation

The cyclical journey of consciousness traverses a circular path through four phases or seasons of change: the equilibrium of summer, the losses of autumn, the transformation of winter, and the renewal of springtime (See figure 8). One way to visualize this spiral force is in nature. In winter, a tree stores its life deep underground, but in the spring, it grows again, this time reaching even higher into the sky and deeper into the ground. Each year it follows the same spiral path of “death” (autumn) and “rebirth” (spring). (Yet each year it grows more, expansive its canopy reaching heavenward, its roots reaching deep into the earth. We will discuss this axis of development in the next chapter.)

In the same manner, the day cycles from sunrise to sunset and back again. The month cycles from the new moon to the full moon and back again. The year cycles from spring to fall and back again. Finally, one’s life cycles from birth to death and, according to the perennial philosophy, back again. This cycle is found throughout the cosmos—moment to moment, season to season, lifetime to lifetime, universe to universe—and has been described in the symbolic language of ritual, myth, and archetype by the indigenous peoples who celebrate this universal round.

At the turn of the century, French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep was one of the first western social scientists to study how this cosmic cycle applied to the human lifespan. In his survey of rituals from around the world, he discovered a typical pattern which represented the crossing of various thresholds in life, both real and symbolic. He called them rites of passage.

Life itself means…to change form and condition, [he said,] to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way. And there are always new thresholds to cross: the thresholds of summer and winter, of a season or a year, of a month or a night; the thresholds of birth, adolescence and that of the afterlife—for those who believe in it (1960, pp. 189-191).

During the middle portion of this century, following the lead of Van Gennep, mythologist Joseph Campbell studied myths from around the word and uncovered the same threshold-passage pattern. He used the term monomyth to describe the pattern, which he also called “the hero’s journey” (1972, p. 30). The hero—“whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream” (pp. 108-109)—was the champion of transformation, of “things becoming; the ever-changing world where the created becomes the destroyer who destroys the previously created” (p. 337). The primary role for myth and its ritual enactment, Campbell claimed, was to help “supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward…across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life” (p. 10). The hero was the individual who successfully navigated the journey of transformation, over and over again, in order to create a more whole, complete self on the other side.

More recently, three contemporary writer/psychologists have included the spiral journey in their formulations of human nature. Transpersonal/spectrum psychologist Ken Wilber defines human development as the evolution of self-identity—the expansion of the boundary between self and other—which follows a process he calls differentiation, transcendence, and reintegration. This process is parallel to that of Van Gennep and Campbell.

When a person is in equilibrium, Wilber suggests, her sense of self is identified with the attributes of particular structure of consciousness and she3 “must accomplish the tasks appropriate to that stage, whether learning toilet training or learning language.” To develop and grow, however, she must “let go of that stage, or disidentify with it, in order to make room for the new and higher stage”—a new, expanded whole-self that includes the previous whole-self as part of it. In Wilber’s terms, the person must differentiate from, or let go of, exclusive identification with a specific structure of consciousness and then identify with the subsequent expanded self-identity. Finally, we must integrate the two, now possessing the ability to act upon, or operate on, the previous skills, concepts, or structures. “Each transformation is a process of death and rebirth,” Wilber claims, “death to the old level, and transformation to and rebirth on the newly emergent level.” “This type of process is…repeated at every stage of development.” This theme appears throughout Wilber‘s works (1980, pp. 21, 29, 79-81 & 109-111; 1984a, pp. 53-54; 1991b, p. 183).4

Neo-Piagetan psychologist Robert Kegan also considers the perennial cycle to be the primary structure in his description of human development. In contrast to most developmental theories which describe a series of stable stages between which humans jump, Kegan claims that we experience a stable sense of equilibrium only at fleeting moments throughout life; most of our lives are spent in a journey of imbalance, moving through phases of loss and growth between these “evolutionary truces.” While in equilibrium, he writes, we hear the call toward a new balance and experience the loss of our old way of knowing the world—a way “which no longer works”—and this loss gives rise to anxiety and depression since there is not yet a “new coherence immediately present to take its place.” No matter how lost we may feel, however, a “new balance again and again does emerge.”

We will never restore the balance—but there is a new balance that can be achieved. We are not going back, but we are coming through—to a new integration, a new direction (Kegan, 1982, pp. 265-266).

Neither the hero of mythology nor the person of today are alone as we traverse this chasm between the old way and the new. Every time we begin this journey of transformation, we are companioned by what Kegan calls a culture of embeddedness, a particular community or supportive environment such as “the mothering one; the family; role-recognizing institutions of family, school, or peer groups; mutually reciprocal one-to-one relationships; identity-confirming contexts for publicly recognized, self-regulating performance (typically in work contexts; conceivably in ‘love’ relations, too); and intimate adult relations (typically in love relations; conceivably in work relations, too)” (Kegan, 1982, p. 256).5

As we move away from equilibrium and toward transformation, Kegan suggests, we don’t realize that our current sense of self is so fused with the environment that we are unaware of our being separate. In order to grow, we must differentiate from this invisibly-shared identity so that we can relate to the community from a conscious role of partnership. For transformation to be successful, this community—which Kegan calls the culture of embeddedness—fulfills three functions. First, it must first hold on to the person and confirm the experience of change through “careful attention, recognition, confirmation” and companionship.6 Second, it must contradict the desire to return to embeddedness and, instead, allow the person to become her own self. Third, it must continue to “remain in place during the period of transformation” so that the person can reintegrate, recover, and reconcile that which was once an invisible, confused part of the old sense of self. For example, a pre-school child may not experience herself as separate from the family unit and, therefore, cannot be aware of it. Following self-transformation, however, the parenting-ones becomes “others” to which she can now relate as stable “entities out there.” This transition from the fusion of self with invisible-other to that of a conscious partnership between self and other underlies Kegan’s view of development as a natural healing process (Kegan, 1982, pp. 116, 121, 127, 129, 256).7

The cycle perspective of development was also explored by archetypal psychologist Carol Pearson, who based her theory on the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, primarily Jung’s concept of the archetypal image. In one of his primary contributions to western psychology, Jung suggested that our unconscious psyche contains universally-shared voices, patterns, and images: symbols that represent various ways of experiencing the world.8 In her most recent work, Pearson organized twelve of the most common archetypal images around Campbell’s mono-myth of the hero’s9 journey. For her, these archetypes are “inner guides” which represent “ways of being”—both positive and negative—on the hero’s quest to “find the treasure of the true self” and then to return home with a gift of expanded consciousness to help transform the kingdom.”10 “Stories about heroes are deep and eternal,” Pearson says. They “teach us how we are connected to the great cycles of the natural and spiritual worlds” (1991, pp. 1-3).

In this lifelong, spiraling process of healing, Pearson says, we periodically revisit the various pairs of archetypes which make up our personality: the Innocent and Orphan, the Warrior and Caregiver, the destroyer and creator, the ruler and magician, the sage and fool. At each returning cycle of the spiral, we experience our world through the “eyes” of these archetypes. For example, just as we prefer to write with one hand rather than the other, we usually prefer to lead with one archetype of each pair. For instance, in the Caregiver/Warrior pair, our social training may teach us to lead with the Caregiver persona, but, as we grow older, we can integrate the Warrior shadow into our full personality. So, as we revisit these twin “roles” through the course of our development, we do so at a more expanded and integrated level. In recent years in U.S. American culture, we have begun to break the rigid stereotypes of these archetypal roles—such as the Warrior male and caregiving female—and rediscover the fluid, ever-developing relationship between the archetypes.

For Pearson, not only does this cycle of consciousness inform the patterns of lifespan development but it also describes the journey of awareness we experience in every moment. “Once we have opened to learning from all twelve archetypes, we might experience all twelve in a single day, or hour” (1991, pp. 7-8). Once a problem arises, this is how she describes the journey to transform it:

For the first few minutes you do not want to look at the problem (shadow Innocent), but then your optimism returns (Innocent), and you plunge into investigating the situation. Your next experience is to feel powerlessness and pain ,11 but then you ask others for support (Orphan). You marshal your resources and develop a plan to deal with the problem (Warrior). As you implement it, you also pay attention to what you and others need in the way of emotional support (Caregiver). You gather more information (Seeker),…make new commitments to change (Lover) let go of the illusions and false hopes (Destroyer)…in order to come up with a solution (Creator). That is, you respond to the crisis as a way of growing and becoming more than you were. Once the crisis is handled, you also look to see how you might have contributed to creating the problem (Ruler)—if you did—and act to heal that part of yourself (Magician) so that you will not create such a difficulty again. Or you may simply heal the part of you in pain over a situation you had no part in creating. This allows you to see what can be learned from the situation (Sage). Learning it frees you up to go back to enjoying your life (Fool) and trusting life’s processes (Innocent) (1991, p. 8).

Pearson suggests that this same model applies to personality as well as lifespan development as we dance through these archetypal phases from birth to death. Throughout life, therefore, Pearson suggests that wholeness is the ability to dance fully through the perspectives of all of the archetypal images in every phase of the spiral journey of consciousness12 (1991, pp. 7-8).

The hero’s adventure, however, does not exist only in books. To further the experience of healing and transformation, psychotherapists Steven Foster and Meredith Little have recently integrated Campbell’s and Van Gennep’s formula for the cosmic cycle with Amerindian13 rituals, and translated the rite of passage called the vision quest into the language and experience of contemporary psychotherapy. This wilderness ritual revolves around severance, threshold, and incorporation, and Foster and Little associated each of these three phases of consciousness with the natural rhythms of the sun, earth, and moon. As with Van Gennep, Campbell, Kegan, and Pearson, they noted that the successful journeyer will “encounter and ‘pass through’ the dragon-ridden passage of personal crisis” and “emerge enlarged and renewed on the other side, where his community awaits his healing return” (1989, p. 20).14

Now that we have taken a brief glance at these various descriptions of the cycles of consciousness, we will take a deeper look at each of the phases of the cycle—loss, transformation, renewal, and balance—from the perspective of each of these writers (figure 9).15 In each of the versions of the cosmic cycle, “the story begins with an ending and ends with a beginning” (Foster & Little, 1989, p. 20). We will start with our separation from the old way of life, followed by the transformative metamorphosis, and, finally, the return home to live life in a brand new way.

Loss—The Old-self Leaves Home

From a Buddhist point of view, life is filled with suffering. The cause of suffering is the separate self which clings to experiences, emotions, thoughts, memories and plans. The cure to suffering, said the Buddha, is to let go of our attachments by identifying with a more expansive self in time and space. Eventually, the future and the past become now. Near and far are right here.

The time comes when our current self-identity no longer helps us make sense of the world in the way it used to. The worldview we have constructed no longer matches our experience; the map no longer accurately represents the territory. In order for consciousness to expand, we must detach from our current self-identity by separating from it. This, however, entails a loss. Since our patterns of behavior and perception are familiar, we fear the unknown. We aren’t fully aware that an expanded, more inclusive sense of self lies ahead, a self which is more interconnected with the world. Instead, our primal terror is the fear of the metaphorical death of the current self. These fears run deep. Maslow pointed out that the peak-experience, which is often an intuition of that greater wholeness, “can often meaningfully be called a ‘little death,’ and a rebirth” (Maslow, 1964, p. xv.)

But it is only through this loss that the healing renewal can follow. It is only through dying to our old self that a new, expanded, healed self can grow. So, in order to allow this spiraling cycle of death, transcendence, and rebirth to continue, we must embrace death in order to grow. This is a primary teachings of many religions around the world. For instance, the snake appears in many cultures as a symbol of transformation and wisdom, from kundalini yoga in India, to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, to the scorpion of Amerindian culture. It is taught metaphorically that the snake, preparing to shed its skin, hides at the bottom of the wood pile—knowing that shedding its skin will be painful, leaving it without protection. The story of the sacrificed Christ, wound around the tree of life, testifies to the universal nature of this phase of transformation.

Wilber puts it this way. The self, fearing its dissolution, attempts to “screen out” its apprehension of death and protect its current identity. At some point, however, the self-in-the-act-of-becoming must leave its security, face its fear, and release “its exclusive identification” with the previous plane in order to grow, transform, and heal into the “the greater life, unity, and integration” of the next plane—an evolution toward greater “wholeness” of greater unity (1980, p. 110; 1981b, pp. 45-46; 1984a, p. 53).

However, Wilber notes, “it is only when the self is strong enough to die to that level that it can transcend that level” (1984a, p. 53). Although we must traverse the symbolic journey of death and rebirth again and again throughout our lifetime, if we aren’t ready or if we navigate poorly this phase of the transformative process, we may later suffer from related psycho pathologies. Wilber suggests that failed transformation is the source of much mental illness.

For instance, if a person fails to completely release a particular self-identity and remains fixated, he “remains obsessed with gratifications he or she ought otherwise to have ‘outgrown’ (e.g., food, sex, power).” On the other hand, if he “dis-identifies with a particular plane before it has been fully integrated and consolidated…repression occurs.” Since the attributes of each plane must be reintegrated upon the return, this premature death predisposes the self to dissociate the functions of that plane and experience later difficulty reintegrating them upon arriving at the expanded plane (1981b, p. 46).16 This parallels with Kegan’s description of the importance of the culture of embeddedness.

Furthermore, as we begin to depart from our short-lived poise of balance, Kegan points out that this differentiation gives rise to anxiety and depression. The anxiety is caused by the separation from our previous, familiar self-identity. Since the Self doesn’t yet know what its new mode of self-consciousness will look like, the precipice looks very frightening. In this context, Kegan defines depression as a deep, “radical doubt;” the threat that one may lose balance. It is a feeling associated with the actual “disequilibrium and the processes of re-equilibration;” in other words, the actual experience of transformation. For Kegan, depression can, therefore, be often seen as a symptom of healing and growing (1982, p. 82).

For Pearson also, the phase of preparation “is about learning to be strong, moral, and healthy” as we begin to experience great change during which we will be “challenged to prove our competence, our courage, our humanity, and our fidelity to high ideals”. Four of the archetypes she includes in her journey-cycle help us prepare for this great transformation by personifying attributes which are perquisites for the journey: the “basic optimism” of the Innocent; the Orphan’s “capacity to band together for support; the Warrior’s “courage to fight for yourself and others; and the “compassion and care for yourself and others” offered by the Caregiver (1991, pp. 9 & 40).

From the mythological point of view, Campbell writes that the heroine departs from “the world of common day,” severing himself from “the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.” In the preparation for transformation, emphasis is now transferred “from the external to the internal world” (1972, pp. 10, 17 & 30). The adventure, according to mythological literature, can begin in any number of ways. The heroine may set out voluntarily (as a result of an accident or with deliberate intention); she may be lured or summoned by an insight from beyond the threshold of her everyday life; or she may be carried away, against her will, by a protective or dangerous agent of transformation. The adventure is underway, however, because it is her destiny—she must undergo this transformation—and the personified archetypes and gods/goddesses of her journey will guide and aid her. Whatever its form, the call will lead the heroine toward the threshold which separates her current self-identity from the unsuspected world of the transformative unconscious (Campbell, pp. 51, 55, 58, 71-73, 77, 245).

Campbell points out that:

Whether small or great, and no matter what the stage 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 the passing of a threshold is at hand”(p. 51).

The Amerindian wilderness fasting ritual, the vision quest, translates these mythological teachings into practice. In the phase of preparation, according to Foster and Little, the quester needs “to set his life in order, to rid himself of excess baggage, to savor his last moments, to review his past, even to ask forgiveness of those he might have wronged.” In Amerindian lore, this phase of loss and separation is symbolized by the twilight hours of early evening and the beginning of autumn. Its power is that of mature experience, knowing the world through self-awareness and insight, and responding with “discriminating strength” (1989, pp. 21 & 133).

We will now look more closely at this first phase of the journey—loss—staring with the initial recognition that change is necessary and then enlisting support: both external and internal.

The Call—and the Fall from Innocence

Most of us have experienced calls to the quest—great loves, passions, and losses; internal and external suffering and conflict; and opportunities to create and miscreate our own lives (Pearson, 1991, p. 53).

Pearson says we begin the journey “in innocence, and from the Innocent we learn optimism and trust” (1991, p. 9). Even if only for a moment, we have lived in balance, in unity with our environment. This is the phase represented by the fullness of midday, and the beginning of summer. Its power is that of the “playful, trusting child in us all”, that of knowing the world through the senses and responding with the emotions (Foster & Little, 1989, p. 133).

Something, however, knocks us out of our complacency. We may consciously decide to set out on the journey because we intuit the possibility of a more expansive, more “whole-d” self. This intuition of a potential self is experienced in various manners, depending on the adventurer’s current self-identity: as a belief in change (being “born again”), faith in transformation, through a peak experience, or the permanent experience of transpersonal consciousness. According to Wilber, therefore, “there exists a hierarchy not only of psychosocial development but also of authentic religious development” (1984a, p. 18).17 The experience of a greater whole is, however, at this point only an intuition; a vision of the new self that does not yet exist in full consciousness.

Most people, however, “do not consciously choose our initiation,” according to Pearson. “It appears just to happen” and it leads to confusion. “You may be shocked into disorientation by sudden suffering, loss, or pain.” As a matter of fact, Pearson notes, the “hectic pace of modern life” may itself “be a strategy that we use, as a culture, to overwhelm ourselves into disorientation.” If the disorienting crisis shocks us deeply enough “that we begin to search for meaning at a deeper level,” then our disorientation becomes an initiation, a call to a new self (1991, p. 42).

Kegan notes that western psychology must learn to look at these crises—such as “divorce, death of a loved one, economic catastrophe, leaving a familiar community behind and entering a strange one”—as opportunities for growth, not simply as illness.

The Chinese draw ‘crisis’ with two characters…one means ‘danger,’ the other ‘opportunity.’ This, literally, is the character of crisis; for the crisis is in the transformation of meaning…and the death we hear may be, as much as anything, the death of the old self that is about to be left behind (1982, pp. 265-266).

We must begin to learn from these crises because our avoidance of them makes our suffering that much worse. We cause excess suffering by our resistance to the “motion of life. Any attempt to deny what has happened and is happening causes us pain.”

In defense against the experiences of grief and mourning, we inflict upon ourselves a pain which is greater than the loss itself. Grieving and mourning are not really painful; they are our reunion with life itself and our recognition of its motion (pp. 265-266).

As this search for a new self gets underway, the person begins to feel the anxiety of abandonment: she is beginning to leave her previous self-identity behind. The awareness that one is “off balance” or “starting to fall to pieces” is called the fall by Pearson and Wilber. For Pearson, once we experience this fall from innocence, “we become Orphans, disappointed, abandoned, betrayed by life—and especially by the people who were supposed to care for us” (1991, p. 9).

Wilber notes that, “Every time we become exclusively identified with or attached to” our current self-identity, “then anything which threatens existence or standards seems to threaten our very Self” (1979, p. 131). It is not only that we fear change; we are also afraid that the change will cause our demise for, we may ask, what comes next? Although we may intuit that there is a self-identity with expanded boundaries—ultimately connected to everything, existing without defense, without battles, without difficulty—we still live in a day-to-day world where we suffer, not knowing what will come next into our lives. If we hold on to our old way of being, however, if we are attached to the experience of our old self-identity, we resist the opportunity for growth and may experience “various developmental arrests and pathologies.” In avoiding sacrifice and transformation, we avoid true transcendence and healing (1991b, p. 196).

In Kegan’s terminology, the self experiences a “threat-to” the balance and doubts whether it can survive given how things are becoming in this “threatening, confusing, or problematic environment.” So, from the outset, the old self experiences an “assault from the outside…in which the it anticipates its defeat” and believes it must defend the threatened balance (1982, pp. 269-272).

For Pearson, this is the shadow form of the Orphan. Once that defensive, fearful shadow is confronted, however, the lesson we learn from the positive Orphan archetype is that “we need to provide for ourselves and stop relying on others to cake care of us.” And, since “the Orphan feels so powerless and helpless,” she believes that the best strategy “for survival is to band together with others for mutual aid” (1991, p. 9). In banding together, the Orphan begins to learn how to take care of herself and others on the journey.

Support and Protection — From Others and From Within

As we begin to navigate the transformation, we have to let go of the old self and look toward a new horizon. There is a point, however, when we cannot see either our old or new selves. It is as if we are between two trapezes, having let go of the first but not reached the second. In a parable, the Buddha taught that it is as if we were passengers in a boat floating across a wide, calm river; suddenly we cannot see either side. It is now that we must work with the other passengers in our boat of transformation. The Orphan is responsible for bonding with others to begin the journey for mutual aid. According to Pearson, the Caregiver archetype now helps us “learn to take care of others, and eventually to care for ourselves as well” through love, compassion, and sacrifice (1991, p. 9).

When there is a conflict between satisfying others’ needs and satisfying his own, the shadow form of the Caregiver—the caretaker—may become a martyr for others, ignoring or devaluing his own needs. Kegan says the person in the stage may blame himself in an attempt to “settle the doubt” of whether or not he will survive “by shifting blame from the situation to the self,” directing his anger at his “old way of seeing and being;” a way which is now holding his back like an albatross (1982, pp. 82 & 269-272).

Once the positive form of the Caregiver recognizes that her own needs are as important as those of others, however, the Warrior comes into our lives, teaching us to “set goals and develop strategies for achieving them, strategies that almost always require the development of discipline and courage”. The Warrior identifies the villain who threatens the boundaries, defeats it (whether that villain is another person or an aspect of oneself), and protects the boundaries of that kingdom which symbolizes the self (Pearson, 1991, p. 9 & 237-239).

Just as the Orphan and the Caregiver experienced anxiety and depression over the loss of the old way of being, so does the Warrior. Whereas the Orphan blamed others and the Caregiver blamed himself, however, the Warrior doesn’t blame anyone for the loss but, instead, begins to question whether or not the old self will, or even should, survive. By experiencing depression self-critically, the Warrior has “begun the separation from the old self and thus” is “in a position to critique it.” At this questioning stage—poised between the balances of old and new selves—there is a “tension between a feeling of self-anger (critiquing or reflecting upon the old self) and self-loss (the old self not yet recovered as object, the new self not yet reconstructed)” (Kegan, 1982, pp. 269-272).

The hero now arrives at the threshold into what Campbell called the “zone of magnified power.” There she “encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage” through the boundary between self and other. That power guards—“in the four directions” “also up and down”—the sphere which, as we’ve seen, represents the “limits of the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon” (1972, p. 77). The heroine may defeat or befriend this boundary-protecting power—this first dragon/monster of the journey—and go alive into the unknown kingdom beyond the old self or be defeated “by the opponent and descend in death” (p. 246). Either way, the heroine’s previous self-identity is annihilated as she passes “beyond the veil of the known into the unknown,” preparing to expand her knowledge of self into a expansive new world (pp. 82 & 90-91).

In his studies of rites of passage, Van Gennep noted that this threshold passage was marked, in native cultures, by purification—such as washing—and followed by an incorporative ritual into the new mode of consciousness—such as sharing a sacred meal. The passage was symbolized as the crossing of a mountain pass, “the crossing of a river,” “embarking and disembarking,” or “entering a temple” (1960, pp. 19-24).

Transformation—Self Changes Form

The second phase of transformation is the initiation into, or transformation between, the old and new self-identities. According to the perennial philosophy, it is our destiny to grow in this manner, and in order to do so, we must expand our current self-identity which limits the boundary between “self” and “other.” To do this, we must fully dis-identify with our current self, see the parts of our identity we had denied, and integrate them into a greater, expanded self.

For Wilber, each evolutionary transformation creates a new self-identity which “transcends but includes its predecessors.” In other words, the self-system separates from its identification with the previous structures of consciousness in order to reintegrate them later, this time from a new vantage point. “What is the whole of the self at one stage forms merely a part of the whole of the next,” he noted (1981b, pp. 21 & 53f). During this phase of transformation, the previous self is being destroyed in the cause of growth and healing, but the new self has not yet been formed around the newly integrated planes of consciousness. For example, it is at this stage that the snake sheds its skin. Without this boundary, it is soft and unprotected, and must seek protection, hiding in a woodpile, becoming accustomed to its new, expanded nature. In the next phase of renewal, the snake develops a new skin: the new boundary surrounding and protecting its new self.

According to Pearson, this phase of the journey is the time when, having left “the safety of the family or tribe,” we must “embark on a quest where we encounter death, suffering, and love” (1991, p. 9). As we will see, we do this because we are driven toward wholeness and this transformation is our healing. “Questing is about transcending our mere humanity. This is the call of Spirit, upward, onward, a constant challenge for self-improvement” (p. 46). Pearson says that four archetypes lend a hand to the journeyer engaged in this phase of transformation. The Seeker strives to find the new self. The Lover, in glimpsing the expansive horizon of the new self, gains a “capacity for genuine and passionate love and connection.” The destroyer finally and completely lets go of the old self and consequently experiences “suffering, deprivation, and loss.” The creator midwives “the birth of the new Self” (p. 41).

These four abilities the process of initiation into the mysteries of death, passion, and birth venerated by the ancient mystery religions and by native people teach us the basic process of dying to the old self and giving birth to the new (pp. 9, 12 & 44).

She says that the most important lesson of the journey is to learn how to experience “the great mysteries of life—death, passion, birth, creation—as mysteries” (p. 40; italics added).

In mythological literature, the adventurer leaves everyday life to seek the treasure of expanded consciousness. Campbell writes that this phase of transformation between the two thresholds—which “may be regarded as a descent into unconsciousness and return” (1972, p. 259)—is “designed to introduce the life adventurer to the forms and proper feelings of his new estate” (p. 10). First, the adventurer must annihilate his previous, limited self-identity. In literature, Campbell pointed out, this is the pattern of tragedy which depicts “the shattering of…our attachment to the forms” of our self-identity. “The hero…will lose some of himself here. What is not important will fall away” (Foster & Little, 1989, p. 22). Then, the hero can appreciate the joy of life and rebirth as a new person-self. This renewal is the pattern of comedy which depicts “the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.” “It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy,” in other words, the passage from the loss of the old-self to the renewal of the new-self (Campbell, pp. 28-29).

“Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him” with tests and ordeals, and others “which give magical aid” as helpers (1968, p. 246). The opponents which challenge him are the symbolized by the dragon/monsters which, according to Campbell actually represent facets of his own personality which the hero has denied, projected, and then experienced as outside himself. Those dragons, first experienced at the crossing of the threshold, haunt the hero and throw at him a series of trials which he must overcome in his journey of integration. In myths, a supernatural guide, symbolizing the hero’s intuitions of wholeness, may provide advice on how to befriend or destroy the dragons.

Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.… In the vocabulary of mysticism this is the second stage of the Way, that of the ‘purification of the self,’ when the senses are ‘cleansed and humbled’ (pp. 97 & 101).

Furthermore, the dragon/monster to be slayed represents the personification of the status quo. “Holdfast, the keeper of the past,” maintains the denial of undesired facets of the self. For Campbell, the heroine of tragedy must “discover and assimilate” the dragon which is her shadow opposite, her “own unsuspected self.” This she accomplishes by “swallowing it or being swallowed” (pp. 108-109). In other words, she assimilates the facet of her previous identity which was defending the past.

In myth, the hero-self of expanded consciousness emerges to slay the shadow/enemy, “great and conspicuous in the seat of power” of the unconsciousness. “He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past but because he keeps.” The old self had created the tyrant monster by placing it outside the boundary of self; it now represents the very part of self which must be assimilated into the hero’s own identity. The hero must “slay the tenacious aspect of the…dragon, tester, ogre king…and release from its ban the vital energies that will feed the universe.” Once again, the secret that spells the tyrant’s doom is that the tyrant-other is actually part of the hero-self (pp. 337 & 352-353). “Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh” (pp. 108-109). The discovery of the “treasure or sacred object” symbolizes the reward of assimilating the shadow—deeper, more expansive consciousness (Pearson, 1991, p. 9). These “recurrent moments of crisis and decision” are “points of initiation which mark a release or death from one state of being and a growth or birth into the next” (Purce, 1974, page not known).18

In the Amerindian tradition, the deep night and the dead of winter are metaphors for this phase of transformation. Its power is that of wisdom, of knowing the world via communication, and of preparing to return to serve one’s community, whether it is one’s family or all of humanity (Foster & Little, 1989, p. 133).

We will now look at this phase of transformation in greater detail.

Seeking and Finding What One Loves

Having responded to the call and having crossed the threshold—leaving family and community behind—we are alone as we strive to find within ourselves a new, truer way of being.

We begin to yearn for something beyond ourselves, and become Seekers, searching for the ineffable something that will satisfy. [We are now] willing to give up security, community, and intimacy for autonomy. Seekers find out who they are by differentiating…from others (Pearson, 1991, pp. 9, 237-239).

If the Seeker is successful in finding who and what she loves, her first reward is symbolized in mythology as the sacred union or marriage of the god and goddess within (Campbell, 1968, p. 246). Pearson says that this “inner Lover archetype is found in erotic life-force energy, symbolized by the marriage of the god and goddess within” representing the reunification of “the primal separation expressed as sky/earth, male/female, light/darkness.” For Jung, this inner marriage was between the male and his anima or between the female and her animus (Pearson, 1991, p. 47). “In some traditions, as with the Hindu Shiva and Shakti, creation comes as a frankly erotic coupling of the gods.” “To the ancients…the celebration of passion”—including sexual intercourse as a major spiritual mystery —“was as essential as the celebration of rebirth (p. 44).

Eros, the goddess of love, “governs relatedness” and connects “the discrete parts of the psyche…so that one’s spirit, mind, emotions, and sexuality will work together and cooperate with one another” (pp. 54-55). As a result, “we find ourselves in love with people, causes, places, work. This love is so strong it requires commitment—and we are no longer free” (p. 9).

A result of this inner connection…is a capacity for relationship based on the knowledge that we cannot create the new (including the new Self) without to some extent destroying or letting go of the old (pp. 54-55).

Sacrificing the Old Self and Creating a New Self

The vision of a possible life filled with love and bliss conflicts with the perspective of the old self which is still attached to its old way of being, so, according to Pearson, the destroyer archetype steps in, with its capacity to discriminate the necessary from the unnecessary. It separates the “to-be-saved” from the “to-be-sacrificed,” taking “away much that had seemed essential to our lives” and, unfortunately, leaving behind pain and suffering (1991, p. 9). The hero-self now begins to understand that the shadow-monsters come from within. “Taking responsibility for our own Shadows gives us access to the great riches of the underworld. That is why the underworld is often portrayed as filled with fine jewels and treasures guarded by great monsters.” During the first encounter at the threshold, we thought that the dragon-to-be-slayed guarding the barrier to sacred time and space was outside ourselves. “When we confront it again, we recognize that the dragon is ourselves” (p. 46). Previously, we hadn’t wanted to enter the realm of transformation because it meant our dissolution. Now, we become aware that what we fear is within ourselves.

The heroine now realizes that she must feel fully the pain of the inner conflict in order to resolve that conflict. The story of Christ is a metaphor for that process. “This truth has to do with the essential process of moving through suffering into rebirth, wholeness, and redemption” (p. 50). It becomes necessary to sacrifice the old self in order to make room for the new. Ancient cultures acted out this metaphor by regularly “sacrificing the Ruler (or some surrogate) to renew the health of the kingdom” (p. 49). We can also recognize this necessity for closure and renewal in the regular change of leadership in democratic political systems.

In mythological terms, the hero has to move beyond the terror of meeting the shadow-monsters and open himself “to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos” are integral to the state of being in which there is no duality: the terrifying void out of which all forms are manifest (Campbell, p. 130-131 & 147). Often symbolized as meeting the father-god, this is a state of being in which pleasure and pain, agony and ecstasy are each borne as equal parts of creation.

Thus, the heroine who has found out what she loves and who has let go of her attachments to a particular sense of self now receives a second reward: “When we let go of everything in our lives and consciousness that needs to die, and when we open to what needs to be born, we learn to feel the awe and wonder that our own willing participation in these cosmic cycles can bring” (Pearson, 1991, p. 41). “The world is no longer a vale of tears but a bliss-yielding, perpetual manifestation of the Presence” (Campbell, 1972, p. 148). “To be transformed, we have to wake up and experience wonder” (Pearson, 1991, p. 53).

Then, in the final realization prior to rebirth, the initiate discovers that the “god of formlessness” and the “goddess of forms”19 are part of the single creation: “the father and mother reflect each other, and are in essence the same.” Through this union the hero discovers that the shadow-others and the hero-self are really one and the same, and that it was this integrated self which the journeyer came to find! “The perilous journey was a labor not of attainment but of reattainment, not discovery but rediscovery. The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time” (Campbell, 1968, pp. 36 & 39, 130-31, 162-163 & 246). “The treasure that emerges out of this encounter” with love and death—the Lover and the Destroyer, the goddess and the god—“is the birth of the true self”—the archetype Pearson calls the creator (1991, p. 9). But, Campbell reminds us, the birth of this new self is “not of the old thing again, but of something new” (1968, p. 16).

In myth, however, the hero is not always ready to be made new; he may not have yet discovered the road toward wholeness. He may continue to grasp onto his previous self-identity or still be haunted by his shadow-monsters. If so, “then the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical, pursuit” in which the hero grasps onto her old self-identity and returns home in a magic flight, tossing behind “protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything” to “delay and absorb the power of the started Hound of Heaven, permitting the adventurer to come back into his fold safe” (Campbell, 1968, pp. 197, 199, 203, 216).

Alternatively, the hero may also need to be rescued; he may lose his old- and new-selves during the crisis journey, “yet, through grace,” the old-self is returned (p. 216). Also, the “hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him” (p. 209).

If he is ready, however, the adventurer is reborn and returns across the threshold with expanded consciousness. Wilber explains the transformation this way:

When you realize that which appeared to exist “out there” is really your own reflection, is actually part of yourself, then you have torn down that particular boundary between self and not-self. Hence the field of your awareness becomes that much more expansive, open, free, and undefended. To truly befriend and ultimately become one with a former “enemy” is the same as tearing down the battle line and expanding the territory through which you may freely move (1979, p. 88).

In mythology, the boon which the adventurer brings home is just this blessing of expanded “consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom);” a boon which he brings back to help heal his people (Campbell, 1968, p. 246). However, as Campbell notes, the value of the reward—this expansion of consciousness—“is always scaled to” the desires of the adventurer. The reward is “simply a symbol of life energy stepped down to the requirements of a certain specific case.” In other words, the hero may desire “perfect illumination” but instead he accepts more limited boons such as “longer years to live, weapons with which to slay his neighbor, or the health of his child” (p. 189). Wilber says that we receive only the particular expansion that we are ready for.

If the hero has made peace with the lesson learned on the journey, then, as Campbell says, he returns “supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron.” He summarizes the journey of transformation thus:

The hero adventures out of the land we know into darkness; there he accomplishes his adventure, or again is simply lost to us, imprisoned, or in danger; and his return is described as a coming back out of that yonder zone. Nevertheless—and here is a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol—the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness (p. 217).

Now, Pearson suggests, the Creator archetype begins to help express this new “self in the world and prepares us to return to the kingdom.” It “awakens the seed of our genuine identities deep within us” and “presides over the process of birthing our lives” (1991, pp. 47 & 9).

Renewal—the New Self returns home

The next phase of the cycle is that of renewal. Having left behind the old way of being, integrated the shadow-self, and begun to create a new identity, the journeyer now crosses the threshold and returns home possessed with a brand new view of the world. At this point the hero within each of us has discovered that we are more than we thought we were. We have befriended some of our shadows which we had previously believed to be separate from ourselves. We now return home to live our daily lives and to experience our activities, our relationships, our environment from this new vantage point.

To the Amerindians, the sunrise and the first signs of spring are metaphors for this phase of renewal—that of rebirth. “What was threshed” between the thresholds “is being gathered into a whole, a unity, an identity” (Foster & Little, 1989, pp. 23-24 & 143-145).

Van Gennep points out that indigenous traditions here perform a second set of rituals which parallel the first threshold crossing. The entire process thus goes this way: first, “rites of separation from the usual environment;” second, “rites of incorporation into the sacred environment;” third, “a transitional period;” fourth, “rites of separation from the local sacred environment;” and, finally, “rites of incorporation into the usual environment” (1960, p. 82). Thus the new-self returns from the sacred environment to his own home.

In myth, Campbell notes, the journeyer must leave behind the powers of transformation at this return threshold, so he can return to daily life. In other words, having been personally transformed “in the kingdom of dread,” the hero must now “return to the normal world” (1982, p. 10). He possesses a boon which has the potential to restore the world. That elixir—which is variously symbolized as the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the “runes of wisdom”—must be brought across the return threshold “back into the kingdom of humanity.” It represents a more whole, more complete vision of life which allows the hero to see his life, and those around him, as potentially healed. The hero must now apply this new vision to the renewal “of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds” (Campbell, 1968, p. 193). Indeed, “from the standpoint of the community,” this return “is the justification of the long retreat” (pp. 36 & 39).

Paradoxically, however, the return—“to which the whole miraculous excursion has been but a prelude” (p. 216)—may be the most difficult challenge of the entire journey. Approaching the return threshold, the transformed heroine is reminded of the “atmosphere where men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete.” It is a challenge to accept this world of “passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities” as truly real “after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment.” Furthermore, although she possesses the “life-redeeming elixir,” the heroine is greeted by a lack of understanding, cynicism, doubt, and even resentment (p. 216). Indeed, the hero may resist this reintegration into the community. “Even the Buddha, after his triumph, doubted whether the message of realization could be communicated” (p. 193).

But, to complete the adventure, the hero “must survive the impact of the world” (pp. 218 & 226) and bring back “the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (p. 30). Having battled his shadow and recognized it as part of himself, the hero returns with the knowledge that darkness is the “source of the shapes of the day” (p. 337). Having been reborn into this vision of wholeness of which both light and dark are integral parts, “he is competent, consequently, now to enact himself the role of the initiator, the guide, the sun door, through whom one may pass from the infantile illusions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to an experience of the majesty of cosmic law” (pp. 136-137).

According to Pearson, once we have successfully crossed the return threshold, four archetypes help us express our newly discovered self “in the everyday business of living our lives.” Together, they “help us be integrated and responsible, healthy and connected, honest and wise, multifaceted and joyous” (1991, p. 56 & 60). The ruler acts in accord with “our deepest sense of identity” and takes “total responsibility” for turning the wasteland of our old way of life into a new, ordered, blooming kingdom.” The magician transforms and heals “ourselves and others…so that the kingdom can continually be renewed.” The sage helps us “let go of imprisonment to illusions and petty desires” to accept the subjective truth of our experience. The fool helps us free ourselves from our attachments and “learn to live more joyously in the moment without worrying about tomorrow” (p. 12).

Although we still have access to the skills we acquired before our transformation, our self-identity has been transformed. We no longer deny the monster-shadows within and project them onto others: through integration, we have now made those shadows part of our new sense of self. For example, Wilber writes, as adults we consciously know how to eat and how to speak to others, but we don’t consciously remember the “experiential self” that itself learned how to eat and how to speak. In Wilber’s terms, the capacities to eat and speak are basic structures of consciousness while the particular self which is attached to their emergence is a stage-specific version of our passing self-identity. During transformation, our previous self identity is itself submerged into the unconscious (1981, pp. 21 & 53f).

As these new structures of consciousness emerge, Wilber writes, the new sense of self, now fully differentiated from the old self, works hard to “integrate, stabilize, and equilibrate” the emerging structures and the previous structures into a new self. Through translation the self attempts to “consolidate, fortify, and preserve the self-complex” of its newly found, precarious state. For instance, when the cognitive ability to take on the perspective of others emerges, the self begins to conform to others’ expectations. So, “it is by the preservation-drive that a given level is appropriated, developed, consolidated, and integrated, for only by making a level ‘its own’ can the self intimately organize it” (1981b, p. 46; 1984a, p. 48).

Kegan points out that these various self-identities—each of which is embedded with a specific “culture” in the immediate environment—obscure the emerging structures. Just as an eye cannot see itself, we cannot see the culture with which we are embedded. Each time we are transformed, we begin to “see” that culture, to observe those others with which we had been embedded as others. As children, for example, we were one with our mothers, we could not separate ourselves from her so that she seemed to control our behavior. As adults, however, we have mothers (rather than being one with our mothers), except when we unsuccessfully navigated transformations from dependency to interdependence. In that case, our past returns to haunt us with its pathological symptoms which point us toward a healing crisis.

Redeeming and healing the “kingdom” — our lives

Upon our return to the world, Pearson says that “we realize that we are the Rulers of our kingdoms” with the power, competence, and responsibility to create a harmonious life. We succeed in transforming our life because we ourselves are transformed (1991, pp. 9-10). “Grounded by the task of ordinary living,” we create an order which is “inclusive, creating inner wholeness and outer community (pp. 57 & 238). We have sacrificed our old identity to “allow the new hero—returned fresh from the journey—to rule instead so that our kingdoms will be abundant and prosperous”. The only danger is in clinging on too long to this new “truth or identity,” in other words, once again becoming the tyrant Holdfast who strangles “the lifeblood out of the kingdom or the individual psyche” (p. 49).

Lest the new life order created by the Ruler become too rigid, however, the activated Magician reminds us of the whole in which the parts are ordered and heals the wounds within ourselves and our community. In this way, our “kingdom can continually be renewed” (p. 12). Whereas Rulers work hard to redeem the planet, the Magician works hard to heal the planet (p. 68)

Finding the truth, playfully

Once the talent for healing is mastered, the journeyer struggles to discover the objective Truth. The Sage archetype, however, soon uncovers the fact that truth is relative. It is only in facing the eternal fact that there is no one single version of the Truth—that subjectivity is integral to “the human condition”—that we can be fulfilled (Pearson, 1991, pp. 68 & 211). In doing so, we “learn to both accept our subjectivity and let go of imprisonment to illusions and petty desires” and we become capable of reaching “a state of nonattachment in which we can be free” (p. 12). Living in that freedom, the Fool archetype “simply trusts the moment and savors life in its fullness, without judgment, appreciating not only life’s joys but also its sorrows” (p. 68). The Fool helps us to realize that we do not possess a unified self, but rather, have a diversity of contradictory archetypal voices within.

The Fool is willing to play the roles that are expected by “conventional society” without being attached to, or identified with, any one of them. All the while, the Fool remembers the unbounded whole of which those selected facets are parts (pp. 63 & 65). “The Fool in each of us sees through and punctures our sense of self-importance, bringing us down to earth” and helping us “‘trust the process,’ even in perilous times.”

When that trust is well developed, we can enjoy the ride, as children love roller coasters. They just hang on and scream—but the screaming is not real terror, only fun and exhilaration (pp. 66-68).

In ancient myth and ritual, trickster figures helped people “recognize the shadow form of their own consciousness and laugh at it, knowing that it was still theirs” (p. 63).

In our day, “Vacations and frequent time-outs for play and creature comforts the body loves help people stay sane, happy, and well-balanced, as does a good sense of humor” (p. 65). Pearson writes eloquently of the archetype of the wise fool.

The more grounded we become in manifesting our unique selves, the less we need to have to be happy. We do not need lots of work, we need only the work that is our own. We may not need many loves, only those that truly will satisfy. We may not need so many possessions, but really treasure the ones we have, because they reflect something in ourselves. We may not even need as much money, because we spend it on things and activities we really enjoy… Slowly, but surely, we begin to discover that we do not need to climb the ladder of success to be happy; we need only to be fully ourselves. If we do so, we have everything (p. 61).

Equilibrium—The New Self at home

Following this period of renewal and integration, we achieve a sense of being in balance with the world. However, just as the moon actually achieves its fullest illumination for only a split second before shifting from its waxing phase into its waning phase, we humans also spend only a small portion of our lives experiencing a balance between our self-identity and the demands of our environment. For this moment of equilibrium, the journeyer feels as if she has reached her goal. She has not yet, however, discovered that it will soon be time to set out on a new journey.20 This point of momentary stability Wilber calls equilibrium; Kegan calls it an evolutionary truce. The brightest moment of midday and the summer solstice are metaphors for this balance.

But, as “soon as we return from one journey and enter a new phase of our lives,” the time comes when we again “lose our sense of integrity and wholeness or begin to feel inadequate to current life challenges” (Pearson, 1991, pp. 3 & 9). At that moment, we again recognize that our current identity and vision are no longer enough. A new way of being beckons and it becomes increasingly clear that, in order to be renewed again, to achieve a new wholeness and healing, “we are immediately propelled” into the journey again (p. 3). If we don’t, “we become ogre tyrants, clinging dogmatically to our old truths to the detriment of our kingdoms” (p. 9). So we are off and the cosmic round begins again. “Each winding marks a containment and a completed cycle in the development of the whole; but, as each is part of the whole, the completion is also a beginning” (Purce, 1974)

Chapter 3. On the axis

Spinning toward the poles

This universal cycle of loss, transformation, and renewal does not, however, circle endlessly. Neither nature nor human consciousness simply spin round and round, getting nowhere, repeating eternally. “Every time we come back to where we began, we have evolved another step, grown another inch, enlarged the circle of our life purpose. We do not return to the identical place we were before” (Foster & Little, 1989, p. 133). In nature, for example, although the growing season repeats, year after year, a tree does not simply duplicate the same range of growth every year. In the spring it begins growing from the point it left off and reaches out again, its crown growing up toward the sky and its roots growing down into the ground. Not only does the cycle go round, it also expands, skyward and earthward.

Thus, we add to the cosmic cycle a third dimension, an axis which extends both up and down from the center of the cycle of transformation. This new dimension turns the cycle into an expanding spiral. Pearson writes, “As soon as we return from one journey and enter a new phase of our lives, we are immediately propelled into a new sort of journey” (1991, p. 3). The final stage of the archetypal journey, that of the Fool, “folds back into the first archetype, the Innocent, but at a higher level than before. This time the Innocent is wiser about life” (p. 12). Thus, the “journey is spiral, not linear…or circular.… We need to keep journeying to renew ourselves and our kingdoms” (p. 49).

Purce writes:

Time is cyclic and it is by the spiral of its returning seasons that we review the progress and growth of our own understanding… Situations recur with almost boring familiarity until we have mastered them in the light of the previous time around. The more we do this, the steeper the gradient, which is the measure of our growth (1974, p. 7).

This path of greater awareness can be symbolized as climbing a mountain. The view becomes more expansive as we climb. At the first viewpoint, we see the village. Then, in addition, we see the nearby river, then the surrounding valley, and finally the towering mountains, each of which includes the previous view. We climb and descend this spiraling path of the self everyday and throughout our lives. Each time we see a new view, we stop seeing the old one exclusively, integrating it with our present vision.

According to Campbell, this viewing axis—in its many forms, from close-up to expansive, from infancy to maturity, from the physical to the spiritual—appears in various traditions as the Axis Mundi (or World Axis), the Tree of Life, the Cosmic Mountain, and the World Navel (1968, pp. 39, 41, 44). It is “the pole situated at the centre of the world” which “breaks vertically through all the planes of existence.” “From this axis, like the hub of the wheel,” Purce writes, “everything extends, radiates and rotates spirally” (1974, pp. 11 & 17-18).

The spectrum of consciousness

Wilber calls this axis the spectrum of consciousness: a multi-planed continuum which ranges from ultimate unity—called Spirit, Heaven, or the “One”—to ultimate manifestation—called Creation, Earth, or the “Many” (1977, p. 16, figure 10)22. He suggests that all sentient, or conscious, beings are compounded on the entire spectrum; that is, they exist at every plane of the continuum simultaneously, although at any given time aware of only a limited range of the spectrum. This is similar to light, which exists in many forms that are outside the normal experience of human vision.

We can, for example, train our awareness to focus on the physical processes in our body, or on our current emotional state, or our thoughts and ideas, or on our interconnection with friends, family, community, and cosmos. On each of these planes, we can become aware of a multitude of processes which are unique to that plane yet which are interrelated to the others. For instance, we can focus on our hunger in many different ways: physically (my grumbling stomach), psychologically (“I’m hungry”), or spiritually (“Through love, we can eliminate hunger on the planet”). While we attend to any one of these planes, the others continue, nevertheless, to shine through us.

Each plane of consciousness intersects the self/other boundary in a qualitatively different way. As we have already noted, the sense of self is the person’s awareness of what is internal to her own being, whereas the sense of other includes all that is external to self, including the environment, other persons, and even denied certain aspects of one’s self.23 The self/other boundary expands and contracts throughout every moment, day, and season of our life as our current self-identity shifts between various planes of consciousness.

Kegan writes that each plane of self-identity possesses a characteristic balance of power between self and other. In addition to the boundary itself, each plane possesses pressures from within and without—alternating between pressure from without (a desire for the inclusion of others) on one plane and pressure from within (a desire for the autonomy of self) on the next. Wilber concurs by noting that the child’s “dominant psychological attitude” of “passive dependence” is contrasted by the adolescent’s attitude of “active independence” and integrated into the mature adult’s attitude of “actively passive surrender”. This balance follows the form of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (1984a, p. 101). For Kegan, the way in which the person settles this “issue of what is ‘self’ and what is ‘other’ essentially defines the underlying logic…of the person’s meanings.” He goes on to say that, “Development is instinctively about the continual settling and resettling of…the relationship between the individual and the social (1982, p. 113; italics added).24 Again and again, our transitional self-identities are left behind and, through loss, transformation, and renewal, new identities are created around a new set of basic structures.

On each plane, self and other relate to each other, according to Wilber, in a “complex system” of “ideally unobstructed” relationships and exchanges with their corresponding planes. In other words, the structures of our biological plane of consciousness (self) digests biological food (other); our emotional plane loves other persons; our mental plane shares challenging ideas with our community of thinking partners; and our spiritual plane experiences spiritual insight in relationship with a spiritual guide. Wilber says that this relational exchange between self and other makes it impossible to look at a person out of context of his social environment. Relational exchange, he says, “makes psychology always also social psychology” (1984a, p. 35; Vaughan, 1985, p. 33)

Each time we grow, then, we learn to digest and adapt to “subtler and subtler levels of food” (1984a, pp. 35-37). Like Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, we need pure nourishment on each plane and attempt to “clear-up” the internal and external forces which distort the exchange of that nourishment (pp. 114-115). According to Wilber, this desire for unobstructed relational exchange is not only an individual drive, but is also the underlying ground for the societal battles which have plagued humankind for millennia.

Furthermore, every one of these planes of relationships and exchanges “reproduces itself,” in a manner of speaking, by an appropriate exchange of the elements of that level.” First of all, each has its own set of needs from the environment “as if there were levels of ‘food’ or ‘mana.’” For example, humans do not need only physical food, but also “emotional food (love, belongingness), mental food (symbol, truth), spiritual food (illumination, insight)” (1984a, pp. 35, 48-49 & 52). Therefore, the quantity and quality of the nourishment determines the health and continual reproduction of each plane. Take away the mana, or food, that a particular structure “needs” and it will perish. Without love, for instance, the emotional plane will wither. Finally, each plane also possesses its own taboos, or aspects of the environment which must be avoided (1984a, pp. 37-38, 48-49 & 52).

Wilber reminds us that this relational exchange between various planes of self and other often becomes obstructed and interrupted. Repression, he says, occurs when we internally distort exchange on any level “in order to defend” our own “precarious sense of existence.” For instance, we may avoid the losses necessary for transformation—perhaps out of a fear of death—and, in doing so, repress behaviors which would facilitate healing. On the other hand, when others disrupt or distort our capacity for relationship and exchange, oppression occurs. Wilber points out that key philosophers and psychologists have focused on specific planes of relational exchange: Marx on the oppression of material exchange, Freud on emotional-sexual exchange, Socrates on mental exchange, and Christ on spiritual exchange.

Finally, sometimes a person will try to adapt to this “atmosphere” of external oppression and, in doing so, may “internalize the originally external oppression” leading to surplus repression” which is “over and above that which the self would induce on its own” (1984a, p. 40-41). Some of this repression and oppression is unconscious because a person may be unaware of the structures with which her self-identity is embedded and cannot see the functions of that plane clearly. For example, a victim of child abuse (external oppression) may thereafter feel unworthy of love. As an adult, he may deny his desires for love (repression) and avoid loving others (surplus repression) because it may lead toward the dissolution from his old-self. And to the contrary, in this case loss of the old-self might help heal the childhood wound.

Evolution and involution

According to the perennial philosophy, the spiraling cycle of transformation revolves around the spectrum of consciousness in two directions, subject to two primary forces. Like the crown and roots of the growing tree, all natural processes expand toward both poles. Evolution is the integrative drive toward formlessness, unity, and the One; it is the drive which erases boundaries. Involution is the creative drive toward form, diversity, and the Many; it is the drive which creates boundaries (figure 12).

Evolution drives consciousness toward subjectivity: experiencing all the world as part of oneself. Involution drives consciousness toward objectivity: experiencing one’s self as a part of the world. In nature, the skyward, clockwise direction symbolizes the evolutionary drive toward heaven, formlessness, subjectivity, and yang energy, while the earthward, counterclockwise direction symbolizes the involutionary drive toward earthiness, form, objectivity, and yin energy. Evolution shows up in human development as the drive to actualize one’s potential. Involution, shows up, according to the perennial philosophy, as the process of transmigration: the cycle from death to rebirth through reincarnation. The two poles of the axis represent the fundamental division between subject and object, between knower and known.

These two drives balance each other in the individual, in society, in the cosmos. Just as the tree’s crown cannot grow without the support of its roots, its roots also need the nourishment brought down from the leaves. In the symbolism of Hindu kundalini yoga, the two energies of involution and evolution—Shiva and Shakti—intertwine as a double helix around the axis of the world tree, representing the balancing forces of evolution and involution within the body and in the cosmos, and meeting at whirling wheels called chakras. Finally, in meditation systems around the world, the two drives are symbolized by the process of breathing in (involution) and out (evolution). The breather inspires and expires, aspires and conspires, throughout every moment, every era, every universe (Purce, 1974, p. 12).25

In addition, the axis is itself also part of a grander cycle. The poles of the axis are themselves connected together, end to end. With this perspective then, we can symbolize all of creation as an infinite series of interconnected spirals, all spinning at varying speeds and reaches, representing the motion of life in all that we experience.

Evolution—the Self aspires to heaven

The skyward force of evolution pulls us toward the ideal nature of our interconnected, subtle spirit. It represents the pinnacle of aspirations; our growing edge (Foster & Little, 1989, pp. 148-149). Developing toward this pole is the process of evolution: integrating parts into a new whole. The goal of this process is for consciousness to grow toward wholeness, toward holiness, toward the absolute unity from which all the manifestations of consciousness arise (Wilber, 1980a, pp. 1-3). In the symbolism of the breath of nature, exhalation represents the released transformation of manifest parts into expanded wholes (Purce, 1974, p. 12).

In twentieth-century western philosophy, this view was first espoused by South African statesman-philosopher Jan Smuts in Holism and Evolution (1926). Wilber paraphrases Smuts thus:

Each whole is part of a larger whole, which is itself part of a larger whole. tends to produce higher- and higher-level wholes, evermore inclusive and organized. This overall cosmic process, as it unfolds in time, is nothing other that evolution. And the drive to ever higher unities, Smuts called holism… Now the holistic evolution of nature—which produces everywhere higher and higher wholes—shows up in the human psyche as development or growth… That is, a person‘s growth from infancy to adulthood, is simply a miniature version of cosmic evolution. (Wilber 1980, pp. 1–2)

We start our life cycle with a earth-shattering transformation—coming out of the womb. Throughout our life there are many more transformations, as if we are starting a new chapter in a book. Each transformation is a re-viewing, a shift to a new way of seeing the world. As with our new mountain viewpoints, the past elements in our lives remain, but we now see them in a completely new way; the way that we saw them before has changed and is replaced by the new view. And, from this broader vantage point, we can more easily see how those elements fit together. Each successive vantage-point “goes beyond its predecessor(s)” and also reintegrates them into the new view. We no longer see in black and white, but in color—which includes black and white (Grof, 1988, p. 265).

For example, an adolescent may be obsessed with his complexion, but eventually comes to realize that he is more than just his face. His exclusive identification with his body-denying egoic processes is transcended and integrated into a whole which also includes a more expansive interrelationship between his body and his mind, and between self and others. Later on, the young adult may identify primarily with his chosen profession (“I am a writer”), but eventually realizes that he cannot live without his family and friends (“I am a father and I write”). His identity includes work but it is more than just work. Near mid-life, as he begins to accept bodily death—the loss which eliminates our visible self—the adult’s identity expands. Questions such as “What survives death?” and “What does life mean?” may represent an existential crisis leading to yet another transformation. In Wilber’s terminology, the myth-conscious adolescent transcends (and integrates) magical consciousness, the rational young adult transcends (and integrates) mythic consciousness, the soulful adult transcends (and integrates) rational consciousness, the spiritual elder transcends (and integrates) soul consciousness (1984a, pp. 48-49 & 52).

As we’ve seen, the cycle of loss, transformation, and renewal is at the heart of this evolutionary process. The seasons of life do repeat, but with greater growth each cycle. As Wilber points out, “The form of development…traces a gentle curve from subconsciousness through self-consciousness to superconsciousness, remembering more and more, transcending more and more, integrating more and more, until there is only that Unity which was always already the case from the start, and which remained both the alpha and omega of the soul‘s journey through time” (1980, p. 81).

Wilber notes that each evolutionary transformation, although more whole than the previous is, nevertheless, only a substitute. It is only a partial healing. This sequence of subsequently ”wholer”—but still incomplete—substitutes for complete wholeness and unity, he calls the atman project.26

Successive structures of consciousness are created and then abandoned, fashioned and then transcended, constructed and then passed by. They are created as a substitute for Atman, and abandoned when those substitutes fail. And evolution proceeds by a series of such abortive attempts to reach the Atman-consciousness… with each step, as it were, getting a bit closer.…And when all the structures have been identified with and transcended, there is only the Boundless; when all deaths have been died, there is only God (Wilber 1980, p. 109-111).

Campbell calls this evolutionary process spiritual growth, which differentiates it from the involutionary growth that creates the manifest world. He says, referring to evolution,

The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth, and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form—all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void (1968, p. 190).

Finally, this process of evolutionary transformation to more expansive experience also occurs everyday. Sometimes it is called the “a-ha” experience: an intuitive transformation that places content in a new context. However, letting go of the old view, paradoxically, cannot be forced.27 Somehow the old becomes part of the new, effortlessly.

Involution—the Self comes down to earth

Once we have expanded our vision toward the mountain’s summit, however, we must always return to the valley to act on our vision. This return is the process of involution. It is the earthward force which pulls us toward the elemental nature of our concrete, material being. It represents our basic, fundamental, primary, and concrete nature: our roots (Foster & Little, 1989, pp. 148-149).

This pole represents the Many forms of infinite diversity. Inhalation is a metaphor for involution: the division of the whole breath into its constituent parts, nourishing the body through the process of creation. On the macrocosmic—or universal—plane, “spirit contracts, creates, and involves…into matter; this is the creation of the world by the breath of God.” On the microcosmic—or personal—plane, the individual is continually grounded, balancing the aspiration to fly away. Finally, according to many mystical traditions, the soul is believed, during reincarnation, to involve into matter: “he thus brings heaven down to earth at the moment of birth” (Purce, 1974, p. 12).28

Evolution toward the One and involution toward the Many are reverse sides of the same coin: together they create an equilibrium which can be found at all scales of consciousness—for individuals from moment to moment and over the seasons of life (Wilber, 1990b, p. 125; 1980a, p. 175); for the evolution of human societies in terms of decades, centuries and epochs (1981b, p. 7); and cosmologically from the Big Bang to the final whimper of our universe—and through infinite reincarnations of parallel universes, through worlds without end.

Chapter 4. On the boundary

Between self and other

The spiraling cycles of consciousness, then, expand away from one pole of the self-sphere and contract toward the other. Beginning at one pole—birth, for example—the cycle defining self enlarges to its greatest point of expansion—egoic mastery at mid-life—and then contracts until it converges at the end point of the other pole—death of the separate self or enlightenment. Around this axis of development spin the multiple planes of consciousness which compound the total person.29 These planes of consciousness—revolving around the axis—intersect the surface of the sphere, which, as we’ve seen, represents a boundary between self and other.

We can also visualize this spherical boundary as an expanding and contracting balloon that divides our current self-identity from those aspects of our lives which we consider to be other. Moment to moment and over the lifetime, the balloon grows and shrinks; evolution is the expansion and involution is the contraction. We “inspire” the balloon by breathing life into it—and that force can be seen as a spiral which cycles infinitely through the process of birth, death, and rebirth, pressing and releasing the growing edge of the self/other boundary.

That which is inside and outside the self-balloon, however, is actually one and the same. The perception that the two are fundamentally different is solely a result of our creation of the boundary that separates the two. In the perennial philosophy, this common trait, the ground of all being, is absolute consciousness—Atman, Tao, Allah, God. Thus, it is the solely the boundary between self and other which creates, out of this single universal fabric, a separate-self. And since we create a boundary around our selves that we must protect, we battle others and suffering arises. Also, when one represses an internal part of one’s self from consciousness—such as denying a “shadow” facet of our personality like anger—then its appearance must be also attributed to “other.” Then, when we see a repressed facet of our own personality in others, they, too, must be repressed. Therefore, because of the very existence of the self/other boundary, suffering arises.

Looked at this way, then, healing, or “whole-ing” is the process of expanding one’s self/other boundary—toward both poles of unity and diversity. And, at each stage, suffering is transformed, although it does not disappear. It simply becomes more subtle. For example, even though mental anguish may be more “subtle” than physical starvation, it may be experienced just as intensely.

Finally, even though the balloon—which defines our growing edge—divides self from other, we possess throughout life the intuition that what is inside the boundary is indeed the same as that which is outside. In those moments, the veil is lifted to allow one to see the planes of consciousness which have not yet emerged into consciousness and to recognize that there is actually no real boundary between self and other—that the “stuff” outside the self is the same as the “stuff” within the self. It is all One and the boundary is truly an illusion. Nevertheless, we resist that knowledge because it would necessitate the very loss of our separate self. To fully recognize the “stuff” which is within the balloon is the same as that which is outside would mean that the boundary between them is unnecessary altogether.

If, out of fear, we continue to restrict the self-other boundary, we incarcerate ourselves in the world of suffering. As long as we maintain a separate self which “maintains a battle line between the self—which it protects defensively—and the world ‘outside,’” as long as we perceive “anything as other, we defend ourselves and fight the world” (Wilber, 1991b, p. 196). So even if we experience a new, more integrated level of self, we still experience suffering and grasp at new substitutes for immortality.

Chapter 5. At the center

Beyond Duality

At the center of our spherical model of the self is the silent core around which everything revolves. This center—the hub of the wheel of life—is the point which represents the whole and which integrates all the dualities of consciousness such as self and other, subject and object, knower and known, joy and suffering, beauty and ugliness (Campbell, pp. 39, 41, 44).

The entire universe, with all its spatial and temporal states, is but the spiral manifestation of the still centre; as it rotates it expands, and while still rotating it contracts and disappears to the source of whence it came (Purce, 1974, pp. 11 & 17-18).

According to the perennial philosophy of the mystics, this all-inclusive core is known as the Godhead (Christian gnosticism), Buddha-consciousness (Buddhism), the Tao or Way (Taoism), Brahman (Hinduism), the Absolute, the ground of being, Spirit, the Absolute, ultimate Wholeness, the fabric of the universe. It includes both form and formlessness—absolute wholeness as well all the manifestations of physical, biological, mental and spiritual consciousness in the universe to which the absolute gives birth. 30

It is not unless we reach our fullest potential as human beings dancing around all phases of the cycle and to the far reaches of the spectrum that the center of our consciousness coincides with this cosmic center. At any time, however, we can intuit the Absolute and seek to emulate it through prayer and meditation. This intuition powers the spiral journey of our soul.

Chapter 6. Transformation and healing

Fulfilling our potential wholeness, then, becomes a process of traveling the spiral journey as fully as possible, dancing through all the phases of the cycle and extending ourselves both skyward and earthward. When, like the Sufi dervish, we have smoothed out our uneven steps into a smooth dance by embracing all of life, we become fully attuned to the calm at the center of the hurricane: the hub of the wheel of life. Healing is the process of “fleshing” out the spherical spiral of development toward both poles and toward all phases of the cycle.

Healing in this third dimension, then, is the drive to fully traverse the entire journey of Self-transformation and to discover the core of being around which the journey revolves. In the spherical journey, the core is only reached when the Self has defined the entire surface and is balanced over the exact center. To do so, it is necessary for the Self to identity in all dimensions with the journey, from heaven to earth and in all the directions.

Finally, we should note one important premise of the perennial philosophy regarding healing. It suggests that, since we already intuit the ultimate Wholeness of which we are a part, we are really re-membering our wholeness. “It is generally agreed that one does not learn to become a Buddha [or saint], one simply discovers or remembers that one is already Buddha. That is an incontrovertible fact of the perennial philosophy” (Wilber, 1980, p. 42).

How, then, do we remove the veil that separates us from the healing truth which already exists? Since each of us intuits absolute Wholeness as our possible self-consciousness, we can potentially remove the illusion of separateness and awaken to it through direct and immediate experience. The mystic traditions teach that faith is not necessary. It can be experienced first hand.

It would be as if a wave became conscious of itself and thus discovered that it is one with the entire ocean—and thus one with all waves as well, since all are made of water. This is the phenomenon of transcendence—or enlightenment, or liberation… This is what Plato meant by stepping out of the cave of shadows and finding the Light of Being; or Einstein‘s ‘escaping the delusion of separateness.’ This is the aim of Buddhist meditation, of Hindu yoga, and of Christian mystical contemplation (Wilber, 1981, p. 6).

Enlightenment, or the experience of ultimate wholeness, is nothing other than being who we are right now.

Thus, when one rediscovers the ultimate Wholeness, one transcends—but does not obliterate—every imaginable sort of boundary, and therefore transcends all types of battles. It is a conflict-free awareness, whole, blissful. But this does not mean that one loses all egoic consciousness, all temporal awareness, that one goes into blank trance, suspends all critical faculties and wallows in oceanic mush. It simply means that one rediscovers the background of egoic consciousness (1981, p. 12)

Once we glimpse Spirit, we discover that the absolute is what we are, already. And thus, to the enlightened one, the profane becomes the sacred because all daily duties and activities are part of the same absolute.31 In many traditions, that enlightened being—known as the Bodhisattva in Buddhism—teaches us that once we recognize that all beings are part of the same Whole, we must return to the world. Until all beings are liberated, no one being can be liberated. The enlightened individual, identifying with the One, with the Ultimate, exists in a balance of all aspects of self: physical, emotional, mental, social, existential, and spiritual.

Chapter 7. Perennial Philosophy

On Service, death and dying

Death is universal. It does not discriminate between rich and poor, young or old, black, white, or yellow, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, or Hindu. Death is a constant companion on the journey of life, even if we only witness it’s power through television news reports. Eventually, as our life journey progresses, we learn more about death, through the personal loss of family members and friends and, eventually, from our own death. For those struggling to find meaning in existence, recognizing the balance between life and death is an important turning point. For some, integrating the existence of both pain and joy as part of the created universe is a paramount moment of healing. For others, “a confrontation with the existential reality of death and aloneness may lead to despair or resignation.” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p. 186)

Each person views death through the filter of the religious doctrines with which he or she grew up. In contrast, the perennial psychology—taught by mystics in all times and cultures—offers consistent instructions about preparing for death and loss in general. Fear of death, the mystical tradition teaches us, is one of the primary sources of “crippling effects…on the mind,” of the difficulties we experience as symptoms associated with suffering.

To escape from the crippling power of these symptoms, “death must eventually be accepted. When one decides to come to terms with it, one can more easily bring healing awareness to every aspect of experience.” (Vaughan, 1985, p. 68) The question, then, is how to accept death, the ultimate loss. Referring to our cyclical spiral of development, we’ve seen that this can be done by integrating the oppositions in our lives (integrating “me” with my shadows) into a new experience of wholeness. By leaving behind the dichotomy and renewing ourselves through a new integration, we can befriend that which we feared, and live our lives more fully.

Even the passage between death and whatever follows death may fall in this healing pattern of loss and renewal. Indeed, this particular journey of ultimate transformation is described in the same manner in reports from unrelated sources—from near-death and out-of-body experiences to sacred texts about life after death. I will now present a synthesis of the common themes in these various reports.32

First, as a person dies and crosses the threshold into sacred space and time, the “heaviest” or “earthiest” planes of the spectrum of manifestation are released one by one—first the body-self, then the emotional-self, then the mental/egoic-self, then the soul-self. This is often reported to be as a relief from suffering—near-death experiencers relate serenity, light, joy. Even as a being approaches the subtlest plane of individual consciousness, the Spirit, begins to drop its earthly manifestations.

But, in this case, “subtle” does not mean less intense, and the experiences of the transpersonal self—still a suffering separate-self—are reported to be extremely frightening. The Tibetan Book of the Dead recommends that survivors, following the death of their beloved, read instructions on how to approach these fearful visions. The Book recommends that one meditate during one’s lifetime in order to be prepared for the powerful visions of gods and devils which the “self” witnesses after bodily death. Since sound—as a form of vibration—is the closest approximation to ultimate consciousness—which is also a form of vibration—it is a worthy form of meditation (such as concentrating on a sacred sound, or mantra). Therefore, due to its nature as purest physical vibration, the last bodily function to be left behind is hearing.

The individual who has prepared during her lifetime will not be afraid. Passing through the ultimate light and then the fearful visions, she allows her conscious-self to expand until she is ready to unite with absolute unity and dissolve into the One. Just before the boundary between self and other is about to disappear, she recognizes that she can’t be truly liberated until all suffering beings are also liberated (since all are part of the One), so she chooses to return to the manifest world. In Buddhism, as we’ve seen, this is known as the ideal of the Bodhisattva.

Most of us, however, have no preparation for this journey—either through meditation or near-death experience. In the fear and awe of encountering the ultimate power and responsibility of the absolute, the spirit will flee and begin the process of involution, going through the hell of being reincarnated. In the Judeo-Christian parable, this is the fall from the Garden of Eden through the hell of suffering for our sins. In Indian cosmology, this is the bardo state, where the spirit begins to remanifest the soul, the ego-mind, the emotional energy, and finally, the body as we pass across the traumatic threshold of physical birth. Via the spiral of involution, the soul, mind, and body are renewed as a new individual. The fears or “baggage” we bring from our previous lives are brought along.

Even though, however, we are tied to our painful karma, we also possess, at our core, the seed of the absolute consciousness we had approached so closely. So in our new life, we intuit that wholeness/oneness/healing is possible and begin once again the natural, developmental process of expanding the boundary of self which separates us from it.

Service to Others

According to the perennial philosophy, at the same time as the individual begins to accept death as a stage in the life cycle, there also occurs a shift in perspective regarding service to others. With the transformation from a personal- to a transpersonal-self-identity, the witnessing self comes into being. No longer attached to the ego—and its drive for preservation—it “identifies instead with the transpersonal self or the detached observer of one’s psychological processes” (Walsh & Vaughan 1980, p. 186). This new transpersonal consciousness allows for:

…an enlarged sense of identity, in which the self is viewed as the context of life experience, which in turn is held as content. This shift in identity is frequently associated with a shift in motivation from self-enhancement to service, implying less investment in the achievement of specific ego goals and a predominant motivation for participation and service in the world (p. 188).

This service—which may take the form of teaching and healing—is known in Hinduism as karma yoga: “the yoga of service and contribution to others through work” (Walsh & Vaughan, p. 76 & 166)

Transpersonal psychologists tend to see service in the world as absolutely essential and central to the kinds of living and being they pursue and advocate. Just as in most spiritual traditions, the transpersonal psychologist sees an absolute and reciprocal relationship between actions and being. As transpersonal awakening begins, motivations inevitably shift from the egocentric toward a desire to serve others. This kind of service is seen as absolutely necessary if the awakening and development are to continue; transpersonal growth requires a life of service (Levy, 1983, p. 49).

Part II. Spiral as experience

Chapter 7: The perennial philosophy on service and dying

Death is universal. It does not discriminate between rich and poor, young or old, black, white, or yellow, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, or Hindu. Death is a constant companion on the journey of life, even if we only witness it’s power through television news reports. Eventually, as our life journey progresses, we learn more about death, through the personal loss of family members and friends and, eventually, from our own death. For those struggling to find meaning in existence, recognizing the balance between life and death is an important turning point. For some, integrating the existence of both pain and joy as part of the created universe is a paramount moment of healing. For others, “a confrontation with the existential reality of death and aloneness may lead to despair or resignation.” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p. 186)

Each person views death through the filter of the religious doctrines with which he or she grew up. In contrast, the perennial psychology—taught by mystics in all times and cultures—offers consistent instructions about preparing for death and loss in general. Fear of death, the mystical tradition teaches us, is one of the primary sources of “crippling effects…on the mind,” of the difficulties we experience as symptoms associated with suffering.

To escape from the crippling power of these symptoms, “death must eventually be accepted. When one decides to come to terms with it, one can more easily bring healing awareness to every aspect of experience.” (Vaughan, 1985, p. 68) The question, then, is how to accept death, the ultimate loss. Referring to our cyclical spiral of development, we’ve seen that this can be done by integrating the oppositions in our lives (integrating “me” with my shadows) into a new experience of wholeness. By leaving behind the dichotomy and renewing ourselves through a new integration, we can befriend that which we feared, and live our lives more fully.

Even the passage between death and whatever follows death may fall in this healing pattern of loss and renewal. Indeed, this particular journey of ultimate transformation is described in the same manner in reports from unrelated sources—from near-death and out-of-body experiences to sacred texts about life after death. I will now present a synthesis of the common themes in these various reports.32

First, as a person dies and crosses the threshold into sacred space and time, the “heaviest” or “earthiest” planes of the spectrum of manifestation are released one by one—first the body-self, then the emotional-self, then the mental/egoic-self, then the soul-self. This is often reported to be as a relief from suffering—near-death experiencers relate serenity, light, joy. Even as a being approaches the subtlest plane of individual consciousness, the Spirit, begins to drop its earthly manifestations.

But, in this case, “subtle” does not mean less intense, and the experiences of the transpersonal self—still a suffering separate-self—are reported to be extremely frightening. The Tibetan Book of the Dead recommends that survivors, following the death of their beloved, read instructions on how to approach these fearful visions. The Book recommends that one meditate during one’s lifetime in order to be prepared for the powerful visions of gods and devils which the “self” witnesses after bodily death. Since sound—as a form of vibration—is the closest approximation to ultimate consciousness—which is also a form of vibration—it is a worthy form of meditation (such as concentrating on a sacred sound, or mantra). Therefore, due to its nature as purest physical vibration, the last bodily function to be left behind is hearing.

The individual who has prepared during her lifetime will not be afraid. Passing through the ultimate light and then the fearful visions, she allows her conscious-self to expand until she is ready to unite with absolute unity and dissolve into the One. Just before the boundary between self and other is about to disappear, she recognizes that she can’t be truly liberated until all suffering beings are also liberated (since all are part of the One), so she chooses to return to the manifest world. In Buddhism, as we’ve seen, this is known as the ideal of the Bodhisattva.

Most of us, however, have no preparation for this journey—either through meditation or near-death experience. In the fear and awe of encountering the ultimate power and responsibility of the absolute, the spirit will flee and begin the process of involution, going through the hell of being reincarnated. In the Judeo-Christian parable, this is the fall from the Garden of Eden through the hell of suffering for our sins. In Indian cosmology, this is the bardo state, where the spirit begins to remanifest the soul, the ego-mind, the emotional energy, and finally, the body as we pass across the traumatic threshold of physical birth. Via the spiral of involution, the soul, mind, and body are renewed as a new individual. The fears or “baggage” we bring from our previous lives are brought along.

Even though, however, we are tied to our painful karma, we also possess, at our core, the seed of the absolute consciousness we had approached so closely. So in our new life, we intuit that wholeness/oneness/healing is possible and begin once again the natural, developmental process of expanding the boundary of self which separates us from it.

Service to Others

According to the perennial philosophy, at the same time as the individual begins to accept death as a stage in the life cycle, there also occurs a shift in perspective regarding service to others. With the transformation from a personal- to a transpersonal-self-identity, the witnessing self comes into being. No longer attached to the ego—and its drive for preservation—it “identifies instead with the transpersonal self or the detached observer of one’s psychological processes” (Walsh & Vaughan 1980, p. 186). This new transpersonal consciousness allows for:

…an enlarged sense of identity, in which the self is viewed as the context of life experience, which in turn is held as content. This shift in identity is frequently associated with a shift in motivation from self-enhancement to service, implying less investment in the achievement of specific ego goals and a predominant motivation for participation and service in the world (p. 188).

This service—which may take the form of teaching and healing—is known in Hinduism as karma yoga: “the yoga of service and contribution to others through work” (Walsh & Vaughan, p. 76 & 166)

Transpersonal psychologists tend to see service in the world as absolutely essential and central to the kinds of living and being they pursue and advocate. Just as in most spiritual traditions, the transpersonal psychologist sees an absolute and reciprocal relationship between actions and being. As transpersonal awakening begins, motivations inevitably shift from the egocentric toward a desire to serve others. This kind of service is seen as absolutely necessary if the awakening and development are to continue; transpersonal growth requires a life of service (Levy, 1983, p. 49).

Chapter 8. The Hospice movement

It has been suggested that personal development parallels societal development (Wilber, 1981). If so, then large numbers of people in western society appear to be entering the transformation between personal and transpersonal consciousness—from an existential world view to the perspective of the non-attached witness. As modern Western culture, then, has begun to value spiritual, or transpersonal, insights into healing—especially the acceptance of death and the importance of voluntary service—the modern hospice movement is one of several attempts to see life as a sacred whole rather than fighting among the parts. In the case of hospice, the goal is to return dying to the sacred nature it once possessed in ancient societies—as part of a cycle of life and death. Hospice does not, however, deny modern advances, but instead integrates them into its philosophy, particularly in controlling the pain of dying.

Sister Anne Munley wrote the first book—The Hospice Alternative (1983)—to survey the modern hospice movement and its sweeping evolution from the ancient roots of death rituals to the medieval hospice to its current form in the United States. We will now summarize her observations as a context for the discussions with hospice volunteers we will present afterward.

The Roots of Hospice

In the earliest cultures, Munley notes, people lived “in harmony with cosmic rhythm or order” as they saw it displayed in the phases of the stars, sun, and moon—and in the rhythms of “birth, becoming, death, and resurrection” (p. 313). They saw in these cyclical patterns a way to make sense of their own lives, passing from “one stage or mode of being to another.”

Since “every passage, including the one from life to death, is potentially dangerous,” they created “sacred myths, rites, and symbols” to reassure themselves in the face of changes such as “birth, childhood, puberty, marriage, pregnancy, parenthood,” and the ultimate transformation, death. In the passage from life to death, the profane condition of time, from which the person disappeared, was transformed into a sacred world and time in which the Spirit-person was eternal. Rituals reinforced this “death to the profane condition and rebirth to the sacred world” and provided a reassuring and comforting “promise of survival” (p. 314).

This desire to remain connected to sacred time and space led to an experience of nature and human life—even at their most profane—“as a sacred mystery” (p. 314).33 These peoples watched their dying family members and friends “and enacted ritual to assuage their fear and to gain for the group the protection and good graces of the spirits” which would help each of them remain transcendent of profane death (p. 7). “In the tenderness and compassion of the death rituals,” Munley wrote, they reached out “to one another in their vulnerability (p. 317).

In Middle Ages Europe, spiritual pilgrims journeyed to holy lands and shrines for the same reason: to transcend poverty, ill health, and disease through sacred healing into eternal life. On their journey, they were welcomed at the first trailside hospices, in which the monks and nuns lived a sacred worldview: “that service to one’s neighbor is a sign of love and dedication to God.” For them, “hospitality included care of mind and spirit as well as of body” (p. 28). Many of the wayfarers died en route.

Even in the United States, this holistic view of healing and hospitality was common in small communities into this century. Death was still seen “as an inevitable dimension of human destiny and an integral part of the life of the individual and the community. People died at home with family and friends around them” (p. 10).

However, as the natural world and human body came to be viewed in a new way—as machines which followed observable cause-and-effect patterns—the boundary between sacred and profane shifted. Healing talents and techniques, once possessed by only a few sacred community healers, were disseminated and could be learned in the new academies. Medicine, once sacred, was now secular, and “hospices were replaced by hospitals” (p. 28). Physicians—“trained according to the biomedical model”—began to “see themselves as rational curers of disease or bodily malfunction—a role significantly different from the traditional physician’s role as caring healer of the total person” (p. 15).

The new ego-Self could now control her health with the skills of rational, mechanistic science. Without the spiritual plane, however, the common person now projected her previously sacred desire for eternal life onto the profane body and, defeated in this endeavor, proceeded to dissociate from the body altogether. The emerging ego-Self rejected the failing body and, therefore, also rejected people whose bodies were preparing to dissolve on their passage beyond life.

The increasing influence of the biomedical model nearly extinguished the sacred view of death. By the early 1980s, seven of ten deaths took place “in a hospital or a nursing home” where “one is robbed of human dignity” (pp. 12-13).“Instead of an integrating experiencing for mind, body, and spirit,” Munley lamented, “profane death is a spiritual vacuum—empty of transcendence but filled with estrangement.” (p. 315).

Compared with primitive and traditional societies, modern societies are relatively impoverished in cultural supports for experiencing all of life as potentially sacred and transcendent. People in highly advanced industrialized societies live in a desacralized world which lacks a richness of myth, rite, and symbol. There are few cultural constructions to explain human existence in terms of the larger metaphysical realm (p. 314).

At the same time, however, new views of healing began to rise amidst the ashes of the profane worldview. Twentieth-century technical progress made possible “the movements toward natural birth and natural death.” Prior to this century, due to rampant disease, people had been “more concerned about survival than about rights to participate in medical decision making.” It was only when mother and infant deaths were minimized—and when death occurred primarily due to old age—that US society began to recognize again the importance of natural birth and death. She says, “The beginning of life and the end—its alpha and its omega—are both occasions meriting security, compassion, and community” (pp. 301 & 305). In addition, Munley claims, the “realization that there is more to human life than technical proficiency and material achievement” has led to a “modern hunger for spiritual growth and fulfillment” which gave rise to the “countercultural trend to reverse the desacralization of modern life.” The hospice approach is a component of this trend (p. 315).

Rather than being anti-scientific, the hospice seeks to unite the knowledge that flows from science with the openness to mystery that springs from faith and the compassion that arises form caring (p. 30).

It was in 1968 in Britain that the hospice concept “re-emerged with renewed vigor” when St. Christopher’s Hospice opened in London. Created by Dr. Cicely Saunders, recognized as founder of the modern hospice movement, St. Christopher’s “has since become a model for modern hospice care.” The first U.S. hospice, the Hospice Home Care Program of New Haven, Connecticut, opened in 1973, and the grassroots movement has grown to include over a thousand programs of programs in every state of the nation. Contrary to the British model where hospice care is subsidized fully by national health care, most U.S. hospice programs provide services in the home. (pp. 31-32 & 271).

Hospice Philosophy

The National Hospice Organization defines the modern hospice as “a program of palliative34 and supportive services which provides physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care for dying persons and their families” (Munley, p. 79). At a deeper level, however, hospice is linked with its historical origins in the view that “care of the spirit is just as important as care of the body” (p. 226). Opening to the sacred in order to heal the profane—renewing one’s spirit even while losing one’s body—underlies hospice philosophy and practice.

As presented in contemporary terms by Lifton and Olson (1974), this perspective asserts that all human beings have three primary needs. First, we need integrity: to constantly heal toward wholeness feeling “intact as a person, in touch with one’s self and one’s world.” Second, we need to experience movement (development, growth, or evolution) in life, rather than stagnation. Third, we need connection—a bond not only with other people but with “meaningful philosophies, hopes, dreams, and purposes.” (Munley, 1983, p. 313). This quest for transcendence into the sacred, which Munley calls a “movement toward synthesis,” “is a salient theme of the world of the hospice patient” (pp. 109 & 171). She parallels the patient’s attempt to make sense of this transformative passage with Erikson’s developmental challenge of “integrity vs. despair” (p. 171).

Thus, from this perspective, the transition into death, is a rebirth into the sacred. Therefore, “death, like all of life, is potentially an experience of growth” (p. 316). The modern hospice “creates a context where it is possible for one to live while dying. In such a context, intimacy with death heightens one’s potential for discovering the meaning of life” (p. xi). In addition, when seen as a sacred event, the mystery of death is not denied (p. 317).

When death occurs in a context that does not dismiss the sacred from everyday events of life, people have a chance to fulfill longings for experience of the transcendent—for harmony of mind, body, and spirit. Dying can become a sacred act; a point of contact with the supernatural that people of rational, bureaucratic societies have learned to ignore (p. 316).

Also, hospice is based on the premise that “patients, family members, and caregivers all know the facts of the case.” Rather than denying that death approaches (with all its associated fears), the assumption is that “patients who can name their ‘dragons’ can learn to deal with them.” That is not to say that being aware of one’s fears necessarily produces “harmony and tranquillity of spirit.” “As a terminal disease spirals downward, patients constantly encounter new fears, new puzzles, new challenges” Open awareness of the process of the failing body is simply a way to help the client “heal into death” one step at a time (p. 123).

With each new realization of the inevitability of death—with each cycle through the phase of loss—the patient first struggles to “hang on,” hopeful of recovery. This “capacity to hope, subtle in some patients, more prominent in others, persists throughout dying. However, as one’s hope collides with mounting evidence that death is inevitable, it becomes more likely that one will achieve a spirit of resignation.” The client becomes more willing to “let go” of the body and accepting the inevitable physical dissolution. Munley adds that those who define themselves as “sick”—those whose identity is attached to their bodies—struggle to hang on more often than those who perceive themselves as “dying”—those whose identity is already less attached to their bodies. The latter, she observed, let go more easily. (pp. 155-156). However, even if the client has succeeded in letting go of earthly bonds, hospice caregivers often encourage loved ones to grant “permission to die” because “hospice folklore abounds with instances of a patient’s being able to die when family members were willing to release him or her” (p. 204).

Regardless of the ways which the client interacted with the “unseen divine”35 during their lifetime—via institutional or personal religion, or metaphysical or atheistic orientations—most clients and caregivers believe that some ethereal part of the person transcends the physical to meet or unite with the divine (pp. 235 & 241). Even though most of the clients in Munley’s study were “deeply rooted in the teachings and rituals of the organized religions” (p. 241)—whereas their hospice caregivers had little investment in organized religion—they were able to mutually explore “spiritual issues and concerns” because of a shared belief in a divinity which they defined as a “Supreme Being” (p. 249). Caregivers, even those with little or no experience with institutional religions, reported that a sense of “sacredness surrounds death.” Death can become, for the caregiver, “awesome, an event in the realm of the sacred.” Even the “most ordinary of events can take on a extraordinarily spiritual character.” (pp. 255-256).

Chapter 9. Hospice volunteers

Service through life and death

From the sick we are learning how to be well; from the dying, we learn how to live. Hospice is not about dying; rather it is about living fully until we die (Cowan, 1991, unpaginated)

Volunteers fulfill an important role on the hospice team, which usually also includes a physician, nurse, social worker, and member of the clergy. After expressing interest in becoming a volunteer, a person attends an in-depth series of classes and learns to recognize and satisfy “the physical, social, psychological, and spiritual needs of both family and patient (Munley, 1983, pp. 5 & 91).

Beyond just mastering skills, however, comes compassion, and it is this extra something that sets aside the person who completes the training and chooses to give personal care to hospice clients. As Munley says, “Taking part in the world of the hospice patient teaches much about the human passage from life to death” (p. 146). And, as I learned through talking with volunteers, “there is much to be learned from people who have developed a comfortable familiarity with death” (p. xiii).

Work as a hospice volunteer is not always easy. Caregivers experience, according to Munley, peaks and valleys in their work with hospice clients. The low experiences “involve an experience of limits: the feeling that one is powerless to change things.” “By being intimately linked to the death of others,” the “hospice caregiver suffers”, too (pp. 224-225). Due to the nature of the hospice philosophy, however, “death, grief, and the completion of a human life cycle can be experienced as deeply moving, enriching, and personally integrating.” These peak experiences often revolve around the development of “intensely personal relationships” between clients, families, and volunteers since “time is inescapably limited” (p. 106). In this way, the staff and volunteer caregivers provide “dying persons and their families with a surrogate extended family” at a time when the nuclear family may be tested to its limits (pp. 95 & 97). Munley notes that both peaks and valleys possess a notably spiritual character (pp. 224-225).

Listening to Long-term Volunteers

Last spring I enrolled in the local hospice training program. I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I became aware of all the losses in my life which I hadn’t resolved, and I began to wonder if I would be able to confront my own fears, let alone listen to others’. The classes were to be divided into a presentation and a group discussion and so, at the first group meeting, we each began by sharing our perspectives about loss and death, and inevitably, denied feelings of sorrow and loss surfaced. The volunteer coordinator and small group leaders, however, had created a safe, supportive environment for the many emotions which came up for each of us. It was then that I began to appreciate the people who were aspiring to this work. I began to spend time with volunteers and residents at Vermont Respite House in Williston, and with homeless people as a volunteer at the Salvation Army soup kitchen. Those experiences were difficult at first, but eventually began to loosen the grip the denial of loss had on my behavior.

During the time my grandfather was ill, I was grateful for the wisdom and insight of the long-term volunteers I had met. I decided early in my studies that I wanted to interview these people who seemed to me to be at peace with death and loss. During the summer of 1992, I sent invitations to 35 hospice volunteers in the Burlington, Vermont, area to participate in an interview. Each of them had been active volunteers for more than five years; 17 had been active for more than 10 years. Their names had either been published in the annual report for the Visiting Nurse Association—which is the sponsoring organization for hospice services in the area—or had been provided by the director of Vermont Respite House—who had previously been volunteer coordinator for the local hospice program. In addition, one person had been a speaker at my training program.

Seventeen volunteers responded to my invitation. Of those, one wrote that she hadn’t been an active volunteer for several years, another said that my interview period was a bad time for her, and one responded after I had completed the interviews. I then conducted one-hour interviews with the 14 volunteers who met my criteria. Although they were a self-selected sample—and therefore I make no pretensions to the projectabilty of my results to a general population—I gained insight and discovered recurring themes when I spoke with them.

My overall inquiry was based on the following statement:

Long-term hospice volunteers choose to renew their commitment to clients, again and again, even in the face of the ultimate loss of their client—death. Why and how do they remain committed to this cycle of loss and renewal year after year? Has the experience of loss and renewal changed the volunteer’s life?

I asked each volunteer six primary questions and then probed for further details. The questions were:

1. “Why and how did you originally decide to enroll in hospice training?”

Probe: “What do you remember about the training?”

2. “Would you tell me about your first client?”

3. “Would you tell me about your most memorable client?”

Probe: “Would you tell me about the last time you saw him/her?”

Probe: “How did you deal with the loss?”

Probe: “How long was it before you began with a new client?”

Probe: “How did you feel during that time?”

4. “Knowing that each new client will eventually die and leave you, why do you begin again?”

5. “Have these experiences affected your life compared to before your hospice work?”

Probe: “If so, how?”

6. “Do you have beliefs about what happens to us after we die?”

Probe: “If so, could you describe them?”

Once I conducted the interviews, I transcribed relevant portions and sent a copy to each volunteer so they would have a final opportunity to disguise or remove references to identifiable people, places, or events. I then synthesized the approved interview transcripts into a single, common structure with themes parallel to the spherical dance of healing I described in the first section of this paper.

For most of the volunteers, the cycle of hospice work began with loss. I discovered that many had been motivated by death of a loved one—or another important personal loss—and that they had transformed that loss into a decision to attend the hospice training. Once the training was complete, these volunteers chose to begin with their first client and establish a caregiving relationship—as much as they could, given the limited time they spent together. Then followed another loss, the death of the first client, and another renewal, with the choice to begin again with a new client. In considering their relationships with clients, the volunteers shared what they had learned about caregiving. Finally, I asked about spirituality and life after death in order to get an idea of the volunteers conception of religion and spirit—the third dimension of our spiral model.

I conducted the research from a phenomenological perspective because I don’t think a quantitative questionnaire could have brought out the volunteers’ deeper perspectives about the acceptance of death, life after death, and spirituality. I listened to their stories not only for content, but also to see how they would interpret my questions and frame their answers. Since I became a participant as well as observer during this study, I make no claim for objectivity, although I believe my volunteer work helped me to better understand the common themes and communicate with the people I talked with. My goal for this section has been simply to communicate the caring and commitment of these dedicated people.

I chose the local hospice chapter because it published a public list of long-term volunteers. Since there were only a limited number of people who fit my criteria—and because confidentiality is paramount in hospice work—I welcomed whomever responded to my letter of invitation. Although these choices resulted in a very specific, non-generalizable sample, nearly all the volunteers who talked with me chose to respond to all the questions. Several of the interviewees also said they were grateful for an opportunity to reminisce about their time with hospice, albeit in a confidential manner.

The 14 volunteers I spoke with had served the hospice movement for between 5 and 14 years, or an average of 9.2 years. They ranged in age from 43 to 70 with an average age of 54. Two of the 14 were men. Nine were currently married. Education ranged from high school to post-graduate degrees. Occupations included nurse, teacher, farmer, counselor, administrator, writer and four who were full-time volunteers. Of course, statistics say so little about these people, their experiences, and their values, so now I will tell the hospice story, as seen through their eyes.

The call—deciding to serve in life and death

I asked each of the volunteers why they decided to enroll in the hospice volunteer training. Most had experienced a deep personal loss, usually the death of a close family member, and had wished hospice care had been available at that time. Two others enrolled in order to learn more about the dying process to help them care for a close relative who was dying. Finally, three of the fourteen felt drawn to the hospice training intuitively, even though they hadn’t experienced a personal loss directly.

Several of the volunteers experienced a personal loss and decided to look into hospice. When I spoke with her, Marie36 had been an active volunteer for six years. Her acceptance of death began with her father’s terminal illness. Two years after his diagnosis, she said, “he decided he wanted to die at home.” The family didn’t know about hospice, so they decided to deal with it on their own.

At first, dad wanted to die at our family camp which was several hours away from his home. We were down there together for two months and had the richest family experience. We had just started giving him morphine injections when he said, “This is enough. I’ve caused enough hardship for everyone, coming down here.” He said, “We’ll go back home on Monday.” So we all had a very wonderful Labor Day weekend and we brought him home on Monday and put him to bed. He died on Friday. The experience was very painful—very intense—and it took me about a year to sort it out. Once I finally did, I realized how many insights there were in that experience and how rich it was. I said to myself, I’d really would like to be with other people, to help them experience the richness of the dying process, and to help reassure them. That’s why I went through hospice training.

Monica, a five-year volunteer, found out that her best friend had breast cancer.

She fought this very painful cancer for four years. She had a very full life with her children up until the last six months. We had some incredible conversations about living, about dying, about children: “Will they remember me, will they not?” I went through the mourning process, for the first time, with someone. I mourned her death with her. One of our conversations was, “What are you going to do now that we’ve learned what we’ve learned?” She said, “You can’t let it go to waste. We’ve learned so much together and I’m not going to be here to continue it.”

Two weeks after her friend died, Monica woke up in the middle of the night and turned on the television. Coincidentally, the program she turned to was about Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement. The next day she found out that a series of training sessions was to begin the following week and she enrolled.

As a professional nurse, Sue—a six-year-volunteer—had familiar with hospice for many years, primarily through newspaper articles, but hadn’t become involved directly. When her aunt—with whom she was very close—was diagnosed with cancer at age 55, she decided to spend a week with her before she died.

When I saw how ill she was—how fragile and ravaged she was by the illness—and saw her family’s need for support, I looked to see whether there was hospice service available. I wasn’t familiar with hospice in detail, but I knew it was what they needed. So I instituted hospice services for her and her family.

That personal experience with the value of hospice services convinced her, after her aunt died, to take the volunteer training program.

When Joseph’s first wife was diagnosed with cancer twenty years ago, there was no hospice program available for him to turn to. As a farmer, he had to continue to work while she alternated between hospital stays and periods at home, all this time without any help.

It was eight years before the tumors went all through her body, but she didn’t want to go back to the hospital. She’d say, “I’d hate to go back to the hospital” but there was no one to stay with her. Finally, she was in terrible pain, so the doctor took her to the hospital and she went into a coma, but, even then, she didn’t want to go back. The next day she died.

A hospice program was founded several years later and Joseph signed up. “I went through the training and have been there ever since.” That was 14 years ago.

Two of the volunteers I spoke with decided to enroll in hospice during the illnesses of close family members. Julia—a ten-year volunteer—was a teacher when her father was diagnosed with cancer. She knew that she would have to face his death at some point so, when she heard about hospice, she decided that it was “a good way to get some information, to learn how to be helpful, and maybe work through some issues with my father.” The training did, indeed, help her heal her relationships with both of her parents.

Sandra watched as her husband’s father suffered from lung cancer. When she found out about hospice, she decided to enroll because she thought, “these were skills we needed right then.” Unfortunately, just before the training series began he died at home. She decided to enroll anyway.

That’s how I got started. I decided that, even if you never take a client, this training is something everybody should have because it helps you come to grips with your own feelings about death and dying.

Steven—who’s been a volunteer for five years—came face to face with death when he suddenly experienced the onset of an illness which necessitated his retirement. Even though he had had experience with death—his father was a funeral director—contemplating his own death led him to the hospice training.

Three of the fourteen volunteers I spoke with told me they had been drawn to hospice work not necessarily as a result of personal loss, but because they wanted to care for others. Cathy had had friends who took the training and “were impressed with it and so I took the second class. I have always been interested in helping people and I just thought this would be a good way to get started.” Jeanette, an eleven-year volunteer, had raised a family and recently retired from business. She learned about hospice from her daughter, so she decided to look “into hospice and went to the first training session.”

Darlene, who became a hospice volunteer thirteen years ago, responded to my questions with a wry sense of humor. She said she first found about hospice when she went to a town meeting and came upon a booth with two ladies talking about the program. “I picked up all the papers on it and said, ‘Hey, this is me. This is what I’m good at and I want to do it.’” So she signed up and “took the course” and she liked it. She had never done anything similar to hospice work before, but said “It just feels natural to be able to help other people.” When I asked her why she knew so clearly that caregiving was what she wanted do, she chuckled.

Maybe in my last life, I was that way and it just followed! I don’t know. Or maybe I’m making up for my last life! I’ve always been good with older people—it’s nice to be able to be there for someone.

Transformation—becoming a hospice volunteer

For several of the volunteers, the training marked a personal transformation regarding their attitudes toward death and dying. Following the loss of a loved one or the intuitive recognition of their desire to confront their fears of loss, the training sessions offered a safe place to accept and explore feelings related to grief, sorrow, and mourning. Sessions in the training program, then and now, usually consisted of a general presentation to the entire group on a particular aspect of hospice care—such as personal care, family dynamics, the dying process, and bereavement—followed by a smaller group discussion.

In a way, the training, and the small group discussions within, can be viewed as two thresholds separating the ordinary world from the special, even sacred, world of dying and death. Within the context of these threshold-protected sacred spaces, each participant was removed from the concerns of the ordinary world while challenging the dragon within—the fears of death.

Even though she attended the training, Julia originally had no intention of becoming an active volunteer. “I was there just to learn something. However, it turned out that the small group discussions at the training were a way for me to start talking about the issues I was having with my father, so it was therapeutic.” The training sessions helped her with her relationships with both of her parents.

I had a much better idea of how to be helpful to my mother and how to respond to my father. In terms of my father, I was able to hold his hand and, basically, sit there in silence. He was comatose for a period of time before he died and I was able to sit there with him and have a sense that he was able to feel our presence, my presence, even though he couldn’t talk with us. And with my mother, she had a difficult time when my father was so ill, just before he died. I didn’t take her anger in the way I might have. I understood that her anger was part of the grieving process rather than thinking that she was mad at us.

Many hospice programs encourage volunteers to wait for a period after the death of a loved one before taking on a client so, after her father died, Julia waited, and later began to take on clients.

When Cathy enrolled in the training ten years ago, she noted that people at that time didn’t talk much about death. “I mean it was really taboo. If you mentioned something about death, they’d say, ‘Don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about it.’ It was nice to be in hospice then, because we could talk about it.” Although she felt society is now more likely to talk about death—she noted recent movies and television programs about death and dying—she said that she felt many people were still averse to working with dying people. That was why, with all the forms of community service she performed, her hospice skills seemed the most valuable.

Beginning—meeting the first client

Meeting their first client marked the first time most of the volunteers directly approached death voluntarily. I asked each of them if they remembered their first client.

Several, like Celia, Sandra, and Sue, had challenging times with their first clients. Celia, a twelve-year volunteer, was awake all night before her first visit.

I went over every scenario we went over in the class. My head churned all night and then when I arrived at the patient’s house, he’d been taken to the hospital and he wasn’t even there! I didn’t have a lot to do with that patient because he died shortly after.

Sandra had a similar experience.

The volunteer coordinator called me and had a client. We arranged a time for me to go to this person’s house with the visiting nurse. The day I was supposed to go, they called me and said, ‘She died,’ so I never even got there the first time. For my second client, I arranged to meet the visiting nurse at three o’clock in the afternoon and the woman died before night. I was thinking, ‘Maybe this isn’t the line for me!’ And I only visited the third person two or three times! So it took me a really long time before I felt I was doing much with. I was starting to get a complex!

Sue, feeling prepared and excited about meeting her first client, had her expectations dashed when she and the hospice nurse arrived.

The patient started crying and, because I am a very emotional person, I was sitting on the edge of my chair, fighting tears, as she was listing all the problems of her life. I was saying, “I think I’m in the wrong place. I don’t think I can handle the emotions related to people dying.”

Sue watched how the nurse handled her client’s emotional outburst. As soon as she saw “how the nurse got through that experience, brief as it was, then I was fine to stay with her and the visit went fine.” So, for Sue, Sandra, and Celia, these difficult initial experiences did not deter them from continuing with the program. Perhaps surmounting these challenges were, indeed, the struggle with their fears which reinforced their desire to continue on this particular journey.

Monica also had her expectations surprised when she met her first client. She had assumed that her first client would be a woman, but she found out that it was to be a man. Although she was “really nervous,” she knew, somehow, that this was what she “was supposed to be doing.”

So I drove over to the house early to make sure that I was on time and sat outside for about half an hour and meditated. One part of me said, “I’m scared to death,” and the other part said, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” So I went to the door, and this lady opened the door, and she was someone I knew! She looked at me, and she broke into tears and she said, “Oh, I’m so glad its you!” Then I knew why I was supposed to be the one doing this: because she needed someone familiar. Her husband died the next day, but I knew that I had helped her through this hurdle.

For most of the volunteers, then, their first experiences differed from their expectations. Several even reported that the first lesson learned was exactly that—to not have expectations. For Marie, however, even though her first client was non-communicative, she received a special insight into the nature of living and dying.

My first client was a man exactly my age, which I thought was quite an omen. I was very scared. I can remember sitting in the room with him the first week I was there. He was mostly semi-conscious so I didn’t have conversations with him at all. One child was playing outside and I thought how remarkable it was to be sitting there with this man who was dying while his daughter was outside whooping and hollering and laughing and screaming. It was the first of many clear messages about how life goes on, how death is really natural and not a mistake.

Celia connected deeply with one of her earliest clients, a woman who, upon Celia’s arrival, told her that she wanted to be alone.

She lived in a apartment and had her bed in the living room, but she didn’t want anybody there. The agreement was that, if I came in, I was not to try to talk to her or anything, I was just there so that she could stay at home. The first time I went, she didn’t say a word for three hours! I sat a little ways away with my knitting and checked in with her when I came, checked in with her in the middle to see if there was anything I could do, and then said good-bye and that was all the conversation we had!

Celia didn’t push her agenda on the client; she was simply present with her. This seemed to work.

The next week I went back and thought, “Oh, this is going to be awful again.” I sat there for about fifteen minutes and finally, she said, “What are you knitting?” I said, “A sweater” “Yeah, I know you’re knitting a sweater, but what are those things you’re knitting?” And I said, “popcorn stitches.” “Well,” she said, “well, I can’t see from over here what you’re doing.” So I moved my chair in.

Equilibrium—learning lessons of living and dying

Each of the volunteers continued to meet new clients and work with them. When a volunteer enjoyed a longer time with a client, most reported an opportunity to established a relationship and learn lessons from their client before the inevitable decline. The lessons learned included: responding without preconceptions to the client’s needs; listening to life stories; respecting fundamental differences with the client; being fully present—rather than trying to fix the situation in any way; and maintaining honest intention and a sense of humor.

Monica, Virginia, Sue, and Celia discovered how to respond to their client’s needs, even if those needs contrasted vividly with their own expectations. For Monica, her second client proved to be, as she put it, “cantankerous.” “If she liked you, she liked you, and if she didn’t, she didn’t.” Nevertheless, Monica responded to her client’s needs.

She didn’t want to sit in the house; because the walls felt so claustrophobic. So every week, I’d show up and we’d drive an hour and a half and turn around and drive the hour and a half back. And it was wonderful. I’d put pillows in the car and out we’d go and we’d talk. She’d tell stories and then I would and then we’d come back. I really got to know her.

Virginia, a nine-year volunteer caregiver, helped her client by writing notes for her. “She had people she wanted to write to. She had her address book there, so I brought note paper and stamps and she would dictate to me.” One day, Virginia wrote out a very important note for her client.

She had talked frequently about her mother and her brother who lived in the area, but they had become estranged—had a falling out—and hadn’t talked to one another for years. She didn’t have any idea if they knew that she was in the hospital. And so I said, “Don’t you think it would be nice to contact them?” “Well, maybe it would,” and so she asked me to write a note. One day, when I went to see her, she was just elated that her brother had been in to see her and that they’d had a good talk and that her mother, another day, had come in.

Sue knew, from her days as a nurse, “that tart things, when you’re sick, have an appeal to your taste buds that other food doesn’t.” So, every week, she made lemon pudding with one client.

She would be in bed in the living room and I would go into the kitchen and get the container of lemon pudding mix and get it started. I would bring things into the living room and mix them in front of her and then go back in the kitchen and cook it. I’d bring the spoon in and let her lick it to see if it tasted right and involve her in that way. I would make enough to last the week and she seemed to enjoy it.

One of Celia’s clients lived much longer than had been expected and “she was the one I got to know the best.”

She liked cookbooks, so she’d give me the recipes that she would have tried if she were well, and I’d go home and try them. Usually they were failures but I never told her that. And one morning I went there and she was thumbing though her cookbook—this was like nine-thirty in the morning—and I said, “If there is anything in the world you would have to eat, what would it be?” She said, “Mince pie,” so I said, “Well, I don’t do pies, but Mrs. Smith does!” My client lived two blocks from a supermarket, so I said “I’ll run over to the market and get a Mrs. Smith’s pie, if that’ll do.” So I went over, picked up the pie, came back, and at eleven o’clock in the morning, we were eating mince pie! She didn’t eat much, but she sure liked to imagine that she was eating some of these favorite recipes again. We didn’t get into deep theological discussions of her pending death, we really concentrated more on the living part.

According to Darlene, one of the most important ways to respond to the needs of the client is to learn to listen and relate to the client, and most of the volunteers concurred.

I do it with lots of people. Actually I can’t say I do it, it just happens. You either connect or you don’t. In most cases I do, that’s why I say its natural for me. Last night, I went to a wake and I got a hug and my client’s daughter says, “You know, mother really loved you.” She says, “I can’t understand it, it was such a short time span, but it was there.”

The healing nature of stories is illustrated by one of Joseph’s clients. In his earlier years, he had hunted and fished near his rural homestead many times with his son and his son’s friends. At that time, he said, there had been deer “all around the place.” He told Joseph, “‘You wait. This fall, I’m going out and get my deer.’” His story may have represented, simply and poignantly, his remaining hope for recovery. In listening to his client’s stories, Joseph supported him.

With one long-term client Sandra visited for three hours a week which allowed her client’s husband “to go and get groceries,” so she and her client “mostly sat and chatted, because there really wasn’t a lot of housekeeping or care to be done.”

We talked a lot about her son; he was the youngest child. It was nice. When I first went in, she would be up, in her chair. Then she got to the point that she was in bed, in her bedroom. Finally, she was in a hospital bed. But she would still just love to chit chat away.

Steven agreed. “Part of the joy of sitting with clients, is hearing their history.” At the time of our interview, his client had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Conversation is sometimes hard for him, because of the tumor. He gets confused. He may forget what he’s talking about or lose track and doze off. In fact, when I first started with him, he’d sleep the whole time. Now, each time I visit, he greets me by my name.”

We haven’t had long conversations, but the ones we’ve had, what I’ve learned about him, I feel like I’ve known him a much longer period of time. He has a wonderful sense of humor, even in his pain, and he has terrible, terrible pain that causes him to scream out loud in agony because they just haven’t been able to find a medicine that will alleviate that to a great degree. It’s not constant, but it keeps coming back. But, despite that, he still has a wonderful sense of humor.

He continued.

Sometimes he’ll wander, he’ll reminisce about his wife and the place she came from and how he’ll want to go back there. A couple of times he’s wanted me to get him in a car and take him to Maine or Long Island. Last week, he even bribed me; he said, “Look, I’ll buy you lunch!” And then he smiled.

Steven chucked. “He knew what he was doing. It was a game, but I’m sure it helped him.”

Julia had the most “potent” one-on-one conversation was a client she visited only once. “I think he knew he was going to die within twenty-four hours. I had no idea that he was supposed to die. He didn’t seem that way, although he was obviously very sick.”

He proceeded, when we were alone, to talk about an accident in which a close relative died, and about the death of his wife. Those two things were obviously powerful events in his life. I didn’t think much of it. I mean, here I was, I had this information, and I said, “Well, he’s probably talked about it to every single person that walks in the room.” The next day, I found out that he had died. In the process of talking with the visiting nurses and other people who dealt with him, they said, “You know he’s never talked about those things.” Those were events that he hadn’t chosen to talk to people about. He had really kept them close to his heart. I knew he was Catholic and it was almost like he needed to say this for the next step. That was powerful for me.

Another important lesson reported by several of the volunteer caregivers was overcoming fundamental differences with the client. Although one of Marie’s clients was a woman her age, she discovered they had very different ideas of the role of the “woman of the house.”

She had sort of a master control from her bed, meaning she commanded the house. Things got done the way they always did, one way or the other. That was important to her. I began to get the message about how important it was for her to take care of her family until the very end, although she couldn’t do it physically. She hung on and took care of her family until she couldn’t any longer.

When I asked if there was any particular single client that stayed in her mind, Darlene reminded me that “Everybody’s special in their own way. You learn how to relate to each one of them from your own life experiences—from the tragedies in your own life.” In that way, although the content of a person’s life may be different from that of another person, there is always a recognition that there is always suffering.

Perhaps the most important lesson mentioned by many of the caregivers was that of “being present”—sitting and paying attention without feeling the need to fix any aspect of the situation.37 One aspect of this presence, according to Munley, is an “open awareness,” in which the details of the client’s illness are openly discussed.

Celia speaks honestly and frankly with clients in her “personal ministry to elderly people.” “I won’t hesitate, if somebody looks like they’re dying, to be able to recognize and say, ‘Yes that’s true, your existence right isn’t really not what it might be.’ Whereas so many people say, ‘Don’t dwell on that.’ They don’t acknowledge the many losses that everybody has.”

So, you know, I don’t try to talk them out of the fact that they’ve got a lousy existence. But then I attempt to possibly move them a little beyond that to, “What can you do with what you have?” You’re not a useless person just because you can’t ambulate. You’re not a useless human being because you can’t drive your car. I mean, there’s still something there that you can contribute even if it seems minute.

She accepts the reality that her client is dying and then also focuses on living life fully until the end—or, from another point of view, until the mysterious beginning of something new.

One day Virginia arrived to visit a client and found her very upset. Her client was crying, “saying that she’d gotten a bad report, that things had worsened. I was able to cry along with her. I asked her if she had yelled to get her anger out and she said, ‘You bet I did.’”

Evelyn fondly remembered one of her clients, a “regular kind of person.” “She’d had a stroke and could no longer manage to live on her own, so she came to us at our care facility.”

She was very, very open about what was happening to her. She looked on it as a gift. Toward the end, though, she said, jokingly, “This is no longer a gift!” She never lost her sense of humor. It was her way of saying, “That’s enough.” At one point, a few days before she died, she decided she had to get up, and she said, “I want to get in a wheel chair and go around and say good-bye to everybody,” and she did just that. It was very reassuring for the other residents. She died in the middle of the afternoon, just before a music program. So the others sang hymns and talked about her. There had been other deaths where people had been very upset about the loss, but with her there was no anxiety amongst the residents. They knew what was going on and they could follow the passage of this process of her dying. It was very remarkable.

Openness—from either the client or the caregiver—opens toe door to a deeper connection between the two.

For about two months, Virginia visited an elderly man in a nursing home. In this case it was simply her presence which satisfied the client’s needs.

He was not anything for conversation, he wasn’t interested in anything, any music, or anything. So all I did—and it seemed to be just what he wanted—was someone to hold his hand. I’d stroke his face or his head or his shoulders, and talk to him once in a while.

Even if the client was in a coma, most of the volunteers reported that they felt it was important to sit with him or her. With his current client, Steven noted:

I never know, when I go to see him, how long he’s going to be awake, if he’s going to be awake. I don’t plan it, but I take things with me while I’m there so if he falls asleep for an hour, I can do something as simple as catch up with the newspaper or do some writing or reading or just some contemplation. Often I’ll just sit and meditate.

One day, when Virginia went to visit her client, she found her in a coma. “So I just sat there and I held her hand and I talked to her, because I firmly believe that even though someone is in a coma, they can know things are going on. I always believe in being careful about what is said and not to talk as if the person isn’t there anymore.”

Darlene put it this way. The important thing, she said, is “just be able to be there. Do little things for them. Hold their hand. A hug. It doesn’t take much. That’s the secret.” Frances reiterated the point. “It’s not what you say. What is there to say? I think that’s why we’re so great at giving hugs in hospice, because we often don’t have anything to say, since there’s no way to fix it.” Then Frances summed up her feelings about being present for her clients.

I mostly think of clients as living people, not dying people. I rarely, even now, go in to look after somebody and think, “Oh, here, this is a dying person.” You just automatically think: how am I going to ease their pain, how am I going to help them be more interested in life as it is now, would they like to talk about their family? All the different things that you can do to help make living more important to them. And death is not on your mind. This is why the perception of hospice, by somebody who’s not been involved in it, is that its such dreary work: “How can you do that?” They don’t understand that these are living people that you’re visiting. That’s why is isn’t depressing to do. You need to meet that before you ever get started in hospice. That’s covered in training classes and that’s why the classes are so heavy for a lot of people, because they are going back and dealing with that. It’s sort of like making a will. Once you’ve done it, then you can just put it aside and go on with living.

Losing clients and families

I asked each volunteer about losing their clients: how they found out that their client died, if it was hard to experience the loss, and how they marked the passing. For those client-caregiver relationships which had endured long enough to establish a deeper connection, several marked the loss with ritual and by recalling their fond memories. Several also noted that the client’s families sometimes had a difficult time taking leave of the volunteer. Having established a surrogate extended family structure including the hospice caregivers, families sometimes resisted that additional loss.

Finally some volunteers reported that although their hearts were open to their clients and families, it was important to create and maintain boundaries to protect their own needs: especially to prevent burn-out.

First, I asked each volunteer about their losses of, and mourning periods for, their clients. Virginia put her finger on the most recurrent theme by saying, “I do grieve for the family and the loss of their loved one, but in a sense I also celebrate the life of that person.”

When the client’s final decline has been communicated to the volunteer, several said that they were grateful for an opportunity for closure with the client. Cathy told me that she sometimes makes a visit “if I don’t feel like I have said my ‘good byes’ to that person in whatever way I choose to say them.” She added that she “may not even verbalize them, but just be there.”

Although it was uncommon, in a few cases the volunteer was present at her client’s death. Evelyn had been spending nights at the hospital with an elderly woman who was very afraid of dying in the night.

She said, “I don’t like going to sleep, so I stay awake,” and then she’d valiantly try to stay awake. It seemed that it was very reassuring to have somebody there when she opened her eyes. She did stop talking about this fear and my sense is that she was calmer toward the end. She died while I was there. She’d been heavily ‘dozy’ for a couple of days. She didn’t have any family—nobody was there when she died, except me. It happened to be in the middle of the night. She just sort of slipped away.

In most cases, however, caregivers were notified by the volunteer coordinator after the death of their client. For instance, although Steven knew that his client “could go pretty quickly,” he was, nevertheless, surprised when he received the call because he had “looked and talked much healthier than some of the other people I’ve sat with.”

So even though I knew he was dying, when he did die, it was more of a surprise, more of a shock. My last picture of him, my major picture of him, was like you and I are sitting: he was sitting in a chair across the room and conversing.

Marie looked back over her experiences with ten clients and mused that “most people died when they wanted to.”

Most of the volunteers cited the funeral as an important initial step in grieving the loss of their clients. For Frances, “Going to funerals and wakes is important for people in this type of work because it’s a closure.” With one of Celia’s clients, “the family opted to have nothing—no memorial service, no funeral, no nothing” and she felt this made it more difficult because, she said, she usually uses the service “as a centering down, saying good-bye.” Fortunately, the family invited her into the client’s home and let her choose a momento. “I chose a couple of her favorite books and I still have them.”

Several volunteers created rituals to mourn the loss. In her home, Marie puts up “some kind of symbol of the people that I’ve been with.” Sometimes that symbol is an object or picture although, she said, “that’s unusual because of the confidentiality. Then I do my own memorial.” Steven lights a candle and sits, recalling “some of my memories and connections, not only with the person but the people I met who are connected with him: children and spouses. I ask for guidance for his spirit, wherever it may go.”

Remembering the client is an important part of the transition for most of the volunteers I spoke with. Frances recounted one hospice training session during which the speaker on spiritual care described her own grieving process.

She said, “Well, I think of each person, and of each family, and I pick one attribute that was specific for them. Then I bring that into myself, so that person becomes a part of me.” I’ve taken that into my own life. When I think about different people, I’ll remember their sense of humor, their love of family.

Celia recalls her memories of her client. “For most clients I have a memory where their quality of life was improved because I was there. And my quality of life was improved because I remember.” Referring to the time she went to the grocery store to buy the mince pie to share with her client, she said, “You know, I can’t eat a piece of mince pie without thinking of this person, I just can’t. She comes to mind.”

Sometimes Marie will do afterwards what she and the client did together before—“listening to the same music, spending time outside, that kind of thing.” Occasionally, she will visit the grave site. “Some people,” she said, “I still miss.” Celia said she focuses on the positive, healing moments of the relationship—the “give and take” of the time she had with the client—rather than the decline. “Because its a fact of life, when I go in there that there’s going to be a decline and I’m not going to be able to stop that decline.”

After the funeral, some of the volunteers “debrief” with other volunteers or with the hospice care team. Celia talks with other hospice volunteers which, she says, is alright “as long as you don’t give away the confidentiality. You debrief with the circumstances not the person.” Sometimes Virginia goes to the final meeting with the hospice doctor, nurse, and the other volunteers that worked with that client. “We talk about our friend that died, and the last time or days” spent together.

The length of time during which volunteers mourn each client varies dramatically. Several reported that they’re ready for a new client within weeks, others said that in several cases, they have had to wait a year or longer. In general, when the caregiver-client relationship was longer, the length of mourning lasted longer, too.

With one client she had grown especially fond of, Marie said she “didn’t want to work with anyone for almost a year. That was a tremendous emotional output for me. I spent a lot of time talking to her spirit, wherever I was. That was the longest recovery period I had.” On the other hand, Cathy told me that her experience of loss is alleviated by the fact that she hadn’t known clients earlier in life. “It is much harder if you’ve seen that person out on the baseball field and at work—a very vivacious, energetic person—and then to see them laying in bed. For me to go in, never knowing the person, that’s all I know of that person and its easier for me to accept it.”

Evelyn reminded me, though, that in addition to the loss, she experiences “an additional dimension,” an opportunity to grow in consciousness. This is the phase of renewal.

I think the people who are dying have a lot to tell to the people who are living, whether its a conscious thing or not. Somehow, one comes away from somebody who has just died feeling a little bit richer, in a way, as well as it being a loss. There’s a peace.

After the death of the client, a second loss is that of taking leave of the client’s family. In many cases, the connection with the family was, for volunteers, more intimate than that with the client. Frances remembered a call she received from the volunteer coordinator one afternoon.

“So and so’s having a hard time dealing with this. Her husband’s dying. Would you be able to go over for a few hours?” I went at about four o’clock and he died about six-thirty. I was there until about ten. And in that very short time span I felt very connected to this woman and her children. And the dog, too—their dog was a very important part of the process. What a privilege, for me, to be allowed this opportunity, really as a complete stranger. Because I was with hospice, the door was opened to me right away—they just took me in and I hope I was able to give them something, too. Mostly it was just being there because I didn’t, physically, do anything. It was at a time when nothing more, really, could be done. It was just being there. Fully present.

Several volunteers described their gratitude for the family’s hospitality in the midst of the grief. Julia put it this way: “I have a lot of respect for the families who have allowed us to walk into their homes, into the whole process. Its such an intimate happening, everything that goes on in that family. People are so open to us.”

As a result of a meaningful connection with the client’s friends and family and a short tenure with the client, the volunteer may also feel the loss of the family more acutely than the loss of the client. Cathy said that her deepest feeling was “sadness for the families. Some families,” she said, “have difficulty coping, and that’s what’s really hard.”

It’s not always easy for the family to take leave, either. “Sometimes its easy to leave, once a person has died, and the family is really healthy or united,” Sue told me, but “not always.” For some families, the volunteer will continue to visit for a while after the death. With one of Sue’s clients, “I felt like that was one of the situations where I needed to ease out gently. I felt like he needed things not to change too quickly and I thought I could support him for a while.”

Celia described why other families want to continue their relationship for longer periods of time:

Others begin to consider you as a friend, so you stick with them so that they don’t have two losses at the same time. In some cases its one or two visits, in other cases, its years of visiting. I see maybe two or three people that I was with a number of years ago, but not regularly. I see them as friends, not as a “hospice volunteer.” For the most part, those are elderly people whose circle of support is shortened at their age and its real important for them not to feel like, “She was here, now she’s gone.”

However, Frances said, even though a few families “still cling to their volunteers for many different reasons, for the most part, I think they’re ready to go on.” Darlene says that some may “want to keep in contact” for a while “because you were close to their parent or whoever.” Soon, however, most families move on because, according to Frances, “it’s been a very sad time in their lives.” Celia concurred: “After the death, some don’t even want to see the volunteer again more than, maybe, at the funeral.” Frances added, “Even though they’re grateful for everything’s that been done by everyone on the team, they need to get on.” Sooner or later, Darlene said,

They get back into their own life and its okay. I don’t hear from them. If I see them on the street, its great, but that’s where its at and its okay. Its okay for them too, because they’ve grown. The void in their life is getting smaller as time goes by.

Virginia kept contact with one family for a while, but “after about a year the contact dwindled off and that’s understandable.”

I knew that they could pick up and go on with their lives. Sure, they missed their mother, but her passing didn’t ruin their lives.

In working with clients and with their families, several volunteers felt it was necessary to create and maintain boundaries around their commitments to clients and their personal lives. Cathy said that these boundaries protect her from deep feelings of loss. “You don’t feel the loss as greatly as if it were your next door neighbor, someone you’ve known very well. But when I know they’re dying, I don’t feel a terrible loss because they’ve been so sick and they are so ready to go. It’s a release.”

Celia explained that the agreement between the hospice volunteer and the client—which defines the amount of contact time and types of caregiving to be provided—establishes an important boundary. “I’m in there for three hours a week. Things may be rocky when I’m in there, but I would not call the family on another day to find out what’s going on. If I need any information, I get it through my volunteer coordinator.” Sometimes, she feels like she’d like to do more, “but I have to realize that I’m part of a team.” She’ll “call the coordinator and, you know, talk over what’s going on and get it back to the relationship that its meant to be.”

Darlene noted, however, that even though “there’s a wall” in hospice work that you try not to go beyond, “it does happen that the wall falls sometimes.” This happened to Cathy who wanted to maintain her relationship with a client’s wife. Easing out of that relationship was challenging.

His wife knew he was dying and she kept saying to me, “Come sit with me, I can’t do this alone. I’ve got to have someone” She didn’t have any support from family or friends. She kept calling me and saying, “Come, you’ve got to come, he’s dying today, please come sit with me.” I found that I was going over every single day and that, of course, is not what you’re supposed to do. The volunteer coordinator said, “You really can’t do that,” and I said, “But I’ve got to,” because the lady kept calling me. I’d get home, and it was time to cook dinner, but I felt I had to go over there. I mean I really had my priorities set toward her because she was so lonely. And then, when he died, I still felt I had to see her almost daily, and the coordinator said, “You can’t do that, you just can’t,” and I felt she was wrong. I mean I just thought that it was so cruel, but I see now that it would have been the right thing to do. So I did cut back to every other day, every third day, every fifth day. But the woman kept calling me, and she says, “Now, you’re not deserting me, too, are you? I need you desperately.” And I needed her, too, I think. I needed her help to get through it. But the volunteer coordinator’s reasoning, and it was true, is you’ve got to go on with your life. My client’s wife had to pick up her pieces. If I’d been there, she may have never picked up those pieces and she may have always depended on me. I finally got so I only saw her once a month and then, toward the end, three years later, I’d see her every six months or run into her on the street. So that was the hardest lesson I had to learn and I think that’s why there’s a barrier, a protection that I have. I try not to get over-involved. That case was, by far, the hardest.

Celia also had a client where her desire to care came in conflict with her boundaries. “The person was really beginning to lean on me in what I thought was an unhealthy way. She had problems in her marriage, and I couldn’t be all that she was wanting. And so I had to separate. I couldn’t stay in there then and try to solve her problems, they were too complex and that wasn’t my purpose. But when I see her now, its just like I’m still her best friend!” Mastering this skill of the Warrior archetype was an important lesson for Darlene, Cathy, and Celia.

Transformation—effect on everyday life

I asked each of the volunteers if and how their hospice experiences had influenced their everyday lives during their years with hospice. They responded with a variety of reasons why being a hospice volunteer is beneficial: appreciating the simple things of life, acceptance of the challenges life brings, and having an easier time dealing with personal losses.

Celia told me about two times that sitting with clients helped her see the world around her in a new way. One client was sitting up in bed one day and saw a pine tree out the window. Her client said, “‘Look, that tree out there looks like it has candles on it.’ And I looked out and it did!… I’d never noticed that at a certain point certain types of pine trees have these little doo-hickeys that stick up… And now, now when I see them, that’s what I see: the candles. I wouldn’t see those candles without her, you know, seeing them through her eyes.”

In another instance, she brought a client to “see an apple orchard one fall and he died a week later. But the apple orchards looked a lot different to me that day as I tried to imagine what it would be like to be seeing them for the last time. When you connect in that way—and it isn’t every time—for me, its life changing.”

Another benefit mentioned by over half the volunteers was developing an open-minded acceptance of the challenges and sorrows of life. In her six her years with hospice, Sue said, she learned “how to accept things. Not trying to change things, but accept them as they are.” Steven agreed. Another way “hospice has affected my life,” he said, “has been in acceptance. Of other people. Of other people’s actions and statements. Well, most other people!” He chuckled. “I am generally being more open and less judgmental.”

This acceptance of grief played a key role when Celia learned that her daughter was lesbian. “I went through a grief process. I was glad I knew what I was going through and wasn’t going crazy.”

I know this child of mine and I know that society only sees one facet of her—the same as people only see the facet of emaciation of a person who’s in advanced cancer—and there’s more to her than anybody wants to see. There’s a spirit that’s within.

Four years after Darlene took the hospice course, her son died. The training “helped me cope, because I knew all the anger and hate that I had at God was okay. I was also able to be strong for the grandparents and the kids.” Virginia said that it was due to the hospice training that she was no longer afraid of dying and less fearful in her life in general. Steven added, “I’ve avoided doing my will all my life. I hadn’t been able to sit down and do it. Finally this year, I did. Very subtly, hospice did work on me” in this way.

Finally, Marie said, “the most important thing I’ve learned from hospice work is to love more openly and honestly because, in the end, it’s all that matters.”

Renewed commitment to clients

I asked the volunteers why they choose to begin again with new clients, knowing that they will eventually lose each client. Several responded that they wanted to help ease the emotional pain of their clients. Others gained insight into their own lives from the intimate relationships they shared with the clients—and their families who welcomed them into their lives. Several volunteers said they felt deeply connected with other hospice people because they, too, have experienced the joy of life accepting death.

Steven and Joseph said they were grateful for an opportunity to provide emotional caring to their clients. Steven said that since dying and death are a given—“everybody dies”—at least “you can help make their dying more comfortable and easier. It’s a gift I can give,” he said, “to ease their dying. And to help them be able to die in their home where it’s comfortable and where it’s familiar. Joseph agreed. Even if there’s not much response from the client, he said, “you just sit and wait” because “you know you can help them or make them comfortable.” Remembering the death of his wife, he added, “I figure if my first wife had some help like that, you know.”

This relationship with the client and family is another reason volunteers renew their commitment to hospice. “I don’t think there’s anything more intimate than the process of having a hospice client,” Julia told me.

You really are dealing with life and death issues. People tend to be able to put aside their pettiness. Life gets really, really focused. People who are focused on just existing are amazing people. If we could all do that, day in and day out, we’d do a lot for our society.

For Cathy, one of the powerful lessons of hospice which brings her back is the discovery of life’s joys once the taboo of death is lifted.

One patient’s wife said, “You know, the minute we found out he was diagnosed, we called everybody and told them he had cancer.” And she said, “Nobody came and still nobody comes.” People are facing their own mortality and they don’t want to die and they don’t want to see their friend die.

Once that taboo is lifted, however, she commented, “There’s a great satisfaction even though its heartache.”

Most of the volunteers mentioned their gratitude at being welcomed into their client’s family life. Virginia concurred:

I feel it a special privilege and gift to be able to spend time with a person, to walk into their home—as a stranger—and to share in their pain and the family’s concern for their loved one who is dying. Its a real gift to see the love between their family members.

And Frances:

You feel very privileged to come as a complete outsider. You may never have met this family until two or three hours before, and all of a sudden you’re part of the biggest thing that’s happened to them. And you really do feel a part of it. When people say, “Thank you,” afterwards, I always tell them, “The privilege was mine to be able to share such a meaningful experience.”

Finally, many of the caregivers commented that they were grateful for their relationships with other hospice staff and volunteers. “There’s something about the whole group of hospice people,” Julia said, “that I love being around. Their sense of caring and commitment to their work is incredible.”

More than anything else its the people that have kept me going. Its a privilege working with them and its not possible to say enough. Even the fact that hospice can keep volunteers for ten years and still have them say good things about the organization… I’m very impressed with it.

Frances summed it up. “The warmth and caring of the other people that you work with and the welcome of the families that accept you, sight unseen, once they’re ready—it’s truly remarkable. Different from anything else. There’s a special spirit and it’s a very important part of my life.”

Religion, spirituality, and dying

Finally, I asked each of the volunteers about their beliefs, faith, and spiritual experiences, and their views about life after death. With a wide variety of religious backgrounds, they nevertheless reported rather consistent views of the sacred nature of the dying process and their role in it.

They were about evenly divided between those with traditional Christian religious backgrounds and those with mystical or eastern-spirituality orientations. In some cases, the volunteers’ religious background was a foundation for their work, and for others, their personal spirituality grew from, or changed during, their hospice work. For a few, hospice gave rise to experiences of the sacred which have changed their lives in many ways. Most said they don’t talk with their clients overtly about their beliefs and faith, but they believed, nevertheless, that their religious and spiritual values affected positively the way they interacted with clients.

Frances was among those who had been brought up in a traditionally religious family. “I have always been a church-going Catholic and my children were brought up that way,” she said, “so I really don’t think its changed.” Those beliefs, she said, have been very important in her hospice work.

I know its made a big difference for me, having a faith background that believes that there’s a better world than this one, a world that’s fairer, that’s just. If I didn’t believe in an afterlife, then I wouldn’t be able to justify the suffering. For all our modern advances, there is still a certain amount of suffering—emotional and spiritual, as well as physical.

Jeanette concurred. Raised in a Protestant denomination and later converted to Catholicism, she said that her relatives religion had been “calm and they didn’t have superstitions of any kind. They left me a heritage of calm acceptance. So I was really blessed that way.” This serene view of creation and suffering, including the experiences of her clients, she said, helped in her hospice work.

If I didn’t have my own religious beliefs, I certainly would be searching and searching, I think, at this point, just the same as some of the patients are searching and searching to understand, or to think they are in God’s grace before they die. Particularly this last man I had. I think he regretted the fact that he wasn’t close to a church, or close to God. He was searching.

Both Frances and Julia reported a shift in their conception of religious experience and spirituality during their years of hospice service. Julia described her younger self as “religious”—meaning “being tied to church”—whereas she later “went through a period of being more focused on my spiritual development, which I consider to be more internal.” And Frances, accustomed to a traditional religious view, was “interested” to see that “at the hospice in-service classes, everyone speaks of spirituality in terms of the ocean, of sunrise and sunsets.”

Perhaps I’ve become more in tune with my “spirit” because of hospice—even though my religious beliefs haven’t changed much. In a way, perhaps I’m treasuring more the things of nature because I often get the feeling, even if people don’t express it, that they’re going to miss seeing another springtime, a grandchild’s graduation, all the things that people try to live just a little bit longer for. Those are the things I appreciate more now.

Marie, who had expressed a curiosity in eastern religion had found the answers to her question, “Why?,” within herself. These answers, she said, were “spiritual, but not associated with any particular religion. I’m a wanderer when it comes to that. I like the flavor of spirituality, not the dogma of organized religion.”

During recent years, Steven had also begun to discover an immanent experience of God, or the divine, within. “I had always had this sense that God was beyond me. God was somewhere out there, up there, down there, around there. My new notion of God being in me had been a foreign notion.” “I am discovering that I am not alone in this idea of God within. When one is in mid-life, its a feeling that develops.”

Celia recognized her immanent conception of the divine as “the key point for me.” She described it as a recognition of “the mutuality of everything.” In describing her hospice visits, for example, she said “It isn’t only ‘me going in and giving,’ because I feel often that I gain more than I give them.” She agreed with several others in describing her goal in hospice as healing both herself and others, not by changing them, but by being with and accepting them.

Jeanette represented most of the volunteers I spoke with when she noted, “I don’t share my faith with my patients unless they ask me. But I think it comes through each of us without saying it, don’t you? Sometimes you’d like to project some of what you believe onto the people if you think that they could benefit, but you just don’t do that.”

Many of the volunteers, when asked about their perceived purposes-in-life, responded, not surprisingly, that service to others was most important. According to Celia, “My purpose, at least the way I see it, is to be able, in whatever way, to improve the quality of my life and the quality of the people’s lives that I interact with on a daily basis, however small. I can’t change people’s realities…but I can possibly make some small difference that wouldn’t have been there.”

Sue agreed:

When I’m with hospice clients, that is the perfect opportunity to live what I feel—in my heart—is the reason for my being. The privilege of sharing the experience with people who are dying is, to me, very spiritual. It enriches my spirit. Its not being in a church building or reading a particular passage in a book, but it touches me more, a part of me that is an unknown. Its a nourishment for me, spiritually.

I asked each volunteer to describe their attitudes toward death and life after death. Several chose to talk about their conceptions of the meaning of death—or the lack thereof. Marie expressed it in this way: “Death is not a mistake—it isn’t a medical failure. I don’t mean there’s no sense of loss or sadness or grief, but I really believe that there’s a plan.” She added,

Seeing children die—and seeing people live to one hundred who have abused themselves all their lives—there is no clear answer. I think we just have to learn how to go on, and that’s the important thing, how to learn to live without the people who have been physically in our lives, how to connect with them on a more spiritual level, so that the loss isn’t unbearable.

Frances agreed. “There’s really isn’t much justice in illness when you see a young man, with a young family, dying. I guess those are the hardest ones to me. Not so much for him, but for the families left behind. The sorrow and the wounds are there for their them.”

I asked each volunteer if they had specific beliefs about what happens after death. Several mentioned similar experiences of being with clients approaching death. A few others described a mystical view of spirit and the universe which closely parallels that of the perennial philosophy.

For her part, even though Celia claimed she was “not a deep theological thinker,” she told me her belief that, “in some way, that person continues to live on.”

I think my strongest belief is that, in actuality, the person doesn’t die as long as people are there who are carrying on with the memories and with the lessons that person may have contributed to them. That has more validity to me than trying to figure out whether you’re going to get to heaven and you finally get there and see all these people had contact with come parading by you.

Marie also told me, “I do believe that there is life after death.”

I’ve heard many people talking with deceased family members—in hospice terms, it’s called “passing over.” Sometimes there’s a point, when people are dying, when they start communicating with people who have already died. There’s a real spiritual part to that person that wasn’t there before. You can feel it, there’s no mistaking it. I felt it with my first client. I was sitting in the room with him and I felt like I was in the presence of something holy.

Virginia had similar experiences with her clients.

When people are at death, I feel that God is near, and the person steps over and goes somewhere. I know its not my imagination. I have no idea what its like, but I believe that there is somewhere where their soul goes. I believe in the stories I’ve heard of a white light. I don’t think that they’re in a body form anymore, but I do believe that it’s a place of great peace.

Steven concurred. “I’ve heard people talk of visions and conversations they’ve had with people after death. You could take the whole collection of these stories, and it would indicate that there’s life after death.” With the permission of a friend of his, he told me a story.

A woman I know told me of a dream, a vision she’d had, of a considerable white light. In the dream, she went downstairs, this white light pervading, and there was a casket. A person at her shoulder coaxed her toward the casket. She didn’t want to go. It was closed, and this person encouraged her to open the casket. Inside was her husband. She turned and the person who was coaxing her was also her husband. She understood that as him assuring her that, though dead, he was still there, and she should say good-bye to his body, and there would be life for them later.

Julia described a view markedly similar to the perennial philosophy. When I asked, “What survives?” she replied:

My own personal vision is that its not our bodies, but a spiritual being. I can’t even visualize what that’s like. It doesn’t have form or shape, its sort of an elusive entity and its out there after death. God’s presence—in terms of being loving and accepting—permeates or extends throughout this void and we’re all interconnected through that love and it’s very peaceful. Most people think it of as being light. For some reason I think of it as being dark; it doesn‘t bother me being dark!

Finally, Darlene described her belief in reincarnation, a view also parallel with eastern spirituality and mysticism.

I’ve gotten so that I believe that we do come back. It feels like reading a story and just knowing that that was you. I believe I was around in the 1800s. I was a lady, I had long gowns, and everybody waited on me. Whether it actually happened, well, who knows, right? I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s okay. I just hope that we have a choice on whether we have to come back or not!

She laughed, so I asked, “Then what would your choice be?” “Since I’m tired, I think I’ve had enough for a while!” Laughing, she continued, “Maybe the contract can be broken! Also,” she added, smiling, “humor is very important for me, as you may have noticed.”

As with their religious beliefs, most of the volunteers tended not to share their specific views about life after death with the clients, but nevertheless used strikingly similar terms. The most common general formulation was described by Evelyn as death as being like “a passage. I think it’s one of the more spiritual experiences of our total lives: going on to, or back to, somewhere.”

That seems to be a comforting explanation to those who are dying. Even if they still believe in a heaven and a hell, its a journey. It’s not a cut off experience, as if there’s this gap between here and whatever is up there.

Finally, in terms of death and spirituality, Julia noted that “Most people who have a spiritual connection with the future seem to have an easier time getting into that peace, dying.”

Spirituality is a significant part of the hospice philosophy and even though spiritual care has, in general, been given less attention by many hospices,38 it was certainly an important dimension in the experience of the volunteers I spoke with. Julia put it this way.

For me, hospice work is a very spiritual experience. People who are dying and people who are working with dying people are constantly asking those questions about what’s important, asking about quality of life and the meaning of your next few months or days. I don’t think you can be in hospice work without that spiritual component. You don’t have to be religious, you don’t have to go to a church, you just have to understand the peace that allows us to be compassionate and care about people.

Implications and Conclusions

The experiences of the fourteen long-term hospice volunteers recounted in this paper support the spiral model of healing described earlier. If we accept the premise that the cycles of loss, transformation, and renewal facilitates psycho-spiritual healing and health, then training and service as a hospice volunteer can be helpful.

Of course, the limitations of this research—which was based on a small, self-selected sample that cannot be projected to the general population—prevent us from making any sweeping generalizations about the healing nature of working with hospice clients. As a snapshot in time of a small number of dedicated, caring people, however, we can learn several lessons. First, working with people who are close to death is made easier by the ability to accept death as an integral part of the life cycle. Second, serving others is more effective when the volunteer recognizes their own needs and those of the client and seeks to mutually satisfy both. Third, this type of work connects volunteers to the sacred, whatever their conception of the sacred may be. Fourth, the benefits of continued service enhances the quality of life for the volunteer.

For some readers, these points may be obvious. Since, for me, they weren’t until I had the opportunity to observe and participate, I believe that sharing this report about the healing opportunities of hospice work can be of service to others who are struggling with the difficult transformation into a phase of their lives that accepts death as integral to the life cycle and values the importance of service to others. The fears which prevent us from embracing death, I believe, also prevent us from embracing life.

What’s next? This research is the foundation for further theoretical and research work in the areas of models of consciousness and transformation through service in life and death. Specifically, I propose further research on the impact of hospice work on the volunteer’s circle of social and community influence. Although all the volunteers commented on the effect of hospice work on their own personal growth, only one explicitly connected that healing to community transformation.

Nevertheless, I sense a deep connection between hospice service and societal healing. Through these volunteers’ increased compassion and other forms of family and community service, I see a ripple which radiated from the volunteers out into the world. I do believe that our communities benefit when we learn to dance fully around the cycle, bringing our awareness to the healing facets of our own inner lives and that hospice work is one avenue for such a transformation. I believe that we can discover our own gifts through voluntary service and the acceptance of death, and can apply our new insights to our relationships, leading to the transformation of our families, friends, and communities. Much work needs to be done in this area

Part III. The roots of transpersonal psychology

A historical context

During the twentieth century, a vision of human nature has begun to emerge which integrates western psychology with the wisdom of mystical traditions from around the world. Underlying this perspective is the presupposition that human beings are capable of exceptional potential for expanded consciousness and self-identity. When we remove the barriers which prevent the expansion and integration of consciousness—physical, emotional, rational, existential, and spiritual—we naturally evolve toward this ultimate potential of greater health.

This perspective was first presented—in the field of psychology—in the seminal works of two pioneers in the field—William James’ early writings on mysticism and consciousness and Abraham Maslow’s concern, late in his life, with the human potential for transpersonal experience. More recently, it has been amplified by theorist-practitioners Elmer and Alyce Green, Stanislav Grof, Charles Tart, Ken Wilber, and Frances Vaughan.

These key writers have integrated over a dozen of the world’s major psychological and spiritual theories of human nature—including the western psychologies of Freud, Jung, Rogers, and Maslow, the eastern spiritual traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Vedanta Hinduism, along with Huxley’s interpretation of mysticism: the “perennial philosophy”—into a single, inclusive meta-model which Wilber calls “spectrum psychology” (1990b, p. 119).

Vaughan (1985b) notes that this new framework includes the study of “healthy functioning at stages of development beyond those usually addressed by traditional Western psychology. It offers a way of integrating healthy psychological development with the perennial spiritual quest that takes people beyond self-centered, egoic concerns and helps them through periods of disillusionment, depression, and despair.” (p. 6)

Planting the Seeds of Transpersonal Psychology

William James — mystical states of consciousness

The seeds of a psychological vision of expanded consciousness were planted nearly a hundred years ago by William James, who taught physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard University for thirty-five years. Born in 1842, he was the son of theologian Henry James and elder brother of novelist Henry James, Jr. As a philosopher, he adopted and recreated the movement known as “pragmatism.” For example, “if one’s belief in God results in peace and happiness, then God is true; one accepts the belief that works best.” He influenced many other contemporary writers, including his brother Henry, Bertrand Russell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. (May, p. 228)

James has been called “the father of American psychology” for several reasons. “He taught the first course in physiological psychology offered in an American University; he opened the first laboratory of experimental psychology in the world that same year…; and he awarded the first American Ph.D. in the new scientific psychology” (Taylor, 1991, p. 57).

His seminal work, Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, moved the study of the mind out of the sole sphere of philosophy and into the natural sciences. In subsequent works, James began to focus on the nature of consciousness, especially how we experience different levels of consciousness, including intuition.

James was interested in the idea that psychic phenomena pointed toward transcendent states of consciousness; this interest led him to co-found the American Society for Psychical Research in 1884. Through his exposure to classical Eastern psychology, including yoga and meditation, he maintained that psychologists could construct a comparative, cross-cultural psychology of mystical levels of consciousness. In this endeavor, he influenced early proponents of “Zen psychology in America:” D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts (Taylor, 1991, p. 60-62).

James’ Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, was the first psychological work to focus on religious experience, a term which James made popular. The book was based on a 1901-1902 series of lectures in Edinburgh. In a key article connecting the transpersonal movement with James’ work, Eugene Taylor, James’ primary contemporary biographer, points out that the book “became a landmark text in the psychology of religion, helped spawn the pastoral education movement, and was instrumental in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous” (1991, p. 58).

In it, James suggested that religious experiences are founded in mystical consciousness. Although he claimed to have no experience of “mystical states of consciousness” and so could only speak of them second hand, he nevertheless integrated the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, and mystical Christianity into a psychology of mysticism (1902/1985, p. 301).

He posited that mystical states of consciousness possess four distinct qualities: they can’t be adequately communicated in words (they are “ineffable”); they contain insight into truths deeper than those available to the discursive mind; they cannot be sustained for long; and they so completely envelop the experiencer that he or she remembers their importance long afterward (pp. 302-303).

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 flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness.… It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity (pp. 307-308).

Based on written reports, James identified several categories of mystical states: the unexpected insight during a commonplace occurrence (later called the “a-ha” experience); the intuition of having experienced something before (later called “deja-vu”); indescribable awe at a sense of underlying interconnectedness of existence; and the trance-like disappearance of space and time. He suggested that there was a connection between mystical states and intoxicants, especially alcohol, to which he attributed a “power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature.” (pp. 303-307, 312)

He surveyed the “methodical cultivation” of mystic consciousness by Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, and Christians. For the Indian traditions, “training in mystical insight” is known as yoga, or “the experimental union of the individual with the divine.” The steps of yoga, including exercise, diet, breathing, concentration, and discipline, are intended to bring the mind to a higher, superconscious, state, beyond reason and ego, to a condition known as samâdhi. The Sufis of Islam hold as a goal “total absorption in God” which must be intuitive rather than discursive. The Christian mystical system of meditation, “orison,” is the “methodical elevation of the soul toward God” into a state of rapture (pp. 317-327)

We pass into mystical states from out of ordinary consciousness as from a less into a more, as from a smallness into a vastness, and at the same time as from an unrest to a rest. We feel them as reconciling, unifying states. They appeal to the yes-function more than to the no-function in us. In them the unlimited absorbs the limits and peacefully closes the account.… This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed (pp. 330 & 332)

The unity of absolute truth can be described only by negatives and paradox, he wrote, because it transcends all adjectives: “it is super-luscent, super-splendent, super-essential, super-sublime, super everything that can be named” (p. 330). That is why the mystics so often express the state of oneness through paradox—“‘dazzling obscurity,’ ‘whispering silence,’ ‘teeming desert’”—abound in mystical writings (p. 333).

James concluded his survey of mysticism in Varieties of the Religious Experience thus:

Mystical states of a well-pronounced and emphatic sort are usually authoritative over those who have them.… Mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us.… The mystic is, in short, invulnerable, and must be left, whether we relish it or not, in undisturbed enjoyment of his creed. Faith, says Tolstoy, is that by which men live. And faith-state and mystic state are practically convertible terms.… It must always remain an open question whether mystical states may not possibly be such superior points of view, windows through which the minds looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world (pp. 335-336 & 338-339)

In his final work, Some Problems in Philosophy, published posthumously in 1911, James implored experimental psychologists to “take the full spectrum of human experience as our purview and not merely restrict the subject matter of the discipline to the quantification of data restricted to the senses” (Taylor, 1991, p. 59)

In a direct semantic link to the field of transpersonal psychology, James was the first in the English language to construct the word “Trans-personal,” for a 1905-1906 Harvard course syllabus (Vich, 1988, p. 109). True to James’ desires, the emerging field later in the century expanded the spectrum of psychology to include mystical states of consciousness and data not “restricted to the senses.”

Abraham Maslow – self-actualization through peak experiences

Abraham H. Maslow is considered the philosophical father of the humanistic and transpersonal schools of American psychology (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p. 11). Born in New York in 1908 and educated at the University of Wisconsin (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), he was a pioneer who explored “unconventional” subjects, endured being ostracized by the psychological community, and who, with his “infectious enthusiasm and perseverance,” joined with Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Henry Murray, and Anthony Sutich, to spark the rebellious humanistic movement that expanded the spectrum of American psychology beyond the schools of orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis and classical behaviorism which had dominated post-World War II psychology. (DeCarvalho, 1990, p. 23 & 40).

By the late 1940’s Maslow was teaching and researching at Brooklyn College where he was recognized as a talented experimental psychologist, and was popular with his students. Even after becoming chair of the Brandeis University psychology department, however, he still found it difficult to publish in the mainstream journals of the American Psychological Association, and blamed this on the dominance of the behavioral perspective.

In 1954, Maslow compiled a mailing list to exchange copies of unpublished articles by like-minded psychologists, people who were interested, Maslow said, in “helping the individual grow toward fuller humaneness, the society grow toward synergy and health, and all societies and all peoples move toward becoming one world and one species” (Maslow, 1968, p. 237). The mailing list grew into the Journal of Humanistic Psychology (JHP)—which he co-founded with psychologist Anthony Sutich in 1961—and the American Association for Humanistic Psychology (AAHP; the word “American” was later dropped), which held its first annual meeting in 1963.

At early AAHP meetings, Maslow commented on “the narrowness and exclusiveness of psychoanalysis and behaviorism or what he called ‘low-ceiling psychology.’” By 1971, however, the APA had created a division on humanistic psychology, so that, in less than ten years from its founding, the field had earned an official place within mainstream psychology (DeCarvalho, 1990, pp. 30-31).

The humanistic view of human nature maintained that to reach the highest levels of being through the process of becoming, “an individual must be fully functioning (Rogers) or functionally autonomous (Allport); the self must be spontaneously integrated and actualizing (Maslow); there must be a sense of self-awareness, centeredness (May), and an authenticity of being (Bugental).… Maslow thought that human beings had an ‘instinctoid’ inner core that contained potentialities pressing toward actualization. . . that human nature was inherently good when given the proper environment and opportunity for self-actualization” (pp. 36-37)

Humanistic psychologists conceived the person as a “whole self” growing toward his or her potential, which they contrasted with the behavioral psychologists who, they wrote, reduced the individual to an inanimate collection of habits which responds to environmental stimulus. They also reacted to what they saw as the “formalism, determinism, reductionism, dogma, and medicalization” of the orthodox Freudian position (p. 33). According to the humanistic psychologists,

The person, in Freud’s view, was never free from the primitive and ferocious passions originating in childhood fixations. One was nothing but a product of powerful and dangerous biological drives dictated by the individual’s past history.… thought that only when the inner core of human nature was released from internal and external controls and allowed full self-expression does one become…self-actualizing.… In contrast, many other psychologists, especially behaviorists, regard humanistic psychology as a philosophy or a poetic psychology” (pp. 34-35 & 40).

The humanistic psychologists borrowed the term “self-actualization” from Kurt Goldstein’s The Organism, a book which had focused on the ability of an organism to reorganize itself after an injury. They broadened this word to pertain to human growth and potential. They also incorporated concepts from the Gestalt school which held that a person was an irreducible whole with every part related to every other part (pp. 36-38).

Maslow put forth his basic perspectives about human growth and healthy and fully-functioning individuals in Toward a Psychology of Being, a collection of papers and lectures from 1955 to 1962. He postulated that individuals have basic needs “for life, for safety and security, for belongingness and affection, for respect and self-respect, and for self actualization” (1968, p. 3). These emotions and capacities are essentially biologically based and intrinsic. “Destructiveness, sadism, cruelty, malice, etc., seem so far to be not intrinsic but rather they seem to be violent reactions against frustration of our intrinsic needs, emotions and capacities” (p. 3).

We can certainly now assert that at least a reasonable, theoretical, and empirical case has been made for the presence within the human being of a tendency toward, or need for growing in a direction that can be summarized in general as self-actualization, or psychological health…a pressure toward unity of personality, toward spontaneous expressiveness, toward full individuality, and identity.… That is, the human being is so constructed that he presses toward fuller and fuller being and this means pressing toward what most people would call good values, toward serenity, kindness, courage, honesty, love, unselfishness, and goodness (p. 155).

Maslow observed that the “healthy human specimen” often has “peak experiences”—which he variously described as aesthetic, mystic, insight, or love experiences (p. 102). He suggested that healthy individuals possess several measurable characteristics including “more efficient perception of reality, more openness to experience, increased integration,… increased spontaneity, expressiveness,… increased detachment, transcendence of self, ability to love” (p. 157).

Maslow described peak experiencers as attentive, receptive, filled with wonder and awe, and experiencing time and space disorientation. The cognitive characteristics of these experiences included holistic perception, transcendence of ego and dichotomies, loss of fear, and a sense that the experience was desirable and absolute (p. 74-96). The aftereffects of peak experiences included a healthy change in perception of self, others, relationships, and the world; “greater creativity, spontaneity, expressiveness, idiosyncrasy,” and a feeling that life is worthwhile (pp. 101-102). He called the cognitive state of peak experience, “B-cognition,” which he defined as “cognition of the essence, or ‘is-ness.’” He also pointed out the “dangers” of B-cognition, including “indecisiveness” resulting from contemplative appreciation, and “undiscriminating acceptance” resulting in “too great tolerance” (pp. 116-123). Maslow contrasted these dangers with the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva who, “having attained enlightenment, yet feels that his own salvation is imperfect so long as others are unenlightened. For the sake of his own self-actualization, we may say, he must turn away from the bliss of B-cognition in order to help others and teach them” (p. 119).

In 1964, Maslow wrote Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. According to his editor, he had been inspired by James’ Varieties of the Religious Experience and John Dewey’s A Common Faith (1964, p. vi.). In the book, he proposed an enlarged concept of science which would recognize the naturalistic study of spiritual consciousness (p. 4). He observed that science and religion had been separated from each other for several hundred years. As a result, “nineteenth-century science” had become “too exclusively mechanistic, too positivistic, too reductionistic, too desperately attempting to be value-free. It mistakenly conceived of itself as having nothing to say about ends” (p. 11).

At the core of the world’s great religions, he observed, was “the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer.” He claimed that these revelations were synonymous with mystical, peak, or transcendent experiences. “To the extent that all mystical or peak-experiences are the same in their essence and have always been the same, all religions are the same in their essence and have always been the same” (pp. 19–20). He observed this similarity at the cores of “all the great world religions including the atheistic ones like Buddhism, Taoism, Humanism, and Confucianism” (p. 28). “A single glimpse of heaven is enough to confirm its existence even if it is never experienced again” (p. 75).39

Maslow defined traditional religions as institutions which develop to help communicate the “lonely prophet’s” revelation “to the mass of human beings in general” (p. 19), or as Maslow put it, translating peak experiences to non-peakers. Unfortunately, he noted, many people “simply concretize all the symbols, all of the words, all of the statues, all of the ceremonies, and by a process of functional autonomy make them the focus, rather than the original revelation into the sacred things and sacred activities” (p. 24, italics added). Indeed, he suggested, people of all ages could be taught about their own peak experiences, and so, by being sensitive to one’s own peaks, the individual would then be “fertile ground for the seeds which the great peakers will cast upon him.… It is apparently necessary to become a small seer oneself before one can understand the great seers” (pp. 86-87).

Maslow described the values experienced during peak moments as ultimate; they are ends in themselves, rather than means to achieve higher values. Through observing “peakers,” he identified these “B-values” as “truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, dichotomy-transcendence, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, necessity, completion, justice, order, simplicity, richness, effortlessness, playfulness, and self-sufficiency” (p. 94).

The great lesson from the true mystics, from the Zen monks, and now also from the Humanistic and Transpersonal psychologists—that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s back yard, and that travel [to another country or religion] may be a flight from confronting the sacred—this lesson can be easily lost. To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous (pp. x–xi).

Maslow’s work focused primarily on only two categories of individuals, peakers and non-peakers, and their accompanying behavior and values. As the transpersonal orientation emerged, however, a broader spectrum of consciousness was formulated. Writers drew upon the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being—consciousness as an infinitely-graded spectrum—and James’ “perennial philosophy”—mystical experience as the universal core of world religions—to identify a wider range of consciousness. Maslow’s transformation—mind to soul—was only the first to be explored.

The Emergence of the Transpersonal Orientation

Anthony Sutich, Maslow, and self-transcendence

In 1949, Maslow was introduced to Anthony Sutich, a fellow psychologist who suffered from an arthritis which had left him physically-disabled since the age of 18. Sutich and Maslow struck up a “lifelong friendship” and at Sutich’s instigation, he and Maslow founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1958, and launched the Association for Humanistic Psychology in 1961.

By early 1967, however, Sutich had come to believe that “the concept of self-actualization was no longer comprehensive enough;” he had been interested in mystical states for 40 years and had been discussing Eastern wisdom with Maslow and Alan Watts since 1959 (Sutich, 1976, pp. 7-10).

In March, 1967, Maslow completed a paper, titled “A theory of meta-motivation: the biological rooting of the value-life,” that was, in his own words, “‘the culmination of 30 years of work in the field of psychology’” (p. 11). In the paper, Maslow began to postulate that the potential for human development continued beyond basic and “meta-needs,” beyond even self-actualization, to self-transcendence. He proposed what has became a fundamental cornerstone of transpersonal psychology, that the spiritual life is on the same continuum, or spectrum, of human development as are biological needs, rather than being in a separate realm. “That is, the spiritual life is part of our biological life. It is the ‘highest’ part of it, but yet a part of it” (Maslow, in Walsh and Vaughan, 1980, p. 126). In a letter to Sutich, he wrote, “‘This paper is really the end of the program that I set out for myself—secretly—about 25 or so years ago’” (Sutich, 1976, p. 11).

Let us not study cripples, but the closest approach we can get to whole, healthy men. In them we find qualitative differences, a different system of motivation, emotion, value, thinking, and perceiving. In a certain sense only the saints are mankind. (Maslow, in Walsh & Shapiro, 1983, p. 319)

At a September, 1967, presentation in San Francisco, Maslow announced his vision for a “Fourth Force” in psychology in an address titled “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.” Sutich planned to printed the address in the first issue of a new journal which had yet to be named. Several months later, after considering many names, Maslow suggested a term for the new psychology. He and Stanislav Grof, a pioneer researcher in the use of psychedelic drugs to induce mystical states of consciousness, proposed the word “transpersonal” to describe the new field (Sutich, 1976, p. 16).

I should say also that I consider Humanistic, Third Force Psychology to be transitional, a preparation for a still ‘higher’ Fourth Psychology, transpersonal, transhuman, centered in the cosmos rather than in human needs and interest, going beyond humanness, identity, self-actualization, and the like.… These new developments may very well offer a tangible, usable, effective satisfaction of the ‘frustrated idealism’ of many quietly desperate people, especially young people. These psychologies give promise of developing into the life-philosophy, the religion-surrogate, the value-system, the life-program that these people have been missing. Without the transcendent and the transpersonal, we get sick, violent, and nihilistic, or else hopeless and apathetic. We need ‘something bigger than we are’ to be awed by and commit to in a new naturalistic, empirical, non-churchly sense, perhaps as Thoreau and Whitman, William James and John Dewey did (Maslow, 1968, iv.).

The Journal and Association are founded

The first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology was published in June 1969. In it, Sutich included the definition of Transpersonal Psychology on which he and Maslow had collaborated.

Transpersonal (or ‘fourth force’) Psychology is the title given to an emerging force in the psychology field by a group of psychologists and professional men and women from other fields who are interested in those ultimate human capacities and potentialities that have no systematic place in positivistic or behavioralistic theory (‘first force’), classic psychoanalytic theory (‘second force’), or humanistic psychology (‘third force’) (Sutich, 1969, pp. 15-16).

Less than a year later, on June 8, 1970, Maslow, the “philosophical father” of humanistic and transpersonal psychologies died.

Sutich announced the formation of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology in the first issue of the 1972 Journal. He included the following definition of the field:

Transpersonal psychology is the title given to an emerging force in psychology and other fields by a group of men and women who are interested in ultimate states. The emerging transpersonal orientation is concerned with the empirical scientific study and responsible implementation of the findings relevant to: spiritual paths, becoming, meta-needs (individual and species wide), ultimate values, unitive consciousness, peak experiences, B-values, compassion, ecstasy, mystical experience, awe, being, self-actualization, essence, bliss, wonder, ultimate meaning, transcendence of the self, spirit, oneness, cosmic awareness, individual and species wide synergy, theories and practices of meditation, sacralization of everyday life, transcendental phenomena, cosmic self-humor and playfulness, and related concepts, experiences, and activities (Sutich, 1972, p. 95).

The Flowering of Transpersonal Psychology

In the twenty years since the creation of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and the founding of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, a number of key theorist-practitioners have built on the foundation of James’ and Maslow’s pioneering framework, and brought legitimacy to the field. Through the 1970’s, as the field continued to respond to, and successfully integrate, skepticism, the Journal continued to publish innovative research on “values, states of consciousness” and “transcendental phenomena” (Vaughan, 1985c, p. 11). Pioneer researchers in the field included Elmer and Alyce Green, Stanislav Grof, Charles Tart, Frances Vaughan, Roger Walsh, and Ken Wilber.

Elmer and Alyce Green — basic theory

In 1970, Elmer E. Green and Alyce M. Green of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, published the first synthesis of Western and Eastern thought in the field. In their Journal article, “On the meaning of transpersonal: some metaphysical perspectives” (1970), they synthesized ideas from physics, metaphysics, psychology, and parapsychology to create a cartography of the levels of consciousness. Their vision was of a hierarchical model, at the base of which were levels restricted to the individual person, and upon which transpersonal levels rested.

The personal self (personality) is constructed of physical, emotional, and mental substances the transpersonal self is constructed of mental, intuitional, and other more rarefied substances to which names have not been attached (p. 28)

The Greens described a transpersonal awareness which, in many ways, paralleled the reports of mystic states of consciousness—of oneness and unity—that James and Maslow had written about. References for the Green’s hierarchy came primarily from Eastern sages, especially the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, who was to figure prominently also in the writings of Ken Wilber.

At the personal level, they wrote, we are separated from one another. However, “as transpersonal beings we possess…a sense of being includes all other beings and humans of the planet” (p. 34). They suggested that the integrated individual “exists consciously on all levels at the same time” (p. 37).

In concluding their key work, the Greens offered their own description of transpersonal psychology as: “the psychology of ultimate or highest meanings.” In a rapidly changing world, they wrote, “there is an almost desperate search for meaning and for expanded awareness at all levels” (p. 42). Uniting “the existential wisdom and psychology of the East with the different psychological insight of the west…the integration of transpersonal energies and levels of consciousness with his personal energies and levels of consciousness…is what transpersonal life is all about” (p. 43).

Stanislav Grof — psychedelic research and holotropic breathwork

Stanislav Grof is “one of the founders and pioneers of transpersonal psychology,” the “founding president of the International Transpersonal Association,” and has had “over thirty years of experience in research pertaining to non-ordinary states of consciousness” (Grof, 1988a, p. 288). Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1931, he earned his M.D. and Ph.D. there. He has published over eighty articles and six books.

Beginning in the 1950’s, Grof spent twenty years at the forefront of empirical research into the therapeutic use of hallucinogens, especially diethylamid of lysergic acid, L.S.D.-25. He studied the healing effects of psychedelic substances at research facilities in Czechoslovakia, at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center as chief of psychiatric research (1967–1973), and at Johns Hopkins University as clinical research fellow and assistant professor of psychiatry (1967-73). He personally conducted over 1000 psychedelic sessions and analyzed records from over 1300 additional sessions (1972, p. 47).

Several profound personal experiences with psychedelic substances and clinical observations of their effects in psychiatric patients attracted my attention early in my professional career to the remarkable healing and transformative potential of nonordinary states of consciousness (1988, p. xi.).

He found strong parallels between drug-induced experiences and non-drug techniques—some from sacred spiritual traditions—including “respiratory maneuvers, chanting, drumming, monotonous dancing, sensory overload, social and sensory isolation, fasting, and sleep deprivation.” The psychospiritual effects of these techniques illuminated the “ancient mysteries of death and rebirth, rites of passage of various cultures,… spiritual practice of various religions and mystical traditions, and other phenomenon of great cultural significance.” (1988, p. xii.)

Following the lead of eastern philosophers, Grof suggested that consciousness is the universal energy which gives rise to mind and body, which contrasts with the Western scientific view that consciousness is created by the brain. Recent discoveries from “quantum-relativistic physics, astrophysics, information and systems theory, cybernetics, thermodynamics, biology, anthropology, etc.…confirm the claims of perennial philosophy and the great mystical traditions that humans can also function as infinite fields of consciousness, transcending the limitations of time, space, and linear causality” (pp. 238-239). In one of the key early articles in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, “Varieties of Transpersonal Experiences: Observations from LSD Psychotherapy” (1972), Grof defined transpersonal experiences as “involving an expansion of extension of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries and the limitations of time and space.” He developed this idea in later works:

Experiences in this state of mind…support systematically a set of assumptions which are diametrically different from those characterizing the : the solidity and discontinuity of matter is an illusion generated by a particular orchestration of events in consciousness; time and space are ultimately arbitrary; the same space can be simultaneously occupied by many objects; the past and future are always available and can be brought experientially into the present moment; one can experience oneself in several places at the same time; it is possible to experience simultaneously more than one temporal framework; being a part is not incompatible with being the whole; something can be true and untrue at the same time; form and emptiness or existence and non-existence are interchangeable; and others.… Modern consciousness research has confirmed the basic thesis of perennial philosophy that the consensus reality reveals only one aspect or fragment of existence. There are important realms of reality that are transcendental and transphenomenal. The impulse in human beings to connect with the spiritual domain is an extremely powerful and important force (1988, pp. 239-240 & 250).

Noting the similarity between psychedelic experiences and mystical consciousness, Grof observed a number of changes in spatial and temporal awareness. In the realm of temporal expansion, he observed “perinatal” experiences (“re-experiencing various facets of the birth trauma”), concrete memories of fetal experiences, reliving episodes from the lives of ancestors, collective experiences independent of the subject’s own background, evolutionary experience of animal ancestors, “past incarnation” experience, precognition, and “time travels” (1972, pp. 49 & 77).

Grof documented the perinatal experiences most thoroughly.40 He identified four basic perinatal stages. First was the experience of cosmic unity, usually associated with the primal union of child with mother. The basic characteristics of this experience are transcendence of the subject-object dichotomy and of space and time; peace, tranquillity, and serenity; sacredness; and the experience of pure being (“eternity now and infinity here”). Grof pointed out that these experiences are what Maslow referred to as “peak experiences” (pp. 50-51).

The second perinatal stage was the experience of cosmic engulfment and “no exit,” usually associated with the onset and first stages of delivery. Symbolic manifestations include that of “being swallowed and incorporated by a terrible monster the theme of descent into the underworld and encounter with various monstrous entities” (p. 52). This heroic journey can be traced in the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Then follows the “no exit,” or hell, experience as contractions press against the fetus but the cervix is still closed. Subjects experience torture, including concepts of hell (“unbearable suffering that will never end”) and the world as “an apocalyptic place full of terror.” Symbolism offered by the subjects included the crucifixion of Christ and the Buddha’s teaching that life is suffering (the First Noble Truth) (pp. 52-53). Grof’s subjects experienced no way to get out of the situation, either in space or time.

The third perinatal stage was experience of the death-rebirth struggle, usually associated with propulsion through the birth canal. This is experienced as “a titanic fight,…exploding volcanoes or atomic bombs,…[or] dramatic scenes of war.” Compared to the experience of hopelessness in the previous stage, the subject in this experience feels the suffering has a meaning, that the subject is “passing through a purifying and rejuvenating fire” (pp. 54-55). Grof pointed out far-reaching parallels between experience in this stage and “elements of various mystery religions, temple mysteries, and initiation rites” (p. 55).

The fourth, and final, perinatal stage was the death-rebirth experience, usually associated with the completion of delivery and birth.

Suffering and agony culminate in an experience of total annihilation on all levels—physical, emotional, intellectual, moral, and transcendental. This experience is usually referred to an ‘ego death’.…After the subject has experienced the very depth of total annihilation and ‘hit the cosmic bottom,’ he is struck by visions of blinding white or golden light and experiences freeing decompression and expansion of space.… The general atmosphere is that of liberation, redemption, salvation, love, and forgiveness.… Brotherly feelings for all fellow-men are accompanied by feelings of humility and a tendency to engage in service and charitable activities (pp. 56-57).

The subjects discovered within themselves genuinely positive values such as justice, beauty, love, self-respect, and respect for others. Grof here pointed to the parallels with Maslow’s concept of meta-values and meta-motivations.

Among transpersonal experiences accompanied by the spatial expansion of consciousness, Grof reported ego transcendence; identification with other persons, groups, animals, and plants; oneness with life and inorganic matter; cellular, planetary and extra-planetary consciousness; and out-of-body experiences. He also reported experiences beyond rational space and time: mediumistic experiences; encounters with supra-human spiritual entities, and blissful and wrathful deities; experiences of other universes; activation of the chakras (kundalini energy); and consciousness of the “universal mind” and “metacosmic void” (p. 78).

These clinical findings were further detailed in Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious (1975), The Human Encounter with Death (1977, with J. Halifax), LSD Psychotherapy (1980), and Beyond Death (1980, with C. Grof).

In his 1985 book, Beyond the Brain, Grof related his perinatal concepts to depth psychology and the contemporary emergence of a new scientific paradigm (1988, p. xv). Beginning with a survey of the philosophy of science and an interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Grof detailed his theory that the “Newtonian-Cartesian system of mechanistic science” is being challenged by modern consciousness research.

Direct spiritual experiences, such as feelings of cosmic unity, a sense of divine energy streaming through the body, death-rebirth sequences, visions of light of supernatural beauty, or encounters with archetypal personages seen as gross psychotic distortions of objective reality indicative of a serious pathological process or mental disease. Until the publication of Maslow’s research, there was no recognition in academic psychology that any of these phenomena could be interpreted in any other way. The theories of Jung and Assagiolo pointing in the same direction were too remote from mainstream academic psychology to make a serious impact (1985, pp. 333-334).

This new understanding of reality and human nature, he termed “holonomic,” or movement toward wholeness. “The transcendence of the conventional distinction between the whole and the parts, which represents the major contribution of the holonomic models, is an essential characteristic of various systems of perennial philosophy” (p. 75).

A result of these contributions has been an “entirely new image of the human psyche” which has added new levels to the “personalistic and biographical” (p. 92) model of traditional western psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

The attitude of traditional psychiatry and psychology toward religion and mysticism is determined by the mechanistic and materialistic orientation of western science. In a universe where matter is primary and life and consciousness its accidental products, there can be no genuine recognition of the spiritual dimension of existence. A truly enlightened scientific attitude means acceptance of one’s own insignificance as an inhabitant of one of the countless celestial bodies in a universe that has millions of galaxies (p. 332).

Grof described four realms of self-exploration for therapy and research: the sensory barrier (of initial sense-oriented self-exploration), the individual unconscious (the biographical material which is treated by traditional approaches), the level of birth and death (the previously described perinatal experiences), and the transpersonal domain (also described earlier). In reviewing traditional and transpersonal approaches to therapy and healing—and proposing an integrative approach which uses each level-specific system when appropriate—Grof referred the work of Ken Wilber. “What truly defines the transpersonal orientation,” he wrote, “is a model of the human psyche that recognizes the importance of the spiritual or cosmic dimensions and the potential for consciousness evolution” (p. 197).

As a result of the misuse of psychedelic drugs in the 1960’s, however, psychedelic research became unpopular, and so, in the late 1970’s, Grof began to develop a safe, non-pharmacological technique through which one could induce many of the same mystical-type effects of psychedelics. In The Adventure of Self-Discovery (1988), he detailed this new technique which he and his wife, Christina, had adapted from ancient sources.

The technique, called holotropic therapy, means “moving toward wholeness”—in contrast with hylotropic processes, in which consciousness moves toward matter) (p. 239).41 The underlying assumption of this therapy is that the average person in our society identifies primarily with his or her physical body and ego, living far below his or her potential and capacity. “This false identification leads to an inauthentic, unhealthy, and unfulfilling way of life, and contributes to the development of emotional and psychosomatic disorders of psychological origin” (p. 165). The technique, which recognizes and activates the healing potential of nonordinary states of consciousness, “combines in a particular way controlled breathing, music and other types of sound technology, focused body work, and mandala drawing.” During the first ten years of its development, Grof and his wife and colleague, Christina, taught this technique to several thousand workshop participants in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia (p. xiv).

There is ample evidence that the transcendental impulse is the most vital and powerful force in human beings. Systematic denial and repression of spirituality that is so characteristic for modern Western societies can be a critical factor contributing to the alienation, existential anxiety, individual and social psychopathology, criminality, violence, and self-destructive tendencies of contemporary humanity. For this reason, the recent increase of interest in various forms of self-exploration, which can mediate direct spiritual experiences, is a very encouraging trend and a development of great potential significance.… If this trend continues, inner transformation of humanity could become a major force in averting the present suicidal trend and the global catastrophe toward which the world seems to be moving at a frightening pace. The rapidly processing convergence between the new science and the mystical traditions of perennial philosophy offers an exciting perspective of a future comprehensive worldview that will heal the gap between scientific research and spiritual quest (pp. 271 & 273).

Although these powerful transpersonal experiences offer an opportunity for personal and societal healing and transformation, Grof also realized the potential for confusion and crisis. With his wife, he edited and wrote two books on spiritual emergency—Spiritual Emergency (1989) and The Stormy Search for the Self (1990)—and founded the Spiritual Emergence Network to connect those in crisis with trained professionals. Grof has continued his work as a scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California since 1973.

Charles Tart — altered states of consciousness

Charles Tart, Ph.D., is associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis. “He is a pioneer in the field of consciousness research and is the author of several books on altered states of consciousness” (Doore, 1990, p. 138). “Basically an experimental psychologist, he has conducted research on hypnosis, meditation, altered states of consciousness and paranormal phenomena” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p. 11). Born in 1937, Tart earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina.

Between 1963 and 1971, Tart published articles on psi (psychic) phenomena, extrasensory perception, out-of-body experiences, and parapsychology, and three books, Altered States of Consciousness (1969), On Being Stoned: a Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication (1971), and States of Consciousness (1975). “I want to develop research methods that show…that you can be spiritual and precise and technological, thus spanning the full range of human potentialities instead of one extreme or the other” (Lesniak, p. 691, italics added).

In “Scientific Foundations for the Study of Altered States of Consciousness” (1971), another of the key theoretical articles in early issues of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Tart observed that an “increasingly significant” number of people had begun inducing altered states of consciousness resulting in perceptions and experiences—“ecstasy, mystical union, other ‘dimensions,’ rapture, beauty, space/time transcendence, transpersonal knowledge”—which contrasted with the attitudes of ordinary states of consciousness. Here he defined a “state of consciousness” (SoC) as “an overall patterning of psychological functioning” and an “altered state of consciousness” (ASC) as a “qualitative alteration in the overall pattern of mental functioning, such that the experiencer feels his consciousness is radically different from the ‘normal’ way it functions” (p. 94).

In the article, he presented his versions of the history of the scientific method and Kuhn’s (1970) theory of paradigm-shifts in order to encourage expansion of the scientific process to include ASCs (including mystical, or “peak” experiences). He coined the term “state-specific communication” to refer to the difficulty of communicating clearly between two states of consciousness. He included an example: “If I am listening to two people speak in English, and they suddenly both begin to speak in Polish, I, as an outside observer, will note a gross deterioration in communication” (p. 104). Tart defines a paradigm as a theory which becomes an “all-embracing framework…the ‘natural’ way of looking at things and doing things” (p. 95). Thus, adherents of a certain paradigm also share a particular SoC (state of consciousness) and also, therefore, experience the same state-specific difficulty of communication with other SoCs.

In 1975, Tart edited Transpersonal Psychologies, in which he continued to focus on orthodox and transpersonal paradigms.

What is a psychology? It is an interrelated set of (inherently unprovable) assumptions about the world and human nature.… We are familiar with ‘scientific’ psychology, our orthodox, Western brand. We think it is based on ‘scientific facts.’ But…there are no simple ‘facts’ just lying around waiting to be discovered: our implicit assumptions affect the way we look and control what we will find to be the ‘‘meaningful’ facts. As Westerners we have little appreciation for the fact that there are many other psychologies (1985, p. 5).

In his essay in the book, “Some assumptions of orthodox, western psychology,” Tart presented over 75 assumptions of the current scientific paradigm which have been so invisibly accepted that they’ve become unconscious, even though they underlie our perceptions, attitudes, and experiences.42

• Assumption: The universe is dead; life is only an infinitesimal, insignificant part of the universe..…

Many of the spiritual psychologies assume the universe is either mostly alive or completely alive…

• Assumption: Man exists in relative isolation from his surrounding environment. He is essentially an independent creature.…

The spiritual psychologies usually emphasize that man is very much a part of his world, that as a creature of life he has some kind of psychic or spiritual connection to all other forms of life…

• Assumption: We are here to conquer the universe.…

The spiritual psychologies would generally feel we are here to understand our place in the universe and to harmoniously fulfill our function in it once we understand it…

• Assumption: Only human beings are conscious.…

The spiritual psychologies generally accept the idea that higher, nonphysical creatures also possess full consciousness…

• Assumption: Physical death is the final termination of human consciousness.…

Most of the spiritual psychologies assume that something about a human being survives the physical death of the body. This something may retain consciousness… (pp. 65-111).

Ken Wilber — spectrum psychology

Transpersonal theorist-practitioner Ken Wilber, M.A., has been called “the foremost writer on consciousness and transpersonal psychology in the world today” (Walsh; in Wilber, 1980). He has created a developmental spectrum model of consciousness which integrates major western and eastern approaches to psychology, science, philosophy, and religion into one single context. He is the author of over a hundred articles and a dozen books, including The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977), No Boundary (1979), The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (1980), Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (1981) and Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm (1990, originally published in 1983). He also edited Quantum Questions (1985), and Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development (with Engler and Brown; 1986). For its first five years in publication, he was editor of the journal ReVision. He is a Consulting Editor for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and is general editor of New Science Library, Shambhala/Random House. He is a “practitioner of Zen and Vajrayana Buddhism” (1990, p. 113).

During the course of his prolific writing career, Wilber has integrated the viewpoints of a variety of western and eastern traditions into his model of the context and content of human development. At the core of his work, however, is his particular version of the perennial philosophy—his “view of the relation between humanity and Divinity”—a term which, he writes, was first coined by Leibniz. As we’ve seen, this mystical viewpoint can be found at the core of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, and Christian mysticism, and has been subscribed to—completely or in part—by Westerners including Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Newton, Pasteur, William James, Jung, Einstein, and Bohm.

The essence of the perennial philosophy can be put simply: it is true that there is some sort of Infinite, some type of Absolute Godhead, but it cannot properly be conceived as a colossal Being, a great Daddy, or a big Creator set apart from its creations, from things and events and human beings themselves. Rather, it is best conceived (metaphorically) as the ground or suchness or condition of all things and events.… The perennial philosophy declares that the absolute is…a seamless whole, an integral Oneness, that underlies but includes all multiplicity (1981, pp. 4-5).

According to Wilber, Einstein was subscribing to this same perspective when he wrote that the human being is part of the whole Universe but is only “limited in time and space. She experiences herself, her thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest” (p. 6). Because the human being possesses consciousness, however, she can potentially remove the illusion of separateness and discover this Wholeness.

can, as it were, awaken to the Ultimate. Not believe in it but discover it. It would be as if a wave became conscious of itself and thus discovered that it is one with the entire ocean—and thus one with all waves as well, since all are made of water. This is the phenomenon of transcendence—or enlightenment, or liberation.… This is what Plato meant by stepping out of the cave of shadows and finding the Light of Being; or Einstein’s ‘escaping the delusion of separateness.’ This is the aim of Buddhist meditation, of Hindu yoga, and of Christian mystical contemplation. That is very straightforward; there is nothing spooky, occult, or strange in any of this (p. 6, italics added).

According to the perennial philosophy, this process of transcendence—followed by persons, communities, and civilizations—follows a path called the Great Chain of Being, “a universal sequence of hierarchic levels” of expanding consciousness, which progressively integrates dichotomies into greater, more inclusive wholes. Although multiple versions of the Great Chain appear in various traditions, the common western terms describing its links are matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit.

At the time he was finishing his graduate studies in 1973, Wilber wrote his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977), in which he first proposed a “spectrum psychology…a synthesis which values equally the insights of Freud, Jung, Maslow, May, Berne, and other prominent psychologists, as well as the great spiritual sages from Buddha to Krishnamurti” (p. 11). During the four years before the book was accepted for print, Wilber excerpted chapters as articles in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (“Psychologia Perennis: The Spectrum of Consciousness,” 1975).

The theme of this volume is, bluntly, that consciousness is pluridimensional, or apparently composed of many levels; that each major school of psychology, psychotherapy, and religion is addressing a different level; that these different schools are therefore not contradictory but complementary” (p. 11).

Wilber used the metaphor of the spectrum of light waves to describe the various levels of consciousness, with each psycho-spiritual discipline “tuned” to different bands or “vibratory levels” of the spectrum. In this first formulation of these levels of consciousness, he proposed a spectrum composed of three levels from most “contracted” to most “expansive:” the Ego level (which includes the ego-mind), the Existential level (which integrates the ego-mind and the body), and the Level of Mind (which integrates the ego-mind, the body, and universal unity) (pp. 17-19).

Although Wilber synthesized into his model the mystical experiences described by James, Maslow and the earlier transpersonalists, he respected equally the various schools of Western and Eastern psychology; in this first book he included the writings of Western psychologists who focused on ego integration, especially Freud, Jung, Perls and Laing. “The therapies of each and every level share the common goal of healing and whole-ing that level’s major dualism” (p. 200). Together, this spectrum of modalities would lead the individual naturally through the Chain of Being toward ultimate unity (pp. 23-25). Agreeing with the mystic sages, Wilber proposed that ultimate consciousness —the clear light which is divided into a spectrum by the prism—is a state of “at-one-ment” with ultimate unity, and proposed that the spectrum of consciousness evolves out of the absolute level of Mind.

Throughout his writing career, Wilber refined his theory of how this spectrum evolves. In The Spectrum of Consciousness, he proposed that, like radiation and light, consciousness “steps down” into time and space, as a spectrum, with various disciplines each speaking to various “wave-lengths” of the spectrum. In his second book, The Atman Project—which started as a series of 1978 articles in the journal ReVision—Wilber took the opposite tack from his first book. Rather than moving “down” the spectrum as it manifests from ultimate unity consciousness, he moved “up” the spectrum (paralleling human development), synthesizing western and eastern approaches into an underlying concept of the universal drive toward unity or wholeness.

In its breadth of integration, ‘The Evolution of Consciousness’ is unparalleled in developmental psychology. Never before has there been a model which spans the entire range of development from infancy to the highest levels of psychological maturation, which integrates Western and Eastern psychologies, or which suggests a pattern of transformation common to all levels (Walsh & Shapiro, 1983, p. 337).

In The Atman Project, Wilber reconciled his spectrum formulation with the Hindu system of evolution (the integrative drive toward wholeness) and “involution” (the disintegrative drive toward separation and division).

The theme of this book is basically simple: development is evolution; evolution is transcendence…; and transcendence has as its final goal Atman, or ultimate Unity Consciousness in only God. All drives are a subset of that Drive, all wants a subset of that Want, all pushes a subset of that Pull—and that whole movement is what we call the Atman-project; the drive of God toward God…but carried out initially through the intermediary of the human psyche, with results that range from ecstatic to catastrophic (1980, p. ix).

Wilber proposed that we all intuit ultimate consciousness within ourselves and that we all possess an innate drive to grow toward that state. In order to develop to a new level, however, we must differentiate from, or leave behind, our exclusive identification with the previous self, and transcend to a new level. Then, we must integrate the old self within the new. This necessitates repeatedly “dying” to oneself, metaphorically, which gives rise to fear and anxiety.

This type of process is…repeated at every stage of development. And when all the structures have been identified with and transcended, there is only the Boundless; when all deaths have been died, there is only God (p. 111).

Out of fear, however, we avoid this metaphorical death of the self and create partial substitutes for wholeness which suffice for a time, but which eventually fail to satisfy and are abandoned. This is the core theme in Wilber’s early books: that these valid, yet temporary, substitutes—individual and species-wide—are projected onto others and then fuel the fires of suffering. To lessen suffering, we must embrace the symbolic self-sacrifice which allows us to expand our self-identity and consciousness.

In his next book, Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (1981), Wilber drew on anthropology, psychology, sociology, and the history of religions to add a vision of the evolution of the human species to his spectrum model of personal development. His premise was that the evolution of the human species parallels the process of personal lifespan development, and leads in the same direction: toward ultimate consciousness.

The task of this volume is to trace the curve of history and prehistory that brought mankind to delicate position. We will pick up the story, as it were, right about the point that man or manlike creatures appeared on earth, several millions of years ago, during the times now fabled as dim Eden and prehistoric paradise. We will follow the story up and through our present era, and then, straining to see into tomorrow, continue with a picture of our possible future evolution. For if men and women have come up from the beasts, then they will likely end up with the Gods (p. ix).

Within the context of the evolutionary drive toward ultimate consciousness, Wilber first described the ancient world of primitive beliefs, practices, magic, and the denial of death. Then, via the expansion of societal consciousness, the great classical civilizations emerged, giving rise to mythology and ritual sacrifice. Next emerged the recent era of the rational mind, advancing the logic of science, but denying the unity of the whole organism by repressing the body—and by extension, the representative of the body, the female.

Currently, Wilber wrote, we are in the midst of a transition from that ego-centered consciousness to an existential, holistic understanding of humankind which respects and integrates the functions of the body and the mind. At the same time, modern-day sages—such as Sri Maharishi, Bubba Free John, and Sri Aurobindo—point toward even higher stages where scientific and religious worldviews will be seen to be created out of the same fabric.

A true Wisdom Culture will start to emerge, a culture which (1) uses the body appropriately in diet (uroborous) and sex (typhon)43 both free of repression/oppression on the one hand, and obsessive/compulsive overindulgence on the other; (2) uses the membership mind appropriately in unrestrained communication, free of domination and propaganda; (3) uses the ego appropriately in free exchanges of mutual self-esteem; and (4) uses the psychic level appropriately in a bonding-consciousness that shows every person to be an ultimately equal member of the mystical body of Christ/Krishna/Buddha (p. 326).

Eye to Eye: The Quest for The New Paradigm (1990, originally published in 1983) collected a variety of Wilber’s articles; nine of which originally appeared in ReVision, the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and the Journal of Altered States of Consciousness.

This is a book about an overall or ‘comprehensive’ knowledge quest.… A new and comprehensive paradigm is possible; this is what aspects of it might look like; and here are some of the greatest obstacles now preventing its emergence (p. ix).

Wilber described sensory, symbolic, and spiritual realms of knowledge, used by individuals at the body, mind, and spirit levels of development. He called the difficulty communicating between these fundamentally different modes category error—assuming that one realm of knowledge can be used to describe the other. As an example, he pointed out the contemporary clash between rational and new age sub-cultures.

Both paradigms have consistently failed to take a full-spectrum view of the human condition in its secular as well as divine possibilities.… The orthodox tend to deny the higher reaches of the human spirit, while the new-agers, equally blind but in the other eye, ignore or underestimate the lower and primitive roots of the human animal. Both are terribly half-sighted (p. ix).

Wilber termed this error the pre/trans fallacy, in which, for instance, observers in the realm of the rational mind (verbal, logical, and self-conscious) confuse the physical realm (pre-verbal, pre-logical, and sub-conscious) with the spiritual realm (trans-verbal, trans-logical, and super-conscious). Orthodox science, therefore, reduces all spiritual experience to physical drives while the new-age movement elevates all biological urges to the spiritual dimension. Wilber showed the shortcomings of each worldview and admitted that his own work has evolved from exclusively identifying with the latter worldview to integrating both.

In 1986, Wilber collected seven of his articles from the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and, with Harvard Medical School psychologists Jack Engler and Daniel P. Brown, edited Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development. Although the book’s central theme was an elucidation of Wilber’s “full-spectrum model,” this book went further to propose a specific, detailed, and clinically-oriented perspective on level-specific psychopathologies and therapies.

topics—the various stages of development (conventional and contemplative), the corresponding levels of possible pathology or dis-ease, and the correlative or appropriate therapeutic interventions—are the central concerns for this volume (p. 3).

Wilber discussed a new terminology for his nine general levels of development and proposed corresponding levels of potential pathology. Brown and Engler found “unique qualitative differences” in Rorschach results between meditators and other groups. “These Rorschachs illustrate that the classical subjective reports of meditation stages are more than religious belief systems; they are valid accounts of the cognitive-perceptual and affective changes that occur with intensive meditation” (p. 14). Brown created a detailed cartography of contemplative (transpersonal) development based on the central texts of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, and Christian and Chinese contemplative traditions. Noting the growing numbers of younger meditators, Engler reminded us that the practice of meditative disciplines requires a strong psyche and well-integrated identity, otherwise psychiatric complications can occur.

Frances Vaughan — an introduction for general readers

Transpersonal psychology was born from the shared vision of a group of psychologists who saw that the dominant psychological theories of the time were too narrow to do full justice to the full spectrum of human potentiality (Vaughan, 1985, p. 11)

Frances Vaughan, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in independent practice in Mill Valley, California. She was president of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and the Association of Humanistic Psychology and a professor of psychology at the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

In 1980, with Roger N. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., she edited Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Directions in Psychology, the first comprehensive introductory text for the field. In it, they collected 27 seminal papers by Maslow, Grof, Wilber, Tart, Daniel Goleman, James Fadiman, and others, and wrote chapter introductions to provide context for the book’s six main themes: the clash of paradigms; the nature of consciousness; western and eastern definitions of well-being; meditation; psychotherapy; and implications for science, education, and philosophy.

Transpersonal psychology is concerned with expanding the field of psychological inquiry to include the study of optimal psychological health and well-being. It recognizes the potential for experiencing a broad range of states of consciousness, in some of which identity may extend beyond the usual limits of the ego and personality (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p. 16).

They pointed out that transpersonal psychology represented an integration of two global paradigms of the nature of the universe: western (“where the primary constituent of reality is held to be matter” which has been viewed “reductionistically and atomistically”) and eastern (where “consciousness is seen as…a holistic, interconnected, indivisible reality…and matter its product”) (p. 27).

Vaughan went on to write an original interpretation of transpersonal development called The Inward Arc: Healing and Wholeness in Psychotherapy and Spirituality (1986). In it, she simplified Wilber’s spectrum model using terms accessible for a general audience and integrated her own references of therapeutic and spiritual texts. For each of her primary levels of consciousness— physical, emotional, mental, existential, spiritual, and absolute—she proposed level-specific definitions of health, self-concept, and healing.

Each level of consciousness corresponds to a specific stage of identity and has a corresponding worldview. This self-sense expands to become more encompassing as awareness develops.… Basic orientations and world views are largely determined by specific identifications and each psychological theory tends to view the self from a specific perspective. For example, behaviorism focuses on the physical self, whereas psychoanalysis focuses on the emotional self, and ego psychology on the mental self. Humanistic and existential psychology address the existential self, and transpersonal psychology brings the transpersonal self into view (p. 36).

For the transpersonal self, she traced three of the most familiar spiritual paths—the heroic journey (Christian), the yogic chakras (Hinduism), the Ox-Herding Pictures (Zen)—in order to illustrate the process of awakening to the transpersonal realm of consciousness. She discussed the choice of a path and a teacher, and pitfalls awaiting the student of spirituality. Finally, she stressed the importance of relationships in the healing process. A transpersonal vision applies the healing relationship to a larger community, and even the world.

A vision of a world that is healed and whole, that provides a supportive environment for humanity and all other forms of life, is a possible dream. We must dare to dream those qualities and values that are needed for well-being (p. 36).

The Transpersonal Future

As we’ve seen, the field of transpersonal psychology can claim a heritage which includes the work of James, Maslow, Green and Green, Grof, Tart, Wilber, and Vaughan. These and other transpersonalists—integrating perspectives from many cultures—have built a foundation for continued work, while themselves contributing to the phenomenal growth of the field.

In The Spiral Self, I have added another perspective to the transpersonal literature, a plank which integrates the works of Ken Wilber, developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep, mythologist Joseph Campbell, archetypal psychologist Carol Pearson, and mystic scholar Jill Purce. I believe that the field possesses a great depth and breadth which will welcome additional theories such as this one.

Nonetheless, this paper proposes a theory and a particular view of human nature—as does any school of psychology, philosophy, or theology. Although the transpersonal paradigm—and this addition to it—may ring true now, it will only be accepted if it answers the deepest longings of scholars and “regular folk” over the course of many years. If it does, then the transpersonal perspective will establish itself as a new paradigm. If not, it will be replaced—as are all maps which no longer represent accurately the territory of life—by others which do.

Part IV. Glossary

Specialized terms and definitions

Atman: “Hindu term for ultimate unitive consciousness inherent in human beings; also called Buddha Nature, Tao, Spirit, or Godhead ” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 261).

Brahma: “Sanskrit, from the root brih-, “to swell, expand.” In Indian philosophy and religion, the supreme creative principle and the ground of all existence. In the Upanishads, Brahma is continually related to Atma, the individual human spirit, with the assertion that Atma = Brahma: each and every human being is, in spirit, one with the Source. This is not to say, as it is often interpreted, that “You are God,” but that the basis of one”s self-consciousness is the purely superpersonal ground-consciousness of God as the supreme witness, the all-knowing One, and the Source of all that exists” (Lash, 1990, p. 240).

Chakra: “A vortex or force-center in the non-physical counterpart of the human body” (Lash, 1990, p. 245).

Consciousness states: “Variations in the degree and type of mental awareness” (APA, 1988).

Contemplation: “A concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion; a state of mystical awareness of God”s being” (Webster”s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1984, p. 283).

DNA: “The structure of DNA (a double helix of interweaving strands of threadlike genetic material) is believed to be the source of the infinite self-regulating intelligence of the body, including the neurochemistry of consciousness and stretching through time and generations. It has even been proposed as the biochemical repository of God-consciousness” (Lash, 1990, p. 277).

Ego: “Conceptual self-sense identified with individual separateness; part of the mind with which the individual identifies” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 262).

Humanistic psychology: “School of psychology emphasizing the holistic approach, self-actualization, creativity, and free choice” (APA, 1988).

Kundalini: “In Indian Yoga and especially in Tantra, an internal force of the human body, believed to be stored in a coiled-up form at the base of the spine. According to the old tradition of Kundalini Yoga, raising the power through the inner force-centers (or chakras) of the body produces a series of extraordinary states, awakening hidden faculties and eventually, when it is raised into the head, liberating the yogi from all bondage to the physical body and material world” (Lash, 1990, p. 306).

Meditation: “Family of contemplative techniques all of which involve a conscious attempt to focus one”s attention in a nonanalytical way and to refrain from ruminating, discursive thought Frequently a spiritual or religious practice” (APA, 1988).

Mysticism: “The path of seeking direct contact with God or the divine by reaching a state of inner attunement so pure and deep that one becomes identified with God. The quest for immanence, the indescribable and ineffable union with the God within ” (Lash, 1990, p. 325).

Ontogeny: “The course of development of an individual organism” (American Heritage, p. 869).

Paradigm: “A comprehensive or general model or theory” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 263).

Peak experience: “Short-lived, intense altered state characterized by euphoria, a sense of deep knowing, belongingness, appropriateness, oneness, and perfection of self and universe” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 263).

Perennial philosophy: “A fundamental description of reality and human nature found at the basis of the major metaphysical traditions” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 263).

Perennial psychology: “A description of the perennial philosophy in psychological terms” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 263).

Self-actualization: “Bringing into existence all that one can become” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 264).

Shakti/Shiva: “In Hindu and Buddhist cosmology and psychology, is the root-power that materalizes the universe, conceived as feminine, by contrast to the power that observes the universe, the passive but all witnessing consciousness called Shiva in Hinduism, and Buddha in Buddhism. the supreme Goddess, or Devi, source of the Mother Wisdom the active, dynamic, manifesting awareness the static, passive, observing awareness. In Hindu myth, the act of primordial intercourse said to produce all things and beings in the universe” (Lash, 1990, pp. 371-372).

Spirit: “The animating or vital principle of person or animal” (Concise oxford dictionary, 1987).

Spirituality: “Degree of involvement or state of awareness or devotion to a higher being or life philosophy or world view Not always related to conventional religious beliefs” (APA, 1988).

Superego: “The part of the psyche representing introjected values, ethics, morality, and ideals; it judges and punishes transgressions; commonly identified with conscience; the unconscious repressing, but unrepressed part of the ego with which the self unconsciously identifies” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 264).

Tantra: “Radical path of Eastern spirituality, supposed (by one account) to have been orally transmitted by Gautama Buddha with the express instructions that it be kept secret by a select few and only made known to the world at large in the time of greatest spiritual darkness, the Kali Yuga. Proposes the use of sex and the physical senses in the service of spiritual development, according to the fundamental principle that the Godhead is present in pure sensation” (Lash, 1990, p. 382).

Teleological: “Directed toward or shaped by a purpose; said especially of natural processes or nature as a whole” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 264).

Transpersonal psychology: “[A field which includes] the study of optimal psychological health and well-being It recognizes the potential for experiencing a broad range of states of consciousness, in some of which identity may extend beyond the usual limits of the ego and personality” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p 16).

Values: “Qualities, principles or behaviors considered to be morally or intrinsically valuable or desirable.” (APA, 1988).

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