My inclination is to write about death and how witnessing this life passage affects our sense of self, and how, since time immemorial, the world has formulated rituals and religious apologues in the face of death. Having just experienced the death of a very dear friend, death is in the forefront of my conscious thoughts these last few weeks. My son also came close to death, so I feel the specter of mortality a lot these days and the effect it has in my own psyche. I will use a heuristic (personal) view of my immersion, meditations, and illumination on the events of these last few months to put forth a view of our self as mortal, and how death can, and does, inform both our construct of self , peoples self-object and more consciously a spiritual-self.
There is a Mayan stone carving of a man consulting with his death that I once saw pictured in a book about shamanism and religion in Meso America. This alchemical symbol of personal transformation through the consultation with one’s own death acknowledges the fact of our mortal existence which we face as living beings and represents in physical form the meanings such a confrontation offers as both life perspective and change agent. In facing our personal mortality as depicted in the stone image, the symbolism inherent in the stone carving depicts something fundamental to us all.
Often, feelings we have regarding death are confusing, or so powerful as to be overwhelming. Society has, almost without exception, ritualized this final passage of life in order to raise unconscious feelings that are deep within our psyche and bring them closer to our consciousness. “We feel the need for ritual especially when we are in the throes of a life crisis or a major transition; At such times, ritual gives us the means by which to express feelings and ideas that cannot easily be put into words” (Corbett, 2007, p. 53).
Sogyal Rinpoche a Tibetan Buddhist shares a scene from his early childhood and describes how death informed the traditional practice which he was being taught. He is transformed by the power of the ritual and by the presence of his master, who himself had complete knowledge of death, and had been transformed by ritual practice.
“At the age of seven, I had my first glimpse of the vast power of the tradition I was being made a part of. And I began to understand the purpose of spiritual practice. Practice had given my master a complete knowledge of what death is and a precise technology for guiding individuals through it” (Rinpoche, 1993, p. 4).
My research is about the numinous, the encounter with the transpersonal self that Jung labeled for a time the greater personality (Jung, 1953). Our feelings about what is self as spirit are bound heavily to the concepts we hold towards death, the transpersonal, and our spiritual ideas of what is self as soul. Our encounter with this greater self is the numinous experience. Roland (1988) emphasizes the importance of the Spiritual Self in that it informs the psychological, cultural and societal views of the Indian personality. Our western Judeo-Christian personality and societies also informs our spiritual-self, which is our internal model for connecting to the transpersonal. Like all societies, we have our rituals and mythical narratives that inculcate and inform our sense of self.
The Freudian way of mapping consciousness exemplifies the modern western empirical view. It divides the world of psyche into the psychic material of unconscious and conscious awareness, both being part of a dynamic body-self process. This unconscious realm of the mind includes the indigenous psychic material of repressed thoughts and feelings, and also the emotions of the libido or bio-energetic forces and drives. The libido may express itself as thought and emotion without cognitive input, and may interject itself into the conscious mind as Freud theorized. The more metaphysical spiritual-self would be a fabrication of infantile thoughts based on regressive emotions and outside the empirical western view of Freud's thinking.
“The self is the total being: the body and the instincts, as well as the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. A self not limited by the body or detached from it had no place in Freud’s biological beliefs” (Frager & Fadiman, 2005, p. 40).
In Descartes’ philosophical discourse on the nature of self, he links the thinking of mind to a spirit realm and postulates the existence of an ego or I am, as awareness conjoined to body. A split of the mind/body self into the realms of spirit and matter is thereby created. In his philosophical division between the powers of church (theology) and the powers of state (science), where mind constitutes the non-material actions of a spiritual self, separate from the material world in which the physical body (self as body) acts, Descartes defines the scientific/theistic dualism of the Western tradition. Freud, by refuting a solely spiritual existent self, created a body-based monism without a spiritual self, therefore making mind a function of the physical. In such a system, death is final. Philosophically, Descartes divided the world into mental and material domains - one being the spirit world and the other the physical world, whereas Freud sided with a strictly materialistic world view.
In the eastern traditions, particularly in Hindu Vedanta, the spiritual self, connected to a higher Self (Brahman), is pervasive to the conscious and preconscious self-concept of the East Indian world view. The world is spirit and spirit is the all-pervasive generator of the world, is a cosmology often heard in Indian philosophical discourse (Mishra MD, 1987).
“Without positing the realization of an inner spiritual self (Atman) –a self-considered to be one with the godhead (Brahman) –as the basic and ultimate goal of life (moksha), it is virtually impossible to comprehend the Indian psychological makeup, society, and culture. Within an Indian context, these assumptions have to be explicitly denied when they are not implicitly adhered to –in contrast to the dominant rational-scientific culture of the contemporary secular West, where they are usually ignored or denigrated” (Roland, 1988, p. 289).
Early depth psychologists, Jung and Assagioli, looked at Descartes’s body/spirit as a splitting of the psyche into two domains of being, lacking a center that integrates the whole of psyche, and not being inclusive to the whole of the human experience, particularly experiences of a transpersonal, mythical, religious and ritualistic nature. These are the very experiences that we fall back on in times of trauma, grief, and the death of those whom we love. These experiences are the foundation of the personal meaning of our lives as lived.
From an empirical point of view, the problem of how to bridge the functioning of the individual mind with the experience of the material world was a problem leading philosophically to extreme relativism, solipsism, and epistemic problems of knowing. The mind was considered an individualistic isolated function, locked within the body. One of the psychologists looking for a unification of the Self was Assagioli, an Italian contemporary of both Jung and Freud. In contrast to Freud’s view, he did not tolerate the reduction of the human spirit or psyche to a libidinal drive or other reductions of a primary bio-energetic force. In this regard, Assagioli found a friend in Jung. As contemporary psychologists, the two met many times and enjoyed much commonality in their psychological views about the nature of man’s psychic being-in-the-world of phenomenal experiences.
For Freud, the mind is encapsulated in the body and is a product of biological processes. The reality of the world as we experience it is material, out there and altogether empirical. This is how the psychology of Freud, representative of an empirical materialism, alienates Western humans from their collective experiences, held over centuries in the myths, rituals and religious practices of Western culture. All such rituals and practices are only understood from the view of the phenomenal experiences of individuals. As summarized by Roland; “The spiritual self, on the other hand, involves a major dimension of human experience that is ignored or treated reductively by most of the Freudian psychoanalysis” (Roland, 1988, p. 6). As I contemplate the importance of death as it touches our lives, the importance of rituals in this final passage, and the influences these rituals have had on our culture for centuries, I question why psychoanalysis has taken what is a major force of the human condition (i.e. death) and our centuries-old expressions of our spiritual-selves, in a manner which denigrates and ignores how these experiences provide a center for meaning and coherence in our lives. The answer may lie in the medical model of mind as biological function. This model certainly is interested in causes of a material nature to mental activity, but it is really only reflective of a splitting of experience from the material realm, a separation of science into a domain of the solely material. Such a model starts with cause, a reduction, and not with the phenomena of our personal, and always human, inner experience. Such a model ignores experiences such as love, transference, numinous experiences, intuition and inner knowing, all of which are non-causal. This model is really an attempt to separate the domains of church and state, to create a division of power between the spiritual and the material.
In the phenomenal world of my inner experience, I feel the aloneness of existence, my own mortality, the loss of my friend and mentor, and I sense a grief that is beyond my words. I place a Diet Coke on an altar built by loving people for my mentor Charlotte Lewis, my deceased chair. The ritual of placing the Diet Coke on the altar is symbolic of a shared love or vice, depending on how one views these things. The ritual combines the subjective experience and the physical world. The worlds of departed and of living spirits are united in the ritual. Such acts heal and integrate experiences in the psyche. The ritual offering gives a sense of connection to the transpersonal (we are all one in Brahman). But symbols are multifaceted and hold many meanings. It is not just a Diet Coke - it is symbolic of joy and sharing, love of living, and the meaning of common things that make life what it is. In ritual, I experience all of these meanings and many more. The universe and psyche embraces the acts of ritual and, like art, it gives us back new meanings, profound inner feelings and insights unknown until the ritual moment. The meaning of my relationship with Charlotte, death, and the transpersonal, are illumined. So in ritual, I interact with the Greater Personality or the Self. What pours forth is a cascade of meaning and experiences that are of a transpersonal nature which humans have experienced for eons. The interplay of life, death, grief, and ritual brings me into an encounter with my Greater Personality or Self, and with my heritage of being human. In other words life opens up. What is shared by action in ritual is a greater vision of what my life is in all it dimensions. Ritual is the connection to the ground of being itself, where life and death are part of the greater unchangeable as the Bhagavad Gita poetically puts forth.
Both Assagioli and Jung had a larger and more mystical bent to their view of the nature of psyche which incorporates a transpersonal or Greater Self. This can best be condensed into the statement that we and the world live in the psyche and are part of a greater force of consciousness. As Capra (2002) expresses this from the perspective of physical science, we don’t live in nature, we are of a unified nature, a unity and so our thoughts are meta-processes of this unity of nature. This idea is not new to Western thought, but is in keeping with Greek and Judeo-Christian views which are of a more mystical bent, and which also locate the soul outside of the body as a greater unity with Self. I am going to discuss both of these psychologies (Jung’s and Assagioli’s) as they reflect a sensibility towards a metaphysical Self.
If we are to accept Roland’s ideas of cultural and societal influence in the creation of the self-object, than we have to acknowledge that not only are the peoples of the Eastern individuation at odds with the modernization and scientific world view but so too are those of the Western world. A radical materialism damages our sense of self as spirit, and denigrates our western ideal of one’s non-mortal being, as informed by our culture’s religious literature. Western traditions see death as a passage of the self as a spirit which does not die. Spirit, as defined by the Judaic-Christian culture of the West, does not exist for the modern empiricist. Our Judaic-Christian culture and our scientific cultural views are often at odds and inform a worldview and splitting of the self-object. Socially our psyche develops in a split world, one part in religion, and another part in the secular scientific world of material fact. Ritual is a practice that for eons has brought a sense of wholeness to life, to a sense of connection with a higher Self or divine presence and the world of matter in one inclusive instance. Often it is the experience of a particular death that is the most important reminder of our open split, our divergent being, and the confusion and the uncertainty of our psyche’s life.
The spiritual self is both a philosophical and psychological view that Assagioli and Jung are comfortable with in their analysis of what is human consciousness. Much can be said about Jung and Assagioli’s mutual consideration in regard to the other, but they also were fundamentally different in some respects. Jung, in his introversion, uses the strong lever of his personal psychological thought to move the psyche to a realm of pure psychological phenomenon. Jung took Husserl’s phenomenology as a way to bracket the phenomena datum of consciousness itself as separate from any ontological or metaphysical considerations. It must be acknowledged that Jung was not unaware of the physical manifestations of the activities of the psyche. Jung often referred to the psychoidal events of consciousness relative to the body/mind complex as related to instinct in humans. Jungians prefer to look at these activities as they play out roles as arcane forces within the deep and interior nature of man, and referred to these forces as psychoid. Assagioli had a greater concern for the spiritual self-object in relation to a greater unifying Self as a force that gives our personal life meaning, and for him, it is the connection or continuity of being that gives life teleology and/or meaning in an ultimate sense.
Roland poses a third force outside the inner world, which is that of society and culture (1988). This is a view that looks at the self-object creation as it develops in the context of a social system, culture and mythical heritage. Cultural and social systems are themselves unifying fields of consciousness that inform what is self, what Heidegger would say is part of our being-in-the-world, or our thrown-ness. Individuation ideally brings together a coherent self-object that integrates all of these contextual factors of consciousness.
Jung sees individuation as the integration of unconscious material coming from within, as awareness presented in symbolic and arcane reference to our collective unconsciousness, the understanding of which requires a heroic interior adventure into the depths of consciousness. What for Roland would be preconscious material of cultural, mythical, and societally implicit dictums, could for Jung, be part of our collective unconsciousness, implicitly woven into these cultural, mythical, and societal dictums symbolically, and having a deeper transpersonal origin. Jung's integration is the introspective expansion of awareness of the unconscious material coming from the greater Self, and the integration of this material with the consciousness which is emerging through the progressive maturation of the individual psychologically. He gives this process the apt name of individuation, which is a psychological maturation resulting in the creation of the expanded and reborn center for the self. Individuation “refers to the process whereby one discovers the reality of the Self, the second center of the psyche, and then relates one’s way of life to that connection” (Edinger , 2002, p. 25). What is important for the integration of personality in Roland’s work is the illumination by analysis of self; individuation being a developmental process of identity of a personal and unique sense of I in the world. We as humans can sense that both of these processes of individual growth have an urgency propelled by the mortality humans share in common.
Death informs how people live in a profound way; it take us to the View as Sogyal Rinpoche 1993) names this state. The View is the contemplation and the witnessing of the Self as infinite emptiness. John Firman and Ann Gila state “Self is not blind, impersonal totality, or simply the unconsciousness; not merely a higher organizing pattern of wholeness. Self is not an ‘It’ but a ‘Thou’” (1997, p. 43). Individuation requires both integration and assimilation of the multifaceted complex of Self. Our conversation with death is a contemplation of the totality of the emptiness of being (the View) and the Thou of which Firman and Gila speak.
The conversation with death is the meaning of ego being-in-relationship to the Self or having a unified Self, which is an important key to Assagioli’s understanding of the meaning of psychic wholeness. This wholeness is a movement towards a greater incorporation to the Self or Self-realization; for the Hindu this is the attainment of moksha. Jung would look at this process as the individuation of the maturing psyche reaching for spiritual development and awareness, and the creation of the greater Self-awareness. There is great evidence that Jung would have the psyche posited as more-than-personal and much of the material of the psyche as unconscious and collective, but he goes into long discussions on not wanting to take a stand that he considers to be metaphysical. Instead Jung holds to a peculiar piece of psychological-phenomenology which allows him to have a method of dealing with extraordinary experiences by having the phenomenological bracket of psychological reality.
To define our thoughts as intuition, or our situation as fate, is to be part of what Roland calls the magic-cosmic involvement (1988). Yet both of these are part of my experience. I do have intuition, and fate did bring me to choosing my particular chair for my dissertation. In my conversations with death, the magic-cosmic surrounds me and my rituals. Through this involvement with the magic-cosmic, I see and create meaning which makes my sense of self feel connected to the greater and Transpersonal Self, while holding the mystery and confusion of life and death. Through ritual, magic-cosmic involvement with the Greater Personality and my conversation with death, my life is elevated yet humbled. A new, greater self is born from the crucible of my ritual, which is both a personal and a cultural expression which symbolically brings the creation of a meaningful and coherent identity.
For Jung, the fullness of the psyche is really to be found in those parts that elude direct observation, the complexes and the archetypal energies, but even more so the psyche (soul) itself, which is the Self. Our spiritual-self is what develops as we encounter the Self. This encounter with the Greater Personality or Self is beautifully described in the Bhagavad Gita. Here is a conversation about death that informs Krishna’s speech as he tells Arjuna
“The truly wise mourn not either for the dead or the living. He who considers this (Self) as a slayer or who thinks this (Self) is slain, neither of these knows the Truth, for it does not slay, nor is it slain.
This (Self) is never born, nor does it die, nor after once having been, does it go into non-being. This (Self) is unborn, eternal, changeless, ancient. It is never destroyed” (Isherwood, /1944, p. 37).
For ego-psychologists and Roland, the revelation of the spiritual self to the ego is a healing, for its revelation of dynamic processes (insight) which can be judged adequate or not to one's sense of integration or of wholeness. Jungian depth psychologists consider both transference and love to be calls from the Self. As in Plato's Symposium, love is a wish for completion; a connecting with our other half. When Aristophanes speaks he states “human nature was originally one and we were whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love” (Plato, /1994, p. 29). Such a connection to the whole is often referred to as a rebirth, and in the process something dies that we thought was our self, only to be realized as a new, greater self.
As stated earlier for Jung, this is the individuation process, and for Assagioli it is a process of Self-Realization. As Assagioli states in the Act of Will, modern man “is largely ignorant of what is going on in the depths of his unconscious and is unable to reach up to the luminous superconscious levels, and to become aware of his true Self” (Assagioli, 1973, p. 3). Assagioli's map of ‘being’ has at its center the I or personal self. This “personal self is a reflection or spark of the spiritual or transpersonal Self”, (Parfitt, 1997, p. 19) which is both universal and individual; a radiating, archetypal reflection of ‘soul qualities’ into the field of awareness that surrounds the ego, in the field of being. This Self is the “central reality of a being [and] the innermost centre” ( p. 46) and as such where we are “completely individual and at the same time connected to everyone and everything else” ( p. 46). Both Jung and Assagioli value the unity and expansiveness of the experience of the Self. They agree that there is something wholesome and meaningful in this fullness of our being, or of numinous experiences, and that we benefit by having an expanded awareness of what we are as psychic beings. My relationship to my chair had a grand transference in the best of senses, and an assimilation of a wholeness of Self.
“The transference experience is primarily a call to wholeness. The libido flows out to something which it recognizes as its own possession or potentiality. Unconsciously the individual recognizes that the analyst or friend carries a projected fragment of one’s own psyche. If one is able to assimilate the projection, one has made a decisive step towards wholeness” (Edinger , 2002, p. 114).
Such wholeness is the encounter with Self, higher unconscious, or the numinosum. “Higher unconscious experience is not so much the encounter with another higher world as it is a deeper, an expanded, or a more unitive view of the world” (Firman & Gila, 2002, p. 32). Jung referred to the higher unconscious material as numinosum and affirmed the universality of such experiences. Sogyal Rinpoche speaks of the View as the “seeing directly the absolute state, the Ground of our being” (1993, p. 152).
The process of individuation or self-realization begins with a self, a will, and the transcendental nature of self. Will presupposes some intent. Husserl, in describing conscious processes, used the term intentionality. “Conscious processes are also called intentional: but then the word intentionality signifies nothing else than this universal fundamental property of consciousness: to be conscious of something; as a cogito, [is] to bear within itself its cogitatum” (Husserl, 1929/1960, p. 33).
So how does death inform this cogitatum of our intentionality of a self, our discussion of being and the nature of self-awareness? The search for self is always a conversation with one’s death, for we must ask not only what dies, but we must acknowledge what it is to live. I think death defines the self as unique and precious, and a mirror to the world. Physically and spiritually, death darkens the mirror and informs us. James Hillman said we need myths that satisfy, not only those that explain. That is to say, we need to be informed, and that is what our conversation with death does. We need a myth of Soul that makes our life richer and our purpose grander.
“No one can die fearlessly and in complete security until they have truly realized the nature of the mind [the Self]. For only this realization, deepened over years of sustained practice, can keep the mind stable during the molten chaos of the process of death” (Rinpoche, 1993, p. 150).
The understanding of our nature as self, deepened over years, gives us the possibility of a fearless conversation with our own death. The work of transpersonal psychology, started by James, Jung, and Assagioli, has benefited from the culture and wisdom of ancient traditions, both Eastern and Western. Going beyond pathologies, transpersonal and depth psychology continues to move towards a greater redefinition of the self that is both self-actualized and accepting of its own fate and value, including spiritual experiences that transcend sensory experience, culturally lauded beliefs that transcend our personal experiences, and rituals and myths that express our heritage as spiritual beings and connect us with a greater Self, all these informing our self-object. Included as universal to the human experience and our wholeness, is the experience of death as a final certitude of our existence, which must be a force in what informs our psychology of self.
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