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Is the "Transpersonal" impersonal ???
Q: What is the difference between impersonal & hyperpersonal spirituality?
Good question (he said, stalling for time...)
Obviously, sometimes there is no difference. I will be ignoring those times and trying to draw a vanishingly small distinction. We will have to hold this distinction carefully. Why? Well, it is certainly possible for any individual or tradition to mean quite the opposite of what I mean when using these same terms.
I will be considering a delicate nuance of our basic “view.” Exploring a hidden divergence in our orienting context for spiritual/existential/developmental practice.
The significance of nuances, in general, is far from certain. Two oceanic ships, with only very slightly different compass headings, will gradually get farther apart BUT other processes, starting from very different positions, might slowly converge toward the same position — like two balls rolling down different mountains toward the same valley.
I am exploring the former here but we should not forget the latter. It has been said that the beating of a butterfly’s wings can result in a hurricane on the far side of the planet. This is a symbolic example of the power of small initial differences to generate very distinct outcomes in complex systems.
Before moving on to consider the particular “slight difference” that was asked about, let’s take a few moments to get familiar with what these little nuances might look like within general spiritual practice.
Butterflies & Hurricanes
There is a famous zen case (Koan) in which two students identically roll up their meditation mats and put them away. The master — seeing this — turns to a causal onlooker and comments, “One of them has it; one of them does not.”
A hidden divergence! Of course — as with most Koans — this form of thinking is trying to trap us in a situation where sameness & difference cannot be fundamentally separated. However, it also suggests something else, something very slippery. It reminds us to think about hidden distinctions on “the path.” These different approaches may not be apparent to casual inspection. They may not, in fact, even be apparent to ourselves while we are doing them…
Imagine that you are sitting in a Zen meditation hall. Next to you is a woman wearing the same robes. She is being taught by your same teacher. She is even working with the same Koan. This is still no guarantee that you are performing the same practice.
For example, you might have the basic attitude that these mind-bending puzzles are meant to prove the insufficiency of the rational mind to grasp illumination and reality. So you understand that you must surrender the tension of trying-to-solve and just allow your consciousness to rest in the background condition of mind.
Sounds good — but it’s not what the woman next to you is doing. She assumes that the puzzle is meant to induce an explosion of unique kensho consciousness as a result of the inner friction generated by seriously attempting to solve the insoluble on its own terms.
Perhaps her brain is revving up into high-performance gamma waves while yours is slowing down into the relaxation of alpha waves? Over years of practice, this difference could have huge consequences even though, in the moment, it looks like the exact same procedure is being performed.
Alternatively, imagine two monotheistic monks — equally dressed & equally penitent — engaged in identical periods of equivalently devout prayer to the same God. Yet the first monk, when he thinks of “God,” subliminally imagines a transparent being who pervades all space uniformly and is expressed in all possible qualities and events WHILE the second monk subliminally envisions a deity who is vast (but not infinite), supremely powerful but distinct from the rest of reality and located in a uniquely benevolent “other world” of some kind.
Again, it would be very difficult to figure out that what is different between these two practices… even though they could accumulate into highly differentiated results over time.
Okay, now that we (I hope) have a sense of hidden distinctions in practice, let us zero in on one particular class of nuances that is directly pertinent to the question I was asked:
Generic vs Peculiar
The questioner spoke of “impersonal” and “hyperpersonal.” These are similar because they are both alternatives to the “personal.” Both propose a desirable shift into a transpersonal consciousness that is highly distinct from the normal social and psychological personhood of ordinary human beings.
Where do these concepts diverge?
Becoming-impersonal seems to suggest a complete sacrifice of the personal dimension in order to merge with a generic existential condition. Becoming-hyperpersonal implies a shift in which the idiosyncratic individual becomes transparent, transfigured and more authentically peculiar in their transpersonal demonstration of enlightenment.
(Again, do not forget what I said at the very beginning — that you could undergo one process while referring to it in the other terms!)
Let’s probe this potential divergence from a few angles. Which of these do you most resonate with?
I should surrender everything personal into an impersonal condition or being…
I should enter into a hyperpersonal, ultra-personal or trans-personal condition that is so intimate, novel, deeply and uniquely “me” that it provides a radical/divine contrast to my ordinary personality…
The Self is itself (sic) the problem and we must ultimately surrender every vestige of self-concern and self-reference in order to reveal the primordial Is-ness that existed before, during and after the temporary illusion of selfhood? If there is spiritual growth, then it moves away from our little identity and toward an ever more impartial, indifferent and omnipresent factor.
Spiritual growth moves toward taking everything more personally, more intimately, more uniquely? Perhaps the emergence of selfhood is the ongoing extension of the divine plan? Perhaps what we call Selfless is just the next higher degree of selfhood? Divinity has always been the identity of the unitary (or even pluralistic) Self.
Either Atman (individual consciousness) is Brahman (universal indifferent consciousness) or there is no individual Atman but only an interacting plurality of illusions.
Atman (my unique character) is Brahman (the ultimate unique character). Or there is no Atman and my unique character is as good as anything else at being transparent to/as the ground of being.
The condition-beyond-all-conditions is generic, void of distinctions, utterly equal.
The condition-beyond-all-conditions is endlessly peculiar, creative, idiosyncratic, variable.
If you find yourself favoring the (1) options, we could argue that you are a monastic reductionist rather than a true nondualist. But if you favored (2) options, we could say that you are still clinging to ego and unwilling to make the final sacrifice. Tricky, tricky.
Obviously, we could make this a lot more complex. Those diagrams don’t even include any Escher-esque toroidal self-causal loops! But right now we’re just trying to get a sense of these two flavors which can inhabit almost any description of almost any spiritual or transcendental teachings.
The Authentic Self vs Anti-Naturalist Cultures
On the face of it, these both seem like viable alternatives. Possibly it is simply a matter of personal (sic) preference? However, we might have cause to rethink the issue when we see how one phrasing relates to the social and bio-psychological critique of traditional cultures.
Historical spiritual and developmental communities have had a strong tendency toward asceticism. It can, of course, be very useful to develop a context in which you struggle with your habits and build up your sense of strength by overcoming hasty, superficial reactions and identities. On the other hand, many of these traditions seem to have gone too far — at least from the point of view of contemporary ideas about psychological, emotional & biological health.
It strikes us as fairly sinister when organisms try to “improve” themselves by renouncing food, sex, money, creative activity, breathing, pleasure, family, spontaneity, materiality, biology, femininity, individuality, etc.
Very often the rhetoric of ancient traditions strayed into an anti-naturalist, anti-life, anti-enjoyment mood in which an increasingly abstract, death-like & ultra-hierarchical puritanism became the ideal form of spirituality. Leave your tender feelings, relationships and peculiar personal traits behind in your attempt to enact a complete sacrificial submission of the personal being to the impersonal Super-King, Nothingness or Ultimate Teaching.
Is spirituality the submission of Self or the transcendental epitome of Self?
Although we could profitably view it either way, we cannot ignore the many circumstantial biases throughout history that have predisposed people toward one particular framing. We should at least ponder the role that health, culture & social dynamics have played in crafting the outlines of the “view” that individuals bring to their spiritual practices.
In David Brazier’s book The Feeling Buddha, he argues that the original meaning of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths was perverted by a cultural history that enforced armoring, obedience, conformity and fantasies of self-extinction,. Originally, he argues, these linguistic imagines meant creating an inner chamber in which personal desires and emotions can flow freely and coherently — escaping distortion into an emotionally rich mode of humanized transcendence. Arguing from etymology, he postulates that it is just as valid to view Nirodha and Nirvana as forms of coherent personal feeling as it is to think of them as extinction into nothingness. It was the uninspected cultural and psychological biases of the cultures in which this occurred that exerted a great deal of hidden influence over the context of their interpretations and assumptions about Buddha’s teachings.
We cannot exactly know whether the impression we have received of any ancient spiritual teaching is giving us the correct mood or not. So let us look a little more closely at the sense of “generic” vs “peculiar” assumptions about reality:
Flatland is an 1884 novel by the English theologian Edwin Abbott which concerns the adventures of a two-dimensional being taken on a tour of a three-dimensional world that blows his mind. The term was later used by the American philosopher Ken Wilber to characterize forms of modern and postmodern society in which spirituality, subjectivity & intersubjectivity are reduced to merely material science and social conditions. The “vertical dimension” of depth, meaning, development and transcendence is lacking. Flatland.
The notion of a great “flattening” or “leveling” of values is very subtle.
Proto-existentialist, quasi-religious philosophers like Kierkegaard & Nietzsche are associated with the idea that values only exist by comparison and in living hierarchies. They both felt that the relativistic equivalence of all values was a spiritual danger. Kierkegaard was troubled by the sense of impersonal and universal logic in Hegel which treated all kinds of concepts as basically the same while ignoring the special embodied value of those ideas most capable of vexing and exalting our individual psyches. Nietzsche believed that generic notions of God — as an omnipresent, all-loving, impartial transparency — were basically equivalent to nothingness and had led to the discrediting of transcendental values.
They both stand in defense of the notion that equal value, equal presence & impersonal truth are the opposite of authentic spiritual development. Depth requires passion, idiosyncrasy and comparison.
It is rare for human being to think about these things. I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t totally sure what I was even saying. Perhaps it can be made slightly (only slightly) more concrete by considering one of the best anti-abortion arguments:
A fetus should have all the rights of a person because it (a) is alive and (b) has human DNA.
Pretty hard to refute, right? If the pro-choice advocate wants to oppose this argument he/she must say that full human rights are not equally applicable to every living organism with human DNA. We don’t let babies drive cars. We require someone who can talk to make decisions about people in comas. Perhaps we would sacrifice our lives for a living saint?
There are many sources for the anti-abortion argument but this version of it rests on the notion that there is no difference between the value of human lives. Human value is flattened. Generic. Not based on anything specific. Fungible.
What are some examples of how the generic/peculiar difference shows up in spiritual practice?
I totally fucking AM.
The contemplation of “I AM” has a great pedigree in spiritual communities — from the Gospel of Thomas to Nisargadatta Maharaj & Ramana Maharshi. It is such a widely treasured teaching that we seldom consider that it comes in different qualitative valences.
On the one hand, I could orient my attention toward the basic, inert situation of I AMness present in each and every moment of conscious existence. The mere fact that I recognize myself to be aware of anything is the most basic and therefore the most universal essence of reality.
On the other hand, it is clear that not every moment of I AMness feels full, deep and authentic. Perhaps the most basic reality is not the most significant reality? Perhaps the true self-awareness is when you feel that I TOTALLY FUCKING AM!
Do you see the difference between these two approaches? One is generic, available equally in every moment and every person. The other is based in a personal distinction relative to existential multidimensional uniqueness.
Is my spiritual practice oriented around MY BEING or around the surrender of my being into generic BEINGNESS? It can be both, of course, but the point here is to make the distinction available to contemplation.
MG Readshaw, an Irish teacher, mountain climber and online commentator, has specialized in teaching the gap within the Gurdjieff tradition. His view is that the developmental teachings of “The Fourth Way” are too heavily colored by Ouspensky’s interpretations, inventions and phrasing of Gurdjieff’s teaching — and that this becomes apparent when they are carefully contrasted to Gurdjieff’s actual writings.
Despite Readshaw’s curmudgeonly pedantry, he makes a few very intriguing points. One of which is his dispute with the core practice of self-remembering. Anyone familiar with this developmental path will know that they refer to mindfulness practice as self-remembering — the attempt to rouse ourselves from waking sleep and actualizes the self-awareness that most people only pretend to have.
But (surprise, surprise) there is a difference in how we view this practice.
The Ouspenskian-informed (according to the Irishman) traditions tend to discuss this as a voluntary practice in which we try to maintain awareness of our awareness while we are interacting with the world. A kind of self-reflective alertness that is meant to provide us with a shock or bump that helps assimilate higher energies.
Alternatively, Readshaw suggests that his practice leads to self-absorbed and unduly serious narcissism which misses the entire point of Gurdjieff’s teachings. According to the Gurdjieffian texts we have two separate conscious minds and inhabit the wrong one. Our actual self is located in the subconscious and it only variably intersects with our socialized, waking consciousness. We could and should perform experiments to observe when this other (true) consciousness is present or absent from ourselves. However, we cannot activate it on purpose. The consciousness that would perform the self-remember is the false consciousness. So that is… useless.
My point is that under the heading of the same procedure we find some options. One is a more generic option (we can always, in any situation, try to access the general function of self-remembering) while the other is more peculiar (we must watch for those times when our unique individual self is actually present… because it is absent from waking consciousness most of the time).
The oft-noticed difference between the personal nature of Gurdjieff as a “real character” and many of his students as fussy, rigid and impersonal might be related to such a distinction.
Any student of this tradition of practices will also be familiar with the notion of treating our impressions as a kind of food. That is very important in the Fourth Way.
But what counts as an impression?
Perceptions vs Impressions
Attention is a big deal in most spiritual and developmental teachings. Some teachers emphasize the intentional “noticing” of arbitrary elements of our environment. Bring more deliberate consciousness to your perceptions. Look! Did you see that leaf? Did you really see it?
It may not seem interesting or intriguing but you can make deeper contact with it by paying more attention. For this practice, any arbitrary perceptual detail is as good as any other. The emphasis is on the intentional act of attention.
There are other traditions in which you try to hold your awareness at a point where you are tracking all possible perceptions as a totality. The whole field of your awareness. In this practice, also, the contents of the perceptions are not particularly relevant. Any perception is as good as any other.
However, that is not the only approach. Perhaps not all phenomena are equal? Perhaps it makes a real difference to which details we attend?
This drawing of distinctions shows up prominently in spiritual practitioners who are also artists — from Rumi to David Lynch, from the mad poetry of the Second Dalai Lama to the profound spiritual resonances of a Van Gogh painting.
Those who are deeply versed in the artistic, therapeutic & aesthetic dimensions of life tend to understand the importance of the ways in which people make subtle, personal distinctions between perceptions.
For artists, not all perceptions are equally inspiring, personally intriguing, existentially juicy. One must apply a special criterion of discriminating intelligence that is based on intuitive feelings of suggestiveness, immediate ambiguity, the sense of unknown potential and a high degree of resonance with one’s own personal history of novel perceptions and actions.
The assumption here is that not all perceptions are equally viable — but only certain ones (which impress us) count as impressions.
That’s where our intentional attention and feeling should be focused.
At this point you will not be surprised when I note that this is, again, the distinction between a “generic” and a “peculiar” view of spiritual practice.
The Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin famously initiated (perhaps with a little inspiration from Nietzsche) the notion of God as an emergent “omega point” attractor that is drawing evolution toward itself.
Whether true or metaphorical, this is a compelling vision of higher convergence and emergence as the special site of our relationship with Divinity. In an age of evolutionary theory, radical physics & deep time we cannot easily imagine a perfect “designer” who existed prior to the cosmos but we have less trouble accepting the notion of intentionally evolving ourselves toward a more “divine” condition.
Will this condition basically cancel our individuality or extend it into unfathomable realms? Teilhard’s notion was that the noosphere (the cultural reality that emerges from and then envelops the biosphere) would be characterized by an increasing intensity of self-reflection, self-construction and diversification.
These paradoxical, self-creating, self-looping nodes of cultural awareness would then provide the sites at which the “omega” or holographic “divine person” (which he called Christ) would start to approximate itself into being.
Each “more personal” person would more closely resemble the Divine Person — who, like all persons, is endlessly unique.
The divine evolutionary process was creating more individuality at each step and would eventually intensify into a mutualistic hyper-individuality wherein we each begin to resemble THE uniquely loving hyperperson. It’s a beautiful vision. Whether or not it’s true, it offers us a way to think about Divinity as inherently, deeply personal and unique rather than indifferent, anti-personal and generic.
I think that the intensely Impersonal has a certain psychological utility. It forces us to reckon with our egoic resistances. We should definitely inspect and experimentally challenge all those things which make up our special little “identity.”
However, an emphasis on this way of envisioning human development seems intricately entangled with a cultural history of anti-naturalist, pro-dominator, materiality-rejecting, inhumane, anti-feminine, anti-embodied, anti-emotional rejection of our living experience.
Spiritual framing that exaggerates our assumption of escaping the low, base yuckiness of existence in favor of an abstractly impersonal super-condition requiring increasing subordination of selfhood, emotional and uniqueness in favor of uniformity, disembodiment and submission to the “elect” is… pretty suspicious.
Suspiciousness doesn’t mean there is no good way to make use of these concepts, only that we should investigate, ponder and consider how our personal framing might serve an abundance of deeply characteristic reality OR a valueless (equivalently valuable) realm of utterly flattened beingness.