the Pre/Trans Fallacy: The
Validity of Pre-Egoic Spiritual Experience
(First published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, no. 21. 2009.)
the notion that tribal indigenous peoples are more 'spiritual' than
Wilber (2000/2002/2005) has disputed that children can have this ready
access to the transpersonal realms. As he sees it, the transpersonal levels
are not easily accessible until the ego becomes fully formed as a structure,
when formal-operative cognition develops. From Wilber's hierarchical
perspective, to say that
agrees that spiritual experiences may be possible during childhood - particularly of the
'trailing clouds of glory' type, as a lingering
sense of the bliss and radiance and pure awareness of the pre-birth realms (e.g. Wilber, 2000; see also Armstrong,
1984). He also makes it clear that
transpersonal experiences are accessible irrespective of the individual's
level of development. As he has written, "A person at any level can have a
state experience of gross, subtle, or causal realms, because those natural
states are freely available at every stage" (2002, p.52). Or more
specifically in the same text, "an infant wakes, dreams, and sleeps - it
therefore has fully available the three great states (and the three great
realms - gross, subtle, causal)" (2002, p.5).
Wilber sees the 'spiritual' view of childhood as a form of
retro-romanticism, and an example of the pre/trans fallacy. The infant's
state of being may have some parallels with that of the mystic - for
example, a lack of a strong ego-boundary which means that there is de-differentation
between self and the environment. But, according to Wilber, this is
emphatically not equivalent to the state of unification with the
cosmos experienced by mystics. For him, childhood spiritual experiences are
anomalous and infrequent rather than natural and regular.
long history of research exists, however, vouching for the frequency of
spiritual experience during childhood, which is difficult to account for in
terms of Wilber's model. For example, Bindl (1965) found evidence that
experiences of the 'numinous' were common in children under 7, but
became less frequent in older children. In a survey of grammar school pupils
and young college students by Pafford (1973), 40% of boys and 61% of girls
said that they had had experiences of 'nature mysticism' similar to
those described by Wordsworth. In Alister Hardy's research at the Oxford
University Religious Research Unit, childhood and adolescence were the most
common frequencers of religious experience: 111.7 from a thousand during
childhood, and 123.7 during adolescence (Hardy, 1979).
studies of childhood spirituality also exist-such as Edward Hoffman's Visions
of Innocence (1992), and E.O. Robinson's The Original Vision (1977)-containing
hundreds of reports of apparently genuine mystical experiences. Most of
these reports (some of which I will be referring to in this article) are
difficult to distinguish from descriptions of adult spiritual experiences.
In addition, there are many general collections of spiritual
experiences-such as Hardy's The Spiritual Nature of Man (1979)
and Raynor C. Johnson's Watcher on the Hills (1988)-which include
many childhood experiences1.
and Hoffman both found that these experiences could occur as early as 3
years old, although they were most common between the ages of 5 and 15.
Robinson (1977) studied 600 childhood spiritual experiences, and found that
10% occurred before the age of 5, 70% between 5 and 15 and 19% after the age
of 15. Of the 123 experiences published by Hoffman (1992), 23% occurred
before the age of 5, and 77% between 5 and 15.
Edwards (2003) suggests that reports of childhood spiritual experiences are questionable because they are retrospective-sometimes elderly people describing experiences they had as 4 years old-and conveyed in language which children could not possibly use. However, as Piechowski (2001) argues, spiritual experiences are so powerful and unusual that they are remembered much more vividly and with less distortion than other experiences. In addition, the memories of children are more reliable than is generally believed. For example, Sheingold and Tenney (1982) found that 3 and 4 year olds can recall the events of a year ago with a great deal of accuracy, and no less accurately than 8 year olds. And in relation to language, spiritual experiences are by their nature 'trans-lingual.' Even as adults we struggle to describe them, with the subject/object duality of language, the different tenses and the paucity of vocabulary for refined and intense states of awareness. An adult will certainly be able to explain the experience more clearly than a child, but only because of their wider vocabulary and ability to use metaphor. But that has no bearing on the experience itself, which exists prior to and beyond language.
as a Stable Spiritual Structure
are close parallels between the approach I am going to take and that of
Michael Washburn (1995, 2002). Washburn relates the joy and wonder of
infancy with the child's openness to the 'Dynamic Ground,' or the deep
psyche. But gradually the ego develops and begins to 'repress' the
Ground. By early adulthood the ego has become alienated from it and is
deprived of its vitality. The ego views the body as a separate entity, a
vehicle it is trapped inside. According to Washburn, spiritual or
transpersonal development is a process of re-opening to the Dynamic Ground,
of undoing the separateness of the ego and reintegrating it within our
being, "regression in the service of transcendence," as he refers to it (Washburn, 1995, p.
220). The ego still exists as a structure but not as an
autonomous isolated entity. We-the ego-now have access again to the
intense spiritual energy of the Ground. Early childhood and the
transpersonal 'spiritual' state are not ontologically distinct, as the
pre/trans fallacy suggests. They are both states of connection to the
Dynamic Ground, but the Ground expresses itself differently in them, in a 'pre' or
'trans' form (Washburn, 2003).
approach has some similarities. For him, as for Washburn, the pre/trans
fallacy does not apply, since transpersonal development involves a
re-encounter with the original ground unconscious, which is the source of
embryonic experiences of mystical unity. As he states: "During episodes of
undisturbed embryonal existence, we typically have experiences of vast
regions with no boundaries or limits. We can identify with galaxies,
interstellar space, or the entire cosmos" (1990, p.37). Adult mystical
experiences recapture this experience in a mature form.
approaches are similar to that originally advocated by Wilber-the Wilber-1
model (as he refers to it himself), when he believed that human development
proceeds "from unconscious Heaven to conscious Hell to conscious Heaven" (1996, p.
x). Of course, Wilber has long since repudiated this view,
believing that it was based on the logically impossible premise of the adult
'losing' union with the divine. "All things are one with the Divine
Ground…To lose oneness with that Ground is to cease to exist" (p.xi).
But this is itself a logically flawed statement. To lose oneness with the
Divine does not mean ceasing to exist. It is possible to exist and be
essentially one with the Divine but to lose the experience of this oneness,
to be alienated from the essence of your being which is one with the Divine.
In fact, this is our essential problem as adults. Wilber's (1996) revised
view is that human development is actually a process of moving from
unconscious hell to conscious hell and then conscious heaven.
Children are immersed in samsara,
but are simply unaware of it, in a state of blissful ignorance.
believe that Washburn, Grof and Wilber-1 are essentially correct, in that
children's state of being has 'spiritual' qualities in two senses:
firstly, children have fundamentally 'spiritual' characteristics as a
stable structure of being, and secondly, they appear to have easy access to
higher level spiritual experiences (that is, higher than their normal stable
state of being).
is certainly not to say that childhood is in any way a 'higher' state
than adulthood. The adult ego gives us massive benefits - abstract and
logical thought, conceptual knowledge, self-reflection, impulse control,
reality testing, exercise of the will, the ability to take perspectives, to
organise, to make decisions, to plan, to manipulate our surroundings and
live autonomously (Jung, 1988; Loevinger, 1976; Washburn, 1995; Wilber, 1996). It is precisely because of their undeveloped ego that children are
unable to deal with the practical demands of life, and need such intense
nurturing. The development of the ego is undoubtedly a massive developmental
progression. I am merely suggesting that, in order for this
progression-and for these benefits-to occur, certain 'spiritual'
characteristics of childhood are inevitably de-intensified. As will be seen
later, this is mainly a consequence of the 're-distribution' of psychic
energy which the development of the adult ego brings.
order to examine this controversial issue, we should perhaps briefly outline
some of the most prevalent characteristics of spiritual experiences in
general. The following summary will no doubt already be familiar to many
readers of this journal, but I believe it is important to clarify these
characteristics, in order to examine whether childhood as a stable state
might include them.
experiences as they occur can occur at different levels of intensity, moving
from a simple heightening of perception (the first characteristic below) to
a high intensity experience such as nirvikalpa samadhi, or-in the
Christian mystical tradition-'deification.' The characteristics I
present below are roughly progressive and cumulative, unfolding through
greater degrees of intensity of spiritual experience. They are based on my
own studies and collected reports of spiritual experiences (Taylor, 2005a,
2009, in press), as well as the research and findings of Underhill (1911/1960), James
(1902/1985), Johnson (1960/1988), Laski (1961), Hardy (1979) and Happold (1963/1986). The experiences often occur in a passive,
solitary and individual context (e.g.
during or after meditation, or when a person is alone in nature) but it is
important not to forget that, as Ferrer (2002) has emphasised, they can
occur in a participatory, communal and active context too, such as during
lovemaking, a group artistic performance (or amongst the audience of such a
performance), or group sporting activities (e.g. Murphy & Whyte, 1995:
Taylor, in press; Wade, 2000).
of Spiritual Experiences
characteristics of spiritual experiences, with childhood examples,
will be discussed, divided into lower to medium intensity experiences
(characteristics 1-5) and medium to high intensity spiritual experiences (characteristics
which normally do not seem beautiful or interesting-and which we do not
normally pay attention to-suddenly seem to possess a new kind of 'is-ness'. They seem brighter, more colourful and more intricate, and to
have more depth and perspective. Evelyn Underhill refers to this as "a
clarity of vision, a heightening of physical perception" (in Deikman,
1980, p.249). Or in William James' words: "An appearance of newness
beautifies every object" (p.249).
which normally only have a one-dimensional surface reality assume a new
depth and a new being.
is a sense that 'all is well.'
example, some of the experiences collected by Hardy (1979) at the Religious
Experience Research Unit at Oxford University (now at the University of
Wales in Lampeter) contain descriptions of a "a feeling of absolute
bliss…a feeling of intoxication, so great was the happiness" (p.62), "a sense of lightness, exhilaration and power"
(p.35) and "I was
filled with a great surge of joy" (p.20).
person-or persons-may become aware of Spirit in the world, pervading all
things and the spaces between things. This is what the Chandogya Upanishad
describes as "an invisible and subtle essence [which] is the Spirit of the
universe" (Mascaro, 1990, p. 117). In a sense, this awareness is simply an
intensification of characteristics 2 and 3: the individual realises that
this 'Spirit-force' is what makes so-called 'inanimate objects'
alive, and the source of the harmony and the radiance we can perceive. At
the lower levels the effects of this force are perceived, even if the person
is not able to perceive the force itself directly. But now they realise that
this radiance and harmony emanate from an ocean of Spirit which fills the
whole universe and is the essence of reality.
are, I believe, many correspondences between these characteristics and
children's normal experience of the world. For example, the kind of
intense, vivid perception which characterises spiritual experiences (no.1)
appears to be normal for young children. The spiritual experience researcher
Edward Robinson collected many reports of adults who describe their normal
childhood awareness as extremely intense and vivid. One spoke of having a "clear awareness, almost like a radar"
(p 43), and having "a more
direct relationship with flowers, trees and animals" (p.42). Another used
the description by the Victorian author
John Ruskin, who wrote that as a child he had "a continual perception of
sanctity in the whole of nature-from the slightest thing to the vastest" (p.56).
This intense infant perception has been noted
by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, who has declared her belief
that "babies and young children are actually more conscious, more
vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are" (2005). As Schachtel
(1959) saw it, children have two basic modes of
perception: autocentric (which emphasises sensory quality and pleasure or
displeasure in what one sees) and allocentric (the immediate and direct
perception of the nature of objects, without familiarity or conceptual
prejudice.) However, during adulthood 'secondary autocentricity'
dominates. The immediate sensory qualities of objects and their nature are
less important, as we begin to perceive objects in terms of their utility,
and in terms of pre-existing concepts. We lose what Loevinger (1976)
described as "the child's allocentric openness to the world" (p.145).
As a consequence, our "enjoyment of the sensuous encounter with the
world" is reduced (p. 145). Loevinger speculated that the child's "openness to experience"
(p.147) may be regained at higher levels of ego
development, at the self-actualisation level identified by Maslow, or what
she herself referred to as 'integrated.'
Similarly, Werner (1957) saw parallels between the "perceptual and cognitive functioning" of children
and indigenous peoples, compared to adult westerners or Europeans. The
perception and cognition of children and indigenous people were more "vivid and sensuous" as well as syncretic and animated, and
with respect to the distinctions between self and object and between
objects" (p.152). According to Werner, this perceptual intensity fades as
abstract and reflective thought develop, bringing a loss of the "sensuousness, fullness of detail, the color and vivacity of the image"
(p. 152). This is supported by Shapiro's (1960) study of children's
responses to Rorschach images, which showed that as they grow older,
children are less attentive to sensory aspects of the cards (such as colour
and texture) but more attentive to meaning, shape and size. Deikman explains
this in terms of the process of 'automatization' of perception, which
conserves psychic energy but "is paid for by a foreclosure of
possibilities, a dulling or "jading" of sensory experience that is an
all-too-common occurrence" (1966, p.112).
In a similar way, young children often
appear to perceive the world around them as alive. They appear to
sense the inner subjectivity of things, as in characteristic no.2 above. (This is suggested by Werner's characterisation of childhood perception as
"animated.") In Visions of
Innocence (Hoffman, 1992), several people describe this sense that
trees, flowers and other natural phenomena were sentient beings with whom
they could communicate. One woman describes how, at the age of 4, she became
attached to a particular tree when camping with her parents:
liked the trunk's warm, rough surface. Its life and strength seemed to
flow into me…I was away from other people, where I could be myself and yet
part of a strong life force beyond myself. (Hoffman, 1992, p.23)
Similarly, a 69 year old minister describes how, as a child growing up on the coast of Nova Scotia, he had a "strong sense of the numinous-and warmth and peace-that accompanied some of nature's moods" (Hoffman, p.33). While a woman told Hoffman how, as a child, she was always aware that nature was alive and had a "definite soul":
Not only the trees would speak to me, but also the plants, streams, and even the stones. In the Harz Mountains we would often picnic next to a certain brook. In those years there were few tourists, and I'd frequently sit for hours without moving and listen to its sound. When I would find an especially beautiful rock on the road, I would take it, feel it, observe it, smell it, taste it, and listen to its voice. (Hoffman, 1992, p.24)
These descriptions hint at characteristic no.3 too. The natural world seems to be a benign and meaningful place, pervaded with an atmosphere of harmony.
poets and authors have remembered their childhood in similar terms to these.
Aside from Wordsworth, the mystic poet Henry Vaughan described his childhood
as a time when he saw "shadows of eternity" and "bright shoots of
everlastingness" in the world (in Jacobs, 2002, p.173) while his near
contemporaryThomas Traherne described his childhood as a state when "All
appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and
beautiful" (in Happold, 1986, p. 368).
sense of well-being which spiritual experiences bring (no.4) has clear
correspondences with childhood experience too. Particularly during what
Loevinger (1976) described as the 'impulsive stage,' children experience
discontent frequently, when they are tired, insecure or when their powerful
impulses are frustrated. Some children also suffer trauma and abuse at the
hands of their carers or others, making them withdrawn and disturbed. But in
general, children have a powerful joie de vivre, an infectious
positivity which makes being with them a massive pleasure. They may
experience brief storms of upset or anger-again, this is particularly
characteristic of the impulsive stage, where emotions are very intense (Loevinger,
1976). However, children always quickly return to a foundation of natural
happiness. They respond to everything (and everyone) with the same "openness to experience"
(Loevinger). Washburn describes this state
pre-symbolic infant is bathed in the water of life; ripples and waves of
delicious energy move through the infant's body, filling it with delight.
When its needs are satisfied and it is otherwise content, the presymbolic
infant experiences a sea of dynamic plenitude, blissful fullness. (1995,
The above descriptions are so similar to the
characteristics of spiritual experiences described by mystics and others
that this is clearly not a question of parallel, as the pre/trans
fallacy would suggest. They suggest that spiritual experiences are
accessible from both the pre-egoic and trans-egoic levels. There can be pre-egoic
spiritual experiences and states, as well as trans-egoic. At the same time,
I accept that there are certain aspects of trans-egoic spiritual experiences
which are not a part of pre-egoic, and will discuss these differences below.
to High Intensity Spiritual Experiences in Childhood
that so far I have only spoken of childhood in terms of lower to medium
level intensity spiritual experiences, which are more or less equivalent to
what Wilber describes as 'gross level mysticism.' I believe that
childhood as a state includes these aspects (up to no.4 and sometimes no.5),
but not the characteristics of higher intensity spiritual experiences.
Childhood as a state includes elements of gross level mysticism, but
not-in Wilber's model-the causal, subtle or integral. Wilber (2005)
rejects the romantic view of childhood because "the infant is not living
in nirvana or nirvikalpa samadhi by any stretch of the imagination, and
there is not a single tradition that claims it is" (p.30). However, I am
certainly not claiming that children are "enlightened." It is a question
of degrees; I am only suggesting that the normal state of being of children
contains aspects of lower intensity spiritual states which are lacking from
our normal adult state.
children certainly do have access to the higher transpersonal levels.
To adapt and reverse the metaphor I used right at the start of this essay:
if children's stable state is one of lower level spirituality, then they
should have easy access to the higher levels in the same way that climbers
at the base camp of Everest have easier access to its higher points than
people way down below them at sea level.
this section, I will list further common characteristics of spiritual
experiences, this time from medium to higher levels of intensity. Again,
this is based on my own studies and collected reports of spiritual
experiences (Taylor, 2005a, 2009, in press), as well as the research and
findings of Underhill (1911/1960), James (1902/1985), Johnson (1960/1988),
Laski (1961), (Hardy (1979) and Happold (1963/1986).
Although these characteristics are not part of
childhood experience as a stable state, there are many instances of children
'peaking' into these higher realms.
is a negative correlation between the intensity and the frequency of
spiritual experiences. For example, in a British survey by Hay and Heald (1987), 16% of people reported sensing a sacred presence in nature on at
least one occasion (possibly characteristic no.5), whereas only 5% of people
reported sensing the unity of all things (no.6), and this appears to apply
to childhood experiences too. While characteristics 6 and 7 are described
frequently in reports, no.9 is less common.
no.7 occurs time and again in the reports. Here is a sample of descriptions
from the reports:
the age of "barely three": "It was as if I was part of the flowers,
and stones, and dusty earth. I could feel the dandelions pulsating in the
sunlight, and experienced a timeless unity with all life" (Robinson,
age specified: "I felt myself for a fleeting moment to be part of a
world of meaning, unrestricted by space/time" (Robinson, p.55).
years old: "A door opened, and I became the sun, the wind, and the sea.
There was no 'I' anymore. 'I' had merged with everything else. All
sensory perceptions had become one. Sound, smell, taste, touch, shape - all melted into a brilliant light. The pulsating energy went through me, and
I was part of this energy"
(Hoffman, 1992, pp. 39).
3 years old": "A euphoric unification with the space in front of me
and all around" (Hoffman, p.
the fourth grade, an experience which occurred frequently: I would have
days when…I would feel a tremendous connectedness to everything and
everyone. Everything was one. I could see the connection between all things"
However, characteristic no. 9 appears to be very rare in childhood
experiences, for reasons which will be suggested in a moment. The published
reports of childhood spiritual experiences only contain a very small number
of examples of high intensity experiences such as nirvikalpa
samadhi, or union with the Divine Ground. The following experience
occurred when the person was 3 or 4:
As I faced the
blankness in my mind's eye, I gradually became aware that my identity
transcended all these memories: that 'I' had no form or name, no history,
and filled this blankness or emptiness as an immensity extending to
infinity. This awesome feeling lasted for several minutes, and then I became
aware of myself as a little boy peering out of the bushes. (Hoffman, 1992,
following person describes a "spiritual technique" she developed at the
age of 8 or 9, of "tumbling back" into a "secure void":
During time alone
in my room, I would often 'tumble back' into another reality focusing on
what was here before the universe or anything else existed. I would tumble
further and further into this secure void, relishing the feeling of quiet
detachment, almost floating. (Hoffman, 1992, p 152)
Sources of Spiritual Experience
pre-egoic spirituality need not be seen as anomalous or inferior if we
examine the sources of spiritual experience. I have suggested
elsewhere (Taylor, 2005a, 2009, in press) that two significant sources of
spiritual experience are (a) disruption of the normal homeostasis of the
human organism, brought on by fasting, self-inflicted pain, sleep
deprivation, drugs, frenzied dancing etc., and (b) what I have called an 'intensification and stilling of life-energy,' generated by meditation,
prayer, prolonged concentration during sports, encounters with nature,
silence and solitude, sex, a near-death experience, playing or listening to
music, satsang experiences, kundalini experiences etc. In the next section,
I will examine this 'energetic' source of spiritual experience, and then
suggest it as a framework for understanding childhood spirituality.
'life-energy' I mean the entire non-physical energy of our being, the
sum total of our inner vitality, which can be expressed in different ways.
It can be expressed and used through mental functions such as cognition,
perception, concentration or attention, when it appears as psychic or
attentional energy. It can be expressed and used through emotional activity,
where it might be called emotional energy. It can be expressed and used
sexually, where it appears as sexual energy, and so forth. We can feel this
energy moving powerfully through our 'inner body' after yoga or other
forms of exercise. When it is blocked to certain parts of the body, and
generally at a low level, it may lead to illness.
there are commonalities between Washburn's approach and mine here. He
suggests that our essential life-energy expresses itself in three different
ways: as psychic energy, as libido (or sexual energy), and as spiritual
power. He notes that one of the differences between these expressions of
energy is that while psychic energy is used continually, fuelling our
ongoing conscious experience, libido and spiritual power are both 'potential' energies, which are usually latent but become
'activated' by certain stimuli (Washburn, 2002). Similarly, Jung saw
psychic energy as the power behind every facet of experience-including
cognition, concentration, instinct and sexual desire-which was at the same
time of a different nature to that experience. As he saw it, psychic
energy could be actual,
manifesting itself as the "dynamic phenomena of the psyche, such as
instinct, wishing, willing, affect, attention, capacity for work etc." Or
it could be potential, when it shows itself as "possibilities, aptitudes [and]
attitudes" (Jung, 1928/1988. p.15).
normal circumstances, as Washburn notes, there is a constant 'outflow'
of life-energy, because of our constant mental and emotional activity. But
in certain circumstances-such as during or after meditation or while
performing certain sports- this 'outflow' ceases and our life-energy
becomes intensified and stilled, creating the conditions leading to
(1996) notes that the "endless associational chatter" of our minds
monopolises psychic energy, leaving none available for us to devote to what
he calls "open, receptive and present-centred awareness" (p.277).
Deikman (1980, p.256) makes a similar connection between mystical
experiences and energy when he suggests that they are
about by a deautomatization of hierarchically ordered structures that
ordinarily conserve attentional energy for maximum efficiency in achieving
the basic goods of survival…Under special conditions of dysfunction, such
as in acute psychosis or in LSD states, or under special goal conditions
such as exist in religious mystics, the pragmatic systems of automatic
selection are set aside or break down, in favour of alternate modes of
other words, the quietening of associational chatter, or 'thought-chatter,' as I have called it elsewhere
(Taylor, 2005b, in press) creates a 'surplus' of energy which means that there is no need
for these structures to conserve energy anymore. As a result our perceptions
become de-automatized, and we develop an intensified awareness of the
as well as being intensified, in meditative states our life-energy is stilled.
At the same time as using up a large portion of our energy, the constant
thought-chatter of our minds creates disturbance inside us. In Meister
Eckhart's (1987, p.14) phrase, there is a "storm of inward thoughts,"
a chaos of swirling images and impressions which we have no control over.
But in meditation most of this disturbance may fade away. As the chattering
of our mind slows down and fades away, so do our desires and emotions (which
are largely triggered by thought-chatter), so that our being becomes still
and peaceful, like the still surface of lake.
'stilling' of life-energy always goes together with its intensification.
The two cannot happen separately. In order for it to be intensified,
life-energy has to be stilled. Our thought-chatter and emotions and desires
have to be stilled in order to 'harnass' the energy which they normally
is, we might say, a conscious attempt to intensify and still our
life-energy, both in the short and long term. (In the long term it is an
attempt to permanently halt the 'associational chatter' of the mind,
which may lead to a permanent alteration of the structures of consciousness.) However, there are situations in which life-energy may be
intensified and stilled more accidentally, and give rise to higher states of
consciousness. This is probably, for example, the reason why natural
surroundings are a frequent trigger of spiritual or mystical experiences (Hardy, 1979; Hay, 1987;
Laski, 1961). The beauty of nature may have an
effect similar to a mantra in meditation, directing attention away from the
chattering of the ego-mind. Cognitive activity may fade away, until
life-energy intensifies, bringing a sense of inner peace and wholeness and
heightened awareness of the phenomenal world. An additional factor here
may be the energy which natural surroundings themselves 'transmit' to
us. Nature itself appears to have a certain quality of purity and serenity
which creates a calm, peaceful state of being.
incidence of spiritual experiences amongst athletes and sportspeople (e.g.
Murphy & Whyte, 1995; Taylor, 2002) can be explained in similar terms.
Some of these may be due to homeostasis disruption, since the exertions of
some sports will obviously create powerful physiological changes. However,
sporting activity may also serve as a focusing device, quietening the
chattering ego-mind. As the psychiatrist Kostrulaba writes of his own
experiences with running, after discussing the universal use of mantras to
induce different states of consciousness, "I think the same process occurs
in the repetitive rhythm of long-distance running. Eventually, at somewhere
between 30 and 40 minutes, the conscious mind gets exhausted and other areas
of consciousness are activated" (in Murphy & Whyte, 1995, p.66).
Similarly, the poet Ted Hughes often experienced a meditative state while
fishing. He describes the effect of staring at a float for long periods: "All the nagging impulses that are normally distracting your mind
dissolve…once they have dissolved, you enter one of the orders of bliss.
Your whole being rests lightly on your float, but not drowsily, very
alert" (Hughes, 1967, p.72). Similar explanations can be made for other
prominent triggers of spiritual experience, such as music, dance, sex, the
contemplation of art, creative work, relaxation and physical activity (Hardy, 1979; Laski, 1961; Wade,
further investigate this relationship between an intensification and
stilling of life energy and spiritual experiences, it is perhaps useful to
look briefly again at the characteristics of spiritual experiences as
described above, and examine how intensified and stilled life-energy (or
ISLE) states produce them individually.
states can be seen as producing characteristics 1-3 (and possibly 5 and 6)
due to what Deikman (1980) refers to as a 'de-automatization of
perception.' As he suggests, as adults our perceptions of our surroundings
become automatic as an energy and attention saving function. I have
elsewhere posited a psychological 'de-sensitizing mechanism' (Taylor,
2005a, 2005b) to explain this. This mechanism- related to the process of
habituation-'switches off' our attention to experiences and
environments once we have been exposed to them for a certain amount of time.
It turns the world around us to familiarity so that we do not expend our
psychic energy in perceiving it. . It is necessary because the ego is such a
dominant and powerful feature of our psyche that it monopolises our psychic
energy. Energy which could
potentially be used in perception is 'diverted' to the ego. As a result,
we perceive the world in a less powerful and immediate way.
in ISLE states, this process is reversed. As Novak (1996) describes it, when
a person meditates she diverts attention away from the automatized
structures of consciousness which produce 'thought-chatter.' As a
result, they begin to weaken and fade away, which 'frees up' the psychic
energy they normally monopolise. As a result, in Novak's words "energy
formerly bound in emotive spasms, ego defence, fantasy and fear can appear
as the delight of present-centredness" (1996, p. 277). Or, in my
terminology, this surplus of psychic energy means that the de-sensitising
mechanism is no longer necessary, and naturally falls away, so that we are
able to perceive the is-ness and beauty which is normally 'switched off'
no.4-a sense of inner well-being-is related to an ISLE state because, as
Indian mystical traditions tell us, bliss is the nature of being or
is the essence of reality. We are, therefore, likely to experience this
bliss when the energy of our being is intensely concentrated. In
addition, as adults we become free of the constant thought-chatter which
runs through our minds and creates disturbance. In ISLE states this 'storm' fades away. It has to, otherwise life-energy would not be
concentrated enough to produce a spiritual state. And this contributes to
the sense of well-being which spiritual experiences feature. There is always
a sense of inner stillness, and a sense of purity-and this is not so much
an affective state, as a direct, literal experience of the stillness and
purity of consciousness in these moments.
no.7-a sense of union with the world-is primarily related to
ego-dissolution, a transcendence or dismantling of the separate-self system
which creates the sense of separateness and duality. This is partly achieved
through a silencing of 'thought
chatter.' Our sense of ego appears to be largely maintained by this chatter.
Therefore when the chatter becomes silent, the separate self system may fade
away. But at the same time, as many spiritual traditions hold, at the
essence of our being we are one with the cosmos. As the Upanishads tells us,
atman is one with brahman.
The life-energy which constitutes our being is one and the same as the
spirit-force which pervades the cosmos. Therefore when we experience a
powerful intensification of life-energy we also effectively experience the
essence of the whole universe. We tap into the ocean of Spirit which
pervades all reality.
Characteristic no.8, the sense of 'becoming who we really are' or of making contact with a deeper and truer part of our own being, may be related to an ISLE state in that life-energy-expressing itself as spirit or pure consciousness-as the essence of our being. The energy is our Self, our true identity, so that an ISLE state equates with a sense of connection to a truer self, especially once the superficial thought-maintained self of the ego has faded away. According to the Yoga philosophy of Patanjali, the "restriction of the whirls of consciousness" allows the transcendental Self to appear (in Feuerstein, p.171).
Characteristic no.9-possibly the highest intensity of spiritual
experience-can be seen as the optimum state of intensification and
stilling of life-energy, the point when the energy of our being becomes completely
concentrated and completely stilled. In Washburn's terminology, this
is where we are completely open to the Dynamic Ground. In fact, it is not a
question of being open to it, but wholly becoming the Ground. There
is no outflow of energy through the ego or through cognitive or perceptual
activity at all, but a complete inner accumulation of 'the powers of the
soul.' At the same time, the ego-mind is completely quiet,
completely devoid of thought, bringing a state of complete inner stillness.
At this point, reality reveals itself in its purest state.
Sources of Pre-Egoic Spirituality
connection between ISLE states and spiritual experience can be utilised to
explain childhood spirituality. The primary factor here is children's less
developed ego structure. As well as being a giant 'leap,' the
development of the ego entails a 'fall,' largely due to the new
distribution of life-energy which occurs as we enter adulthood. The adult
ego creates a massive 'outflow' of life-energy--so much so that, at the
psychic level, energy has to be 'diverted' from other functions,
particularly perception. The ego consumes energy both as a structure and
through its activity. The structure of the ego requires a great deal of
energy to be maintained, in the same way that the physical structures of the
body-such as our bones and internal organs-need a constant input of
energy to maintain themselves. There must be some input of energy to keep
such a powerful structure intact and in place. And in terms of activity, the
cognitive activity of the ego in particular creates a significant outflow of
energy. This includes the voluntary cognitive activity of rational/logical
thought (such as decision making, planning and organising) but more
prominently, as we have seen, involuntary 'thought-chatter.'
Young children experience a constant
heightened perception, a sense of the aliveness of phenomena and a
sense of meaning and harmony because this de-sensitising mechanism does not
act upon their perceptions. It has not yet developed as a part of their
psyche. This mechanism appears to develop in parallel with the ego, becoming
fully functional in the mid-to-late teens. Since children do not yet have
fully formed egos (Loevinger, 1976; Piaget & Inhelder, 1956), they do
not yet need this
energy-conserving mechanism. As a result, children look at the world with
constant intense, non-automatic perception. They are able to perceive the
is-ness, harmony and meaning which are always there but which are
usually edited out of our normal adult perception.
other words, because of their less developed ego structure, children always
have a high concentration of life-energy inside them. There is always energy
available for them to 'fuel' their perceptions, so that these are never
automatic. This partly explains their natural happiness too: without the ego
channelling away their life-energy, there is-as Washburn (1995) notes-a
deep well of life-energy inside them, so that they can constantly experience
the well-being which is the nature of this energy. In addition, children may
experience well-being because they are largely free of the psychological disturbance
which our constant 'associational chatter' creates. Although-as
Loevinger (1976) highlights-they often suffer emotional disturbances, in
general, their mental state could be seen as one of greater inner stillness.
terms of higher intensity spiritual experiences, if children have a more
intense concentration of life-energy inside them, they would only need a
small degree of further
energy-intensification to reach these higher levels. It is significant that
most of the childhood spiritual experiences I have quoted from above
occurred when the children were gazing at natural objects or scenes, usually
alone. Presumably the quietness and solitude together with the act of
concentrating their attention as they gazed had the effect of further
intensifying their life-energy. For example, one experience occurred when
the person was "in a quiet reverie…looking at my arm" (Hoffman, 1992,
p. 93). Another occurred when the person was alone on a beach, looking at
the sky and the sea, and 'breathing with the waves' in an almost
meditative fashion (Hoffman, p.38). Another person describes how her
childhood mystical experience occurred after she "awoke quietly one
morning" while everyone else was asleep, and as she was watching the
flight of a bird (p. 38). Other experiences occurred when the child was in a
car gazing out at the passing countryside, alone on a farm "concentrat[ing] for hours on little square patches of earth"
lying on the grass watching a group of ants moving, looking out of the
window in an intense state of absorption, and so on. Piechowski (2001) even
suggests that some children consciously use methods of focusing their
attention as a way of inducing spiritual experiences, as the girl who
breathed with the waves and "entered their rhythm" (Hoffman, 1992, p. 30) appears to have done.
also makes sense that experiences of union with the world should be common
in childhood. Since their ego is less developed as a structure, children do
not experience the same degree of separation from the world as adults. For
them the I/it boundary is less defined. As Werner put it, their perception
and cognition is 'de-differentiated
with respect to the distinctions between self and object and between
objects' (1957, p.152). Or, in Washburn's words, in early childhood the
ego "has only incomplete self-boundaries… no clear line has been drawn,
separating the ego from the Dynamic Ground" (1995, p.24). As a result it
is easy for children to access a state of oneness or connectedness with the
world, and with individual phenomena.
they are free of the energy-monopolising structure of the adult ego, it is
perhaps surprising that high intensity spiritual experiences are not even more
common in childhood, or that children's normal state does not include
higher level characteristics. However, despite their lack of mental chatter,
children's more intense emotions and desires than adults (Loevinger, 1976)
can be seen as creating a significant 'outflow' of energy and a large
degree of turbulence inside them. This is perhaps why, as I mentioned
earlier, children rarely have spiritual experiences of the highest
intensity. They can rarely attain the state of complete stillness and
inner emptiness - and complete energy-intensification - which makes
these experiences possible.
Between Pre- and Trans-egoic
significant difference between pre and trans-egoic spiritual experiences is
that characteristic no.8-the 'identity shift' from the surface ego to
a deeper and truer self-also appears to be largely absent from reports of
childhood spiritual experiences. However, this is surely inevitable, since
the shift which takes place is from the ego to spiritual essence, and with
younger children the ego has yet to become the locus of identity (Loevinger,
significant difference is that childhood spiritual experiences do not appear
to feature a universal sense of love and compassion, and a bodhisattva-like
desire to relieve the suffering of all living beings (the intense compassion
which stems from becoming one with others, as described under characteristic
no.7). This may be because, as the developmental model of interpersonal
relations developed by Selman (1971) suggests, it is only around the time of
the 'upper elementary grades' that children begin to understand multiple
perspectives, and are able to see the self from the perspective of others.
Childhood spirituality appears generally not to include the empathic
world-centric elements of adult spiritual experiences; it is essentially a
primal experience of perception, feeling and relationship to nature.
difference is that children's spiritual experiences are very rarely-in
Stace's (1950) term-introvertive.
That is, they are rarely experiences of withdrawing from the external world
and attaining a state of inner well-being and spaciousness, or -at a
higher intensity-a state of inner emptiness or pure consciousness, in
which we 'touch into' the spiritual essence of all reality. (The two
examples given earlier of high intensity childhood spiritual experiences are
two rare examples I have found of childhood introvertive spiritual
experiences.) Childhood spiritual experiences are almost always extravertive-that
is, they are mainly experiences of perception (e.g. perceiving beauty,
harmony and alive-ness) and of relationship to the world (e.g. becoming one
with nature.) This makes sense when we consider that children live in a
constant of extraversion. Their inner selves are not strong, stable or still
enough to allow them to 'turn inward' and experience the state of
sense-withdrawal which gives rise to introvertive experiences.
Furthermore, because of their lack of formal-operational cognition (Piaget &
Inhelder, 1956) children are not able to reflect upon or
analyse their spiritual experiences. This difference could be extended into
an objection to the validity of childhood spiritual experiences. Can these
experiences be genuine if children are not actually conscious of
them? One might argue that self-awareness is an essential characteristic of
spirituality. A truly spiritual state involves being conscious of that
I do not believe this is a valid argument. Experiences are still real
whether we analyse them self-consciously or not. An animal still has the
experiences of feeling hungry even if it is not aware of itself feeling
hungry. And in any case, childhood spiritual experiences attain a form of
retrospective self-consciousness when we recall and analyse them as adults.
Even if we were not conscious of them as children, we become conscious of
them as adults.
Ontogenetic Fall and Rise
a sense, then, as we become adults and as the ego becomes fully formed, by
the time of Loevinger's 'conformist' stage, or Piaget's 'formal-operational' stage, there is a loss of the natural spirituality
of children. After describing how "Heaven lies about us in our infancy,"
Wordsworth described how "shades of the prison-house begin to close"
until eventually the divine vision of childhood disappears: "The Man
perceives it die away,/And fade into the light of common day" (Poems,
p.71). Ernest Becker (1973) described this as a process of "repressing"
our vision of "the primary miraculousness of creation" until "we have
closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw
psychological terms, this transformation is partly due to the automatization
of perception identified by Werner (1957) and Deikman (1980), or the "de-sensitizing mechanism," entailing a loss of the perceptual intensity
and sense of aliveness and harmony of our childhood state (Taylor, 2005a,
2005b). As this process develops, the world which was once so full of wonder
and beauty becomes a more mundane place.
addition, as the ego structure develops, the boundary between the self and
the world becomes stronger. The process of 'differentation' begins, and
eventually we find ourselves 'in here,' looking out at a world 'out
there,' so that we experience a basic sense of separateness. As Washburn (1995) describes what he terms the
'mental-egoic' phase of development, "The mental ego has withdrawn from interpersonal intimacy and girded
itself against intrapsychic spontaneity….it has thereby reduced itself to
an insulated and disconnected state" (p.209).
now that our psychic energy is largely expended through maintaining the ego
as a structure and through its activity, there is less residual life-energy
within us, so that we no longer experience a natural state of well-being.
let me reiterate that this does not mean that childhood is a 'higher'
state than adulthood. In no sense do I believe that we need to 'go back'
to our childhood state, as in Wilber's 'retro-romanticism' (Wilber, 2000). I have already mentioned some of the great benefits conferred through
ego development, such as impulse control, abstract/logical thought,
conceptual knowledge and the ability to take perspectives. But for these
benefits to occur, the energy of the psyche has to be diverted primarily to
the ego. This 'fall' is an inevitable consequence of the 'leap' of
the same time, there are aspects of the ego's development which are not
wholly healthy or positive. In a sense, the ego becomes over-developed,
too powerful as a structure, with boundaries so strong that they create the
sense of sense of duality and separateness described above. In particular,
thought-chatter can be seen as a negative 'quirk' of the ego, consuming
a great deal of energy and creating disturbance. It is almost as if the
ego's self-reflective and cognitive abilities-itself very positive
developments-have a dysfunctional aspect. To a large extent, they function
autonomously and automatically, without the individual's volition.
hierarchical views of spiritual development, spiritual states can seem
inaccessible, like the higher reaches of a mountain. They only become
readily accessible-both as a state and in terms of frequently experiencing
them-once we have moved through other levels of development. But if this
theory of the 'energetic' sources of spiritual experience is correct,
and if the case I have made for the validity of pre-egoic spiritual
experience holds true, then spiritual states are a more like a plateau than
a mountain, a Divine Ground (or Dynamic Ground, in Washburn's terminology)
which we are immersed in from birth to childhood, but which we may become
alienated from as the ego structure develops.
my view, it is sensible to see transpersonal development as a process of
recapturing the natural spirituality of childhood-and going beyond it,
into higher transpersonal states-at the same time as retaining the
intellectual, volitional, self-reflective and organisational abilities the
ego has given us. Childhood can be seen as a state of immature spirituality,
while a mature spiritual state incorporates and integrates the
positive aspects of ego development. As Washburn (2003) puts it,
transpersonal development is a spiral, not a ladder.
development can be achieved through a 're-structuring' of our psyche,
bringing about a re-distribution of psychic energy. Because of its
dysfunctional aspects, the ego consumes much more energy than is necessary.
But these dysfunctional aspects can be healed, so that the energy they
conserve can be retained, and the disturbance they create can be stilled.
The ego can become less dominant and more integrated as a structure, without
sacrificing any developmental benefits.
fact, this can be seen as the main aim of spiritual practices such as
meditation, mindfulness, service or devotion: to make the ego less dominant,
to soften its boundaries and quieten its incessant thought-chatter. As a
result, we can permanently 'free up' the psychic energy which it
normally consumes. This becomes residual life-energy which permanently
re-energises our perceptions and enables us to experience a natural well-
being. Or in Washburn's (1995) terms, we reconnect with the deeper
psyche-or Dynamic Ground-and its powerful energies.
in particular works towards this end. As we have seen, both Deikman (1980)
and Novak (1996) have noted the 'energy-conserving' effect of
meditation, bringing a 'de-automatization of perception.' It is
important to note that meditation has both temporary and cumulative long
term effects. As Deikman's 'experimental meditation' sessions
indicated, after meditation sessions individuals are likely to become more
sensitive to the 'is-ness' and beauty of their surroundings (Deikman, 1966). Under normal circumstances, however, these effects diminish quickly,
as the normal structure of the ego reforms. This is why most spiritual
experiences are only temporary. However, through sustained meditation
practice, the structure of the ego can become permanently altered. Its
boundaries become gradually softer; its involuntary thought-chatter becomes
gradually quieter. As a result, we gradually build up a greater
intensification of life-energy which generates spiritual characteristics
such as perceptual intensity and well-being. In addition, the 'softening' of ego-boundaries leads to a new sense of connection to the
world, together with a new integration with the body and greater powers of
empathy towards other human beings, and other species. At the same time, the
quietening of thought-chatter brings a new sense of inner stillness, and a
new sense of identity. This is part of the reason why meditation is so
powerful, and so essential, as a spiritual practice.
the same time, it is important to remember that meditation is not the only
possible approach. As I have shown above, activities such as sport,
communion with nature, music, dance, sex or creative activity can also
produce spiritual experiences, by generating ISLE states. These activities
can also have a long term spiritual effect, and can even be used as
conscious spiritual practice (in addition to their other purposes), as a way
of gradually altering the structure of the ego and creating a new
distribution of life-energy. In fact, such activities are important to
ensure that spiritual development does not become separate from other
aspects of life, or from other human beings or the body itself. This accords
with Wilber's notion of integral development (Wilber, 2000) and Ferrer's
concepts of 'participatory' and 'embodied' spirituality (Ferrer,
this mature spiritual state becomes permanent, we combine the intense
perceptual awareness of childhood with the conceptual awareness of
adulthood; we combine the natural pre-egoic spiritual experience with the
cognitive, organisational and processing abilities conferred by the ego.
This is the point where we become truly integrated human beings.
spiritual experiences are incidentally one of the strongest arguments
against the 'deconstructionist' view of mystical experiences put forward
by scholars such as Katz (1983). As Katz sees it, mystical experiences
always appear in the context of religious traditions, and are always formed
and determined in content by those traditions. He claims that the notion of
a 'perennial philosophy' does not take into account these differences.
In his view, the mystical experience of a Buddhist and a Jewish mystic will
always be fundamentally dissimilar, so that there is no such thing as a 'mystical experience' per se. However, the fact that mystical
experiences can happen to very young children who have not absorbed any
religious teaching-and are too young to understand it even if they
have-argues strongly against this. Another strong argument against
Katz's position is that mystical experiences happen to people who have no
background-or interest-in religion.
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Taylor, M.Sc., teaches at the University of Manchester and Salford College,
UK, and is also conducting research at Liverpool John Moores University. He is
the author of The fall: The insanity of
the ego in human history and the dawning of a new era (O Books, UK) and Making Time (Icon books, UK). His next book, Waking from sleep:
The sources of higher states of consciousness and the way to permanent awakening,
will be published by Hay House in the US in early 2010. His previous papers have
appeared in the International Journal of
Transpersonal Studies, Transpersonal Psychology Review, and The Journal of Consciousness Studies. His interests include the
psychology of spiritual experience, the psychology of time perception and the
development of consciousness through human history.
acknowledges and is grateful to Michael Piechowski and Jonathan Reams for their
comments on an earlier draft of this paper.