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On Wearing Purple, Puffers and Magical Thinking

Transpersonal Psychology since its inception has valued the spiritual dimension and has made this its distinctive contribution to psychology as a whole. Very much to its credit it has left this dimension open to each individuals own interpretation and consequently has embraced diversity in an area of human culture that is all too often associated with sectarian strife, prejudice and fear. However, as with all things, this liberal and generous stance has its own shadow and in this piece it is this that I would like to probe.

Discriminating Awareness
Recently a colleague mentioned a conversation in which the notion of transpersonal was described as something to do with synchronicity and wearing purple. Fortunately this delightful though rather rudimentary definition may be added to. The great contemplative traditions within most of the worlds religions have developed a vast and complex accumulation of mind transforming means. Transpersonal Psychology has been especially interested in these because they represent an extensive and minutely detailed categorisation of transpersonal experiences. Many of the articles within the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and the books of transpersonal psychotherapists (see for example: Wilber, Engler and Brown, 1986), investigate these states both objectively and subjectively and compare and contrast the states of altered consciousness against the systems of spiritual practice that generate them. What becomes apparent here is that transpersonal psychologists are following an established discipline of precise observation and discrimination that has always been part of the contemplative traditions practice. Judith Simmer-Brown, in her book on the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism, (Simmer-Brown, 2001), picks this up when she cites the French philosopher of psychoanalysis and religion, Paul Ricoeur. He says that when approaching a symbol the dynamic engagement necessary is made up of two aspects. The first is that we must be open and let the symbol touch us, as in an opening to grace, while the second is “suspicion” which requires us to question our experience and use of the symbol so that its essential qualities are not obscured by fantasy.

One very good example of this may be found in a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Sharon Salzberg, (Golman, 1997). Salzberg is a teacher of Insight Meditation which has been profoundly influential on transpersonal psychology in America. Insight meditation is the Theravada Buddhist practice of Vipassana and is therefore from a different tradition of Buddhism to that of the Dalai Lama – Tibetan Vajrayana. Here the Dalai Lama minutely questions Salzberg as he seeks to understand exactly the nature and outcome of her practice. It is plain that his questions are not mere curiosity but proceed from an enormously developed understanding of meditative states and the delusions that may accompany these states and so corrupt the attempt to realise liberation. When he has a full understanding of Salzberg he says “Very good”, leaving us clearly with the impression that in his mind there is a right and wrong. It is as if we can see behind the Dalai Lama’s discriminating awareness all the many Buddhist yogis who have laboriously investigated consciousness and the seeds of delusion that we all carry as part of karmically laden human existence. Further more it is not only the Buddhist practitioners that are keen to exclude self delusion from the spiritual trail but also those from the Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.

The Puffer & Narcissism
So why all this caution? Simply because it is so easy to mislead ourselves and so mislead others. In the Oxford English Dictionary we find the words “puffer” and “puff”. Amongst its definitions it describes ” A teacher who inflates his pupils with superficial knowledge; a crammer”. “One who brags or behaves insolently, or who is puffed up or swollen with pride or vanity; a boaster, a braggart”. And a “puff” is “An inflated speech or piece of display; an empty or vain boast; vain glory or pride; vain show, showy adornment; inflation of style, bombast; brag, bluff. Anything empty, vain, or unsubstantial; a thing of nought.” Such a puffer, full of puff, is found in alchemy where he is a false alchemist who can only produce fools gold. This image is derived either from the man who puffs the fire for the true alchemist’s transformations of base material into gold or the philosophers stone, the Lapis, or an inferior alchemist who is just interested in money. Alan Bleakley says that these extroverted alchemists ironically spent fortunes on fuel trying to make material gold rather then the priceless philosophic gold (Bleakley, 1984). As such the puffer is at best an apprentice or assistant and at worse no more than a spiv. What he is not is the “true” alchemist himself who has the means to make real transformations. May I speculatively suggest a representation of this figure is to be found on the title page in Michael Maiers Tripus aureus, 1618. Here we are shown three alchemists in earnest and grave conversation. They are men of stature and one carries a crook, symbol of high office within the church. On the other side of the page, attending the alchemical retort, bent down, is the figure of a coarse man who is almost naked, probably due the heat but also suggestive of his spiritually primitive state. Is he the puffer whose job it is to keep the fire burning and who as yet he has not earned his place within the talk of the wise? If so he is an image of all those who teach without authority to do so about subjects they do not know enough about, either intellectually or/and experientially. Charles Tart speaks tricksterishly of this empty inflation, (Tart, 1994), when he warns a group of students that when he speaks with authority he is in danger of being a “false yogi” because of his mercurial ability to sound convincing.

So then a puffer is one who pretends an understanding he does not possess or does not possess fully enough to teach properly and the (superficial) motivation for this vanity is the desire to appear more than one is. In our day and age and particularly in the circles that value spirituality examples of this abound. Given the profound nature of previously esoteric teachings, the amount of such teaching now widely available and the consumer culture that these teachings exist in, it is hardly surprising that the puffer flourishes. Today we are offered many different paths to enlightenment using many different means. Psychological journeys, means to be present in each moment, Zen, chakras and dreams, music and movement, all adorn the market stalls of the many different teachers. And for the most part we have no means of knowing whether our teachers actually know what they are talking about or whether their authority to teach is directly related to the depth of their intellectual understanding or spiritual realisation. Nor, when student, of our own unconscious motivations which will colour what ever we wish to receive.

My own observations of this have convinced me that we need to be discriminating. That participation as teacher and student often carries shadow motivations and that within all this self-perfecting activity may be at base the covert need to form a solid sense of self, a personal self – and nothing to do with any trans-personal states of consciousness at all. I first found this in myself. From my middle teens I had an attraction to ideas that took me away from the life I was actually embedded in. My first “grown up” book was the Tibetan Book of the Dead. From there I studied under several spiritual teachers and finally became deeply involved in the community of a Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche. However in retrospect I can now see that into this relationship I brought many unresolved narcissistic issues that necessitated finally a break with this teacher when I started to retrieve the idealisations that I had projected onto him.

Narcissism is the endemic wound that permeates our society. Usually understood as self love it hides a profound self hatred and despair that is as equally inflated as its grandiose persona. What both obscure is an absence of any real sense of who we actually are and it is in the absence of this that a puffed up self desperately attempts to associate with what ever it deems lofty. Jack Engler, psychiatrist and transpersonal psychotherapist, describes the problems that such narcissistic transferences pose for meditation teachers, (Engler, 1984). He says that one moment the student thinks you are perfect but the next, caused by some tiny failure, you are utterly worthless. This certainly holds a truth for me and it has taken around twenty years to be able to approach the teachings without my narcissism overwhelming me and it. When I finally spoke with my now rather ancient teacher about my need for a twenty year walk-about from the community and apologised for misusing the teaching as a means to gain a personal self, the direct opposite to what they were intended for, he smiled broadly and said “That is what everyone does”.

Creative Suspicion
Given this Ricoeur’s call for suspicion is timely. We do need to check our motivation for involvement with things transpersonal. Whether we propose to teach some esoteric ideas and methods of self transformation or whether we place ourselves as students, in all cases the first question must be “Why am I here?”. To answer this it is first necessary to know who that personal “I” is and if that can not be answered it is likely that all that follows will be contaminated by this unknown I’s needs. I believe in “spiritual” circles narcissism abounds. For‚those of us narcissistically wounded teachings that offer a release from the shackles of human ordinariness are very tempting. How many of us have not at some time thought about what it would be like to have more realisation than we have? We can fantasise that our grandiose self image will finally become invulnerable to the terrors of our repressed inferiority when we become enlightened and perfected. Of course none of this is usually obvious. If we were to catch ourselves having too florid a fantasy we would see through it and would quickly build a more sophisticated defence. More usually it is hidden away behind good intentions and a superficially convincing impersonation of a well adapted character and is only visible to those who know us well. As with the Emperor’s new clothes, as we parade along wearing our spiritual persona, the facsimiles of meditative realisations and deep philosophic understandings, it is clear to those outside of the delusion how frail and frightened we actually are.

Magical Thinking
The puffers narcissism expresses itself in many ways and this includes attitudes and beliefs that reveal its internal world, an example of which is magical thinking. Magical thinking may be understood as a primitive defence against our experience of powerlessness within an uncontrollable world. As a primitive defence it emerges early in both the infants developing mental life, during the first two years, and also at the onset of human cultures. Animistic and ancestral religions all have a large element of the magical in that they experience forces beyond the individual as powers that must be negotiated with and appeased so to avoid destructive outcomes just as the infant does with its own powerful feelings around mother. Even in a post-modernist culture, what religion there is, retains traces of earlier levels of magical thinking while residues of this level of consciousness remain in superstitions that seek to control what is lucky and unlucky, auspicious or not. Think here of walking beneath a ladder or reading your horoscope in a newspaper. Ken Wilber has charted this stage of development within a spectrum of psychological development and likewise places it relatively early as a collective psychology that is pre-individual. (Wilber, 2000). As with all defences, magical thinking is always there waiting to be regressed back into if experience is so threatening that more developed strategies for survival are overwhelmed. Something goes unaccountably wrong that is beyond our ability to influence and we automatically wonder if there was something that we could have done to make it better or we question whether the outcome was somehow “meant”.

Magical thinking is typified by the psychological defence of splitting. In this, experience is kept separated into that which is “good” (pleasurable, nourishing, comforting) or “bad” (threatening, confusing, unpredictable) so that what is bad does not harm what is good. Maintaining this defence is tiring. It is continually vulnerable to the resisted reality that things are not that simple and that everything has both good and bad sides simultaneously. Examples of splitting within the “spiritual” world are numerous. Classically we in the west have split our bodies from our spiritual nature. This has had disastrous consequences, particularly for the tens of thousands of women burnt alive for holding the shadow of the body during the centuries of witch hunting. Other splittings include spiritual and profane, mind and body, thinking and feeling, sensation and intuition, conscious and unconscious, and myself and the world to name only very few. However the one that arrived definitively at some point during the late sixties and seventies as an expression of hippy sub-culture and which we still suffer from is the splitting of “head and heart” (which now has a closet form in the misrepresentation of “left and right brain”).

Head verses Heart
In the head/heart split it is the head that is the evil one. It is the head that analytically takes the innocence and spiritual purity of the heart apart like a horrible little boy with an unfortunate toy or insect. To be called “heady” thus becomes an insult and an opposite to that which is wholesome, the heart. Head is also by extension masculine, hierarchic, pedagogic and divisive. It could be that head is the victim of an early form of primitive feminism which lays claim to the heart as that which is kind, loving, nurturing, inclusive and open to wonder, creativity and imagination and is finally close ally to the intuition. However, though convincing initially, none of this really stands up on close inspection. (Those of us who are most prone to this split will throw up our hands at this point and say that closely inspecting anything is a heady activity and not worth the time spent on it).

When we use the head/heart split we are automatically using concepts and their symbolic representation, language, to make a division between parts of our experience. Simply put, to say heart is best is an idea, a product of the mind, not a feeling, a product of the heart, even though the idea might be about feeling. Thus we can not conceive of and express the notion of heart without the head. Further more, and most importantly, the absolute separation between the two is false. When I think about something carefully, as I am trying to do here, I feel passionately about what I am writing and am filled with enthusiasm and ardour for my subject. If feeling and emotion are associated with the heart then there is effectively a lot of “heart” in what I am writing. Conversely the heart is also famous for going cold, becoming closed and being hard. It is an organ that can display the opposite of all its virtues, opposites that become shadow properties and are then projected onto the “head”.

So if this is a nonsense why do we do it? If the head and heart split is a product of magical thinking then we do it to possibly fend off that which we feel as dangerous outside of us and, more interestingly, also inside of us. When I say that I am going to trust my heart I could well be really saying that I am not going to think about it but will decide on a feeling or even a whim at some unknown point in the future. Some of us go to great lengths to avoid any reflection what so ever and resort to the use of tarot cards, angel cards, sacred path cards and the I Ching as a means of steering our life. This form of avoiding personal conscious responsibility may also be found in some uses of the notion of God, the Higher Self, the Self and The Transpersonal. Here we simply say that whatever happens is “meant” and go along with it thus avoiding all moral responsibility and are there by defended against the anxiety that if we reflect and decide consciously we may get it wrong and will be blamed. Thus, in transactional analysis terms, to identify with this fantasy of the heart can be a defensive and regressive identification with the child that seeks to avoid the anxiety provoking responsibilities of the adult that in turn can bring down the wrath of the internalised and persecuting parent, the dark face of the Freudian super-ego, the Jungian negative animus. What it does not do is take on the weight of being an individual in a universe that is of our own making and the great and liberating responsibility this truth brings.

Having spoken of narcissism and magical thinking let us have a closer look at “meant”. A question that occurs to me is how do we decide what is meant and more importantly, what is not. Typically we think of something being meant if it is desired, for example meeting a partner or finding a job or house. Less often it is attached to undesirable events and then it is accompanied by a feeling of punishment. We may say I was meant to loose that money because I had been dishonest the previous week. From this we can see that something being positively meant is influenced by the psychology of the child, that part which is all appetite, while those meants that are connected with punishment reflect the psychology of the super-ego or persecutory animus. What then of all the other events, the vast majority, that make up our lives? Another question is why me? What exactly is the force that means that I should get what I want? Am I to conceive it as something all knowing and powerful that actually takes care of the minutia of my personal desires? For me this type of parental God fantasy is suspiciously narcissistic as it places me in the centre of a world that is run for my benefit. In this world I have become a child who is delighted by the unexpected gifts a loving parent bestows. (That is when it works, but what of all the desires that are not fulfilled?). What is interesting here also is the unexpected appearance of Christianity. Many of us who are of the persuasion that some experiences are meant would also identify with eastern religions. Yet these religions generally describe the events of our lives, all the events, as being generated by karma, not a mysterious sentient force, but just the fruits of our own actions coming back to us. Conversely the notion of meant is much more akin to the actions of a personal God who watches over his children and guides their souls by divine interventions towards their ultimate home in his heaven.

Perhaps finally we have to decide whether we live in a world where events are simply themselves and what is important is how we are with them or whether we live in the more magical world which is interpenetrated by meaningful events. Notions such as synchronicity can not rescue us here as a half way house because in the notion of synchronicity the connections are made by us, they are events where we, albeit unconsciously, place meaning upon otherwise unconnected events. However if we choose the magic surely we must accept that all of life is “meant” in some way and stop picking and choosing the bits that support what ever story we are telling ourselves at any given moment?

The “pre/trans fallacy”
Ken Wilber has something to say here concerning how we confuse infantile and primitive levels of psychological functioning with more developed levels, both as individuals and the collective. This he calls the “pre/trans fallacy” in which the pre-rational (infantile) is confused with the trans-rational (transpersonal) states of awareness. I repeat this quote from elsewhere, (Wellings and McCormick, 2000), because I think it so important.
For most of our modern era . . . the reductionist stance has prevailed – all spiritual experiences . . . were simply interpreted as regressions to primitive and infantile modes of thought. However, as if in over reaction to all that, we are now and have been since the sixties, in the throes of various forms of elevationism (exemplified by, but by no means confined to, the New Age movement). All sorts of endeavours, of no matter what origin or of what authenticity, (emphasis mine) are simply elevated to trans-rational and spiritual glory, and the only qualification for this wonderful promotion is that the endeavour be non-rational. Anything rational is wrong; anything non-rational is spiritual (Wilber 1998, p.90). Here Wilber has made it very clear. The elevation of the non-rational, the realm of narcissism, magical thinking and splitting, to the transpersonal, is in authentic. Effectively it is spirituality which has been contaminated by the archetype of the child. That is a world view that exists in a child/parent axis where we believe that one day, if we do it right, everything will work out. In this pathology of the archetype personal responsibility is experienced as a threat and is projected out, either into fate and destiny, or oracles, or divinity. Thus we effectively abandon adult choice to the unconscious where it is then directed by the complexes and the shame and fear that resides in the shadow. Doing this does not help in any way because it is not rationalism that is being weakened but the very possibility of authentic transpersonal experience which ironically is the desired goal.

Final Thoughts On Redemption
So should we just abandon all notion of the magical, the heart and an experience of life that has more to it then rational explanation? Not at all. What is important is to develop a differentiated appreciation of all parts of the self and a deep knowledge of how defences against fear distort our contact with a full spectrum of experience. All the activities and beliefs in this piece that I have identified as potential subjects for distortion need not be so. It is possible to authentically learn and teach something. We just need to be as honest as we possibly can with ourselves and others about our real level of competency. Of course, this may mean renouncing teaching and learning as a narcissistic art form. Oracular methods, the I Ching and all the types of cards, can be used responsibly as a reflection of the sum of our thoughts and feelings right now which we then must decide how to act upon, there by being responsible consciously for our own unconscious. And the notion of something other and sacred can be embraced wholly so that we have a sense of not personally being the centre of the universe and may experience the mature relief this understanding brings. All of these are not bad in themselves but only when they become extremely clever and subtle ways of appearing to be involved in some sort of spiritual work when they are just the opposite. When they in fact become expressions of “spiritual materialism”.

Of course none of this is new and here comes another clever trick from a narcissistically wounded ego. We can say “Oh yes, I know all this and it is quite correct” and then go off and avoid the self examination that is continually necessary. However if we can avoid this evasion then there is a real pleasure in the discovery of a universe that while it does not revolve around me is entirely my responsibility. What I do with the experience of my life, experiences entirely generated by myself, is just up to me and no external fate, force or god. Life is not meaningless but also it is not meaningful but rather it is meaning free. Experience is no longer important because of its content, meant or not, but because of the way that I can remain mindfully present with it. This is the next developmental step that Wilber identifies and he and just about most of the psychological world recognise as the emergence of a healthy adult individual. Nothing special as yet but the perfect platform necessary for the trans-rational development which opens to us at this point. But enough, I am just about to wear purple.

1. “During this final stage alchemists pumped on the bellows for all they were worth. ‘I’m so used to blow the fire,’ laments the disillusioned alchemical assistant (in Chaucer’s Canon Yeoman’s Tale) ‘I suppose it’s changed my colour.’ Their incessant use of the bellows earned alchemists the derogatory name ‘puffer’ (or ‘souffleur’ in French), which spiritually-minded alchemists used to put down their money-grubbing brethren.”
(Coudert, 1980 pp 38-9)

2. Of this puffer and the need to protect the teaching from misuse the Hermetic Museum says:
If any wicked man should learn to practice the Art, the event would be fraught with great danger for Christendom. And punishment would fall upon him who had instructed the unworthy person in our Art. In order then to avoid such an outbreak of overweening pride, he who possesses the knowledge of this Art should be scrupulously careful how he delivers it to another and should regard it as the peculiar privilege of those who excel in virtue.
(Quoted from Edinger, 1985 p.7).

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Edinger, E. F. (1985) Anatomy of the Psyche. La Salle, Illinois, Open Court.
Engler, J. (1984) Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation: Developmental Stages in the Representation of the Self, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(1), 25.
Golman, D. (1997) Healing Emotions. Boston and London, Shamhala.
Coudert, Allison. (1980) Alchemy: The Philosopher’s Stone. Boston and London, Shambhala.
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