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Gnosis Magazlne / Summer 1990

Esotericism and Transpersonal Psychology: A Troubled Pairingwpe2C.jpg (6639 bytes)


The Stormy Search For The Self by Christina and Stanislav Grof. Jeremy P.Tareher, Inc,, 5858 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036, 1990:274 pp., $19.95.

Walking Through Walls: Practical Esoteric Psychology by Will Parfitt. Element Books, Longmead, Shafiesbury, Dorset, U.K., 1990; 241 pp., c7.95.

These two hooks address important issues, but are both weakened by a lack of clarity in their attempt to discuss spiritual problems and esoteric philosophies in the academic language oftranspersonal psychology. Spiritual ideas and academic respectability have always been uneasy partners; in this case, respectability has won out, resulting in texts that are heavy with jargon, scant of Mystery, and difficult to read. These are valuable texts on significant topics, but not good books.

The Stormy Search For The Self, by Christina and Stanislav Grof, is about spiri- tual emergencies, those crises of confusion, fear, strange psychic experiences, and psy- chological breakdown to which sensitive, spiritually oriented people are susceptible. It is also, the Grofs emphasize, about spiritual emergence, the process of personal transfor- mation and healing which goes hand-in-hand with spiritual crisis. The Grofs claim that spiritual emergencies and other psycho-spiritual illnesses are becoming more common, largely due to the rapid growth of unsuper- vised spiritual disciplines and the psychologically deadly pressures of our high-stress, low-meaning, lifestyles. The Stormy Search reads like a manual for the transpersonal therapist, providing instructions for classifying and understanding the symptoms and types of spiritual emergency. It also contains enough anecdotal and personal material m make it a valuable resource book for the family and friends of a spiritually troubled person. As a technically thorough psychological text it belongs on the bookshelf of every therapist who handles spiritual problems in their practice, yet I can't say that it reads well, or that it gives us any new and definitive answers about the cause, process, or treatment of "spiritual illness."

The Grofs combine discussion of episodes of acute schizophrenia and neurosis with the more well-known hazards of the spiritual path, such as problems with "kundalini," melancholia, and the need for isolation.

The Grofs are co-authors of The Stormy Search, but it is the experience and work of Christina Grof which stands out in this volume. She suffered through years of spiritual emergency herself, and has founded the Spiritual Emergence Network, a referral and education service focused on transformational crisis. Christina Grofs personal experience, both in her own life and in her capacity, as a counselor for those undergoing spiritual emergency, is the foundation of much of the best material in the book. Staninlav Grof' s experiences with psychedelic therapy and his own system of"Holotropic Breathwork" add unique insights, but it is Christina's work with the Spiritual Emergence Network that sets the tone for The Stormy Search.

The book gives good advice on handling spiritual emergencies, and its basic guidelines for therapists, families, and individuals undergoing spiritual crisis should be widely distributed as part of a spiritual first aid kit.

While this advice is, unfortunately, hidden in the back of the book and cloaked in academic language, it is still sound and practical, and should be read by both psychological and esoteric practitioners. The authors also promote the development of twenty-four hour care facilities specializing in the sophisticated, gentle, and highly-skilled therapeia that is needed to support those undergoing spiritual crisis.

Because the Grofs are writing as transpersonalists to the professional psychological community, the picture they paint of spiritual emergency has a clinical flavor that will be foreign to most lay practitioners of spiritual disciplines. The Grofs combine discussion of episodes of acute schizophrenia and neurosis with the more well-known hazards of the spiritual path, such as problems with "kundalini," melancholia, and the need for isolation. Naturally, the psychological practitioners for whom the Grofs are writing will have many more encounters with the traumatic and terrifying schizophrenic spiritual emergency than with the more common "low-grade emergency" that is an inevitable concomitant of any search for self-knowledge.

In my practice as an esoteric teacher I meet with one severe case of spiritual emergency for every twenty milder chronic cases. Thus, the standard form of spiritual emergency is a continuous, aching, and debilitating crisis which afflicts many people with a psychological near-paralysis. Spiritual practitioners looking for solutions to their own "difficult but not schizophrenic" spiritual problems will not find much gold in this book, which is oriented towards therapy and adjustment, not spiritual growth.

I hope that the Grofs can use their experience and expertise to assemble another book, written for a general audience, which more clearly explains the process of spiritual emergency and which gives practical instructions in plain language for handling these spiritual and psychological problems.

Will Paffitt's book, Walking Through Walls: Practical Esoteric Psychology, is a serious attempt to integrate the knowledge and wisdom systems of the ancient esoteric philosophies with the best of modem psy- chology. This book contains many psycho- spiritual methods and exercises, and much more -- Partilt is translating large pieces of the esoteric disciplines of self-development into psychological terminology. This is an exciting subject, for the union of scientific psychology with the ancient esoteric knowl- edge may well bring about a revolution in both psychology and spirituality. However, Walking Through Walls falls short of its goal of presenting a practical esoteric psychology.

Will Parfitt obviously knows his material, and the book has its strong points, but the power and vibrancy of authentic esoteric methods suffer badly when translated into "psychologese." I agree that psychology needs the ideas ofesotericism, but in Parfitt's book this seems to result in a troubled marriage. By using the maps and practical exercises of esotericism, the powers of psychological therapy will undoubtedly be magnified, but the goal of esoteric practice is not psychological healing! At its roots, esotericism is a philosophy of freedom and rebellion; the whole purpose of esotericism is to break the hypnotic conditioning which binds and blinds the individual to the collective illusion of society. Parfitt downplays this antithesis between the freedom motif of esotericism and the medical model of psychological adjustment to society, and thereby nearly throws out the baby with the bathwater.

An interesting feature of this book is that it takes the risk of emphasizing Western esotericism, and it recommends fusing the Western Mystery Tradition with modem psychological disciplines -- two potentially compatible systems that could unite to form a genuinely scientific esoteric psychology.

At its roots, esotericism is a philosophy of freedom and rebellion; the whole purpose of esotericism is to break the hypnotic conditioning which binds and blinds the individual to the collective illusion of society.

Parfitt uses the ideas and maps of Qabbalah, Crowley, Gurdjieff, Theosophy, and the modem systems of Roberto Assagioli's Psychosymhesis and Tim Leary's Biocircuits, and fuses all of this with the transpersonal philosophies of Jean Houston, Charles Tart, and Stanislav Grof. This is a courageous and vital effort. but Will Parfitt has a hard time pulling all of these systems together into a coherent whole.

The end result is another technical manual for transpersonal psychologists who want to mix creative visualization and esoteric philosophy in their practice. This is, in sum, a book with good ideas and valuable chapters, but one that is somewhat unfinished, crowded, and disorganized. Mr. Parfitt can obviously do better, and I am looking forward to an improved version of Walking Through Walls.

--William Carl Eichman

William Carl Eichman is a teacher, lecturer, and student of esoteric knowledge and self- development in State College, Pennsylvania.

Gnosis Magazlne / Summer 1990



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Bill Eichman  - 2004

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