The Unfolding Self: Varieties of Transformative Experience

August 8, 2022
Dr. Ralph Metzner, Guest Author

The following is an excerpt from the newest edition of a bestselling classic from Dr. Ralph Metzner and our friends at Synergetic Press The Unfolding Self: Varieties of Transformative Experience:

Introduction: From Caterpillar to Butterfly

Our experience confirms what the elders and wise ones of all times have said—that we live in a state of constant change. Modern science tells us the world consists of patterns of unceasing transformation of energy and matter. We observe these changes in ourselves and others: the changes of physical growth, the learning of bodily skills, emotional development, the acquisition of knowledge, becoming ill, becoming healed. We grow up . . . we grow old . . . but we always grow. Our lives unfold in multiple interweavings of cycles of change at many levels, punctuated by discontinuous transitions. We see certain of these basic transitions—marriage and divorce, illness and accidents, births and deaths—as “life-changing” events.

In addition to such changes, which are natural and ordinary in the sense that they are an accepted part of life, there exists in human experience another kind of transformation, a radical restructuring of the entire psyche that has been variously referred to as mystical experience, ecstasy, cosmic consciousness, oceanic feeling, oneness, transcendence, union with God, nirvana, satori, liberation, peak experience, and by other names. Such experiences may occur in some people without their recognizing much of what is really happening and just how extraordinary this process is.

We have evidence that the prevalence of this kind of experience may be greatly underestimated. Andrew Greeley and William McCready reported in the New York Times on a survey they conducted with a sample of fifteen hundred “normal,” middle-class Americans. Forty percent of the respondents answered affirmatively to the question “Have you ever had the feeling of being very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?” This finding prompted the researchers to title their article “Are We a Nation of Mystics?” People who have these kinds of experiences may not know what they are or how to talk about them, but they agree that the experience is powerful, sometimes devastating, and invariably lifetransforming.

Many thoughtful observers believe that our time is one of accelerated social and individual transformation. Fundamental worldviews, paradigms of reality, conceptions of human nature are being questioned and challenged. There are even suggestions from some observers that humanity as a whole species is undergoing a collective transformation. We have no precedent in our experience for this kind of evolutionary change. We are being challenged to examine our understanding of evolution itself.

And that is not all. Albert Einstein remarked, “The atomic bomb has changed everything except our way of thinking.” In a world teetering on the brink of nuclear holocaust, economic collapse, and ecological catastrophe, we are being challenged to examine ourselves. We feel we have to ask ourselves, “What are we after all, to have arrived at such an insanely dangerous impasse?” It seems to me that two important conclusions are emerging with increasing certainty: that the evolutionary transformation of society and of humanity must take place first in the individual, and that the transformation of the individual requires a turning inward, toward self—not in narcissistic self-absorption but in aware self-confrontation.

What can we say, in psychological terms, about this kind of profound transformation in which so many find themselves involved with varying degrees of urgency and intensity? I agree with those who speak of this transformation in terms of “consciousness.” Consciousness—defined as the context, or field, in which thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, images, impulses, intentions, and the like exist and occur—is transformed when any of the following occur: changes in thinking, worldview, beliefs, feelings, motives, impulses, and values, as well as altered perceptions, such as heightened seeing (clairvoyance) and sensing (clairsentience).

A further characteristic of this transformation of consciousness is the altered perception of time and space. When time seems to pass at a different rate and when the space around us seems different and unfamiliar, we might experience a giddy or fearful recognition that we are in a process of change with an unpredictable outcome. We might get a feeling that reality is somehow changing, but we can’t necessarily tell whether it is around us or inside us.

When our sense of who we are, our self-concept, changes, we speak of personal, or self-, transformation. This kind of experience changes the way we feel about the world—our emotional attitude of basic trust or mistrust, faith or doubt, acceptance or rejection—and the way we feel about ourselves, our self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-love.

Whatever our definition of personality or self may be, it is clear that as self-concepts, self-feelings, and self-images change, the personality changes, too. We feel and sense ourselves to be different persons. Without entering at this point into the debates over whether the ego should be subdued (as in many spiritual traditions) or strengthened (as in Western psychotherapy), we can agree, I believe, that the ego or its function, role, and place is changed.

This book explores the possible meanings of human self-transformation. Other expressions signifying this realm of human experience also focus on the self-concept. Self-actualization, a term used in humanistic and existential psychology, implies a bringing into actuality of something that has been a latent potentiality. The term self-realization suggests a making real, or a seeing as real, something that has been only a dream or a vague intuition. Similarly, Jung’s term individuation refers on the one hand to developing individual consciousness, as distinct from mass consciousness, and on the other hand to becoming “un-divided,” or whole.

Although self-concept and self-image play a pivotal role in most accounts of psychospiritual transformation, this is not always the case. Buddhist psychology, which does not recognize the existence of any self or ego, explains the transformation simply as an altered mode of functioning of the five “complex aggregates” of consciousness (skandhas). These aggregates or patterns of consciousness—intention, perception, feeling/valuing, form awareness, comprehension—together constitute what we think of as personality, according to Buddhist teachings. In the process of psychospiritual transformation, their functions and aims are radically changed.

Two other aspects of individual identity, or selfhood, may be affected in the kind of core transformation we have been discussing: behavior and appearance. Whether a person’s actual behavior changes as a result of a deep transformative experience is an open question; obviously, it depends on the individual’s prior behavior. We know of extreme cases, such as that of Saul, who became Paul and changed from an enemy to a defender of the Christian faith. Criminals have been known to become saints. Others may, after a transcendent vision, simply find themselves confirmed in their life path and their spiritual practice, with no outwardly observable change in behavior. After enlightenment, the Zen masters said, you may just go back to cutting wood and drawing water

Bodily appearance also may or may not be altered when consciousness and self are transformed. The traditions of yoga, alchemy, and shamanism contain numerous examples of psychophysical transformation. In illness and healing recovery, physical form and appearance may change drastically. Anyone who has undergone the “spontaneous remission” of a tumor has brought about a kind of alchemical transformation of the physical elements of the body. Michael Murphy and his associates have accumulated a large body of documentation and evidence of unusual psychophysical changes occurring in sports and other situations involving extreme physical challenge.

Attempts at describing the process of transformation of consciousness and personality in abstract psychological language are comparatively recent. In prior periods—in the religious and mystical literature of East and West, in the traditions of shamanism, alchemy, and yoga, and in the allegorical language of mythology—symbols and metaphors were used to convey essential information and guidelines for those who found themselves plunged into a transformative crisis or pursuing a disciplined path of development. People often find it helpful to turn to the old texts and stories for guidance and insight into the process they are undergoing. Historical accounts and images from other cultures often evoke a kind of echo or resonance in us. Maybe this is a recognition of our common humanity. Some may feel that they are experiencing traces of “another life.”

Through the work of Freud, Jung, and the other psychologists and students of comparative mythology and religion, it has become apparent that myths still function as they did in the eras before psychological theories were invented: many myths seem to articulate deep, archetypal patterns of growth and transformation. While Freud proposed that all men live out the Oedipus myth, modern psychologists agree that there are many different myths that men and women have found themselves living, without realizing it. From the discovery of such deep, mythic undercurrents in one’s life, and the revelation of unsuspected levels of meaning, comes support for healing and the self-reflection that leads to understanding.

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