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Ascending, Descending and Extending

Enriching our maps on transpersonal development



@ Pepón Jover




Prepared for the MSc in Liverpool, UK, LJM University
May 2008  



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As it has been said elsewhere, maps are not the territory. The aim of a map is to represent the territory, and the latter will always contain more information and details than the map itself, therefore maps will be limited in their representation. However, maps are useful guides for the exploration of the territory and they allow us to improve the accuracy of our maps, thus the understanding of the territory. Because the territory will always contain more information than the map, it will be possible to continuously enrich the map with new explorations. However, once one is in the territory, the map should only be a guide but not a strict pathway to follow, because then we will miss the opportunity to experience the richness that spontaneously can arise in the way. As Jack Kornfield points out, “the big danger of using a map is the inclination to impose it unwisely on the natural opening of experience” (1998, p. 164).

As I keep thinking to what extent is it feasible to attempt to map the course of transpersonal development, I try to bring together the wide range of transpersonal theories to see if it is possible to integrate them into one map. We’ve got Wilber’s Structural Theory model, Washburn’s Psychodynamic approach, Grof’s Transpersonal Psychology and Holotropic Breathwork, Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Psychology, the Eastern Philosophies (Hindu and Buddhist), the Analytical Psychology of C. G. Jung, R. Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis model, the more Feminist Theories, the Participatory Vision of Transpersonal understanding, as well as the Shamanic and Indigenous Traditions. In front of so many perspectives and some of them opposite to one another, I ask myself if we really see the world as it is or if we see the world as we are, or a mixture of both. Each theory and model has risen from each individual’s life course, personal experiences, background and culture which have conditioned the way they have mapped their understanding of transpersonal development (i.e., the territory). This issue is important because it may give us an idea of the extent to which it is possible to map this development. In other words, to what extent our own experience of life conditions how accurate or not we see a map to be, hence how relative to our subjectivity will our criteria be. C. G. Jung said once that “just as we tend to assume that the world is as we see it, we naïvely suppose that people are as we imagine them to be” (CW 8, pars. 507). I believe this applies too, to our perception of how transpersonal development should be, and hence the content of our maps.

I tend to think in the line of Jorge Ferrer (2002), when he argues that our knowledge about reality is a product of our cocreative participation in the Mystery of life. From this participatory worldview, transpersonal events can no longer be objective, neutral or merely cognitive, and the role that plays the individual consciousness during transpersonal events is no longer one of appropriation, possession or passive representation of knowledge. Instead, this relationship is more about communion and cocreative participation (p. 121). “Human beings are – whether they know it or not – always participating in the self-disclosure of Spirit by virtue of their very existence” (ibid.).

This participatory knowing has important consequences for transpersonal epistemology and ontology, because, as Ferrer argues “subject and object, knowing and being, epistemology and ontology, are brought together in the very act of participatory knowing” (p. 122). If we are constantly cocreating our understanding of transpersonal events, there is no place to look for an objective unified reality that represents all perspectives, a unique map. This is though because there is not an objective knowledge “grounded in the structure of a pregiven reality that exists independently of the human psyche” (p. 109). As Daniels (2005) points out, the different forms of cocreative participation within transpersonal psychology that make it a fragmented discipline would explain “the fundamental differences between the ontological positions adopted by, for example, Jung, Maslow, Grof, Assagioli, Washburn, Wilber, transpersonal ecologists and feminists” (p. 231). The differences among these approaches make the attempt to map the course of transpersonal development a ‘dangerous’ path. We humans tend to look for the common ground, the unified theory that explains everything as a natural attempt to unveil the mysteries of life. However, because we are dealing with human experience we may easily fall into errors like ethnocentrism, androcentrism, cross-cultural misjudgements, being too theoretical and not grounded in real experience, too rigid and structured or even pretentious in trying to explain and embrace everything.

Instead, I also agree with Daniels that “in the light of these de facto differences…” (p. 231) the participatory worldview of Ferrer “embraces a pluralistic perspective that recognizes and honours the many ways in which the Mystery of being may be approached, and that spirituality is cocreated in transpersonal events, as well as the various systems of thought, belief and practice” (p. 266). Consequently, instead of trying to build up a unique map to represent the territory, it would be better to see how useful the different maps are, for spiritually liberating human beings from suffering[1]; as suffering is rooted in ignorance (Rinpoche, 1992; Ferrer, 2002) it would be useful to evaluate how these perspectives help to overcome the “misconceptions about the nature of self and reality which lead to craving, attachment, self-centeredness, and other unwholesome dispositions” (Ferrer, 2002, p. 127).  

Therefore, the most important criteria to evaluate all these transpersonal models of development, should be, in Daniels’ words, “in terms of whether they are capable of supporting and guiding people in their quests for greater realization of the human good” (2005, p. 267). Because under this participatory worldview “spiritual liberation can no longer be conceived as a merely individual or private affair… it should expand to include our relationships and the world… transforming all the dimensions of our being, not only perceptual and cognitive, but also emotional, sexual, interpersonal, somatic, imaginal, intuitive, and so forth” (Ferrer, 2002, p. 178). As Ferrer points out, “if our transpersonal identity encompasses other beings and even the entire cosmos, can we then be fully liberated when our relationships with others are deeply problematic?” (ibid.).  

At this point it would be useful to bring up the “ascender/descender” debate (Wilber, 1995), discussed by Daniels in his book (2005). This debate is, according to my understanding, a broad map of the course of transpersonal development, which under the participatory worldview of Ferrer could be enriched. According to Daniels, on the one hand we have the transcendental-vertical-ascending position, while in the other, the immanent-horizontal-descending position (ibid., p. 27). In his words, the ascenders seek spiritual salvation by “the development of the person’s ‘higher intellectual and spiritual qualities’” (p. 28). This process implies “a complete separation from the material world, from the corruptibility of the body, and from distractions or ordinary social living, or sensory experience and of sex” (p. 28). In this case, this position is represented by a Great Hierarchy, Ladder or Chain of Being that is traversed in order to realize “the sublime heights of Divine Consciousness”. In this ascending view, Sri Aurobindo, Maslow and Wilber[2] are the main representatives to whom, in Burton Daniels words, the developmental purpose of human beings is “to ascend and evolve within an immense, all inclusive hierarchy (i.e., holarchy). Consequently, the individual is thought to scale a great ‘ladder’ of being, in which her/his various levels spread out in a ascending continuum overhead, reaching ever higher into lofty states of awareness and consciousness” (2004, p. 76).

On the contrary, the descenders argue that “transformation is to be sought through greater connection to the world of nature, to other people, the body, the feminine, or the dynamic ground” (Daniels, 2005, p. 27), a position represented by the Great Circle or Web of Being. This approach is associated mainly with three authors, Washburn, Grof, and Jung. According to this perspective, the developmental purpose of human beings is, in Burton Daniels words, “to descend and recover lost aspects of themselves somehow jettisoned in the process of their coming into being. […] Consequently, the purpose of individuals is to ‘heal’ these divisive wounds and, in the process, recover those aspects of being that have been ‘split off’ from awareness…” (p. 76).

In summary, we have the ascending position which moves consciousness from the world to the transcendental world, and the descending which moves consciousness towards a greater connection with other people, nature and the dynamic ground, for healing purposes. According to my own experience and understanding, there is confusion in this map where “the others and nature” are mixed up in the same dimension with “the personal unconscious and healing processes”, when they should, more accurately be in different dimensions. Michael Daniels and I have discussed this issue before[3], and he came up with a new word to fix and better represent the territory in the map. He called it the “extending” dimension, meaning the movement of consciousness from oneself to the external world, thus representing more appropriately the relational-horizontal dimension of human experience with others and nature. Indeed, the word “transpersonal” means beyond the person, but not only in a vertical way, but in a horizontal too. From my point of view, here is when Ferrer’s participatory worldview comes in because:

“this move towards a more relational approach to liberation is in perfect alignment, I believe, with emergent spiritual trends such as feminist spirituality, deep ecology, liberation theology, social engaged spirituality, as well as with the possibility of collective transformation via participation in morphic fields of collective identities (Bache, 2000, in Ferrer, 2002, p. 178).  

From my understanding, this extending dimension it’s probably the most important one of the three, because the other two (ascending and descending) can not stand by themselves as human experience takes place and is mediated by the context (Ferrer, 2002, p. 172). In other words, because the course of transpersonal development takes place through relationships and in everyday situations, we are not isolated from the external world but embedded in it. Our emotions, feelings, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, concepts, knowledge, they all come mainly from a constant communication with a multidimensional reality (by reading, listening, writing, seeing, feeling, talking, sharing, intuitions, dreams, etc.). Furthermore, if we tend to see the world as we are, as Jung suggested, it means that we are constantly projecting our unconscious contents (i.e., shadow) to the external objects, so that they “change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face” (CW. 9(2), pars. 17). In consequence, we need others and the situations of the everyday life in order to know and heal ourselves (descending) so that our being can evolve to wiser and more enlightened states (ascending). Hence the world and others becomes the mirror in which we have the opportunity to look at ourselves if we develop the awareness, and reach deeper levels of self-knowledge and understanding that can free us from the suffering of not being in control of our being, reacting emotionally (i.e., projecting all the time).  

Again, when looking at Buddhism I find that it corresponds with my life experience. The Fourth Holy Truth of the Buddhist teachings talks about the Middle Way, as the practice that leads to the cessation of dukkha (suffering). This Middle Way is attained by the Holy Eightfold Path (Magga) which includes (1) right view or understanding, (2) right directed thought, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration (Harvey, 2003, p. 68). Within this Eightfold practice, I see that right speech, action and livelihood, are related with the extending dimension of transpersonal development. As Joseph Goldstein puts it:

“I do see somewhat of a tendency for people in the West to limit spiritual practice to the experience of meditation. But the Eightfold Path, which the Buddha laid out as the path to enlightenment, is a very integrated path. It’s about our life in the world and how we relate to others, as well as being about meditation. We often don’t take the nonmeditative aspects of the path, including Right Speech, Action and Livelihood, as seriously as we should, as part of our spiritual practice” (1998, p. 153)

I would like to exemplify with two testimonies why the ascending and descending dimensions can not stand without the extending dimension. When one tries to practice (without any Buddhist framework) the right speech, action and livelihood with mindfulness, one discovers that it is a really challenging experience, due to the interference of projections. On one hand, Jack Kornfield says “my meditation had helped me very little with my human relationships. I was still emotionally immature, acting out the same painful patterns of blame and fear, acceptance and rejection that I had before my Buddhist training” (1998, p. 156) He recognized it when he returned to the U.S. as a monk and put himself in the everyday life. On the other hand, Michele McDonald finds that “most people want this integration of spirituality with everyday life. They want liberation to be expressed in their relationships, in the healing of our culture, and in addressing oppressive political structures; in other words, they want liberation to happen on many levels of their lives. Spiritual practice is not separate from driving to work or changing the diapers” (1998, p. 172).

From my understanding, the course of this transpersonal development intertwines then the ascending, descending and extending dimensions in a transformative spiral of evolution towards a more integrated consciousness. As Roberto Assagioli describes how Psychosynthesis (i.e., transpersonal development) takes place: “a living human is not a building”, meaning that “the carrying out of the vast inner program of psychosynthesis may be started from various points and angles at the same time” (p. 29), therefore, it does not mean to follow a rigid and linear path to conquer Self-realization. This idea is also argued by Kornfield, when he says that: “human inner development is perhaps more like the weather than like a train line. One responds to the immediate situation, to what kind of monsoon season arises, weather there’s a great deal of rain or not” (1998, p. 159).

Furthermore, it is interesting to notice that Grof, Jung, Assagioli, and Washburn, understand transpersonal development more in a non-linear sequence, and according to all of them transpersonal development requires the healing of our being, making conscious the unconscious contents that bound us from expressing our full potential as human beings. For Grof, working with COEX Systems, for Jung, with the complexes of the personal unconscious and the process of individuation, for Assagioli descending to the lower and middle unconscious as part of the process of Psychosynthsis (1993), and for Washburn his Triphasic model and reconnection with the Dynamic Ground (1995). Their views, although they may have many differences when looking at the details (e.g., metaphysical and ontological assumptions), it appears to me that there is a common overall process in this course of transpersonal development. They all, except, Washburn (to my knowledge) have had a long clinical experience in their lives. According to my perception, unlike Wilber’s map (2006, p. 69), their maps are grounded in their clinical experience. Wilber’s theoretical model on transpersonal development may look great on paper, but seems disconnected from experience, as is excessively structured and hierarchical. I agree with Daniels (2005) that Wilber’s description of the prepersonal and personal levels of development are correct, however, when we enter into the transpersonal level, the journey is not as straight, sequential, clear and logical as if we were travelling on a train.

As I was saying at the beginning, maps are representations of the territory and they should only be used as guides because we are constantly cocreating new possibilities and participating in the self-disclosure of Spirit (Ferrer, 2002). From my understanding, we should evaluate maps according to how useful they are for our transpersonal journey. I’m certain that not all maps are useful guides for all travellers. Each traveller should find his own path and use the different guides as the journey unfolds. Where is the journey leading us… that’s the Mystery of Life and of our own existence. However, in my opinion, although we don’t have a clue about the Absolute Mystery (i.e., the end of the journey), we have grasped intermediate stages. As Kornfield points out, “spiritual maturity, is a real freedom of heart and great compassion, which requires freedom on both the universal and the personal levels” (1998, p. 162). From my point of view, we should focus more in reaching spiritual maturity rather than unveiling the Absolute Mystery, as we still have a long journey to achieve that level of maturity. The transpersonal development journey should lead us, despite cultural and traditional differences, to become more integrated beings, being able to transform the different dimensions of our world around. As Ferrer says, “the final intention of any genuine transpersonal vision is not the elaboration of theoretical models to understand transpersonal phenomena, but to midwife an intersubjectively shared reality, a transpersonal reality. The ultimate aim of the transpersonal vision is to bring forth a transpersonal world” (2002, p. 7). This vision implies extending our spiritual maturity horizontally in order to influence all quadrants of Wilber’s AQAL model (1995, 2006).

Addressing again the question to what extent is feasible to map the course of transpersonal development, I would say that it is feasible up to certain extent. If we try to map too much in detail we will find contradictions and paradoxes that will make our maps look inappropriate as guides. Who would want a contradictory map? Consequently, we will need to cut off bits of the map in order to make it look coherent and clear (i.e., make it look nice on paper). However, because we are constantly cocreating new possibilities as we evolve, and we tend to perceive the world more as we are, paradoxes and contradictions between different paths of transpersonal development may arise (as it happens now); for these reasons a useful map should focus more on the forest than the trees in order to offer guidance for the traveller instead of a programmed trip. These maps need to be open and flexible enough to hold the contradictions and paradoxes that different possibilities may create. As I have expressed, my understanding of this non-linear journey is that consciousness is transformed to reach certain level of spiritual maturity by the work of the intertwined ascending, descending and extending dimensions. In any case, as Ferrer was saying before, the transpersonal vision should help to bring forth a transpersonal world instead of the elaboration of theoretical models. For this reason, maps should be useful guides to help this vision to come true.


[1] I need to clarify the notion of suffering, as it is usually associated with the label “Buddhism”. From my experience of life, I’ve never met a human being that doesn’t suffer. Suffering for me is a common situation for most if not all human beings on this Planet and dimension, and in this case my perception of life coincides with the observation of Buddhism, but this doesn’t mean that I’m advocating a Buddhist perspective of transpersonal development. For me, signs of suffering are for example: being worried (about anything or anyone), any kind of illness (psychological or physical), being sad, arguing with others, having bad relationships with other people, being afraid and having any kind of fear, even fear of death, having negative emotions like anger or hate, adopting the victim attitude, among others. From my experience too, as our understanding of how and why suffering occurs we can liberate ourselves from it, and let the full human and spiritual potential of our being emerge naturally.

[2] I am adding Sri Aurobindo, Maslow and Wilber in the ascending approach, because they focalize most of human development towards higher states of consciousness and actualization, putting less emphasis on the aspects of the descending position; although they take a strong interest in the idea of horizontal development. For example the Four Quadrant model of Wilber (2000, 61-65).

[3] I have suggested this difference in a past essay, and Daniels and I have agreed that clarified the map.



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