With his permission, I want to share some of the highlights of a profound dialogue I just completed with Ram Dass, the brilliant author of 'Be Here Now'. Fantastic!
I have been seeking to develop a model of Spirituality that somehow integrates the wisdom of the West with that of the East. That is, a model that weaves the Eastern quest for the Eternal with the Western quest for Emotional and Mental Health. A Soul-Ego bridge, if you will. Unity Consciousness meets Self-concept on a bridge across forever. I have become disenchanted with the models that emanate from the sky down, and have been seeking a model that works from the ground up.
In writing Soulshaping, I brought myself some way down that road, but there remained areas of uncertainty. For example, I was confused about the seeming conflict between Ego and Soul-based models of development. In Western culture, we put tremendous emphasis on the development of the Ego. Feeling strong and well-integrated on an egoic level is considered a healthy step, necessary to our efforts to deal with the world confidently. Yet, I frequently meet individuals who see the Ego as the enemy of a truly spiritual life. They contend that if there is too much Ego, the gateway to a Soulular consciousness is impeded. Through this lens, the key to our spiritual advancement depends on the dissipation of the Ego and our capacity to move through our lives from the Soul outward.
The way I have resolved this seeming tension is to imagine it all happening in steps. We begin with the Ego. We clear our shame, build our self-concept, assert our power. We become healthily boundaried- we know where we end, and where the other begins. Then we let our obsession with the self go and naturally begin to seek something vaster, a connection to our Soul's path and to the broader Universe: 'All one', 'I am that, too', etc. Ram Dass himself expressed this philosophy: "You have to become something before you become nothing…"
But this isn't working for me anymore. If unity consciousness means anything, it means that everything is part of the ongoing equation. My intuition is that the Ego and the Soul are not actually as far apart as we imagine, at least not in 'the world as it ought to be.' Perhaps it is not the Ego that is the illusion, but our belief that the Ego is everything that is the illusion. The real issue is our difficulty linking the Ego's function to our ultimate transformation. At times, I see the Ego as the Soul's ongoing worker-bee, instigating and over-seeing the foundational work necessary to sustain our connection to Soul. The Ego clears the debris and manages the world so that the Soul's light can shine. At other times, I actually see the Ego and the Soul as indistinguishable. If you believe (as I do) that we come into each life with particular lessons and callings, then does the current state of the Ego not reflect the current stage of the Soul? For example, if one of my lessons is the healing of my Mother wound, does not my fragmented Ego with respect to this issue reflect the as yet unformed shape of my Soul? Ego-shape = Soulshape? Hmm…
Ram Dass and I discussed this. I played Ego's Advocate, Ram Dass-Soul's Advocate. Ram Dass acknowledged some responsibility with respect to the perceived Ego-Soul split in the West . When he wrote 'Be Here Now', he was reacting against the Egoic nature of Western Culture- the materialism, the headiness, the marked disconnect from a Soulular Consciousness. We were identifying ourselves as our Ego rather than understanding the Ego as our vehicle for spiritual transformation. His calling demanded that he put the Soul's journey front and centre, in order to help bring us into alignment. We needed a strong shot of Soul to wake us up. But now, 35 years later, I believe we need a more integrated approach. Ram Dass didn't agree with my contention that the Soul and the Ego are indistinguishable ('They are two planes of Consciousness'), but he did agree that they are not naturally anti-thetical. There are times when they are in opposition -God knows!- but they are also complimentary and intrinsic to each other's functions when we are moving through our lives in a conscious manner.
Through this lens we interpret our personal traumas and challenges in terms of their ultimate lessons rather than through a narrowly psychological framework. Instead of dismissing the self as secondary to our spiritual path, we recognize that it reflects the exact incarnation material that we need to work through to grow spiritually. Our Soul expands when the EgoSelf processes and interprets the material on the Soul's behalf, converting our personality issues and experiences (the stuff of our incarnation) into the Grist for the Soul Mill at their source. Soul Food.
So, we were in agreement, or thereabouts. But I was still confused. It all made sense on a conceptual level, but HOW does the Ego process the Grist? In my own experience, this has not been a cerebral process- I have never been able to transform my Soul's Consciousness through intellectual means. There had been moments of insight, to be sure, but they always seemed to emanate from the emotional body below: Felt experience ignited awareness. Every time I reached the next plateau in my consciousness, I got there by surrendering to and working through the emotional material generated by my experiences. I needed to submerge myself in the material (not drown in it…but dive into and through it!) to convert it.
In Soulshaping, I refer to this process as "Cell your soul": the idea that the body is the karmic field where the Soul's lessons are harvested. In order to grow spiritually, we must bring our suffering and our joy through the cells of our bodies until our spiritual lessons are birthed. Repressed emotions are unactualized spiritual lessons. To grow spiritually, we have to see our feelings all the way through to completion. Once they make it all the way through the conversion tunnel, the lesson is revealed and the Soul evolves to its next stage.
We worked with an example from my own life. Some years ago, I attended a holotrophic breath workshop with Stan Grof. There, I tapped into a childhood memory of being pinned down (symbolically) by my Mother, the sense that she was always on my back. As the breathwork intensified, I felt the need to simulate this in physical form. I asked the assistants to lay on top of my back, and I repeatedly threw them off of me. It was a profoundly cathartic emotional experience- (semi) free at last! – and created enough space inside for me to then open to the next plateau of spiritual awareness. Psych and spirit inextricably linked. Grist for the Soul Mill in action.
I have discussed this experience with many seekers. Many suggested that I was wasting my time getting lost in my material. It was egoic, self-centered, narcissistic. Some said that I needed to simply forgive the past, let it go, focus on the light. Others contended that the trick to spiritual transformation is to bypass the incarnation material, to see my personal issues and memories as distinct from our ultimate transformation. But where is the Grist that transforms us, if not in our daily lives? What does it mean to love the world, if your heart is filled with unresolved anger? What does it mean to be in the moment, if you continue to feel obstructed by the past?
Ram Dass was much more balanced about it. He agreed that the body is the Soul's temple. We live our incarnation material through our bodies, and when we are done, our Soul moves on to the next birth. But he was resistant to the idea that working our material through requires therapeutic process. He was wisely concerned about our tendency to get lost in our emotional material, to wallow in the psychological without making spiritual progress. Fair enough. It's a fine line between self-pity and a healthy working through of the material. At the same time, I am not sure how we can shape our soul to the next stage, if we don't deal with the emotional material that emanates from our experiences. What else grows us from the ground up?
By the end of our talk, our perspectives were close. I was a little right of Soul, Ram Dass was a little left of Ego. But close. It seemed to me that the meeting place is somewhere inclusive, something I called ENREALMENT in Soulshaping: "The idea that a more "heightened" consciousness is not all about the light (as enlightenment implies) but is about becoming more real, more genuinely here in all respects: shadow and light, earth and sky, grocery list and unity consciousness. It is about living in all aspects of reality simultaneously rather than only those realms that feel the most comfortable." In other words, if you think that the stuff of your incarnation is all that you are ("I am sweeper, I am Lawyer, I am unhappy person"), then it is all that you are. But if you stay connected to the fact that your stuff has both a localized and a universal dimension, you are on the right path. Not identifying ourselves as our stuff, but identifying our stuff as the key to our transformation.
At the heart of 'Enrealment' is a vision of a human being that ascends with both feet on the ground. We grow by coming down into our body and our personhood and learning the lessons necessary for our expansion. We begin with the root chakra- the quest for Om begins at home- and we work our way up from there. It is not enough for our feet to merely skim the ground. The mythic life begins with our feet planted on Mother Earth. With our soles firmly planted, our Soul has a leg to stand on in its efforts to go higher. Once the root chakra is satisfied, we proceed to the next chakras. As we heal, there emerges a natural and sustainable movement upward, towards God. This philosophy bridges the Eastern emphasis on the Soul with the Western emphasis on psychological health. Alexander Lowen meets Neem Karoli Baba, Localized lens meets Archetypal Wave, Sole meets Soul on sacred footpaths. ALL one.
(Soul)food for thought…