Participation And The Mystery: Transpersonal Essays In Psychology, Education, And Religion
This book largely derives from various articles and book chapters (published 2003–2014) applying participatory thinking to questions central to the fields of transpersonal psychology, integral and contemplative education, contemporary spirituality, and religious studies. Each chapter stands on its own and can be read independently; however, as chapter 1 offers an updated overview of my participatory approach (Ferrer, 2002, 2008; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008a), readers unacquainted with my work or participatory thinking in general may want to begin there. While this book can serve as a perfect introduction to my participatory perspective, I have also designed it to be a resource for those who wish to deepen their understanding of participatory approaches to psychology, education, and religion.
First and foremost, it is important to clarify that nowhere in this book do I claim—or seek—to represent the ideas of the increasing number of authors working under a participatory banner.1 Although for style reasons I often mention the participatory approach, this expression refers exclusively to my own participatory perspective. As with any other, this perspective is shaped not only by inevitable limitations, but also by particular features and values—such as the adoption of an enactive cognitive approach, the rejection of a representational paradigm of cognition, the rejection of naive objectivism and pregiven referents in spiritual discourse, a challenge to neo-Kantianism and associated metaphysical agnosticism, the affirmation of a plurality of spiritual worlds and ultimates, and the recommendation of a pragmatist emancipatory epistemology for transpersonal and religious studies. These values may or may not be endorsed by other participatory thinkers. As Jacob H. Sherman and I wrote in the introduction to The Participatory Turn (2008b), a participatory sensibility to spirituality and scholarship can and does manifest in a rich multiplicity of ways.
The first part of the book focuses on transpersonal psychology and theory and consists of four chapters.2 The opening essay, “Participatory Spirituality and Transpersonal Theory,” examines the evolution of the participatory approach in transpersonal studies and related disciplines since the publication of my first book, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (Ferrer, 2002). After an introduction to participatory spirituality (which stresses the embodied, relational, and creative dimensions of spiritual practice), I discuss three ways this approach has been understood in the transpersonal literature: as a disciplinary model, theoretical orientation, and paradigm or paradigmatic epoch. I then review the influence of the participatory turn in transpersonal studies, consciousness studies, integral education, and religious studies. After responding to integral, archetypal, and participatory critiques, I conclude with some reflections about the nature and future of the participatory movement.
Chapter 2, “Transpersonal Psychology, Science, and the Supernatural,” is more philosophical in nature. I critically discuss the scientific status of transpersonal psychology and its relation to so-called supernatural claims, focusing in particular on Friedman’s (2002, 2013a) proposed division of labor between a “scientific” transpersonal psychology and “nonscientific” transpersonal studies. This chapter demonstrates that despite Friedman’s aim to detach transpersonal psychology from any particular metaphysical worldview, turning the field into a modern scientific discipline effectively binds transpersonal psychology to a naturalistic metaphysical worldview that is hostile to most spiritual knowledge claims. After identifying several problems with Friedman’s account of science and neo-Kantian skepticism about “supernatural” factors in spiritual events, I introduce the perspective of a participatory metaphysical pluralism and consider the challenge of shared spiritual visions for scientific naturalism. Finally, a participatory research program is outlined that bridges the naturalistic/supernaturalistic split by embracing a more liberal or open naturalism—one that is receptive to both the ontological integrity of spiritual referents and the plausibility of subtle worlds or dimensions of reality. This chapter is personally important for me, as for the first time in my scholarly work I discuss some of my own entheogenic experiences.
Chapter 3, “Toward a Fully Embodied Spiritual Life,” identifies embodiment as a central feature of participatory approaches to spiritual practice and understanding. I discuss the meaning of embodied spirituality (based on the integration of all human attributes, including the body and sexuality) and contrast it with the disembodied spirituality (based on dissociation or sublimation) that prevails in human religious history. Then I describe what it means to approach the body as a living partner with which to cocreate one’s spiritual life, and outline ten features of a fully embodied spirituality. The chapter concludes with some reflections about the past, present, and potential future of embodied spirituality.
Building on the arguments of the previous chapter, chapter 4, “A New Look at Integral Growth,” proposes that most psychospiritual practices in the modern West suffer from favoring growth of mind and heart over the physical and instinctive aspects of the human experience, with many negative consequences. I argue that past prescriptions for an Integral Transformative Practice (ITP)—such as those from Murphy (1993) and Wilber (2000a, 2000b; Wilber, Patten, Leonard, & Morelli, 2008)—can easily perpetuate such a mind-centered direction of growth, in that they inherently ask a person’s mind to pick from and commit to already constructed practices. I identify the need for an approach that will permit all human dimensions to cocreatively participate in the unfolding of integral growth. As one possible solution, I then present a participatory approach to integral practice based in the novel practice of “interactive embodied meditation,” which involves mindful physical contact between practitioners seeking to access the creative potential of all human dimensions. This chapter stresses the relational and creative dimensions of participatory spirituality.
The second part of the book explores the implications of participatory thinking for integral and contemplative education. Chapter 5, “The Four Seasons of Integral Education,” coauthored with Marina T. Romero and Ramón V. Albareda, is the more theoretical of the three chapters of this part, and outlines a general participatory educational framework inspired by nature’s four seasons. Together, we argue that although a consensus is emerging among holistic educators about the need for educational approaches that incorporate all human dimensions into the learning process, most contemporary attempts at implementing this vision fall back into cognicentrism—they still privilege the use of the mind and its intellectual capabilities. The chapter then introduces a participatory framework to integral transformative learning in which all human dimensions—body, instinct, heart, mind, and consciousness—are invited to cocreatively participate in the unfolding of the educational process. The metaphor of “the four seasons” is used to illustrate this multidimensional approach, as well as to suggest concrete ways in which learners can support the various stages of the integral creative cycle. After identifying three central challenges of integral education—lopsided development, mental pride, and anti-intellectualism—the chapter concludes with some reflections about the importance of reconnecting education with its transformative and spiritual dimensions.
The following two chapters offer different practical illustrations of the participatory pedagogy presented in chapter 5. Chapter 6, “Teaching Mysticism from a Participatory Perspective,” describes a participatory pedagogics that engages multiple epistemic faculties in the teaching of a doctoral seminar in comparative mysticism. After a brief account of the academic context, structure, and content of the seminar, I introduce the seminar’s participatory pedagogy, contrasting it with two other approaches to integral education: mind-centered and bricolage. Next, I discuss six pedagogical strategies employed in the course: guided visualization and contemplative inquiry; ritual and somatic grounding; mandala drawing; dialogical inquiry as spiritual practice; meditative reading of texts; and role play and multidimensional presentations. Finally, I argue that this type of pedagogy paves a methodological middle way between engaged participation and critical distance in the teaching and study of mysticism. In conclusion, I stress the integrative thrust of participatory knowing and reflect on the future of participatory approaches in the teaching of religion.
Chapter 7, “Embodied Spiritual Inquiry,” introduces a radical second-person approach to contemplative learning and education. In the context of a cooperative research paradigm (Heron, 1996; Heron & Reason, 2001), Embodied Spiritual Inquiry applies the interactive embodied meditation practice introduced in chapter 4 to intersubjectively access different ways of knowing (e.g., bodily, vital, emotional, contemplative) and mindfully investigate collaboratively decided questions. After briefly situating Embodied Spiritual Inquiry in the context of prevalent second-person approaches to contemplative education, this chapter describes the methodology, epistemology, and inquiry structure of “Embodied Spiritual Inquiry” as a graduate course. I also discuss the contextual, transformational, and participatory validity of this inquiry approach, and conclude by addressing the radical nature of Embodied Spiritual Inquiry insofar as its emphasis on (1) intrapersonal epistemic diversity, (2) embodiment and “bodyfulness,” (3) deep relationality, and (4) transpersonal morphic resonance.
The last part of the book consists of three chapters applying participatory thinking to central questions in the modern study of spirituality, mysticism, and religious studies. Chapter 8, “Stanislav Grof’s Consciousness Research and the Modern Study of Mysticism,” focuses on Grof’s (1985, 1988a) account of the spiritual insights that occur during special states of consciousness facilitated by psychedelics and holotropic breathwork (i.e., sustained hyperventilation combined with evocative music and bodywork). I demonstrate that Grof’s research provides crucial empirical evidence to settle one of the most controversial issues in the modern study of mysticism—the question of mediation in spiritual knowledge. Grof interprets his findings as supporting a neo-Advaitin, esotericist-perspectival version of the perennial philosophy. However, I argue that a more pluralist participatory vision of human spirituality can harmoniously house Grof’s experiential data while avoiding certain shortcomings of perennialism. In conclusion, I suggest that a participatory account of Grof’s work not only brings forth richer spiritual landscapes, but also has emancipatory potential for spiritual growth and practice.
Chapter 9, “Participation, Metaphysics, and Enlightenment: Reflections on Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory,” discusses a number of key issues in contemporary spiritual discourse emerging from engagement with the latest theoretical work of the integral philosopher Ken Wilber (2006). The chapter begins with a response to the defense of Wilber’s work in the wake of the participatory critique developed in Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (Ferrer, 2002), addressing the question of the cultural versus universal nature of Wilber’s Kosmic habits (i.e., cocreated ontological realities). I then offer a critique of Wilber’s integral postmetaphysics and contrast this approach with participatory spirituality. Finally, I discuss the nature of enlightenment, as well as meditation, integral practice, and spiritual individuation. The chapter concludes with some concrete directions in which to move forward the dialogue between participatory and integral thinking.
The last chapter, “Religious Pluralism and the Future of Religion,” first uncovers the subtle spiritual narcissism that has characterized historical approaches to religious diversity. I begin by discussing the merits and shortcomings of the main forms of religious pluralism that have been proposed as its antidote: ecumenical, soteriological, postmodern, and metaphysical. Then, I show how a participatory pluralism allows an appreciation of religious diversity that eschews the dogmatism and competitiveness involved in privileging any particular tradition over the rest, without falling into cultural-linguistic or naturalistic reductionisms. The second part of the chapter explores different scenarios for the future of religion—global religion, mutual transformation, interspiritual wisdom, and spirituality without religion—and proposes that such a future may be shaped by spiritually individuated persons engaged in processes of cosmological hybridization in the context of a common spiritual family. I conclude by suggesting that this approach is capable of reconciling the human longing for spiritual unity, on the one hand, and the developmental and evolutionary gravitation toward spiritual individuation and differentiation, on the other.
A Postscript has been added to discuss several conceptual changes in my thinking since the introduction of the participatory approach. These changes, in particular, are (1) the substitution of the term indeterminate for undetermined to refer to the mystery or creative force of the cosmos and reality; (2) the adoption of an open naturalism that questions, and potentially bridges, the naturalistic/supernaturalistic gap; and (3) the deconstruction of the transcendence/immanence dichotomy through the postulation of a multiverse or multidimensional cosmos that can house a rich variety of subtle worlds. I have also included a Coda introducing one of my father’s poems to evoke some central aspects of participatory spirituality in relation to the world of nature.
The book closes with two appendices. Appendix 1 discusses similarities and differences between participatory spirituality and Almaas’s (2014) new turning of the Diamond Approach. Although Almaas’s work arguably incorporates some central theses of the participatory approach, I identify ways in which his new Diamond Approach is still constrained by certain perennialist and hierarchical assumptions, as well as by Almaas’s overlooking of the enactive or cocreative nature of his own personal spiritual trajectory and realizations. Differences between Almaas’s individual soul and the spiritually individuated participatory self are also addressed.
Appendix 2 examines S. Taylor’s (2017) recent attempt to reconcile perennialism and participatory spirituality in terms of a soft perennialism that proposes strong phenomenological similarities in spiritual awakening processes, a common experiential spiritual landscape, and an immanent spiritual force. After discussing the merits of soft perennialism, I identify three possible shortcomings in S. Taylor’s project: (1) intrasubjective reductionism, (2) the reintroduction of hierarchical gradations of spiritual traditions and states, and (3) the danger of reification of an experiential realm and perpetuation of the myth of the given.
Taken together, my hope is that these chapters provide a wide-ranging introduction to participatory spirituality and establish its potential to advance thinking in the fields of transpersonal psychology, integral education, contemporary spirituality, and religious studies.
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