Kill the messenger

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One thing I learned, and I learned it real good, I learned it especially good when I went to Vietnam; just because you shoot someone doesn’t mean they are going to die. And if they don’t die, they are going to be mad. And if they’ve got a gun, then you’re dead…If you really want to kill somebody, you kill them. You don’t play, you make sure that when you shoot them, they’re dead…That way, they can’t hurt you…They can’t hurt you at all…”

-Bill Cooper


Ralph Metzner


What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, 

the rest of the world calls butterfly.”

- Richard Bach

Our experience confirms what the elders and wise ones of all times have said - that we live in a constant state of change. Modern science tells us the world consists of patterns of unceasing transformation of energy and matter. We observe these changes in ourselves and in those we know and care for: changes of physical growth, the learning of muscular skills, emotional development, acquisition of knowledge, conformance to the changing expectations of our culture, becoming ill, becoming healed. We grow up. . . we grow old. . . but we always grow. Our lives appear to unfold in multiple inter-weavings 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 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 made with a sample of fifteen hundred "normal," middle-class Americans.(1) 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 life transforming.

There are many thoughtful people who believe that our time is one of accelerated social and individual transformation. Fundamental world views, paradigms of reality, conceptions of human nature are being questioned and challenged.(2) 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.(3)

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: (1) that the evolutionary transformation of society and of humanity must take place first in the individual, and (2) 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 would 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, values; as well as altered perceptions, such as heightened seeing (clairvoyance) and sensing (clairsentience).

A further characteristic of this transformation of consciousness is the alteration of 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 sometimes experience a giddy or fearful recognition that we are in a process of change, with an unpredictable outcome: we know we are going to be different, but we don't know how.

When our very concept of reality and our self-concept change, 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 changes our feelings about ourselves, our self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-love.

Whatever our definition of personality or of 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 annihilated (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 meanings of human self-transformation. Other expressions signifying this realm of human experience agree in their assignment of a pivotal role to the self-concept. Self-actualization, a term used in humanistic and existential psychology, implies a bringing into actuality of something that had been a latent potentiality. The term self-realization suggests a making real, or a seeing as real, something that had been until then only a dream or a vague intuition. Jung's term individuation means (a) becoming an individual distinct from the mass consciousness, and (b) becoming "indivisible," or whole.

Although the self-concept, or self-image, plays a pivotal role in most accounts of psycho-spiritual transformation, it is not a necessary one. 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" (skandhas) of consciousness. These aggregates, or systems - memory, perception, feeling/valuing, form awareness, conscious comprehension - together constitute what we think of as personality. In the process of transformation, their functions and aims are radically changed.(4)

There are two other aspects of individual identity, of persona or selfhood that may be affected in the kind of core transformation we have been discussing; they are 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 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 go back to cutting wood and drawing water.

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