Embodied Spirituality Within A Sacred World – A Review

There comes a time in life when many begin reorienting their priorities to a more spiritual trajectory.  In numerous cultures this transition is an expected and time honored tradition for those of a certain experiential stage.  Secure in their identities, their position in society and the well being of their families many begin abandoning their worldly concerns to work on understanding and pursuing the higher elements of existence.  However, this is not always a joyous process spawned by personal satisfaction.  In his book Embodied Spirituality in a Sacred World, (2003, SUNY, Albany,) Michael Washburn claims this transition often occurs because social and personal routine creates a sense of deep alienation which in turn stimulates a long dormant psychological realm within the human mind.  For Washburn this “crossroads” stage serves as the fulcrum for a detailed examination of the process of human psychological and spiritual development from the neonatal stage all the way to full spiritual awakening.  Christened the “Spiral Path,” Washburn harnesses a prodigious amount of psychological scholarship to an equal degree of speculative theory in an effort to prove the path toward ultimate spiritual enlightenment involves a return to the instincts and awareness of our earliest life.

Washburn begins charting human spiritual development by examining six key psychological dimensions at different stages of human development: the unconscious, our energy system, sense of ego, the perceived other, our bodies and the life-world.   Through this process he demonstrates how our psychic awareness follows a “spiral path;” it originates, develops, represses and finally, later in life reemerges.  He claims humans enter this world with a strong connection to our psychic potentials contained within a structure he labels the “dynamic ground.”  The dynamic ground is the core of the psyche containing our instincts, the source of affective response and “the creative, symbol producing imagination.”  This area has been alternately referred to as the Id by Freud and the Collective Unconsciousness by Jung.  Washburn contends the specific properties of the dynamic ground are four fold:

1. Amplifying power-intensifies perception and awareness.

2. Attracting power- enhances the attractiveness of the world and its people, (love.) Everything appears sacred.

3. Infusive power- expands the ego and enhances our sense of connection to the world and others.

4.  Dissolvent power-dissolves the boundaries between the self and the world and others.

Washburn claims until the age of three to five years we are intimately connected to and affected by the psychic potentials contained within the dynamic ground.  He reasonably notes successful enculturation and ego development demands we gradually repress our awareness of and connection to this well spring of transcendent power.  Only later in life, having firmly established and developed our sense of self does existential crisis sometimes arise.  Disillusioned with life in general and the self specifically some of us are compelled to retreat from the world and turn our psychic energies inward.  Washburn notes this introversion of psychic energy is the catalyst that begins to reactivate the power of the dynamic ground which in turns awakens the latent Spirit, (the expression of the dynamic ground,) within us.  At this point we are capable of moving forward with the process of self enlightenment flush in the awareness our enhanced psychic energy provides.

Washburn’s articulation of the way the human psyche develops from the neonatal stage through early adulthood is consistent with existing theory, (Freud, Jung, Piaget, etc.) and offers few surprises.  However, as would necessarily be the case, once past the stage of mature awareness the path forward, (or back as the case may be,) to higher awareness is a great deal more speculative.  From a purely intellectual standpoint his process seems credible.  It appears reasonable, is cogently presented and extrapolates firmly from existing psychological knowledge.  But, despite being presented as an assertion of fact it seems more an idealized way of calculating the manner in which spiritual enlightenment could possibly occur in the majority of cases.

Washburn’s psychological progressions present a highly mechanistic and calculated approach to spiritual development.   However, as experience attests, psychological growth and the attendant behavior it engenders follows divergent paths.  That all people “enlighten” and develop the same way in accordance to the same formula seems problematic.  Given the multitude of different constitutions, histories and social factors at play within the human psyche it would seem unlikely all follow the same process.  Anthropologists in particular would stress the importance of cultural context relative to spiritual development.   They would likely argue the process and particulars of spiritual awakening are intrinsically tied to the degree and manner in which spiritual awareness is either repressed or cultivated within the members of any given society.  They may note Washburn’s stage development is more relatable to people living in stable societies with high levels of development, affluence and specialization where spirituality is held in secondary esteem.  To his credit, towards the end of the book Washburn acknowledges there may be many exceptions to his general rules.

What is harder to reconcile is Washburn’s conflation of psychological process with the ultimate qualities of revelation.  Where the road to any destination travels is one thing, the nature of the destination quite another.  That transcendent awareness may be achieved by certain human beings is a given.  More problematic and ungrounded is Washburn’s optimistic belief in the positive qualities of such a transition.  As humans draw inward in search of a higher spiritual perspective, he assumes we will ultimately encounter an existential awareness better and more comforting than our empty, absurd, “unenlightened” state.  Adopting the default position of mystics and the disaffected everywhere, Washburn conceives our ultimate nature as a wonderful, unitive state of being where humans exist in blissful, interconnected harmony with the world and each other.  The higher nature of our being is infused with compassion, contentment, virtue and respect.   Any consideration of the negative dimensions of consciousness are ultimately repressed and swept away through the process of ultimate realization.  While I join the many who would like to think the essence of human existence is both idyllic and filled with purpose I’m perpetually nagged by the possibility that spiritual enlightenment may reveal an existential condition of pure absurdity punctuated by suffering and despair.   While we may be culturally conditioned to believe the higher states of our being are filled with unity and purpose any assertion of this end is purely speculative.

By its very nature Transpersonal Anthropology is predominantly oriented towards the experiential aspects of phenomena.  Rarely are the deep psychological mechanisms that may stimulate and shape such episodes considered.  Washburn’s clinical examination of the possible manners in which spirituality may exist and arise provide additional avenues of explanation to complicated issues.   Despite his reach of rule and optimism, this book gives ample evidence why Washburn enjoys such esteemed status within the field of Transpersonal Studies.  His command of the theoretical aspects of psychological structure combined with an astute insight into the dimensions of human behavior is of obvious value for any trying to understand the spiritual process.

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