Table of content
By Dr. Roberto Assagioli, published Dec. 1932, by The Beacon and in the Hibbert Journal
This article is the transcript of a lecture delivered Dr. Assagioli at the Third Summer Session of the International Centre of Spiritual Research at Ascona, Switzerland, in August 1932.
Man’s spiritual development is a long and arduous adventure a journey through strange lands full of surprises, difficulties and even; dangers. In reality it is no less than the passing from the human to the spiritual kingdom.
It involves a drastic purification and complete transmutation of all; the normal and purely “human” elements of the personality, the awakening of a series of faculties hitherto dormant; the raising of consciousness to an altogether new realm; the functioning along a new inner dimension.
Indeed, should we compare man as he was when he first started on this quest and as he has become when he has reached the summit of spiritual perfection, we would find that practically nothing of the former, personality has remained, that they are two entirely different beings.
We should not be surprised therefore that so complete a change, such a fundamental transformation, is marked by several critical stages which are not infrequently accompanied by various nervous, emotional and mental troubles.
These nervous disorders, while they may appear under the objective clinical observation of the physician to present the same symptoms as those due to other causes, have really quite another significance and value, and need very different treatment.
Now-a-days disorders due to spiritual causes are rapidly becoming more frequent, as the number of persons who are groping, consciously or unconsciously, toward’s a higher life, is much greater than before. Moreover owing to the greater development and complexity of the personality, and particularly to the more critical mind of modern man, spiritual development has become a more difficult and complex process. In many cases in the past, a moral conversion or a simple whole-hearted devotion to a divine teacher or saviour, or a complete and loving surrender to God were sufficient to open the gates leading to mystical consciousness and divine union.
On the other hand, the readjustment of modern man is more complete and well balanced, since it involves the regeneration of the whole personality, including a well-developed and alert mind, thus escaping the onesidedness of a purely devotional development.
For these reasons I have thought that it might be of some interest and serve a useful purpose to give a general outline of the nervous conditions appearing at the various stages of spiritual realization, and some hints about their proper treatment.
We might, for the sake of clarity, tabulate five critical points along the inner path:
- Crises preceding the spiritual awakening.
- Crises determined by the spiritual awakening.
- Reactions to the spiritual awakening.
- Phases of the process of transmutation.
- The “Dark Night of the Soul.”
Let us examine them briefly:
CRISES PRECEDING THE SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
1. In order to understand thoroughly the strange experiences that usually precede the awakening of the soul, we must pass in review some of the psychological characteristics of the ordinary man.
One may say of this latter that he “lets himself live,” rather than that he lives. He takes life as it comes, and does not trouble himself with the problem of its meaning, its worth, or its object. If he belongs to the common, unevolved type, he devotes himself to the satisfaction of his personal desires; he seeks enjoyment of the senses, to become rich, and to satisfy his ambitions. If he is more developed, he subordinates his personal satisfaction to the fulfillment of the various family and social duties assigned to him, without troubling to understand on what basis those duties rest, or from what source they spring. He may also declare himself to be “religious,” and a believer in God, but his religion is merely outward and conventional, and when he has conformed to the injunctions of his church and shared in its rites, he feels that he has done all that is required of him. In short, he believes implicitly in the absolute reality of ordinary life, and is strongly attached to earthly goods, to which he attributes a positive value; thus he practically considers this life as an end in itself. Even if he believes in a future heaven, such belief is altogether theoretical and academical, as it is proved by the fact that he takes the greatest pains to defer the enjoyment of that wonderful heaven as long as possible!
But it may happen that this “ordinary man” is both surprised and disturbed by a sudden, or slow, change in his inner life.
This may take place after a series of disappointments; not infrequently after some emotional shock, such as the loss of a beloved relative, or of a very dear friend. But sometimes it occurs without any apparent cause, and in the full enjoyment of health and prosperity. The change begins often with a sense of dissatisfaction, of lack; but not the lack of anything material and definite; it is something vague and elusive, that he is unable to describe.
To this is added, by degrees, a sense of the unreality, the vanity of ordinary life: all the personal affairs, which formerly absorbed so much of his attention and interest, seem to retreat into the background, to lose their importance and value. New problems arise; the individual begins to enquire into the origin and the purpose of life; to ask what is the reason of so many things that formerly he took as a matter of course; the meaning of his own sufferings, and of those of others; what justification there may be for so many inequalities in the destiny of men.
When this point is reached, misunderstandings and errors begin to appear. Many, who do not comprehend the significance of these new states of mind, look upon them as stupid abnormal fancies and mental vagaries. Fearing to become unbalanced, they strive to combat them in various ways. They make efforts to reattach themselves to the reality of ordinary life that seems to be slipping from them. Often they throw themselves with increased ardour into a whirl of external activities, seeking ever new occupations, new stimuli and new sensations. By these and other means they may succeed for a time in allaying their disturbed condition, but they are unable to get rid of it altogether. It continues to ferment in the depths of their being, undermining the foundation of their ordinary existence, and easily breaks forth again, perhaps after a long time, with renewed intensity. The state of agitation becomes more and more painful and the sense of inward emptiness more intolerable. The individual feels himself annihilated; all that which constituted his life now seems to him a dream; it vanishes like a shadow, while the new light has not yet come. Indeed, he is as yet ignorant that such a light exists, or else he cannot believe that it may ever be possible for him to possess it.
It frequently happens that in this state of perturbation a more definite moral crisis supervenes; the conscience awakens and becomes more sensitive; a new sense of responsibility appears and the individual is oppressed by a heavy sense of guilt, of remorse for evil done. He judges himself with severity and becomes a prey to profound discouragement. At this point it is not unusual for the mind to entertain ideas of suicide. To the man himself it seems as if physical annihilation were the only logical conclusion to this inner breakdown and disintegration.
The foregoing description constitutes merely a general outline of such experiences. In reality there are great and wide differences among individuals. There are many who do not reach the most acute stage, while others arrive at it almost at one bound. Some are more harassed by intellectual doubts and metaphysical problems; in others the emotional depression or the moral crises is the most pronounced feature.
These various manifestations of the spiritual crises bear a close resemblance to some of the symptoms which doctors consider to characterize the nervous diseases called neurasthenia and psychasthenia. Indeed one of the chief characteristics of the latter is what Professor Pierre Yanet aptly calls “la perte de la fonction du reel” (loss of the reality-function) and another is called by him “depersonnalisation.” The similarity is made still greater by the fact that the stress and strain of the spiritual crisis easily produces also physical symptoms such as nervous tension, insomnia, and various digestive, circulatory and other troubles.
CRISES DETERMINED BY THE SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
2. The opening of the channel between the personality and the soul, the flood of light, joy and energy which accompanies it, often produce a wonderful release. The preceding conflicts and suffering vanish and the nervous and physical symptoms which they determined disappear, sometimes with amazing suddenness, thus confirming the fact that they were not due to any organic disease, but were the direct outcome of the inner strife. In such cases the spiritual awakening amounts to a real cure. But in cases where the personality is more defective in certain respects, different incidents and even real diseases may ensue. This happens, for instance, when the mind is not quite balanced, or the emotions are uncontrolled; when the psychic nature is over-developed or the nervous system too sensitive; in cases in which the onrush of spiritual energy is overwhelming in its suddenness and force.
When the mind is too weak to stand the illumination, or when there is a tendency to egoism and conceit, the experience is wrongly interpreted and there is, so to speak, a “confusion of planes.” The distinction between absolute and relative truth, between soul and personality is blurred and the spiritual force might tend to feed and inflate the personal ego.
I met a striking instance of such a disastrous effect several years ago at the Psychiatric Hospital at Ancona. One of the inmates, a plain little man, formerly a photographer, quietly and persistently declared that he was “God.” Around this central idea he constructed a series of the most fantastic delusions about heavenly hosts at his command and so on. Apart from this, he was the most peaceful, kindly and obliging fellow one could imagine, always ready to render a service to the doctors and the patients. He was so reliable and accurate in his actions that he had been appointed assistant to the pharmacist and had been entrusted with the preparation of medicines and the keys of the pharmacy. The only lapse in his perfect behaviour was that he sometimes took away sugar in order to give pleasure to some of the inmates of the asylum.
The materialistic doctor would probably consider this as an ordinary case of delusion, but I think that there is a truer and deeper interpretation of the man’s insanity. From a purely metaphysical standpoint his central affirmation was quite correct; in the light of the Vedanta philosophy there is no other reality than the “Absolute”—Brahman—and each pupil of Vedantic teachers is enjoined to identify himself with the Absolute and to boldly affirm “Aham evam param Brahman” (I am verily the supreme Brahman).
The man’s fatal mistake was that he attributed to his unregenerated personal self God’s attributes and that he drew fantastic and childish consequences from this fact. Philosophically speaking, his error can be described as a confusion between Absolute and relative truth, between the metaphysical and the personal standpoint.
This is an extreme case, but more or less pronounced instances of such confusion are not uncommon among people who are dazzled by the contact with a spiritual truth which is too great for their mental powers to grasp and to assimilate in the right way. We probably all know of such cases which are to be found in every cult and spiritual movement.
This “confusion of planes” might often be avoided, I believe, if the metaphysical doctrines were presented with more qualifications and wise warnings. When the mistake has crept in, it is useless to try to convince the individual that he is entirely wrong and to ridicule his delusion: this only arouses his opposition and resentment. The better way is to sympathize with him, admitting the ultimate truth of his belief, but then to point out where the mistake lies and to train his mind to make the necessary distinctions.
In other cases the sudden flash of illumination produces rather an emotional upheaval which expresses itself in intense and disordered reactions; shouting and crying, singing and all sorts of hysterical outbursts.
Those who belong to the active, aggressive type are often impelled by the excitement of the awakening to play the role of the prophet or saviour, to found a new sect characterized usually by fanaticism and proselytism.
In some unbalanced and neurotic types there is an awakening of psychism. They have visions, generally of exalted beings; or they may hear voices, or begin to write automatically, taking the messages at their face value and obeying them unreservedly. The quality of such messages is very diverse: sometimes they contain very beautiful teachings, but they should always be examined with much discrimination and sound judgment, without regard to their abnormal origin or to any claim by their alleged transmitter. Diffidence should be exercised especially towards messages containing definite orders and commanding blind obedience or tending to exalt the personality of the receiver. True spiritual teachers never use such methods.
Apart from the authenticity and the value of the messages, there is danger for the health, and for the emotional and mental control, in allowing such psychic activities. There are other and higher kinds of psychic powers which are the result of a full spiritual development and realization and which are consciously used and fully controlled by the awakened soul.
REACTIONS TO THE SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
3. The reactions which we shall deal with in this section are manifold and generally occur a certain time after the awakening.
As I have said, an harmonious spiritual awakening is characterized by a sense of joy and mental illumination which brings with it an insight into the meaning and purpose of life; it dispels many doubts, offers the solution to many problems and gives us a sense of inner security. At the same time one realizes that Life is One and a great outpouring of spiritual love flows through the awakened individual towards his fellow beings and the whole of creation. Indeed, nothing is more refreshing and delightful than the sight of a neophyte revelling in such a “state of grace.” The former personality, with its sharp angles and disagreeable traits, seems to have vanished, and a new loving and lovable individual smiles at us and at the whole world, full of eagerness to please and to serve, and to share his newly acquired spiritual riches, the abundance of which seems almost too much for him to contain.
Such a blessed state lasts for varying periods, but it is bound to cease. The lower self was only temporally overpowered and stunned, but not killed or transformed. The inflow of spiritual light and love is rhythmical, as is everything in the manifested universe; after a while it diminishes or ceases; the outflow is followed by the ebb.
This is a most painful experience for the neophyte and it is apt, in some cases, to produce strong reactions and cause serious troubles. The lower self reawakens and asserts itself with renewed force. All the rocks and rubbish which had been covered and concealed by the high tide emerge again.
The man whose moral conscience has become more refined and exacting, whose thirst for perfection has become more intense, judges with greater severity and condemns with a new vehemence his personality and he is apt to nurture the false belief of having fallen lower than before. It sometimes happens that some lower propensities and impulses which had been lying dormant in the subconscious are vitalized by the inrush of higher energy, or stirred into a fury of opposition by the spiritual consecration of the awakened soul, which is a challenge and a menace to them. (This corresponds in some respects to what H. P. Blavatsky describes in The Secret Doctrine as the “pledge fever,” by which many serious aspirants are affected).
At times the reaction goes so far that the individual even denies the value and the reality of his recent spiritual experience. Doubts and criticisms enter his mind and he is tempted to consider the whole thing as an illusion, a fantasy or a sentimental inebriation. He becomes bitter and sarcastic, ridicules himself and others, and even turns his back on his spiritual ideals and aspirations. Yet, however hard he may try, he cannot return to his old state; he has seen the vision, and its beauty and attractiveness remain with him, in spite of his efforts to suppress it. He cannot accept everyday life as before, or be satisfied with it. A divine homesickness haunts him and leaves him no peace.
Sometimes the reaction is of a more pathological character; fits of depression, of despair and temptation to suicide may constitute a real problem.
The proper treatment in such a crisis consists in imparting a clear understanding of its nature and in explaining the only true way to overcome it. We should make clear to the “patient” that the state of grace he has experienced could not last forever and that the reaction was inevitable. It was as though he had made a superb flight to the sunlit mountain tops and thus realized their glory and the vastness and the beauty of the panorama spread below; but after the flight one is brought back to the starting point, and one has to climb step by step, the steep path which leads to the heights.
The realization that this descent or “fall” is a natural happening affords a great relief to the mind and heartens the pilgrim to undertake the arduous task which confronts him on the path towards Reality.
PHASES OF THE PROCESS OF TRANSMUTATION
4. We have now to deal with the stage in which the aspirant has recognized that the necessary conditions to be fulfilled and the price to be paid for the high achievement of union with Divine Reality are the complete transmutation and regeneration of the personality.
It is a long and many-sided process, which includes: phases of active purification in order to remove the obstacles to the inflow and operation of spiritual forces; phases of developing and building up of faculties which lie dormant or undeveloped; and phases in which the personal self has to remain still and let the spirit work, enduring the pressure and the inevitable pain of the process.
It is a most eventful period, full of changes, of alternations between light and darkness, between joy and suffering.
The energies and the attention of the aspirant are often so engrossed in his task that his power of coping with the problems and activities of normal life may be impaired. Observed from the outside and gauged in terms of ordinary efficiency he seems to have deteriorated and to be less capable than before. Superficial and unjust judgments on the part of well-meaning but unenlightened friends or physicians are not spared him, and often he is the butt of pungent and sarcastic remarks about the “fine” results of spiritual ideals and aspirations which make him weak and ineffective in practical life. Such comments are sometimes very painful to the sensitive aspirant. At times he may be influenced by them and became a prey to doubts and discouragement.
This trial constitutes one of the tests on the Path and a lesson in overcoming personal sensitiveness, in steadfastness, in independence of judgment and in detachment. Aspirants should accept it cheerfully and use it as an opportunity for acquiring strength. If, on the other hand, the people who surround the aspirant are enlightened and understand, they can be of great help and protect him from unnecessary friction and suffering.
In reality it is a period of transition; a passing out from the old state, without having reached the new; an intermediate stage in which, as it has been aptly said by a teacher,—one is “seeing double.” This condition is similar to that of the caterpillar undergoing the process of transformation into the winged butterfly; the insect has to pass through the stage of the chrysalis which is a condition of disintegration and helplessness. But the aspirant generally has not the privilege of the protecting cocoon in which to undergo in seclusion and peace the process of transformation. He must, particularly now-a-days, remain where he is in life and continue to perform his family, professional and social duties as well as possible, as though nothing were happening.
His problem is similar to that which confronted the engineering experts whose task it was to reconstruct and enlarge a certain busy London station without interrupting traffic even for one hour.
It is not surprising, then, that such a difficult and complicated work may produce certain nervous and mental troubles in the form of nervous exhaustion, insomnia, emotional depression, aridity, mental agitation and restlessness. These in turn, owing to the great influence of the mind on the body, can easily produce the most varied physical symptoms and disorders.
In treating such cases, the true cause must be recognized and dealt with, because all external and merely physical remedies might help in alleviating the symptoms, counteracting the worst results, but they obviously cannot radically cure the condition.
Sometimes the trouble is caused or aggravated by an exaggerated personal effort to force the higher development, resulting in the repression instead of the transformation of the lower elements, with an undue intensification of the struggle and of the consequent nervous and mental strain.
The aspirant must realize that the fundamental work is always done by the soul and its energies, and that his chief task is to attract these energies by his aspiration, his meditation and his right attitude, and then allow them to perform the work of purification and adjustment within him. He needs to grasp the profound meaning of the wise injunction contained in “Light on the Path” (Part Two):
1. “Stand aside in the coming battle, and though thou lightest be not thou the warrior.
2. “Look for the Warrior, and let him fight in thee.
3. “Take his orders for battle, and obey them.
4. “Obey him, not as though he were a general, but as though he were thyself, and his spoken words were the utterance of thy secret desires; for he is thyself, yet infinitely wiser and stronger than thyself. Look for him, else in the fever and hurry of the fight thou mayest pass him; and he will not know thee unless thou knowest him. If thy cry meet his listening ear, then will he fight in thee, and fill the dull void within. And if this is so, then canst thou go through and fight cool and unwearied, standing aside and letting him battle for thee. Then it will be impossible for thee to strike one blow amiss. But if thou look not for him; if thou pass him by, then there is no safeguard for thee. Thy brain will reel, thy heart grow uncertain, and in the dust of the battlefield thy sight and senses will fail and thou wilt not know thy friends from thy enemies.
“He is thyself. Yet thou art but finite and liable to error; he is eternal and is sure. He is eternal truth. When once he has entered thee and become thy Warrior, he will never utterly desert thee; and at the day of the great peace he will become one with thee.”
A different, and in a sense opposite difficulty confronts the aspirant during the periods in which the flow of spiritual force from the soul is easy and abundant. If not wisely controlled, it may be scattered in feverish excitement and activity. Or, on the contrary, it may be kept too much in abeyance and unexpressed, so that it accumulates and through its strong pressure and high voltage may injure the subtle and physical bodies, just as an electric current of too great strength may produce a short circuit, burning out the fuses and melting the wires.
The true solution is to use constructively and harmoniously the spiritual energies in the work of inner regeneration, in creative expression and in fruitful service, according to the individual’s condition and the opportunities of the individual.
Other difficulties may arise from the different qualities of the forces brought into play.
The quality of the soul’s energy, (which is technically called the Ray of the Ego, may be different from that predominant in the personality. This frequently produces a period of conflict between the two, which may cause various nervous diseases until an adjustment is effected.
“THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL”
5. When the process of transformation reaches its climax, its final and decisive stage, it is marked by a period of intense suffering and inner obscurity, which has been called by the Christian Mystics, “the dark night of the soul.” The mental anguish and the great depression accompanying it, bear a close resemblance to the symptoms of the mental disease called by psychiatrists “depressive psychosis” or “melancholia.” These symptoms are chiefly: an emotional state of despair; an acute sense of unworthiness; a systematic self-deprecation and self-accusation; the impression of going through a hell which becomes so vivid as to produce the delusion that one is irretrievably damned; a keen and painful sense of intellectual impotence; a loss of will power and self-control and an inability and distaste for action.
Some of these symptoms may appear in a milder form in much earlier stages, but we must not mistake those for the true “dark night of the soul.” As Adela Curtiss has expressed it in her vivid style: “You feel as if you were nothing but a hole; a huge unfathomable ache of emptiness into which all creation might be poured and still it would be emptiness, aching for God. Of course, we all think we are in this state ages before we have come within sight of it. Any mood of dissatisfaction can be mistaken for it, as we all discover when we come to the real thing and look back at the many absurd imitations which deluded us into wonder as to what God could be doing to neglect such a hunger and thirst as ours.”
This strange and terrible inner experience is not a mere pathological state; it has a specific spiritual cause and a great spiritual purpose.
The cause has been explained both by Plato and by St. John of the Cross with the same analogy.
Plato in his famous allegory of “the dark cave,” contained in the Seventh Book of his Republic, compares unenlightened men to prisoners in a dark cave or den and says:
“At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows.”
St. John of the Cross uses words curiously similar.
“The self is in the dark because it is blinded by a Light greater than it can bear. The more clear the light, the more does it blind the eyes of the owl, and the stronger the sun’s rays, the more it blinds the visual organs; overcoming them, by reason of their weakness, depriving them of the power of seeing. So the Divine Light of contemplation, when it beats on the soul not yet perfectly enlightened, causes spiritual darkness, not only because it surpasses its strength, but because it blinds it and deprives it of its natural perceptions . . . As eyes weakened and clouded by humours suffer pain when the clear light beats upon them, so the soul, by reason of its impurity suffers exceedingly when the Divine Light really shines upon it. And when the rays of this pure light shine upon the soul, in order to expel its impurities, the soul perceives itself to be so unclean and miserable that it seems as if God had set Himself against it, and itself were set against God . . . Wonderful and piteous sight! So great are the weakness and impurity of the soul that the hand of God, so soft and gentle, is felt to be so heavy and oppressive, though neither pressing nor resting on it, but merely touching it, and that, too, most mercifully; for He touches the soul, not to chastise it, but to load it with His graces.”
The purpose of the “dark night” is very clearly explained by Evelyn Underhill:
“The function of this process upon the Mystic Way is to cure the soul of the innate tendency to seek and rest in spiritual joys; to confuse Reality with the joy given by the contemplation of Reality. It is the completion of that ordering of disordered loves, that trans-valuation of values, which the Way of Purgation began. The ascending self must leave these childish satisfactions; make its love absolutely disinterested, strong, and courageous, abolish all taint of spiritual gluttony. A total abandonment of the personal standard, of that trivial and egoistic quest of personal success which thwarts the great movement of the Flowing Light, is the supreme condition of man’s participation in Reality . . .
In illumination, the soul, basking in the uncreated Light, identified the Divine Nature with the Divine Light and sweetness which it then enjoyed. Its consciousness of the transcendent has been felt chiefly as an increase of personal vision and personal joy. Thus, in that apparently selfless state, “the I, the Me, the Mine,” though spiritualized, still remain intact. The mortification of the senses was more than repaid by the rich and happy life which this mortification conferred upon the soul. But before real and permanent union with the Absolute can take place; before the whole self can learn to live on these high levels where—its being utterly surrendered to the Infinite Will—it can be wholly transmuted in God, merged in the great life of the All; this separated life, this dependence on personal joys, must be done away .. .
The various torments and desolations of the Dark Night constitute this last and drastic purgation of the Spirit; the doing away of separateness, the annihilation of selfhood, even though all that self now claims for its own to be the Love of God.”
The “dark night of the soul” in its highest and final stage corresponds to what has been called the “mystical crucifixion ;” the death and resurrection which really marks the disintegration of the personality, the “old Adam,” and the triumph of the soul, the “new Christ.”
Many serious disturbances, which sometimes amount to actual diseases, are due to a special cause and have their origin outside the personality of the sufferer. This cause is the “mystical substitution,” by means of which an ardent, loving and generous soul may attract to itself the inner suffering and even the physical symptoms of another person. This may sound strange and almost unbelievable at first, but a closer investigation will show that it really is only an extreme instance of the taking on through sympathy of another person’s condition, which most of us have sometimes experienced. The important distinction is, that in the case of “mystical substitution” it is not something which happens unconsciously and without volition; it is the consequence of an active and determined spiritual resolution. This “mystical substitution” can be accomplished both in a personal and in a general sense. Instances of the former are not rare in the lives of the Christian Mystics and the Saints.
The most familiar probably is the case of St. Theresa of Spain who states in her autobiography, that she brought upon herself the intense temptations of a priest, who was at once freed from them as soon as St. Theresa began to experience their torment.
The most extreme and dramatic case is perhaps that of St. Lydwine of Schiedham, who succeeded in attracting to herself a series of grave diseases. Her extraordinary story has been graphically portrayed by the French novelist, Huysmans.
The general “mystical substitution” consists in offering to offset by one’s own suffering, some of the sufferings and wrongs of humanity at large. The more austere and contemplative religious orders, such as the Trappists and the Carmelites, are doing this regularly.
An interesting experiment of this kind, made by a group of twelve laymen in cooperation with the Carmelites at San Remo, is related by Montague Summers in his article on Mystical Substitution. He describes the effects as follows:
“The psychic experiences of the mystic were very remarkable. Amongst other things all suffered during the time of their oblation from intense mental lassitude and a spiritual aridity which are always accounted sure proof that the substitution has been accepted and prevails. It may further be noted that this psychological state began abruptly in each case immediately the oblation had been made, the interior disorders and pain increased almost hourly, and no relief nor waning was found until the dark cloud dispersed suddenly, in a moment, to be succeeded by the sunshine of an interior peace, and consolations which were all the sweeter from their contrast with the preceding desolation.”
In the East this spiritual activity is performed in a different way, but with a self-abnegation no less unreserved and heroic. We find it expressed in the vow in which the Bodhisattva or future Buddha, pledges himself to renounce the bliss of Nirvana and surrender his all for the good of all.
“From the merit of all my good works I aspire to soothe the pains of all creatures, to be the medicine, the doctor, the servant of all those who are ill while disease exists, to be myself during the faminine, food and drink, to be an inexhaustible treasure for the poor and a servant who furnishes them with all that they are lacking. I relinquish without regard for myself my life in all its re-births, all my belongings, all the merit acquired by me now and in the future in order to obtain the salvation of other creatures . . . I want to be a protector to those who have none, a guide for the travelers, for those who want to reach the other shore. I want to be a boat or a bridge, a lamp for those who are in darkness, a bed for those who want to rest, the shelf for those who need one . . . As all the elements: earth, water, fire and air are in every way at the service of all the innumerable creatures who people the immensity the vastness of the world so may I in every way, and over the whole world, contribute to the life of all that exists until all creatures are liberated.”
This is what is done by the Great Beings who in the East are called Mahatmas, who renounce bliss in order to relieve, by sharing them, the ills and the sufferings of humanity.
“Alas! when once thou hast become like the pure snow in the mountain vales, cold and unfeeling to the touch, warm and protective to the seed that sleepeth deep beneath its bosom- tis now that snow which must receive the biting frost, the northern blasts, thus shielding from their sharp and cruel tooth the earth that holds the promised harvest, the harvest that will feed the hungry.
“Self-doomed to live through future Kalpas, unthanked and unperceived by men; wedged as a stone with countless other stones which form the Guardian Wall, such is thy future if the seventh gate thou passest. Built by the hands of many Masters of Compassion, raised by their tortures, by their blood cemented, it shields mankind, since man is man, protecting it from further and far greater misery and sorrow.”
As the stern demands, the heroic self-sacrifices of “mystical substitution” and the suffering it involves may deter some aspirants, I wish to make it quite clear that “mystical substitution” is a special vocation, a particular method of serving, to be used only by those who feel drawn to it and who feel that they have the necessary grit and stamina to stand its ordeals. Not all aspirants have to use that method. There are other ways of serving, less strenuous and exacting, which are just as useful and as much needed for the general upliftment of humanity. I would even advise those who feel the generous urge towards “mystical substitution” to proceed very carefully and gradually, and to test again and again their strength and power of resistance in order to stand the intense and almost unbearable reactions.
The same Book of the Golden Precepts which contains the sublime words just quoted, warns us very wisely:
“If the sun thou canst not be, then be the humble planet. Aye, if thou art debarred from flaming like the noon-day sun upon the snow-capped mount of purity eternal, then choose, 0 neophyte, a humbler course.
“Point out the way—however dimly, and lost among the host —as does the evening star to those who tread their path in darkness . . . Give light and comfort to the toiling pilgrims, and seek out him who knows still less than thou; who in his wretched desolation sits starving for the bread which feeds the shadow, without a Teacher, hope or consolation, and let him hear the Law.”
The subject which I have chosen has obliged me to deal almost exclusively with the darker and more painful side of spiritual development, but I do not by any means desire to give undue emphasis to the pathological aspect of it, nor to give the impression that those who are on the path of spiritual realization are more likely to be affected by nervous troubles than ordinary men and women.
I, therefore, wish to state very clearly the following points:
- In many cases spiritual development is being accomplished in a much more gradual and harmonious way than that which has been described so that the inner difficulties are overcome and the different stages passed through without causing severe physical reaction or producing definite symptoms.
- The nervous and mental troubles of the average man and woman are often more serious and intense, more difficult for them to bear and for the doctors to cure than those of the aspirants. They are mostly due to violent conflicts between their lower passions, or between the subconscious impulses and the conscious personality; or to rebellion against conditions and people arising from their selfish desires.We find that some of those correspond to Freud’s interpretation (which is by no means valid for all); others to Adler’s formula, etc. It is often difficult to cure them satisfactorily, because their higher side is not yet awakened and there is little to which one can appeal to induce them to make the necessary sacrifices or submit themselves to the necessary discipline in order to produce the needed adjustment.
- The nervous and mental problems of the aspirant, however serious they may at first appear, are merely temporary reactions, by-products so to speak, of an organic process of inner growth and regeneration. Therefore they often disappear spontaneously when the crisis which had determined them is over, or they yield more easily to proper treatment.
- The sufferings of the mystic, which are caused by the downward oscillations, by the ebbing of the spiritual tide, are well compensated, not only by the periods of inner elevation, but also by the remembrance of the great Purpose and Goal of the quest.
This vision of glory is a most powerful inspiration, an unfailing comfort and a constant source of strength and courage. We should, therefore, make a special point of recalling that vision as vividly and as frequently as possible, and one of the greatest services we can render to our fellow travellers on the path is to help them to do the same.
We can visualize the glory and the bliss of individual attainment and picture the splendor of the spiritual man, the liberated soul, the conqueror of the three worlds of human endeavor, participating consciously in the knowledge, the power and the bliss of the one Life. We can contemplate it in a wider sense as the glory of the Kingdom of God fulfilled on earth; the vision of a redeemed humanity, of the whole of creation regenerated and rejoicing in fully manifesting God’s perfections.
It is such visions as these which have enabled the great mystics and saints to endure smilingly their inner tortures, or external martyrdom, and which made St. Francis exclaim, “So great is the good which I am expecting, that each pain is a joy for me.”
Considering now the question more strictly from the medical and psychological standpoint, we should realize that, while the troubles that accompany the various phases of spiritual development are in their outward appearance very similar and sometimes identical with those which affect ordinary patients, their causes and their significance are very different; in fact, in a sense quite opposite, and the treatment must be correspondingly different.
The nervous symptoms of the ordinary patient have generally a regressive character. The individuals have not been able to accomplish some of the necessary inner and outer adjustments which constitute the normal development of the personality. It may be that they have not succeeded in freeing themselves from the emotional attachment to their parents which persists into later life as a childish dependence on them or on other individuals who have become their substitutes.
Sometimes it is the unwillingness to meet the requirements of ordinary family and social life or the inability to cope with its difficulties, which makes them unconsciously seek refuge in a nervous illness and invalidism.
In other cases it is an emotional shock of some kind; a disillusionment or a bereavement which they cannot or will not accept, and to which they react with a breakdown or with nervous and mental symptoms. In all these cases we find as a common characteristic a conflict between the conscious personality and certain parts of its lower and subconscious elements, with the partial victory of the latter.
The difficulties produced by the stress and strife of spiritual development have, on the contrary, a specific progressive character. The description we have given of them clearly indicates that they are the outcome of conflicts and temporary mal-adjustments between the personality and the higher spiritual energies flowing from the soul.
It is obvious then that the proper treatment for the two categories should be quite different.
In the first category the therapeutic problem is to help the patient to reach the normal state of the average man and woman; eliminating the repressions and inhibitions, the fears and attachments; helping them to pass from the egotistic self-centredness, from the hazy state of half dreaming and emotionally distorted outlook and valuations, to an objective, sane, and rational consideration of normal life; to a recognition of its duties and obligations and a right appreciation of other individuals. The contrasting, partly undeveloped, uncoordinated conscious and subconscious elements have to be harmonized and integrated in a personal psychosynthesis.
The therapeutic task in the second category, instead, is that of arriving at an harmonious adjustment, through the proper assimilation and integration of the inflowing higher energies with the pre-existing normal elements; that is, of accomplishing an alignment between the soul and the personality, a spiritual psychosynthesis around a higher centre.
From this it is apparent that the treatment suitable for the first group, proves not only unsatisfactory, but often definitely harmful for the patient of the second group. His lot is doubly hard if he falls into the hands of a doctor who does not understand and appreciate the spiritual nature of man, who ignores or denies the possibility of spiritual development. (This may apply not only to the ordinary materialistic medical man but also to the followers of some modern and wide-spread schools of psychotherapy, such as that of Freud). The physician will either ridicule the patient’s uncertain spiritual aspirations as being mere fancies, or he may interpret them in a lower and gross manner. Thus the patient may be persuaded that he is doing the right thing in trying to harden the shell of his personality, closing it against the insistent knocking of the soul. This of course, can only aggravate the condition, intensify the struggle and retard the right solution.
On the other hand a doctor who is himself on the spiritual path, or has at least a clear understanding and sympathetic attitude towards spiritual achievements and realities, can be of great help to the sufferer.
If, as is very often the case, the latter is still at the stage of dissatisfaction, restlessness and unconscious groping; if he has lost interest in life; if everyday existence has no attraction for him and he has not yet had a glimpse of the higher reality, if he is looking for relief in the wrong directions, wandering up and down blind alleys, then the revelation of the true cause of his trouble and the indication of the beautiful unhoped for solution can do wonders in bringing about the inner awakening which in itself constitutes the cure. This is one of the most gratifying and happy results both for the doctor and the patient.
When the aspirant is at the second stage, that of contented basking in the light of the spirit and of joyous flights into the higher levels of consciousness, great assistance can be rendered by explaining to him the true nature and function of his state and in gently forewarning him that it is of necessity a temporary stage; outlining to him the vicissitudes of the quest. Thus he is prepared when the reaction sets in and can avoid much of the suffering due to the suddenness of the fall and the subsequent doubts and discouragements.
When such forewarning has not been given and the patient is being treated during the reaction, its temporary nature can be explained to him and much relief and encouragement afforded him by pointing out actual examples of those who were in a similar plight and have come out of it.
In the fourth stage of the “incidents of ascent,” which is the longest and most complicated, the work of the helper is correspondingly more complex.
Some of the most important points of this work are:
- To enlighten the sufferer as to what is really going on in him and to show him the right attitude towards it.
- To teach him how to control, without repressing them the lower tendencies emerging from the subconscious.
- To initiate him into the technique of the transmutation of the psychological energies.
- To help him towards the proper use of the spiritual energies inflowing from the soul.
- To guide him and cooperate with him in the general work of the reconstruction of his personality, of spiritual psychosynthesis.
In the fifth stage, “the dark night of the soul,” it is most difficult to give any assistance because the very nature of the condition wraps the individual in a shroud of darkness and pain and shuts him out from all effective help. In dealing with such cases the only way to give relief is the untiring assurance that the state is transitory and not in any sense permanent or hopeless, as the sufferer is too apt to believe. To assure him with strong conviction, of the great and special value of the crisis, which makes it worth while, however terrible it is; to induce him to bear it and inwardly accept it with calm resignation and patience. This help can be made more effective by giving in detail the examples and descriptions of others who have passed through such an experience, such as St. Theresa, Suso, and the profound analysis of it which has been made by St. John of the Cross.
In all this work the psychological and spiritual treatment does not exclude the proper physical treatment which should be supplementary but I cannot enter now on that part of the subject except to indicate that it should consist chiefly in prescribing the proper diet, the right amount and kind of rest; of relaxation and contact with nature and such medical means which will alleviate the pains and enhance the nervous resistance.
In some cases the treatment is complicated by the fact that there is a mixture of regressive and progressive symptoms. These are cases of irregular inner evolution. Such people may reach a spiritual level with one part of their personality and yet be handicapped on the other hand, by certain infantile fixations or be under the spell of a subconscious complex. One might even say, that a very close analysis shows that most of those who are treading the spiritual path may be found to have some remnants of this kind. This does not contradict our previous statement that in the great majority of cases a distinct prevalence is found of either regressive or progressive causes determining the condition. However, the possibility of a certain mixture of the two tendencies should be kept in mind and a very careful examination and interpretation of each symptom should be made in order to ascertain its true cause and consequently the right treatment.
From all that has been said, it is apparent that in order to be able to treat satisfactorily the nervous and mental troubles accompanying spiritual development a twofold training and competence are necessary, namely that of the nerve specialist and psychologist, and that of the serious student, or still better, the experienced traveller on the spiritual path. This double training is at present rarely found combined; and yet, considering the growing number of individuals who require such treatment, it is becoming increasingly urgent that many of those who wish to serve humanity by administering to its greatest needs, should be induced to qualify for the task.
The work would be facilitated if there could be formed also a body of trained nurses and assistants who could intelligently cooperate with these helpers in the details of the treatment.
It would be of considerable benefit also if the intelligent section of the public were better informed of the general facts concerning this subject, so as to make easier the task both of the patient and the doctor, instead of interfering with it and rendering it more complicated through ignorance, prejudice and even active opposition, which is generally the case up to now. This refers particularly to the family and relatives of the patient.
When this triple work of enlightenment will have been accomplished among doctors, nurses and the public, a great amount of unnecessary suffering and delay will be avoided, and many an earnest pilgrim will more easily and speedily attain the high goal of his endeavor—union with Divine Reality.
 Creative Silence (London, 1920), p. 153.
 Noche Oscura del Alma, L. II, cap. V.
 Mysticism (London, Methuen), pp. 472-474.
 The Occult Review, October, 1918.
 From the Introduction to the Career of the Future Buddhas, by Shantideva.
 The Guardian Wall, or the wall of protection. It is taught that the accumulated efforts of long generations of Yogis, saints and adepts, especially of the nirmanakayas, have created, so to say, a wall of protection around mankind, which wall shields mankind invisibly from evils still worse.
 The Voice of the Silence: III: The Seven Portals.
 The Voice of the Silence: II. The Two Paths.
 Much valuable material on this subject can be found in Chapter IX of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism.