The grandeur of the “cloud of witness” of such spiritual experiences – with a higher, a higher and fuller Reality can take your breath away.
By Roberto Assagioli. Date unknown. From the Assagioli Archive in Florence. Translated from Italian by Gordon Symons. Original title: Il Risveglio E Lo Sviluppo Della Coscienza Spirituale
The superficial and vague way in which the word “spiritual” has been and is often used has generated much confusion and misunderstanding. We deliberately want to avoid a definition, wanting to follow the more scientific method: that is, to start with the facts and experiences, and then with the interpretation of what has been observed and experienced. Which is why the precise meaning with which the word “spiritual” is used here will become clear throughout this article.
The fundamental fact with which we are concerned is the fact of spiritual experience and of spiritual consciousness, and it can be expressed as follows: from the most distant times till today there have been human beings who have claimed to have experienced states of consciousness that differed greatly in quality, intensity and effect from those which normally cast their lights or shadows on the screens of human awareness.
But they also make another and broader statement: they argue that the states of consciousness they experience are the result of reaching, or involuntarily being brought into contact with, a plane or sphere of Reality that is “above”, or “Beyond” those generally considered to be “real”. This reality has often been called transcendental, but we will not be using this term to mean something abstract, or remote. Those who have had fleeting perceptions of it, in fact, attest that it is perceived as something more real, lasting and substantial than the everyday world. It is in fact felt as the true root and essence of being, as “life more abundant”.
The grandeur of the “cloud of witness” of such experiences and such contacts with a higher, a higher and fuller Reality can take your breath away. We find these beings at all times and in every country, and among their ranks is the flower of humanity (1). Therefore the attempts that have been made to deny these experiences, the assertions that they are mere illusions, or at most sublimations of sexual instincts, are completely arbitrary and demonstrate the lack of true scientific spirit. William James, whose book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” is a model of impartial and scientific examination of this subject, has vigorously demonstrated the reality and value of the transcendental realm.
“It seems to me that the further reaches of our being”, he writes, “penetrate (are immersed) in a completely different dimension of existence from the sensible and comprehensible world, as usually conceived, be it a mystical region or a supernatural region that you would like to call it.
As long as our ideal impulses originate in this region (and many of them have, because we find that they possess us in a way that cannot be expressed in words) we belong to it in a more intimate sense than we belong to the visible world, because we belong in the most intimate sense to that which our ideals belong. Yet the invisible region in question is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in this world. When we penetrate it, the work is actually done on the plane of our complete personality, because we have become new men, and it follows a way of leading us into the natural world corresponding to our regenerative change. But what produces effects within another reality, must necessarily be called a reality itself, therefore I feel as if we have no philosophical excuse to call the unknown or mystical world “unreal”.
The importance of this higher realm of experience and reality cannot be overstated, and the mere possibility of its existence should stimulate scientists to devote to its investigation (research) a sum of energy, time and zeal commensurate with its human value”.
James’s assertion is such as to make it possible for every free individual to accept it, and to encourage him to adopt it as a trustworthy basis for further research. This being the case, what should our attitude be towards this higher realm? Common sense tells us that it should be taken into account with the same seriousness with which one is ready to consider the claim of a group of explorers to have discovered, say, a previously unknown territory, rich in oil or precious metals. Ignoring such a statement would be folly, because we would run the risk of depriving ourselves of the opportunity to acquire immense new sources of wealth. But on the other hand, a disorganized excursion into the new territory, without adequate equipment, adequate weapons or tools, would surely expose those who venture there to the dangers of local climate conditions, and even ferocious beasts. At best, such reckless attempts would have some chance of success only after overcoming great difficulties, and would be compensated only by a small part of the treasures, which instead await the more skilled, better prepared and more prudent explorer.
Reason and experience naturally advise that the most logical approach to the problem should be:
1 ° Study carefully all the possible facts concerning the territory.
2 ° Organize an appropriate expedition, equipping it in the best possible way. We therefore follow the same method and examine and compare what the explorers of this little-known “territory”, with which we are concerned, have to tell us about it.
At the beginning we are faced with substantial difficulties. In the first place because the central fact and the point of agreement to which we have already referred, has been overloaded by a mass of descriptive words that differ according to the point of view of each observer. That is to say: each of them covered their story with words that present important discrepancies; in fact, his experience has aroused different emotional reactions in him, which he has interpreted in various partially contradictory ways. Using James’s appropriate expression, each individual mixes a series of inaccurate personal structures with the original experience, to which he often becomes strongly attached, mentally and emotionally.
And it is to this diversity that the confusion, the wrong conceptions and the doubts that ruin this subject are due. The existence of these differences is not surprising, and should not invalidate the substantial reality of the experiences themselves. It is in fact perfectly natural, and to a certain extent also inevitable, for two important reasons.
The first is that no sphere of reality is something homogeneous and simple, but rather a real, multiple and varied “world”, full of the fullness of life. Little wonder, then, that the many aspects of that Reality produced such diverse notions of what was seen. The second reason can be attributed to the wide dissimilarities existing in the different psycho-physical constitutions, in the mental development and in the historical and cultural preparation of the observers. That is, the same aspect of Reality is learned, interpreted and narrated in the most diverse ways. (2)
The first conclusion to be drawn from what has been said is that spiritual consciousness should in no way be limited by, nor identified with, the type of experience or religious or mystical beliefs. The importance of this distinction is illustrated by the many misunderstandings and numerous conflicts, confusion and dismay that over time have resulted from its absence. Today there is an increasing number of individuals who find themselves in desperate need and anxious – though often unconsciously – looking for something more satisfying, more real than the “normal” life they know. Many of them have a keen mind and realistic vision, but they cannot find what they need in traditional religion. In some, violent opposition arises, in others simple indifference. The beliefs, theology, hymns, ceremonies, prayers and emotional appeals to a personal God, and even to the Churches themselves, belong, as far as they are concerned, to a past era, almost to a different world.
However regrettable this may seem, it is however an undeniable fact, and it is very evident in the attitude of the younger generations. They wish to discover things for themselves, to have direct experience of every aspect of life, and therefore accept only what is offered to them in an objective, well-tried and understandable way, in other words scientifically, in the best sense of the term.
Roberto Assagioli Bibliography: Buck – James – W. Hall – Ouspensky – Underhill.
2.Studies on the psychology of testimony indicate the surprising possible differences in reporting some simple event by different individuals who have witnessed it. Serious misrepresentations of justice are also due to this sort of observation error, also involving the conviction of innocent people.