Assagioli presents here the devotional way to self-realization, the way of one-pointed love to an ideal, a spiritual being or God.
By Roberto Assagioli, date unknown, from the Assagioli Archive in Florence.
This aspect of spiritual consciousness is the one which has been the most widely investigated and discussed. In this field the best preliminary guide is still Evelyn Underhill’s well—known book, Mysticism. A study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. (1)
The wealth of material, the order and clarity of insight with which the subject is dealt with from various angles, the author’s penetrating analysis and deep understanding of the mystics are admirable. On the other hand, the chapter on “Mysticism and Psychology” is largely. outdated owing to the many developments in the science of psychology since the writing of the book.
Moreover, the book has some limitations insofar as the material is practically restricted to the Christian Mystics, included only a few Persians, and barely touches upon the spiritual experiences of the other orientals — a field of extraordinarily richness and value for the student.
Another valuable book is Fiedrich’ Heiler’s extensive study, Das Gebet: eine religionsgeschichtliche and religionspsychologische Untersuchung (2) in which the various aspects of the active search for God and spiritual reality through prayer — in its widest sense— have been thoroughly and most understandingly investigated. His comparative tabulation of the various stages of contemplation and spiritual experience as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; in Buddhist and Hindu texts, as well as in the writings of Persian, Greek and Christian mystics will be found by readers to be very illuminating.
In these and other books, the terms “religious” and “mystical” are frequently used in wide connection, including —even though to a lesser extent— other modes of spiritual approach. For instance, William James speaks of the “noetic quality” of mystical experiences. Thus he broadens his definition of “mystical”, making it a synonym of “spiritual”. In our opinion, however, it is advisable, for the purpose of scientific clarity, to limit the use of the word “mysticism” to its more specific and traditional meaning, which indicates a particular way of coming into contact with God or with a high spiritual Being, qualitatively distinct from all others—namely the way of Love.
This terminology is justified by two facts. The first is that, although many of those who are called mystics have had illuminative experiences, it is the love feeling and relationship which prevails in, and is characteristic of, their nature. Secondly, in many spiritual experiences of a noetic illuminative character the love aspect is, on the contrary, absent.
The mystic’s ardent aspiration is to achieve union with the beloved Being, who, while having divine characteristics, is conceived by him as possessing an exalted personality, and with whom he can, therefore, establish a personal relationship. In describing his inner experiences, he freely uses the language of human love and often that of an undisguised sex symbolism.
The true nature and, consequently, the value of this kind of mystical experience is a question which has been muchdiscussed, and concerning which widely divergent views are held. A number of psychologists, and particularly psychoanalysts consider such experiences as of sexual origin and regard them as more or less sublimated manifestations of the sexual instinct.
Other students of religious phenomena, including Evelyn Underhill, consider the “love phraseology” employed by the mystics as symbolical and having no connection with sex.
In our opinion, both those extreme positions are one-sided. If we examine impartially not only the writings of the mystics, but all the biographical material available, it must be frankly admitted that in many mystics the sexual element is present. Some of them candidly report their struggles with sexual “temptations”; the up-surging of sexual images, which at times have an almost obsessive character. An example of this, among others, is the case of such a noble figure as St. Catherine of Siena.
But it must be made quite clear that the recognition of the existence of such elements, does not authorize one in the least to consider the mystics’ experiences as a product of the sexual instinct. Sex provides no real explanation for the existence and character of mystical consciousness.
This is proved by the fact that while the sexual instinct is present in all normal men and women, few of them undergo mystical experiences. There must, therefore, exist a basic difference between the two.
In a general way, the crux of the matter is whether higher psychological manifestations can be explained by “reducing them”, to lower and primitive ones or if, on the contrary, the higher, more essential and qualitatively purer expressions give the key to a comprehension of the more limited and cruder ones.
Let us try to apply this second method – which can be described as the synthetic method to the problem we are dealing with. Mere biological facts concerning the physiological-sexual function help but little to understand the complexities, the fine differentiations and the paradoxes of human love in its various manifestations. Even less can we except that such facts will enlighten us on the specific nature of mystical love. On the contrary, an investigation of the essential nature and function of love can throw much light on the nature and function of sex.
In accordance with Plato’s conception, one might well say that love presupposes a more or less conscious and painful realisation of duality and incompleteness, and consists in the urge to transcend that duality through unification; completion, synthesis.
The subjective realisation and the objective expressions of this general urge can be and are, very different on the various levels of manifestation, but underlying the differences one can recognise without difficulty the “sameness” of the process.
The most elementary form of that drive can be traced down to inorganic matter, that is to say, it can be found in the fact and in the laws of chemical affinity, through which simple elements are drawn to combine with each other in forming a new chemical substance which becomes the synthesis of the former. The simplest example is that of the affinity between acids and bases producing salts. In the biological realm, the same fact is evident all through; from the fusion between two uni-cellular organisms to the union of the higher animals and human organisms.
If we consider the emotional nature of man, we find that one of the fundamental characteristics is the dread of isolation and the urge towards emotional communion. This fact is vividly illustrated by Existentialism which is essentially the exasperation of a psychological aloneness which the individual is unable to overcome because of an incapacity for love. The independence of this emotional need from the sex instinct is provided by the fact that sexual intercourse fails to assuage it. In some of the most typical existentialist writings — Sartre”s for instance, this failure is dramatically depicted. In the characters they describe, physical intimacy not only does not create a psychological fusion but, on the contrary, makes them more keenly aware of an inner distance and solitude.
There are other kinds of love or drives towards unification, independent of (free from) sexual content, such as those impelling individuals to integrate (become a part of) various human groups or to identify themselves with some impersonal cause or idea. These bring us back to the consideration of religious and mystical love, here we find an interesting fact.
The central urge appears to be the same: the sense of personal incompleteness, imperfection and inadequacy, and the intense longing for a fulfilling communion. But the direction in which the individual seeks and attains such communion is radically changed’ While in human love; even in its higher manifestations, the direction can be said to be horizontal, completion being sought with an object of a polar or complementary nature on the same level and of a corresponding value, in the case of the mystic the direction can be termed vertical.
The object of such love or, to use a more lion-committal expression, the lover’s conception of that object can vary widely, and range from a spiritual or divine personality, such as Christ or another great Being, to God conceived impersonally as the supreme Reality.
Some mystics have emphasised the personal and human characteristics of their Beloved, and sometimes had definite visions of Him; the account of their loving relationship being expressed in terms of human love and of more or less disguised sexual symbolism. A well-known vision of this kind is that of St. Catherine of Siena, in which the ceremony of her mystical marriage with Jesus was enacted including such realistic details as the placing of a ring upon her fingers (3). Others speak frankly and naively of intimate caresses and kisses received from the heavenly lover. Still, others, such as Richard of St. Victor, use the terminology of human love in a higher and more clearly symbolical sense. (4).
The report of a modern mystic, quoted by William James, offers a good illustration of this reciprocal flow of love in its simplest and purer form.
“All night I continued in a constant, clear, and lively sense of the heavenly sweetness of Christ’s excellent love, of his nearness to me and of my dearness to Him; with an inexprimible sweet calmness of soul in an entire rest in Him. I seemed to myself to perceive a glow of divine love come down from the heart of Christ in heaven into my heart in a constant stream; like a stream or pencil of sweet light.
At the same time my heart and soul all flowed out in love to Christ so that there seemed to be a constant flowing and reflowing of heavenly love; and I appeared to myself to float or swim in these bright, sweet beams, like the motes swimming in the beams of the sun, or the streams of his light which come in at the window. I think that what I felt each minute was worth more than all the outward comfort and pleasure which I had enjoyed in my whole life put together. It was pleasure without the least sting, or any interruption. It was sweetness my soul was lost in; it seemed to be all that my feeble frame could sustain” (5).
In other cases, the longing and aspiration are directed towards the spiritual essence or centre immanent in the individual, to the Soul or Self.
As Evelyn Underhill describes it:
“This divine essence or substance, which the introversive mystics finds dwelling, as Ruysbroeck says, at the apex of man’s spirit, is the ‘spark of the soul’ of Eckhart, the ‘ground’ of Tauler, the ‘Inward Light’ of the Quakers, the ‘Divine Principle’ of some modern transcendentalists, the fount and source of all true life. At this point, words and definitions fail mystic and theologian alike. A tangle of metaphors takes their place. He is face to face with the “wonder of wonder’s” —that most real of all experiences, the union of human and divine, in a nameless something which is ‘great enough to be God, small enough to be me”.
The belief in, or the realisation of, the existence of this spiritual self with its exalted, divine qualities naturally evokes in the personal self a sense of admiration, of awe, of love, and a powerful urge to unite and blend with that Self.
Also in this case there is a corresponding action on the part of the Spiritual Self. While the personal self aspires to achieve union with It, the Spiritual Self, like a powerful magnet, seems actively to draw to Itself, its human reflection. This is expressed in an old oriental text in the following way:
“The word goes forth from soul (spiritual self) to form (personal self): ‘Release thyself from all that stands around) for it has naught for thee, so look to Me. I am the One who builds, sustains and draws thee on and up. Look unto Me with eyes of love, and seek the path which leads from the outer circle to the point. I, at the point, sustain. I at the point attract. I, at the point, direct and choose and dominate. I, at the point love all, drawing them to the centre” (6)
Let us try to interpret and gauge such experiences as impartially as possible from the point of view of our psychological knowledge of the human values involved. In our opinion, each case should be interpreted and valuated singly. Broadly generalising, however, three distinct interpretations are possible, which are not mutually exclusive but can be applied in different measures to the same person.
On the lower level, one could say that the nature of the urge has not changed and that there is merely the substitution of an ideal lover for an actual one. In this case, it would seem, there is not even a sublimation, there is only what might be called a disguise or a pseudo-sublimation of sexual and affectional urges. On a higher level or octave, the disappearance of the more human characteristics and the presence of the nobler quality of love indicate that sublimation has taken place, including not only a redirection but an actual transmutation of the quality of the feelings.
On a still higher level, the human element has disappeared altogether and the urge appears to be toward union and merging of the individual self with an impersonal universal reality. The difference consists in the fact that, whereas the two previous kinds represented the satisfaction of an affectional need, however pure and high, as in the second case, what is sought in the third case is the union of the entire individual in all his aspects with the whole of Being.
The true character and value of this mystical love is best ascertained by its fruits, namely by its effects on the lives and activities of the mystics. When that love is genuinely spiritual, or at least prevalently so, it does not remain a personal emotional experience, but expands into a deep love for all humanity and for all living beings.
Such a love spurs the mystic to an active helpfulness, to a complete dedication to the service of other human beings. In some cases such service is dedicated primarily to their welfare, to their enlightenment and guidance; in other cases it is directed chiefly to ministering to material and bodily needs by nursing the sick, sheltering and feeding the needy and the old. St. Theresa and St. Francis are examples of the first kind, namely purely spiritual service, and so are John Fox, John Wesley and most Eastern mystics. Some of the many examples of the more external helpfulness are St. Vincent of Paul, the founder of the order of nursing sisters called The Daughters of Charity, St. Angela Cabrini and General Evangeline Booth, Others again have consciously aimed at a harmonious combination of both ways of serving. Outstanding examples are the “Society of Friends”, the Quakers, and the Ramakrishna Order, founded by Swami Vivekananda, whose members work alternatively in the religious field and in the field of social welfare.
Other mystics have expressed their love of humanity through political activity, among whom are St. Catherine of Siena in the past and Mahatma Gandhi in modern times.
To be completed
(1) Methuen & Co. Ltd. London, 1911
(2) Verlag von Ernst Reinhardt, Muenchen, 1920.
(3) Underhill p. 349
(4) Underhill p. 165
(5) William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p, 276-77
(6) Underhill p. 120