Comments: Barriers to transcendent insight and social transformation
Human Development Project |
The kinds of individual and collective creativity through which innovative
responses emerge to the problems of society depend largely on the ability
to shift to perspectives of a significantly different order. The much sought
"paradigm shifts" appear to call for a conceptual transcendence of some
of the more obvious attitudes and behavioral processes by which we are
Whilst the argument for transcendence needs to be stressed, some recognize
that this can constitute another form of escapism which avoids essential
issues. In this sense transcendence should not result in abandonment of
the level transcended, rather it should involve experiencing it, and recreating
it, in a more profound manner as a form of enlightened immanence (cf Morris
Berman. Coming to Our Senses, 1989).
Many of the spiritual traditions, as well as modern insights into spirituality,
argue for the relevance of transcendent experience as providing a complementary
integrative perspective through which the challenges of the times can be
more appropriately encountered. It is therefore valuable to note some of
the barriers to transcendent experience as a key to creative insight. A
number of these points have been adapted from points made by Edwin Dowdy
(Ways of Transcendence; insights from major religions and modern thought,
1982) and Alistair Kee (The Way of Transcendence, 1985).
1. Individual development
(a) Opportunism: Numerous studies support the view that in the
present competitive "rational" society, the individual must achieve an
"autonomous ego", an "identity" of continuity and consistency, and "interactional
competence". Adult status is acquired through learning experiences and
crises in which the person must necessarily be egocentric. Attention is
therefore fixed compulsively on felt needs, perceived threats and the opportunities
offered by the environment.
(b) Egocentrism: Individual development through to young adulthood
is characterized by the quite self-centred processes within the small child
(expression of individuality, growth within the parental family), the struggle
of the ego of the school-age child to gain control (development of a role-bound
identity and detachment from internalized parental concepts), and development
of the ability of the young adult to play the social game (whether in effective
competition with others if successful, or otherwise by accepting a less
desirable role). Identity is thus formed within a system of egocentric
references with in-built barriers to transcendence or dissipation of the
(c) Conformity: Conformity seems to prevail in identity-formation
in which relatively few are at present able to transcend the developmental
struggle and achieve some orientation to general principles such as the
golden rule, the sanctity of life, the categorical imperative, or furthering
the development of mankind. Such principles lack credibility in the presence
of evident lack of normative regulation in many areas, with conflicts arising
that cannot be overcome within the framework of normal role-behaviour.
(d) Role conflicts: Whilst there is evidence for subsequent stages
in the development of moral maturity, involving contemplative experiences
of a "non-egoistic and non-dualistic" type, relatively little importance
is attached to them. Role conflicts, the stress of inter-generational distancing,
and alienation erode any embryonic sense of being part of the whole of
life or any sensitivity to a cosmic perspective. Ironically the need for
such transcendent perspectives is expressed illegitimately through the
seductive attraction of drug-induced experiences (whose value is "guaranteed"
paradoxically by an alienating society's total repudiation of them).
2. Social structure
(a) Expediency: Government in a continuing period of chronic
difficulties is reduced to a crisis-avoidance agency. It endeavours to
maintain legitimacy by being seen to provide material guarantees such as
defence, standard of living, and law and order. The prime issue becomes
one of administrative expediency, irrespective of moral issues or the emancipation
of individuals or groups. The organization of government is inimical to
consideration of values because the steering mechanism interprets information
according to its own systemic exigencies, with purposive-rational action
justifying itself in terms of the criteria of its own ideology. The cognitive
interest therefore dominates any emancipatory interest.
(b) Distorted priorities: The media, whether or not as direct
tools of government, constantly portray the problems recognized by the
state as being the most important problems, if not the only real problems.
In initiating development policies, arbitrating conflicts of interest,
and affecting immediate conditions of standard of living, government encourages
recognition that its concerns are the core focus of any effective action.
Concerns for inner quality of life and transcendent experience are seen
as betraying collective action in response to social priorities. They can
be readily portrayed as epitomizing the ineffectual.
(c) Marketable skills: Education, especially under increasing
pressure from industry and government, has as its main priority the training
of the young so that they may perform adequately the various roles which
will maintain the operations of society. Curricula focus on skills that
are marketable. Whilst there is some concern with the development of the
individual's potential and with maturity of understanding, this tends to
be vague and subject to the insights and whims of teachers. Sport emphasizes
competitive instincts accompanied by occasional overtones of fair play.
Religious education tends to be an alienating mix of doctrine, facts and
stories. The only transcendent experience accessible to students is through
extra-curricular sex experimentation and drugs. Those with creative talent
wait until after their formal education to pursue their own self-development.
(d) Denigration of subjective experience: Psychology is primarily
concerned with observable behaviour and thus reinforces the preoccupations
of industry, education and the media. Mainstream psychology and psychiatry
go further in actively denigrating subjective experience and emphasizing
its delusional dimensions. Amongst the alternative psychologies and psychotherapies,
the claims and counter-claims for special skills with respect to transcendent
experience, often by practitioners of dubious reputation, can easily discourage
exploration of that experience.
(e) Religious opposition and manipulation: Religion itself, at
least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is basically inimical to transcendent
experience as a potential threat to orthodoxy. In general, much has been
written concerning the alienating effects of institutionalized religion
and on priesthoods of dubious spirituality with a questionable relationship
to the transcendent. Amongst the alternative religions, the well-publicized
exploitation and manipulation by cult leaders has made this route to transcendent
experience less credible. However the Christian charismatic movements are
offering new opportunities, as are fundamentalist initiatives in Hinduism
and Islam. But it remains questionable whether such initiatives recognize
that through some form of spiritual development, individuals might be better
able to understand and act on the challenges of the times.
(f) Exploitation: The social barriers to transcendent experience
has encouraged many alternative initiatives of every colour and degree
of insight. Their variety can create difficulty for those attempting to
locate some form of guidance in which they can have confidence. Great sincerity
on the part of those offering such guidance, is not necessarily matched
by great insight. Great insight may offered by people whose aim is less
than well-intentioned and possibly even malignant. Commitment to transcendent
experience may then be distorted to other ends.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential