Practical Spirituality: A Jamesian Perspective on Transcendent Experience
 ~ by Paul DeBlassie III

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Practical spirituality is a natural state of mind, one that flows as a confluence of awareness, breath, and immersion in the everyday realities of life. William James, philosopher and founder of the psychology of religion, wrote, “The fons et origo of all reality . . . is ourselves . . . The world of living realities” (1950, p. 298).   Transpersonal psychology, the emotional and spiritual movement into deep realms of experience, nourishes growth into transformative numinous encounters with archetypal phenomena. The teachings of the transpersonal William James serve as a guide that sensitizes us to hidden potentials to encounter the world of spirits in a practical manner and in a seamless flow within the happenings of daily life. A pragmatic perspective links breath, conscious awareness, and immersion in the visceral realities of life to a transformative practical spirituality.

Practical spirituality flows with each breath

In his classic text, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote,

When I walk the fields, I am oppressed now and then with an innate feeling that everything I see has a meaning, if I could but understand it, and this feeling of being surrounded by truths which I cannot grasp amounts to indescribable awe . . . (1902/1929, p. 385)

This spiritual awe of which James speaks implies that nothing more is required to know a sense of imminent spiritually than simple awareness. Innate spiritual awareness, the realization that every aspect of life has meaning and emanates indescribable awe, reflects a practical ability to access deep and efficacious psychic realms via awareness, breath, and the willingness to embrace human experience in all of its multitudinous facets.

A depth psychological approach to therapy recognizes that we are spiritual by our very nature. Deep therapy assists one in accessing cut-off and unconscious aspects of human experience making available inner well springs of meaning, vitality and spiritual awe. In regards to this ability, Jungian analyst M. Esther Harding, author of Psychic Energy, noted, “it does not consist in loss of the ego self in a vague nirvana; rather, it is a state of heightened awareness, more intense and more extensive than any that is possible under the limitations of the ego” (1963, p. 236).

An example of this was shared with me by John, an acquaintance of mine, who recalled his exasperation with life, a spiritual depression that had sucked away his vitality. He told me that inner work in depth psychotherapy had helped him find his way out of a treacherous past. Childhood memories replete with rigid religious beliefs and antagonistic family relationships were his “blast from the past.” Facing and working through past trauma jettisoned him from a childhood traumatic belief system based on fear, guilt, and rigidly held dogma into finding not only healing but a new and practical spirituality. For him, the meaning and purpose of a life lived loving his wife and children, engaging in a daily and private spiritual practice, and immersing himself in the wonders and challenges of life now were at the heart of his satisfying human, spiritual, life.

John went on to share a dream in which a lively earth spirit visited him and as he touched her everything within him quickened. She told him, “Now you can breathe!” With this he inhaled deeply and exhaled with immense satisfaction. His depression had been lifted and with the visitation there came a natural, grounded spirituality of everyday life lived in a meaningful way. As he remarked, “My own life force and spirit are drawn into me, are as simple and direct as the taking in of each and every breath.”   James, in his essay, “Does Consciousness Exist?” explored the intimate connection of breath to the experience of consciousness, exclaiming that Kant’s “I think . . .” should be replaced by “I breathe” (1904, p. 491). With each inhalation and exhalation the psychological reality of inspiration makes itself felt through each and every cell, membrane, muscle fiber, overall body sensation, and on into the recesses of potentially transformative psychic experience.

Awareness opens us to the spiritual world

During one of my first Jungian psychoanalytic sessions thirty-five years ago with Dr. Arwind Vasavada, a man trained by C.G. Jung, he remarked, “awareness opens us to the spiritual world.” This insight inspired a night of dreaming in which an angelic being motioned with his right arm and beckoned me into an interior world that I had never before imagined. The words that came from this being were, “Look within.” This statement was followed by an opening into phantasmagorical dimensions of consciousness I later came to understand as realms of the collective unconscious that continue to reveal themselves in my life.

Synchronicity, the meaningful meeting of the inner and outer worlds, came to the fore during this critical time. Dream symbols and outer life events often paralleled one another so that a dream image would manifest in the outer world. On one occasion, after many days and nights of overworking during my clinical residency, I left the hospital and realized that I hadn’t dreamed in a number of nights. No sooner had I thought this than a bus passed with an advertisement along its side that read, “Your dreams are missing you!” Well, that’s quite a message from psyche, revealing itself in a rather practical manner in the midst of a busy day. The human psyche is practical and spiritual, attuned to the interplay of life events with inner workings.

Transcendent phenomena within the course of daily life occurs more frequently than we imagine, awareness bringing them to the fore of consciousness for inspiration, guidance, and potential transformation. In Principles of Psychology, William James insisted, “Whatever things have intimate and continuous connection with my life are things of whose reality I cannot doubt” (1986, p. 375). Practical, emotional, and spiritual meaning can imbue life situations with such heightened significance that we cannot help but become increasingly aware as the result of encountering them. Awareness opens us to the psychic reality of things spiritual and emotional that can potentially affect us in pragmatic, transformative ways.

Individuals immersed in what one colleague referred to as the “everyday crazies,” a state of more or less chronic psychic imbalance, are often suffering from an unconscious desire to experience the numinous depths of psychic reality. Unfulfilled spiritual need generates intense anxiety that many take on as a day-in-day-out state of mind. Dream energy and waking life lived deliberately, reflectively, shift our momentum away from surface anxieties and craziness into healing realms of soul. Immersing ourselves in a reflective life counteracts neurotic chaos and tumult. Depth psychologist Robert D. Romanyshyn in his paper, “The World Is a Tissue of Metaphors,” noted that the dream

is a nightly address to the ego-mind which undoes its fixed positions, a kind of nightly humiliation that humbles consciousness and leads it back into the earth, a journey that re-situates mind in the humus, the soil of the soul. (2011, p. 2)

Transcendent yet imminent, a psyche that is settled into the soil of the soul is both quickened spiritually and set right within the practicalities of everyday reality. William James argued that we will be known by our fruits not our roots, an utterance that beckons us into the rich soil of soul that yields a bountiful emotional and spiritual harvest dependent not on affiliations or background but on depth of relationship to self.

Immersion into depth of soul, a deliberate and purposeful leaning into life, draws together psychic energies so that we are nourished and made sane, whole. James, in his Essays on Psychical Research, wrote:

Our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest . . . the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir. (1986, p. 374).

Such immersion requires proper attitude. I’m reminded of the story of three yogis who entered the Cave of All Knowing. The first went in, then after a time left, complaining it was a waste of time, a whole lot of nothing. The second crossed the threshold and shortly lost himself within the realm of mysteries, never to be heard of again. The third entered and within time emerged rejuvenated, transformed, enlightened. Michael Eigen, in his book Contact with the Depths, wrote that to become enlightened “is to live and assimilate something of the experience of the [first] two [yogis], those crippled by life’s impacts, as necessary and valuable parts of the self” (Eigen, p.18).

Descent into the underworld, stepping into the Cave of All Knowing, and plunging into the mother sea of the collective unconscious, symbolize immersion into self, leaning into and immersing ourselves in the pulse and beat of the confluence of our inner and outer lives. From such immersion a transformation occurs: what Romanyshyn described as “ordinary epiphanies of the moment that, when we are ready and properly disposed, are momentous epiphanies, festive occasions when the miracle in the ordinary manifests itself, moments that are occasions for wonder and celebration” (2011, p. 4).

 

References

Eigen, M. (2011). Contact with the depths. London: Karnac.

Harding, E. (1963). Psychic energy. (Bollingen Series X). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

James, W. (1904). Does consciousness exist? Journal of philosophy, psychology, and scientific methods 1, 477-491.

James, W. (1929). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York, NY: The Modern Library. (Original work published 1902).

James, W. (1950). The principles of psychology. New York: Dover.

James, W. (1986).   Essays on psychical research (F. Burkhardt, et al., Eds.). Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Romanyshyn, R. (2011). The world is a tissue of metaphors. Unpublished paper.

 

Paul DeBlassie III, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist  practicing in Albuquerque, NM, for over thirty years. He specializes in depth psychology and psychology and  spirituality

3 comments

  1. You really make it appear so easy together with your presentation however I find this topic to be actually one thing which I feel I would by no means understand. It seems too complicated and very extensive for me. I’m taking a look forward to your next put up, I’ll try to get the hold of it!

    1. Thank you for your comment. The actual experience of practical spirituality is such an ongoing challenge in terms of trusting the instinctual self to open and flower as we yield to the numinosity inherent in each moment. The fact that you were drawn to read the article and now continue to sense the pull toward everyday encounters with numinous suggests you are closer than you might think! Good to hear from you and I look forward to more conversation. I’ll be having a posting on God as Intimate Soul coming up soon, a bit more Jamesian light on numinous dynamics.

  2. The whole idea of practical spirituality emerged out of an alchemical mix of William James and Carl Jung, their respective psychic perspectives on the soul. As a clinical psychologist in private practice for the past thirty years specializing in depth psychology and psychology and spirituality, I’ve treated scores of individuals in the midst of making their way across the dark and troubled waters of the unconscious mind. Serving as therapist and guide, a Hermetic dynamic at work within the treatment relationship, we frequently witness the emergence of a natural and immensely practical spirituality that nourishes the soul. It is of course, a vital relationship with the Self that supplants old, outer, religiosity. Practical spirituality is a phenomenon of soul that I feel excited to have shared some thoughts about with the Depth Psychology Alliance. Thoughts, musings, and inspirations are welcomed!

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