Containment and Growth
F. David Peat
A text only version of this essay is available to download.
To take a one week course with David Peat
The ideals of "personal growth" are currently being promoted by a wide variety of workshops, seminars, books, magazines, gurus, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and even self-styled "shamans". It seems today that to be considered healthy in our society one must be engaged in some activity of personal growth. Personal growth, it appears, is assumed to be an unconditioned good in its own right, a good without need for any justification external to itself. However, traditional societies may see this whole movement in a different light; they may be concerned when such experiences take place outside any social or spiritual context; when the act of "growing" is not directed back to the common good of the society; and when certain powerful forces are unleashed in the experiential process. Should we too, perhaps, not share in these concerns? Should we continue to accept, in an unquestioning way, that our society no longer has need for the containment of the spiritual and experiential journeys of its members?
Clearly the impetus behind the movement for personal growth is well motivated. I do not know its historical origins but throughout history people have striven to achieve self-knowledge. In addition, there has been a reaction against more the rigid theories of human personality and the whole nature of main-stream medicine. Many thinkers have been stressing the limitations to abstract analysis when applied to the various problems human being and society - we must, they rightly say begin with ourselves, we must first take the inner journey if we are to help others.
There have also been influences from such sources as Maslow with his "peak experiences" and Hierarchy of Needs; from the meditative and spiritual practices of the East; from experiments with psychedelics in the 60s; visualization techniques in healing; and from the transformations of our earlier mechanistic notions of reality made by quantum theory. In addition, institutionalized religion and what are sometimes called the traditional values of society and culture appear less attractive to many people today. In their place is found the notion of inner values, inner experiences and experiential truth.
As a result people have come to seek the truth from within; to sense that healing comes from a personal integration of mind and body; that the pain and confusion of living can be resolved through meditative practices; and that a deeper sense of meaning can be discovered through transcendental experiences brought about by certain practices. Some people are serious and disciplined in this, others jump from practice to practice or seek adherence to a series of gurus. Their practices can range from meditation, imaging, individual psychotherapy, group therapy, experiential work, etc, all the way to more exotic approaches of drumming, shamanic weekends, Holiday Inn vision quests, short term fasts and contact with "power animals".
At this latter point I become concerned that all this "growth" is being carried out in the absence of any deeper context, a context moreover that would be generally shared by the whole society. All traditional societies process a language, a grammar, a world view, a set of symbols and rituals, which act to focus, contain, protect and guide them as they enter other worlds and encounter the various forces and spirits that surround them. Centuries ago our own Western society possessed such an infra structure but it has long lost is validity for many people, or has been replaced by a partially assimilated set of beliefs and symbols from the East.
In the absence of this continuity, this deep sense of relationship to the community, and responsibility to a deeper truth once senses a lack of balance and even, perhaps, the possibility of a real danger within "personal growth"? Should we perhaps look into the whole nature of "personal growth" and emphasize the need for what could be called a "language of containment"?
What is Growing? The Fragmentation between Object and Subject, the Internal and the External
The very notion of personal grown evokes the question "What is it that is growing?" - a query that brings us into immediate contact with one of the deepest sources of fragmentation in our world-view; that between the nature of Objectivity and Subjectivity; and between experience that flows from Internal or External sources. This question also connects to the issues of the responsibilities and social connection of the person who is engaged on the road to personal growth. How do such experiences integrate into the individual, the physical body, the social, environmental, the spiritual, and the cosmological?
Traditional societies are clear about the universe they inhabit. We however, after suffering a series of revolutionary dislocations from the Middle Ages onwards, lack any coherent "map in the mind" to guide us on our inner journeys.
Let us take two extremes to illustrate what I mean. On the one hand is the person who believes that all the voices and destructive commands come from a radio that has been inserted into his head. Clearly non-normal experiences are, in his world-view, believed to be totally external in origin and independent of his personal desires and past history - ie totally beyond his control.
At the other extreme is the belief that all experience is the product of processes within the human mind and that this mind is nothing but the manifestation of the physical brain and body - its contents being no more than personal memories and experiences, albeit some of them having been repressed and symbolized. In such a case even the most numinous experiences or convincing "entities" are nothing more than the creative transformations of past experiences and fantasies. That these energies and entities may appear to act independent of one's will is no more surprizing than is the life of fictional characters created by an author.
Between these two extremes lie the various approaches and theories of modern psychology. In the main there is no general agreement as to any common map, only a range of conflicting interpretations and confusions. Indeed, the lack of agreement on this "map in the head" could be compared to a similar confusion as to the interpretation of reality at a quantum level.
Let us look at some of these attempts to map the deeper levels of the mind:-
Archetypes, which are variously described as the psychic energies and structuring principles lying behind our most powerful symbols and patterns of behavior. Their nature is unclear, some commentators speak of them as being inherited almost in a genetic manner like the other characteristics of our bodies. Others treat them as part of some global "mind" or as underlying the collective unconscious into which we can all tap. Some have even referred to archetypes as having an independent existence.
Sheldrake's morphic fields - another rather unclear concept involving the assumption of some sort of physical field that transcends the limitations of space and time and, acting through a "morphic resonance", gives form and structure to the mind and connects it with past experiences and levels of evolution.
Cellular memories - the notion that mind is not confined to the brain and that memories are stored within the individual cells and even the DNA of the body. According to this theory we can tap into memories that trace back through the evolution of our species and into the early stages of life and even experience the inanimate. But are these memories "alive", do they have an existence of their own or do we simply "replay" the physical records within our body, somewhat like playing a CD disc?
The notion of a sort of psychic communication that acts between individual minds - ie based upon such things as tachyons, subtle energy fields, or quantum connections. This raises the possibility of a resonance between people that can create what is sometimes called a group mind.
Clearly within the West there are many different maps and different ecologies of mind. They stretch from the idea of a mind that is limited to the individual alone to something closer to a group consciousness. Such maps evoke a metaphysics of approach, one in which the individual, using various interior or mediative approaches, or with the aid of a psychotherapist or guru, can journey inward and confront the various contents of the unconscious mind. Following the goals set by Freud and Jung, the individual and, indeed for the future of the human race must endeavor to bring all this unconscious material into the light of conscious awareness. Furthermore, that the various powers, forces and conflicts we encounter inside ourselves can be resolved and integrated with intelligence, intuition and insight.
There are, however, cultures and traditions that go beyond this ecology and metaphysics. Native Americans, for example, recognize powerful energies, forces and spirits in nature that are quite independent of the individual and, indeed of the human race. It is necessary to treat these energies or spirits with respect and enter into alliances and relationships with them. In some cases this can be done at the personal level through vision quests, fasts and the like. But in others this contract was established by ancestors long ago on behalf of the whole group, each person participates in that covenant and ceremonies of renewal must be regularly carried out. Such societies possess many ceremonies for containment and purification and an inner journey would only be undertaken after a long period of careful preparation and with the protection and assistance of powerful symbols and rituals.
The idea of an inner journey, therefore, is always carried out within a rich context - the individual feels connected to an ancient culture, to a powerful spiritual tradition. He or she is surrounded by protective symbols of great efficacy and is always a part of the group. The reality of the various energies and spirits that one may encounter on this journey is fully recognized and the individual is always in a position to seek protection or enter into a relationship with them. In turn these beings can share in their power and offer their protection in daily life.
In the Islamic tradition, as I understand it, there is also the notion of various beings - some benevolent, some evil, that can be invoked and will interact with the individual. There are, I believe, strict warnings of the serious danger of attempting to enter into certain experiences or states of consciousness without full knowledge and proper discipline. I understand that similar cautions are offered within the esoteric forms of Judaism.
Clearly many traditional societies do believe in the realities of spirits, energies and other "non-material" beings that have an existence and a will that is independent of the individual human mind and body. These same traditions stress the need for purification, rituals, ceremonies and a long period of discipline and training before a person attempts to enter these other realms and converse with the beings that live there. We in the West, however, have tended to undervalue or dismiss such teachings. We believe that the individual can make the journey of self knowledge on their own - or with the assistance of psychotherapists. But the psychotherapist himself or herself is also lost, cut off from any deep sense of tradition and spirituality. The psychotherapist is not a "shaman", one who can move with ease between two worlds in order to effect a cure. And psychotherapy today possesses no powerful symbols of containment in other to assist and protect.
Both Indigenous societies and the traditions of many of the world's religions recognize that compared to the great powers of the universe, the human being is like a speck of dust. Curiously enough something similar emerges from modern physics, for physicists now recognize that the whole of material existence, the visible universe itself, is but a vanishingly small fluctuation within a far greater sea of vacuum state energy.
Clearly anyone who comes in contact with such forces must have the knowledge and experience to contain them and, as with the energies of the physical world, this requires a precise technology and discipline. One would not wander into a High Voltage laboratory and touch or pick things up without first taking the care to read the warning notices.
Take, for example, nuclear fusion - the energy that powers the stars. It has long been the dream of scientists to harness this energy; so far, however, the dream has proved elusive. The overwhelming technical difficult with fusion power is not so much to get the reaction going - this is possible today using powerful lasers. No, the problem is to contain it once it has started. This cannot be done using any material container - for example stainless steel - for as soon as the hot plasma comes into contact with the walls it would cool down and the fusion reaction would cease. The solution is to use non-material containment, a powerful magnetic field and to create this field with exactly the right geometrical configuration.
In the case of nuclear fission - nuclear power stations - one must also maintain the energy-producing reaction at exactly the correct rate using what is called a moderator which acts to slow down the neutrons in the atomic pile. In addition, both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion require another level containment to protect workers from dangerous nuclear radiation.
I find a direct parallel in this question of containment to Richard Katz's account of the !Kung and their participation in a powerful energy - the boiling Num - that is used in their healing ceremonies. It is not a question of simply generating this energy in the body but of containing it, of knowing not only how to heat it up, but how to cool it down when it gets too hot. Very clearly the !Kung have developed a technology for using the Num energy, a technology that may be just as powerful as our Western nuclear technology.
Throughout all traditional societies there are ways of containing, controlling and protecting the person and the group when they enter other worlds and make contacts with energies and spirits. The First Nations of Turtle Island use extremely powerful symbols and objects in their ceremonies and I would suggest that these represent an advanced technology that is used when encountering or coming into relationship with energies, beings and spirits that are generally not known to us in the West.
My understanding of these matters is slight but it seems to me that, with the help of this Indigenous technology the whole group is able to come into harmony with the powers that surround them. Clearly the spiritual traditions of so many peoples were directed to an understanding of these forces and the role they play in healing, in cementing the group, in assuring the the ongoing renewal of all creation. We, however, in our Western society no longer possess such a technology and so we venture on our inner journey without maps or protection.
It seems to me, from the position of an outsider, that traditional cultures are not generally concerned with "personal growth" in the abstract sense. Rather, each person is very much a member of a group, and the group has its place within the whole web of life and balance of nature. In this way everything a person is and does has reference to the group, all actions serve the group and flow out of it.
It does seem, however, that there are those who are willing to suffer great pain and hardship in order to engage in acts of healing and renewal. Yet the person who enters into what we call an "altered state of consciousness" in order to heal or see with new eyes always does so within a strong social context and for the good of the group and the whole of creation. Fasts, vision quests and the like are often portrayed by us in the West as being individual spiritual journeys but it seems to me that they are more likely carried out from within the matrix of the whole group and its tradition, and their ultimate goal is to serve the group and renew their contracts and relationships with everything that surrounds them.
In such traditions it is not so much the experience or the journey itself that counts as the use to which it is put. And this use is generally outward-looking, ie done in relationship to the life of the group and the world around. It seems to me that this sense of participation and obligation to a larger group, of participation in a tradition, and of being just one aspect of life within a much greater web is missing in our Western approach to personal growth. This was not always the case however. The practice of alchemy, for example, could be approached at many levels. At the highest, the Ars Magna, one was carrying out The Work not for purely personal transformation but as an act of participation in the creation of the world. The Ars Magna, like the Sun Dance of the Plains was carried out for the whole of creation.
And so, finally, we come face to face with a paradox. Over the past few hundred years our Western society has lost its context, its traditions, its spiritual roots and its sense of meaning. Personal growth has become, for many people, a way of reaching some fundamental truth, the ground within their being. Yet, as I have suggested in this essay, that true inner experiences require a discipline, a tradition and a system of containment. It must be undertaken not for purely personal reasons but in order to heal the whole group. Without this deeper context the inner journey could become hazardous and play no part in the healing of our society and our environment.
Contact F. David Peat
This site designed and maintained by Marcel Gordon