Psychological regression and spiritual progress

Regression, symptom or therapy?

One of the qualities of the sage or saint is spiritual childhood. How can the latter be differentiated from the regression that is described in psychology? Are there points which the two hold in common? These questions are important.

Firstly, there is a type of regression which is pathological. For example, in a psychiatric hospital I had occasion to deal with schizophrenics who were frozen in complete immobility with catatonic episodes. One would have preferred then, to think that they were mystics who had forgotten themselves in a state of ecstasy. Another of their problems, however, was, that they often behaved quite violently once their fit of stupefaction had passed. Even though such violence is not constant, this trait hardly bears any commonality with the behaviour of the mystic, although according to the stories one hears about Yogis in India, some of them may get angry if they are disturbed in their Îsamadhiâ. However, in the catatonicâs self-absorption, is there not an effort towards auto-therapy, an attempt to establish some peace through immobility, similar to the efforts of depressives ? Is this not a method of counter-balancing the agitation, and an effort to recapture the state of mind which was present before the anguish precipitated the crisis? In a ward where I worked for six months, I had to care for a patient who had been hospitalized there for six years : his long catatonic episodes actually seemed to be attempts at meditation with a view to inner evolution. These attempts seemed to have gone wrong due to a strong and prolonged opposition from the family and to a lack of knowledge of the elementary rules of meditation.

To clarify further, I think it is useful to distinguish between regression, which is a pathological phenomenon, and that which one could call ãa returnâ, ãa conversionä towards the centre, the source, the being, which is recommended in each tradition. This distinction will be developed throughout this chapter. Pierre Weil has devoted an entire part of his book ãMan Without Bordersä to regression and the mystical states of the mind.

He thinks, as I do, that the word ãregressionä cannot be used when referring to a spiritual journey which aims at a progression or a return towards the absolute. He proposes to speak of ãde-conditioningä rather than ãregressionä.

A third type of ãregressionä is the therapeutic regression. One of the main problems of patients who come to consult psychotherapists, is that they devalue themselves. Regressing during the sessions allows a ãmotheringä, which gives a new feeling of his own value to the patient. This could be direct, through an expression of sympathy from the therapist or indirect, through the simple experience of having someone listen attentively to words which, otherwise, the patient would have addressed only to himself. Regression in the midst of the family is less tolerated in the West than in India. In the West, an individual wants to be independent very quickly, perhaps more quickly than he can handle; he does not allow himself to regress while he is within the family; perhaps that is one reason why he needs to go to the therapist to do so. In India, to know how to be dependent is proof that one is civilised, that one knows how to live in society; it is the best guarantee that one day others will be able to depend on you.

Regression does not take place only in the stages of childhood. Erik Erickson, as we have seen, presents psychological development as a ladder extending to the level of the mature adult, as a succession of crises, which at each stage, holds a possibility of deviation and regression. The therapeutic situation can be considered as a regression of the patient in that he accepts the fact that he can no longer effectively deal with his mind by himself. However, some psychotherapists do not like being witness to the acting out of a regression. They do not welcome it, perhaps, because they do not see any interest in this kind of regression and have not experienced it themselves. However, in ignoring this regression if it appears in their patients, and in wishing to get them out of it as soon as possible, these therapists risk playing the role of a ãsuper papaä who merely says, ãDonât stick to your motherä, to his child.

Psychotic fusion and mystique of unity than by some psychologists who hardly have any knowledge of mysticism, tend to superficially equate psychological fusion with what the mystics call ãunitive lifeä, that is, a state where one lives ones daily life while experiencing unity with the divine.

Let us look precisely at what the experience of ãpsychotic fusionä is. At the beginning of psychosis, the patients, anguished by their conflicts with those around them seek to isolate themselves in an effort to reduce this anguish. They can spend whole days on the bed, apparently doing nothing (clinophilia), In reality, they experience alternating states of relaxation (which are pleasant) and anxiety (which are unpleasant).

If they are religiously inclined, they may express these experiences as fusion, or union with the divine, with the great whole etc. Yet this fusion is pathological, because, on the one hand, they do not know how to make it last, and, on the other, it covers three deeper separations : first, the violent separation of the young schizophrenic from those around him whom he rejects; secondly, the separation of the subject from his own body which he perceives as inanimate and empty. The doubt about physical sensations mirrors a doubt about the reality of the world : this is the beginning of delirium. Once delirium is established, a third kind of separation can be observed, this time within the mind of the patient, between voices of persecutors and victimized ego. This third separation has given the name to the disease itself-schizophrenia : divided (schizo) mind (phren), what renders this experience of fusion pathological is precisely the fact that this experience is only on the surface of the mind, probably being an effort to compensate for and improve upon the three kinds of separation that we have seen.

In Chapter I we saw that what characterized the schizophrenic was not as much fusion in itself as the rapid alternation between fusion and rejection, love and hate in other words, an affective ambivalence. I remember a patient who called up his mother on the telephone from my office : wihtin ten seconds, it could be surmised from the expressions on his face, that he was passing from absolute love to absolute hate, from an effort towards fusion, to an impulse to murder. The ãlife of unionä of the mystic, on the contrary, realises a real union with others, and with the external world; this union, however, is not at the physical or psychological level, but at the spiritual level. The mystic attains the traditional ideal of ãloving ones neighbour as oneselfä. In-as-much as he does not consider this neighbour as Îanotherâ, any more, he does not have any reason either to fear him or to attack him. Of course, long practice is necessary before one can arrive at this elevated stage, and know how to put it to practice in the diverse circumstances of daily life.

If there is psychotic fusion in schizophrenia, it can be said, that, on the contrary, there exists a psychotic separation in paranoia. Roughly speaking there is a deep separation between the paranoid, who lives his life feeling persecuted, and the others around him, who are the persecutors. To the paranoid, the world is black and white; there are no in-between. In addition, if mystic fusion carries the risk of a deviation into schizophrenic fusion, it can also be said that scientific clarity carries with it the risk of a deviation into obsessive compartmentalization. So many persons today think that they are doing well in establishing rigid compartments in their minds and in their lives, by trying to treat themselves and others as objects to be analysed and dissected ãscientificallyä, or by trying to stifle all movement of inner life. They obey the mechanisms of rationalisation and denial which are characteristic of obsessive neurosis. Although less spectacular than the bursts of schizophrenia, this chronic obsessive tendency also seems important to me, because it is widespread in the West, and is harmful : it leads people to live ãshrivelled upä and separated from their inner source of energy.

There do exist fusions which are, a priori, non pathological regressions. The most common example of these is physical love. Isnât it strange that, at the very moment when a man and a woman imagine that they have most asserted themselves as adults, they function the most like babies? .... Just as the possibility of pathological deviations of sexuality should not lead to the rejection of love in its totality, similarly the fact that there could be pathological deviations of inner life, should not lead to the rejection, a priori, of meditation which is a function of the body and mind.

Love includes a dependency. A certain dependency is very natural in an individual. but if it develops to a pathological limit, it is called anaclitism (needing someone constantly in oneâs bed), and it is a sign of a hysterical personality. A sign of psychic maturity, on the other hand, is the capacity to be alone, as one is in meditation. Winnicott has insisted on this point. In recognizing the fundamental loss linked to the unavoidable separation from the mother during early childhood, one has a chance to re-discover the satisfying experience of unity which had preceded this loss ... that is, pre-natal unity. In psychological terms, ãthe analysis of the depressive position leads to the primary affective relationshipä.12 This allows each of oneâs marks and false personalities (which Winnicott calls the false self), to fall away. In spiritual terms, to know how to stop following ones desires and onex fears, leads to a state within oneself or within the Self. This is the teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, one of Indiaâs basic texts.

To summarize, one can distinguish between many different levels of fusion. First, there is the superficial fusion due to a relaxation, for example. One has a momentary impression of unity within oneself, as well as unity between the interior of the body and the external world. It is good, but, unfortunately it does not last long. Then there are the experiences which everyone things of, when one talks of fusion : coitus, drunkenness and drugs. Here again, the experience does not last; the one rapidly becomes two again, the self on one side, and the other or the universe on the other. It could be called pseudo-fusion, as Pierre Weil does. The only state of real fusion, is this state of unity which reveals itself usually after a long spiritual evolution and a sustained practice of meditation. Those who have reached this stage, through various traditions, confirm that it allows direct vision of Reality. It is the ultimate result of the process employed by the human intelligence seeking to understand itself, by itself.

This return to a stable state is not very easy. It gives rise to fear. At the psychological level itself, as observed by Balint, the patients have a tendency to change their therapist, when they sense a deep regression coming on during the sessions. In Hindu tradition the disciple is helped by the guru, step by step, in this movement towards the origin. To begin with, the guru gives a mantra which is a group of syllables aimed at silencing the mind; through the practice of this mantra arises the experience of a preverbal state. Curiously, one mantra which is given often is ãMa, Maä; it corresponds to those first sounds, those ãtransitional soundsä (Winnicott), which a child spontaneously uses, probably to take the place of the mother when she is absent, and which are utilised in all languages. Francoise Dolto quotes the fact that when the father takes care of the child the child calls him ãMamaä, while the child calls the mother who is working ãpa-paä. ãMaä thus indicates the maternal function more than the sex of the person.13

In a second stage, the disciple sees his guru as well as the divinity which he adores, everywhere. This reminds one of a child before his eighth month, prior to his first fear of strangers, when the baby sees his mother everywhere and in everyone. Finally, there is the smile of the disciple who has reached the state of liberation, the ãsmile of the Buddhaä, which can evoke, from the point of view of the history of development, the first conscious communication of the baby, his first smile at the age of four months. Some disciples, especially among the beginners, have a superficial vision of the maternal aspect of their guru, a vision which is too close to ãthe motherä in the usual sense of the term; they do not see the impersonal aspect of the Mother. They can thus go through a quite pathological phase of regression : a Sadguru (Real guru) will help them to go beyond this stage.

A baby seems subjected to alternate periods of intense satisfaction and frustration, of unity and of a feeling of going to pieces. He is able to obtain a sense of stability when he is always cared for by the same person. Through his concentration on his mother, he avoids going to pieces. In the same way, the meditator, in the course of his inner evolution,can go through alternate states of pleasure and pain, of elevation and dereliction. His concentration on his guru then helps him to avoid breaking-up, and to re-establish a sense of unity, but more profound than he had ever experienced before.

ãThe sage is a child but without the seeds of an ego.ä

In this sentence, Ramana Maharishi has summed up the similarities and the differences between the sage and the child. The sage can behave like a child on many occasions, but he is not an ordinary child. He has ãburntä all the seeds of the ego within himself, whereas a child will have an ego which will develop naturally. Spiritual childhood, which is an expression of simplicity, is a quality which is constantly encouraged in the various traditions. The words of Christ, ãIf you do not become like little children again, you will not be able to enter the Realm of the Fatherä, have inspired generations of Christians. The introit of the first Sunday after Easter, Low Sunday, says : ãQuasimodo geniti infantes, sine dola lac concupiscite, alleluiaä, ãlike new-born infants, without duplicity, do wish for milk.ä On this Sunday, the new Christians came to Church for the first time after having received their baptism on Easter eve, a week before; they are considered as new-born babies.

In India, Vivekananda has recounted his first impression of Ramakrishna : he saw in him, a sort of ãbig, hallucinated baby.ä He said that the power of the guru is like that of an infant in the house Externally he has no powers, but, in fact, the entire household is at his service. Until quite an advanced age, Ma Anandamayi, could say to visitors, often married people, ãI am your small daughter.ä Shri Aurobindo saw this spiritual childhood even in God when he said, ãGod is the eternal child playing an eternal game in an eternal garden.ä Nisargadatta Maharaj asserted, a little before his death, ãAs long as you are involved with this manifest world, you do not have the time to go to the roots. The root is that consciousness which appeared when you were children. The people are so interested in my words, that they do not seek to discover what the consciousness of the child is.ä14

This quality of spiritual childhood which, above all, signifies simplicity, may have been exploited in Christianity to reinforce the submission to authority, something which weakens its main significance. ãInnocent as a lambä began to be taken in the sense of ãobedient like a sheep.ä The lamb, symbol of innocence, is too closely associated with the helplessness of the Paschal lamb and of the suffering Servant, who were led to the sacrifice. However, in the Apocalypse of Jean, the seven-horned Lamb has been mentioned as having the power to vanquish the Princes of the Earth. As A. Jaubert has shown, the lamb was a symbol not only of innocence,but of power as well during the time of Christ.15

The Logion 4 of the Evangile of Thomas brings together childhood and unity.16 Jesus said, ãThe old man shall not hesitate to ask the seven-day-old infant about the Reason of Life, and he shall live. Many of the first ones will decide to become the last ones and they shall be one.ä The seven-day-old. has a simplicity which is not ignorance : he has been through all the Levels of Creation, and like God on the seventh day, has come to rest. He is silent in the infinite sense of the word, as understood by Jacob Boehme : ãHe who is really silent is like God before the creation of the world.ä He is the son beyond time: ãAnte Luciferum, genui teä, ãBefore the appearance of light, I begot youä, which is an adaptation for Christian liturgy of Psalm 109-3 : ãTo you the kingdom on the day of your birth, the sacred virtues from the breast, from the dawn of your youthä, as of Psalm 2-7 : ãYou are my son; today I begot you.ä

Some mystics live this return to childhood in a very concrete way. Every Friday Marthe Robin experienced Christâs passion, and the sounds issuing from her, during those hours, were like the wails of an infant. The true philosopher is a child too. One of the disciples of Socrates surprised him when he was dancing all by himself. The disciple could not help but find it puerile, and laughed at him. At another time, Socrates said that he was only continuing in the profession of his mother who had been a midwife. He was bringing to life this child which was the truth. Just as the infant, at the beginning of his life, has very fee gender-typed characteristics, so too, at the beginning human beings were androgynous. This is what Plato made Aristophane say, humourously, in ãThe Banquetä : the first humans, (like the Indian gods) had four legs and four arms. This unity conferred a superior power on them, which rendered them as capable as the Titans, of attacking Zeus on Mt. Olympus. In order to weaken them the frightened king of gods decided to cut them into two, one half man and the other woman. It is thus implicitly suggested in Greek as well as in Indian mythology that those who attain the androgynous state, two in one, are endowed with divine power. Closer to our times, Bergson defines philosophy as being almost like the mind of the child : ãPhilosophy, as I understand it, is just the resolve to look naively within oneself and around oneself.ä17

It can be said that sage is an infant in the etymological sense of the term : ãinfansä, someone who does not talk. Through the habit of silent meditation, the sage develops the art of communication without words. He is beyond language, and beyond thought as we understand it. The consciousness of the sage is in the Absolute, even though he responds in a suitable manner to changes in external circumstances. This is done spontaneously; he does not need to think about it any more than he needs to think about the digestion of his food, to cite the example given by Nisrgadatta Maharaj. To know how to stop at linear and discursive thought, allows the spontaneous development of an intuition which will be pure in so far as the underlying mind has already been sufficiently purified by meditation. Like a newborn infant, the sage is close to his body: sometimes he seems not to see or hear, but he feels. The wordä sageä, has the same root as ãsavoirä, to know, and the English ãsapä. Sage is he who knows how to savour the sap of true knowledge.

Like the child, the sage can be subject to variations of emotion, which leave behind no trace, but these variations always have a positive tone. He can pass from the joy of sympathy, to the tears of compassion, but I cannot imagine a sage expressing hate, as schizophrenics do from time to time, or causing hurt through his words, and blunders, as children sometimes inadvertently do. Deep within each adult is a child who is a frightened one. The sage becomes a child again, but without the fear. Spirituality thus could be well defined as curing the child within us of his fear.

His disarming capacity to trust goes together with his capacity to inspire trust. He is not a victim of a ãregression to primary processes, as less-informed psychologists sometimes suppose. He consciously comes back to the primary source of emotions and actions. Establishing this difference between ãprimary processesä and ãprimeval energyä, is important if a clear comparison is to be made between psychology and spirituality. He, who utilised the force of the river for producing electricity to light up homes and work machines for the first time, had returned to a ãprimaryä, "primeval" source of energy, but would anyone think of denying that it was progress ? In the same way, the sage knows how to use the principal sources of energy, whether physical or emotional, to spiritual ends and therein is one of the signs of his advanced state of consciousness.

Even if a sage knows how to play the child, he is not identified with that role. He can play the role of mother, father or brother equprocesssäally well. In fact he is not identified with any role. If he is dependent like the child, he is dependent on the divine Mother, as they say in India; and this divine Mother being within him, he is, in fact, completely independent. In Yoga it is called ÎKaivalinâ, the Alone. He is involved with others because of his spirit of service, but that is all. He expects neither recognition nor reassurance from them.

The sage, because of his simplicity, does not hesitate to make known that which everyone feels, but dare not say for fear of violating explicit or implicit social conventions. His is like the child in Andersenâs story ãThe Emperorâs New Clothes.ä ÎOnce upon a time there was an emperor, who, by aging, began losing his sight. He did not wish to admit the fact. Knowing this, his courtiers took care not to make him conscious about it. One day a wily tailor had the idea of making some money at his Majestyâs expense. He pretended to bring some new clothes, and to present them to the emperor, asking him from time to time. ãYou see see?ä ãYes, of course, I see!ä replied the emperor. After this, the courtiers were obliged to ãseeä this new outfit and admire it. They could not prevent the emperor from going out in procession wearing what he thought were his magnificent new clothes. As the procession passed through the city, the crowd which had gathered, began to repeat, like the courtiers, ãWhat beautiful new clothes His Majesty has!ä ãHow elegant he looks!ä until a child broke the spell and exclaimed, ãBut the emperor is stark naked!ä

Return to self, return to the Self and the point of no return

He who has started on the spiritual path, who has, as the Buddhists say, ãentered the riverä, returns to the sea from which he came. He knows that there are hardly any reasons for retreating and he is happy. According to the Hindu school of ãadvaitaä, or non-dualism, to try and distinguish the before and the after, the progression and the regression, becomes useless beyond a certain level of experience: the declared aim of meditation is, in fact, to go beyond time. In this context, Dogen, a Zen master said, ãHere and now comprises eternity.ä

In psychotherapy, no doubt, it would not be very useful to explain this to a patient: how would he make use of it in a concrete manner, without the means to experience it, at least a little, through sustained meditation ? On the other hand, for a patient who is at the threshhold of, or who has lived through, a regression, it seems useful to present meditation as an initiating experience, without there being any need to mix any kind of occultism with it. This has the advantage of ãde-medicalisingä the problem, by not considering it as a pathological symptom to be eliminated, but as an adventure of inner growth. Many therapists sense this need, but they remain trapped in the vocabulary of psychology, continuing to think of ãregressionä first of all, in spite of everything. Through this they make negative suggestions to themselves and to their patients, suggestions that are ãmortiferousä, to use one of those unfortunate terms that some psychotherapists take a strange pleasure in hearing themselves utter.

The notion of death and re-birth speaks to our early unconscious. I remember visiting a pre-historic site in the Eastern Pyrenees (mountains along the border of Spain and France). It was a tomb made up of three compartments, each one connected to the other through circular orifices of decreasing diameter. The body lay in the innermost chamber. Without being a great anthropologist one could see that the structure resembled the pelvic canal, the manner of burial mirroring the process of birth. One could recognize in this site, inscribed in stone, one of the first human attempts to transmute death into rebirth.

We have mentioned meditation earlier; it can be considered as a return: first as a return to oneself, then, progressively, to the Self. It re-activates a potentiality of the child: a child can attenuate the basic dissociation of the adult, the separation between the world of dreams, and the everyday world. Infants alternate rapidly between sleeping and waking. Additionally, from a state of waking, they can directly enter into a state of paradoxical sleep, that is, a sleep with dreams. (Rapid Eye Movement phase) Such is not the case with the adult, who inserts a phase of deep, dreamless sleep in between the waking phase, and the phase of sleep with dreams. He begins dreaming only after about eighty minutes from the time that he has gone to sleep. The dreaming he experiences while falling asleep is a sort of mental imagery akin to day-dreaming. The two worlds of the dream and the reality are compartmentalized almost completely within him. They are less so in an older child, who still retains this capacity of easily entering into a state of waking. This is a fact which can be proved by making him relax, and then watching the ease with which he recounts the dream that he is already dreaming. Meditation helps one to discover a secret passage between the world of night and the world of day. It is he middle path between certain instinctive realities expressed in the world of dreams, and the desire for evolution, for inner change, expressed in the waking world. It is a window opening out from the thick walls of the thinking process. Fortunate is he, who, from time to time, remembers 'thinking of not thinking'. The myth of the eternal return is an important one: thanks to this constant return to self, which is what meditation is, this myth can become a reality. What, in fact, is an authentic eternal return, if not a return to the present?

But one can ask more of crazy wisdom than to lead us from the unreal to the Real? To cure us from illusion, in order to initiate us into the real Good? Traditional Indian psychology has a hierarchical vision of the different levels of reality. In deep sleep, one is immersed in the ultimate Reality, without being conscious of it. The dream has its own reality: if one is thirsty in a thirsty in a dream, the thirst will be quenched by a glass of water drunk in the dream, and not by the glass of water on the night table. Similarly, between Reality and absolute Reality, there are intermediate worlds which the mystic can easily perceive, because he is disidentified from his body. Hindus acknowledge that the ordinary world has a certain reality, but they do not go as far as admitting that it has a definite reality. The difference has to be meditated upon.

This vision renders considerably more flexible the manichean distinction which Western psychology makes, in practice, between ãtheä reality, in other words, the material reality indissolubly linked to the mind which manages it, and the rest, which is at best poetry, and at worst delirium, and which will always remain vague in every respect.

Psychologists theoretically acknowledge the function of the symbol but they themselves must have a great experience of the state between sleeping and waking, so that they can follow the symbolic language of their patients exactly; otherwise the help which they try to give will be pointless, more inspired by intellectual references than by actually having lived this symbolic life. Considered from the angle of inner evolution, everything is a symbol of the self, not in the psychological sense, but in the Indian sense of the term. That is, everything is connected to a foundation of consciousness-happiness, which is constantly present, but which we forgetting. The function of the ideal therapist would be to first remind himself of this fact, and then to remind his patients.

At the end of the chapter ãChild-sageä we have mentioned the importance of the theme of death and re-beginnings of schizophrenia, and its parallel in experience of spiritual initiation and of initiation-like therapy. This comparison gives meaning to the ordeal, which the patient undergoes, transforms it into an adventure, and offers a new beginning. Once the subjects with psychological difficulties have attained an equilibrium through their own efforts or through the help of a psychotherapist, they find themselves once more at the level of ordinary people: then they have two main ways of facilitating their spiritual opening-disinterested service of others and meditation. Meditation gets strengthened when it swakens a peaceful passion for going inwards. The seeker then comes face to face with himself, and discovers, in a concrete manner, his own spiritual psychology and its laws. He has entered the stream; all the has to do is follow its course.