The study and practice of spirituality and consciousness have been markedly different on the East and West Coasts. Where and how does the world of Eurocentric Anthroposophy meet the more Asian and shamanistic culture of transpersonalism?
I am often accused by my East Coast friends of having “gone Californian,” and by my San Francisco Bay Area friends of being still “very East Coast.” Neither characterization is intended as a compliment. Reference points for New York academic life tend to be the canonical tradition from Socrates to Godimer whereas comparable reference points for the Bay Area transpersonal community tend to be Asian spiritual teachers; meditation techniques; goddess, shamanic and Jungian symbols; astrological archetypes and Enneagram points. When I appear to my East Coast friends as too Californian, it is because of my delight in the varieties of spirit manifest in transpersonal psychologists and artists, in the eighty dharma centers in the Bay Area, sacred medicine researchers, teachers of biography, eco-feminists, multi-traditional mystics, organizational experts, and astrologers. Anthroposophy is not ordinarily listed in such a catalogue, and there are excellent reasons why it should not be, as well as reasons why it should be -- hence this essay.
For my transpersonal colleagues I am too much an Anthroposophist and for my Anthroposophical colleagues I appear too involved in Hinduism, Buddhism, and The New Paradigm. My Anthroposophy is very “East Coast,” and perhaps necessarily so. My version of Anthroposophy includes Krishna and Buddha, but also tends to include references to the European Christian tradition. Anthroposophy has Japanese and Israeli adherents, but non-western and non-Christian voices are not yet as audible as Anthroposophical teachers who look and sound Christian. Furthermore, anyone who accepts Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual-scientific research accepts a Christo-centric view of history and evolution of consciousness. Such a view can, and perhaps will, offer an alternative perspective to Christianity, but it is difficult to imagine a Christo-centric view of the history of the earth and humanity which does not closely resemble and overlap with the view of Christ offered, however imperfectly, by Christianity.
This essay is an attempt to explain why I admit to holding both sides of the polarities introduced above. In this essay I recommend the complementarity of East Coast and West Coast thinking as well as Anthroposophical and transpersonal world views. I am grateful for my fifty years in heady New York and for the past ten years in the transpersonal community of the San Francisco Bay Area. This essay issues from my primary commitment to the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner and from my secondary commitment to the varieties of transpersonal dharma and practice. The sociological difference of East and West Coast is interesting to observe for its subtle influence but the deeper topic is the spiritual paradigm represented by Anthroposophical and transpersonal teachings and practices.
While it would be misleading to say that Anthroposophy embodies East Coast and transpersonal embodies Bay Area sensibilities, the turn of the twentieth century European origin of Anthroposophy and the Asian and pagan origin of the transpersonal worldview continue to affect all who touch one or the other. For ten years I have been trying to integrate the best features of the transpersonal experience, worldview, and practices with Anthroposophy and to introduce Anthroposophical thinking and practice into the transpersonal community. My spiritual home, however, for the past twenty-five years, and no doubt longer in both directions, has been and will be Anthroposophy.
As my Anthroposophical and transpersonal worldviews overlap substantially but not entirely, this essay aims to express a transpersonal Anthroposophy and almost equally an Anthroposophical transpersonalism. As with all comparisons, it is the differences that get disproportionate attention. I will also indicate the strength of the Jewish and Christian elements in East Coast thinking, and the corresponding emphasis in the transpersonal community on a light-paradigm Buddhism -- or, negatively, away from Jewish and Christian monotheism, creationism, and messianism. Entirely consistent with my Anthroposophical worldview, my thinking has been and no doubt will remain Mahayanist and incarnational. I attend to the Krishna of the Bhagavadgita, not only of the Mahabharata; to Buddha of the Mahayana tradition, not only Gotama of the Theravada tradition; and to Christ of the John-Logos tradition, not only Jesus of the western humanist tradition.
As it has been the aim of my dharma for approximately thirty years to transform my personal life in the light of the Mahayana and the transpersonal, I sought the guidance, first, of Sri Aurobindo, whom I have long considered the foremost spiritual teacher of modern India. Without revising that assessment, I turned for guidance to Rudolf Steiner, whom I consider the foremost spiritual guide of the West -- and perhaps of this historical period. It seems to me that Steiner has given a more comprehensive spiritual teaching than anyone else of the last several centuries. I have been working both at deepening my Anthroposophical work as such, and also at creating relationships between my Anthroposophical discipline and the spiritual work of diverse individuals and groups, many of whom are transpersonalists.
The transpersonal movement is based on a panoply of non-ordinary experiences, including those derived from psychotropics and psychedelics, meditation, shamanic practices, intuition, rituals, spiritual journeys, artistic activities, and organizational transformation -- a truly radical empiricism and one deepened by traditions of practice. The entire transpersonal movement has issued primarily from psychology, the most transpersonally advanced western discipline from the 1960’s to the present. The transpersonal movement in turn continues to influence psychology and allied disciplines on behalf of a conception of psyche as profound and proactive. Not properly an ‘ism’ or a community, ‘transpersonal’ is an adjective prefixed to a loose confederacy of ideas, ideals, critiques and practices, as well as cultural (and more typically counter-cultural) mores.
I would propose as a working definition that the term transpersonal refers to a group of worldviews and practices which aim to foster soul transformative experience as well as to deepen and expand awareness of psychic and spiritual realities. It should be added to this definition that the realities which we in the third millennium West consider extraordinary would be perceived as perfectly ordinary in earlier cultures and in cultures at the present time not yet overwhelmed by the modern western paradigm. In recent decades, experiences that were kept out of mainstream cultural and intellectual life have been increasingly recognized as worthy of attention. As positivism and materialism tighten their grip on the intellectual life of the West, so do an increasing number of individuals and communities affirm the interior life. As darkness spreads, individual lights do shine, and need to shine, ever brighter.
In principle, there is no part of Anthroposophy that should be considered incompatible with the ideas and experiences that characterize the transpersonal movement. The degree to which Steiner’s account of the evolution of consciousness is consonant with Ken Wilber’s theory and application of the pre/trans fallacy is one of many areas of agreement between Anthroposophy and the foundational ideas espoused by the most prominent members of the transpersonal community. There are also, however, five important respects in which my commitment to Anthroposophy leads me to make assertions which are not generally included in the worldview most typically associated with transpersonal thinkers:
1. The supersensible reality of Anthroposophy and Anthroposophia;
2. The ontological reality of higher beings;
3. The evolution of the earth and humanity as a framework for epistemology, culture and spiritual discipline;
4. The centrality of Christ -- in cooperation with Buddha and other spiritual beings in service of humanity and the earth;
5. A positive regard for historical religions.
First, as “transpersonal” modifies a group of thinkers with a shared worldview and set of experiences, “Anthroposophical” modifies the teachings, practices, and contributions of Rudolf Steiner and everyone who works out of his dharma. But “Anthroposophical” is also a modifier of a spiritual being whom Steiner refers to as Anthroposophia -- human wisdom, in divine feminine form. In addition to designating a body of ideas and the method of intuitive thinking which ideally access such ideas, Anthroposophy refers to a spiritual influence of particular beings and events in the spiritual world, particularly Christ, Buddha, the Archangel Michael, Christian Rosenkreutz, and Anthroposophia. Throughout the last week of December, 1923, Steiner created a mystery school, with esoteric and exoteric components, continuous with the western Rosicrucian esoteric tradition, in service of these beings.
Anthroposophy is also linked properly and comprehensively to the karmic biography of Rudolf Steiner, an initiate whose teachings and spiritual mission are right for this time. Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was a European initiate who brought a modem scientific method to the study of spiritual realities. Science commanded his attention and respect, but he also taught methods by which to break through its perceived boundaries to a direct knowledge of spirit. Steiner exemplified and taught a way of thinking which is capable of accessing spiritual reality and serves as an antidote to the restrictions on thinking placed so effectively by modern Western epistemology. Steiner’s method fully integrates feeling and willing, activity and receptivity. The esoteric research that Steiner conducted in later life led to many practical initiatives such as biodynamic farming and Waldorf education. His epistemology, as theory and practice, provides the necessary foundation to all of his work on behalf of spiritual and cultural renewal. The Anthroposophical Society that Steiner founded is a modern mystery school continuous with the mystery centers of Egypt and Greece, but using western scientific sensibility and open to all who seek knowledge of higher worlds.
Secondly, my Anthroposophical worldview affirms a full hierarchy and pantheon of real, distinctive, and collaborative spiritual beings, including Krishna, Buddha and Christ, angels and archangels, the tempters Lucifer and Ahriman, and the great spiritual leaders of humanity. Steiner’s accounts of these beings and their influence provide us an opportunity to approach, to contemplate, and to make relationships with higher beings. Such specificity, however, can lead to inflated claims of familiarity. Religious fundamentalists have a tendency to regard their images of such beings as the beings themselves, thereby falling into idolatry, a sin warned against in the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qu’ran. A similar opportunity and temptation attends our relationships to spiritual leaders of humanity -- e.g., Abraham and Moses; John the Evangelist and Mary the Mother; Sankara, Ramanuja, and Sri Ramakrishna; Shantidev and Dogen; Augustine and Aquinas; Dante and St. Francis, as well as Rudolf Steiner. While the personalities and achievements of these figures offer unlimited opportunity for intellectual speculation, it is their essential karmic mission and significance that is efficacious for our spiritual striving.
The task of knowing the essential spiritual work of contemporary spiritual teachers is even more challenging because it is so difficult to penetrate to the spiritual realities of human beings who are familiar in ordinary ways. Among the spiritual leaders of global import in the twentieth century, I would include Sri Aurobindo, M.K. Gandhi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Rudolf Steiner. Close behind these I would mention Black Elk, Swami Yogananda, Sri Ramana Maharshi, J. Krishnamurti, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Martin Buber, C.G. Jung, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Bede Griffiths, Thich Nhat Hahn, and Ram Dass. I mention these names in the hope that such exemplars of the divine-human dialogue will give credibility and encouragement to our seeking and striving. The divine continues to reveal and manifest in myriad ways, and none so helpfully as in the lives of our contemporaries. The study of these figures and their esoteric-spiritual tasks is part of the discernment of karma.
For each of these, and others, I want to know the innermost core of their spiritual life, of their connection to the spiritual world, immanently and transcendentally considered. To meet such figures in their spiritual import is to engage in real, as opposed to nominal, knowing. It is to know the objective reality rather than the mere name, the surface, the conventional signification. Steiner’s esoteric epistemology is both a monism and a realism: a monism in that he defines reality as spirit, and matter as an expression of spirit; a realism in that spirit manifests a vast plurality of real beings and spiritual realities. These beings are all knowable, but only by effort. Steiner observes the medieval theological concept of adequatio: the level of knowing must meet the level of the object to be known. As Goethe observed, light created the eye just as spiritual light created the spiritual eye. To know the spiritual reality of beings past or present, physical and discarnate, requires spiritual -- or realist, not nominalist -- knowing.
Although it would be difficult, and rather to the side of the purpose of this essay, to generalize on the degree to which leading transpersonalist works can be said to be nominalist, I do believe that transpersonal thinkers partake of this nominalism more than I would want to do. Contemporary thought generally, and perhaps particularly psychological thought, regards as constructs of psyche precisely the spiritual ideals, events and individuals that I regard as spiritual facts, as realities that are mediated by, but also transcend, psyche. Among the many kinds of beings to which I ascribe ontological reality -- not infrequently to the dismay of readers and colleagues -- are angels and bodhisattvas; ideals such as Love, Truth, and Freedom; the etheric bodies of planets, animals, and human beings; and the Christ surrounding the Earth.
Names such as Krishna, Buddha, and Christ -- and others, such as Brahman and Divine Mother -- designate single beings, and experiences of them result in quite different descriptions of their characteristics and activities. These higher spiritual beings are experienced by human beings in a wide variety of valid transpersonal ways. By their relative vastness and relative perfection, these beings are closer to the singular divine source than any personal life, human community, or earthly existent. Because accounts of higher beings, including those given by Rudolf Steiner, are mediated by the limitations of human capacities, they are inevitably partial and inadequate.
I see the trans-personal and the trans-sensory as accessible and knowable by human effort and grace. The essential task of our time is to establish a noetic relationship between the immanent and transcendent, the supersensible and sensory. If artists, instead of psychologists, had initiated and articulated the transpersonal movement, its impact would have been more focused on the development of positive capacities and less on therapy. Steiner worked extensively with the arts because he considered art to be the most effective way of establishing a relationship between the supersensory and the world of the senses.
An ideal approach to the supersensible seems to me to include, in addition to artistic activity (including speaking and writing), highly individual experiences such as those celebrated in James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, and community experiences such as those celebrated in the religious philosophy of Josiah Royce. Just as an individual person is necessarily part of many communities, and is unintelligible apart from them, higher spiritual beings whom I and others aspire to know have their being as part of supersensible communities.
Third, it makes a decisive difference for one’s worldview if one adopts a perennialist or evolutionary framework for the interpretation not only of the past, present, and future, and equally of one’s spiritual discipline. I accept in broad outline the evolutionism of Steiner, including particularly the significance of Christ in the evolution of the earth and humanity. This framework might be the most important divide between Anthroposophy and virtually all transpersonal perspectives. In Steiner’s view, truths, such as those of the great religious traditions, are not permanently true, and certainly not true in the same ways, as one historical epoch succeeds another. The truth, meaning, and effectiveness of ideas, as well as beings, including higher beings, are all decisively affected by their evolving contexts.
Steiner’s account of the evolution of consciousness is not a simple modern Western view of progress, such that later is better; it is a double process. As human consciousness has expanded and deepened with respect to knowledge, complexity, and inventiveness, and continues to do so, it will continue, proportionately and appropriately, to lose the intimacy and directness of its relationship to the divine. In Steiner’s double evolutionary process, earlier consciousness (shamanic, for example) means closer to spiritual realities and later consciousness (particularly modern Western) means more alienated, individualized, and materialistic. This problem of modern Western alienated consciousness, however, provides the opportunity for humanity to share freely and deliberately in the creation of spiritual-sensory relationships.
As humanity lost its spiritual home and innate capacities (which Owen Barfield refers to as original participation), it also gained capacities. In the course of several millennia of human development, humanity experienced greater independence from the divine and thereby realized correspondingly greater opportunities for deliberate relationships between the human and divine. Steiner considered the twentieth century to be a time of exceptional spiritual darkness -- and thereby an exceptional opportunity for the development of human wisdom and human will. To meet this challenge, Steiner bequeathed a host of spiritual insights and practices under the heading of Anthroposophy or spiritual science.
Steiner’s account of the evolution of consciousness does not commit what Ken Wilber refers to as the pre/trans fallacy -- i.e., it does not reduce or prefer the pre-personal to the trans-personal (by whatever terms). Steiner essentially holds that even though the present might be terrible and the past might appear to be ideal, earlier modes of consciousness should nevertheless not be confused with, nor preferred to, contemporary modes of consciousness. Similarly, higher modes of consciousness, though perhaps painful or terrifying, should nevertheless neither be reduced to nor sacrificed in favor of lower modes of consciousness.
Steiner developed and recommended as a spiritual exercise a discipline, which he called symptomatology, for the study of the characteristics of each age, event, and biography under review. Steiner’s advice concerning the karma of consciousness is analogous to Krishna’s advice to Arjuna -- namely, that despite the pain of Arjuna’s duty as a warrior in the line of battle, it was nevertheless right for him to do his own caste duty, however poorly, than to do well the duty of another caste. So too, it is better to face the task of this age, which Steiner takes to be the cultivation of free and loving thinking, than to revert to the consciousness of a previous age.
Fourth, I see the Christ as the central event in the evolution of consciousness. I am convinced that Steiner’s rendering of the evolution of consciousness will need to be very significantly extended so as to include, for their respective contributions, shamanic and indigenous consciousness, east Asian thought, and the vast research generated by a half century of anthropology, but I am not inclined to reduce or revise Steiner’s account of the role of Christ in cosmic and human history which he refers to as the Mystery of Golgotha. The transpersonal movement, by contrast, seems as focused on the spiritual teachings of Asia as the Theosophists of the past century and a quarter. The transpersonal movement has exhibited a natural preference for Buddhism, and particularly for forms of Buddhism with a light paradigmatic commitment.
The life of Jesus seems to me to have been an instrument similar to that of Gotama. After approximately fifteen years with little or no conscious relationship to the reality of Christ, I began to absorb the voluminous and unique teachings on Christ to be found in the writings and lectures of Rudolf Steiner. As a result of these works, supplemented by the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, and Bede Griffiths, I now view with gratitude the union of Jesus and Christ for three years that made possible a redemptive sacrifice on behalf of the evolution of human, and particularly Western, consciousness. If I do not fully accept the fundamental premise of Buddhism (particularly the first of the four noble truths -- that all existence is dukkha) it is at least partly because the “good news” of the Incarnation described in the New Testament, and particularly its double message of vulnerability and forgiveness, keeps breaking in.
I consider my personal life to be intensely important not, as I ordinarily think, because it is mine, but, as I know transpersonally, because it expresses, however dimly, the reality of Logos -- Christ, Buddha, Krishna, and Tao. I am relatively more awake to the reality and transformative power of Logos-Christ in history and enveloping the earth, and of Buddha, the preeminent source of wisdom and compassion prior to Christ, and less awake to other spiritual beings, such as Tao and Brahman, and beings to be contacted in shamanic journeys. As a result of study and meditative reflection, I can say that Buddha and Christ are real to me, but far less vivid for me than I would want them to be. Such beings are more real for me than they presumably are for those who subscribe to a standard modem or postmodern paradigm, but less real for me than they are for those whom William James referred to as “the experts” -- converts, mystics, saints, Gnostics, sages, and initiates.
Fifth, just as transpersonal thinkers and teachers are currently attempting to revision psychology, so might they attempt to revision religious traditions as we know them. To do so, transpersonal thinkers who often sound dismissive of religious traditions might heed Huston Smith (whose exposition of religious traditions seems to me unsurpassed in our time) in seeing in these traditions what he refers to as the “traction of history.” Now and in the future, religious traditions -- including particularly Asian traditions about which transpersonalists tend to be reactively uncritical -- must die not to their rich diversity, sources, or institutions, but to their penchant for atavism, misogyny, and intolerance. Let pragmatism and pluralism help religious traditions replace anachronistic and dogmatic prescriptions in favor of tolerance needed both by adherents of religious traditions and by those who might be adherents if religious communities more faithfully exhibited their espoused ideals.
The first of many positive consequences of this change would be the general acceptance of the yogas that Krishna taught in the Bhagavadgita: spiritual thinking, selfless action, worship, and meditation. A second consequence would be the general acceptance of the dharma of Buddha and his followers. The life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, made luminous by suffering, and his teachings made efficacious by compassion, might then serve as evidence that spirit manifests itself for all humankind. A third such consequence would be the general acknowledgment that the Christ (Logos), through Its incarnation in Jesus, as depicted in the New Testament and witnessed currently by a third of the human community, decisively brought and continues to bring redemptive grace into human consciousness and into the earth.
Religious traditions can trivialize and distort by dogma and idolatry, but they can also sustain the mysterious relationship between the spiritual and the human. In my view, the spiritual has broken through with particular force and depth in at least these instances -- but in many others as well: the revelation of YHWH as “I AM” to Moses; the revelation of the yogas by Krishna to Arjuna recounted in the Bhagavadgita; the way of overcoming suffering by Buddha; the life and teachings of Christ from his baptism through His resurrection and the descent of the Spirit; the reality of the Avalokiteshvara (the bodhisattva of compassion) in the life of Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
It is an essential component of my Anthroposophy (as well as a karmically significant part of biography) that I find deep exoteric and esoteric truths in life and reality of Christ, some of which have been saved and others distorted by Christianity. I hold that as human beings we are born of the Ground of Being (traditionally called the Father), die and resurrect through the Logos, and are drawn to the future by the Spirit. I am convinced that the “persons” of the Trinity should no longer be understood in gender terms and that the divine feminine is emerging in our time from a deeply spiritual, ontologically real source.
Because I need help in my effort to experience, understand and express the reality of Christ and other higher beings who work in harmony with Christ on behalf of humanity and the earth, I practice some of Steiner’s many recommendations -- such as meditation, working with mantras, esoteric reading, and regular invocation of the dead -- helpful for developing a noetic relationship with the spiritual in the universe. I supplement my Anthroposophical practice by participation in the Christian sacramental life made possible by Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Experience of the Christian sacraments, particularly when deepened by scholarship, can be profoundly revelatory of a positive relationship between the sensory and the supersensory realms.
© Robert McDermott
Robert McDermott, PhD, was president and is currently professor of philosophy and religion at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He was formerly professor and chair of the department of philosophy at Baruch College, CUNY. His publications include Radhakrishnan, The Essential Aurobindo, and The Essential Steiner.
This essay originally appeared in LapisMagazine.org in 2001.