Words of Caution for the Inner Journey of Self-Transformation

The three systems of self-transformation outlined in my book and recent blog essays offer examples of comprehensive psychospiritual approaches to the inner journey of self-transformation. The transformative practices highlighted throughout my book and essays are elements of these three and other systems of self-transformation. Thus, by themselves and isolated from the system or school of which they are part, transformative practices are limited and potentially harmful for numerous reasons.

Caution sign citation–By Fry1989 eh? – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20449676

Transformative practices isolated from the systems or schools in which they are embedded are limited and potentially harmful because the psychospiritual frameworks in which they are part provide the container for sensemaking and integration of potentially disruptive experiences that may arise from the use of these powerful practices. Remember, the purpose of these practices is inner transformation. Thus, disruption of one’s inner and, most likely, outer life is highly likely and desirable from the perspective of fulfilling this purpose. However, although such disruption is uncomfortable, the degree of discomfort must not exceed the capacities of aspirants to integrate the experiences into life in a way that allows them to function in the world. Thus, unrooted transformative practices have little developmental value and may cause harm.

Additional dangers often referred to as spiritual emergencies, include obsession with mystical experiences rather than disciplined attention to steady incremental inner shifts occurring over time through the difficult and often emotionally painful work of consistent and persistent self-observation and work with transformative practices. This lure is so seductive and persuasive that American psychologist and spiritual teacher, John Welwood coined the term, “spiritual bypassing” to warn contemporary seekers of this potential pitfall. 

Furthermore, people may be in danger of ego-inflation and self-aggrandizement arising from exhilarating experiences when using transformative practices. It is critical to note that proper motivation (i.e., desire for development for constructive, preferably virtuous, reasons), humility, and a commitment to ethical living are essential elements of the three systems of self-transformation outlined, as well as the ancient-wisdom traditions highlighted in Chapter 5, and the mindfulness-based interventions and Buddhism discussed in Chapters 1 and 2. In addition, the potential for self-inflation and other forms of self-deception significantly diminish with the assistance of a spiritual friend, coach, director, or community.

The literature on spiritual emergencies also warns of the potential for physical symptoms such as uncontrollable shaking. Accompanying the growing field of transpersonal psychology is increasing awareness and understanding of these types of phenomenon such that more therapists can help clients integrate these experiences in a healthy and productive manner that facilitates growth and does not hinder it. After all, ideally, “spiritual experience is viewed as desirable and spiritual seeking is seen as natural, healthy, and in the final analysis, the only truly fulfilling answer to the challenge of existence” (Cortright, 1997, p. 158) This is certainly the case when the experience builds slowly and incrementally over time, or a sudden powerful experience arises after a solid practice and support foundation is in place to facilitate healthy integration.

Another word of caution is that if you join a psycho-spiritual group associated with any of the three contemporary systems outlined in Chapter 5 or others and the group promotes exclusion or intolerance of people outside the group, leave that group immediately and find one that does not. Exclusion or intolerance toward people outside the group is a flashing warning light of cultish tendencies. All aspirants need to avoid such groups as they are highly inconsistent with the inner journey to self-actualization and Self-realization. Also, if affiliation with a psychospiritual group or community places sexual expectations, excessive financial demands, or attempts to control the personal freedom of its members in any way, quickly move on and out!

Furthermore, while these three systems work with the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the human experience, they emphasize the psychological dimension of the spectrum. Consequently, at some point along the journey, albeit different for everyone, typically after many years of consistent practice, it may become helpful, perhaps necessary, to pick a defined spiritual path (i.e., root oneself in an established religion). I acknowledge that for many 21st-century seekers, perhaps those of us who identify as “spiritual not religious” (an inner struggle of which I am quite familiar) may reject the previous statement. This is quite understandable given the painful failings of our religious institutions over the years. However, I have come to realize that I have no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I invite you to consider this as well.  

As highlighted, many, if not all the world’s great religions have inner (esoteric) traditions as well as outer (exoteric) traditions. Most of us are familiar with the exoteric versions of the world religions, which typically emphasize rituals, beliefs, morals, doctrines, and creeds. In contrast, the inner traditions emphasize self-transformation and ultimately the realization of unity with and love of all life and one’s supreme identity and union with God/Spirit/Light. Others may be more at home on an interspiritual or multifaith path which emphasizes the sharing of transformative or union experiences across the religious traditions.

Whether one takes an interspiritual, an esoteric religious, or universal and nonreligious psychospiritual path, it is important to emphasize that they are all maps for the journey of self-transformation; they are not the territory. The territory is one’s life, lived and experienced such that one’s direct experiences of increasing awareness, maturity, and compassion become the barometer of the rightness of one’s chosen path as depicted by the 10 developmental themes of mindful leaders presented in Chapter Four.

However, the purpose of this book is not to provide an overview of the inner traditions of the great religions, which I am not equipped to do; rather I offer a cautionary note as it relates to the inner journey of self-transformation. If the reader would like to explore any or all of the inner traditions mentioned here, I offer a few possible references in the Additional Resources section along with resources for The Fourth Way, Psychosynthesis, Integral Life Practice, and Mindfulness.

I humbly acknowledge that while the inner journey to wholeness takes consistent and persistence “right effort” as emphasized throughout this book, there is a mysterious dimension of the journey that is completely beyond human effort. While there are different names for this mysterious dimension, I will simply call it grace as taught in the Christian tradition. Grace invites surrender, patience, humility, and detachment as it has little to nothing to do with human effort and more to do with God’s/Spirit’s/Light’s infinite love for us and all creation (see Figure).

Source: Frizzell, Denise (2018). Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders

Note: This essay is an adapted excerpt from my 2018 book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders.”

Greater Tolerance for Ambiguity: A Developmental Theme of Mindful Leaders

Integral Life Practice: A Comprehensive and Holistic Approach to Leader Self-Transformation

Integral Life Practice or ILP is a comprehensive and holistic approach to leader self-transformation rooted in integral theory, developed by U.S. philosopher and writer, Kenneth Wilber II (born 1949). Wilber born in Oklahoma City, currently resides in Denver, CO, where he continues to study, write, and present his work primarily through the Internet and Colorado-based outlets, albeit on a limited basis due to a severe and chronic illness. He is the author of more than 30 books and countless articles on consciousness, mysticism, psychology, science, religion, and his integral theory, a comprehensive synthesis of Eastern and Western knowledge.

Wilber refers to his version of integral theory as AQAL, the abbreviated acronym for all quadrants, all levels (all lines, all states, all types, etc.). The elements of quadrants and levels refer to the key explanatory principles Wilber uses to examine the development of individual mind, body, soul, and spirit in self, culture, community, and nature. The four quadrants include the Upper Left or individual interior, the Upper Right or individual exterior, the Lower Left or collective interior, and the Lower Right or collective exterior (see Figure). Wilber further simplifies the four quadrants with the “three basic domains” of I, we, and it.

Figure: Integral Theory and AQAL

ILP, informed by Wilber’s AQAL, is an approach to enhanced personal wellness, development, self-actualization, and spiritual awakening. ILP addresses the whole person and all of life through four basic modules of practice and five auxiliary modules. The four foundational modules are body, mind, spirit, and shadow. The five auxiliary models are ethics, work, emotions, relationships, and soul (see Table).

An ILP approach to self-transformation does not include core practices per se. Rather, the ILP framework invites adherents to select at least one practice from each of the four core modules and to add practices from the auxiliary modules, as highlighted in the Table above. The practices listed in the matrix offer example practices for each module; however, options are not limited to those listed. Developers of the ILP approach outline five principles on which it builds:

·          The Ultimate in Cross-Training, working synergistically in body, mind, and spirit in self, culture, and nature.
·          Modular, allowing you to mix and match practices in specific areas or modules.
·          Scalable, adjusting to however much—or little—time you have, down to 1-Minute Modules.
·          Customizable to your lifestyle: you design a program that works for you and adapt it on an as-needed basis.
·          Integral, based on AQAL technology, an All Quadrant, All Level framework for mapping the many capacities inherent in human beings (See Integral Life Practice by Wilber, Patten, Leonard, & Morelli, 2008).

Furthermore, all modules include Gold Star Practices, recommended as “distillations of traditional practices minus the religious and cultural baggage” (Wilber, Leonard, & Morelli, 2008). Also, quick versions of the Gold Star Practices, 1-Minute Modules, are offered for times when practitioners are pressed for time.

Table. Integral Life Practice Matrix

Source: The Integral Life Practice Matrix, by K. Wilber, 2007, retrieved from http://www.kenwilber.com/personal/ILP/MyILP.html

Integral Life Practice along with the Fourth Way, and Psychosynthesis (see previous essays) represent three different contemporary and universal systems of self-transformation. Mindfulness meditation, the transformative practice I focused on in my 2015 research and highlighted in Chapters 3 and 4 (of my book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders), is part of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism as well as an element of a growing body of secular Western approaches to stress management (e.g., Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), and psychotherapy (e.g., Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Acceptance Commitment Therapy). While a primary purpose of this essay and my book is to inspire and support readers in embarking upon the inner journey of self-transformation, doing so is not without risks. Thus, I offer words of caution in my book and will also do so in a future blog essay.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from my book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders.”

The Fourth Way: A Modernly-Ancient Path of Self-Transformation

The Fourth Way is a term used to refer to a body of teachings and practices with roots in the work of G. I. Gurdjieff (1866?–1949). Gurdjieff, born in Armenia, is a bit of an enigma and controversial figure, but writings about his life consistently report that he studied various schools of religious and philosophical thought as a youth and traveled extensively as a young adult throughout the East (reportedly areas of Central Asia and the Middle East) in search of spiritual truths. He then returned to Russia and began sharing what he had learned and experienced. He developed The Fourth Way as a path of self-development and transformation that integrated singular paths of the body (the fakirs of Sufism), mind (the yogis of Hinduism), and emotions (the monks of Christianity) that he studied and encountered in his travels.

Shortly after he returned to Russia, Gurdjieff met P. D. Ouspensky who became one of his most well-known pupils until they parted ways in 1918. Ouspensky then relocated to England and became a teacher of The Fourth Way in his own right, through lectures and writings. Gurdjieff, whose life was greatly impacted by social upheavals and military conflicts (revolutions and World Wars I & II) traveled and taught in Germany, England, and France throughout the 1920–1940s and visited the United States during that period as well. He had two serious and life-threatening auto accidents during this period but recovered from both. Gurdjieff died in France in 1949.

The Fourth Way teachings are powerful and highly supportive of self-transformation. The Fourth Way posits that the majority of people live in mechanical or sleep states. Consequently, most of humanity resides in lives of quiet desperation, filled with suffering, and destructive habitual patterns of thinking, speaking, and acting. According to The Fourth Way and other systems of self-transformation, this “fundamental infirmity of man” referenced by the founder of Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli (see January 2019 blog essay or TDT), is so because we do not remember who we are and why we are here because of longstanding dysfunctional patterns, particularly overidentification, negativity, and internal considering; blocking self-remembering (or self-awareness).

Overidentification is a fundamental obstacle to self-remembering and occurs whenever we lose ourselves to an identity such as a belief, characteristic, demographic (e.g., race, gender or political affiliation), personality, or role. Overidentification occurs so unconsciously and quickly that most of us are completely unaware when (which is most of the time), we are stuck in overidentification. Indications of being in a state of overidentification include feelings of defensiveness, anger, resentment, self-pity, and self-indignation. When overidentified, one can easily feel they are in a constant state of attack, which locks us into a toxic state of negativity.

Negativity refers to thoughts, emotions, words, and actions that constrict our minds and hearts and cause harm to ourselves and others. Negativity is so toxic because it infects our inner and outer environments and locks us into destructive patterns. Negativity closely aligns with overidentification and internal considering. Internal considering refers to a degree of self-absorption and narcissism that sees life only from the impact events will have on oneself, with little or no concern for the impact events may have on others or our planet. The consequences of living in a state of sleep and being trapped in overidentification, negativity, and internal considering include misery, suffering, loss of energy and power, a sense of disconnection from oneself, others, and God/Spirit/Light, and ultimately, violence.

To begin to awaken from sleep and cultivate self-awareness requires self-observation, the main transformative practice associated with The Fourth Way. Writings and teachings of The Fourth Way offer numerous practical exercises to cultivate self-observation, including an activity frequently referred to as “divided attention.” Divided attention instructs aspirants to periodically place attention on their inner experience and outer experience of a select phenomenon. For example, as a practitioner enters a doorway, he/she would place attention on an aspect of their internal experience (e.g., thoughts, bodily sensations, or feelings/emotions) as well as an aspect of the external experience (as experienced by the five senses). Repeated practice of such exercises builds one’s capacity for self-awareness such that over time, the practitioner can eventually use divided attention in more challenging life circumstances (e.g., an interpersonal conflict) thereby increasing the likelihood of constructive social interactions and outcomes.

Essential to all self-observation exercises is an objective and nonjudgmental attitude toward all noticings or observations. A nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s observations allows a healthy disidentification from them as well as an expanding psychological space in which to choose more constructive states from which thoughts and actions can arise. Over time, sensitivity to and dislike of negative states and attraction to positive states act as motivational forces for the ongoing relinquishment of lower or negative states in favor of more positive states.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from my book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders.”