Embodied Spirituality in a Sacred World by Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn. Embodied Spirituality in a Sacred World. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2003. Hardcover, xi + 235 pages.

Michael Washburn, a professor of philosophy at Indiana University at South Bend, has made significant contributions to transpersonal theory and is an important critic of Ken Wilber’s work. In this book he develops his thoughts on a spiral model of spirituality, which he first articulated in Transpersonal Psychology in Psychoanalytic Perspective (SUNY Press, 1994). In particular, he makes an effort to establish that mature spirituality is a grounded, this-worldly, “embodied” spirituality and that the spiral model is free of what Ken Wilber calls “pre-trans fallacies.” This has been a debating point between these two great transpersonal theorists for a number of years, and so not surprisingly Washburn deals with Wilber in the opening section of his work. But then he quickly drops polemics and focuses on mapping out his own spiral model.

The main bone of contention between Washburn and Wilber is that the latter scholar pointedly rejects any spiral model in explaining spiritual development. According to Wilber , spiritual growth proceeds hierarchically and there is no revisiting of earlier ground. Washburn, leaning strongly on psychoanalysis, equally strongly argues that what Wilber calls “u-turns” are essential to psychospiritual development.

I do not wish to enter this long-standing fray in the context of a book review, but it is relevant to point out for the general reader that Wilber’s work comprises—as he himself clarified—four phases. So, when trying to comprehend the Washburn-Wilber dialogue, it seems appropriate to know which Wilber is being talked about. To confuse matters more, Wilber recently availed himself of the spiral concept but applies it in a way distinct from Washburn’s usage.

As for the present book, it certainly reiterates and fortifies Washburn’s earlier position, and it is a position that definitely contradicts Wilber’s hierarchical model. Washburn argues his points very eloquently. He believes that in order to develop at the trans- egoic level, a person must consciously return to the pre- egoic level, which must be properly integrated to reveal trans- egoic features.

While it is always possible to access trans- egoic states of consciousness without having done the psychological groundwork envisioned by Washburn, such spiritual realizations would appear to be incomplete. Since I have made this argument in my book Holy Madness (to be reissued in a revised edition in 2006), I will refrain from repeating myself here. Basically, I would agree with Washburn that if we want to see reality as it is, we must deal with the blind spots of our psyche. Wilber would not deny this either.

How important is it really to think of transpersonal reality as being at the bottom of the psyche (or mind) or at the top? The same work needs to happen in order to realize what Washburn calls the “Dynamic Ground.” He is clearly right in arguing that when the power of this Ground has been awakened, the body-mind is filled with and utterly transformed by it.

I must, however, take issue with Washburn’s identification of the kundalini as “libido.” The serpent power, as the Tantric texts make clear, is a psychospiritual force and not mere sexual energy. It manifests in various ways depending on the “obstructions” it encounters while become effective in the body-mind. Thus kundalini at the level of the second psychoenergetic center (the svadhishthana-cakra) assumes a sexual aspect so long as it cannot rise all the way to the crown center, which is its true destination. All such so-called “ kundalini phenomena” are signs of blockages within the body-mind. Where such blockages are not present, the kundalini awakening occurs quite naturally and without the fanfare of experiences. It simply manifests as spiritual enlightenment.

An even more important point concerns Washburn’s assertion that upon spiritual realization, a new kind of ego emerges that feels at home in a body that is filled with the energy of the Ground. This may be so at the initial level of higher realization. Upon full realization, according to the testimony of the Tantric tradition which Washburn refers to, there is no ego. The ego is an illusion. Therefore, strictly speaking, it cannot be married to Spirit, as Washburn conceives it. But these are truly elusive matters, which will be talked about for a long time.

The importance of Washburn’s contribution lies in that, based on psychoanalytic theory and experience, it can shed valuable light on the gray area of integrating pre- egoic psychic “stuff” into a conscious spiritual practice that is not just a head trip but embodied spirituality.

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