Sunyata: Transcending the Stream

Photo by Susan Gordon.
Photo by Susan Gordon.

Dedicated to Eugene Taylor, Ph.D., who would have celebrated his 67th birthday today, October 28, 2013.

Within the framework of personality and consciousness understood by existential-humanistic and transpersonal psychologists, and non-Western epistemology (Berdyaev, 1944, 1951; James, 1902; Jung, 1933; Maslow, 1966, 1970, 1971; May, Engel, & Ellenberger, 1958; Taylor, 1978, Watts, 1991), we live not only along the lifespan horizontally, but in an ever-expanding and contacting experience of states along a vertical plane in the immediate moment. How does this inform psychological science?

In his metaphysical doctrine of radical empiricism, which focused on the meaning and importance of experience, William James championed the centrality of the individual’s unitive, transforming experiences in his doctrine of noetic pluralism and his call for a cross-cultural study of subliminal or mystical states in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Carl Jung (1933) defined three stages of human development—the unfolding of psychic life from biological birth to death: 1) “recognizing or knowing,” an archaic or chaotic state; 2) “developed ego-complex,” a monistic or dualistic state, and 3) the “awareness of the divided or dualistic self” (p. 8). Jung’s theories were built on the idea that it was possible to experience a higher, more refined state of awareness than the normal waking state. If the unconscious could be recognized as a co-determining quantity along with the conscious, the center of gravity of the total personality shifted its position from the narcissistically-oriented ego (as center of consciousness), and became located in a hypothetical point between the conscious and unconscious, called the self. The path to this experience lay in an active exploration of the unconscious.

In Slavery and Freedom (1944), Russian existentialist Nicolas Berdyaev describes three forms of time, or modes of existence in which all people live—cosmic, historical, and existential. Cosmic time, nature’s cyclic rhythmic time, exists in the past, present, and future as objectivized time, which is subject to division into parts. Symbolized by the circle, cosmic time is the motion of the earth around the sun, the calendar, the clock, and the cycles of birth and death. Cosmic time exists, in an objectivized sense, because movement and change take place. In cosmic time, the present falls between the past and the future. It annihilates the past in order to be itself annihilated by the future and is not interested in the fate of personality.

Historical time, symbolized by the straight line, operates in cosmic time at a deeper stratum of existence; it reaches both forward to determine the disclosure of meaning and backward through memory and tradition to reveal the inner sense of the periodicity and passage of time. In historical time, the past and future exist in the same moment. History establishes a link between periods through memory and gives birth to illusion as it searches for the fullness of achievement and the perfection of meaning. It cannot find completeness in the present; the illusions of the past and future exist simultaneously, and it is thus enslaving to the personality.

However, existential time, the individual’s inward, subjective, qualitative experience (Berdyaev, 1951) moves us from the realm of objectification into the realm of spirit where there is no distinction between the past and the future. Instead, time is dependent on one’s inward change in the intensity of the moment. Berdyaev (1944) describes this transcendent moment through the spatial image of a vertical line creating a temporal point along a horizontal flat surface, where a breakthrough from existential to cosmic time takes place. Paul Tillich described this point as Kairos, Jean-Paul Sartre as the existential Now, Martin Buber as the I-Thou relationship of faith, and Buddhist, Hindu, and Tantric theologies, respectively, as ekaksana, kālas-cākalas-ca, and samādhi, or timelessness. This event in existential time is a symbolic exteriorization and objectivization of what is not expressible in an object. Creativity, ecstasy, and suffering occur vertically, not horizontally.

The psychological thought of Rollo May stands at the intellectual crossroads of humanistic psychology (traditions of James and Allport), and European existential and phenomenological psychology (traditions of Kierkegaard, Buber, Tillich, Jaspers, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) in reaction to psychoanalysis in America. In “Creativity and the Unconscious,” a critique of American academic psychology, May (1999) notes that Westerners are afraid of the unconscious and of irrational experience and out of fear, put tools and techniques between themselves and the world of the unconscious, but the creativity of science is bound up with the capacity of the human being to create freely in “the realm of spirit” (p. 34).

In Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology, May, Angel, and Ellenberger (1958) discuss three modes of the world distinguished by existential analyst’s: Umwelt = “world around;” the biological world; the environment, Mitwelt = “with world;” the world of beings of one’s own kind or fellow humans, and Eigenwelt = “own world” the mode of relationship to one’s self (p. 61). Placing time in the center of the psychological picture in Eigenwelt, the most profound human experiences occur more in the dimension of time than of space.

In Motivation and Personality (1970), Maslow used the term self-actualization to refer to the individual’s desire for self-fulfillment, the tendency to become actualized in what he or she was potentially. In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (1971), Maslow described various meaning of the word “transcendence” with regard to the ego. among them, the “Taoistic feeling of letting things happen, rather than of making them happen; of being happy and accepting of the state of nonstriving, nonwishing, noninterference, noncontrolling, and nonwillling; the state of having rather than not having” (p 277). In The Psychology of Science (1966), Maslow applied these concepts in identifying a subjective, Taoistic, receptive, non-interfering mode of conducting science that emphasized the phenomenological, holistic, empirical (non-a priori) nature of investigation.

In Nature, Man and Woman (1991), Alan Watts spoke to the dualism between spirit and nature in Western thought as a “symbolic correlation between man’s attitude to nature and woman” (p. 11). As he pointed out, Western science operates on two premises derived from monotheism and the Newtonian views of the universe. While our experience of nature is relational and based on feeling and sensing, it assumes that there is a universal law of nature—an order of things and events that can be formulated in thought by reducing it to categories representing an atomistic, disintegrated, and departmentalized view of nature.

The Western scientist does not see nature, they sees only by means of instruments of measurement and thus identifies himself with his mind or consciousness (Watts, 1991, p. 66). However, “the most important scientific insights, or intuitions, come through the nonthinking mode of awareness—the creative power of wu-nein, or no-thought, and kuan, or contemplation without straining attention” (p. 67). From the Chinese perspective, “Everything is Tao”—an integrated, harmonious, universal process from which it is impossible to deviate. One cannot get anything out of it because it is impossible to take up a position from which to reach in and grasp, nor can one deviate from it by seeking it, for there is no point outside from which to take an attitude (p. 121). Watts argues, that the eternal is the transient—the changing panorama of sense experience is not just a sum of appearing and disappearing things, but a stable pattern or relationship manifested as and by transient forms without fixed shape or definite rules (Tse) having a universal pattern or principle of order (Li), which cannot be observed when regarded as an object apart from oneself (p. 74). To observe silently, openly, and without seeking any particular result (Kuan) signifies a mode of direct observation and perception in which there is no duality of seer and seen; there is simply the seeing—not a mind empty of content, but a mind empty of mind, or Satori, the effortless, spontaneous, and sudden dawning of a realization.

Through this sense that everything is Tao, the very principle of transformation itself, one is initiated from “the world of clock time to the world of real time, in which events come and go of themselves in unforced succession—timed by themselves and not by the mind” (Watts, 1991, p. 205). This is the basis of mental and spiritual wholeness. The ultimate meaning of sunyata, the emptiness of the stream, enables the person to experience heightened states of awareness. Psychologically speaking, we do not escape from suffering into enlightenment, but rather we become enlightened when we realize that the world of suffering and the world of enlightenment are but two perspectives for looking at the same ultimate reality (Taylor, 1978). Attachment to thoughts and feelings and concern with the mental construction of the stream “is a vehicle for its own transcendence,” (p. 52) limited only by the state of consciousness of the person defining it.

Berdyaev, N. (1944). Slavery and freedom. New York, NY: Scribner’s.

Berdyaev, N. (1951). Dream and reality. New York, NY: Macmillan.

James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York, NY: Longmans, Green and Company.

Jung, C. G. (1933). Modern man in search of soul. London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1916)

Maslow, A. H. (1966). The psychology of science. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY: Viking.

May, R. R. (1999). Creativity and the unconscious. Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, 24, 33-39.

May, R. R., Angel, E., & Ellenberger, H. F. (1958). Existence: A new dimension in psychiatry and psychology. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Taylor, E. I. (1978). Asian Interpretations: Transcending the stream of consciousness. In K. Pope and J. Singer (Eds.), The stream of consciousness: Scientific investigations into the flow of human experience (pp. 31-54). New York, NY: Plenum

Watts, A. (1991). Nature man and woman. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1958)

— Susan Gordon

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