Transpersonal Theory & the Astrological Mandala: An Evolutionary Model by Gerry Goddard
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Theory and Practice

Though long divorced, the spiritual quest for liberation and the philosophical quest for understanding are at best converging within the complex field of transpersonal studies, not as a fusion but as a clearly differentiated relationship. When formulating an overarching transpersonal theory like the synthesizing astrological account we've constructed here, we need to acknowledge such a project's inevitable partiality. The distinction between practice and theory—or in terms of the higher potentialities of psyche, the distinction between pure meditative action/being and insight1—constitutes a polarity which refuses to be subsumed within any grand evolutionary overview, any theory of the development and history of consciousness. It is only by acknowledging this fundamental distinction that we can avoid the accusation of asserting another totalizing theory.

Despite the now common assertion that 'all facts are theory laden', a claim that decisively challenges the stable distinction between map and territory, it nevertheless remains the case that while we can think about anything, our thinking about a thing is not the thing, even when the 'thing' is another idea. Although we can have a theory about practice, our theory is not the practice we are theorizing about (this point notwithstanding that in certain transpersonal domains—e.g. psychedelic and perinatal—maps and territories indeed become irretrievably intermingled). Notwithstanding John Dewey's general identification of knowledge and action, this is no trivial distinction since it is somehow fundamental to what it is to be human and lies at the core of many difficulties and confusions about the nature of life and reality.2 In fact the duality which has dogged us in the modern era (an era marked by the dominance of the conceptual) was formulated through a dangerously unbalanced emphasis on the mind/theory pole over the action/practice pole. As Heidegger characterized Western culture since Plato as an excessively detached and theoretical stance toward things, the Cartesian distinction between mind and body, subject and object, observer and observed, is a theory that has actually shaped (but also reflected) our fundamental way of experiencing ourselves and our world—not only through its dualistic terms and its resultant naturalism, but through its final establishment of theory as dominant over practice. Growing out of the ‘theoretical-as-primary’ stand divorced from the ‘life-as-lived-moment-to-moment’ stand, is the apparently unbridgeable distinction between fact and value, ‘is’ and ‘ought’, science and morals—the terms of an unbalanced emphasis on the theory pole. Such a theoretical hegemony has given rise to the meta-ethical relativism and philosophical skepticism of the late modern period, a process which in its one-sidedness has actually contributed to the rise of irrationalism—religious fundamentalism in the West (particularly the US) and, largely in reaction to Western cultural imperialism and economic hegemony, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in the Middle East. The endpoint of this same process in terms of high culture has been the linguistic cul de sac of radical postmodernism.

The way of action has consequently been largely shaped and subsumed within the way of theory even while action (and immediate experience soaked with prescriptions and valuations: conation inextricably entwined with cognition) has imagined itself to be free of 'irrelevant' theory and philosophy. Various instrumental, utilitarian, 'common sense', 'practical', mundane, and material mind sets have tried to set themselves above theory when in fact they are shot through with poorly articulated theory: consider the way of action—realpolitic, global capitalism, the technological juggernaut—which dominates our lives threatening the human race and countless other species. In fact, as says Theodor Adorno:

Theory and practice do not slot into each other neatly…a kind of tension obtains between the two. Theory that bears no relation to any conceivable practice either degenerates into an empty, complacent and irrelevant game, or, what is even worse, it becomes a mere component of culture, in other words, a piece of dead scholarship…Conversely…a practice that simply frees itself from the shackles of theory and rejects thought as such on the grounds of its own supposed superiority will sink to the level of activity for its own sake. (See biblio).

But despite the complex interplay of theory and practice, the distinction is not mysterious since we all know the difference between thinking about acting and being called, always situationally, to act in the moment: to carefully and securely plan, then to be launched into the indeterminate situation with instinctual immediacy.

When, after the fact, we try to translate concrete experience into theoretical frameworks, we fall severely short of the mark (even though such 'concrete experience' is itself partly conceptually informed). Not only from the general existentialist perspective would action stand decisively prior to theory. For the vitalist philosopher Henry Bergson, both Platonic and mechanistic ideas—as different as they are—were the product of an intellect approaching reality from a 'cinematographical' perspective giving us "the vision that a systematic intellect obtains of the universal becoming when regarding it by means of snapshots, taken at intervals of its flowing." Such an approach reduces "things to ideas"and resolves "becoming into its principle moments, each of these being...screened from the laws of time and...plucked out of eternity." (pp342,343). According to Bergson, ontologically prior to such reflective dissection is the direct actional intuition of a radically temporal unfolding where 'we do not think real time...but we live it, because life transcends intellect." (p53). Consequently, "the free act is incommensurable with the is of the essence of reasoning to shut us up in the circle of the given....but action breaks the circle." (p54, 211).

But nowhere do philosophical theory and actual experience seem more discordant than in the attempt to map the realms of the transpersonal and to describe how the transpersonal and the personal levels are related. It is precisely the point at which experience goes transpersonal where the capacity of theory to grasp, express or reflect 'actuality' is most decisively challenged. Transpersonal theorists are trying to come up with adequate maps which is like trying to capture both sides of the theory/practice polarity with one pole—the mind. Unlike these theories, the mystical teachings tend, as Watts and others have pointed out, to be more like 'skillful means' for guiding the seeker after liberation rather than accurate descriptions of 'the real'. What we are looking at here is the nature of spiritual practice as distinct from transpersonal theory. As Ferrer puts it:

Most mystical traditions offer...not so much ‘descriptions’ of reality to be confirmed or falsified by experiential evidence, but 'prescriptions' of ways of 'being-and-the-world' to be intentionally cultivated and lived....spiritual cosmologies are not primarily descriptive systems in need of experiential testing, but prescriptive systems that invite us to radically transform ourselves and the world. (p.63)

But then Ferrer also seems to assert that transpersonal theory and practice should not be differentiated. In his words: "the final intention of any genuine transpersonal vision is not the elaboration of theoretical models to understand transpersonal phenomena, but to midwife an intersubjectively shared reality, a transpersonal reality. The Ultimate aim of the transpersonal vision is to bring forth a transpersonal world" (p.7). While such a characterization may 'in fact' apply to the experience and motives of many theoreticans, it is overly constrictive when applied to transpersonal theory per se. I believe it is necessary to clearly distinguish theory from practice (i.e. from spiritual teaching and guidance) precisely because the significance of transpersonal philosophy is not most immediately spiritual but cultural and intellectual, mediative and translative. It engages and challenges predominant cultural assumptions and paradigms and as such becomes a leading-edge process of cultural/intellectual transformation rather than the direct methodological and prescriptive means for people to experientially access transpersonal domains through service, 'participatory inquiry', interreligious dialogue, prayer, chanting, meditation and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Contemporary transpersonal metaphysics in the broadest sense is in its very nature concerned with articulating the most adequate set of universal principles necessary for an integrating theory. Theory must be free of the agenda of trying to change the world just as art is free and pure meditation is free of such agendas. Yet that being said, transpersonal theory itself becomes a part of further psycho-social evolution that cannot be separated from transpersonal development since individual transpersonal experiences must themselves be integrated back into the ever evolving psycho-social realm. This means that individuals who have accessed the transpersonal through various means (shamanic, yogic etc) must be able to interpret and integrate their experiences so as to evolve to a more mature psycho-social level than they were perhaps at. Mapping the evolutionary unfolding of the real world is the concern of transpersonal theory. This involves an understanding not only of the territory being traversed by spiritual practitioners, but of the dialectic between these more advanced people and the mass of humanity (which means the mass person still within oneself despite possible transpersonal accessings), plus an understanding of the discrepancy between certain more recent socio-cultural developments—human rights, democratic process—and the more tradition-bound Machiavellian reality of the political-military-economic world machine.

Such an ongoing theoretical overarching transpersonal project concerns something more than the transformations of consciousness of persons and interactive groups of persons; it concerns also the reality of all those who are not at the threshold of the transpersonal—the hard reality of the global collective. We live in such a critical period not knowing how much fundamentalist reaction and techno-economic political mayhem—mass unconsciousness—the biosphere can sustain. What is the critical mass of emergent consciousness needed to change the real political structures sufficiently to give us the time we need? The outcome of this great dialectic between the emergent and the reactive remains uncertain. The fact that immanent biospheric disaster allows no time for a sufficient mass of humanity to evolve to a level of adequacy (together with necessary radical changes in the political-economic-military infrastructures) in the face of the worst environmental outcomes, is a fact that must itself be possessed of significance in a meaningful cosmos. We want to understand this significance, not in a detached intellectual and esoteric way, but in an urgent and engaged fashion. The ideological and philosophical roots of various modes of political activism, including feminism, socialism, environmental activism, must be subjected to theoretical scrutiny (see Michael Zimmerman 1994). What Featherstone, Henwood and Parenti (2004) have termed 'activistism', the exclusive and frenetic participation in social action without a willingness to engage theoretical subtleties and radical critiques, is ineffectual in accomplishing real social transformation: "Activistism as an ideology renders taboo any discussion of ideas and beliefs, and thus stymies both thought and action." In this same spirit, Thomas de Zengotita (2003) flatly states, "What radicals need right now isn't action but theory."

Theory per se can never be the adequate ground for practice (transformation of self, others and world); actional experience must always be ready to go beyond the bounds of existing theory which then leads to more adequate theoretical reformulations. The practice/theory differentiation is in fact particularly evident in the division between, on the one hand, spiritual traditions and practices with their skillful means for producing transformational states, insights, and transformed conditions, and on the other, the theoretical concerns of philosopher's and metaphysicians connected with these traditions who may or may not be the actual teachers and exemplars of these traditions. While theory and practice need to be differentiated, they need not to become divided. So spiritual validity (i.e. which insights are valid, which are not; which experiences are transforming, which are not etc.) though paradigmatically grounded, lies ultimately with practice; as Ferrer describes, "The goal of contemplative systems is not so much to describe, represent, mirror, and know, but to prescribe, enact, embody, and transform.... the validity of spiritual knowledge does not rest in its accurate matching with any pregiven content, but in the quality of selfless awareness disclosed and expressed in perception, thinking, feeling, and action." 167,168. Theory, at best, follows practice and tries to verbally and logically capture and describe the paradigm of reality which is disclosed by practice—it cannot validate it, but accepts its validity. Theory will always be incomplete because it is impossible to capture practice within theory; as we have said, they are distinct (though not dual and separate). Yet theory, the capacity to translate practice for the mind, will be the ground of larger collective and cultural transformation—theory's ultimate practical application, especially as the traditional structures of the great Religions, as profound as they are, are compelled to evolve in the face of the East/West encounter and emerging post-Enlightenment, post-Patriarchal new paradigmatic insights and discoveries. In short, experience and action is always shaped in part by previous theory and properly leads back to a modification of theory.

John Heron and Peter Reason bring practice and theory together in their articulation of a participatory inquiry paradigm aimed toward the practical end of effecting the emergence of autonomy and co-operation. Beyond simply distinguishing theory from practice, they describe an extended epistemology consisting of four interdependent ways of knowing: experiential, or direct encounter; presentational, or the grasping of significance; propositional knowing, or conceptual theory; and practical knowing, or 'knowing how' which stands at the apex. In their view, practical knowing is grounded in the other modes while bringing these other modes to fruition through a critical subjectivity and critical intersubjectivity which we will later see can be located as a particular stage and structure of our model. This is not to say that the astro-transpersonal model is a theory that contains and trumps practice, but that our model, rather than a pure theory, demonstrates its capacity to reflect the interweaving of theory and practice.

Spiritual seekers concerned with liberation and concrete transformation rather than simply with theoretical clarity are confronted today with a disturbing array of different spiritual practices and belief systems. It would seem that no amount of informed theory is going to directly help them in their quest, though it may help them to orient to the general terrain, to engage in the necessary process of deconstruction and an awakening of faith on the cultural/intellectual level. The most iconoclastic and existentially 'ruthless' of modern sages, Jiddu Krishnamurti responds to the pleas of the sufferer seeking transcendent freedom with a radical prescription which I'll paraphrase:

Drop the mind and all that constitutes it completely, including the desire to drop the mind. Only when the known, which is the nature of mind and memory, has been entirely dropped can the pure Unknown come to be. Only by a total in-the-moment awareness from moment to moment without judgement or comparison — that is, without any mental activity — can the Timeless come to be. But any teacher, tradition, or method that you employ to accomplish this will simply perpetuate the illusions of the mind which are always only of the past, the dead. All history, all tradition, all thought, all paradigms, all hopes, all beliefs, all striving no matter how lofty the goal — all this must spontaneously end for that which is beyond time to come to be.

Pure non-judgmental self watchfulness is indeed our pristine nature (Suchness or Buddha nature); but the whole question is how do we, we who are trapped in mind, enmeshed in and constituted by mind and culture, get 'there' from 'here'? With Krishnamurti we receive the quintessential teachings of Zen Buddhism, but without the ongoing support and direction which Zen, anchored in its traditions and historical transmissions, offers us. As historian Morris Berman (1989) puts it, "Some form of coding is always necessary for social and psychological life. The argument for the 'paradigm of no paradigm' can only be pushed so far...Krishnamurti was the great exponent of this, and he became in fact the anti-guru guru." (p.313) Only a very few can truly practice Krishnamurti's pathless path, can confront his ruthless sword of truth without a beginning method, without compassionate guidance—in fact it can be downright dangerous to do so. Implicit in his message is a condemnation of mind, thought, and culture (everything that we humans experience ourselves to be) rather than the simple yet powerful truth that all must be dropped to know the pure moment of Being, the simple observation that thinking does not lead to pure experiencing but actually blocks pure experiencing.

As surely as does Krishnamurti, Zen Buddhism knows that we don't get 'there' through any of the ways that we try to practice, knows that we do not achieve exactly what we hoped to achieve, or succeed in hanging on to what we hoped we could still hang on to. But unlike Krishnamurti, who acts as if we were angels who fell asleep only last week and need to be shaken awake (it's true, we are 'angels', but we fell asleep as animals and are only now, after many incarnations, slowly waking up), Zen teachers know that it takes a long time to get to that point of 'sudden awakening' of which Krishnamurti or Hui Neng speak (as well as a long time to adequately integrate such peak experience back into mature psycho-social living). Zen and other schools of Mahayana Buddhism begin by accepting the nature of the biologically and societally informed egoic human being and realistically work with it: they realize, at least within contemporary experience, that we are human beings and that we have arrived at where we are through evolving beyond the hominids and the apes. Employing 'skillful means' and practical injunctions within the context of their esoteric doctrines, the various schools of Buddhism—Zen, Tibetan, Theravada—provide a spiritual philosophical framework, a tradition of direct transmission, effecting a pure transformative and transmental action.

Despite this variety of paths and phenomenologies, perennialist philosophers maintain that there are universal levels or deep structures underlying the often confusing diversity. Mapping these structures—themselves constituted by varied confluences of non-ordinary mind states and ontologically concrete awareness/action moments—is the task of transpersonal philosophy. But the history of transcendent idealism from Plato and Plotinus, to Schelling and Hegel, to Aurobindo and Wilber, does not provide the means for spiritually transformative action.3 Nevertheless, this does not mean that these maps are simply irrelevant. Rather, they are an essential aspect of a cultural evolution, and consequently a personal psycho-relational maturation, beyond the paradigms of the more naive and concrete forms of mythic belief (not to diminish the deep sources of myth and its reflection of deep structures) and equally simplistic scientistic naturalism. Neo-Darwinian materialist and 'adaptive' views of evolution, for example, may be based on modern science (though not on 'postmodern' complexity science) but are entirely inadequate to explain the nature of the human mind, soul and spirit and the possible direction of its higher unfoldings.

Ultimately, it seems that the full dimensionality of the mind and the totality of all that is from moment to moment come together only in the highest state of Non-Dual Realization, beyond boundary, fully embracing the ultimate Mystery. Beyond all thought, all theory, all attempts to understand, this is the pure state of "don't know". In fact, as in the words of Stephen Levine, "Most answers that the mind comes up with are just excuses not to go deeper. It is the mind's answers that cause confusion. There is no confusion in "don't know". There is just the truth." (p.70) Yet, this cannot properly be held as the intentional goal of the meditator or transpersonal seeker. As has often been pointed out, the journey is as important, or more important, than the goal; the apparent telos of all evolutionary unfolding must lie entirely beyond our individual hopes and intentions.

While aware that the concrete actuality of life in-the-moment can never be truly captured within the nets of our interpretations, yet bracketing for the moment our practice of conscious dying into the great ‘don't know’, we are here pursuing the theoretical effort of examining and synthesizing several already articulated perspectives through the complex prismatic facets of the astrological crystal, a geometry inherent in nature. I think it can be said without exaggeration that a deep psycho-spiritual astrology, practiced through dialogue within a context of theoretically informed insight and actual experienced transformation, is a paradigm case of the integration of theoria and praxis.


1. What we normally think of as action necessarily involves some value-driven bodily movement generally accompanied by subconscious internal dialogue. Pure 'action-in-the-moment' is to be found, paradoxically, in the silent practice of meditative awareness, a complete attention in the present moment free from inner dialogue and deliberation.
Especially since Howard Gardner we have become accustomed to think more broadly of multiple forms of intelligence existing alongside the once privileged IQ. But rather than placing theoretical and practical intelligence within this larger spectrum, I think it is more accurate to see them as the two foundational modes of intelligence—being and acting 'in-the-moment' and journeying through the landscape of the mind.
3. It is a grand meta-narrative—temporalizing the Great Chain of Being—that has become most compelling for us; Plotinus, Hegel, Aurobindo, Wilber and others stand as important voices in the articulation of this grand view. However, like any view it has the inevitable limitations a 'theory of everything' always has; no theory can capture or express the immediate concrete reality of Being. As Kierkegaard critically observed, Hegel's grand synthesising system was a palatial edifice but no one could live in it. One can speak of a higher synthesis of dialectical opposites through a 'both/and' resolution (from thesis, to antithesis, to synthesis), but the life of the individual is always an 'either/or', the existential fact of hard choice in action.