Ram Dass said it years ago — you have to be a somebody before you can become a nobody.

Steven Hendlin explains why, in this revised version of an article that originally appeared in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Some may find it intimidatingly academic, but it’s worth the effort. Hendlin makes a convincing case that we need to heal our own pain before the cosmos reveals its innermost secrets to us.

— Ed.


Something “pernicious” is that which has an insidious and corrupting or undermining influence. What I call “pernicious oneness” is now making itself felt and gaining strength in the spiritual community. Spiritual seekers, in their thirst for the “oneness” experience, are easily led toward simplistic ways of thinking and impotent practices which, at best, may be a waste of time and energy and lead to self-delusion and, at worst, may lead to mental and emotional disturbance. For too long now we have been reluctant to examine closely what is and what is not valid, and hesitant to criticize specific movements and forms of practice. I believe we are dangerously close to corrupting the authentic, enlightened forms of spiritual practice. In our search for “higher” spiritual experience we are unwittingly undermining healthy ego development and personal integration.

It may be questioned as to whether new age commercialism is an indication of true interest and readiness for spirituality, or whether it is just another example of the tremendous power of our economic system to incorporate, package and spit back to the consumer a how-to-do-it technology — in this case, a step-by-step method to reach nirvana. Perhaps Herbert Marcuse was correct in his analysis of our economic system. He believed that anything that could potentially bring about a radical transformation in the capitalist system would be swallowed whole by the system before it could have a disruptive effect and then would be offered back to the consumer in a way that would further strengthen the system itself.

We are now confronting the consequences of new age commercialism in the market place, not the least of which is a blending of Eastern and Western philosophies to the point of blurring and oversimplifying their beliefs and practices to make them more palatable to the Western appetite, with no chewing, no discrimination required. Westerners, for the most part, want their spirituality, be it Christian or Buddhist, the same way they want their drive-through hamburgers: without substance and without waiting. It is no wonder that prepackaged psychospiritual programs such as TM, est, Lifespring, the Barksdale course, Scientology, and others spring up to satisfy the need for simple, painless “oneness.” Although initial experiences in programs such as these may act as a spark, they need to be followed up by a more sustained and disciplined form of self-inquiry.

One major difficulty in the attempt to decipher authentic forms of spiritual practice from those that are exploitative, manipulative, magical, regressive, and prepersonal has been the confusion in psychological theory between prepersonal and transpersonal states and the ease with which false polarities have been used to justify prepersonal practices and the denigration of the ego. A second difficulty is that at some point subjective judgments must be made to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, the time-tested from the potentially dangerous. A further problem is that a particular method or practice may be in and of itself valid, and yet the manner in which it is packaged may render it ineffective or even harmful.

Pernicious Ego Transcendence

The most pervasive trap appears to be the disrespect, discounting, and denigration of the ego itself. The primary self-deception is that one has already transcended ego, that one has already firmly established this individual ego and therefore no longer needs or wants to acknowledge ego as having anything to offer in the oneness quest. It is nothing less than an attempt at premature disidentification with all that makes up one’s sense of identity, belongingness, security, self-esteem and so on. In one’s hasty attempt to identify with the transpersonal, the personal ego gets left behind (or so one believes), along with the entire existential level.

The problem is that one is not “fully cooked,” or developed, at the personal, egoic level, and the “uncooked seeds” show up in one’s behavior. The result is a further strengthening of ego-level attachments and a buttressing of ego itself, which is psychologically just what the individual requires. In this way, the quest for oneness is really being used in service of the ego which is not about to be dismissed or disidentified so hastily. This trap falls within the realm of what Chogyam Trungpa has termed “spiritual materialism,” or the use of spiritual practice in the service of more personal, egoic needs.

The tendency to view experiences as “transpersonal” that are actually personal or prepersonal is most readily seen in those persons who have glimpsed the very real limitations of ego, and who wish to dispense with ego integrity work in order to concentrate on experiencing something of their nature beyond ego consciousness. Many times, their efforts take the form not of a sustained meditative-contemplative practice, but a dabbling with the beginning transpersonal level bands. Instead of working with existential-level material and continuing ego integration “mop-up” work, they become preoccupied with learning methods of telepathy, precognition, astral travel, and other psi phenomena. At the extreme, they may become involved in witchcraft, shamanism in its prepersonal form, or cultish forms of magic or ritual. A “soft” form of this phenomenon may be witnessed in those who become attached to astrology or the I Ching. These activities are actually in the service of strengthening ego attachments (if they do not become too extreme) since the individual may then point to out-of-body experiences, precognition, and the like as an indication that he or she is “spiritually developed.” It should be noted that strengthening of ego attachments is not the same as truly gaining in ego strength itself. It is the strong ego that can risk going beyond itself; the strengthening of ego attachments preserves an ego that is not ready to risk losing itself in a movement to higher levels.

Hazards Along The Path

The following forms of pernicious oneness may be found:

(1) A passive-dependent personality structure, which may include “amotivational syndrome” wherein ego-level goals are dismissed or devalued and ego-oriented behavior is shunned. This includes fear of and dislike for any activity that smacks of competitiveness. It serves to insulate one from healthy risk taking, positive forms of assertiveness, and testing of one’s skills and ideas with others. Often, these people appear “spaced-out” and have difficulty feeling grounded. This may lead to social isolation and withdrawal. They show little or no awareness of or concern about current events in the world and may prefer escapist forms of “getting back to nature” to the struggles of urban and suburban life.

Clinical example: 25-year-old “Melissa” prided herself on being an expert at living in the present. Melissa had an aversion to shoes and only with reluctance bought herself a pair of thongs when I suggested bare feet would not suffice in the rain if she wished to remain healthy. Melissa had talent as a spiritual folk singer but was unwilling to invest the energy necessary to develop her talent since this would be only “another ego game” and would mean having to take steps in reaching out to demonstrate her talent to others. Melissa made her way by using her sexual seductiveness to find one man after another who would take care of her. She would not enter large enclosed public places, such as markets, because she did not like to feel the confusion that ensued due to the noise and stimulation of so many people together. Often she felt “spaced-out” and unable to relate to people who did not share her enthusiasm for Sufi dancing. Her eyes would roll up into her head to break contact with me when she did not want to hear what I was saying. Melissa prided herself on having very few material possessions and looked with disdain at anyone choosing to live with symbols of wealth and status. She carefully avoided all news because it might bring her “down,” and stayed out of cities as much as possible. She took pride in acting like “a gypsy with chopsticks,” as she called herself, but complained about feeling rootless and unconnected to others. Her relationships were exploitative and short term, avoiding any real emotional involvement. At the least threat of emotional entanglement, Melissa would move on to another male who would initially be entranced by her melodic voice and sexual charm. After two months of therapeutic contact, Melissa chose to “move on South where it is warm” so she would not have to worry about wearing sandals or being confronted regarding her manipulations of men.

(2) Refusal to assume personal responsiblity, using (misunderstood) Eastern philosophy to justify this refusal. For example, “It’s all karma — nothing I do will make a difference anyway,” or using the slogan, “It’s all God, brother — why care about being responsible?” The danger here is the individual’s vulnerability to being blindly led by someone claiming to offer “cosmic consciousness” and spiritual companionship if the individual will only follow instructions and submit to one who “knows.” Extreme and often-cited examples are the Manson cult butchery and Jim Jones’s messianic madness, which was prepersonal lunacy masquerading as transpersonal deliverance. But such extreme examples need not be used to make the point. There are other groups under the spiritual (and quasi-political) banner that are precariously close to fitting this blind-obedience-through-passive-trancelike-behavior model, for example, the “Moonies,” the Nicheren Shoshu Buddhist sect, and, to some extent, the Hare Krishna sect.

Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins call these type of groups “civil religious sects” and explain that

civil religious sects such as the Unification Church, the People’s Temple, or Synanon provisionally heal the split between private feelings and public purpose by encouraging their members to withdraw from normal vocational involvements. Members of this sort of movement are encouraged to spend all their energies in developing self-sufficient utopian communities which are to serve as models for the reform of America. However, they manage to create the experience of civilly legitimate social integration only by encouraging a uniformity of opinion and degree of obedience to authority among converts which some observers contend are appropriate to an earlier level of social evolution.

Under the blind-obedience heading we must also include the tremendous influence of well-known Western Christian evangelists, fundamentalists, and charismatics, many of whom exploit their “flocks” for their own personal ego needs under the guise of being “one step below God.”

(3) Mistaking “blankness” and “spacing out” for oneness. “Blankness” refers to one experiencing “nothing” when asked, “What are you aware of at this moment?” No awareness of thought, feeling, or sensation is offered, often with the comment of being “blank” or feeling “nothing.” This state is being out of touch with oneself, pure and simple, and yet has been confused& by some as an “ineffable” experience that is sprinkled with spiritual meaning. In truth, it is a momentary (or not so momentary) regression to a prepersonal “blob” state designed to provide the necessary defensive protection required when ego development is inadequate to sustain, for example, the anxiety of a therapeutic interview. This state is most easily identifiable by the glazed, faraway look in the eyes, and gives the message that “the lights are on but nobody’s home.” Blankness should not be confused with the existential void.

“Spacing out” is a step above prepersonal blankness, as there is some awareness that one has left the present and has mentally gone into the past or future. However, in “pure” spacing out one is unable, when queried, to say where one has mentally gone, making the effect of spacing out not much different than blankness. The difference is that one has some awareness (upon returning) that the mind is working. Since spacing out creates a certain time gap, this state has been mistaken by some for “oneness,” since there is no self-conscious awareness while one is “gone.” Ego is simply taking a rest, and the “oneness” being experienced is a “oneness” with past or future thought, not a oneness with the universe.

(4) The use of the defense mechanisms of denial, suppression, and repression to avoid emotional experience. These defenses serve to protect one against undesired emotions that may be incompatible with one’s conception of proper spiritual demeanor. For example, anger will be denied both to oneself and others when one assumes, “there is no place for anger in an aspiring yogi.” In general, meditative disciplines place a low value on emotion, imploring the meditator to penetrate through emotion to the ground of basic aliveness from which it arises. As John Welwood has stated in an article on “befriending emotion,” too often

feelings and emotions are not an important focus in meditation because the practice is oriented more toward a person’s ongoing sense of aliveness than toward the colorations of his passing concerns. Thus, meditation cools the heat of emotional fire.

In the attempt to transmute emotional energy into a more “pure” spiritual energy, habitual emotional reactions may go unexamined, robbing one of the possibility of greater self-knowledge, growth, and effective communication. For many beginning meditators, the theory of transmutation of emotion serves as a rationale to dismiss emotion as nothing but a “passing show” and to further protect the ego from “passions” and one’s “lower nature,” thus making oneself separate from emotion which is seen as something alien and other. The transmutation of emotion is obviously something achieved only after persistent practice (if achieved at all) by a meditator. But the delusion that one’s emotions are unimportant and even a hindrance to spiritual attainment continues to result in a number of passive personality types.

When transmutation is not forthcoming, the defense mechanisms of denial, suppression, and repression may easily be substituted in its place. Ego, once again, has the last word, as the use of these defenses is in the service of ego maintenance. I find very few meditators who appear to feel comfortable with the direct expression of anger, resentment, and irritation. This difficulty with anger, is, to be sure, not something limited to meditators alone. But even quite experienced meditators appear to get caught in this trap, creating a lopsided growth pattern to their practice. Anger only “disappears” at the highest levels of personal transformation and the premature denial and suppression of it will only make the task of complete integration more difficult. A more select group — psychotherapists — may question whether it is even desirable to go “beyond” anger, as they will certainly be less effective with clients in whom anger is central to their personality dynamics. Anger has been, I believe, undervalued in the oneness quest. There is a definite implied negative value put on anger in many spiritual texts. What may be considered desirable for spiritual growth (no anger) may not be desirable for psychological growth. This is one reason it is desirable to do ego-level integration work prior to intense spiritual practice. Although it is no doubt presumptuous of me, I believe a spiritual teacher needs to know how and when to roar! Still, there appear to be a number of saintly types (such as Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Munindraji) who are beyond all this. Perhaps if I were less attached to my own anger, I would be better able to recognize others who have transcended anger altogether.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, it is not difficult to find many hysterical types who are drawn to the more active, emotional bhakti practices. These people, in their zeal to “lose their minds and come to their senses,” are sometimes unable to muster the quieting of the body necessary for formal, disciplined types of sitting meditation. They exhibit an enthusiasm and emotional demeanor that seem out of proportion and are most easily identified by what appears to be a constant hysterical affect regardless of the situation in which they find themselves. There is a certain phoniness to their excitement and laughter. They appear to believe that if they can only keep up the persona of high-energy enthusiasm, they will be able to block out all unpleasant realities. For some, this appears to work quite effectively.

(5) The tendency toward viewing intellect suspiciously and a disrespect for abstract thought. Because of a disdain for thought itself (like emotion, considered just another hindrance to meditation), there is little interest on the part of many meditators in being able to communicate precisely their beliefs, preferences, attitudes, and experiences. For some, it is just enough to have experiences — there is little pull to analyze, compare, or contrast them. This is not to say that such meditators are not of average or above average intelligence, but simply that they do not fully respect their cognitive, critical faculties.

Because meditation practice emphasizes watching thoughts or cutting off thought altogether, too many meditators believe thought itself to be of little value. It is easy to see how this confusion comes about. Rajneesh, for example, defines meditation as a state of “no-mind . . . of pure consciousness with no content.” He views meditation as a state of consciousness rather than as a method or technique, and this state is one in which there is no thought. While I do not for a moment question the value of this no-thought state, some meditators conclude that thought itself has no value in terms of critical discrimination. The devaluing of discrimination may lead to the overuse of introjection, or swallowing whole without “chewing” to make a bit of theory or experience part of oneself. In swallowing whole, or introjecting, one never makes the belief or experience truly one’s own and is unable to put it into some type of meaningful pattern or context. Because present experience is the primary focus of concern, one may view any attempt to recognize patterns as “wasted” time, since it involves going into the past mentally.

With an undernourished rational mind, it will be more difficult to deal with the flood of psychological material that begins to surface as one taps into the “loud internal chatter” level during sustained meditative practice. Roger Walsh has suggested that one reason Western meditators involved in intensive practice do not make the same progress as their Eastern counterparts is that Westerners tend to get caught up in analyzing psychological content and have trouble going beyond this level. This may be partially a result of not having dealt with this material through psychotherapy or some other introspective method before undertaking intensive meditation practice, and partially a result of the very real fear of allowing oneself to go beyond preoccupation with thought itself. Ken Wilber has labeled the fear of going beyond mental, egoic realms to transpersonal, subtle, and supra-egoic realms the “Apollo Complex.” He has also commented on the result of devaluing the mind in terms of theory, the confusion in placing “mind” at a lower level than “body” in the zeal to reach “bodymind” and “supermind.”

(6) Mistaking pathological confluence for oneness. When one feels no boundary between oneself and one’s environment, one is in confluence with it. There is no distinction between the self and the other. In moments of ecstasy or extreme concentration, confluence is taking place. The temporary dissolution of the self-other boundary may produce a sense of exhaltation, since one’s usual consciousness is quite sharply aware of that boundary. In its healthy forms, confluence may be seen as an ability to “melt” and surrender emotionally to a lover, a master or teacher, or the contingencies of the environment over which one has little or no control.

The person in whom confluence is a pathological state cannot tell what he or she is and cannot tell what other people are. One does not know where one leaves off and the other begins. Submissive, passive people shy away from developing their individual tastes and preferences, and are quite willing to agree with the views of others. In focusing on “We are all one,” these people tend to miss the mark by not appreciating true individual differences. Pathological confluence is the exaggerated “flow with it” stance. It may show itself in one’s inability to disagree, take a stand, or accept that one’s lover or friend may have different beliefs or feelings than oneself without being threatened by rejection or abandonment. Confluence of this type makes for poor contact in relationships. Confluence, introjection, and a passive personality go hand in hand. I would suggest that spiritual practice tends to attract more than its share of these people, who are then able to misuse Eastern philosophy to “develop” their one-sidedness further in the name of “oneness.” It is not clear, however, to what extent meditation and spiritual practice attract people who already behave this way as opposed to these tendencies being learned. For some, it is no doubt both.

Emptiness And The Existential Void

The confusion at the existential level is the belief that the “existential void” is really not a void of nothingness of meaning but a spiritual “emptiness” that contains all. The existential void is a very real experience that signifies a disidentification with ego- level preoccupation and a deeper questioning of the meaning of one’s life. This deeper questioning includes facing the givens of one’s existence: the tension between free will and choice, guilt and anxiety over never being all that one may be, one’s embodiedness in the world, and one’s ongoing physical decay and eventual death. It is clear from the writings of Sartre, Camus, Binswanger, Jaspers, Heidegger, Boss, Frankl, and other existential philosophers and psychologists that, while the issues presented at this level are inescapable, the existential void is not a state of consciousness in which to spend one’s life.

One must face one’s aloneness in the universe and create meaning where there is no a priori meaning to be found. Getting stuck at the existential level may lead to a nihilism and dread of life that makes ego-level struggles look like child’s play. But because the word “nothingness” may be confused with the Eastern concept of “emptiness” (sunyata), some believe that facing the existential void is the same as experiencing “oneness.” Actually, it is only a step (but an important one) along the way. “Emptiness” is the void from which all forms emerge — not a “nothingness” devoid of meaning altogether. Thus “emptiness” is not really empty at all, but a fullness that contains everything, whereas existential “nothingness” is only “empty” in the sense of being devoid of a priori meaning.

If we adhere to a developmental model of consciousness, the existential “givens” will be dealt with only after ego-level needs are sufficiently satisfied to allow a further questioning and requestioning of what has previously been taken for granted or not questioned at all. The “membrane” of existential vulnerability must be penetrated if one is to move beyond it to transpersonal and spiritual levels. Moving beyond the “membrane” of vulnerability, that is, accepting the givens as givens rather than getting lost in them, signals the status of “centaur” or “bodymind” level described by Wilber. Many of the so-called existential therapies deal with this level, as does humanistic psychology in general.

An interesting example of the sidestepping of the existential level may be found in some of those experiencing “midlife crisis,” who, after thoroughly tasting ego-level gratifications, begin to want something “more” in their lives as they begin to experience dissatisfaction and acknowledge that they are not going to live forever. This population has increasingly turned toward forms of spiritual practice in hopes of finding the meaning that has not been obtained through the accumulation of material goods, status, security, and the belongingness that ego-level development and the “good life” promise. I would suggest that the void of meaning experienced is first and foremost an existential issue — not a true spiritual hunger — and that these people would be better served through some type of existential-level therapy than through plunging into spiritual practice. Although spiritual practice may offer a sanctuary for those facing existential issues, and may even provide an “answer,” that is, “oneness” with everything rather than the sting of separate-self alienation and isolation, it may not be the method of choice. Although these issues will sooner or later come to the surface in meditative practice, they may be more carefully identified, sorted out, and partially resolved through a verbal psychotherapy that focuses primarily on just these issues. If one has faced these existential issues squarely in psychotherapy, there will be less preoccupation with them when one begins sustained meditative practice.

By now it should be apparent that I am making a case for first cleaning up as much psychological material as possible, then facing the “givens” of one’s existence, and then beginning serious meditative practice. I am not, however, so idealistic or naive that I believe that this is what actually happens for most people, although I am convinced that psychotherapy and meditation may be more meaningfully integrated than has thus far been acknowledged. For those who would question the value of working on these levels sequentially rather than simultaneously, it may be argued that ego-level needs will interfere with (rather than augment) existential-level needs since existential issues require a rather solid ego, and spiritual needs will be dwarfed (if even realized) by both ego- and existential-level needs when all levels are attempted simultaneously. The spiritual-level needs are less intense than the existential-level needs, which are, in turn, less intense than ego-level needs. When ego is not sufficiently mature, spiritual pursuits many times take on a desperate quality, in which it becomes painfully obvious that spiritual grasping is a last-ditch effort to find meaning for continuing life.

Without some type of disciplined meditative-contemplative practice to help one penetrate the nature of mental and physical pain and suffering, what I term the “Woody Allen Syndrome” may result, in which one seems unable to go beyond the view of one’s ultimate meaninglessness as a speck of biological dust in an unforgiving universe, and becomes obsessed with death, decay, and dying. A profound and even morbid solipsism may result. Clinically, this type of person may present him or herself as being in midlife crisis with a chronic agitated type of depression. Clinical interview reveals a person who has identified exclusively with existential-level issues and has not been able to resolve or penetrate the “membrane” of existential vulnerability. At times, I have found that people who get stuck here have a strong ego attachment to a self-image that involves suffering and playing the role of being victimized by the injustices of others and the basic “unfairness” of the “cruel world.”

Further Examples Of Confusion

The following traps may be witnessed among those who consider themselves more serious students of the transpersonal. These traps are further examples of pernicious oneness. Perhaps it is unrealistic to believe that we may escape some of these traps given the ruthlessness of the ego in making itself felt at all levels of psychospiritual seeking.

Harvey Cox warns of the possible dangers of psychologizing spiritual insights:

Western psychology’s present love affair with the Orient seems to me . . . unpromising and possibly even dangerous. The danger lies in the enormous power psychological ways of thinking now wield in our culture, a power so vast that the current psychologizing of Western contemplative disciplines — unless it is preceded by a thorough revolution in Western psychology itself — could rob the disciplines of their spiritual substance. It could pervert them into Western mental health gimmicks and thereby prevent them from introducing sharply alternative views of life they are capable of bringing us.

Briefly described, further examples of confusion include:

(1) “Holier than thou” attitudes, taking the form of comparison games, such as who has the “highest” meditative experiences, who has traveled to India, Asia, or wherever, who has studied with so and so guru, or teacher, who has completed the most koans, who has undergone the most severe austerities, who has written the most books and articles, delivered the most keynote addresses, had the most time on transpersonal panels, spoken to the largest gatherings, given the most workshops, been chosen to do the Psychology Today tape cassette on meditation, and so on.

(2) Claiming knowledge or skills that in truth one does not possess, for example, fake healing through “spiritual energy,” preying on the innocence and neediness of sufferers; phony transpersonal sexuality, as in, “Would you like to come up and see my spiritual library?”; phony transpersonal “bodywork”; claiming to be an “expert” at such things as “past lives therapy” or aura reading when in fact one does not have these abilities; phony laying on of hands, phony transmission of “shakti” energy, phony use of spiritual trappings, such as clothes, beads, or facial markings to create an impression. All of these fall under the heading of what Ram Dass would call “phony holy.”

(3) Confusing true psychosis with “spiritual emergency,” and the tendency to glorify actual mental and emotional disturbance as “spiritual experience,” without knowing the difference between the two.

(4) Confusing subtle levels of the transpersonal with the highest realms of the spiritual. For example, taking experiences from the “high subtle” such as nada sounds and believing them to belong to the very highest realm. Feelings of intense rapture and bliss accompanied by subtle inner music are the hallmarks of the high subtle level. It is easy to embrace this blissful state and believe it is the highest possible state.

(5) Confusing muscle relaxation (as in the “relaxation response”) with oneness; assuming that repeating a mantra necessarily leads to higher states, neglecting to notice that subtle thoughts may continue behind the mantra and may simply be more difficult to detect.

(6) Using helpful but only partially true metaphors and analogies for oneness, for example, the parallels between subatomic physics and mysticism to popularize the “universal oneness” position, not understanding that physics is dealing with the levels of matter while mysticism is dealing with the levels of spirit.

(7) Mistaking personal-level “peak” experiences for oneness and mistaking trance experiences induced by hypnosis and self-hypnosis as oneness.

Beyond Oneness As Experience

What may we consider to be “authentic” spiritual oneness? There appears to be some agreement that use of the term “spiritual” should be reserved for those nondual states of pure identity with Spirit or Godhead, and therefore viewed as the highest subset of the more general transpersonal. Thus what is “spiritual” is necessarily “transpersonal” but all that is “transpersonal” is not necessarily “spiritual.”

Ken Wilber’s maps of the higher realms are valuable in classifying distinct states that have been identified throughout the ages in spiritual literature.

He divides awareness into the following levels:

(1) The gross realm: the physical body and all lower levels of consciousness including the psychoanalytic ego and simple sensations and perceptions.

(2) The astral realm: out-of-body experiences and certain occult knowledge.

(3) The psychic realm: psi phenomena such as ESP, clairvoyance, and precognition.

(4) The subtle realm: higher symbolic visions, light, and sound (nada); higher presences and intense but soothing vibrations, bliss, and rapture.

(5) The lower causal realm: beginning of true transcendence and the undermining of subject-object dualism.

(6) The higher causal realm: transcendence of all manifest realms.

(7) The ultimate: absolute identity with the Many and the One.

If we can agree that this map is not just a convenient way to categorize higher realms but a cartography of very real and distinct realms of consciousness, it becomes more clear why it is necessary to distinguish the “transpersonal” from the “spiritual.” The transpersonal levels would include the subtle, causal, and ultimate; the spiritual realm would be the highest subset (level 7) of the transpersonal. Far too often, the transpersonal realms are thought of as encompassing the astral and psychic realms, and it is in this confusion that “pernicious oneness” may be found. Many have aimed for this realm (psychic) rather than aiming to get past it as soon as possible.

It is safe to say that almost all of that which is considered “oneness” is not “oneness” at all but “twoness.” It is “twoness” because there continues to be an observer who is having the experience. This is why much spiritual literature talks about nondual awareness, the breaking down of the subject and object. Wilber puts it nicely:

All experiences, high or low, fall short of nondual consciousness as such, and thus must eventually be penetrated. . . . Experiences, whether sacred or profane, high or low, are all based on the duality between subject and object, seer and seen, experiencer and experienced. Even in the soulsphere, itself incomparably more real than the lower levels of matter, body, and mind, one is merely engineering for a subtler subject, a more extraordinary object. The witness of these divine states remains intact. The real awakening, however, is the dissolution of the witness itself, and not a change in that which is witnessed.

The oneness experience must ultimately give way to just oneness. In the meantime, we may work consciously toward eliminating the more gross forms of pernicious oneness and, if we must, continue to seek “high” transpersonal states, knowing that at some point these experiences, too, will have to be transcended. And then, should oneness come, who will be around to know it?


This essay originally appeared as “Pernicious Oneness” in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 61-81 and is reprinted by permission of Sage Publications and Steven Hendlin. The unedited version, complete with references, is available from the author, 14571 Plaza Drive, Suite C, Tustin, California 92680.