Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

Status message

You are currently in UIA's online document archive. These pages are no longer maintained. To search the full archive click here.

The Encyclopedia is currently undergoing redevelopment !

5.8 Barriers to transcendent insight and social transformation


The kinds of individual and collective creativity through which innovative responses emerge to the problems of society depend largely on the ability to shift to perspectives of a significantly different order. The much sought "paradigm shifts" appear to call for a conceptual transcendence of some of the more obvious attitudes and behavioral processes by which we are collectively trapped.

Whilst the argument for transcendence needs to be stressed, some recognize that this can constitute another form of escapism which avoids essential issues. In this sense transcendence should not result in abandonment of the level transcended, rather it should involve experiencing it, and recreating it, in a more profound manner as a form of enlightened immanence (cf Morris Berman. Coming to Our Senses, 1989).

Many of the spiritual traditions, as well as modern insights into spirituality, argue for the relevance of transcendent experience as providing a complementary integrative perspective through which the challenges of the times can be more appropriately encountered. It is therefore valuable to note some of the barriers to transcendent experience as a key to creative insight. A number of these points have been adapted from points made by Edwin Dowdy (Ways of Transcendence; insights from major religions and modern thought, 1982) and Alistair Kee (The Way of Transcendence, 1985).

1. Individual development

(a) Opportunism: Numerous studies support the view that in the present competitive "rational" society, the individual must achieve an "autonomous ego", an "identity" of continuity and consistency, and "interactional competence". Adult status is acquired through learning experiences and crises in which the person must necessarily be egocentric. Attention is therefore fixed compulsively on felt needs, perceived threats and the opportunities offered by the environment.

(b) Egocentrism: Individual development through to young adulthood is characterized by the quite self-centred processes within the small child (expression of individuality, growth within the parental family), the struggle of the ego of the school-age child to gain control (development of a role-bound identity and detachment from internalized parental concepts), and development of the ability of the young adult to play the social game (whether in effective competition with others if successful, or otherwise by accepting a less desirable role). Identity is thus formed within a system of egocentric references with in-built barriers to transcendence or dissipation of the ego.

(c) Conformity: Conformity seems to prevail in identity-formation in which relatively few are at present able to transcend the developmental struggle and achieve some orientation to general principles such as the golden rule, the sanctity of life, the categorical imperative, or furthering the development of mankind. Such principles lack credibility in the presence of evident lack of normative regulation in many areas, with conflicts arising that cannot be overcome within the framework of normal role-behaviour.

(d) Role conflicts: Whilst there is evidence for subsequent stages in the development of moral maturity, involving contemplative experiences of a "non-egoistic and non-dualistic" type, relatively little importance is attached to them. Role conflicts, the stress of inter-generational distancing, and alienation erode any embryonic sense of being part of the whole of life or any sensitivity to a cosmic perspective. Ironically the need for such transcendent perspectives is expressed illegitimately through the seductive attraction of drug-induced experiences (whose value is "guaranteed" paradoxically by an alienating society's total repudiation of them).

2. Social structure

(a) Expediency: Government in a continuing period of chronic difficulties is reduced to a crisis-avoidance agency. It endeavours to maintain legitimacy by being seen to provide material guarantees such as defence, standard of living, and law and order. The prime issue becomes one of administrative expediency, irrespective of moral issues or the emancipation of individuals or groups. The organization of government is inimical to consideration of values because the steering mechanism interprets information according to its own systemic exigencies, with purposive-rational action justifying itself in terms of the criteria of its own ideology. The cognitive interest therefore dominates any emancipatory interest.

(b) Distorted priorities: The media, whether or not as direct tools of government, constantly portray the problems recognized by the state as being the most important problems, if not the only real problems. In initiating development policies, arbitrating conflicts of interest, and affecting immediate conditions of standard of living, government encourages recognition that its concerns are the core focus of any effective action. Concerns for inner quality of life and transcendent experience are seen as betraying collective action in response to social priorities. They can be readily portrayed as epitomizing the ineffectual.

(c) Marketable skills: Education, especially under increasing pressure from industry and government, has as its main priority the training of the young so that they may perform adequately the various roles which will maintain the operations of society. Curricula focus on skills that are marketable. Whilst there is some concern with the development of the individual's potential and with maturity of understanding, this tends to be vague and subject to the insights and whims of teachers. Sport emphasizes competitive instincts accompanied by occasional overtones of fair play. Religious education tends to be an alienating mix of doctrine, facts and stories. The only transcendent experience accessible to students is through extra-curricular sex experimentation and drugs. Those with creative talent wait until after their formal education to pursue their own self-development.

(d) Denigration of subjective experience: Psychology is primarily concerned with observable behaviour and thus reinforces the preoccupations of industry, education and the media. Mainstream psychology and psychiatry go further in actively denigrating subjective experience and emphasizing its delusional dimensions. Amongst the alternative psychologies and psychotherapies, the claims and counter-claims for special skills with respect to transcendent experience, often by practitioners of dubious reputation, can easily discourage exploration of that experience.

(e) Religious opposition and manipulation: Religion itself, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is basically inimical to transcendent experience as a potential threat to orthodoxy. In general, much has been written concerning the alienating effects of institutionalized religion and on priesthoods of dubious spirituality with a questionable relationship to the transcendent. Amongst the alternative religions, the well-publicized exploitation and manipulation by cult leaders has made this route to transcendent experience less credible. However the Christian charismatic movements are offering new opportunities, as are fundamentalist initiatives in Hinduism and Islam. But it remains questionable whether such initiatives recognize that through some form of spiritual development, individuals might be better able to understand and act on the challenges of the times.

(f) Exploitation: The social barriers to transcendent experience has encouraged many alternative initiatives of every colour and degree of insight. Their variety can create difficulty for those attempting to locate some form of guidance in which they can have confidence. Great sincerity on the part of those offering such guidance, is not necessarily matched by great insight. Great insight may offered by people whose aim is less than well-intentioned and possibly even malignant. Commitment to transcendent experience may then be distorted to other ends.