by Thomas Yeomans, Ph.D.
AAP Keynote Address, San
April 12, 2003
I want to start by saying how grateful I am to the committee for
asking me to speak at this conference.
It represents for me a return
Psychosynthesis and to San
Francisco, a discipline and a city where I have spent important
years of my life. It also affords me the opportunity to see old
friends and colleagues and to meet new ones.
I have been involved with Psychosynthesis for over thirty years,
and, as a young man in the early seventies, studied with Roberto
Assagioli in Florence. I was involved with the development of
the Psychosynthesis Institute here, and survived its demise
in 1980. Philip Brooks and I started a training program here
the next year - one that he and Toni have continued until
recently - and then in 1982 my wife, Anne, and I moved East and I
started a Psychosynthesis training program in Boston.
During the eighties I worked to help
Psychosynthesis grow in a number of ways - through conferences,
books, and teaching, both here and in Europe, and then in the
nineties recast my work as Spiritual Psychology, which I
teach now in North America, Europe, and Russia.
The reasons for this
change are complex, and it has been a useful endeavor, but even
throughout these last thirteen years I have remained, behind the
scenes, very connected to the perspectives and spirit of Psychosynthesis, and to its community of practitioners.
AAP was founded at the last summer
program I hosted at the Concord Institute in 1994 and since then I
have stayed informed of its development and encouraged where I
could. So now, as this decade and century begin, it is a pleasure to
be here again and to feel my long and deep relationship to this
discipline and its community.
Thank you all.
A New Century
I want to talk this morning a bit about spirituality and
share some ideas with you about directions this human experience may
be taking in this new century.
Many of these ideas will probably be
familiar to you, and they are incomplete and still growing in my
mind, but I hope that in bringing them together in my talk they will
be of use for our discussion, and will continue to grow through our
dialogue in the next days and beyond.
Spirituality has not always been a welcome guest in professional
circles. Until recently professionals, with the exception of clergy,
have tended to keep this dimension of human experience at arm's
length, and, in most cases, have been loath to acknowledge its place
and power within the human being and its capacity to foster healing,
development, and maturity. Rather, they have relied largely on
scientific/technological approaches and on rational analysis to
carry on their practices, and have relegated the spiritual dimension
to the realms of subjective and religious experience.
In the last decades this situation has changed quite dramatically.
Mental health professionals were the first to recognize that they
needed to include the spiritual dimension in their work in order to
treat the whole person, and, further, that this dimension held
valuable resources that contributed to the improvement in
psychological function which they sought.
Career counselors also
began to recognize this same fact as they worked with people who
were in job transition, and they were followed closely by executive
coaches and organizational consultants who wanted to improve the
The medical profession has also come to
acknowledge this dimension of the patient's experience more and more
in the last twenty years and its efficacy in the process of physical
healing and health, and, increasingly, doctors are trained in
sensitivity to the spiritual dimension as an aspect of physical
care. And now in the last years the business community has
discovered spirituality and is exploring how the resources of this
dimension can bring better job satisfaction and performance to
individuals and groups within the corporate culture.
There are many reasons for this change, but a central one is the
redefinition of spirituality as distinct from religion.
Religion has always held
spiritual experience within its parameters, and contained it within
religious forms. Recently, however, a growing number of people have
come to posit that spirituality is, in fact, the ground from which
religious thought and practice spring, and that, whether a person is
religious, or not, they have within them this dimension of human
experience. Even, in fact, if a person is a declared atheist,
this dimension exists within and its resources can be tapped.
Further, it has become clear that the spiritual dimension is an
human experience, not simply an idea, or value. It is a lived
experience that may, or may not, come to be expressed in religious
form, but which is available and valuable to everyone.
We are not
always able to access this dimension of our experience, and
we can become blocked to its resources in various ways, but the
fundamental realization from the last decade is that the spiritual
dimension is an aspect of every human life, and that it can, when
acknowledged, included, and tapped deliberately, contribute
significantly to the effectiveness and humanity of professional
practice in any field.
Of course, Roberto Assagioli and
Carl Jung were pioneers in this perspective long ago, and
many psychological thinkers in the 20th century followed suit, but
it is only in the last years that this inclusion of spirituality as
a given has become mainstream in professional practice.
In essence, this experience of the spiritual dimension is one of
connection to all Life, a powerful sense of participating in the
Universe as oneself, a unique being, and of having a place and part
in the whole of the living world. From this core experience flow
many attributes, such as courage, wisdom, power, creativity,
perspective, joy, and the ability to live fully one's chosen life
with vitality and grace.
And this is an experience, not an idea -
it is the experience of being fully alive as oneself on earth. This
very human experience highlights simultaneously the universality and
particularity of our existence and the paradoxical fact of our
differences from, and union with, all other life forms. It joins us
to all others, while at the same time affirming our unique being.
Everyone is capable of this connection, though it may be impeded in
any number of ways, and it is a birthright we share as human beings,
even if how we experience it differs from person to person.
I want to emphasize that this "experiential spirituality" is at once
common to all people and completely particular to each person's
experience. There are no general rules, or forms, by which it can be
tapped, but rather there is simply this experience available for
each person which both joins them with all beings and affirms their
The stunning paradox of human spiritual
maturity is that, as we become one with all creation, we also at the
same time become completely and uniquely ourselves. Spirituality and
the spiritual practices, religious, or not, that spring from
it, are what brings us to the realization and expression of what
Assagioli called our "Higher Self", and what I term "the
This is, for all of you, I am sure,
familiar ground and many of you have contributed to this development
of the distinction between religion and spirituality.
Traditionally, spirituality has emphasized the experience of
transcendence as the central means to this Soul-realization and
In both eastern and western practices we are taught, for
the most part, to rise above our attachments, or identifications, to
step back and recognize that we are more than any content of our
consciousness, that we are a spiritual being who has a psyche and
personality, a body, feelings, and mind, but not them.
We learn to use our will to dis-identify
from, and gain perspective on, whatever our experience is, to rest
in the "I", and from there to align our energies with our higher
will, the will of the Soul. Sometimes we confuse this experience of
transcendence with superconscious infusion, sometimes
we confuse it with dissociation, but, rightly used, it does just
what it means to, and is a time-honored practice throughout the
There is emerging now, however, another equally basic practice
within spirituality that I think we need to pay equal attention to,
and learn, just as we have learned the practice of transcendence.
This is the practice of "embodiment". By "embodiment" I mean the
choice we make, as souls, through an act of will, to incarnate, to
enter the material world and to dwell here fully.
By "embodiment" I mean the act of
descent which the soul chooses again and again over the course of a
lifetime and the process by which we, as spiritual beings, come to
dwell more and more fully as our unique selves in our flesh, bones,
and blood on planet earth. It is becoming clear that spirit resides
as much in these choices of embodiment as in those of transcendence,
and that, in fact, the two are complementary aspects of the process
of Soul-realization, taking the meaning of "realization" in both its
senses - becoming aware of who we most are and making that soul real
through resonant and consistent attitudes and behaviors in the
In religious terminology, we often hear of the dual aspects
of the Divine-transcendent and immanent, God beyond and
God within - and these are obviously related to what I am
saying, but the importance of embodiment is that it is a conscious
act of will. It is a spiritual principle and practice that leads to
full human maturity and to the practical, grounded realization, in
fact, of the Divine in both these aspects.
This is a very human endeavor, requiring
awareness and choice, and one in which we are tested again and again
in our capacity to live fully the life we are given and not shy away
from any experience we may encounter.
The soul needs every
experience we have, not just the good ones, and it is only through
the full acceptance and bearing of the full spectrum of our human
experience that we can realize who we most are on earth. In our
excitement about the power of transcendence in spiritual life, we
have sometimes neglected the equally powerful and necessary
principle of embodiment, and it is for this reason that I
want to focus on it here.
Again, this may not be new to you, for there are people in this room
who have worked for decades to take Psychosynthesis in this
direction, and there are many modalities of psychological practice
now that emphasize this carnate dimension of our experience.
But the old tendencies to "premature
transcendence" are still there, and it does not hurt to raise this
In Gestalt parlance, there is a process called "owning"
aspects of our experience that have been split off, projected, or
repressed, and experiencing them directly.
The idea is, as we re-own
these experiences we have disowned, and integrate them, we move
toward human wholeness and maturity.
In classic gestalt work, the spiritual
dimension remains implicit, but the outcome is the same as what we
do at our best in Psychosynthesis - a full embodiment of our
wholeness, in the here and now, within the context of the eternal. A
way of talking about the practice of embodiment is that of owning,
experiencing fully, and integrating aspects of our human existence
which we may find difficult to bear.
If we do not do this, we tend toward a
false transcendence and disembodied existence, which often has the
appearance of being spiritual, but which is not rooted, or grounded,
in all of our human experience, and so cannot fully hold and express
the energies of the soul.
Using this parlance, then, what aspects of our experience do we need
to own in order to fully embody our souls?
First is our suffering
We need to choose to descend into
our suffering, be it vulnerability, fear, grief, anxiety, anger,
despair, loneliness, alienation, and experience it fully.
these experiences are the seeds of healing and transformation,
they are the humus of our humanity and vulnerability, and, if we
avoid them, or buffer ourselves against them in the many ways we
can, we lose an aspect of our soul. We also lose an experience
that brings us compassion and opens our hearts and minds to
love, that touches us in the social aspect of the soul.
Often spirituality, particularly of
a transcendent type, is used to rise above this suffering, and
keep it at bay. We emphasize "love and light" and fail to
realize that in our struggles and sorrows lie the truth of our
spiritual path and the experience we need as souls to heal and
This does not mean being taken over by the suffering, as
happens when were are unconsciously identified with it, but
rather consciously owning and experiencing it as ours, as an
aspect of our life which we need as much as the easier moments.
Second is our bodies
All too often spiritual practice is
associated with transcending our bodies to some realm that is
beyond our senses, and in many religious systems the body has
been seen as an impediment to spiritual development and, in the
worse case, a source of sin and separation.
unconscious identification with the body can lead to these
blocks, but I think it is so important to see the body as the
ultimate vehicle of the soul and that our particularity, power,
love, and beauty are vested in it.
Of course, we need to learn that we
are more than our bodies, but we also need to learn that the
process of spiritual maturation takes us deeper into our
physical experience, not away from it, and that our bodies are
sacred and the means by which we fully realize who we are as
souls on earth.
This includes the experience of infirmity,
illness, and aging as well as the experiences of the senses,
sexuality, and pleasure. "Incarnation" means quite literally,
from the Latin, "to enter into the flesh". To not do this is to
remain disembodied and spiritually ungrounded and immature.
Those of you who are body workers,
or who have worked in the field of Women's Spirituality, are
well aware of this need.
Third is death
Again, too often spiritual practice
emphasizes eternal life, and getting to a space beyond birth and
death. Or, within this polarity, birth is given more importance
and we secretly wish that death would just go away.
birth better. Yet without death there is no birth, without death
there is no change and development, without death there is no
beauty and preciousness to life.
The fact of death is the means by
which we realize we are fully, vulnerably human, and it is in
confronting and accepting our mortality that we open most fully
to our souls. Embodiment enables us to choose our mortality and
embrace it, to realize we will not be here forever, and that now
is the time to express who we are. Those of you who have worked
with chronic illness and the dying are well aware of this need.
Fourth is evil
This is a easily misunderstood
aspect of our experience, but one important to our wholeness.
need to own that we have within us the capacity for what is
called "evil", that we, no matter how mature we are, still carry
the seeds of this extremely separative human attitude and
behavior within us. We can chose not to activate these
patterns - and, if we are aware of them, and own them, there is a
better chance of that - but we are less than whole if we repress
and/or project them onto others.
Embodiment brings us to the
recognition that we have this potential for evil within us, and
that we, as souls, need to take responsibility for it and
include it as part of our mature humanity. None of us are
intrinsically "above" evil. And, paradoxically, by owning our
capacity for evil, we can choose not to act it out.
There is a story that Thich Nhat Hanh tells about the Buddha and
evil. In Buddhism the devil is called Mara. One day Mara is seen
approaching the hut in which the Buddha is living. Ananda, the
Buddha's chief disciple, is the first to spot Mara approaching
and he runs into the meditation hall very upset and calls out to
the Buddha "Mara is coming, Mara is coming! What shall we do?
Shall we bar the door?".
The Buddha calms Ananda and answers,
"Why, no, open the door and invite him in for tea. He is our
honored guest. For, Ananda, remember, without Mara, no Buddha."
The Buddha knows that Mara is necessary to his wholeness and
enlightenment, that he is a whetstone to the blade of his
spiritual will. It is only Ananda, the less conscious disciple,
who is caught in the polarity of good and bad. Those of you who
have worked with cult survivors and trauma victims know of this
Fifth is earthliness
By "earthliness" I mean accepting
and living our given life on earth as it comes, trusting that
what is given is what is needed for us to grow spiritually.
need to descend into our lives, the most mundane and unexciting
aspects of them, and savor them for what they bring us. Far too
often spirituality with an emphasis on transcendence is used as
a means to distance from daily life, and achieve forms of
specialness and intensity that distract us from the daily round.
Here I am saying that it is in the
very daily round that our soul seeks to descend, reside, and be
realized, and that we need each detail of our life to achieve
Soul-realization. This does not mean, again, that we stay caught
passively in aspects of our living that need changing, but it
does mean that we choose to stay with the challenges and
opportunities of a very human daily life and see it as spiritual
in, and of, itself. There is no higher life: ordinary life
itself is sacred. I think we all know this need, though it is a
challenge to fulfill this calling.
Sixth is the present moment
This is a familiar spiritual idea -
the holy here and now - but embodiment brings us into it fully
through an act of will and a willingness to live this moment,
whatever it may bring.
There are, then, no better and worse
moments, but rather we learn to enter fully whatever the moment
is in faith that somehow it is the means to our spiritual
liberation and expression.
We are so quick to judge one moment
as more spiritual than another, and to prefer it, and yet, if it
is true that the soul needs all of our experience in order to be
realized, then each moment has its place and is, in this sense,
divine. Again, I want to stress that this is a choice, much as
transcendence is a choice, and that fully living each moment,
when we can do it, brings us the spiritual realization we seek
right here on earth.
Seventh is earth as heaven
Often spirituality projects a place
beyond our earthly lives where we are whole, be this heaven, or
nirvana, and the promise of spiritual practice is that we will
get there, either in this lifetime, or the next.
The emphasis is
on another place than the earth where things are better, where
there is "no sickness, toil, or danger", and in this projection
the earth is portrayed as flawed, sinful, painful, whatever. If
we see the earth this way, then we begin to fear and devalue it,
or amass means to protect ourselves from its woes, and seek to
leave it, either psychologically, or sometimes literally, as in
Embodiment, on the other hand, is
the means by which we embrace fully our lives on earth and the
earth as heaven, as all there is, and, paradoxically, as we do
this, we begin to bring heaven to earth, so to speak, we begin
to value our earthly lives and make this place we live beautiful
and better, not only for ourselves, but for all beings.
Schweitzer's experience of "reverence for all Life", or Martin
Luther King's statement "we will either learn to live together
as brothers and sisters, or perish as fools", have behind them
the experience of embodiment, and acceptance of the privilege
and responsibility of living on earth as a soul.
There is nowhere else to go, and, if
we realize this, we can then begin to see the earth as the
beautiful and vital home she is and to care for her as we would
ourselves. We are earthlings, not angels, and our spiritual
responsibilities and joys are here, not elsewhere.
Part of this realization of earth as
heaven is also that we are at once ourselves and part of all Life on
And this brings me back to where we started, but now the
context is planetary rather than personal and we can see that
embodiment is also a choice both to be ourselves fully and to honor
the differences between you and me and all other beings.
Often spirituality has emphasized what
we have in common through transcending our differences, but here I
am saying that we need to own our differences in order to experience
the full complexity of how we are actually one. If we posit the
existence of a planetary collective soul, analogous to the
individual soul, then this soul would need every life on the planet
in order to realize itself.
And, if this variety were reduced, as it
is so much at present, the soul of the earth would lose aspects of
its full maturity. These lives include those of plants and animals
as well as humans from many cultures.
This affirmation of diversity is a function of embodiment and,
paradoxically, leads to an experience of unity right here on earth
without any loss of detail and difference. We are still far from
recognizing and expressing this realization of diversity as sacred;
in fact, we are destroying it as I speak, so we have our work cut
out for us. But without it, we will not fully realize who we are as
souls on earth, individually and as a species.
Those of you who have worked on the
ecological and socio-political aspects of
are well aware of this need.
Soul-Embodiment and the New Spirituality
This dimension of spirituality, this choosing to be fully embodied
souls on earth, promotes a spiritual practice that brings us "down
and in" rather than "up and out".
We need this aspect of
spirituality now; we can no longer afford only to transcend and keep
a distance from aspects of our experience that are perhaps
uncomfortable, but necessary to the full maturation of the soul.
Again, transcendence, rightly used, is
equally important in this process, but here I am calling for
attention to its complement which is often neglected, or ignored. We
need to descend as well as transcend, we need to inhabit our bodies
and the earth as souls as well as gain perspective on them. We need
to embrace our suffering and our death, and be grateful for them as
well as to work with them for healing and Soul-realization.
We need to welcome what comes in the
present moment and live it fully in our bodies, feelings, and minds.
We need to own our capacity for evil. We need to welcome differences
and learn to live creatively and harmlessly with them. We need to
care for our planet home and the species with whom we share it. This
is the soul work we need to do now and in the century ahead.
This soul work will lead, I believe, in time, to the emergence of a
new spirituality on earth - one that will both affirm our common
humanity and celebrate the infinite differences between person and
person, culture and culture, nation and nation. The emergence of
this new spirituality constitutes a very big shift in consciousness
for each person and for humanity as a whole.
For eons we have projected the power of
the soul onto God, or some such figure, and posited that our
soul belonged with God and would return to God when we died. In
other words home was not here on earth, but in heaven, or somewhere
else. Here I am saying that the soul's home is here on earth, that
this is where heaven, or nirvana, is, and that there is no other
place to go but here. Heaven is here/now, or Hell, as we choose,
individually and collectively.
In this orientation we are re-owning, as individuals and as a
species, the projection of our soul onto God and are finding the
presence of Spirit within our present existence as mature,
responsible, connected human beings. It is the nature of our
consciousness that makes the world an heaven, or hell, and, as our
consciousness expands and transforms, we experience increasingly the
healing of the split between heaven and earth and the union of all
opposites without loss of any detail of existence.
central paradox of human spiritual maturity is that, as we become
one with all creation, we also at the same time become completely
and uniquely ourselves.
The challenge, then, is to embody our soul lives as fully as
possible hereon earth. As long as we live this projection of our
soul, which is a kind of ultimate premature transcendence, we are
disempowered spiritually, for it allows us to maintain the split
between heaven and earth, and to stay immature in the face of the
challenges we encounter in living.
Conversely, as we re-own this
projection and realize the spiritual power is within us and within
our daily lives, then we realize that we are the ones who are
capable of making things better, of realizing heaven on earth.
Again, this may all be familiar to you. I hope so, as I feel
strongly the need for this perspective on spirituality and am
focusing my own work in these directions. The planet has become
small enough for us to realize that we need to learn to live here
together as mature human beings, and that we are, in fact, one great
family who share a common home.
There is no where else to go, nothing
else to do but be here now and learn to live in ways that do not
harm others, or the earth.
Clearly, we have not learned this yet,
though I am sure that we can, and that our work can contribute to
this. We need to learn to be fully souls on earth, to embody who we
most are, and, as we do this, we will come to see the earth as the
sacred and most beautiful planet she is, and has always been.
We will be at home at last, both in
ourselves, and in the wide, wide world.