Nigel Collingwood

Ecstasy and Politics

Published in Self and Society 1984, Vol XII, nos 2 and 3.

The increasing emphasis on the transpersonal in the humanistic psychology movement and the relative sparsity of interest in society and social issues, raises the question: what is the relation of these four: the transpersonal, the intra-personal, the interpersonal and the political? In this essay I wish to explore only a part of this complex spectrum. I want to stress the political and social end, and establish some links between it and (i) the interpersonal and (ii) the transpersonal (formerly known, or unknown, as the spiritual). The need to forge such links, and the difficulty of the task, arises from a split in western consciousness that goes back at least as far as Aristotle. He came up with what amounted to two separate goals for human existence: (1) to be a politically responsible gentleman (not woman, of course), and (2) to contemplate reality and so to be a wise man. He did not succeed, as far as is known, in bringing these goals together, and the resulting split between action and contemplation has been a temptation for Christianity, and latterly has led to the liberal division of the (engagingly) private from the (annoyingly) public – one of the thickest strands in our ideology today.

No doubt it is brash to try to do better than Aristotle and reverse the trend of 24 centuries. Yet at a time when many people are turning away from political and economic issues towards an escapist form of religion or a comforting mystique of sport, the need to seek a healing in our consciousness and an integration in our activity is urgent indeed.

I will argue briefly for (a) the connection between the interpersonal and the political and (b) that between the transpersonal and the political.1

Only if we make the mistake of seeing the political as a matter of voting for “politicians” and leaving it to them to “run the country”, is it possible to deny that politics is closely interconnected with our face-to-face relationships. For we cannot exist in our society unless we belong both to various small groups and to large groups, the latter inevitably colouring and limiting the freedom of the former. Notable among the significant large groups are the social class we belong to, together with innumerable other group loyalties, local, national and social. In fact the same people who help to involve us in the emotional hangups which bedevil out interpersonal relationships are also the people who mediate to us most of our assumptions about the larger groups: namely our parents or parent-figures.

Yet it is hard to keep the balance and not slip back into the dichotomy between the personal and political. “Tell me, Mr/Mrs Thatchfoot, what do you find time for in your personal life?”. W Reich (1946, 1951) integrated his views on sex-economy with his opposition to Fascism, but his central interest for research moved to biology and physics. More recently the Red Therapy group has sought to include a radical political perspective with humanistic therapy, but at least as far as their pamphlet goes, although there is a careful description of the effects of capitalism on individuals, there is little analysis to show how these are, and inevitably are, the effects of the system. Thus an awareness of the pressures of capitalist society does not of itself lead to more than a notional bridging of the gap between the personal and the political. Even bringing political issues into the context of therapy, though an important step forward, is not enough. What is now needed is a way of being political, of working towards the replacement of capitalism, that takes account of emotional energy and emotional blocks – that is, in effect, therapeutic.

At the level of theory this will entail a dialectical understanding of interpersonal and political existence, i.e. an understanding in terms of the one shaping the other: for instance, the way in which two or more people relating to one another through language cannot but bring with them the assumptions and values of the social groups who have formed and are forming the language. A whole way of seeing the world is implicit as soon as they start to speak. Furthermore, it will, I suggest, be found that the same kinds of failure to make empathic contact which spoil interpersonal (and intrapersonal) relationships – see, for example, the useful list worked out by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951), namely confluence, projection, introjection and retroflection – appear again in the relationships between large social and political groups. Facile analogies apart, there is a dialectical relationship between the individual bodily person and the body politic.

In practice, the tendency to use people, and to be blind to one another’s less conscious motives and behaviour, needs to be replaced by sensitivity, exercised by means of continual monitoring of the effect of political activity upon individuals and groups. If we need to work for the dismantling of the colossal game (in something like the Eric Berne sense) of capitalism, then the subtle, unnoticed continuation of the game within the political group is a grave, perhaps the gravest obstacle to its success. It is easy to get preachy at this point, but we are now beginning to assemble the therapeutic tools, above all through work in groups, which can help to change the “ought” into “can” and “will”.

Now for the relation between the transpersonal and the political. First of all it is necessary to clear away an easy, but in the end naive and fallacious approach. It is sometimes suggested that a simple, though presumably large, increase in the number of people meditating regularly would result in the end of all conflict in society. Unfortunately, this claim, even if true, would be beside the point. Politics is not about the elimination of conflict. If it has any effect at all, it is an activity shot through with conflict, concerning as it does the allocation of resources; if anything is to be eliminated, it is injustice and poverty.

Admittedly, transpersonal experience may lead to more effective political activity in so far as it fosters a relaxed way of carrying on in a position that is always liable to induce stress. But I want to suggest that a far more important relevance to politics lies in the realm not of means but of ends. Somewhere in most maps of the transpersonal is ecstasy. In ecstasy, no matter how it is construed – whether as union with another being, or with the universe, or as completeness within oneself – there is a central element of harmony and peace. At first sight, it may seem outlandish to try and relate such experience to the struggle against injustice and poverty. But I want to suggest that the longings for a society not just marginally better than our own, but one able to offer fulfilment to the widest possible range of human potentialities – that such longings are rooted in and nourished by ecstatic experiences and the pre-natal life in which they in turn have their origin.

Perhaps it will put the argument into context if we approach it by casting a brief glance at theories about infant and childhood experience and its influence on later political attitudes and behaviour. Reich’s work has already been mentioned; it was a reaction against Freud’s pessimistic view that the ordering of behaviour required by civilisation is based on the reality, not the pleasure principle, and hence on the repression of instinct. Reich, by contrast2, saw the core of the organism as loving and creative, but overlaid by character structure, so that people’s political aims, however sincerely sought, were inevitably missed. Bion’s (1961) theory of group process has some relevance to large political groups, but in the Freudian tradition he too is pessimistic; the ego-dominated work group can easily be contaminated by the Basic Assumption group, where dependency, pairing and fight-flight emerge as unconscious processes from the chaos of the id. More recently Southgate and Randall (1980, 1981) have glossed this with an optimistic theory, according to which, although Bion is seen as being right about the dynamics of the “destructive” group, there is also possible a “creative” group, where work is enhanced by constructive energy also emerging from unconscious areas.

It is only recently that the question has been asked whether pre-natal experience can be related to the political. Lake (1981) writes of the possibility of one’s response to economic recession being coloured by regression to prenatal life. David Wasdell (1982) has suggested that a period of extreme constriction upon the earth’s resources brings out not the infantile dynamics charted by Bion, but memories of struggles belonging to the time just before birth. These theories are again pessimistic in the sense I am using. Is there an optimistic possibility too?

I want to argue that there is, and that the relevant transpersonal experience is that of ecstasy. Such experience has sometimes been seen as a reliving of a blissful state in the womb, where the foetus enjoys a floating paradise in the amniotic fluid. Recently Lake has suggested (1981) that its roots lie still earlier, at the stage of the blastocyst. Members of his primal groups have reported “going back to an astonishing sense of being perfectly self-subsistent, of radiant wholeness and blessedness...”. Sceptics may question the “going back”, but it is remarkable that myths of paradise appear that often refer to a past state of bliss, an Eden, as well as to a future one, a possible or even imminent Utopia. If ecstasy is a reliving of blastocystic bliss, then it is possible that, being in a sense a memory, it will be projected on to a fantasised past of the social group to which the individual belongs. Such may be the origin of the Greek myth of the Golden Age.


However, it is the future reference that could be relevant to the political. It is noticeable that this reference is absent from the Greco-Roman tradition (apart, that is, from the purely cyclic view of history, according to which the Golden Age will come round again). It is the Judaeo-Christian tradition that puts so much stress on a future Reign of God where human brotherhood will be dramatically and irreversibly realised. As the plight of Israel became worse, these yearnings were expressed in apocalyptic form, and thus provided material for the many millenniarist groups in the last two thousand years; see Cohn (1962). Admittedly a connection between these longings and the experience of ecstasy is hard to prove. Marghanita Laski (1961, 1979), who has carefully sifted reports of ecstatic experiences, offers the connection as her own belief, and as a “guess”, while arguing that no other explanation can be put forward. But that seems to neglect the influence of the millennialist literature, once written, and also the possibility, which she mentions in passing, that manic states (I assume the distinction to be valid) may play their part.

Thus the thesis that ecstasy, and blastocystic bliss lying behind it, has a causative relationship with political yearnings for a genuinely fulfilling society, is hard to prove. Yet it is possible to put forward two weaker, but by no means empty, theses. The first is that blastocystic bliss provides an unconscious “memory” that can enhance and, colour our ultimate political objectives. It may seem strange to suggest that such a state of unitary completeness, corresponding to a philosophical solipsism, can be relevant to a future position that will be preeminently social and shared. Yet if we attain a society where we feel at home with one another and with the total environment, then in a sense our ego-boundary, the limits of what we each count as being ours, will enclose the totality of our experience. This will amount to an end of the alienation from other people which Marx attributes to capitalist exploitation, and also amount to a new relationship with our non-human environment, touched on in his Grundrisse with the remarkable words: “man ... becomes able ... to conceive of nature (including the control of it) as his own real body”. The second thesis is that ecstatic experiences after birth, by reviving this early memory, can provide the grounds for new enthusiasm for political aims which can otherwise easily become tarnished. Leaving aside the question of origins, we can find some support for such a suggestion in art and music. Among creative geniuses who have worked in this territory are Beethoven and Blake. It is notoriously a subjective matter to interpret music in psychological terms, but many admirers of Beethoven have felt that his later work puts them in touch with the mystical, the ecstatic. It is significant that the composer who had such hopes in the liberating mission of Napoleon and was so bitter at their disappointment as to strike out the dedication to him of his Third symphony, should choose, for the articulation (i.e. for his own psychological interpretation) of the ecstatic music of his Ninth, Schiller’s Ode to Joy with its apotheosis of human brotherhood. Blake, too, developed his visionary powers while keeping his political feet firmly planted on the ground. For example, Erdman (1952) has shown that the engraving named “Glad Day” by Blake’s Victorian biographer (in the comfortable liberal tradition that is always ready to depoliticise), was in fact put by Blake himself over a couplet celebrating the self-sacrificing insurrection of the English on behalf of the colonial peoples in 1780.

My argument has been speculative. But if it can be substantiated, an important conclusion will follow. For practices that encourage the enjoyment of ecstasy and the retrieval of blastocystic bliss – i.e. meditation and pre-natal therapy respectively – will be seen as not mere escapes from political action, but as providing it with vital nourishment. Militants will not need to wait until they are “burnt out” before they guiltily seek a renewal of their inner resources, but will be encouraged to sustain themselves with the depth of meaning which the transpersonal can bring.

Care will have to be taken that the place of ecstasy in the Utopian tradition does not let us forget that, with the availability of advanced technology and thanks to Marx’s patient unravelling of the game of capitalism, the goal of a free and creative society is no longer “utopian” in the bad sense, but a genuine possibility. In such a society politics, political conflict, will still be the order of the day. But the difference will be that the struggles will be between groups with rival views on the allocation of common resources, not, as at present, against or for the exploitative system itself. This will mean a more exciting politics. Peace and harmony (indeed those are suitable words – our language is not ready for the future!), drawing more deeply than ever on the sources of ecstasy, will be marked by a hitherto unknown expression of energy. As Marx put it: history, truly human history, will have begun.

1 for the location of the transpersonal within humanistic psychology, see chapter 9 of John Rowan’s Ordinary Ecstasy.
2 see the Preface to the 3rd edition of The Mass Psychology of Fascism


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