Nigel Collingwood


Must we choose between fanatically religious politics, crudely materialistic politics and naively apolitical spirituality? This paper will present a four-dimensional model of human development to explore the possibility that spirituality is regressive, and the regression must be worked through if politics are to achieve sanity (paper for the BAC Conference on Towards a Sane Society?, held at York 06/09/90).

It is easy to polarise the individual as opposed to society, and to think that at BAC conferences we usually look at individuals and their interactions in small groups, intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics and so on, whereas at this one entitled “Towards a Sane Society?” we will instead examine society, rather strangely seeming to ask whether it can be said to suffer from something we seldom nowadays like to to attribute to individuals: insanity. Yet in fact all we know is society (or societies) consisting of individuals, and individuals who can only exist in society. Human life just has this social quality. True, we can focus on one end or other of the continuum between you, or me, and the whole of humanity, or on somewhere in between, for instance the membership of BAC, or of this conference, but whatever we allow to be foreground need not prevent us being aware of the background.

If we choose to focus on the very large groups such as nations or classes, we notice enormous disparities between them in terms of production, consumption and power. If we focus on the totality of people and then let it become background to the totality of the planet’s surface and resources, we notice that these resources are being depleted and destroyed at an ever increasing rate. Is either phenomenon a sign of social insanity? Certainly environmental destruction has analogies with individual suicide, but we are reluctant to explain suicide in terms of being “of unsound mind”. We are more inclined, especially if we are counsellors, to see it as having some kind of meaning, if only that of expressing the intense self-hatred of deep depression. On the other hand, social splitting into nations and classes suggests analogies with the internal splitting we are familiar with in our models of the paranoid position and indeed of paranoid srhizophrenia. Thus social divisions and human-made environmental catastrophe both suggest parallels with severe neurotic and psychotic problems, even if insanity is a word we find not very useful in characterising them.

However, at this point some will say that such parallels are grossly misleading. Social reality and invidual reality must not be confused in this way. My reply is that the implied polarization between society and individual is itself confusing, no matter how much it is legitimated by the separate identities of sociology and psychology. All we know is society-composed-of-individuals, individuals-embedded-in-society.

Now the link between the external oppression of one social group by another and the internal oppression whereby individuals stunt their own growth may be hard to locate, but, given the social quality of human life, it can be expected to be there. If it is, then any route towards a less divided, less self-destructive society will entail changes that are both political or social and individual or psychological. Yet the routes that are currently on offer display gaps when tested by this criterion. There are at least three. First, there is a religious fanaticism that sees solutions to lie in the imposition of some divinely ordained pattern on humanity, with all the unquestioning narrowness that stems from a fundamentalist, that is, basically closed, faith. Second, there is a crude materialism that relies on competition and personal greed to achieve some kind of rationality thanks to the operation of market forces. Third, there is a spirituality so ungrounded in the body that peace is either expected to result from the spread of mystical experience without any serious attention to the enormous problems arising from divisiveness and self-destruction, or seen as unimportant on the grounds that spiritual reality is the only reality. My main purpose is to seek a quite different diagnosis, but it is consistent with my argument to suggest that these three other candidates have their own “insanity”. Religious fanaticism is deeply imbued with the splitting process (us: good, strong; them: bad, weak) of the paranoid position. Crude materialism’s reduction of human agency to the will to comsume more than others (I win, therefore I am) rests ultimately upon the suppression of other processes such as caring for others or expressing oneself or indeed spiritual experience – a massive inhibition of basic human potentialities. What can be called apolitical spirituality is again from the paranoid stable, the emphasis this time being on the denial of the unacceptable parts of oneself and one’s experience: the body with all its complex claims on the environment is ultimately seen as no more than a tomb.

If this way of looking at these processes is valid, they are not solutions to the problems of divisiveness and self-destruction, but part of the problem. But they have it in common that they all refer, positively or negatively, to spiritual experience. Hence any attempt to mark out a fourth way would seem to need to avoid the mistakes of either emphasising spirituality at the expense of other modes of experience or denying it altogether. It must find a place for the spiritual. But it must do more. It must somehow account for the power that spiritual experience has to exacerbate the problems of divisiveness and self-destruction, whether by paranoid idealisation or by paranoid denial. The first of these tasks I shall attempt by way of a four-dimensional model of human being; the second by way of the thesis that spiritual experience is regressive. By regressive I mean that it involves some kind of recovery of, or resonation with, very early experiences, even well before birth. I will argue that we shall overcome social insanity only by both working on all four dimensions and working through (in the psychotherapeutic sense) the regressive patterns of spirituality. As will become clear, I do not see regression as always having to be taken in a pejorative sense. Readers of Scott Peck (1978) may recall his sensitive treatment of falling in love in terms of regression.

The four dimensions I call foundational, relational, representational and fusional. These names need not obscure the fact that they represent an attempt to bring together elements from the Marxist tradition and the embryelogically based: model developed by Boadella (1976, 1987). For they can be traced both when we take a social focus and when we look at the individual (still, of course, as a member of society). But when we focus on the individual, there is also an analogue to each dimension in the organ systems that derive from the three “layers” of embryological growth: ectoderm, endoderm and mesoderm, which arise in that order. (A diagram of the model is on p. 10.)

On the foundational dimension are ranged all the means to physical life and movement. Socially these are the environment in so far as it is used to support human life, the tools employed and also the people who use them considered solely as sources of work, energy and manipulation. In the language of Marx (1859, 1968) this means the “material productive forces” or “forces of material production”; in computer terms, roughly “hardware” Individually the analogue is the skeleton together with the cardio-vascular systems, that is, the basis of posture and movement, the framework carrying the more complex parts. These are the organ systems that are formed out of the last of the layers to appear in the growth of the embryo: the mesoderm.

The issues around the foundational dimension can be summed up in the term “grounding”. A society is poorly grounded it if fails to provide adequately for the physical needs of its members (see Collingwood, 1983). A poorly grounded individual has muscular armouring, taking on a rigid character structure (see Lowen, 1975). Unsatisfactory grounding estranges us from the environment and from one another (rigidity in Lowen’s sense meaning difficulty in letting go one’s feelings, above all in the sexual domain). Corresponding estrangements or alienations can occur on the other three dimensions, as will become clear below. These alienated forms can be contrasted with “good enough” ones.

On the relational dimension are ranged the ways in which human beings assimilate what is around them – whether it be other people, taking them into ourselves in some way, allowing them to become part of ourselves, or things around us, as we create an environment adapted to our way of living. Socially this dimension includes what Marx called “the relations of production”, but it also includes the environment considered not as a means to physical life but as a means to self-expression. Individually, the analogue is with the alimentary and respiratory systems, whereby we assimilate food and air; these organ systems are formed out of the endoderm, which appears before the mesoderm. The issues on this dimension are socially those of domination vs. cooperation, and have been played out in the various forms of class divisions. We have become so accustomed to the alienated, dominative, form that we tend to think of the existence of a ruling and a ruled class as inevitable. The “good enough” contrast would be mutual aid, synergy. Individually, the issues of relation come out as we negotiate the tasks of nutritional and emotional assimilation, and can result in alienating development both at the anal stage of development – the psychopathic, masochistic and obsessional-compulsive character structures – and in the earlier, oral stage – the oral and (one form of) paranoid character structures. The “good enough” contrast would be confidently “taking in” people & things.

On the representational dimension we find the central task is communication and symbolization, both between people and within the individual person. Socially this is by means of language, supported by a variety of media, whereas individually the senses, both externally and internally oriented, provide a constant flow of information for processing. This sensory and processing system is formed from the earliest of the three embryological layers to appear, the ectoderm.

Society depends on efficient communication for the performance of tasks involving vast numbers of people. Although we can be impressed by the complexity of the communication systems currently employed, there is an underlying alienation in that ideas permeate the population which legitimate, and make to seem inevitable, the inequalities and divisions of late capitalism. This alienated form of representation was characterised by Marx as ideology. At the level of individual development, the issues of awareness, what to attend to, what to keep in the background, come out in very early development where acceptance is crucial; failure to negotiate this phase adequately comes out in very deep forms of alienation from oneself and others in the hysterical, schizoid and (early) paranoid character structures. By contrast an open, uncluttered awareness would be “good enough”.

The fusional dimension refers to those areas of experience, familiar to some, less to others, where the gap between subject and object, between oneself and somebody or something other than oneself, narrows to zero. To use the title of one of Wilber’s books (1981) there is then “no boundary”. Such experiences are often referred to as spiritual, transpersonal or mystical. But the first two of these carry an implication of dualism (spirit vs. matter) or of a reality beyond and somehow higher than the personal, while “mystical” is in some quarters used in a solely pejorative sense (as in the English translation of Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1970). “Fusion” is intended to connote the central quality of the experience concerned, that subject is fused with object, without evaluating or placing it in some philosophical scheme. I am of course about to do both these things by incorporating fusion in this four-dimensional model, but at least I am trying to clear the decks of other evaluations and assessments.

When do these experiences occur? Surveys suggest that a considerable proportion of adults in our culture have such experiences, if only occasionally. They often occur unexpectedly, though it is possible that the practice of meditation makes a person more ready for such an experience, whether or not it occurs while they are meditating.

However, similar experiences also arise in a therapeutic context, when regression to early, pre-natal, states is encouraged and thought to take place, i.e. in primal therapy. Thus Lake (1981) reports that patients speak of going back to an astonishing sense of being perfectly self-subsistent, continuing:

“Indeed this was precisely their blastocystic condition... Those who have been drawn to a certain kind of contemplative activity spontaneously identify the unitive experience there with the experience of their primal work with us.” (op. cit. p 63).

Now we have to be extremely careful. It is generally accepted that regression to earlier stages of development occur. For instance, it is difficult to understand the behaviour of adolescents unless one recognises some of it as a slipping back to patterns of childhood. But the question here is how far back can a person “slip”? In the present context, how do we know that people who have fusional experiences during primal therapy do in fact regress, i.e. go back to, recover, prenatal stages of development? The question becomes somewhat easier to deal with if regression is clearly defined. Regression cannot mean an exact repeat of a previous experience, because no experience can be exactly repeated. On the other hand, if it is taken to mean no more than to take part in a guided fantasy where prenatal events are imagined with the same freedom from the constraints of reality that would follow from being asked to imagine one was a fish or a potato, then regression loses any distinctive meaning at all. A moderate claim, based on such findings as Grof (1985) recounts, would be that adults can have experiences which can be understood as reverberations from pre- and peri-natal events or stages. As in the case of most therapeutic models, those who are most likely to by sympathetic to a regressive interpretation of this kind are people who have themselves had primal therapy. I am well aware that my own inclination to accept such a position is due to my own fusional experience, in and out of therapy, reinforced by a resulting sensitivity to pre- and peri-natal imagery brought out by some of my counselling clients. Wasdell describes (1989) resistance to working at this level. (The embryological analogue might be Boadella’s “morphoderm”, seen by him as an “energy field”.)

If regression is reverberation – an echo rather than a repetition – then the earlier phenomenon will be echoed in a different context. Thus when Grof recounts images of imprisonment or fighting, and proceeds to locate them in his Basic Perinatal Matrices II and III (“onset of delivery” and movement down the birth canal respectively), he is not implying that the infant had visions of stone walls and grated windows, or of guns and bullets. He is claiming that that these images, collected from later experiences and reading and so on, occur in response to reverberations of being constricted and stuck (BPM II) or forced, fighting for oxygen, through a narrow orifice (BPM III). Thus reverberations take place in adult bodies, with adult imaginations to hand. The question as to whether the original experience was more or less “powerful” or intense than the one that is interpreted as a regression to it is unanswerable. But the impression of extreme emotions given by much primal therapy taken together with the strong emotional expression of young babies suggest that both the reverberation and that which is reverberating can be of utmost intensity.

What I am suggesting, then, is that adult fusional experience represents a regression to, a reverberation of, very early, including pre- and peri-natal experience. This at once leads to a further question. For whereas mystical experiences are typically blissful in character (see Coxhead, 1985), the pre- and peri-natal experiences that may lie behind them are sometimes blissful and “heavenly” but sometimes painful and hellish. Grof (1985) interprets these as mystical and expressive of reality in the first case, but in the second as psychotic and expressive of fantasy. For he writes (p 308) “a mystic in an ecstatic rapture is clearly tapping genuine transcendental and archetypal dimensions that by far transcend biology”, and argues that LSD sessions “suggest that the reliving of undisturbed intra-uterine experiences is closely related to certain types of mystical and religious states, whereas episodes of embryonic crises show association with schizophrenic experiences and paranoid conditions”. Wasdell (1985) seems to me to be right in seeing this as a gratuitous distinction. Inded Grof himself admits that the “boundary between psychosis and the process of spiritual transformation” is “rather precarious” (p 309). Wasdell sees the distinction as resulting from fear of facing up to painful prenatal regressions, so that they have to be sanitised, as it were, by the label of illness. His own suggestion is that both “good” and “bad” examples of what I am calling fusional experience are the result of a process of paranoid splitting, denial, projection and idealisation consequent upon intense pre- and peri-natal trauma. This implies that “the religious mystic is just as psychotic as the paranoid presenter”. Yet he makes room for a less extreme view when he admits that there can also be regression to an undisturbed, peaceful state (BPM I): “realistic BPM I regression” as opposed to the idealising kind just described.

Thus there emerges a somewhat complex picture. Fusional experience in adults is a reverberation of fusional experiences in pre- and peri-natal stages of growth. The latter may be either pleasurable or painful in character, and the reverberation may be either realistic or idealised in defence against pain and terror that would otherwise be intolerable.

(This view is in sharp contrast to that of Wilber (1983), who maintains that to assert any but a superfical resemblance between what he calls the prepersonal and the transpersonal (in my terms, pre- and peri-natal fusion and adult fusion) is to fall into “the pre-trans fallacy”. He holds this strict dichotomy in order to avoid reductionism: what he sees as the Freudian view that mystical experience is “really” infantile experience (e.g. “oceanic” feelings) and the Jungian one that infantile experiences are “really” mystical ones. The stance that I am taking is certainly on the side of Freud, yet a crude reductionism is avoided, I would argue, by insisting that adult fusion is not identical with pre- and peri-natal fusion, but is a reverberation of it in the relatively mature organism of an adult person. Wilber’s use of logician’s language in speaking of a “fallacy” may be seen as due to his need to shore up the opposition between pre- and trans-personal that underlies his thinking from The Atman Project (1980) onwards. This position has been challenged by Washburn (1988), whose argument for “regression in the service of transcendence” has some affinity with the view I am putting forward here.)

So far we have looked at the fusional dimension from a purely individual focus. But the model opens up the possibility of a social counterpart to individual fusion. Possibility becomes likelihood, if we consider not only that everyone has had some kind of “oceanic” experience while the womb was “good enough”, but also Wasdell’s case for pre- and peri-natal tramuata being virtually universal, owing to the narrowness of the cervix of the womb compared especially with the size of homo sapiens’ head and to the threat to the infant’s oxygen supplies that results from the vertical stance of the human mother (see Wasdell 1984). There we have the basis both for realistic regression in so far as being part of a group revives the original sense of fusion with mother, a process that is amplified when people “lose themselves” in dance or corporate trance, and for idealising regression in so far as groups employ the paranoid defence of seeing “us” as good and “them” as bad. In practice no doubt the two types of regression are often present together. But history offers many examples of stark idealising regression, especially when fusion occurs between leader and led, as happened between Hitler and those carried away by his rhetoric (see Smith, 1980). More generally, deMause (1982) suggests that wars are regressive in character: “Groups go to war in order to overcome the helplessness and terror of being trapped in the birth canal”. Moreover, religions can also be understood as social phenomena where shared fusional experience reverberates and is projected on to sacred objects or persons, often regarded as immortal and part of a hidden world that transcends the world of everyday. Painful fusional experience is either denied, as when it is believed that the universe is perfect and any imperfection an illusion, or allowed to reverberate and be projected as some kind of anti-universe or hell. As always, however, we must remember the other three dimensions, since religion also plays a part in making sense of the foundational (e.g. fertility rituals), the relational (e.g. marriage rituals) and the representational (myths that supply an over-arching explanation of reality).

If deMause’s view of war links regression with one aspect of social “insanity”, that of humanity’s tendency to self-destruction, there is still the other aspect, that of divisiveness. Here too the divisions of class society can themselves be seen as an acting out of paranoid splitting that derives ultimately from traumata on the fusional dimension. Of course the process is constantly renewed over time, as the oppressive divisions in society are internalised to reinforce the sense of powerlessness (in the case of the sellers of labour) or power (in that of the employers of labour) – whose ultimate source is in pre-and peri-natal trauma over the generations. Inner and outer oppression thus constantly build on one another. The usual objection to such theories is that they involve psychologism, a reduction of all other categories to that of emotional development. But this is where the four-dimensional model proves useful. For it enables us to see that social phenomena such as class division or the sharper division entailed by war (not forgetting class war!) need to be understood on all four dimensions. The Marxist explanation of class divisions in terms of the availability of produce surplus to immediate requirements can be valid in terms of the foundational and relational dimensions, but this does not prevent the social divisiveness being, as it; were, overdetermined by factors on the fusional dimension. The very motor of capitalism as seen by Marx – the need for capital to be accumulated – can thus be seen to derive not only from the division of labour and later the industrial mode of production, but also from a fusional fear of annihilation. “I win, therefore I am” becomes “I lose, therefore I am not”. (Carlyle wrote in The Gospel of Mammonism (1843), which Marx read as a young man, about what constituted “hell” for the modern Englishman: “the terror of ‘not succeeding’”.) Thus a four-dimensional diagnosis of social insanity is possible that does justice to some of the complexity of human relationships.

The corollary is that the “cure” for human divisiveness and self-destruction needs also be to be four-dimensional. To confine ourselves to the economic and political and ideological (roughly the foundational, relational and representational dimensions respectively) is to allow the process of acting out paranoid defences against primal pain to find other outlets. In other words, even if the divisions of society achieved by capitalism were dismantled on the other three dimensions, our need to repeat compulsively our splitting and projection on the fusional dimension would result in new foundational, relational and representational divisions. The only way of preventing this would be working through the splitting and projection in some kind of therapeutic process. This would mean suitable primal therapy being available with the same universality that is already taken for granted in education. But although it would be easy to say the latter simply needs to be extended to include emotional education at the primal level, that could only be successful if received voluntarily. Hence the greatest task is to create an atmosphere where people will freely take up personal growth at sufficient depth.

Where would this leave spirituality? The thesis that adult spiritual experience is regressive, a reverberation of early fusional experience, is daunting to anyone who has had such experience. But the distinction between realistic and idealising regression reminds us that only the latter needs to be, indeed only that latter can be, worked through in therapy. If we can relinquish the myths of perfect good and utter evil which have proved so comforting in the face of pain, poverty and death, we will still have access to realistic regression; good enough pre- and peri-natal experiences will still be able to reverberate in a good enough childhood and a good enough adult life.

The project of dealing with divisiveness and self-destruction on all four dimensions is also daunting. It entails a revolution more thorough and profound that any previously contemplated, let alone carried out. Yet if the argument of this paper is sound, dare we aim at anything less?


Boadella, David, Organ Systems & Life Styles, Energy & Character, Sept. 1976.
Boadella, David, Lifestreams: An Introduction to Biosynthesis, London, RKP, 1987.
Carlyle, Thomas, Past & Present, 1843, London, Chapman & Hall, 1888.
Collingwood, Nigel, Political Grounding, Connect Paper No 3, Poole, Dorset, 1983.
Coxhead, Nona, The Relevance of Bliss: A Contemporary Exploration of Mystic Experience, London, Wildwood House, 1985.
deMause, Lloyd, The Foundations of Psychohistory, New York, Creative Books, 1982.
Grof, Stanislaus, Beyond the Brain, New York, State of New York University Press, 1985.
Lake, Frank, Tight Corners in Pastoral Counselling, London, Darton Longman & Todd, 1981.
Lowen, Alexander, Bio-energetics, New York, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan , 1975.
Marx, Karl, Preface to a Critique of Political Economy, in Marx-Engels, Selected Works, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1968.
Peck, M Scott, The Road Less Travelled, London, Rider, 1978.
Reich, Wilhelm, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. Carfagno, Vincent, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 19/0.
Smith, David L, On Groups, Pt I, Energy & Character, September 1980.
Washburn, Michael, The Ego & the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Human Development, New York, State of New York University Press, 1988.
Wasdell, David, Demythologizing an Archetype, London, URCHIN (Unit for Research into Changing Institutions, 115 Poplar High St, E14 OAE), 1984.
Wasdell, David, Transpersonal Mythology?, London, URCHIN, 1985.
Wasdell, David, Constraints Encountered in the Conduct of Psychosocial Analysis, Connect Paper 8. 1989. (address: see above)
Wilber, Ken, The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development, London, Quest, 1980.
Wilber, Ken, No Boundary: Eastern & Western Approaches to Personal Growth, Boulder & London, Shambhala, 1981.
Wilber, Ken, Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm, New York, Anchor, 1983.

Outline of 4-dimensional model

Dimension Way of being Individual focus Social focus
embryological analogue “good enough” form alienated form “good enough” form alienated form
FUSIONAL “no boundary” (morphoderm?) realistic regression idealising regression group as womb fusion with leader; self-destruction
REPRESENTATIONAL communication ectoderm open awareness hysterical, schizoid & paranoid character structures symbolization by language etc. ideology
RELATIONAL assimilation endoderm taking in people and things confidently paranoid & oral; psychopathic masochistic, obsessional character structure social relations of synergy divisive social relations (class; exploitation)
FOUNDATIONAL support mesoderm muscles let emotions flow muscular armour: rigidity forces of production support society production for profit; misuse of environment