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Clues to 'Ascent' and 'Escape'

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Annex 4 of Navigating Alternative Conceptual Realities: clues to the dynamics of enacting new paradigms through movement (2002)

Metaphoric Entrapment (Annex 1)
Clues to Movement and Attitude Control (Annex 2)
Combining Clues to Movement and Attitude Control (Annex 3)
Clues to 'Ascent' and 'Escape' (Annex 4)
-- Clues to 'ascent' from Christianity
-- Clues to 'escape' from Buddhism
-- Clues to 'ascent' and 'escape' from Theosophy
Combining Clues to 'Ascent' and 'Escape' (Annex 5)


A presentation of any range of virtues may imply that they can best be understood in a sequence through to those of greater subtlety or challenge. This sequence may be associated with maturation. If presented as a table, a particular cell may be seen as an ultimate goal. In what follows this understanding of 'ascent' is considered as a pale reflection of one that becomes possible when any such set of virtues are seen as complementary prerequisites for any navigation into a new reality. In effect a three dimensional array, of which one dimension is 'up', is collapsed into a two dimensional array.

Bruce MacLennan, in a discussion of the process of human ascent [more] according to Dante, notes that in Plato's Symposium, the ascent to Beauty has three stages: (a) experiencing beauty in things; (b) experiencing beauty in souls; (c) experiencing the idea of Beauty itself. There is therefore a shift of focus, from (a) 'outside us' (extra nos), to (b) 'within us' (intra nos), to (c) 'above us' (supra nos): extraversion, introversion and supraversion. St. Augustine (354-430) adopted this basic scheme, but divided it into seven substages. However, Dante was following St. Bonaventura (1221-1274), who split each of Plato's stages in two, giving the six stages of ascent, which correspond to Dante's six guides (Virgil, Cato, Statius, Matilda, Beatrice, St. Bernard).

Other notions of 'ascent' or 'escape' are to be found in other spiritual traditions. As noted earlier, whilst the widely promulgated guidelines to virtues and vices may well be vital to what might be understood as attitude control and coordination, they can usefully be understood as prerequisites to any process of shifting attitude into subtler perceptions -- described metaphorically, and therefore inadequately, through such terms as 'ascent' or 'escape'. The distinction between attitude control and ascent for an individual may be compared with the complex set of techniques for successfully launching any vehicle so that it acquires the necessary 'escape velocity' to attain an orbit around the Earth, so escaping from the gravity well of the material world.

Launching a vehicle into space provides a rich store of metaphors to help avoid some of the dangers of getting lost in the spiritual terminology that endeavours to describe the journey of the soul to enlightenment (see Entering Alternative Realities -- Astronautics vs Noonautics: isomorphism between launching aerospace vehicles and launching vehicles of awareness). Whilst meaningful and relevant as an inspiration to many, such terminology also obscures for others the vital transformations in the understanding of the immediately obvious relationships of self to other, or of knower to known, during any such process of 'ascent'. It might even be said that spiritual traditions endeavour to lock people into their particular 'product' or 'brand' in the exclusive manner favoured by manufacturers of certain technologies.

Such special orientation of understanding by spiritual traditions in describing progress to 'holiness' detracts from recognition of the progessively more integrated understanding described by psychotherapists through terms such as the individuation process. In the first case the 'holiness' is framed in terms of a special understanding of spirituality, whereas in the second it derives from a more comprehensively integrated understanding of the reality of the world (as a 'whole') and of a subtler relation of the perceiver to it. The two are presumably not experientially distinct but religions have endeavoured to establish a monopoly on their understanding -- marginalizing insights that are not articulated through their particular terminologies. Schools of psychotherapy are similarly challenged.

Clues to 'ascent' from Christianity

Bernard of Clairvaux (On Loving God) detailed four degrees: Man loves himself for his own sake; Man loves God but for his own advantage; Man loves God for God's sake; and Man loves himself for the sake of God. (These may provide one interpretation of the groups A to D in Table 3). Bruce MacLennan in distinguishing the Sources for the Dantean Ascent [more], especially from the classical Christian perspective, compares the perspective of St Augustine's On the Dimension of the Soul and St. Bonaventura's The Mind's Road to God to give the progression:

Clues to 'escape' from Buddhism

Psychological emptiness is the state of the mind empty of attachment to all dualistic thinking that Buddhism asserts is at the origin of all human suffering. It is the discriminating mind that determines that things are impermanent and of suffering nature. An enlightened buddhist is even said not to be attached to any degree of 'ultimate truth' attained. To be permanently empty is to attain Buddhist enlightenment (nibbana, nirvana). This condition uses all dualistic thinking to its advantage without being attached to it -- compared traditionally to the manner in which the lotus plant derives its existence from the water in which it embeds, without being wetted by it.

Following other Eastern religions, Buddhism values morality as an instrument for transcending personal existence, which is seen as the major hindrance in attaining liberation. Moral perfection (sila), i.e. right speech, action and livelihood, aims at annihilating one's false attachments to the world of illusion. It has no ultimate importance but is only an instrument used for developing a detached status toward personal attachments and interests in life. Therefore, bad habits such as envy, anger, gossip and pride must be abandoned, but not primarily because other people may be hurt by them, but because they feed one's false ego and the thirst (trishna) for experiencing personal existence. [more]

Buddhism has nothing against the positive qualities of attachment in this western sense (as highlighted earlier), but traditionally has used the word attachment to refer instead to neurotic clinging and those attempts to control one's inner and outer environment that inevitably backfire and lead to suffering. And Buddhism certainly has recognized the dangers involved in the pathological varieties of detachment. The proper, positive meaning of detachment in Buddhism instead centers on an awareness of impermanence and an ability to attach and detach (as appropriate in any movement).

The path of concentration is understood to advance through eight jhanas, or degrees of consciousness absorption according to the classicial Visuddhimagga. Through focus on various concepts, the meditator learns to overcome hindering thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and eventually awareness itself. To attain the jhanas, the meditator must begin by eliminating the unwholesome mental states obstructing inner collectedness, generally grouped together as the five hindrances (see above). The mind's absorption on its object is brought about by five opposing mental states -- applied thought, sustained thought, rapture, happiness and one pointedness -- called the jhana factors (jhanangani) because they lift the mind to the level of the first jhana and remain there as its defining components. The jhanas are presented in two groups of four, under the collective title of the eight attainments (atthasamapattiyo) [more]:

Having presented the Visuddhimagga as the best developed map to altered mental states, Daniel Goleman (The Meditative Mind, 1988) then draws parallels to other mystic traditions: Hindu Bhakti, Jewish meditation, Christian meditation, Sufism, Transcendental Meditation, Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga, Indian Tantra and Kundalini Yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Gurdjieff's Fourth Way, and Krishnamurti's Choiceless Awareness.

Clues to 'ascent' and 'escape' from Theosophy

Drawing on Eastern traditions, Theosophists articulated the stages of initiation [more], expressed in the form of :

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