The Higher Self in Healthcare
Every wisdom tradition on earth, with the curious exception of modern Western psychology, refers to innate inner guidance as a part of human nature. These references include the Bible’s “still small voice within,” the artist’s muse, Dante’s Beatrice, Gandhi’s “inner light,” Tibetan Buddhism’s prajna, Alcoholics Anonymous’ higher power, Judaic-Christian-Islamic guardian angels, Zen’s “the inner reason of the universe which exists in each mind,” Kabbalah’s Tiferet, Greek mythology’s oracle, and the forms of accessing wisdom in the various spiritual and esoteric schools.
The only Western psychological approach that acknowledges innate inner guidance is transpersonal (meaning beyond the personality) psychology, a largely unrecognized branch within mainstream psychology, with its pioneers being William James, Carl Jung and Roberto Assagioli. Using Assagioli’s terminology for innate inner guidance, the higher self, this article gives an overview and examples of higher self work in healthcare.
Assagioli’s Higher Self Background
In 1307, the mystic poet Dante was exiled from Florence, his family home of many generations, with a death sentence on his head. Married with four children, he was never able to return to Florence again. Sometime during his exile, he underwent an emotional and spiritual transformation that lead to his enlightenment: “I know I saw the universal form, the fusion of all things, because as I speak now my heart is leaping with joy.”
Dante spent the next eleven years writing his spiritual masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, to give “future generations” a map of the enlightenment process that he had experienced, leading him “from misery to bliss.” He originally just called it Comedy (Commedia in Italian) because it is a journey that starts out badly (he’s in Hell) and ends up well (he’s in Paradise). In his descriptions of the journey, he is in constant contact with inner guides, the first being Virgil, and then Beatrice, and lastly, Bernard of Clairvaux. Virgil is the voice of reason, Beatrice the voice of the transformation of consciousness (his higher self), and Bernard of pure contemplation. Beatrice does the true heavy lifting because she has to open Dante’s intransigent personality to his own transpersonal nature and higher self. A dramatic moment occurs when she challenges him to let her go and to realize that the guidance is already in him.
Over six hundred years later, the Florentine psychiatrist, Roberto Assagioli, MD, was imprisoned in solitary confinement by the Fascist police at the start of World War Two. Assagioli experienced enlightenment in his jail cell and vowed from that moment on to help free people from their “inner prisons.” His home was bombed, and his only child died from an illness contracted while hiding from the Nazis in the Tuscan hills. Assagioli’s deep pain and exile aligned him completely with his fellow Florentine of six hundred years earlier, Dante, and he based his transpersonal psychology, psychosynthesis, on the Dantean journey of transformation. In addition, he integrated elements of Theosophy, which he was trained in by his mother as a child. He later had a public professional career as a psychiatrist and teacher of psychosynthesis to psychiatrists and psychologists, and a private career as a meditation teacher in the esoteric school.
The term psychology literally means the study of the soul, but that was forgotten quickly in the early application of psychology to psychopathology. It took the visionary work of Jung and Assagioli to introduce the soul and spirituality back into modern Western psychology, and they partially did so because of the world events around them. Having lived in war-torn Europe through World War One and World War Two, they witnessed the rapid decline of religious belief in many European hearts and minds. The deaths of fifteen million Europeans in World War One and the deaths of forty million Europeans in World War Two made belief in a protective God unsustainable. Unlike Freud, who they originally followed but broke away from, both Assagioli and Jung saw that spirituality was an innate human trait that needed expression in new ways following the loss of the old beliefs. They were far ahead of their time. One hundred years later, neuroscientific researchers are now beginning to describe “higher systems” and “states of oneness” which are dormant potentials in our brain.
Assagioli emphasized insight meditative and creative visualization practices and Jung the guiding wisdom of inner images and dreams. Their transpersonal approaches were later enhanced by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in Vienna, who had survived a Nazi concentration camp and began to teach his patients the healing power of life purpose. Assagioli, Jung and Frankl saw that the discovery of these beyond-the-personality qualities – meditative awareness, inner wisdom, life purpose – were antidotes to the fear, stress and confused lives they saw in their practices. This is still true today.
Their work subsequently inspired the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, to move beyond humanistic psychology and to pioneer the field of transpersonal psychology in America.
Attitudes toward the Higher Self in Healthcare
This history does not mean that a concept such as the higher self is an accepted fact in modern healthcare or psychological practice. A brilliant paper by Israeli psychologists Birnbaum, Birnbaum and Mayseless categorized the range of professional attitudes toward such ideas:
- Professionals who are hostile toward anything that sounds “spiritual,” believing it to be unscientific, escapist fantasy;
- Professionals who simply have no knowledge nor interest in such matters;
- Professionals who are sympathetic to spiritual needs but associate them with religion and therefore outside of their professional territory;
- Professionals who have had transpersonal experiences themselves but feel reluctant to bring their personal knowledge into their work;
- Professionals who, in the spirit of scientific inquiry and personal curiosity, have actively explored their own transpersonal nature to see what benefits it holds;
- Professionals who become active in teaching transpersonal discovery for their patients through offering meditation, mental imagery and other practices.
An Early Example of the Higher Self in Healthcare
Probably the most overt reference to the higher self in healthcare is the concept of the higher power in the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. While it is fading a bit, the 12-Steps approach in drug and alcohol treatment centers still plays a significant role, and every patient is therefore introduced to at least the concept of a higher power being available to them. This derives from the very start of Alcoholics Anonymous and its spiritual component.
It is not commonly known that spirituality is part of the 12-Steps because of a life-changing “white light” experience. It happened to Bill Wilson, a hopeless alcoholic who had been admitted in 1934 to Towns Hospital in New York City for his fourth alcohol detoxification. Lying despondent in his hospital bed, Wilson called out to God to come to him – and was engulfed by a white light and a feeling of “ecstasy.” He experienced liberation from his obsessive-compulsive relationship with alcohol and never drank again.
It is also little known that Wilson subsequently wrote to Carl Jung about his white light experience, and that Jung wrote back, describing the link between alcoholism and spirituality: “…craving for alcohol is the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in Medieval language as the union with God.” Jung’s confirmation empowered Wilson to make spiritual consciousness a central principle in the recovery program he was then helping to develop – the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But one difficulty in experiencing spiritual breakthroughs via 12-Step spiritual practices is that Wilson and his co-founders were limited to the language and beliefs of their 1930s American Protestantism. Not having access to the storehouse of worldwide spiritual practices which is now available to the 21st Century spiritual seeker via the Internet, the 12-Step founders only knew their specific forms of prayer and meditation practices. Even Bill Wilson eventually went searching outside the 12-Steps for a repetition of his white light experience by experimenting with LSD but was unable to recapture his original life-changing breakthrough.
Their cultural/religious assumptions are now less prevalent in an increasingly secular and multi-cultural American population. Significant for our discussion, they chose to use and teach the term higher power as a description of an intermediary experience between their personal self and God. In many years of clinical practice with people in recovery, the author has heard a great deal of confusion about the higher power concept and very few examples of practices to access it. Higher self work could definitely enhance this aspect of healthcare.
What follows are three examples of higher self work bringing benefits to people in dire circumstances. Two of the examples are quite long to give a full flavor to the creativity and profundity of the experiences.
Case Study: Jean
A devout Catholic woman was referred to the author because of extreme anxiety resulting from a recurrence of cancer. Jean’s anxiety was preventing her from going forward with further treatment. In refusing anti-anxiety medications offered by her physician, she said that she wasn’t crazy and wouldn’t take pills to solve her problems.
She was first trained in mindfulness meditation because of its extensive documentation of effectiveness. After several tries, she interpreted the mindfulness process as trying to flatten and deny her emotions, and she wasn’t motivated to continue with it.
Because she had described her strong religious identification, she was next guided into a scene in her imagination in which she would meet a Catholic sacred figure who could guide her. After a brief period of deep silence, Jean began to sob softly and then broke into a smile, opening her eyes in a few moments and declaring that “the Blessed Mother held me!” (The Blessed Mother is a reference to Mary, mother of Jesus).
She proceeded with her medical treatment, utilizing this higher self inner image as a source of courage whenever she felt anxious and afraid.
Case study: Clyde
This took place during the 1980s during the first onset of the HIV-AIDS epidemic and is selected because of its personal impact on the author as a persuasive proof of higher self work.
A patient named Clyde called to say that he was diagnosed with AIDS, was already extremely ill and was struggling terribly with fear and anxiety. This case study describes a single home visit in Clyde’s apartment.
When the author arrived, Clyde could barely manage to come to the door and then quickly retreated to bed. He was under the covers, shaking, when the session began. He said he had been searching desperately for some way to calm himself, but nothing was helping. He’d given up on anti-anxiety medication because it made him feel worse once the medication wore off.
Clyde was asked if he had any religious or spiritual belief. He said he had rejected his childhood religion because it had rejected him due to his homosexuality. He said he wondered about reincarnation but didn’t believe in it, basing his interest only on the feeling that he had “been here before.” The author used this as a starting point for a higher self work.
With Clyde lying prone on his bed and the author in a chair by the bedside, Clyde was guided to follow his breathing. Then, utilizing the reincarnation image, Clyde was asked to imagine another man in another time and place who was also following his breathing just as Clyde was doing now. Clyde’s breathing began to slow down and his eyelids were fluttering, a physical sign that vivid inner imagery was taking place in his imagination and causing rapid eye movement (REM). Nothing else was said to Clyde.
Usually, an imagery practice such as this lasts a few minutes at most. Clyde remained still for twenty minutes, and there was a palpable feeling of peace in the room. Clyde then slowly opened his eyes and began to relate what he had experienced:
“I felt my body sink deep in the bed. I felt a great heaviness and peace. The itching from the medication went away, and it’s still gone. I saw an image of a young man. I saw him become ill. I saw his flesh begin to fall off him, until a skeleton was all that was left.
Then his flesh reappeared, and his life force returned. He was the same healthy young man I first saw. But soon, the flesh began to come off him again, his life force left him, and he became a skeleton again. At that point, I saw an old man behind him, and I realized that as the old man moved his hand to the left, the flesh came off the young man, and as the old man moved his hand to the right, the life came back to him. I watched this with great feelings of peace. I felt that I was being taught something very important. I can’t even say the peace was in me, because by the time I was watching this I had absolutely no sense of my body at all. My body was gone. My body had dropped away. I was free. I was floating free. I had no fear at all. I was free.”
In such practices, the images that are generated in the patient’s mind are considered to be uniquely personal and unnecessary to interpret by a health professional. It was clear that Clyde had connected with an inner intelligence which was advising him to let go as a way of reducing his suffering and increasing his peace.
Clyde called his closest friends and told them about his wisdom experience, making them promise to guide him to his “wise old man” when he was dying. As his illness progressed, Clyde was hospitalized. After a few days as an in-patient, he stopped communicating. Although he was not in a coma, he remained unresponsive to visitors who assumed that this was a neurological or emotional consequence of his approaching death.
One night, as his friend Paul was leaving Clyde’s hospital room, the nurse told him that she didn’t think Clyde would live through the night. Remembering his promise, Paul returned to his friend’s bedside and began to guide the unresponsive Clyde to his higher self. As Paul finished and sat back crying, Clyde spoke up and said, “Don’t worry. Clyde is already gone.”
He died peacefully thirty minutes later.
Case study: Greta
Greta was a 77 year-old Holocaust survivor who was being treated for a recurrence of lymphoma. Six years before, when she was first treated, her husband had been there to support her. But he had since died, and now Greta did not think she would have the strength to go through it again on her own.
Greta said that the emptiness she felt in herself had become frightening to her. “I have no strong feelings, no delights, no disappointments,” she said. “Nothing matters. A sleep condition. I have to get out of this, but how?”
She then went on to talk about herself as a young woman before she left Germany. She would face her problems by cutting herself off from the world and going off by herself “to a lonely place in the heather” to contemplate and somehow have solutions come to her. As health professionals become more accustomed to thinking in terms of the higher self as an aspect of human nature, a description such as Greta’s “solutions” coming to her will make perfect sense.
She was guided to close her eyes, relax, and go back to the heather. This is how she later described the experience in a letter to the author:
“I transported myself mentally to a suburban train heading to the heather. It’s a beautiful summer day. I get off at the heather station and walk down a long, gray, wide, very dusty road with deep ruts created by heavy wagons.
There are hardly any people. A few old fenced-in farmhouses to the right and left. Maybe no one lives in them. I walk on and see a little side path leading directly to the heather. I take the path and after a while even that ends. I go on, slowing down because of the thickness of the heather, and continue through this unlimited, unending heather field broken by only a few birch trees.
Finally I sit down near some trees. How wonderful.
I decide to lie down and look at the cloudless, silky, pale blue sky, draped like a dome over the horizon. A very gentle wind caresses me and makes the little gray-greenish leaves of the birches move slightly, maybe talking together about the intruder—me—who lies so motionless. A few butterflies flutter around, busy bees hum and collect the nectar from the flowers of the heather and move gracefully with the wind. Everything is peaceful and disconnected from the daily crazy world. What a glorious day!
But I did not come here for adoration. I came to find my purpose, to feel better. I have to start searching. I fall into a deep sleep. I become a turtle, a little gray, insignificant, unnoticeable turtle, head inside under an impenetrable shell. Cut off from the lovely outer world.
I have to go down a chute, deep into the uncontrolled conflicts within me, past the vanity and finding excuses for everything I do, past the lies I tell myself, until I come to my own core, bare and naked, where my innermost soul begins. I sink deeper into sleep.
What is my problem? Is it the relationship between me and my family? Is it the relationship between friends and myself? Why do I suffer so much defeat despite wanting success? What is the destructive chemistry inside me?
I believe these are questions without easy answers. But to put the questions into words is already a cleansing.
Slowly I begin to wake up from this kind of trance. My hair sticks to my face. I smell the strong, good, earthy soil on which I lie and I love it. The sun is high in the sky now. Somehow I feel sweaty but good about myself, and I start walking again. Far away I see a herd of sheep with a shepherd. When I pass him, we greet one another.
Moving over this lovely, purplish, unending carpet of heather, I suddenly come to a big swimming pool filled with clear green water in the middle of nowhere. At the edge stands a short, white-haired, dark-skinned man who says hello. We talk a bit and he invites me to swim in his pool. I tell him I am a poor swimmer. I lose my breath easily from fear.
He finally persuades me to swim across by promising to jump in immediately if I lose my breath or get panicky. Somehow I trust him and slowly submerge myself in the crystal clear water.
“Swim,” he orders me. It is a command. I have to follow. I swim across, making sure he is still standing on the edge. I come to the far side of the pool and decide to stop.
“Turn and swim back—swim, swim. You can do it.” I listen to him and do the exercise several times without stopping. I never did such a long swim before in my life and I didn’t have any breathing problems.
Finally I get out of the water and can hardly believe it was me who accomplished all this swimming. What kind of man was he to give me all this unexpected power and confidence? I don’t know. I never see him again.
This achievement on that day gave me such an immense, beyond-any-words feeling of happiness that I will and never could forget it.”
Such experiences may raise questions for a health professional unaccustomed to higher self work. Direct personal experience is probably the best way to test the validity of the concept. By exploring it personally, the professional is in good company with the worldwide meditative, spiritual and esoteric traditions that have advocated for the importance of higher self/inner wisdom/inner guide work in helping others to reduce their suffering and increase their peace.
Dr. Schaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This article contains excerpts from Transpersonal Development: Cultivating the Human Resources of Peace, Wisdom, Purpose and Oneness (Schaub & Schaub, Florence Press, 2015) by Dr. Richard Staub.