concept of ‘obligatory scene’ has had long service in professional
discussions on the arts. It has been employed to point up the need in
a novel, play, or musical composition to come to terms with the ultimate
issue, to test and move it towards resolution within the given setting.
Thus the concept provides a tool for describing what is exactly right
about Lady Macbeth’s
sleep-walking monologue the last confrontation between Raskolnikov and
Ilya Petrovitch in Crime and Punishment,
and the final reassertion of order at the end of Beethoven’s Fifth
In all such well-developed compositions the movement is towards meaningful
encounter with the underlying principles of existence, and the unfoldment
of the material demonstrates that those who have undergone such profound
confrontations are never again just as before, either to themselves or
others. Having experienced ‘obligatory scenes’
in which the fundamental issues of their lives have been probed to the
depths, Lady Macbeth, Raskolnikov, the participant in a Beethoven symphony,
move to new ground in their meeting with life and its significance.
...those who have undergone such profound confrontations are never again just as before, either to themselves or others.
If psychotheraphy is an art, as such important modern practitioners as Otto Rank, Roberto Assagioli, Ira Progoff and Martha Crampton have implied or stated - an art in which the therapist helps the patient achieve a more meaningful encounter with life - an obligatory scene is a necessary part of the proceedings. This assumption was already made by Freud who directed his psychoanalytic sessions towards ventilating a repressed memory and its emotional charge, so allowing the patient to regain freedom in living. A generation later, Rank looked more deeply into the transrational levels of the psyche and defined the goal of psychotherapy as relating the individual fully to his will, the ‘autonomous organizing force’ or ‘creative expression of the total personality’ which, when experienced directly, brings the sense of wholeness that human beings seek as their fundamental need. Apparently, Rank directed his therapy sessions to help the client establish contact with that ground of being that lay beneath his striving personalities and to construct a new life upon that foundation. Assagioli and Crampton describe a similar process in terms of ‘subpersonalities’, ‘personal self’, and ‘transpersonal Self’; the goal of their psychosynthesis is the integration and relation of all aspects of the personality to a transpersonal evolutionary process which moves from fragmentation towards wholeness, inclusiveness, and unity. Progoff shows even more explicitly that the raison d’etre of both psychology and psychotherapy is found in the human search for a meaningful life. Both as theoretician and therapist, Progoff sought ways to enable modern man to contact and activate the spiritual impulse found within himself. Thus, again, modern psychotherapy has placed the obligatory scene at the heart of significant creative work.
...the individual is connected meaningfully to the entire universe...
Some of the most comprehensive views of the human being as joining psychological richness to transpersonal significance are found in statements of the perennial wisdom in the writings of H.P.Blavatsky, Christmas Humphreys, Annie Besant, Hugh Shearman, Laurence Bendit, and many others. These authors provide rich knowledge of the basic spiritual nature of man and the conditions of his life in the world. In the light of the findings of Rank, Assagioli and Progoff, an experience of such a comprehensive relationship to the universe can unlock inner resources and creativity of unsuspected magnitude. Theosophical writers, also, have shown that the individual is connected meaningfully to the entire universe, and that his transformation can contribute to the further development of larger social units. Thus an approach to psychotherapy which helps the individual contact and integrate into such a relationship with the whole universe is especially relevant at the end of the twentieth century when so many meetings between the person, society, and the larger world are at a critical point. Under those conditions the broad theosophical perspective can be particularly helpful in the therapeutic work of ‘facing one’s karma’, or probing the roots of one’s actions.
is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably
each effect to its cause, tracing the latter back to its producer...
Blavatsky recognized the centrality of the concept of karma to a theosophical understanding of the universe in such statements as:
we consider Karma as the Ultimate Law of the Universe, the source, origin and fount of all other laws which exist throughout Nature. Karma is the unerring law which adjusts effect to cause, on the physical, mental and spiritual planes of being (The Key to Theosophy).
Karma is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause, tracing the latter back to its producer...Karma [is] that Law of readjustment which ever tends to restore disturbed equilibrium in the physical, and broken harmony in the moral world.... It always does act so as to restore Harmony and preserve the balance of equilibrium, in virtue of which the Universe exists. (op. cit.)
the individual as for the universal, the law of karma is the principle of equilibrium
in both the physical and moral worlds.
According to Blavatsky, the law of Karma operates universally and impersonally within both nature and man. All processes move towards balance and harmony, and within the large cyclic patterns of the universe the immutable law of karma works towards the fulfilment of that quest. Humphreys points out that karmic law may be understood to operate both exoterically and esoterically: in the one case as the law of causation (or the balance of cause and effect so that action and reaction are always equal and opposite), and, from the spiritual point of view, as the law of moral retribution through which not only has every cause an effect, but the one who puts the cause into action ultimately receives its effect. Thus, by the proper understanding and application of the law, man may learn to act without personal desire, in unison with the movement of universal life, and so achieve balance and harmony when specific actions contribute to the larger pattern. On the other hand, if the individual breaks the law which supports order throughout nature, that act carries within itself a thrust which will work to restore cosmic balance. Thus, for the individual as for the universal, the law of karma is the principle of equilibrium in both the physical and moral worlds. It gives back to each person or larger unit the consequences of his action.
Another facet of the universal law of karma is its cyclical ebb and flow. Its rhythm is rooted in the source of life itself; therefore the cyclic pattern, through the movement of diverse events and experiences, ever seeks to restore balance and reunion with the primal reality which is the origin of the universe. This aspect of karma, which Theosophists have always acknowledged, is now being recognized by modern science. For example, as Felix Layton points out in the Fall 1969 special issue of The American Theosophist, there is a close relationship between the law of karma and Newton’s laws of motion which apply the phenomenon to the realm of physics. Other writers have found a parallel between the laws of karma and mathematics, which are impersonal and useful only as they are obeyed. According to an article in the November 1977 issue of The Theosophical Movement, Edward R. Dewey of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Interdisciplinary Cycle Research concludes that ‘law, regularity, order and pattern exist in vast areas of knowledge previously thought to be random’, and that ‘because these cyclic forces are real, there is a much greater interrelationship within nature than was previously realized.’ Dewey’s research may indicate that such cycles in the physical realm are, as Theosophists hold, reflections of spiritual periodicities which, infinitely more difficult to discover and understand, are ultimately just as real.
At every step along the way, every entity is connected to the great web of information that is the universe.
The Silent Pulse, a recent book by the educator George Leonard, also makes use of scientific theory and findings in order to understand both the individual and the world as patterns of rhythmic fields. According to Leonard:
It is possible to conceive of each human individual as consisting of pure information expressed as rhythmic waves that start as the infinitesimal vibrations of subatomic particles and build outward as ever-widening resonant hierarchies of atoms, molecules, cells, organs, organisms, families, bands, tribes, nations, civilizations, and beyond. At every step along the way, every entity is connected to the great web of information that is the universe. At the most fundamental level, the connection is not sensory but structural, for we are not in but of the web of relationship. As part of the web, each of us is an individual identity, and that identity can be most easily expressed as a wave function, a unique rhythmic pulse (pp.86-87)
This holonomic model of reality understands the great pulse as always present and active, even though most human beings are not conscious of it. Yet that pulse is the basis of each personal identity, differentiating it from the rest of the universe at the same time that, more fundamentally, it connects each individual with the whole cosmos. Establishing genuine experiential contact with the silent pulse can both transform the individual and help to alter the outer world.
One final characteristic of karma, as understood by theosophical writers, must be mentioned : its ties to its ‘inseparable twin’, reincarnation. Humphreys discusses this relationship in Karma and Rebirth.
Just as physical progress is effected through hereditary transmission, so spiritual progress is achieved by the process of rebirth. Cause and effect are an indivisible unity, but in the illusion of time the one follows the other....The lessons of Karma necessitate a school wherein they may be learnt; rebirth provides such a school whose ‘terms’ and ‘holidays’ succeed one another until the final lesson is learnt (p.52).
Karma is the guiding power behind successive rebirths and ensures that each new life accords with some or all of the deserts of previous incarnations.
Each returning unit of life is a spark of the ultimate which, through the accumulating experience of its myriad points of consciousness, slowly attains consciousness and ‘finds itself”. Karma is the guiding power behind successive rebirths and ensures that each new life accords with some or all of the deserts of previous incarnations. The law of karma draws the person returning to the world into those circumstances most suitable for his further spiritual growth. From this point of view, his parents, physical body and environment may be seen as necessary vehicles, but they ought not to be overvalued. While it is true that the present life is the time that matters, essential learning must continue indefinitely. This understanding from the perennial tradition embodies an implication which western psychotherapists have only recently relearned through their work with patients.
to Annie Besant;
of karma....removes human thought and desire from the region of arbitrary happenings
to the realm of law, and thus places man’s future under his own control
in proportion to the amount of his knowledge. (A
Study in Karma)
Karma and the fundamental propositions
The idea of karma relates closely to the three propositions which Blavatsky described as fundamental to her exposition of The Secret Doctrine.
The first proposition holds that everything is grounded in an unconditioned ultimate Reality which manifest in many ways. The ‘None’ becomes the ‘One which in turn becomes the ‘Two’ without ceasing to be the One. Thus polarization occurs, the pairs of opposites arise from the cosmic process of creation through dualities. Opposites imply either complementarity or polarized contradiction and energized conflict. Karma relates to such a concept of polarized energy and to the process of resolving the dualism into unity. Only when the vision becomes holistic and capable of synthesizing the polarities, and when action follows the vision, can individual experience take its place in the inclusive cosmic pattern.
The second proposition states that although the universe is eternal, it manifests in alternating cycles of activity and rest, creation and dissolution. Such periodicity within the eternity of the universe provides the extension in time within which the law of karma operates. Often more than one lifetime is required for the law of justice to work itself out in a person’s experience and to unfold his essential nature. The law of karma, standing behind and operating through the periodicity, accounts for the continuity of the reincarnating self through its experience both outside and within a physical body. The function of the law of karma is to maintain the harmony and rhythm of the universal process; and whenever that pulse is broken, the law initiates a counter-movement which acts until the original pattern is restored. Thus, within human experience, resistance to the natural rhythm causes a tension between the old and new; and out of the personal revolt against the natural cyclic flow karmic patterns of conditioning emerge and persist until the self develops the skill to align itself again with the universal rhythm and unfold its essential divine nature.
Karma is outgrown only at the adeptic level of unfoldment...
The third proposition describes the necessary pilgrimage of every being from pure spirit into densest matter and back into spirit. It recognizes that all selves are one Self and that all beings must participate in the universal involutionary-evolutionary process. This cyclical journey entails a series of incarnations through which the operation of karma makes progress possible. Karma is outgrown only at the adeptic level of unfoldment; yet each increment of consciousness achieved lessens the unconscious karmic involvement with lower levels. Thus, as the cycles of experience are viewed from wider and more impersonal perspectives, the individual becomes capable of freer, more spontaneous life. A similar paradigm of their work has been developed by several important modern psychologists who understand the function of therapy in helping the client to achieve freedom from past conditioning and to establish a new relationship to ‘now, the open moment’.
Karma in modern depth psychology
Rank, Assagioli and Crampton, Progoff and Bendit recognized the operation of bipolar and cyclic processes in human life, as well as the opportunity of using the law of cosmic balance in order to rise above past conditioning and initiate new action in the present. Implicit in the approach of these psychotherapists is an understanding of the need to participate in the process of natural unfoldment; in fact, all five have used aspects of the law of karma to help clients reclaim their intrinsic freedom and face the future as more capable builders of their fate.
Rank, the earliest of this group of psychologists, drew his conclusions on the basis of many years of cultural studies, close attention to the dynamic unfoldment of his personal and professional life, and experience with many patients. He came to see clearly that the basic drive in human experience is to relate to demonstrable and permanent existence. This ‘will to immortality’ can find satisfaction through various social arrangements, conceptual systems, and ritual enactments; but behind all such solutions stands the affirmation that bodily death is not the end of the human story. Yet Rank also perceived that this quest for union with something larger than the personality, in order to know the eternal, runs counter to another twin need - to actualize a unique process of self-unfoldment. Thus Rank had to take into account the bipolarities and pulsating rhythms which the perennial wisdom has long described as a key element of universal life. He came to understand that union and separation, merging and re-emerging, constitute the fundamental rhythm of life; each being part of a single process, one demands the other. In his work as a therapist, Rank fostered the growth of such an attitude in his patients ‘by supporting the individual striving for self-realization.’ He understood this striving as an expression of ‘the will’, the ‘autonomous organizing force in the individual which...constitutes the creative expression of the total personality.’ Thus, in Rank’s usage, the word ‘will’ resembles the theosophical view of the orderly, dynamic flow of unfoldment within the individual. Carrying, as it does, the implication of becoming co-creative with the transrational, with nature, it is related to the theosophical approach to mastering karma by orienting oneself to the flow of the cosmic process which becomes increasingly unitive without destroying the essence of individuality.
The system of psychotherapy which Rank built upon such an understanding of the life process of human nature involved balancing the need for union with the need for creative self-articulation. Accordingly, he approached each patient as a unique individual striving for self-development rather than ‘education’ at the hands of another person. Furthermore, Rank assigned the patient a central, responsible part in the therapy process as a means of encouraging self-reliance and self-unfoldment. And throughout the relationship he placed emphasis on producing an emotional, not just an intellectual experience, because he felt that rational knowledge, by itself, could not provide an adequate foundation for creative living. The ‘obligatory scene’ in his work with clients often involved encounter with the fundamental facts of existence, or ‘touching bottom’, as one patient described the experience. Such a ‘vital experience’ frequently brought the person a new sense of connection with life that extended beyond the present moment in all directions, thus mitigating the conditioning of the past which had contributed so much to the difficulties.
Psychosynthesis, as developed by Assagioli and Crampton, has drawn considerable inspiration and conceptual understanding from modern Theosophy. Like Theosophy, it recognizes the presence of various energy-structures and seeks to coordinate their functioning within the total personality. In a schema somewhat simplified from Theosophy it also conceptualizes and works with a ‘personal self’ and a ‘transpersonal or higher Self’; and it stresses the importance of the activity of the will and of spiritual transformation in the self-unfoldment process. Crampton wrote in her booklet Psychosynthesis: Some Key Aspects of Theory and Practice:
The psychosynthetic process can be considered as involving two stages which are successive but not rigidly separated: the personal psychosynthesis and the transpersonal psychosynthesis. In the personal psychosynthesis, the ‘I’ serves as the integrating center around which the process takes place. During this stage, the subpersonalities and personality vehicles are harmonized and integrated so that the person becomes able to function effectively in the realms of work and personal relationships and develops a relatively well-integrated personality
During the transpersonal psychosynthesis, the focus of personality integration gradually shifts from the ‘I’ to the transpersonal Self. The ‘I’ continues to collaborate in the process, but the transpersonal Self increasingly assumes a foreground role, becoming the new center around which integration takes place (p.13).
While the present is the outcome of actions performed in the past, an individual has the ability to initiate new processes through exercises of the will, through visualization and other techniques.
Like Rank, Assagioli and Crampton seek to synthesize the bipolar opposites into a higher, nonsuppressive unity, but to a much greater degree than Rank they stress the self-help tradition of working intelligently with symbolic models of emergent personal development. In handling the burden of past conditioning, they supplement the freedom to be gained through fresh choice in the present moment with intentional building of ‘good karma’. Thus, gain like Rank, while they recognize that present effects are bound to past causes, they also emphasize the proper application of the law that through alignment with the harmonious movement of universal life the individual may achieve greater balance in personal living. In both theory and practice, all three psychologists challenge directly the fatalistic belief that ‘the person is his past, and therefore its victim.’ While the present is the outcome of actions performed in the past, an individual has the ability to initiate new processes through exercises of the will, through visualization and other techniques.
hese and other themes appear also in Progoff’s approach to psychotherapy. In The Death and Rebirth of Psychology (pp.250.51) he described the ‘vital experience’ which takes place at a psychic level deeper than rationality and results in a connection to life which makes the experience of ‘immortality’ become ‘a sense of more-than-personal participation in everlasting life.’ Such a transforming experience ‘opens a vision of man’s life and of its transcendent significance that brings conviction on a level that psychological rationalizations cannot reach.’ Thus it changes the very nature of the life and allows the person to become a new kind of individual. On the basis of this understanding, Progoff developed the Intensive Journal method described in At a Journal Workshop;
The Intensive Journal is specifically designed to provide an instrument and technique by which persons can discover within themselves the resources they did not know they possessed. It enables them to draw the power of deep contact out of the actual experience of their lives so that they can recognize their own identity and harmonize it with the larger identity of the universe as they experience it...The effective principle operating in this is that, when a person is shown how to reconnect himself with the contents and the continuity of his life, the inner thread of movement by which his life has been unfolding reveals itself to him by itself. Given the opportunity, a life crystallizes out of its own nature, revealing its meaning and its goal. (p.10)
Thus Progoff’s approach centres round helping the patient regain felt experience of the ebb and flow of life, of the latency, growth, and ultimate flowering of seeds ever present within his own nature. These themes, if pursued seriously and developed fully, lead back to the ‘obligatory scene’ of immediate, dynamic, dramatic discovery of life’s meaning.
Developing another theme out of Rank’s work, Progoff has also seen the need for a deep experience of of the inevitable movement of life into the area of transpersonal, suprarational unity. This movement is fostered through many exercises which involve ‘twilight imaging’, ‘inner dialogues’, ‘time-stretching’. The momentum is channelled into a fresh encounter with ‘now, the open moment’, in which the possibility for new choice and freedom resides.
...life is always carrying the individual forward to encounter new inner riches.
The most relevant aspect of Progoff’s message seems to be that life is always carrying the individual forward to encounter new riches. Stagnation and pathological conditions arise only when the person (chiefly because of fear) blocks or divides the flow into segments and denies its continuity. Progoff attempts to reveal continuities and to restore holistic functioning through a variety of dialogic methods which, again, share elements with the interpersonal relationship which Rank saw as the key to psychotherapy, and the many ‘encounters’ and ‘dialogues’ which Assagioli and Crampton invoke in the practice of psychosynthesis. With all four therapists the present moment is crucial : ‘now’ is the time when karma can be faced and past conditioning resolved.. The flow of the past into the present need not determine totally the flow of present into the future. The possibilities of the future exist as potential realities, not just as anticipatory fantasies, and the exercise of free choice and of the will can help them become the fruits of present action.
Thus, in a broad sense, Rank, Assagioli, Crampton, and Progoff, like Theosophical writers throughout the ages, agree that blockages to the individual’s self-unfoldment arise as resistances to the natural onward flow of experience which attempts to break down what has been outgrown in the past in order to allow new creation to take place. Overcoming such blockages requires fresh ‘encounters of the spirit’, new contacts in the process of symbolic unfoldment which can then be related back from the ‘obligatory scene’ to the activities of daily living.
As published in "The Theosophist" magazine, 1981
American Theosophist, The Reincarnation and Karma: The Harmonics of Nature: special issue, Fall 1969.
Humphreys, Christmas, Karma and Rebirth, London: John Murray: 1943, repr.1952
Leonard, George, The Silent Pulse; a Search for the Perfect Rhythm that Exists in Each of Us. New York: Dutton: 1978
Progoff, Ira, At a Journal Workshop; New York: Diologue House: 1975
The Death and Rebirth of Psychology, New York: McGraw-Hill: 1973
Rank, Otto. Beyond Pscychology, New York: Dover: 1958.
Shearman, Hugh, Modern Theosophy, 2nd. ed, Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House: 1954
The Theosophical Movement Vol. 48, no.1, Nov.1977.
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