Images of Spiritual Transformation and the Sense of Deficiency
By: Dr Claus Springborg, October 2023, Copenhagen
Metaphors in spiritual teaching
Human understanding is metaphorical in nature. We understand new domains of experience by likening them to familiar experiences. We understand the abstract in terms of the concrete.
For example, when we talk about “a warm smile” or “a cold shoulder”, we understand the more abstract concepts of “friendship” and “animosity” in terms of the more concrete experiences of temperature. Similarly, when we talk about “shooting down someone else’s arguments” or a criticism being “right on target”, we understand the abstract concepts of “debate” or “argumentation” in terms of the more concrete experience of “warfare”.
In the same way, spiritual teachers often use metaphors to describe the unfamiliar mystical experience by likening it to something more familiar.
Within the multitude of metaphors, ten commonly and poetically entwine themselves within spiritual narratives: from dream sleep to awakening; illusion to realization; darkness (or blindness) to enlightenment; imprisonment to liberation; fragmentation to wholeness; separation to oneness; journey to destination; exile to homecoming; seed to flowering; and death to rebirth.
Metaphors highlight what is important
Metaphors are useful because they highlight important aspects of that which they seek to describe. Each of the above metaphors for the mystical experience reveal a facet, a partial reflection, of the multi-dimensional jewel of mystical experience.
For example, the metaphor of transition from dream sleep to awakening highlights how in in our every-day state of consciousness, akin to the dreamer, we remain unaware, not only of a more profound reality but also of our ignorance towards it.
Similarly, the metaphor of a seed blossoming into a flowering plant highlights that just as the seed already fully contains the potential of the flowering plant, so we, in our normal state of consciousness already contain the potential of a fully enlightened being.
Metaphors create blindspots
However, just like metaphors highlight certain aspects of reality, they also inevitably create blindspots. One of the blind spots created by many metaphors for the mystical experience is that they can unintentionally reinforce a sense of personal deficiency by implying a hierarchy between states of being.
For instance, the dreamer may be perceived as deficient compared to the awakened; the seed, in its dormancy, may be perceived as lacking compared to the expressive vibrancy of the flowering plant; the illusion may seem deficient compared to the realization; the darkness may seem deficient compared to the light; the blind to the seeing; the imprisoned to the liberated, etc.
This perspective is, however, incorrect. The spiritual transformation is a transformation of perception, not of substance. Who you are remains unchanged by the mystical experience. Only who you take yourself to be is transformed.
The illusion of deficiency
Many teachers emphasises that you are already whole, unified and home, and that the whole journey is about realising this. However, this point can sometimes be lost or only understood in words and not in sensation.
As long as we take ourselves to be deficient, the metaphors for the mystical we encounter can seem to confirm this self-perception. For this reason, an important part of the work is to understand the origins of the sense of deficiency we carry.
We must understand the how the inevitable obscuration of Being during a part of our cognitive development created the illusion of deficiency
We must understand how the belief in our own deficiency played an important part in navigating the social structures of our childhood environment
We must understand how the sense of deficiency travels through generations as a psychological original sin.
Understanding where our sense of deficiency comes from can help us see through the illusion of deficiency instead of seeing the world and ourselves through the lens of deficiency. Once we recognise the illusory nature of our sense of deficiency, we are in a much better position to receive guidance from the metaphors for the mystical experience.
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