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Transpersonal co-operative inquiry  John Heron

Chapter 32, Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (eds), Handbook of Action Research, London, Sage, 2000.

There are many fields of application and possible topics of co-operative inquiry. Being highly participative, it has a micro-political format and is important as an educational and politically liberating process. It empowers autonomy and co-operation among people over against any kind of controlling, authoritarian social process.

One field where the appeal to authority, in one form or another, has held constant sway from the remote past to the present day, is in the field of human spirituality and religious association. Creeds, cults, churches, occult groups, spiritual schools of all kinds, east and west, ancient and modern, ultimately appeal to the external authority of a charismatic teacher, a written revelation, or a spiritual lineage (in this world and/or the next). This long-standing habituation of the human race to spiritual authoritarianism has had, and still has, a vast and subtle impact, in my view, on all other forms of social control. It creates a deep attitudinal warp in people which makes them susceptible to oppression by many other kinds of external authority.

Hierarchical ontologies are commonly ideological expressions of social and psychological relations involving domination and exploitation - of most humans (especially women, workers, and tribal people), of nature, and of certain parts of the self. Such domination limits drastically the autonomy and potential of most of the inhabitants of the human and natural worlds, justifying material inequalities and preventing that free and open discourse which is the end of a free society. It distorts psychological life by repressing, albeit in the name of wisdom and sanctity, aspects of ourselves whose full expression is necessary to full psychological health and well-being. (Rothberg, 1986: 16)

At the International Centre for Co-operative Inquiry, I have a particular interest - as a fundamental part of the wide field of liberationist action research - in transpersonal inquiry. This kind of sacred science includes spiritual inquiries about our possible relationship with a universal matrix of consciousness and life; and subtle inquiry about hypothesized extrasensory capacities in humans and the energies, domains, presences and powers to which those capacities may bear witness. I am joined by people with similar interests. We seek to use the full range of human sensibilities, as in the kind of intuitive inquiry described by Anderson (1998). We affirm the internal authority of individual autonomy, not of the isolated Cartesian ego, but of the distinct person participating in a dynamic web of relationships with other beings, and within being-as-such (Spretnak, 1995). It is honed by the exercise of discriminating judgment, and refined by rigorous dialogue with our peers. We are also intentional in inquiring into our own social reality, living and working together for the duration of the inquiry. I call this process a self-generating culture. For a perspective on the issues involved in spiritual and subtle inquiry, and for full reports of eleven co-operative inquiries in this field, in the UK, Italy and New Zealand, see Sacred Science (Heron, 1998).

Training, inquiry and authority

In Sacred Science other places (Heron, 1992, 1998) I have put forward the a three-fold view of the human condition.

  • Our relation with the world, both human and more-than-human, is inherently one of connectedness. In perceiving and acting, we participate in and shape a subjective-objective world. Our world is co-created by the given cosmos and by how we apprehend it and make choices within it.

  • Each person, when fully open in radical perceiving and acting, has an intrinsic signature, a distinctive personal rhythm evident in patterns of breathing, gesture, movement, sensory engagement and speech (Leonard, 1978), manifest at an idiosyncratic viewpoint, a distinct point of reference for participative perspective and action. 

  • This life-world of dynamic participation is for each individual a primal source of meaning, a founding revelation. It is original dialogue, the primary language of creation which enacts our cosmos and is enacted by it.

White (1998) rightly presses the claims of any researcher's exceptional human experiences, including exceptional normal experiences. However, founding revelation is not so much extraordinary as intraordinary - the immanent, intrinsic nature of present experience, waiting to be relished.

Now any account - by experiential inquirers - of this founding revelation in the spoken or written word is culturally framed, however revisionary the framing, and so is always provisional, in principle open to further reframing. So its truth is relative both to the perspectives of the inquirers and to the contextual frame they give it. Yet, if they exercise critical subjectivity and associated skills and procedures in their relation with their enacted cosmos, their account may also claim to reveal partial but significant overlapping perspectives on what is universal. Cognitive validity and authority here are internal, relative-universal, rooted in an inner discrimination about what there is, refined in reflection and action with others. This is a participatory version of the kind of mindful inquiry in the postmodern world commended by Bentz and Shapiro (1998).

Modern and traditional spiritual schools do not practise experiential inquiry, in which spiritual authority is primarily within each inquirer. Rather, they offer experiential training, in which spiritual authority is primarily external, within the school - the trainees' inner discrimination is co-opted and trained to enact a world predefined by the school. Wilber's claim (Wilber, 1990) that a spiritual traditions such as Zen offers a form of transcendental science, confuses inquiry with training. These traditions offers only prescribed experiential training, and while there is always an element of inner discrimination required of the trainee, the premises of doctrine and the protocols of practice are not open for experiential inquiry. Rothberg again:

In contemporary spiritual settings, there frequently remain hierarchical social structures and authoritarian relationships often at odds with the contemporary democratic spirit…of inquiry. (Rothberg, 1994: 10)

The result of training in this kind of setting is that the trainee's soul is colonized by the tradition, and conditioned to defer to its requirements and protocols in the very depths of his or her intimate relation with what there is. The promptings of internal authority, of inner discrimination and living impulse, are usurped by an internalized version of the external authority.

Initiating a transpersonal inquiry

In Chapter 16, we mentioned the three strands of initiating a co-operative inquiry - methodology, collaboration, emotional states. They all apply to an inquiry in the transpersonal field. But there are also further aspects of the initiating role which are specific to that field.

The people who participate in the transpersonal researches I set up are authentic inquirers, who, however, have a diverse and partial knowledge of things spiritual and subtle, with greater or lesser ability for inner discrimination, combined with frames and attitudes of various sorts. They may also be strangers to each other. So I have found that what I now call a journey of opening is fruitful. I guide participants through a theoretical and experiential overview of the field of spiritual and subtle transformations, before we all decide to choose some specific inquiry topic within it. There are several reasons for doing this:

  • It raises everyone’s consciousness about the range of options available as a focus for the inquiry.
  • It provides a provisional and shared vocabulary for discussing the options and for coming to agreement about the focus of the inquiry.
  • It presents the options in a dogma-free zone, and takes some of the negative charge off those items which some people associate with oppressive forms of religion or new age dogmatism.
  • It creates a shared attitude - a spirit of inquiry about the spiritual and subtle - and interrupts tendencies in some people to authoritarian pronouncements about their beliefs.
  • It offers a preparatory training in the sort of discriminating awareness and critical subjectivity needed in the subsequent inquiry.
  • It empowers people to have faith in themselves, in six ways which I describe below.

In order to achieve all this, the map used for the journey needs to be free of doctrinal bias, free of appeals to the authority of past spiritual traditions while honouring the content of several of them, to be comprehensive and wide-ranging, to be offered in the spirit of inquiry as a provisional conjecture awaiting participants’ validation or revision, and to have some kind of reasonable experiential, philosophical and theological rationale. For full details see Sacred Science (Heron, 1998). The map is not just an overview of possible experiential territory. It is a manual of some possible spiritual and the subtle transformations.

I have tried out various ways of presenting this manual, and several progressively developed versions of it. Early on the presentation was brief and conceptual, followed by discussion and a decision about which part would be the focus of our inquiry. Since then I have added an experiential, spiral route of descent into the immanent and ascent to the transcendent from  immediate present experience. Group members are invited to enter a  transformed state by simply imagining they are in in it, bracketing off any concerns about whether they are really in it, or indeed about whether there is such a state to be in. I have used both two-day and four-day versions of this experiential journey.

Personal meaning

What goes on in the journey of opening? After each exercise there is ample time for people to make sense of what did or did not happen. I encourage them to honour and affirm their own experience in their own terms, speaking first in pairs or small groups, then sharing in the whole group. I invite each person to avoid suppressing the content of their experience through conditioned deference to the authority of some externally imposed belief-system. I propose that they give it the benefit of the doubt and recommend they use the language of ‘as if’ - ‘it was as if I could feel…’. This allows people to own what is going on while bracketing off any assumptions about its validity. They can also be open to it without falling foul of slipshod credulity. I make it clear that there is no one correct account, that every perspective sheds fresh light or deepens revelatory shade.

After centuries of authoritarianism in spiritual teaching, people need support to identify, own and give voice to personal spiritual and subtle experience, to honour their own inner light and life. Hence the importance of each participant's voice, as feminist research affirms (Anderson, 1998; Clements et al, 1998). When empowered to do so, people give birth to rich and subtle phenomenologies. After a shared round of feedback on an exercise within the journey of opening, I have many a time marvelled at the idiosyncratic insights and profundities revealed.

Indoctrination or opening

Is this journey of opening, which precedes the inquiry itself, yet another kind of spiritual colonization? Is it just a way of indoctrinating people experientially, so that what they are supposed to be inquiring into is already a foregone conclusion? I don’t think so. The manual on which the journey is based is put forward as a provisional working hypothesis, in the spirit of inquiry, not of dogmatic or traditional authority. The journey is a training for autonomous inquiry, not a training in the practices and doctrines upheld by traditional authority.

My own authority as initiator of the journey of opening and subsequent inquiry is inescapably self-limiting. After many years of lived inquiry into the developing and provisional nature of my own interior touchstone, I cannot without deep self-betrayal set myself up as an external authority who defines the nature of internal authority for other people. In any case, it is logically impossible to be authoritarian about the nature or the practice of inner guidance, for by definition it cannot be generated within if it is commanded by someone else. No-one can follow their inner light, exclusively by following an external authority who prescribes how to do it. Autonomous practitioners can only dialogue and co-operatively inquire with each other about the nature of self-direction. The most I can do is set up a climate of empowerment within which hopefully that dialogue and inquiry can begin.

So people are encouraged to use the manual to start to get clear about what is implicit in their own experience. And when the inquiry itself begins, people have, when given the opportunity, a way of doing their own thing.

The journey has a vital educative function, described in the six reasons given above. One of these six I named as empowering people to have faith in themselves. This faith develops with regard to:

  • The accessibility to them of spiritual and subtle transformations, no matter how apparently arcane.
  • Their own know-how, their competence to open to such transformations.
  • Their ability to make sense of their experiences according to their own lights.
  • Their own implicit manuals and their ability to make them explicit.
  • Their ability to heal from past spiritual oppression and wounding.
  • And, underlying all, their openness to the discriminating spiritual authority immanent within their own being.

The following comment is representative of several statements made independently by several participants in transpersonal inquiry events.

The Scott’s Landing gathering stands out as a landmark event for me. Through the four day experience - the journey of opening and the co-operative inquiry - I claimed my own individual approach to and experience of spirituality as an everyday yet unique occurrence. I no longer had to agree with anyone or have anyone agree with me. My experience was my experience, full stop. I remember thinking and talking a lot about this after the event. It had a profound effect. I recognized how we have been spiritually colonized to the extent that we became unsure and untrusting of our own experiences. Did I really experience this? Was it valid? Was it ‘spiritual’? I uncovered layers of spiritual colonization in the way I allow myself to experience some things and block out other often very rich experiences. I block out my experiences because they don’t fit the social norm. The implication of us all doing this is horribly disturbing. We could be losing an enormous amount of spiritual richness available individually and collectively. The co-operative inquiry method is a powerful tool for exploring the transpersonal as it is dogma free. We designed our own questions, had our own very different subjective experiences and shared them. We broke the silence. We spoke our experiences and unravelled them like balls of string. We liberated ourselves. (Dale Hunter, quoted in Heron, 1998: 119-20)

After a journey of opening, the co-inquirers agree on the focus of the inquiry and on how to explore it through action and experience, what kind of records to keep of their explorations, and then continue to cycle to and fro between reflecting together on their experience - making sense of it in a way that informs the next action phase - and further action and experience. This is the process described in detail in Chapter 16 of this handbook. The distinction is also made there between Apollonian and Dionysian inquiry cultures. Because of strict limits on space, I have deleted from an earlier draft an example of the former, and concentrate on the latter

The inquiry process: a Dionysian example

In the transpersonal field, there is a strong case for the Dionysian inquiry culture since the spirit bloweth where it listeth. The Dionysian culture gives space for the inner light and life of the co-inquirers to manifest as creative action at the leading edge of the process of divine becoming. It also requires a good measure of charismatic disinhibition among the inquirers. It resonates in several respects with organic research and feminine spirituality (Clements et al, 1998). An illustration of a Dionysian format is provided by the ritual and interpersonal process inquiry. It was an inside, group process inquiry (see Chapter 16): the co-inquirers interacting in both the action and reflection phases. It involved ten people for a two week residential period, at the International Centre for Co-operative Inquiry in Italy in 1995.

We spent a significant part of our time, morning and afternoon, seated together in our circle of ten, group life being one main focus of our inquiry, which included:

  • Attending to money, transport, shopping, cooking and related matters.
  • Dealing with the use of our space (ten people using three apartments) and our time from the point of view of being intentional about separateness and togetherness.
  • Interpersonal processes, perceptions, contracts, conflicts and fulfilments arising out of our living and being together, and from our various previous encounters.
  • Personal intrapsychic processes arising from all the previous three items. We were busy here with healing the memories at a deep level, re-evaluating ingrained attitudes and appraisals, restructuring basic assumptions and belief-systems.

We sat for long periods attending to the ebb and flow of all these issues and processes, without any one of us being the formal facilitator. This was a rich, engaging, seamless process of our self-regulating social organism, fluctuating between chaos and coherence as it acquired greater depth, integration and openness. This was one main complex strand of our inquiry. The other strand was transpersonal ritual.

My overwhelming memory of the ritual and interpersonal process inquiry was that we attended to communal life on the practical, personal, interpersonal and spiritual levels, which wove a very potent container for deep personal transformation. (Peta Joyce, quoted in Heron, 1998: 197)

There was a strong element of collective improvisation in the timing and content of our shared rituals. We would break out of our process group to create and engage in a ritual when the appropriate energy and mood was upon us. We would also do them at times when the process group was not in session, for example, at dusk or after dark. While they were an expression of the indwelling life of the group, some of these creations were also variations on, assimilations and elaborations of, the ritual culture of the Centre. This consisted of a Moon Temple event on alternate evenings, a procession round the perimeter path on the other alternate days, and a midday Sun Temple event every fourth day. This local culture was honoured by our group through the unfettered, free-form creative transformation of it.

The repetitive rituals, as well as those we improvised, appeared to evoke an inner response from deep within my imaginal mind. Spiritual realities previously frozen in time and space seemed to take their rightful place up front, and join the theatre of the present moment. (Mary Fairbrother, quoted in Heron, 1998: 197)

Among the several rituals we evolved, the path ritual stands out supremely as a powerful expression of the archetypal reality of our culture. We used it regularly, almost daily, and it developed in depth. The farmhouse in which the Centre is based stands centrally on an elongated triangular promontory of land that projects out over encircling ravines in the west, north and east. I have cut a total perimeter path that proceeds around the upper slopes of this promontory. Traversing this path symbolizes, for each person in their own way, the human journey.

We gather at the top of the western steps, at any time from midday to dusk, and there decide whether we will go round the path in meditative silence or with percussion instruments, or with a chant, mantra or song. Then we move off in slow procession, quite widely separated from each other, the winding path only allowing single file. After 50 metres or so the first person, when moved to do so, steps to the right off the path and stands on its verge. As each follower draws abreast, he or she turns to face the sentinel figure. Eye beams fuse, facial expressions become enhanced, the two persons resonate in silence, or with percusssion, or with chant or song, for a short and timeless period, then bow and gesture, parting with sovereign respect. The new leader moves on as everyone in the file pauses in turn to resonate with the first leader, who then takes up the rear of the procession. The whole process is repeated eleven or more times on the circuit, so that each person leads the procession for a stretch and then stands as sentinel on the verge greeting and resonating with every other person one by one.

This ritual procedure, preceded by the distillation of interpersonal and emotional energies in the group, generated a remarkable chain of transcendental encounters. It was as if the original archetype of the soul, the imago dei, stood revealed, each to each, each to all, and all in one.

As always, the primary outcomes of this transpersonal inquiry are the personal transformations and transformative skills acquired through being a participant in it. At a closing review meeting the following propositional outcomes received general assent:

  • The inter- and intrapersonal work within the openness of the peer group had strong impact:
    • It created bonding and established trust.
    • It was a forum for healing old family agendas that get triggered in the group.
    • It generated a spaciousness where synchronicity and creativity happen.
    • It allowed for a disinhibition that carries over into being more uninhibited in the temples and in rituals, more open, with full presence in the moment. The group process strand enhanced the ritual strand.
  • The rituals had strong impact:
    • They made us more available for intra- and interpersonal work. The ritual strand enhanced the group process strand. The two strands were deeply interwoven, mutually nourishing and sustaining.
    • The improvised rituals felt simple and meaningful because of their spontaneity, their immediate expression of who and how we are being. They reveal a very grounded spirituality. Religion is just what is. It is really very simple: attending to who we are.
    • The repetitive rituals empowered us to feel into them, to become present to self during them, to have a variety of experiences within the constant format, to become attuned to archetypal presencing.
  • Everyday life was a significant theatre which:
    • Gave permission to act into things and then discover the profundity of them.
    • Brought the spiritual into ordinary practical activities.

I think the cumulative effect of the rituals, intentional community and interpersonal inquiry has had the most influence thus far in my life on my perceptions of, and aspirations for the creative expression of, my spirituality in the context of community. (David Petherbridge, quoted in Heron, 1998: 199)

The inquiry was strongly Dionysian in these respects:

  • Reflection phases were woven in a seamless and impromptu way, as relevant and needed, into the group meetings, without any formal decision to reflect being taken.
  • The reflection was about any aspect of our group process and of our living together.
  • There was no formal preplanning of experiential phases in the group. After impromptu reflection, a new surge of group process would spontaneously arise.
  • The timing and design of rituals were emergent, a response to the unfolding group process and a sense of the appropriate. We became sensitive to a fitting change of gear between these ways of being and doing.

So the whole inquiry component was thus deeply tacit: flowing, emergent and powerful. However, there were also noticeable Apollonian elements:

  • There was the intentional format of regular group process meetings interwoven with rituals.
  • The background ritual culture of the Centre provided a framework within which the group improvised freely.
  • The path and the Moon Temple rituals had a consistent developing format.
  • After closing a ritual we tended to have a formal review time, sharing impressions and beliefs.
  • On the penultimate day we held an extended formal review meeting, appointing one of our number to be a scribe.

Primary and secondary outcomes

Since the researchers are also the subjects acquiring knowledge through their own experience and action, the most basic outcomes of the inquiry process are personally embodied ones:

  • Transformations of personal being brought about by the inquiry, which are inseparable from
  • Transformative skills, the practical knowing-how involved in the domain of practice that is the focus of the inquiry.

The other two kinds of possible outcome, written reports, and presentations in imaginal form as in graphics, painting, movement etc., are ephemeral and secondary, however vital for purposes of communicating information and symbolizing significant patterns.

This is pre-eminently so in the spiritual and subtle fields where ‘he/she who doeth the will shall know of the doctrine’, that is, where information about these fields is secondary to skill in personal transformation. What is of primary and intrinsic value is the ongoing process of being transformed and of exercising transformative skill. The propositional, conceptual knowledge gained about the universe is consequent upon this process and is of secondary and instrumental value in refining and honing the skill.

The primary outcomes  are not therefore written reports but the transformations and competencies of the participants. Nor do the reports mainly give a lot of conceptual knowledge about the view of the universe generated by transformed practice, although this sort of mapping is a constant backdrop referred to by the front text. The reports are pre-eminently about three things:

  • Descriptions or evocations of the inquiry process and method.
  • Descriptions or evocations of the primary outcomes: the personal transformations and the transformative skills that consummate the inquiry.
  • Accounts of the procedures and criteria for exercising critical subjectivity and discrimination in developing these skills.

The purpose of such reports is exhortatory: to point a way, suggest a method, evoke and portray a competence and how to exercise it, and so to inspire and invite readers to inquire into their own transformation and concomitant skills. Thereby, of course, readers who become active co-inquirers will also unveil a revisioned universe within which these outcomes are manifest.

As well as Apollonian reports which formally describe the structure of an inquiry, there is also a need for Dionysian story-telling, which evokes the living process of what is going on.

Issues about record-keeping

Over the eleven inquiries covered in Sacred Science (Heron, 1998), I have kept reasonably full records, and so have some participants. For other participants, record-keeping has been uneven and patchy, even when there has been a general agreement about it. Some of this may be due to research counter-transference, or to forgetfulness and lack of discipline. However, there are also certain important affirmative points to assert about not making record-keeping central in this field.

  • The most basic outcomes of the inquiry process are transformations of being and skills of soul, which can only be embodied in persons, not in written records.
  • Some inquiries become both potent and precise in their own experiential and practical terms, when all issues to do with recording any of it in words are entirely disregarded by the group, except insofar as individual members choose to keep their own private records.
  • Imaginal and presentational forms of knowing - as in 'stories, nonverbal presentations, artwork, poetry, metaphor, myths, or symbolic modes' (Braud, 1998a: 257) - may in the first instance be more relevant than verbal analysis.
  • The primary research data is the data of the co-inquirers’ radical memory, born on the occasion of the relevant experiences and actions (Heron, 1996). Radical memory is a heightened memory and a central inquiry skill. It is a source of data in its own right independent of any record of it.
  • Written records are a small part of adequacy. If initiating researchers press too hard for participants to make them, this can be at the expense of viability because participants become alienated.

Adequacy and viability

A transpersonal inquiry, like any other, is adequate - good enough for what is required - if the participants have internalized and made manifest sufficient methodology in terms of both comprehensiveness and quality. It is viable if its participants are motivated, engaged and interested; make the methodology their own in a creative, co-operative way; and see the inquiry through from beginning to end.

Adequacy includes viability: an inquiry can’t be adequate if it doesn’t survive. But a viable inquiry by definition includes only a basic level of adequacy. There is always a creative tension and trade-off between the two, and this balance is especially subtle in a transpersonal inquiry. If initiating researchers press for too much adequacy, they may undermine viability by alienating and losing participants through overcontrol, or they undermine adequacy itself by making the inquiry more conformist than it is genuinely co-operative. If a group of people develop authentic co-operative decision-making and engage, however informally,in research cycling in a spirit of inquiry over an agreed period of time, their viable inquiry has ipso facto the minimal necessary adequacy.

There is no absolute canon of adequacy. All participants in an inquiry will have their own view of its degree of adequacy, according to their personal transformations and skills emerging from it, and to how they construe the methodology. My own view is that variation in adequacy is due to the degree to which the various validity procedures, above and beyond authentic collaboration and research cycling, are or are not applied during an inquiry.

These procedures are, closely allied to the sorts of skills they presuppose (see Chapter 16). These skills are echoed in Braud's expanded view of validity (Braud, 1998b). Given reasonable attention to these matters, we may assume a working level of critical subjectivity in the group, of discriminating inner light and life, of internal authority. The human instruments are entering the inquiry domain with a degree of clarified awareness and intentionality, of openness and well-groundedness. So we may put a modest trust in what is spiritually revealed, in how Being maculately declares itself, through the co-inquirers’ experiential knowledge, and manifests through their transformative knowing-how.


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