Unexplored Dimensions of Consciousness and
The Visionary Experience


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Lecture 19
The Dream of the Cosmos
The Lunar and Solar Hero
The Great Work: Healing the Wasteland
The Myth of the Solar Hero
Voices of the Ancestors
A Unified Vision of Reality
A Metaphysical Revolution? Reflections on the Idea of the Primacy of Consciousness
Lecture 12
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Rebalancing the Psyche: Integrating the Feminine Principle Body, Soul and Spirit
Lecture 11
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Love as the Pulse of the Cosmos: Reconnecting With the Divine Ground
Lecture 10
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Seeing through the Veil: Reuniting Three Dimensions of Reality
Lecture 9
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Unexplored Dimensions of Consciousness
and The Visionary Experience
Lecture 8
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An Alchemical Quest
Lecture 7
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Healing the Heart: An Alchemy of Consciousness
Lecture 6
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The Sleeping Beauty - The Awakening of Instinct into Consciousness
Lecture 5
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Rebalancing the Masculine and Feminine
Lecture 4
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The Dream of the Water: A Quest for the Numinous
Lecture 3
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The Evolution of Consciousness
Lecture 2
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Jung's Septem Sermones ad Mortuos 
Lecture 1
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The Relevance of the Visionary Experience to Culture  



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Lecture 9


---- Psychosis and Spirituality Conference Winchester, September 2001

Copyright © Anne Baring

I'm going to start with what I feel are two crucial questions: Are there dimensions of consciousness beyond the mind? Secondly, if there are such dimensions of consciousness, how can we communicate with them? This image sums up the essence of these questions. It shows a man putting his head beyond the edge of a familiar universe, gazing in wonder at another dimension of reality. It is an image of breaking through limitations, an image of quest, exploration and discovery - experiences that are absolutely intrinsic to the human spirit.

woodcut, Augsburg, 16th century

----- I thought I would share with you an experience that I had when I was eleven. It has led me to focus on these questions throughout my life…I was dozing on my bed one hot summer day after lunch when I became aware of an intense purple light in the room. Suddenly, I felt my eyes closed by what felt like an irresistible power. The bed beneath me opened as if it were cut by a knife. In terror I struggled to open my eyes, to shout for help, to move my arms and legs, but my body refused to respond. I was pushed down through the opening in the bed and it closed over me - a very claustrophobic experience. I found myself going through a long tunnel with a rushing and roaring noise like an avalanche or a waterfall which absolutely terrified me. Then, abruptly, I was ejected from this tunnel into blackness and absolute silence. In the midst of that silence I heard a voice say to me: "I Am." It might have said more but my fear cut it short. I shall never know if more was to come. I found myself re-entering the tunnel, plunged again into the roaring, deafening vortex of sound. I emerged from it to find myself lying in my bed, amazingly and thankfully alive in a familiar world.
----- I am well aware that certain people would regard this kind of experience as a schizophrenic episode. Others may believe that it is a symptom of neurological dysfunction. Both hypotheses are possible and I do not rule them out but if we too quickly categorise visionary experience as psychosis or as symptomatic of neurological dysfunction, we may fail to explore deeper regions of consciousness and also the meaning that such an experience carries both for the individual and the culture. I don't feel we know enough yet to be able to say that it is only this or that.
----- Looking back now, I can see that this experience precipitated me into another level of reality that I might never have discovered if it hadn't happened to me. I knew through my own experience that another dimension of consciousness existed - a dimension beyond my normal perception of reality. It needed only a few seconds of our time to gain this certainty. This secret knowledge became the foundation of my own individual myth - what throughout my life has held supreme meaning and value for me. I have had to wait nearly sixty years before I have felt ready to speak to others from this deep level of experience.
----- A visionary is someone who acts as a bridge between two levels or dimensions of reality. A visionary, seer or shaman - the word means "one who knows" - is traditionally called to this role by an experience that weakens his or her focus on the usual concerns of life. It could be depression, a psychotic episode, a powerful vision or visionary dream, an out-of-the-body or near-death experience. Whatever it is, it will shatter the pattern of so-called normal life and the structures of defense we have built against the terror and disorientation of such an experience. Our culture may see this experience as a symptom of mental illness. Other cultures may see it as a herald of spiritual transformation and a rite of initiation into a transcendent world - a break-through rather than a breakdown. There are many kinds, levels and degrees of visionary experience. An encounter with the numinous can be overwhelming and terrifying as well as exalting and inspiring. The line separating the visionary, the genius and the psychotic is very fine. All three have a psychic threshold which is open to non-ordinary states of consciousness. A culture may confirm or deny the significance of this kind of experience: but I feel it is possible that the fear and denial of it may drive certain people into psychosis who in other cultures would be confirmed and supported in their calling as healer and spiritual guide.
----- Why have I chosen to talk about Parmenides, Dante and Jung and what is the link between them? Each was a visionary - a supremely gifted visionary. Each made a vital contribution to the culture of his time. Each stressed the importance of the relationship between ourselves and another order or dimension of reality. But Parmenides and Dante lived in a culture that welcomed visionary experience whereas Jung was not so fortunate.
----- Parmenides lived in the sixth century BC and was one of the greatest of the Pre-Socratic philosophers and the true "father" of Western philosophy, metaphysics and logic. Until a recent book by an outstanding Greek scholar explored the importance of the few fragments of his work that have come down to us, his legacy has been overshadowed by the giant figure of Plato who was in fact his pupil. (1) Parmenides was descended from a people called the Phocaeans who lived on the coast of Turkey, close to the island of Samos. They were great sea and land travellers, and their city became a meeting place between the East and the West. About 540 BC, the Phocaeans were forced out of their city by the Persian army and fled to the coast of Italy, just south of the Gulf of Sorrento, where they founded a city called Velia. Parmenides was born in Velia soon after these events took place.
----- Only a few fragments of his teaching survive. But he did leave a poem, an extraordinary poem that has never really been taken very seriously by scholars. He wrote it in the incantory metre of the great epic poems of the past, "poetry created under divine inspiration, revealing, as the poem itself says, what humans on their own can never see or know." Parmenides' poem describes his journey into the underworld riding in a chariot drawn by mares which pass through huge bronze gates that stretch between earth and sky, gates that glide open on hinges and make a hissing sound as they move. He describes his encounter with a being whom he calls "The Goddess" although we know that her name was Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. The poem is written in three parts: The first describes his journey into the realm of the goddess; the second what she taught him about "the unshaken heart of persuasive Truth"; the third describes our world and "the opinion of mortals, in which, she says, there's nothing that can truthfully be trusted at all." What Parmenides' poem reveals is that he was practised in the shamanic art of travelling beyond the confines of normal consciousness and that his writings about truth, justice and the right ordering of human society were derived from his direct experience of another dimension of reality. We have come to draw a rigid boundary between the rational and the non-rational, and between an inner reality and an outer one, but this boundary did not exist for Parmeneides. For him all was one.
----- One of the most fascinating aspects of his life is that he was the founder of a line of named healer-prophets which endured for at least five hundred years. Each one had a three-fold title. The first title was Iatromantis meaning a healer of a particular kind, one who was able to enter the dimension of consciousness that lies beyond both waking and dreaming yet is active or present in both. They healed the underlying psychic disturbance causing the symptoms of those who came to them for help. They paid close attention to dreams - their own dreams and the dreams of those who sought healing for mind or body. Their second title Pholarchos meant 'Lord of the Lair' or master of the technique of incubation through which they gained their connection with the transcendent dimension and their power to heal. The third title - Ouliades - meant 'priest of Apollo': an Apollo who was not the god of light and reason familiar to us, but a god of darkness, associated with caves where rites of incubation took place, and with healing, the underworld and death.
----- Parmenides and the great chain of shaman-healers who succeeded him entered what the Greeks called the immortal realm - and were initiated by the beings they encountered there. The emphasis attributed to Plato has been on the supremacy of reason and the rational mind, yet Plato also wrote that "Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift." (Phaedrus)
----- Now to turn to Dante. Many people who have read The Divine Comedy may not know that in the year 1300, before he began to write his masterpiece, Dante had a tremendous vision, the essence of which he was only able to express at the end of his life, in the very last canto of the Paradiso. This vision "left him with the overwhelming memory of light, the sense that he had been on a journey and that in some way marvellous creatures had given him instruction." (2) Shortly after this experience, while on a visit to the papal court, and as a result of bitter internal rivalries in the city of Florence, Dante was banned under pain of death from ever returning to the city he loved. Henceforth he was forced to move as an exile from city to city. His contemporaries knew him as a man energised and driven by visionary ideas and ideals. One of his dreams was of Florence as a great civilising city - a dream that became a reality under Cosimo de Medici a century and a half later.
----- The Italian psyche in the fourteenth century was still open to revelation. The two greatest influences on Dante were St. Francis and Boethius (480-524), both of whom had visionary experiences. In the first book of the Divine Comedy, Virgil (70-19 BC.) guides Dante downwards through the terrifying spheres of Hell. Fourteen hundred years earlier, in the sixth book of the Aeneid, Virgil had described Aeneas's descent into the Underworld.
----- The other great inspirational figure in Dante's work was Beatrice - the woman who personified for him the figure of divine wisdom. Beatrice becomes his guide through Purgatory and the ascending spheres of Paradise. Both Virgil and Beatrice can be understood as personifications of that greater, more complete consciousness that is latent as a potential in all of us and that has a wider, truer perspective on reality than the conscious personality. Dante showed us how he himself grew in understanding in the course of his imaginal journey through his relationship with these two extraordinary guides to the territory of the soul.
----- Now I come to Jung and his Seven Sermons to the Dead. Jung's legacy cannot yet be assessed as we are still too close to it but he has played a powerful role, not perhaps in the field of psychiatry and psychotherapy where his role as a visionary is regarded with deep suspicion, but in his influence on our culture, drawing our attention to the deeper ground of consciousness that lies beyond the rational mind. Jung knew that the modern psyche was in a state of suffering and alienation because the conscious mind knew nothing of this deeper ground, and therefore could not grow to its full potential, its full stature through the creation of a relationship with it - a deepening relationship that he named the individuation process. He defined sickness or neurosis as a state of incompleteness, and health as a state of wholeness brought about through the reconnection of the conscious mind with that dimension of reality through the exercise and development of the faculty of the imagination. Just as a child learns to read and gains access to the immense field of information relating to the physical world, so he thought we could learn how to work with the imagination as a vital faculty that can connect us with what lies beyond the horizon of our conscious mind. The mind can listen, interpret, assess, and apply what we learn through that connection. But it can also block access to what lies beyond it through ridicule, denial or overt persecution. If the imagination is not used to relate us to something beyond ourselves, it is likely to degenerate into destructive, even pathological fantasies. In the prologue to his autobiography - Memories, Dreams, Reflections - Jung writes: "In the end the only events in my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one. That is why I speak chiefly of inner experiences, among which I include my dreams and visions. These form the prima materia of my scientific work. They were the fiery magma out of which the stone that had to be worked was crystallised." (3)
----- So what were these inner experiences and how did Jung come to write the Seven Sermons to the Dead? Jung parted from Freud in 1912 when he was 37. During the next seven years from 1913-19 when he was trying to develop his own orientation to the treatment of his patients, he deliberately provoked a near-overwhelming eruption of visions, dreams and fantasies. He called this period his Nekyia - a Greek word which describes a descent into the underworld. Jung was drawn to undergo this experience in order to gain access to a dimension of consciousness that had been lost to Western civilisation for centuries, and then to reflect on how he could communicate what he had learned in a way that his contemporaries could understand. Was this a psychotic episode as some have thought or was it a shamanic initiation? Unlike the psychotic, Jung's psyche was not fragmented by this experience. He never lost his ability to function in everyday reality and continued to treat his patients.
----- Jung recorded his experience in over 1000 handwritten pages and illustrations, many of which he later bound together in a still unpublished volume that he called the Red Book. The Red Book opens with a beautiful page written in fourteenth century German script. In the top left hand corner, there is a landscape painted inside a large initial - in the manner of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
----- This picture he painted is of Philémon, the being who was his guide to the underworld of the unconscious, rather as Virgil was guide to Dante. Philémon taught Jung that the unexplored dimension of the soul was as real as the physical world and needed the attention of the conscious mind. Through these beautifully worked pages, we can see how this unexplored dimension is rescued from neglect and obscurity; its reality given meaningful form in images and words. Jung found it ironical that he, a psychiatrist, should encounter at almost every step of his experiment the same psychic material that is typical of psychosis. "This," he says, "is the fund of unconscious images which fatally confuse the mental patient. But it is also the matrix of a mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age." (4)
----- Then, one day in the summer of 1916, as he describes it in his autobiography, certain paranormal experiences occurred, among them dreams and disturbances told him by his children and the repeated ringing of the doorbell when no-one was there: "The house was filled as if it was crammed full of spirits" he writes, "and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe." "For God's sake," he said to them, "What in the world is this?" And the spirits cried out in chorus: "We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought." (5) And that is how the Seven Sermons to the Dead begin. Jung wrote down what he heard that evening and the two following ones.
----- It is not an exaggeration to say that the material which came to him during these seven years and, in particular, during those three evenings, was the "fount and origin" of all his future work. "It has taken me," he wrote near the end of his life, "virtually forty-five years to distil within the vessel of my scientific work the things I experienced and wrote down at that time...The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life - in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the unconscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima materia for a lifetime's work." (6)
----- Jung's courage and tenacity in risking insanity to explore this transpersonal dimension of consciousness sums up his lifelong determination to devote himself, as he put it, to the scientific exploration of the soul - to listen to its voice, decipher its language and its imagery, become receptive to its attempts to communicate with the conscious mind. Like many titans of innovative thought who are ahead of their time, he has been reviled, contemptuously dismissed as a mystic, and to a large extent, ignored, notably by members of his own profession. But Jung revived, extended and deepened the concept of soul for all of us, rescuing it from the obscurity and neglect into which it had fallen. In his writings and his practice, soul becomes not something that belongs to us but something in whose greater life we participate.
----- Jung realized that the problems of our time are rooted not only in the grip that the philosophy of scientific rationalism has on our culture, but in the loss of a living myth and the increasing polarisation between thinking and feeling, conscious mind and archetypal soul. He knew through his own experience that the imagination was the key to relationship with the dimension of soul. It falls to us to develop insight and wisdom through cultivating a relationship with it. Ignorance of the tremendous power of the hidden energies which lie beyond the fragile conscious mind, risks our being taken over by them, falling into madness and the dissolution of our humanity - something that we can increasingly see happening today. It takes many years to learn how to create a relationship with the soul. But in the context of the 100th monkey syndrome, what a few individuals are painstakingly learning, may become available to more people in the future.
----- Over many centuries, we have come to regard ourselves as separate from nature and the cosmos and to believe that we are the only creatures in the universe who have consciousness. What emerges from the records of visionary experience is that what we call our mind, our consciousness, is embedded in a vast field of consciousness which has many different layers or levels. These interpenetrate and interact with ourselves and our manifest world. To take one example: in our culture, it is not generally believed that consciousness survives death nor that the dead influence the living and vice-versa yet I believe we are on the edge of another Copernican breakthrough. (7) If we could prove scientifically that our consciousness survives the death of the body, many of our fixed beliefs would have to change. At the moment we draw a rigid boundary between life and death. Yet I am sure that not only do we survive physical death, but that the dead influence us both positively and negatively. We have undeveloped powers to heal both ourselves and those souls who have died tragic, sudden or violent deaths who are unhappily bound to this dimension by the manner of their death. I would like to suggest that this possibility is taken into account in the approach to understanding psychosis. It may be that psychotics are more open to these influences than others.
----- What happens to people whose psyche is open to visionary experience when a culture names this experience as an aberration or an illness? Current research is confirming that over 50% of people in the UK and the US have what they call "spiritual" experiences and that these add meaning and depth to their lives. But usually they dare not speak of these experiences for fear of being thought insane. (8) Other research is discovering that people who have a religious or spiritual orientation lead healthier as well as happier lives than those who do not have such an orientation. (9) There is something called the Hearing Voices Network which helps people who have hallucinatory experiences to contact and connect with each other. (10) The belief is growing that madness has a meaning and needs to be treated by people who are aware that it has meaning, intention and value. The neglect of the instinctive need for relationship with something felt to exist beyond ourselves may be contributing to the increasing decadence in society as well as to the addiction to drugs and violence. I would surmise that the greater the denial of the non-rational in a culture, or the more rigid a belief system, the greater the incidence of psychosis because there is no container to receive and mediate this strange kind of experience or to help people to integrate an unusual experience into a wider framework of understanding.
----- I would like to bring to your attention the work of a psychiatrist called John Weir Perry, who died not long ago and who has written about his work with schizophrenics. (11) During the 1970's in California he founded a residential place for young adults who were in the throes of a psychotic breakdown and who were helped through the experience without any treatment by medication, electroshock or confinement. (In the 1980's this place had to be shut down for want of funds). He found that after eight weeks in a receptive, supportive, pleasant environment where they were attentively listened to, they emerged on the far side of madness - weller than well - as he put it, and able to return to their ordinary lives. He observed that the acute hallucinatory phase seemed to last up to six weeks but could be as little as two to three days. Most importantly, he discovered that empathy was the keystone of the treatment and could mitigate both the severity and the duration of the psychotic episode. Like Jung, Weir Perry thought that in psychosis unconscious contents take the place of normal reality and that the neuro-chemical changes in the brain were not a cause of the illness but a concomitant. The powerful emotions experienced in psychosis give rise to chemical changes. The deeper intention of this profound psychic disturbance was to heal and make whole. We may suppress the self-healing work of the psyche by our current attitude to and treatment of psychosis. (This is not to say that some psychoses may not be accessible to this approach).
----- Weir Perry defines three alternative possibilities that may present themselves in an acute "psychotic" episode of visionary experience. Each of these needs different handling from the start:

1. "The persons might be capable of leadership in religion, social reform, or the arts or sciences and their potential contribution to society is making its first appearance in a "psychotic" turmoil, the rich potentials of which are being seen at first only as expressions of symbolic imagery." [the prophet or visionary]
2. "The persons might be caught up in an inner process of self-reorganization, activated with the intent of releasing hidden potentials for living an increasingly fruitful life of caring relationships and creative work."
3. "The persons might be in the throes of a disintegrative process that will lead gradually into a downhill course and chronicity of true "schizophrenia" after six months."
----- On the basis of these definitions, surely we need to develop greater insight and sensitivity in our approach to psychosis.
----- I would also like to draw your attention to the pioneering work of Stanislav Grof. His experience using both psychedelic drugs and holotropic breathing during the last forty years in many thousands of sessions has shown over and over again the similarity between the phenomena encountered in psychosis and those encountered in these sessions. As he writes, "The phenomena originating at the perinatal and transpersonal levels of the psyche include sequences of psychological death and rebirth, encounters with archetypal beings, visits to mythological realms of various cultures, past incarnation memories, extrasensory perception and episodes of out-of-body states. These have to be considered to be natural and normal manifestations of the deeper dynamics of the human psyche." But, he adds, "Attempts to interpret any of these phenomena in the context of the narrow and superficial model of the psyche currently used necessarily leads to serious distortions and to pathologizing the entire spiritual history of humanity…From this perspective, the founders of the great religions of the world, as well as their prophets, saints, and eminent teachers, all of whom had visionary experiences, can be labeled as psychotics. Shamans are diagnosed as ambulant schizophrenics, hysterics or epileptics." (12)
----- A recent and remarkable book written by Christopher Bache, a former Professor of Religious Studies who has followed Grof's method over many years, records his own transcendent experience of encountering what he calls the Unified Field or Sacred Mind. Here is a passage from one of the sessions:

"What stood out for me in the early stages was the interconnectedness of everything to form a seamless whole. The entire universe is an undivided, totally unified, organic phenomenon. I saw various breakthroughs - quantum theory, Bell's theorem, morphogenetic fields, holographic theory, systems theory, the grand unified theory and so on - as but the early phases of the scientific discovery of this wholeness. I knew that these discoveries would continue to mount until it would become impossible for us not to recognize the universe for what it was - a unified organism of extraordinary design reflecting a massive Creative Intelligence. The intelligence and love that was responsible for what I was seeing kept overwhelming me and filling me with reverential awe.
-----The unified field underlying physical existence completely dissolved all boundaries. As I moved deeper into it, all borders fell away, all appearances of division were ultimately illusory. No boundaries between incarnations, between human beings, between species, even between matter and spirit. The world of individuated existence was not collapsing into an amorphous mass, as it might sound, but rather was revealing itself to be an exquisitely diversified manifestation of a single entity." (13)
----- It is now roughly a hundred years since William James wrote his ground-breaking book - The Varieties of Religious Experience. It is clear to me from my study of visionary experience in many cultures that a visionary is aware of the reality of worlds and presences inaccessible to the "normal" state of consciousness, as this drawing by a modern teacher of Kabbalah illustrates. So to end, I would say that I am absolutely certain through my own experience and my long study of visionary experience (see The Mystic Vision) that a wider, deeper consciousness than our own is trying to reach us, trying to make itself known to us. It has been doing so for millennia. Parmenides, Dante and Jung are three individuals who have acted as conduits for this consciousness. As long as this dimension of consciousness is denied existence and dissociated from our own, it will act in the manner of an unconscious autonomous complex, influencing us without our awareness in all kinds of ways. As long as we believe that consciousness begins and ends with the brain, we will never reach what we are capable of becoming - people who, like these three remarkable men, are in conscious communion with metaphysical reality.

1. Kingsley, Peter, In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Golden Sufi Centre, California, 1999 and Duckworth & Co. Ltd, UK. September 2001. ISBN 0-7156311-95.
2. Anderson, William, Dante the Maker, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1980, p. 153
3. Prologue to Memories Dreams, Reflections, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1963, p. 18
4. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 181
5. ibid, p. 183
6. ibid. p. 191
7. see the Horizon Research Foundation (originally set up as the International Association of Near Death Studies (UK) in 1987) and based at Southampton General Hospital. Website: www.horizon-research.co.uk.
8. See "Religious Experience and Spirituality Today." The Alister Hardy Trust, 42 High Street, Watlington, Oxford, OX49 5PY.
9. Jeff Levin: God, Faith and Health, John Wiley, New York, NY., 2001
10. report by Patrick Bracken and Philip ThomasBMJ vol 322, 24th March 2001 title of article: Postpsychiatry: A New Direction for Mental Health (page numbers not available) publisher: BMJ Publishing Group, London.
11. Perry, John Weir, Trials of the Visionary Mind: Spiritual Emergency and the Renewal Process, State University of New York Press, 1999. See also www.global-vision.org/interview/perry.html and his other books including The Heart of History.
12. Grof, Stanislav, LSD Psychotherapy, published 2001 by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Sarasota, Florida, USA.
13. Bache, Christopher, Dark Night, Early Dawn, State University of New York Press, NY., 2000. p. 74

* * * *

There are certain dangers attendant on the visionary experience, not necessarily associated with psychosis, which should perhaps be mentioned here:

The danger of too fragile a container. The conscious personality cannot assimilate the numinous impact of the transpersonal experience and is either fragmented by it or takes the visions or messages literally instead of allowing time to assimilate and reflect on them - a process which may take many years.
The danger of pathological grandiosity and inflation - the fundamentalist, cult leader or terrorist. Seeing oneself as the messenger of God inciting others to acts of vengeance, terrorism and human sacrifice.
The danger of being "taken over" by paranoid projections onto others and acting upon them. The need to question the "voices" which urge one to acts of destruction or self-destruction rather than obeying them implicitly as the "voice of God". It is important to know that these voices may come from a dissociated unconscious complex that can, with help, be integrated with the conscious personality to the great benefit of a person's life.
The danger of nervous exhaustion, depression and suicide. Depression is often the dark companion of the visionary experience, particularly if the latter is not validated and supported by the culture or by friends, relatives and therapists and there is no access to guidance from others familiar with this kind of experience.
The danger of neglecting or persecuting the body in the belief that self-mortification is a requirement of the "spiritual" life. Withdrawing from commitment to life in this world and from relationships with other people.

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