Searching for Our True Identity
Interview with Ulla Sebastian by Betsy van der Lee
"Only where there is a blossom, can there be a fruit.
Surrender is the blossom.
Without that blossom, the knowledge cannot be harvested."
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Ulla Sebastian, doctor of clinical psychology and psychopathology,
writer, teacher, psychotherapist and trainer in Bioenergetic Analysis,
spent six months in 1986 at Sai Baba's ashram in India. Based on this
personal experience with Sai Baba, which she writes about in her book,
Erfahrungen mit Sai Baba in Indien (Goldmann Taschenbuch, 1992) she
discusses here some of the psychological aspects of the devotional path
and what she perceives as their relevance today in the personal, metaphysical
as well as community context.
Can you speak about the path of being a disciple and
some of the psychology and pathology involved?
In the Eastern traditions there are basically two paths
we can follow to liberate ourselves. There is the self-exploratory path
of moving through our own force, or there is the path of devotion,
of surrendering to a force which is separate or 'other' than ourselves&emdash;to
a guru , to 'God' or 'the universe'.
The self-exploratory path of moving through our own force includes
practices such as Vipassana meditation, Zen, or Jñaña-Yoga.
In these traditions we develop an inner 'witness' who observes, notices
and becomes aware of our own inner processes&emdash;our thoughts
and feelings&emdash;without judging or trying to manipulate them,
simply reflecting them back to us, like a mirror. As we travel this
road, we gradually expand and ultimately transcend the ego, the little
self: as infants, we start off identifying with our body and then, as
we mature and move to the next level, we learn to disidentify with the
body and identify with the emotions; then we realise we are not our emotions
and we begin to identify with the mind&emdash;we are able to think
and develop concepts and even theories; as we continue to ask ourselves
the question, "Who am I?" we realise that we are, again, more than our
mind, we are a soul, and ultimately, we are spirit or atman, the Absolute
or Cosmic Consciousness. So, we gradually build up and develop our consciousness
and capacity on each level, identifying and then disidentifying with
each level, and as the ego expands, it transcends itself, becoming one
with All. My impression is that this self-exploratory path appeals to
those who are mind-oriented.
On the other hand, those whose basic approach to life is feeling-centred
will find it easier to follow the path of devotion: to attach to
somebody, to surrender to the force of a master, guru or avatar who
then does the carrying forward. It's a different way of working, where
we project our inner processes, our identity, needs and issues onto
the guru &emdash;issues like, for example, wanting to be taken
care of, given advice or wanting to have somebody tell you what's right
or wrong. Effectively this 'other' becomes for us a 'good' father/mother
figure. If the guru is pure, s/he will mirror our issues back, helping
us to see and destroy the illusions of the ego and in this way help us
to expand and move beyond the little ego. This is the other way of surrendering
to the Absolute or Cosmic Consciousness because our guru is actually
an embodiment of that Absolute spirit. The paths are different but the
goal is ultimately the same.
In the guru-disciple relationship is there not a danger
of creating a co-dependency which it is then hard to move beyond?
Yes, of course, especially if we have addictive tendencies,
as many people in our Western culture do. Sai Baba would say that
if you need to be addicted, addict yourself to God or to someone
pure who doesn't have a personal investment in keeping you addicted,
as, for instance, a partner might. If you're addicted to relationships,
to alcohol or to God, the outcome will be different. God can carry you
through and beyond your addiction. The danger and challenge of choosing
a guru is that you don't always know what you're getting&emdash;it's
not easy to find somebody who is pure. No matter what level of consciousness
you or your guru are on, there are corresponding pathologies to deal with
on each of the levels. Going to a guru in the east is no guarantee that
you are dealing with someone pure, just as going to a psychotherapist in
the west is no guarantee that you're dealing with a good therapist. This
is made even more difficult by the fact that it is not possible to comprehend
those levels of consciousness beyond the one we are on. So the best advice
is to look for someone who is on the highest level, who is pure, like an
How would you define an avatar as opposed to a guru?
Is there a difference?
Yes. For me, there is an important difference. There are
those who ascend through the scale of growth in consciousness, undergoing
a kind of apprenticeship where they practice the discipline of a particular
tradition or religion. Then there are those who descend from the Absolute
Consciousness, who already embody the universal wisdom. They incarnate
at times of crisis to bring back the purity or essence of what is taught
through the world religions in order to help humanity move beyond that
crisis. These are the avatars. They don't belong to any religion, they
belong to the essence, to the Absolute Spirit. Guru simply means, and
can be applied to, anyone who is a 'teacher'. There are genuine teachers
and less genuine teachers. A genuine teacher works through example, s/he
is a demonstration of the values s/he teaches. In my experience, people
who are really living what they say are rare.
If we can't evaluate someone beyond our own level of consciousness,
how are we to know if somebody like Sai Baba is actually an avatar,
or if somebody is pure?
This is a difficult question&emdash;one that I frequently
get asked and one that I struggled with quite a bit while I was in Sai Baba's
ashram because I realised that I would have to be an avatar myself in order
truly to recognise one. As a person on the self-exploratory path I prefer
rely on experience rather than belief and I decided that I could use the
same criteria I would use to find a good therapist, which I describe in my
book Wege zum Leben. So I asked myself: Are this person's teachings in accordance
with the ancient wisdom, with the essence of what is taught by all the world
religions, saints or spiritual masters? Is he living what he teaches? And,
for me on a personal level: Can I trust his purity and integrity? Does he
have any personal investment in being an adored figure? Will he abuse my
trust or will he respond to it with integrity?
Are you saying, then, that these are the essential qualities
to look for in a guru?
These were certainly essential qualities for me.
Deep in our hearts we often feel a call&emdash;like an inner knowing
or memory&emdash;to a specific person, or a specific discipline.
Finding a teacher is a very personal affair. An Eastern saying says:
"When the pupil is ready, the master will appear." I believe that before
deciding to work with a teacher, we need to spend time watching how
s/he behaves in his/her daily life and ask ourselves: How does s/he
treat and relate to others? If s/he is the object of devotion for many
thousands of people, does s/he succumb to the fascination of power or
is s/he able to remain detached? Personally I have found it important
to use and trust my sceptical mind and judgment, contrary to the popular
New Age saying, which is to 'Just follow your heart'. Clear observation
and a good sense of judgment are crucial if we don't want to get lost
choosing a teacher from the broad New Age market. It's unhealthy simply
to rely on the experience of others. Ultimately, we need to decide for
ourselves what's right or wrong for us. We also need to acknowledge that
'bad' experiences help to sharpen our judgement.
What differences or similarities do you see between
spiritual growth work in the East and West today?
The Western approach is mainly psychotherapeutic,
while the Eastern approach is meditational. They differ with regard
to the levels of consciousness which each sets out to address. Ken
Wilber, Jack Engler and Daniel Brown give a good summary of this
in their book entitled Transformations of Consciousness. If we consider
human development as a continuous process of growth, then the Western
psychoanalytic/psychotherapeutic approach has provided us with a lot
of knowledge about human development, from the symbiotic bond of infancy
to the point of individual selfhood. To use Wilber's terminology,
Western psychotherapy basically explores the pre-personal and personal
realms: the pre-personal levels (1, 2 and 3), where we are still part
of the energy field of the mother and father (age 0-6) and the personal
levels (4, 5 and 6), where we develop our mental capacities and realise
our separateness or individuality (age 6 onwards); and the Eastern meditational
tradition addresses the transpersonal realm: the level of the psyche
(7), the soul (8), the spirit (9) and the Absolute Consciousness (10),
the basis of all existence.
The two approaches are, in fact, complementary; both
are necessary. Psychotherapy helps us to change patterns in our lives
which are learnt during childhood and which can adversely affect our
physical, emotional and mental wellbeing as adults; it also helps us
to build up the ego (we can only transcend what we have). We can work
with psychotherapy all our life, but it won't bring us any closer to
liberation from our identification with objects outside of the self.
Meditation, on the other hand, helps us to detach from and disidentify
with the different levels. It can help us to feel more comfortable with
our neuroses, or even avoid them, but it won't heal our neuroses. So both
tools have their own value, they both serve in different ways.
Can we combine both, and if so, how would you do that?
While I was in India, I met a man called B S
Goel, who wrote an interesting book called Psychoanalysis and Meditation
which I worked on translating into German during my first 15 months
here as a member of the Foundation. The book turned out to be an excellent
self-guide, combining both Eastern and Western approaches to witnessing
the inner process. Inspired by this work, I now basically use the
meditative approach to become aware of my inner process and then
use the psychoanalytic approach to resolve any problems. The techniques
Goel proposes are simple and can be used by anybody, but I imagine
that they would appeal, and be of most value to those on the self-exploratory
rather than devotional path.
Although you yourself profess to following the self-exploratory
path, you spent half a year with Sai Baba in his ashram in India
and wrote a book about your experiences there. Looking back, how has
working with Sai Baba been significant for you on your own path?
At the time when I left for India in 1986, I
wouldn't have known that there was any difference between the self-exploratory
and devotional paths. For that matter, I wasn't even aware that
I was actually on a spiritual path! I had a professorship in psychopathology
and was teaching, doing research, and training people in bioenergetic
analysis; I had a private psychotherapeutic practice and had written
a few books about how we construct and experience reality and how
specific outlooks on life can be linked with specific dis-eases we
develop. So, my background and approach were very scientific, and as far
as my career went, I was very successful.
However, what didn't work for me in my life were
my relationships, particularly with men. Ironically, I had written
a book (Die Heimliche Gleichung) about the deeper structures within
us which prevent men and women from coming together as equals, but somehow
I didn't seem able to apply that knowledge to my own life. So, I figured,
something was fundamentally wrong and I had to find out what it was.
I had explored everything on the psychotherapeutic market and hadn't found
a solution, so I had concluded that I was searching in the wrong place
and had to start looking elsewhere. 'Elsewhere' turned out to be Sai Baba.
I decided to 'follow my heart', take the risk of
going to his ahram and experience that path for myself. Going to
the ashram was not an easy decision, and being there was even worse.
Devotion has never been my path and yet I could recognise that there
was a part in me that longed very deeply for something. At that time
I thought I was longing for a partner. Later I realised, to quote the book,
that "underlying the longing for the man is the longing for the mother,
who is our first object of love ... Underlying the longing for the mother
is the yearning for the divine mother which attaches itself to the earthly
mother who is the first object we encounter in flesh and blood."
I was hearing a small voice which I learned to recognise
as the voice of my soul. In the book I call this by its Hindu name,
Shivatma. But there was also Ahamkara, the ego identified with all
the outer social objects, and Buddhi, the psychoanalytically trained
witness. These three aspects continually observed and commented on
what went on, and often they were in conflict with each other. Shivatman,
my inner soul, had a strong longing to bond in love with Sai Baba. Ahamkara,
my scientific mind, found that idea ridiculous. But I had enough psychoanalytic
knowledge to understand that parts of me were highly developed while
others were not, they were underdeveloped.
It took me many more years after my time at the ashram
to understand that these discrepancies were the result of experiences of
sexual abuse in my childhood that I had 'forgotten'. Intuitively rather
than consciously, I knew it was important for me to open my heart
again, to find and express the love that I carried within me but
which I had hidden behind a protective wall. So I was, in effect,
searching for a pure being who would respond to that love without abusing
it. It was a risky undertaking for me at the time, especially as I was
not conscious of the underlying cause of my scepticism and mistrust.
On an emotional level, I had to work through my inner
doubts and questions about how safe it would be for me to surrender to Sai
Baba. On a mind level I began to understand that the ego needs to surrender
in order to free the path for the soul to shine through. It seemed to be
a new type of surrender, but I couldn't quite grasp it. One day when I was
struggling yet again with the question of bonding or not bonding I found
a quote of Sai Baba's on the wall, which said: "Only where there is a blossom,
can there be a fruit. Surrender is the blossom. Without that blossom the
knowledge cannot be harvested." Then I understood that, no matter what path
we choose, ultimately we need to surrender the ego and even the witness
in order to become One with the Source. As long as we are identified with
the ego and later the witness, we will experience separation, duality, a
Could you have experienced this surrender through simply
working with your own force, through practising Vipassana or Zen
If you ask me this as a personal question,
I would say, "No". There was a part of me that was still fused
with the mother in a symbiotic bond, which longed to re-create that
kind of bond with an 'other' and had me trapped into creating painful
and frustrating relationships particularly with men. A developmental
principle is that you can't let go of something that you don't have.
So, in order to free myself from that bond, I needed first of all to
re-create it with someone who would not be attached to keeping me in
'chains' in the way that human partners often do. That may sound paradoxical,
and it is, but my specific challenge&emdash;and I believe it is the
challenge of many other men and women in our culture&emdash;was
to crack that paradox. I needed to bond with an outer figure, in my
case with Sai Baba, in order to liberate myself from that type of addictive
bonding. Once liberated from this, I would be free to experience a
deeper inner connection with life.
Surrender in this context meant 'trust'. This issue
can be worked through with a good therapist as well. It's a form of post-maturation
we need to do in order to develop parts of ourselves that have been arrested
because of traumatic events. Until I met Sai Baba I hadn't been able to
find a therapist who seemed clear, pure and evolved enough to mirror that
for me. Sai Baba's gift to me beyond that post-maturation process was to
open that part in me which is the seat of the soul, what the Sufis call
the 'Heart of the Heart' and the Rosicrucians call the 'Rose of the Heart'.
If someone has none of these immature personality
configurations to work through, then they won't need the experience
of surrendering to an outer figure. They would be able to follow the
self-exploratory path, moving and growing through the levels of consciousness
as described earlier. Ultimately, they would have to surrender the little
self to the big Self even on that path. But it's a different level of surrender
which does not involve a guru or master but involves the Source, 'letting
go' into the Absolute. Historically, there are saints and spiritual masters
who have done that, like Buddha.
The difficulty for most of us is that surrender
in our subjective experience means death and we identify death as
something final, as the end of physical existence. So we do everything
we can to prevent that surrender, which means we become our worst enemy
in hindering ourselves from reaching the goal. But in fact if we look
at human development, we realise that death is a continually occuring
and normal part of the developmental process: as we move from one level
to another we have to let go of the identifications we have created on
each level&emdash;material identifications with money, house, cars;
emotional attachments to partners, children, friends; mental attachments
to ideas and concepts; psychic attachments to visions, channelling,
readings; And I am sure there are attachments on the subtle and causal
levels that we ultimately need to dissolve and transcend.
After your stay with Sai Baba you came to Findhorn.
How was the experience of coming to this Community after being
in the ashram?
Towards the end of my stay with Sai Baba
he raised the Kundalini, the sexual or life energy within me. The
rise of this powerful energy can bring about a whole variety of physical,
emotional and mental pathologies on, what Ken Wilber refers to as, the
seventh level of his developmental scale. In the Eastern tradition this
energy is known to help clear up deep-rooted patterns which can't be
reached through psychotherapeutic techniques.
I suffered from some physical symptoms and battled
with some addictive attachments, particularly towards one man.
The major crisis I experienced, however, was the phenomenon known
as 'the dark night of the soul'. All the wisdom and knowledge I had
just written about in my book about my stay with Sai Baba vanished.
I didn't even understand my own book any more and it took me several
years to emerge again. So the Foundation provided me with a loving, caring,
and supportive framework within which I could live through the experience,
despite the fact that nobody here at the time really understood what
I was going through.
Coming out of that experience I realised that
there are some fallacies in the New Age movement and its communities
that are important to look at. One of the main fallacies is the way
in which the pre-personal and trans-personal stages of development often
get confused. Another is that, depending on the level of consciousness
you are working on, words will carry a different meaning, which can
add to the confusion by giving further credence to the fallacy. For instance,
on the pre-personal level 'oneness' means an undifferentiated symbiotic
bond with the mother; but on the trans-personal level 'oneness' means
a conscious return to the Source, which requires individuation and differentiation.
Another example is that people come to me asking if they should work
on annihilating their ego. Their question is: Will we then reach enlightenment?
Those who ask this question usually have a weak ego that needs re-structuring.
So, if they work towards disintegration, the probable result is ego destruction
or psychosis, not ego transcendence or enlightenment.
Can you explain more about the 'pre/trans fallacy' and
how you see this affecting our Community?
The 'pre/trans fallacy' is a term coined
by Ken Wilber to describe the mixing up of the lower and higher levels
of consciousness. A few months ago I described the implications of
sexual abuse (see One Earth 13) where one possible outcome is that the
physio-psychological development becomes interrupted or arrested at
a pre-personal level, while at the same time the psychic (a trans-personal)
level can become highly developed. This was true in my own life, as I mentioned
For a community the question is how to work
with those discrepancies, particularly if&emdash;as I believe
is the case here in the Foundation&emdash;it tends to draw people
with this problem. Normally the problem can be addressed to and taken
care of by a guru . But in the case of a community like the Findhorn Foundation
which supports a diversity of spiritual paths and for this reason doesn't
have a guru structure, a different solution to this problem needs to be
found. One solution, which is not uncommon here, is that individuals go
out and find their own guru outside of the Foundation.
Peter Caddy, one of the founders of the community,
solved the problem by having a group meditation structure that was
obligatory. In my view, that is a wise strategy to adopt, and necessary
when working with people who, as yet, are unable to maintain the
discipline of doing a spiritual practice on their own.
These group meditations functioned as a holding
place which could absorb the usual confusions, projections and transferences
that get played out on the pre-personal level. A collective bonding
structure such as this effectively replaces the mirror function
normally provided by the guru.
When Peter left in 1979, people stopped attending
these meditations because this structure had been forced upon them.
Because of the way in which the leadership at the time dealt with
emotional issues, the structure had also actually prevented personal
confusions from being cleared, with the result that these became
repressed and developed a shadow existence which then needed to surface
in order to be worked through. This was the time when different psychotherapeutic
techniques became part of the Community, and the focus shifted from
group meditation and 'work as love in action' towards individual inner
processing. But, in my view, it went to the other extreme. Now it seems
as if we are reaching another turning point where the meditational path
can return to the community, but now on a higher level of consciousness.
Following a meditational or self-exploratory
path on your own requires an understanding of and ability to maintain
a regular discipline. It requires that people and/or the community
as a collective organism reach a level of individuation and differentiation
where the practicing of a discipline happens on a voluntary basis
and where all the individual uniquenesses and differences are held
in the shared context of a common vision and a practical group bonding.
Where are we as a community in that process?
I think we are at a point of transition,
moving from a more symbiotically organised community towards a village
concept. The village concept requires differentiation and individuation
of the parts and at the same time it needs to create some sort of
group bonding structure on a spiritual level to bind the individual
parts together into a shared frame.
Moving into differentiation and individuation
requires us to develop the capacities of the mind. These include
the ability to work with concepts, develop theories, reflect upon own
processes and, from an educational point of view, move from the level
of learning through example as little children do, to the level of teaching
and learning through mental understanding. In this area we are also
at a point of transition, where we are in the process of moving from
a tribally structured passing on of rites and rituals type of learning
to one which is more systematically oriented. I believe that the Foundation
is at a point where it needs to reflect upon its own roots and developments,
understand the challenges it has had to face in its own growth process,
look at the solutions it has come up with and now make all that knowledge
and experience available to the world
B S Goel, Psychoanalysis and Meditation (Third
Eye Foundation of India, 1986); German ed. Psychoanalyse und Meditation:
Theorie und Praxis (Ariston, 1989)
Ken Wilber, Jack Engler and Daniel Brown,
Transformations of Consciousness (Shambala, 1986)
Ulla Sebastian, Wege zum Leben: Erlebniswelt,
Krankheit und Heilung, 3 vol (Alternativverlag für Wissenschaft,
Literatur und Praxis. Dortmund, 1986), Die Heimliche Gleichung: Leiblichkeit,
Sexualität und Weiblichkeit (Alternativverlag für Wissenschaft,
Literatur und Praxis. Dortmund, 1988), Das Leben&emdash;ein erfüllter
Traum (Ariston, 1989), re-published in 2nd ed. as, Erfahrungen mit
Sai Baba in Indien (Goldmann Taschenbuch, 1992)
Ulla Sebastian has been living and working
at the Findhorn Foundation since returning from India in 1987.