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Jim O'Connor has had an interest in theories of everything and the integral worldview since the mid 1990's. He can be contacted at, while his blog can be found at He currently lives in Swindon, England.

A Mandalic Approach to Development

Part 5: Transpersonal Development

Jim O'Connor

1 Introduction

In Part 4 of this series [1] I attempted to show how psychological development can be modeled using an integration of Andy Smith's one-scale schema with the concept of the mandala. In particular I tried to outline how such an approach can accommodate the main features of both existing models in the field, the structural-hierarchical paradigm of Ken Wilber and the dynamic-dialectical paradigm of Michael Washburn, and is able to integrate them into a single holarchical framework.

In this essay I would like to apply the same approach to the transpersonal and show how my model can also offer a more encompassing and accurate account of development through that particular level. To do this I will draw in large part on the writings of Sri Aurobindo [2], Ken Wilber [3] and Jack Kornfield [4], as I believe that using these three theorists as guides is sufficient to cover all the phenomena that occur during spiritual development, and that each of them can be used to fill in the gaps where the others are weak. Taken together, their work offers a comprehensive map of the transpersonal sphere and of its various stages and experiences and thus is more than adequate for our purposes.

I will begin my account with a brief review of the mandala model as it currently stands and with a recapitulation of its major features.

2 The Overall Model

The mental, transpersonal and transcendental levels of my model look as follows:

The structure at the centre of each mandala is a non-hierarchical integration of the structures at each of the cardinal points. This can be contrasted with how these structures are viewed in Wilber's model, which sees them all as nested hierarchies and which is therefore at odds with much of the work done on the centaur and with Jung's work on psychological wholeness. Jung, in particular, saw the psyche as being structured as a mandala and, while the details of his model do not agree with my own, the basic approaches are very similar.

The self-sense of an individual as it stands at a particular point in time can be located at a definite place on one of the mandalas. As well as being associated with a particular stage (magic, rational, subtle etc.), this point will be located somewhere on a continuum of centre to periphery. Points close to the centre of a mandala indicate a self that is more mandalically structured, while those close to the periphery indicate those that are more hierarchical. Every individual falls on this mandala/hierarchy continuum, as well as being situated at a given stage of mental or transpersonal development.

Points close to the periphery of the mandala are associated with states of greater self-contraction than those closer to the centre. Such contraction always affects the entire being of the individual and a contraction in the total self will manifest as a contraction in each of the spheres represented by the cardinal points. Thus, a contraction in the transpersonal self, for example, will result in a contraction of the causal, subtle, psychic and integral (centauric) structures.

The self-contraction can be relaxed through remedial therapies associated with any of the cardinal points and, when this is done, contraction is relaxed in each and every other cardinal point. This phenomenon was discussed in detail in Parts 1 and 2 of this series [5] [6]. The corollary of this fact is that when contraction is released in the transpersonal mandala, the resulting relaxation ripples down through the centaur, which is one of the cardinal points, and into each of the mental-level structures, which are themselves cardinal points of the centaur. In this way a single remedial technique that addresses a transpersonal or transcendental sphere (meditation, deity visualisation etc.) will release contraction throughout the entire being of the practitioner.

For a more detailed discussion of these points the interested reader is referred to the earlier essays. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to development through the transpersonal.

3 The Psychic Birth

The first stage of transpersonal development is attained when the gross-oriented bodymind is deconstructed and the individual makes the transition between the mental and transpersonal mandalas.

This corresponds to the psychic birth in Aurobindo's system, or to the discovery of the psychic centre. The mother says of entry into this sphere:

"You are seated before a closed door, as it were, a heavy bronze door, and you are there wishing it would open to let you pass to the other side. So all your concentration, all your aspiration is gathered up in a single beam, which begins to push and push against that door, to push harder and harder, with increasing energy, until suddenly the door gives way. And you enter, as if thrust into the light." [7]

This passage indicates that the transition from the mental level to the transpersonal level is not a smooth process of organic growth, as Wilber holds, but a discrete jump, a breaking through to something on the other side of a barrier. This is always the case at the transition from one level of being to another. In this case the barrier broken through was formed by the walls of the centauric bodymind, which had functioned as a womb and which had seemed to the individual encased within it to be the pinnacle of development. As the individual matures, this "womb" comes increasingly to be experienced as a prison and when the psychic birth occurs it is felt to be a liberation from this confinement as a previously unenvisaged potential for transpersonal spiritual development suddenly opens up.

As the individual crosses the threshold from the mental-level to the transpersonal-level mandala, or from the frontal being to the psychic being to use Aurobindo's terminology, he experiences a transition from an existence based on the development of mind to one based on the growth of consciousness. At the point of transition he initially remains identified with the bodymind but from the other side of this threshold. The bodymind and gross realm are now seen to be made of consciousness and to be psycho-physical rather than material in nature.

As the individual has now transcended the gross realm, that realm can now be objectified in awareness, and appears as an object that has been "gone beyond", leading to a feeling of great liberation from the confines of matter. Concomitant with this the individual experiences a greatly expanded sense of her own identity and comes to feel that she has always existed and always will. This is due to the fact that his sense of time and self is dependent on the level of the holarchy she exists at, as Andy Smith has shown [8], with higher levels exhibiting expanded temporal modes.

As with the psychological birth, with the psychic birth all of the potentials associated with the structures at the cardinal points of the transpersonal mandala awaken and become available. That is, rapture (integral structure), joy (psychic structure), love (subtle structure) and insight (causal structure) all open up. However, those that have yet to be fully attained during hierarchical development around the mandala remain embryonic, and function less predominantly in the awareness of the individual. They will each come to the foreground in turn as development proceeds but in the early stages they remain nascent.

Simultaneous with the psychic birth, the individual experiences the awakening of the transpersonal kundalini energy. There is an energy associated with each level of the holarchy (mental, transpersonal, transcendental) and each is a higher-level form of that operative at the level below. The energy associated with the mental-level is libidinal in nature, while that associated with the transpersonal, the kundalini, is based on physicalised consciousness. The energy associated with the transcendental, is referred to by Adi Da as the "higher kundalini" [9], and is a higher-level analogue of the kundalini experienced at the transpersonal. Each of these energies awakens at the base of the spine (muladhara) and flows upwards, reaching its culmination in the energy centre at the crown (sahasrara). In my model each of the three types of energy makes a complete pass of all the energy centres when activated, awakening the potentials associated with that particular level. Thus the libidinal energies flow from root chakra to crown, activating all of the mental-level faculties from sensation to thought; followed by the transpersonal kundalini flowing from root to crown activating the transpersonal faculties from rapture to insight; and then the higher kundalini activates those from the nondual upward.

[As a brief sidebar, it is important to uncouple in our models and thinking the flow of energy associated with a particular level, whether libidinal, kundalini or higher kundalini, and the development of the self through that level. The energy of any given level, when awakened, flows through all chakras from the first moment of its activation, whereas the core self grows slowly through the various stages of that level. Furthermore, the opening of the chakras can occur in any order dependent upon the idiosyncrasies of the spiritual process as it unfolds for a given individual, but the growth of the core self is separate from this, and occurs in an invariant order through a linear set of stages.

Just to add to the confusion, in Wilber's model only one spinal energy exists and makes a single pass of the chakras to drive development through his entire schema of stages, rather than the three passes carried out by three difference energies that I am advocating. This leads to some strange correlations as he attempts to concertina all his stages, from archaic to nondual, into this single pass. For example, it causes him to state that rationality is attained when the kundalini reaches the energy centre at the throat (vishuddha), an assertion which would appear to have no reasonable basis. In my model, which I believe to be more accurate, the rational stage is attained when the core mental-level self identifies with the head area, which is an attainment separate from the flow of the kundalini (or even the libidinal energies).

I believe this way of viewing the psycho-spiritual energies, based as it is on making a distinction between libidinal, transpersonal and transcendental energies to be a more nuanced conception of how these phenomena manifest, and one that does justice to the different types of energy that are experienced by the spiritual practitioner. I believe, also, that by uncoupling the stages of psycho-spiritual growth from the kundalini model that we can arrive at a more accurate view of how energy and core self are related. Sidebar end]

4 Hierarchical Development

Once the psychic birth is established, the stage is set for hierarchical development around the mandala, just as occurred during mental-level growth.

As in psychological development, each subsequent stage transcends and includes the previous stages in classic Wilberian fashion. As each structure becomes the focus of identification the transpersonal potential associated with it comes to the fore. Thus at the first stage, the integral, the focus is on rapture; at the psychic stage it is on joy (ananda); at the subtle stage it is on universal love (maitri) and compassion (karuna); and at the causal stage it is on insight (prajna).

At early transpersonal stages the raw unbounded rapture/bliss functions analogously to the Dynamic Ground in psychological development, but is a ground made from spiritual energy (consciousness) rather than libidinal energy. This ground becomes constrained as hierarchical development proceeds from psychic to causal and is gradually lost to awareness in a process equivalent to primal repression. This phenomenon is illustrated on the following diagram:

This cognitive aspects of the various stages are, in my model, more or less as Wilber describes them in his work. It is not clear to me whether his psychic stage includes the various paranormal phenomena (clairaudience, OBEs etc.) or not. In his earlier thought it seems that it did, but in more recent writings he seems to have moved away from this claim. In any case, in my model, the psychic stage does not include such phenomena, so the name is perhaps unfortunate, but as it is generally recognised I will continue to use it. The psychic stage in my model is a stage of joy and fluid energy, analogous to the unbounded bliss and fluid cognitive mental experience of the infant, but on a higher level. It is a stage at which higher-order versions of subject-predicate and part-whole identity are operative, but in the realm of consciousness rather than mentality. Cognition is thus fluid and flexible and inner and outer objects flow into one other.

The subtle stage is the stage of the higher archetypes (ishtadevas, dhyani buddhas etc.). These are higher-order versions of the mental-level Jungian archetypes. The predominating experience at this stage is one of unbounded love and compassion. For more information on this stage, see Wilber's book The Atman Project.

The causal stage is one of insight, of seeing into the nature of cause and effect and the emptiness of self. The causal stage is also the point at which we can begin to find correlations between Wilber's stages and those in the vipassana tradition. From this point onward, therefore, we will rely on Jack Kornfield's account of these stages as they are detailed in the vipassana "Map of the Elders". Jack Kornfield says of the causal:

"At this ... stage, body and mind appear quite mechanical, and wherever we look, the universe shows the process of conditions, like seeds, being planted in one moment, sprouting in the next. Then even deeper attention, like a stronger lens in the microscope, brings us to a level of experience where life dissolves in more and finer tiny moments of experience... ." [10]

The causal stage is the culmination of hierarchical transpersonal development, and functions analogously to the mental-ego on its own level. In this sense it represses the lower transpersonal structures. However, because this stage is anchored in consciousness rather than in gross matter, repression does not function as rigidly, and can be more easily overcome at the appropriate time.

5 Regression / Pseudo-Nirvana

The transition from the causal stage to pseudo-nirvana is marked by a regression, analogous to the process of regression in the service of transcendence which occurred during psychological development. As this regression takes place, the various structures of the transpersonal are freed from their hierarchical organisation and come into a mandalic formation. The transpersonal ground re-emerges in awareness, this time in a mature form, and becomes an integrated part of the personality. The bodymind, which had been embedded along with this ground at the bottom of the hierarchy, also re-emerges, and with it the entire material realm, now divinised through being integrated with the psychic, subtle and causal structures, and takes on a place heterarchical with them in awareness.

In addition to this, the subject-predicate and part-whole identity cognition of the integral and psychic stages also re-emerges and comes into integration with the more differentiated cognition of the subtle and causal stages, thus forming an "Indra's Web" of interpenetrating objects in the consciousness of the individual. This mode of cognition is called by Thich Nhat Hanh interbeing, and is a hallmark of mature mystical consciousness.

The process of regression during transpersonal development is usually less turbulent than was the regression that occurred during psychological growth precisely because repression at the transpersonal level is not so forceful as it was in the material bodymind.

The resulting structure, pseudo-nirvana is, by all accounts, an immensely positive stage of development. It is, to use Smith's terminology, the autonomous holon of the transpersonal level. It is a holistic, womb-like structure that is very powerful, so powerful in fact that it can seem to the individual as if no further development is necessary or possible. Jack Kornfield says of it:

"[A]t this stage, attention and concentration become so strong that the heart and mind become clear and breathtakingly luminous. All the powers and factors of enlightenment arise spontaneously: rapture [integral structure], energy [psychic structure], clear investigation [causal structure], calm [subtle structure], concentration, insight [causal structure], equanimity [causal structure]. In this state, awareness arises so automatically and easily that the mind feels as if it floats, free and unhindered by whatever appears. Tremendous joy [psychic structure] arises; we can sense a wonderful freedom and balance. As we see more clearly into the nature of life [causal structure], with this well-being comes incredible faith and clarity." [11]

Pseudo-nirvana arises when all of the previous transpersonal structures re-emerge in mature forms, just as Washburn describes happening for mental-level structures during psychological development. Kornfield continues:

"With the arising of this stage, students often believe they are enlightened. This is called tentative awakening or pseudo-nirvana. It is pseudo-nirvana because when such wonderful meditative states arise, we feel we are free of our everyday identity, but then we unknowingly grasp these states and create a new spiritual sense of ourselves. Pseudo-nirvana feels like freedom, but it is also a sticking point in meditation where students may be caught for a long time. In pseudo-nirvana the genuine qualities of joy, clarity faith, concentration, and mindfulness easily turn into corruptions of insight." [12]

The corruptions of insight, in this context, refers to the student becoming attached to the structures of the transpersonal as they manifest in mature forms in the final holon of that level. Attachment to rapture, joy, love and insight can all become sticking points for the student at this stage.

6 Death-Rebirth

Between pseudo-nirvana and the next higher level, which I am calling the transcendental, lies another death-rebirth process, similar to the existential death-rebirth that occurred at the transition from mental to transpersonal levels, but at a higher level.

Jack Kornfield says of this process:

"According to the Elders' map of insight stages, when we release [pseudo-nirvana], our whole practice shifts. ... This opening marks the beginning of a spontaneous and deep process of death and rebirth. ... [A]t the level of Insight Meditation beyond pseudo-nirvana, the death-rebirth process becomes all-encompassing, involving our total being. After we abandon our spiritual identity, the meditation leads us through a total dissolution of our sense of self, through a dark night, like death itself." [13]

This process causes the walls of pseudo-nirvana to close in on the student, with what was previously experienced as a satisfying womb now turning into a prison:

"People experience these feelings in many different ways: as pressure, claustrophobia, oppression, tightness, restlessness, or struggle,or as the unbearable repetition of experiences, one after another, dying all the time. We can feel as if we are stuck in meaningless cycles of life. Existence can seem flat, arid, and lifeless. It is as if there is no exit." [14]

However, painful as this process is, it usually has a positive outcome, as a profound desire for liberation is birthed in the student:

"In traversing these painful stages, there next arises a deep and profound desire for freedom. In this state we long for release from the fear and oppression of continued birth and death. We sense that there must be a freedom that is not bound up in seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, something beyond our plans and memories, our body and mind, the whole identity we have taken to be ourselves." [15]

7 The Nondual

As this process of dissolution of the self reaches its conclusion, the individual is reborn on the next higher level, that of the transcendental. At this level the higher kundalini awakens, and the transpersonal self is transcended, as is manifest reality as a whole. The whole system of interacting worlds in which the student was ensnared has now been "gone beyond" and can be objectified in awareness, as liberation is attained, and consciousness and existence continue to arise as objects moment-to-moment.

In the Map of the Elders' this stage is referred to as high-equanimity. Jack Kornfield says of this level:

"We enter a realm where consciousness is fully open and awake, perfectly balanced. ... Consciousness becomes luminous even beyond the stage of pseudo-nirvana, because everything is untangled, free, and we grasp at nothing. ... We are simply space, and our whole identity opens to reveal the true nature of consciousness before we became identified with body and mind." [16]

The transcendental entity upon which this mandala is based is a higher form of consciousness which, for want of a more creative term, I will call transcendental-awareness. This mandala, lying outside of samsara, is the realm of mystical awakenings, beyond even the level of the transpersonal. Kornfield goes on:

"At these deep levels of practice, profound satoris and mystical awakenings continue to unfold. Sometimes from high-equanimity we enter the void, the silent emptiness out of which all things arise. The entire universe disappears and later reappears by itself ... Consciousness can be experienced as clear light or as jewels pouring out of the cornucopia of experience like galaxies of stars sending out their light. Our clarity of mind can illuminate the artificiality of time and space. We can see directly how all things exist right now, see that the whole sense of time and creation is but a trick of consciousness." [17]

The territory that the individual has now entered into is a mandala based on higher-order versions of the transpersonal structures, with the nondual at the centre, as illustrated on the following diagram:

The integration of these structures forms another autonomous holon that is very complete and harmonious. Kornfield describes this mandala as being like a multi-faceted crystal that takes on a different appearance depending on which perspective it is viewed from:

"Awakened consciousness has different facets or different dimensions, a bit like a crystal... In the crystal of the awakened consciousness one facet is love [transcendental-subtle] and when you rest in presence at times everything is love... If you turn the crystal one more facet everything is emptiness [transcendental-causal] and you feel its transparency, and everything that arises, arises and passes away like a dream... If you turn the crystal another facet everything becomes silence [transcendental-causal], this enormous silence that surrounds all of our activity and our words that is always here. If you turn it another facet it becomes tremendous joy, bliss, ananda [transcendental-psychic]... And another facet and it's clarity [transcendental-causal], the awakened heart and mind is simply clarity itself... And you turn it another facet and it's absolute peace [transcendental-subtle]." [18]

This quote clearly shows that the self, at this stage, is not structured hierarchically as Wilber claims, with structures such as the subtle or causal existing at higher levels than the psychic or pseudo-nirvanic. This stage, like all autonomous holons encompasses lower structures in non-nested forms, in which all (pseduo-nirvanic, transcendental-psychic, transcendental-subtle, transcendental-causal) take an equal place in awareness.

The nondual mandala has pseudo-nirvana as one of its cardinal points, as one of its components. Therefore resting in this inherently uncontracted state has the effect of rippling the relaxation down through the levels [19], releasing contraction in all dimensions of the bodymind. This, I would argue, is how higher practices such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra function. Resting in the nature of Mind (the nondual), by a process of recursion they decontract the entire being of the practitioner.

8 Higher Levels

There is no reason to suppose that the nondual mandala is the culmination of development. It could well be the case that further levels exist that are based on increasingly higher-order versions of the integral, psychic, subtle and causal structures. This may not be as speculative as it sounds. At least one Buddhist teacher has stated that higher developmental structures exist and can reasonably be attained by the dedicated practitioner. Subhuti, student of Sangharakshita says:

"If we did not stop [the schematisation of higher stages of development], we would have to enumerate an infinite progression of ever higher states. Enlightenment is, according to an image of Sangharakshita's, but the farthest point on our horizon, over which the Buddhas appear. As we approach nearer to that horizon, however, it recedes from us and the Buddhas appear over it in ever more subtle and glorious forms." [20]

Spiritual life lived in this way, therefore, would be a process of continual death and rebirth, a process of disidentifying with lower-order mandalas in order to enter ever higher ones, with each integrating the transcended structures in a non-nested hierarchy. From each autonomous holon thus attained, spiritual development would also be a process of resting within it and allowing it to progressively decontract all lower structures, bringing ease and integration to one's entire being.

9 The Pre-Trans Fallacy

In my model because an analogous process of development occurs on every level, the potential for "pre-trans fallacies" to arise should be obvious. Three such fallacies are possible, and I would categorise them in the following way:

  • Within any given level it is possible to confuse the "pre” form of a stage, that is, the form that is experienced during early development, with the mature form of that stage as it manifests in the final mandalic structure of the level (PTF-1). For example, during mental-level development it is possible to confuse the primitive body-fusion that exists at the archaic stage with the advanced phenomenon of mind-body integration that exists in the centaur. Or on the transpersonal level it is possible to confuse the raw rapture of the early integral stage with the mature form of this that exists in pseudo-nirvana. This is the type of pre-trans fallacy recognised, on the mental-level at least, by Washburn.
  • When looking across levels, it is possible to confuse the structure at a cardinal point on one mandala with the structure at the equivalent cardinal point on a higher or lower mandala (PTF-2). For example, the Jungian archetypes of the mythic structure can be erroneously elevated to transpersonal status by confusing them with the transpersonal archetypes of the subtle structure, which is the equivalent cardinal point on the higher-level mandala. Likewise, the mature centaur, being a self-contained, autonomous structure, can be confused with with either pseudo-nirvana or the nondual, which are similarly autonomous structures on their own level. This leads to stages of mature psychological development being confused with self-realisation or enlightenment. I would argue that Washburn himself falls victim to this version of the fallacy.
  • In addition to these already-recognised manifestations of the pre-trans fallacy, I believe there is a third type of fallacy that exists. This is when a higher state of consciousness is confused with a higher structure. This is possible because development through such states follows a similar pattern (from rapture through to equanimity) as does development through higher stages. It is thus possible to experience a higher state and confuse it with being established in a higher structure, especially if one is using written maps as a guide.

10 Conclusion

I hope that I have put forward a plausible argument, based on the available evidence, that a one-scale/mandala model offers a more comprehensive and accurate map of transpersonal development than does either Wilber's or Washburn's. This model is distinct from Washburn's in that it recognises dimensions of existence higher than the spiritualised centaur, and distinct from Wilber's in that it recognises both regressions and autonomous holons in development. It also adds in the stage of pseudo-nirvana between the causal and nondual, which is missing from Wilber's schema. I believe that all of these recognitions and additions are necessary to fully encompass the various stages of development that spiritual practitioners go through on their way to enlightenment.

If this is, as I am claiming, a more accurate model of psycho-spiritual development, then there are significant implications for integral theory and a complete revision of our model of individual development is necessary. And as Wilber's entire hierarchical model, in all four quadrants, is based on his schema of individual development, if it can be shown that there are regressions and autonomous holons within this then his entire model is in great difficulty. I believe that we must then move to a one-scale schema and reintegrate it with the truths inherent in the retro-romantic paradigm, which, as I have shown, can easily be done. Thus, revising our model of individual development in this way will also have implications for our model of collective evolution, and for our understanding of the steps that the global community needs to take in order to attain the integral society.

Footnotes and References

[1] O'Connor, J. (2019). A Mandalic Approach to Development, Part 4: The Mental Level. Available on

[2] Satprem. (1993). Sri Aurobindo or The Adventure of Consciousness. Editions Buchet/Chastel, Paris.

[3] Wilber, K. (1985). The Atman Project. The Theosophical Publishing House.

[4] Kornfield, J. (2002). A Path with Heart. Rider.

[5] O'Connor, J. (2015). A Mandalic Approach to Development, Part 1: The Structure of the Psyche. Available on

[6] O'Connor, J. (2017a). A Mandalic Approach to Development, Part 2: Releasing Contraction. Available on

[7] The Adventure of Consciousness. p83.

[8] Smith, A. (2000). Worlds Within Worlds: The Holarchy of Life. Self Published in E-Book Form.

[9] Adi Da Samraj. (1985). The Dawn Horse Testament. Dawn Horse Press.

[10] A Path with Heart. p146.

[11] A Path with Heart. pp146-147.

[12] A Path with Heart. p147.

[13] A Path with Heart. p148.

[14] A Path with Heart. p150.

[15] A Path with Heart. p150.

[16] A Path with Heart. p151.

[17] A Path with Heart. pp152-153

[18] Insights at the Edge. Difficult Times and the Crystal of Liberation. Sounds True. Quote begins around 00:40:00

[19] A Mandalic Approach to Development Part 2.

[20] Subhuti. (1994). Sangharakshita: A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition. Windhorse Publications. P73

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