THE CONFUSION OF THE PSYCHIC AND THE SPIRITUAL 



Ch35 from p.235-240 

The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times, René Guénon, 1945


The account given above, dealing with some of the psychological explanations that have been applied to traditional doctrines, covers only a particular case of a confusion that is very widespread in the modern world, namely, the confusion of the psychic and the spiritual domains. Even when it is not carried to such a point as to produce a subversion like that of psychoanalysis, this confusion assimilates the spiritual to all that is most inferior in the psychic order; it is therefore extremely serious in every case. In a sense it follows as a natural result of the fact that Westerners have for a very long time past no longer known how to distinguish the ‘soul’ from the ‘spirit’ (Cartesian dualism being to a great extent responsible for this, merging as it does into one and the same category everything that is not the body, and designating this one vague and ill-defined category indifferently by either name); and the confusion never ceases to be apparent even in current language: the word ‘spirits’ is popularly used for psychic entities that are anything but ‘spiritual’, and the very name ‘spiritualism’ is derived from that usage; this mistake, together with another consisting in using the word ‘spirit’ for something that is really only mental, will be enough by way of example for the present. It is all too easy to see the gravity of the consequences of any such state of affairs: anyone who propagates this confusion, whether intentionally or otherwise and especially under present conditions, is setting beings on the road to getting irremediably lost in the chaos of the ‘intermediary world’, p.236  and thereby, though often unconsciously, playing the game of the ‘satanic’ forces that rule over what has been called the ‘counterinitiation’. 


It is important at this point to be very precise if misunderstanding is to be avoided: it cannot be said that a particular development of the possibilities of a being, even in the comparatively low order represented by the psychic domain, is essentially ‘malefic’ in itself; but it is necessary not to forget that this domain is above all that of illusions, and it is also necessary to know how to situate each thing in the place to which it normally belongs; in short, everything depends on the use made of any such development; the first thing to be considered is therefore whether it is taken as an end in itself, or on the other hand as a mere means for the attainment of a goal of a superior order. Anything whatever can in fact serve, according to the circumstances of each case, as an opportunity or ‘support’ to one who has entered upon the way that is to lead him toward a spiritual ‘realization’; this is particularly true at the start, because of the diversity of individual natures, which exercises its maximum influence at that point, but it is still true to a certain extent for so long as the limits of the individuality have not been completely left behind. But on the other hand, anything whatever can just as well be an obstacle as a ‘support’, if the being does not pass beyond it but allows itself to be deluded and led astray by appearances of realization that have no inherent value and are only accidental and contingent results— if indeed they can justifiably be regarded as results from any point of view. The danger of going astray is always present for exactly as long as the being is within the order of individual possibilities; it is without question greatest wherever psychic possibilities are involved, and is naturally greater still when those possibilities are of a very inferior order. 


The danger is certainly much less when possibilities confined to the corporeal and physiological order alone are involved, as they are in the case of the aforementioned error of some Westerners who take Yoga, or at least the little they know of its preparatory procedures, to be a sort of method of ‘physical culture’; in cases of that kind, almost the only risk incurred is that of obtaining, by ‘practices’ accomplished ill-advisedly and without control, exactly the p.237 opposite result to that desired, and of ruining one’s health while seeking to improve it. Such things have no interest here save as examples of a crude deviation in the employment of these ‘practices’, for they are really designed for quite a different purpose, as remote as possible from the physiological domain, and natural repercussions occurring in that domain constitute but a mere ‘accident’ not to be credited with the smallest importance. Nevertheless it must be added that these same ‘practices’ can also have repercussions in the subtle modalities of the individual unsuspected by the ignorant person who undertakes them as he would a kind of ‘gymnastics’, and this considerably augments their danger. In this way the door may be quite unwittingly opened to all sorts of influences (those to take advantage of it in the first place being of course always of the lowest quality), and the less suspicion the victim has of the existence of anything of the kind the less is he prepared against them, and still less is he able to discern their real nature; there is in any event nothing in all this that can claim to be ‘spiritual’ in any sense. 


The state of affairs is quite different in cases where there is a confusion of the psychic properly so called with the spiritual. This confusion moreover appears in two contrary forms: in the first, the spiritual is brought down to the level of the psychic, and this is what happens more particularly in the kind of psychological explanations already referred to; in the second, the psychic is on the other hand mistaken for the spiritual; of this the most popular example is spiritualism, though the other more complex forms of ‘neo-spiritualism’ all proceed from the very same error. In either case it is clearly the spiritual that is misconceived; but the first case concerns those who simply deny it, at least in practice if not always explicitly, whereas the second concerns those who are subject to the delusion of a false spirituality; and it is this second case that is now more particularly in view. The reason why so many people allow themselves to be led astray by this delusion is fundamentally quite simple: some of them seek above all for imagined ‘powers’, or broadly speaking and in one form or another, for the production of more or less extraordinary ‘phenomena’; others constrain themselves to ‘centralize’ their consciousness on inferior ‘prolongations’ of the human individuality, p.238 mistaking them for superior states simply because they are outside the limits within which the activities of the ‘average’ man are generally enclosed, the limits in question being, in the state corresponding to the profane point of view of the present period, those of what is commonly called ‘ordinary life’, into which no possibility of an extra-corporeal order can enter. Even within the latter group it is the lure of the ‘phenomenon’, that is to say in the final analysis the ‘experimental’ tendency in the modern spirit, which is most frequently at the root of the error; what these people are in fact trying to obtain is always results that are in some way ‘sensational’, and they mistake such results for ‘realization’; but this again amounts to saying that everything belonging to the spiritual order escapes them completely, that they are unable even to conceive of anything of the kind, however remotely; and it would be very much better for them, since they are entirely lacking in spiritual ‘qualification’, if they were content to remain enclosed in the commonplace and mediocre security of ‘ordinary life’. Of course there can be no question of denying the reality as such of the ‘phenomena’ concerned; in fact they can be said to be only too real, and for that reason all the more dangerous. What is now being formally contested is their value and their interest, particularly from the point of view of spiritual development, and the delusion itself concerns the very nature of spiritual development. Again, if no more than a mere waste of time and effort were involved, the harm would not after all be so very great, but generally speaking the being that becomes attached to such things soon becomes incapable of releasing itself from them or passing beyond them, and its deviation is then beyond remedy; the occurrence of cases of this kind is well known in all the Eastern traditions, where the individuals affected become mere producers of ‘phenomena’ and will never attain the least degree of spirituality. But there is still something more, for a sort of ‘inverted’ development can take place, not only conferring no useful advantage, but taking the being ever further away from spiritual ‘realization’, until it is irretrievably astray in the inferior ‘prolongations’ of its individuality recently mentioned, and through these it can only come into contact with the ‘infrahuman’. There is then no escape from its situation, or at least there is only one, and that is the total disintegration of the conscious being; such a disintegration is strictly equivalent in the case of p.239 the individual to final dissolution in the case of the totality of the manifested ‘cosmos’. 


For this reason, perhaps more than for any other, it is impossible to be too mistrustful of every appeal to the ‘subconscious’, to ‘instinct’, and to sub-rational ‘intuition’, no less than to a more or less ill-defined ‘vital force’— in a word to all those vague and obscure things that tend to exalt the new philosophy and psychology, yet lead more or less directly to a contact with inferior states. There is therefore all the more reason to exercise extreme vigilance (for the enemy knows only too well how to take on the most insidious disguises) against anything that may lead the being to become ‘fused’ or preferably and more accurately ‘confused’ or even ‘dissolved’ in a sort of ‘cosmic consciousness’ that shuts out all ‘transcendence’ and so also shuts out all effective spirituality. This is the ultimate consequence of all the anti-metaphysical errors known more especially in their philosophical aspect by such names as ‘pantheism’, ‘immanentism’, and ‘naturalism’, all of which are closely interrelated, and many people would doubtless recoil before such a consequence if they could know what it is that they are really talking about. These things do indeed quite literally amount to an ‘inversion’ of spirituality, to a substitution for it of what is truly its opposite, since they inevitably lead to its final loss, and this constitutes ‘satanism’ properly so called. Whether it be conscious or unconscious in any particular case makes little difference to the result, for it must not be forgotten that the ‘unconscious satanism’ of some people, who are more numerous than ever in this period in which disorder has spread into every domain, is really in the end no more than an instrument in the service of the ‘conscious satanism’ of those who represent the ‘counterinitiation’. 


There has been occasion elsewhere to call attention to the initiatic symbolism of a ‘navigation’ across the ocean (representing the psychic domain), which must be crossed while avoiding all its dangers in order to reach the goal[1]; but what is to be said of someone who flings himself into the ocean and has no aspiration but to drown himself in it? This is very precisely the significance of a so-called ‘fusion’ with a ‘cosmic consciousness’ that is really nothing but the p.240  confused and indistinct assemblage of all the psychic influences; and, whatever some people may imagine, these influences have absolutely nothing in common with spiritual influences, even if they may happen to imitate them to a certain extent in some of their outward manifestations (for in this domain ‘counterfeit’ comes into play in all its fullness, and this is why the ‘phenomenal’ manifestations so eagerly sought for never by themselves prove anything, for they can be very much the same in a saint as in a sorcerer). Those who make this fatal mistake either forget about or are unaware of the distinction between the ‘upper waters’ and the ‘lower waters’; instead of raising themselves toward the ‘ocean above’, they plunge into the abyss of the ‘ocean below’; instead of concentrating all their powers so as to direct them toward the formless world, which alone can be called ‘spiritual’, they disperse them in the endlessly changeable and fugitive diversity of the forms of subtle manifestation (this diversity corresponding as nearly as possible to the Bergsonian conception of ‘reality’) with no suspicion that they are mistaking for a fullness of ‘life’ something that is in truth the realm of death and of a dissolution without hope of return.


[1] See The King of the World and Spiritual Authority & Temporal Power.


See also: 

An introduction to Shaykh Abd Al Wahid Yahya - René Guénon, by Omar K Neusser

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