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In Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality and Psychology To Be Truly Free, Bernard Starr's purpose is twofold: first, translate Eastern spiritual teachings "into basic principles of consciousness, reality, and self that could be fully expressed and practiced in a Western mode" (xi); and second, develop, articulate, and advance a new omni consciousness psychology based on these principles.
Central to Starr's effort is the psycho-spiritual reclamation of our 'genuine self', a form of consciousness that "we all own but abandon early in life" (xi), albeit unintentionally. Starr reports that this disaffection of our genuine, or real self begins with the onset of 'psychological birth' (i.e. with the separation-individuation developmental process). The newborn 'I/me' emerges from the womb of symbiotic consciousness, and so begins the seeding of the 'ego self'. As we grow and mature, this 'ego self' has the propensity to completely eclipse the real self--'the original face we are born with'--through a heaping on of socio-cultural accretions that, though necessary for survival and the successful navigation of the commons of our shared social world, can be alienating, and generally deleterious to our continued flourishing, if allowed to trap and imprison us.
In keeping with his intent that 'from West we go East and Back' again in this endeavor, Starr coins a new, 'Western' term for this genuine self--'omni consciousness'--for the old Eastern goods (i.e. the 'pure consciousness' of Eastern psychology), as a way of avoiding the intellectual baggage of what came before. Starr points, with a disapproving finger, to the old understandings associated with the introduction of Eastern concepts several decades ago, in what was, in some corners of America, a Kerouac-esque 'dharma-bum' time of spiritual upheaval, when anything Eastern was "crassly appropriated by the counterculture" (4) into the 'New Age' groove de jour, as a self-absorbed reaction to the rising technoculture of materialism that was the Vietnam War era.
Having said this, however, Starr initially can't seem to make up his own mind which term he wants to use: his new term, omni consciousness? Or the old term, pure consciousness? Will this heap confusion upon confusion? How will this ambivalence on the part of the author make the reader feel certain? Despite his reservation about whether coining a new term will make understanding what, for some, may be a difficult concept (and a non-Western one at that) any easier, Starr has good intentions and a 'street savvy' that shine through. Not only a veteran educator in developmental psychology, as well as a practicing psychologist, media host, and writer, Starr has the good judgment that comes from facing himself, asking hard questions, making hard decisions, and living fully the hard-won lessons of his own experience. His common-sense insights satisfy; his take on the subject matter feels solid. When Starr gives us the benefit of his experience, he makes it clear it's his experience, and though he gives guidance, he takes no responsibility away from his readers for finding their own way. His interest is genuine, and his philosophy is such that he's not just another self-help guru out to make a buck on human misery, but really wants people to own their own journey, to honor it as uniquely theirs, to find, be, and carry, their own light.
Starr breaks down his message into ten chapters, each of which contains seminal points, such as (but not limited to):
Chapter 1--Search for the Genuine Self: From West to East and Back
Starr elucidates his frustration with traditional Western psychology, which, in focusing on the vicissitudes of the 'ego' self, is not up to the task of searching for and uncovering this genuine self. A burning question readers may have is this: Why do I have to 'search' for my genuine self--isn't that who I am already? Why does Starr think that just being myself, and going about my business, is so complicated that I would need both psychology--omni psychology at that--and spirituality to be 'truly' free? Starr acknowledges that if he tells you the truth about the pursuit of omni consciousness, it will probably turn you off, because he's not talking about the "quick fix" or "warm fuzzy feeling of spirituality" (12). What Starr's talking about is the "hard work requiring letting go of illusions that your sense of security is moored to--and that have defined you all of your life" (12). It has everything to do with becoming conscious of all that lies unconscious and unchallenged 'beneath'--such as, but not limited to: fears, cravings, obsessions, unconscious anger, learned patterns of belief in action, etc. filters of consciousness that keep us from being fully human, from being fully ourselves. All such 'shuttered windows' can prevent us from seeing clearly, from thinking clearly, from acting clearly. This clarity is the true freedom, in Starr's view, as well as the central idea of spirituality he's trying to convey. Because the term 'spirituality' is another one of those linguistic pack-mules of cultural baggage, meaning so many things to so many people as to be nearly useless as a word, Starr makes it clear that spirituality, for his part, is simply this state of omni, or pure, consciousness. But, there's no free lunch, and though this search can be pricey and is likely to be painful, it's a healing pain. Further, Starr also exposes the potential danger of how, in the search for that genuine self, seekers, caught at a particular (ergo individualistic) stage of the pursuit, can become self-absorbed "growth and transformation junkies" (2), addicted to 'self-help' and engaged in a goal-oriented, 'spiritual' materialism. Self-involvement, however, can lead to self-recognition and self-understanding, and like farmers tending their fields, the task needs fortitude, patience, and persistence, for "omni consciousness has a rough row to hoe" (11).
Chapter 2: Who Am I?
The most important concept in the book, Starr writes, is the one that deals with personal identity, who we think we are--and, we may be shocked to find that who we think we are, or like to think we are, may not be who we are at all. Our ideas of ourselves are distorted, often smaller or larger, incomplete, lacking perspective; on the whole, generally unreflective of who we really are in our completeness and totality. Rather than take the easy road of denial or ignorance in regard to these important issues, we must do the hard work of reflection; we must think about the issues, and monitor our behavior. Get a grasp, Starr writes, on who we really are. Are we the roles we play? What are our fears, cravings, obsessions, etc.? Do they harm us, hold us back? If they harm us, hold us back, how so? How do we feel more certain and joyful, and maintain that firmer ground? How do we learn to choose to act from our center, rather than react--overreact?--from fears, cravings, worries, anger, illusions, etc.? What Starr urges us to do throughout the book is take control of our minds, for to stop the wild mind, with its "spinning out of control" ruinous thought processes that can exhaust us, run us ragged, ruin us, is tantamount to walking a reflective journey inward "on the road to reality", reclaiming the lost horizon of peace, clarity, and genuine love of omni, or pure consciousness with each step of the way.
Chapter 3: I/Me/Ego--Personal and Impersonal
Starr identifies the "self-consciousness trap" generated by the splitting that begins with the Cartesian 'cogito ergo sum', and ending, for Eastern thinkers (who assert just the reverse) in an illusory subject/object dichotomy (37). This "addiction to self-consciousness", as Starr puts it, separates us into 'us' and 'them', with 'us' on top, and 'them' on the bottom. Until self-consciousness is transcended, with its tops and bottoms, the power struggles and problems that are generated from an individuality of self-glorification will remain.
Chapter 4: Psychological Birth and the Spiritual Self
This was touched on above, and is a significant, important chapter of the book–to be read with care and consideration, for one's happiness is dependent upon understanding the psychological situation, and required transition, fully. To begin with, we're all after our own bliss, aren't we? Isn't this what Joseph Campbell, the erudite, hero-of-a-thousand-faces, cultural guru, once recommended we do? Follow our own bliss? Well, bet you're thinking, "Great work, if you can get it." Thing is, as Starr points out, it's biological, not at all dependent upon anything we do--in other words, we can't get there from here. "It's just a given feeling that's wired in…a state we strive for, are driven by, and perhaps organize our lives around. Many of our fantasies and insatiable quests for good feelings (including drug addiction and other addictions) may be symbolic efforts to recapture the omnipotent bliss consciousness of infancy prior to psychological birth" (59). Deep down, we are all still egocentric babes at the breast, it seems, or want to be, long after it is good for us to want such things. The kicker? Forget it. We can never get that intense feeling back, that infantile, narcissistic state of omnipotence and symbiotic connection--and nothing, no one can give it to us. "Ultimately, what we become attached to are feelings" (80), Starr points out. Somehow, intense feelings make everything, us, seem bigger, more important, more real. But, feeling something is real, doesn't make it real, and the reality can be quite the opposite, intense feelings can distort and blind us, transporting us into what has the potential to become the prison world of illusion, delusion, of pathological narcissism (and studies, too many to mention, have suggested that pathological narcissism is at the root of many psycho-social ills). "What is needed to escape this prison" Starr concludes, "is to recapture the sensorimotor mode [i.e. the capacity of sensory experience and mental representation] but with the capacity of developed awareness without attachment--omni consciousness" (80). Notwithstanding this, Starr wants us to understand that ego development may not be all bad, and in the final section called "To Ego or Not to Ego" in this chapter, Starr takes a cautionary stance in that he acknowledges that "ego development may be a necessary step in development and important bridge to higher consciousness" (89). He refers to what I'm presuming is Jack Engler's excellent work on ego development, though does not name it, or reference Engler in the bibliography from what I can see, and this is a loss for those who would like to read the entire article. (I have included the work I think he's referring to in a footnote below.) Engler's position, according to Starr, is that "people with weak, fragile, or shattered egos cannot readily move to higher consciousness. In his therapy with these patients, he wisely first works on developing a coherent ego self before directing patients toward higher, ego-less consciousness (you can't give up what you don't have)" (89). An important point of distinction between Starr and Engler to ponder: Starr writes that Eastern spiritual and other religious traditions lack developmental psychology (72), whereas Engler points out that, though it has never been elaborated in the Western sense, it's not that Buddhist psychology and practice lack it, but that what they "appear to do instead is presuppose a more or less normal course of development and an intact or 'normal' ego", as a prerequisite.
For its practices, it assumes a level of personality organization where object relations development, especially a cohesive and integrated sense of self, is already complete. There is an obvious danger if this assumption of normal selfhood is not understood, either by students or teachers.
Chapter 5: Beyond Counseling, Psychotherapy, and Self-Help
Starr recounts various schools of psychology, their traditional therapies, and the theories of personality development found in them, for the purpose of confronting and challenging them. Rightly or wrongly, he writes that "therapies glorify feelings and emotions" and as such, make us "better neurotics" (114). Moreover, Starr argues, if the purpose of the therapeutic endeavor is to transcend mind, "going to a level beyond conflict", this cannot be done through traditional therapies that are "based on mind looking at mind through concepts of mind" (120). Doing so will only plunge you deeper into mind, and the psychological conflicts you're being overcome with there. The key is to step out of mind, and into the I-am-ness of omni, or pure consciousness, where there is no conflict, and no personality binding you.
Chapter 6: The Spiritual Emergency of Aging
Starr points out that periodically through the life course, our usual coping mechanisms, our former modes of functioning, don't do it for us any more, leaving us bereft, as well as with a way open for spiritual awakening and a possibility of real change. More often than not, this change is revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, coming on the heels of an obvious crisis, such as those that involve some sort of personal trauma, such as the shock of life-threatening illness, or the death of someone dear to us, any one of a myriad reasons why we should want to close up shop and not get out of bed in the morning, because our life has lost meaning for us, and we no longer wish to participate. But, the one fact of life that may not seem like a crisis, but for all of us eventually becomes a crisis, is the special crisis of getting old--the tell-tale wrinkles, receding hairlines, the progressive thigh-busting, breast-sagging, belly-bulging deterioration of aging that eventually ends in our own demise. It takes a transcendence of ego, says Starr, to withstand the inexorable advance of death, further observing that "the ego's antics", in coping with its anticipated death, interestingly parallels the five-stage sequence of grief as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (154) in her book On Death and Dying (1969)--which text Starr also does not list in the bibliography, should readers be unfamiliar with it, and wish to read it in its entirety. We are to become a friend to aging, and to do this, we must shift the locus of consciousness from ego to spirit, real acceptance being an act of ego transcendence through omni, or pure, consciousness.
Chapter 7: Going Home
Starr gives pointers on how to make omni, or pure consciousness an everyday affair. He offers a number of questions to ask oneself, and exercises to engage in, "to help shift the locus of consciousness from ego to omni consciousness" (190), and make the promise of omni consciousness a reality.
Chapter 8: Near Enemies
But--there are 'enemies', and Starr reports that these need to be 'unmasked' and recognized as the obstacles to the inner journey that they can become, if left to their own devices.
Chapter 9: Affirmations of Omni Consciousness
Starr offers an overview of the whys, wherefores, and seductions of affirmations, giving pointers on how to work with affirmations in a positive way, as helpers, rather than hindrances, to the inner journey.
Chapter 10: Talking Back to Omni Consciousness
Starr recognizes there are thorny questions yet to be answered, and admits that he doesn't have all the answers. Even the answers he does have are neither always complete, nor do they totally satisfy: "more work needs to be done", he says, "the final word is not in" (217). What is on offer in this chapter is the hope that others will join him in developing a new psychology, omni psychology, and if there is such a locus of consciousness as omni consciousness, it would be a psychology of attaining to that true identity that is the creator of mind (218), and the fruits of the firmer ground: the clarity, compassion, and power of the genuine self.
In conclusion, and in response to Starr's purpose and hope, a personal observation. A most singular learning experience came to me early in life. It was the shocking realization that the world did not revolve around me and what I wanted. People did not respond in ways I wanted them to, hoped they would, or thought they should. The second greatest learning experience was the recognition that the only hope I had for any stability or true power would come through my being mistress of my own life, and no one else's. It was my responsibility. I would take life into my own hands. I would think for myself. Conquer fear by facing it. Learn to forgive. Learn to love. If I wanted to be someone, I would be myself.
That done fully and well, I've found, is task enough, and of a lifetime.
For another interesting study on this topic, see: Wink, P., Dillon, M., Fay, K. (2005). "Spiritual Seeking, Narcissism, and Psychotherapy: How Are They Related?" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44 (2): 143–158. This study suggests that, among other things, "spirituality is an outgrowth of ego strength (autonomy) rather than fragility (hypersensitivity) or a depleted self" (155).
© 2008 Melanie Mineo
Melanie Mineo lives on Long Island, NY. She teaches at Dowling College, and also works as a consultant and a philosophical counselor.