John Heron on the concept and history of relational spirituality

Relational spirituality defines itself in contrast to the vertical spirituality that focuses on inner transformation alone, in abstraction from the relational basis of human life; and in contrast to the authoritarian aspects of many traditional and contemporary spiritual paths. The following can serve as a good introduction to the topic.
Authors who have pioneered the concept and practice are John Heron and Jorge Ferrer.

Here are two excerpts from John Heron, introducing the topic:

Relational spirituality as primary in dipolar spiritual development By John Heron: (Adapted from pp. 99-101 of Heron, J. Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books, 1998.)

“My own view of spiritual development is:

(1) That it is dipolar, to do (a) with moral life committed to the empowerment of ourselves and other people in relationship, to the full flowering of our immanent life, in community embracing diversity in free unity, and (b) with the inner transformation of consciousness.

(2) That (a) is primary and the consummation of (b).

The tendency of the eastern mystic has been to reduce his involvement with other people to directing the vertical transformation of their consciousness. His commitment to his own transformation as an end-in-itself overflows into guiding other people to do the same. His moral goal has been to enable the unenlightened to become enlightened and so attain moksha, release from the treadmill of reincarnation in the phenomenal world, regarded for the most part as an illusion grounded on ignorance, want of discrimination. However, I regard the phenomenal world as an innovative process of divine becoming, within which we humans are co-creators of global transformation, a planetary civilization.

On this view, my spiritual development has these two interdependent aspects, primary and secondary. The secondary and supportive aspect is that it works to foster and facilitate, with others, the inner transformation of human consciousness, so that we may celebrate the integrated fullness of creation in its physical, subtle and spiritual dimensions (not so that we can get release from it all).

The primary aspect is that it works to release the life-potential of persons-in-relation, to facilitate social empowerment and social justice in every sphere of human activity. For persons to become full co-creators of a planetary civilization, each one has an all-pervasive right to participate in any decision that affects the fulfilment of their needs and interests, the expression of their preferences and values. This universal right has a claim not only within political institutions, but in every sphere of human association where decisions are being taken: in industry, education, ecology, medicine, the family, and, of course, in research and in religion . The fulfilment of this claim throughout our planet in all these spheres has hardly begun. Moreover, the fact that there is so much spiritual authoritarianism in the world, in creeds and cults both old and new, creates a deep attitudinal warp in people which makes them susceptible to oppression by many other kinds of external authority. In reviewing criticisms of the traditional hierarchical model of spiritual reality, promoted by current adherents of the perennial philosophy,

Donald Rothberg writes: Hierarchical ontologies are commonly ideological expressions of social and psychological relations involving domination and exploitation – of most humans (especially women, workers, and tribal people), of nature, and of certain parts of the self. Such domination limits drastically the autonomy and potential of most of the inhabitants of the human and natural worlds, justifying material inequalities and preventing that free and open discourse which is the end of a free society. It distorts psychological life by repressing, albeit in the name of wisdom and sanctity, aspects of ourselves whose full expression is necessary to full psychological health and well-being (Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1986, 18(1): 1-34).

My spiritual development, then, cannot be measured simply in terms of hours of meditation or number of extended retreats or stabilized attainment of some inner, transcendent state of mind, as I ascend the hierarchical spiritual ladder. On its own, this is vertical flight from full spiritual development, which I believe finds its primary consummation in the unfolding of my immanent spiritual life. And this, fully followed through, involves attention to social change and social justice through promoting participative forms of decision-making in every kind of human association with which I am involved, including the religious.

To summarize and restate the above: spiritual transformation of human beings has two complementary forms. The first form is about how persons realize in their exterior daily lives their immanent spiritual life and its potential. I believe this means developing the fulness of relational living, of expressive personal autonomy-in-connectedness, in terms of:

· Emotional and interpersonal competence: empowering self, the other and the relationship.

· The exercise of self-determination and co-operation in every situation of decision-making.

· The external expression of imaginative, creative skills .

· Commitment to social and planetary transformation.

· The grounding of life-style management in a co-creating relation with immanent spiritual life.

The second form is about how people open to a progressive interior transfiguration by a transcendent spiritual consciousness interdependent with immanent spiritual life. I believe this is secondary to, supportive of, and consummated in, the first form.

The following extract from my keynote talk at an international conference on “Living Spirit – New Dimensions in Work and Learning ” at the University of Surrey, UK, in 2002, elaborates further the immanent relational pole of dipolar spiritual development.

Living spirit in the dawn of the age of immanence What I believe all this really shows is the newly emerging power of the human spirit, the dawning age of divine immanence, of the indwelling spirit that is the ground of human motivation. I think that living spirit is active within us, the very deep source of all human aspiration, both the will to live as a distinct individual, and the will to live as a universal participant – the will to be one of the creative Many and to be engaged with the creative One. These profound impulses have for the past 3,000 years been predominantly subordinate to the authoritative control of religious traditions, teachers and texts which have promoted spirit as primarily transcendent. And where these impulses have been emancipated from such control they have been reduced to secular status. Secular modernity has delivered huge gains in terms of relatively autonomous ethics, politics, science, knowledge generally, and art.

Yet it has championed the autonomy of the isolated Cartesian ego, separated off from the world it seeks to categorize, codify and manage. I do think this is the century of the spirit that is living deep within:
the self-actualizing tendency of Rogers (1959, 1980), Maslow (1970), Gendlin (1981), embedded within the body-mind; the bio-spiritual experience of grace in the body of McMahon and Campbell (1991); Jean Houston’s entelechy self, the ground of one’s being, the root self whence all our possibilities emerge (Houston, 1987); Washburn’s dynamic ground of libido, psychic energy, numinous power or spirit (Washburn, 1995); Wilber’s ground unconscious, Eros, spirit-in-action (Wilber, 2000a).

Instead of appealing to the spiritual authority of teacher, tradition and text, an increasing number of people respond co-creatively with this divine dynamic moving within. Spiritual authority is found in the exercise of a deep kind of inner discrimination, where human autonomy and divine animation marry.

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), in the great tradition of European personalism, with which I align myself, was on to it with his affirmation of human personhood as manifesting the creative process of spirit. For he defined spirit as self-determining human subjectivity engaged in the realization of value and achieved in true community. He used the excellent Russian word sobornost to name such a community: it means diversity in free unity. Berdyaev also had a wonderful vision of the impending era, which he called the third epoch. The third epoch is the epoch of divine-human co-creation of a transformed planet, transformed persons, transformed social relationships (Berdyaev, 1937). Translated into my conceptual system, Berdyaev’s account means that living spirit manifests as a dynamic interplay between autonomy, hierarchy and co-operation. It emerges through autonomous people each of whom who can identify their own idiosyncratic true needs and interests; each of whom can also think hierarchically in terms of what values promote the true needs and interests of the whole community; and each of whom can co-operate with – that is, listen to, engage with, and negotiate agreed decisions with – their peers, celebrating diversity and difference as integral to genuine unity. Hierarchy here is the creative leadership which seeks to promote the values of autonomy and co-operation in a peer to peer association. Such leadership, as in the free software movement mentioned earlier, is exercised in two ways. First, by the one or more people who take initiatives to set up such an association. And second, once the association is up and running, as spontaneous rotating leadership among the peers, when anyone takes initiatives that further enhance the autonomy and co-operation of other participating members. The autonomy of participants is not that of the old Cartesian ego, isolated and cut off from the world. Descartes sat inside a big stove to get at his cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am – and while his exclusively subjective self provided a necessary leverage against traditional dogmatisms to help found the modern worldview, it left the modern self alienated from the separated world it commands. The autonomy of those who flourish within sobornost, by contrast, is an autonomy that is rounded and enriched by a profound kind of inner animation, that develops and flourishes only in felt interconnectedness, participative engagement, with other persons, and with the biodiversity and integral ecology of our planet (Spretnak, 1995). This is the participatory worldview, expressed also in the extended epistemology I mentioned earlier on: our conceptual knowing of the world is grounded in our experiential knowing – a felt resonance with the world and imaginal participation in it. This epistemic participation is the ground for political participation in social processes that integrate autonomy, hierachy and co-operation. What we are now about is a whole collaborative regeneration of our world through co-creative engagement with the spirit that animates it and us.

For just a few of the many contributors to the participatory worldview see: Abram (1996); Bateson, 1979; Berman, 1981; Ferrer (2001); Heron, 1992, 1996a, 1998; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Skolimowski (1994); Spretnak, 1991; Reason, 1994; Reason and Rowan, 1981; Tarnas (1991); Varela, Thompson and Rosch, (1991).

References for the whole talk

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Bauwens, M. (2003) ‘Peer to Peer: from Technology to Politics’.

Berdyaev, N. (1937) The Destiny of Man. London: Ayer.

Berman, M. (1981) The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,

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Heron, J. (1984) ‘Holistic endeavour in postgraduate medical eduction’ in The British Journal of Holistic Medicine, 1:1, 80-91.

Heron, J. (1988) ‘Assessment revisited’ in Boud, D. (ed) Developing Student Autonomy in Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Heron, J. (1992) Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key. London: Sage.

Heron, J. (1996a) Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition. London: Sage.

Heron, J. (1996b) ‘Helping Whole People Learn’ in Boud D. and Miller N. (eds), Working with Experience: Promoting Learning. London: Routledge, 1996.

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle. Ross on Wye: PCCS Books.

Heron, J. (1999) The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook. London: Kogan Page.

Heron, J. (2001) Helping the Client: A Creative, Practical Guide. London: Sage.

Heron, J. (2002) ‘A revisionary perspective on human spirituality’, at

Heron, J. and Reason, P. (1985) Whole Person Medicine: A Co-operative Inquiry. London: British Postgraduate Medical Federation.

Houston, J. (1987) The Search for the Beloved. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

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Skolimowski, H. (1994) The Participatory Mind. London: Arkana.

Spretnak, C. (1991) States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. San Francisco: Harper-Collins.

Spretnak, C. (1995) ‘Embodied, embedded philosophy’, Open Eye, California Institute for Integral Studies, 12(1): 4-5.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E. (1991) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Washburn, M. (1995) The Ego and the Dynamic Ground. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Wilber, K. (2000a) Integral Psychology. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2000b) One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.

Yorks, L. and Kasl, E. (eds) (2002) Collaborative Inquiry as a Learning Strategy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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