Q&A with John C. Robinson, author of Aging with Vision, Hope and Courage in a Time of Crisis

1. Tell us about your transition from a tired clinical psychologist to an awakened mystic. Why did you make that change? And, what does that mean that you are an “awakened mystic.”

As I mentioned in my earlier comments, my work as a clinical psychologist was interrupted by a delayed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that erupted 40 years to the month after my anesthesia trauma at the age of 14. In that trauma, I awakened during open heart surgery – an terrifying experience for a child. I likened the trauma to a living autopsy because my body temperature had been lowered, my heartbeat stopped and replaced by a heart-lung machine, and I was completely paralyzed by chemical agents preventing any signaling of distress. Upon coming out of surgery, I had no consciousness recollection of the event. My young psyche simply could not bear such catastrophic trauma and buried it in the unconscious.

Forty years to the month later, the buried PTSD was triggered by electrical conversion of an atrial fibrillation episode. I had been in atrial fibrillation for several days and was seen in the ER for treatment consisting of shocking the heart back into normal sinus rhythm. Within days, I began to experience peculiar body sensations (surreal feelings of numbness, tingling, and tightness in my chest), a strange feeling of hands working inside my heart, signs of dissociation, and profound escalating fatigue.

In the following weeks and months, my body sensations steadily unveiled shattering feelings of terror abandonment, and unbearable emotional pain. Naturally I went into therapy, reviewed the literature on anesthesia awareness, interviewed others with this same kind of trauma, even wrote a book about the experience (my agent shopped it around but told me publishers felt it was too horrifying to appeal to someone going into surgery), and consulted with a published investigator, who confirmed my experience. Despite the terribly distracting PTSD symptoms, I pushed myself to continue working – I felt a profound obligation to my patients and to the financial security of my family. Fourteen months later, I simply ran out of emotion strength and closed my practice. Therapy continued. I was lost.

Understanding that I needed a new direction for my life, and long-drawn to spiritual growth, I went back to school, choosing an amazing doctoral program founded by theologian Matthew Fox at the University of Creation Spirituality. Mixing science with mysticism, academic with experiential learning, and covering all major faith traditions, it provided structure when I had none, profound ways of working through my trauma, and an amazing cast of teachers. Though I had no idea where this journey was going, I sensed it was a path I had to follow, for I have always trusted the revelatory guidance dreams, art, imagination, dialogical writing, and powerful life events. The program did not let me down.  

There is an ancient tradition that recognizes and blends the archetypal experiences of shaman and wounded healer. People meant to be shamans often experience catastrophic trauma in adolescence or early adulthood during which they receive spiritual “medicine” to bring into their communities. Similarly, profound emotional wounds often awaken the wounded healer archetype in everyday people who eventually use their deep familiarity with trauma to help others work with their wounds. What was missing in my shamanic initiation was both consciousness and community – specifically, I didn’t know it happened and I lacked a sacred community to support and honor my gifts, so the transformational trauma lay frozen in the unconscious until the electrical shock lit its fire. Even after completing the Creation Spirituality program, I knew I needed one more thing – a cohesive spiritual community to understand, recognize and bless my new life. Looking for that final initiation, I enrolled in the Chaplaincy Institute, an interfaith seminary in Berkeley, where I was continued to explore spirituality and mysticism and was eventually ordained an interfaith minister. My shamanic call had finally been witnessed and blessed.

What does it mean to be an awakened mystic? To really understand what I have learned would require some serious reading of my books, but in brief, it means learning several fundamental skills that move attention from the prison of left-brain thinking to the mystical consciousness of right-brain awareness. The Keys to mystical consciousness are: 1. Stop Thinking, 2. Heighten Awareness, 3. Experience the World Exactly as It Is, 4. Come into the Presence (or Focus Consciousness Back on Itself, which is the same thing, for all consciousness is divine), and 5. Merge Consciousness with Being to Experience the Divine Human. It also means understanding the cycles and seasons of spiritual experience through four fundamental states. But keep in mind, we cannot get this experience intellectually any more than we can master swimming by reading books. These steps are not difficult but they require focused attention, understanding, and first-hand experience to intentionally awaken consciousness and witness the great mystical teachings. The process increasingly becomes the practice of mystical consciousness literally transforming the experience of self and world. When we finally appreciate who and where we really are, everything changes – this is the message I am trying to bring to a confused and adolescent humanity.

2. After working as clinical psychologist you obtained a second doctorate in Interfaith Ministry. What sort of professional work or job did you do to support yourself and family while you got your doctorate in Interfaith Ministry and then after you graduated?

At my ordination, I gave the following short sermon:

“The poet William Stafford says: (The Way It Is by William Stafford)

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

(But)You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I have been following such a thread my whole life. Only now do I really understand its goal. For me, this ceremony is not about being ordained for a particular ministry or work but to a Mystical Consciousness that reveals all life to be Sacred – not as a metaphor but as a lived and witnessed reality. Looking back, I realize this has always been my calling, through psychology, writing, spiritual growth, and seminary. It is the calling of the mystic to the Sacred.

So when my professional life came to an abrupt end seven years ago, I knew it was time to pick up my thread again. I went first to the University of Creation Spirituality for a Doctor of Ministry degree and then to ChI, this wonderful interfaith seminary, for ordination. And I discovered that when you choose the path of ordination, sooner or later it will choose you, and then a brand-new life begins. 

And for me, too, Aging is also part of this calling-thread. I am being ordained not to a career but to a time of life with its unique consciousness and tasks, which for me include:

  1. The Awakening of Unconditional Love for Family, Friends and the World Itself
  2. Writing and Teaching about Spirituality (including the spirituality of aging)
  3. Living in the Mystical Consciousness of Heaven on Earth which is here now when we’re awake enough to see it.

In sum, for me, Ordination is about stepping into the Divine World so that everything I do now is part of my calling and every action I take is sacred action. Ordination is a baptism sanctifying my life, my aging, and my new role as spiritual elder. If ordination represents a sacred covenant with Divinity and Religious Community, then this is mine, and I now step across its threshold.”

With the completion of the Chaplaincy program, I began writing. Eight books followed during a time when my wife and I moved with friends to an island in the Puget Sound of Washington State. With our children grown, significant financial savings, and additional family resources, a brand-new life began. Writing about conscious aging became my work and, as the climate crisis escalated, mystical activism became my subsequent teaching.

 
3. You are also the author of But Where Is God: Psychotherapy and the Religious Search. Can you tell us a little about that book? In that book you write about integrating spiritually into psychotherapy, how can clinical psychologists responsibly integrate spirituality into psychotherapy? What are some examples and interventions?

I wrote this book in 1998, now sadly out of print, to bring psychotherapy and spirituality into the consulting room in a sensitive, responsible, and welcoming way. Since that time, there has been considerable research in the area, with countless books and a division of the American Psychological Association devoted to the subject. 

One way to classify psychological interventions in spiritually-sensitive psychotherapy is to acknowledge the dark side of both spirituality and psychotherapy. In the former, people sometimes use religion, spirituality or spiritual practices as a defense against emotional conflicts, like spending hours in meditation to avoid marital intimacy, dwelling excessively on fears of personal sin to suppress unconscious childhood shaming, or controlling children with threats of hell and damnation recapitulating the abuser’s traumatic childhood. Seekers need to realize that spirituality cannot bypass psychological disorders. In the latter instance, psychology has a long history of pathologizing mystical experiences, leading clients to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed describing moments of non-ordinary consciousness, a family member’s deathbed visions, or unconventional spiritual intuitions to a skeptical therapist, and indeed some therapists are frankly critical of such possibilities. 

In sum, therapists need to understand the authentic and universal nature of spiritual longing, experience and development through the life span, as well as the nature and forms of religious and spiritual psychopathology and abuse. Without such preparation, it’s easy to unconsciously impose our own prejudices or belief systems on clients who need to find their own path. It’s also important to know when to refer and when not to refer. When people have concerns or experiences beyond our knowledge base, it’s time to refer. On the other hand, just because someone has a religion different from the therapist doesn’t meant they should automatically talk to their clergy – they may be talking about it in therapy for a reason. Find that reason before you decide.

4. You have written a lot of books. What advice would you have for other aspiring writers or authors who want to write about psychology, spirituality, and/or mysticism? Or, what helped you become a better writer and author?

Many would argue that one should write on topics that are popular or have likely sales potential, and that’s legitimate depending on your goals. It has never worked for me. From a spiritual perspective, I need to write from the deepest or most authentic place I know personally. To write about “God,” I need to explore my own first-hand experiences of the divine and contrast them to the experiences of mystics from across religions. That’s one reason I studied with Matthew Fox. He was one of a very few theologians I could find at the time who talked directly about mysticism as separate from religious dogma. I would also say this – I write because I have to. I cannot not write. And I write in order to enhance my understanding of mystical experience in personality development, conscious aging, and the transformation of humanity. 

This topic reminds me of Gordon Allport’s distinction between the ideographic and nomothetic approaches to psychological knowledge. When I was coming of age in psychology, the dominant model for human behavior was Freudian Psychoanalysis. Though the theory was confusing and sometimes frankly ridiculous, I loved its intrapsychic focus on the inner world of images, energies, conflicts, and dreams. One of Freud’s students, Carl Jung, eventually broke with the patriarch to deepen his understanding of the interior realm. In the process, he discovered the self-organizing activity in the psyche that he called individuation, an organic and purposeful psycho-spiritual process that unfolds through a series of developmental stages. Its goal is not only psychological maturation but also mystical awareness, collective awakening, and spiritual evolution of humanity. 

This inner spiritual focus perfectly fit my nature; it was thrilling. As an introvert with an intuitive and mystical nature, exploring the inner world made great sense to me. I now looked into my own psyche for insight, revelation and guidance, replacing the dominant culture’s focus on the external world and its competing “experts.” And, according to Jung and the mystics, at the center of this inner germinal source dwelled the numinous Self – the living divine consciousness of the cosmos constantly infusing us with its nature and potentiality, and birthing the Divine Human.

Drawn more to mystical texts than psychological textbooks, I wrestled with the conflicting values of science and spirituality.  How could I reconcile western psychology with its objective scientific method with the claims of mystical experience and its intense individual subjectivity? Indeed, psychology itself was moving rapidly toward scientific positivism, which argues that valid knowledge requires objective description and verification and only such knowledge is scientific. Gordon Allport then came to my rescue. He described two fundamental and legitimate paths to knowledge in western science. He labeled them the nomothetic and the ideographic. The nomothetic approach seeks to confirm general laws and principles derived from objective scientific experiments (think large numbers of subjects, statistical analyses, replication of findings) while the ideographic approach explores individual revelations of knowledge derived directly from subjective experiences (think first hand reports of meditators, mystics, and psychedelic drug users). Both sources of knowledge are valid and useful depending on one’s goals. 

The ideographic approach is well equipped to study the inner life. Though highly personal, ideographic experience is nonetheless relevant to others, for as a member of the human race, whatever subjective states I experience are potentially yours as well. My work clearly follows the idiographic path of knowledge and will be meaningful to those seeking to understand and accelerate their own mystical evolution. It offers a deep way of knowing and a new kind of seeing. As such, it represents a new and very personal source of your own knowledge. Mysticism is a wellspring of divine revelation. So many of your questions will be answered as you learn to enter mystical states for yourself. You may even become a mystical activist.

5. Why didn’t you continue to work as a clinical psychologist who integrated spirituality and mysticism into your therapy practice?

Given the severity and deep purpose of my delayed PTSD, continuing as a psychotherapist was both impossible and anathema to the spiritual growth that needed take place.

6. How did your experience as a clinical psychologist prepare you for your next stage in life?

I loved being a psychologist. It introduced me to wonderful people as interested in psychological growth as I was. It also gave me a rich and creative life, a caring professional community, and good income for three decades. But the time came for life to change and I recognized the imperative of a new season. My experience, however, also gave me a deep trust in the unfolding nature of the psyche. I didn’t know where I was going, but like the Fool in the Tarot cards, I had to take the journey. I am not disappointed.

7. What do you think are some of the authentic qualities of a mystical experience and how can a person have a mystical experience? Are there any other techniques other than meditation?

This is a book-length subject, so these remarks will be incomplete.

Briefly, mysticism refers to the direct, first-hand experience of the divine. People have been having mystical experiences since the dawn of time, from major figures like Jesus, Buddha, Moses, and Muhammad, whose revelations evolved into world religions, to everyday folks like you and me touched by the power and profundity of these sacred moments.  

In general, mystical Experiences come in three flavors: Big Mystical Experiences, Little Mystical Experiences and Mystical Consciousness

Big Mystical Experiences, known variously as enlightenment, satori, cosmic consciousness, and countless other names, transform an individual’s life with their power and profundity. You rarely forget a big mystical experience. In fact, its sacred energy and realizations can often get rekindled, re-experienced and expanded when we talk about them.  

Little Mystical Experiences arise in states of awe and reverence evoked by great natural beauty, powerful rituals, or profound moments of life. Examples include the stunning miracle of childbirth, the spectacle of Midnight Mass, the magic of falling in love, an awestruck moment looking up at a magnificent Redwood Tree, or the sacred transition of death. These are potentially times when the mind momentarily stops, perception heightens, and you sense something sacred happening right before your eyes. We’ve all had little mystical experiences though we may have overlooked, misinterpreted or forgotten their spiritual significance.

Mystical Consciousness is a way of intentionally awakening the direct perception of the divine in order to explore the same qualities and dimensions of big and little mystical experiences though at a lessor intensity. While people have long believed that mystical experiences are beyond our control, over the years it has become quite clear to me that we are also given the ability to contact divinity directly, revealing the same perceptional and emotional dimensions. Such perceptual expansion can be achieved with various spiritual practices and exercises and offers us an amazing laboratory for direct experience the divine nature of self and world.

Big mystical experiences happen spontaneously, breakthroughs of the divine that are beyond our control, the little ones are triggered by what’s happening around us, and mystical consciousness can be intentionally evoked, teaching us a great deal about the divine and transforming us in the process. Moreover, all these mystical states involve the same experience of a sacred, timeless, loving Presence or consciousness permeating the universe, and blessing us with… 

  • Transfiguring perceptions of reality as luminous, sacred, and infinitely precious
  • Transformational experiences of a divine self
  • Reassurance of Creation’s perfection, holiness and purpose
  • A personal experience of immense unconditional love
  • Feelings of gratitude and humility for the gift of life
  • Personal revelations of insight, meaning, or other sacred teachings.

8. Anything else?

There is so much more to this topic. Ultimately, mystical experience reveals the fourfold structure of the religious psyche (Divinity, Divine World, World of Man, and Darkness), the power of thought to create duality, the split brain and its construction of reality, the unfolding of the Divine Human in a Divine World, and the ultimate nature of Creation.  

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For more information about John, please visit his website at www.johnrobinson.org. For more information about the Resilience Book Series please visit https://www.resilience-books.com.

Comments

  1. Tim WARD says:

    What a profound and satisfying interview!

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