Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Pre-Trans-Fallacy

With this concept, Ken Wilber has formulated an important tool for differentiation. When we build up a stage model for the evolution of consciousness, it can be arranged roughly in three phases:
Prerational – rational – transrational, or: prepersonal – personal – transpersonal, or: promodern – modern – postmodern.

•    Prerational means that experience is mainly directed by images, emotions and fantasies.
•    In the rational phase, logical and symbolic thinking together with verbal language takes over the dominance in conceiving and interpreting the world.
•    The transrational realm, experiential elements like intuition, spirituality and mystics join in.

In my model of the evolution of consciousness (which will be published as English e-book by the end of the year), the prerational level is strongly developed in tribal consciousness. The rational level can be found in the center of the fourth, the materialistic stage, exactly in the middle of the seven steps. The transrational level is fully developed on the seventh, the holistic stage.

A pre-trans-fallacy happens when either a prerational experience is taken as transrational or a transrational experience is taken as a prerational one. This misinterpretation can happen in two ways: internally or externally. Subjectively I can mix up an experience, when I am for instance in a regressive state but when I believe to have experienced a supreme spiritual opening. An intersubjective mix up happens when a psychiatrist declares someone with an intense spiritual experience as lunatic or when a psychoanalyst diagnoses this state as a childish fantasy of oneness.

In therapy

When working with sensitive and early traumatized persons, we often encounter such fallacies. Either clients report special experiences which are bizarre for the mainstream reality or they find such experiences during an inner travel or in deep relaxation in a therapy session. It is important to attribute these experiences in the right way in order to avoid the fixation of distortions. Issues which come from the prerational level have to be worked through and resolved in therapy, because otherwise they stabilize unwanted symptoms.

When these issues belong to the transrational level, they can serve as resource. Additionally it has to be taken into account that there can be a mix of aspects in one set of experiences so that one aspect has to be treated therapeutically and the can be used in a transrational way. Find an example further on in this text.

Similarities and differences of „pre“ and „trans“

Such confusion can arise also due to the fact that there are similarities between the two realms. The prerational as well as the transrational area is structured visually rather than verbally and directed by the right brain hemisphere. In the first years of life, this halve of the brain dominates, and in states of expanded consciousness we also can notice a strong activity in this part of the brain which processes information mainly as images. This visual content is representing objects on the pre-level, while it appears more complex and abstract on the trans-level. While the former does not use logics but is strongly influenced by emotions, the latter is based on non-linear logics and systemic thinking and perception.

A further distinctive feature for the subjective experience of these diverging states: transpersonal experiences are free of suffering and anxiety. They feel like expansion. Spiritual longing as an example, the intense wish for inner freedom, contains a confusion when it is experienced painfully: There is something I need, and I am missing it. This is a childish wish which covers a frustration from childhood. When this longing just expresses the urge for enlargement, it can be attributed to the transpersonal area. So, as long as neediness is contained in an experience, it indicates a disappointment from early childhood dressed up as spiritual revelation. In case of traumatization, the mechanism of dissociation provides for the access to realms of experience which resemble those of mystics in many aspects but are just symbolizing a dissociative detachment from reality.

Further characteristics of the transpersonal realm: It is free of ego (not selfish and self-fixated). It is empathic, free of fear and growth oriented. From this state, it is easy to switch to the rational level when necessary. So a transrational experience can be left without greater difficulties.

It is possible to describe such an experience in detail without dogmatization and missionary pressure. Inner and outer perceptions are clearly differentiated and not mixed up like in psychotic states. The person can communicate explicitly which part of the experience is internal and which is external.

In such a state, people interact with positive regard and tolerance. They have a sense of responsibility for themselves and for others. There is trust to other people as well as the confidence to accept help when problems about categorizing the experiences arise.

In history, it happened a lot of times that transpersonal mystics were fought and prosecuted by the organized religions which are basically rooted in a prerational perception of reality. Examples are St. Francis, Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross who had to face resistance to their mystical insights and were banned from teaching. Others like the visionary Giordano Bruno were treated even more cruelly and ended their lives on the stake.

Superstition and fortune telling

On the other hand, superstition which is based on the prerational perception of reality has often been offered and sold as transpersonal wisdom. In this context, we can define esotericism as an either planned or unconscious pre-trans-fallacy. Typically, tribal practices are propagated as redeemer for problems of the modern world. As long as these methods cause no harm and no cheating, it is not condemnable to use them. The problems of our inner and outer experiences and its numerous connections are often so complex that we desperately search for help wherever we can find it when we cannot move on with the means of the rational and scientific world. There are archaic practices which have been around since the stone ages but we should not overestimate them even when they are popped up in a modern fashion. They as well cannot offer the all healing powers, but work in one case and fail in another.

The abduction of romanticism consists in glorifying the past. What has happened earlier in history is automatically better because what we have now is bad. We overlook in this view that the glorification of the past is basically a glorification of our childhood which we use as a cover for the wounds and fears of this time in our lives. We transfer the image of a sound childhood onto history. Thus we build up a great expectation that the wisdom of tribal societies could solve the problems in the far more complex actual world. For sure, we need this wisdom as well as all the other forms of wisdom from all traditions and ages but none of them offers the one and only true method.

And in all cases which use the poking of fears (by so called “fortune”-tellers), which sell useless charlatanry and cheat and betray people by wrong assurances, so in all cases in which prerational hopes are evoked manipulatively with the means of rational calculation, civil society as well as jurisdiction has to become active with adequate sanctions. The best immunization against the seductions into the prerational realm consists in considering and realizing our issues from childhood, the fears and unfulfilled longings. Then we are no longer prone to mix up what belongs to our childhood and what offers the paths to the future of our inner development.

The sceptics

Between the pres and the trans, there is an ample space for the sceptics. They mistrust both sides and easily fall for the same fallacy. In case they do not have any experiences on the transpersonal level, they judge every spiritual insight as a breakthrough of prerational rubbish. In their view, anything which cannot be presented rationally is primitive and useless for modern society. Thus, sceptics tend to a certain kind of arrogance: We know what is true and sound and everything outside this area can just be differentiated in the degree of naivety or stupidity. 

E.g., they see the integral philosopher Ken Wilber as esoteric and mystic. According to the definition formulated above, he cannot be both, only if he is accused of a permanent mix of pre and trans which also sounds quite absurd. It is likely that a purely rational view cannot note a difference between alchemy and spirituality, as both elude a fierce academic and scientific test. In their attitude, the sceptical fanatics resemble the persecutors of witches at the end of medieval times who wanted to eradicate any form of irrationality and targeted especially on premodern healers and midwives. The accusation of sorcery contained a fear of special, that is transpersonal powers which yet, as being attributed to the devil could only come from a prerational sphere. 

Lines of conflict

The example of the persecution of witches indicates that especially at the turn from one step of the evolution of consciousness to the next, problems of identity can arise which often cause the eruption of violence. In any case, at such points of transition (fulcrums according to Ken Wilber) typical conflicts come up. Historically, this was the time when the medieval world which was governed by prerational belief systems was replaced by the modern scientific model. In other regions of the world, e.g. in the Islamic or Hinduistic areas, these conflicts still rampage. The Western world though, comes to the exit of the materialistic stage of consciousness which is closely connected to the rational scientific world view and faces a similar potential of conflict yet hopefully with sufficient different means of conflict resolution.

Internally or psychologically, cultural changes resemble identity conflicts as they occur for instance in the school-age up to puberty in the transition period from a prerational to a rational stage. Also on the threshold to a spiritual opening, questions about one’s own identity can arise. In those phases, the orientation swings between the wish for an old and well-known safety and the urge to a new but insecure freedom.

Depending on how these phases were experienced, fixations can happen. Someone who has encountered a lot of problems and emotional difficulties during the prerational phase can find stability and safety in rationality. From the attachment research we know that such fixations can happen very early. In such a case, the whole sphere of prerationality is seen as a threat which has to be fought off with all cognitive means. The transrational spheres get depreciated, as with a lack of experience, their similarities to the prerational patterns are noticeable and activate the same scenario of menace. In these cases we also confuse a stable I with a finished or an armored I.

When someone who has shut off his/her painful past deeply inside but proceeds from the level of rationality to transpersonality by attending meditations courses or following other spiritual methods, or by experiencing deep revelations during a breathwork session, then there is a danger to intellectualize the experiences in this area while the unresolved emotional problems still linger in the unconsciousness. Then we have the type of a passionate meditator who just finds silence and relaxation in meditation while in daily social life personality deficits come up which he/she can suppress with the help of wisdom and depth gained in meditation. Ken Wilber says in an interview: “A deranged emotional life cannot be healed by Zen the same as it cannot heal a broken bone.”

Another conflict happens when someone has a transpersonal experience but cannot integrate it as either a prepersonal traumatization is activated along with it or because society pathologizes the experience and labels it as psychotic or schizotypic. 

Spiritual crisis

On the way to inner expansion, concussion and crisis can happen as the existing safety structures of the psyche which are based on fixated patterns and neurosis get weakened and the new structures are not yet established. So symptoms can come up which resemble psychotic states and can easily be mixed up with them. In this context, Stanislav Grof has coined the expression of spiritual crisis and has formed a Spiritual Emergency Network, so that people who go through such a crisis can receive competent help and do not have to be hospitalized in mental institutions.

At the turning points of the inner development, old emotional patterns can be reactivated while new perspectives open up. This leads to a strong sense of insecurity and confusion. On the other hand, these phases offer a good chance to work up the prerational issues therapeutically. For the spiritual opening provides for new resources to support the emotional work.


The power inherent in the evolution of consciousness motivates to transcend the limitations of the rational ego. We want to proceed in our growth and set ourselves free from the constrictions we have adopted during our history. We do not search for inner freedom because we are driven by childish wishful thinking for a paradise, but because we want to find our inner being. We have a vague idea of it which does not leave us alone until we have found our home in the huge whole. We can master the challenges of this transcendence only when our ego is stable enough. Otherwise, we will get thrown back to our prepersonal issues with every step in the new direction. We only can let go of a stable and strong ego.


Overview: Pre-Trans-Fallacies

Short form Short description Examples
Pre ⇒ Trans Prerational experiences are mistaken for transpersonal experiences. Esoterics, romanticism, refusal of intellectuality and rationality
Trans ⇒ Pre Transrational experiences are mistaken for prepersonal experiences. Science, psychoanalysis, atheism, overestimation of intellectuality and rationality

Short form Subjective perspective Intersubjective perspective
Pre ⇒ Trans A regressive or dissociative experience is experienced as spiritual. The experience gets naively overestimated by worshipping the person.
Trans ⇒ Pre A spiritual experience is experienced as distorting and irritating (cf. spiritual crisis). The experience gets pathologized, the person is declared as insane.

Short form Subjective symptoms Objective attributes
Pre ⇒ Trans Suffering from a transpersonal experience, anxiety Inauthenticity, discrepancy between talk and action
Trans ⇒ Pre Distortion, experience cannot be integrated, cannot find its proper place in the inner world. Intact ego, insecurity in terms of spirituality, difficulties in conceptualizing

Short form Therapeutical mistake Adequate therapeutical consequence
Pre ⇒ Trans The traumatic part (the dissociation) of the experience is overlooked. Positive counter transference The traumatic part of the experience is treated in therapy.
Trans ⇒ Pre A traumatic aspect (a dissociation) is projected onto the experience. Negative counter transference The experience is used as resource.

Grof, S. & Grof, C.: Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. (1989)
Wilber K.: Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution (1995)