Swedenborg and the Visionary Tradition
by Stephen Larsen
Emanuel Swedenborg is best known to history as an eminent Swedish scientist, philosopher, and later, theologian of the 18th century, At about the age of fifty-five he began to experience a series of visions in which he felt as if his "inner sight" were being opened; and he beheld a spiritual dimension intimately but invisibly connected to this world. It was characteristic of Swedenborg to write of his inner experiences in meticulous detail, with the same scholarly care he had given to his numerous scientific treatises. Thus, he left one of the most complete psychological journals ever written. His visionary revelations caused considerable controversy in his own time as well as after. As is often true of inspirational material, there was conflict with established thought. Theologians who had no trouble preaching the existence of the transcendental reality portrayed in the Scriptures, had more difficulty with a contemporary who claimed to have entered that realm experientially.
Subsequent opinion on Swedenborg's life and work would vary from seeing in him the avatar of a planetary "New Church"1 to believing him mad and his visions suitable mainly for psychoanalysis The abundance of his writing has invited much scholarly inquiry. The accounts range from highly laudatory to highly critical. The latter often start with the assumption of his madness as taken for granted for the contemporary reader, and go on to explore how and why. The former, often (but not always) by New Church scholars, not only stress his sanity, but start from the premise that his revelation was indeed of Divine origin.
It is the purpose of the present paper to move into the space between these opposites. The scientifically and psychologically sophisticated modern reader requires an introduction to Swedenborg that starts from a premise neither unilaterally critical nor credulous. Contemporary perspectives in the social sciences need to be taken into account. More specifically, I feel it is important to portray the human dimension of Swedenborg, and to look at his visions not as aberrations, but as particularly unique and valuable instances of what is, in fact, a universal human capacity. It is the recorded annals of this capacity I refer to as "the visionary tradition." It is a tradition which modern scholars of anthropology have shown to have roots as far back as paleolithic times. Shamanism in particular shows visionary activity to be the genesis of healing, psychology and art.
On the other hand, the emerging field called "the psychology of consciousness" establishes the visionary capacity as available to all humanity; and the allure to enter "inner space" as powerful a human urge as exploration of the outer world. In respect to this quest Swedenborg is indeed an exemplary guide, helping us to establish both the scope of the quest, and its potential values as well as dangerous pitfalls. For a society that has ranged as far as India and Tibet for guides to inner space, perhaps a guide culturally "closer to home" will seem a welcome relief. And as we shall see, many of the inner conflicts Swedenborg experienced and worked on in his visionary process, like that between science and religion, are also core conflicts for Western society in the current age. Fortunately, there are excellent biographies which do provide sensitive and penetrating insights into the nature of the man without discrediting his creative and human stature.2 Details of his life abound, from well documented and reliable sources; as Swedenborg both traveled widely and mixed freely with people of all social classes. Evidently he was a singular enough person to have stimulated people to write about him, both during his life and afterwards.
Immanuel Kant. for example, during Swedenborg's lifetime was impressed and disturbed enough by the rumors of his spiritual visions, to have sent a distinguished and trustworthy emissary who reported "a reasonable, polite, and open-hearted man."3 The majority of personal experiences of Swedenborg agree with this account, obliging the sensitive reader to question the credibility of the various psychotic and neurotic diagnoses generated for him a posteriori by an intellectual generation with different cultural assumptions. The problem, it seems, with some psychohistorical treatments of lives long past is a failure to see the individual embedded in his own time (not Freud's); and a failure to free psychoanalytic interpretations from their own socio-historical biases.
On the other hand, the modern scholar of Swedenborg meets with the Swedenborgians; whose literature, being that of religious believers, may be suspected by the more "objective" scientist of another kind of bias. Yet belief has not deterred many Swedenborgian authors from meticulous scholarship and an ethical dedication to "telling the truth"4 even about one's special spiritual patron. In this spirit is the new Klemming-Wilkinson-Woofenden edition of the Journal of Dreams which (fortunately) does not omit, as did earlier editions, nor translate into Latin, the sexual aspects of some of Swedenborg's dreams. These are quite explicit, rather than cunningly disguised with "defense mechanisms," and healthy enough for a person of Swedenborg's bachelor status. They add, in fact, a rich human and emotional dimension to experiences that often seem too theological and abstract.
While the present paper is psychological in nature, let me clarify that its primary purpose is not to "psychologize" in the way of an analysis or exposition according to any one school of thought within psychology. Rather I propose to call attention to patterns in Swedenborg's life and experiences that resemble patterns in a more general social science framework. In this I will draw on material from history, anthropology, and mythology as well as psychology. The attempt will not be to "explain away" the mysterious and provocative data surrounding this unusual man, but to amplify, call attention to, and compare.
In the process we may lay to rest the myth of his "mental illness" which seems to me an error in epistemology and interpretation rather than any kind of valid diagnosis. The visonary tradition reveals a pattern of human psychological experience of a more than personal, or "transpersonal" nature. Swedenborg's visions arose, not from personal pathology (the psychoanalytic assumption), but from an experiential plunge into a transpersonal level of the human psyche. The phenomenology and stages of this level are by now rather well known, having appeared similarly in many human psyches, despite a bewildering variety of personal, cultural, and historical settings.5 This is not to say that Swedenborg did not bring personal-historical and cultural assumptions to his experiences. These are, in fact, abundantly evident as we follow his journey within to the luminous core of his transpersonal experience.
These three dimensions will be found as areas of special importance in the understanding of a visionary (or any individual):
The mystic, as he or she seeks God, or ultimate meaning, penetrates toward the core, but never without personal and cultural expectations,8 The vision itself is the core's reply, never really predictable, because "other," but ultimately to be formulated in the same vocabulary of symbols as the question was asked. This includes a shaping by both personal and sociocultural formulae. (Zen Buddhists practicing Zazen get kensho or satori, not exactly the same as the Christian's unio mystica with Christ.) However there are, to be sure, common elements enough in mysic experience to make the "perennial philosophy" a very viable concept.9
There is much rich and deep perennial philosophy in Swedenborg, truths of a luminous and universal kind; but we shall find the other levels represented as well. Personal, cultural and mythic-transpersonal elements each play their role.
The sharing of a vision by a community is an important factor, as I have elsewhere described.10 Madmen are visionaries with no one to share their vision. It is as if the transpersonal levels of energy are too powerful for a single individual and must be diffused into a group. And we may well ask, even at the inception, when the visionary first opens himself or herself to vision, with whom, how, and for what is it to be shared when it comes? I have come to feel, as a student of mythological and visionary data, that the end is somehow as important as the means. The visionary in a traditional society is healer, diviner, celebrant of ritual. The "power" of his vision flows through him to his people. His dark brother is the institutionalized modern visionary, out of synchronization with his community, burst by a vision of power with nowhere to go. Tranquilized and maintained by a benevolent (?) State, such people are like empty pods where life once dwelt.
The only alternative for modern society is the creative life: to write, paint, sing, somehow share the vision. This satisfies the mythic formula and creates a "community" of souls, united by a common experience. That Swedenborg has such a community is evident. This simple fact alone may enable us to discern in him more the shaman than the madman.
Psychology and the Issue of "Mental Illness"
Psychology is largely a "school" science in that there is as yet no universal consensus but rather a variety of approaches; both to special areas, and to problems. Behaviorism, for example, might have little useful to say about a man who was so thoroughly steeped in inner experiences.11 While Freudians have found much of interest in Swedenborg, the material seems to me far richer for a Jungian. One might look for the affectional and human dimensions proposed by Eric Fromm; and Maslow would have had an intriguing pattern of self-actualization to decipher. Julian Jaynes "Bicameral Mind" theory seems tailor-made to the "hallucinatory" aspect of Swedenborg's visions. He even speaks of spirits, say, as "coming from the left."12 (Unfortunately for consistency's sake, they also came from the right, up, down, within; nor did Swedenborg simply obey them, he questioned, dialogued, even scolded.)
Perhaps more productive for this inquiry than any of the aforementioned "schools" are the special areas of "the psychology of consciousness," and "transpersonal psychology"; two still embryonic but promising disciplines. These schools are revitalizing William James' hundred-year-old dictum that psychology must include the study of "altered states of consciousness." "No account of the universe in its totality can be final ," he says, "that leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. 13
A study of altered states of consciousness leads us to different descriptions of "reality." One of these recurring descriptions portrays the world as "sacred." The phenomenology of this description is basically what constitutes "transpersonal psychology." Included within its purview are the "technologies of the sacred": spiritual disciplines such as yoga, meditation, philosophy; but also the study of ecstatic states, visionary narratives, mythology, ritual, archetypal elements in dreams, healing, ESP.
Swedenborg anticipated this field in his own study; Emerson wrote of him in Representative Men that he began in his own life "what phenomenology and introspection would later do." We will also see yogic practices, shamanistic visionary elements, dream incubation and interpretation, and some rather well documented ESP.14
But first we must turn to our second issue, of "mental illness" and psychopathology. In the early days of psychoanalysis it was perhaps permissible to apply the dazzling new theory to all dimensions of culture. As is the case with such imaginative juxtapositions of system with data, rich harvests of insight were collected. Psychoanalysis itself experienced a kind of polymorphous perversity, feeling (some would say groping) its way into the as-yet virgin territory of literature and literary criticism, art, anthropology, history, religion. Psychohistory became acceptable to scholars of psychoanalysis (but to few historians), and when well done, to the general public, Erik Erikson's evocative study of Luther being a case in point,15
Serious scholars of their respective disciplines however, especially social scientists, began to resent the epistemological intrusion (some called it violation). Often ignoring the standard ground rules and methodology of an established discipline, psychoanalysts were as likely as not to leap right in and begin interpreting. The neo-Freudians tempered this naive tendency in the area of culture and personality16 making anthropology's point that even such seemingly universal (to Freud) structures as the Oedipus complex are subject to the laws of cultural relativity. Adler and Jung left the Psychoanalytic Association, each taking off into whole psychological areas that Freud ignored or explained as merely derivative from "the sexual libido." Each founded a discipline to study the neglected areas of "the power urge" and "the religious impulse" in man.
These observations should make it less defensible to adjudge someone "mentally ill" based on the assumptions of a particular "school" or psychological system. The "issue of normality" is in fact, an extremely complex one, as any textbook of abnormal psychology will show. The two most frequently cited "models" for normality are in fact: (1) the social-cultural model (how well does the individual integrate within his local social group?) and (2) the personal adjustment model (how successfully does the individual function with relative freedom from anxiety and psychogenic discomforts?) (A third (3) the medical model, uses the term "illness" for psychological dysfunction, a labelling many psychologists find unacceptable.)
The question of Swedenborg's sanity then, must be considered within the socio-cultural climate of his times, and must include evaluations of his personal happiness, productivity and freedom from anxiety. Swedenborg was never adjudged insane, nor institutionalized. It was only later that psychiatrists would ex-post-facto judge him insane. Karl Jaspers diagnosed him schizophrenic (in a study comparing Swedenborg to Strindberg, Van Gogh, and Holderlin). Lagerborg, a Finnish scholar, believed the diagnosis to be paranoia, marked by regression. Von Winterstein postulates an inverted Oedipal attachment to his father with repressed homosexuality. Emil Kleen's diagnosis was: "paranoia tardiva expansiva religiosa," presumably a rare subspecies of paranoia. The paranoid is "delusional" because he believes unusual or grandiose things to be true; Swedenborg's "appointment by the Lord" to reveal the inner sense of the Scriptures has been construed in this way. The "special mission" syndrome is in fact known to many clinical consulting rooms.
However it must be pointed out that belief in "the Lord" and a literal heaven filled with winged angels above, and Satan's pit yawning beneath was the cornmonplace belief system of the day. Swedenborg differed from the cultural norm only in that he claimed to visit and experience visitants from those worlds. Of his "hallucinations" or extrasensory experiences, Swedenborg is clearly able to distinguish his visions from waking consciousness. He sought solitude when the visionary world became dominant. Only on a few noteworthy occasions, such as his clairvoyant seeing of the Stockholm fire hundreds of miles away, did visions disrupt his ordinary social composure. He is ordinarily described as "polite, .... gallant, .... kind, .... open-hearted."
Swedenborg went through a heroic struggle to reconcile his visions with his ingrained
Christian belief system. At his time there were still witches being burnt in Sweden.
The Biblical injunction, "You shall not permit a sorceress to live,"17
was a death knell to the still proliferating visionary tradition in Europe.
Shamans, druids and wicca (wise women) had been the official "technicians
of the sacred" only a few centuries before. Then came massive, politically enforced
as well as spontaneous, conversions to the new Middle-Eastern religion. But it seems
hard to shut the experiential doors to that invisible realm once they are open for
a people. Even within the close-mesh net of official Christian dogma, visionaries
surfaced, delivered their message, and were either burnt or canonized, depending
upon its reception.18
According to William James, Protestantism especially disowned the visionary tradition:
I have personally spent considerable time with those strange wounded modern visionaries called "paranoid schizophrenics." At best they are filled with a burning intensity of purpose and belief. At worst, and far more often, they are boring and exasperating. They harangue one with their monomyth to exhaustion. They ignore the satisfying give and take of human communication; often, in fact, belaboring the mythic and ignoring the human. Most often there is a "blaming" aspect, in which the world and its deficiencies are responsible for their own shortcomings. There is an emphasis on others' evil and a literally projected "devil."
We see none of this in portraits of Swedenborg. If he even spoke of his visions
it usually was at another's request. In ordinary social discourse he was a reasonable
and even worldly-wise man. He could discuss politics. economics, his travels, without
intruding his visionary insights. Lacking a culture with which to share these, he
wrote--for whoever would read. There is no coercion. no bombast. For years he published
his visionary writings anonymously. He blamed no one for his "predicament." His
image of the Devil is, in fact. psychological the principle of exclusive self-love
in each of us. His "devil" (or Jungian "shadow") not only is not projected, but
is considerably more sophisticated and less paranoid than that of his contemporaries:
Swedenborg's hell resembles the psychologically sophisticated desire-hells of the Buddhists far more than the literalistic punishment-and-torment hells of his Christian contemporaries.
We do not, m fact, have a word for what might be called "positive paranoia." We know well the phenomenology of the negative breakthrough where the sick soul blames the world for his/her misfortunes. These have been abundantly described in psychopathology. William James says in Varieties of Religious Experience:
But what of the breakthrough in the opposite direction in which the mystic says:
Or this from Swedenborg:
These certainly would be instances of "positive paranoia" in which the universe becomes intensely meaningful, in a benevolent, and not baleful way. And the images or metaphors for the universe are positive versions of depression's emptiness and meaninglessness. There are profound insights into "the workings of things" that are part of the perennial philosophy.
James uses the emerging world-view of the visionary as a diagnostic of the authenticity of the vision.
It is evident that from the point of view of their psychological mechanism, the classic mysticism and these lower mysticisms spring from the same mental level, from that great subliminal or transmarginal region of which science is beginning to admit the existence, but of which so little is really known. That region contains every kind of matter: "seraph and snake" abide here side by side. To come from thence is no infallible credential. What comes must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience, just like what comes from the outer world of sense,24
The criterion of bringing the vision into relationship with the world of common sense seems to me at the highest level of responsible relationship to the inner world. What Hegel called "dialectical process" and what Jung called "the transcendent function" both involve this give and take, a dialogue which I have elsewhere described as the fifth and highest stage of relationship with the mythic imagination.25 'This procedure has seemed to me the essence of sanity, while insanity lies at stage 1, Mythic Identity, total absorption in the psychic world of images and desires. It is not the presence of unconscious materials that determine insanity, but how the ego relates to them.
Swedenborg does not confuse himself with the contents he experiences at the transpersonal levels. He describes these as other. They range through hierarchies of spiritual beings to the Lord himself, the transpersonal Core of the universe. In his Spiritual Diary especially, Swedenborg describes his dialogues with the inhabitants of the world of spirits.
Wilson Van Dusen, a contemporary clinical psychologist, reports dialogues he has had with spiritual entities he felt were inhabiting his patients. Some he called "lower order" which were not open to real dialogue, but repetitive, of low intelligence and malicious (not unlike "poltergeists").26 A higher order appeared less frequently but in non-interfering ways, showed itself open to dialogue, and provided meaningful inner guidance for the patient. (Jung and Freud had, in fact, disagreed over the higher order, but not the lower; Jung postulating an "anagogic" or guiding attribute to the unconscious, which personified itself in positive inner figures.) Van Dusen credits Swedenborg with opening his understanding to the implications of the two orders. Exclusive self-interest and lack of an ethical viewpoint opens the psyche to possession by the lower order, which Swedenborg describes as "insanity." Selfless motives, compassion and religious impulse open the psyche to the higher order, and what he describes as "good" and "true."27 The sane man stands in between two hierarchies of spiritual forces, not just the simple instrument of, but willing host to, whichever he will choose.
How tiresome and anachronistic to view all breakthroughs in consciousness as pathological. As we will see in the next section of this paper, in the traditions of Shamanism and Yoga these ontological breakthroughs are among the highest and most sought-after human experiences.
Technicians of the Sacred
In this section we shall explore analogies between Swedenborg's experiences and those of other classes of visionaries, particularly yogis and shamans. While Swedenborgian scholars have emphasized the unbidden nature of Swedenborg's revelation, especially that it occurred at the Lord's instigation, not Swedenborg's own, it must be pointed out that there were aspects of Swedenborg's life that made him the ideal recipient for such a revelation: his already formidably disciplined mind, his periods of solitude, his penchant for writing.
In addition, as we shall see, Swedenborg practiced some of the classical psychophysical techniques of the inward explorer, including special breathing, concentration and visualization. These reveal a far from passive attitude toward his experiences, but rather a collaborative, active involvement. Swedenborg was not simply a "mouthpiece" for divine revelation, despite his own frequent assertion this was so. The biographical data show him more the participant, even a highly trained spiritual athlete who realized how much his own "condition" affected the visionary process. As Patanjali says so well: "The association of seer with things seen is the cause of the realizing of the nature of things seen and also of the realizing of the nature of the seer."28
a. The Yogic Comparison:
Swedenborg had begun in early childhood to experiment with respiration. He noticed that thought synchronizes with breathing; in fact, thoughts "flow in," as does the air in breathing. Thus he discovered at an early age the "stream of consciousness" as it later came to be known in Western literature. The naive view of consciousness is that we "think our own thoughts," but a few moments of attentive introspection reveals that they "flow by themselves" like a stream. Directed thinking is only a portion of mental life, in which the stream is redirected to our own intentional channels But abandon the effort of control for a moment, and the flow resumes its spontaneous quality, carrying an unpredictable flotsam and jetsam of experience, memory, intuition, never ceasing.
Now the classical definition of yoga from the Sutras of Patanjali29 is: "The intentional stopping of the involuntary movements of the mind-substance." The "mind substance" (cittavritti) is the subtle "substance" of the stream of consciousness, also called "psychomental flux." The goal of this praxis, which may take many years, or a lifetime, is "cosmic consciousness"(samadhi).
Swedenborg, without any instruction, nor reference to the whole metaphysical structure of Yoga, had begun the quest for cosmic consciousness, using one of the fundamental yogic techniques, pranayama. He writes:
Young Emanuel, a prodigy of the inner quest, quietly practiced yogic pranayama while his parents were at prayers. He also visualized what would be his life's work: "writing in imagination," an act which requires eidetic imagery and trains the inner sense of perception.
Patanjali's classic Yoga Sutras devotes three chapters to pranayama, a practice which begins with slowing, and concludes with suspension of the breath
Eliade notes that,
Eliade draws a relationship between Brahmanic Sacrifice and the sacrifice of breath in pranayama. It is an act of religious opening and devotion which appears in Shamanism, Chinese Taoism, and Sufism. One may well wonder where young Emanuel learned this technique; however, later on he credits transpersonal instructors, mentioning in Spiritual Diary that he was taught some breathing techniques by spirits from the Indies who "induced a like respiration upon me that I might know this from experience."33
Since there was little or no literature on yoga in Swedenborg's day, what are we to make of this? Yogins also mention "listening to the heart" and attaining samadhi, through the precise technique of heart and breath synchronization.34 But yoga is not the only source of contemplative techniques using breathing. Compare the following from Eastern Christian mysticism -- the eighteenth century monks of Mt. Athos:
The Hesychasts, a Greco-Byzantine monastic sect had practiced "quietness" (Gr." hesychia) through prayer and breathing, since at least the 13th century. St. John Climacus writes: "Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with each breath and then you will know the value of the hesychia".36 Though Catholicism had retained a few traditions like this, and the Roman Catholic Exercitia of St. Ignatius, it was unusual for a solitary little Swedish boy to begin practicing sophisticated contemplative exercises.
Swedenborg also discovered "subtle breathing," a technique called tai chi in China and used as well in the Hindu pranayamas. One "visualizes breathing" at the same time as physically breathing. The "breath" may be sent around the body, or imagined "filling the belly" for example. Swedenborg observed that subtle breathing pervaded his body, and in fact worked on the organs of his body:
Certain yogic pranayamas are directed through subtle channels, alternately to the left and right side of the body (Ida and Pingala) to "purify" them. Yogis also heal organs by directing the breath through them to "soften" them. 38
But there are other correspondences between Swedenborg's spontaneous inner practices and the systematic techniques of yoga worth noting. Ashtanga, eight-limbed yoga, a "complete" form of yoga, consists of: (1) yama (restraints), (2) niyama (disciplines), (3) asana (postures), (4) pranayama (rhythm of respiration), (5) pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), (6) dharana (concentration), (7) dhyana (yogic absorption), (8) 8amadhi (union, ecstasy).39 Swedenborg practiced: (1) sexual restraint, (despite his natural endowment with a healthy sexuality),40 dietary restrictions, often doing without food, or subsisting on coffee and milk; (2) disciplines: the yoga texts mention especially "cleanliness, serenity, asceticism (tapas). Swedenborg after his key vision in which he felt told by the Lord: "Eat not so much" practiced asceticism and restraint in diet and other personal habits.-(.3) .We read that Swedenborg often spent 12-13 hours in bed; though he probably practiced only the asana called shavasana, "sleep of the dead." This is likely to produce deep trances, and out-of-the-body experiences. Swedenborg says, "It has happened to me, that I sometimes forgot that I was in the body . . ."41 (4) Swedenborg, used respiration to control thought (meditation) "Thus the thoughts have their play in every act of respiration; therefore when evil thoughts entered, the only thing to do was to draw to oneself the breath, so the evil thought vanished."42 (5) Withdrawal of senses: Swedenborg might isolate himself in his rooms for several days, leaving word not to be disturbed (pratyahara). (6) He would become absorbed in mystical contemplation:
What was the nature of these "speculations" that led him within?
He wrote to his friend Dr. Beyer:
Yoga texts mention the yogi must make the Lord (Isvara) the motive of all one's actions. Swedenborg says, "'Thy will be done; I am thine, and not mine'; and as I have given myself from myself to our Lord; so let him do with me according to his good pleasure." [As he notes his own reaction to this inner declaration.] "... in the body there was a certain dissatisfaction; but in the spirit, gladness thereat."45 He also notes that "in ecstasy or trance the man holds his breath; at this time the thoughts are, in a manner of speaking, away."46 (8) Union: While Swedenborg did not even have the concept samadhi in his cultural experience, he wrote,
In the terms of Yoga philosophy he circles the Atman-Brahman, sentient core of the self, and of the universe. The love (bhakti) that he feels also matches the descriptions of samahdi as sexual in a spiritual sense.
While such a description might jar conventional Protestant sensibilities in which religion and sexuality are strictly segregated, Swedenborg is closer in spirit here to the yogic or tantric mystics; and to ecstatics of the western tradition such as St. Theresa.49
Whoever has seen the outside of a Hindu Temple, like the one at Khajuraho, knows the erotic may cloak the spiritual, as a vibrant metaphor: "The frieze of raaithu-has of men and women in erotic embrace.., in their ecstasy typify the ultimate union of the soul with the divine."50
Swedenborg is the inverse of Freud. While Freud insists spirituality is a sublimation of sexuality, Swedenborg reads his sexual feelings as spiritual events. After a dream in which he has explicit sex with a mysterious woman, he says,
Swedenborg later had the wholesomeness to envision marriage in the spiritual world, and in heaven, a concept which scandalized the puritanical clergy of his day and caused John Wesley to denounce him and his "Mahometan Heaven."52
b. The Shamanistic Dimension
Much as the previous discussion may help us to understand the preparation of Swedenborg as a visionary, such preparations are merely necessary but not sufficient conditions to explain his crisis and psychospiritual transformation. In fact, though Swedenborg had already practiced techniques of introversion since childhood, these alone certainly did not occasion his spiritual breakthrough. (They may have aided the strong intuitive and introspective clarity he brought to his scientific treatises.)
But it is something qualitatively different which began to happen to him in his middle fifties. As we have it from his Journal of Dreams, mainly from the year 1744, this was an upheaval event that threw the formidably disciplined mind of the scientist into personal chaos.53 Several times he mentions "fragmentation of his thoughts" as occurring, for example:
It is perhaps the hasty interpretation of passages like this that has led to the diagnosis of schizophrenia or psychosis.55 But the mistake is in making "symptoms" of a supposedly permanent nature of them, rather than seeing them as teleological stages m a time-honored and archetypal human experience: the hero journey, the dark night of the soul, death and rebirth.
"Psychotic" images do indeed appear to Swedenborg at this time; nightmares of monsters, animals, huge machines, vagina dentata; visions of storms fraught with thunder and wind, images of Jesus crucified, androgynous figures. He experiences frequent "tremors" and seizures. He describes being "thrown about" his rooms, often landing flat on his face. He has evident mood swings, from despair to ecstasy and back again.
Living in Amsterdam by himself, when in these states, Swedenborg kept to his rooms; in public he appeared normal. Occasionally someone would hear him in his rooms talking to his "spirits" or crying aloud. Here we may ask, as does Lili Tomlin, "Why is it that when we talk to God it's called prayer but when he talks to us it is called schizophrenia?"56 The response from the "other" is always beyond expectation and comes to us from within, sometimes accompanied by profound personality disorganization.
But we find remarkable analogies to this stage m the world of the preliterate traditional societies. Among the very primitive and ancient reindeer hunters of Siberia, for example, the soul in a crisis of this sort is seen as being in the initial stages of the genesis of a "Greater Shaman"; an individual who is undergoing a spiritual transformation into a healer, and a spiritual leader for the community. "Lesser Shamans" are initiated by the human community, for reasons hereditary or social. "Greater Shamans," however, are chosen by the spirits in a spontaneous vocation. Swedenborg clearly belongs to the "Greater" class of visionary. Despite the preparation attained in his practices, he experienced his crisis and subsequent revelation as unsought.
Siberians call the early time of personality disorganization "the first indwelling of the spirits." The human medium is being "opened from within" to transpersonal powers. He is called amurakh: "temporarily mad." At this point, according to Eliade, Senior Shamans are called in to guide the ensuing psychic dismemberment and reconstitution. Their role is really less that of initiators than a type of psychic midwife, officiating at a supernaturally ordained rebirth process,57
Swedenborg, of course, had no "senior shamans" to help him through the transformation; so he asked for guidance from within. But he insisted that it be from no lesser spirit, but the Lord himself. Swedenborg was a Christian before a shaman, and insisted that his visions be consistent with his deepest belief. He wished to go beyond intermediaries to the luminous core of meaning itself,58 This intensity of inner purpose served him as a valuable sea-anchor in the storms that followed. We take ship with him now for awhile in turbulent waters but alert for the beacons that offer guidance, and using some ancient but still serviceable maps.
In what St. John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul" or what we may call "the death experience," there is a terrible loss of direction and meaning. Swedenborg dreamed:
The soul is deprived of its inner source of life and the fragmentary part-selves we normally identify with are seen as empty specters. The ego is a dying beast that "attacks" but not the "child" (the symbolic potential for rebirth).
Swedenborg felt hopeless about his ability to save himself. "It seemed I lay on a mountain with a gulf under it: there were knolls upon it; I lay there and tried to help myself up, holding by a knoll, without foothold; a gulf was below. It signifies, that I myself wish to help myself from the abyss of hell, which is not possible to be done."60
The Swedish word harg "rocky hill," knoll, also means "sacred ground" or "place of sacrifice."61 Swedenborg here is hanging, like Christ on the cross; Prometheus, helper of men, on his rock; or his own mythic "countryman" Odin, the ancient Norse god of wisdom, questing for the runes of power:
Swedenborg, too, was questing for the "runes of power," his hermeneutic calling, to find the meaning within the sacred scriptures.
Facing his own death and helplessness, the shaman, the human hero, has no recourse but to submit to the sacrifice, "himself to himself" and place his trust in the transpersonal power behind the process.63
At this point it seems annihilation is imminent. The Siberian shamans have a particularly grisly description of the dismemberment process. A Samoyed shaman reports the following visionary initiation experience: He enters a hole in a mountain and finds a naked man with a huge caldron. The naked man sees him and seizes him with tongs:
Later the "naked man" initiates him and teaches him a healing divination using the temperature of the water in the ritual pot.
Compare the following dream from Swedenborg in the midst of his initiation,
The empty oven "that never gets full" resembles the inexhaustible caldron of Norse and Celtic mythology. It is the vessel of transformation. The "head" or guiding principle is what needs to be renewed. The "naked man" or the "executioner" is the negative aspect of the positive Spiritual Principle that is, in fact, behind the initiatory ordeal. We find a mystery here: death is the precondition of new life, dismemberment the key to regeneration. The executioner "smiles" and is revealed as an "androgyne," a man who changes into a woman with a little girl. The monster of the dismemberment process contains a feminine element and thus the key to rebirth.66
Swedenborg here is in the depths of his psychic journey:
He is in need of a guide, and because of his openness, and the "rightness" of his quest, one comes:
The dog is the well-known and appreciated guide to the underworld traveler. His nose and instinct help him to find the paths through the "sightless realms." He is an instinctive guardian. Here he helps by guarding Swedenborg and testing the depth of the water.
The animal may menace or keep out the unauthorized underworld visitor; but when he appears as here in the guise of "the helping animal" (a mythologem that shows up universally in the wonder tale), his presence affirms the appropriateness of the hero's quest and his acceptability to his own hidden instinctive life. Swedenborg mentions dogs no fewer than ten times in the crisis period of the Journal of Dreams. One of the dogs startles him by licking his neck; shamans may be awakened from trance by dogs licking them (compare the alchemical drawing in figure 2).
Alchemical images, studied by Jung as a metaphor for the process of psychic transformation, show up frequently in Swedenborg; enough to merit a whole separate study.70 The "king" who is the subject of the transformative process appears six times (personified as actual kings with whom Swedenborg had associated, or knew of); water, fire, darkness, appear and disappear. At one point he dreams of some who endeavored as it were to make gold; but they saw that they must climb up; but this they could not do, and without it. it was impracticable to make gold.71
Swedenborg here, like Jung, recognized that personal transcendence and transformation is the real goal of the alchemical process. He equated gold with God's grace. "What is good ought to be effected, and.., the gold lies therein." Jung hypothesizes that the quest for inner transformation never left the European imagination, but because of persecution by the Church, had to go "underground" disguised in the chemical operations of the alchemists. Swedenborg fits very well into this tradition. A burning spiritual quest was hidden within his "science."
c. Symbols of Transformation
The alchemists also depict the transformative process as an awakening of the androgynous, bisexual nature of the initiate. He must encounter the feminine within. We are not surprised then to find Swedenborg's other inner guide is feminine. The women that appear in his dreams and visions seldom are identified. They resemble the "unidentified woman" Carl Jung describes as the anima. For the male visionary she represents his own soul, and the principle of the creative unconscious that leads him to his gnosis. She occurs in various disguises in Journal of Dreams, no fewer than 22 times; an important guide for his spiritual crisis. The index of Journal of Dreams notes her: dressed in black, with teeth (vagina dentata), hidden, fighting, conceiving, spying, married, unmarried, with fine property, fat and red, with a magical book, pregnant. Jung observes that the anima is a nixie, noting that her abode is the "living water" of the unconscious psyche:
Eliade notes her important role in the shaman journey:
Wilson Van Dusen in his insightful study of Swedenborg, The Presence of Other Worlds, notes that Swedenborg's relation to his feeling dimension is atrophied (compared to his intellectual hypertrophy), before his crisis. To become more whole he has to meet with a feeling, feminine, earthly dimension. Van Dusen notes that the "Disting Fair" of which Swedenborg dreams,74 "was a festival dedicated to female deities."75 The fair is rather surprisingly held upstairs in the parlor of his father's house "at Upsala" which could be interpreted as pointing to the patriarchal Judeo-Christian tradition. Here a feminine pagan rite is celebrated in the midst of his paternal zone.
He is being introduced to the world of female deities: the unconscious, Faust's "realm of the Mothers." Van Dusen writes,
At one point in Swedenborg's dream life his anima revealed herself to him overtly in her creative aspect:
Here she is depicted as his creative muse, who moves him from "left" (the unconscious, intuitive side whose vocabulary is images) to the "right" (the verbal, linear, more conscious side). Swedenborg will eventually be able to dialogue with his previously "unconscious" inner images consciously. His anima is playful and sensuous as well as creative. Swedenborg describes her as with a broad bust and "on both sides down to the lower parts quite bare; the skin, shining as if it were polished; and on the thumb a miniature painting."78 But let us follow for awhile the development of his relationship to the inner woman as his dreams depict it.
In the early stages, before the transformative process is complete, Swedenborg had dreams of vagina dentata:
He didn't know what to make of this. "What it means I do not know; either that I am to have no commerce with women; or that in politics lies that which bites; or something else." But this dream would seem in our developmental interpretation to point to a premature attempt at mysterlum conjunctionis (mysterious union) with the inner feminine, before he is ready to penetrate such a mystery. In fact, the mysterious woman had appeared to him earlier as a queen, disappointed because jewels she had received were not "the best":
Swedenborg felt unprepared for such an encounter. Indeed in this stage of the process the ego is a pauper while the anima possesses the full riches and royalty of the creative psyche. The vagina dentata is the perilous entrance to the other world, which is often described as "clashing rocks," such as the symplegades, or a dangerous gate. Here the threat is expressly to the procreative capacity.
Later Swedenborg would succeed in the hieros gamos sacred marriage or visionary union with the mysterious woman, "en merveille" as he said; and with the feeling that she would conceive. With the remarkable consistency of the visionary world, we are not then surprised to find her appearing, five months later in September, quite pregnant; dressed in "very white clothes" offering him wine to drink.81
I found an interesting comparative example for this mystery of spiritual pregnancy and rebirth in the LSD visions of a professional therapist undergoing a personal rebirth experience.82 S. had a series of visions in which he, like Swedenborg, was learning to accept his own feminine dimension. At the end of an unsatisfactory first LSD experience filled with painful transformation symbols (he had a total of four guided sessions) he heard gutteral voices saying something in Dutch like, "Die mutter's schevi," which he translated as "your mother's heavy." He did not at the time understand what this meant.
Our subject's second session, however, culminated in a lovely vision of a feminine body:
The spiritual rebirth motif here presented itself breathtakingly unexpectedly. And S. was looking from the viewpoint of the spiritual "child." His third session was filled with earthy images which he gradually had to learn to accept. But in his fourth there was finally a wonderful culminating scene in which he became a woman, and in the throes of giving birth. He writes:
Thus the mysterious process of transformation by which a man may "give birth to himself." And something like this must have been happening to Swedenborg. As he writes in the next to last paragraph in the Journal of Dreams:
After his rebirth Swedenborg is to be let far more deeply into that fire and that light:
We don't have to stretch our metaphor much to see in the visionary "light" the "enlightenment" of the philosophical systems, with their "awakenings" to, and "dawnings" of, knowledge. With the light comes power and mystical sight, prized by visionaries from shamans to Zen Buddhists, to Christian mystics. Eliade writes of the Eskimo angakoq that it is,
We think of the antar jyotih (inner light) of the Upanishads, described as the essence of the indwelling Atman; also of the "white light" of the Bardo Thodol, the "Tibetan Book of the Dead."
Raymond Moody, writing of near-death experiences in his book Life After Life, quotes some luminous visions by those "in the vestibule." A woman who had been in a coma for a week writes,
The following, more lighthearted example, is from a man at death's door:
But this light appears not only in ecstasy or at death; Swedenborg saw it often as he was thinking or meditating. Signe Toksvig, in her excellent biography, mentions Swedenborg believed light to attend men of science, and that
This practice of attuning to the confirmatory light called photism has also been cultivated by many other kinds of intuitives and mystics as well.
A few years later he wrote,
Swedenborg's feminine personification and inner light, then, serve as most important symbols of transformation. They are his guides through the labyrinth within to a uniquely open state to the spiritual dimension.
Swedenborg as a Visionary Pathfinder
The concluding section of this study evaluates the relevance of Emanuel Swedenborg to the visionary quest of our modern world. In an age which has embraced a remarkable import cargo of spiritual practices, from yoga to Sun Myung Moon's totalistic communities, from Gurdjieff to Nichiren Buddhism, from Subhud to Jonestown, it seems important for us all to understand the religious urge in human life. The same quest that can vitalize the psyche and bestow a translucent meaning upon and within it, can also lead to fanaticism and blind destructive action. It is foolish to avoid or disbelieve the two-edged, ambivalent nature of spiritual power.
Because of this, it seems to me crucial to have an interface of psychology and religion. And in psychology's scientific study of the visionary individual who is at the core of all religious process, biography must play a most important role. Partisans of one religious doctrine or another may harangue each other to exhaustion without proving whether there is one God or three, nor even considering whether the issue is worth debating. But in the details of an individual's life, and in his/her relationships to the immediate physical, social and historical factors surrounding, we have a story any human of sensibility can understand. This story, or "life myth" of an individual should function as a context for understanding his or her revelation. We can understand mysteries, doctrines, and dogmas better in the context of human life. For instance the ethical principles included in most religious systems are enlivened by example in the life of the visionary-founder. Contrarily, we feel uncomfortable when someone "preaches one thing and practices another."
From my own modest look into both the life and theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg, I feel he has excellent credentials as a new age visionary. Ethically, he seems to me impeccable. A man with his insight and clairvoyant powers could have negotiated for power (and loved) like Rasputin, could have organized people around him like Gurdjieff at Fontainbleau.89 But Swedenborg lived modestly and mostly alone. People enjoyed his kindly ways and sense of humor; he paid promptly and well those who lodged and served him. He was affectionate with children; a devoted gardener, skillful with living things. He did not, like Aliester Crowley, the magician-mountaineer, leave a wake of human debris behind him, the wreckage of the lives so often attracted to and left behind by spiritual charismatics.90 There are those among us who must ask, unable to help ourselves, what worth have all the magical discoveries, high transpersonal principles and doctrines, if a man does not live them himself?
The new age visionary should embody the salient themes of human growth for the current age. He/She should partake of both mythic and sociocultural symbols of the time. On the mythic level, Swedenborg's astrological birth sign (sun sign) Aquarius, also corresponds with the New Age astrological mythologies, which speak of an "Aquarian age." Edward Whitmont, a Jungian scholar, reads the sign Aquarius ~ as the symbol of "dialogue" of the human dimension (the ego) with the realm of the spirit (the unconscious).91 Aquarius is also more classically "the water bearer," the human truth-seeker who, after completing his own spiritual quest, then pours out the healing message of his discovery to the human race for their sustenance. (For Swedenborg also, water represents "truth.") Both of these mythologems correspond well to Swedenborg's life-myth: his dialogue with the spirit which we have followed now for some ways; and his pouring out of his "truth" to the world (his writings).
In this last section I superficially (but hopefully provocatively) investigate a few of Swedenborg's visionary findings, also called his "theological doctrines." These will be discussed in a non-theological way, however. We shall be concerned with practical and empirical referents for the transpersonal doctrines; enquiring, wherever possible, "Where are the roots of this idea in Swedenborg's life?" and, "Does it find echo in the perennial philosophy, thus meriting 'transpersonal status'? May we not also begin to think of a "perennial psychology" in which concepts and structures from the many psychological systems are included on the basis of their usefulness and applicability to a broad range of human experience, rather than elaborate theoretical justifications of one system over another? Is the human psyche not large enough to contain some of Freud's "defense mechanisms" and Jung's "archetypes" as well; Piaget's early developmental stages and their later culmination in Maslow's "self actualization"? When such concepts are understood as heuristic devices, not literal "things" in the psyche, they remarkably enrich our understanding of human behavior. While they are hard to test empirically, perhaps their inclusion in everyday vocabularies and use in practical psychology is an empirical test of a different sort.
Swedenborg's thought is full of concepts of this kind. While he describes them as spiritual principles, we can often find their commonsense psychology. Consider for example his concept of "ruling love": That men or women develop an inner motivational and affectional system based on what they are drawn to most. Their continuing choices and involvement cause the "ruling love" to become dominant in the hierarchy of their motives; it becomes autonomous and "rules" them. Other motives, or "reinforcements" become secondary while this becomes primary. Eventually, for Swedenborg, this "desire-body," (skt. mayakosha) not only affects one's physical life, but survives the transition through death, and determines membership in Heaven or Hell. "Like is drawn to like" and the spirit realms are communities of those alike in "ruling love."
Man is able to know, think and understand many things; but when he is left to himself he rejects these things which are not in agreement with his love; and he also rejects them after the life of the body, when he is in his spirit; for that only remains in the spirit of a man which has entered into his love.92
That which anyone does from love remains inscribed on his heart; for love is the fire of life, and thus is the life of everyone. Hence such as the love is, such is the life; and such as the life is -- thus such as the love is such is the whole man as to the soul and as to the body.93
It seems to me there are profound implications for practical psychology in this concept. One man's reinforcement is clearly not another's. And, as any good behaviorist knows, the secrets of behavior-change lie in the manipulation of those reinforcements that work for this particular individual. Swedenborg places an important emphasis on the power and autonomy of motivational structures. Selfish loves become dead ends because they further competition with other beings rather than cooperation. Also selfish loves usually gratify our part-selves, not the integrative self. If one tries to attain complete happiness through eating or sex, or personal power, or even orderliness, the result is a lopsided catastrophe. Yet we do not have to look far to find fellow humans caught up totally in such futile enterprises, and eventually, unable to abandon them, even when the destructive consequences are all too apparent.
Swedenborg was especially outspoken on the issue of "love of power" or domination:
Freud would probably have agreed with this last. But beside legal penalties there is another more psychologically subtle coping mechanism for such destructive one-sided passions in human life. Through a gradual awakening of the spirit, the person learns to value the reality of other people. At the same time a realization dawns of the incredible subjectivity of the self and of exclusively selfish needs. Turning one's "ruling love" to unselfish ends, a process Swedenborg calls "regeneration" sets in. Regeneration is a process parallel to Jung's Individuation, or other developmental schemes of the mature psyche. These models, buttressed now by the universally accepted facts of children's cognitive development, show a "childhood of the spirit" continuing for the individual even in mature years. Jung was the modern genius who played Piaget's games of imagination with adults as well as children, eliciting their transformation symbols in mandalas, dreams and life-myths. The psyche must, it seems, forever undo its egocentricity that places the ego (Swedenborg's proprium) at the center of the universe. Piaget has brilliantly described naive egocentricity in childhood, and its gradual replacement by the moral stages necessary for life in the social environment. The adult must gradually come to accept all those other centers-of-the-universe too.
Cognitive psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg puts the "universal ethical principle stage" at the top of Piaget's fully operational ladder.95 The human psyche may grow beyond the zone of legal penalties into a full moral consciousness -- which automatically considers others as no less important than oneself. Swedenborg calls this, somewhat archaically, "love for the neighbor." Alfred Adler, too, some centuries later, would see "love for the neighbor" as the antidote to the power principle.96
It seems to me that the highest form this ethic may take is in a spontaneous feeling response which need not even mentally debate the ethical issues concerned. The other is spiritually felt to be equal to oneself. We think of yoga's tat tvam asi (thou art that) or the Hindu greeting namaste (I greet the God within you), Christ's "Golden Rule" or Buber's "I-thou." Orthodox religion seems to have missed the point that these ethics are descriptions of spontaneous feeling states, rather than rules to be legislated. Being "forced" to "love one's neighbor," one may never learn to do it spontaneously. Lower developmental stages never succeed in "legislating" higher ones. Christ's exhortation is probably rather a call to transformation, through growth; the only way to reach the next stage. This growth then is a primary task of the regeneration process.
Regeneration, says Swedenborg, is accomplished from within, through the mysterious process of influx. This is a concept as much cosmological as psychological. It resembles Gurdjieff and Ouspensky's "ray of creation" that extends from an hypothesized source of life in the universe (God) through several orders or "degrees" of creation.97
In both systems, human life as well as organic life on the planet are intermediate stages in a process of energy transformation: From the spiritual Sun to the natural sun, to organic life on earth. (For Gurdjieff the last stage is the moon, evoking the mythologies that portray the moon as the last abode of souls.)
The human being, while partaking in organic life, also rises above the rest of creation in being a conscious or mental recipient of direct spiritual influx (Gurdjieff's "three-brained beings"). The influx through man's higher faculties is considered by Swedenborg to come from the Lord. The lower comes through the domain of nature and is the libidinous desire of Freud's id, and the natural egocentricity we have discussed as each human child's birthright. Swedenborg sees "the natural" and "the spiritual" as actual intertwined spirals of energy; curiously anticipatory of the double helix of DNA.
[Man is] born an animal but becomes a man. The natural mind, with all things pertaining to it, revolves in spiral motions from right to left; but the spiritual mind, in spiral motions from left to right. These minds are thus in a contrary movement relatively to each other; an indication that evil resides in the natural mind, and that of itself it acts against the spiritual mind.99
We think of the Gnostic dualisms, of Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Esau and Jacob, Efinisyen and Nisyen (from The Mabinogion) (the motif of the dark brother, or the hairy brother and the smooth brother). The alternative to the fratricide that so naturally befell these two is the redemption motif. As Gilgamesh tried to save Enkidu, as Jesus redeemed John the Baptist, there must be a piercing of the cloud of unknowing which causes each to think the other enemy. Parsifal embraced Fierfies, the dark brother (Wolfrom von Eschenbach's poetic and deep rendering).
While Swedenborg was raised in a society far more absolutist than our own m its understanding of good and evil, and to some extent he shared in its nawete, he also went far in his concept of regeneration to show the process of human spiritual growth to be a dialogue: between the faculties of will (feeling) and understanding (cognition), between natural and spiritual, between man and God.
For man thinks and wills as if from himself, and this "as if from himself" is the reciprocal of conlunction; for there can be no conjunction without a reciprocal.100
William Butler Yeats was to see the human psyche as two interlocking cones or spirals (see A Vision). Between these spirals play the pairs of opposites of will and mask and creative mind and body of fate. Yeats' rendering is closer to the less dualistic Celtic tradition, which has always tended to portray life as a dialogue of a spiritual dimension with human nature.101 The yogic kundalini serpent, like the natural spiral, lies coiled around her phallus at the base of the spine (and the nadis, Ida and Pingala, coil around the Sushumna).102 The caduceus of healing, inherited from classical time, also shows the "serpents" intertwined round a staff. The iconic message to the human sufferer is clear: holistic health includes both serpents, both spirals.
Carl Jung, like Swedenborg, was a Protestant pastor's son. Both men were raised in a home with a powerful patriarch who knew what good and evil were all about. Both were also to come to their own unique ethical stance on this issue; but through the attainment of the universal ethical principle level, not through a legalistic imitation of the family patriarch. Jung would later write his Answer to Job,103 and develop the technique of "embracing the dark brother" in the dialogue with the shadow. He conceived of this as the starting work of the individuation process (the masterwork being the dialogue with the anima). We have already followed some of these stages in Swedenborg's own life. His subsequent idea of regeneration bespeaks the same slow process of moral transformation as Jung's individuation.104
Both men agree that man is a "receptacle" for transpersonal forces (Jung's archetypes, Swedenborg's spirit world.) Jung writes:
While these ideas may seem archaic to the modern skeptic, skirting all too close to primitive animism, they are in fact ideas so widespread as to merit inclusion in the perennial psychology. Among the teeming non-technological societies of the world, divination, exorcism, possessed oracles, spirit healers, are still rather commonplace. It is only among the "scientifically socialized" that such things are viewed as unusual. Swedenborgianism, is in fact, highly successful in Africa, where the people have no problem at all with the concept of "the spirit world."
But while we may feel we "understand" the spiritual in these cultural contexts, perhaps we grow less comfortable with the "spiritualists" closer to home, even, in our phobia, like Harry Houdini, becoming obsessed with proving them frauds. This kind of apotrapaic behavior toward a human capacity as traditional as spirit-seeing, seems to me more made of fear than wisdom. The concept of the spirit world is itself numinous, and as such, threatens the so-newly-won safety of our secular world-view. Busy denying its existence, we forget to study its phenomenology.
In search of a modern visionary who had experiences similar to Swedenborg, I remembered Robert Monroe, a modern businessman who began to have out-of-body experiences spontaneously. As I reviewed Monroe's experiences there were many parallels to Swedenborg, as well as discrepancies. Remember, though, the formula for vision includes personal and cultural, as well as transpersonal, elements. Considering the cultural and personal differences between Monroe and Swedenborg, the similarities are striking. Both men describe a lower and higher order of spiritual forces. The lower are obsessive and dangerous while the higher leave one in freedom but "offer" guidance. Both agree that spirits often will try to fool you, and wear disguises. Thought is movement in the spirit dimension.
Swedenborg observed that those who think alike are drawn together, and that affections are like a binding force. Monroe experienced the same "vibrations" as Swedenborg did (and as do shamans) when "entering or leaving the body." He too was astonished to find a whole world populated by spiritual beings, as did Swedenborg. While he attentively described his experiences, and the beings he met, Monroe's view of the spirit world was far more secular and free from theology than Swedenborg's. In this way it may approximate modern sensibilities more closely. Of the two, however, Swedenborg's account is phenomenally more detailed, and more specific about the operation of principles and laws of the psyche and spirit world.
Perhaps the most important question for any modern follower of Swedenborg is this: does one do as he said, or do as he did? The former leads to Swedenborgianism, the latter to a type of shamanism (Christian monotheist shamanism albeit). The orthodox Swedenborgian would wholeheartedly reject the latter option. Swedenborg's election is divine. The Lord himself opened Swedenborg's psyche, and his alone, for the revelation of The New Jerusalem. One does not voluntarily emulate his life; to do so would be presumptuous indeed, not to mention inviting spirit possession and madness. Swedenborg himself discouraged his readers against dabbling in spiritualism in no uncertain terms.
Yet it might be observed that in the temper of our times, the latter quest holds more meaning. The psychologically and culturally sophisticated pilgrim of today is seeking no new doctrine or dogma so much as experience. Experience is the key concept of the entire "human potentials movement," and the lure that beguiles many contemporary Christians from their proper intellectual worship to experience of the fiery tongues of the pentecostal movement, or to involvement in totally other traditions. In the midst of perhaps the most extroverted society in human history, contemporary America, the inward quest in its various forms has in the last decade peopled the land with lamas, yogis, sannyasins, mysterious Zens and Korean Messiahs. The Inward Quest is at least a major national pastime and shows no signs of diminishing.
Such a movement of collective consciousness cannot fail to have its uncontrollable, dangerous side, and this follows from lack of established cultural guidelines for the journey. Many streetcorner shamans of today have peeked into the spaces Swedenborg saw, and that they are indeed vast and terrifying is witnessed by the casualties. It is dangerous to see too far, to know too much, too soon. The visionary who has no audience, who performs no communal ritual, who enacts no service of healing, nor work of art, is often driven mad by the power of the vision.
Swedenborg may prove an exemplary guide for the modern inward seeker first in the modesty of his approach to the visionary state. Like a "Greater Shaman" the vision sought him; he used no chemical aids. He was an early participant in what Jean Houston has called the "psychenaut" program; the inner space equivalent of the astronaut's push into outer space. He combined the mythologems of science and religion; following science religiously and explaining religion scientifically. He leaped bravely into the chasm between Western religion's "God outside" (or totaliter aliter, totally other) and Eastern religion's God within (the Atman, or Jung's Self). All of these factors make Swedenborg's writing worth reading for the modern phenomenologist of inner space. In him we may see a coincidence of much that is ancient in human psychology with much that is modern, West with East, Neoplatonism along with Yoga, Shamanism and Buddhism. His is an especially bright star in that succession of luminous beings we call visionaries, always trying to let a little more light into our dark, forgetful world.