Transformational or translational spirituality?

By Robert Brumet

This distinction of transformational v Translational Spirituality is a very powerful notion that I thought many in Unity needed to look at -so I wrote this article for Unity Magazine (Nov/Dec 2103)

The two young Zen monks were in a heated argument: Aki insisted that enlightenment came only from intense personal effort and determined spiritual practice. But his friend Baku argued that enlightenment came only after the complete surrender of all personal effort. The debate continued for hours. Unable to resolve their differences, they made arrangements to see the roshi.

Aki bowed to the master and then presented his case for intense personal effort. The roshi listened intently and at the close of Aki’s presentation looked at him and said “You’re right!” With a big smirk on his face, Aki walked away and sat down.

Then Baku came to the master and presented his case for surrender with an equal amount of brilliance and passion. The roshi listened very closely and at the end of Baku’s presentation he looked him in the eye and said “You’re right!”

Upon hearing those words Aki sprang forward and blurted out “Honorable roshi, we have presented vastly opposing arguments to you, we cannot both be right!” The master looked him in the eye once again, and said, “Your right!”

This may seem like a typical enigmatic Zen story that challenges our common sense, but to understand it a little better let’s create another story that’s a bit closer to home.

Alan and Bill are on their cell phones engaging in a heated argument as to what time it is. Alan says “It’s two o’clock; and Bill responds, “You’re wrong, it’s five o’clock.” Unable to resolve this argument they call their mutual friend Susan. Susan listens to each of them and responds, “You’re right!”

As you may have guessed, Alan lives on the west coast of the US and Bill lives in the east. They could not resolve their argument for essentially the same reason our two Zen monks could not: they were each standing in a very different place; although with the monks the distance was not geographic, it was in consciousness. The roshi was wise enough to see this and he, like Susan, knew that from their respective viewpoints each of them was right.

These types of arguments are not confined to Zen monasteries, they occur in a variety of spiritual circles-- but often there is no master teacher available to resolve the apparent dilemma. But a few years ago one such teacher has come forward with a general principle that can help resolve much misunderstanding and confusion in regards to certain spiritual teachings.

The teacher’s name is Ken Wilber; he is a contemporary philosopher and the author of over two dozen books. The teaching to which I refer is the distinction that Wilber makes between what he terms transformational spirituality in contrast to translational spirituality. These forms of spirituality each have very different intentions. Translational spirituality has the intention of helping the individual to feel better and to achieve what she desires. Its primary intention is to bring about changes in our life conditions and circumstances. Translational spirituality is about becoming more functional and more in charge of one’s life. Examples would include many teachings on prosperity and healing as can be found in New Thought literature and many New Age teachings.

Transformational spirituality, on the other hand, focuses on letting go of one’s identity and one’s present sense of reality to allow the emergence of a much deeper identity and a much more expansive sense of reality. Transformational spirituality does not seek to make the ego more comfortable or more in control; to the contrary, it sees our attachment to comfort and control as the underlying cause of humanity’s most basic problems of suffering and discontent. Transformational spirituality sees the attachment to our egocentric identity, not the conditions of our life, as our primary problem. Examples of transformational spirituality can found in most Eastern wisdom traditions, in the Western perennial philosophy and wisdom literature, and in many Unity books.

Transformational spirituality is relatively unconcerned with the conditions of our life and is much more concerned with how we understand and respond to these conditions. There is little attachment to specific outcomes, and much more interest in resolving what it considers the fundamental cause of human discontent. The practice is more challenging, but the prize is much greater than it is for translational spiritual practice.

An example of how this distinction shows up: there is much debate in some contemporary circles about whether or not prayer works. But the meaning of the word “works” depends upon whether you have a translational or transformative paradigm. The translational approach says that prayer works when you have tangible results that are in alignment with your desires. Prayer works only if the desired outcome (or something “better”) occurs.

But a transformational approach to prayer would say that prayer “works” only if it transforms the person engaging in the prayer; it works only if the “pray-er” is transformed. Visible results are relatively inconsequential and are seen as a by-product of the transformational process. In fact, attachment to visible results can become a hindrance to transformational prayer.

Another example lies in the case of a man who comes in for spiritual counseling after having lost his job. Let’s look at how a spiritual counselor would work with this person using each of these paradigms. Both a transformational and a translational approach would involve obtaining information about the particulars of the situation, getting some personal history and becoming more acquainted this man.

A translational approach would then focus primarily on helping the client achieve his goal of getting another, and perhaps better, job. The counselor might suggest prayer, affirmation and visualization as tools to be used. The counselor might help the man change his negative thoughts into positive ones.

But a transformational approach would focus primarily on using this experience to help the man awaken to his true nature. The counselor would explore the man’s attachment to the former job and explore his understanding of what this experience means to him. The individual would be encouraged to explore how this loss can help him strip away parts of his old identity and become more intimate with a deeper sense of self.

Certainly the transformational approach might welcome a new and better job, but that outcome would be considered a by-product rather than the primary intention of the counseling. If the client where to acquire an excellent job but achieve no significant spiritual awakening the transformational approach would consider this a failure-- whereas the purely translational approach might consider it a great success!

Which one is right? You guessed it—they both are. Neither approach is intrinsically better than the other. Our discussion is not about what we should be doing but about getting clarity on our intentionality; getting clear on what might be needed at any particular time. The most basic question to ask is “What do we really want?”

In our counseling scenario it would be vitally important to explore the man’s intention at the outset. What does he really want? Another important factor is the counselor’s ability (or inability) to function in either mode. If the counselor were limited to only one modality then her effectiveness would be limited to those persons whose needs matched her abilities.

One might ask, “Why not do both at the same time?” The answer is “This can be done up to a point, but in actual practice the question eventually comes down to ‘Where does one (both counselor and client) put one’s primary psychic energy?’” Sometimes the intentions are mutually exclusive. For example, if this man’s identity has historically been tied to his job then, in a transformational approach, releasing the immediate focus on acquiring a new job and putting attention on exploring the experience of having no apparent identity might best serve the client’s intention.

Sometimes a translational approach can morph into a transformational one. In the process of seeking a specific goal we may realize the need for a complete transformation of consciousness. This happens to many persons in the Twelve Step Recovery programs who enter the program with the intention of behavior modification and end up seeing the need for a deep spiritual transformation.

Conversely, we may discover that when we focus on personal transformation we seem to have everything we need- and maybe more. Jesus told his disciples. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all else will be added… (Matt 6.33).

Our traditional Unity teachings include both translational and transformational spirituality, but with many authors it is not always clear which approach is being addressed. To include this distinction and this languaging in our teaching can open the way for greater clarity and effectiveness in our very powerful, and still relevant, teachings. Like the Zen roshi, we may someday encounter someone who seems to disagree with us and understand that “He’s right! …and so am I.”