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Conflict within Idealism

The Three Stages

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Faith, Love and Equanimity

The previous article  Overview  gave an overview of conflict within the spiritual life. Now I give a more detailed description of this conflict.

Conflict can be experienced at three levels of psychological confusion, corresponding to the levels of consciousness represented by the ego, soul, and god. [¹]

Each level has its own crisis that the seeker has to navigate. At the first level, focused on the ego, the crisis orientates around the issue of faith. At the second level, focused on the soul, the issue is that of pure love. And at the third level, focused on god, the issue is that of equanimity and detachment.

Sub - Headings
1st Level of  Confusion
2nd Level of  
3rd Level of  Confusion
Handling form

These three levels are not necessarily attained in an ascending order from faith to equanimity. They can be attained in any order, especially when they are experienced as transient states of mind rather than permanent achievements.

Another way of looking at these three levels is that they represent three ways of interacting with reality. A person's interactions, including his/her relationships, can be based primarily either on objectivity, or subjectivity, or relativity.

1st Level of Confusion – the Level of Objectivity

The first level of confusion is produced by social conditioning. This conditioning provides boundaries or rules for the person within average social situations. Boundaries confine anti-social behaviour, and so give some degree of psychological support for everyone. Boundaries are derived from an objective view of the world, a view that places little importance on subjectivity.

However, a time comes when the person has evolved beyond the range of existing social rules. Now the boundaries are perceived to be muddled and inconsistent, and so they help generate unclear and inconsistent prejudices and attitudes. These boundaries no longer provide enough support – indeed, they act as obstacles when the person needs to change in a positive way. In times of rapid social change or in times of personal crisis these boundaries, usually in part or in total, need to be replaced by better ones.

Social conditioning maintains the seeker’s psychological deficiencies and restricts evolving existential needs. The seeker feels that social conditioning prevents the attainment of an harmonious and balanced life. He becomes all too aware of the qualitative poverty of his life. He feels trapped within the charade of a meaningless existence.

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Crisis and Resolution of the 1st Level

This level of confusion reaches a climax as the seeker begins to lose hope. Nothing in reality has any meaning any longer. His world begins to fall apart and he feels the void under his feet. There is nothing in reality that he can grasp in order to stop him sinking into the blackness of the void. His mind is bleak, very bleak. Despair enfolds him. Unhappiness permeates every cell of his being. He begins to give up.

Finally, in desperation, he responds to a silent suggestion from his soul and he makes the leap of faith (as Kierkegaard well knew). He acquires faith in a suitable object – whether a teacher, a religious symbol, or some aspect of his own consciousness. In the latter case he acquires a faith (an internal faith) in himself that he can eventually pull himself out of his mess by his own abilities, when they have become suitably developed. As faith revitalises him, the void rolls away and the bleakness of his mind fades. [²]

Most people transcend this level by adopting an external faith, a faith in a religious organisation or a faith in a teacher. In this situation the person openly adopts a clear set of boundaries (those rules expounded by the religion or the teacher) and his faith generates harmony, at least with fellow believers. However, it is not always possible to align the rules of his faith with his intellect. In this situation where emotion and rationality oppose each other, the conflict is resolved by making emotion (or emotive belief) the master of the intellect. The real advantage of faith is that it brings hope to the person, by re-orientating his outlook on life, from the material to the spiritual.

The existential seeker has no faith in organisations or teachers, though he is willing to use them as a source of ideas. Therefore he has to develop his intellect in order to solve his problems: where possible, he has to think his way out of those problems. So he regards rationality as a friend, not an enemy. He has to find different solutions. Along the way he makes the leap of faith and finds faith in himself, and this faith is in harmony with his intellect.

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In order to transcend this level of confusion the existential seeker begins the process of questioning, even eliminating, social conditioning. Social conditioning has to be questioned since it is a source of internal conflict: the conditioning is imparted to the young child without its consent – this is an unavoidable problem of childhood. It is immaterial whether the conditioning is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Social conditioning revolves around concepts of acceptable behaviour, so the seeker realises that ‘goodness’ needs to be questioned. ‘Goodness’ can only be examined by using criteria of ‘truth’. Now the difference emerges between the traditional and the existential seekers: the traditionalist is unwilling to let go of ‘goodness’, whilst the existentialist is unwilling to let go of ‘truth’. Goodness and truth cannot be followed simultaneously ; one has to take preference.

Social conditioning maintains the seeker’s psychological deficiencies and restricts evolving existential needs. His present states of mind are the centre of his attention. Hence this level of conflict is experienced as being between the existential reality of the seeker and social conditioning.

The seeker begins the process of clarifying his vague and muddled thoughts about reality and its meaning to him by turning to theories of objective ethics.

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2nd Level of Confusion – the Level of Subjectivity

Faith is usually over-valued, since the seeker does not understand the levels of spiritual progression. Faith is of most importance when you are looking for it. Once you have it you find that, after all, it does not really do very much for you. Faith has its limitations, primarily because the person’s basic beliefs and attitudes have not changed to any significant extent.

Now the existential seeker begins to detect the limitations to faith. He finds that he has to discard external beliefs and transcend social beliefs. He has to discard beliefs that postulate an external reality as the source of meaning. He has to find meaning within himself.

As he continues his examination into social values, he brings into focus the question of objective ethics. Are these anything more than rationalisations of traditional social beliefs?   Within an objective ethical system ethical rules are claimed to be universal ; similarly religious beliefs are claimed to be universal too. Are these universal claims true?

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Crisis of 2nd Level and its Resolution

This level of confusion begins to reach a climax when the seeker experiences the dark side of his mind. Now the seeker experiences internal conflict from his desires and attitudes that were created before social conditioning began. Faith does not help the seeker to resolve this level of confusion. Instead, the object of this crisis is to re-orientate the seeker from faith to mystic love.

This level of conflict arises from the initial experience of his relationships to his parents during the time that he first began to create his ego, this creation beginning some time in his first year of life (probably in the sixth or seventh months). This conflict is that of infancy trauma. [³]

This trauma leads to the creation of an unstable ego ; it is unstable because it is built on a foundation of fear and guilt. The child feels that it has been rejected by the parents. When the child has grown into an adult he will seek what was missing in his life – he will seek love. Love is sought because it offers a way of neutralising his intense feelings of self-hate (as a mode of guilt). [4]

If the person is a traditionalist he will graduate to an affinity with the concept of ego-denial as a way of attempting to deny that guilt. Ego-denial means only that he denies, without any examination, the fundamental subjective beliefs on which his ego has built itself. If the ego is denied, then there is no longer any validity to the guilt that the ego feels.

When this level of conflict reaches a crisis, the seeker enters what is sometimes called, in picturesque language, ‘the dark night of the soul ’, meaning in actuality ‘the dark night of the ego’. The onset of the crisis brings with it the feeling that the seeker has been rejected by god or by his spiritual guides ( hence this crisis resonates with the crisis /trauma of infancy). The seeker has to examine himself to try and discover what he has done or thought that merits him being rejected.

Now god is no longer felt to be always good : why does god allow such sorrow?   For the traditional mystic this change of feeling towards god is not consciously admitted, and so it is kept repressed ; what is admitted is that all good feelings have dried up, and remain dried up for months on end.

Finally the mystic surrenders completely to god and obtains his reward. He becomes at home in heaven whilst still on earth. The mystic, entranced in love, has progressed much further than the person who only has faith. Many of his beliefs and attitudes have changed, but not his subconscious motivation. He is still far from perfection.

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The existentialist does not accept the doctrine of ego-denial, but centres instead on the doctrine of character transformation. [5]. His approach to handling the ‘dark night’ is very different. He continues to analyse his situations and relationships, even during the period of the crisis. In this crisis his depth of awareness becomes more acute and penetrating.
Extreme distress brings him extreme awareness.

Extreme distress also brings the existentialist extreme resentment and bitterness, which he uses to cut through the webs of confusion and self-deception that are built into his basic beliefs and the beliefs taught by traditional religious and psychic/occult organisations.

During his analysis, the beliefs arising from infancy trauma come into his conscious awareness. His self-reliance is put to an extreme test – he may experience madness. Madness has a profound consequence to an analytical thinker. After madness, nothing is ever the same again.

More importantly, the experiences of madness and the successful decipherment of its meanings change the whole view of reality, revealing the short-comings of the traditional views of spirituality. Madness (except the few cases of possession by spirits) cannot be understood within the frameworks of spiritual orthodoxy.

The existentialist uses his will power and idealism to stay on the edge of madness so that he can analyse it, whilst remaining active in his daily work. By using his empirical discipline the seeker establishes the causes of the varieties of madness and the ways to resolve them. In doing this he has to free himself from historical ideas of goodness so that he can evaluate goodness in a way that fits his empiricism. His understanding of insanity enables the seeker to understand the relationship of good to evil in a radically new way that challenges all past interpretations.

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The traditionalist follows goodness, and so this level of confusion is resolved by becoming absorbed into mystic love. The experience of pure, non-sensual love is amazing and wonderful. The seeker desires this experience all the time. He wants his life to remain in this magical mould.

Attractive as this state is, the existentialist has to bypass its allure. He continues to follow truth, and so he cannot deny his subconscious motivation which is still centred on pride and hate (as initially all sensitive seekers are). Love is seen only as an intermediate state of reality, since it is not the answer to all problems.

Sometimes the ‘dark night’ can be entered prematurely, as the soul pushes the ego beyond its capacity to recover. The soul of Rousseau plunged him into paranoia. The soul of Nietzsche plunged him into catatonia. [6].
 [ The distress inflicted on these two theorists enabled them to produce some remarkable writings. My favourite work of Rousseau is his ‘Reveries of the Solitary Walker ’ ].

This level of confusion is centred on internal conflicts that were created before social conditioning began. The seeker has to begin exploring his subjective contradictions that were produced in the distant past. This level of conflict is experienced as being between the psychological reality of the seeker and objective ethics. The seeker switches to a subjective ethics.

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3rd Level of Confusion – the Level of Relativity

As the seeker enters the third level of consciousness he has to begin to examine, and possibly discard, his subjective beliefs. He has to learn that neither objectivity nor subjectivity are primary now; instead he has to understand reality as being relative.

If something is relative, what does this mean?   Relativity means that a relationship exists between two or more factors. But what is the nature of the factors that are related?  Western thinkers have consistently mis-understood the meaning of relative concepts. Western thinkers have not clearly dis-entangled the boundaries between the three concepts of subjectivity, objectivity, and relativity.

In my understanding of these terms, something is relative when a subjective effect always goes hand-in-hand with an objective effect. This result is the general meaning of relativity.

In any relative relationship, a subjective effect is always tied to an objective effect. Hence neither subjectivity nor objectivity is the basis of reality. Reality is always relative. And so is the ego. A relative ego interacts with a relative world. [7]

In order to understand the limitations  of subjectivity, he now experiences the other side of spiritual love, as his soul subjects him to intense states of unpleasant emotions. Survival becomes uppermost in his mind.

The situation of the seeker is that as he evolves and becomes more sensitive he usually withdraws more and more from relationships, and may end as a solitary practitioner. In this situation it becomes extremely hard for such a seeker to change his beliefs and attitudes and motivations solely through his own efforts. The necessary changes occur through repeated exposure to intense crises and suffering.

Unfortunately, in these crises, no instructions accompany them to explain their purpose. The soul does not communicate with the ego over the purpose of such suffering. Such trials therefore can easily generate profound misunderstanding, by the ego, of the purposes and intentions of spiritual powers. The suffering may seem meaningless, pointless and unjustified, and all the seeker seems to achieve is the capacity to bear heavy sorrow.

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Crisis of 3rd Level and its Resolution

The third level of confusion is the most difficult of all to understand whilst it is happening. The seeker is more confused about the pursuit of spirituality than ever before. At this level he is tested by ‘trials’, the most extreme one being what has been called ‘the trial by fire’. In the ‘dark night’ the seeker had to overcome his feelings of being rejected ; now in this ‘trial’ he has to overcome the sense of complete failure of his efforts as he is pushed by his soul to the edge of self-destruction (that is, ego-destruction).

At this level the traditionalist is following a training in occultism (a step higher than mysticism). According to the view of Rudolf Steiner, all the seeker's efforts meet with sorrow, disappointment and failure during the time of crisis. He has to learn to bear these effects with detachment and fortitude. When the trial is over he has acquired a greater self-confidence, magnanimity and quality of endurance than is possible from normal social situations and relationships. Steiner describes this state in his book ‘Knowledge of the Higher Worlds ’.

The existentialist handles this experience differently from the occultist. Prior to this crisis the seeker has been motivated by love in some form, such as the love of god or the love of truth. Once the crisis sets in then this love turns to hate. Now he realises the dark side to pure love. As the love of truth casts out all forms of self-deception, so the seeker finds that all his beliefs and aspirations turn to dust. Ice-cold rationality destroys the fire of his idealism. He realises that his love of truth has turned his life into one of seemingly endless sorrow: he experiences only failure of his hopes. [8]

Why does truth turn life sour?  When the pursuit of truth is followed passionately, failure is pre-programmed. Only failure prompts the deep analysis of a person’s motives and attitudes. Success just breeds a superficial analysis. Deep understanding is always the product of the analysis of failures. Wisdom becomes its own tragedy. This is summed up in an aphorism from Ecclesiastes (Old Testament): ‘He who increases his wisdom does so by increasing his sorrow’.

This crisis is primarily generated by the soul, and it is the soul that consistently and deliberately creates the feeling of failure in the ego. The ego’s internal drive is generated by the soul. Prior to this level the soul directed the drive into the love of truth, or the love of god, or the love of humanity. Now it directs the drive into states of self-pity and guilt (especially the self-hate mode) or bitterness. As a result, the effects of these states on the ego are greatly intensified. The ego begins to shrivel under the impact of negative moods that last for months on end. The soul is driving the idealistic ego to its limits, to the edge of self-destruction.

The purpose of this conflict is to speed up the change in the attitudes and subconscious motivation of the seeker. Normally entrenched attitudes change very, very slowly and require numerous lifetimes to effect lasting improvement. When times are good, negative attitudes are ignored or brushed aside ; under the impact of months or years of sorrow these attitudes have to be faced. [9]

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Handling the Form Aspect of a Problem

I go into more detail as to why this conflict occurs. I need to bring in an observation on the effectiveness of psycho-analysis to produce character change. I especially highlight a particular limitation to its effectiveness.

Problems can be viewed under the format of  form and content.
The form is the particular type of belief or attitude that is generating confusion or conflict. The content is the number of actual occurrences of this problem in a person’s life.

A psycho-analysis, if deep enough, can eliminate all the anxieties and guilt that have arisen from the content of a problem, but  the psycho-analysis cannot eliminate the form. The form is karmic, and has developed over many lifetimes. A person reincarnates with the form of his problems but not with any content to them.

For example: a person may have a negative attitude to external sources of authority. This is the form of the problem. As life goes by, he will come into conflict with external authorities, perhaps many times – this is the content. When he goes into a psycho-analysis, the effects of the actual occasions of conflict can be dissipated. But he will leave therapy still possessing a negative attitude to authority. The form of the problem has to be handled by other means. [10]

To prevent future arousal over a source of conflict we need to neutralise the form as well as the content. The form is handled by learning detachment to it, similar to practising mindfulness on content, but now emphasising the attitude that any unpleasant experience is ‘just another experience’. The purpose of detachment is to remove any kind of valuation from that experience, whether of content or of form – when an experience has no value for us, then it cannot affect us. Therefore the source of conflict has to be faced enough times till we achieve the desired detachment.

However, the issue here is that since facing conflict is unpleasant, we do not normally decide to face our major problems till they get resolved, especially if the process is likely to take years. Experiencing years of regular conflict is not an appealing feature of life. But matters are much worse for the seeker, since higher evolution brings more intensity to his life, and more intensity to his problems. So the problems are much more difficult to face regularly.

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It seems to be an act of policy in the spiritual world for the soul to deliberately bring the seeker into regular situations of conflict. The seeker has no alternative but to try and resolve the forms of conflict as best he can. There is always one kind of problem that overshadows all other ones.

The seeker's major problem is either that of guilt or that of bitterness.

In most past traditions (perhaps the only exception is shamanism) the traditionalist is trapped by overpowering guilt. He flees from the material world into solitude or small cults. Guilt generates the problem of world-denial ; the seeker regards the material world as an illusion and not real. Over many lifetimes this problem intensifies. So his soul brings this problem into his life as often as possible. Once he has become strong enough to carry the pain then he can learn to face it.  The form that he has to learn detachment from is that of world-denial.

In modern times the course of human evolution is being shaped by idealists rather than by traditionalists. Now the other major problem comes into the limelight - that of bitterness. Bitterness is generated when idealism fails. Over many lifetimes the soul makes the spiritual idealist face failure over and over again. This kind of seeker undertakes a different flight. The traditionalist flees from the world. The spiritual idealist flees from spirituality. He adopts existentialism as his code of being. The bitterness heaps up like a mountain in the core of his being. When he too has become strong enough to carry the pain then he can learn to face it.  The form that he has to learn detachment from is that of denial of the spiritual world.

The seeker learns to value detachment. He rejects love as the supreme goal and aims for equanimity. Neither faith nor love is denied ; only their ascendancy is rejected. As the seeker begins to acquire detachment, so he starts to climb the long road to freedom. Freedom is not sustainable if he is upset by either failure or success. There are many degrees to detachment, and therefore many degrees to freedom.

At this level the seeker has to begin to examine, and possibly discard, his subjective beliefs. He can no longer adhere to a purely subjective reality. He now realises the true meaning of relativity, that subjectivity is always tied to objectivity. So he needs to find a balance. At this level of confusion the conflict is experienced as being between the existential reality of the seeker and subjective ethics.  The seeker switches to a relative ethics.

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I sum up these ideas

In my view, the primary function of each kind of crisis is to produce the following results:

These ideas are continued in the next article on Conflict within Idealism, by examining ethics and ideals.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.  For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.

[¹]. The previous articles, Orientations, and then Overview  began the description of these three levels, as well as explaining my views on the terms "ego, soul and god". [1]

[²]. My leap of faith is described in the article Guilt and Meaning - part 1, section Genesis of Faith, on my website Patterns of Confusion[2]

[³]. Infancy trauma is explained in two articles on my website Patterns of Confusion. The first article, Vulnerability of the Ego, focuses on the origins of violence. And the second one, Guilt and Meaning - part 2, centres on why trauma occurs unintentionally ; a shortened version of this article is Infancy Trauma, on my website  The Subconscious Mind.

Also, an article on Bonding focuses on some problems of a sensitive child and explains an unintentional source of infancy trauma. [3]

The time period for the creation of the ego is explained in the article Vulnerability of the Ego, on my website Patterns of Confusion, or in the article Creating the Ego, on my website Discover Your Mind.

[4]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page. [4]

[5]. There is an article on Character Transformation on my website  The Subconscious Mind[5]

[6]. Nietzsche's madness has baffled every writer on him that I have read. It is usually thought to be the result of syphilis, but this cannot be correct. His madness took only a few moments to happen. Whereas syphilis produces a gradual decline in mental functioning. Instant madness is always the result of rapid-onset catatonia. See the article on Guilt and Meaning - part 1, on my website Patterns of Confusion. [6]

[7]. My understanding of relativity is contained in the article Ego and Relativity, on my website Relative Mind, Relative Matter. This site has other articles on the relative nature of  Mind, Consciousness, and Matter. An article that is almost the same is Relativity of the Ego, on my website A Modern Thinker.  [7]

[8]. The pursuit of truth is described in articles in section 1 of my philosophy website, A Modern Thinker. [8]

[9]. There are articles on attitudes - how they are formed, and acquired, and changed - on my website Discover Your Mind[9]

[10]. The process of psycho-analysis is described in articles on my website The Subconscious Mind[10]


Steiner, Rudolf.  Knowledge of the Higher Worlds.  Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993. (chapter on ‘Initiation’)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  Reveries of the Solitary Walker.  Penguin, 1979.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Dialectics and Human Evolution - the way of spiritual teachers.

Orientations - the three goals of the spiritual life ; the soul.

Conflict within Idealism 1 - overview of three levels of confusion in the spiritual life.

Conflict within Idealism 2 - the three stages in detail.

Conflict within Idealism 3 - three forms of ethics and three ideals.

Utopian Idealism - spirituality as personal choice.

The Conversion Experience - abreactions of jealousy and narcissism.

The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved

Ian Heath
London, UK

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