Participatory Spirituality

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See also the entries on Relational Spirituality and Spiritual Authoritarianism


Definition by Jorge Ferrer

As defined by Jorge Ferrer: Spiritual knowing is a participatory process. What do I mean by "participatory"? First, "participatory" alludes to the fact that spiritual knowing is not objective, neutral, or merely cognitive. On the contrary, spiritual knowing engages us in a connected, often passionate, activity that can involve not only the opening of the mind, but also of the body, the heart, and the soul. Although particular spiritual events may involve only certain dimensions of our nature, all of them can potentially come into play in the act of spiritual knowing, from somatic transfiguration to the awakening of the heart, from erotic communion to visionary co-creation, and from contemplative knowing to moral insight, to mention only a few (see also Ferrer, 2000a, 2002).

Second, the participatory nature of spiritual knowing refers to the role that our individual consciousness plays during most spiritual and transpersonal events. This relation is not one of appropriation, possession, or passive representation of knowledge, but of communion and co-creative participation.

Finally, "participatory" also refers to the fundamental ontological predicament of human beings in relation to spiritual energies and realities. Human beings are - whether we know it or not - always participating in the self-disclosure of Spirit. This participatory predicament is not only the ontological foundation of the other forms of participation, but also the epistemic anchor of spiritual knowledge claims and the moral source of responsible action.

Spiritual phenomena involve participatory ways of knowing that are presential, enactive, and transformative:

  1. Spiritual knowing is presential: Spiritual knowing is knowing by presence or by identity. In other words, in most spiritual events, knowing occurs by virtue of being. Spiritual knowing can be lived as the emergence of an embodied presence pregnant with meaning that transforms both self and world. Subject and object, knowing and being, epistemology and ontology are brought together in the very act of spiritual knowing.
  2. Spiritual knowing is enactive: Following the groundbreaking work of Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1991), my understanding of spiritual knowing embraces an enactive paradigm of cognition: Spiritual knowing is not a mental representation of pregiven, independent spiritual objects, but an enaction, the bringing forth of a world or domain of distinctions co-created by the different elements involved in the participatory event. Some central elements of spiritual participatory events include individual intentions and dispositions; cultural, religious, and historical horizons; archetypal and subtle energies; and, most importantly, a dynamic and indeterminate spiritual power of inexhaustible creativity.
  3. Spiritual knowing is transformative: Participatory knowing is transformative at least in the following two senses. First, the participation in a spiritual event brings forth the transformation of self and world. Second, a transformation of self is usually necessary to be able to participate in spiritual knowing, and this knowing, in turn, draws forth the self through its transformative process in order to make possible this participation.


Definition by John Heron

"The parties involved in a co-creative, enactive, transformative relation reciprocally and dynamically shape and reshape - in and through the process of meeting – how they understand each other, the regard they have for each other, and how they act and interact in relation with each other.

This definition is framed to apply to the central person-to-person relations. It can, with appropriate modifications, be applied to relations between ways of knowing, to relations between persons and their worlds, and, including and transcending all these, to the relation between persons and the divine.

Person-to-person relations are central because they are a precondition for setting the scene for divine self-disclosure and for persons to participate in it. In previous epochs this precondition was met by teacher-disciple hierarchical relations. Today divine self-disclosure can manifest through person-to-person peer relations, serviced from time to time by temporary hierarchical initiatives rotating among the peers.

Person-to-person peer relations are central, in my view, because of the intimate relation between epistemic participation and political participation. Epistemic participation is about the participative relation between the knower and the known. Political participation in this context is to do with participative decision-making among those involved about how we know and what we know. If participative knowing between persons is consummated in fully reciprocal encounter, then co-operative decision-making, both about how to engage in such reciprocal knowing and about what it reveals, is necessary for authentic interpersonal knowing - the realm of the between where divine self-disclosure can manifest."

Spiritual practice: A primary ground for the practice of participatory-relational spirituality can be cultivated by collaborative peer-to-peer relations between persons engaged in fully embodied, multidimensional, transformative flourishing in and with their worlds. See [1]


John Heron's critique on the relation between participatory and Relational Spirituality

Ferrer's account of participatory spirituality - in the passage quoted above – fails, from my point of view, to bring out the centrality of co-creative/collaborative relations between persons as central to the meaning and the practice of participatory spirituality. If you read the whole passage very carefully you will find that this is indeed the case. Thus, and crucially, person-to-person collaboration is absent from his account of "some central elements of spiritual participatory events". Elsewhere he refers to "self and world", and nowhere to self and other selves. I think he would argue that person-to-person co-operation is implicit in phrases like "other forms of participation" and "responsible action", but, if so, this buries it in unstated implications and makes it appear very subsidiary - instead of central. A few pages earlier in his book he writes of transpersonal events as multilocal, including the interpersonal and the communal, yet makes no explicit reference to any of this when he comes on to the passage quoted above."

The Relational Dimension of Participatory Spirituality: Reflections by Jorge Ferrer on John Heron’s Critique

  1. Although my theorizing has always been grounded in collaborative interpersonal spiritual practice (plus my own personal spiritual inquiry, extensive reading, and dialogue with others), John is correct stating that the relational or interpersonal dimension of participation is not emphasized in Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (RTT, 2002). I see RTT and Sacred Science very complementary in this respect.
  2. I stress the importance of relational spiritual work in later writings that deal with more practical, less philosophical issues than RTT. See, for example, my essay on "Integral Transformative Practice: A Participatory Perspective," published in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (2003), my co-authored essay on "Integral Tranformative Education: A Participatory Proposal,‿ published in The Journal of Transformative Education (2005), and, to a lesser extent, my recent essay on “Embodied Spirituality: Now and Then,‿ published in Tikkun. Of related interest, I wrote another essay on spirituality and intimate relationships, whose shorter version will be published in the next issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and the complete one in Tikkun a few months later.
  3. In my talks and conferences, I have found very helpful to introduce the notion of participatory spirituality in terms of three forms of co-creation: (1) intrapersonal co-creation, i.e., of the various human dimensions working together creatively as a team; (2) interpersonal co-creation, i.e., of human beings working together as peers in solidarity and mutual respect; and (3) transpersonal co-creation, i.e., of both human dimensions and collaborative human beings interacting with the Mystery in the co-creation of spiritual insights, practices, expanded forms of liberation, and spiritual worlds.
  4. On a practical level, many of my courses at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, and the integral transformative work I facilitate, are deeply relational and stress the centrality of interactive embodied meditations, interpersonal and group dynamics, collaborative spiritual inquiry, among other dimensions.

In sum, though I don't see the contrast between my participatory approach and relational approaches to spirituality as sharp as John paints it, it is accurate to say that the presentation of participatory spirituality in RTT did not stress the practical, and strongly relational, dimension of my participatory perspective.

John Heron's account of the relation between participatory spirituality and relational spirituality

The simplest provisional account I can give of this relation is as follows:

Participatory spirituality is inherently relational in four ways:

  1. It involves a co-creative, enactive, transformative relation between persons and the divine.
  2. This relation transcends and includes the relations between multiple ways of knowing within the person.
  3. And centrally the relations between persons and other persons.
  4. And the relations between persons and their worlds.

In one sentence:

Participatory spirituality involves a co-creative, enactive, transformative relation between persons and the divine, a relation which transcends and includes: the relations between multiple ways of knowing within the person, centrally the relations between persons and other persons, and the relations between persons and their worlds.

Jorge Ferrer's take on the The Participatory Turn in Spirituality

"Ferrer argues that spirituality must be emancipated from experientialism and perennialism. For Ferrer, the best way to do this is via his concept of a "participatory turn"; that is, to not limit spirituality as merely a personal, subjective experience, but to include interaction with others and the world at large. Finally, Ferrer posits that spirituality should not be universalized. That is, one should not strive to find the common thread that can link pluralism and universalism relationally. Instead, there should be emphasis on plurality and a dialectic between universalism and pluralism.‿ (,76105/yid,55463210)

J. Kripal summarises Ferrer's vision:

“Ferrer's participatory vision and its turn from subjective "experience" to processual "event" possesses some fairly radical political implications. Within it, a perennialist hierarchical monarchy (the "rule of the One" through the "great chain of Being") that locates all real truth in the feudal past (or, at the very least, in some present hierarchical culture) has been superseded by a quite radical participatory democracy in which the Real reveals itself not in the Great Man, Perfect Saint or God-King (or the Perennialist Scholar) but in radical relation and the sacred present. Consequently, the religious life is not about returning to some golden age of scripture or metaphysical absolute; it is about co-creating new revelations in the present, always, of course, in critical interaction with the past. Such a practice is dynamic, uncertain, and yet hopeful—a tikkun-like theurgical healing of the world and of God." ( )

J. Kripal's critique of the insufficiency of the Participatory Turn

J. Kripal on the necessity to reject the emancipatory illusions in religion and mysticism:

"Ferrer … ultimately adopts a very positive assessment of the traditions' ethical status, suggesting in effect that the religions have been more successful in finding common moral ground than doctrinal or metaphysical agreement, and that most traditions have called for (if never faithfully or fully enacted) a transcendence of dualistic self-centeredness or narcissism. It is here that I must become suspicious. Though Ferrer himself is refreshingly free of this particular logic (it is really more of a rhetoric), it is quite easy and quite common in the transpersonal literature to argue for the essential moral nature of mystical experience by being very careful about whom one bestows the (quite modern) title "mystic." It is an entirely circular argument, of course: One simply declares (because one believes) that mysticism is moral, then one lists from literally tens of thousands (millions?) of possible recorded cases a few, maybe a few dozen, exemplars who happen to fit one's moral standards (or better, whose historical description is sketchy enough to hide any and all evidence that would frustrate those standards), and, voilà, one has "proven" that mysticism is indeed moral. Any charismatic figure or saint that violates one's norms—and there will always be a very large, loudly screaming crowd here—one simply labels "not really a mystic" or conveniently ignores altogether. Put differently, it is the constructed category of "mysticism" itself that mutually constructs a "moral mysticism," not the historical evidence, which is always and everywhere immeasurably more ambivalent. Ferrer, as is evident in such moments as his thought experiment with the Theravada retreat, sees right through most of this. He knows perfectly well that perennialism simply does not correspond to the historical data. What he does not perhaps see so clearly is that a moral perennialism sneaks through the back door of his own conclusions. Thus, whereas he rightly rejects all talk of a "common core," he can nevertheless speak of a common "Ocean of Emancipation" that all the contemplative traditions approach from their different ontological shores."

Ferrer argues that we must realize that our goal can never be simply the recovery or reproduction of some past sense of the sacred, for "we cannot ignore that most religious traditions are still beset not only by intolerant exclusivist and absolutist tendencies, but also by patriarchy, authoritarianism, dogmatism, conservatism, transcendentalism, body-denial, sexual repression, and hierarchical institutions." Put simply, the contemplative traditions of the past have too often functioned as elaborate and sacralized techniques for dissociating consciousness.

Once again, I think this is exactly where we need to be, with a privileging of the ethical over the mystical and an insistence on human wholeness as human holiness. I would only want to further radicalize Ferrer's vision by underscoring how hermeneutical it is, that is, how it functions as a creative re-visioning and reforming of the past instead of as a simple reproduction of or fundamentalist fantasy about some nonexistent golden age. Put differently, in my view, there is no shared Ocean of Emancipation in the history of religions. Indeed, from many of our own modern perspectives, the waters of the past are barely potable, as what most of the contemplative traditions have meant by "emancipation" or "salvation" is not at all what we would like to imply by those terms today. It is, after all, frightfully easy to be emancipated from "the world" or to become one with a deity or ontological absolute and leave all the world's grossly unjust social structures and practices (racism, gender injustice, homophobia, religious bigotry, colonialism, caste, class division, environmental degradation, etc.) comfortably in place."" (

Owen Barfield on Participation

Defining Participation

"Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena."

The world as immediately given to us is a mixture of sense perception and thought. While the two may not be separable in our experience, we can nevertheless distinguish the two. When we do, we find that the perceptual alone gives us no coherence, no unities, no "things" at all. We could not even note a patch of red, or distinguish it from a neighboring patch of green, without aid of the concepts given by thinking. In the absence of the conceptual, we would experience (in William James' words) only "a blooming, buzzing confusion." (Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances)

"The familiar world -- as opposed to the largely notional world of "particles" which the physicist aspires to describe -- is the product of a perceptual given (which is meaningless by itself) and an activity of our own, which we might call "figuration." Figuration is a largely subconscious, imaginative activity through which we participate in producing ("figuring") the phenomena of the familiar world. (A simple analogy -- but only an analogy -- is found in the way a rainbow is produced by the cooperation of sun, raindrops, and observer.) How we choose to regard the particles is one thing, but when we refer to the workaday world -- the world of "things" -- we must accept that our thinking is as much out there in the world as in our heads. In actual fact, we find it nearly impossible to hold onto this truth. In our critical thinking as physicists or philosophers, we imagine ourselves set over against an objective world consisting of particles, in which we do not participate at all. In contrast, the phenomenal, or familiar, world is said to be riddled with our subjectivity. In our daily, uncritical thinking, on the other hand, we take for granted the solid, objective reality of the familiar world, assume an objective, lawful manifestation of its qualities such as color, sound, and solidity, and even write natural scientific treatises about the history of its phenomena -- all while ignoring the human consciousness that (by our own, critical account) determines these phenomena from the inside in a continually changing way". (Worlds Apart; Saving the Appearances)

"Our language and meanings today put the idea of participation almost out of reach, whereas the reality of participation (if not the idea) was simply given in earlier eras. For example, we cannot conceive of thoughts except as things in our heads, "rather like cigarettes inside a cigarette box called the brain." By contrast, during the medieval era it would have been impossible to think of mental activity, or intelligence, as the product of a physical organ. Then, as now, the prevailing view was supported by the unexamined meanings of the only words with which one could talk about the matter." (Excerpts collated at; More about Barfield at

Evolution of Participation

Summarized by Gil Agnew at

“Owen Barfield. British barrister and philosopher, said we’ve had two great stages of consciousness in human history, and of course it’s always generalizations, but … it rang true for me. First stage of human consciousness, hunter-gatherer … consciousness. We had intimate participation with the natural order. We were a part of it. But we had no sense of self. We revered the generativity of nature.

Second stage of history, we reduced nature from a generative force, including our own nature, to a … productive force. And that’s the great break in consciousness, from generativity … to productivity. And in the process, we learned, from Neolithic agriculture until today, the end of the pyrotechnical era, the nuclear era, we learned how to detach ourselves from nature, control it from a distance, and in the process we developed a sense of “I‿ and “it.‿ The self emerged in history. We became … the captains of our fate. But in the process, we lost intimacy. We lost the sense of participation. We lost the early bonds of generativity.

What’s the third stage of consciousness? A transformation to a species understanding, which is … a self-aware choice. By volition, not by fear as the early Paleolithic tribes, but a self-aware choice by volition, for a generation to reclaim a sense of participation with the community of life. We maintain our individuality, we don’t go back to the pre-modern moment. We maintain our sense of self because that provides us with the opportunity, the challenge, the responsibility, to make decisions. And the decision we make is to reclaim our relationship to the generativeness of the creation. Self. Community. Future generations. Our children’s world.‿ (

Peter Reason on Participative Embodiment

Peter Reason on embodiedness:

“Of course the systemic worldview, originated by Gregory Bateson and others and championed in particular by Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life (HarperCollins, 1996) does offer an important counterpoint to both the mechanical and relativist worldviews. However, systemic thought can remain quite abstract, and miss the important point that we are embodied participants in the co-creation of our world. The human mind makes its world by meeting the given and participating in its being. Our theories and models of the world are grounded in our experiential participation in what is present, in what there is. The notion of participation must be central to the emerging worldview." ( )

David Peat on the Monological Gaze of the West

The opposite of participatory consciousness? David Peat on the monological gaze of the West:

"Time was abstracted from space and painting was left with the single viewpoint, a frozen world seen though a window. With the device of perspective one longer enters into to painting but views it with an objective eye. Mirroring the metaphysics of the period, nature has been projected away from us and the world is experienced as something external.The mathematical basis of perspective is called Projective Geometry. This term says it all. One no longer engages directly with an object in its natural, essential form, as something that can be explored and touched, instead it becomes a surface that must be distorted to fit the global logic of mathematical perspective. The rich individualistic inscape of the natural world had given way to a uniform perspectival grid of logic and reason. How well perspective parallels a science in which nature obeys laws that are, in some metaphysical sense, external to matter's essence. As Bacon argued, these laws are to be discovered by placing nature on the rack, another sort of grid, and tormenting her to reveal her secrets." (

More on David Peat at

Key Authors

Jorge Ferrer

Jorge Ferrer is the author of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (SUNY Press 2002), a landmark book that established the new epistemological requirements needed to develop an open and participative spirituality. Within the specific tradition of transpersonal psychology, this book is an argument to go beyond the dominating influence of Ken Wilber.

Ferrer is part of the core faculty at the California Institute of Integral Studies and is currently co-editing (with Jacob Sherman] an anthology of original writings on participatory spirituality, The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies. He is also the editor of a monograph of the journal ReVision on "New Horizons in Contemporary Spirituality" (Fall 2001). In 2000 he received the Fetzer Institute’s Presidential Award for his seminal work on consciousness studies. He is on the editorial board of Journal of Transpersonal Psychology: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation.

Bibliography on Jorge Ferrer

Received from the author:

“Some shorter introductions can be found in the following sources:

Ferrer, J. N. (2003). Participatory Spirituality: An Introduction. Network: The Scientific and Medical Network Review 83 (Winter), 3-7.

__________. (2002). An Ocean with Many Shores. Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society, 17(5), 60-64.

__________. (2001). Towards a Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. ReVision 24(2), 15-26.

A further elaboration and application of my participatory perspective can be found in the following articles:

Ferrer, J. N. (2003). Integral Transformative Practices: A Participatory Perspective. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 35(1), 21-42. (This article may be especially relevant for your inquiry into peer-to-peer spirituality)

Ferrer, J. N., Albareda, R. V. & Romero, M. T. (2004). Embodied Participation in the Mystery: Implications for the Individual, Interpersonal Relationships, and Society. ReVision 27(1), 10-17.

Ferrer, J. N., Romero, M. T. & Albareda, R. V. (forthcoming). The Four Seasons of Integral Education: A Participatory Proposal for the New Millennium. ReVision.”

John Heron

John Heron presents a person-centred account of a participatory spirituality in his book Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key (Sage Publications 1992). He originated the influential and radical participative research method of co-operative inquiry and gives a full account of it in Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the Human Condition (Sage Publications 1996). He has since 1978 pioneered its application to human spirituality as reported in Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle (PCCS Books 1998), and in Participatory Spirituality; A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion (Lulu Press, 2006).

He is currently a Co-director the South Pacific Centre for Human Inquiry in New Zealand. He was Founder and Director of the Human Potential Research Project, University of Surrey, UK; Assistant Director, British Postgraduate Medical Federation, University of London; Director, International Centre for Co-operative Inquiry, Tuscany, Italy. He is a researcher, author, facilitator and trainer in co-counselling, co-operative inquiry, educational development, group facilitation, management development, personal and transpersonal development, professional development in the helping professions. His other books include The Complete Facilitator's Handbook (Kogan Page 1999) and Helping the Client: A Creative, Practical Guide (Sage Publications 2001).

He takes the view that participative knowing is closely related to participation in decision-making, and has introduced radical participative decision-making practices in higher and continuing education and training, in medicine, in counselling and psychotherapy, in management, in professional organization, as well as in the human sciences and spiritual inquiry.

More Information

  1. Equipotentiality
  2. Equiplurality
  3. Equiprimacy

External links


From course information for EWP 9405: Participatory Spirituality:

  1. Ferrer, J. N. (2003). Dialogical Inquiry as Spiritual Practice. Tikkun 18(1), 29-32.
  2. Washburn, M. (2003). Transpersonal Dialogue: A New Direction. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 35(1), 1-4.
  3. Reason, P., Tarnas, R. et al. (2001). A Participatory Conversation about How the Universe, Our Lives, and Science Are Participatory. ReVision 23(4), 6-17.
  4. Tarnas, R. (2001). A New Birth in Freedom: A (P)review of Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 33(1), 64-71.
  5. Jaenke, K. (2004). The Participatory Turn. Review of Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. ReVision 26(4), 8-14.
  6. Wilber, K. (2002). Participatory Samsara: The Green-Meme Approach to the Mystery of the Divine.
  7. Gleig, A. & N. G. Boeving (2009a). Spiritual Democracy: Beyond Consciousness and Culture. A Review Essay of The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies. Tikkun: Politics, Spirituality, Culture (May/June), 64-68.
  8. Ferrer, J. N. (2002). Trouble in Paradise: The Perennial Philosophy Revisited. In Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (pp. 71-111). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
  9. Kripal, J. (2003). In the Spirit of Hermes: Reflections on the Work of Jorge N. Ferrer. Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society 18(2), 67-70.
  10. Bastien, B. (2003). The Cultural Practice of Participatory Transpersonal Visions. ReVision 26(2), 41-48.
  11. Heron, J. (2006). A Participatory Spiritual Culture. The Life Divine and Innovative Spirituality. Relational Spirituality. In Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion (pp. 1-9). Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press.
  12. Ferrer, J. N. (2003). Integral Transformative Practices: A Participatory Perspective. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 35(1), 21-42.
  13. Heron, J. & Lahood, G. (2007). Charismatic Inquiry in Concert: Action Research in the Realm of the Between. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (pp. 439-449). (2nd ed.). London: SAGE.
  14. Heron, J. (2006). The Authoritarian Blight. Spiritual Projection and Authority. Personhood and Spiritual Inquiry. In Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion (pp. 59-73; 104-25). Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press.
  15. Osterhold, H. M., Husserl R. E., & Nicol, D. (2007). Rekindling the Fire of Transformative Education: A Participatory Case Study. Journal of Transformative Education 5(3), 221-245.
  16. Ferrer, J. N., Romero, M. T. & Albareda, R. V. (2005). Integral Transformative Education: A Participatory Proposal. Journal of Transformative Education 3(4), 306-330.