What's it Like to Experience the Transrational Borderland?
Do you feel grief for the natural world?
Posted Jan 06, 2020
Scientists who focus only on measurable and replicable phenomena (often mostly from experiments) tend to dismiss transrational experiences (e.g., peak experiences).
As Bernstein (2005) notes, transrational experiences are assumed by the western-educated mind to be rooted in illusion or wild imagination. This is the interpretation of the logical calculating mind, the one the western world has emphasized for some time. But this thinking mind, associated with the left brain, is unable to access the implicit subconscious mind which does have many more capacities (some categorized as “intuition”) largely associated with the right brain (see McGilchrist, 2009, for a summary of research) and apparent in indigenous and traditional societies.
Jerome Bernstein (2005), Jungian psychotherapist, discovered in several of his clients a sensitivity to the transrational. At first, he tried to persuade them it was their own imaginations, fantasies, based on childhood experiences. After repeated failures to make any progress and after exposure to Navaho healing, he changed his mind. Like Temple Grandin, who is renown for her ability to feel the suffering of animals in feedlots, he discovered that some people in modern societies are more sensitive to the cues or communications of animals and the natural world.
Based on what turned into decades of clinical experience, Bernstein concluded that “the collective unconscious has tapped certain individuals within the culture to be carriers of personal and collective mourning for the profound assault and wounds to nature wrought, predominantly, by western civilization and the modern technological society” (Bernstein, 2005, pp. 78-79).
Bernstein's clients taught him what he should do whenever he was presented with a profound transrational experience:
“The challenge is to not interpret at all—certainly not in the moment—to hold an experience that can feel between language, that can leave one with the tension of holding one’s intellectual and rational breath for far longer than any of us can imagine doing. To not seek the comfort of rational understanding, but to come to kind of knowing through a holding and a wonderment” (p. 73).
Bernstein describes their experiences as ones of the Borderland: “The psychic space where the hyper-developed and overly rational western ego is in the process of reconnecting with its split-off roots in nature,” (p. 8) a “by-product of that evolutionary process, the ‘space,’ the nexus, the threshold whereby the western ego is being thrust into reconnection with transrational dimensions of reality” (p. 82).
Bernstein writes out descriptions of his clients’ experiences. Several describe dreams and experiences of “great grief,” the loss of nature or connection to nature, or a tuning into particular animal suffering: “not as neurosis, but as objective, nonpersonal, nonrational phenomena occurring in the natural universe” picked up by Borderland individuals. Their experiences are not intrapsychic but actual world experiences.
Although a “Borderlander” may have borderline personality disorder, these are different phenomena. One difference Bernstein noted was that borderliners bring anger to the room and Borderlanders bring sadness or mourning.
In therapy sessions, he helped Borderlanders understand that they were grieving not so much "something in here" as "something out there." One felt: “The world is dying… and our souls with it. And the world is too busy to even note it.” The song “The Earth Died Screaming” went through this client’s head for days.
Most of his clients, and others who reported similar experiences, told him that transrational events began in childhood, but they were sanctioned for expressing it. Though such experiences may be common among children, formal education typically excludes “the imaginal, magical, archetypal, and other ‘right-brain’ dimensions of psychic existence” (p. 91).
For example, one woman described how she heard the screams of the insects being “put to sleep” in a jar with chemicals within her elementary classroom but was shamed for “imagining” it. Bernstein calls this type of pedagogical and cultural assault on the child’s sensitive psyche an overlooked source of trauma for children.
In his book, he relates some of the experiences he heard about. Most of the accounts are long. Here is a shorter one from a letter Bernstein received:
“My sensitivities to all things animate and inanimate were with me from my earliest memories. I would touch my bedroom door and it would “tell” me about the forest it came from. Though we had no pets, dogs and cats would show up at our front door—I had invited them to come over. The dog next door was my best friend, literally.
Everything I came in contact with had something to tell me. It was not a problem until I realized that no one else heard what I heard or felt what I felt. I kept waiting, hoping, to find other people like me. There is nothing worse for a child than to be different. I was different from everyone, my own family included. Interestingly my older brother and sister made up a story that I had been dropped on the door step by an Indian. I was only about three years old when they told me this story, but I remember being so happy to hear that I did have a “real” family and that maybe they would come back for me. I used to watch out the front door, looking for an Indian.
As a small child (2-5 years old) I was very tuned in to both the animate and inanimate world. I remember my mother trying to explain death to me. She said that when animal dies, it stops eating, breathing, and becomes like a rock. I told her, well then it is still alive, because for me rocks were very alive” (Bernstein, 2005, p. 85).
This woman closed off this part of herself at age 8 but reconnected to it at age 32.
Borderlanders want their experiences acknowledged, not pathologized because to them the experiences feel sacred. An ability to enter liminal spaces, those outside of everyday reality, feels like a gift. Such capacities are common around the world in traditional societies (Descola, 2013) and cultivated as part of being human and a respectful member of the earth community (Four Arrows, 2016; Katz, 2017; Narvaez, Four Arrows, Halton, Collier & Enderle, 2019; Young, Haas & McGown, 2010).
As Bernstein points out, transpersonal psychology, which includes Jungian psychology, does not shy away from “spirit” and assumes an immeasurable mystery at the heart of being human and a member of the planet.
Bernstein, J.S. (2005). Living in the Borderland: The evolution of consciousness and the challenge of healing trauma. New York: Routledge.
Four Arrows (2016). Point of Departure. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Katz, R. (2017). Indigenous healing psychology: Honoring the wisdom of the First Peoples. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Narvaez, D., Four Arrows, Halton, E., Collier, B., Enderle, G. (Eds.) (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing. New York: Peter Lang.
Young, J., Haas, E., & McGown, E. (2010). Coyote's guide to connecting with nature, 2nd ed.. Santa Cruz, CA: Owlink Media.