As most readers of this site will know, the 'centaur' is a term that originated within the field of transpersonal psychology to refer to the fully-integrated and psychologically-healthy individual. While not necessarily enlightened, the centauric individual has attained a high degree of functioning in his daily life and interpersonal relationships, and in many cases he will also be naturally inclined towards self actualisation, spiritual development and the attainment of higher states of consciousness.
In this post I would like to outline a list of the attributes of the centaur as I see them and to point to some practices that can be used by individuals wanting to actualise this structure.
2. The Centaur in the Major Models
In the current version (2007) of Ken Wilber's structural-hierarchical model the centaur occupies the two levels (Teal and Turquoise) that make up the second tier of development. In the early versions of his model (Wilber I) Wilber focused quite a lot of attention on the somatic aspects of the centaur and the fact that it is comprised of the integration of all the lower levels (1985) (its so-called "superior integration"). However, in more recent years he has tended to concentrate more (although not exclusively) on the cognitive and self-identity aspects of this stage and he now states that the centaur integrates the body in the same manner as earlier stages, although with greater power (being a higher level) (2000).
The centaur also occupies a place of great importance in Michael Washburn's dynamic-dialectical model, so great in fact that many people believe that this schema of development culminates in the attainment of this stage. Washburn argues that centauric awareness is attained by the lifting of so-called primal repression and the integration of the resulting material (1995). Washburn's model therefore agrees with Wilber I that the centaur integrates the body and lower levels in a manner superior to earlier stages.
In the model of development I am proposing, the organic-integrative, the centaur is not seen as being a certain stage of development, but rather as the autonomous, integrated form of any other stage (O'Connor 2006, 2008). In agreement with Washburn and in contrast to Wilber's current thinking, I would argue that the centaur does indeed integrate the body and lower levels of awareness with greater power than non-centauric structures and that this superior integration can be symbolised as a mandala rather than a hierarchy or nest.
However, despite the points of contention between these models they are all in agreement that the centaur is a very important stage in human development. For this reason I believe it is encumbant upon us to fully understand the centaur – its attributes and structure – as well as how to most harmoniously realise it, and it is to these aims that the remainder of this essay is dedicated.
3. Attributes of the Centaur
The following is a list of some of the attributes of the centaur as I see them, culled from various authors such as Ken Wilber, Alexander Lowen, Silvano Arieti and Arthur Janov. While most of these authors would not recognise the term 'centaur', their various views on the well-functioning individual all fit nicely under this umbrella.
The entries marked with an asterisk are those which are not strictly required for centauric functioning, but which extend the centaur in various positive ways (I will refer to this as the 'centaur+').
- Psychological Integration
- All Early-Life Traumas Integrated
- Shadow Material Integrated
- Birth Trauma Integrated
- Fear of Death Integrated
- Somatic Aspects
- Mind & Body Integrated
- Tertiary Process
- Freed-Up Primary Process
- Fully Integrated Tertiary Process
- Character Attributes
- Strong Character
- Can Work Hard etc
- Can Survive on Little Sleep (*) etc
- Stamina and Endurance (*) etc
- Personality Attributes
- Well-Rounded Personality
- Positive and Optimistic
- Confident, Capable, Dynamic
- Expresses Individuality
- Enters Flow States Easily
- Interpersonal Attributes
- Clear Communication
- Meaningful Content
- Warm, Open and Friendly
- Good Sense of Humour
- Energy Channels Open
- No Energy Blockages / Energy Circulates Freely
- Vital and Vibrant
- Strong Energy and Internal Power (*)
- Strong Dan Tien (*)
- Free of Negative Energies (*)
- Lives From Intuition
- Purified, with Abundant Merit and Blessings (*)
- Natural Access to Contemplative States (*)
- Insight Developing Organically (*)
4. Attaining the Centaur
4.1 Major Areas of Attack
Despite the large number of attributes listed in the table above, it is not actually necessary to work on all of them individually in order to realise the centauric structure. By focusing on one or two of the key areas the other attributes (especially the personality attributes) will naturally be attained almost as a by-product, without any specific work being done on them.
The two key areas, in my opinion, that do need to be specifically addressed, and from which the others will follow, are psychological integration and energy system development. Another way of saying the same thing is that the individual needs to work only on structure (repatterning the energy system) and content (making the unconscious conscious).
Psychological integration is obviously important in any program of personal development, so much so that the centaur is often practically defined by the degree of integration obtained. The fewer neurotic elements there are in the personality the more effective the individual will be in their work and interpersonal pursuits. And as far as transpersonal development goes, Wilber has argued that the less mental resources that are tied up in pre-personal concerns, the faster and less stressfully the spiritual stages can be traversed.
However, psychological integration on its own may not be sufficient to bring about centauric awareness. This is because it is possible to integrate a fair amount of subconscious material without the structure of the personality being changed sufficiently to actualise the centaur. Sometimes additional and specific work on the energy system is also required, and it is to this that I will now turn.
The role of the energy system in psychological health and illness has been addressed in several schools of psychotherapy, particularly in the Reichian school and its derivatives such as Alexander Lowen's Bioenergetics. In his book The Language of the Body (1971) Lowen outlines in some detail how neurosis is always anchored in an ungrounded or otherwise dysfunctional system of energy flow in the body. In this book Lowen also describes certain general principles governing this relationship as well as how certain generic type of neurosis and their related energy problems can be diagnosed from an analysis of body structure. He also covers how a system of therapy devoted to strenthening and repatterning the energy of the body can lead to a greater degree of psychological health and optimal functioning in the individual.
Despite the apparent power of this system of Bioenergetics, I have some doubts that practicing these exercises alone can lead to the benefits claimed by its adherents. As I see it neurotic elements can be anchored deep in the subconscious and their resolution requires a type of surrender to the pain involved in the process that manipulating the body cannot on its own bring about. For this reason I believe that any kind of energy work must be supplemented by other practices that work directly on making the unconscious conscious for them to be fully effective. I also believe that other types of energy work exist that are actually more effective than Bioenergetics, and will describe these in the following section.
4.2 Suggested Practices to Achieve the Above
As far as attaining the centaur goes, I would like to propose the following quartet of core practices, which I will then look at one-by-one:
- High Level Qigong
- Contemplation of Mortality
4.2.1 High Level Qigong
Qigong, the ancient Chinese art of energy development, has many schools and hundreds of different practices, which all have similar effects. Finding one's way through them all can be an arduous task; so what I propose to do is to concentrate on the work of three modern teachers who I believe offer the most effective systems of practice. The first two of these teachers are from the 'Water Method' school, while the third is from the 'Fire Method' school (although there is some overlap between their respective teachings).
The first Water Method teacher is Taoist Lineage Holder Bruce Kumar Frantzis. Frantzis is a master of the three internal martial arts (Tai Chi, Ba Gua and Hsing-I) as well as a Qigong master and is the author of half a dozen books on these subjects. The most relevant of these for our purposes is his major work on Qigong: Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body (1993). This book outlines a system of Qigong practice that has the aim of strengthening and grounding the individual's energy, dissolving blocks in their energy body and developing greater internal fluidity and power.
The major technique that Frantzis teaches to achieve these aims is called Zhan Zhuang (pronounced "Jam Jong"), a practice in which the individual assumes a static standing posture that allows energy to circulate freely throughout the body, dissolving energy blockages and generally upgrading the individual's energy system as it does so. According to Frantzis there are approximately 200 such postures, each opening up a slightly different configuration of the body's energy channels.
The appelation of "Water Method" to Frantiz's system of practice comes from the fact that the downward flow of energy is favoured, which prefers to wear away energy blockages gradually over time rather than aggressively opening them up in a way that could be overwhelming or even dangerous.
The second Qigong teacher whose work I would like to highlight is Master Lam Kam Chuen, author of The Way of Energy (1991) and Chi Kung: Way of Power (2003). Master Lam is also a teacher of Zhan Zhuang but offers a system of practice that progresses through a series of postures that become gradually more powerful (and more difficult to hold) over time, and which induce a progressively more intense flow of energy.
For those whose constitution is inclined towards the Water Method schools, both of these teachers are highly recommended.
The third teacher whose work I believe to be useful is Sifu Wong Kiew Kit, a master of the "Fire School" of Qigong. While including Zhan Zhuang in his system, Sifu Wong tends to focus on what he refers to as "Dynamic Patterns" and "Sinew Metamorphosis" - simple physical movements which, when learned from a master, induce a powerful flow of energy through the body, dissolving blockages and upgrading the energy system in a way similar to that described above for Zhan Zhuang (Wong, 2001).
I believe that all of these schools of high-level Qigong have the potential to address the energy development side of realising the centaur: dissolving physical and emotional blockages, and grounding and strengthening the individual's energy. I also believe that when practiced in conjunction with the other techniques in the quartet, that these benefits would be multiplied – but this is a subject for further research and debate.
There are many different schools of psychotherapy and not having experienced them all I cannot be too definitive as to what I say about them.
The only point I would make is that any school of psychotherapy being used to realise the centaur must go deeply into the non-verbal realms of feeling and sensation in order to fully integrate the lower levels of the psyche. For this reason I would suggest that cognitive approaches (including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Transactional Analysis) will not be particularly effective. Arthur Janov has critiqued the various verbal and cognitive approaches in some detail  and put forward his own school, Primal Therapy, which he claims is more effective. Primal Therapy concentrates on accessing repressed feeling rather than (mere) verbalisation and lived experience rather than 'insight'. Janov claims that this enables deep traumas to be gradually re-integrated through the re-experiencing of the original pain repressed in their formation. This includes the birth trauma and traumas surrounding intrauterine life.
Primal Therapy is not often discussed in integral circles and I am not sure why this is. Perhaps it is not taken seriously. I am not putting it forward as a panacea for all the ills of non-centauric life, but simply suggesting that some techique that goes sufficiently deep into the psyche is required, whether it be this one or something similar.
Tonglen is a Mahayana Buddhist practice that has become very popular in recent times, and which I believe has the potential to make a significant contribution to the realisation of the centaur.
As most readers will again already know, in Tonglen the individual volunatarily takes upon herself the suffering of others by breathing it in in the form of imagined thick black smoke; and gives them all of her happiness and joy by breathing it out in the form of imagined healing white light. This process is visualised again and again for the entire duration of the practice session.
According to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his book Eight Steps to Happiness (2003), the benefits of practicing Tonglen are as follows:
- it increases our merit
- it increases our concentration
- it purifies negative karma, non-virtues and delusions
- it makes love and compassion very strong
- it destroys attachment
- we develop a strong mind that can bear adversity with courage
From a psychological point of view, I would also argue that in increasing our ability and willingness to face suffering, in practicing Tonglen we are also opening our consciousness to the repressed traumas that we all carry. A willingness to experience the pain involved must be a necessary prerequisite for the process of re-integrating these traumas to occur, and Tonglen effects this 'turning about'.
In addition to this, it could be argued that the "thick black smoke" visualised as other's suffering could actually be a representation of the psychological shadow to the psyche. In "breathing this in" we are therefore "breathing in" our own shadow which will have the effect of allowing it into awareness, from where it can be integrated. I would argue that this visualisation practice will initiate a much deeper integration of the shadow than Wilber's rather cognitively-based 3-2-1 process, and should be a valuable element of any system of practice aimed at realising the centaur.
4.2.4 Contemplation of Mortality
The contemplation of the certainty of one's eventual death is a practice that goes back to the beginning of the Buddhist tradition (and possibly much further). The major effect of the practice is to bring the practitioner face-to-face with his existential situation, and to act as a spur for his spiritual practice.
In the field of transpersonal psychology, many writers including Ernest Becker (2011), early Ken Wilber (1996) and Michael Washburn (1995) hold that the average person's denial of death has the effect of errecting a barrier between himself and centauric awareness that is often termed "primal repression" (Wilber's term). Yet in shutting himself down from the knowledge of his situation he also shuts out the sensory and emotional richness of life.
In contemplating the inevitability of his death the individual gradually lifts this barrier of primal repression and initiates the process of re-integrating this existential fear. Lifting primal repression also has the effect of lifting repression generally in the psyche and allowing all repressed traumas back into consciousness, where they can be integrated.
In addition to this, by integrating all of these pre-personal elements, and the primary process in general, this practice should also facilitate the emergence of the fully functioning tertiary process – the integration of the randomness of the primary process with the order of the secondary process – from which Arieti shows creativity emerges (1980).
Thus the contemplation of death could be seen as an important technique in facilitating the psychological integration that I have argued is important for the realisation of the centaur.
5. Some Brief Notes on the Centaur+
In the above table I have included three of the ways in which the centaur can be developed (which I have termed the 'centaur+'). I will finish this essay by highlighting some of the practices that can help to develop the centaur in these ways.
The first way the centaur can be developed further is through increasing its "hardiness" – it's stamina and endurance. There are many ways of achieving this – high-level Qigong will go a long way to doing so – and general physical conditioning (often advocated by Wilber and his students) will also do so to some extent.
The centaur's energy structure can also be further developed through more specialised forms of Qigong such as the 'Dragon and Tiger' set taught by Bruce Frantzis (2008), or through training in any of the internal martial arts (Tai Chi, Ba Gua and Hsing-I). The potential of the centaur to be developed energetically in this regard is almost limitless. It can also be developed contemplatively in this tradition, for example through the practice of Taoist meditation, which Frantiz also teaches.
As far as developing the centaur spiritually goes, it can be very valuable to complete the Ngondro (pronounced 'nundro') of any of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. This sequence of practices systematically accumulates refuge, purification, merit and blessings and gives a firm foundation upon which further practice can be based (as well as being a highly effective system of spiritual development in it's own right).
Of course, any of the attributes listed in the table above can be developed further than that required for basic centauric functioning, and Michael Murphy's excellent book The Future of the Body (1992) is a compendium of many of the techniques that can be used to do this.
The centaur is an important stage in almost all of the existing models of human transpersonal development and for this reason it is encumbant upon us to understand it more fully. In this essay I have proposed a list of attributes posessed by the centaur and highlighted a quartet of practices that can be used to develop it. This list of not intended to be definitive and the set of practices only put forward for further research and discussion. Wilber and his students have proposed their own system of development (Wilber et. al. 2008) which, as far as I know, is equally as untested as is this one. It may therefore be useful for the integral community to compare these two systems and form some conclusions on how individuals can realise full centauric awareness as a base for their further spiritual development.
1. Janov's book-length critique can be found by putting the phrase "Arthur Janov Grand Delusions" into Google.
Arieti, S (1980). Creativity: The Magic Synthesis. Basic Books.
Becker, E. (2011). The Denial of Death. Souvenir Press Ltd.
Frantzis, B.K. (2008). Dragon and Tiger Medical Chi Gung. Energy Arts, Inc.
Frantzis, B.K. (1993). Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body. North Atlantic Books.
Gyatso, K. (2003). Eight Steps to Happiness. Tharpa Publications.
Janov, A. (1990). The New Primal Scream. Abacus.
Lam, K.C. (1991). The Way of Energy. Gaia Books Ltd.
Lam, K.C. (2003). Chi Kung: Way of Power. Gaia Books Ltd.
Lowen, A. (1971). The Language of the Body. Collier Books.
Murphy, M. (1992). The Future of the Body. Penguin Putnam Inc.
O'Connor, J. (2006). A New Model of Development. Available on http://www.integralworld.net.
O'Connor, J (2008). Further Thoughts on the Organic-Integrative Model. Available on http://www.integralworld.net.
Washburn, M. (1995). The Ego and the Dynamic Ground. State University of New York Press.
Wilber, K. (1985). The Atman Project. The Theosophical Publishing House.
Wilber, K. (1996). Up From Eden. The Theosophical Publishing House.
Wilber, K. (2000). Integral Psychology. Shambhala Publications Inc.
Wilber, K. (2007). Integral Spirituality. Integral Books.
Wilber, K., Patten, T., Leonard, A. & Morelli, M. (2008). Integral Life Practice. Integral Books.
Wong, K.K. (2001). The Art of Chi Kung. Vermilion Books.