Psychic Energy,
Libido & Spirit:
Three Energies or One?

Michael Washburn


This is an in-depth essay focusing on the foundations of finer energies as viewed by transpersonal psychology.

In Washburn's transpersonal perspective, human development follows a spiral course as the ego emerges from, loses touch with, and then reintegrates itself on a higher level with the depth-psychological and interpersonal bases of its being. This interpretation of development gives psychological formulation to the spiritual archetype of life as a path, way, pilgrimage or journey of departure from and return "home"the home to which we return both is the same as the home from which we departed (because it has the same deep foundations) and is not the same (because it is a multi-leveled mansion built upon those foundations rather than only the foundations themselves).

Washburn's transpersonal perspective has close affinities with the spiritual depth-psychology of Carl Jung. Compared with contemporary transpersonal perspectives, his perspective is similar in significant respects to the psychoanalytic-holotropic perspective of Stanislav Grof and the phenomenological perspective of David Levin and contrasts sharply with the structural-hierarchical perspective of Ken Wilber.

Spiritual awakening is multidimensional; it has cognitive, emotional, energetic, psychodynamic, interpersonal and physical dimensions, among others. In this essay, I shall focus on the energetic dimension. I shall briefly describe three ways in which we experience energy namely, as psychic energy, libido and spiritual power and then I shall employ a simile which, I hope, will clarify how these expressions of energy might be related.

Psychic energy has four principal features. First, it is an active energy because it is the energy utilized in our ongoing conscious experience. Second, it is a neutral energy because it is an energy that empowers conscious experience in all modes and systems without being tied in essence to any particular mode or system. Psychic energy, for instance, empowers thinking, feeling and willing without being essentially a mental, emotional or volitional energy. Third, psychic energy is a functional energy because it is the energy that empowers the ego in the performance of its psycho mental functions. The ego, as agent or executor of conscious experience, utilizes psychic energy without, usually, being significantly affected by psychic energy in turn. And fourth, psychic energy is an invisible energy because it is usually at the background rather than in the foreground of attention. We usually focus on a thought, feeling or decision empowered by psychic energy rather than on the energy itself. Although we are sometimes aware of psychic energy when it is exceptionally intense or unchanneled for example, in states of excitation and anxiety we are usually unaware of psychic energy as energy.

Libido or instinctual energy differs from psychic energy in being a potential rather than active energy, a system-specific rather than neutral energy, an impassioning rather than functional energy, and a visible rather than invisible energy (i.e., when awakened from its potential state). Libido is a potential energy because it is usually latent and becomes active only when awakened by instinctual stimuli. Whereas psychic energy is always active by definition, libido is inactive as a default state and becomes active only for brief periods in response to instinctual stimuli. Libido is a system-specific energy because it is an energy expressed through, and only through, instinctual systems, especially the sexual system. When libido is not being expressed through instinctual systems, it lies dormant as the energy of the deep unconscious (the id). Libido is an impassioning energy because it is an energy that affects the ego rather than an energy that is functionally utilized by the ego. Libido affects the ego by importuning it with desire, by arousing it, and, when released in strong bursts, by causing it to experience ecstasy. Finally, libido is a visible energy because, when triggered into activity, it is conspicuously evident to awareness. The ego experiences libido as energy, and specifically as the energy of instinctual desire, arousal, and ecstasy (e.g., sexual orgasm).

Spiritual power (Spirit) shares some features with psychic energy and others with libido while differing from both in other respects. Spiritual power is like libido in being a potential energy in its default state (i.e., prior to spiritual awakening). Spiritual power is also like libido in being a visible energy (i.e., once awakened), an energy that the ego experiences as energy. On the other hand, spiritual power is like psychic energy in being a neutral energy. Like psychic energy, spiritual power energizes experience in all modes and systems without being tied in essence to any particular mode or system although this mode-neutral or system-neutral character of spiritual power does not mean that spiritual power is neutral in its intrinsic nature or lasting effects, as I shall explain.

In being similar to either psychic energy or libido in these respects, spiritual power is dissimilar from both psychic energy and libido in being a transformative energy, that is, an energy that not only, like psychic energy, functionally empowers the ego and, like libido, impassions the ego by way of desire, arousal, and ecstasy but that also permanently changes the ego as it empowers and impassions it. As a transformative energy, spiritual power mutates the ego by transforming it from a subject resistant to spiritual life (an ego suffering in "sin" or "ignorance") to a subject at one with and expressive of spiritual life (an ego that has been "saved" or "enlightened"). As a power of both light and love, spiritual power transforms the ego in the direction of light and love.

Given that, in our experience, psychic energy, libido and spiritual power differ in the ways described, the question arises: Are these three expressions of energy different manifestations of a single energy, or are they three different energies? This question usually has been asked in reference only to libido and spiritual power, because these two, when active, are dramatically visible, whereas psychic energy is usually invisible. The question as it usually has been posed, then, is this: "Are we caught between two opposing powers, a lower instinctual power (libido) and a higher spiritual power (Spirit), or are these two powers, appearances to the contrary, ultimately one? In this latter formulation, the question poses as alternatives dynamic dualism (Manichaeism, Gnosticism: the view that we must struggle between two conflicting powers, one an instinctual power of darkness and the other a spiritual power of love and light) and dynamic monism (Nietzschean spirituality, Tantrism: the view that instinctuality and spirituality are, ultimately, harmonious dimensions of a single life). My own belief is that, of these alternatives, the Nietzschean or Tantric alternative, despite its shocking character, is the superior view. Mature spirituality, I suggest, is in complete harmony with the instincts; it is a fully embodied spirituality fully at home on this earth. To see how this might be so, let us consider a simile that compares the three expressions of energy we have discussed to different ways in which fire can burn.

Let us imagine a bowl-like container covered with a lid with a small hole in it. Embers smolder in the container. The hole in the lid allows enough oxygen to enter the container to keep the embers ignited. As the embers smolder, smoke is produced and collects in the container, except for what escapes in a steady, attenuated stream through the hole. The inside of the container is almost completely dark, for not only is it filled with smoke, but it also, owing to the smallness of the hole in the lid, is closed almost entirely to light. Now let us imagine that every now and then the container is rubbed in such a way that the embers are stoked and, consequently, jets of hot, smoky air are ventilated through the hole in the lid. This heightened energy discharge lasts only a short time, and then the embers return to their previous state, and the smoke released from the container is reduced again to a steady, attenuated stream. But now let us suppose that at some point the hole in the lid begins to dilate and continues to do so until, eventually, the container is no longer covered at all. As the hole expands in this way, we can imagine that the fire awakens from its near-dormancy and burns more and more intensely until, eventually, it is a brilliant blaze. Finally, let us suppose that the fire, as it grows from smoldering embers to brilliant blaze, burns in a manner that is increasingly "clean," that is, in a manner that steadily increases in warmth and light while at the same time decreasing in the amount of smoke-producing soot. When the hole first begins to dilate, the fire is still very sooty; as the hole continues to widen, however, the fire becomes not only increasingly intense but also increasingly transparent.

Now let us interpret the simile. The bowl-like container is the deep psyche, and the fire burning in the container is energy as it arises or "combusts" within the deep psyche whatever the ultimate origin of this energy might be, intrapsychic or extra psychic, natural or supernatural. The lid covering the container is a repressive barrier that separates us from our psychic depths, a barrier which I (1994, 1995), following Freud, have called primal repression. Primal repression, in covering the deep psyche, submerges and quiets (i.e., "smothers") the potentials of the deep psyche. Thus submerged and quieted, the deep psyche is the id as described by classical psychoanalytic theory.

The hole in the lid of the container indicates that primal repression does not completely smother the energy of the deep psyche but, rather, allows it to "smolder" and, thereby, to emit a steady stream of attenuated energy into the upper psychic region of the conscious ego. This attenuated energy is psychic energy, which, as explained earlier, is an active, neutral energy that empowers conscious experience in all modes and systems without being tied in essence to any particular mode or system. Psychic energy, again, is usually invisible; it is the ever-present but unseen stream of smoke that arises from the smoldering embers of the id.

The rubbing of the container and consequent release of jets of hot smoke represent instinctual stimulation and instinctual arousal leading to ecstasy, respectively. Instinctual stimulation stokes the embers smoldering within the id and triggers a surge of instinctually channeled energy, energy which we experience in the form of instinctual desire and instinctual arousal culminating in ecstasy. Such desire, arousal, and ecstasy are most conspicuous when the stimulation is of a sexual sort. Sexual stimulation kindles the fire within of the container of the unconscious and triggers the release of sexually charged ("smoky") energy, energy which we experience in the form of sexual excitation and, when the energy is released in especially powerful bursts, in the form of the ecstasy of sexual orgasm.

The widening of the hole in the lid represents the gradual lifting of primal repression, and the ensuing growth of the fire from smoky embers to brilliant, transparent blaze represents the process of awakening and growth in Spirit. The fact that the fire is still sooty in the initial stages of this process indicates that the energy of the deep psyche is only gradually released from the instinctual channels of expression to which it had been almost exclusively restricted by primal repression. Primal repression not only reduces the energy of the deep psyche to near dormancy (embers) but also confines it, as libido, almost exclusively to an instinctual organization. The lifting of primal repression, accordingly, not only awakens this energy but also liberates it from instinctual limits. This awakening and liberation of the energy of the deep psyche, however, is typically a gradual process. The awakened fire, which is sooty at first, only gradually burns not only more intensely but also more cleanly. It is for this reason that many people, sometimes with considerable distress, have experienced spiritual awakening as being at the same time an instinctual recrudescence. And so it is. But the point is that, as spiritual growth unfolds, the instincts cease being inflamed with awakening-derepressing energy, and this energy is able to manifest itself in a way that is not only increasingly powerful but also increasingly free of instinctual or other mode- or system-specific coloration. That is, it is able to manifest itself as freely upwelling transformative Spirit.

According to the interpretation just given, psychic energy, libido and spiritual power are not fundamentally different energies; they are, rather, the same energy differently expressed. All three are expressions of the energy of the deep psyche, expressions which differ from each other owing to the effects of primal repression. Under conditions of primal repression, the energy of the deep psyche slumbers in the depths and is able to express itself in only two primary ways, in the attenuated form of psychic energy and in the instinctually channeled form of libido. Once primal repression begins to give way, however, the energy of the deep psyche awakens from its slumber and, in doing so, gradually liberates itself from its prior exclusive association with the instincts. As this happens, the energy of the deep psyche gradually reveals itself to be the vital source of all life, not only of instinctual life but of creative and spiritual life as well. Concomitantly, the deep psyche itself, which under conditions of primal repression had been organized as the unconscious id, gradually reveals itself to be or to be our access way to the Sacred Ground, the Fertile Void, the Formless Godhead.

What happens to psychic energy and libido after spiritual awakening? If the primary differences distinguishing these expressions of energy are due to primal repression, it follows that, once primal repression is lifted, the differences in question will disappear. Once the lid is removed from the container and spiritual power is able to burn freely and fully, there is no longer a stream of attenuated energy (psychic energy); nor are there hot, jets of "sooty" energy vented exclusively through instinctual channels (libido); nor are there smoldering embers deep within the soul (slumbering Spirit). Under fully awakened conditions, the soul burns brightly with Spirit, which expresses itself not only as the power of spiritual transformation but also as the power that energizes experience generally (the former role of psychic energy) and as the power that, in energizing experience generally, energizes instinctual experience in particular (the former role of libido). Under fully awakened conditions, Spirit itself performs the role of psychic energy (albeit in a plenipotent rather than attenuated way), and Spirit itself performs the role of libido (albeit in a "clean" rather than "sooty" way).

Among the implications of the view I have presented, two are especially noteworthy: (a) that spiritual awakening greatly increases the energy level of consciousness, and (b) that spirituality and instinctuality are ultimately in complete harmony with each other. I shall conclude by briefly elaborating on these two points.

If awakened spiritual power gradually takes over the function formerly performed by psychic energy, it follows that the energy level of consciousness rises as this happens. For the spiritual power that takes over the function of psychic energy is not an attenuated stream issuing from "smoldering embers" but is, rather, the awakened fire itself. This analogy is to be taken seriously, because the raising of experience to intense energy levels by awakened spiritual power can be more overpowering than empowering if a person is not properly prepared. Just as surges or strong currents of electricity can damage electrical circuits, so the awakened energy of the deep psyche can wreak havoc upon established circuits of thought and feeling. For this reason it is usually best if spiritual awakening is a gradual process to which one can adjust as the process unfolds.

As for the second implication, if awakened spiritual power gradually takes over the function formerly performed by libido, it follows that spirituality and instinctuality, despite earlier appearances to the contrary, are wholly at one with each other. Prior to spiritual awakening, libido seems to be at odds with Spirit because the energy expressed as libido seems to be exclusively a lower, primitive, even "dirty" (sooty, smoky) energy. When libido is experienced in this way, it seems to be contrary to what we mean by Spirit, which is a power of light and love. Accordingly, it seems, from the vantage point of the ego undergirded by primal repression, as if there are two potential powers of the soul in inherent conflict with each other: libido and Spirit. But our simile calls this Manichaean or Gnostic view into question and points in a Nietzschean, Trantric direction. It suggests that the awakening of the energy of the deep psyche is at the same time the liberation of this energy from exclusive expression through instinctual channels: The lotus of Spirit rises out of the swamp of the unconscious. Once awakened, the energy of the deep psyche continues to empower instinctuality, albeit no longer in a merely primitive or "dirty" way: Once the lotus rises out of the swamp, the swamp itself is gradually transformed into a pellucid wellspring or, returning to our simile, the container of the fire, now uncovered, is open to the clear air. But the energy of the deep psyche also, now, increasingly expresses itself independently of instinctuality, as freely upwelling Spirit. Spirit, then, is not opposed to libido; it is, rather, the same energy as libido in a higher (derepressed, awakened, liberated) expression. Mature spirituality, I suggest, is a spirituality completely at home with the instincts and so it must be if we are to be whole human beings.

Michael Washburn is professor of philosophy at Indiana University South Bend. He teaches courses in the history of philosophy, Asian philosophy, existentialism, and the psychology of religious experience. Washburn and his wife Pamela have been married since 1962. He has three daughters and four grandchildren. Washburn is the author of "Transpersonal Psychology In Psychoanalytic Perspective" and "The Ego And The Dynamic Ground."