Personal Growth - When Psychology Met Spirituality
by Faraaz Tanveer
The world congress on psychology and spirituality 2008 created new possibilities of collaboration between these two apparently disparate but ultimately symbiotic worldviews.
A significant aspect of the present times is that as our awareness increases, the barriers between different disciplines are dropping and merging. One event that highlighted this symbiosis dramatically was the recently held World Congress on Psychology and Spirituality, in New Delhi at the India Habitat Centre. A collaborative effort by the Infinity Foundation, the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, and the Shruti Foundation, it brought together researchers and practitioners from diverse fields with the aim of marrying first-person experiential methodologies of sadhana with third-person psychological models.
The four days of the event were packed with activities from seven in the morning till late evening, providing the delegates from more than 50 countries with an array of workshops to choose from.
Each day started with a yoga session with Swami Vidyanand, followed by a choice of nine panel sessions of two hours each, with two to three such sessions per day. These sessions were the highlight of the event, since they brought together like-minded participants in small groups to enrich their mutual understanding of diverse topics.
The topics were exhaustive, ranging from the role of spirituality in education, healing, creativity, aging, psychotherapy, feminism, work, family, marriage, youth, cultural studies, organisational leadership, cosmology and more, to the emerging trends of transpersonal psychology and existential metapsychiatry, which stems from spiritually-driven therapy and places special emphasis on awareness.
There was also an attempt to explore the wealth of insights from Eastern traditions with panel discussions on Tantra, Vedic psychology, Shamanism, Buddhist psychotherapy, Kabbalah and the integral psychology of Shri Aurobindo. In addition, the evening plenary sessions had illustrious masters and experts like Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, Dr Kireet Joshi, Jack Cornfield, Robert Thurman, Sudhir Kakar, Pawan Verma, Stanislav Groff, Swami Shantatmananda and Ramdass Lamb sharing their experiences with the delegates.
The Congress was inaugurated by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who emphasised the need for elementary psychology being taught in schools to equip our children with the tools to manage their lives, and to rescue psychology from the elitist trap it finds itself in today. He pointed out, “In India, spirituality and science have never been separate. In fact, spirituality is the scientific study of the psyche…the need of the hour is to secularise religion, socialise business and spiritualise politics.”
D. Karan Singh (MP and eminent Vedic scholar) spotlighted the promise and danger of our times, quoting Arthur Koestler’s predictions on the self-destructive tendencies of the human race and Sri Aurobindo’s vision of humanity leading to divinity. “It is the road we choose to follow now that will determine the future course of humanity, so we must choose wisely,” he stressed.
Mr Rajiv Malhotra (founder, Infinity Foundation), said that the need for a foundation like Infinity arose since in the West the wealth of Indian scriptural knowledge is being clubbed under ‘religious studies’ and not given its due, and in the East it is not being studied and taught in the name of secularism. “The time is ripe for a second, ‘inner’ renaissance based on Indian insights,” he said.
One of the major themes
running right through the Congress was the emergence of Transpersonal Psychological approaches. Stan Groff, whom many consider the father of Transpersonal Psychology, reiterated, “Transpersonal Psychology is spirituality based on personal experience. It is the first person account of self-development. It respects and draws from ancient intuitive traditions and has made Indian spirituality respectable and ‘mainstream’ in psychological circles. It’s time the West eschews its arrogance and opens up to all influences.”
Glenn Hartillus (Co-editor, International Journal of Transpersonal Studies) made an interesting presentation on the need for a shift in our interpretations of ‘value’ and ‘science’ based on Western, Cartesian, linear thought. “The problem is not only with Eastern spiritual ‘vagueness’ but also with the Western psychological obsession with objectivity, and its artificially created division between subject and object,” he observed.
An issue of concern for many was the need for spiritual education among the youth.
Also, the danger of the ‘secular’ trap of brushing aside all traditional teachings as being communal. Ramdas Lamb (expert on comparative religion and former practising sadhu) warned against ‘ throwing out the spiritual baby with the dogmatic bathwater.’ He added, “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate and hatred leads to violence. So instead of turning a blind eye to religion in ‘secular’ education, the need of the hour is to talk about all religions and to provide a ‘spiritual buffet’ for our kids to feast upon. The narrow-minded voices are a vocal minority, and the rest of us are an apathetic majority,” he observed.
Every minute of this eclectic gathering was put to productive use. The Theme Table networking activities, for instance. These seventy-five-minute theme roundtable discussions were organised during the lunches to foster future international collaborations on projects. A delegate could join any of the numbered tables during lunch and contribute ideas and inputs towards formulating workable collaborations on the chosen theme. The themes ranged from: ‘Fundraising for congress projects’, ‘Future of yoga in the world’, ‘Future of organizations, work and service’ and many more. A number of innovative collaborative efforts came out of these discussions. These lunches were also livened up by Jessica Bockler (theatre director, performer and lecturer from Liverpool) who gave some lively and interactive performances of ‘Ritual Theatre’, exploring the mysteries of creativity through songs and stories at ‘The Hub’— the open-air arena at India Habitat Centre.
Making a song and dance of it
The evenings were peppered with vibrant cultural performances. Dance and music, both classical and folk, and a special musical offering by slum children on the last day, were highly appreciated by the delegates. The closing evening also had a ‘Youth event’, where the participants showcased their talents. Each day ended with a lavish open-air vegetarian dinner spread, where all the delegates shared the day’s experiences, and many new connections were formed.
A number of interesting events were also planned around the conference. The pre-congress events included the launch of Shruti Foundation’s journal, Sútra (a journal for research on education, psychology, traditional sciences and systems, health and consciousness) by Dr Kapila Vatsyayan on January 5. Shruti (founder, Shruti Foundation) emphasised on the need for bringing traditional Indian wisdom within the reach of the general public from an early age, and for study, documentation and assimilation of this wisdom in teaching. Yagna Meditation and Fire Ritual for World Peace and the Holotropic Breathwork Session were also conducted before the start of the Congress.
And finally, these four days showcased a breathtaking collage of talent and viewpoints from around the world.
It also reaffirmed everyone’s faith in the notion of working together for a better tomorrow.