By Dr. Dayal Mirchandani
‘Psychiatrists need to consciously move away from the medication-based approach of Western psychology and integrate spiritual practices in their therapy’
For many years, Deepak had suffered from anxiety attacks. He consulted psychiatrists who prescribed tranquilizers, which gave only temporary relief. For four years, he regularly visited a leading psychoanalyst thrice a week, all to no avail.
After he had given up on modern psychology in disgust, a friend recommended vipassana meditation. Though skeptical at first, Deepak was desperate enough to try it. At the end of the ten-day course, Deepak felt calmer than he ever remembered feeling.
Now, he finally believes that his years of suffering are over. Deepak consulted me for help with his tranquilizer addiction. He often wonders why psychiatrists don’t make use of the powerful spiritual techniques available in India.
One must differentiate between spiritual practices and religion. Religion is usually based on dogma. The spiritual approach relies on techniques that seek direct contact with the sacred, through which one understands the true nature of reality. Unfortunately, spiritual approaches are rarely used in modern psychiatry. This is primarily because contemporary psychiatry has moved towards a western mechanistic world view where most forms of psychological problems are seen as being caused by biochemical changes in the brain, for which medication is used extensively.
There are powerful financial reasons for the popularity of this approach. Drug companies spend huge sums of money to educate doctors and fund research that propagates this view. It might be due to psychiatrists wanting to seem like doctors who prescribe medication. Also, writing a prescription is much easier than spending extended periods of time counseling the patient.
There is a small group of therapists, however, who have realized that there is a wealth of treasure in spiritual traditions, especially eastern ones, with their roots in yoga, Sufism and Zen Buddhism. These can be advantageously pooled with modern techniques to bring about therapeutic change. This approach, called Transpersonal Psychology, is increasingly finding a place in modern medicine. It is especially useful in the care of the dying and in holistic healing for chronic disorders.
The body of research on these techniques is growing, which shows that it has great potential to help people suffering from anxiety, depression and psychosomatic disorders. Regrettably, these techniques do not have the might of pharmaceutical companies to propagate them and most people, including doctors, are ignorant of them.
People involved in spiritual practices often report strange experiences, such as seeing visions or bright lights and identification of past lifetimes. Western-trained therapists usually see this as evidence of pathology and treat the person with medication or electric shocks.Transpersonal therapists recognize this as an ‘emergence’ reaction, a transitional state through which the person needs to be supported.
The entire philosophy behind a spiritual approach is often at variance with that of the modern materialistic culture. For example, someone suffering from depression would be prescribed anti-depressants by a western-trained psychiatrist. The aim of the treatment would be to return the person to work as soon as possible. The psychiatrist would not question issues like the individual’s need for professional success or the quest for power.
On the other hand, a transpersonal psychologist would see the depression as an opportunity to come in contact with the sacred. This leads to an awareness of one’s own mortality and a reordering of one’s priorities. With this realization, it is not uncommon for people to find that their earlier goals of material success or power are not really so important. Consequently, they find creative ways to opt out of the ‘rat race’.
As this aspect of spiritual therapy is often subversive, it can lead to more conflict and a temporary worsening of symptoms. Deepak, for instance, was a government contractor by profession. In the course of his meditation, he realized that he actually felt uncomfortable with the bribe-giving his trade entailed. Over a period of time, he developed alternative clients and reduced his business with the government, which was where the maximum bribery was involved. He says: ”Earlier I would have concentrated on expanding my business, but now I’m happy making a decent living without compromising my principles.”
Spiritual therapy is not without its own problems and therefore one needs to be very careful. There is always the danger of the patient becoming increasingly vulnerable to abuse. There are numerous cases of spiritual teachers who have financially or sexually exploited their clients. Cults such as the Aum Shinri Kyo in Japan, who organized a poison gas attack in a subway station, have used these techniques to recruit people. One also needs to be wary of an increasing number of untested New Age therapies whose claims strain one’s credulity. Therefore my advice is: ‘Beware!’ Be careful about who you entrust your soul with.
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