By Suma Varughese
Psychotherapy and spirituality are converging, each being enriched by the other
‘I am God. I am all, life, infinity. I will be always and everywhere. I can be killed but will live because I am all’
—From The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, 1940
‘As I lay there limp, motionless, mindless, suddenly I saw in a tremendous flash that my God! I am the Lord! The Lord God, creator of the Universe, of the cosmos, of the multiple universes’
—Deepa Kodikal in A Journey Within the Self
Two voices at different times and places, saying virtually the same thing. But while the legendary Russian dancer Nijinsky ended his life in a mental hospital, Deepa Kodikal, an unknown Indian housewife, is revered by all who have read her book.
The same reality. Yet one considered a madman and the other a mystic. Why?
Partly because of the place of origin: Nijinsky from the pragmatic, secular West, Kodikal from the transcendent East. Partly the time: 1940s Europe was strongly Christian, rigidly scientific with no space for concepts such as inborn divinity.
But the larger reason for this divide is that while Nijinsky was studied by Freud’s psychoanalytic lens, Kodikal is viewed from the concept of self-realization through union with the Divine.
Nijinsky and Kodikal stand on two ends of the compass separating psychology from spirituality in Freud’s time. ‘I have already found a place for religion by putting it under the category of the neuroses of mankind,’ the father of psychology had once said in a letter.
Cut to voices of some contemporary psychologists.
‘Unlike clinical psychology which aims to lead the individual to a normal state (normal being defined according to a statistical mean), spiritual psychology seeks to illuminate the path taken by an individual moving towards a state of perfection.’
—Jacques Vigne, Indian Wisdom, Christianity & Modern Psychology
‘The guru-disciple interaction, touches deeper, more regressed layers of the psyche which are generally not reached by psychoanalysis. The devotee, I believe, is better (but also more dangerously) placed than the analyst to connect with and correct the depressive core at the base of human life.’
—Sudhir Kakar, The Analyst and the Mystic
Don’t look now, but things are changing. Psychology and spirituality are coming together in strange and unexpected ways. Spirituality, anathema in Freud’s time, is today setting the agenda for changes in psychology’s understanding of man, his motivation, purpose for living and his relationship with the universe. In turn, psychotherapy is proving to be an invaluable aid for travelers on the long and dangerous path to self-realization. Today, spiritual gurus such as Acharya Ram Mohan, a teacher of Vedanta, don’t hesitate to use terms such as rational emotive therapy (RET) in their workshops, and psychologists are freely advocating yoga and meditation as a therapeutic measure to handle neuroses.
The terms themselves are merging. Jean Houston, the well-known American psychologist, talks of sacred psychology. In his book, Indian Wisdom, Christianity and Modern Psychology, French psychiatrist Jacques Vigne refers to spiritual psychology.
Then there is the humanistic or Third Force psychology (the other two being psychoanalysis and behaviorism), which spans the works of Abraham Maslow, Victor Frankl, Eric Erickson, Erich Fromm, and others who collectively introduced a more positive dimension to Freudian analysis. Maslow later went on to propose the transpersonal or Fourth Force psychology which is focused on the study of transcendental experiences and includes altered states of consciousness, meditation, ESP and other such supersensory phenomena.
Increasingly, though by no means conclusively, the guru and the psychologist are collaborators rather than foes, each helping the other in their common mission to transform humanity.
Follow me to Kripa Foundation’s de-addiction center at Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai, western India.
In the grimy basement of the Mount Carmel Church, 30-odd men are seated in a circle. At a signal from their counselor, Melwyn Pinto, they shuffle to their feet and intone the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Prayer over, each reads aloud an assessment report, listing the good and bad points prepared by the rest of the members. The feedback ranges from complimentary (‘very hard working’) to vicious (‘most useless and hopeless person in the world’) and humorous (‘uses bad language at this age!’). As the drug addicts struggle to assimilate viewpoints, Father Joe Perreira, one of the two founders of the Kripa Foundation (the other being Ozzie, a recovered addict), observes: ‘Our program helps the individual recover his self-worth by connecting to God.’
Kripa, which claims a 69 per cent recovery rate for drug addicts, seamlessly blends both spiritual and psychological therapies in its program. Daily schedule includes yoga, meditation, introspection, room maintenance (therapeutic duty assignments), counseling and group therapy.
Obviously, psychology and spirituality are compatible disciplines. But where does one begin and the other end? Would we define concerns such as helping an individual gain control over his life spiritual or psychological? Is there room for two disciplines or is spirituality only the undiscovered aspect of psychology?
Spiritual thinkers would vote for the latter. After all, they argue, the Buddha and Krishna had disclosed deep insights into human nature long before Freud came into being. What’s more, they had taken human understanding to its logical conclusion by providing the way out. Look at this passage from the ancient Indian philosophical poem Bhagavad Gita, dispassionately outlining the causes that lead to mental collapse:
The quality of life is in the mind. The day you realize that, you become the navigator of your own life. There is just you, and how you choose to make your life. At this stage, free will is absolute. Destiny appears to be feeble in comparison with powers of the mind.
‘If a man meditates on the objects of sense, attachment to them arises; from attachment, desire is born; from desire, anger is produced. Through anger comes bewilderment, through bewilderment wandering of memory, through confusion of memory destruction of the intellect, through destruction of the intellect he is destroyed.’ (11,63-64)
Psychologists, on the other hand, would argue that psychology, by its scientific nature, cannot be transcendent. Says Rashida Ghadially, a practicing Indian psychoanalyst: ‘Psychology is into reductionism and fragmentation. It cannot substitute for religion.’ Adds Indian psychotherapist Rani Raote: ‘Psychology is a science of human behavior. It can only go by what it can document.’
There are other, even more opposing, points of view. According to Dr Kulin Kothari, a psychiatrist based in New Delhi, India, all mental diseases are caused by chemical imbalances, which, in the case of psychotics, must be treated with medicines.
However, such a point of view ignores the benefits of yoking spirituality to psychology. According to Dr Rajendra Chokani, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist: ‘Psychotherapy treats symptom-specific illnesses, while spirituality takes the total personality into consideration.’ Says Acharya Ram Mohan: ‘Psychology moves from being in a state of insufficiency to becoming sufficient through acquisition. Vedanta believes that we are already complete.’
The eastern approach cannot conceive of a separation between psychology and spirituality since both are concerned with the study, understanding and control of human nature. Says Jehangir Palkhivala, a Mumbai-based lawyer-turned-yoga teacher: ‘In yoga, we don’t separate the problems of the body and mind. Insomnia, hysteria, and even manic depression can be treated by the application of appropriate asanas, breathing techniques and diet control.’
The West’s rigidity on these matters rests as much with that region’s dominant religion,Christianity, as with psychology. Lacking a concept of the immanent God, the religion is based on a creed and theology that is external to the self, hence removed from the realm of psychology.
While psychologists may still treat spirituality with suspicion, the two zones are merging in imperceptible ways. Today, over a 100 therapies such as Gestalt, RET (rational-emotive therapy), reality therapy, existential psychology, logotherapy and the Rogerian approach, stress positive ideas of man.
Psychotherapists are also shifting from therapy to therapy, depending upon the need of the patient. ‘A shy or defiant person, for example, may not take kindly to rational emotive therapy which emphasizes taking stock of your behavior,’ says Sushma Sharma, head of Ashray, a counseling and social work organization.
Perhaps the most uniting factor in the Indian context is that Indians, by and large, are believers. Says Ghadially: ‘A psychologist in India cannot afford to be un-religious. If you believe religion is bogus, you are doing a terrible injustice to the psychic lives of patients.’ Corroborates Maya Kripalani, a child counselor and psychologist, who writes a popular parental counseling column in The Times of India‘s Mumbai supplement: ‘In my column, I don’t know who I’m counseling. All I can give is a message of hope. If that is alive, they won’t give up.’
Even the hard-core psychiatric branch has many open-minded practitioners. Chokani is one of them. An ardent practitioner of vipassana, Chokani’s interest in meditation led to his specializing in psychiatry. When his patients’ symptoms are alleviated by medicine, Chokani recommends vipassana to most of them.
It is no coincidence that many psychologists favor Buddhism. Unlike other spiritual traditions, it is atheistic, and its central thrust is the elimination of suffering. The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are well-known: the inevitability of suffering in a changing world; the cause of suffering, which is attachment to desires; the fact that there is a solution; and finally the way out, through the eightfold path which encompasses right understanding, purpose, speech, conduct, occupation, effort, attention and meditation.
The prescription is complete. Suffering is part of existence. But there is a way out. In the conditional relative world of psychology, Buddhism holds out the certitude of experiential knowledge.
Receptive spiritual practitioners are forging a bond between their techniques and that of psychology. Acharya Ram Mohan takes Vedanta and Gita classes while holding workshops for corporate groups on leadership and developing emotional control. Says he: ‘Unless there is a certain amount of psychological health, you cannot go into spirituality. It would be difficult for a neurotic person to achieve self-realization.’
Conversely, there are those who believe that while the mentally disturbed person and the seeker may display similar symptoms, their root cause is radically different and so must the treatment be. Indian psychiatrist Dr Dayal Mirchandani, for instance, admits that ‘some schizophrenics may actually be undergoing a spiritual crisis’.
Although India has traditionally been the preserve of ancient wisdom, and psychologists admit that even today mental aberrations are treated more by fakirs, white magicians, and gurus than by members of their profession, it is the western psychologists who are taking the initiative in drawing closer to spirituality. For instance, Big Sur in California, USA, can boast of a Spiritual Emergence Network that helps sufferers find supportive counselors who assist them in integrating their awakening spirituality. The organization was founded by Christine Grof, who, with her husband Stanislav Grof, first coined the term spiritual emergence. In her book, The Call of Spiritual Emergency, author Emma Bragdon points out that spiritual emergence occasionally gives rise to periods of great internal disturbance, even altered states of being, which she calls spiritual emergency.
In his book, The Analyst and the Mystic, which looks at the life of the Indian mystic Ramakrishna, Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar writes: ‘The spiritual thirst, the clinician would observe, was embedded in all signs of a full-fledged depression. There was a great restlessness of the body, sleepless nights, loss of appetite… eyes that filled up often and suddenly with tears.’
Bragdon cites the example of several people who had disorienting initiations into spirituality. Reports Jill, one of Bragdon’s case-studies: ‘I was saying goodnight to a friend when my legs started jerking and I collapsed to the floor, out of control, my legs and arms flailing. There was an arc of pain from my heart to my solar plexus.’ The episode was followed by a period of extreme fear when Jill was unable to continue with her daily routine. Comments Bragdon: ‘The time of the awakening can bring with it anxiety, depression, anorexia, insomnia, even amnesia.’ The bottom-line, however, for Jill, was that she became more self-aware, confident, happy, and closer to a higher power.
Gopi Krishna, the man who introduced the word kundalini to modern vocabulary through his books, experienced his first awakening after 17 years of meditation. For the next two years, he endured overwhelming psychological and physical problems. Says he: ‘The old self was yielding place to a new personality endowed with a brighter and perceptive equipment, developed from the original one by a strange power of cellular and organic transformation.’
Why is the path of spiritual growth riven with psychological disturbances? Perhaps since all transformation has its basis in awareness and acceptance, going deep within can be both painful and difficult to endure. Also, the process of change can make you temporarily incapable of coping with your daily life. The experience is vividly captured in St John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul: ‘The soul, because of its impurity, suffers immensely at the time this divine light truly assails it.’
Perhaps never before has this distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual mental disturbances been so crucial as now. Spiritual awakenings are happening more and more frequently, even in the West.
‘The lot of the spiritual aspirant is doubly hard if he is being treated by a therapist who neither understands nor appreciates the superconscious functions,’ says Roberto Assagioli, creator of the theory of psychosynthesis. ‘He may either ridicule the patient’s higher aspirations or interpret them in a materialistic way.’
I personally experienced difficulties in reconciling spirituality with traditional psychoanalysis. Two years ago, I took a course in psychoanalysis, conducted by a leading practitioner in Mumbai. Soon, I found myself in an atmosphere positively hostile to spiritual issues. Belief in God was tantamount to declaring yourself regressive. And the domain of absolutes was considered naïve. The mind was worshipped to the exclusion of feelings. When submitting written work, we were commanded to be ‘surprising and intelligent’, which, unsurprisingly, produced unintelligent and derivative work, for we had no idea how to generate these qualities on demand.
One of the books we were studying was Nijinsky’s diary. We were told that the right approach to his beautiful but tortured utterances was to view them as the dereliction of the mind. What about the amplitude of their feelings? For the analyst, that was further proof, if it were needed, that the man was deranged!
It was the limitation of Freudian psychoanalysis that spurred subsequent psychologists on the spiritual road. As far back as Carl Jung, one of Freud’s closest disciples-turned-apostate, there was the belief that Freud’s understanding of human nature was incomplete and possibly distorted. In his book, Modern Man in Search of Soul, Jung wrote: ‘Both schools (Freud and Adler) to my way of thinking, deserve reproach for overemphasizing the pathological aspects of life and for interpreting man too exclusively in the light of his defects… for my part, I prefer to look at man in the light of what in him is healthy and sound…’
It is now more or less widely accepted that Freud, whose work in uncovering the subconscious will always make him an icon, nevertheless based his study on the mentally ill. For him, human behavior was dictated by the unconscious whose motivating factor, according to him, was sex. The unconscious, therefore, was the seat of all our dark and suppressed drives and needs.
Carl Jung laid the foundation of a more positive understanding of human nature with his concept of the collective unconscious. He premised that the unconscious was not just influenced by sex but also by race and community memories, which he called archetypes.
The road to a more humanistic, positive view of man is paved with the views and theories of pioneers such as Maslow, Frankl and Assagioli. All of them maintain that mankind is motivated by positive factors. In Maslow’s case this is seen as the need to self-actualize, to maximize one’s potential. Victor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, felt that what kept man going was a search for meaning. He quotes Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’ All of them concurred in seeing man as an evolutionary being, moving towards a state of higher consciousness. Mental illness, for these psychologists, was not the inevitable fallout of sexual suppression, but a failure in personal growth.
Abraham Maslow was the first to study the most healthy specimens in society: ‘If we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, value growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our most moral, ethical or saintly people.’ It is this that helped him formulate his theory of the higher reaches of human nature.
Maslow saw humankind as driven by a hierarchy of needs. After fulfilling needs for security, shelter and self-esteem, man sought fulfillment of his meta-need-the need to self-actualize. In Frankl’s logotherapy ‘the patient is actually confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his life’.
Roberto Assagioli introduces the middle and higher consciousness, the last the repository of the Self. The journey to wholeness encompasses all three spheres, through the process of going within, uprooting all the complexes and suppressed memories before raising yourself to the level of super-normalcy.
Gestalt therapy, founded by Fritz Perls, believes that understanding comes as a whole, not in fragments, and that mental illness is caused by ‘holes’ created by not accepting certain aspects of the self.
By now the parallels to eastern wisdom are unmistakable. Says Vigne: ‘The fundamental difference between traditional psychology, so deep-rooted in the East, and modern psychology is that the latter is based on pathology and has the fixed goal of a return to normalcy, that is, in practice, a return to the average; traditional psychology is founded on the idea of the evolution of the human being, leading to the perfect being.’
Carl Jung had also conceded: ‘Psychoanalysis itself and the lines of thought to which it gives rise-surely a distinct western development—are only a beginner’s attempt compared to what is an immemorial art in the East.’
One only has to look at the opening lines of the Buddha’s Dhammapada to concur: ‘Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.’
Where Freud could only see the tumultuous motions of the unconscious, the Buddha had not only penetrated their root cause, but in doing so gave us the key to self-determination. Where Freud saw man as a helpless victim of the power of the unconscious, the Buddha saw us as fully capable of directing our destiny, and pulling out of the cycle of birth and death altogether.
Around the time when Freud was popularizing his theories, Swami Vivekananda was setting the western world alight with his powerful lectures on Indian philosophy. Here is an extract of a speech given in 1900 in England: ‘This is the first part of the study, the control of the unconscious. The next is to go beyond the conscious. Just as unconscious work is beneath the consciousness, so there is another work, which is above consciousness. When this superconscious state is reached, man becomes free and divine; death becomes immortality, weakness becomes infinite power, and iron bondage becomes liberty.’
How does this new vision of man, his potential and motivation affect a mental patient? Says Colin Wilson in New Pathways to Psychology: ‘The ideal way to cure neurosis is to evoke a powerful sense of meaning… freeing the patient from ‘provisional existence’ by opening up a sense of wider horizons of meaning.’
Frankl talks of an American diplomat who approached him for career counseling. His previous analyst had told him that his professional problems stemmed from his repressed hostility to his father. Frankl instead told him to take on a job that appealed to him more, and he became fine. The resistance to the job stemmed from its violation of values important to the diplomat, rather than a pathology.
The New Age is proving to be the perfect meeting ground for psychotherapy and spirituality. Here, it is no longer possible to ignore the spiritual aspect of our existence. Quantum physics, the chaos theory, alternative medicine, ecology-cutting edge disciplines all-are uncovering the way the part affects and is itself affected by the whole. Under such circumstances it is difficult to believe that self-realization, in the words of Freud, is nothing but, ‘a regression to the limitless primary narcissism of the infant united with the mother at the breast’.
Indeed, some of the most authoritative architects of the New Age are psychologists. James Redfield, author of the popular Celestine series, was a therapist for disturbed children. Brian Epstein, author of Many Lives, Many Masters, which was among the first to popularize past life therapy and reincarnation in the West, is also a therapist.
Parallels are also drawn between the relationship of a therapist and patient to that of a guru and seeker. Sudhir Kakar quotes Swami Muktananda in his book, The Analyst and the Mystic: ‘A true guru breaks your old habit of fault finding, of seeing sin, of hating yourself… Instead, when you are in his presence, you will experience your own divinity.’
The New Age acknowledges both spirituality and psychology in its journey towards wholeness. Both are necessary, mutually enriching. Says Bragdon: ‘True awakening is enhanced by clearing away the psychological blocks and debris of old traumas.’ Bragdon suggests that therapy should be considered a necessary element of spiritual development, for it clears away old samskaras, and provides the seeker with a strong sense of self.
What we are looking at hopefully is the next-generation healer-part mystic, part therapist, wholly empowering. And perhaps the next generation patient as well, leaping joyfully, neurosis and psychosis in hand, towards union with the Divine, his own Self. Nijinsky, are you listening?
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