By Suma Varughese
What is the role of psychotherapy in the seeker’s journey toward wholeness? There may not be any single answer to the question, for it probably depends on the seeker. There are many who feel that the spiritual path, especially a graduated one like yoga or Buddhism, is enough to integrate the body, mind and spirit in full and any other discipline is simply gilding the lily.
On the other hand, some feel that the work of the therapist and the guru go hand-in-hand and both are required to guide the aspirant along the perilous path of self-knowledge and self-transcendence.
What no one can deny, though, is the need for psychological stability and maturity in the business. Spirituality is certainly not for wimps. There is simply no task more difficult than to face and accept what the therapist would call one’s Shadow—all the qualities and aspects of ourselves that we shy away from. Seekers would call it going through the dark night of the soul.
The ability to face our less attractive and, indeed, positively sinister, qualities is gruelling because it is extremely hard for us to be uncomfortable with ourselves. This is why most of us would prefer to blame everybody and everything for our travails rather than ourselves. To think that we are the villains in our own drama is such an unpalatable truth that we need an extremely sound ego to bolster the shock.
A sound ego is the result of sound self-esteem. Self-esteem is the composite of two things. One is self-efficacy or the ability to trust one’s effectiveness and competence in coping with life. The other is self-worth or the knowledge that one is worthy of life, love and all the good things of life. Most of us have had dents and fissures dealt on our ego in the process of living. It is this that makes us so insecure and unsure of ourselves.
Among the characteristics of a sound ego would be the ability to draw boundaries between ourselves and others so no one can dominate or control us, to be open to life, to take risks, to be assertive, to take the failures and disappointments of life without losing faith in oneself or life, to be self-motivated, etc.
Spirituality is effective in dealing with these issues, especially if one were to operate from the premise that we are part of the Immortal Creator. Such a concept is so positive and elevating that it is bound to manifest in a sound ego. But the journey from frail and faulty human to Godstuff is a very long one. I believe that therapy can help to bridge the gap and help us become more self-aware and self-accepting while we struggle for enlightenment.
The advantages of therapy over spirituality in generating self-awareness come from the fact that one has access to a skilled facilitator who can help us look at ourselves in a more objective and accepting way. Most gurus do not have the time or often even the psychological sophistication to spend time with individual shishyas. One must struggle as best as one can, based on the guru’s discourses and talks. A therapist, though, is tuned to your particular problem—the place you are in right now—and can help to tussle with it until clarity is won.
Jack Kornfield, the well-known Buddhist teacher and author, talked of having returned home to the US after spending years doing meditation in a monastery. Considering himself equal to any challenges life would throw at him, he was shocked to find that he was still as inept with relationships as he had been earlier. It took him extensive therapy to gain a certain amount of skill in this area.
Deam Ornish, the doctor who popularised the concept of reversal of heart disease through a regimen of low-fat vegetarian food, group therapy and meditation, himself underwent therapy to help him overcome his fear of intimacy that stopped him from developing satisfying emotional connections. Dr Ornish found that his poorly developed sense of self was behind his problem and after resolving it, went on to finding and wedding the love of his life.
I happen to interact with my meditation group as well as the group that meets for therapy under the facilitation of a psychiatrist. The difference between the two is that the latter group is far more self-aware. When interacting with the therapy group, I find myself listening and responding to them in a special way, attempting to ask the questions that may throw light into their predicament. The conversation happens at a more conscious and deliberate level, which also enhances the relationship. The therapy group is committed to integrity vis-a-vis themselves and the relationship, which makes it easier to take risks within it, to throw light on to less than flattering truths.
Perhaps some people are more psychologically-minded than others. For them the mechanics of the mind and its translation into behaviour and attitude is fascinating. Perhaps therapy works best for them.
But the long road to enlightenment can only be won when we can embrace all of ourselves—the good, the bad, the dark, the light, whole-heartedly and unreservedly. Psychological mastery must happen. That’s the important point, however we get there.
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