Recently, I saw an excellent article by John Welwood in Tricycle magazine called The Psychology of Awakening. Too often, awakening and psychological health are seen as different worlds even though they’re closely entwined.
“…even among advanced spiritual practitioners, certain islands — unexamined complexes of personal and cultural conditioning, blind spots, or areas of self-deception — may often remain intact within the pure stream of their realization.” This is very true. They can remain unseen until events trigger them. Yet even then, if we see ourselves as separate from our humanity, we may excuse our bad behaviour or blame others. I’ve seen this many times.
“…spiritual realization is relatively easy compared with the much greater difficulty of actualizing it, integrating it fully into the fabric of one’s daily life.”
As John observes, this is less of an issue if you chose a renunciate path away from the world. But most of us are householders and live in the world. We want to not just wake up but grow up and clean up.
He goes on to ask how psychology may serve spirituality, opening the “hard, rocky soil of our personality patterns so that this soil becomes permeable, allowing the seeds of spiritual realization to take root and blossom there more fully.”
The key point is that psychology deals with our daily life and relative truths whereas spiritual work is more about universal, absolute truths. This is why they’re seen as different worlds. Yet if we’re going to live the absolute in the world, we need to encompass all layers of truth and recognize their territory. [Note that Buddhism generally recognizes stages to a single awakening and absolute truth but not stages of realization and truth.]
John observes that spiritual adherents can be wary of “endlessly processing emotional issues.” From my perspective, psychological therapy can indeed be endless if it doesn’t reach the root of deeper issues. Spiritual practices can help us become more conscious of our inner territory. Energy healing can get to the root of pre-mental boundaries.
Yet many spiritual approaches lean on the renunciate side and ignore the personal. This is because of spirituality drifting to a renunciate emphasis during the darker age.
But there is another angle to this. Most Easterners are raised in a traditional family setting where the child experiences decent emotional security. They’re not put in a “nursery” by themselves at night at an early age nor given a bottle to feed.
Further, Westerners are raised, in varying degrees, to be independent rather than part of a family or community. We often lack the deep belonging that contributes to basic well-being, even from a somewhat dysfunctional family.
This leads some to seek love and security from their spiritual teachers, leaving them open to abuse. Similarly, people may seek spiritual groups to “belong” in sometimes unhealthy ways. Most Eastern lineages are unfamiliar with these developmental challenges.
Spiritual community (sangha) has great value but if we don’t recognize our unmet needs and inclinations, it’s easy for us to corrupt it. Then you see drama, co-dependence, control, abuse, and other issues.
The Western approach also teaches us to suppress emotions rather than express and release them. From energetic modeling, we learn how to bypass and avoid experiencing how we feel. This can even mean not living in the body. Ungroundedness can be a serious impediment to spiritual unfolding and reduces our awareness of the messy dynamics we’re supporting.
The desire for independence also thwarts community and introduces the tendency to make spiritual practices about me. They may even be corrupted to strengthen the ego rather than soften it. See how enlightened I am!
Materialist spirituality also adds an element of “instant enlightenment”, of a desire for fast results with little commitment. Enlightenment isn’t something to consume, it’s something that consumes you. Some hop from teaching to teaching or chase experiences, missing the point of spiritual practice.
A materialist emphasis also leads to confusing the two types of truth mentioned earlier.
“There are two ways of confusing absolute and relative truth. If you use… your grief to deny or insult the higher law of the universe, you would be committing the relativist error… [For example, blaming the Divine for a relative event.] The spiritual bypasser makes the reverse category error, the absolutist error: He draws on absolute truth to disparage relative truth. His logic might lead to a conclusion like this: Since everything is ultimately perfect in the larger cosmic play, grieving the loss of someone you love is a sign of spiritual weakness.
“Since it is the nature of human beings to live on both the absolute and relative levels, we can never reduce reality to a single dimension. We are not just this relative body-mind organism; we are also absolute being/awareness/presence, which is much larger than our bodily form or personal history. But we are also not just this larger, formless absolute; we are also incarnate as particular individuals. If we identify only with form, our life will remain confined to known, familiar structures. But if we try to live only as pure emptiness, or absolute being, we may not engage with our humanity. In absolute terms, the personal self is not ultimately real; at the relative level, it must be respected.”
I would take this further. At higher stages of enlightenment, relative and absolute become one wholeness. Yet even in that, we still have a person having a life in the world. Only now it’s not separate. If we try to hold to a single truth, it will impede further unfolding. Our expectations of what enlightenment is supposed to look like can be one of the biggest barriers to living it. We cannot know what we have not experienced, however much the mind may think it knows.
The article goes on to explore examples.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of some of these points. Awakening is a shift in being, a shift in who we experience ourselves as being. But to live that in the world, it has to descend into the mind, emotions, and our body. This can’t happen if we don’t live there.
Most of us have areas we’ve pulled back from and don’t engage. Part of the unfolding is thus becoming conscious of what we’ve been avoiding. Of feeling the feelings we’ve been suppressing so they can complete. Of noticing how the body is and what it needs. This can take time and patience. We’ve often been avoiding for a very long time and have established habits.
Yet the richness and fullness that can unfold when we swab the deck are immense.
PS: If spirituality and psychological health is a topic of interest, you may enjoy this APST talk given by Mariana Caplan.