Towards a spiritual psychology

I’m very slowly working towards a kind of spiritual psychology or anthropology, based on my reading and experiments over the years.

I hope it will take into account all the variables in my past experience: dealing with things like depression and anxiety, mysticism, cognitive and emotional states, and temperament.

It will be at heart a pragmatic approach, aimed at overcoming the suffering in my own life, and exploring the promises made by various religious teachings about the availability of love, joy, peace, and even bliss in this lifetime.

For me ‘pragmatic’ means I have a goal in mind. I didn’t go looking for answers out of simple curiosity, but because I sensed there was something wrong but had no idea what, how, or why.

So my approach will probably not appeal to many people, just as I’ve failed to find answers in the many popular approaches, theories, and methods available at present. The reason I haven’t become an exponent of any particular system or teaching is that no system or teaching has proven sufficient for me.

A quick sketch

Consciousness is something special.

In some religious systems, consciousness itself is considered divine – part of, or even all of God, right at the heart of your existence.

In others, consciousness is “close to” the divine, and is considered the “true self” or soul, in contrast to the false self, the ego, the accumulated thoughts and impressions that we usually treat as our self.

We could spend a lifetime trying to resolve and explore these theoretical differences, but remember this is a pragmatic effort. Regardless of the exact descriptions or definitions, consciousness is “special” in a good way.

The significance of consciousness is much more obvious in an Eastern context than in a Christian one, but we must bear in mind that the word “consciousness” has only recently been taken to mean what it means in this context. As “a state of being aware” it dates back only so far as the 18th Century.

Years ago I went looking for Aquinas’ perspective on consciousness, but couldn’t find it for the simple reason that Aquinas lived in the 13th Century, and for him conscientia would point to conscience, not consciousness.

In fact conscious is just a derivative of conscience. Both come from con meaning ‘with’ and science meaning “knowledge”. We could just as well say conscient instead of conscious, as in “are you conscient right now?”

The light in the darkness

In the context of mysticism, the specialness and significance of consciousness has been captured in the term “light”, as in “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”, which is not only a powerful spiritual statement, but also a pretty neat summary of contemporary philosophy of mind and the “hard” problem of consciousness.

Likewise: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”

We tend to think of evil deeds in concrete ways, as specific actions that contravene divine law.

But in the broader spiritual context it is clear that everything we do is corrupt and insufficient. It is ‘evil’ in a broad sense, and pragmatically this means our efforts are incapable of overcoming suffering or bringing us the happiness we seek.

We needn’t feel condemned for our actions, it’s enough that our actions cannot redeem us. Futility is an evil, just as much as malice.

The evil of human actions encompasses everything from the murderer and rapist all the way up to the proud and spiritually-barren Pharisees. That’s why Christianity presented such an apparent inversion of the moral order – because it doesn’t matter how well-behaved you are if you still have no love in you.

Some people think that light and darkness are metaphors for good and evil. I think it’s the other way around, in the sense that good and evil are ultimately grounded in light and darkness.

Light, love, and maladaptive defense-mechanisms

The ever-present light in us is also love, in that ‘light’ and love are attributes of God. Again, speaking pragmatically rather than seeking theological precision, this mysterious light by which we know the world and our own selves is also the source of divine love.

Yet instead of remaining in that love, we pay greater heed to the world, giving in to doubts and fears.

You can see this very clearly in children.

Young children are (all things being equal) loving towards their parents or caregivers. They give and receive love naturally.

Unfortunately, their parents and caregivers are not consistently loving in return. Our faults and foibles prevent us from responding to the love of our children perfectly.

Children experience this deprivation of love as a threat to their very survival. This makes sense on a biological level – since the child is entirely dependent on its caregivers for food, shelter, and security. But it also makes sense on a spiritual level, since we are told that love, light, and life all come from God.

In the face of this deprivation of love, the child invariably succumbs to doubt and fear, and immediately strives to regain the love it has lost.

This is the root of the problem: succumbing to doubt and fear, and thereby shutting down the immediacy of love in themselves, while then concluding that external conditions (the world) need to be controlled and rearranged before love can return.

In practical terms, this amounts to a child who stops experiencing love because of their parents’ implied or explicit rejection, and then seeks to find a way to regain that parental love and protect themselves from further harm.

The many layers of the psyche

Over many years of making psychological moves to avoid hurt and regain love, the child-teenaged-adult psyche ends up with many complex layers of beliefs, emotions, and choices that all originate in the choice of fear and doubt over love.

What this means is that in theory any of us can at any time feel divine love in our hearts. So long as the light (consciousness) is there, love is there as well. And the light is always with us.

But in practice our receptivity to this love is on a hair-trigger. We are ready to shut off the flow of love at the slightest hint of anything in the world of our experience that resembles the hurts, fears, doubts, and defense mechanisms that have shaped us over the years.

For example, many people develop perfectionist tendencies when young. Let’s say your parents were often depressed or angry, leaving them emotionally unavailable to you.

But then one day you get a good result at school or do well at sport, and suddenly your parents seem interested and engaged and proud of you. From your point of view, it’s as if they’ve said “Yes! This is the kind of behaviour and accomplishment we find worthy of love!”

Many children (depending on temperament and other circumstances) will form an intention to become as accomplished and successful as possible, because this is obviously what it takes to earn their parents’ love again. 

Conflating accomplishment and success with the supply of love is one cause of perfectionism.

Perfectionism can also originate in the inverse circumstance – where a child is told that they will suffer further rejection if they do not succeed in life.

Metastasizing fear

Becoming a perfectionist is one instance of a maladaptive response to fear and doubt. It’s mal-adaptive because it doesn’t really achieve the desired result (securing a supply of love) and it actually creates further conflict and harm.

Because after a while the child will begin to reflect on their perfectionist efforts. They will have further psychological responses to their perfectionism, such as: fear that they will not be able to achieve their goals, resentment that they must be ‘perfect’ in order to be accepted or loved, a sense of emptiness after finding that their accomplishments do not bring lasting rewards, and so on.

Again it depends on the child, but rest assured that they will make some kind of “move” to try to avoid further hurt and attain more love.

If, for example, the child feels insufficiently loved for their accomplishments, they will begin to feel angry and resentful at this injustice. Somewhere in the child’s mind they made an implicit bargain with their parents that they would be loved if they accomplished enough, or did as they were told, or didn’t rock the boat, or whatever particular issue first ruptured their sense of being loved.

But how will the child respond to these feelings of anger and resentment? Whatever they decide, it will be a choice that seeks implicitly to limit their hurt and attain more love, or as much love as they can hope to achieve in their circumstances.

These psychological developments go on and on. Some people have a few, others have many.

The more you have, the more likely you will develop outright internal conflicts between different “moves” or layers. Some people end up depressed or suicidal for no apparent external cause, because the layers of their own psyche create a kind of inner tension or turmoil that they don’t know how to resolve.

Finding the answer

That’s why the spiritual path is both simple and complex, easy and difficult.

The simple spiritual answers like “God is love” can be a source of great comfort, but not necessarily a lived experience. Can you just choose to be full of love, and then do it? Maybe you can, but many of us cannot.

So on the one hand we’re told that all we have to do is believe and we will be saved.

But on the other hand:

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Why this dichotomy? Because the simple truth is obscured by the many layers of our psychological defenses and accretions.

Defenses like turning to alcohol, sex, or drugs to try to relieve the inner tension, boredom, or suppressed pain which is in turn the outcome of other, more subtle defenses.

Defenses like intellectualising everything, shutting down emotionally, using dissociation or hypervigiliance to gain a sense of control over your own experience and environment.

Defenses like seeking out conflict and emotional turmoil, harming oneself or hurting others.

Nonetheless the answers are there.

The underlying, inescapable reality is light, not darkness, and it expresses itself in love, not fear.

On knowing what you’re doing

I seem to be one of those people who needs to understand fully what he’s doing and why, before he can commit real energy to it.

Some people seem to be content with just leaping into an exercise or practice. Maybe they work it out as they go along, or maybe they already have a better “feel” for how it’s supposed to work.

Whatever the reason, I crave a systematic and deep understanding of the things I do.

The things I don’t understand have proven to be challenging. Martial arts are the best example: I’ve been doing it for 17 years, but I still don’t have a clear understanding of how it is supposed to work.

That’s like driving without a destination in mind, but still hoping to get somewhere specific!

Bear in mind that my idea of having a clear understanding of how something works is to perfectly control all the relevant variables to their necessary degrees. That is, I don’t require useless knowledge of how things work, I just need to know enough to calibrate my own actions and controls.

I’ve applied this approach to posture and biomechanics over the past year, and it’s achieved good results. Learning how the shoulder girdle is supposed to function, how the ribs, pelvis, and spine should align, when the glutes and hamstrings are supposed to activate…I wish I’d learned it all years ago.

There’s still more to do, but it’s obviously been worthwhile. The only challenge is that every body is unique to some degree, and so it takes time to work out precisely what is going wrong. Plus, posture is a function of the whole body. It won’t be completely right until it’s completely right.

Meditation is another good example.

I’ve tried different forms over the years and none of them have been worth continuing. The problem is that I don’t understand in sufficient detail how they are supposed to function, what the benefits are supposed to be, and how it relates to my internal landscape.

The first book I read on meditation was really about awareness generally. It was called ‘Awareness’ in fact, by a Jesuit priest from India named Anthony de Mello.

De Mello’s work came under criticism at one stage by then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. He (correctly, in my view) warned against the syncretist implications of de Mello’s work, and other inferences that conflicted with Catholic teaching.

My criticism of ‘Awareness’ was that it promised too much, too vaguely. Perhaps it was okay as an introductory text, but like many self-help books it implied that simply being aware is a panacea that leads to spiritual enlightenment.

Everyone is different, at least to some degree. And mindfulness, awareness, trying to be more conscious, are not panaceae.

Nonetheless, there is obviously a role for being more conscious of one’s thoughts and impressions. For me, that role is becoming more evident and necessary, as I begin to notice how my mood and my motives are steered by very subtle thoughts and fears.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we form a self-image from childhood that dictates — like a character in a novel — how we live the rest of our lives. But that self-image is typically false. We don’t know who we are, we simply live according to habits and beliefs developed at an early age.

Not knowing who we are is a challenge, because we cannot simply replace our flawed self-image with a new and improved one.

But we can pay attention to when our self-image steers us. We can notice the occasions when our past dictates our present behaviour.

This seems to occur through the influence of subtle, momentary thoughts and impressions that invoke our flawed self-image. If we pay attention, we can notice these subtle influences and decide not to follow them.

If we don’t pay attention, we will follow them out of habit, largely unconscious of them, but feeling their negative effect.

The answer therefore is a disciplined, consistent effort to be conscious of these subtle influences.

Now, this sounds very much like ‘mindfulness’, which various people and popular culture have urged us all to enthusiastically embrace.

But the difference for me is that I have a precise purpose, I understand the direction. I know what I’m looking for, and what the outcome will be.

That’s the difference understanding makes. I’m not flailing around on popular recommendation, seeking to do this thing called mindfulness. Instead I’ve recognised that to make further progress I need to pay very close, very consistent attention to a specific set of influences in my mind.

Who practices?

I started reading books about mysticism and religion when I was a teenager. They appealed to me because they seemed to offer the ultimate self-control, insight into the true nature of reality, and freedom from suffering and pain.

It wasn’t until very recently that I found a book on mysticism which explained the path in sufficient depth and detail to make a difference. But at the same time, those intervening years were full of the kinds of life-events that made me ready to hear the same teachings with greater clarity.

I had finally realised that what I viewed as self-control was actually an undesirable state of inner tension, that wanting to be free from suffering was driving me to reject reality, and that seeking to understand everything was just a subtle way of seeking control.

So I found these deeper teachings and practiced them. The core of it was a practice of recognising all one’s reality – both internal and external – as consisting to the best of our knowledge in the form of mental impressions.

Taking a Cartesian angle: is there anything that is not – to the best of our knowledge – a mental impression?

This doesn’t mean that there is no external reality, or that things are only mental impressions. The point of the exercise is simply to recognise that mental impressions are the total of our experience.

This teaching runs very deep. Subject-object dualism, cause and effect, imagination and sensation, the persistence and identity of objects over time, all of these are experienced as mental impressions.

The only thing that is not experienced as a mental impression is our consciousness of mental impressions. Consciousness is like the eye that can see everything but itself. Yet we know it exists because we see by it.

This radical teaching and mode of practice reduces our experience to the simple dichotomy of forms and consciousness – where consciousness is experienced as empty of forms.

But since the forms themselves lack substance and permanence, this distinction is ultimately insubstantial. Hence the Heart Sutra:

O Sariputra, Form does not differ from Emptiness
And Emptiness does not differ from Form.
Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.
The same is true for Feelings,
Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness.

Now take a moment to consider the nature of these teachings. They arose from the experience of some individuals, were written down, transmitted, and communicated broadly.

People hear the teaching, but it only takes root in them if they are ready for it. In those who aren’t ready, it is misinterpreted, dismissed, forgotten, or ignored. In other words, it is like the parable of the sower who sows the seed that lands on different kinds of soil and is eaten by birds, strangled by weeds, or on good soil grows up strong.

Some of us wish we are ready when we really aren’t. The difference between wanting to be ready and actually being ready is like night and day, especially when the teachings themselves pertain to the illusion of a self who is in control – a self who may even be full of the desire to be ready.

If we put aside the illusion of self-control we can see that reality is shaped by profoundly complex causes and effects. From this point of view, being unready is simply the outcome of various causes; readiness too is just the further development of additional causes.

You can’t make fruit ripen faster on the tree, it’s ready when it’s ready.

At some point we can therefore ask ourselves “who practices?” or “who is practising this teaching?” The answer that comes to us is as if the teaching is practising itself.

These moments of clarity do not last for me. I’m told they one day become permanent, but only when we are ready. Only when there is no more sense that clarity might vanish and be lost.

I need more practice.

 

The self that doesn’t exist

Non-dualist sources in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions point out that although we feel like our self is real, when we examine it closely we do not find any single, enduring thing that merits the label.

We find, on the one hand, that we have a consciousness. But this consciousness alone does not seem to have many properties or characteristics beyond simply being conscious.

On the other hand, we find a multitude of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations that constitute the many properties and characteristics we think of as “self”.

But if our “self” is made up of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations, so is everything else in our reality. Why do we identify with one set of thoughts as “self” and a different set of thoughts as “other”?

More pointedly, what is it that identifies with these thoughts? Is it just another thought?

This is the upshot of the non-dualist analysis: It feels like I identify with some thoughts and not with others, but as we’ve already noted, there is no “I” other than consciousness and thoughts.

So who is doing the identifying?

The conclusion is that this feeling of identifying with certain thoughts and impressions is itself composed of thoughts and impressions. The “I” that feels like it identifies with various thoughts is itself just a thought.

The self is a complex, reflexive knot of thoughts and impressions that maintains the pretence of a substantive existence.

In Christian terms, it constitutes an attempt to “be like God” in the manner expressed by Aquinas:

“he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature”

That is why our pride – this peculiar delusion of a self that suffers and strives – is a vain attempt to be like God, to feel like the hero of our journey and bring that journey to a glorious end through our own merits and our own struggle.

What is your experience?

I’ve been thinking about acceptance lately and trying to write about the what it means to accept or reject our experience.

But I got stuck, and, as often happens when I’m stuck, I checked the meaning and etymology of the key term: experience.

I was using ‘experience’ to mean the sum total of one’s impressions. But the origin of the word makes it closer to ‘experiment’, with the implication of knowledge gained from a test or trial.

One of my untested theories is that the etymology of words can have unconscious implications. We don’t need to know what ‘experience’ really means to be influenced by its etymology. And even though the use of words changes over time, the real meaning is never truly erased.

Maybe it’s just me, but the moment I thought about it I realised that the ‘ex’ prefix meant ‘experience’ was coming out of somewhere. Intuitively it doesn’t have the ring of an all-encompassing state of affairs, does it?

So what do we call the sum total of our impressions, if not ‘experience’?

We could call it ‘reality’ but that somewhat begs the question. Reality means the quality of being real, from res meaning matter or thing.

But we don’t really know if these things are real, or if our impressions are things, do we?

Even if we call them impressions, we’re still assuming there’s something external making an imprint on our minds.

Other words like thought, think, ken, know, cognise, consciousness, and so on are all quite basic. They point to the everyday experience of people having mental states that represent to themselves the world around them.

The language is not really built for skeptical introspection. So we have to talk around it, pointing out that we do not know on the basis of thoughts and impressions what the true nature of reality is – the external world that presumably leaves these imprints on our minds (assuming that we have minds).

That’s why nondualists end up simply positing “consciousness” undergoing endless forms.

One source I’ve been reading lately asserts that there are three things: formless consciousness, the discriminating power, and the distinguishing forms that arise through this discriminating power.

At the same time, these three things are not separate. They may be different functions of the same thing, or in Buddhist terms: form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Why this power would bother to create forms that resemble the author sitting at his desk mired in the illusion of a biographical existence while pondering his own unreality is a bit of a mystery.

Regardless, that’s the nondualist answer. You are not really you, just a collection of passing forms. Consciousness alone is unchanging and real, and capable of knowing itself.