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.

Perfect love and complete joy

What’s your emotional baseline?

As a melancholic my inner life has been characterised by anxiety, hypervigilance, doubt, struggle, and frequent dismay or despair.

Being an introvert, my inner life is essentially my entire life.

But I’ve been looking to change my life or my experience of it, and taking a cue from some familiar religious sources, I’ve set upon some emotional goals or ideals: perfect love, and complete joy.

Perfect love comes from 1 John:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Anxiety is a form of fear. It is triggered (however unconsciously) by beliefs about the world, myself, and the intersection of the two. I’ve spent many years analysing my fears and their source, arriving finally at a point where there is nothing more to learn from them.

There is no fear in love, therefore, wherever possible, I’m replacing fear with love. Where it isn’t possible, I try to dig a little deeper and understand what’s going on, what lies behind the fear.

Complete joy comes from John’s Gospel:

Truly, truly, I tell you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have not asked for anything in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

Joy is the opposite of sorrow. We feel joy in response to good things, sorrow in response to bad. Complete joy implies complete goodness in life – a life so full of good things that our joy is complete.

That’s a pretty high bar to set.

Joy and love are different. We can experience love because God Himself is love, and love is the fundamental nature of reality. As children we experience love naturally. Love is, as it were, our default setting, but for various reasons it is drowned out or obscured by fear and sorrow.

We can experience joy because God is love, and love entails a desire for the good of the one loved. Put simply, when you love someone you want them to be happy.

Hence the reference to prayer, to asking God to give us things, and the assurance that He will do so. The omnipotent deity, the divine being behind and within all existence will shape that existence to our complete joy.

But why has He not already done so? Why do we have to even ask? If the ‘default’ setting is love, why is there so much evil and misery and hatred in the world?

Honestly I don’t know about “the world”, I only know my world. And with deep introspection I’ve found that every misery and hurt and fear in my life has been chosen by me.

That might sound strange or implausible, but it is true. Going back, I can recall key moments where I was threatened or terrified by some external event, and at that moment I assented to fear or anger or hurt and did not assent to love or faith or hope.

Ever since, I’ve maintained those fears and sorrows in my own inner world.

The great commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and Jesus implores us to remain in His love.

Anxiety means I am not remaining in that love, and while this shouldn’t be a cause for feeling guilty or blameworthy in an emotional sense, it does mean we are responsible. It is up to us to choose love instead of fear, though it may take a lot of time and effort to discover the moment where the wrong choice was made.

That is why life is not full of joy. We made choices in favour of sorrow and fear instead of love, and we have inwardly maintained those sorrows and fears ever since.

We actively reject love, though we may not be entirely conscious of it. I guess that’s why the commandment refers to all our heart, soul, and mind. All of it. Not just “a lot”.

Jesus said in terms of prayer that:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

But we don’t believe, because we don’t have love. And while we might pray for things we feel we really want, I’ve found deep down that I’m divided. Praying for success when parts of you don’t really want to succeed, because they’re enmeshed in fears and sorrows. Praying for healing when parts of you are content with your disease.

The bottom line is that perfect love and complete joy are immanent, though they may not be imminent. But the more I examine myself and my own experience, the more it seems the resistance is all on my side.

Buddhism and Christianity: a brief convergence

G.K. Chesterton once teased his contemporary proponents of comparative religion as arguing that:

Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.

He was right in that enthusiasm for a “common truth” in all religion seems almost by definition to resolve comfortably in the domain of a Buddhist-inspired mysticism. Modern advocates of a universal religion still tend to fall into the trap of equating Christ with the Buddha, and then cutting out the bits that don’t fit.

But Chesterton was not especially well informed about Buddhism, and I suspect that those who want to Buddhify Christ may be thinking a little too narrow in their approach to the problem.

That’s not what this post is about, however, and lest I get sidetracked let’s keep things simple.

After some years of consideration and study, it seems fairly straightforward that what is described in Buddhism as Sunyata or ’emptiness’ corresponds to the apophatic or “negative theology” aspect of God as something that defies the grasp of our intellect.

Buddhism may therefore be viewed from a Christian perspective as a conceptually negative attempt to enter into a profound mystical relationship with God, both understood and experienced as the hidden foundation of all reality.

From a Buddhist point of view, orthodox Christianity is a little harder to grasp. Okay, it’s actually a lot harder to grasp without conceding some points that don’t seem to lie in the usual ambit of Buddhist metaphysics.

But if all form arises from emptiness, and we understand (thanks to negative theology) that by ‘God’ Christians refer to this emptiness, then wouldn’t we have to allow that ‘creation’, or the coming into being and sustenance of all things, must be the same as the arising of forms out of emptiness?

The stumbling block of an anthropomorphised view of God as some kind of Zeus-like deity sitting above the clouds and contemplating how to interfere in our lives is not the view held by orthodox Christianity.

The real stumbling block is that orthodox Christians believe Jesus Christ to have been an incarnation (coming into form) of God (emptiness), as a true expression of the emptiness, in a way that differs from the Buddha, where the Buddha is understood to be an ordinary human who realised emptiness.

You can see why there is such a temptation to reduce Christ to the level of a Buddha, or to say that Christ’s claims of divinity were misunderstood by his followers, or that they are somehow the ‘equivalent’ of the Buddha’s enlightened state.

Yet at the same time, some Buddhist sects have gone in the opposite direction, elevating and even divinising the Buddha until he represents not just an awakened or enlightened human, but enlightenment and emptiness itself.

Some people are offended by Christian exceptionalism. That’s understandable, but Buddhism can also be exceptionalist in its own way – viewing other religions as inferior paths that do not contain the complete truth – it’s just that reincarnation allows Buddhism a much more relaxed attitude on a number of issues.

Since I’m angling for a Buddhist perspective on Christianity, let’s look at it from the more pragmatic perspective of the individual path to enlightenment. When Christians hold up the crucifix they are venerating the image of the highest possible being (God) that was reduced to the lowest and most miserable human condition – unjust suffering and death at the hands of others.  They venerate this image in the understanding that the dead God-human did not remain in death, but came back to life, and in so doing revealed the truth about life, death, God, and humanity.

Is it any wonder that his followers subsequently lost their fear of death, changed their lives, and gained a new understanding of their relationship with God?

Each religion makes sense in its own context. We can also find points of contact between the different religions. But when we do this we are stepping outside the original frame of either religion. To try to make them all fit together is inevitably a different activity. To see them as saying the same thing is ultimately a solitary experience.

I guess the real question is whether it is otherwise for anyone else?

I don’t like “God”

The etymology of God comes from the proto-germanic word for “that which is invoked”.

Which is not a bad term to use for a supreme being; so why don’t I like it?

Perhaps it is the sound: too short, too round, too hard. It should rhyme with cod, sod, mod, rod, but doesn’t; the vowel-sound is lengthened unlike any word I can find (in Australian English, mind you).

It stands alone, doesn’t fit, which could be fitting for the subject.

But the word of our ancestor’s faith is Deus. Deus from the same root as Zeus, both from a root that means to gleam or shine, God being the shining thing.

Familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps “God” is an invocation now so worn from over and mis-use it no longer shines?

In via negativa fashion we don’t have to give it a name. “The name which can be named is not the eternal name”. And when denoting an ineffable transcendent reality, a name is only as good as its power to invoke the thing named, or as a reminder of what it is and what it isn’t.

It’s hard to go beyond “I am He who is”.

We are supposed to go beyond concepts, let alone beyond names. So there’s no problem in not liking “God”, when what we really don’t like is centuries of accretion, familiarity, worldly meaning and false piety.  The more important thing is to know what we’re naming, whether and however we name it or not.

 

 

Imago Dei and the basis of human dignity

My recent article on the awful truth of human dignity produced an interesting discussion, with some readers wanting to emphasise the notion of Imago Dei – the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God.  I wrote the following reply to a commenter who argued that Imago Dei is a more valid basis for the widespread sense of human dignity:

But I think few people are able to articulate ‘Imago Dei’ either. In terms of knowing something to be true intuitively, even then we ought to be able to reflect on the nature of this knowledge.

For example, the first principles of reason such as “a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way” cannot be proven, nevertheless we all know it almost intuitively. But on reflection we can find that the truth of this principle is grounded in the more fundamental behaviour of reality, i.e. “an object cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way”.

So there is a deeper basis, and when we know it our understanding is more complete.

Applying the same process to the Imago Dei, Aquinas writes: “some things are like to God first and most commonly because they exist; secondly, because they live; and thirdly because they know or understand; and these last, as Augustine says “approach so near to God in likeness, that among all creatures nothing comes nearer to Him.” It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.”

Without going into it too deeply, I think the implication is that our intellectual nature is our likeness to God.  This is in fact very closely related to my depiction of dignity. Our capacity to know and to understand is the part of us that is most like God; and one could say that my theory of dignity is merely the humbling recognition that other humans (not merely oneself) are, by nature, able to know and understand and therefore resemble God.

Yet as I said at the start, most people do not seem to have a clear understanding or even a theory of what Imago Dei means. Rather, they derive significance from this teaching at face value.  If, on the other hand, one had no knowledge of God or the Imago Dei concept, one could nonetheless become aware of the reality of the knowing human mind, and as I have shown, the humbling and awesome reality of other people’s minds; and this in itself would be a recognition of Imago Dei without the explicit religious and historical context.

This is not to say that one can have a value or an invented dignity independent of God.  Existence itself depends upon a creator, and we are indeed prone to deluding ourselves with vain concepts and ideas.  But if God has created us in his image, it is okay to inquire as to what this means, what part of us is distinctly God-like in that sense.  This knowledge enriches our understanding of the Imago Dei concept, by showing what the idea is pointing to in reality.

Personally I find it quite exciting to think that what we call ‘Imago Dei’ is a part of human nature universally recognised as somehow transcendent, spiritual, and even divine, in a variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions independent of Judaism and Christianity.  I think this may well open a path for a rapprochement between otherwise quite diverse traditions.