As a psychotherapist and Dharma practitioner, my aspiration has been to integrate my psychotherapy practice and my spiritual path into one functional continuum. This would include my professional practice as a therapist and a teacher, my relationships, my intimate partnership and my place as a human being living in the modern western society. I realized that contemporary psycho-spiritual path means to me a moment-to-moment precise and balanced dance between my personal psychological process and between following the traditional spiritual path with certain guidance and rules. Sometimes it is not an easy task. In this article I would like to highlight the benefits and the pitfalls of the above-described aspiration which I realized along my path.
I honor the courage of many spiritual seekers in the west to walk outside the traditional spiritual highways. Hannegraaff believes that Self-spirituality, a key characteristic of the long-standing tradition of Western Esotericism, assumes that the Self is sacred; the person is spiritual in essence and therefore has an innate capacity to connect with the numinous. This point of view and this approach to life are very close to my experience and I have always had a tendency to trust the process unfolding in me which very often incorporated a path into the unknown territories of my psyche. Such a path outside the comfort zone with an aim to seek the holy grail of awakening could be linked to the journey which Joseph Campbell named the Hero’s journey. It seems that such a process is present in archetypal stories – fairytales – and is connected to Carl Jung’s process of individuation.
On the other hand the potential risk of the self-spirituality approach can be that nowadays the spiritual market is so rich that many seekers can get lost on the path, never reaching the genuine spiritual realization which could be marked with a bigger sense of inner freedom, a sense of inter-connectedness and compassion and a strong sense of personal integrity. Psychological immaturity involves many risks. To name only a few of them, we can be lost in self-interest, spiritual narcissism, spiritual materialism and spiritual by-passing as well as a tendency to self-deceit. One may find themselves skewing the meaning of authentic spiritual teachings to suit their personal preferences. The motivation of such a tendency is very often the need to confirm and to justify our habits and opinions which protects our faithfully known self-identity.
Sigmund Freud believed that neurosis is a kind of a personal religion. It is easy to steer up our path towards a more rigid position protecting our ego instead of becoming more flexible and alive associated with the ability to enjoy the present moment and breath freely.
Another risk of the choose-and-pick approach can be that we create a kind of a new age mixture where the ingredients will not work together well and leave a bitter taste in the end. I heard many Tibetan Buddhist teachers warn against such an approach of taking parts of the whole path and creating one’s own mixture without context and transmission.
From that point it seems much safer to follow the path under the guidance of an experienced or realized teacher in the context of a proven tradition. On the other hand, it can sometimes be very difficult to choose the right path at the start, especially when we are suffering and searching for a fast remedy. To trust someone and to follow one spiritual tradition and one teacher with complete devotion until we reach the awakening point is not an easy task. Maybe it has to do with the fact that living spiritual traditions usually have roots in the East and that the eastern mind is different from the western mind, hence the needs of the individual’s development are different as well. John Welwood described this difference, linking it with developmental psychology. He proposed that in the East, children experience much more of what we call holding environment at an early age, thanks to which their trust towards life itself is naturally built up and is deeper than that of children in the West.
The tradition of devotion and following the example of a living teacher is also more common in the East. The western mind has a stronger tendency to doubt everything and to glorify independent thinking at any price. This is coupled with the tradition of rationalism and discrediting emotional and sensory ways of knowing, wherefore it is hard for the western practitioner to find the right balance between heartfelt devotion, which can be a very fast track to enlightenment, and between open and thinking mind. It is easy to end up in one extreme or the other. On the one hand there is the naïve glorification of the teacher with possible projections and addictions, a backup of unresolved emotional child trauma due to which one may get lost in the transference, searching for a good father or mother. On the other hand there is a strong sense of ego-centrism amounting to believing that our perception is the most accurate one and lacking an ability to trust and surrender to anyone. Rob Preece, the Jungian psychologist and Buddhist practitioner of many years, pointed out in his book Wisdom of Imperfection how different the western psyche from the eastern one is. The complexity of our psychological development in the context of the Jewish-Christian tradition with its specific issues is very difficult to understand even for very experienced spiritual teachers from the East.
Such personality complexities and difficulties are very often far beyond the perspectives of models of traditional teachings. Although the traditional spiritual teachings such as Buddhism can give us resources and substance for dealing with our general life problems, they sometimes do not have a proper recipe for how to deal with subjective experiencing and psychological processes which can occur as a by-product of following the spiritual path. In my psychotherapy practice I met some fulltime Buddhist practitioners who desired for spiritual realization very hard. Their problem was that nobody prepared them for the emotional process which the meditation practice opened up. They tried to overcome it with just more practising but it did not work. In their case the spiritual practice reached the limitation of their psychological capacity and the moment this happened, the spiritual and psychological development stood in opposition to each other instead of supporting each other. Paradoxically, what was missing, as seen from my professional point of view, was compassion towards themselves and towards their own developmental limitations, the same compassion they were aiming for through their meditation practice. The compassion they were lacking could be built up in two ways: one could have happened during their childhood development through the holding environment provided by their parents, and the second possible way was through the close person-to-person relationship to their spiritual teacher and his or her guidance. Unfortunately both possibilities were missing in their case and the compassion needed to be built through the therapist-client relationship.
I believe that it is important to know or at least to try to draw the destination where we want to arrive when we are on the path. Such an aim does not have to be rigid and can be flexible and change along the path.
Different destinations will necessarily have different paths. Reaching spiritual enlightenment does not have to go well together with gradual psychological development. For many years I have been advocating that psychological and spiritual development can be aligned. I also spent many years in trainings which aspired to create an environment to bring these two paths together. From my perspective as a therapist and a client, some of them were more successful, some less. Now I have reached a point in my development where I am appreciating both the spiritual and the psychological path and I can see that both have their own limitations. The psychological path can become a never-ending spiral of searching for a healthier and more complex ego structure while the spiritual path can overlook the need for psychological work concerning our less developed and traumatized parts.
From my present perspective it does not necessarily have to be useful to try to mix the two but it may be more useful to hold them both close to each other, giving them the same importance and respecting their possible differences and details. Pursuing the traditional spiritual path can be beneficial by virtue of its authenticity and depth with thousands of years’ backup in living transmission from teacher to disciple. On the other hand, using the psychological development in the context of psychotherapy can equip us with a healthy and mature ego, which will be more flexible and able to surrender to the advanced teaching without trying to bend the teaching in order to advocate its own fragmented existence. But to find the right balance between these two paths seems an equivalent of the ancient alchemical journey, to know when it is time to work on our ego and when it is time to let the ego die in the fire of transcendence.
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