When I first encountered Zen in the 1960s, I found myself particularly drawn to the mysterious satori—that moment of seeing into one’s own true nature, when all the old blinders were said to fall away. In such a moment, I imagined, one became an entirely new person, never to be the same again. I found the prospect of this kind of ultimate realization compelling enough to turn my life in that direction.
Yet along the way I also discovered something I was not prepared for: that 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.Realization is the movement from personality to being, the direct recognition of one’s ultimate nature, leading toward liberation from the conditioned self, while actualization refers to how we integrate that realization in all the situations of our life. When people have major spiritual openings, often during periods of intensive practice or retreat, they may imagine that everything has changed and that they will never be the same again. Indeed, spiritual work can open people up profoundly and help them live free of the compulsions of their conditioning for long stretches of time. But at some point after the retreat ends, when they encounter circumstances that trigger their emotional reactivity or their habitual tensions and defenses, they may find that their spiritual practice has hardly penetrated their conditioned personality, which remains mostly intact, generating the same tendencies it always has.
Of course, realization has many levels, from temporary experiences to more stable attainment. Yet 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. Some would say that these shadow elements are signs of deficiency in one’s spiritual practice or realization, and this is undoubtedly true. Yet since they are so common, they also point to the general difficulty of integrating spiritual awakenings into the entire fabric of our human embodiment.
In the traditional cultures of Asia, it was a viable option for a yogi to pursue spiritual development apart from worldly involvement, or to live purely as the impersonal universal, without having much of a personal life or transforming the structures of that life. These older cultures provided a religious context that honored and supported spiritual retreat and placed little or no emphasis on individual concerns. In Asia, yogis andsadhus who had little personal contact with people could still be venerated by the community at large.
Many Westerners have tried to take up this model, pursuing impersonal realization while neglecting their personal life, but have found in the end that this was like wearing a suit of clothes that didn’t quite fit. Taking on the challenges of a fully engaged personal life—finding right livelihood in a complex materialistic world, being involved in a committed intimate relationship, dealing with the social and political concerns facing us at every turn—inevitably brings up unresolved psychological issues. For this reason, Western seekers may also need the help of psychological methods to help them more fully integrate spiritual practice and realization into their lives.
For most of my career I have explored what the Eastern contemplative traditions have to offer Western psychology. Yet more recently I have also become interested in a different question: How might Western psychological work serve a sacred purpose, by helping us to integrate our spiritual insights into our everyday lives? In its ability to shine light into the hidden nooks and crannies of our conditioning, psychological inquiry can serve as a powerful ally to spiritual practice. It can help break up 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. Of course, this kind of psychological work would require a much larger understanding and aim than conventional psychotherapy, whose focus is on pathology and cure rather than transformation.
Psychological and spiritual work address different levels of human existence. If the domain of spiritual work is emptiness—unconditioned, universal, absolute truth—the domain of psychological work is form—our individual, conditioned ways of experiencing ourselves and the world—or relative truth. Spiritual practice, especially mysticism, points toward a timeless trans-human reality, while psychological work addresses the evolving human realm, with all its issues of personal meaning and interpersonal relationship.
Many people who seek out my services have done spiritual practice for many years. I have often been struck by the huge gap between the sophistication of their spiritual practice and the level of their personal development. Some of them have spent years doing what were once considered the most advanced, esoteric practices, reserved only for the select few in traditional Asia, without developing the most rudimentary forms of self-love or interpersonal sensitivity. One woman who had undergone the rigors of a Tibetan-style three-year retreat had little ability to love herself. The rigorous training she had been through only seemed to reinforce an inner discontent that drove her to pursue high spiritual ideals without showing any kindness toward herself or her own limitations.
In addition to spiritual bypassing, another major problem for Western seekers is their susceptibility to the “spiritual superego,” a harsh inner voice that acts as relentless critic and judge telling them that nothing they do is ever quite good enough: “You should meditate more and practice harder. You’re too self-centered. You don’t have enough devotion.” This critical voice keeps track of every failure to practice or live up to the teachings, so that practice becomes more oriented toward propitiating a judgmental part of themselves than opening to life unconditionally. They may subtly regard the saints and enlightened ones as father figures who are keeping a critical eye on all the ways they are failing to live up to their commitments. So they strive to be “Dharmically correct,” attempting to be more detached, compassionate, or devoted than they really are, while secretly hating themselves for failing to do so, thus rendering their spirituality cold and solemn. Their self-hatred was not created by the spiritual teaching; it already existed. But by pursuing spirituality in a way that widens the gap between how they are and how they think they should be, they wind up turning exquisite spiritual teachings on compassion and awakening into fuel for self-hatred and inner bondage.
This raises the question of how much we can benefit from a spiritual teaching as a set of ideals, no matter how noble those ideals are. Often the striving after a spiritual ideal only serves to reinforce the critical superego—that inner voice that tells us we are never good enough, never honest enough, never loving enough. In a culture permeated by guilt and ambition, where people are desperately trying to rise above their shaky earthly foundation, the spiritual superego exerts a pervasive unconscious influence that calls for special attention and work. This requires an understanding of psychological dynamics that traditional spiritual teachings and teachers often lack.
Paul, a therapy client of mine, had been a dedicated Buddhist practitioner for more than two decades. A husband, father, and successful businessman, he had recently been promoted to a position that involved public speaking. After a few experiences in front of large audiences, he started feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, tension, and sleeplessness. At first, he tried to deal with his distress by meditating more. While this would help him regain some equilibrium, the same symptoms would recur when he next faced an audience. After a few months of this, he gave me a call.
From the Buddhist teachings, Paul knew the importance of not being attached to praise and blame, two of the eight worldly concerns, along with loss and gain, pleasure and pain, success and failure, that keep us chained to the wheel of suffering. Yet it was not until his fear of public speaking brought up intense anxiety about praise and blame that he realized just how concerned he was about how people saw him.
As our work progressed, he realized that he used detachment as a defense, to deny an underlying fear about how other people saw him. He had developed this defense to cope with not feeling seen by his parents. His mother had lived in a state of permanent tension and anxiety. Regarding him as her potential savior rather than a separate being with feelings apart from her, she led him to feel responsible for her happiness. To shield himself from her intrusiveness, Paul had adopted a defensive stance of not feeling his need for her, and by extension, for other people. Having tried all his life not to care about how people regarded him, he was particularly attracted to the Buddhist teachings of no-self when he first encountered them. After all, in the light of absolute truth there is nobody to be seen, nobody to be praised, nobody to be blamed, and Paul found great comfort in this. Yet on the relative level, Paul carried within him a frustrated need to be seen and loved. In denying this need through “spiritual work,” Paul was practicing defensiveness, not true nonattachment.
Paul was doubly trapped. As long as he could not acknowledge the part of him that felt, “Yes, I want to be seen and appreciated,” his frustrated need for love kept him tied in knots, secretly on the lookout for others’ praise and confirmation. And his inability to say, “No, I do not exist to make you happy,” kept him susceptible to potential blame whenever he failed to please others.
Yes and no are expressions of desire and aggression—two life energies that philosophers, saints, and psychologists, from Plato and Buddha to Freud, have considered particularly problematic. Unfortunately, many spiritual teachers simply criticize passion and aggression instead of teaching people to unlock the potential intelligence hidden within them.
The intelligent impulse contained in the yes of desire is the longing to expand, to connect more fully with life. The intelligence contained in no is the capacity to discriminate, differentiate, and protect oneself and others from harmful forces. The energy of the genuine, powerful no can be a doorway to strength and power, allowing us to separate from aspects of our conditioning we need to outgrow. Our capacity to express the basic power of yes and no often becomes damaged in childhood. And this incapacity becomes installed in our psychological makeup as a tendency to oscillate between compliance and defiance, as Paul exemplified in his attitude toward others, secretly feeling compelled to please them, yet secretly hating them for this at the same time.
As long as Paul failed to address his unconscious dynamic of compliance and defiance, his spiritual practice could not help him stabilize genuine equanimity, free from anxiety about praise and blame. Although he could often experience equanimity during periods of solitary spiritual practice, these realizations remained compartmentalized and failed to carry over into his interpersonal relationships.
Before Paul could find and express his genuine yes—to himself, to others, to life—he had to say no to the internalized mother whose influence remained alive within him: “No, I don’t exist to make you happy, to be your savior, to give your life meaning.” But it was not easy for him to acknowledge his anger toward his mother for making him the object of her narcissistic needs. Quoting spiritual doctrine, Paul believed it was wrong to hate. Yet in never letting himself feel the hatred he held in his body, he wound up expressing it in covert, self-sabotaging ways. I did not try to push past his inner taboo against this feeling but only invited him to acknowledge his hatred when it was apparent in his speech or demeanor. When Paul could finally let himself feel his hatred directly, instead of judging or denying it, he came alive in a whole new way. He sat up straight and broke into laughter, the laughter of an awakening vitality and power.
A second defining moment came when Paul finally acknowledged his need to be loved for who he was, which triggered a surge of energy that filled his whole body. Yet this was also scary, for it felt as though he were becoming inflated. And for Paul, with his refined Buddhist sensibilities, self-inflation was the greatest sin of all—a symptom of a bloated ego, the way of the narcissist who is full of himself.
Seeing his resistance, I encouraged him to explore, if only for a few moments, what it would be like to let himself become inflated, to feel full of himself, and to stay present with that experience. As he let himself fill up, he experienced himself as large, rich, and radiant. He felt like a sun king, receiving energy from the gods above and below, radiating light in all directions. He realized that he had always wanted to feel this way, but had never allowed himself to expand like this before! Yet now he was letting himself be infused by the fullness that had been missing in his life—the fullness of his own being. To his surprise, he found it a tremendous relief and release to allow this expansion at last.
As Paul got over his surprise, he laughed and said: “Who would have thought that letting myself become inflated could be so liberating?” Of course, he wasn’t acting out a state of ego inflation, but rather feeling what it was like to let the energy of desire, fullness, and spontaneous self-valuing flow through his body. In this moment of according himself the recognition he had secretly sought from others, he did not care about how others saw him. Nor was there any desire to lord his newfound strength over anyone.
Many spiritual seekers who suffer, like Paul, from a deflated sense of self, take spiritual teachings about selflessness to mean that they should keep a lid on themselves and not let themselves shine. Yet instead of overzealously guarding against ego inflation, Paul needed to let his genie out of the bottle before he could distinguish between genuine expressions of being such as power, joy, or celebration, and ego distortions like grandiosity and conceit.
As typically happens in many spiritual communities, Paul had used spiritual practice as a way of trying to deny certain basic human needs. Yet trying to leap directly from rejecting his need for love to a state of needlessness was only spiritual bypassing—using spiritual teachings to reinforce a subconscious defense. When he could finally acknowledge his need, he found that it contained within it a genuine, powerful yes to life and love that diminished his fixation on outer praise and blame.
Although Paul’s spiritual practice had helped loosen his identification with a fixed self-concept—what I call the conscious identity—it had not helped him fully address his lingering sense of inadequacy and unworthiness stemming from childhood—an even more problematic subconscious identity. It is often hard to dislodge or transform this kind of subconscious identity, which has its roots in interpersonal dynamics, through meditation practice alone, which is mostly a solitary activity. Our work together, with its relational focus, brought Paul’s underground sense of deficiency to light so that he could work with it directly. This also had a clarifying effect on his spiritual practice, helping him make an important distinction between absolute emptiness—the ultimate reality beyond self—and relative, psychological emptiness—his sense of being lacking or deficient. Because he had previously conflated these two types of emptiness, his spiritual practice had in some ways served to reinforce his old sense of inadequacy.
Paul’s psychological conflicts also cut off his access to deeper capacities such as strength, confidence, and the ability to connect with others in a genuinely open way. These intrinsic human capacities—traditionally described as “the qualities of a Buddha”—can be seen as differentiated expressions of true nature. If realizing pure, undifferentiated being is the path of liberation, then embodying a full spectrum of these differentiated qualities of being is the path of individuation in its deepest sense: the unfolding of our deepest human resources and imperatives, which exist as seed potentials within us, but which are often blocked by psychological conflicts.
This understanding of individuation goes far beyond the secular, humanistic ideal of developing one’s uniqueness, being an innovator, or living out one’s dreams. Instead, it involves forging a vessel—our capacity for personal presence, nourished by its rootedness in deeper human qualities—through which we can bring absolute true nature into form—the “form” of our person.
By person I do not mean some fixed structure or entity, but the way in which true nature can manifest and express itself in a uniquely personal way, as the ineffable suchness or “youness” of you. Since individuation involves clarifying the psychological dynamics that obscure our capacity to shine through, it is not opposed to spiritual realization. Instead, it involves becoming a more transparent vessel—an authentic person who can bring through what is beyond the person in a uniquely personal way.
Working in this way to clear up old emotional conflicts can help us develop a richer quality of personal presence and begin to embody our true nature in an individuated way. Our individuated nature can then become a window opening onto all that is beyond and greater than ourselves.
While spiritual traditions generally explain the cause of suffering in general terms as the result of ignorance, faulty perception, or disconnection from our true nature, Western psychology provides a more specific developmental understanding. It shows how suffering stems from childhood conditioning; in particular, from static and distorted images of self and other that we carry with us in the baggage of our past. And it reveals these painful, distorting identities as relational—formed in and through our relationships with others.
Spiritual traditions that do not recognize the way in which ego identity forms out of interpersonal relationships are unable to address these interpersonal structures directly. Instead, they offer practices—prayer, meditation, mantra, service, devotion to God or guru—that shift the attention to the universal ground of being in which the individual psyche moves, like a wave on the ocean. Thus it becomes possible to enter luminous states of trans-personal awakening, beyond personal conflicts and limitations, without having to address or work through specific psychological issues and conflicts. This kind of realization can certainly provide access to greater wisdom and compassion, but it often does not touch or alter impaired ego structures which, because they influence our everyday functioning, prevent us from fully integrating this realization into the fabric of our lives. Thus, as Sri Aurobindo put it, “Realization by itself does not necessarily transform the being as a whole. One may have some light of realization at the spiritual summit of consciousness but the parts below remain what they were.”
We in the West have been exposed to the most profound nondual teachings and practices of the East for only a few short decades. Now a deeper level of dialogue between East and West is called for in order to develop greater understanding about the relationship between the impersonal absolute and the human, personal dimension. Indeed, expressing absolute true nature in a thoroughly personal, human form may be one of the most important evolutionary potentials of the cross-fertilization of Eastern contemplative traditions and Western psychological understanding. Bringing these two approaches into deeper dialogue may help us discover how to transform our personality in a more complete way—developing it into an instrument of higher purposes—thus redeeming the whole personal realm, instead of just seeking liberation from it.
Buddhism has always grown through incorporating methods and understandings indigenous to the cultures to which it spread. If psychotherapy is our modern way of dealing with the psyche and its demons (analogous to the early Tibetan shamanic practices that Vajrayana Buddhism integrated into its larger framework), then the meditative traditions may find a firmer footing in our culture through relating to Western psychology more fully.
For psychological and spiritual work to be mutually supportive allies in the liberation and embodiment of the human spirit, we need to re-envision both paths for our time, so that psychological work can serve spiritual development, while spiritual work can take into account psychological development. These two traditions would then come together as convergent streams, furthering humanity’s evolution toward realizing its true nature—as belonging to the universal mystery that surrounds and inhabits all things—and embodying this larger nature as human presence in the world, thus serving as a crucial link between heaven and earth.
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