The Spiritual Path
By Han F. de Wit
Duquesne University Press, 1999
312 pp.; $21.95
Han de Wit’s earlier book, Contemplative Psychology, served two main purposes: First, a theoretical analysis was undertaken that brought the contemplative thinking of the world’s religious traditions into a common frame of reference; second, the contemplative understanding of human psychology was led into provacitive dialogue with the Western academic and clinical psychology traditions.
In his new book, The Spiritual Path, de Wit undertakes a practical analysis of contemplative psychology. In extraordinary detail, he articulates and explains what practitioners need to understand of contemplative psychology in order to most effectively pursue their spiritual practices. He presents a carefully drawn, detailed guided-tour map of the subtle and complex landscapes of contemplative psychology—the landscapes through which spiritual seekers neecessarily pass on their pilgrimages.
That there is a “contemplative psychology” at all may be considered a radical claim. The brilliance with which this claim is supported is one of the book’s triumphs. Han de Wit’s account makes it clear that, regardless of the theological contexts in which practitioners apply the disciplines of contemplative life, the experiences that unfold, the ways in which these experiences evolve, the questions that arise, and the changes in view and in understanding they experience, have a great deal in common. They have so much in common that it becomes difficult to doubt that there is, in fact, a genuine contemplative psychology. De Wit makes it clear that there is a way of understanding the human mind that transcends the theological differences dividing the world’s religions. As such, The Spiritual Pathis an extremely valuable contribution to opening ecumenical dialogue among those who value spiritual life.
In the field of understanding the relationship between contemplative life and the Western psychological traditions, there is, in the contemporary literature, on going discussion of the need for psychotherapy as an adjunct to spiritual practice. This conversation has taken place in a void of understanding of the psychological purposes and resources of the contemplative traditions. For example, de Wit says, speaking of the experience of applying the disciplines of speech and action, “the form and forms of expressions of our ego become concretely visible to us. Ego is no longer simply another contemplative idea but has, through the practice of the disciplines, become an experiential fact that can be localized. Thus, these disciplines function as a kind of mirror, and that is, at bottom, their contemplative function. As a mirror, they show us the concrete contours of our ego, for whenever we have difficulty with the disciplines of action and speech, it is because at that moment we are confronted by one of the hard walls of ego’s fortification.” There are many such analyses of contemplative practices. There discussions reveal the path through which meditation practice can be brought into total interpenetration with everyday life. In light of this analysis, the psychological issues that have popularly come to be regarded as outside the competence or interest of the contemplative paths, and thus viewed as requiring psychotherapeutic help, will require a fresh examination.
The insight this book brings to the relationship between the sitting practice of meditation and the ways in which it cultivates what de Wit calls our humaneness, our clarity, courage, compassion, and joy, and the disciplines that guide behavior, enfolds the totality of the spiritual life in an integrated framework of understanding.
This book is an invaluable resource for practitioners in any spiritual tradition. Its exploration moves from topics of great interest and importance for beginners to discussion of topics that are critically important for very advanced practitioners. Each reader will, I am confident, find his mind pointed toward the moon of dharmic understanding.
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