The Psychology of Spirituality
Religion traditionally provides a structure for spiritual experiences.
Posted December 24, 2008
Christmas is once more upon us, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Chanukkah too has started, celebrating a miraculous event occurring centuries before Christ (who, as a Jew, presumably celebrated Chanukkah) was born. Both--despite their commercialism--are prominent religious holidays in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So perhaps this is an apropos time of year to reflect here on the psychology of spirituality and religion.
Psychologically speaking, religion is conceived, created and perpetuated by virtually every culture throughout history to provide meaning, comfort and succor in the face of the stark, disturbing, anxiety-provoking existential facts of life: suffering, misfortune, meaninglessness, isolation, insecurity, disease, evil, loss, and ultimately, death. The impressive longevity, ubiquity and tenacity of religion in human affairs attests to its relative efficacy in this regard. Religion may be further understood as a means of seeking to acknowledge, comprehend and honor the "numinous" aspects of existence: fate; destiny; mystery; wonder, beauty or awe; the irrepressible powers of nature; the perception of some intelligent and loving grand design in the universe; the organic interrelatedness of all things; the insignificance and impermanence of the personal ego and transcendent immensity of the cosmic, transpersonal or spiritual realm beyond both ego and material reality; and the ineffable yet transformative subjective experience of oneness with the cosmos and its creator. Religion traditionally provides a container, language, symbolism, and structure for such archetypal spiritual experiences.
On the negative side, religion, as Freud rightly recognized, can be a neurotic or sometimes psychotic means of dogmatically avoiding, denying or defending against the primal realities of existence and refusal to accept full responsibility for one's thoughts, desires, feelings, impulses, choices and actions. This misguided, infantilizing, illusory, rigid or delusional form of religiosity, frequently found in fundamentalism, can be exceedingly dangerous, since it engenders the psychological projection of power, responsibility, good and evil onto some external entity, be it God, Satan, demons or demonized enemies in God‘s name. Few theologians today would deny that, throughout history, organized religion has itself been the divisive source of myriad evils: from the Crucifixion to the Inquisition to the recent rash of radical terrorism murderously engaged in with such religious fervor in the holy name of Allah.
Today, we tend to differentiate between organized religion and spirituality. When asked whether they are religious, many say they are spiritual but not religious in the traditional sense. But just what is spirituality?
To begin with, spirituality is not all sweetness and light. It is a serious matter. Most postmodern, New Age spiritual dilettantes avoid dealing with the dark, shadowy side of themselves or others: our metaphorical devils and demons, the daimonic, or the shadow, to use Jung's term. They seek the transcendent ecstasy, bliss or joy of spiritual practice without its requisite descent into the underworld. They want Heaven without having to pass through Hell. They want to eliminate the perceived negative and focus only on the positive. They desire to know about angels but despise devils. But recognizing, honoring, embracing and bringing this dark side to light is at the very heart of true spirituality. Spirituality can best be characterized by psychological growth, creativity, consciousness and emotional maturation. In this sense, spirituality is the antithesis of pseudoinnocence: the naïve denial of destructiveness in ourselves and others. Spirituality entails the capacity to see life as it is--wholly, including the tragic existential realities of evil, suffering, death and the daimonic--and to love life nonetheless. This amor fati, as Friedrich Nietzsche phrased it--love of fate-- is a spiritual achievement of the highest magnitude. As existential theologian Paul Tillich put it, "The affirmation of one's essential being in spite of desires and anxieties creates joy. . . . It is [according to Seneca] the happiness of a soul which is ‘lifted above every circumstance.' . . . Joy is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one's own true being." And to life itself. (Here I am reminded of how John Lennon met Yoko Ono: He attended an exhibition of her art at a London gallery where she had a step-ladder standing. Curious, Lennon climbed the mysterious ladder apparently to nowhere, discovering only a magnifying glass with which the tiny word YES inscribed on the ceiling was made visible.)
Spirituality is also inextricably connected to creativity--and vice-versa. It signifies a positive approach, an accepting, embracing. even loving attitude toward life, suffering--and death. Creativity can be a profound spiritual solution to life's problems. The exquisite presence of this assenting attitude toward life is plainly palpable in Beethoven's last string quartets, composed joyfully just before his death, despite his total deafness, isolation and intense physical suffering. Clearly, Beethoven had creatively arrived at some sublime conciliation with his demons, with his difficult, tragic, lonely life, and with his own mortality.
Each of us face essentially the same task: to assertively and constructively affirm ourselves and our lives. To accept our human fate. To find and fulfill our personal destiny. To muster the courage to confront existence and to accept--even embrace--life on its own terms, including our own and others' intrinsic daimonic tendencies. And, undoubtedly most difficult of all, to forgive ourselves and others for selfish, hurtful and destructive acts. Nowhere in religious literature is this spiritual principle of accepting life's suffering and acceding to one's divine destiny more dramatically, movingly and elegantly illustrated than in the Crucifixion. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do" demonstrates powerfully a crucified Christ's compassion from the cross for human frailty. For ignorance. For unconsciousness. For the human condition in which we all participate. Buddhism conveys this very same spiritual message.
Diverging from Freud, depth psychologists Otto Rank, Carl Jung and Rollo May took a far less jaded view of religion, recognizing spirituality as an archetypal potentiality and essential psychological need. Jung was one of the first to see that despite their disillusionment with and rejection of organized religion, many of his patients' problems were religious in nature, requiring the development of their own personal spiritual perspective during the healing process of psychotherapy. In this sense, psychotherapy, when properly practiced, is an inherently spiritual venture. Understanding the psychology of spirituality is of tremendous importance to psychotherapy today. In the final analysis, the task of both psychotherapy and spirituality is to accept and redeem rather than avoid, deny, cast out, eradicate or exorcise our devils and demons. By bravely facing our inner "demons"--symbolizing those scary, shameful, primitive, uncivilized, irrational, unconscious complexes, emotions, passions and tendencies we most fear, flee from, and hence, are obsessed or haunted by--we transmute them into helpful spiritual allies. During this alchemical process, we come to find that the same devil so righteously run from and long-rejected turns out to be the redemptive source of renewed vitality, creativity and authentic spirituality.
Happy Holidays! And best wishes for a passionate, creative and joyous New Year!