Psychology and Spirituality: BFFs or Rivals?
Understanding how both psychology and spirituality are needed to live fully
Posted Dec 22, 2016
Here is an interesting way to examine the relationship between psychology and spirituality. Join a group of psychologists and drop into the conversation a few spiritual concepts. Talk about transcendence, oneness, unity consciousness, and the sacred. The contemptuous faces you then receive will directly correlate with the number of spiritual concepts you share. It’s a very similar experience the other way around. Join a group of spiritual seekers and discuss the beauty of the mind, and the power of science. Again, you probably won’t end up being their best friend. For the last 15 years I have been a university professor of psychology, while simultaneously submerging myself in spirituality. I have spent long years studying, travelling the world, listening to lectures conceived by the most fascinating minds, and conferring with great teachers in monasteries. These experiences have revealed to me the powers of both psychology and spirituality. I have discovered the amazing knowledge and depth they both offer, and the wonderful way in which they support our growth process. But it has also become obvious to me that the two appear to be irreconcilable. It is almost as if they are perceived as rivals, as conflicting ways of understanding life that could never converge. In the academic milieu, where I have been teaching and conducting research, spirituality is frequently frowned upon, perceived as esoteric and metaphysical; a sphere that could never be part of the scientific realm. At the same time, whenever I associate with spiritual groups, participate in satsangs (talks conducted by spiritual teachers with their disciples), or spend time in spiritual retreats, science and psychology seem to be out of place. I have often felt torn; whatever group I have been part of lacks certain elements that are readily available in the other group. This feeling of something being missing is what spurred me to start my own work, my own personal journey, and merge the teachings of both the psychological and spiritual worlds. The results of this have been amazing: with time, I have felt increasingly liberated. I have become better acquainted with my authentic self and begun to understand my role in the play called life. So what insights have I gained, regarding the relationship between psychology and spirituality?
Psychology, as you might know, is the study of the mind or the soul. Significantly, in the West, psychology is only referred to as the study of the mind, whereas the “soul” part is completely ignored. Although psychology could potentially be the discipline that brings together the mind and the soul, the purely analytical approach adopted in the West has been unable to accommodate the soul. Psychology, therefore, deals with the mind: the way we think, consciously form concepts, understand the world around us and make sense of it. Spirituality, on the other hand, can be defined in many different ways and yet it is frequently regarded as a practical tool to achieve self-growth, because it paves the way for transcendence. It helps us transcend the analytical functioning and cognitive processing of the mind, and makes room for other experiences. Therefore, the heart and soul of spirituality is the experience of “Self-Transcendence” in which you allow the experience of your self to move beyond the personal self (“I’m John/Itai/Michelle”) into an experience where the attachment to that personal self disappears. At that point you become part of all that is around and within you; you are one with everything. You might have experienced such a spiritual moment, for instance as you were standing at the top of a mountain when the sun was rising or setting, and for a few moments (which might have felt like a lifetime) “you” did not exist, and it was only a setting sun and the blowing wind that were there.
That is the reason why the practice of meditation is central to almost all branches of spirituality. The experience of self-transcendence is dependent upon our ability to be present, aware, engaged with the moment as it is. That state of presence is required in order to shed the limited personal self and move into self-transcendence. The personal self is the main reason for the fact that we often feel separated from all that is around us. If I stand at the top of the mountain, watching the sun setting, without an experience of self-transcendence, this is due to my attachment to the idea of “Itai” as something that is separate from the experience of the moment. Meditation, through consistent practice, teaches us how to let go, momentarily, of that personal self, so that we can be present within the experience of the moment, whatever it is.
Psychology and spirituality could be described as “feet on the ground, head in the sky”. Psychology represents the “grounding” effect, in which the mind is used for thinking, rationalizing, and understanding life. This is an essential part of our lives – the mind is a beautiful tool that, as long as we are in control over it, allows us to make conscious choices which are beneficial for us. Spirituality transcends rational thought and allows us to shift into deep presence. As part of that experience, you won’t engage with the moment while using the mind as an interpreter; instead, you allow your awareness to embrace the moment as it is and simply be there, in the deliciousness of presence. I wholeheartedly believe that living a full life would mean embracing both these different aspects of life, and maintaining a balance between them. Most people tend to search for one single unambiguous answer, and dismiss all others. They either follow the mind-oriented psychological path, or the spiritual, self-transcending one. By adhering to their one-sided views, both groups are restricting themselves. While being well-equipped to deal with certain situations, they are ill-equipped to deal with others. Rather than being contradictory, mind-based and presence-based experiences are in fact complementary to one another. They represent two aspects of the entity we call life. Certain moments in life require mind-oriented skills, while in others one must let go of the mind and simply be there. Doing and Being. Having both options at one's disposal at any given moment offers greater flexibility, and the ability to take appropriate action. This can happen only when both the psychological and the spiritual are alive within you. To realize in full the potential for growth in your life, you must be able to shift between the psychological and the spiritual poles, in accordance with the situation and at your own choice.
Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a positive psychologist, Professor at Naropa University, and the director of the School of Positive Transformation.
His most popular courses are the online Meditation and Mindfulness Teacher Training, which offers an in-depth training to become a formal teacher of meditation, and the Positive Psychology Practitioner Certificate, which certifies you as a positive psychology practitioner.