Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Mind and Spirit: What Man Has Finally Put Asunder, Let No Religion Indiscriminately Join Together Again

A couple of interesting questions yesterday that were too complex and important to deal with in a brief comment. First Kahntheroad asks about "the sequence of attempting a spiritual pursuit. You've proposed before that psychoanalysis is an important, if not essential, element for spiritual growth. Is it a prerequisite? Is it fruitless to even bother seeking out the vertical when one is still bogged down with mind parasites and other unresolved horizontal issues? And to what extent must these be resolved, or tempered? Or is it possible for an intense spiritual experience to turn the tide, so to speak?"

Again, being that we are three-part beings composed of body, mind (psyche or soul), and spirit, it makes sense to me that all three have to be addressed in a serious spiritual practice. But unfortunately, just as the secular world has reduced spirit to psyche, the religious world tends to elevate soul to spirit. I don't think it's helpful to conflate these categories.

It is obvious with respect to your body, isn't it? You could be like a Christian Scientist, refuse medicine, and rely only upon prayer (spirit) to cure your illnesses (body). Sure, it might work once in a blue moon, but I think you're much better off going to a doctor. Why conflate the physical and spiritual?

This is not to say there is no relationship between the two. Obviously there is. This is what hatha yoga is all about--the recognition that spiritual growth takes place within a body, so that we must do everything possible to make the body a healthy, sensitive and robust vehicle for that. Hatha yoga has become quite debased these days, but it is not supposed to be understood outside a specifically sacred and spiritual context. It has a goal, a higher purpose, and it is not just to HAVE TIGHTER BUNS IN FOURTEEN DAYS!, worthy though that goal might be.

So ultimately everything is One, but that doesn't mean there aren't distinctions within the One. It's a complex and hierarchical One, not a simple and homogeneous one.

Now bear in mind that it has only been in the last 100 years that we have known anything about the unconscious and about the developmental nature of the human psyche. It always amuses me when I hear pseudo-intellectuals dismiss Freud as irrelevant, when he--or at least the tradition founded by him--has never been more relevant. People criticize Freud as if the field has not evolved since his death in 1939, but that's like criticizing contemporary physics based on something Isaac Newton got wrong.

It is impossible to go into a detailed explication of modern "object relations" psychoanalysis here, but suffice it to say that our psyche is a thoroughly intersubjective structure that evolves in the "space" between the plastic and still not complete nervous system we are born with and our early caretakers. Neuroscientist Gerald Edelman's theory of "neural Darwinism" describes how human beings are born with a vast overabundance of neurons that are either reinforced or ruthlessly weeded out during our first two years of life, depending upon the experiences we have. Neurons that "fire together, wire together," while neurons that don't fire at all just die away, never to return. (A deep but accessible summary of the state-of-the-art research into neuro-developmental psychoanalysis is found at the top of the list of books on the sidebar, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, by Dan Siegel; my book, in order to keep the length manageable, has only a summary of the summary.)

This is one of the key ideas of modern psychoanalysis--that early experience, both good and bad, does indeed get "hardwired" into the psyche. This is how, as first recognized by an earlier psychoanalytic pioneer, Erik Erikson, our capacity for "basic trust" can be somewhat set in stone from the very outset. If as infants we are responded to in a loving and empathic manner, then quite naturally we develop a background psychological context that regards the world in a similar way--as a benign and non-threatening place that can take care of our needs. Likewise, even just a "bad fit" between mother and infant can color this background context and make the world appear vaguely threatening, disappointing, or dangerous for the rest of one's life. This has obvious implications for how we will perceive the spiritual realm, for the same reason that our physical health will have an influence on how our minds work.

With even just this limited explanation in hand, is it not obvious how the psychological realm habitually interferes with the ability to properly deal with the spiritual? For example, you may have noticed that I have a few angry and hostile readers (who shall remain nameless) in whom I believe that a sensitive individual can see this confusion quite transparently. Or just look at history! Inquisitions, burning heretics, human sacrifice, jihads, fear and compulsion as the primary means of religious instruction, florid visions of hell that are just the terrified recollections of an emotionally abandoned or abused infant writ large--it has almost been the norm to have considerable confusion between the spiritual and the psychological.

But now, from our privileged historical vantage point, we are able to differentiate between these realms. Remember, one of the hallmarks of modernity is a separation of various realms that were all blended in the past--and continue to be blended in the Islamic world. That is, prior to the enlightenment, we can see that there was no clear differentiation between the political, religious, artistic, and scientific realms. The church was not just involved in the realm of spirit, but was deeply entangled in politics, determined what was acceptable for science, and dictated what was appropriate in art.

A big part of evolution involves both increased differentiation and complexity, but also a higher synthesis and unity. In our day, we tend to have the opposite problem of the pre-enlightenment world, in that we have satisfactorily divided everything up and placed it in its proper little department. But how do we put it all together again? How do we recover the lost unity, not by going backward, as the Islamists want to do, but by moving forward, into a re-synthesis of knowledge?

This is what my book humbly endeavors to do. While retaining respect for the separation of various domains, I attempt to show how everything might be related on a higher level. I'm not saying that my approach is the only way. Clearly, it is more a "vision," or perhaps even a juggling "performance" than a clear-cut and unambiguous philosophical system. But to return to Khantheroad's question, I believe that any total system of reality must include the spiritual, but must at the same time draw a clear distinction between the spiritual and psychological.

So how does this play out in practical terms? Yes, I do believe that most people can benefit from at least a short course of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. In my opinion, it is by far the most fruitful and far-reaching explanation for human behavior and motivation that has ever been devised. I really don't think anything else comes close. This doesn't mean five days a week, lying on the couch and free-associating for five years. But it does mean gaining some insight into how your mind actually works, so that it doesn't contaminate and hijack the spiritual process, as it almost inevitably will.

Kahntheroad asks, "is it fruitless to even bother seeking out the vertical when one is still bogged down with mind parasites and other unresolved horizontal issues?" No. For me to suggest that would be quite out of bounds, as there are always hidden factors involved in spiritual growth--a grace from above--that can work in mysterious and unpredictable ways. But the whole point is that it's not an either/or situation. There is absolutely no reason why one cannot do both. Remember, pre-enlightenment thinking conflated the spiritual and psychological, while we moderns artificially separate them too sharply.

"Is it possible for an intense spiritual experience to turn the tide, so to speak?" I suppose it does happen, but I do not believe it is the norm. History is replete with examples of people who have had intense spiritual experiences that did nothing to resolve their unconscious conflicts. So we have homosexual pedophile priests, pastors and preachers of all kinds who express their bottomless narcissism on TV, angry religious trolls on my blog who use me as a stand-in for their own unresolved issues, various gurus who find that their sex drive is completely uncontainable once they leave their cave and see a photograph of Jessica Alba (in that case, perhaps somewhat understandable), etc.

Moving on to Bryan's question, he noted that the conflict between esoteric (inner) and exoteric (outer) Christianity is what drove him away from Christianity altogether and toward Buddhism. This, of course, is a quite common experience among both Jews and Christians in the West, since nowhere do we generally encounter the deep sapiential and mystical dimensions of Christianity. This is sadly true, and I used to believe it myself until quite recently.

When I began writing my book, it probably had a somewhat--perhaps even blatant--anti-Christian bias. Looking back on how things played out, I do believe that I was lead by some sort of "Christian spirit" to revise that view. I was rather mysteriously lead to exactly the sources I needed, when I needed them, in such a manner that the whole thing almost seemed to be scripted. It's a little difficult to explain my entire belief system in this context, but suffice it to say that I now consider Christianity--rightly understood--to embody the highest esoteric wisdom, even though I remain what might be called a "poly-monotheist." That is, I don't believe in blending and confusing the great religious traditions, as the new-agers tend to do. Still, I think of each legitimate esoteric tradition as capable of taking one to the highest peak. The various trails that ascend the mountain are all separate and distinct--only at the peak do they converge. For most people it is best to stay on one particular trail. Furthermore, the path of mystical ascent is clearly not for everyone. It is a calling, a vocation. Moreover, you do not call it--it calls you.

I would like to discuss further what I discovered about Christianity that makes it so special to me, but I probably shouldn't do that now, because I've already gone on too long. Suffice it to say that there is no reason whatsoever to think that one must necessarily turn to the Orient--toward Buddhism or Hinduism--to travel the path of mystical ascent. Or as I expressed it in the book, "Ascent you a son, amen for a child's job." Tomorrow I'll try to explain what was meant by that puzzling remark. If Petey will tell me.


dilys said...

It's a complex and hierarchical One.

That is the corrective for just about every human error, political, interpersonal, or psychological. Do I have your permission to engrave it on a temple, or something?

The description of the brain wiring between caretaker and young neurology sounds (I don't think you meant it to) awfully final. Encouraging research has been reported in the Times and WSJ that practices -- meditation, physical exercise, and orderly self-inquiry (such as my favorite deceptively-simple way) -- can begin meaningfully to re-wire / re-circuit things at any point. All is not lost.

Is it possible for an intense spiritual experience to turn the tide? may be conflating probability and risky possibility. Most good coaches in any area have the aspirant work to some degree on all the strands, to increase the likelihood of progress. An intense inner intervention from "out there" permanently carrying the vessel Homeward sounds akin to winning the lottery. Could be, but don't quit the (inner) job.

Ahhhh[voice of Homer Simpson]hhhh, Jessica Alba. And that wheelchair hunk! Their series just ended. Talk about object-relations trauma!

apatheticlynomadic said...

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength."

This was said to me in response to an inquiry of mine to someone, and it was entitled as one of two supreme laws Jesus said man should follow. It seems to separate mind and soul which you stated, "...Again, being that we are three-part beings composed of body, mind (psyche or soul), and spirit..." are one in the same. I mean to ask you your interpretation of this Law.

Gagdad Bob said...

Good question. I will try to get into that tomorrow. People forget all about the mind part.

LiquidLifeHacker said...

While you wait on Bob's next post, you can find the story with that law in the parable of the Good Samaritan by reading Luke HERE ONLINE

25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself."

28"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

hoyden said...

I agree that therapy and seeking spiritual growth are both desirable and not mutually exclusive processes.

I like the analogy of our consciousness being like a glass container. Our mind parasites, misconceptions and distortions are like dirt on the glass. When spiritual knowledge (clean water) is poured into the glass the water becomes contaminated. For the container to hold pure spirutal knowledge the container must be pure.

Therapy can help clean the container but does not recognize the importance of cleaning in relation to spiritual truth. Many spiritual traditions recognize the need for a clean container but don't necessarily provide a useful mechanism for attaining that state.

Gang of One said...

Liquid and Etched,

The words you refer to, the words that the Master spoke, were and still are part of the Jew's number one spiritual ideal and recognition of the reality of God. It comes's from the most important prayer, the Shema. They are words from Deuteronomy 6:5-9.

"You shall love Hashem your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.
Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart. Teach them to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.
And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm and they shall be tefillin between your eyes.
And write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates."