Psychology and Spirituality: Mutually Exclusive or Two Sides of the Same Coin?

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By Naomi White

Blending Psychology and Spirituality

I’ve been met with both gratitude and curiosity as the Hridaya Yoga School Psychologist: gratitude that I’m here doing this work and curiosity about why. How can we come from a non-dual perspective, knowing that all is one and life is but a dream, while also endorsing detailed exploration and healing at the level of the personality?

As Buddhist meditation master Chögyum Trungpa put it, “Many people try to find a spiritual path where they do not have to face themselves but where they can still liberate themselves—liberate themselves from themselves, in fact. In truth, this is impossible. We cannot do that. We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our real shit, our most undesirable parts. We have to see that. That is the foundation of warriorship and the basis of conquering fear. We have to face our fear; we have to look at it, study it, work with it, and practice meditation with it.”

Knowing that spiritual practice can become a way “to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs” (i.e., spiritual bypassing) can ignite a sense of unease about our own practice.

Welcoming the Shadows

Yoga and Meditation in Mazunte, Oaxaca, Mexico

Many of us know that true practice necessitates exploring the personality, the shadow, the unconscious. But we don’t know how to do that, let alone in a spiritual context. Indeed, as author and Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield wrote, “we fear the personal and its sorrow because we have not learned how it can serve as our practice and open our hearts.”

That’s exactly where I come in. I offer a way of doing what Trungpa talked about: studying and working with our most undesirable parts. Jack Kornfield recommends psychological therapy for spiritual seekers and attests that “this doesn’t mean getting caught in our personal histories, as many people fear, but learning how to address them so that we can actually free ourselves from the big and painful ‘blocks’ of our past. Such healing work is often best done in a therapeutic relationship with another person.”

Letting the Light Enter

Spiritual seekers seek psychological therapy when we understand the truth in Rumi’s observation that “the wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Maybe our intrusive, traumatic, or obsessive thoughts are getting in the way of our sitting practice. They may even be conditioning our meditation to be linked to this very blockage. Maybe, despite years and years of watching ourselves with hawk-like awareness doing something destructive (like lying, binge-eating and purging, or doing drugs), we just can’t stop doing it or simply don’t know what to do instead. Maybe we’re maintaining an image of being all-loving and compassionate but secretly judging ourselves and others. Maybe we just can’t help believing the mind when it starts criticizing us or telling us how we’re the next messiah or Saint Teresa of Calcutta (aka, Spiritual Ego). Maybe we struggle with believing we “should” be less imperfect if we are to be truly “spiritual.” That somehow we need to get rid of something within ourselves to become liberated. Or, we’re too scared to (or just can’t) let go. Maybe we want to address the gnawing feeling that there is something we’re using our spiritual practice to run away from. Maybe we can’t sleep. Maybe we’re depressed. Maybe we’re anxious. Or, maybe we just want to talk about where we are on the spiritual journey and see what comes up.

Naomi white

Our Essence Is Love

Psychological therapy addresses aspects of our egos that, due to the very fact that they are not being dealt with and integrated, mean that they are running the show one way or another. Our essence is Love. Our ego separates us from this truth by creating ways of thinking, believing, and acting as if this weren’t true. Essentially, pushing Love away. That, in turns, creates pain and suffering. It makes sense, then, that going into our core pain and suffering would offer a path to the Truth of our innermost being. It can illuminate and, to paraphrase Rumi, remove the barriers we have built against Love. Then, witnessing is not somewhere “out there,” above and to the back of the head. Instead, we feel it intimately at the very core of our experience. This knowledge alone can provide inspiration to befriend and embrace the ego as our biggest teacher. It points to the areas where both the deepest wounds and the deepest connection to our core reside.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Moreover—and this is where it gets very juicy—psychological therapy can shed light on the areas we don’t know that we don’t know. Take a moment to digest that. What we don’t even know that we don’t know. This is something that happens at an automatic, unconscious level where information that is too painful to process gets blocked from perception. It’s like when we plug in a USB stick and our computer doesn’t even register its presence. This is a survival technique that protects us from being overwhelmed and unable to function. And, it can be a real obstacle to complete open awareness. Psychological therapy can help bring awareness to these areas in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm and completely shut down the system. In this way, it unlocks access to hitherto unknown levels of conscious awareness.

This is how a trained ear acting as a reflective surface can show us in just a few sessions what could take years, or even lifetimes, to see on our own. This is especially true for those of us who, despite doing many retreats and attaining advanced states of spiritual ecstasy and understanding, have persistent relationship issues. Relationships access parts of ourselves that are beyond thoughts since they were formed before we knew how to talk and are only activated interpersonally.

The Power of the Therapeutic Relationship

This brings me to a crucial and exclusive aspect of psychological intervention that sets it apart from other avenues for growth and transcendence: the therapeutic relationship. That is, the relationship between the therapist and the client. The quality of this relationship is the number one predictor of the outcome of therapy, regardless of what kind of therapy we engage in. It has the potential to provide healing in a way that we simply can’t reach sitting alone with our eyes closed. It is a kind of intimacy that may not be available in day-to-day relationships, either because the very nature of these is destructive or simply due to the fact that they work both ways—which can make it difficult or even impossible to work through issues rooted in the very attachment that forms these bonds.

Fuel for Fire of Transcendence

Thus, Western psychological therapy provides the tools, techniques, and relationship through which we can delve into the parts of ourselves we would rather not look at (i.e., “bypass”) or can’t even get at. Blending psychology and spirituality lets us use these parts as fire to take us deeper in our practice, opening our hearts more and more. In this way, our pain and suffering become the very substance of our journey, bringing concepts like “living with an Open Heart” to life and making them truly accessible. Our blockages, stuck-places, and unconscious tendencies are fuel to burn in the fire of transcendence. As Zen monk and teacher Suzuki Roshi said, “when you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.” Psychological therapy in the context of Hridaya Yoga helps us do exactly that, ultimately supporting the revelation of our True Nature, the Spiritual Heart.

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the
Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Naomi is a Hridaya teacher and clinical psychologist currently supporting students at our center in Mazunte. You can read more about her one-on-one sessions here.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jen

    Beautifully articulated and so on point. Thank you!

  2. VideoPortal

    Many 12-step programs base their principles on belief and trust in a higher power, though this power may not be named specifically. One recent study found the spiritual beliefs of people in therapy impacted their levels of worry , stress , and tolerance of uncertainty. Those participants who trusted in a higher power were found to be more trusting and to have lower levels of worry, stress, and intolerance. Other studies have determined spiritual therapy may be helpful for those experiencing substance abuse .

  3. Adina Riposan-Taylor

    How do you see the effects of the “therapeutic relationship” (between the therapist and the client) on the therapist himself/herself? Nobody has all the answers, nobody has escaped all the traps of karma, therefore – as in any relationship – there will be effects on both sides. How do you feel about such effects working on your own personality, revealing your own hidden shadows, manifesting your own not-manifested aspects? Especially when you combine spirituality with psychological therapy, there will be many karmic aspects coming and each of your clints will be – for one reason or another – entering this therapeutic relationship with you because of karmic aspect and previous connections that may actually need healing per se. That means, the therapy will be transformative work on both sides. You may receive therapy from your client as much as the client receives from you. How ready do you feel for that?

    The therapist is supposed to give answers or help the client find answers. But, if the therapist had all the answers, he/she would be called a Guru, not a therapist. I trust you are perfectly aware of that. So, how confident are you the answers will be the right answers?

    Experience is key, and experience is build in years of practice. You don’t seem to have many years of practice. However, in your case, spiritual intuition and your inner guidance – coming from your spiritual karma and openness of the heart – may simple replace such need for many years of practice, and innate talent may be stronger than experience. But this brings another point: Your spiritual karma may also attract a situation that you enter a “therapeutic relationship” with a client because the client is actually meant to be your healer. How ready are you to recognize that?

    How ready are you to be open to the possibility that maybe, one day, a therapeutic relationship with a client will actually bring you in the situation to meet your Guru?



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