38. Psychotherapy And Self-Realisation

Q: I work as a marriage counselor and psychotherapist, and teach counseling at master’s level. I have followed your web page about psychology and psychotherapy for years, and have found it a valuable resource that I recommend and often assign to my therapy students. When you began to discuss self-realization, I followed that too. I observed the conversation between you and another spiritual teacher in which he said that psychology was mostly nonsense and only a distraction from self-realization, to which you disagreed. Would you please comment further?

A: I kept silent about so-called “self-realization” for years. Since I had enjoyed and benefited from hearing the ideas of others who had gone before me, that silence started to feel like an unnecessary withholding, so I began to speak about it, but I do not consider that expressing my perspective constitutes “spiritual teaching.”

By now, the word “spirituality” is used so promiscuously that it signifies practically nothing. The sermon in a mega-church is called spiritual teaching, as are the logical proofs and arguments of Hindu gurus. The only “spirituality” those two have in common is the rather bizarre notion that somehow a human being can know the truth about ultimate matters.

What I share here seems quite different from all that. My words are not spiritual teaching at all, but a pointing to the uncertainty of conjecture, and the foolishness of credulity vis-à-vis anything to do with spirituality.

In the face of impermanence, the vanity of claiming “self-realization,” or, even worse, claiming to be able to teach it, seems unmistakable. After all, today’s “self-realization” might be tomorrow’s “what the hell was I thinking?” This appears obvious to me, but perhaps not to others, and I have no magical means of convincing anyone that “final answers” are never really final, because awakening never ends. I can mention impermanence. I can discuss it. But the comprehension of impermanence — including the impermanence of ideas and self-definitions — arrives willy-nilly like a flash of lightning, how and when it does, and no one knows how to produce that flash.

As the T’ang poet, Han-shan, wrote:

I came once to sit on Cold Mountain
And lingered here for thirty years.
Yesterday I went to see relatives and friends;
Over half had gone to the Yellow Springs.
Bit by bit life fades like a guttering lamp,
Passes on like a river that never rests.
This morning I face my lonely shadow
And before I know it, tears stream down.

Words about loss and impermanence might make you cry. But those tears would not be like the ones that streamed down Han-shan’s cheeks when he faced his lonely shadow. Those tears require the flash of lightning.

I consider psychotherapy an essential healing art. Spirituality is no substitute for that kind of healing, and may even impede it by substituting an ineffective medicine for one that might really work. Many preachers of spirituality seem to suffer from emotional problems themselves, but imagine somehow having bypassed those troubles by jumping straight from neuroticism into “realization.” Then they compound the error by inducing the same delusion in their followers.

After a serious bodily injury one might consult a physical therapist for help in regaining freedom of movement. Psychotherapy has the same role in the matter of emotional injuries, the healing of which requires fostering emotional freedom of movement. I am retired from practice, but my Weltanschauung — my world view — continues to be influenced by my experiences in that work. How could that not be the case?

Therefore, when asked for guidance, I prefer to focus on ordinary thoughts and emotional details, not so-called “spiritual experiences.” In that regard, I concur with the attitude of the late Charlotte Beck, a rare kind of teacher who would brook no airy-fairy otherworldliness. “I meet,” she wrote, “all sorts of people who’ve had all kinds of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, ‘Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?’”

Since you followed that dialogue between me and the self-described spiritual teacher who kept trying to convince me of his “self-realization,” you already know that I have no use for such claims, nor for those epigones who simply regurgitate the ideas of classical Vedanta and Buddhism as if they somehow owned them.

In each moment things are as they are and can be no different. Nothing is hidden or esoteric. You see what you see, and that is you. I see what I see, and that is me. When that is clear, the need for “spirituality” goes right out the window.