Spiritual psychology: why meditation isn’t enough
Meditation isn’t enough, okay?
There, I said it.
Far from being the panacea we have all hoped for, meditation is undoubtedly a powerful tool – but it just doesn’t solve the deep-seated issues many of us carry.
In fact, no matter what spiritual practice/path you engage in, no matter what hallowed tool you hold close to your heart, it is lopsided, deformed, and misguided without some form of inner psychological work.
Our spiritual paths need an element of psychological exploration and healing, otherwise, they are prone to issues such as spiritual materialism, spiritual narcissism, denial, avoidance, repression, dissociation, disconnection, poor sense of self, and retraumatization. Ya hear me?
Like all things in life, spirituality needs to evolve beyond infantile, avoidant, repressive, and oppressive paradigms. We need to deepen our approach toward spiritual transformation, and that involves uniting the two worlds of spirituality and psychology.
What is Spiritual Psychology?
As its name suggests, spiritual psychology is a blend of spirituality and psychology. It is the study of how the mind influences spiritual development (and vice versa). Spiritual psychology is sometimes referred to as transpersonal psychology as it extends beyond the personal and into the metaphysical. Themes often explored in spiritual psychology include:
- Mental, emotional, and/or physical trauma and spiritual healing
- The phenomenon of soul loss
- Uniting the mind and heart
- Discovering one’s spiritual calling
- Understanding the meaning of life
- Releasing blocked energy
- Working through core wounds
- Inner child work and shadow work
- Moving through the dark night of the soul
- Gaining access to one’s True Nature
- … and so on
There’s an unlimited number of topics that spiritual psychology can explore – it all depends on what your needs are in the moment.
But Aren’t Psychology and Spirituality Totally Incompatible?
When we quickly glance at the two, they’re like awkward strangers trying to talk to each other in two completely foreign languages.
… But actually, psychology and spirituality have a lot more in common than you might think.
In fact, the very word “psychology” comes from the root words psykhē meaning “breath, spirit, soul” and logia meaning “study of.” Therefore, the original meaning of psychology was as a study of the soul. That’s a far cry from the secularized clinical mind-centered psychology of this modern world!
Furthermore, psychology and spirituality mirror what we all possess within: a mind and soul (or spirit). Why then should they be separate? What benefit is it to keep these two innate aspects of us apart?
As poet Mark Nepo writes,
… just as the depth and surface of the sea are inseparable, so too are the spirit and psychology of each human being. It is our deep-sounding, untamed currents that cause us to rise and swell, dip and crash. Yet that base of spirit remains unaffected by the storms that churn up the surface. It obeys a deeper order. Still, we as beings living in the world are always subject to both: the depth and the surface, our spirit and our psychology.
Just like the ocean, there is a depth and surface within us. In other words, we all possess a horizontal axis (our earthly self) and a vertical axis (our spiritual Self). Our horizontal self is focused on doing and becoming, and our vertical Self is focused on being and letting go.
We need to honor both if we are to live a life of balance and wholeness.
Why Psychology By Itself is Not Enough
Certainly, psychology is useful. We have all undergone some level of toxic social conditioning, trauma, and core wounds. Therefore, it’s crucial that we explore and work through these issues so that we can live more peaceful lives (and not infect our children, family, friendships, work connections with our unresolved shit).
But psychology by itself is not enough. When psychology lacks spirituality it is sterile, self-absorbed, and empty. Yes, we may become more functional members of society, but where is that depth, that zest, that deeper engagement with life?
Furthermore, at what point are we ever really “healed” of all our junk? Psychology is very much like a rabbit hole: the further you dig, the more there is to find. And the more psychological sewage you find, the more likely you are to begin pathologizing yourself, getting stuck within the stories created by the mind in an endless loop of doom. (And if you’re extra “lucky,” some kind of professional will do that for you, further reinforcing and legitimizing your mental misery!)
In this sense, psychology can become a poison and cure at the same time. On one hand, it points out all the ways in which we are “not good enough, emotionally stable enough, well-adjusted enough, healed enough” etc. etc. And on the other, it gives us all the tools to help us “get over” these pathologies (or give us the idea that we’re getting over them – until we use psychology to condemn ourselves again).
At what point is there ever reprieve? At what point is there ever true self-acceptance or even transcendence beyond the limited ego (which, after all, is a complete illusion)? At what point does psychology end and spirituality begin?
Even Jung understood the paradox of psychology and the self-improvement trap, writing:
Now and then it happened in my practice that a patient grew beyond himself because of unknown potentialities, and this became an experience of prime importance to me. In the meantime, I had learned that all the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble. They must be so, for they express the necessary polarity inherent in every self-regulating system. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.
If we can only ever outgrow our issues, psychology is the guiding hand that helps us through this process. Sometimes psychology speeds up the growth process. But very often, psychology is riddled with a paradoxical undercurrent of self-sabotage. And thus, it becomes a never-ending negative feedback loop where the more we work on ourselves, the more flawed and deficient we feel.
Why Spirituality By Itself is Not Enough
Realization by itself does not necessarily transform the being as a whole … one may have some light at the spiritual summit of consciousness but the parts below remain what they were. I have seen, any number of instances of that.
– Sri Aurobindo
Again, we come back to our central point: meditation isn’t enough.
In fact, any purely “spiritual” path (i.e., paths that focus exclusively on the metaphysical and transcendent parts of ourselves/life) is not enough.
When spirituality lacks psychology it is disconnected, dissociated, insubstantial, ungrounded, and prone to any number of disturbing issues such as spiritual narcissism, spiritual materialism, and spiritual bypassing.
Yes, we might be able to meditate for many hours a day, we might be able to do fancy yoga asanas, we might have a clean “high vibe” diet, we might understand the law of attraction back-to-front, we might have all the appearances of a “spiritual” person – but all that is a glimmery charade if we can’t get real with ourselves and face our psychological shadows.
As psychologist Jean Monbourquette writes,
Without deep and honest self-acceptance, the spiritual life rests on a dangerous psychological foundation and is nothing more than escape into a world of illusion. Humble self-knowledge is the most basic condition for any true spirituality.
Joseph Burgo, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst also chimes in, adding,
Everyone is teaching you how to find happiness, how to experience unconditional love etc. and the self-help and spiritual communities are full of it. While the desire to find love, happiness, and transcend difficult emotions is normal … it doesn’t deal with the root cause of our suffering which can and will come up over and over again.
Take a moment to re-read these quotes …
The truth is that spirituality can easily be used to escape, avoid, numb, and repress deeper issues within us, all in the name of “love and light.” (Namaste!)
Getting Lost in the Light
There are as many ways to be lost in the light as in the dark.
– Madronna Holden
Let’s return again to our example of meditation.
Meditation is often paraded and touted as the cure to all our ills, and while it most certainly has profound benefits, it is limited without some kind of accompanying psychological work.
As renowned Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes,
Many students have used meditation not only to discover the inner realm and find inner balance but also to escape. Because we are afraid of the world, afraid of living fully, afraid of relationships, afraid of work, or afraid of some aspect of what it means to be alive in the physical body, we run to meditation. Whoever has practiced for a while will probably have seen some element of that in his or her own heart and mind. We must understand that meditation, like any kind of therapy or discipline, can be used in skillful ways, for freedom, for liberation, for opening the heart. It can also be used in defensive ways, in service of the ego and of our fears, by quieting ourselves so we do not have to deal with certain difficulties, by following our breath in a way that we do not even feel certain difficult emotions, by paying attention to the light so that we can avoid certain aspects of our shadow, our dark side.
This is where psychology comes into the picture: it is concerned with helping us to face, explore, embrace, and heal these deeper issues.
In fact, there are many areas of growth where psychology is more equipped (and quicker) to help a person than meditation. Examples include fears and phobias, relationship issues, work issues, grief, unfinished business, sexuality, early wounds, and so on.
Self-transcendence has been portrayed like a yellow-brick road that will take us to “enlightenment”: something on par with Las Vegas with its neon flashing lights, beauty, and unbounded joy.
But although we have been taught that doing yoga, drinking green smoothies, saying affirmations and meditating every day will help us become liberated, something vital is missing: psychology.
We need both spirituality and psychology working alongside each other to reach our evolutionary and spiritual potential as human becomings.
Spiritual Psychology: The Marriage of East and West
So what is the cure to the limitations and toxicities inherent on a purely psychological or spiritual path?
Answer: the marriage of the east and west. The union of spirituality and psychology.
Spiritual psychology honors both the relative and absolute, the subjective and objective, the mind and the heart, the body and the soul, and the East and West approaches to transformation.
Spiritual psychology is a holistic practice that takes into account all aspects of a person’s being – all the way from earthly issues to metaphysical problems.
As Sufi mystic, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes,
The processes of inner transformation are both spiritual and psychological. The spiritual work is the awakening of a higher state of consciousness: the consciousness of the heart. The psychological work involves cleaning the psyche of all the conditioning, psychological blocks, and complexes that could inhibit our spiritual awareness. Withdrawing psychological projections and integrating the conflicting aspects of ourselves, we create a foundation for spiritual life, without which any higher awareness would be distorted and could create a dangerous imbalance. Psychological work prepares the psyche for the intensity of inner experiences; it creates an empty, uncontaminated inner space for the awakening of our own divine nature.
In this sense, psychology – the Western approach to transformation – is like a gardener preparing the ground of our being for spiritual growth by clearing away all the weeds and debris. Without the purifying and refining impact of psychology, our spiritual growth can become polluted by the unreclaimed inner shadow self that creates instances of spiritual bypassing and even spiritual narcissism.
Instead of spirituality being fuelled by unresolved inner wounds, it comes from a clear place of longing, of a heart-felt and soul-driven desire to let go, evolve, and transform.
If psychology is form, spirituality is formlessness. If psychology focuses on personal truth, meaning, and issues, spirituality focuses on impersonal and absolute truth and a direct realization of the Divine.
Both go hand in hand.
As philosopher and yogi, Sri Aurobindo writes,
The impersonal is a truth, the personal too is a truth; they are the same truth seen from two sides of our psychological activity; neither by itself gives the total account of Reality, and yet by either we can approach it.
When we unite the wisdom from the East and West, we have a whole path: one that helps us to move beyond ego-inflation, spiritual materialism, and illusion into the realm of genuine transformation.
“But People Have Got on Just Fine Without Spiritual Psychology”
Yes, it’s true that there are some ancient Eastern spiritual paths out there that are quite comprehensive and multi-layered.
But our Western egos are very different from Eastern egos.
As psychotherapist and yogi Mariana Caplan writes,
It is important to recognize that most contemporary spiritual traditions simply were not designed to penetrate the cellular, psychological wounding caused by the type of trauma that is so prevalent in Western culture that arises from broken homes, disconnection from our bodies and nature, and alienation from authentic sources of spiritual wisdom.
Our Western psyche is remarkably different from the East in that it is much more fragile. Most of us have little in the way of a strong, cohesive family, culture, or ancient belief system to uphold us, and that has a big impact on our spiritual paths (whether we like to admit it or not).
As Jung commented on Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the Taoist text The Secret of the Golden Flower:
There could be no greater mistake than for a Westerner to take up the practice of Chinese yoga, for that would merely strengthen his will and consciousness against the unconscious and bring about the very effect to be avoided. The neurosis would then be simply intensified. It cannot be emphasized enough that we are not Orientals, and that we have an entirely different point of departure in these matters.
Although Jung’s view that Westerners should avoid Eastern self-help methods is shortsighted (in my opinion), he did make an interesting point. We need to keep in mind that, as Westerners, our approach to the spiritual path needs to also be informed by Western methods of healing. We cannot simply transplant ourselves into the habits and practices of Easterners because they won’t have the same desired effect.
Can Easterners Still Benefit From Spiritual Psychology?
In most cases, yes.
With the rise in globalization, many Eastern cultures are being exposed more and more to Western thought and society. As a result, many pristinely preserved Eastern ways of life are now dissolving – and with that comes a whole set of issues.
To face these inevitable problems, many Easterners will also benefit from spiritual psychology as it helps deal with the destabilizing times we’re now living in.
4 Ways to Bring Spiritual Psychology into Your Life
To walk a path of balance, we need to bring spiritual psychology into our lives. There’s no getting around it. Too much of one path can easily wreak havoc in our lives. We need both to find the joy, peace, love, and freedom we’re seeking.
But where do we start?
This whole website approaches the inner path from a psychospiritual (that is, spiritual psychology) perspective. Here are some ideas:
1. Incorporate shadow work into all of your spiritual practices
I can’t emphasize this enough: exploring your shadow self is crucial. When we use spirituality to avoid facing our pain and darkness it results in issues such as blind faith, loss of discernment, groupthink, spiritual narcissism, “us vs. them” mentality, grandiosity, you name it. See our shadow work article for more guidance. Start by asking yourself, “In what ways might I be using this practice to avoid or numb something within me?” Explore your hidden motives. You can also ask a trusted friend, loved one, or spiritual advisor for honest input.
2. Keep asking “why?”
It’s a simple, almost too simple question to ask, but it helps us to penetrate any illusion or delusion on our paths. We can use “why?” in almost any setting. For example, we might ask “Why am I dedicating so much time to this spiritual practice?” “Why do I desperately want to feel bliss?” “Why do I dress this way?” “Why do I want to explore this part of me?” Making a habit of asking “why?” is a practice in spiritual discernment – something we need to bring to both the psychological and spiritual paths.
3. Build a relationship with your inner child
Your inner child plays a large role in life – it’s the part of you that feels vulnerable, curious, and in awe of existence. But if you have a wounded inner child it’s very easy (and practically guaranteed) that you’ll use spirituality to try and numb your pain. Spiritual bypassing is often the result of an abandoned inner child who believes that if s/he could only be “perfect enough,” everything will be “blissful.”
There is also a darker side to the inner child: the arrogant refusal to see life, others, and oneself clearly because “God/Spirit Guides/Higher Self says I’m special/intuitively right/empathic.” In fact, for those with a severely wounded inner child, spirituality can actually be used to solidify oneself in a static, dogmatic, holier-than-thou, black-or-white way of living life.
4. For every spiritual practice, incorporate a psychological practice
To create balance, assess your current path. Perhaps get a sheet of paper and divide it in two. On one hand, write all of the spiritual practices you engage in. On the other, write down all the psychological practices you engage in. What do you have more of? This is a simple way to tell which side you’re favoring more than the other.
For example, you might write on the spiritual side: meditation, yoga, visualization, and reiki. But on the other, you might only have journaling. Here we can see that you’d need to incorporate more psychological practices into your life.
If you’re in need of ideas for bringing more psychological development into your life, you may like to explore the following (other than the above-mentioned inner child and shadow work):
- Working with archetypes (or parts work)
- Changing negative thinking patterns
- Exploring core beliefs
- Personality tools such as the enneagram and subconscious mind test
- Learning self-love and self-care practices
There are many others, but this list will give you a place to start. (Click on any of the suggestions to get started!)
We Need Both Paths to Thrive
Too much psychology makes us dry and self-absorbed, and too much spirituality turns us into New Age pollyannas. We need both paths to find true joy and freedom.