the magic of
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A Psychology Stripped of the Soul - how the field became obsessed with materialism
Despite its roots in shamanism, and later in classical philosophy, the field of psychology today perceives itself as a science. A social science that strives to be taken seriously by the cool club of hard sciences. So how did we get from shamanism, introspection and philosophizing to playing scientists and pretending that human nature can be objectively analyzed, controlled and experimented with in the same way as, say, the speed of sound can?
As much respect as I have for the field of psychology - which I do - I cannot help but find this strive for objectivity and materialism contraproductive when it comes to human nature. The mind, emotions and behaviours of humans simply aren’t objective. They don’t always make biological or neurochemical sense. They might follow certain patterns and probabilities at times or particular cause-effect trajectories, however, these are not as measurable, tangible or predictable as our biological characteristics are. For one, the human mind - unlike the speed of sound or the cells of the body - operates with a degree of free will. To pretend that humans are as objectifiable as machines or even biological nature is to deny an essential aspect of human nature: consciousness.
To pretend that humans are as objectifiable as machines or even biological nature is to deny an essential aspect of human nature: consciousness.
Yet that is precisely what happened in the early 20th Century as the “new” field of psychology fought for its place in the academic and scientific world: The human soul, along with everything not directly reflected in human behaviour, was cast out of the field. While the term ‘psychology’ is derived from the Greek words ‘psyche’ (soul) and logos (to study), mainstream psychology continues to deny, ignore and neglect the soul. Perhaps the soul was not seen as sufficiently useful at a time when all resources went to fighting wars. And what use would it be to study something that cannot be proven anyway, at least not in the same way as behaviour can be tested, demonstrated and validated? After all, who would pay for research that doesn't lead to any tangible, controllable results?
And so psychology transformed from the introspective study of the soul to a scientific study of behaviour. If one seeks a definition of psychology today, one is likely to find the following explanation: “the scientific study of the mind and behaviour” (as defined by the American Psychological Association).
Interestingly, psychology’s obsession with materialism is not new. In fact, H.P. Blavatsky wrote the following in 1896:
“The twin sciences of psychology and metaphysics have fared worse than any other science, and have been so separated in Europe as to have become in their ignorance mortal enemies. . . What Mr. Huxley said of Positivism, namely that it was Roman Catholicism minus Christianity, ought to be paraphrased and applied to our modern psychological philosophy. It is psychology, minus soul; psyche being dragged down to mere sensation; a solar system minus a sun; Hamlet with the Prince of Denmark not entirely cast out of the play, but in some vague way suspected of being probably somewhere behind the scenes. . . For the modern psychologist, dealing as he does only with the superficial brain- consciousness, is in truth more hopelessly materialistic than all-denying materialism itself…”
(First published in Lucifer, Vol. XIX, No. 110, October 1896, pp. 97-102)
Some might interpret this as a sign of the slowness with which this field embraces change (ironic, considering the amount of studies conducted by psychologists on the dynamics of change). From the sound of it, we have not progressed much since 1896. Sure, we have fancier tools with which to study brain activity, but how far has that led us, really, to alleviate psychological suffering? We have psychotropic medication that is about as effective as placebo medication. It seems to me that the cost of holding on to the materialistic approach is very high compared to the meagre benefits we might gain from it.
Oh yes, there are benefits. For one, materialism is practical and easy: much more practical to study things that can be observed (such as behaviours) than something as nebulous and difficult to operationalize as ‘expanded awareness’. But should we accept psychology’s materialism just because it’s a more practical approach or because it’s cool to be regarded as a scientific discipline?
It’s not like this materialistic approach has led to amazing results in psychotherapy. The truth is that we, as a field, have not progressed anywhere near as much as, for example, the medical field has in the past 50 years. And my hypothesis is that, to a large extent, this lack of breakthroughs is due to the field’s insistence of studying the mind and human behaviour while denying our deeper essence. Frankly, that is as mad as (to borrow Blavatsky’s analogy) studying the solar system while ignoring the sun and claiming that you’re a real scientist because you use the scientific method to study it. Of course you can do it, but what's the point?
The problem is that as a field we have taken this approach for granted. Only rarely do I come across a psychologist who shares my perspective that psychology could and ought to expand its definition. Indeed, there are many psychologists who actively defend this materialistic position (for example, see G. Paxinos’ article: Why psychology lost its soul: everything comes from the brain).
Some scientists argue that there is no need to study the soul, for the brain is the key to understanding thoughts, emotions and behaviours. While this may be the case, my question is: what about the awareness within us that is not emotional, mental or dualistic? The non-dualistic awareness that doesn’t have any function that could be explained in biological terms such as evolution or survival. An awareness that is not determined by biology but could nevertheless alleviate suffering…
Take, for example, the near-death experiences that countless individuals have experienced; these individuals reported being aware despite their body and brain being medically pronounced ‘dead’. Most scientists, unable to place such evidence into their materialistic perspective, simply ignore such reports, or label them as un-scientific data on the account of not being able to measure and control such data. Well, yes, it’s more comfortable to ignore the data than to re-examine and alter one’s scientific framework and entire definition of reality. I get it - I just don't see that as a valid argument.
A new definition of psychology: 'The scientific, clinical, introspective or experiential study of the internal dynamics of being human'
It is my intention to draw the reader’s attention to the possibility of expanding our current, materialistic definition of psychology. Imagine that the definition of psychology was expanded to mean: “The study of human nature”. Or: “The scientific, clinical, introspective or experiential study of the internal dynamics of being human”. Or: “The study of mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing”.
After all, can you really study mental wellbeing without studying emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing? And what is the point of studying human behaviour without looking at the mental, emotional, social and spiritual dynamics behind the behaviour? And if you were to look at all these aspects, would mere empirical methods suffice to provide an accurate and useful reflection of the truth?
At least to me it is obvious that humans are more than merely biological machines; I might be inhabiting this biological machine we call a body, but I am, first and foremost, a conscious being with free will. Even if many parts of my brain and my mind operate outside of my conscious will, there is also an awareness in the background that transcends the biology and even the brain. Call it soul, spirit or consciousness, it is part of me and yet it is not confined to the boundaries of my biological body. And if we allow even the possibility of such a part existing, might it not be useful to give it some consideration when designing practices to improve our psychological well-being? I believe it would be immensely beneficial.
As complex as computers may be, as sophistically designed as our bodies may be, I guarantee that my inner world with its thoughts, emotions and awaress is considerably more complex and more subtle than the function of computers or even my physiology. And I sincerely hope that if any scientist were to study my psyche, he or she would use more sophisticated and subtle tools than those currently used for studying psychology - and I don’t give a damn if those tools classify as scientific or not as long as they serve my psychological well-being.
Now I don’t expect the field of psychology to give up its obsession with materialism any time soon, but I will share openly that I at least am a psychologist with a soul, practising a psychology with soul.
What does it mean to acknowledge the existence of soul as a clinical psychologist, you might ask? Well, that’s a topic for my next essay.
Psychology Beyond the Mind
What is 'transpersonal psychology' and how does it differ from mainstream psychology? Is a psychology that transcends the mind even possible, and if yes, of what use could it be? In this essay, I share my perspective on this topic.
As many psychologists and self-help gurus keep reminding us, we are brought up with heavy social conditioning. That includes mostly subconscious belief systems, assumptions and behavior patterns that are passed on from parents to children and from the social environment. Although there are variations to these patterns depending on the culture and family we were born into, there are some deeply set unconscious assumptions that are shared by most cultures today. Together these form what is called 'mass consciousness' or 'the collective consciousness'. To put it bluntly, we are basically hypnotized into believing certain things, regardless of how accurate or useful these beliefs are.
This happens to all of us, even the intelligent, independent and free-spirited ones.
One thing is clear: This inner programming is much easier to detect in other people than in ourselves. In essence, these programs are survival mechanisms; they have helped us to adapt to the challenges of life. For example, we have learnt to value intelligence because that's what has helped our species to survive for so long. However, these inner programs (such as the belief that human intelligence is the highest form of consciousness) were created a very long time ago, and are no longer necessary for survival and certainly not always beneficial to psychological wellbeing. What does it take to change this subconscious conditioning? Three things: 1) Awareness of the old pattern/belief, 2) conscious choice to change the pattern/belief and 3) persistently practicing a new way of behaving/thinking/perceiving. Unfortunately, old patterns don't evolve by themselves just because they are out of style and no longer necessary.
One of the most persistent conditionings is the belief that the self = the mind (and if you are scientifically inclined, the mind = the brain, therefore the self is nothing but a bunch of neurochemical activity). So it happens that the discipline of psychology is based on the idea that "the self is the mind". Most people identify with their thoughts and their emotions (and to some extent with the body). If you were to ask the average human, what is 'you' about you?, the answer would be something along the lines: My mind, my beliefs, my feelings, my memories, my personality...
What's interesting about this is that our sense-of-self is something that is learnt and conditioned: Unless we have 'awakened' spiritually, how we perceive ourselves is limited by how other people view us and view themselves.
Our sense-of-self tends to be limited to the definition we have learnt through conditioning.
For example, if our parents continuously emphasize our gender as we grow up (by telling us to behave in accordance with our gender, to dress up in a way that is appropriate to our gender, etc.), then we will learn to identify strongly with our gender. Similarly, if we are brought up with a strong focus on the physical dimension, we learn to limit our perception to the physical dimension. In other words, we are conditioned to forget about our multi-dimensional nature or the aspects of our personality that are not gender-appropriate, to use the above examples. Not to blame everything on parents or on society at large, but it's good to start questioning these automated assumptions that shape our life. I guarantee you that, unless you have done this exercise before, you will be surprised by the depth and extent of social and cultural conditioning.
So modern Western psychology was created in this context to help people deal with mental imbalances. Mental imbalances have a particularly damaging effect on many people, because as long as a person identifies with his or her mind, an imbalanced mind implies an imbalanced self. So when the mind is chaotic, it's very threatening to the human identity; it's not just the mind going crazy, but it's you who is crazy. Or that's the belief. Psychology then attempts to alleviate suffering by fixing the mind and therefore healing the human personality.
The question is, what happens when an individual - against all odds and despite rigorous conditioning - wakes up and starts to question his or her true self? What happens when the assumption of identifying with the mind and the emotions no longer holds? When the awakening human starts to reach beyond the edge of mass consciousness and to consider that perhaps the old belief systems don't tell the whole story. What if my essence is not my mind, body and emotions, but something far more expansive, magical and free?
Well, let's just say that psychology, as it has been practiced until now, isn't ready for that. I mean, what use is trying to fix the mind when you have chosen to expand beyond the limitations of the mind? That's like moving into a new house and needing help with the challenges of moving and settling in to the new house, and your psychologist goes on and on about how to repair the old house. It can be useful in some situations, but it will only bring you so far.
A person going through awakening will sooner or later experience an existential crisis, but not like most people who are "just" afraid of death. The awakening human might be beyond fear of death, because she or he knows deep down that the soul is eternal and there's no real death. Instead, the existential crisis is about the human identity that is dying, which makes it difficult to operate in a world where everyone else is still identifying with the mind. How are you supposed to relate to other people now? Or to yourself, for that matter? These are some of the struggles that come with awakening. But if your psychologist is a mainstream psychologist, she or he might not have the tools to support you through spiritual awakening. The trouble isn't mental imbalance, but the challenge of going beyond the mind while living in a society that hasn't yet reached that level of awareness. That's not crazy, it's just being a consciousness pioneer and breaking limitations before most others are ready to do that.
Transpersonal, holistic psychology then is all about supporting people who are awakening so that the inner transformation, which is a natural process, is as graceful as possible. It's about going beyond suffering but using expanded awareness as the main tool. It's not about healing the human mind or the personality, but reminding clients about the source of balance and consciousness within them. It's also not about denying emotions, but simply remembering that emotions are experiences, even valuable experiences, but they are not your deepest essence. Transpersonal psychology operates within the framework of AND: we are human (with biological, mental and emotional limitations) and we are divine (we have a deeper essence that exists beyond time and space, an inner peace that can be accessed in the present moment).
Traditional healthcare, including mental healthcare, is all about survival and coping. How to survive for as long as possible with as little pain as possible. It's a good starting point, but for me, it's not enough. I choose to experience inner freedom and wellbeing while living here. I choose to go beyond surviving and coping to living with joy and expansiveness. For me, 'transpersonal psychology' is about reclaiming this inner freedom.
I choose to go beyond surviving and coping to living with joy and expansiveness. For me, 'new energy psychology' is about reclaiming this inner freedom.
The magic of self-love
Whether we are committed to self-realization or just ready for a life free of suffering, there comes a time when we are faced with the challenge of self-love. There are countless paths to self-realization, but every one of them passes through self-love. Intuitively I always felt the truth and significance of self-love – after all, how can we expect the world to change and others to let go of suffering if we are not committed to our own wellbeing? Allowing our natural, divine self-love is one of the best ways of serving humanity, because self-love essentially means going beyond suffering. And when we go beyond suffering, not only have we transformed our part of suffering on this Earth into love, we also show others that there is an alternative to suffering and that it's possible to choose self-love instead.
Self-love essentially means going beyond suffering.
Yet, it took me quite some time to discover what self-love actually meant. (Placing sticky notes with self-love affirmations on the bathroom mirror did not do the trick.) So what does self-love translate to in practical, tangible terms? It's a big question, and most of my work revolves around this topic.
Of course, self-love takes countless forms. Once we commit to deep self-knowing, we are faced with long-forgotten aspects of self, most of them shady if not downright scary. – It rarely is love at first sight. As I wrote in my book, even with the best of intentions we cannot jump from the depths of self-loathing to unconditional self-love overnight. Often the first voyage into self-love is a doubtful and awkward stumbling into self-kindness, at best. A feeble attempt at self-acceptance, overshadowed by bouts of self-hate. Self-love requires constant small, but courageous, steps: every choice that brings us one step closer to relief, or closer to feeling safe, is an expression of self-love.
Self-love can also take the form of curiosity: Who am I in this moment; what feels good right now? Self-love is not a straight road, and usually not a fast one either. It requires courage, patience and, oh yes, more patience. Sometimes self-love means allowing the difficult emotions to be felt – even the emotions that try to sabotage self-love; it's not about abandoning or ignoring parts of you that are self-hating. Instead, these parts of self-hate, shame and guilt can be brought into awareness and honored. In such instances, self-love (paradoxically) means allowing the self-hating parts to be what they are – in full trust that they will naturally transform when they feel safe enough to do so.
Often, self-love means being very still and present. Self-love is taking that deep and conscious breath every time the rushed mind wants to take over. Many times self-love emerges from allowing myself to relax; to just unwind and let go of the addictive self-control, self-monitoring, self-inhibiting. Self-love requires naked honesty with myself. Today self-love could mean setting a clear boundary, and tomorrow it might require me to open up and take the walls down in total trust of self.
Self-love also means creating safety in my physical environment and life, so as to allow more safety internally. Many times I don't know how to love myself, but I do know how to create more space for it in my life. The safer I feel in my body, in my relationships, in my home, and most importantly in my emotions, the more open I am to receiving the divine love from soul. Also, self-love is inherently sovereign; it does not involve me comparing my self-love to other people's self-love (and when I catch myself doing that, I do my best to gently return to a state of compassion). There is no ready formula that states what self-love is for You in this particular moment – your self-love is a unique, ever-expanding expression of your sovereign Self. However, I have found that one of the most illuminating practices is to ask myself in any moment: How can I allow more self-love in this moment? How can I receive more goodness into my life? (The key words being allow and receive.)
In addition to asking the above questions as often as possible, the two most effective and practical ways of allowing self-love (for me) are:
1) Doing things and making choices that bring relief and help me feel more safe when I'm in a dark space (or anytime when I feel tension).
2) Doing things and making choices that bring more joy into my life.
This is such a big topic that I will come back to it in many future posts. I would like to offer one daily practice though, that I've found particularly helpful in terms of receiving self-love:
Before going to sleep, write down 3 things that brought you joy today. If you're currently in a place where you're not feeling joyful about anything, you can still do this exercise and write down 3 things that brought you some relief or made you feel a bit more safe.
For example: Enjoying a homecooked meal; taking a walk in nature; listening to a touching song; daydreaming about my own house... Try to include items that are not related to other people, things that are about your experience within yourSelf.
Then, write down 3 things that helped you become aware today.
For example: Taking a few conscious breaths; taking time to be in stillness; doing some physical exercise...
When you start to allow more self-love into your life, you inevitably also allow those parts to come to the surface that are not self-loving, that have been yearning for your attention. So it's common to feel overwhelmed and become overly serious about your practice of self-love. Remember to have some fun with it!
Self-love is incredibly challenging for many reasons (a topic for another day) but the great thing about self-love is that the more you allow it, the easier it becomes and the better it gets.
There is a crack spreading across the globe, breaking our world in two. A crack in time and a split in consciousness. Can you feel it?
There was a time when the evolution of consciousness expanded in slow spiral loops: the old sliding into the new, almost imperceptibly. Not so anymore; we're living in an age of threshold − an age of drastic, dramatic changes that shake the world and fracture the collective consciousness of humanity. And I'm not just referring to the technological revolution or the political climate. No, those are superficial manifestations of the real change that's taking place.
Awakening is a quantum leap
I'm talking about awakening. In the past, awakening was a rare exception to the rule − a mysterious phenomenon experienced by a few eccentric individuals. In this age of quantum change, awakening is touching all of humanity (although not everyone is aware of its effects). The split in consciousness is a split between old and new. This rift is dividing the Earth into different strata, each with their own perception of reality: the part of humanity that chooses to hold onto the old (meaning the mental, linear, duality-based reality) and the emerging new species of conscious humans who are choosing the new (a perspective beyond duality). We see it in politics, business, entertainment, culture, the environment, in family structuring and relationships, and especially in spirituality: a constant push and pull between tradition and innovation, between structure and creativity, between control and freedom.
Of course there has been innovation with each new generation evolving and pushing the limits of the old. Yet it's different this time around; now there is a contrast so stark between old and new that it affects every aspect of life. We are forced to choose our position on a daily basis: "do I buy into duality today, or am I ready to expand?" Just by being alive at this time, each one of us is choosing − in each moment − whether or not to be aware.
Change goes new
On the surface we see a lot of polarization taking place, and that can be overwhelming if we don't see the bigger picture. Humanity as a whole, and especially those of us choosing awakening and self-realization, are experiencing quantum change. In the past, new meant a new version of the old: There was generally a sense of continuity, predictability or linearity to the nature of change; effect followed cause in a certain pattern. Well, the nature of change is changing now! Awakening means change beyond what we know, understand or control. When enough individuals allow their awakening, it causes a cascade of quantum change on a global level, which is then reflected as new innovations or old structures breaking down.
Awakening and self-realization have been the deepest passions in my life. I define 'awakening' as breaking the limits of who my mind thinks I am. For me awakening has very little to do with external things, like practicing meditation or yoga. Those are tools that might help create a safe space in which to allow the natural, organic unfolding of awakening to take place. Awakening is hardcore dedication to see reality clearly; it's an unquenchable thirst to know my true self, no matter what. It's releasing every belief, perspective and identification that is not authentic, natural or free.
"I define awakening as breaking the limits of who my mind thinks I am; it's an unquenchable thirst to know my true self, no matter what."
Awakening is a tumultuous phase where the individual frees herself/himself from the societal, mental and biological conditioning, and steps into self-responsibility (also called 'sovereignty'). This phase rarely, if ever, happens without resistance. Resistance to the new is conditioned into the old, so until you release the old, everything within you still operating from an old program will resist the new. Ironic, right? So instead of jumping into the new in one bold leap, the awakening human usually gets stuck in a plethora of distractions and diversions.
Oh, how I loved playing those games. I held on to every defense mechanism, right until the walls protecting my precious ego crumbled into pieces, until each reference point dissolved before my eyes, until my mind was turned upside down and my emotions inside out. Awakening is the most humbling, intense and terrifying experience before it becomes the most freeing experience: It's humiliating, because you see all the lies you've told yourself. It's terrifying, because our old sense-of-self is dying and you have no idea what's waiting for you on the other side.
The freedom of choice
That thrilling moment right there is really a threshold, an opportunity to choose something different; to go beyond and open up to the unknown. What might seem like hitting rock-bottom − or worse, finding yourself in a dark bottomless void − is actually what I call the Break Point. The Break Point is an opportunity to make a choice and allow the change that you've been praying for. There are always several options available (after all, we are beings of free will). The options are basically to
1) remain stuck and distract yourself
2) go crazy
3) cross over
4) go beyond the mind...
I chose the first 3 options countless (life)times over and over again, before I was finally ready to try the last option: To go beyond the mind, into the undefined new; to break the rules of what I'm supposed to believe to be real; to release everything that I'm expected to hold onto, including a defined identity and fixed, limiting belief systems. Really it was a matter of having exhausted all the other options, having drained all of my inner resistance (and trust me, there was a lot), and used up every excuse I could think of to justify my resistance. I didn't let go of the old in a heroic act of bravery; I let go because I had tried everything else for a long time!
'The new' arrives one breath at a time
But here's the thing: Choosing 'new' is not a one-time choice. 'The old' is our default function; filtering our natural wisdom through the anxious, dualistic, easily influenced mind is how we have been programmed. That old program is the automatic mode, because it's wired into our nervous system. Choosing to perceive ourselves and reality through our sovereign, free perspective rather than the default perspective feels like going against our instincts, because even those instincts are connected to the old program (the limited consciousness). 'The new' that I'm talking about, is a new way of being and sensing, a new consciousness. It's not a new version of the old. It's not even a new program or a new set of belief systems; it's not reprogramming our thoughts or finding new ways to deal with the old. It's a kind of radical inner peace that surpasses any understanding, as Kim Eng has described it.
In other words, going beyond the mind means choosing to be in a state that is constantly new, constantly unfolding more of itself, constantly changing expression and form − it's the state of being liberally alive! The old mental programs and patterns dissolve gradually and naturally when we persistently continue to choose awareness, openness and peace throughout the moments of our daily life. While the meditation cushion is a great place to start, real transformation takes place in our relationships, in the kitchen or when we're stuck in traffic. That's the 'real' of realization.
"Awakening breaks all the rules."
Awakening breaks all the rules that you have known before. It breaks the rules of how to perceive and organise reality. It breaks the rules of how you relate to your thoughts and emotions; it breaks the rules of who you thought you were and could be, how to live your life, and how to deal with pain. It breaks the rules of right and wrong...
The mind is built on rules and patterns. So once you stop following all the rules and you stop believing in your thoughts, the mind experiences a kind of "break down". It has nothing to hold onto, nothing to give it direction, or to contain its duality. The mind loses its old purpose and clashes against its own limitations. This is usually experienced by the awakening human as anxiety, existential fear and obsessive self-doubt. The mind will do anything to stay in control, because control means survival from the mind's perspective. Sooner or later, however, your connection to your own wisdom will become so clear and true that control becomes a nuisance rather than a necessity, and you fall headfirst back into your free Self.
Just remember: You're not going crazy, you're just breaking the rules of how to perceive yourself and reality. It might be terrifying, confusing and humiliating right now, but it's all perfect - it's real and divine, and it's perfect.
You're on the right path, even if you can't see the path right now.