When we think of spiritual development we ordinarily think of how we connect to others, expanding ourselves beyond our own personal needs and concerns, finding meaning in life, or establishing a life guided by moral or ethical principles. These are admirable qualities, something most of us aspire to become; however, it is sometimes misunderstood that these spiritual objectives are achieved at a sacrifice to what serves the self. This particular conceptualization of spirituality harkens back to its influences from religion, mysticism, and in Western civilization in particular whereby the belief that what serves our personal needs is somehow tantamount to being selfish, greedy. What serves self-interest is mutually exclusive of our moral imperatives and concern for the welfare of others. It is essential that spirituality's true meaning is embedded in altruism but to the extent that there exists an implicit assumption that it can only be achieved at the expense of what serves ourselves at a personal level ultimately inhibits self-esteem and our development into a spiritual dimension. How is this so?
Our Christian heritage in Western civilization was influenced by the philosophy of Plato which extolled reason above a life guided by emotions and our physical senses. It is where the term "platonic love" comes from. By the dawn of the advent of Christianity, circa 4th century A.D., many centuries since the time of classical Greece, though Plato continued to wield an influence on philosophers of that time, reason had been replaced by spirit. The concerns of the world had shifted, reflecting the relative loss of prosperity of the times. During a period in time rife with political and economic oppression, people in the 4th century longed for deliverance. An answer was found in a religion that promised salvation and deliverance from the suffering and oppression of this world. The rewards of abiding by Christianity's spiritual tenets, namely compassion as morality and an investment in eternal salvation, were offered at a price, a renunciation of investment in earthly existence. Prosperity and pleasure were assigned to sin. Once considered essential dimensions of goodness in the moral philosophy of Plato's successor, Aristotle, prosperity and pleasure had been reassigned by Christianity to the status of life's forfeitures to an investment in eternal salvation and as anathema to living a life of compassion. Due in part to the political and inspirational influences by the theologian, St. Augustine, at a critical period of its inception, Modern Christianity and the basic tenets by which it is known today were adopted in opposition to a key rival philosophical system, Gnosticism, which endorsed by contrast the basic idea that the self is inherently good, not sinful, but existence itself is evil.
This dialectic between self and world inherent to radical Christianity and Gnosticism poses the fundamental challenge in self-actualization. What is our relationship with and how do we grow within the world in which we live? It follows, moreover, that how we view ourselves in relation to others and the world we live in determines character and our personality styles. This is so because our personalities authentically express ourselves and our identities. The dialectic inherent to radical Christianity and Gnosticism which pits the self against existence and the world we live in particularly lies at the heart of a critical aspect of experience distinguishable from that in healthy personality development. Negotiating this existential challenge successfully, on the other hand, is a necessary condition for developing a spiritual dimension, a natural by-product of character development.
June is an artist who has been riddled by self-doubt for many years, rendering her unable to create for long periods of time, paralyzed by a deep-seated sense that she doesn't have sufficient talent to produce a piece of work worthy of public appreciation. She engages instead in an addiction to eating and withdraws from family and friends most of the time. Her attitude toward life and other people in particular is rife with bitterness and cynicism. Her low self-esteem and self-destructive lifestyle impair her ability to feel compassion toward others as she is inclined instead to project an attitude of contempt toward, or its opposite, paranoia and alienation, from other people.
The characterization that (People) "seem wicked" and "no one remembers your name" from a popular song from the 60's aptly describes June's ego state. The world she lives in appears hostile to her; fate is cruel. The good fortunes of others are looked at with disdain and resentment and only serve to worsen her self-hatred and sense of wretchedness. To enter into June's world of consciousness would reveal to us a focus onto the world around her that is depriving, unfair, inimical to her dreams, mute to her suffering. The schema she holds with which to view herself in relation to the world in which she lives is one of alienation. What serves the world is opposed to self-interest and the world in which she lives is both deaf to her concerns and persecutory in nature. On the other hand, when she looks at herself, she is either abject or disdainful, wretched or grandiose, in other words either worse than or better than, but in any case, apart from and essentially opposed to her world.
The psychoanalysts might explain June's problems as stemming from a persecutory complex with symptoms of alienation and paranoia. They would explain that this is happening because of June's defenses of projection, rationalization, denial, etc. While these explanations are valid and insightful, they are also one-sided. I would agree that many people, such as June, cope through psychological defenses that distort the world and as such are not able to see the lenses with which they distort the world much less accept the notion that it is they and not the world they live in that is disturbed. However, there is much truth in what June sees in the troubled world she lives in; there is much suffering, injustice, greed, etc., in the world to find. It is rather a matter of focus, which does one "choose" to focus on, viz., good or evil, joy and love or suffering and selfishness. Because of June's poor relationship with herself, she unconsciously sees the world through a lens that reflects this poor relationship, a world that is broken, alien, untrustworthy. She either does not like herself or she feels better than or misunderstood, in any case, alienated, "strange," hostile. The boundaries from whence these disturbing perceptions originate are unclear. At times she feels herself as disdainful, hostile, grandiose, at other times she feels inferior, dejected, and persecuted.
June is spiritually sick. Assuming that she is not suffering from a more predominantly biochemical condition such as bipolar disorder which could accentuate these kinds of dichotomous experiences, conventional psychiatry might regard June's problems as stemming from a personality disorder, a disorder in which the self is implicated as the source of problems. But it is not merely June, the person within which the self resides, who is suffering and broken. The world she lives in is troubled as well, both world as it is in an objective, "real" sense and as she views it; more importantly, it is her relationship with her world that is broken because her troubled relationship with herself is projected into the world such that she regards it in its most unseemly way, as sick and cold rather than filled with possibilities for joy and love. Traditional psychiatry with its origins and identity embedded in medicine conceptualizes and treats problems as situated within the individual but this limitation of its scope fails to encompass an essential understanding about how it is June's relationship with herself and the world in which she lives that is broken. It is her spiritual self that is wounded and suffering.
Why is this distinction I am making between conventional and spiritual explanations for psychological problems, such as June's, important here? There are several reasons. In the first place, many people such as June are not able to see their defenses as defenses; they just accept their worldview as reflecting the world as it is. In psychology, we call this phenomenal world as "ego syntonic." In other words, one's self and its world are perceived as consistent with how one's psychological defenses distort them. This problem endemic to personality disorders makes therapy often daunting if not impossible. Inasmuch as defenses serve to protect the self however dysfunctional they may be, life's problems are regarded under these circumstances by the patient as originating from the world out there rather than from within. In other words, other people are the problem not the self. By broadening an understanding of psychological problems from a spiritual framework instead the ego syntonic viewpoint is validated to some degree. Yes, there are problems that do originate from the world or it could be argued even that all problems do at least to some degree originate outside the self. In so granting the validity of this perspective on the part of the patient without discarding altogether the psychological perspective we create conditions in the therapeutic relationship that give less reason for defenses to be erected and thus for authentic self-examination to proceed.
There are other reasons. The therapist's perceptions and ideas are fallible. He or she is human and not immune from what is called countertransference reactions, i.e., his or her feelings elicited by the patient that are personal and thus to some degree distorted accordingly. Broadening our conceptualization of psychological problems as inclusive of what lies outside the self grants a measure of validity to the patient's experience when transference reactions occur. This diminution of the therapist's experiential authority can in some in some instances be, therefore, self-empowering to the patient. It can also strengthen the therapeutic bond as well as diminish the possibility that psychological harm to a patient can occur as a consequence of a therapist's unresolved issues imposed unwittingly or otherwise through a kind of "gaslighting" phenomenon taking place within the therapeutic relationship. Moreover, adopting a spiritual perspective in treating problems of personality directs our attention as therapists to the responsibilities we as therapists have to become more cognizant about, and it would be hoped to take action to ameliorate, the problems in the world we live in that contribute to the psychological conditions we treat in our offices everyday. Finally, adopting a spiritual perspective takes us back to our roots in philosophy, where psychology began. This movement would not be regressive insofar as it broadens our conceptualization of psychological problems as both biological and interpersonal, as influenced by our cultural myths and societal standards for better and worse, and insofar as it inspires us to evolve toward a spiritually healthier place along the evolutionary trajectory we as a species follow.
Spirituality is about relationships. It is about how we connect. To our ourselves, our friends and family, our communities and our culture, our heritage and our futures, our fellow creatures of the earth, our planet, and the beyond. To render it a central dimension of our lives makes us better people; it inspires us to evolve beyond the trivial and the quotidian, our petty concerns, our selfish grievances and irritations, or what can be at times our ravenous egos. It takes us from the realm of the individual self to the collective. It inspires us to become responsible with a feeling that is generated from the heart. It compels us to lurch forward to a place that is greater than, that is transcendent from the ego. But it begins with our relationship to our self.
When I speak of the self what I mean is a self that is ensembled as a healthy internalization of the relationships between self and other. A healthy self thus contains the seeds of spirituality. The seeds may be sown and germinated at any time in life and that is the good news. But it begins with the self. A healthy self is defined as having the capacity to adapt and evolve with experience, to seek to understand and live according to the intricate and infinite interconnectedness of existence, to seek with compassion a cooperative, symbiotic relationship with the world in which we live. This is not the same as a naive, gullible, pollyannish attitude toward others or a weak and enabling, ultimately masochistic self. To the contrary, spiritual development gives us resilience in the face of loss, personal failure, and betrayal, and hope and possibility instead of rigid foreclosure in the face of the unfathomable, the unforeseen, and the unfamiliar. A spiritual self saves us from discouragement and the loneliness and isolation of alienation. It also corrects us and keeps us on course from the perilous trajectory of self-aggrandizement and greed, a condition of inflation of the ego, when either a wealth of power or self-confidence are bestowed upon us, an affliction that religion has traditionally served to remedy as the philosopher, Nietzsche, has all too ruefully observed. But ultimately, spirituality begins with compassion toward ourselves. This means accepting ourselves and existence itself, surrendering to the limitations thereof. The end result, paradoxically, is not resignation or complacency but a lightening of the self from unneeded baggage, the falsity and pretenses we have bought into that ultimately weigh us down, the pact with the devil we signed onto long ago. Unpacking frees us to release ourselves into the world organically instead of relentlessly driving the urgent demand to overpower the self we fear we are, a reckoning with the groundedness of existence and deliverance from a come-hell-or-highwater, take-no-prisoners mission to quench the ego.
June will not be able to overcome her creative stasis until she comes to these realizations, to accept herself as she is, a place within herself from which she can feel free once again, an unburdening of emotional baggage so to speak, the self-doubt that has prevented her from creating again. Instead of trying in vain to wrest it resentfully from the world, a futile endeavor, or from a depleted self too weary to generate inspiration, she must discover from within the self-esteem that grows from her capacity to love herself in this unconditional way.
When June gets to a place in her personal evolution where she has given up the demand to be better than everyone else, to prove to herself and the world that she is superior and supremely gifted she will with a sense of joy and compassion for herself begin to create from the font of inspiration rather than relentless willpower. Being good to herself will become her mantra, to live a balanced life that nurtures her health and well being, balancing time for herself with time for others, where generosity is generated from the heart rather than grudgingly apportioned from fear of depletion, and with an eagerness to impart and share the joy she experiences in life with others. Being good to herself, founded on a renewed appreciation of her gifts and potentials from which she can grow in a spiritual dimension can only occur within the context of the realization of her limitations without defenses to camouflage or distort them. These defenses may be lifted only when she establishes an accepting relative limitations, the necessary condition for self-esteem to mature toward a spiritual awakening.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D