Why Spirituality Needs Psychology

Oftentimes spiritual aspirants and teachers feel that they should be beyond psychological support. That to engage psychotherapy means that there is something defective or wrong with them, or that they are not doing their spiritual practices well enough.
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Many people get disillusioned on the spiritual path, and it is not because spiritual practices and approaches are not effective -- they are. If we sincerely engage spiritual disciplines -- whether meditation, contemplation, yoga or prayer -- our practices will bear fruits. We will have more experiences, insights, moments of connection with presence, oneness or divinity. The problem is not spiritual technologies and practices. Spiritual teachers do not routinely fall into scandals around power and sexuality because the practices they engage and teach do not work. Spiritual students do not become disillusioned with spiritual life because they are not practicing sincerely enough. If we look closely, we see that these practices do work, and that part of our lives actually are improving.

So why isn't this making us ultimately happier? Improving our relationships? Diminishing our reactivity? Depression? Anxiety? Through working with hundreds of spiritual teachers and practitioners in the western world, I am convinced that spiritual work alone does not address many of our deepest psychological knots and traumas, nor does it provide tools to address our wounds in relationships that block us from fulfilling our deepest longings, dreams and spiritual possibilities.

We get stuck because we have not integrated the psychological wounds and traumas that live within our bodies and keep repeating themselves again and again through unfulfilling, if not self-destructive, behaviors and dramas in our lives. We engage in spiritual bypassing, hoping against our often-better judgment, that our spiritual practices will remove our unpleasant emotions or help us to transcend our relationship challenges.

Oftentimes spiritual aspirants and teachers feel that they should be beyond psychological support. That to engage psychotherapy means that there is something defective or wrong with them, or that they are not doing their spiritual practices well enough. There are times when people who would benefit from the support of psychopharmaceutical medication do not partake of this help because they are ashamed that they cannot overcome their emotional obstacles through meditation or yoga.

Many years into my life as spiritual practitioner, writer and yoga teacher, and long after my graduate school studies in counseling, I returned to my study of psychology. I kept repeatedly encountering "fallen angels" -- great teachers and sincere practitioners who remained deeply frustrated, unfulfilled, depressed, anxious and struggling with intimate relationships as much as ever. I wanted to discover effective technologies for working through the traumas and psychological issues that continued to wreck so much havoc on our lives and relationships, no matter how much spiritual work we had done. I felt a passionate need to understand how we can work through our traumas and psychological issues at the level of the body. I wanted to know what was really meant by integration and how this was achieved.

One of the great contributions that my friend, philosopher Ken Wilber, has made to this conversation is to explain that human development occurs on a variety of distinct developmental lines. For example, someone might be quite developed on their cognitive line, or spiritual line but less developed on the lines of feeling/affect, ethics or sexual development. The result is lopsided spiritual growth, which is not bad in itself but needs to be recognized in order to optimize our own integrated development, and to cultivate discernment in relationship to various therapies and spiritual paths, teachers and practices.

I believe human growth and potential has no limit -- there is not a height, depth or sideways expansion that we get to and say, "Now I have arrived." My experience is that the deeper I dive both into myself and in connection with the world, the more I discover how vast and endless it all is. The sheer beauty of this is that it means, literally, that wherever we are is OK because we are one point on a spectrum of endlessness.

When, as a young woman in 1999, I published my book "Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment," I was quite sure that people would not like it. Who was going to read 500 pages about disillusionment, egoic pitfalls, psychological conundrums and fallen teachers? To my surprise, many people wanted and still want to read about these topics. Why? Because this is where we live, and it is somehow more fulfilling to learn to accept where we are than to be continually frustrated by an ideal of where we should be.

I also believe we all need help and companionship along the way, at times through professional support and always through friends on the path. Needing each other, and needing support on the path through life, is a sign of health, not deficiency. We are truly more powerful when we support each other than when we attempt to stand alone.

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