Psychology and spirituality are often seen as opposite, even antagonistic, ventures. The scientists who conduct psychological research raise their eyebrows skeptically when the topic of spirituality is raised: It all seems so fuzzy and subjective. On the other hand, spiritual practitioners are often just as dismissive of psychology: The science seems to miss the very essence of what it is to be a human being. I know I feel this tension in my own life. I crave the rigor of science when applied to understanding the mind, especially in modern neuroscience. Yet psychology as cold scientific reductionism seems somehow bloodless. Life as it is actually lived seems to cry out for a deeper, meaningful engagement.
One writer who has taken on the challenge of uniting these two apparent opposites is Dr. Itai Ivtan, a professor of psychology at the University of East London. He is the author of a newly published book, Awareness is Freedom: The Adventure of Psychology and Spirituality. I had the opportunity to interview him about his work.
Question: What drew you to this issue in the first place?
Answer: Ever since I was little, the questions "who am I" and "why am I here" were echoing in my mind. Choosing psychology as a career seemed to be a natural choice. A few years into my work as a psychology university professor I was traveling the beautiful Yunnan province in China. I have heard of a Buddhist monastery at the top of a mountain and decided to visit for a few hours. By the time I have climbed all the way to the monastery, evening was falling and I had to seek a place of refuge for the night. The monks did not speak English and my Mandarin was non-existent, which meant that our smiles and hand gestures were the only way for me to explain my needs. The monks agreed to offer me a room for the night -- it was a spartan room with only a bed and a chair. I loved the simplicity. At 4 a.m. I woke up as I heard the sounds of chanting from the main hall underneath my room. Bleary-eyed, I walked down the stairs and joined the chanting session which proceeded into other meditation techniques. It was an incredible experience. And it felt too meaningful for me to leave so I have asked for their permission to stay for a while and practice with them. This period of time has changed my life. When I went back to my Western world mainstream-psychology wasn't enough anymore -- I knew that spirituality would have to be part of it so that my work, and my own self, could feel whole.
Question: How would you describe the difference between psychology and spirituality?
Answer: The word "psychology" comes from Greek: "psyche" is the word for "mind" or "soul," and "logos" means study. In other words, psychology is the study of the mind or the soul. Significantly, in the West psychology is only referred to as the study of the mind, whereas the "soul" part is completely ignored. Although psychology could have been the discipline that brought together the mind and the soul, the purely analytical approach adopted in the West was unable to accommodate a concept such as the soul. Therefore psychology became an area where we investigate and understand our mind. Now, what is the mind? It is where the self is created. My idea of "Itai," your understanding of a "Tim," they are all created and reside in the mind. Lists upon lists of ideas, concepts, labels, and definitions, which structure the personal understanding of a self.
Spirituality, on the other hand, is all about self-transcendence, which is the experience of moving beyond one's self and experiencing a connection with life beyond the narrow perspective of the self. Spirituality is an invitation to realize, on an experiential level, that in essence we are truly connected to everything and part of all that is around us and within us. For that reason meditation is such a wonderful spiritual tool because during meditation we tend to find transcendence and the peace that comes along with such realization.
Question: How do you unite the two?
Answer: We have established the fact that psychology is the study of the mind and spirituality is a journey of transcending the mind. Now, imagine John; John is a spiritual seeker who wishes to grow spiritually and deepen his experience of self-transcendence. In other words, John would like to move beyond his personal, narrow, understanding of a self. Only that at this point John will be facing one of the most difficult aspects of the spiritual journey: what is he supposed to transcend? We cannot transcend that which we don't know. John would have to utilize psychology in order to reflect and investigate his own mind's patterns. Then, and only then, would he be able to break these patterns, transcend them, and expand towards the full creation he truly is. Therefore, psychology and spirituality are bound together: Psychology unravels the mind while shedding light on its personal components and spirituality transcends these components. They are inseparable for our journey of growth in life.
Question: How do psychology and spirituality see the ego differently?
Answer: Psychology and spirituality define the ego very similarly. For both of them this is where the self-concept is born and raised. The ego, therefore, is our personal warehouse of mind-products that continuously feeds the self-concept. However, there is one important difference between psychology and spirituality in their relationship with the ego: While psychological theories accept the ego as an inevitable aspect of human existence, spirituality advocates an ego-less state of mind (frequently referred to as enlightenment).
Question: In the first chapter of your book, you write, "You are not experiencing life as it really is." What do you mean by that?
Answer: When I walk in the street and see a certain person, a car, a flower, or anything else I engage with, my mind is flooded with the ingredients of the self-concept: "its beautiful"; "its ugly"; "she is great"; "he is lazy"; and so on and so forth. These so called "understandings" of the moment wrap around my awareness and create a layer separating it from the moment as it is. The moment as it is was a meeting with a person -- simple, clean, open -- and yet the mind immediately produces numerous reactions (based upon the personal ingredients in the warehouse of my ego). These reactions are separators. These reactions pull us away from life as it is, and throw us into our personal interpretation of life.
Question: Finally, what do you want readers to take away from reading your book?
Answer: I would like to invite readers to let go of the interpretation of life while moving towards seeing and experiencing life as it is. Being able to break your old patterns of reaction, and having the capacity to see life clearly, provides an incredible feeling of empowerment and freedom. Knowing that you are not bound to your automatic ego-based reactions, and therefore can re-write the story of your life every single day, is truly rewarding. Beyond the theoretical understanding of these ideas, my book offers a variety of practical exercises in order to experience this freedom. The psycho-spiritual journey requires consistent practice, and dedication, and in return it offers an incredibly rewarding path in life. The path of freedom.
Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a positive psychologist, a senior lecturer, and the program leader of MAPP (Masters in Applied Positive Psychology) at the University of East London (UEL). His main interests are spirituality, mindfulness, meaning in life, and self-actualisation. If you wish to get additional information about his work or contact him, please visit www.AwarenessisFreedom.com. His book Awareness Is Freedom: The Adventure of Psychology and Spirituality is available at Amazon US and Amazon UK.