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Psychologising our Spirituality


In my on-going explorations of the relationship between spirituality and psychology, I have in past posts reflected on how we can use our spirituality and spiritual path to unhelpfully bypass our psychological wounding. Particularly, from early childhood years where difficult and painful feelings such as grief, rage and hatred, and also aspects of our nature such as our sexuality, power and aggression, can be repressed and held under a veneer of outward spiritual correctness and positivity. And, how we can also sometimes twist our spiritual beliefs and practices according to that hidden pathology buried in what Carl Jung, the 20th century Psychologist, titled our unconscious Shadow. We can see this clearly in the extremes of those that have grossly and abusively distorted their spiritual practices such as the ex-bishop Peter Ball who sexually assaulted and abused young male novitiates in his care under the guise of initiatory religious practice, and John Smythe the Christian holiday camp leader who subjected his young victims to private sadomasochistic beatings in his private shed to purge them of sin as part of their Christian discipleship. But subtle distortions can be present in much smaller, less noticeable ways in many of us following a spiritual path.


The process of psychologisation - Can we unhelpfully reduce our spirituality to our psychology?

I have, however, had cause to reflect recently on looking the other way down the lens of this dialogue between our psychology and spirituality, to reflect on a relatively new 20th - 21st century phenomenon of how we can also unhelpfully reduce our spirituality to our psychology. We now live in a very 'psychologised' world where this paradigm can dominate our perspective, and I have seen this escalate in just my relatively short life-time. I remember back in the early 1980s when I went to university to study psychology on my journey to becoming a Chartered Psychologist, how my school teachers saw it as a poor choice against more 'proper' disciplines such as english and history. Now, psychology is one of the most sought after and fiercely competed for places on degree courses, where its use seems to permeate all sections of our world. We love it! And, of course, I love and value it too as a psychologist. But if we stop to notice, psychology now seems to be everywhere, attached to every adjacent discipline and beyond.


This is what critical psychologists have named 'psychologisation'. In so many aspects of our lives, our behaviour and experience is translated into psychological language and then sent back to us as the most scientific way to understand ourselves. And this can also apply to our spirituality and understanding of our spiritual path. We can sometimes, unhelpfully, reduce our spirituality to our psychology.


Psychologisation leads to a far more individualised, privatised religion

This process of psychologisation, leading to a far more individualised, privatised reduction of spiritual traditions, then can lead to a 'commodification' of religious experience and practice. Dr Ian Parker describes this as: 'Commodification is the necessary flipside of psychologisation; our activities and attributes are turned into things while the discipline of psychology busies itself with turning us into the kind of subjects it can work on.' I am going to be looking at this in an article specifically on the practice of mindfulness meditation, which has often become severed from its religious roots in our current world, and packaged as a secular product to relieve all kinds of psychological and emotional difficulty for a more productive and 'successful' life. Ronald Purser describes this 'McDonaldisation' of our religious practices in his book 'McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality.' So, rather than practices we give and surrender ourselves to in the service of that which is beyond and greater than us, our religious rituals and disciplines can become a measured means we use to achieve our own ends. The Eastern teacher Chögyam Trungpa famously termed this 'spiritual materialism.'


Logos and Mythos - Myth tells us something that is true in a timeless way, relating to humanity's experience

Another outcome of psychologisation I would like to consider is the demythologisation of our religions. Myth is an important way to relate to religious scriptures and stories, to see the deeper archetypal meaning latent within texts and imagery. Too often in our modern world we unhelpfully see myth as false or untrue. But a better way of understanding it is that myth tells a story of something that in some sense happened once but which also happens all the time. It is uncovering a timeless truth that goes beneath everyday perceptions. It is not less than true but rather tells about something in a timeless, archetypal way. Psychologisation in the service of modernity can strip away the value of myth.


In the ancient, pre-modern world both words logos and myth were used. Logos related to science, mathematics and medicine, and myth described or tried to articulate all those elements in life where there were no easy answers - puzzling, disturbing things such as death, natural disaster, inner turbulence.


Engaging with mythological stories can place you in a right spiritual posture, bringing inner meaning to people. It may be, for example, we can understand Jacob wrestling with the angel or God-like figure in Genesis as something of the personal Freudian dark night of the soul experience, but it also leaves us with mystery, the sense of darkness and puzzlement we encounter in life's events, and the deep unexplainable wounding we may experience in the process. The story speaks to us of our human life experience. In Buddhism, the modern transmutation of the six realms of rebirth from ontological orders to psychological states exemplifies another way demythologisation is often continuous with psychologisation.


'Go deep into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows' Rainer Maria Rilke

Mythology also leads us deeper into the complexities of our emotions and personalities. Life may be moving along at a quick pace, when suddenly we find ourselves caught in a myth, stirring such deep feelings that we are shaken to our very foundations. Often as a spiritual director I hear people's life events and stories hark the advent of a deep story of a mythic theme. One of these I've written on recently is the 'The journey of descent.' Day by day we live emotions and themes that have deep roots, but our reflection on these experiences tends to be superficial. We can be living from a place that is too rational and dispassionate, and that loses soul.


Rainer Maria Rilke advises the young poet to 'go deep into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.' Our modern tendency is to numb ourselves to the intensity of myth or to reduce it to psychological symbolism, creating the illusion that grand pleasures and terrible torments are mere products of a field of sensation wholly psychological and therefore only tangentially, if at all, real. The modern person has a difficult time finding a place in life for dreaming and reflecting on dreams, because this is all unconscious material, of certain psychoanalytic interest but otherwise irrelevant as it is all symbolic. Our interior lives have become disenchanted by this rationalisation of the soul's milieu. Perhaps we unhelpfully disenchant stories when we explain them away, by for example a preacher reducing a biblical story to a moral or a psychoanalyst by explaining it according psychological theory.


For me, spiritual direction is the anam cara space open to both spirit and soul, logos and mythos, where we can live a more deeply reflected life, finding our own spiritual belonging and direction, ever more deeply connecting and giving ourselves to God as we journey in the arising mystery of life.

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