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Psychotherapy and Indian Thought – III

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The grand synthesis and more

It is here that Sri Aurobindo steps in with His Yoga, stretching the line of experience through knowledge and power to the heights where they both reconcile. It is not an eclectic combination of different ways and paths. There is more, something much more, not to be found elsewhere. What it is and how it can help us in our knowledge and practice of medicine and psychiatry is what we turn to now. For our present purposes, we shall confine ourselves to the problem of psychological wellbeing and envision it against a background of ancient Indian thought, by summarizing the main issues involved.

Firstly, man himself. Sri Aurobindo reaffirms that man is no mere aggregate of cells or chemical reactions. This is only his outer material frame. His true identity is his soul. Sri Aurobindo does not use the word ‘soul’ in a vague general sense. There is a universal Self but there is also an individual soul that has been projected from the One Self into the drama of our earthly life. This individual soul, called the psychic being, is an important key to our psychological wellbeing. The psychic being is our true being, the secret divinity in us. Its very essence is peace, harmony and joy; it has a natural affinity to the true, good and beautiful. However, it is persistently veiled in man by the surface nature and its movements. But even in the crudest human natures there exists some ray of light and hope, a little spark of undying truth.

The source of our psychological maladies is an inability to dwell in the psychic consciousness. We live mostly in the surface nature where there is, as yet, nothing but confusion and disorder. Our surface nature, which is unable to glean a sure light of guidance, depends heavily upon our outer mind and senses. The fancy of our desires and pull of our emotions and passions further corrupt this fragmented knowledge from the mind and senses. The result is a falsification, an ignorance of ourselves and others. This identification with the ignorant movements of nature, as if that is ‘I’, is the origin of the ego which seems so very real. With this sense of surface ‘me’, comes also the sense of ‘not me’. No real unity or harmony with the world around is possible with the ego, only some accommodation, tolerance and adjustment. This is the source of our conflict with all that is not perceived as oneself, whether in the subconscient depths or in others. This in essence amounts to the same thing for we almost instinctively see in others a reflection of ourselves. We also wish to see in others a perfection we secretly crave but have not yet arrived at.

The outer struggles of man are only a reflection of his inner conflicts. The real inner conflict is a tussle between what we are and what we secretly aspire to be. There is no part of human nature that can truly resolve it. Reason, even at its best, very often leaves us in a quandary. Its standards are the standards of Ignorance since it does not possess a sure light with which to act. Besides, it is very often left at the mercy of our emotions, impulses, passions and desires. So crafty are these lower ministers, that reason itself is unable to detect their influence. There is, however, in each of us, a divine spark, the psychic being, which can guide us infallibly. This is the first line of psychological help available to us, the inner healer who can put things straight within our own house, yam pashyanti hritayekshinadosha (having seen That our faults become weak). Not content with theory alone, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have given abundant practical methods for discovering this psychic being. To discover it is to break through the rank and file of the army of Ignorance, to uncover our own true nature and unleash the knowledge and power of the soul. But this is only a first great step. There are other aspects of Ignorance that must be addressed, without which our freedom from suffering and imperfection cannot be complete.

The next step is unravelling the real plot of our drama, the ancient truth of rebirth. This has a totally unique significance in Sri Aurobindo’s vision. According to him, birth or rebirth is not a chemical or spiritual accident. The earth is not an issueless creation where a stern judge presides, watching and passing decrees of reward and punishment over souls stumbling helplessly through the dark forests of Ignorance. From birth to birth and experience to experience, the soul in us grows until it is ready to manifest its inherent divinity upon earth. Mukti, which essentially amounts to an inner freedom from our lower nature and reactions, is only a preliminary step. The manifestation of a higher Supernature upon earth is the culmination. Though our soul is inherently divine, the nature it wears is not perfect. As long as this nature remains obscure, our life on earth will remain a field of error, suffering and hazardous experiment. Our individual soul realisation may save us from personal affliction, but the common universal problem of disease and disorder will persist.

So rebirth is the ascension to higher levels of spiritual consciousness beyond the mind and, with each ascent, taking up the lower levels and elevating them by the touch of the higher. This evolutionary journey stretches through many lives and it is here that we discover the real significance of rebirth, a much talked-about mystery in Indian thought. Illnesses are not the result of punishment for bad deeds; they are, as indeed everything else, simply a part of our learning process, an inner growth in learning the effects of different types of responses to those varying energies put forth by our nature.

Here we discover another source of conflict. The first basic conflict is between our true being and nature. The other conflict is between the different parts of our nature which dwell on different levels of consciousness. This can create an inner disharmony. Thus the mind in us may be ready to evolve towards a greater light, while the heart may refuse to move, remaining shut inside its narrow boundaries and fixed formulas. Or the heart too may be ready to widen but the life-impulse may be stuck with lower motives and the body utterly refuse to move through inertia. This creates an inner disharmony, leading to psychological and physical imbalance. If this state is extreme and the psychic development especially weak, the cosmic forces of disruption and disorder may intrude and create more serious disturbances as observed in the raging psychotic and perverted sociopathic criminal. These cosmic forces are the hidden forces that move life, the occult source of our actions, the dark and bright side of our single reality, the luminous play of the gods leading us to harmony, truth and light and the whisper of evil luring the human heart. From another viewpoint, they are evolutionary challenges assisting our growth by casting an obstacle that has to be overcome.

The evolutionary journey, then, always seems to have a double challenge, an outer one for matter to overcome the stresses of our outer environment, and an inner one for the soul to overcome the pressure of these cosmic forces. The first of these, when properly mastered, leads to a harmonious adaptation between our nature and outer environment. The successful culmination of the inner challenge through inner growth leads to a harmony between the different parts of our inner nature and their equation with the cosmic forces.

Terrestrial perfection: the complete solution

To grow in knowledge (the aim of Vedantic Yoga) and power (the aim of Tantric Yoga) and, through each, to discover the Ananda of becoming, is our great human journey. The meeting point of these two is Consciousness, which, in the ancient Indian conception, is simultaneously knowledge and power, cit-sakti. Growth in consciousness is the aim of human life and the solution to our misery and suffering. The more we grow in consciousness (that is, towards higher levels of knowledge and power), the more we become progressively free from ignorance and limitation and discover the peace and Ananda as the base and support of everything. To discover these hidden springs of Ananda is to be free from suffering, to discover the hidden source of Light is to be free from error, to discover the hidden source of Love and Oneness is to be free from disharmony and disorder, and to discover, in this ascending scale, the divinity of Life is to be free from death. In this sense, illness is a barometer for discovering our hidden weaknesses that need to be developed and perfected, or to use Darwinian language, challenges thrown on the soul by Nature to uncover its inherent divine potential. Each illness represents the reverse side of a potential still to be discovered. It is the task of the therapist to assist this evolutionary process.

How should he do it? What will be his means, tools and instruments? The first, most important instrument is the therapist himself. It is the consciousness of the therapist interacting with the consciousness of the client that brings this change. According to ancient Indian thought, an inner change in another can only be effected by someone who has worked out the change within himself. If not, then the person must at least have a strong conviction and living faith in this intended change. However, when neither is available, this change can be effected by a living faith in some past Master or representative of God in whom the client trusts. In either case, the main task of the therapist is to induce faith in a higher Grace or Power and awaken the will and possibility of change. Until that happens, the therapist becomes a kind of spiritual midwife. The task is indeed a delicate one. In ancient Indian thought, it is not the ego’s defences that are strengthened but the strength of the soul that is cultivated. The ego which was necessary at an earlier stage, becomes a prison later and must be replaced by the soul-principle. This does not imply defeatist inaction as the surface ego might attest. It signifies an exchange of our superficial orientation, understanding and limited responses for a deeper, truer and more powerful understanding and response to life, people and the world.

The means, instruments and tools

A true counsellor leads the client through a progressive deepening, heightening and widening of his consciousness, using every experience of life, past and present, as materials for the evolutionary process. He may use any available means towards this end, depending upon the client’s receptivity, his natural bent and temperament, and, most of all, his constitution and faith. Any method already mentioned under different approaches can be used, provided of course that the counsellor knows something about them himself. In certain situations, he may even refer the patient to a particular technique as a temporary aid, like yogasanas or pranayama, if that is deemed necessary. But he must understand that these techniques are merely temporary devices. One needs to outgrow them as one should eventually outgrow all devices. The goal of the psychotherapeutic journey is not merely to ward off present symptoms but to discover the inner healer — the true soul.

This is no easy task. It requires colossal inner development on the part of the counsellor himself. Academic degrees and knowledge count little in this process. It is also not a question of inner spiritual achievement or merit alone but something else also that is not easy to define. It needs, along with spiritual self-development, a certain wideness and suppleness, wisdom side by side with strength, a high degree of faith and conviction, an inner goodwill and generosity, but most of all, a deep compassion and love for struggling humanity. It does not require a PhD in spiritual counselling or just a theoretical mastery of the subject, but a living of those truths that must be communicated. If that is a tall claim then well it is so. A high goal necessitates a difficult endeavour.

There are lesser alternatives. A client may have a rapport and faith in a lesser mortal and still be helped. His faith itself becomes the guide and the Divine uses it for leading the student through this less illumined teacher. One might also suggest the reading of Sastra, a book rich in spiritual knowledge and power. Millions have been helped by reading the Bible, Gita and Dhammapada in their hours of crisis, rather than by going to a professional psychiatrist. Today’s medical man with his rational tools is often a poor replacement for our loss of faith in our own soul’s resources and the Divine Grace. Our counsellor can be a teacher, a father-figure, a loving and kind mother, a generous and understanding friend or even another human being. A counsellor able to accommodate all possible variations of human nature cannot work upon any rigid principles. In fact, the counsellor is more an influence, whose mere presence and personal example inspires the client and instills him with faith. Obviously his counsel must proceed after due consideration of the client’s present level of growth, his natural seeking, hopes and expectations in life, his strengths and weaknesses. This can best be learned through long and close association with the teacher rather than any scholastic study. Ancient Indian thought well understood this and so all learning took place informally by living with the guru rather than through only bookish knowledge. The methods of science do not apply if we regard the prospective counsellor and client as a living whole. Our problems are not isolated from our total being. Even when they arise in one part, they influence and are backed by the whole.

The counsellor/client relationship in Indian thought

In the ancient Indian setting, the guru-shishya form, where counselling often took place, was no mere ritual but a fact of life. Not everyone could be a guru, only a realised man. The guru was not an erudite scholar trained in spiritual semantics or a master in spiritual philosophy. He may or may not be one of these things. He may not be a trained psychologist or perhaps even a man of letters. He was surely a man who had found his soul and was living consciously in it. If he could transmit this soul experience to another, then so much the better. It is important to note this because the modern mind often misreads in the guru-shishya relationship either dependence of a Freudian type or else a convenient device to facilitate a psychotherapeutic process through faith alone. Faith is undoubtedly important but emphasis on faith is not a means to sanction blind and irrational obscurantism. It is rather a necessary precondition for arriving at knowledge. For if there is a divine purpose in this world then surely there must be a means to discover it; if there is a soul that can help heal and succour then surely there must be a means to find it; that if one man has found it then, given the right means and method, others can find it too. Above all a faith that if there is a divine guidance in this world, behind all life’s anomalies, then there must be a purpose to each trial and tribulation, behind each crisis and failure, behind every stumble and fall. The guru aids and assists the growth of the soul by discovering the real meaning and significance of each crisis and, through it, the meaning of our own life in this seemingly incongruous universe. Faith and surrender to the guru’s guidance is the starting-point of this discovery; will, effort and aspiration the middle term; knowledge and union with the discovered Truth are the culmination of this process. According to Indian tradition, counselling ideally does not stop with immediate recovery from perceived distress, but is carried forward until the person has stepped beyond all possibility of distress. It must be mentioned here that the spirit of counselling is not commercial at all. If we go back to ancient Indian thought, there was only one criterion the guru used in taking a disciple. It was the readiness to evolve along the lines in which this master had gained his expertise, adhikara bheda. But once accepted, all commercial and other considerations were placed apart. Nevertheless, it was expected that the disciple should offer some guru dakshina at the end of the course. It could be something as small as a penny or as big as an empire, but always an object held dear to him. The disciple gave it in faith and gratitude, trusting his master knew best. This gift of love was good for the student since, of all life’s lapses, the worst was considered to be ingratitude to the master, since this debt could never be repaid. There are recorded instances of how some masters took upon themselves the entire inner and outer burden of their disciples, not only for one life but many lives to come.

We may enquire into the practicability of all this in the modern context. Here we must understand that the whole drift of ancient Indian thought was to make the ideal pragmatic and practically possible. This can still be so as the spirit of ancient India is not dead. No doubt it is presently reeling under a wave of materialistic thought, but I believe and hope this is but a temporary phenomenon. Even now, some teachers, instructors, counsellors and masters continue to calmly go about their tasks without any consideration of money or fame. The gift of knowledge and help provided is the highest one can envisage. By the very fact of it being a gift, it becomes one with love and these two are the most potent powers for effectuating a deeper change which is the goal of all authentic psychotherapy.

The goal of psychotherapy

The goal of psychotherapy is no different from the general goal of man in his great evolutionary journey. The psychotherapist is only a catalyst helping in this journey from darkness to light, providing support with love, compassion, wisdom and strength. The goal is not a temporary restoration of the original status quo, but a growth in consciousness towards a greater wisdom, greater love, greater freedom and greater harmony in our ascent to divinity, to the discovery of our secret soul. This is beautifully summarised by Sri Aurobindo in the following words:

“To know, possess and be the divine being in an animal and egoistic consciousness, to convert our twilit or obscure physical mentality into the plenary supramental illumination, to build peace and a self existent bliss where there is only a stress of transitory satisfactions besieged by physical pain and emotional suffering, to establish an infinite freedom in a world which presents itself as a group of mechanical necessities, to discover and realise the immortal life in a body subjected to death and constant mutation, — this is offered to us as the manifestation of God in Matter and the goal of Nature in her terrestrial evolution.

…For all problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony. They arise from the perception of an unsolved discord and the instinct of an undiscovered agreement or unity. To rest content with an unsolved discord is possible for the practical and more animal part of man, but impossible for his fully awakened mind, and usually even his practical parts only escape from the general necessity either by shutting out the problem or by accepting a rough, utilitarian and unillumined compromise. For essentially, all Nature seeks a harmony, life and matter in their own sphere, as much as mind in the arrangement of its perceptions. The greater the apparent disorder of the materials offered or the apparent disparateness, even to irreconcilable opposition, of the elements that have to be utilised, the stronger is the spur, and it drives towards a more subtle and puissant order than can normally be the result of a less difficult endeavour.”(1)

Conclusion: a question of faith

One may assert that Indian thought simultaneously proceeds through many lines and leads to an extraordinary complexity. Whilst on the one hand, this may create certain difficulties in comprehension, on the other, the richness creates a variety that is practically useful in fulfilling the diverse strands and demands of our human nature. Certain general principles can still be culled out of this complex structure for the practical purpose of lending help to mankind in its relief from suffering. These general principles are elements common to most systems. And since psychotherapy is more concerned with relief of psychological suffering than philosophical dialectics, the best lever of all is contained in the collective faith of the human race. The role of the psychotherapist is not to convert the sick and suffering to any particular form of belief. This may happen and is perhaps only natural since man always instinctively develops faith in something that helps him in his darkest moments. Faith is not only the common denominator in eastern and western systems, but in ancient and modern too. A philosophical doctrine remains ineffective in life unless it can seize not only the mind’s interest but also the heart, faith and will of man. So the first necessary thing in a practical application of ancient Indian thought is that the psychotherapist should dwell in a wide catholicity, using the intrinsic faith of the patient as an essential means of support to start his work. And if he finds that faith insufficient to support the change, then he should work towards instilling and widening it along the lines of the client’s natural bent and past evolution, rather than trying to convert him, as if to win an argument. Faith works best when it arises from within, as a flower springs from a bud. It works poorly when it is superimposed from outside. The blossoming of faith is a crucial element in all psychotherapy, without which everything else remains incomplete. Faith is fulfilled by knowledge that comes through authentic spiritual experience. In a sense, this is true of everything else, including science. One begins with faith in a proposition or method, working patiently till one reaches the point towards which our inner intuition was heading. That is why we choose one out of so many possibilities to labour and strive through. To get hold of this intrinsic faith, to enlarge and widen it, rather than constrict it within a fixed system of belief is an important task of the therapist.

This is the first important element in the Indian spiritual thought. It insists upon faith as an important part of life, more crucial than mere reason. Here we must draw the distinction between faith and belief since the two are commonly confused. Though somewhat allied, they are very different in their power and potencies. Belief is something outward. It is a system of thought held by our surface mind or heart and will and conditioned to respond to certain movements in man and society. It belongs to the outer man. Faith is more intrinsic. It is the task of the psychotherapist to patiently extract this intrinsic faith, like a careful anatomist extracts the minutest nerve. It is the inner scripture that the psychotherapist has to open in the patient and help him read it. This is the Indian version of cognitive therapy, approaching the mind not through the mind, but through the soul of the client. To change from within outward, by using the client’s own faith, is therefore the method used by the therapist. Towards this end, he naturally moves from the surface to the depths, from outer beliefs and non-belief, towards what is concealed in the secret spaces of the soul. In this process, the therapist uses any opening offered by the client’s mind, heart and will. He works patiently, through timely suggestions and intuitive guidance. In this process we find the patient’s inner constitution.

Despite the enormous complexity and multiplicity of Indian thought, the common cognitive and emotional structures supporting belief are fairly simple. They can be chiefly summarised as a belief in an individual soul, in a personal Divine, a belief in rebirth, a knowledge of the existence of cosmic forces that help or harm us and finally a belief in liberation or freedom in life as the final goal to which all shall one day arrive. The Indian mind possesses one great advantage in its complexity. It can become more catholic in its approach since, unlike other societies, it more readily accepts that there can be diverse approaches to truth, freedom and God. The Indian mind is more ready to accept the word of an enlightened man without much argument. This is not due to credulousness, as is commonly supposed, but stems from the fact that most Indians are awake to subtler, deeper realities and know that the mind must subordinate itself before the spirit. They instinctively know that the way of arriving at Truth is not through reason and analysis but faith and practice. Most of all, they believe that God’s Grace can bail him out of difficulties. The therapist can use these cognitive structures and emotional bonds already deep-rooted in the human psyche of the Indian man.

Whether our faith is scientific or not is not the issue to be discussed here, though reason can easily lend itself to arguments for either proposition. But if what we have discovered is nothing compared to what remains to be discovered, then man must indeed perforce proceed by faith, a faith in matter or a faith in the spirit, a faith in reason or, perhaps even, a faith in faith itself. Especially when it comes to something as subtle as psychology, we must know that truth is not only an external objective reality, but even more, an intimate subjective reality, false perhaps to the one who does not experience it but deeply real to one identified with it. And of all realities known to man since he began exploring the truths of his own life and this earth, there is nothing more insistent, attractive and universal than the experience of the Divine within and around us as the one single simultaneously objective and subjective experience. To deny it in the name of artificial science is to deny the very roots of life itself, nay, it denies man and even his total existence. This is the great truth Indian psychology can give us if we care to listen to its voice of deep wisdom and compassion. To drown it amidst a noise of superficial material research may do some temporary good to vested interests but it will cause immense harm to the further progress of the human race. Let us hope that this denial is but a temporary phenomenon for, beyond the vision of our material science, there waits the spirit of a greater truth in man’s heart, ready to be born, ready to free us forever from all that still assails us with grief and suffering. The limits of sight are not the limits of light!

Reference:

1. Sri Aurobindo. The Life Divine. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, pp. 1-2.