Science & Spirituality|Jun 16, 2010 12:27 PM| by:

Psychotherapy and Indian Thought (II)


Another Vedantic Solution

Indian thought is not only about mayavada and illusion. Despite the current emphasis on other-worldliness, there have been other equally powerful and positive streams in Indian thought. Indeed the mukti of the vedantin and Nirvana of the Buddhist that discards the world as a nightmare are not the only ideals conceived by Indian thought. The Vedic rishis provide an affirming example. In fact, there have been other equally powerful tendencies in Indian thought: views more positive in outlook, views that try to reconcile the material and spiritual existence. From a psychotherapeutic point of view, it is these that can even be more effective in dealing with problems of the mind. Some of these major trends are roughly described below.

Inner purification

According to this thought, psychological pain and suffering is close to pleasure. They are two sides of the same coin. To strive after pleasure only invites suffering in return. What is necessary is moderation and balance through enlightened reason and discrimination. This is, in a sense, the ideal of sane moderation, something similar to Aristotle’s golden mean. It is a conscious and deliberate cultivation of the positive qualities of mind and heart which help one grow into sukham or gladness and prakasam or the light of wisdom. According to this view, the source of human misery comes from psychological states known as rajas and tamas. To put it in a nutshell, the human soul evolves through at least three levels in its several rounds of birth before it is ready for the highest spiritual good.

The first of these levels is the tamasic or darkened state of inertia and utter resistance to change. Here it is driven by the law of the masses, the rule of the herd, like a beast or half-conscious man. Next comes the rajasic or state of kinesis and dynamic movement. This second stage can be further subdivided into two. One is the preliminary or predominantly rajo-tamasic, where the being is engaged in self-flattering gross indulgences of every kind. The other is the rajo-sattvic, where the individual begins to seek some ideal rule of inner law to govern his unruly nature which he begins to perceive as the source of internal disturbance. Finally the individual passes through the sattvic stage where he learns to subordinate his ego and take from life only what is rightfully his. One instinctively seeks harmony and is balanced in conduct and distribution of life-energies. In the primitive or tamasic stage, there is not much conscious suffering in the individual though he may be a cause of considerable suffering in others. The need for violent sensations, just to feel a little alive, drives some to alcoholism or violent acts and practices. Others simply sulk in their depression, refusing to budge or outgrow their state. The rajasic individual has fiery pleasures and an equally swift swing to the blues. An inordinate self-seeking, an excess of ambition with its natural fallout of anger, fear, hope, expectations and frustrations, brings in its wake opposite reactions from the environment. This makes them extremely susceptible to misery. The suffering is perhaps Nature’s corrective. Lastly, after the soul has experienced these lesser rungs of existence and outgrown them, comes sattva, the great balancer.

A counsellor, who works along these lines, will first roughly evaluate the scale where the individual stands in his inner evolution. Elaborate descriptions abound in ancient Indian thought on the type of inner personality and constitution of these three gunas (as these three evolutionary stages are better known). It may be mentioned that we are all a mixture of the three but there is a predominance of one or the other which leads to physical and psychological afflictions. The kind of therapy and advice given depends on the scale. So, while a sattvic person, who may also suffer due to sympathy for others, is advised and encouraged to develop a still deeper spiritual outlook, the rajasic man of a higher type is advised to do his work with a trust in God and according to the right inner law of his nature, svabhava and svadharma. The lower type of rajasic man is counselled and helped towards moderation in life habits and outlook, to tone down the excessive onrush of desires that feverishly torment him. The unruly, uncontrolled energy that explodes in his nature is channelled into healthy activities like sport and vigorous games. One can learn from the army how well it uses the rajasic man to channel energies for war. For the lowest type very little will work through counselling unless something shakes him up, some terrible misfortune which personally affects him, arousing sleeping energies in him. Anything, almost anything, that can stimulate a will to work with concentration and perseverance is good counsel. Fine crafts, manual work requiring physical concentration can help this state as observed in some psychotics and those in extreme forms of depression. Also anything that can stimulate a sense of joy, like eating a relished dish that gives pleasure. The last category within this type is the meditative, false ascetics. They cling to inertia only to use it as an excuse to stay reclusive or stay addicted to drugs that can easily transport them to altered realms without any inner effort.

There are other subdivisions but they basically evolve along the lines of these three types. One can easily see the relevance of this typology in treating certain personality and behavioural disorders. It is also useful in understanding some of the conflicts that largely arise when an individual is transiting one level to another with consequent divergent pulls. The therapist’s task in these cases is to assist the full emergence of the higher type whilst working through the conflict. A detailed discussion of all possible variations is beyond our present scope, but as is evident, this system has great practical utility. It also settles the previous difficulty of who is suitable for deeper spiritual counselling. Besides it does not require any deep philosophical capacity or outlook on the part of the client, though it needs a lot of inner tact and understanding on the part of the therapist.

Processes for harmony of body and mind

Mayavada (Illusions) is most commonly misinterpreted as solely representing Indian thought, and yoga exercises are the most commonly pursued process adopted in therapeutic purposes. The special forms of Hathayoga exercises (better termed asanas or yogasanas), pranayama and meditation are the most researched Indian exports that have already found a place in modern psychotherapeutic systems. Many researches done in the East and West from the sixties (perhaps even earlier) have demonstrated the efficacy of these simple stress-buster techniques. Theories differ on the exact mechanism of their action, but there is hardly anyone who denies their benefit in creating some sort of harmony between body and mind. Whilst the West predominantly searches for material explanations, it is interesting to know what the originators of these systems thought about the ‘mechanism’ of their action. This may help us to modify them according to our particular circumstances and unique needs.

First of all, these ‘techniques’ were not meant originally as techniques the way we understand them. These exercises were part of a larger movement of coming into contact with our own divine essence. Though they are now being seen as the Indian counterpart of behavioural therapy, they were not so in their true essence. Very few things in India were divorced from spirituality, least of all the systems of yoga. Even atheistic and agnostic conceptions have a spiritual element. In Hathayoga and Pranayama, the practitioner tries to first regulate and then still the otherwise restless physical and vital energies, but this is only a preliminary first step. The next and more important one is when he tries to gather and concentrate these energies in order to reach the divine source. Once this divine possibility comes out, and even much before that, the energies of the body and life-force become forceful, effective, balanced and harmonious. This is the secret of their curative power.

These methods are thus excellent for those not so psychologically minded and those less inclined to esoteric spirituality. They are besides quite effective for treating psychosomatic disorders. The disadvantage is a dependency on technique. These methods have to be regularly practiced to be fully effective. They consume a lot of time and often need the supervision of a qualified expert. They are best used as an adjunct against a wide range of disorders including psychosis.

Meditation is however slightly different, even though it comes under the broad categories of ‘techniques’ evolved by the Eastern paradigm, though nowhere with the wide range and variation as in India. It is a vast subject in its own right and we need not go into all the details of the different techniques and their relative efficacy. But, suffice to say, one of its well-known and recognised effects is that it tones down the response of our sympathetic nervous system. In this way, it creates a sense of calm on the most physical level. There may be deeper reasons since the nervous system, and more specifically the autonomic nervous system, is a sort of interface between the gross physical energies and those of life and mind pouring upon matter and influencing it. Two techniques are specifically helpful. One is the Buddhist method of witnessing self-reflection and introspective meditation. This technique is quite useful in undoing certain habitual nervous responses, anxiety states and obsessive patterns of thoughts and behaviour in studying and thereby controlling oneself. The essential steps here are thought-observation, witnessing, control and mastery. But this is a little more difficult; it usually demands some isolation on the part of the practitioner, and needs a somewhat developed mind to be able to separate one part of it from another. The other, easier yet very effective technique, is that of dynamic meditation and its scientific child, guided imagery. This method relies on the faculty of imagination and can be considered a first cousin of autosuggestion. In fact the two are often combined together. The role is prevalent again largely in psychosomatic or anxiety disorders etc.

The thought of the Gita

There remain two very powerful, widely used but often misunderstood, systems of ancient Indian thought. These two systems seem to move along very different lines though there is an unspoken occult and higher synthesis between them. First of these is the ideal of the Gita, often misrepresented as the gospel of karma, and further reduced to mean an incitement to duty regardless of its effect. One can only smile at such summary assessment of a great scripture that has endured through centuries of invasion and corruption and still continues to inspire and change mankind. What is the great secret of this word of God?

In fact there are not one or two, but quite a few words and sutras in the Gita that one can employ for counselling and therapeutic purposes. This is because the Gita, unlike many other similar scriptures, is an attempt at synthesis of various truths then known. In addition, it enriched the old with a fresh insight. What are these sutras?

First and foremost is the truth that a human being is essentially an imperishable soul who uses the body like a charioteer uses a chariot. This insight reverses the heavy psychological dependence on physical events and happenings by the knowledge that we are first and foremost eternal. This has such an impact, that it removes the grief and pain of death. Millions of people have used the Gita in times of crisis and found solace and strength. This is its first note: that we are essentially souls that cannot be destroyed by the catastrophes of life and nature.

The second is that he can discover the soul through many ways. The Gita outlines for different categories of people different ways, one such being the enlightened use of intelligent will. Instead of constantly turning the will outward and downward to satisfy desires, man’s intelligent will can be turned upward and inward to discover sublime realities which free one from bondage to grief, error, suffering and pain.

A third truth is that we are not helplessly abandoned upon earth without support. God is concerned with the march of civilisation towards some ultimate good. Also, each element of the universe has hidden within it the divine superconscient. The Gita clearly hints that divinity dwells in everything and it is the task of each one to bring it out rather than stifle it. This bringing out, is the great conflict going on at macro and micro levels. The principal conflict is between the cosmic principles and powers of Light and Truth against their opposites of darkness and Ignorance.

A fourth importance of the Gita is that war and conflict are unavoidable necessities as long as earth and mankind are imperfect. Our inner conflicts are essentially evolutionary conflicts; our inner and outer crises are essentially cries for evolutionary change. Man can choose to remain in his darkened state where suffering pursues him until he goes beyond the strife to the eternal. The Gita elaborately describes, in its closing chapters, the nature of the powers of light and darkness. So man, if he wants to be free of error and grief, has to consciously cultivate the qualities of light and truth.

A fifth element in the Gita is the concept of nishkama karma. According to this, everyday actions, even the most trivial, can lead us to a glad and happy state of being if we do them in a selfless spirit of dedication to the divine Master remaining unaffected by the fruits that they may bring. This stress upon a tranquil mind, equal in every circumstance, in the seemingly pleasant and unpleasant, in success and victory no less as in failure and defeat, is a great liberating truth that takes the wind out of much of our everyday psychological and even physical suffering. This equality is not indifference but a state of equal joy that comes by dwelling constantly in the Lord’s remembrance. Equanimity is therefore another very practical method prescribed by the Gita that frees us from the stress of everyday life.

The greatest help of the Gita comes towards the end with the great assurance that God will deliver us from all fear and evil if we learn to surrender to Him.

Modern psychology, born of a sceptical temper and suited to material pursuits, may have little sympathy with the idea of God. It may even regard it as blasphemous to talk of God in matters of science. But we must remember that psychology is not a physical science. It does not deal with physical but psychological phenomena and, whether we like it or not, the fact remains that the search for divinity is very much a psychological phenomenon. It will be a great loss to psychology if this great body of our psychological self-experience is neglected. It is surely not our scientific scruples but our blind attachment to Ignorance that prevents us from seeing this Light and closes the doors to a greater possibility in man. Whether accepted in scientific circles or not, the bare empirical fact is that faith in God has continued to relieve and cure many people around the world. As they say, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. So let those who test the pudding do so and let those who taste and relish it, continue. Till we find that grand reconciliation, to each his own god! A god of science and the gospel of matter or a god of religion and the gospel of the spirit, it hardly matters, for both are at present two different ways of seeing the One Reality which exceeds and fulfils both.

A bold reconciliation

Reconciliation between the agnostic mind of science and the believer is possible. The first attempt to reconcile the two is through Tantra. The Gita seeks to reconcile life in the world (the problem of the practical man) and spiritual realisation. The Tantra seeks to reconcile the energies moving the cosmos (the field of the scientist) and the Supreme Energy from which these lesser forms and forces derive. If that is so, then it is possible to master or conquer lesser energies by stronger and greater ones. This is the fundamental principle of Tantra: to understand, possess, control and master the forces and powers of nature as well as supernature. Seen in this way, it gets closer to our conception of science, though with a much wider application.

So while science studies and tries to master the physical energies of matter, Tantra goes deeper in studying and mastering other occult energies beyond the play of our material universe. It sees physical phenomena as a by-product or final end-result of still deeper, occult events happening on other levels of our consciousness. In the field of illness, for example, it sees entities and forces of disruption on which one can act directly if one has the necessary occult knowledge and so cure illness without any physical means. Unfortunately, modern insistence on physical causes alone has done much damage to this highly developed science which has its own rationale for working. Tantra itself fell into disrepute since many tantrics did not have the required inner purity to handle such intense forces. Many lapsed into the by-lanes of the inner life falling into the corridors of power. There were those attracted by power, yet unable to pay the inner price, who turned to lower and derivative stuff like black magic, witchcraft, etc. The worship of power, not backed by a solid footing in the highest knowledge, led to a further decline and admittance to all sorts of things which were more an occult quackery. Yet the opinions or limits of our understanding do not determine the truth. It stands in its own right.

When we turn to psychiatry there is a lot that Tantra can offer. This is not through the modern misreading of its hieroglyphs through the lens of psychoanalysis, but in understanding the subtler causes of illness. Thus, according to Tantric knowledge, insanity is due to possession by certain entities from the dark and hostile worlds. These turbulent energies first enter into the atmosphere of a person susceptible to them (through affinity in some parts of his nature). This is the prodromal stage when the first line of occult prevention can be achieved. Next they cast an influence, which usually takes the form of:

— some personality changes (concerning loss of faith and will, doubts, depression, confusion, perverted religiosity, excessive self-vanity, sexuality and other appetites, uncontrolled impulsiveness, etc.).
— epilepsy, which is more characteristically due to resistance by the affected person’s being against the force.
— hysteria, especially possession states, dissociation, multiple personality, etc.
— active communication with these dark entities through voices and other means.
— frank possession/incarnation of one of these stronger dark entities leading to a total perversion of thought, feeling, will, action and speech creating the cruel tyrant, psychopath and outright pervert.

These dark forces and beings have been elaborately classified in Tantric literature. Some of these are the asuras (perverters or distorters of mind, specifically thought and speech), the rakshasas (perverters or distorters of feelings and will), pisacas (perverters or distorters of sensations and physical instincts). There are other minor entities such as elemental beings called bhootas, disembodied beings called preta who float in the vicinity of a deceased, especially one who has had a traumatic death. These beings and entities have been known everywhere and they are mentioned under different names in Western, Arabic and other spiritual literature.

Now the Tantric, the occultist, shaman, thaumaturgist, call him whatever, knows about these forces and the ways to neutralise them, just as a modern scientist knows about the forces of wind, rain and fire and how to handle them. They are of two main types. The lower type have within their control a powerful entity from the same plane which can execute their will for good or evil purposes. The others have mastered the higher energies through sufficient purity and self-control. These then can neutralise the lower beings with a power of Light. Naturally, the last type is not only preferable but the work so done is also more permanent.

The lost knowledge of Tantra is now recovering, though in other forms more adapted to the scientific temper of our times. Reiki, pranic healing, working with body-energy and mind-energy, a study of the effects of thoughts and other vibrations upon the body and mind are examples of this. It is strange that for all the assault of our infant science, this grandmother of sciences is not dead. Rather, it is seeking rebirth through parapsychology and other such newer sciences. Physical science itself has entered the threshold of the occult and it would not be surprising if in time to come the old ghosts return in the garb of new names.

The two roads to the one solution

Before we move forward to a grand synthesis of all these diverse systems of Indian thought, we can just cast a look back. When we do, we discover that the practical side of Indian thought (with which we are more concerned here) can be broadly divided into two main categories. One, the more commonly known, is the way of knowledge or Vedanta with its child Yoga. The aim here is to rise above suffering by discovering some high station above and outside the sphere of our pain and suffering. By doing so, we may not be able to annul suffering or change the ground realities but we can surely rise above and transcend it. It is like a big spot becoming insignificantly small because the frame enlarges beyond anything we can imagine. This itself is a big gain and for many that is enough. They might say, let the stain remain, the imperfection of our earth-nature and its resultant suffering continue, it is enough that I can escape the psychological consequences. If others too do it, we can all collectively ascend to a level where suffering is not felt or experienced, even though all below may be disarray and strife. The other category is through the power of Shakti and its child Tantra. Here, there is an effort to understand the forces that create confusion and disorder, sickness and imperfection, suffering and pain. There is also some effort to conquer them, therefore it is also known as the veer marg or the hero’s path. But here too an inadequacy intervenes since power without knowledge is unsatisfactory. One cannot find the final cure if one does not know its ultimate origin. The perfect knowledge of the origin of suffering, evil and imperfection can alone lead to a radical cure of these things. In other words, in their highest station, Vedanta and Tantra, the highest knowledge and the supreme power are essentially one. But somehow that grand reconciliation has been missing. The vedantin, who knows but one half of the truth, simply dismisses the whole issue of suffering as an illusion without caring to find why this illusion was superimposed upon the Supreme Truth. The Shakta Tantric has the power but also misses the truth since he does not know how this fall into error and confusion arose and lacks the means to rescue the energies that have seemingly deviated from their true purpose.