For the past fifteen years I have focused a great deal of my efforts on developing methods of what may be termed spiritual therapy. Spiritual therapy is an interesting field: it applies principles from the world of mystical enlightenment to processes of psychological release.
Notable examples of this type of therapy are Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, Buddhist Psychotherapy, and Byron Katie’s The Work. I myself have created several techniques of spiritual therapy, such as the Expansion Method, Power Psychology, Chakra Psychology, the Seven Heart Powers, and the Light of Positive Emotions. When you think about it, utilizing principles of spiritual transformation for successful psychological processes makes a lot of sense: self-realization is, in essence, the knowledge that ends suffering. As such, it naturally contains aspects of emotional and mental transformation and deeply penetrating healing.
But why, you may rightly ask, have I undertaken this task of producing complex therapeutic methods? Why is it important at all to have available forms of therapy on one’s spiritual path?
The Buddha did not go to therapy
In the ancient traditions of mystical enlightenment, there was no therapy. As far as we can tell, no monk or hermit ever felt the need to reconnect with the inner child, heal past traumas, learn to accept him- or herself, or disentangle the complex relationship with his or her mother.
One major reason for the absence of therapy in the ancient traditions is the fact that these traditions had been conceived long before the humanistic approach emerged and placed humans at the center of attention. Back then, the individual’s internal and intimate world was far less important. One’s inner world was perceived as consisting of impersonal forces such as desire or anger, which were often considered to be manifestations of deities or forces that work through humans. Just think of the Greek demon Eros as the representation of our sexual desire, or the Sitra Achra (the evil forces) in mystical Judaism which threatens to drag us into the darkness of our evil inclination, or the demonic Mara who “visited” Gautama Buddha while the latter was fiercely meditating during the night of his awakening.
In this pre-psychological worldview there was also no room for the extremely modern idea that the origin of people’s suffering is in trauma or childhood wounds – things that others did to them. The causes of suffering were the acts of the individual him- or herself: the desires they followed blindly, the harm they caused others while attempting to fulfill these desires, and the sins they committed toward the deities or God.
The second reason for the absence of therapy is the fact that the process of self-purification was inseparable from the spiritual practice itself. The path naturally included effort and self-overcoming, the cultivation of a non-egotistical motivation (for example, practicing and living for the sake of others), moderation and renunciation of attachments. This means that individuals went through purifying psychological processes without the necessity to label them as such. To this we should add the severe ethical laws and vows, required by any enlightenment tradition, which also acted on the individual as an intense purifying force.
Nowadays we live in a very different era: one that devotes tremendous attention to the person as the center of his or her own universe – their unique feelings, emotions, memories, and identities. Every hurt, pain or difficulty is highlighted as if by a magnifying glass. In this climate, the process that once was one has become divided into two: the spiritual and the psychological. Since most spiritually dedicated people practice relatively little and do not really lead a complete mystical way of life, the spiritual path doesn’t seem to encompass the psychological dimension of their existence. As a result, spiritual practitioners tend to feel that they have to go through self-healing processes in addition to their spiritual path.
The co-existence of these two paths is often a source of confusion, since it is no longer so clear whether someone who seems to be on a journey of transformation truly strives toward transformation or is actually engaged in a self-healing process. To be honest, much of our current spirituality, even when it appears to be transformative, is therapy in disguise. Consequently, most spiritually inclined people find it difficult to tell the difference between, say, having self-acceptance as your ultimate goal and working your way toward the state of non-self (anatta).
Therapy and the new spirituality
Still, the question remains: why do I toil over the creation of therapeutic methods that only support the split between psychological and spiritual processes? Why am I not content with the traditional approach that heals the psyche by means of practice, belief, myth, and ethical instructions? To answer this question, I must first raise one crucial point.
The ancient forms of spirituality were concerned with – perhaps even obsessed with – liberation from the world. You can identify this obsession everywhere you look: in the Hindu and Buddhist ideal of the cessation of rebirth, in the Jewish “world to come,” or in Plato’s “pure dwelling place” to which the philosophers, who released themselves from the earth’s prison, ascended never to return. The final destination of the fully devoted mystical path was always clear: shaking off the shackles of the physical body and being redeemed as a free spirit in some way or another.
This spirituality, I believe, is no longer relevant. That’s not to say that all of the incredible teachings and techniques we find in ancient traditions have become less incredible. The problem lies in the narrative of the human journey that these forms of spirituality have to offer us: their cherished myth. In our modern times, it is quite odd to think that being reborn as a human is sheer disaster. For this reason, I feel that we should establish a spirituality for the 21st century, a new mystical way of life that is not wholly invested in planning how to escape this life but one that gives up entirely on the very idea of ever abandoning it. This type of spirituality would arise from within life itself, imbue it with mystical depth and meaning, and enable it to flourish and expand as a fully justified spiritual reality.
At present, we don’t have this kind of spirituality at all. For the spiritual aspirant of the 21st century, there are only two paths available: ancient spirituality (in upgraded forms, translated into modern language) or New-Age spirituality. The first is glorious but entangled in an outdated myth, and the latter is too often therapy or wellbeing in disguise. We are missing a new myth, a metaphysical vision and an ethical direction of a spirituality that is truly relevant for our current humanity. Of course, the core of mystical enlightenment – the revelation of the unity of life and the non-separation of subject and object – remains exactly as it has always been. But now even this revelation should become attached to a new meaning, just as it is already difficult, and even impossible, to conceive of a spirituality without additional supportive healing processes.
Here the significance of spiritual therapy – a therapy that is deeply rooted in spiritual values – finally enters. If we want to form a spirituality that no longer escapes life but wholly embraces it, we must forge a psyche that no longer seeks to flee and that is not intimidated by life as it is. We require an unbreakable psyche that is bigger than life’s challenges – big enough to uproot the “no” to the experience of life itself that is so deeply ingrained in our collective subconscious.
We are never fully here
It seems to me that we all share, as a part of humanity’s collective subconscious, a profound resistance to the experience of life. This resistance keeps us in a state of constant split, forever having one foot in one foot out, wishing to be and not to be at the same time. Yes, we are all here – physically and, to a limited degree, also mentally and emotionally – but deep down we harbor the dream of escaping our reality to somewhere else, whether it is some point in an imagined future, an alternative world in which everything that should have happened or should happen becomes fulfilled according to our vision of perfection, or another dimension which transcends human existence altogether and guarantees absolute redemption.
This fundamental resistance to life’s experience is also, I believe, the reason that we still avoid taking full responsibility for our existence on this planet, and instead lead ourselves, almost hypnotically, toward an ecological disaster of frightening magnitude. We are still not completely here, because in our heart of hearts we keep on fantasizing about a haven, an undefined time or place where life’s challenge is no more. We find it so extremely hard to accept the real world as it is – terrible and wonderful, overwhelmingly demanding and inconceivably wondrous. We still reject the tough realities of our life, and this rejection makes us want to run away.
This desire to run away, to make a leap to a transcendent existence where there is no challenge or difficulty, stems from the smallness of our psyche, the sheer powerlessness of the human heart in the face of the enormity of life, its pressures and upheavals and the many moments in which it either threatens to thwart or to remain indifferent to our hopes and yearnings.
This is why we need therapy in the spirituality of the 21st century. Not the type of therapy that preserves our sense of victimhood and reinforces our identity as the wounded self, but one that has the power to put an end to all that, one that could radically rehabilitate the roots of our psychic perception of the world and equip us with the resources we so desperately need to finally unite with life. Only spiritual therapy can do that for us, since it is grounded in the limitless enlightened state which provides us with the greatness of being necessary for a total embrace of life as a whole. This is not therapy for consolation and healing but a life-affirming, empowering therapy whose foundation is the enlightened realization that we are not wretched souls moaning under life’s heavy steamroller – we are life itself.