On Psychology

A developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan, says a fundamental theme of human growth unfolds in moving from being to having.  It is the movement from thinking “I am my impulses” to “I have my impulses.”  Or “I am my needs” to “I have my needs.” Or “I am my feelings” to “I have my feelings.”  Or “I am my beliefs” to “I have my beliefs.”  Or “I am my relationships” to “I have my relationships.”  Or “I am my work” to “I have my work.”  When my sense of self is intimately bound to my impulses or needs or feelings or beliefs or relationships or work, then I will perceive any challenge or obstacle to these as a threat to my very self.

Children from ages of about two to five tend to be their impulses.  This is especially apparent in toddlers who can go from being happy to sad to nervous to happy within a short span of minutes.  They’re moods can shift so rapidly because they tend to automatically act out their impulses.  Part of growing beyond this life-stage involves the child “disembedding” herself from her impulses.  This process eventually allows her to reintegrate herself with her impulses as something she has rather than something she is.  Gaining inner distance from her impulses is necessary in order to gain some control over them.  Otherwise the child will remain controlled by them.

Fundamentalists and ideologues of all stripes tend to be characterized by thinking they are some belief.  Since no one can know everything, these beliefs are inevitably oversimplifications about life.  Problems develop when oversimplified views of life are pushed and applied as total explanations about everything.  Questioning an ideologue’s core beliefs typically provokes heated and defensive overreactions, because such questions are perceived as attacks on their very self.  An ideologue cannot think clearly about his core beliefs, because he cannot gain enough space between his self and his beliefs in order to view them with some objectivity.  They may not even be able to state their beliefs very clearly if they’ve become so intimately bound up with them.

You can imagine how fusing oneself to other aspects of one’s life can be problematic.  If I fuse myself to certain impulses or needs, then I may act them out in harmful ways and struggle immensely to gain balanced self-control over them.  If I am my emotions, then my sense of self will fluctuate with the ebb and flow of my feelings, perhaps dramatically so.  If I fuse myself to my significant relationships, then I’m at risk of plummeting into some dreadful depression if one of my significant relationships fails.  And if I associate myself with my work, then losing my job or retiring will likely trigger an existential crisis.

Human development, according to Kegan, involves disembedding oneself from one’s impulse, for example, and then reintegrating one’s impulses as something the self relates with.  So impulses, needs,  feelings, beliefs, relationships, and work are still very important aspects in the life of a mature person.  But how a mature person relates himself to these will greatly differ from how an immature person does.



On Psychology

Much of modern psychology assumes an individual’s highest need is personal autonomy.  Hence becoming a mature human being requires becoming a fully independent person.  Independence surely is a great need in the course of human development.  But is it the greatest need?  And is it the highest goal?  I wonder if becoming independent is a penultimate need, which prepares an individual for her ultimate stage of development: surrendering to a transcendent good beyond herself.

Surrendering before that which is transcendent arouses profound questions in the human heart.  Is the universe hospitable or hostile?  Is life for me or against me?  Is existence basically meaningful or senseless?  Everyone holds answers to these questions deep in their being, formed through years of life experience.  And perhaps some answers are mixed.  Some answers may be so discomforting that they’ve been pushed down to inaccessible recesses of the soul.  Whatever they may be, our deeply held beliefs about the very nature of life will regulate all other aspects of our being: our thoughts, feelings, motives, memories, imaginings, relations, aims, and concerns.  Belief is hardly irrelevant to psychology.  Belief may be most relevant, for belief provides basic parameters and concerns which orient the rest of an individual’s psychological life.

An individual can only surrender himself to something transcendent if he’s first developed a self to surrender.  Some religious individuals unfortunately try to surrender themselves to God without forming much of a self to surrender first.  Making a habit of this can sadly stunt lifelong growth, prematurely trapping an individual in a underdeveloped stage of human existence.  This is really only a problem, though, if surrendering to God is seen strictly as a onetime event, a onetime transformation, instead of a perpetual process of becoming.  Full human development may be a multistage, upward movement of developing oneself and surrendering oneself, followed by developing oneself and surrendering oneself, repeated over a lifetime.  A truly mature person will be able to look back on her life and see multiple stages of change, likely marked by transitional periods of upheaval and crisis.  For living in new ways involves dying to old ways.  We must learn to grieve our losses if we are to live and die and be reborn.

Grasping our need to surrender in our hyper-individualistic age is challenging.  Powerful forces from all sides pressure us to always think of ourselves above all else.  Pursuing my individual choices, expression, and comfort is assumed to be the greatest, if not only, good in life.  “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”  These words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. haunt our isolated, modern souls.  How could they possibly be true?  The more exiled I become within myself, the more doubtful his sentiment seems.  But my greatest fulfillment is to be found in willingly giving myself over to a transcendent good that is greater than me.

On Psychology

I cannot accept the idea that “the world would be all right if we could just get rid of those people.”  Depending on the position, those people might be conservative, liberal, progressive, socialist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, gay, heterosexual, transgender, male, female, white, black, urban, rural, educated, uneducated, rich, poor, or virtually any “other” identifiable group.

Any version of this outlook is wrong on so many levels.  It assumes “evil has a group, and it’s not mine.”  It sees evil as “something out there” or “something in you“—but never “something in me.”  Hegel referred to this attitude as the “Beautiful Soul Syndrome.”  The Beautiful Soul cannot stand to see his own imperfections and evil tendencies.  So he conveniently projects evil onto other people.  He says “They are the evil people!  They are the problem!  If only they would think like I do, and believe like I do, and live like I do—then evil would be gone and all would be well!”  The Beautiful Soul blames the evil on those people because he cannot own the evil within himself.

“Splitting” the world up into good people and bad people may help us defend ourselves against facing some harsh reality of good and evil within us.  But Peter Rollins points out that, as with any psychological defence, habitually “splitting” the world up into good people and bad people is harmful in the long-term.  Defence mechanisms allow us to go on with life even when we cannot bear accepting something that is real and true.  We oversimplify what’s true in the short-term in exchange for some relative mental calm and stability.  But we gain our peace of mind at the cost of knowing the whole truth.

Left unchecked, we may develop a wayward appetite for untruths from habitually relying on psychological defences.  When we “split” up the world into moral and immoral groups, we tend to form a high view of ourselves and a low view of “others.”  Such a simplistic anthropology is not simply untrue—it’s dangerous.  Splitting, taken to extremes, motivates atrocities.  One’s group is seen as righteous while outsiders are seen as evil.  “Others” can become so demonized that committing evil acts against them may even be justified in the name of the good.  “But the line dividing good and evil,” writes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Only when I can own my reality, can I see your’s more clearly.  If I cannot see myself, then I cannot see you.


On Psychology

David Burns defines Emotional Reasoning as “tak[ing] your emotions as evidence for the truth.”  Its implicit logic is, “I feel it, therefore it must be true,” according to Burns.  Emotional Reasoning can contribute to many mental health issues.  Depression can worsen by coming to the global conclusion that “everything is hopeless and futile,” based on feelings of despair.  Anxiety can intensify from concluding, “I am unable to handle life’s challenges,” based on feelings of fear.  In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Emotional Reasoning is a type of “cognitive distortion,” which is an irrational habit of thinking that can contribute to patterns of emotional distress and unhealthy living.  There is a growing culture of offence that’s largely guided by Emotional Reasoning.  In extreme segments, its logic is revered as sacrosanct.  Questioning it becomes blasphemous.  Anyone who cares about pursuing truth or mental health—which really go hand in hand—should be concerned by these trends.

Emotional Reasoning says things like “I am mad at you, therefore you are a bad person.”  “I am upset by your question, therefore it must be inappropriate and offensive.”  “I am outraged by your opinion, therefore it must be wrong.”  “I am hurt by your comment, therefore it must be insulting.”  Variations of “I feel it, therefore it must be true” are practically endless.  But the underlying logic remains consistent.  Even though its logic goes like this, people rarely say statements like these out loud.  Typically someone simply justifies a reactionary opinion by revealing she was “offended” or he was “distressed” by whatever is being reacted against.  Emotional reactions are used as legitimate reasons for forming strong opinions and judgements.  Simply feeling offended is used to justify moral indignation and outrage, as if that were enough.  And I dare not question the validity of someone’s feelings.  For in a culture where individual choice, expression, and comfort are granted sacred status, questioning a person’s feelings in any way whatsoever is sacrilege.  Indeed, if the greatest purpose and goal I can pursue is to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain, then anything that makes me feel discomfort is surely evil.

I am certainly not against emotions.  I am actually a very emotional person.  For better and for worse, I’m prone to being touchy, sensitive, and emotionally intense.  One thing I’ve learned is all emotions need to be welcomed and honoured—even dark and difficult ones.  Emotions make life colourful and vibrant.  And dark, discomforting emotions tend to reveal the areas where I am in need of the most profound inward transformation.  Properly facing and listening to my guilt or shame or fear or anger or hatred can be terrifying.  But that is exactly where the greatest healing and growth lies.  The pathway beyond difficult emotions runs through them.  Ignoring, denying, and suppressing emotion will surely make you sick, in one way or another.  Becoming emotionally healthy, aware, and integrated takes some serious courage and commitment.  And it takes time.  Especially if we have developed dysfunctional habits of suppressing or spewing negative emotions in harmful ways.  But the work is worth the effort.

Emotions are indeed a type of intelligence.  They contain knowledge and information about our lived experience.  But translating the messages emotions send us is not as straightforward as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”  Especially since we may have learned to join certain emotions with faulty thoughts and beliefs and interpretations about life and others and ourselves.  This means our emotions often aren’t simply emotions.  They can carry whole packages of opinions and even world-views too.  We can easily overlook what beliefs we have associated with our emotions if we don’t listen to them carefully.  The real problem with Emotional Reasoning is precisely that it involves forming judgements based on emotional reactions, which are often already laden with unexamined, unconscious beliefs and views that may not be strong enough to withstand conscious scrutiny.

Feeling offended or distressed or outraged by something sends a definite message.  Feelings are true inasmuch as they exist and try to tell us something.  But feelings become increasingly associated with beliefs and values and goals as we mature through life.  So when I feel offended, it is a signal that I should first ask myself, “What belief or value or goal of mine is causing me to feel offended?”  And then second, “What reasons and evidence do I have for holding the belief or value or goal?”  Maybe I’ll discover some solid reasons and evidence for holding it.  Maybe I won’t.  But I will never adequately justify my emotional responses or my beliefs if I simply say, “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”  Feelings are not unquestionable gauges of truth, nor are they sacrosanct.

On Psychology

What is the relationship between psychology and spirituality?  This question could be answered from multiple angles.  It could be addressed from historical, philosophical, or empirical angles for example, or first person, second person, or third person perspectives.  My interest is to address this question primarily from a first person “phenomenal” view.  More specifically, my interest is in understanding psyche and spirit as they exist and relate within human experience.  So other questions could certainly be asked and pursued outside of my chosen scope.  Here my goal is simply to explore some understandings of the relationship of psyche and spirit within the interior life of human nature.  And in order to understand something of their relationship, we first need to understanding something of what they are.

One challenge involved with defining “psyche” or “spirit” is that these words have a long history through which they have taken on various meanings and concepts.  Since their etymology and conceptual history is not my primary concern, I will simply note that the following definitions exist within broad and longstanding historical traditions of knowledge.  Also, exploring the nature of our interior life and experience is a subjective science (and is there really any other kind for that matter?), which means that psyche and spirit as they exist within human experience could be defined and mapped out in differing ways.  Findings should therefore be evaluated in ways that suit the subject matter and research methods.  Since I am taking a phenomenological approach, check what I present against your own subjective experience.  Bearing these two things in mind, what is the nature of psyche and spirit within human experience?

“Psyche” is a word that can be translated as soul or mind or even spirit in some instances.  Psychology is therefore literally “the study of the soul,” although modern definitions tend to define psychology as the study of the human mind and behaviour.  Even cursory research on meanings of “psyche” or “soul” show that the words have some flexibility depending on the context of their usage.  In the context of human experience, David Benner has helpfully defined soul as the totality and depths of a person’s inner life.  Soul accordingly includes an individual’s cognitions, affects, intentions, imagination, memory, desires, longings, self, identities, consciousness, unconsciousness, and more.  Whatever is within a person’s inner life is within their soul.

What then is the nature of spirit in human experience?  Spirit likewise has some linguistic flexibility.  “Spirit” has been historically associated with that which enlivens, vitalizes, animates, and electrifies the human being. It is the force, the energy, the power that courses through every living person. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the word ruach, which can be translated as “spirit,” can also be translated as “breath” or “wind.” Indeed, spirit is often associated with the principle essence of life itself.  Ruach is as close as our breath and as prevailing as the wind. In regards to human experience, “fire” has been a common symbol for the human spirit throughout the ages. It is an image that highlights how our inner desires can be unquenchable and enflaming. How they tend to burn and spread within us, always consuming yet never ceasing. This burning fire can be viscerally sensed at a primal level.  So our spiritual life (which is kind of a redundancy, like the phrase “chai tea”) is that basic energy which enlivens us and expresses itself most profoundly through our vital desires, longings, and appetites.

The core of human spirituality as such lies in our basic energies and desires.  “Spirituality,” according to Ronald Rolheiser, “concerns what we do with desire. It takes its root in the Eros inside of us and it is all about how we shape and discipline that eros.” Spirituality involves how and what we devote our life to, and why we devote our life to whatever we do.  While we may be able to distinguish psyche and spirit, these conceptions would have them intimately interrelated and interactive, existing within the integrated biopsychospiritual whole that is our human makeup.  So with this groundwork in place, we can circle back to our initial question: what is the relationship between psyche and spirit within human experience?

Benner has described soul as the “womb of experience” and spirit as “fire in the belly.”  Elsewhere he has said that psychology, properly speaking, involves the “structural” whereas spirituality involves the “directional” aspects of human nature.  Some (ultimately inadequate) analogies may help clarify the interrelationship between psyche and spirit in human experience further still.  We might imagine spirit as electricity and soul as the software of a computer.  Electrical power is required in order for a computer’s software to function.  And without electricity and software a computer is nothing but a combination of physical parts and pieces.  Or spirit and soul could be likened to the gasoline and inner-mechanics of a car.  A car needs both gasoline and mechanical assemblies working together to drive.  Likewise, the human spirit is the source of our life and energies.  Spirit is that which vitalizes and animates and empowers us.  And spirit thus exists in intimate interrelationship with our soul and body.  Spirit enlivens so our soul may encounter the rich contours of our embodied life and inner experience.  Our embodied souls may interface with reality because of the life-giving power of the spirit.

Now the interactions and interdependence of body, soul, and spirit in human life, makeup, and health is far more dynamic than any of these analogies suggests.  A computer or a car are comparatively simple humanmade machines.  Imagining body, soul, and spirit as interdependent elements of an ecosystem can be helpful in understanding their overall interdependence in human life and health: dysfunction in body, soul, or spirit can have an adverse influence on the others aspects of a person, whereas healthy functioning in body, soul, or spirit can have a positive influence on the others aspects of a person.  Hence body, soul, and spirit form a dynamic interaction in the integrated makeup of our human nature.

The terrain surrounding questions to do with psyche and spirit has many hidden land mines.  So some additional concluding comments are needed to address some of these.  Since we cannot see or smell or touch or test experiential phenomena like biochemical phenomena, at best we can describe the nature of our inner experience by way of analogy.  Reductionist sciences may object to the legitimacy of this approach.  Only what can be perceived with our five senses really exists according to materialist orthodoxy.  Thus our inner experience is somehow less real than our biological selves or the exterior world.  One of the most recent fads in this movement is to reduce psychology to neurobiology.  In other words, your subjective psychological life is nothing but epiphenomena of your objective neurobiological functions.  According to extreme versions of this view, our subjective experience is nothing but an entertaining picture show we passively watch because our free will is in fact an illusory fiction.  This amounts to nuerobiological fatalism: we are at the mercy of ours brains.  And the full implications of such a reductionistic secular determinism are truly vast and devastating.

Viktor Frankl claimed that “the true nihilism of today is reductionism … Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness; today nihilism is camouflaged as nothing-but-ness.  Human phenonmena are thus turned into epiphenomena.”  Hence psychology is nothing but neurobiology.  Or biology is nothing but chemistry, which is nothing but physics, which is nothing but bits of matter in motion, which is ultimately pointless and goalless and purposeless—end of story.  The point here is simply that this questionable ideological reasoning is sometimes invoked to challenge the legitimacy of “soft sciences.”  While neurobiology and inner experience are undoubtedly correlated it is doubtful that inner experience is nothing but accidental processes of neurobiology.  And incidentally, even the theories and paradigms of the so-called “hard sciences” are laden with metaphors, images, and analogies that are often taken for granted.  We simply can’t think much without them.  Surely some will still choose to see our incredibly rich and mysterious inner life as nothing but an ultimately arbitrary causal series of biochemical brain states alone, but that is a highly dubious conclusion.

On Psychology

Have you ever heard or thought any of the following?  “Muslims are terrorists.”  “Black men are gang members.”  “Priests are pedophiles.”  “Americans are rednecks.”  “Catholics are guilt-ridden.”  “Asians are bad drivers.”  “Jewish people are greedy.”  “Ancient people were stupid.”  “Women are emotional.”  “Christians are gay haters.”  “Men are rational.”  “Atheists are deceived.”  “Canadians are eskimos.”  “Religious people are delusional.”  I shudder at even writing these ridiculous falsehoods, but they raise some seriously pressing issues.

Thoughts or rhetoric like this tends to commit the same sloppy error: they over-generalize to a point that they subtly imply all ___________ are ___________.  Whether we do or do not consciously intend to imply this, loose rhetoric and thoughts have the power to imply this regardless of our intent.  And this power should be respected because it can shape our perceptions and actions.  Anyone familiar with some basic theory of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will also see these stereotypes for what they are: irrational thought distortions.  We begin to get a whole lot closer to the truth when we learn to simply replace the word all with some, which can in and of itself radically alter our perspective, allowing us to think with nuance instead of lazy and ultimately false generalizations.  This has less to do with what is politically correct than it does with what is simply true.  We may even eventually discover that our opinions are nothing more than a false prejudices when we form better mental habits.  At the very least, we become more open to learning the truth of about people by not pre-judging them with stereotypes and labels.

Sometimes, unfortunately, we may actually prefer to hold onto certain comfortable prejudices because they protect us from facing some uncomfortable truths.  They may not always be as blatantly false as the abovementioned stereotypes either.  Sometimes they’re subtle.  Though the small-mindedness and fearfulness that inevitably results narrows our perceptions of reality, including the reality of others.  We can sadly end up interacting more with our own internalized pictures of others or reality than with others or reality.  We encounter this when we’re on the receiving end of other peoples strongly held misjudgments.  Its harder to notice though when we are the ones doing the misjudging.

Each of us knows deep down that encountering the truth can be disruptive and disorienting, which makes believing in pleasant falsehoods all the more appealing.  But we cannot truly know someone simply by a broad label they identify with.  Not only that, often what we think this Muslim or that Christian must believe mostly reflects our own opinions and projections about what we believe Muslims or Christians believe.  Mis-projections can even be traded between people who apparently share the same belief system.  Sometimes we prefer pigeonholing over pursuing authentic encounters.  But that is a dangerous habit of mind.  This is why being genuinely curious and open to others—no matter who the “other” may be—is so crucial, unless we prefer to remain trapped in the echo chambers of our own misunderstandings.


On Psychology

A person’s identity is formed from their unique identifications.  In other words, we form our identities from where and what and who we identity ourselves with, individually and collectively.  A person’s identity is also shaped by how they identify with wherever or whatever or whoever they identify with.  So identity can be complex.  Take me as an example.  I am a Canadian, I am a Kingstonian, I am a Coburn, I am a Christian, I am a humanist, I am a mystic, I am a husband, I am a young adult, I am a writer, I am a pilgrim, I am a friend, I am a son, I am a brother, I am a dreamer, I am a student, I am an imperfect person, I am a beloved child of God, I am a seeker, I am a man, I am a human being, I am a member of the human race.  I might add that I am involved with religious community or that secular cause because I identify with the values or ethics or goals or visions collectively shared by the members of this or that community.  And I could include more, but you get the idea: our identity is composed of the places, people, relationships, work, aspirations, causes, stages, ethics, leaders, communities, traditions, and such that we in some way identify our self with.

Unfortunately sometimes we form and hold our identities in such a way that we assume that people with different identifications than ours must be lesser or wrong or ignorant or deceived or evil or whatever other negative prejudices we can conjure up to flatter ourselves.  Sometimes this has to do more with how we hold our own identity than with what our identity includes.  For example, when I say that I am a Christian, some would immediately assume that also implies I am against muslims and gay people and liberals and this group and that group and the list goes on.  “Christian” here represents an identification of what I would be against more than an identification of what I would be for.  Not only that, “Christian” is frequently assumed to be an exclusionary kind of identification that necessarily competes and conflicts with other identifications.  Often these are unfortunate and mistaken assumptions, which I realize are frequently perpetuated by Christians who define themselves by who and what and where they are against.

Creating an identity out of multiple identifications (which, in reality, everyone does) can help prevent the formation of a rigid, divisive individual or group identity.  I may identify myself as a student of the way of Jesus while also identifying myself as a member of the human race.  So when I encounter a person who does not share my particular Christian identifications, I can at the very least still commonly identify with them as a fellow human being (and even though this hypothetical person may disagree with me about the following, I can also choose to see them as a fellow brother or sister, as a fellow beloved child of God).  Not only that, in this example I believe that my particular Christian identifications and commitments challenge me to actively strive to treat others with unconditional love and respect, inasmuch as I am imperfectly able to, regardless of their own unique identifications.  This form of Christian identity can in fact be highly complimentary and inclusive.

The God I see revealed in the life of Christ is for everyone, sometimes even in shocking ways, always actively and unconditionally seeking the good of others, whoever the “other” may be.  Therefore I should be for everyone as a student of Christ.  As Christ has done, my beautifully simple yet incredible task it to strive to love others actively, unconditionally, freely, not choosing who is deserving and who is not deserving, but offering my love as a gift without conditions to whoever will receive it (And honestly, sometimes I recoil at even the thought of this, let alone expressing it to others—especially to those who know me—because I am acutely aware of my inadequacies and fears, of how truly small my love can be, and yet I will keep trying and stumbling and dreaming and hoping, pressing forward but sometimes slipping back, with the eyes of my heart ever-fixed on the goal, though I digress).

Point being, there are rigid fundamentalists and ideologues of nearly every possible identification and label, and there are open and spacious and flexible individuals of nearly every possible identification and label too.  The difference between the two styles of identity is sometimes not as much found in what an individual identifies their self with as how they hold and relate their self to their identifications.  Insights from developmental psychology are helpful here.  David Benner, a depth psychologist, has written a fascinating book, Spirituality and the Awakening Self, which presents a model of human development that includes the broad stages of a body-centered self, a mind-centred self, a soul-centred self, and a spirit-centered self.  For example, a person whose sense of self centres in their mind may be more apt to exhibit more restrictive ideological tendencies in comparison with a person whose sense of self centres in their spirit, which allows them to form a more spacious personal identity.  Surely cognitive and affective understandings of human development would also shed light on these differences that exist in the progression of human identity as well.