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.