Chakra Discussions

Breaking Through the Shell: Psychoanalysis and Bhakti

by Narayani dasi

Posted November 26, 2007

When I considered writing on this topic, I thought to myself that no one will probably want to read it, and may even be indignant, and ask: "What do you think we are -- nut cases?" "Oh, yes!" would be my answer. "Every one of us is a nut case, in that we need to crack through a hardened shell to get at who we really are."

The most common answer to that would be: "I already know that -- a servant of the Lord!"... which implies, in analysis, a host of intrinsically profound and intensely exalted qualities, all of which are inherent in the soul, which is, so to speak, the nut itself.

All of this goes to prove the uselessness of empty clichés in the attempt of "breaking the shell," for that so-called argument is self-defeating.

Nevertheless, I still hear my objector, now with his indignation replaced by a air of untouchable sanctity: "Only the Lord can show me the way. I'm at His mercy."

That's indeed true, for: "In every millennium the Lord appears where there is trouble for the devotees."

How does He appear and how do we recognize it? "One can know the Lord by His activities, such as lifting Govardhana Hill."

However, the Lord is present in two ways: through vapuh or personal presence, manifested by extraordinary activities, and also through vani or instruction.

Logically, if there is no one doing such things as lifting a mountain with a finger, and yet we still experience trouble, we should look around for symptoms of His guidance, which is of the nature of light. Of course, this does not mean physical light, like that of a bulb or even the sun, but light within the mind, which is reflected through the senses: "...all the gates of his body are illumined."

I believe that it is narrow-minded and sectarian to limit such luminaries to our own tradition, or even to the tradition of theological thought and philosophy, for without appropriate self- realization or reflection on the nature of self, theological thought and philosophy can digress into a merely intellectual exercise, for those that are intellectually capable, or to dogmatic cliches, as in the case of people who mouth philosophical propositions but have no capacity for logical synthesis. Thus, the first chapters of the Bhagavad-gita deal primarily with the subject of self, but it is meant to open doors, rather than be reduced to memorized verses that have little meaning, undigested.

In this respect, psychological insights can have more power than philosophical ones to unravel truth that is hidden by the power of the mind to invest in illusion. It was an astute observation from Srila Prabhupada that "the mind is the greatest friend - or worst enemy." How can one fight an enemy unless one knows it? Particularly one should know the weaknesses and strengths of the enemy. Psychology reveals the weaknesses of the mind that turn it against the best interest of the self and that thus make its evolution out of matter impossible.

For example, even though we know that "power corrupts," that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" and that performing devotional service to get power over others is simply enchaining oneself and others in samsara bondage, it is impossible to overcome or even to perceive such hunger for power within one's heart, unless one can expose its roots. This is due to the power of the mind to rationalize or accept what is actually a weakness as a strength, or what is immoral as moral, by putting it through a series of logical errors (example: "I am doing this for Prabhupada", though Srila Prabhupada expressed, as one of the founding principles of ISKCON, to do away with exploitation. The motive for this passion to rationalize or avoid exposing oneself to inner truth is the root of which I am speaking. To put it another way, perhaps more clear: just as a disease in the hidden root of a plant can be observed in the leaves, so a hidden cause in the centre of our psyche can result in manifestly unhealthy symptoms, such as an insatiable appetite for power.

This hunger for power is but one of a long list of symptoms that can result from being once a child who felt particularly helpless, insecure and insufficiently protected. Rather than receiving love, acceptance, having one's needs listened to and being empathized with, one might have experienced instead orders from one's parents to "be quiet" or "do as you're told". It is not uncommon for a child to be punished by his parents simply for expressing his feelings through crying and so on; in fact it is often considered "good parenting". Yet it is dehumanizing and gives the child a clear message that repressing one's feelings -- which is arguably the cause of all psychopathology -- is "good", and that to the extent that one can repress one's feelings, one becomes acceptable. Thus it is not only in illegal forms of parenting, where the abuse is clearly perceivable, but in socially acceptable forms, that great harm is done.

At this point it is necessary to give "credit where credit is due," for it was the psychoanalyst Alice Miller who perceived this connection and its devastating effects on the capacity to be human, resulting in estrangement from others, inability to communicate meaningfully, a lack of empathy and, in extreme cases, total sadism, the heartlessness of the Third Reich. Her books Breaking Down the Wall of Silence and others are giant steps forward towards a therapeutic process of psychology that is personal, and acknowledges the spirit in the psyche that is inherently loving, in contrast to Freud, who viewed love as simply a burdensome sublimation of libido, and who recommended therapy to be detached and analytical.

Prior to Miller, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was very instrumental in personalizing and in spiritualizing psychotherapy in this way, necessarily eventuating in a view that was in direct opposition to Freud, one that was therefore considered outrageous and presumptuous by his fellow colleagues, and that resulted in his losing his position in a prestigious institute, and the financial and social security thereof. Fromm perceived that industrial civilization requires and indeed produces dehumanized and emotionally repressed individuals who are trained from the crib to be "acceptable" and "convenient". Thus it is possible, even if one receives a thoroughly loving childhood and thus survives with his capacity to feel, reflect and connect with others unimpeded, which is rare in modern society, it is modern society itself that could still depersonalize the individual and turn him into a " labor asset." Under the circumstances, those who are groomed from the start to be acceptable have the greatest likelihood to be reduced into neat and quiescent, unfeeling and non-objecting cogs in the machinery of industry, but it is at the price of their humanity.

One may ask how all this analysis of causes results in the freedom of spirit, and it will not; it will indeed remain on the intellectual level if one is unwilling to confront these roots as they are being exposed. If both Fromm and Miller are correct, then we have to not only confront the evils of our economic system but also of our evil, but socially acceptable conceptions about parenting, which are indeed something we have more direct control over, particularly if we are entering into this milestone. For the rest of us, without exception we have all been through the parenting experience already -- that of our parents or guardians -- and to continue to repress what we experienced as small children, so that we can idealize our parents in a socially acceptable way, only forces us to express those repressed feelings in ways that do us, and those we love, much damage.

The difficulty in confronting this root, in particular, is far greater than confronting the evil inherent in industrialism, to which one can take a more cerebral, detached position. It is socially unacceptable to assign guilt to one's parents; one is after all supposed to honor them, there being even a religious commandment that supports this supposition. However, the result of idealizing a person who once dehumanized oneself is to continue one's life dehumanized, unable to establish or develop love and empathy and everything else that is human and inherent of the soul. Our most spiritual qualities will then remain out of our reach. Furthermore, asserts Miller as a consequence of her research, one will necessarily act out the horrors that are hidden within, such as by displaying that dynamic towards one's own children. Only if what is hidden and repressed within the memory is brought to the surface, into the light, and in the light of truth, seen for what it is -- not the result of an enlightened philosophy of child-rearing, but the dehumanization of the soul, can this cycle of vice be culled. Otherwise, in the very least, our past will continue to haunt us and cover our ability to cultivate the exalted qualities of the Vaisnava, for which we most ardently aspire.

To put it into a linguistically acceptable form: there are many anarthas or unwanted things in the heart, and it is very difficult to perceive them, as they are buried deeply in the subconscious. When they manifest themselves they are often dressed up and rationalized in various ways, so as to appear to be manifestations of the real bhakti plant and thus acceptable, or manifestations of a parenting philosophy that has also become socially acceptable (for the worst crime in our society is to be not accepted.) It is painful to confront them, or pull them up by the root, but only by doing so is our soul of bhakti able to grow freely, and exhibit the symptoms of profound empathy and love that is intrinsic to love of God, and love of God itself.

Why is it that we do not make use of psychology for this purpose? It is only our fear and narrow-minded sectarianism that makes us believe that we cannot learn from others. Alternatively, it may be a total ignorance of our philosophy, which hinges tightly on the concept of yukta vairagya, utilizing material energies for spiritual awakening. For this reason, beginning with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, even motor vehicles have been used to assist in awakening others, through preaching and book distribution. The idea is "why re-invent the wheel?" It is not only the gross material energies, however, that can be dovetailed for higher purposes. Few would disagree that the mind and heart must also become so aligned, but many find it too hard to do so, and are surprised that chanting does not magically "clear away the dust." They disregard that only chanting in the mode of goodness or pure goodness yields positive results. The other types of chanting and performing devotional service have mixtures of motives and thus the effects are mixed. It is exactly for sorting out this mixture and the helpless confusion of various motives, some rational, most irrational, that the science of psychology has been developed.

I have mentioned so far only two authors, but there are others, such as Rollo May, who display profound understanding of the nature of spirit and the chains that bind it. All of these books have a combined capability to strengthen our inner world and help us see, think and love without illusions. They are not meant to replace our spiritual practices, but to aid us in our bringing those practices onto a higher level, where they become more than ritual, an expression of the soul, imbued with unfettered love.