QUESTION: Recently, I have been studying the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj with a renowned spiritual teacher. I know he is someone you hold in high praise and consider to be the real deal. I have read your piece for Namarupa about him. The person that I am studying with via a webinar (you should do some!) is also a genuinely awake person. Here is my question: what is the demarcation between psychology and spirituality? The teacher believes, or so I understand, that a person should work towards awakening and then see what needs addressing psychologically. That is to say, if one awakens and there is not identification with “I” - where will the neurosis be? Or the need for doing psychological work? Could you shed some light on this topic?

ANSWER: Such a great and important question. At the same time, a can of worms being opened, as there are so many opinions on the topic. For those of you who are not familiar with Nisargadatta and want to know more, one of the first blog entries on this site is about him and his life. Nisargadatta is someone who became fully enlightened three years after meeting his teacher, not a common occurrence. 

Nisargadatta’s main teaching revolved around watching the sense “I Am". Not thinking about it, not repeating a mantra of it, but sensing it. Reality, our true nature, is just behind that sense, he asserted. In his book, I Am That, over and over he repeats that teaching for over 500 pages. While his audience many times ask questions that have to do with daily life, his stance was always the same: find out your true nature and see if these other issues are still present when you have realized it. He was adamant about the fact that there is no need for “self-improvement”, just remembering our true nature. To quote him directly: “Nothing you do will change you, for you need no change. You may change your mind or your body, but it is always something external to you that has changed, not yourself. Why bother at all to change?”

So here is a valid approach that trumps psychology and states that spiritual understanding is all we need. In my own personal as well as clinical experience, I have and continue to find a simultaneous use of both disciplines beneficial. Ramana Maharshi compared the different types of personalities seeking enlightenment with paper, charcoal, and coal in the face of fire. The paper would light right up, the charcoal would take longer but would eventually catch, and coal or wet wood would take the longest and would take even more effort. We have to be clear about where we lie in that analogy and what the impediments are to our burning.

The Nisargadattas and Ramanas of this world are paper. Most of us fall in on the charcoal to coal spectrum. Emotional pain, and the ensuing neurosis, can be a part of what keeps us from catching fire rapidly. Let’s say one has had a traumatic childhood and suffers from exceeding anxiety as a result. This would make it quite difficult to quiet down enough to sense the “I Am”, since we all use internal and external movement as a way of drowning out the anxiety. Through the use of therapy/bodywork/trauma work we can help heal that aspect of ourselves, which would, in turn, give us more inner room to be able to contemplate our true nature.

For some, the level of psychological dis-ease is so great that daily survival is the best one can do. Spirituality is not and can not even be on the screen since much energy goes to being defended against daily life. To make matters more complicated, many of us turn to spirituality as a salve for our emotional woundings. On top of that, awakening does and can happen at many stages for most, not a one-shot deal. A common occurrence is the abject terror that can arise as the fallacy of the ego is revealed. In my own experience as well as observing of others, unresolved early trauma can make this part of the journey quite painful as well as keeping us stuck for some time. Lastly, our hyper-individualized and busy culture gives us many more avenues for distraction than even several decades ago. There are a myriad of avenues for us to keep ourselves distracted as a response to our inner wounding. So this is the argument for doing the psychological work. The approach here is not self-improvement, but rather a deepening of healing, a softening of the ego that leads to deeper self-awareness. From a spiritual perspective, this is a step, not the end of the line. It can be easier to sense the “I Am” from this place of relative reduced inner turmoil. But of course, our egos are tricky business and can find all manners not to face their fallacy/limitation.

Instead of either/or, we can do both. Spirituality and psychology can be mutually inclusive and complement each other. The psychological work, if needed, can help clear blockages - which, in turn, can lead to a quickening of the spiritual work. The spiritual work can ensure that we do not get stuck in some narcissistic loop of mental overexamination and lost in stories of the past. I will end by saying that if we are sincere and earnest (Nisargadatta’s words) about awakening, it will come. Always. It is our destiny.