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When I first encountered Zen in the 1960s, I found myself particularly drawn to the mysterious satori—that moment of seeing into one’s own true nature, when all the old blinders were said to fall away. In such a moment, I imagined, one became an entirely new person, never to be the same again. I found the prospect of this kind of ultimate realization compelling enough to turn my life in that direction.
Yet along the way I also discovered something I was not prepared for: that spiritual realization is relatively easy compared with the much greater difficulty of actualizing it, integrating it fully into the fabric of one’s daily life. Realization is the movement from personality to being, the direct recognition of one’s ultimate nature, leading toward liberation from the conditioned self, while actualization refers to how we integrate that realization in all the situations of our life. When people have major spiritual openings, often during periods of intensive practice or retreat, they may imagine that everything has changed and that they will never be the same again. Indeed, spiritual work can open people up profoundly and help them live free of the compulsions of their conditioning for long stretches of time. But at some point after the retreat ends, when they encounter circumstances that trigger their emotional reactivity or their habitual tensions and defenses, they may find that their spiritual practice has hardly penetrated their conditioned personality, which remains mostly intact, generating the same tendencies it always has.
Of course, realization has many levels, from temporary experiences to more stable attainment. Yet even among advanced spiritual practitioners, certain islands—unexamined complexes of personal and cultural conditioning, blind spots, or areas of self-deception—may often remain intact within the pure stream of their realization. Some would say that these shadow elements are signs of deficiency in one’s spiritual practice or realization, and this is undoubtedly true. Yet since they are so common, they also point to the general difficulty of integrating spiritual awakenings into the entire fabric of our human embodiment.
In the traditional cultures of Asia, it was a viable option for a yogi to pursue spiritual development apart from worldly involvement, or to live purely as the impersonal universal, without having much of a personal life or transforming the structures of that life. These older cultures provided a religious context that honored and supported spiritual retreat and placed little or no emphasis on individual concerns. In Asia, yogis and sadhus who had little personal contact with people could still be venerated by the community at large.
Many Westerners have tried to take up this model, pursuing impersonal realization while neglecting their personal life, but have found in the end that this was like wearing a suit of clothes that didn’t quite fit. Taking on the challenges of a fully engaged personal life—finding right livelihood in a complex materialistic world, being involved in a committed intimate relationship, dealing with the social and political concerns facing us at every turn—inevitably brings up unresolved psychological issues. For this reason, Western seekers may also need the help of psychological methods to help them more fully integrate spiritual practice and realization into their lives.
For most of my career I have explored what the Eastern contemplative traditions have to offer Western psychology. Yet more recently I have also become interested in a different question: How might Western psychological work serve a sacred purpose, by helping us to integrate our spiritual insights into our everyday lives? In its ability to shine light into the hidden nooks and crannies of our conditioning, psychological inquiry can serve as a powerful ally to spiritual practice. It can help break up the hard, rocky soil of our personality patterns so that this soil becomes permeable, allowing the seeds of spiritual realization to take root and blossom there more fully. Of course, this kind of psychological work would require a much larger understanding and aim than conventional psychotherapy, whose focus is on pathology and cure rather than transformation.
Psychological and spiritual work address different levels of human existence. If the domain of spiritual work is emptiness—unconditioned, universal, absolute truth—the domain of psychological work is form—our individual, conditioned ways of experiencing ourselves and the world—or relative truth. Spiritual practice, especially mysticism, points toward a timeless trans-human reality, while psychological work addresses the evolving human realm, with all its issues of personal meaning and interpersonal relationship.
My initial interest in psychotherapy developed in the 1960s, at the same time as my interest in the Eastern spiritual traditions. At first I imagined that psychotherapy could be the Western version of a path of liberation. But I quickly found Western psychology too narrow and limited in its view of human nature. As I became more involved in Buddhism, I went through a period of aversion to Western psychology. Now that I had “found the way,” I became arrogant regarding other paths, as new converts often do. I was also wary of becoming trapped in endlessly processing emotional issues. But in my newfound spiritual fervor, I was falling into the opposite trap—of refusing to face the personal "stuff" at all. In truth, I was much more comfortable with the impersonal, timeless reality I discovered through Buddhism than with my personal life. Compared with the peace and clarity of sitting still and following the breath while resting in the open space of awareness, my personal feelings seemed messy and entangling.
Yet in studying Tantric Buddhism, with its respect for relative truth, I began to appreciate aspects of Western psychology in a new light. Once I accepted that psychology could not describe my ultimate nature, and I no longer required it to provide answers about the nature of human existence, I realized that it had an important place in the scheme of things. I also found that my own personal psychological work helped me approach spiritual practice less encumbered by unconscious agendas.