Why The Therapeutic Needs The Spiritual And Vice Versa And Why They Both Need Philosophy

Think of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, the founder and head abbot of Mount Baldy Zen Center, among many other Zen centers. To many of his male students, he was intuitively insightful. During a particular one-on-one (Sanzen), I’m told, one student who’d never met Joshu before heard Joshu say to him, “There is no God.” And: “Stop praying to God.” The student in question had been raised a Christian and had still, without telling anyone, been praying to God. Amazing, right? It was not that Joshu was anti-Christian; it was that petitionary prayer presupposed the kind of duality that Zen rejects. To say that these statements were, for this student, intuitively insightful is to make an extraordinary understatement. For other male students too, Joshu was said to be a most excellent teacher.

Yet Joshu, who lived to 107, was also embroiled in controversies stemming from a burden of evidence that has, since his death, continued to grow. Many women have come forward to report that he had sexually abused them. Many, many women. How could it be, Zen practitioners have asked, that someone as enlightened as Joshu could have acted so cruelly–so consistently cruelly–to so many women?

I am currently interviewing people for a story I’m writing about new religious and spiritual schools. Two such are the Monastic Academy (Vermont and California) and the Luminous Awareness Institute (California). Both aver that classical enlightenment is not enough (here see the case of Joshu just discussed: an enlightened man who hadn’t investigated his psychological blindspots) since both see that there are shadows and traumas that may go unresolved owing to what, in these circles, has come to be called “spiritual bypass.” Therefore, it can be rightly said that spirituality needs certain therapeutic or psychological modalities.

True enough. Yet we can also run the argument in the opposite direction. On its own, talk therapy presupposes the existence of a separate self that simply needs to learn how to cope better with its thoughts, feelings, memories, and so on. If the client thinks, “Something is wrong with me,” the therapist can help her see that there’s nothing wrong with her. If he thinks, “I’m worthless,” the therapist can get him to see that he has worth. If she is prone to unhealthy beliefs, the CBT therapist can get her to respond to her unhealthy beliefs with more rational thoughts. And so forth. Sounds good, you ask, so what’s the matter with this approach? As Advaita Vedanta teacher Stephen Wolinsky makes plain, the therapeutic can actually reinforce and perpetuate the sense of a separate self. Both thoughts–“I am worthless” and “I have worth”–assume that there is a separate self having those thoughts. While, according to a psychological developmental story, it can be charitably said that it may be necessary for someone to come to believe that he has worth or that he isn’t inadequate, to stop there in one’s journey would be a grave mistake. The one who stops there is not even close to halfway home.

Hence, the psychological needs the spiritual where the spiritual, as Nisaragadatta suggested, could be defined quite simply, yet very demandingly, as finding out who you really are.

This dual proposal, then, is that the spiritual needs the psychological (to “clean up” where there are shadows, traumas, etc.) and the psychological needs the spiritual (to “wake up” so that one goes beyond the illusory separate self). But we shouldn’t stop here, however.

For the philosophical can perform a number of functions that would otherwise be dangerously neglected. I name just a few in what immediately follows. For one thing, it can teach us to engage in ongoing ethical deliberations about what is to be done and to make fine-tuned moral assessments about what has already occurred. In so doing, it can provide the needed rational accompaniment to the non-discursive spiritual and to the emotionally charged psychological. For another thing, it can engage us in political questions of the form: what is wise leadership at a monastery or at an organization? No spontaneous answer to a Zen koan can help us even begin to grapple with questions such as this, and Zen’s authoritarian tendencies have yet to be fully scrutinized. For a third, it can provide us with greater conceptual clarity. What is a map of “spiritual experience” (to use Ken Wilber’s language)? What, really, is the self and no-self? Finally and most importantly, it can teach us how to be wise.

If the spiritual is concerned with our waking up and if the psychological is focused on our growing up (this too is Wilberian language), then the philosophical is committed to our wising up. We need all three. And more.