SPIRITUALITY AND PSYCHOLOGY
With FRANCES VAUGHAN, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is psychology and spirituality, and my guest, Dr. Frances Vaughan, is a clinical psychologist, and the author of several books, including The Inward Arc, and Awakening Intuition. Frances, welcome. It's a pleasure to have you here.
FRANCES VAUGHAN, Ph.D.: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Jeff.
MISHLOVE: You write extensively about spirituality in your work, and as a former president of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, you really have an extensive professional interest in the interface between spirituality and psychology. This is an area which fascinates many people, and also confuses a lot of people -- I think because spirituality is often associated with so many dogmas. What is the role of psychology, as opposed to the role of religion, in helping people to develop spiritually?
VAUGHAN: Well, the way I see it is that traditional psychology tends to take a very dim view of spirituality, because psychology tends to see many people trying to avoid issues of personal confrontation by turning to spirituality.
MISHLOVE: Sort of head-in-the-clouds, airy-fairy, avoiding-the-gut-feeling kind of criticisms.
VAUGHAN: Exactly. Finding a kind of escape from the existential realities of our mortality, our aloneness, and the human condition. In other words, a lot of times psychologists will see spirituality as a kind of escapism, or something that people believe in in order to make themselves feel better.
MISHLOVE: Conversely, it almost seems to me that you have a lot of religions describing psychology in those same terms. The Fundamentalists feel that psychology is sort of a fantasy, that they're avoiding the real issues.
VAUGHAN: Exactly. So that they tend to take that view, an oppositional stance. Traditional spiritual teachers, for example, or traditional religions, often see psychology as simply concern with the ego, selfishness, and they fail to see the value of that in terms of personal growth or healthy personal development.
MISHLOVE: Or at least not dealing with real values.
VAUGHAN: Yes. So I think there's a lot of education that needs to happen on both sides, because in fact I see them as complementary aspects of human development, both of which are necessary for wholeness and for real healing in our lives. I feel that there needs to be a lot of bridging work between the two, so that people don't feel that they have to choose either a psychological discipline or a spiritual discipline, but that in fact both are important.
MISHLOVE: In your work, what I've noticed is that you've drawn from many traditions. You've looked at the Christian spiritual path, you've looked at Zen Buddhism, you've looked at yoga and a number of others in your writings. You seem to be saying that they all point in the same direction, don't you?
VAUGHAN: Well, I like the analogy of truth as a mountain, with all the different religious paths as different approaches to climbing the mountain. You see many different paths up the mountain, and when you're down in the lower slopes, you may argue about the shape of the mountain. But the more you work on it, and the further up you go, the more you see that there's a convergence -- that there are certain values, for example, that tend to be common to all different traditions, and that even though different paths provide different experiences along the way, I feel very strongly that there is a universal experience of self transcendence that's possible, and that in fact this can be very healing for people. It can have a very positive effect in terms of their psychological development, if such an experience is appropriately integrated.
MISHLOVE: A universal quality of self transcendence. That's sort of putting it in a nutshell, isn't it? How does that translate, say, to a therapy practice, when you're working with someone?
VAUGHAN: Well, in my practice I find that sometimes people seek me out because they know I have a transpersonal orientation, and particularly if they've had some kind of experience that has opened up some spiritual issues for them, or perhaps if they've been practicing meditation and they want to talk things over with someone who has an understanding of the practice and what those experiences might be like. Or they may have had some kind of spontaneous opening, and had an experience of self transcendence that they want to make sense out of, that they want to integrate in some way.
MISHLOVE: Is it something that people need to seek? I mean, if a person came to you and they were having marital problems, or some other type of conventional psychological problem, and they don't have a thought about spiritual experience, is there any application there?
VAUGHAN: Well, my experience is that it depends how deeply people want to do inner work, because often people will come into therapy seeking relief for some kind of interpersonal stress. Some relationship issue is very common, for example -- either a marital problem or a breakup of a relationship. But sooner or later I think everyone has to confront themselves, and very often in relationships we tend to think, "Well, if only the other person were different, then everything would be all right." But ultimately I think we have to take a look at what we're contributing, and how we can make a difference in terms of the quality of relationships that we have in our lives. As soon as we start to do this, as soon as we look at how it is that our state of being or our state of consciousness affects the relationships that we tend to bring into our lives, the patterns that we find ourselves repeating --
MISHLOVE: Can you give me an example of this? Is there an illustration, maybe, to make it a little more concrete?
VAUGHAN: Yes. For example, I recently have been working with a woman who is in her second marriage. She separated from her first husband because he had a problem with alcohol, and she felt that it was all his problem. Well, she found that she was recreating similar patterns in her second marriage, and the second time around she didn't want to just leave. She wanted to stay in the relationship and work through some of her own issues.
MISHLOVE: In other words, she thought she might get rid of the problem by getting rid of the first husband.
VAUGHAN: Exactly. And of course it never works, because as soon as you get rid of a relationship you find that you either recreate a similar relationship, or you have to deal with the same issues in yourself.
MISHLOVE: It's like Pogo who once said, "We have found the enemy and he is us."
VAUGHAN: Yes, and I think that that's one place where spirituality and psychology converge, because we recognize that we're all mirrors for each other in some way. I see, for example, that in some way all of my clients reflect aspects of myself. I can empathize with them, because I know how it feels to be in the kinds of situations that they describe.
MISHLOVE: That's almost essential for a therapist, really, isn't it?
VAUGHAN: Well, I think it's something that's really available to all of us -- that the more we're willing to look at ourselves and understand the dynamics of the way the mind works, the more we realize that these are really universal patterns, and that people everywhere have to deal with issues of love and fear and anxiety about loss and facing death. And often it's just at these times, when people feel some kind of crisis in their lives -- maybe facing their own mortality or the death of someone that they're close to -- that's when spiritual issues become really meaningful and important.
MISHLOVE: Now in the case of this particular woman that you just mentioned, how did she begin to look at spiritual issues?
VAUGHAN: Basically it was a question of values in her life -- what were the things that really were most important to her? What she came to see was that in order to really love her partner, the person she was with, she also had to take herself into account. This is often true -- that it's not a matter of either loving oneself or loving someone else, it seems to be both. Both are necessary. So I sometimes think of spirituality or spiritual disciplines as teaching us to forgive others, and psychotherapy as a way of learning to forgive ourselves.
MISHLOVE: That's a very interesting distinction. In your work you sort of describe the self as if it were an onion, with different layers. There's an existential level of the self, there's an ego level, there's a transpersonal level. Could we go through the onion a little bit, and see it from your eyes?
VAUGHAN: All right. I like to use the image of concentric circles, because I think that as we become more conscious and more aware of the nature of the self, the sense of self expands, so that when we're afraid, or when we're unwilling to be in touch with the world around us, our sense of self gets constricted and smaller. First of all, I see it in a developmental framework. I see that we are usually primarily identified with the body, the physical self. Then we also become aware of our feelings. We get a sense of the emotional self, the mental self, our thoughts about feelings. We even start to think about thinking.
MISHLOVE: So the first three layers would be physical, emotional, and mental.
VAUGHAN: Right. And those have been mapped by Western psychology very thoroughly. The areas that haven't been mapped so clearly are the ones that go beyond ego. That is, the ego is generally referred to as what we think we are, the ideas about our identity in terms of roles and relationships.
MISHLOVE: The mask or the persona.
VAUGHAN: Yes, that's part of it. Then the existential self is what we generally get in touch with when we become concerned about authenticity, when it's not enough to have a good image, or to play a role, but it really matters if you feel that you're authentic -- a sense of integrity, a sense of choice, a sense of having your inner experience match your outer expression, so that there isn't that split between the two. This would be a sense of a healthy existential self.
MISHLOVE: A good deal of contemporary psychology begins and ends right there, I suppose.
VAUGHAN: Oh yes, and I have great appreciation for the contribution of the existential psychologists, such as Rollo May, James Bugental, and some of the people who have really pointed out the importance of coming to terms with the existential issues of value, meaning, and purpose in our lives. Then there's another area, though, because with the existential view we're only isolated, individual, separate entities in the world, existing usually in a state of alienation in our lives.
MISHLOVE: It reminds me of Camus' famous book -- Nausea, I think.
VAUGHAN: That was Sartre. But both Camus and Sartre gave us a good exposure to that point of view.
MISHLOVE: Camus and Sartre and Genet -- the sense one gets from these existential writers is that when you really get in touch with life as it is, it will make you sick.
VAUGHAN: Because the ultimate reality there is the idea that we're separated and alone. However, it seems to me that there's another side to experience which is just as valid, which is that we're all connected, and that yes, we all have the experience of being separate and alone, but we also have the experience of being connected -- to each other, to the environment -- and that we're not just independent, we're also interdependent. So that as soon as we start recognizing how we all exist in this intricate network of mutually interdependent relationships, then I think that we wake up to the possibility of another kind of awareness that transcends the existential separateness.
MISHLOVE: So we're moving beyond the existential here. I would think of this as sort of a systems approach, where we're beginning to look at networking.
VAUGHAN: Yes, exactly.
MISHLOVE: Seeing human beings as analogous to cells of the body. The social structure could be thought of as like a body in that sense. But it's also transpersonal.
VAUGHAN: It is, and it's what Ken Wilber has called vision logic, which is looking not only at ideas and how beliefs affect experience, but also at networks of ideas, and how we become more creative in terms of the way we view ourselves and the planet as a whole. It's a more global view, if you will, which tries to take into account not only the individual in isolation, but also in relationship to the larger whole -- both in relationship to the society, as well as in relationship to the environment.
MISHLOVE: Frances, you're an expert on intuition. You've written a book on intuition. When we get beyond the existential self, the agony and the loneliness -- I'm thinking of the creative process. How many artists do we hear about who struggle, and they experience this alienation, and then they have this breakthrough, and what comes out of it is the music of Mozart, or of Wagner, the great creativity. Now, that's not the same as what we've described as this networking phenomenon of people. That's a different level also, isn't it?
VAUGHAN: It is a different level, and I think that intuition is often associated with inspiration and insight. Again, it's a kind of self transcendence, in that something seems to come through us, rather than being a product of something that the ego invents. In other words, once we learn to be quiet, to quiet the mind -- this is where we can learn something from some of the Eastern disciplines, is that learning to quiet the mind opens up all kinds of creative possibilities. That seems to be something that psychology needs to investigate, I think, in more depth. And also that what we believe to be true about this process tends to become true in our experience.
MISHLOVE: We create our own psychology.
VAUGHAN: Well, we certainly create our own inner experience by our beliefs about it. So I think that it's an appropriate task for psychology to investigate these experiences, and to understand more the role of beliefs in generating our experience, and also in terms of what it means for psychological health.
MISHLOVE: How do you define the term transpersonal? I think we were getting at it, and I've added this dimension
-- we've discussed intuition, creativity, and the sense that there's a larger part of us that's not totally separate, that we're connected with other people. Am I missing something?
VAUGHAN: Well, literally we say transpersonal means beyond the personal. But it also, I think, refers to the transcendental, as expressed in and through the personal. So that it's the link between the personal and that which is transcendent. Again, it's a psychological view of spiritual development, rather than a religious point of view, so that transpersonal psychology doesn't espouse any particular religious orientation, but it tries to understand the universal human experience that leads to different paths of exploration.
MISHLOVE: Transpersonal psychologists have been accused, say, by the existentialists such as Rollo May, of being advocates of religion, and not practicing psychology at all. You know -- your clients come to you and they meditate in a full lotus posture; you really should be wearing orange robes or something, instead of a business suit. How do you respond to that?
VAUGHAN: Well, that's not my experience at all, as the way I see it, and I've certainly had the opportunity to talk to a lot of transpersonal psychologists, actually all over the world. They are indeed psychologists, and some of them have a particular religious affiliation, and some do not. But I don't know that any of them would try to convert anybody or impose their beliefs on their clients. Functioning or working as a psychologist means, I think, maintaining a certain objectivity, if you will, or at least putting the client's interests ahead of your own, whatever your beliefs may be.
MISHLOVE: There's this enormous movement in so-called modern psychology, that is everything we do as psychologists must be scientific; it should be researched, it should be experimented, and we should never go beyond the bounds of what the experiments say, as scientific psychologists. And yet as I read your writing and the writing of other transpersonal psychologists, the sense is that the science that you're looking to is not experimental science, it's the accumulated wisdom of people who have practiced meditation and spiritual disciplines and have reported phenomenologically on that.
VAUGHAN: Well, I think that we do need more investigation. I think that more research would be an excellent contribution to the field -- in fact that's something where there's a lot of work to be done yet. But in fact there's considerable data to say that there are methods of training awareness, of training the mind, that have worked very well in other cultures, that we could learn something from.
MISHLOVE: It's almost as if I could describe you in a way as a psychologist's psychologist. I mean, for people who have mastered the Western traditions -- the scientific literature, the existential, the social, all the issues of alcoholism and child abuse -- and now they're looking for something more in their lives. They begin to wonder about the spiritual dimension, and yet for many people in the modern world, religion is unpalatable to them. Do you sort of serve as a substitute priest in that sense?
VAUGHAN: In a sense perhaps that's so, because I think it's too bad that if a person doesn't feel comfortable with conventional religion, that they should not have the opportunity to do the inner work, and to find out for themselves their own connections to that inner source of wisdom, or that sense of relatedness. It may or may not be a sense of connection to God. It depends. Some religious traditions, such as the Zen Buddhist for example, are not theistic at all. Nevertheless they have a lot to contribute to spiritual development and to values in one's life.
MISHLOVE: I recall reading a Carl Sagan novel recently. He describes the Buddhist practice as saying the Buddhist God is so great he doesn't even need to exist.
VAUGHAN: Well, I think we get into a question of semantics, whether we talk about God or no God. The same thing happens in psychological language, talking about the self and no self. We do sometimes have experiences of oneness which might be called experiences of the one self, and sometimes we have experiences of the void which might be called experiences of no self. So I think that we need to be careful not to get too bogged down in oppositional language, because I think we are talking about a universal experience, or the potentiality for it anyway.
MISHLOVE: In your work you've had a chance to study the phenomenological, personal, autobiographical reports of mystics of many different religions, and you've come to realize similar patterns, I think.
VAUGHAN: Yes, I think there are certainly universal experiences. I always like to look for the transcendental unity of religions, that from a psychological perspective I sort of take the psychological viewing frame. It seems to me that we can't not take some type of viewing frame if we're going to say anything at all. So we need to speak in a particular language, and as soon as we say anything we're already taking a position. It seems to me that psychological language offers a way of exploration and investigation that is not already predetermined by a long tradition of particular religious views.
MISHLOVE: You know, one of the most intruiguing areas in the interface between spirituality and psychology is the notion of kundalini -- that perhaps some people who we would define in our traditional Western sense as going crazy, having a nervous breakdown or a psychotic break or becoming schizophrenic, from another perspective may be experiencing a spiritual awakening, a spiritual breakthrough. Is this part of what you deal with in your practice?
VAUGHAN: Well, I think the real issue here is to say, what happens when you have an experience that you can't account for in terms of ordinary psychology, if you will? I think there are two possible hazards here. One is to pathologize experiences that might in fact be an opportunity for a larger, expanded sense of self.
MISHLOVE: They have these categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for psychologists which say if you can't think of anything else, it's some form of undifferentiated schizophrenia.
VAUGHAN: Right, and I don't think that's always true. But on the other side, there's also the hazard of romanticizing all experiences that are in some way involving the dissolution of ego boundaries as being breakthroughs or transpersonal.
MISHLOVE: God intoxication.
VAUGHAN: Yes, and I think there are both kinds -- there are breakdowns and there are breakthroughs, and that as psychologists we need to know the difference.
MISHLOVE: How do you do that?
VAUGHAN: Well, there are definitely certain characteristics that are typical, say, of prepersonal experiences and characteristics typical of transpersonal experiences. The prepersonal, for example, are generally regressive and they generally have a lot of fear associated with them, and there's the sense that the reality that's perceived at the moment seems to be the only possible reality. There's a sort of constriction of consciousness.
MISHLOVE: You use the term prepersonal?
MISHLOVE: What does that mean?
VAUGHAN: Well, when we take a developmental frame, we talk about prepersonal development -- that's before you've become fully self aware of your own ego identity. We talk about personal, and then transpersonal. So that I think one of the confusions is between the pre and trans.
MISHLOVE: In other words, a prepersonal kind of break would be one where I'm really regressing back to when I was, say, eight years old, because something incomplete occurred at that time that I have to go back to. And that's not the same as a real spiritual breakthrough.
VAUGHAN: No, that's the trouble. There's a confusion between the two, I think, and that's probably a very important area that needs further documentation and investigation so that it can be clarified, but I think that we're really on the way to doing that.
MISHLOVE: In the transpersonal area, though, sometimes I should think it would be hard to tell. I read a book by an Eastern guru, Meher Baba, in which he talks about the mad Musts, or God-intoxicated people, who can't tie their shoelaces, they can't dress themselves, and their disciples come and feed them. The disciples somehow recognize these people are very holy; their consciousness is lost in God. But to another person they might seem to be severely retarded.
VAUGHAN: Well, I think that we need to take the cultural differences into account here, and when we're talking about a developmental approach, we're talking about expanding consciousness into higher states. Now, we differentiate higher states from altered states, because altered states are simply other states, other than our ordinary waking state, and that might include this God intoxication that you're talking about. Higher states include all of the faculties of the ordinary waking state, plus additional faculties, so that they have a noetic quality; that means that there's a sense of deeper knowing and understanding. Usually the affect is one of loving kindness, and the motivation that comes out of these experiences tends to be one of service in the world.
MISHLOVE: What you seem to be saying, Frances, is that people who are experiencing these higher states have integrated the transpersonal level into their lives, and they're really functioning with -- what comes to mind is someone like Helen Keller. They're more than just average or normal; they're able to inspire other people and motivate and share with people a sense of enthusiasm.
VAUGHAN: Yes, I think that's true, but I also think that it's available to all of us, and that we all have moments, if not days and times, when we tap into these states. I think that that's what we need to remember -- that we all have access to that source of transcendent wisdom within ourselves, if we're willing to take the time and give it the attention that it deserves.
MISHLOVE: To recognize those moments, to catch that spark.
MISHLOVE: Well, Frances, it's been a pleasure sharing that transpersonal spark with you. Thank you very much for being here.
VAUGHAN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure for me too.
Top of this Web Page