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Spiritual Pathology


Rob Preece


In 1985 I returned from a period of five years living in India and began to train to become a psychotherapist. Gradually this training confirmed for me that our western psychopathology was sufficiently complex to require quite sophisticated understanding for its potential healing. It also confirmed my growing sense, through many years of connection to Buddhist centres, primarily in Europe and India, that many of us attempting to practice Buddhism often fail to address some of our key emotional difficulties. We may be genuinely trying to do so, but do not seem to shift some of our fundamental emotional wounds.


When I eventually began to work as a psychotherapist those who frequently contacted me wished to enter therapy because their personal problems were blocking the integration of Buddhist practice. Most wished to look at emotional issues they felt were deeply rooted in their childhood and which were difficult to unravel. Many felt the complexity of their problems were not resolved by their meditation practices or by the doctrinal views that tended to be generalised approaches to how to deal with the mind and emotions. What emerged in these therapeutic encounters was something that reinforced a concern that had been growing for several years - it is surprisingly easy for us to distort and colour our spiritual understanding by our own individual psychopathology. I use the term "spiritual pathology" to refer to the way in which our emotional wounds and beliefs have the power to influence, shape and distort the way we practice and view our spiritual path. Of particular importance is that we are often blind to this side of our nature, as these wounds live in the unconscious as our shadow. 


Although the term shadow comes from Jung and not Buddhism, its recognition is nevertheless crucial to Buddhist practice. If we do not do so we will remain blind to not only our failings but also to many aspects of our nature that lie unconscious and yet influence our life. The shadow far from being something to be suppressed, contains much of the manure out of which we grow. Failure to face the shadow will have one significant consequence namely that we will tend to distort our spirituality by our shadow's particular pathology and because the shadow is our blind spot we will be relatively unaware that it does so. 


For the most part our shadow is also held in the dark by denial and a wish to maintain status quo. It may be, however, that our emotional patterns are deeply rooted and form the very core of our identity. They may be so inaccessible to consciousness it is virtually impossible to take responsibility for them. They may equally be formed through a survival necessity that requires much understanding before we can willingly change. Our lack of awareness makes it extremely difficult to see what we are doing. If we were to wear coloured sun glasses all the time we would eventually become used to the tint they give to the world and no longer realise that all colours were distorted. So too our lack of awareness of the shadow blinds us to the ways in which we construct and distort our spiritual beliefs. Sadly when we do this we are living an illusion and using our spirituality to validate our own pathology. 


Working as a therapist has brought to light many ways in which occurs. For example a woman, whose approach to Buddhist practice had a strong puritanical edge, led her to fear almost compulsively any so called negative behaviour. She constantly monitored her actions of body, speech and mind so as to live as purely and correctly as she could. In principle this may have accorded with certain teachings she received on "thought training", but the psychological place this compulsion came from in herself turned it into a constant re-wounding of her sense of self worth. Another example was a woman who would continually sacrificed herself to look after others. On the surface this looked like a genuine compassionate selflessness. Her inner experience was however of a deep despair that she was only acceptable if she always gave herself up to others needs. Far from being a way of practice that brought her joy and peace of mind it was simply deepening her depth of despair and self-loathing. Her self-sacrifice was a form of self-abuse.


Individually we have personal responsibility for our spiritual distortions and self-deceptions and must at some point address the consequences of our actions. An example of an individuals capacity to turn his own pathology into a religion was extremely painful for me when I was younger. I was in a relationship with a woman who made friends with a man who was an experienced practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. He was very charismatic and lived with his wife and two children, having turned his home into a kind of Buddhist centre. He was a great follower of the Indian saint Padmasambava, who brought the Dharma to Tibet and who had two consorts one called Mandarava and the other Yeshe Tsogyal. My partner went to study with this man who had offered to be her teacher. She was very attracted to his rather theatrical charisma and gladly took up his offer. She went to stay with him and over a period of time started to learn more of his practice. 


It was on her return from one of her visits to him that I learned that part of the nature of her stay with him was that she would also be his lover. He had convinced his wife that this was important because the relationship he had with my girl friend was so special it was a deeply spiritual experience. Although it was painful for his wife, she agreed that part of the time he would sleep with my partner and part with her. When I began to ask my girl friend what was going on she told me that I should accept it as part of her practice in the same way that Padmasambava had two consorts. They both tried to tell me that I could never understand the spiritual heights to which they would go in their sexual relationship and that it was so pure there could not be any fault in it. My problems they insisted were because I was so attached and that I should really let her go to this higher love. In effect I was told that she saw him as her guru and as such she must be with him, irrespective of the pain it caused his wife or myself, after all pain comes through attachment. 


At some later point the man, who was increasingly presenting himself as a so-called Lama, wearing exotic robes and the regalia of a yogi, came to visit us. I was shocked and hurt one day when he came to me and said that he was going to sleep with my girlfriend and that I should allow it as it was good for my practice of generosity. If I should object it would show that my practice of Bodhicitta, the aspiration to always work for the welfare of others, was hopeless. I was sufficiently young, naive and feeble to take all this seriously and found I had no grounds to question the validity of what he was saying. Whatever pain I was in was entirely because of my attachment. He tried to convince me it was best for my practice and that his love of my partner was so pure and what they were doing was right.


I tell this story because it is typical of the kind of delusion we can conjure around our self-beliefs sufficient to create the conviction that we are entirely right in what we are doing. The grandiosity, for example, of this man made him utterly blind to the delusion he was caught in and the consequence of his actions. I was somewhat intrigued several years later when the same man came to me devastated because the woman had left him for another man. He wanted someone to talk to in his distress, and was surprisingly apologetic for the way he had treated me. I did not find it easy to contain my sense of vindication. 


It was Freud and later Erick Fromm who spoke of 'neurosis as a private form of religion' and that the power of religious movements and cults is that they give a collective validation to our personal neurosis. There can be little doubt that for many people the spiritual or religious culture they inhabit or generate around them reflects the nature of personal pathology. This is particularly evident when we consider the power charismatic cults have to lead their members to perform extreme and often self-destructive acts in the name of their beliefs. The mass suicide of cult members at Wako in the USA and the gassing of the Tokyo subway by the OM cult in Japan are perhaps the most prominent recent examples. When faced with the degree of alienation many experience in modern life, a religion or cult that offers some kind of refuge in a higher spiritual authority is very seductive. If we grow up with a sense of social insecurity, worthlessness or powerlessness, turning to a god or a guru and religious movement that offers security or salvation can be very comforting for a while. Unfortunately all too often there are those who are willing to exploit the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others in the name of spirituality. The fanaticism expressed by religious fundamentalists and terrorists is a terrifying outcome of individual fears and insecurities being swept up in collective hysteria under the guise of religion. 


One could equally say therefore that the spiritual institutions and belief systems we create for ourselves are often a rationalisation of our personal neurosis. This is not to say that spirituality per se is always an expression of pathology but that unfortunately our inner neurosis is often more powerful and less known to ourselves than we realise. Indeed it can be so strong that even the most clear sighted and authentic spiritual traditions can become subsumed under its domain. We can turn Buddhism into a reflection of our personal confusion and distort its essential principles. We can so easily place a veneer of spirituality over our personal neurosis and fail to recognise how our Buddhist life is flavoured by its pervasion. We can easily rationalise away our personal distortions and justify them to the point where we convince both ourselves and others of their validity. 


An example of this occurred during a discussion on the Buddhist view of reincarnation. One of the participants fiercely held the view that the principles of Buddhism could be practised without any need to believe in reincarnation. In principle he was right. What was particularly noticeable, however, was the emotional ferocity of his beliefs. His argument was very convincing, but behind it there was the level of emotional charge that seemed to be more significant. It was as though the rigidity of his belief was a defence against something very threatening. When asked how he might feel if he were to consider that reincarnation were true, he admitted it would be very frightening. It was clear that his rationalisation was a means to avoid having to deal with strong feelings of fear around death and whatever may happen thereafter.


Spiritual pathology is therefore both a collective and individual phenomenon. Individually we may be drawn to collective circumstances that unconsciously collude with our pathology. Collectively we may create institutions that have deeply rooted and extremely unhealthy pathology, which has become normalised so that we cannot see the extent of this malaise. It would be tempting to suggest that the existence of patriarchal religious traditions is a vivid example. The unquestioned power and authority of patriarchal figures and institutions even within Buddhism is a manifestation of such pathology validated for the maintenance of tradition and semi-political/spiritual power. When we look at the institutions created around spiritual teachers often the underlying emotional culture echoes pathology of the dysfunctional family, which to outsiders can be glaringly apparent. The idealisation of teachers combined with disciple rivalry, jealousy and vying for favour reflect strongly the psychological roots in parent-child dynamics. These may only become critical when some event occurs that causes disciples to actually question the nature of a teacher's role in the collective culture. This can be seen most strikingly when a teacher in some way abuses his or her position, at which point the underlying pathology often explodes the collective myth. 


Collectively therefore hidden pathology leads to cultural malaise that can be sustained for long periods until some process shakes its foundations. The cracks that then begin to appear in the veneer of health are often unable to be plastered over without a collective purge. Whether this purge leads to health or merely scapegoating is dependent upon the willingness of the community to address its shadow. Sometimes the disintegration of what has sustained a spiritual community does not enable it to survive. It could be said, however, that this is the healthiest thing that can happen, as there is ultimately little benefit in spiritual institutions that are founded on some fundamental delusion. 


Spiritual pathology has many faces and unfortunately some of these have become glaringly evident in recent years. No religion is immune to this shadowy tendency, and it would seem the potential for us to engender collective prejudice, hypocrisy even sectarian hatred in the name of religion seems limitless. It seems to be a tragic fact of life that when we scratch the surface of religious movements we find beneath all kinds of pathology that has been hidden. The institutions of Buddhism are unfortunately not immune to these failings and individually we are also part of this problem. Unless we are willing to face the reality of our disposition to distort our spirituality into a shape that suits our personal pathology we can so easily perpetuate delusion in the guise of spirituality. It would be wrong to cling to the idea that Buddhism has some immunity to this tendency because it does not. Buddhism is as reliant on the individual's integrity to look at themselves, face the shadow and take responsibility for it as any other religion. 


We can, however, live with integrity so long as we seek to uncover our emotional blind spots and challenge assumed beliefs and accepted practices. We can trust the integrity of spiritual communities so long as we search for the places where we have created institutions that have become corrupted by narrow-mindedness and dogmatism or simply havens that collude with our pathology. We can begin to trust our spiritual guides so long as we are willing to challenge teachers who have become inflated by power or blind to their fallibility; and so long as we wake up to self-deception. Anything less is surely to break the very heart of the Buddha's search for truth. 




Spiritual Pathology is taken from The Wisdom of Imperfection published by Shambala Publications. For further information or comments contact:


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