When I was young I was told a fascinating story.
The anecdote involved famous psychologist Carl Jung and a Pueblo Indian elder who concluded that “white people” were insane because they always looked troubled and restless, and forever seemed to be in a hurry:
“They say that they think with their heads . . . We think here,” Antonio said, indicating to his heart.
In my own experience of changing cultures numerous times in my life — from South America to India and now Australia — and witnessing countless lives and paths unfold, I have observed the same thing. There is a striking difference between the mentality of the East and the West and everything marked as “spiritual” in particular has been hyped and mass-marketed. Self-fulfillment has been portrayed like a yellow-brick road that will take us to “enlightenment”: something on par with Las Vegas with its neon flashing lights, beauty, and unbounded joy.
But although we have been taught that doing yoga, drinking green smoothies, saying affirmations and meditating every day will help us become liberated, something vital is missing.
The Truth About Our Spiritual Self
We live during a time where teachings concerning “personal growth” and “spiritual development” are so prevalent that most have been diluted and watered down into a basic structure that is easier to understand. The typical result is a more superficial, “feel-good” approach to self-development that is often ineffectual for the most part, not bringing about significant or long-lasting changes.
This cheapening of the whole idea of spiritual awakening reduces the notion to a fad and a trend that can have serious consequences. One of the most powerful examples that I have witnessed in my life was that of a man I once met who had suffered a loss in his family. Even after 20 years of meditating and practicing all kinds of “spirituality” he still entered a severe depression that lasted years and took a long time to heal. But why was this so?
Meditation, obviously, wasn’t enough — and neither were many of the other spiritual practices he tried.
These days many modern spiritual practices (including meditation in particular), work on the simple premise of “If you do this you will get that,” presenting a kind of “101 things to do” instruction manual that describes all the benefits and feel-good bonuses, without mentioning any of the much deeper and significant blocks you will experience on such a path. Such blocks include subjects like our Shadow Selves, Core Wounds, Soul Loss and Core Beliefs. So while we are meditating and come across these heavier topics (as regular meditation practice will cause us to), what are we to do? What do we do with all of these “serious” discoveries?
The natural outcome is that, instead of becoming whole human beings as we are supposed to be, we end up dividing ourselves into our “Higher Selves/True Selves/Soul” that contain all of our feel-good, lovable aspects, and out “Lower Selves” that contain all of our gross, shameful and darker aspects. It makes sense to think that if we concentrate on our Higher Selves and avoid our ordinary, Lower Selves we can maybe reach a more Awakened Self.
Unfortunately, the meditation practice — like many others — can continue the myth of the divided self; the inner duality that considers our basic human condition as sinful, flawed and not good enough. Thanks to the mindset that we should only focus on exploring our “higher selves,” we eventually start rejecting or running away from any part of us that we consider idealistically imperfect, continuing to fracture ourselves in the process.
For this very reason it is essential that we learn how to balance our spiritual maturity with our psychological maturity for us to become balanced, authentic and whole human beings. I call this the psychospiritual journey.
What Does the Psychospiritual Journey Involve?
But what about our psychospiritual journey?
For too long we’ve been taught the “ego death” approach that tries to get us to avoid, disown, repress or neglect the “darker” and “animal” aspects of ourselves as a disease, rather than something we must fully explore and integrate in order to be capable of transcending them.
Our psychospiritual journey is a path of balance; of exploring both our higher and lower selves. Psychospiritual maturity involves not just a deepening of the spiritual self, but also a deepening of the psychological self. This involves the ripening of enough inner wisdom to be capable of facing your darkness as well as your light, and freeing yourself from your fears, your anger, your hatred, your sadness, your pain and your insecurities.
For the westerner that is so caught up in the mind, eastern tools like meditation and yoga among many others are wonderful as they help us to reconnect with that inner space inside. But the problem is that because we are so centered in our heads, we’ve developed many psychological issues which need to first be addressed before we can honestly observe ourselves. Things like self-doubt and self-rejection are two of many issues we face that impede our genuine progress.
As Jung goes on to comment:
There could be no greater mistake than for a Westerner to take up the practice of Chinese yoga, for that would merely strengthen his will and consciousness against the unconscious and bring about the very effect to be avoided. The neurosis would then be simply intensified. It cannot be emphasized enough that we are not Orientals, and that we have an entirely different point of departure in these matters.
Although Jung’s view that westerners should avoid eastern self-help methods is shortsighted (in my opinion), he did make an interesting point about the essential difference of the western mind approaching eastern techniques — that the eastern mind tends to be more balanced, but the western mind needs to learn to harmonize both the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche.
This is why our inner growth must unfold between two parallel processes: the paths of Self-Acceptance and Self-Exploration which we apply to our inner work. As our self-acceptance deepens and matures, so too does our capacity to self-explore and honestly embrace all that is within us.
Finding a Path With Heart
The objective of this article is not to suggest that eastern meditation techniques are useless for westerners. In fact, for some people these techniques are wonderful, bringing about immense personal changes.
But if you personally don’t experience any significant benefits from meditation, become frustrated easily, or struggle with many deep seated psychological wounds or repressions, you will benefit much more from engaging in a practice that combines elements of both psychotherapy (e.g. catharsis) and active meditations (instead of purely passive ones). This will help you to embody a healthy sense of self before you become concerned with transcending your sense of self.
In my experience as a shamanic practitioner it is essential for us to descend into the depths of our Under/Lower World (known in Incan cosmology as Ukhu Pacha), developing the courage to encounter our inner demons before we ascend to our Middle Worlds (Kay Pacha) and finally our Upper Worlds (Hanaq Pacha).
This route of our spiritual quest has been reflected in many mystical teachings and has been referred to as “As Above, So Below” in the Hermetical tradition, and can be seen in the “Tree of Life” symbolism prevalent in so many cultures.
If you are looking for a path to follow as a westerner, you might benefit from the work of many western esoteric traditions such as the Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and Alchemy which incorporate active forms of meditation and psychospiritual development. These are so well suited to our head-centered “white man” mind because they help us through active involvement with the external world to channel, mirror and embody our internal states.
Any thoughts or experiences are welcome below.