I’ve been thinking about the gap between society’s definition of mental health and the journey towards spiritual health, between my rights to express and assert myself as an individual and the religious path which aims at eventually overcoming the ego through detachment.
On the same forage in the charity shop, I picked up two books which wrestle with these questions. One is ‘A book of Silence’ by Sara Maitland, who converted to Catholicism in her forties. The other is ‘Spirit and the Mind’ by the American psychiatrist Samuel Sandweiss who travelled to India in the seventies and experienced a complete turnaround in his goals and values after encountering the guru Sathya Sai Baba. Even though I struggled with his belief that Sai Baba is an avatar, or incarnation of God, I valued his discussion about the gap between psychology and spirituality.
What is a healthy person?
In writing about psychoanalysis, Sandweiss says:
… the goal in treatment is to develop a greater sense of a separate individual identity and a greater capacity for unconflicted gratification of basic animal drives and impulses.
In other words, a psychologically healthy individual is someone who can recognise their own desires and take steps towards fulfilling them, whether these are for food or exercise or sex or meaningful work or friendship.
In contrast, he describes the spiritual search as opening ourselves up to the Divine and overcoming what he calls duality, or the delusion that we are separate and unconnected to others, the environment and God. He writes that this requires:
detachment from and renunciation of the mind itself, as well as of the outer world. … It means giving up attachment to, and need for wine, women, wealth, personal status, reputation and the fruits of our labor as being essential for our sense of self worth and personal identity.
The goals of psychoanalysis, a shoring up our sense of identity, seem almost diametrically opposed to the spiritual goals of overcoming the ego. Sandweiss explores this apparent paradox, and comes to the conclusion that psychology, in its present form, can only take a person part of the way along the road to fulfilment and health. He quotes Ernest Becker (‘The Denial of Death’):
Psychology narrows the cause for personal unhappiness down to the person himself, and then he is stuck with himself…. All the analysis in the world doesn’t allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph. It is when psychology pretends to do this, when it offers itself as a full explanation of human unhappiness, that it becomes a fraud that makes the situation of modern man an impasse from which he cannot escape.
Two kinds of silence
Sara Maitland explores a similar paradox in her pursuit of two different types of silence. She went on a retreat in the Sinai desert where she meditated on the hermits who went into the desert to overcome their ego by self-discipline and acetism. After this, she explored the silence of the romantic poets, who retreated from society and sought out lonely places with opposite aims. They wanted to find themselves and strengthen their sense of who they were. She writes:
Religious or ermetic silence … is about inner emptiness – emptying the mind and the body of desires, being purged and therefore pure: a kind of blank, a tabula rasa, on which the divine can inscribe itself. … Whereas romanticism uses silence to exactly the opposite ends: to shore up and strengthen the boundaries of the self; to make a person less permeable to the Other; to assert the ego against the construction and expectations of society, to enable an individual to establish autonomous freedom and an authentic voice. Rather than self-emptying, it seeks full-fill-ment.
Although they are achieved in different ways, I see a parallel between what she calls romantic silence and modern psychology; both help a person establish a stronger sense of their own rights and identity. They produce a certain type of mental health, but religion goes further. It strips away the illusion that we are independent individuals, detaches us from false securities and shows us our dependence on God.
Most of us don’t have the choice of retreating into the desert to find God. However, I think that suffering or trauma can have the same effect.
When I first thought about becoming Catholic, I imagined that it would lead to more peace, security and happiness. What has happened has been extremely fail. I have lost the things which I thought gave me peace and security. This has included failure at work, supporting one of my children through a serious illness, as well as carrying the silent burden of converting to Catholicism in the place where there is a strong Protestant tradition.
Should I seek out a psychoanalyst and try to rebuild my broken-down sense of self (romantic silence isn’t an option in a noisy family), or should I be like the desert fathers and not only abandon myself to this process of loss and detachment, but seek more of it. Perhaps there is a middle way.
In the end, Sara Maitland decided that she wanted to explore both types of silence, the desert type, in which she abandoned herself to God, and the romantic type, in which she worked and built up stories and narrative. Samuel Sandweiss describes an experience in India where he felt such harmony and peace that the inner world seemed more attractive than the outer one. However, he knew that he had to leave this place where he had found peace in order to return to his family and his profession.
Christ tells us that those who seek to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives will save them.
I would never deliberately choose illness and loss. However, it has brought me towards a realisation of my utter dependence on God.
Detachment doesn’t necessarily mean renunciation, but it does mean accepting what comes, whether it is success and health or failure and illness and loss. This is the difficult bit: accepting what is, being thankful for it and trusting that God is in charge. I hope that it will eventually lead to a different kind of peace.
PS – Things have been difficult and I haven’t been able to write much or to keep up with reading other peoples blogs. I’m sorry about that.