A psychodynamic approach to yoga experience
The International Journal of Parapsychology n°2 1966
The attitude of western culture and science to Yoga theories and systems has fluctuated considerably for half a century, and opinions on this subject are still very divided. Some scholars (learned philologists, Orientalists in the universities, and psychologists) continue to view Yoga-as they view much of what comes from non-Western civilizations-with a mixture of curiosity, scientific interest, and condescension.
Others, whose number is increasing daily, take quite the opposite attitude and go so far as to assert that all of what we of the West think we have accomplished and discovered in the field of scientific research, and of psychological investigation in particular, is mere childish groping and uncoordinated efforts, whereas Yoga is the one method through which man can learn to know and manifest himself. Some Orientals are no less indulgent concerning our scientific thought and psychology. In some pages written on psychoanalysis by Sri Aurobindo,2 he states that he finds it “difficult to take psychoanalysts seriously,” that “one cannot discover the meaning of the lotus by analyzing the secrets of the mud in which it grows,” and, in general, that “modern psychology as a science is still in its infancy-inconsiderate, awkward and rudimentary at one and the same time.” These remarks are certainly outspoken enough. I am afraid, however, that they are no more important or truthful than the statements made by some psychologists or psychoanalysts who consider Yoga nothing more than a collection of strange fables, dangerous psycho-physiological exercises, and introversion.
It is my humble opinion that nothing can be gained by adopting such extreme, exclusive and contemptuous attitudes. Contempt, like enthusiasm, is an emotional attitude as far removed from the cold scientific approach of the Western world as it is from the cairn, detached approach of the Yogi. Instead of hurling summary judgments at one another, would it not be better to try to examine doctrines and facts objectively? This is what I shall endeavor to achieve in this paper.
First, I should like to devote a few words to the idea some men of learning (Sri Aurobindo, for example) continue to hold of psychoanalysis, which they look upon as a system invented o discover only what is lowest and most despicable and unwholesome in the human personality. This is in itself a most unscientific idea, since it introduces ethical and aesthetic principles where they are quite out of place.
Furthermore, it is a mistaken idea, since it is founded on the assumption that a plot of land can be cultivated without first having been tilled and weeded. In addition, it condemns a group of people who take their work seriously, or seems to claim that they are incapable of doing anything else. As all well-informed people know, the object of psychoanalysis is to rid people of false perceptions, interior obstacles and unproductive conflicts, thus enabling them to achieve a greater freedom of choice and action. That is all, and it may not be much, but there is certainly nothing unwholesome about it. To accuse the psychoanalyst of ignoring the higher truths pertaining to the ultimate aim of life is as futile as to criticize a surgeon because he is not concerned with what his patient will do with the broken arm he has set, or with the archetypical idea of “arm,” or the position occupied by this idea in the universal order.
Of course, this does not mean that we psychoanalysts of the West have nothing to learn from Yoga. On the contrary, I maintain that we have much to learn from it, and this is a conviction I first expressed at the Fifteenth International Congress of Psychoanalysis in 1938.10 The point is that I think we can learn a lot from Yoga, inasmuch as we are psychologists. I should like to add that, just as I do not think any Western philosophical system can help us, at least directly, in our daily analytical work, I am not in the least interested, as a psychologist, in seeking to establish whether and why the Shasrara padma cakra has exactly one thousand petals, or in learning the correct pronunciation of the mantra PAM which appears to belong to it. What I need from Yoga, and what I owe to it, is far simpler, more modest, and more concrete.
Several authors have drawn ingenious parallels between certain aspects of the Yoga theories and systems and the data and methods of psychoanalytical psychotherapy. I shall mention only those that strike me as being particularly helpful and to the point. First, there is the idea, common to both systems, of a psyche unconscious of itself and acting without any precise coordination (citta has no conscience and only becomes truly conscious if it is freed from the vasanas and illuminated by purusha). In most cases, according to both the Yoga doctrine and psychoanalysis, man does not really think; one might rather say that he “is thought” by something outside his control which may equally well be called vasanas, or impulses of the unconscious. One of Yoga’s preliminary aims is to gain control, founded on knowledge, of this unconscious psychic world. This is also the aim of psychoanalysis in the true sense of the word, and it would be wrong, in this case, to consider psychoanalysis as solely a method of treatment. It does not seem right to maintain, as some authors do, that Yoga cannot be compared with psychoanalysis because it is concerned with healthy individuals, whereas psychoanalysis is used to cure sick people. Actually, psychoanalysis, as it is conceived today, is above all a method by which the whole psychic personality is transformed and reorganized. It is obvious that this work can also have (and in fact nearly always has) strictly therapeutical aspects, but these aspects are accidental and not substantial. What is nearer the truth, especially in the West but also in India (as I was told by the Director of the Kaivalyadhama Centre, Sri Kuvalyananda himself), is that most of the people who wish to take up Yoga are also neurotics, in the clinical sense of the word, who would do better to seek help from psychoanalysis than to crouch on a mat every day and try to achieve pranayama, or meditation.
Also, I cannot help wondering how many of these people write treatises or articles in which they proclaim Yoga to be everything and psychoanalysis nothing.
In order gradually to bring the conflicts and impulses of the unconscious under the control of a stronger and steadier Ego, psychoanalysis-as we all know-uses systems of relaxation, free association, and the interpretation of perceptions, which have several points in common with some of the Yogic teachings. One of the essential objects of these systems, in my opinion, is to shake up the patient and obtain a series of disidentifications. Little by little his Ego moves away and frees itself from what had become ego-syntonic and comes to use it more or less ad libitum-in the same way as we use a vehicle, knowing very well that we are not the vehicle and that we can do without it. In order to reach this point, however, it is necessary to pass through a stage of “reconnaissance” of what Freud calls “the interior foreign territory,” the representatives of which sometimes seem so strange to us (whether they are clinical symptoms or episodes in dreams) that we are inclined at first to think they really belong to a world outside ourselves. This stage, which is essential in psychoanalysis, is indicated by Patanjali when he says that the individual must become conscious of himself and fight ignorance.
However, a general feeling of the existence and strength of the unconscious may quite possibly be more spontaneous and immediate in the Hindu who practices Yoga than in the Western man who is just beginning to “know himself,” and the need to recognize the reality of the “interior foreign territory” may consequently be less important for the former than for the latter. In any case, the psychic actions I have attempted to describe are most aptly represented by what happens in Alice in Wonderland when Alice, just before she wakes up completely, realizes that the people around her are only dream images and actually “nothing but a pack of cards.”
The discipline, the constant endeavor to achieve integration, the willingness to renounce immediate satisfactions … all these conditions of Yoga practice are to be found, mutatis verbis, in the requirements of a serious analysis. Obviously, the Western analyst will not ask his patient to submit to the will of Ishvara, but we know only too well that the greatest obstacles to analysis come from what we call the “narcissistic defenses” which make a real transference difficult, if not impossible. And what are these defenses but the subject’s attachment to his crystallized “self,” his difficulty in aspects of Yoga by reformulating in Western scientific terms various Yogic psychological or psycho-physiological tenets. Some of the criteria and scope of psychoanalysis-considered as a psychotherapy of the total personality-have a resemblance to the purposes and the aims of Yoga, at least within the human, and non-transcendental, limits of Yogic teachings. Both psychoanalysis and Yoga aim at dissolving a world of delusions, and both seek to make man more aware of the intrinsic data of reality.
As far as parapsychological phenomena are concerned, the author notes that parapsychology today is less interested in particular happenings, experiences, or ascertainments, and much more interested in new conceptions of human personality as they appear on the very basis of parapsychological investigation and results. Similarly, Yoga tends to underrate the “phenomena”-even when they may appear exceptional or marvelous-and aims at total human integration underlying some aspects of its process, which psychoanalysis could well examine and incorporate to its own advantage.
L’A. ricorda certi atteggiamenti e giudizi reciproci della psicoanalisi e dello Yoga, che a lui sembrano eccessivi e ingiustificati. A suo avviso, la dottrina psicoanalitica può chiarire certi aspetti dello Yoga, riformulando in termini scientifici occidentali varie concezioni psicologiche, o psicofisiologiche, dello Yoga. Anche taluni criteri e scopi della psicoanalisi, intesa come psicoterapia integrale, presentano varie affinità con i propositi e i fini dello Yoga-per lo meno nei limiti umani, e non trascendenti, degli insegnamenti yogici. Tanto la psicoanalisi quanto lo Yoga si propongono, in sostanza, di disperdere un mondo d’illusioni, e di rendere l’uomo più consapevole degli intrinseci dati di realtà.
Per quanto riguarda i fenomeni parapsicologici, VA. ricorda che attualmente, la parapsicologia mette assai più l’accento sulle nuove concezioni della personalità umana, così come si prospettano in base ai reperti delle stesse indagini parapsicologiche, anzichè sui singoli accadimenti, esperienze, o constatazioni. Non diversamente lo Yoga mette in secondo piano i “fenomeni”-per quanto possano essere insoliti o meravigliosi–e mira a risultati globali d’integrazione umana, sottolineandone alcuni aspetti che la psicoanalisi potrebbe con vantaggio esaminare e far propri.