By Gurudevi Nirmalananda
What’s the difference between psychology and spirituality? I wondered about this for years. As a spiritual seeker and a student of psychology, I was getting something from both areas. Yet neither alone satisfied me, not until I found yoga’s profound teachings. Yoga clearly defines the difference, while warning of the traps in each approach.
Psychology is the study of the mind, while spirituality is about getting beyond your mind. Psychology analyzes mind and emotions. By contrast, seekers are trying to get past their mind. They seek a spiritual experience, an expansive and blissful moment, something that transports them afar. Yoga says neither is enough. What you really want, and what you really need, is to know your expansive inner essence, even while you use your mind. The point is to live in your own multi-dimensionality all the time.
The word “psychology” comes from “psyche.” The ancient Greeks worshipped the goddess Psyche, a human girl who became immortal. Always depicted with the wings of a butterfly, she embodied the divinity in every soul. We also see the word psyche in the New Testament, used 95 times. It is translated into English as “a living soul,” “the soul that can attain its highest end and secure eternal blessedness,” and as “an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death.”
Since psyche means soul and -ology means “the science or the study of,” you might expect psychology to study the soul. How did they come to focus on mind and emotions? Again, we turn to the ancient Greeks. Socrates taught that the soul is immortal. His student Plato described soul as the essence of a person — non-physical, eternal and reincarnating.
However, Plato’s student Aristotle argued against the psyche or soul being separate from the physical body. He concluded in his treatise, On The Soul, that the human intellect is immortal. Thus the focus turned to the mind. Unfortunately, the tool you use to study your mind is your own mind. Pitfalls ensue.
Yoga looks at the mind from a deeper vantage point, from the inner dimension of pure Beingness, your own Self. This is deeper than your mind, even deeper than soul level, for the soul reincarnates through many lifetimes. The deeper dimension of your own existence is Existence-Itself, that which is being all that exists. This is the One Self being all, including you.
It’s very good news when you realize that you are not your mind. Neither are you your body. You are not even your mind and your body put together. You are more, so much more. That “more” is Self, your own immortal essence. Your body and mind are made of the same primal substance of which everything is made.
citireva cetana-padaad avaruu.dhaa cetya-sa.mkocinii cittam.
— Pratyabhij~nah.rdayam 5
Supreme Consciousness becomes the individual mind, by descending from the plane of pure Consciousness, contracting in accordance with the object perceived.
Though your mind is made of Consciousness, it is a contracted form of Consciousness. Like a mirror, it reflects the objects it perceives. It can even reflect them when the object is absent, which is memory or fantasy, even worry. Your mind has the creative power of Consciousness, but uses it to create limited scenarios and lopsided narratives. Then it obsesses on them.
Psychology studies the scenarios and narratives, not the Consciousness that creates them. Like in any science, they analyze similar patterns that are presented by different people. Then they categorize and label them, hopefully leading to useful therapies. In college, I was fascinated by this, which led me to take psychology classes and try out encounter groups. Eventually I found yoga, and saw that I was trying to understand my own mind’s patterns, specifically so I could get beyond them.