Psyché: what is the relationship between psychology and spirituality today?

Pier Luigi Lattuada, M.D., Psy.D., Ph.D. Medico e Psicoterapeuta Transpersonale – March 2021

Psyché today

To be studied, the psyche has been reduced to an object, made to coincide with the mind and placed in the brain. In this way it was possible to know its neurophysiological, cognitive and behavioral implications, its side we could say objective (Wilber 2011) but neglecting its subjective side.

The psyche, in fact, which from now on we will call Psyché, is not only the object but also the subject of experience, an integral, complex phenomenon that involves all the domains of being.

A first problem that emerges on the horizon wanting to deal with the object/subject unity is that all the main theories of cognitive science and the philosophers of science agree in denying the possibility of a science of subjectivity pushing to deny the very existence of consciousness, distinctive character of Psyché, as an element endowed with its own existence, but at most considering it as an emerging quality of brain function. (Searle J. R. 2002)

Faced with the choice between renouncing the reading of Psychéas a unitary event endowed with its own existence or renouncing any claim to scientific, we will take up the challenge of drawing the lines of an integral transpersonal scientific thought that moves with dignity its steps supported by two pillars, the perennial philosophy on the one hand and the science of complexity on the other side.

Psychéa look at history

Psyché (in Greek ψυχή, psyche) is first mentioned in Homer as a breath of life that leaves the body at the moment of death.

The next philosopher, although with more or less significant differences, has therefore identified Psyché with soul.

In the Platonic conception the soul “falls” into the body from the hyperuraniumor world of ideas and the knowledge is due to the soul’s reminiscence of all the ideas it has contemplated in that dimension, metaphysical, a-spatial, timeless, purely spiritual (Plato, Phaedrus).

To this individual soul Plato places a universal soul as the oriental traditions before him with the Vedas, the Egyptian, Orphic and Pythagorean traditions. This universal soul is infused into the world by the Demiurge who shapes it from the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. (Plato, Timaeus, VI, 30b – 30c)

Aristotle instead sees the soul immanent in the body, identifying it with entelechy, the “cause of life”, the form of the body.

He expresses himself in this way:

“There is a kind of existing thing we call substance. Substance is in a first sense, matter and that is what is not, for itself, a determined thing, in a second is the figure and form, according to which matter is already said this determined thing; in a third is the compound of matter and form. Matter is power, the entelechy form”.

(De Anima 6,10 Aristotle 2008)

And again:

“It is therefore necessary that the soul is substance, as a form of the natural body that has life in power. The soul is entelechy of a body of such a nature”.

(De Anima 20,22 Aristotle 2008)

With Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists, the soul is conceived with both a transcendent and immanent aspect, it is recognized as a form of the body but also as an autonomous and pre-existing element. (Plotinus, Enneads, IV, 7,8.)

According to the neo-platonic conception, the soul of an organism is more than all its parts put together, it is an indivisible and, as such, pre-existing unity: “This universe is a unique animal that contains in itself all animals, having only one Soul in all its parts. (Plotinus, Enneadi, IV, 4, 45)

It is the concept of the anima mundi that conveys Platonic ideas into the organism, and which is then taken up by Campanella for whom every living being is animated and tending simultaneously to its own end and a universal goal. (Campanella T. 2008).

In the same way Leibnitz with his concept of monad reconciles the Aristotelian vision of entelechy with the neo-platonic one by conceiving that all substances were made up of both material and immaterial particles and that consequently they were centers of force at the same time material and spiritual and that all the differences between substances and entities are simple differences of degree of spirituality (consciousness). Leibnitz thus seeks to reconcile the Cartesian division between res cogitansand res extensa.

The progress of science in the reductionist direction, however, has led to a gradual differentiation of Psyché into distinct concepts according to the field under consideration. (Bianca Maria D’Ippolito, Aniello Montano, Francesco 2005).

For the religious vision it is referable to a spiritual essence, for philosophy the concept of Psyché coincides with that of mind as well as for cognitive psychology which extends it to the complex of non-body cognitive functions, ending up identifying with the personality in psychodynamic psychology.

In Freud, human Psyché is a complex entity made up of different subsystems or “psychic places” distinct in the conscious, preconscious and unconscious. This conception is then enriched by the concepts of Ego, Es and Super-Ego for which, the Ego or conscious part of the personality develops mediating between the instinctive instances of the Es and the moral instances of the Super-Ego (Freud, S., (1978).

For William James, father of American psychology, psychic activity can be traced back to a “flow of consciousness”, an expression of the interaction between organism and environment (James W., 1961).

Assagioli introduced a concept of Psychéthat flanked the Freudian unconscious with an average unconscious and, above all, a superconscious, a place of the highest potential of spiritual order, the emanation of a Transpersonal Self transcending the individual dimension (Assagioli R., 1961). (1973).

A vision taken up by Jung who in turn expanded it to conceive a collective unconscious, a place of archetypes, ordering principles of Psyché(Jung C.G. 1976). Maslow, for his part, proceeds in the investigation of human potential by proposing a hierarchy of Psychémarked by the gradual satisfaction of a scale of needs ranging from the most basic ones of survival to the highest ones of self-realization (Maslow A. (1971).

Reich for first brought Psychéback to the body theorizing a functional identity between mental and bodily attitudes, he identified a correspondence between character and body tensions describing a muscular armor that structures in the body the different character armors (Reich W.,1973). Reich’s vision opens the way to an organismic vision capable of integrating the bodily, energetic, emotional and mental planes. Perls put the emphasis on the self-awareness aspects of Psychédropped into the here and now (Perls F.,1976).

An Integral Vision

In order to rediscover an integral vision of Psyché we must make an excursion into the philosophical sphere where with Panikkar, (Panikkar R.,1992), which takes up Aristotle in a certain sense, we can go back to affirming that it is in a certain way all things, as soul, forming form of things.

Psyché in fact, as the soul of things, it is logos, it is autos, it is pneuma, it is bios and above all it is zoè, the essence, the eternal flow of things.

We can, in so doing, recover a unitary gaze that does not conceive a solution of continuity between bios, the life force, and pneuma, the sentient function, the breath and autos, the individual identity, the personality, that continuity of perception of self that we can call individual self and logos, the thinking function and zoè, the essence, eternal life, the time of things, the rhythm of every single event here and now.

A unitary gaze that captures the dynamism of the individual Psychéand its interconnection with all the other things in the world, its immersion in a wider field, without any solution of continuity with the collective (transpersonal) Psyché, the totality, with which it maintains an incessant dialogue.

The human experience of the world is defined in this case as the dialogue of Psyché, characterized in its different declinations by the participatory dialogue between the Ego and the World, the individual and the totality, the subject and the object, the microcosm and the macrocosm; in other words, it is the evolutionary journey of the human being, a hyper-complex game marked by the gradual discovery of rules and the gradual increase in the ability to respect them.

The world, the “external reality”, is endowed with an almost infinite complexity that will not be the object of our treatment, we will limit our field of investigation to the game, seen from the side, of the individual Psyché and that component of the world that will be able to draw.

Spirituality today

Although the spiritual dimension has spanned the millennia of human history from the earliest times under the different and confused guise of magic, religion, mysticism, gnosis, hermeticism, the term spirituality as we know it today is relatively recent. 

Although, for example, it is customary to think of the East as the home of spirituality, the term spirituality itself does not exist either in Sanskrit or Chinese.

It is a delicate concept to define that also represents a historical break with the past, as it belongs to modernity.

The term spirituality indicates a dimension that differs both from the immanence of matter and from the transcendence of religion, revealing as Van der Veer points out (Van der Veer P. 2014) a modern category emerging in the second half of the nineteenth century as part of what he calls the Great Transformation, namely globalization.

Modern spirituality has to do with the highest values of the human being, it does not oppose matter and does not deny the body, but transcends and includes materiality, immanent and secular, and includes social commitment and participation as well as the use of the body for spiritual realization.

As a consequence, it is not recognized in the secularization of the mind, in the reduction of consciousness by modern science, from which it is ostracized, nor in institutionalized religions with their moral rules.

All these factors together make modern spirituality a disturbing element for materialism, for the capitalist lifestyle based on consumption and economic well-being, as well as for the different individualisms and dogmatism, national, cultural or religious.

Spirituality is transcultural and transpersonal, world-centric, as Wilber (Wilber 2011) would say, daughter of post-conventional thinking, and for this reason also provides a new angle of view, not always well accepted, with which to look creatively at traditional religions.

Spirituality – a look at history

Wanting to trace briefly the history of his birth we could start from Schopenhauer (1788 -1860) who, unlike Hegel who considered him backward, was strongly impressed by the mysticism of the Upanishads so much to be deeply influenced in his writing of the foundations of German Idealism. In the same way all the other major German thinkers, idealists and romantics of the early nineteenth century as August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845) and Schelling (1775- 1854) were deeply influenced by Indian metaphysics and more generally by the wisdom of Eastern traditions. This was also due to the loss of interest in Christianity throughout the West caused by the rise of Enlightenment ideas.

The emergence of the Hindu and Buddhist spiritual perspective in Western Romanticism led to what Raymond Schwab called the “Eastern Renaissance” (Schwab 1984).

Think of the affirmation that Eastern thought had in the art world with Kandinsky, Mondrian and other abstractionists, among intellectuals like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, or in the world of poetry with Tagore, in the world of spiritual philosophy with Vivekananda, Liang Qichao, Taixu, and Chen Yingning, or in its application in politics with Gandhi.

An enormous contribution to the affirmation of a spirituality inspired by Indian and Chinese traditions and free from the great religious traditions was provided by the Theosophical Society with personalities such as Madame Blavatsky, Charles Leadbeater, Annie Besant, the Anthroposophical Society of Rudolph Steiner and the teachings of J. Khrisnamurti and Yogananda among others.

Further impetus to the emergence of a secular spirituality was provided by the hippie’s movements, psychedelic culture and the various meeting groups for the development of human potential of the sixties.

These movements, on the one hand, influenced psychological science by fostering the birth and development of humanistic and transpersonal psychology and, on the other, led to the spread of its by-products at the mass level typical of New Age culture.

More recently there is also a growing affirmation of traditional ceremonies coming from the indigenous South American culture and based on the use of master plants.

The transpersonal approach

The transpersonal vision works to bridge the apparent irremediable distance that has been created between the scientific and materialistic western vision and that of ancient pre-industrial societies for which it was evident that alongside a material world there existed a sacred and spiritual dimension.

The two visions gave diametrically opposed answers to the fundamental questions about human nature and the universe and thus developed profoundly different systems of values and lifestyles.

In pre-industrial societies, daily life was marked not only by information received from the five senses but also by signals received from the spiritual world of the over-sensitive.

Modern neuroscience, on the other hand, goes so far as to deny consciousness an autonomous existence by recognizing it as a physiological emergency of brain activity.

In this context, transpersonal psychology, based on understandings reached through inner experiences of the higher dimensions of consciousness, believes that the two apparently irreconcilable visions are instead complementary.

The transpersonal approach believes that inner experiences of mystical and ecstatic order as well as the yearning for the transcendence of the ego constitute a significant aspect of human experience and offer guarantees of validity as valid as those based on the observation of the external world.

Transpersonal psychology therefore proposes epistemological maps and methodological tools to deal with the inner experience of spiritual order, the most genuinely human qualities, the highest resources, the non-ordinary states of consciousness, in a “scientific” perspective.

This is how Stan Grof, one of the founding fathers of transpersonal psychology, expresses himself in this regard.

“In the light of the observations coming from the studies of the holotropic states (Oriented to unity) the current contemptuous dismissal and pathologization of the spirituality characteristic of materialistic monism seems unsustainable. In holotropic states, the spiritual dimensions of reality can be experienced directly in a way that is just as convincing as our experience of the materialistic world. It is also possible to describe step by step the procedures that facilitate access to those experiences. The careful study of transpersonal experiences shows that they are ontologically real and informs us about important aspects of existence that are normally hidden” .

(Grof. S., 2000 p.602)

Grof’s description confirms Jung’s insights that describe the numinous experience, based on a direct understanding of facts from a higher order of reality:

“the approach to numinous is the real therapy, because reaching this experience we free ourselves from pathological processes.

(Jung C.G. 1979 p.37)

In his vision the spiritual experience, opening up to direct contact with the archetypal realm, qualifies as the best way out of neurosis:

“The suffering is due to spiritual stagnation, to psychic sterility. Faith, hope, love and knowledge are what the patient needs to live. No one truly heals if they cannot achieve a religious attitude.”

(Jung C.G. 1979 p.38)

On the same line Assagioli coined the term super-conscious to indicate those same experiences that he explains to us:

“basically consist of becoming aware of what is happening at the highest levels of consciousness. For example, states of ecstasy, of joy, of love for all living creatures, reported by very mystics as well as the drives to self-sacrifice or the creative impulses of the artist”.

(Assagioli R., Vargui J.,1976)

William James, founding father of American psychology, also recognizes mystical experiences as:

“a healthy and natural impulse, which is the basis of every religion”.

(James W.1961)

It is perhaps the case, however, at this point, to avoid misunderstandings, to reiterate the profound difference between spirituality and religion.

Spirituality is based on the direct experience of the super-conscious to say it with Assagioli or holotropic states to say it with Grof, not ordinary dimensions of reality, elevated states of consciousness. It does not require dogmas in which to believe or priests mediators of contact with the divine or even temples or churches or preordained rituals, rather it requires mastery of inner experience to access the sacred dimension of existence that can be reached in every place and through contact with nature, with one’s own body, with the other, with one’s inner divinities, thanks to a suitable environment, a group of peers, a more advanced teacher.

Direct spiritual experience according to Grof manifests itself in two forms:

The first of these, the experience of the immanent divine, implies a subtly but profoundly transformed perception of daily reality. A person who has this form of spiritual experience sees people, animals and inanimate objects in the environment as radiant manifestations of a unified field of cosmic creative energy and realizes that the boundaries between them are illusory and unreal. This is a direct experience of nature as god, the deus sive naturaof Spinoza. Using the analogy with television, this experience could be compared to a situation where a black and white image would suddenly turn into a vivid, “living color. In both cases, much of the old perception of the world remains in force but is radically redefined by the addition of a new dimension.

The second form of spiritual experience, that of the transcendent divine, implies the manifestation of archetypal beings and realms of reality that are ordinarily transphenomenal, unavailable to perception in the everyday state of consciousness. In this type of spiritual experience, completely new elements seem to “explain themselves” or “express themselves”, to borrow terms from David Bohm, from another level or order of reality. When we return to the analogy with television, it would be like discovering that there are channels different from what we have seen previously” (Grof S., 2000 p.606).


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