Psychological Approaches to the Self and Religious Experience

I wrote this many years ago when I was in college:


Many cultures have differing techniques and ways of understanding the self and religious experiences. For those of us in the West, these techniques and understandings are largely based on psychological approaches. Because of our "need" for rational, empirical and scientific answers and explanations, we often attribute religious and mystical experiences to an abnormality or mental/physical/emotional deficiency of the person involved, casting aside any possibility that religious and mystical experiences might be valid. It is precisely because of this dilemma that varying viewpoints concerning the self and religious experiences have surfaced in psychology. Some view mystical/ego‑transcending experiences as unhealthy while others view such experiences as healthy. Sigmund Freud and Peter Berger are two psychologists who view mystical experiences as unhealthy.

Freud termed mystical experiences as "oceanic" and described oceanic as a "feeling as of something limitless, unbounded"‑‑‑it is "a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole‑‑‑a sensation of eternity" (Freud, Reader, p. 12). According to Freud, this oceanic feeling is present only in those people who cannot separate their ego from the external world, and for this reason, Freud saw people who reported the oceanic feeling as unhealthy. Freud reported that people in this unhealthy state feel as if they are one with all that is [or all that is not] or one with the external world as a whole. This abnormal, unhealthy state is seen by Freud as a result of improper ego development. The derivation of religious needs, from which the oceanic feeling stems, is, according to Freud, a result of the feelings associated with infantile helplessness. According to Freud, people can be cured of this non‑dualistic attitude if they can gain control over their sensory activities and muscular action. If a person can do this, he/she will be able to distinguish between "what belongs to the ego‑‑and what is external" (Freud, Reader, p. 15).

Peter Berger, like Freud, saw religious and mystical experiences as unhealthy because he saw such experiences as a form of masochism. Masochism is a phenomenon in which people like to experience pain or belittlement at the hands of another. Mystical experiences, according to Berger, are a form of masochism because mystical experiences are often based upon the premise that "I am nothing‑‑He (God) is everything‑‑‑and therein lies my ultimate bliss" (Berger, Reader, p. 91).

According to Berger, the masochistic attitude within mystical experiences arises from feelings of loneliness and meaninglessness. This attitude is seen by Berger as unhealthy and destined to failure. A masochist, by denying the importance or significance of his/her self, finds suffering and death at the hands of another bearable and even welcomes such phenomena. If this attitude were taken in respect to governments‑‑‑if people were to think they were nothing and that their government was everything, this would result in people relying wholly on their government. If the government could not or did not properly play the role of sadist, many of the masochists would be lost and completely alienated and unsatisfied. The same is true for religious masochism within mystical experiences. Religious masochism is unhealthy because the one to whom the surrender is made (God) is largely unavailable and might not even properly play the role of sadist.

Both Freud and Berger see mystical experiences as unhealthy and as a result of improper ego development. They differ, however, in how they think the improper development of the ego took place. Freud, as mentioned above, believes that improper ego development is a result of feelings associated with infantile helplessness while Berger believes that improper ego development is a result of one having feelings of loneliness and meaninglessness. Both Freud and Berger assume that people who experience mystical experiences are sick and need psychological help. Unlike Freud and Berger, other psychologists have seen religious and mystical experiences as healthy. R. D. Laing is one such psychologist.

Laing is not so quick (as are Freud and Berger) to categorize mystics and people who have mystical experiences as infantile or masochistic. "The experience that a person may be absorbed in, while to others he appears simply ill‑mad, may be for him veritable manna from heaven" (Laing, Reader, p. 92). Laing realizes that individuals' definitions of sanity or health might not necessarily correspond. Unlike Freud, Laing is not preoccupied with preserving the Id, Ego and Superego. Instead, he believes that the ego is only "the instrument for living in this world;" if the ego is broken up, Laing believes we can "be exposed to other worlds" (Laing, Reader, p. 92). From this statement, one can infer that Laing sees mystics as healthy and that he sees those who cling to their ego as unhealthy.

Laing respects eastern philosophers and spiritualists because they have maintained a balance between the internal and external aspects of human consciousness. However, he cannot say the same for western culture. "Our [westerner's] time has been distinguished, more than anything else, by a drive to control the external world, and by an almost total forgetfulness of the internal world" (Laing, Reader, p. 92). In Laing's opinion, the [westerner's] neglect of our inner selves has been truly unhealthy.

Laing is not at all in agreement with Freud's and Berger's definitions of mental health. In fact, Laing subscribes to a much different view of the ego and mental health.

True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality; the emergence of the "inner" archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual re‑establishment of a new kind of ego‑functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer (Laing, Reader, p. 93).

Unlike Freud who believes we must have an ego, Laing believes that the ego is a "false self." In reference to the information I have presented above, it would seem that Laing would critique Freud and Berger as being totally closed‑minded concerning mystical experiences and he (Laing) would probably see Freud and Berger as being unhealthy. Like Laing, Abraham Maslow, another psychologist, believes that mystical and religious experiences are healthy.

Maslow believes that anyone can have a mystical experience, but that some people suppress their religious experiences because they wish to maintain a good societal image and also wish to maintain control of who they [think they] are. In other words, some people cast their mystical experiences aside so that other people won't think they are crazy and so that their own ideas of right and wrong will remain unthreatened. This is in direct contrast to the views held by Freud and Berger. Maslow says that

the two religions of mankind tend to be the peakers and the non‑peakers, that is to say, those who have private, personal, transcendent, core‑religious experiences easily and often and who accept them and make use of them, and, on the other hand, those who have never had them or who repress or suppress them and who, therefore, cannot make use of them for their personal therapy, personal growth, or personal fulfillment (Maslow, Reader, p. 98).

In other words, non‑peakers, because they suppress their religious experiences, cannot spiritually grow, and are therefore unhealthy. People experiencing peak‑experiences on the other hand feel themselves, more than at other times, to be the responsible, active, creating center of their activities and perceptions. "In the peak‑experiences, the individual is most here‑now, most free of the past and of the future in various senses, most 'all there' in the experience" (Maslow, Reader, p. 112). As for many of the same reasons mentioned earlier in reference to Laing, Maslow would also see Freud and Berger as closed‑minded concerning mystical experiences. Like Laing, Maslow would see Freud's and Berger's views concerning mystical experiences as unhealthy. It would seem that Eric Fromm, another imminent psychologist, is in agreement with both Laing and Maslow.

Fromm, unlike Freud and Berger, says that "it is not easy to determine what we consider to be the sickness and what we consider to be the cure" (Fromm, Reader, p. 121). Fromm sees nothing infantile or masochistic about religious and mystical experiences. In fact, Fromm would probably (like Maslow and Laing) see people as unhealthy if they did not, at some point in their life, have a mystical or religious experience. "One aspect of religious experience is the wondering, the marveling, the becoming aware of life and of one's own existence, and of the puzzling problem of one's relatedness to the world" (Fromm, Reader, p. 122). Mystics, to Fromm, are in good health because they have "an ultimate concern with the meaning to life, with the self‑realization of man, with the fulfillment of the task which life sets us" (Fromm, Reader, p. 122). Concerning the feeling of oneness which many people experience, "Some [i.e. Freud and Berger] may think this attitude is one in which the uniqueness and individuality of the self are denied and the experience of self weakened" (Fromm, Reader, p. 122), but as is evident above, many others i.e. Laing, Maslow and Fromm do not agree.

Similar to Laing, Maslow and Fromm, Ram Dass and Alan Watts also believe that mystical and religious can be healthy. Dass and Watts believe that western psychology is far behind eastern philosophy and religion as far as understanding mystical experiences. For this reason, they feel that western psychology has a lot to learn from eastern thought. Watts says that western psychologists "must overcome the habitual notion that [they have] nothing to learn from 'prescientific' disciplines" (Watts, p. 17). Once we get rid of our ethnocentric attitudes concerning the ways of knowledge embraced by other nations, then we will be prepared to learn from other cultures i.e. the East. When we understand what easterners mean by getting rid of attachments, we will then understand what it means to be one with humankind instead of understanding what it means to be opposed to humankind.

"It has become increasingly apparent to some psychologists [i.e. Laing, Maslow, Fromm, Dass] that the normal state of consciousness in our culture is both the context and the breeding ground of mental disease" (Watts, p. 4). This is exactly what people like Suzuki, Herrigel's teacher, Ram Dass, etc. are trying to teach the West. The content of a liberating experience i.e. satori, nirvana, 'cosmic consciousness,' is not something "psychological in the sense of a flash of subjective light. Its content is the physical world, seen in a new way" (Watts, p. 108). Every book we have read this semester has tried to teach us how to see the world and our life in a new way. This is, according to Watts and Dass, the most basic and yet crucial thing that western psychology and western people in general have to learn from the East; how to see and experience life in a new, different way.

According to many western psychologists, "[M]an is seen as an embodied conflict between reason and instinct, spirit and nature, such that to be healthy or to be saved he must always mistrust himself" (Watts, p. 104). But what the East has tried to teach us is that it is not useful or healthy to mistrust one's self. In fact, they stress the point that when one rids one's being of a self, that all emotions and doubts, such as mistrust, will vanish and that the person will be a more complete being. Like eastern philosophers and spiritualists, western psychologists have to learn that perhaps it is possible for one's self to merge into nothingness. Unlike the East, those of us in the West seem to have a difficult time accepting that it is possible for the self‑object distinction to disappear. For those of us in the West who claim their self has disappeared or has somehow been altered, the risk of being put into a mental hospital is extremely real. Ram Dass said that a good 40 percent of his friends had been through mental hospitals because they didn't see the world like the psychiatric community saw it (Dass, p. 74).

This seems to be a huge problem in America. Just how adequate are our definitions of mental health? Many people who are different from the norm or who have a different belief system are often classified as mentally ill. During this semester, we have read various accounts of what makes a mystical experience mystical. These accounts have varied tremendously. In light of this fact, it is not surprising to learn that definitions of mental health in America differ tremendously also. For example, what may be classified as insanity in reference to the economically disadvantaged might be classified as eccentricity in reference to the wealthy. If we could learn to free ourselves from attachments, as have many easterners, we would not be so occupied with attaching a stigma to people who do not conform.

Like Ram Dass stresses, until we can become comfortable being around people who are not quite "normal" by society's definition, "different" people will continue to be labeled as mentally ill. Ram says that the "mentally ill" person is just living in a reality different from the one to which most of society subscribes. These are precisely the types of people we have studied all semester and frankly, I did not see anything sick, dangerous or threatening about any of them, however, as indicated above, many people do not feel the same way.

Regardless of what reality a person is suscribing to, Ram proposes that people are stuck within their own reality. That is, people see their reality as being normal and the reality of others as being deviant and abnormal. Ram says that a psychiatrist who is trying to cure a "mentally ill" person is one who "is substituting one stuckness for another stuckness" (Dass, p. 69). To combat this problem, Ram proposes that we try to take ourselves outside our realm of what is normal. This is what easterners have been trying to teach us for years.

I agree with Ram that people's sense of reality are "relative realities" (Dass, p. 69) and that these realities "are merely perceptual vantage points for looking at it all" (Dass, p. 69). Ram has learned much of his knowledge concerning mystical experiences from the East, and I have learned much from Ram and Watts. Therefore, it only stands to reason that other people can learn, as Ram and I have, that the East definitely has much to teach, not just to western psychology, but to all westerners.

My attitude towards many things has been radically altered this semester as a result of this class. Since I have discussed many of these thoughts already in this paper i.e. relativity of mental health, western psychology vs. eastern philosophy, etc., I do not want to rediscuss them. Instead, I want to concentrate on one major theme. This theme concerns the interpretation and understanding of the self. To make a long story short, when I first enrolled in this class, I, like most westerners, had a dualistic view concerning my self and my surroundings, but now, my understanding of my self is less dualistic. My new understanding of my self was greatly influenced by all of the books and readings we read. It is difficult for me to summarize the impact that all these readings had on me, but nevertheless, I will try to summarize several of them. It was Roberts', Herrigel's and Suzuki's books which most challenged and altered my dualistic view of my self.

Roberts sees the self as a "man's [or woman's] defense against seeing absolute nothingness, against seeing a world devoid of life, a life devoid of God" (Roberts, p. 43). In other words, the "self is man's [or woman's] compensation for a state of unknowing" (Roberts, p. 6). According to Roberts, "The self is more than a knowledge of its own existence, and what this more is, is a gut‑level feeling of energy, drive, power, and of a will that, when linked with the cognitive faculties, becomes the subjective certitude 'this is me'" (Roberts, p. 171). Roberts differs from the commoner in that she has experienced the loss of her self‑‑she has experienced the absolute nothingness that is associated with the absence of self. For such a loss of self to occur, a person must lose the ability to think of his/her self as an "I." Instead, a person must think of his/her self as a part of the whole. "The state of no‑self is the breaking up of a self‑conscious system whereby the mind can no longer see itself as an object; and at the same time it loses the ability to find any other object to take its place, because when there is no self there is also no other" (Roberts, p. 85).

For Herrigel, as for Roberts, the self is seen as that mental energy and drive which gives an individual a feeling of separateness‑‑or "I'ness." This possession of self is not viewed as favorable (like the views held by Laing, Maslow and Fromm) because it causes, among other things, suffering, attachment, ignorance and wrongdoing. When we stop thinking of this energy as being merely an individual possession, we realize, according to Herrigel, that the "mind or spirit is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place. And it can remain present because, even when related to this or that object, it does not cling to it by reflection and thus lose its original mobility" (Herrigel, p. 41). To have a self is to be condemned to a life of wrongdoing, a life of pain and suffering, however, "right doing is accomplished only in a state of true selflessness, in which the doer cannot be present any longer as 'himself.' Only the spirit is present, a kind of awareness which shows no trace of egohood..." (Herrigel, p. 49). For example, when Herrigel sought to shoot the arrow, he did miserably in his training, however, when he selflessly handled the bow, he found that "It shoots" (Herrigel, p. 58).

Suzuki also finds dependency on a self as an unnatural state. Suzuki said, "naturalness is, I think, some feeling of being independent from everything, or some activity which is based on nothingness" (Suzuki, p. 108). Suzuki is different from most people in that he was not aware of his self‑‑he was not attached or burdened by the desires common to most people, i.e. wealth, material possessions. Unlike Suzuki's mind, most people's minds are "entangled with some other idea, someone else's idea" (Suzuki, p. 108), and therefore, most people are not independent, are not themselves, and are not natural. Suzuki recognizes that all things are transient (except change) and, because of this, realizes that nothing is real, including his self. However, "For most people everything exists; they think whatever they see and whatever they hear exists" (Suzuki, p. 110).

Most people think of themselves as having a self. Most people do not realize the transience of things and are attached to material possessions. The reason most people suffer is because they have not yet lost their self or ridded themselves of their passions as have the authors above. Because of my fascination with the self, I did my semester research on the perception of self within Tibetan Buddhism. While doing this research, I found the Tibetan Buddhists echoing the same things as Roberts, Herrigel, Suzuki, Dass, Laing, Maslow and Fromm.

Tibetan Buddhism is a religion which emphasizes the practice of meditation, self‑examination and self‑awareness. Through their teachings of these practices, Tibetan Buddhists try to help others transcend their "normal" earthly existence. Tibetan Buddhists wish to help other people transcend their "normal lifestyle" because they view most people's lives as being a life of suffering. The Tibetan Buddhists' teachings concerning the escape from suffering has largely to do with their perception of self, or how well one understands one's self or lack of self. If one can get to the point of understanding one's inner being and mind, and if one can realize there is no self, indeed, that there is nothing, then this enhanced understanding of the nature of the mind can be used to escape from the world of suffering. The escape from suffering is the main emphasis of Buddhism.

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

The Tibetan Buddhists' lessons are so simple to understand, and yet, because of our attachments to objects, and especially because of our attachment to a self, most of us will never come close to attaining the altered states of which they speak. It seems that

Our greatest confusion is that we have an expectation that the causes of liberation must come from somewhere or something outside ourselves. In our confusion we believe that only accumulating this or that, or only through an association with someone or something else, can we gain the cause of perfect joy. Our preoccupation with these external concerns leads us to develop a tremendous sense of impoverishment, as though we were totally devoid of any possibility of goodness. As far as we are concerned, we are totally barren of the slightest possibility of a spark of enlightened intelligence. Our greatest bewilderment is our failure to turn inward and really examine the workings of our minds. It is only when we begin working with our own minds that we can become practical as far as the search for enlightenment is concerned. (Rinpoche 1982:4).

Until we follow the Tibetan Buddhists' lead, as have Roberts, Herrigel, Suzuki, etc., and start to work more with our mind and inner thatness, we will forever be imprisoned in the world of suffering; forever destined to samsara. Until we as westerners stop subscribing to the statement "I think therefore I am" and start subscribing to the statment "I think, but I am not my thoughts" (Dass, p. 117), we will not understand the meaning of non‑attachment and no‑self.

Until we (unlike Freud and Berger) cast aside the assumption that the "unconscious is essentially that in us which is bad, the repressed, that which is incompatible with the demands of our culture and of our higher self" (Fromm speaking of Freud, Reader, p. 123) we will be trapped within our own ignorance, within a strict dualistic existence. Until we give up our attachments, the road to Nirvana will be impeded. If we but attempt to change our perception of self, as have Tibetan Buddhists, Roberts, Herrigel, Suzuki, Dass, etc., we will find ourselves climbing the ladder out of the wheel of life and into Buddhahood‑‑we will find ourselves free of suffering. This new way of existence could be most illuminating, in fact, it could be enlightening.

More by this Author


2 comments

Missing Link profile image

Missing Link 11 months ago from Oregon Author

Thanks Larry!


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 11 months ago from Oklahoma

Interesting analysis.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working