Psychology and the Pathologization of Soul

What the spiritual seeker calls “the soul,” psychology often refers to as the “unconscious mind.”

To take this further, one might understand the entire field of psychology as an attempt to study the soul using the principles of scientific observation.

While this field of study has certainly contributed much to society, the history of psychology is fraught with disastrous fallacies, misguided attitudes towards the suffering and treatment approaches with tragic consequences for its patients.  It is for these reasons and many others that it is so important to constantly question all fields of clinical study.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’d like to talk a little about how psychology in the Western world has impacted our relationship with our souls.

Our soul transitions through many different states during the course of our lifetimes.  There is a time for mourning, a time for intense joy, a time for chaos.

Unfortunately, these feelings are often labeled by the psychiatric community as sickness rather than an appropriate reaction to our life experiences.

Before you stand up and protest, consider this:  Only 40 years ago, homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness.

Just as recently, psychologists expected housewives to be content with a repetitive life locked away within the confines of a white picket fence, and any sadness or sense of lacking fulfillment were “hysterical.”  The prescription of heavy narcotics to treat this “condition” dominated the conventional wisdom of the time

I think we can all agree that Valium as a solution didn’t work out so well.

Not long before, the psychiatric profession’s answer to a myriad of disorders across the spectrum was frontal lobotomy.

A mere twenty years ago, rather than recommending alternative education plans, more parental involvement and less time in front of the television, psychiatric professionals prescribed pharmaceutical speed in the form of drugs like Ritalin and Dexedrine to children as young as six, only to be startled by the epidemic of methamphetamine addiction a generation later.

This history should encourage us to presume that the field of psychology continues to evolve, and that it is imperative we question vehemently its methods.

So what should we be questioning?  Where does psychology fall short today?  In some ways, the fundamental problem is the same as it was 50 years ago.  Western psychologists continue to label and pathologize “disorders” that, in other cultures, are considered necessary to the progress of the soul, or even profound spiritual gifts.

Did you know that schizophrenics with auditory hallucinations hear different voices depending on where they are from?

In societies that consider what we call  “schizophrenia”  a blessing rather than an affliction, schizophrenics are far more likely to describe their hallucinations as pleasant experiences.

But in Western culture, where ghosts and spirits are regarded as evil or non-existent, and hearing voices is considered a state of madness, schizophrenics typically hear voices that are angry, demeaning and taunting.

Similarly, while psychologists only recently disregarded the notion of homosexuality as a symptom of dysfunction, certain Native American societies recognize homosexuality as a gift.  The duality of the masculine and feminine existing simultaneously in a single person is understood as a special ability to see “both sides of the coin.”

This pattern of pathologization extends to even universal human experiences.

A time of joy in the midst of chaos might be labeled “mania.”

A period of mourning that is deemed to be excessive or extend beyond what is considered normal might be called “situational depression.”

I am not suggesting that medication is never necessary or helpful, or that standard treatment approaches are never appropriate.

I am suggesting that approaching suffering from a spiritual perspective rather than or in conjunction with a clinical approach is too often dismissed.

There seems to be little room for the possibility that the soul is simply in a transitional state, these intense feelings are a necessary step in that transition, and medicating or repressing it only hinders the process.

Regarding the mind, body and soul as separate functions is an inherent failing in the Western approach.

Shamanic rituals to chase away demons may seem like silly witch-doctoring to the average American, but to someone who believes he is plagued by demons, your personal understanding of reality is irrelevant.

And maybe he is plagued by demons.  Maybe schizophrenics are tapped into a frequency that you and I aren’t privy to.  Like a radio station.  We’re all listening to FM, but the schizophrenic hears AM radio at the same time.  Think of it this way:  You only have five senses.  Any scientist will acknowledge there are worlds of data you are unable to detect with them.  Even your ability to differentiate colors is limited to a very narrow spectrum.  Really, what you are able to touch, taste, smell, hear, feel and see is infinitely outnumbered by what you aren’t able to detect.

Perhaps what we call “delusional” is actually just a heightened sense of awareness.  Perhaps we should honor this as a special ability rather than trying to suppress it.

This doesn’t mean that a more spiritual approach is infallible by any means.

Just as importantly as questioning the current psychiatric methods, questioning spiritual approaches to mental instablity is essential to protecting the emotionally vulnerable from unnecessary suffering or outright exploitation.  Spiritual leaders have a history that is equally shadowed.  Characters like David Koresh, Jim Jones and Charles Mansion called themselves spiritual leaders whilst exploiting the emotional vulnerability of others to accomplish their narcissistic goals.   The Catholic church’s scandal involving the facilitation of child sexual abuse by church leaders is an example of systemic exploitation of children, particularly children from vulnerable demographics who often lacked strong emotional support systems.

But for every David Koresh, there’s a psychologist facing a licensing board for unethical standards of practice.

Labotomies were an evil of psychiatry, but psychiatry is not inherently evil or ineffective.  David Koresh used Christianity to do evil, but that does not make Christianity inherently evil.

Let’s hold people responsible for their actions, and philosophies responsible for their ideas.

Most importantly, let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater.

Whether it’s a counseling session or a pilgrimage to a sacred place, cognitive behavioral therapy or a sage blessing, we should be free to use every tool at our disposal to comfort the suffering.

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