The Millennial Pilgrim: Why we need to marry Western psychology with Eastern philosophy

Contrary to popular belief, these healing and wisdom paradigms complement each other

Somi DasUpdated: Friday, July 30, 2021, 09:54 PM IST
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The precision with which western psychology has been able to reduce human tendencies and traits into a handful of personality types is a work of genius. Even though followers of Eastern philosophy have a tendency to denigrate Western psychology as limiting and a mere sport of labelling, the labelling itself can be liberating. In fact, the core message of Eastern philosophy — no-thingness of being and the acceptance of the is-ness can only be realised when the Western psychological paradigm of personality labelling is put into place.

Once your behavioural and thought patterns have been labelled, once your personality type has been labelled — it becomes an entity in itself. The metaphysical ‘you’ — whoever that it is — the turyam, the observer, the witness, the knower of the self, or the no-thing can stay away from the drama of it all if you learn to accept it and yet not identify with it.

On the flip side, such labelling and disidentification can lead to one not taking ownership of their behaviour and dumping all the blame on the disidentified part — i.e not you. It wasn’t me, it was my anger, my hunger, my hurt, my personality, my past experiences, my abusive father that made me do it — the western paradigm of psychology can help you escape responsibility for your actions.

In that sense, disidentification and dissociation — a classic coping mechanism in the tool kit of the neurotic — can be mixed up. Again, the fundamental difference being whether those fragments are accepted or repressed. In disidentification the acceptance is ultimate, in dissociation there is repression and resistance to those “problematic” parts.

Eastern philosophy works at a whole different level altogether. Not only can you escape responsibility for your actions, psychologically you can be free of the consequences of the actions as well — the guilt, the shame, the repentance can all be overcome if we were to totally disidentify with the doer — the one who raped or murdered is worthy of absolute self-love because the doer isn’t the being, the essence. What morality, judicial system and society does with him or her isn’t the question. The subjective psychological experience of the individual is all that matters.

I don’t know of many spiritual practitioners who aren’t steeped in Western psychology and of any psychologist or therapist who isn’t fascinated by and always eager to integrate Eastern therapeutic techniques in their practice. Quite clearly, individually the paradigms are incomplete and incomprehensible.

The fundamental difference between the two paradigms lies in explainability. Western psychology can explain everything, every thought, every behaviour and trace it back to some traumatic event or some early life experience. And it would look like a perfectly logical explanation. In fact, subjectively true. Yet, there is no way of knowing if things weren't the way they are, if our subjective experience of the world and our manifest behaviour would be any different.

Eastern philosophy isn’t really interested in explanations. Your trauma, your sob story, your struggles and your attachment to the essential suffering of being is your "ego" at work. And the only way to end suffering is to stop identifying with any of these or even creating a hierarchy of role-based identification like many would say first and foremost I am a mother, then a woman. Or, first and foremost, I am a part of a religion then a citizen is the cause of your grief and suffering. In one fell swoop, Eastern philosophy takes the bag of traits, and behavioural patterns, cultural elements that are so clinically observed by western psychologists to diagnose people and throw into the dump yard.

I still feel it is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Take romantic relationships for example. Our attachment patterns are so crucial in understanding what kind of people we get attracted to. Inevitably an anxiously attached person, or insecurely attached person will gravitate towards an emotionally unavailable or avoidant personality — given the former's propensity for drama. A co-dependent will find it hard to come out of the clutches of a narcissist. And the mere understanding of these patterns not only helps one to make better choices and understand one’s blind spots but also relieves one of the feeling of undesirability, shame and rejection that comes with shared experience in intimate relationships.

Eastern philosophy would, on the other hand, pin it on our desire to be loved in a certain way and our tendency to feel complete and whole only when we are loved by someone romantically in a very specific manner. Yet, to deny that such a need exists and that one must honour it and make the best possible choice is a part of self-care.

Very easily we can use spiritual bypassing to deny our needs to belong, taken care of and loved in very narrowly defined ways and wage war against it all by preaching and proclaiming things that go against our inner experience and need. One can sit with the need or do something about it. It is very likely that the pursuit of fulfilling our corporeal needs would only result in much more suffering and disappointment. And it is also possible that our obsessive needs and the denial of it by someone, society, system, is our only portal to freedom.

To enjoy the whole spectrum of knowledge for self-exploration available without rooting oneself in any paradigm to my mind is a perfectly rational way to freedom.

(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)

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