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Psychology and Spirituality: Relationship, Differences, and Benefits

Prabhleen Gupta

Prabhleen Gupta

Founder- Personal Mastery

Psychology and Spirituality
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There are some existential questions, such as the origin of the universe, that of life, that of consciousness, and if there is life after death, that concern a large number of people and about which we still do not have a proven and validated answer. The need to eliminate this concern and the suspicion that they provoke impel these people to search for answers, either through science or spiritualist metaphysics.

Science and spirituality

The scientist’s position relies on scientific knowledge and theories and chance as an explanation of these issues. For his followers, the properties of matter and the laws of nature are sufficient to explain the mechanics of the cosmos (although there are obvious facts that they cannot explain). On the other hand, the metaphysical tradition is expressed through spirituality, understood as the set of beliefs and practices based on the absolute conviction that there is a non-material dimension of life, helping the person to find answers to what is not. It can be explained through science and reason. It implies the knowledge and acceptance of the immaterial essence of oneself.

Relationship between psychology and spirituality

Spirituality is often linked to disciplines such as religion, philosophy, or neurology (neurologist V. Ramachandran has shown that mentally healthy people have increased activity in the temporal lobe when exposed to spiritual words or topics) and is currently also object of attention of psychology, more directly in transpersonal and humanistic psychology (among whose references are A. Maslow, G. Allport, and C. Rogers) that include spirituality as part of an integrated and multidimensional conception of the human being (as a bio-psycho-socio-spiritual reality).

Within the field of psychology, the psychologists point out spirituality as the personal search to understand the answers to the last questions about life, its meaning, and the relationship with the sacred or the transcendent, which may or may not lead to the development of religious rituals and the formation of a community.

The relationship between psychology and spirituality is justified by the fact that the experience of existential issues occurs through mental phenomena such as meditation, states of consciousness, introspection, mystical experiences, self-transcendence, self-realization, etc., which are subject to study in psychology. However, the essence of this relationship rests on two basic questions:

  • Why does the human being need to have answers to existential questions to configure his spirituality?
  • What can psychology contribute to the spirituality of the person?

Why do humans need answers?

The human being tends to live in a balanced, calm, and placid mental state that allows him to live in harmony with himself and with his environment, but in many people, this state is altered by the restlessness caused by not having a satisfactory response to some questions. This concern of psychological origin arises from two demands of human nature that have to do with survival and its relationship with the external environment:

The need for meaning

The need for things to have a meaning, a meaning (including life itself), which prompts you to discover and give an explanation to everything that surrounds you (why, how, and why things happen), and for this, you need to acquire more and more knowledge.

Regarding this need, it should be noted that human beings are naturally curious and eager for knowledge (it is related to the principle of sufficient reason described by philosophy, which maintains that everything that exists has a reason that explains its existence and drives a man to wonder about the reasons that support what surrounds him), and in this eagerness to know he uses his mental faculties to achieve it (intelligence, memory, creativity, intuition, etc.).

In this regard, Martin Seligman considers wisdom and love of knowledge (curiosity and interest in the world, interest in learning, critical thinking, and open mind) as one of the virtues required to achieve well-being.

To obtain an explanation and a meaning to the world where we live, we resort mainly to the mental program that governs the cause-effect relationship, which starts from the premise that all observed phenomena have a cause (a reason for existing) and to know this cause information is needed. If we had all the necessary information on these questions, perhaps we could find a valid answer to them through reasoning, observation, and experimentation. However, the problem is that we currently lack complete and accurate information, and this lack prevents knowing the absolute truth about them and prompts us to create numerous theories and hypotheses to supply it.

The need for security

The need to feel safe implies getting control of oneself and the external environment with which one relates. The human being needs to be related to the environment in which he lives but has realized that he is not in control of himself or his environment. He cannot avoid disease or aging, he cannot avoid negative emotions and suffer from unpleasant events, nor can he avoid physical phenomena that cause catastrophes. This situation shows his weakness and impotence and the inability to direct his destiny, generating fear and concern and the need to have “something” in which to seek support and security.

On the other hand, he is amazed at the perfect organization of the universe, which works with its own laws, and at the wonderful complexity of life, which leads him to think that there must be a superior and omnipotent “something” (an organizer and controller: a God, the cosmos, nature, cosmic energy, a supernatural force, etc.).

The relationship between psychology and God

In the field of psychology, this situation is very similar to the figure of attachment. The psychologist John Bowlby points out that childhood attachment is part of an archaic inheritance whose function is the survival of the species, has its evolutionary origin in the need for protection against predators or loneliness, and therefore impels to seek physical protection, demanding from the caretaker who conjures dangers to integrity. Bowlby defines attachment as “a way of conceptualizing the propensity of human beings to form strong affective bonds with others and to extend the various ways of expressing emotions of anguish, depression, anger when they are abandoned or live a separation or loss”. Here you will find more information about attachment theory.

The need that many people have to address an entity or figure that provides security, encouragement, and confidence in dangerous or threatening situations (and also to offer gratitude if things go well as a gesture of gratitude) may be a reflection of this figure of attachment that survives into adulthood, since that is when, in addition to physical danger, experiences appear that are also experienced as a danger or threat (illnesses, separations, dismissals, etc. that generate fear, grief, anger, anguish, loneliness, hopelessness), and support to face them is to turn to a higher being who is sensitive and receptive to their emotions and offers comfort to their affliction (for example, the figure of a paternalistic God), especially when the person who suffers lives in solitude and has no one to talk to and share their desolation.

Thus, it is observed that the figure of infantile attachment is gradually transformed into a more psychological and spiritual dimension.

What can psychology contribute to the spirituality of the person?

It is proven that science, philosophy, or religion do not offer clear and indisputable answers to existential questions that are valid for all humanity. This has the consequence that many people do not find in them consistent references to which to avail themselves and are therefore immersed in restlessness and unease. For these people, psychology can be a reference to cling to find the answers you need to these questions and create a spirituality that helps them achieve well-being.

Wellness

The psychologists C. Peterson and M. Seligman consider spirituality as one of the human virtues that lead to the well-being of the person, it is a tool that provides the necessary strength to face the negative events that life presents, and they define it as the ability to have coherent beliefs about the higher purpose, the meaning of the universe and our place in it, and refers to beliefs that are based on the conviction that there is a transcendental dimension of life.

Sense of life

Undoubtedly, psychology cannot answer the origin of the universe, of life, or of whether there is life after death, but it can help answer other related questions that are also part of the spiritual dimension of the person (for example: who am I, where do I come from and where am I going) and are closely linked to the search for meaning in life.

In addition, they appear in all people at some point in their life, so it can be said that they are part of the essence of the human being. This is what Viktor Frankl points out: “The spiritual dimension is constitutive of man and goes beyond the psychophysical. The lack of it, although it is not channeled religiously, is a symptom of nonsense”.

Belief analysis

An appreciation to take into account is that concern and fear are born from ignorance and this is fought with the discovery of the truth. However, the total and absolute truth about existential questions cannot be achieved with current knowledge and the best we can aspire to is to obtain partial truths that are coherent and harmonious with each other and that, as a whole, constitute a quasi-truth. Psychology can help to make the set of partial truths that a person needs to feel safe and confident (a particular and subjective truth) thanks to the fact that it has at its disposal cognitive resources (analysis, deduction, imagination, logical and abstract thinking, inference), feelings (fullness, satisfaction) and values (freedom, prudence, equanimity, sincerity, honesty) through which you can evaluate and choose the beliefs that you consider appropriate to build your own model of spirituality, which does not necessarily have to coincide with that of other people or social groups.

How to build your own model of spirituality

One way to build this model is to propose it through a pragmatic approach, understanding by pragmatic what works well for us and produces the desired results. Under this approach, it would be a question of creating a “pragmatic spirituality” in the form of a psychological construct that has cognitive and emotional roots, based on beliefs supported by a truth that contains a degree of certainty and credibility that is acceptable and sufficient to bring the person closer to a “something” beyond daily material reality, which confers meaning and added value to your life and strength to face the challenges it presents. This form of spirituality would require accepting human limitations and renouncing the knowledge of absolute truth, assuming that it will be necessary to live with the unsolvable doubts that appear. Pragmatic spirituality can be summed up in the following expression:

  • If the model of spirituality that I have built strengthens, helps, and comforts me, why not accept it and follow it despite the doubts that may arise?
  • To configure this spirituality and given that the way forward involves the search for truths about existential questions, three principles must be taken into account:
  • Although science cannot ensure the truth of all things, it can refute facts that some institutions may present as truths.

If something is unknown, it does not necessarily imply that it does not exist, since it can be “knowable”, that is, that it is capable of being known in the future.

Use intuition (hunch or sixth sense) to instinctively distinguish what information is credible, and if it is not, discard it.

Following these principles, a set of beliefs can be made that will fill spirituality with content. One way to carry out this process is to screen currently known beliefs through science and select those that are considered proven and consistent, which will constitute the “rational” structure of spirituality.

Spiritual intelligence

Spiritual intelligence enhances capacities such as serenity, detached observation of what is happening, equanimity, inner freedom, compassion, etc.

Characteristics of spiritual intelligence

Spiritual intelligence is distinguished by the following characteristics:

  • Possess a high level of self-awareness.
  • Ability to be flexible in your own ideas and opinions.
  • Ability to face and transcend pain and suffering and learn from it.
  • The ability to see a problem from a distance, placing it in a broader context.
  • Tendency to see the relationships and connections between things (holism).
  • Reluctance to cause unnecessary harm and have deep empathy.
  • Marked tendency to understand things and find the underlying cause of them, the why of them, their meaning, and to seek fundamental answers.
  • Ease of resisting the criteria of the majorities and sustaining and acting under personal principles and convictions.
  • Having a sense of vocation: Feeling a call to serve, to give something in return to others and the world.

On the other hand, the way of manifesting this spirituality (symbols, rites, and customs) will also depend on each person. Spirituality is not only rooted in religion but it can also be approached from other areas and other dimensions by anyone who needs to transcend and seek answers: the practice of solitude, silence, yoga, aesthetic contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, living according to nature, etc.

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