Thursday, July 17, 2008

Questions from Christiaan (1)

Christiaan sent a question on the Karpatriji thread, which rather than continuing there, I decided to answer in a separate post. Actually, I will divide my answer in two, as there are really two questions.

Is modern psychology compatible with the RK-Lila concept? I recently heard that someone who suffered from a severe obsessive compulsive disorder got treated rather succesfully, but in his therapy chanting was considered a symptom of his disorder rather then a solution to it. He gave up on it (the chanting). Rituals seem to dovetail OCD's. In a way most rituals have much in common with OCD's. Then the phenomenon of chaotic/catatonic schizophrenia. Most of the symptoms correspond with what are called symptoms of ecstatic trance in India, or possession. In Italy they hallucinate about Mary, in Turkey about Fatima and in India about...

With regard to your question about whether Radha and Krishna is compatible with modern psychology. The short answer is "which psychology?" and "probably no."

There are hundreds of therapies out there, all of them created by people who had a different standard of what constitutes normality. Since the overwhelming consensus of most of them is that we are this body and that this temporary existence in the body is all-in-all, there is a fundamental world-view difference that means there is no real compatibility.

Basically, the goal of psychology is to achieve normalcy, or to establish normalcy. What are the standards of normalcy? Is it sāttvika, rājasika or tāmasika? How does modern psychology deal with genius--is that normal? One person's mental disorder is another person's sign of genius. Erik Erikson wrote about Luther and Gandhi--both of whom displayed certain abnormal characteristics according to what we expect of normal, well-adjusted human beings, and yet both accomplished great things. Were they suffering from OCD?

Well, let us say that the goal of psychology is to achieve happiness. Then we say that even success from a material point of view is failure, because achieving material happiness is no success from a spiritual point of view. But OCD is defined as a pathology when its nature is incapacitating, and perceived even by the patient himself as detrimental to his own well-being. If I wash my hands 50 times every time I think of women, then I might be able to perceive that this habit is affecting my well-being negatively. If the person in question does not think it is a problem, then it is generally considered patronizing and against our modern relativistic world view to impose our sense of normalcy on him, unless he causes harm or is a danger to others.

Can japa cause distress? If every time I think of women, I have to chant ten rounds, then it might be a problem. But if I am sitting down quietly every day for two hours and meditating on the Holy Name in peace and joy, then where is the OCD in that? Of course, there is such a thing as a social consensus which is very subtly but very forcefully imposed on us by this material world.

Yesterday, before my class at Madhuban, I was putting on tilak and one of the brahmacharis here asked me why I did it. I said, "Everybody is wearing the uniform of materialistic life, even if they have a spiritual bent. They hide their spirituality because, for whatever reason, they are afraid of contradicting the status quo. Someone has to fly in the face of that coerced normality, take a public stand and say, life is about love for God."

The social consensus of normality is internalized by us all, over lifetimes of conditioning, and so the inclination to spirituality becomes troublesome. And even the scriptures support this conditioning with its exhortations to duty.

But if my attachment to the Holy Name becomes so great that I abandon my worldly duties and lose all taste for the rat-race, the American presidential election, and what is the latest product of Hollywood's entertainment factory, does that make me unacceptably abnormal in the view of the psychologists?

Ah, the psychologists, constantly moving the goalposts of normality. Homosexuals used to be abnormal, now they are normal. Being occasionally sad used to be considered an inevitable fact of life, even a good thing; now it is abnormal and needs medication. Maybe the time will come for Hare Krishnas to be normal one day. But will I trust the psychologists or the Hare Krishnas then?

What about the athletes and other heroes, who follow an obsessive compulsive regime in order to attain goals of profit, adoration and prestige? Do we consider them to be mentally unhealthy? We barely think so even when they take steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to do so. And what about the heroes of the entrepreneurial world and their famous 20-hour work days—all for what? Even when we tut-tut about how they ruined their marriages, neglected their children, destroyed their health, when we see them revel in their rewards—that conspicuous consumption, that trophy bride, glitter under that philanthropic patina—we feel envy. We were too normal for all that.

So what about the spiritual athlete? The person who says that normal means trivial? That a life of normality centered on trivialities is no better than animal existence, no matter how couched in technological sophistication. Is a triviality any less trivial because it is coming to us through a television or the internet, or because we work 20 hours a day to produce it? Is the obsession with the fleeting and ephemeral somehow superior because it induces narcolepsy to the realities of birth, old age, disease and death? Is the compulsion to bury ourselves in hard work in the day and sense gratification at night somehow superior because it covers our sense of life’s meaningless?

Yes, there is a stage of spiritual life where the effort may appear distressful. That is called sādhanā. It means you forcefully turn your mind away from one thing and fix it on another. Armed with knowledge of what is temporal and ephemeral and what is permanent and transcendent, you attempt to break your mind, intelligence, sense of self and subconscious of the habits of lifetimes by redirecting them to the Divine and the Sacred. If the materialist can say there is no gain without pain, why can we not say the same?

Of course, there is the question of perspective even within the confines of bhakti. We have our own version of OCD, it is called niyamāgraha, which means overattachment to rules, regulations or rituals without understanding their purpose. The purpose of all spiritual life is to attain prema, love for God. Through such love, all other ends will be met, material or spiritual. If one does not understand the goal and simply engages in obsessively following the infinity of scriptural injunctions for their own sake, he is unfortunately in a category of OCD, which we can accept as problematic.

Since the pressure, spoken or unspoken, to conform to the materialistic world view is so strong, it will not be altogether surprising if you go a little crazy trying to break away from it. Hopefully not, however. Ideally, you should get a taste of the peace and joy of the Divine and Sacred right away, confirming that deep inner intuition that the pursuits of the masses are illusory.

There are very few who are free of disease in this world. If you find someone who shows the signs of divine love, then you would be well advised to learn from that person.

More later. Part II.

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