Vedanta and Psychotherapy

TadatmanandaVedanta and Psychotherapy would seem at opposite ends of the spectrum. Vedanta asserts that all is Brahman and psychotherapy has the psyche as its focus. But as Swami Tadatmananda, a senior disciple of  Sri Swami Dayananda (one of the most respected living Vedantis) illustrates in this interview, there is an important relationship between psychological and spiritual growth as evidenced in the scriptures and teachings of the Vedas.

Integral Yoga Magazine: Swami Dayananda teaches a course on Vedanta and psychotherapy. How did this evolve?

Swami Tadatmananda: Swami Dayananda (Pujya Swamiji) tells a story of how he had been teaching Advaita Vedanta in India for some ten or fifteen years and he felt that these teachings were so powerful that any sincere student with proper guidance could become enlightened. But, then he came to America in 1976 and started teaching western students. He soon discovered that too many of these disciples had considerable emotional and psychological obstacles that stood in the way of significant spiritual growth. There is plenty of support for this in the teachings of Vedanta.

Sri Shankara and other masters acknowledged that adhikaritvam (preparedness or competency) is needed. The Mahavakyas like Tat Tvam Asi, will only be effective for one who is prepared. Pujya Swamiji began to incorporate teachings to help the western disciples begin to address their emotional issues. He consistently integrated—almost in a parallel manner—into his Vedantic teachings, methods to help students gain emotional maturity. He also encouraged them to go to a conventional therapist if this would be helpful.

IYM: Can you give us an example of these methods?

ST: He saw hurt and, the inability to let go of hurt, as a major obstacle for many students. There is a form of contemplation he conducts in which he asks students to close their eyes and do some preliminary pranayama and mantra japa to quiet the mind. Then he asks them to reflect on people who have hurt them and understand that those who hurt us, do so because they feel compelled to hurt us. He then will say, “Can you imagine a situation in which someone would strike you in the face hard. Now, imagine a situation in which you would be neither angry nor hurt. Is it possible?” Of course anyone would give the answer, “That’s crazy. I would be outraged by such an action.” Pujya Swamiji will then say, “Imagine you are holding a one-year-old baby who is a little agitated and waving its arms and hits you hard. Would you be angry and shout angrily? Would you feel hurt? Would you say to the child, ‘Why did you hurt me. I am trying to comfort you and what do I get for my kindness, you smash me in the face.’”

The point of the story is that those who have hurt us do so because they are momentarily out of control, just as a child can be out of control. Adults under sufficient emotional stress are driven to do harmful things because they momentarily go out of control. This is what we call “emotional reactivity”—getting caught up in a powerful emotional reaction and doing or saying something that is likely to be hurtful.

IYM: Any other examples?

ST: I lead an elaborate contemplation on forgiveness. I will first give a full lecture unfolding these teachings. Following the lecture, we will do some pranayama, meditate  and then I’ll guide people through a process. Reflect and think back on when you did something hurtful to someone else. Did you do this because you wanted the person to suffer and you are a mean nasty person or was it because you were under some emotional duress, caught up in surge of reactivity, were compelled to do or say something hurtful. So, we will reflect on our own hurtful behavior. Then, I invite everyone to think of a particular person who hurt them and we go through a  process of understanding what may have led that person to hurt us. In general, those who hurt us are those who themselves have been hurt. If we come to understand that those who have hurt us have done so in a condition of helplessness like the small child—just as we don’t blame the child for our pain, we won’t blame those adults. If we don’t blame them, where is the issue of forgiveness? We just understand.

IYM: How did Sri Swamiji personally guide in this process?

ST: After studying under his guidance for many years, I became manager of his ashram in Pennsylvania. As manager I ended up dealing with a lot of difficult situations. Once in a great while, an ashram resident would shout at me in anger. I would struggle with how to respond to that. Obviously, if I were to become angry and shout back—“Who gave you the right to shout at me?”—I would only escalate the situation. As manager, my job was to solve the problem, not to escalate it. Our human responses are usually either fight or flight. The fight would be if I got angry. The flight response was to be hurt and withdraw emotionally feeling, “Why is this person abusing me? I work hard and try my best. Don’t they understand how hard my job is? Oh poor me.” This could lead to me becoming depressed. Now, I needed others to help me rather than my being able to help others!

In those days, I would go to Swami Dayananda with my management problems. He became my management guru! He would question me, “When they come in and shout, are they angry at you or at the manager? As a fairly immature Vedantin, I had failed to make the connection, so he made it for me. Our nature of Satchidananda Atma is utterly independent of body, mind, senses and independent of our roles. He taught me that I am a person who plays many roles but these roles are not me. The next time someone came and behaved inappropriately, I didn’t get hurt or angry because I understood they were angry at the manager who had made a decision, according to the requirements of his role, and this had angered the person. Since the person was not angry at me, I felt neither angry nor hurt and I could be quiet, listen and encourage the person to vent their anger and frustration and then work with them to address the difficulty. To this day, this teaching has blessed me again and again.

IYM: We find a lot of parallels between Vedanta and cognitive therapy.

ST: Wrong conclusions about ourselves make us suffer. This is the premise both of Vedanta and cognitive therapy. In cognitive therapy we talk about negative thinking:  No one likes me, everyone is out to get me. I’m not as good as they are. I’m not good enough. So, the goal is to help the client understand where he or she made a wrong conclusion. The conclusion that, “I am not as good as they are” is considered in the light of the truth that there are plenty of people better than we are and plenty that are worse than we are!

There is a teaching in the Vedas: “Mana eva manushyanam,” which means that the mind alone is the cause of bondage and liberation. The basic teaching of Advaita Vedanta  is that you already are Satchidananda Atma. Your Atma is already non-separate from Brahman. None of the Mahavakyas have a future tense: “Aham Brahmasmi,” I am Brahman. You don’t become Brahman. You are what you want to become, you have what you want to possess. Since that is so, why am I so miserable? The answer is: I don’t know who I am and what I really possess. In fact I have made wrong conclusions about myself. I have avidya with regard to my Atma swarupa (my true nature). I believe I am limited, finite; that I need a million and one things to be okay. Or, if this happens or doesn’t happen, my life is finished. All these are wrong conclusions predicated on the absence of understanding my true nature as Satchidananda Atma. We already are full and complete. Our true nature is already divine.

IYM: Could you give other examples in the scriptures?

ST: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras addresses a variety of psychological issues. There are also plenty of teachings on psychology in the Bhagavad Gita. In chapter 2, verses 62-63 we find an excellent example of psychological teaching, “For a person who experiences objects, continually exposed to interesting objects, for that person, attachment arises.” In Vedanta, we define attachment as looking upon a thing or person (the presence or absence of) as essential to our wellbeing. The Gita goes on to talk about how from reflecting on something again and again comes attachment, dependence and from that comes kama (desire), from desire comes anger ( I want it but can’t have it) from anger comes samoha or delusion (I begin scheming about how to get it), smriti  (memory) comes and we lose our values and moral compass. From losing your values in your memory, then buddhi, our thinking gets perverted. When we get perverted, we
do wrong things.

I’ll give an example. Suppose a person watches a television and sees an ad for a Mercedes SUV. This ad comes on several times each evening. Soon the person thinks, “Wow, I would be so happy if I could have that car.” That’s attachment. I now look upon the Mercedes as “happiness.” So, now I want it (kama). Okay, I can’t afford it so now I’m mad (krodha). If I can’t afford it how can I figure out a way to get it (samoha). Now, I start scheming about how I can get it which may lead me to ignore my values of living an honest life. Scheming leads to a plot: “I can embezzle.” Next, comes the decision to carry out that act and then I get caught and sent to jail and my life is destroyed. This is simple and revealing example of psychological teaching seamlessly embedded into a scripture. There are many, many examples throughout the Gita and particularly in chapters two through five.

IYM: Is there always a relationship between spiritual and psychological growth?

ST: The rishis really didn’t differentiate between psychological and spiritual growth. They didn’t have an independent practice of psychology. Psychological growth is a pre-requisite to spiritual growth. We can look at this on a  continuum. On the far left end of the continuum is pathology (psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar, depression). Moving toward the center, we next find normal emotional problems (sadness, frustration, anger). In the center we have “normal” (what we all decide is conventional behavior.) But, who says normal is the best we can do? Moving toward the right side of the continuum from center we have the extremely mature person—someone so resilient that even in catastrophe that person is not adversely affected. This is the result of real spiritual growth. And, at the extreme right end of the continuum we have the Mahatma, the totally loving and enlightened soul, undisturbed by anything.

IYM: What about the tendency for some on the spiritual path to do what is often referred to as “spiritual bypassing.” If I’m Satchidananda Atma why do I need to do anything about my psychological issues?

ST: If I have the correct Vedantic perspective, I understand that my body and mind have needs, but they are not my needs—I am full and complete. My body needs nourishment and healing. My mind and emotions need nourishment and healing. If genuine spiritual wisdom is present, we acknowledge our humanity, the human needs of the physical body, the emotional needs of the psyche. A spiritually mature person realizes these are normal needs and it’s even dharma to ensure that the body is not harmed and psyche is not harmed. Dharma is ahimsa. And this equally applies to one’s body and mind. 

While I am Satchidananda Atma, I also have a mind and body that are part of this empirical world. Even if I am enlightened, my body continues to need food. Even if I am enlightened, I have psychological needs. The body and mind have their normal needs. Swami Dayananda took a very pragmatic approach with this. If someone is in a spiritual bypass, they have an emotional problem for which they are seeking a spiritual solution and this only bypasses the problem.

This doesn’t mean that we would endlessly indulge the body’s comforts or the psyche’s whims and fancies. Remember, we are talking about attending to “normal” needs (needs not wants). And all the physical wellbeing and psychological health in the world is to be understood in the context of the greater Vedantic understanding. Swami Dayananda observed that no matter how much psychological growth we undergo, no matter how many therapists we see, we will never achieve a condition of total contentment and peace. He said, “In psychology, there is no solution. ln Vedanta there is no problem.” You are already Satchidananda.

About Sri Swami Tadatmananda
Swami Tadatmananda is the founder and resident teacher of Arsha Bodha Center.  From 1981 onwards, he studied in the U.S. and India under Pujya Swami Dayananda, who initiated him into a traditional Hindu monastic order on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh in 1993. Swami Tadatmananda is also a Sanskrit scholar and former computer engineer. His background allows him to draw upon contemporary scientific and psychological insights while unfolding sacred Sanskrit scriptures. For more information, please visit arshabodha.org.

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Fall 2007.
Photo: Sri Swami Dayanandaji (l), Swami Tadatmanandaji (r)

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