Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Psychology of Spirituality: Some Notes

Originally posted on August 12, 2010

Of course this is a vast field, but here are some observations. I was chatting with a friend who’s in the mental health field and he noted his difficulty with religion; but at the same time, seemed to be a little interested in spirituality. He mentioned John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst interested in the dynamics of bonding—the way baby and mother develop their emotional connection. He said that as he remembers it, Bowlby observed that the ability to believe in something spiritual is proportional to how much the child have trusted his or her parents. He noted that his own family was somewhat dysfunctional.

I think of the dynamic of bonding as central in spirituality, at a depth psychology level. While I don’t like much of Freudian doctrine, I find the general enterprise of depth psychology most fruitful. Here is a summary of my thoughts, evoked from that conversation:

I think spirituality relates to bonding, and represents a very deep and basic aspect of psychology— the type that goes on unconsciously, for the most part. I don’t think we’ve come to fully appreciating all aspects of this process, and that it includes body-knowing, mind-body interactions, interpersonal sensitivity, how well parents attune with their infants, and so forth. With that disclaimer of what we probably don’t know yet, I think we can make some important observations.

Spirituality is a sub-type of bonding, of feeling the presence and relevance of the whole of nature, and it can begin to constellate in the psyche in early childhood. Bonding is in some ways like gravity in that the further away another body is, the less attraction it holds. That’s only partly true for the realm of mind. We bond to others depending on our emotional investment in them. Early on it’s mainly with family—although it can be easily grafted onto a nanny or caretaker—; then over the next few years, bonding extends in a widening circle to siblings, friends, neighbors, clubs, usually becoming weaker with these extensions, but not always.

Bonding can be strengthened with the rather peripheral and symbolic category of “our country” in a time of war. The degrees of unanimity, morale building, the celebration of patriotism, the imminence of danger—these and other variables intensify this emotional investment. It is not a shallow feeling: Bonding to one’s buddies, unit, and national purpose can to varying degrees generate acts of self-sacrificing herois.

Bonding extends to all manner of social allegiances and identifications. We bond with other things more or less depending on our cathexis—a Freudian term referring to the quality and strength of emotional investment. Some folks bond strongly to the religion of their childhood, others weakly, or even develop a repulsion to it. (These dynamics also overlap to the feelings associated with relationships as viewed through the lens of sociometry.)

Some people bond to other role categories. Some women (and the occasional man) are very bonded to their own gender’s political and social issues, some not. Race, religion, profession, sexual orientation, etc.—all gather different levels of allegiance and/or identification. To some degree bonding generates identification, the feeling that “We are that,”  and we feel caught up in that status whether it is respected or despised, wins or loses.

Spirituality involves the wholeness of existence. We can get to that. If the aliens from Mars were to attack (as portrayed in science fiction magazines and movies in the early 20th centuries, we might well bond to those other earth-people who had previously been “enemies.” Now they’re needed allies—even if we don’t know or particularly like many or most of ’em.

Here’s another scenario: The earth is going to be struck by a meteor or an asteroid. We have to marshal all our efforts, collaborate to build whatever science comes up with to deflect that asteroid. We bond with not just humans, but other life-species on earth. In other words, I’m noting that the psychology of bonding can reach out indefinitely into space.

The dynamic of idealization is also part of this deep emotional connection—a connection that merges with the psychology of spirituality. In idealization we attribute virtues not-demonstrated to someone or something because it has a few well-demonstrated virtues. Daddy is bigger, so he must know everything.

One of the problems with religion today is that, as has been written about, many of us sustain concepts of god that are too “small” for a universe that has grown to be larger in multiple directions and by many orders of magnitude. For many people, the traditional idea of God cannot hold the allegiance of people who want their spirituality to be for the most part pretty rational.

There’s also a problem is that we also idealize rationality: I think that rationality is better than irrationality 87.3% — but why not 100%   Because irrationality in love, nurturance, faith, music, dancing, play, silliness, etc. constitutes the juice of life. Less than 12.7% non-rationality and you become dry and overly serious. Therefore, I’ve written a number of papers on religion on my website, as well as papers on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (Process Philosophy), on creative mythmaking and meaning-making.

I think there’s a deep instinct to make sense of life, and that everyone develops an unconscious philosophy. Interestingly, this philosophy can be a compilation of platitudes and other images and ideas that roughly come together to seem sensible. Dream images can be like that, too—it all seems plausible during the time you’re “in” the dream.

But any degree of conscious critical thinking begins to unravel those casual constructions. For many people—probably most—-this semi-conscious collage of ideas feels sufficient, does the job of offering an adequate sense of meaning to life. Alas, under stress, confronted by tragedy or paradox, these systems tend to crumble. There’s a whole side theme here about how people redouble their efforts to “believe” or maintain their “faith” in the postmodern era that has its parallels to the several levels and years of redoubled defensive maneuvers people use to maintain the basic themes of their character structure or neurosis.

There is an alternative, I’m happy to say. In the last several decades a variety of metaphysical, philosophical, spiritual systems have been evolving that offer a more rational approach. They’re not 100% rational, but as I say, that has its advantages. I’ve found that thoughtful people can find spiritual paths that are between 8 – 24% non-rational and they do well, these systems are pretty resilient.  (As you might guess, the criterion of practicality, emotional effectiveness, adaptation, etc., is an important one.)

Few people know about these alternatives because the mainstream currents highlight the polarized extremes: Believe in our religion with all of its crazy doctrine or believe in that religion with all of those other crazy doctrines—or believe in nothing, and celebrate your rejection, your nihilism, you cynicism. I did that in my early-mid adulthood—prideful atheism. It was great—sort of standing on a windswept hill with the wind blowing through my hair (I still had hair then), facing down the forces of rank superstition!  But once I established that position and the forces of reaction were weak, I found it dry and dull. The Beckett play, “Waiting for Godot” seemed an apt expression of the dead-end-ness of this position.

Gradually I explored. I didn’t have to, no pressure. But curious, I read widely, finally finding a number of ideas that restored not the faith I had as a child—I still find those beliefs untenable— but a bonding to the world, to history, to nature, to the cosmos, a sense of resonance with those who can feel the awe, reverence, mystery, and delight of deep life. Spirituality can be free like this, and great fun!  I don’t think most folks know this.

So I hope this is stimulating to the reader. Consider the project of wisdom-ing as one of the agendas in your life. I don’t presume that my answers are ultimately right or will work for you, but perhaps a few of the ideas I’ve noted might at least stimulate your own creative journey. So continue to playfully explore, try out ideas, don’t give up. There’s a very high probability you can discover and co-create a schema that will allow you to feel bonded to the universe, to birth, life, and death, to mystery and the opening of the cosmos.

Finally, all this fits also with what the psychoanalyst and theoretician Erik Erikson wrote about in the 1950s, especially about as the final (later-life) psychosocial stage of integrity.

One Response to “The Psychology of Spirituality: Some Notes”

  • I, too, had the “bonding to the world, to history, to nature, to the cosmos, a sense of resonance with those who can feel the awe, reverence, mystery, and delight of deep life.” Yet now, right now, I am finding a missing link, if you will, with the peace and joy this can bring.

    I struggle probably the first time EVER with wanting to “not do” anything at times. In other words, where I have always been productive, I want to do nothing yet my personal, spiritual ethic says I need to accomplish. This does not mean that should or if an assignment happened to present and it needed me to do it, I, of course, would do so.

    There presently is a “laziness” about my spirituality. I believe I am missing some of the profoundness that some of my earlier discoveries brought.

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