Spirituality & Psychology

As a middle-aged woman, she composed ethereal music, painted vivid pictures, and wrote a range of works including plays, poetry, and two learned books on the natural world, one of which included what is probably the first description in the Western tradition of a female orgasm.  She founded her own convent, and corresponded with kings and popes, never shrinking from delivering criticism when she felt it necessary.  “I can bring down evil on those men that offend me,” she wrote in one letter. “Oh King, if you wish to live, listen to me or I shall run you through with my sword.”

At any time in history, such a woman would be judged remarkable.  But Hildegard von Bingen lived and worked in Germany during the 12th century, not exactly a period of female emancipation or religious tolerance.  Her great outpouring of art, which started when she was in her forties, resulted from a series of visions. “The heavens were opened,” she wrote, “and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain.” While later observers like neurologist Oliver Sachs have attributed these visions to the onset of migraine headaches, Hildegard believed them to be messages from God.  They inspired her to write and illustrate a book of poems and illuminations that anticipates William Blake by several centuries.

Today, the 155 liturgical pieces that comprise her musical output are her chief claim to fame.  Rather unusually, she set her own poetry, not canonical Christian texts, to music.  Her body of work also includes one of the earliest examples of a mystery play.  A musical extravaganza by 12th century standards, the play pits 16 Virtues against the Devil and was probably performed by the nuns in Hildegard’s abbey.  Her repertoire was not meant to entertain, however.  The chants were part of the nuns’ daily devotions, the artwork done in service to a higher calling, the plays a way of making the Spirit manifest in the world.

Hildegard von Bingen’s originality, her creation of startling new forms of art and music, appears to be inextricably linked to her refusal to accept received wisdom. She listened to her inner voice, a spiritual calling she attributed to a higher power. Many great social leaders — Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi — have similarly drawn strength and inspiration from spiritual sources in rebelling against the established order. A tradition of challenging injustice can be found in all the great religions, though religions have also played a major role in upholding the status quo. This latter tendency toward conservative, institutional behavior has prompted many to seek spiritual guidance outside organized religions.

The conflict between challenging and supporting the established order can be found as well in the arena of psychology.  Here, too, is a many-faceted discipline that addresses the intangible and unquantifiable dimensions of human behavior.  The psyche, like the spirit, animates the body like a breath, but cannot be measured like a heartbeat or a brain wave. The therapist, like the spiritually inclined, faces a dilemma: to reinforce societal norms or help to transform them.  The more radical experiments in redefining mental illness, such as R.D. Laing’s Kingsley Hall community of the 1960s in which patients and therapists often exchanged roles, have largely given way to more modest reevaluations of “madness” and “neurosis.”

Critiques of Western approaches to psychology, approaches that fail to understand an individual’s experience fully within their social context, have diversified the “one big church” that Freud founded at the beginning of the 20th century.  The inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of hwabyung, a mental illness found among Korean immigrants, is one sign of a growing sensitivity in the profession to different cultures.  Radical critics, however, are pursuing more thoroughgoing transformations, such as the acknowledgement of the role of oppression in diagnosing “illness” among those who have experienced racism.  Instead of individual accommodation to oppression, such radical psychology seeks change in the structures that perpetuate psychological distress.

How does spirituality, which can so often be inner-directed, help people become more socially engaged? Has the Western embrace of Eastern spiritual traditions been a healthy diversification or an Orientalist exoticizing?  Is the ecumenical movement among the major religions an attempt to further religious tolerance or a circling of the wagons against so-called sects and cults?  Can religions or spiritual movements survive without proselytizing and how does missionary zeal square with tolerance of diversity? To what extent can psychology be part of a movement for social change?  Does the mixture of therapy and politics necessarily produce movements of questionable ethical conduct such as the Scientologists or Fred Newman’s “social therapy”?

On a trip to Provisions, you can browse through Bradford Keaney’s Profiles of Healing series to learn about Guarani, Japanese, and Bushmen approaches to spirituality and healing, read the thought-provoking articles of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, go online to find pretty much any sacred text you need at The Internet Sacred Text Archive, check out the amazing murals of Lucia Wiley,listen to Tibetan Chants recorded in India, and watch the provocative and controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ.

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