The psychological pitfalls of integrating an Eastern spirituality into a modern Western context (Spiritual by-passing)

By Coline R. Moore

(This was originally written as an essay submitted for a counselling qualification and thus is a bit academic – however some people might find it useful.)

The disciple is unworthy; modestly he sits at the Master’s feet and guards against having ideas of his own. Mental laziness becomes a virtue; one can at least bask in the sun of a semi-divine being. He can enjoy the archaism and infantilism of his unconscious fantasies without loss to himself, for all responsibility is laid at the Master’s door. – C.G. Jung

A striking expression, with the aid of a small amount of truth, can surprise us into accepting a falsehood. – Vauvenargues

Cult thinking doesn’t just exist in cults. It exists in schools, companies and idealistic organisations – wherever emotional need (which is universal) meets two cc’s of charisma. Some families are mini-cults, where an all powerful father binds his children emotionally by dealing out love with the one hand, and abuse with the other – from ex-premie website.

It seems to me that people aspiring to practise Buddhism sometimes fail to progress and create further difficulty for themselves and others because of trying to be “good Buddhists”. This is exacerbated if there is a premature identification with “non-self” (‘anatta’ – a central tenet of Buddhism) and spiritual realisation, effectively (and at least temporarily) foreclosing movement towards a fully embodied realisation of potential. As an undergraduate psychology student in the late seventies I was familiar with Jung’s caution against adopting wholesale Eastern spirituality:

… it is sad indeed when the European departs from his own nature and imitates the East or “affects” it in any way. The possibilities open to him would be so much greater if he would remain true to himself and evolve out of his own nature (my emphasis) all that the East has brought forth. (Jung, C.G. 1962 p 85-86)

Perhaps Jung was not arguing for an outright rejection of Eastern spirituality so much as for a genuine emergence of spirituality out of authentic existential dilemmas. But what were the dangers that Jung was alluding to?

“Western consciousness … has been uprooted from the unconscious and the latter is suppressed. In the East, the unconscious is manifest in experience, and in that context it is appropriate to seek to control the influence of the passions by detaching from them. In the West, a similar path can lead to a further and undesirable suppression: “ … since one cannot detach oneself from something of which one is unconscious, the European must first learn to know his subject (the unconscious).” (Jung 1978, p83) The initial task is thus to assimilate unconscious contents into consciousness and, only then, to seek an emancipation from them … It is premature to seek liberation from something we have no contact with; one cannot set down something one does not know one is carrying. To attempt to do so is to foster an even greater separation rather than a movement toward wholeness …” (Ray 1996 p.26)

(c) NASA

To know one’s subject from a person centred viewpoint involves knowing when values are “introjected or taken over from others, but perceived in distorted fashion, as if they had been experienced directly.” (Merry 2002, p 35) and knowing when experiences are “… ignored because there is no perceived relationship to the self-structure (and) denied symbolization or given a distorted symbolization because the experience is inconsistent with the structure of the self.” (ibid)

Even when behaviour is brought about by organic experiences and needs it may be that “the behaviour is not ‘owned’ by the individual.”

(ibid p36) Thus … “Psychological maladjustment exists when the organism denies to awareness significant sensory and visceral experiences, which consequently are not symbolized and organized into the gestalt of the self-structure. When this situation exists, there is a basic or potential psychological tension.” (ibid)

Of course since Jung was speaking his assertions have been extensively challenged and developed and Eastern spirituality has entered the collective consciousness. Nevertheless the post modern spiritual landscape is a complicated one due both to the plethora of therapies and counselling styles let alone conceptions of self (Brazier 1993 p82-83).

Carl Rogers “viewed the self … as a fluid structure, subject to change and revision, rather than something fixed at a particular point. This is consistent with Rogers’ entire attitude towards the person as being in process throughout life. In other words, the self is not an entity; rather, it is a constellation of perceptions and experiences, together with the values attached to those perceptions and experiences.” (Merry 2002 p33)

This idea of anatta or “no self” in Buddhism has given rise to a great deal of confusion and difficulty amongst Western practitioners and teachers of Buddhism and therapists or counsellors who wish to incorporate Buddhist ideas.

In the Buddhist world there is a distinction between “… the mere self, the transactional self which functions conventionally in the world, and an absolute or essential self, a fictitious self, which is to be denied.” (Watson 2000, p31) According to this view the self “is an illusion; it is the imposition of a container self with attributes of independence and permanence upon the foundations of the conventional or transactional self of ever-changing mind states.” (ibid p33)

According to her a modern psychological understanding of the development of self in the individual mirrors the process in the species as a whole so that “… bodily awareness comes first. This is followed by representation of one’s own physical state; a move from self monitoring to self-awareness, which leads to the imputation of a self within a system. Once this imputation is symbolised within language it is reinforced and reified by social structures and value systems of the cultural sphere. Self-image as process retaining a connectedness with the environment, gives way to a self-concept which becomes increasingly solid and autonomous” (ibid.)

(c) NASA Pluto's Blue Sky
(c) NASA Pluto’s Blue Sky

But what happens if there were a shift away from the self concept towards the organismic self? What qualities might a fully functioning person exhibit? Merry, summarising Rogers, claims such a person would

… Be open to experience. Exhibit no defensiveness. Be able to interpret experience accurately. Have a flexible rather than static self-concept open to change through experience. Trust in … her own experiencing process and develop values in accordance with that experience. Have no conditions of worth and experience unconditional self-regard. Be able to respond to new experiences openly. Be guided by … her own valuing process through being fully aware of all experience, without the need for denial or distortion of any of it. Be open to feedback from … her environment and make realistic changes resulting from that feedback. Live in harmony with others and experience the rewards of mutual positive regard.” (Merry 2002, p40)

Similar qualities seem to emerge, according to psychologist Guy Claxton, when the ‘self-system’ is switched off, as it is, he suggests, in mystical experiences. Basing his ideas on the writings of a number of mystics and psychologists including William James and Jung, he claims that in such states the brain-mind’s “intrinsic ability to harmonise and prioritise would be freed from the demands and vetoes of the SS (self system), dissipating the sense of stuckness, and re-establishing a sense of flow … the sheer weight of needs, threats and preoccupations would drop dramatically … the disqualified senses of connectedness and belonging would be immediately rehabilitated, and the inhibited priorities of compassion and care would be released to take their place … the sense of loss of self … and of impenetrable (but trustworthy) mystery at the core of experience, arises … when the SS is disabled, so too are all its defensive inhibitions and evasions.” Claxton 2000, p 108-9

However traditional Eastern societies “provided a religious context that honoured and supported spiritual retreat, and placed little or no emphasis on the development of the individual.” (Welwood 2000 p140)

Unfortunately in their zeal many Westerners have imitated the traditional model and “pursuing impersonal realisation while neglecting their personal life … have found in the end that this was like wearing a suit of clothes that didn’t quite fit.” (ibid)

Welwood suggests that “though industrial society has alleviated many of the grosser forms of physical pain, it has also created difficult kinds of personal and social fragmentation that were unknown in premodern society – generating a new kind of psychological suffering that has led to the development of modern psychotherapy.” (ibid p144)

Without wishing to idealise Eastern cultures, he explains that “in giving priority to the welfare of the collective, Asian societies also did not foster the division between self and other, individual and society, that is endemic to the Western mind. There was neither a generation gap nor the pervasive social alienation that has become a hallmark of modern life.” He explains how early childrearing practices combined a positive regard with sustained early mother-child bonding and worked with the collective responsibility to produce a strong self esteem together with a strong psychological foundation to the self, qualities which by contrast are often lacking in the West. The more pervasive extended family exposed children to a wide variety of role models and sources of nurturance which create an ego structure whose boundaries were more flexible, permeable and less strongly defined than in the West. This automatically prevented the kind of narcissistic injuring and intense reactivity that often occurs in nuclear families. (ibid)

In sum Welwood suggests that “the traditional Asian family seems to foster more of an inner core of well-being than the modern Western family does, by providing more of what Winnicott describes as the two essential elements of parenting in early childhood: sustained emotional bonding and allowing the child to be, to rest in unstructured being.” (ibid p147)

Because the context in which Eastern spiritual practices arose is usually so different to what prevails in the West today it behoves Western practitioners and teachers of Buddhism to be as psychologically astute as they can be. Welwood suggests that the founders of these traditions never contemplated the host of issues that beset the practitioner today especially outside of the monastic tradition. (ibid 2000 p138) He makes a distinction between realisation and actualisation, the former being a direct experiential realisation of “one’s own true nature beyond the conventional ego” (the initial goal of Buddhist practices) whereas “actualisation refers to how we live that realisation in all the situations of our life.” (ibid p139) He suggests that “psychological work might serve as an ally to spiritual practice – by helping to bring an awareness into all the hidden nooks and crannies of our conditioned personality, so that it becomes more porous, more permeable to the larger being that is its ground.” (ibid p140)

Indeed he suggests that “expressing absolute true nature in a thoroughly personal, human form may be one of the most important evolutionary potentials of the cross-fertilisation of East and West, of contemplative and psychological understanding. The great potential in bringing these approaches together is to learn how to transform our personality … thus redeeming the whole personal realm, instead of just seeking liberation from it.” (ibid p166)

To fail to bring this psychological awareness to the task in hand is to invite various distortions and difficulties no matter how great a spiritual realisation one may have had because at some point practitioners again “… encounter circumstances that trigger their emotional reactivity, their unresolved psychological issues, their habitual tensions and defences, or subconscious identifications …” (ibid p139)

Welwood has coined the term ‘spiritual bypassing’ to describe “the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional’ unfinished business’, to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings and developmental tasks in the name of enlightenment.” (ibid p150) and he warns that even those “who develop a high degree of spiritual insight power, even brilliance, may still remain consistently blind to islands of darkness and self-deception in themselves. They may even unconsciously use their spiritual powers to reinforce old defences and manipulative ways of relating to others.” (ibid p139)

The teacher in these contexts needs not only to be aware of his own capacity for such distortions but also that of the student or client. Issues around transference and counter transference further complicate the matter. Buddhist teachers have no supervision for their work despite it frequently containing counselling or psychotherapeutic elements. Some may rely on their own teachers for supervision but others simply rely on an informal network or ‘sangha’ for balances and checks. In recent years, after many disastrous episodes in Buddhist centres ethical guidelines already present within Buddhism have been refined to make them appropriate to the role of teacher. Although breaches of trust have occurred in other areas it is within the sexual field that difficulties have most often occurred. In these new guidelines teachers …

a) “agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality and to avoid sexual exploitation or adultery … not to use their teaching role to exploit their authority and position in order to assume a sexual relationship with a student.

b) If a genuine and committed relationship interest develops … between an unmarried teacher and former student, the student must … be under the guidance of another teacher. A minimum … of three months … from the last formal teaching between them, and a clear understanding … that the student-teacher relationship has ended must be coupled with a … commitment to enter into a relationship that brings no harm …” (Kornfield 1993)

The new BACP ethical framework requires a counsellor to be in regular supervision – a notable difference to the ethical guidelines adopted by most Buddhist communities. Otherwise the guidelines are similar: “Practitioners must not abuse their client’s trust to gain sexual … or any other kind of personal advantage. Sexual relations with clients are prohibited.” ( 2004)

One would hope that both teachers of Buddhism and counsellors in a Buddhist context would be sufficiently psychologically astute to recognise their own shortcomings and areas of difficulty so that unnecessary suffering is avoided. Supervision of Buddhist teachers would seem to be desirable given the various ways in which Buddhist teachings and practices have been misunderstood and misused by some Westerners and given the difficulties of adopting spiritual teachings within a Western context without a complementary psychological awareness. The ethical guidelines mentioned above offer some safety for clients and students alike but awareness of the issues would appear to offer the best security.

Colin Moore April 2004
Check my website for more details


Jung.C.G (1962), Commentary on ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’. R.Wilhelm (trans) Routledge, London

Ray C, (1996), Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings : Convergences and Divergences in Beyond Therapy, Guy Claxton Ed., Prism Press, Dorset

Merry, T (2002), Learning and Being in Person Centred Counselling, PCCS Books, Ross on Wye

Brazier, D (1993), The Necessary Condition is Love: going beyond self in the person-centred approach in Beyond Carl Rogers, Brazier, D. (Ed) Constable, London

Carl Rogers (1980), A Way of Being –found in )

Jinpa, G.T (2000), The Foundations of a Buddhist Psychology of Awakening, in The Psychology of Awakening, Watson, Batchelor and Claxton (Eds) Weiser inc. York Beach USA

Rogers, C.R. (1961), On Becoming a Person, Constable, London

Watson, G (2000), I, Mine and Views of the Self, in The Psychology of Awakening, Watson, Batchelor and Claxton (Eds), Weiser inc. York Beach USA

Claxton, G (2000), Neurotheology: Buddhism, Cognitive science and Mystical Experience, in The Psychology of Awakening, Watson, Batchelor and Claxton (Eds), Weiser inc. York Beach USA

Brazier, D (2000), Buddhist Psychotherapy or Buddhism as Psychotherapy, in The Psychology of Awakening, Watson, Batchelor and Claxton (Eds), Weiser inc. York Beach USA

Welwood,J (2000), Realisation and Embodiment: Psychological Work in the Service of Spiritual Development, in The Psychology of Awakening, Watson, Batchelor and Claxton (Eds), Weiser inc. York Beach USA

Kornfield, J, (1993) A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, Bantam, New York

ethical framework for good practice in counselling and psychotherapy (2004)

line-gothicSee also