TOBIN HART is a humanistic transpersonal psychologist, professor in the University of West Georgia’s Humanistic, Transpersonal and Critical Psychology program, and co-founder of the ChildSpirit Institute. In the final part of this series, in which he is interviewed by VICTOR KANNAN, Director of the Heartfulness Institute USA, Tobin speaks about the intersection of western psychology and spirituality, in particular the importance of presence, imagination, wisdom, love, compassion, purity, and overcoming spiritual bypassing.
Q: When you talk about possibility, would faith be part of wisdom?
TH: Yes, in this sense my favorite definition of faith is a suspension of disbelief. So, rather than believe in something, there is another important quality or capacity we call imagination. One of the powerful allies for wisdom and possibility is imagination. Can we conceive of another way? And can we act “as if ” for a bit? Can we hold open possibility for long enough? Imagination is a bridge between the known and the unknown. From psychology, we know our minds are so powerfully conditioned to see things, to perceive in a way, and to believe in a way. If we can imagine another way, suddenly we can free ourselves. That’s also part of what I think wisdom is about – to free ourselves.
Q: So faith is also a bridge between the known and the unknown.
TH: Exactly. Yes.
Q: So imagination is the bridge between the known and the unknown.
Q: Wisdom is also a bridge between perhaps the known and the unknown at this point in time, in a way that they seem to share in the quality of each other.
TH: Yes, absolutely. Really, I think with all the things we are talking about, if you go deep enough into any one of them it opens to all the others. Wisdom involves some other things too. It involves cultivating clarity and seeking guidance. Different capacities serve us. For example, how do we find wise guides? From our interiority, from our inspiration, from a dialogue with a good book, with our children, with our loved ones in general, and, ultimately, with any circumstance, we’re looking for signs.
The indigenous cultures often read signs, such as the flight of a bird or something that crosses our path. It’s fascinating to say, “Wow, okay, what does that do for me? Why does it resonate?” Rather than making any ontological claims about somebody sending this bird to me, it’s instead, “What is that about? What does it trigger or open? How can I dialogue with this? What does it make me think of ?” So we’re always available for guidance, and it’s always available to us.
Q: And that is not possible if we are not present. In the wisdom category, you talk about discernment, and also about the child’s ability to directly perceive things.
Q: In your book, you mention a tool called SAM, the Spirituality Assessment Matrix. So, if I were to say to myself, “Hey, I want to become wiser, I want to be able to perceive things better,” then what type of assessment should I give myself?
TH: You’re referring to the instrument we made. It’s just a series of questions to ask yourself. It’s for self-reflection when folks look for help, direction and guidance to develop their psycho-spiritual potential. I think it’s very difficult to do the spiritual life without simultaneously doing the psychological, and the psychological without the spiritual. SAM was designed to give a self-assessment about what your strengths are already, and what might be some specific trailheads for growth.
How do we find wise guides?
From our interiority, from our inspiration,
from a dialogue with a good book,
with our children, with our loved ones in general,
and, ultimately, with any circumstance,
we’re looking for signs.
For example, you might discover that you have this incredibly big heart, compassion and empathy, but you may not have a strong capacity for, say, discernment. Another person might have a lot of presence, being really aware and awake, and yet not have what is the fourth direction – they have not found their voice. They haven’t yet found their creative expression in the world.
Maybe your capacity for love and compassion overrides any discernment. So anytime you see something or someone in need, you give to them automatically but end up feeling drained, sometimes even like a doormat. You might justify it further by saying, “Well, what I’ve given hasn’t helped, but at least I’ve given it to them.” You may even feel like a martyr in some way, suffering as you give. Yet, I would argue that to give without a very organic joy is problematic. It misses the point really. I think when folks give freely from their hearts, there is this incredible expansion, and the whole world is enriched by it. So, in this particular case, it might be that one needs to practice or develop the capacity for discernment, maybe even more particularly, self-assertion. Practicing when to say no, and when to say yes, and when to be particular in what and how to give. For example, rather than giving cash to someone who has trouble with drugs, you give meals instead. That’s where the heart really joins with wisdom so that we can serve one another.
Q: You’re talking about a different dimension of all this working together, right? For example, we can be compassionate, but if we don’t have joy, we reach empathy-fatigue. If we are compassionate but don’t have wisdom, then we don’t know when to stop, or how much to give, or what to give?
I feel it all works together, and that leads me to the idea of evolution of consciousness. At the end of the day, all these elements of love, wisdom etc., are in the consciousness of a person. The joy you speak about is when the evolution of consciousness, expansion of consciousness, and purity of consciousness reach a level where joy is possible.
TH: When I think about purity of consciousness, I think that this is the notion of oneness; ultimately, things are all one. The notion of maya alludes to this. At this level of perception or awareness, things are illusory in relation to the ultimate, where there is oneness of all things. That’s what I think of when I think of purity of consciousness.
The evolution of consciousness is tricky, because one could argue that consciousness doesn’t evolve. It’s just what it is, always. It’s pure. So, in my mind, the idea of evolution of consciousness is about how each of us, as individuals, and as a community of humanity, can really develop our presence, our love, our wisdom, and our creativity, in order to come closer to that greater mystery.
I think that’s what we’re about in our own very, very particular ways. Sometimes it can be tricky, because it’s easy for folks who are very earnest and very advanced to do spiritual by passing. That is, they take that ultimate perspective of oneness and dismiss the reality of their personhood, the need for differentiation and discernment.
The sentiment might be, “If all is oneness, then I need to love everything. So let me treat everything accordingly.” Yet the reality is that there’s some things that you don’t love. So there’s denial, there’s repression. What we know is this: What we resist will persist, and it will come back to haunt us. It’s what Carl Jung talked about as the shadow. Jung talked about the whole process of individuation. The process of evolution of individual consciousness is about “shadow work.”
It’s about owning those parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see.
William James says that the things we value most are at the mercy of the things we value least. That’s particularly true about ourselves, right? So, that’s where this trick is. I think we’re limited, but let’s accept that, and see how we engage with and move through it rather than deny and bypass. This is our work towards expanding consciousness.
When I think about purity of consciousness,
I think that this is the notion of
oneness; ultimately, things are all one.
The notion of maya alludes to this.
At this level of perception or awareness,
things are illusory in relation to the ultimate,
where there is oneness of all things.
Spiritual bypassing is a real problem with earnest and honest spiritual seekers. That’s why the psychological and the spiritual have to go together every step of the way. To move spiritually, you have to work through, or in some way disentangle, the psychological structures that have kept you at a certain level. For example, we see great spiritual guides, people who really are remarkable in many respects, who are also abusing people. They haven’t done sufficient psychological work. On the other hand, we know lots of people who are brilliant intellectually and great personalities, but in some way don’t have the spiritual capacity or vision to really have the fullness of potential.
Q: I want to go a little bit deeper into spiritual bypassing. I think this has been introduced through different terminologies. For example, in Heartfulness, the first Guide says that we have not even taken the first step in spirituality until we have improved our character. He makes a big distinction between character formation and spiritual achievement. To me, it is spiritual bypassing if you are not focusing on improving your character.
Can you talk a little bit more about this, maybe giving one or two examples? That way, people can really understand that the very spiritual practice they are doing can be counterproductive if they do not increase their level of awareness of some of those shadows or blind spots.
TH: Yes, sure. There is a simple everyday one, and that is practicing to be fully loving. Imagine you go to pick up your car from a repair shop. You’re having a muffler replaced, and they quoted you $60 but it turns out to be $600.
You decide, “Boy, this person must need the money more than I do. From a heartful place I’m just going to give it to them.” And yet, there’s another part of you that says, “I think I’ve just been swindled. I think I’ve just been cheated,” but you make a decision not to address that. You swallow it. Rather than being assertive (not aggressive) and saying, “Look, you told me this. We had a contract, and you didn’t call me to tell me that something changed with the contract.”
That’s human life. If you’re conflict avoidant, which a lot of us are, particularly if we’re trying to be in our heart, this will just rile you up. You may wake up at night with it, but rationalize to yourself that, “No, I did the right thing.” This is a very simple example, but it’s at that level that the tension of the spiritual and the psychological is manifested day in and day out.
In my mind, the idea of evolution of consciousness
is about how each of us, as individuals,
and as a community of humanity,
can really develop our presence, our love, our wisdom,
and our creativity, in order
to come closer to that greater mystery.
Another category of spiritual bypassing comes when we might have had some experience, some powerful awakening of sorts. So, we’ve had some ecstasy, some vision, or some profound sense of love, and we really seek to be with that, to live with that. Yet spiritual experiences can also be a trap. We become so attached to them that everything else falls to the wayside. People then pursue the experience, seeking another high, essentially, and it becomes an addiction. Rather than the profound event being a source of development and growth, it now actually becomes an anchor that holds us back. We may become fixated rather than curious, and this is keeping us from being present in any situation. Also, the ego may assume that this special moment means that we’re special and fuel ego-inflation, which works against spiritual growth.
There are other sorts of issues when we have experiences. I think there are three general steps we might go through:
In terms of overarching questions, the first step is, “What happened? What does this mean?” whether it’s a near death experience, or a great moment in meditation, or whatever. So, we’re trying to figure it out, to ground it in understanding and meaning so that we can get our bearings.
The next stage, as a question, is: “What am I to do?” That might mean, “How do I need to readjust my life and redirect my efforts in light of what I now know?”
The last step takes the integration still further: “How am I to be? What is the life that flows from and through this?” We could say this has more to do with being than doing.
Q: So what’s the end goal of all this? What’s the ultimate purpose of life and living, walking and exercising? Another way to put it is: How do we derive meaning from all these activities and aspirations?
TH: Well, I think the point of life is to live it. Pretty simple. And I do like that it’s a mystery. How do we engage the mystery in a way that feels fulfilling? I think that we basically have some internal felt sense, a barometer or an invisible hand on our shoulder, and it’s directing us in some way. I don’t know how it works. I think we’ll leave that as a mystery. But I do think that we have this opportunity of our life in the Earth school. The job is to do a couple things, that is, to see what it is that is ours to give and what it is ours to learn. In some ways, I would say that’s the definition of a calling.
Q: In Heartfulness we say that we are connected with the Source. It’s even a logical hypothesis, because we all have come from some place, so there is a source for everything – not only the source of creation, but also the source of sustenance, and so on. So, if we are part of that which is created and is being sustained, then there is a connection to the Source.
So the hypothesis is about how I establish a connection with the Source and what does it mean? How does it feel, and what does the journey look like? One idea in terms of the purpose of life, or meaning of life, is basically to be cognizant of this connection and the nature of our journey towards the Source. What are the benefits of that journey, the progressive, feel-good aspect, in a very tangible way, in a real way, not in an assumed way? In a way where you’re marching the trail of reality, where whatever you see is real and authentic. Then you become more and more one with it.
I’m going to send you a book called The Heartfulness Way, written by Daaji, our Guide, where he tries to explain everything as rationally as possible. But at the same time, there is only so much that the rational mind can grasp. It is in keeping with the wonder, the curiosity and the observation out there that we extend our knowledge from what we can know logically to what we can know with wonder.
TH: I’ve recently read some of Daaji’s writings and really appreciate them. His writings are beautifully coherent and down-to-earth. It is very contemporary, not as in trends, not even as a translation, but as a very sane and spiritual depiction relevant for today. I feel the kinship.
Q: You want to share anything else, Tobin?
TH: I’ve appreciated your incisive and big questions. It’s been nice to talk with somebody who’s really knowledgeable and smart about it.
Q: Thank you, Tobin. I hope this conversation further adds to our understanding of psychology and spirituality as a whole study of humanity. Thank you so very much.
Interview by VICTOR KANNAN
Tobin is a professor in the University of West Georgia’s Humanistic, Transpersonal and Critical Psychology program, and co-founder of the ChildSpirit Institute, a non-profit educational and research hub exploring and nurturing the spirituality of children and adults. His work explores human consciousness at the nexus of spirituality, psychology, and education. His recent books include: The... Read more