Psychotherapy and the Practice of Krishna Consciousness
I have been speaking to a friend about how personal and spiritual growth can be related, or how our being balanced human beings in the mode of goodness is a good foundation for Krishna consciousness. Thus I thought of posting this article by my wife and I: Chanting the holy name and engaging in Bhakti-yoga (Krishna consciousness or devotional service) is the ultimate process of purification and healing in our tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. The process of counseling should be seen as an adjunct to the process of Krishna consciousness, and although it can be helpful for some devotees, it is not in itself the panacea for all our problems. The reason for bringing this up is that sometimes the question arises: “Why do we need anything other than our spiritual practices to be successful in our spiritual life?”
One answer is that we don’t. Only bhakti, can give bhakti, or Krishna consciousness. However, therapy can create a favorable mental environment for the practice of Bhakti yoga. A "favorable mental environment" generally means a healthy psychology which is balanced and strongly influenced by the "mode of goodness".
There has been much criticism for going to a “non-devotee” therapist. There is validity to this concern to the extent that the therapist doesn't support or understand the practice of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Putting that concern aside for now, what if a therapist is first and foremost a devotee and is a therapist by profession and as a service to devotees? What if such a devotee therapist is using therapy in the pursuit of helping a devotee in their spiritual life? If therapy is used in this way, then that therapy is part of Krishna consciousness because it serves it.
Even though psychotherapy isn’t innately spiritual or necessarily supports a belief in God, there is more and more acceptance in its' practice of the spiritual dimension to life. The development of transpersonal and other more spiritual therapies attest to this. In addition in the last 20 years we have seen a shift (at least in social work) from not acknowledging a person's religion or spirituality, to seeing them as a great aid to the process of therapy.
We can give our practical experience about the value of therapy with devotees. Sometimes even mature devotees come to us with relationship problems or difficulties in performing their sadhana due to their negative perceptions and feelings (anarthas). Often these devotees are “doing everything right” from the external point of view of faithful spiritual practice, and still they are feeling “stuck” in the preliminary stages of devotion. Or in other cases, the devotee’s mental disturbance is so severe that they are not able to perform their sadhana at all. In either case, there is obviously something internal they are doing which needs to be changed, and frequently counseling can be very helpful. These devotees have generally exhausted other opinions.
For more conservative devotees, psychotherapy itself (or any process not found in Shrila Prabhupada's books or in Vedic literatures in general) is really on trial since it is a material art that may on the surface disagree with the tenets of Krishna conscious philosophy. Therapy like anything else--such as the practice of medicine, law, architecture, etc--is only a tool, and it can be used or misused. One of the biggest fears against therapists is that in some respects they are in the position of being a type of Guru and they give spiritual (or “material”) advice.
This is a reality, and it means that ideally a devotee’s therapist should be an advanced devotee who is well aware of their great responsibility to give good advice. In some cases, this “advice” may appear to be a step backward to outsiders, yet the goal is a healthy psychology that fosters sadhana and wholesome relationships with devotees and others. In extreme cases the goal may initially be physical survival.
It seems we need to demystify counseling, or frame it in terms that are comfortable for devotees. What exactly is counseling or psychotherapy? Although we can label counseling in a stereotyped way based on its misuse, we see Krishna conscious counseling as a very specific and focused type of devotee association. This process allows a trained person (who is ideally compassionate, balanced, and also a devotee of Krishna in good standing) to help us change our unhealthy patterns and learn more productive ways of interacting with the external world, as well as helping us make the mind our friend and not our enemy.
Though our pure chanting and serving dissolve the subtle body (our material mind, intelligence, and false ego in which our material desires and anarthas are stored), it is generally a slow process. Our habitual mental patterns and attitudes often hold us back. They can become so much a part of us that we often don’t notice them or we think there is nothing we can do to change. Counseling is one way to facilitate change, and change, or moving toward our spiritual identity is really what spiritual life is all about. We should be willing to accept whatever will assist us in our progressive change or spiritual awakening.
Therapy and counseling can help us take better advantage of our spiritual practices. Though not everyone needs it, it can be an additional support to help us to remain fixed in our goal and avoid offenses that may be caused from unhealthy attitudes (anarthas). Offenses and anarthas feed off each other, and can become part of a downward spiral that if not addressed will prevent our spiritual progress, and if severe enough, will take us away from Krishna.
Below is a brief outline of what we understand to be the essence of the therapeutic process in Krishna Consciousness.
1) The therapeutic relationship allows a person to feel safe revealing his/her mind, since confidentiality is a basic principle.
2) The therapeutic relationship gives the devotee a place to vent bottled-up feelings that would otherwise come out in dysfunctional or destructive behaviors towards self and others.
3) The therapeutic relationship helps the devotee to confront behavior patterns that may be hindering relationships with others and sabotaging his/her service.
4) The therapeutic relationship helps the devotee to acknowledge anger, lust, greed and envy in a non-judgmental setting and together with the therapist can generate creative ways to tackle the behavior and keep it in check.
5) The therapeutic relationship helps the devotee to understand how the past, i.e., relationships with parents etc., have helped shaped his/her current perceptions and behaviors. This understanding can help unconscious patterns become more conscious.
6) When our behavioral motivations come into the conscious realm we can then understand them and make choices to correct them. They no longer have the power over us that they did when they were submerged in the unconscious.
To conclude, Krishna conscious counseling is meant to help the devotee deal with their presented problem in a way that is conducive to healthy relationships, and to their spiritual practices. The guidance of the therapeutic process can help retire anarthas, and enable one to chant and serve with more attention and purity. In this sense therapy can be seen as a strong rod to give support to the tree of Bhakti, meant to assist the primary goal of Krishna consciousness. In our assessment therapy when applied properly goes well with the practice of Krishna consciousness. The efficacy of any process can be judged by the result. If something is helpful to our spiritual life we can certainly see that as a manifestation of Krishna. [As an aside, we require many devotee therapists to meet the demand, so I hope our youth will consider a career in counseling. Helping devotees is a very satisfying service and benefits our entire society of devotees!]