Posts tagged Hinduism

Psychotherapy, East and West

Reading philosophical texts can be daunting- sometimes the terminology and words are dense and sometimes you have to re-read multiple times to understand what the writer means. But reading original sources can be highly enriching too.

Buddhist monk in Phu Soidao Nationalpark, Phu ...

Buddhist monk in Phu Soidao Nationalpark, Phu Soidao Nationalpark Waterfall, Thailand, Uttaradit Province Location: Phu Soidao Nationalpark Thailand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when I came across an opportunity to read and review ‘Psychotherapy east and west,’ by Alan Watts, I proceeded ahead with some mixed enthusiasm- I like his quote ‘What if money was no object’ very much; but I also knew that I might not have the right expertise to do justice to the book. I am not a participating psychotherapist- the only saving grace is that I am very much familiar with some of the eastern ‘ways of liberation’ like Vedanta and Yoga and somewhat moderately familiar with the other oriental ones like Zen Buddhism and Taoism.

However, there is much that I could not understand, so take what I say with a pinch of salt.

Alan Watts, considers the eastern ways of liberation as something akin to western psychotherapy, with the aim being to bring about a change in individual consciousness.

The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people. But it is increasingly apparent to psychotherapists that the normal state of consciousness in our culture is both the context and the breeding ground of mental disease. A complex of societies of vast material wealthy bent on mutual destruction is anything but a condition of social health.

And thus the importance of context to understand this book- it was first published in the early 60’s a time of cold war as also a time when the, now controversial,  double-bind theory of psychosis was proposed by Gregory Bateson, whose work Alan Watts seems to admire. Watts assumes, and tries to show ,that Eastern ways of liberation also work by making an individual come to see the true nature of the double bind that society / culture imposes. He references the Hindu concept of Maya or ‘world-as-illusion’ and applies it to social institutions and believes that even western psychotherapists are in the game of dispelling Maya for their clients:

For they (psychotherapists) are dealing with people whose distress arises from what may be termed maya, to use the Hindu-Buddhist word whose exact meaning is not merely “illusion” butthe entire world-conception of a culture, considered as illusion in the strict etymological sense of a play (Latin, ludere). The aim of a way of liberation is not the destruction of maya but seeing it for what it is, or seeing through it. Play is not to be taken seriously, or, in other words, ideas of the world and of oneself which are social conventions and institutions are not to be confused with reality.



Yet very few modern authorities on Buddhism or Vedanta seem to realize that social institutions constitute the maya, the illusion, from which they offer release. It is almost invariably assumed that Nirvana or moksha means release from the physical organism and the physical universe, an accomplishment involving powers of mind over matter that would give their possessor the omnipotence of a god.

Eastern ways of liberation work by dispelling Maya, dissolution of ego and letting Eros or Love/spontaneity reign. But first we have to understand the double-bind to comment on it and to come out of it.


And that is just the paradox of the situation: society gives us the idea that the mind, or ego, is inside the skin and that it acts on its own apart from society.
Here, then, is a major contradiction in the rules of then social game. The members of the game are to play as if they were independent agents, but they are not to know that they are just playing as if! It is explicit in the rules that the individual is self-determining, but implicit that he is so only by virtue of the rules. Furthermore, while he is defined as an independent agent, he must not be so independent as not to submit to the rules which define him. Thus he is defined as an agent in order to be held responsible to the group for “his” actions. The rules of the game confer independence and take it away at the same time, without revealing the contradiction.

This is exactly the predicament which Gregory Bateson calls the “double-bind,” in which the individual is called upon to take two mutually exclusive courses of action and at the same time is prevented from being able to comment on the paradox. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and you mustn’t realize it. Bateson has suggested that the individual who finds himself in a family situation which imposes the double-bind upon him in an acute form is liable to schizophrenia. For if he cannot comment on the contradiction, what can he do but withdraw from the field? Yet society does not allow withdrawal; the individual must play the game.


But in liberation this comes to pass not through an unconscious compulsion but through insight, through understanding and breaking the double-bind which society imposes. One does not then get into the position of not being able to play the game; one can play it all the better for seeing that it is a game.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. I will let Watts describe an example of double bind to you , both in philosophy and in practice, so that you get a clearer idea:

If all this is true, it becomes obvious that the ego feeling Is, pure hypnosis. Society is persuading the individual to do what it wants by making it appear that its commands are the individual’s inmost self. What we want is what you want. And this is a double-bind, as when a mother says to her child, who is longing to slush around in a mud puddle, “Now, darling, you don’t want to get into that mud!” This is misinformation, and this — if anything — is the “Great Social Lie.”

The theory of double -bind for psychosis, though largely discredited/ unproven; may still be a useful starting ground to think about how ways of liberation work. Is the purpose of Zen Koans like ‘show me your true self’ a way to put a person in double bind? Watts wanted this book to be provocative and not a summary of what  research had already happened in terms of commonality between eastern and western approaches to psychotherapy- and I believe he succeeds in making one think.

I loved the book and came out richer for having read that- but beware that like all philosophical books it could be a little dense at times. I hope others, including myself,  continue taking ideas from both east and west and keep cross fertilizing them, until we are all ‘liberated’!!

But the book here:

Between the Stimulus and the Response: the four functions of the Mind

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor E Frankl

Schematic of an idealized analytical instrument.

Schematic of an idealized analytical instrument. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s post I will be drawing heavily from the spiritual traditions of India (Yoga etc), and interested readers are redirected to these excellent sources for more information about the same.

As per the spiritual tradition of India, Mind (or Antahkaran) is made up of four functions or parts. These are Manas, Chitta, Ahamkar and Buddhi. These are typically translated as sensory-motor mind, memory bank, ego and intellect respectively. As an interesting aside, Buddha derives from the common root of Buddhi (budh- to know) and stands for the enlightened one.

Here is a brief description of the four functions:

Manas is ordinary, indeterminate thinking — just being aware that something is there and automatically registers the facts which the senses perceive.


The subconscious action, memory, etc., is caused by chitta. The function of chitta is chinta (contemplation), the faculty whereby the Mind in its widest sense raises for itself the subject of its thought and dwells thereon.


Buddhi determines, decides and logically comes to a conclusion that something is such-and-such a thing. That is another aspect of the operation of the psyche — buddhi or intellect. buddhi, on attending to such registration, discriminates, determines, and cognizes the object registered, which is set over and against the subjective self by aha?k?ra.


Ahamkara — ego, affirmation, assertion, ‘I know’. “I know that there is some object in front of me, and I also know that I know. I know that I am existing as this so-and-so.” This kind of affirmation attributed to one’s own individuality is the work of ahamkara, known as egoism.

There is also a hierarchical relation between these with Buddhi at the top and Manas at the bottom. Now, lets look at each of these more closely.

Manas, or sensory-motor mind, is not just registering stimulus but also responsible for executing actions and may be equated with the sensory/ motor cortical functions of the brain.  It controls the 10 Indriyas (5 senses and 5 action-oriented faculties). Its important to note that Manas is doing both the functions associated with stimulus as well as the response,  though its the first one when it comes to stimulus processing (registering the stimulus)  and the last one when it comes to executing responses/actions ( it blindly executes the action that has been decided / chosen upstream). Of course one could just have a reflex action where a stimulus leads to response, but in majority of human action, there is a space between the two. That space is provided by the rest of the mind functions.

Chitta, or memory-prospecting mind, may be typically equated with the association cortex part pf the brain. Many refer to chitta as the memory or impressions bank, but forget to mention the future oriented part of it. Here is a quote:

The part of the Mind thinking and visualizing the objects, events and experiences from the past or the future (emphasis mine) is called the Chitta and this act is called Chintan.

Its thus evident that Chitta drives Manas not only based on past memories, but also based on future expectations or predictions. From brain studies , we know that the same part of the brain is used for memory as well as prospection.  Chitta using past memories to drive manas (and thus behavior or motivated cognition) I view as being conditioned by classical conditioning processes. Chitaa using future expectations/ predictions to drive behavior and motivated cognition, I view as being conditioned by operant conditioning processes. In many philosophical and spiritual traditions, one of the aims is to get over (social) conditioning. Chitta hinders spiritual awakening by using habits, which is an integral pat of chitta function. The habits are nothing but the conditioning, but again one in stimulus path and the other in response/action path.

Ahamkara, or experiential-agentic self, may be typically equated with consciousness/ conscious and ego-driven self. It knows and say ‘I am’  Conscious entities typically have two functions- experience and agency. It is something it is to be like that conscious entity (experience) and the entity has volition or ability to do things (agency). The concept of self as a conscious entity that has experience (in the stimulus path) and agency (in the response/ action path) is important for this notion of ahamkara. With self comes concepts like real self and ideal self which drive and are driven by experience and agency respectively. The less the discrepancy between the two the better your spiritual growth. An interesting concept here is that of coloring or external decorations- your coloring or how you see your self do lead to downward impact on chitta and manas by contaminating the stimulus/ action.

Buddhi, or knowing-deciding mind, is the final frontier on your path to spirituality.  The typical functions associated with Buddhi are knowing, discriminating, judging and deciding. I think knowing/ discriminating (between stimuli/ actions etc) is a stimulus path function, while judging/ deciding (between actions/ responses/ attending to a stimuli) is a response path function. However I also believe they converge to a great extent here or else we will have a problem of turtles all the way down. Once you start to see things as they are, you are also able to choose wisely. At least that is what the scriptures say and what Boddhisattvas aspire or achieve.

To me this increasingly fine-grained control of what we perceive and how we act , from the gross actions and perceptions of manas to the discriminating decisions of buddhi are very intuitively appealing and also appear to be grounded in psychological and neural processes.

Mindfulness (Buddhism based) has become all the rage nowadays, yet if we look at the spiritual traditions of India, perhaps while Yoga defined as Chitta vritti nirodaha (or “Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind”) does refer to being in the present (here-and-now) and not to be disturbed by the perturbations of chitta (memories of past or expectations of future), one also needs to go beyond just Chitta vritti, to addressing the Ahamkara coloring and finally to try achieving the Buddha nature where there is little disparity in doing and being. (Mindfulness) Meditation needs to move beyond being curious, non-judgemental  and in the present to where one doe shave a judgement function, but one that is perfectly attuned.

Many Paths, Many Ends

Aum symbol in red

Aum symbol in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings are driven by many different goals throughout their life and though the goals of one individual would be different from other, the major goals of life can be classified as striving towards finding happiness, success, integrity and meaning in life. I have blogged elsewhere about how the latest research in positive psychology is explicating these four different legitimate aims via which one may lead a good or flourishing life. Also, a rider is in place here- its not as if one needs to, or is indeed, driven by one major goal to the exclusion of others, but a normal human life involves balancing and trading off one major goal with the other, depending on the need of the hour, the stage of ones life and one’s proclivities.

While psychology of motives and major goals has taken so many years to identify and contrast these goals, the seers and mystics of ages gone by, had been equally eloquent and discerning while coming up with the list of what should be legitimate aims of life- Hinduism defines four Purusharthas- Kama, Artha , Dharma and Moksha. I see a close parallel between Kama or being driven by passions or striving towards pleasure and happiness; between Artha or being driven by materialistic pursuits and towards success and achievement; between Dharma or striving towards living an ethical life and towards integrity and finally between Moksha or striving towards finding meaning and purpose in life (remember existence precedes essence).

To me the association looks too good to be true; but there is no reason to doubt that seers of yonder times may have been able to grasp these subtleties based on their acute mediation on human nature in the jungles.

Similarly, much of psychology is the study of ABCD- i.e Affect, Behavior, Cognition and Desire/ Dynamics. The ABCD model of psychology that I subscribe to tries to carve all human psychological phenomenon using the ABCD prism- identifying the underlying emotional components (Affect) , the behavioral components (Behavior) , the cognitive components (Cognition) and the motivational components (Desire/dynamics) . A (psychological) human himself may be thought of made up of emotions and feelings (affects), actions and reactions (behaviors), thoughts and beliefs (cognitions) and motives and drives (desires) – for some individual emotions may be in driver seat and for some other individual thoughts or intellect may be in the driver seat.

You can probably guess where I am going from here. Just like there are four major goals of life (the four purusharthas) ; so too there are four major ways or paths to achieve the ultimate aim of life (reunion with God) – the four Yogas – The Bhakti Yoga, the Karma Yoga, the Jnana Yoga and the Raja (ashtang) Yoga. To me these four pathways are again very psychologically based- Bhakti Yoga being useful to those who are predominantly emotional in nature; Karma Yoga for those who are more action oriented; Jnana Yoga for those more intellectual or cognitive in their outlook and Raja Yoga for those wanting to purify their motives/ habits using mediation etc.

Again just like a focus on either success or happiness or meaning or integrity may not be fruitful, so too for ‘normal’ humans a predominance with the Bhakti marg or the jnana marga or the Karm Marga or the Raja yoga marg may not be entirely healthy or salutogenic. We need to walk the path of all the margs simultaneously and depending in the need of the hour, or our stage of life be conversant and adept in all of these- be a good bhakt, a good karmayogi, a jnanai and a Raja Yogi.

While the later branches of Hinduism have overemphasized the importance of Moksha to the exclusion of other purusharthas, IMHO, a more balanced pursuit of all major goals of life and a more flexible adoption of the all the four major ways would go a long towards making the life flourishing and beautiful for all!

While to many of you the equating of psychological goals with spiritual goals may appear confusing, suffice to say that thee has started accumulating evidence at the level or neural circuits and brain areas about the dissociation between say happiness and meaning dimension for a good life or between economic (success) and moral (integrity) domains in general. Similarly there is enough evidence that the ABCD model of psychology is a good prism through which to see and study psychology. The fact that ABCD model/ findings from neuroscience/ psychology corroborate ancient insights is surprising but also reassuring in way. It was anecdotally known that Hinduism is so resilient because of its profound psychological basis- new finding are just confirming some of that.

Here is to whatever major goal and path you align your life with!!

The 7 Secrets of Shiva

Deutsch: Statue des Gottes Shiva in Delhi Engl...

Image via Wikipedia

In my last two posts I have briefly touched upon Indian aesthetics in the form of eight rasas/emotions. These rasas, it is said, had a mythological origin; when Baharat muni saw Shiva dancing as Nataraja, he got inspired and created the ‘Natyashastra‘ which is the root of these eight rasas as well as many other parts of Indian art. Today’s post reviews a book by Devdutt Pattanaik titled ‘7 Secretes of Shiva’ which tries to get behind the symbolism and apparent contradictions which abound the mythology surrounding Shiva in Indian religion and folklore.


Regular readers of this blog will recall that I have linked earlier to a TEDTlak by Devdutt that talked about Logos and Mythos and how that may be related to Autism and Schizophrenia spectrum. Thus I have a long standing interest in Devdutt’s modern interpretation of Myths and that is the reason I review it here- though this blog has primarily been limited to strictly psychological/ neuroscience discussions.

The form of the book is very interesting and innovative. Each left hand page consists of solely photographs of Sculptures, paintings , calender arts related to Shiva, along-with a few illustrations, while the right hand pages are an ongoing narrative interpretation of various myths and stories associated with Shiva.

Devdutt makes a case for seeing Shiva as a form of Purusha (self aware enlightened consciousness/ imagination , mainly restricted to Humans) )  , while her consort Shakti to be seen as a form of Prakriti (or Nature) .  The human head here symbolizes Purusha while the headless body symbolizes Prakriti. Brahma , or the creator of universe (Brahmand) according to Indian mythology, is conceived of as delude subjectivity that tries to see Prakriti not as is, but as it is conceived of in service of Humanity; the primary aim of Brahma or creator of subjective universe (brahmanda) is to control Nature, to see it in service of Humanity, to conceive of humans a superior to other animal species; and to create culture and cultural universes; while the Purusha is aware of his animal origins and has tamed them and hence Shiva also known as Pashu-pati (tamer of animal instincts)  as opposed to Brahma which is Praja-pati (deriving meaning from control over others) .

Much to the chagrin of many a western mythologists/ scholars/  laymen, Braham who is deemed Creator of Universe is not deemed worship worthy (there are no temples (only a single temple)  of Brahma and he is never worshiped) ; while Shiuva , who is apparently the deity of destruction , is widely worshiped by everyone. Devdutt resolves this tension , by proposing that Braham does not create Parkrati , he just misinterprets and subjectively constructs a world around him that one call as Maya. Shiva helps deconstruct (destroy)  that Maya (delusion) and come to terms / perceive the Nature as it is .

Fundamental to Shiva’s image is an image of an ascetic, a counter-culturist, a hippie – if one may call him;   that lives at the fringes of society, is neither aware of, nor bound to society/ cultures arbitrary rules and regulations, and prefers not to engage with the world.  Shakti, her consort and his children Ganesha and Kartikeya make him engage with the world and make him empathetic to those who are less aware and enlightenment and need to overcome their fears to grow further.


Devdutt touches upon 2 basic fears that haunt every living being-especially those self aware like the Humans,  – a fear of scarcity – not finding prey and a fear of death/ predation or becoming prey. He engages with the world in the form of his 2 children ecah of which solves this apparent contradiction and fear. Ganesha the pot-bellied lord , with elephants (elephants never fear scarcity or predation) head and both preadtor (sanke) and prey (rat) part of his parade, living in harmony  , always hungry for more food,  symbolizes that hunger is also subjective and hoarding is bad and we have created substitutes for food (like money) that are not really needed for satisfying basic needs.  Kartikeya or Murugun, the warrior baby lord on the other hand symbolizes the courage to face fears of death etc to outgrow them  at an early age-the six m=day baby knows no fear ( of death).


Of course being a work requiring interpretation of myths, it is bound to dissatisfy, raise heckles , of a few people; or may even affront them  but I find his interpretation overall reasonable and well grounded.  Its high time people stopped taking myths for face value , or just brush them aside as non sense, but start looking beyond the literal towards the metaphorical and the symbolic.


In as much as Devdutt may have aroused this tendency to look beyond the obvious while interpreting myths he woudl have succeeded in a  good and worthy mission, no matter whether his particular interpretations be accurate or not.

 full disclosure: I got a free review copy and am generally sympathetic to Devdutt’s interpretations.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

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