On The Psychology of Spirituality

“To avoid killing its essence, rather than as a specimen to pin down and dissect, it is best to think of spirituality as related to experience – often subtle, but also usually powerful and emotionally charged experience. The spiritual dimension is therefore better considered as an adventure playground to explore, full of fun, challenge and excitement, of opportunities to test oneself, to learn and to grow.”

Larry Culliford was a hospital doctor and GP before becoming a psychiatrist. In 1998, he helped found the ‘spirituality and psychiatry’ special interest group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In this exclusive interview he discusses his experience and ideas into understanding the psychology of spirituality.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Larry Culliford: I was born in 1950 in Walton on Thames, the son of a businessman with working-class roots on my mother’s side. I was educated at independent boarding schools from the age of eight, trained in medicine at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and Guys Hospital, and worked in hospitals in New Zealand, then as a GP in Australia before training as a psychiatrist there. I qualified back in the UK, going on to work as a Consultant Psychiatrist in Brighton for about twenty years until retirement in 2007. Since then I have been writing about happiness, personal development, and spirituality (also a crime novel, yet to be published). My interest in these matters began in the 1970s when I started thinking about the question, ‘What is mental health?’ and realized that physical, mental, social and spiritual health are closely bound and affect each other. I was raised in the Christian tradition, left, later returned, and remain a regular church-goer, but I also have a great love and respect for the sacred sites, traditions, teachings and practices of other major world faiths.

I have travelled widely. I currently volunteer once a week in a hospice. My interests include theatre-going and literature, also, since 2016, learning to play the classical guitar. For exercise, I attend a weekly Pilates class and play golf. Sarah and I met in 2007 and were married in 2011. We live happily together in Sussex.

RB: Your book, The Psychology of Spirituality: An Introduction, was first published in 2011. In this book, how do you define spirituality?

LC: To avoid killing its essence, rather than as a specimen to pin down and dissect, it is best to think of spirituality as related to experience – often subtle, but also usually powerful and emotionally charged experience. The spiritual dimension is therefore better considered as an adventure playground to explore, full of fun, challenge and excitement, of opportunities to test oneself, to learn and to grow. The experiences it offers are both deeply personal and universal at the same time. They link people everywhere and through time in intimate bonds to each other, to nature, and to the cosmos.

To speak about the ‘spiritual dimension of human experience’ avoids sterile discussion about so-called ‘objective’ reality and questions like whether God exists or not. It gives rise to less divisive questions such as, ‘Have you, or anyone you know, ever felt in the presence of or affected by some kind of guiding spirit, divine power or higher being?’

According to the scheme outlined in the book, the spiritual dimension is one of a set of five seamlessly inter-linked dimensions:

Physical (energy and matter) – the miracle of existence

Biological (organs and organisms) – the miracle of life

Psychological (mental activity) – the miracle of consciousness

Social (relationships) – the miracle of love

Spiritual (souls and the sacred) – the miracle of unity

Everything concerning human beings – health and sickness, for example – can be seen to operate through all five dimensions. The spiritual dimension can be said to embody an originating principle, seamlessly creating, linking, shaping, dissolving and reforming the other four.

RB: Your book discusses the stages of spiritual development. Can you say something about these stages?

LC: The idea depends upon considering life as a journey, as a kind of pilgrimage towards wisdom and maturity. It forms a scheme or road-map that some people may find helpful, based on the idea that both good or pleasurable and bad or painful experiences can help people learn and develop through six recognizable stages, as follows.

  1. Egocentric stage  (immature, self-referenced existence)
  2. Conditioning stage  (learning through insistent and persistent family and social traditions)
  3. Conformist stage  (seeking to belong by following social conventions)
  4. Individual stage  (starting to think, speak and act independently)
  5. Integration stage  (shifting values and behaviour towards altruism, through recognising one’s deep kinship with the entirety of humanity)
  6. Universal stage  (achieving maturity and wisdom, becoming a natural teacher and healer)

Good quality research has shown that young children almost all have a degree of what we might call spiritual awareness, but it gets suppressed as puberty approaches in the face of secular pressures and the dominance of the science paradigm, which rejects mystery and gives priority to an objective, evidence-based view of ‘reality’. The six stages show what happens as a split develops between the mask-like ‘everyday ego’ – the personal ‘me’ with which we are familiar – and the true or higher ‘spiritual self’, the soul, as some might like to call it, constantly attuned to the spiritual dimension. In the later stages, this ego-self dissonance collapses back again as maturity is approached.

There are different tasks, attitudes and priorities at each stage. In stage three, for example, a person tends to adhere (whether rigidly or flexibly) to the culture, authority, values, belief systems (including religious or secular, also political belief systems), laws, customs, allegiances, rituals and other behavioural practices of the family, community and society at large. There is comfort and safety in belonging, with the risk of being ostracised, ridiculed or feeling threatened when showing signs of being different.

Nevertheless, as horizons broaden, contact and familiarity with different people, cultures, conventions, belief systems and so on, may result in review and revision of previous allegiances. Pressure grows to re-think priorities and take increasing responsibility for thoughts, feelings and intentions, for one’s words and actions; also, equally and importantly, for what one does not say and avoids doing. This is to enter stage four, a key step towards personal maturity; but there is still some distance to travel.

The onset of stage five may be gradual, or it may begin abruptly through some kind of spiritual experience, an ‘epiphany’ that offers a glimpse of the seamless and sacred whole, and the tiny but essential part one plays in it, indivisibly linked to everyone and everything else. This is the beginning of a kind of homecoming towards maturity, marked by a shift in values and priorities away from self-centred impulses and behaviour, towards greater compassion, wisdom and love.

RB: How can spirituality be integrated into our understanding of psychology? In particular, what practical benefits can this understanding have?

LC: These ideas about dimensions of human experience and stages of personal spiritual development already go some way towards integrating spirituality into an understanding of psychology. Having lived with this question for many years, I take the view that psychology cannot properly and usefully be understood without relating it to spirituality. This would offer an explanation, for example, for spontaneous impulses towards acts of kindness and compassion: in certain circumstances, the ‘everyday ego’ spontaneously gives way to the more insistent promptings of the ‘spiritual self’.

Another way of addressing your question involves considering brain biology. Neuroscientists have revealed that the two halves of our brains are structurally similar, but have significant differences of emphasis. The left hemisphere, which contains the speech centre, tends to deal with ‘parts’, with pieces of information in isolation. The right hemisphere deals with whatever is under consideration as a ‘whole’. The silent right brain is attuned to whatever is new, while the speech-capable left depends rather upon what is familiar. In order to appreciate things whole and in their context, the right half consistently exhibits breadth and flexibility of attention, like a floodlight, compared to the focused intensity of which the left is more capable, like a spotlight. The left side is well-suited to the binary or ‘dualist’ approach, which involves either/or, black/white, right/wrong, us/them, win/lose, success/failure type thinking, and is easily, therefore, divisive. The right side is better suited to unitary or ‘holistic’ experience, an approach which involves inclusive both/and type thinking, and is, therefore, more unifying.

Taking this further, we can begin to see that left-brain mediated binary thinking is associated with materialist, ‘worldly’ attitudes, and with secular priorities like power, wealth and fame, while the unitary approach favours ‘spiritual’ values like honesty, humility, kindness, patience, courage, beauty and hope.

Dualism and holism are both useful and complement each other, but in secular western culture the binary approach has become destructively dominant, resulting in many problems and much human suffering. Personal – and, ultimately, collective – wisdom and maturity depend on a corrective re-balancing of these patterns of thought. The ‘practical benefits’ of including some understanding of the spiritual dimension in human lives – the ideal, in other words, of restoring this imbalance through seeking wisdom and maturity – can hardly be overestimated.

Because the spiritual dimension knows no boundaries, seeing people as equals, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, skin colour, race, creed or anything else, a wiser, more mature and compassionate population would undoubtedly find ways of working to improve social prejudice and injustice, restore harmonious relations between those in conflict, avoid further harmful ecological damage, and so reduce the future likelihood of disasters like those associated with global warming. The resulting decrease in wars, terrorism and social violence, combined with more settled weather patterns reducing the incidence and extent of floods, famine and other nightmarish events, would then result in a major reduction in the alarming numbers of homeless, displaced persons and refugees in the world. A lengthy timescale should be envisaged for such benefits to emerge, to be measured in generations, I suspect. Nevertheless, even a few people taking on some kind of commitment to personal spiritual growth would make a difference, benefitting everyone. That would be a start, and this is why I have written a new, short accessible book, with commentaries from the spiritual perspective on Politics, Leadership, Religion, Education, Health Care and Commerce, to explore and discuss all this in more detail. ‘Seeking Wisdom: A Spiritual Manifesto’ will be published in spring 2018 by the University of Buckingham Press.

RB: Mindfulness and Wellbeing are very much linked together as being mutually beneficial. What is your experience of this, from both a personal aspect and through the work you do?

LC: The regular practice of meditation – ‘mindfulness’, ‘stilling’, ‘silent prayer’ – works by synchronizing brainwaves, bringing the left and right halves of the brain into harmony. In the right hemisphere we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, always unique beings, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the left we find represented only static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities on which predictions can be based. This is tremendously useful, but the left is unadventurous, preferring whatever is mechanical, impersonal and abstract, whereas the right, which sees nothing in the abstract, only things in context, takes primary interest in what is living and personal. The left reasons logically, but – with an incomplete picture – it tends to assert itself as correct, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. It is as if it has to win every argument. The right side, in contrast, is the main seat of our emotions and of our very human capacities for curiosity, poetry, humour, intuition and creativity.

That meditation restores balance and harmony at the physical and biological levels between the two hemispheres is one way to start explaining why it is useful and effective. We can develop the idea at the psychological and social levels by noting that worldly values – which are essentially competitive – depend on left-brain mediated binary thinking, while spiritual values – which depend much more on co-operation – are associated with unitary right-brain activity. Furthermore, at the spiritual level, we can say that meditation works by allowing the insistent ‘everyday ego’ to quieten, opening one’s soul or ‘spiritual self’ to the silent sustaining connection it has with the spiritual dimension. Wellbeing – personal and collective – is naturally associated with resulting restored equanimity.

On the personal level, in the early 1980s I was taught to meditate by Buddhist masters, who insisted that this would be essential as the only way to a deep understanding of Buddhist spiritual teachings. I feel sure that it has profoundly enhanced my understanding of the Christian message too. I have meditated regularly ever since, and have taught it to others on occasion.

There are a number of techniques for enabling the mind to achieve a profound level of silent tranquillity (such as ‘mindfulness of breathing’, mantra meditation, visualization techniques, walking meditation and so on), but it is a mistake to think of practising the technique as sufficient. I have found meditation to be a mysterious process that occurs spontaneously as a gap opens up when the mind becomes fully engaged with itself. This ‘mindful’ mental state, devoid of the ‘everyday ego’, is expansive and full of energy. It can seem blissfully endless or bottomless, yet there is no partitioning within it, and no room for anything else. This is the essence of unitary, ‘holistic’ experience, the natural state of the ‘spiritual self’, fully in tune with the universe. The benefits extend well outside the meditation sessions, especially as one becomes increasingly aware of living mindfully, in the moment, day by day.

I do not recall using meditation in my work as a psychiatrist with patients, most of whom were affected by particularly prolonged, severe and disabling forms of mental illness. Its value to me was as a restorative practice, boosting one’s capacity for both compassion and equanimity in the face, day after day, of genuine, often entrenched and costly human suffering.

RB: Can science and spirituality go together? And, if so, how?

LC: I hope I have already begun to answer this question. If you look at things from a holistic perspective, there is no boundary or division between science and spirituality. They are entirely complementary. Science seeks precision and therefore works best when examining the physical and biological dimensions, although even here – in quantum mechanics, for example – there is unavoidable uncertainty. There is no explanation either, for example, for the remarkable and fortuitous way in which the two gases, oxygen and hydrogen, join and turn into water. That’s just the way it is!

The academic disciplines of psychology and sociology, in attempting to adhere to the rigorous methods of science, are even less sure-footed, being obliged to rely on probabilities and approximations, and are hampered in their explorations of the richness of human diversity by only being able to take full interest in those matters which their tools and methods – often questionnaire-based – allow. Questions are posed and answered in dualist language, in terms of reliable ‘cause-and-effect’ sequences that say something mechanistically about how events come about, but are not designed to address, and not capable of solving, the eternal mysteries of ‘what does it mean to be fully human?’, for example, and ‘why are we here?’ That is better left to the holistic approach associated with profound and meaningful spiritual experience.

The greatest scientists were (and perhaps are) also mystics in the sense of having an intuitive connection to the spiritual dimension, to the great whole of the cosmos, many admitting using their faculties of intuition, imagination and creativity to develop and test theories, and so to make their discoveries, using in other words the holistic potential of their right brains. The words ‘holy’ and ‘whole’ are closely related, you see. A holistic vision is the same as a spiritual one.

RB: Can art act as a bridge between everyday psychology and the spiritual dimension?

LC: It not only can, in my view this is the primary reason artists create and the rest of us value their art. I want to make a clear distinction here between art and merchandise, and stress the wisdom of avoiding materialist contamination of art that reflects spiritual values like beauty, creativity, honesty, generosity, discernment, patience and perseverance. This results only in spiritually impoverished ephemera, the production of which is governed by worldly priorities like profit, success and celebrity.

The 20th century monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton (whose parents were both artists, and who was himself a notable poet, calligrapher and photographer), wrote in a letter to Boris Pasternak (in October 1958), “I do not insist on this division between spirituality and art, for I think that even things that are not patently spiritual if they come from the heart of a spiritual person are spiritual”. This is the thing: art comes from the heart and, likewise, speaks to the heart; but this asks something of the witness too, a kind of spiritual sensitivity with which to receive the generous gift of the artist.

I remember, some years ago, standing transfixed before a self-portrait of an older Rembrandt in an exhibition in London. It was hot and crowded, and I was aware of people coming and going beside me, but I stood there in a kind of timeless personal bubble, filled with fascination and wonder. I also recall a similar experience when, as a teenager on holiday in Spain, I heard on the radio for the first time Rodrigo’s magnificent ‘Concerto de Aranjuez’. I was entranced, delighted and awestruck for the entire duration of the piece and did not want it to end. These were not simply aesthetic experiences – moments of pleasure. They were, I would say, spiritual experiences, because they were in some small way transformative. I was not entirely the same person afterwards. I was somehow better connected, through the art and the artist, to the entirety of humanity and the cosmic whole. And the proof is that the most vivid memory of these and other similar experiences has stayed with me ever since.

In my book, The Psychology of Spirituality, there is a chapter on ‘Spiritual Practices’ that people might engage in regularly, according to preference, on the path of spiritual growth and development. Meditation and prayer feature, and so too does ‘appreciation of the arts and engaging in creative activities’. Also listed are ‘contemplative reading of literature, poetry, etc.’ and ‘listening to, singing and playing sacred music’. Sacred does not have to mean religious, although it might; but I would include any music capable of releasing something profoundly emotional – some sadness, perhaps, or great joy – that has been imprisoned hitherto by excessive attention to worldly concerns and the busy pursuit of secular activities. Rhythmical and repetitive dance (like that of the Sufi dervishes) and chanting (whether Gregorian, perhaps, or the kirtan and bhajans of the sacred Hindu and Jain traditions), perhaps also by powerfully harmonising the left and right halves of the brain, form another powerful bridge between a particular form of art and spiritual experience. Furthermore, people coming together to engage in such practices, as when playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir, may well experience enhancement through sharing it of the potential for spiritual gain.

RB: In her book The Search for Spirituality, Ursula King states that “Dialogue among people of different faiths can help to open up and transform…..It can bring about a spiritual renewal. But it is important to recognize that creative dialogue about spirituality is not and cannot remain restricted to people of religious adherence. It must embrace the secular world to make a difference”. Do you agree with this statement?

LC: I have met Ursula a few times at meetings of BASS (the British Association for the Study of Spirituality). She is a wonderfully inspiring speaker, and a particular champion of the priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose vision of human spiritual evolution involved gradual and relentless progress towards an ‘Omega Point’ whereat humanity has discovered, embodies and fulfils a shared spiritual reality. There is no question in such a vision of persisting religious differences, or any distinction between religion and secularism. These differences will simply evaporate as humans grow wiser and more compassionate, more loving towards one another.

In the meantime, Yes… As the above quote from Thomas Merton might indicate, I do agree with Ursula’s statement. Unifying dialogue is essential and should involve everyone. To enable this, in my writings, I have for a long time deliberately sought to employ the relatively neutral language of spirituality, rather than the potentially divisive religious language of any particular faith or denomination. It seems clear to me that within the heart of every person is a spiritual seed, so to speak, ready to germinate, grow and blossom whenever the conditions for doing so appear. Such conditions do not depend at all on what a person believes, but involve essentially the feeling of being unconditionally respected, valued and loved.

Religions can help people experience this, but not necessarily. Those religious organisations that hold rigidly to beliefs and rules, to inflexible practices and traditions, tend to stultify rather than encourage spiritual growth. They may suit people up to the ‘conformist’ stage three of spiritual development, but those from the ‘individual’ stage four onwards, seeking to discover and express their individuality, will naturally and with justification seek to avoid such organisations, and may well therefore adopt a secular belief system and lifestyle. But this too can become rigid and equally bound by binary and divisive ‘right/wrong’, ‘true/false’, ‘us/them’ thinking, inhabited by people – in both the scientific and artistic communities, for example – who fail to question their own assumptions and the weaknesses of their creeds and methods. Creative dialogue about spirituality serves as a necessary, unifying corrective complement to this, not least by introducing the healing potential of a more unitary ‘both/and’ style of thought and experience.

RB: The aim of this issue of the Interalia Magazine is to explore the interdependence between Art, Science, Mind and Life. Do you consider that there is an interdependence and what are your views on how this can be further encouraged?

LC: It should be clear to your readers by now that I do indeed consider a seamless and vital interdependence to be vibrantly at work in all our lives, a spiritual connecting principle that knows no boundaries, linking and enriching every domain of human endeavour.

It is not necessary to encourage this interdependence. It already exists. To be fostered rather is a deeply personal and growing awareness of this, which is at the core of the spiritual dimension. Initially, this attuning of mind and soul must, I think, be at an individual level, through people one by one making a commitment to explore, enjoy and learn the rich lessons of the wonderful, sacred and spiritual adventure playground that we all already inhabit. Eventually a tipping point may be reached, as increasing numbers reach the homecoming ‘integration’ and ‘universal’ stages five and six of the pilgrimage, guiding and influencing more and more others to join them on the path to spiritual maturity.

In ‘Seeking Wisdom’, I recommend personal Spiritual Development Programmes (SDPs) that are suitable for anybody, whether religious or secular in orientation. The simplest might consist of a daily routine of three parts: a) regular quiet time, for meditation, reflection or prayer; b) appropriate study, of religious or spiritual material; and, c) maintaining supportive friendships with others who share similar spiritual aims and values.

The pursuit of both science and art are among those noble human endeavours that help with the essential conundrums of gain and loss, life and death. All such endeavours, in my view, will be enhanced by regular, balanced and dedicated spiritual practice, especially the art of ‘simply being with yourself’, which is at the heart of meditation. They are, in other words, best conducted ‘mindfully’. The value of stillness and silence, coupled with solitude, cannot be over-emphasized. This alone, in my experience, is where answers may be found to the eternal questions of existence. Access to this silent realm will alone vouchsafe a person the limitless gifts and incalculable blessings of courage, hope, joy, compassion, wisdom, and love. But it is not necessary to take my word for it; any man and woman, searching confidently with patience, perseverance and a good heart, can readily discover these benefits for themselves.



© 2017 Larry Culliford



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