I came across this Alan Watts passage through a Facebook post. He was a brilliant scholar of Eastern thought who was able to bridge Eastern and Western understanding of philosophy with grace and opened up a whole new world view to many people from the early 1950s to his death in 1973. The text expresses a lot of what my work in Yoga Therapy is about and describes the context of how I usually work with people. Of course, often our work together is mainly focused on healing the body – like working with back pain, or following an accident or surgery, for example – but there is always an emotional and psychological aspect to physical imbalance! At its root, all yoga is therapeutic in nature, and our aim in practicing yoga is to find a greater overall balance in our lives.
Psychotherapy & Liberation
“If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy. This may seem surprising, for we [may] think of the latter as a form of science, somewhat practical and materialistic in attitude, and the former as extremely esoteric religions concerned with areas of the spirit almost entirely out of this world.
The main resemblance between the Eastern way 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 wealth bent on mutual destruction is anything but a condition of social health.
This does not mean the the psychotherapist has to engage in political revolution; it means that he has to help the individual in liberating himself from various forms of social conditioning – hatred being a form of bondage to its object.
From this point of view the troubles and symptoms from which the patient seeks relief, and the unconscious factors behind them, cease to be merely psychological. They lie in the whole pattern of his relationships with other people and, more particularly, in the social institutions by which these relationships are governed: the rules of communication employed by the culture or group.
These include the conventions of language and law, of ethics and aesthetics, of status, role, and identity, and of cosmology, philosophy, and religion. For this whole social complex is what provides the individual’s conception of himself, his state of consciousness, his very feeling of existence. What is more, it provides the human organism’s idea of its individuality, which can take a number of quite different forms.
Seeing this, the psychotherapist must realize that his science, or art, is misnamed, for he is dealing with something far more extensive than a psyche and its private troubles. This is just what so many psychotherapists are recognizing and what, at the same time, makes the Eastern ways of liberation so pertinent to their work.
For they 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” but the 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.
The rules of communication are not necessarily the rules of the universe, and man is not the role or identity which society thrusts upon him. For when a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique.
He is universal by virtue of the inseparability of his organism from the cosmos. He is unique in that he is just this organism and not any stereotype of role, class, or identity assumed for the convenience of social communication.”
Psychotherapy East & West