Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Psyche and the Sacred

Dr. Lionel Corbett, M.D, professor of Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute offers some remarkable insights into a Depth Psychology of Evil in his book "Psyche and the Sacred."
Perhaps these are some of the notions we might consider when formulating an Integral Psychology of Islam in pursuing a psychological hermeneutic of al-Fatiha, particularly Sura 1:7 on the Siratal Mustaqeem:

"Each of us has his or her own way of dealing with our sense of our darkness, even though traditional religions have a great deal to say about good and bad behavior and require us to comply with the moral standards they set. These dictates are not difficult to follow if they coincide with our personality. But most of us have to struggle with our impulses and desires when we attempt to adhere to the standards of traditional morality. We may have to suppress them - that is, we consciously use our willpower to inhibit our less acceptable impulses, albeit at the cost of a vague feeling of guilt, which must constantly be assuaged. In order to comply with what is considered socially acceptable, we have to repress our desires, with the result that we prevent ourselves from even becoming aware of the negative impulse. While this enables us to keep our guilt out of consciousness, we then often project our badness onto others. When we find a scapegoat to carry our darkness, we are able to put on a moralistic and self-righteous front. The result is racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice, or some other kind of intolerance. The projection of one's own unconscious darkness onto others is at the root of wars, witch-burnings, genocide, progroms, Crusades, and the many massacres of heretics that pepper the history of Christianity. Alternatively, instead of projecting the shadow, we may simply dismiss it as unimportant; that is, we may be aware of it, but we do not admit its emotional significance. In the long run, these splitting mechanisms do not work; the shadow, that part of the personality that we would like to repudiate, leaks out, even from the saintliest of containers.

The use of splitting and projection onto others to maintain a sense of personal righteousness means that some aspect of our self has to be sacrificed as opposed to being faced consciously and worked through. When the shadow is denied, we may see a persona of goodness, a facade that hides the shadow but does not deal with it. It is dangerous to maintain such a radical split between good and evil. Some preachers of traditional Judeo-Christian morality are so identified with goodness and the official vales of the tradition that they are completely unconscious of their own shadow. But the denied aspects of the personality do not go away, and they may grow all the darker for being ignored. The shadow contents of the personality make periodic demands on the person. when the shadow breaks through, as it inevitably does in the form of sexual or financial misbehavior, those who once appeared to be paragons of virtue are often plunged into despair, because they are no longer able to use their preaching at others as a way of concealing their own difficulties.


Preaching, teaching, prayer, confession and other traditional methods of dealing with the personal shadow are only partially successful because they focus exclusively on conscious attitudes. In the last one hundred years, depth psychology has discovered that there are powerful unconscious motivations for evil behavior. This discovery is important, because it is easier to deal with evil that we understand than with behavior that seems incomprehensible. The more clearly we understand what is driving evil behavior, the better able we will be to help people deal with it, and the less likely we will be simply to tell people not to do it. One of the insights of depth psychology is that the same behavior carried out by different people may have quite different unconscious sources. We cannot understand behavior without a grasp of these underpinnings. Therefore, in a depth-psychological approach to spirituality, it is not sufficient simply to label certain behavior as "sinful" without trying to understand its origins. Universal prescriptions for good behavior may be of little value in the individual case; it is not always helpful to tell people that they must grapple with their impulses and improve the flaws in their character; good advice alone may not be enough to deal with powerful complexes. We cannot get rid of the unconscious simply by making rules, so there is not much point in merely defining the "seven deadly sins" and declaring them forbidden. (Our legal system also recognizes that there are powerful emotional forces within the personality that may diminish the possibility of self-control.)

Human evil is at times more tragic than blameworthy. Sometimes people behave in evil ways in an attempt to master the evil that was inflicted on them. We often see destructive behavior resulting from childhood deprivation so severe that the person is unable to resist the forces that drive him or her to evil." (2007, pp. 145-147).

~ Excerpted from "Psyche and the Sacred -Spirituality beyond Religion" By Lionel Corbett, M.D.

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