People drain more power reacting to others, or to their environment. A person is left with no power for transformation or proactive change. Such a person is powerless. But when a person halts the process of draining powers through such reactions, then he or she begins to gather power. Existence of gathered power is evident when a person is able to effect changes in habits, lifestyles, and character.
— the Aghori, Aunt Preema, in Amarananda Bhairavan’s Kali’s Odiyya.
When we begin to learn that we have the ability to problem solve for ourselves, it raises our self-esteem in a grounded way. Going to meet our helping spirits make us feel valued and connected to the spirit that lives in all things. We feel loved by the power of the universe, and we never feel alone again.
— Sandra Ingerman, in her book Shamanic Journeying
Desire & Suffering
Psychology for the most part is about reducing one’s mental suffering/agitation. While modern psychology has made good job of classifying the different kinds of mental ailments, and the specific treatment methodologies for each, the sages of the East, several centuries before even the dawn of modern psychology, sought to find the root cause of all suffering, and sought to find a universal solution. That is, a solution that works at a very fundamental level, so that it is applicable to all human beings. Hindu and Buddhist* thought determined desire to be the root cause of all suffering, and evolved a solution that came to be known as yoga.
People are caught up in the web of desire, constantly craving (for things ranging from material to emotional desires). When we desire something (money, attention, a person, a house, a promotion, respect, love, etc.), and we don’t get it or things don’t work out the way we want, it causes a disturbance in the mind (sadness, anger, jealously, resentment, frustration, etc.). This disturbance causing suffering. But how do we end up falling victim to desire in the first place? Lack of clarity.
Once we have the clarity, we can critically examine ourselves and weed out the root cause of the problem: the desire, and why we have this desire, craving, or attachment. People cling to their attachments and cravings as if their life depended on it. You cannot be happy if you are not content with what you have. A common problem caused by modernization for example, is that instead of simple living, people often over-commit beyond what they are capable of affording (in terms of time and money), unnecessarily complicating their lives and suffering for it.
People even take out their own jealousy, resentment, failures, lack of control, lack of competency… against something/someone else totally unrelated. I’m reminded of a watching this stray dog walking on the street by itself not disturbing anyone. Next thing you know, some random guy who was walking behind the dog, catches up to the dog, and just kicks the dog, it yelps, and the guy keeps walking ahead. What did the dog do to him? Nothing. The agitated mind has nothing better to do but to kick or find fault in the next person (or even oneself), often even thinking the problem is with the other person (that the other person is the one who needs clarity, not themselves).
It’s all about how you face problems and deal with them, the degree of composure or agitation. When the mind is agitated it has no clarity, and when it has no clarity it becomes agitated. Vicious circle. Yoga can help break this vicious cycle and provide that peace of mind and composure (and the clarity and patience that follows).
While the subject of psychology in the West has always been a soft-science, in India psychology was explored to mind-boggling depths with the perplexing mathematical rigor typically associated with hard-sciences. This is found across all of the six schools of thought (darshanas) in Hinduism, including Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Established at least two millennia before modern psychology. While Western psychology dealt with treating problems at the conscious and subconscious level (which is the only level Western psychology knew about), Hindu psychology went further and deeper which involved dealing with the nature of the mind itself, reaching heights still unknown to modern psychology.
Hindu yogis advocate that the best psychologist is yourself (i.e. the best person to remove the many conditionings, weakness, fears, insecurities, etc.), and the tool to do that is yoga (and optionally seeking a spiritual master, guru, or spiritual literature for guidance).
The Bhagavad Gita, can also be taken as a summary or treatise on the science of the human condition: the interactions between the manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), indriya (senses), ahamkara (ego), gunas (tendencies), vasanas (conditionings), samskaras (past-life impressions), and prakriti (one’s material constituents), and how they make up “who/what we are” and how to master it using the science of yoga (as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras). The Bhagavad Gita also talks about the four varna (archetypes), and that an individual fits a particular archetype based on his gunas (tendencies/qualities) and karma (actions). In addition, they went well beyond the two levels of modern psychology (consciousness and subconscious) and categorized four levels of consciousness: jagrata, svapna, susupti, turiya, which have no counterpart at all modern psychology.
So why isn’t there more awareness on this more formally, like in academics (at least in India, apart from informally tapping into the wisdom by spiritual leaders). For one, the elite Indians during and after British rule sold themselves out to British educational system, which blindly purged anything “Hindu” from all text books and syllabuses (and demoted it by associating it with “religion”). It is an irony that for example, the Bhagavad Gita is correctly not considered a book of religion in at least one state that I know of in the USA: it is given as one of the options in summer reading list for schools in Virginia (in contrast the Bible or the Koran are not in the reading list, being religious books). Ironically, in India, the Bhagavad Gita, is still treated as a religious book (not as a book of yoga or philosophy). There are many such hangovers from the British educational system (like associating yoga with “mysticism” and thus unworthy of study as a science, or treating many of the Hindu customs as pagan practices of heathens). Yoga in India opened up only after it went full circle – to the West and back. That is, only after it got a stamp of approval from West, did Indians themselves started taking up and promoting yoga, without the sense of shame that had been programmed into them by their former colonizers for 400 years. Hopefully the same unlocking will happen to the volumes of other spiritual texts waiting to be tapped, and hopefully without waiting for the “stamp of approval” from their former colonizers.
Hindu psychology is not a doctor-patient affair. Like Ayurveda, it is also largely dependent on self-effort, demands reflection, meditation, discipline. For this it prescribes various types of yoga. In most situations, a bit of yoga (in any form), on a regular basis will help much more than what months of counseling would offer.
Even the smallest disciplined effort…
Even the smallest effort goes a long way in protecting oneself from the demons of anger, hatred, envy, greed, lust, insecurity, fear, etc. It is always repeated in spiritual texts, a few minutes a day done consistently at a particular time, is much better than intensively doing randomly.
नेहाभिक्रमनाशोऽस्ति प्रत्यवायो न विद्यते ।
स्वल्पमप्यस्य धर्मस्य त्रायते महतो भयात् ॥२-४०॥
Here no effort is lost (नेहाभिक्रमनाशोऽस्ति), nor any loss of progress is found (प्रत्यवायो न विद्यते). Even the smallest amount (स्वल्पमप्यस्य) of this effort (धर्मस्य, here referring to yoga) protects you (त्रायते) from great danger/fear (महतो भयात्). – 2.40
There are over 16 million people who practice yoga today. Even though yoga as it is practiced in the West is primarily hatha yoga (i.e. bringing spiritual, mental, and physiological well being mainly through physical exercises), people practice it for the clarity and peace of mind that it brings. They and many large companies wouldn’t be doing it or sponsoring it if it had no effect.
A Note on Suffering
Note here that we’re talking about suffering that arises when you have a choice. Not the suffering that arises due to external factors (like war, natural disasters, and other tragedies). That is, that which is in your control — which accounts for a good majority of the suffering for those who are lucky enough to be not living in conflict zones.
Though, the Buddha would argue that even the suffering that arises due to external factors (ranging from loss of livelihood, starvation, torture, etc) is also under your control. Many enlightened beings like the Buddha, have achieved that level, but not all of us are interested in seeking “enlightenment”. Most of us want to live in the material world and yet ease our suffering. We all want to live happy and content lives. So, we all take the same approach, that of yoga, but to the extent of what are goals are, or conversely to the extent we need it.