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March 30, 2023

Why Spirituality Needs Psychology

by Mariana Caplan

Originally posted here on the Huffington Post, 8/13/2011.

Many people get disillusioned on the spiritual path, and it is not because spiritual practices and approaches are not effective — they are. If we sincerely engage spiritual disciplines — whether meditation, contemplation, yoga or prayer — our practices will bear fruits. We will have more experiences, insights, moments of connection with presence, oneness or divinity. The problem is not spiritual technologies and practices. Spiritual teachers do not routinely fall into scandals around power and sexuality because the practices they engage and teach do not work. Spiritual students do not become disillusioned with spiritual life because they are not practicing sincerely enough. If we look closely, we see that these practices do work, and that part of our lives actually are improving.

So why isn’t this making us ultimately happier? Improving our relationships? Diminishing our reactivity? Depression? Anxiety? Through working with hundreds of spiritual teachers and practitioners in the western world, I am convinced that spiritual work alone does not address many of our deepest psychological knots and traumas, nor does it provide tools to address our wounds in relationships that block us from fulfilling our deepest longings, dreams and spiritual possibilities.

We get stuck because we have not integrated the psychological wounds and traumas that live within our bodies and keep repeating themselves again and again through unfulfilling, if not self-destructive, behaviors and dramas in our lives. We engage in spiritual bypassing, hoping against our often-better judgment, that our spiritual practices will remove our unpleasant emotions or help us to transcend our relationship challenges.

Oftentimes spiritual aspirants and teachers feel that they should be beyond psychological support. That to engage psychotherapy means that there is something defective or wrong with them, or that they are not doing their spiritual practices well enough. There are times when people who would benefit from the support of psychopharmaceutical medication do not partake of this help because they are ashamed that they cannot overcome their emotional obstacles through meditation or yoga.

Many years into my life as spiritual practitioner, writer and yoga teacher, and long after my graduate school studies in counseling, I returned to my study of psychology. I kept repeatedly encountering “fallen angels” — great teachers and sincere practitioners who remained deeply frustrated, unfulfilled, depressed, anxious and struggling with intimate relationships as much as ever. I wanted to discover effective technologies for working through the traumas and psychological issues that continued to wreck so much havoc on our lives and relationships, no matter how much spiritual work we had done. I felt a passionate need to understand how we can work through our traumas and psychological issues at the level of the body. I wanted to know what was really meant by integration and how this was achieved.

One of the great contributions that my friend, philosopher Ken Wilber, has made to this conversation is to explain that human development occurs on a variety of distinct developmental lines. For example, someone might be quite developed on their cognitive line, or spiritual line but less developed on the lines of feeling/affect, ethics or sexual development. The result is lopsided spiritual growth, which is not bad in itself but needs to be recognized in order to optimize our own integrated development, and to cultivate discernment in relationship to various therapies and spiritual paths, teachers and practices.

I believe human growth and potential has no limit — there is not a height, depth or sideways expansion that we get to and say, “Now I have arrived.” My experience is that the deeper I dive both into myself and in connection with the world, the more I discover how vast and endless it all is. The sheer beauty of this is that it means, literally, that wherever we are is OK because we are one point on a spectrum of endlessness.

When, as a young woman in 1999, I published my book “Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment,” I was quite sure that people would not like it. Who was going to read 500 pages about disillusionment, egoic pitfalls, psychological conundrums and fallen teachers? To my surprise, many people wanted and still want to read about these topics. Why? Because this is where we live, and it is somehow more fulfilling to learn to accept where we are than to be continually frustrated by an ideal of where we should be.

I also believe we all need help and companionship along the way, at times through professional support and always through friends on the path. Needing each other, and needing support on the path through life, is a sign of health, not deficiency. We are truly more powerful when we support each other than when we attempt to stand alone.

Mariana Caplan, PhD, has spent over two decades researching and practicing many of the world’s great mystical traditions. She is a psychotherapist, a professor of yogic and transpersonal psychologies, and the Co-Founder of The Center for World Spirituality. The author of seven books on cutting-edge topics in spirituality and psychology, including Eyes Wide Open (Sounds True, 2009), Mariana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit and

Falling in Love with the Divine:
Devotion and Tantra of the Heart

with Sally Kempton & Dr. Marc Gafni

October 14th – 16th
Esalen Institute
Big Sur, CA

For many contemporary spiritual practitioners, devotion is a missing ingredient in their practice. Yet part of what gives practice its juice and excitement is the living relationship with the personal face of the divine—the Being-Intelligence of all that is—by which you are personally addressed, loved, challenged, and held. Devotion, heart practice directed toward a divine other, or the divine other in a beloved, is a secret of inner awakening, and a key to emotional healing and evolutionary transformation. It’s no wonder that some of the greatest sages and teachers of all time, from Rumi to the Hasidic masters, were also followers of the devotional path.In this workshop, two heart masters merge their gifts in the service of the unfolding of your own secret heart-tantra. Awakened Heart meditation teacher and author Sally Kempton joins Dr. Marc Gafni, rabbi, author, and teacher of Kabbalah and evolutionary spirituality, for this unique offering.

Click here to register.

About Mariana Caplan

Mariana Caplan, PhD, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, professor of yogic and transpersonal psychologies, and the author of seven books in the fields of psychology and spirituality, including, The Guru Question: The Perils and Awards of Choosing a Spiritual Teacher (Sounds True, 2011), Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path (Sounds True, 2010), which won five national awards for best spiritual book of 2010, and the seminal Halfway Up the Mountain: the Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment.


  1. charles dudas says:

    I have now read at least three or four of your latest comments/blogs, yet none of your books. That now may well change.
    You write with such insight, tenderness and an incredible sense of second level simplicity that to me this is therapeutically seductive and comapassionately forgiving — a la fois.
    Yes, we all need a decent dose of psychology — taints run much too deep to be able argue otherwise and bypassing is bypassing, not eradicating or overcoming.
    Fallen angels are still angels, but they need not have fallen if only their passions for betterment of the world and everyone else were somewhat staggered and preceded by a serious self-examination and a major spring cleaning. Oh, so easy to say, oh so lovingly true ! Keep writing, keep writing. Warm greetings, charles d.

  2. Hi, I think it was Thoreau who first said that an examined life is not worth living. There are many ways to examine it, and yes, therapists who are trained can help better than most.
    I recently was surprised to discover that my teacher, whose advice is always to return to my heart center completely blocked my ability to get on with my life after a broken relationship. Why? Because what I was needing was a safe outlet for my anger and hurt and pushing those aside only made them fester.
    Our bodies hold a great deal of wisdom within and we can easily tap it most of the time. When we can’t it is helpful to get the right kind of help.
    Thanks for your blog article. Wonderful!

  3. Relationships are for healing and spiritual evolution. But, many spiritual teachers lack a deep understanding about what really causes relationships to be the way they are.

    One of the most valuable ways our Souls use our relationships for our individual and collective healing is to help us see the world that lives behind our eyes. We can’t take our consciousness out and observe it or re-sort it. What we can’t see about our psyche is reflected in our relating with others.

    In my work as a relationship educator and personal evolution coach for the last 35 years I have seen the biggest piece missing for most people who are dedicated spiritual seekers is emotional purification.

    The “spiritual bypass” as you put it is another crafty suppression strategy of the ego. The more we suppress the longer our true awakening takes.

    When we are unskilled in the practice of what I call “radical personal responsibility” we go around the learning opportunities in our relationships. What is predictable is that the same learning opportunity will need to be amplified so we can observe the part of our psyche that needs healing. That means more drama, pain and acting out.

    It is as though the early lessons are the size of peas, if we miss those, the next lessons are the size of large rocks. If we miss the rocks they become boulders and if we miss the opportunities in the boulder size lessons we run straight into a brick wall, then a mountain.

    It takes a safe space and a community initiated in the value and practices of emotional purification to create and sustain both individual and tribal enlightenment.

    I’ve written a book called You’re Never Upset for the Reason You Think, that teaches a technique in radical personal responsibility. It can be bought at or my website.

    May the blessings of love fill your life.
    Layne Cutright

  4. Mariana,

    I appreciate your call for an integrative approach to spiritual development, one that include attention to psychological processes. Some people refer to “spiritual by-pass” to describe the way spiritual realization can be impeded by avoidance or neglect of personal and emotional development. Ken Wilbur referred to this as the “pre/trans fallacy” when individual strive for transcendence without exploring the early pre-personal stages of growth.

    Awareness of emotional and interpersonal facets of our being is essential to integral awakening.

  5. Thomas Frankovich says:

    The path is self created. One sees what one wants to see, hears what one wants to hear. Is it probable that many spiritual teachers & students know much better than they do? However, for whatever reason/excuse they may choose, perhaps they lack the will-power or courage to accomplish what they in their deepest being, know is right action? What they know to be wise action? Or, perhaps they cave in to the default mode of body over mind pleasure seeking desires of materialism? One can only wonder.

    Spiritual health & well-being is always an inside job. It is the result of true wisdom. Spirituality is the product of wise living & being. The Mind governs the body. Many (if not all) of the ills of the spiritual teachers/students are directly tracked back to wrong thinking and/or undisciplined emotion. Apparently, somewhere there has been a lack of meaning & purpose in their lives, thusly, creating havoc in the system they presently inhabit.

    Many Buddhist practice Precepts. Teachings of the Buddha regarding personal conduct, which are both ethical guidelines and, more broadly, aspects of Reality itself. Many have understood that well-spiritual-being may be established thru intelligent mindfulness direction thru following the Precepts.

  6. All quite true and well articulated. Unfortunately, modern psychology is itself is an extremely flawed tool, that has exacerbated human suffering on many levels, rather than diminished it. There are two closely related reasons for its defectiveness. Firstly, having no clear or accurate understanding of the anatomy of the human psyche, the template of human feelings and experience, it can never put the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle it has found, into a correct arrangement. Instead it takes this grab bag of observations and creates strangely formed and often grotesque theories, ideologies and “working models” Secondly, many of these puzzle pieces are based on observations of very pathological “normal” people. Not knowing the real makeup of the human mind, there is no way to understand what a normal or sane person might be like. Indeed, to rationalize this lack of understanding, “normal” is taken to be some kind of shifting theoretical point, based on culture, environment, history, etc. Polarized points of view from theological or psychological perspectives continue to be generated by those who have no wisdom or perception of the real structure of mind. Thus we have the Tower of Babel of today’s psychological landscape.
    Yes, good old-fashioned intelligence, insight, caring, presence, and counseling skills in the hands of the professional, all wind up helping people, more and less. But without knowing what a man/woman IS, it is still the blind leading the blind.

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