Metacognition: Thinking About
Lecture 6: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SPIRITUALITY
Adam Blatner, M.D.
November 4, 2013: This is the last in a six-lecture series
on "Thinking About Thinking" given to the Fall Session of the Senior University Georgetown.
Introduction: Personal Background
I'll begin by telling you a little about myself. I've
always been interested in this topic of spirituality. I've been
interested in the other facets I've mentioned too---creativity,
illusion, social embeddedness, language---but spirituality---or
what I then called comparative religion---became my college
major at U.C. Berkeley. I haven't felt committed to any
particular path, but for purposes of self-disclosure, I'm sort
of a blend of the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead
and Charles Hartshorne, with a dose of Baruch Spinoza and Jung
and some others. It's a blend I continue to feel free to revise,
and I'll mention more about my attitude of spiritual
privilege---that I feel entitled to create and re-create what
leads me on. The point for today is that I have been genuinely
interested in the what it's all about and the nature of
psychology and spirituality, but not so desperately that I've
felt compelled to settle into one groove and evangelize that
path. My purpose here is just to witness that along with the
other ways to think about thinking, well, it's one way to do
I was raised in an area that was superficially religious,
as all good Americans were expected to be in the 1940s, in Los
Angeles, but nobody fussed much at me about explorations in my
teen years. Probably I was lucky in my misfortune that my Dad
died when I was 12, because I didnít have to rebel much. But
still, rebel I did, but not much. Enough to read the books of
skeptics, and yet stayed interested. Itís clear this was of
vital importance to many people even though some others had
My young and middle years were intriguing, as I look back on
them. I discovered Jung, whose work I thought had died outóthe
parts of California I was in being more Freudian. And then in
the 1960s all heaven broke loose as many people were writing
about shamanism and new ideas, and Zen and all that stuff.
As result, I sniffed around, which revealed a sense of
entitlement to do so. Having later been in Kansas and Kentucky
and Texas, I realize that inner freedom to look around was
spiritual privilegeóa term I learned only a few years agoóalong
with other kinds of entitlementówhite privilege, male privilege,
heterosexual privilege, middle-class privilege, and so forth. We
take a number of freedoms and the resources to ask for help and
to expect help for granted in many ways. Subtle oppressionóthe
opposite of privilegeóreally is dominant in many parts of the
country, and can be in many of the aforementioned ways.
But spiritual privilege... I sort of took that for granted until
going to parts of the country where more often than not people
felt pressure to behave and even say they thought in ways that
were culturally acceptable for the majority in that region. Now
this has begun to shift and our kids feel more freedom than we
did, or perhaps our parents did. Itís a time of change.My
studying comparative religion during this time of changed,
reading books associated with these changes, make a difference.
So thatís some of my background and you can read more on my
Talking about spirituality is a little awkward because
science seems to have been battling religion, though in fact
that is an illusion fostered by journalists who thrive at
getting sound bites from the extremes. There are lots of folks
in the middle. Lots of people who are more scientific but like
me, recognize how little we know, and many who suspect there is
a depth dimension where spirituality and psychology meet.
Letís address some definitions first, then, about spirituality
Spirituality may mean different things to different people. When
I use the word, though, it represents an activity people do,
often within the context of a religion, sometimes out of or
Spirituality is an activity of developing or deepening your
relationship with something deeper, more inclusive. Many call
this a sacred realm, or God, The theologian Paul Tillich called
it the Ground of Being. It has many names and what I was saying
last week goes double for god-talk.
But religion is the social organization of the spiritual
impulse. Itís when two or more are gathered, when folks try to
codify what itís all about, and folks will do that sort of
thing. The point of religion is that the way Iím using it, the
term refers to some grouping, of millions or thousands or even
just hundreds of people.
The philosopher Whitehead said that religion is what one does in
oneís solitude, but I think he was talking about spirituality,
because when we were young they didnít make that
differentiation. Einstein talked about a religious sensibility
but again I would call what he was talking about ďspiritual.Ē
The point to note is that some folks are spiritual but not
religious. And some are neither spiritual nor religious. And
some are both. But there are a lot of people who donít really
work their religion. They show up, get forgiven, do the rituals,
participate, feel good, and thereís nothing wrong with that. But
itís not for them much of a psychological journey. They donít
feel called upon to re-evaluate and change at any level.
This is much of the religion we learned about. People were this
or that, they affiliated, they were more or less loyal, which
correlated hardly at all with how much they did the rituals,
attended church, gave money, and were part of the group.
Personal development was not asked for or expected.
So this wanting to make your spirituality relevant for you, to
make it work for you, thatís something that has always been
there with some few folks but not generally expected. Preachers
would suggest it, ask for it, but there were few actual
incentives to make much of a difference in life.
Other people found themselves betwixt and between and found
spirituality to be relevant. Many pursued other religions,
Eastern religions, other types of spirituality. Some have
returned to their home religion, some have affiliated elsewhere.
Some change denominations because of the quality of community
Thinking about thinking, one of the things we do is make
meaning. This is instinctive. We'll perceive a random pattern
and after being confused for a while, a pattern---we
think---seems to appear. Sometimes there is a pattern hidden
there. Sometimes we've just made it up. That tendency to
perceive and co-create a pattern is called a "Gestalt" function
and was observed by psychologists maybe 80 years ago.
Spirituality overlaps with making meaning about a very complex
world. Both pattern discovery---the Gestalt dynamic---and
spirituality overlaps with creativity and language and social
embedded-ness. But back to the Gestalt dynamic.
The mind has instincts, and it isn't just to sex, or food, or
standing upright, or speaking. There are many tendencies and it
doesn't pay to try to reduce them to one or a handful of "basic"
drives. Freud did that and others came along and said, in
effect, "Hey Sigmund, here's some more." In the 1970s, for
example, the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut noted that a core dynamic
was that of feeling one's own sense of self as coherent and
valued. A few decades earlier, other analysts noted the need to
be bonded---that interpersonal embeddedness I talked about two
The sense of meaning is an externalized equivalent of the sense
of self. If one feels a sense of self---and not everyone does
all that strongly---then the I who does things seems conscious
and in charge. It often isnít, but if you look, there you are.
The sense of meaning is how we perceive the outside world as
things making sense. Like the sense of self, the sense of
meaning may be strong or weak. Again, these dynamics partake of
what is called the Gestalt function, from the German, meaning
that it all seems to hang together. The mind makes sense out of
nonsense. We see this more vividly in our dreams, when it turns
a mild overactivity of the brain into stories. Iím not saying
there isnít more to it than the illusion of meaning making, but
fundamentally, the mind will make meaning of most anything.
What occurred to me is that all these functions of sense of self
and meaning operate from weak to sometimes too strong---a
mind-spectrum---which I'll talk about next February. And at the
higher end of the no meaning to a strong meaning we start
developing a coherence that partakes of what might be fairly
called a philosophy of life. The more this is forced to be put
into words, the more it may be subject to re-evaluation and
revision and can advance to a more articulated philosophy. Just
as some folks' spirituality may advance to degrees that may
merit being viewed as mystical, so some generally felt
philosophies of life can advance to being professors of
philosophy at colleges.
It occurs to me, though, that most folks pretty much accept the
implicit meanings of their culture, subculture, and peers. It
works for them much of the time. As a teenager I learned this
maxim: Pain makes man think; thinking makes man wise; wisdom
makes life endurable. So life goes on, people not infrequently
come up against situations that shake the conventional meanings.
Pain. The mind is marvelously able to cover it over, seal it
over, make sense, in a non-word sort of way, so this may go on
without ever much elaborate thinking happening. But some want
answers enough to search and thatís where religion comes up.
Some of those meanings work and sometimes they don't. Anyway,
meaning-making is a function that we do more or less consciously
to keep in balance.
Sometimes a story that's not totally rationally coordinated
can seem more true than some intellectualized formula. It
strikes a chord. It feels meaningful. I feel this way when I
sing Christmas songs---some of them---I think because I
personally think every baby that's born is precious in its
potential, as if a hundred angelic guardians are born with it to
guide and protect it. But of course, that's my own funny myth.
In the olden days myth was something others believed. Myths wer
not true. Our myths were not called myths. That's what we
believed, and they were true. Not like other people's myths. But
around the time we were kids there were more and more
anthropologists and students of comparative mythology who noted
that Western people also had myths. Of course, what we believed
may be true, maybe, but they partook of the same elements that
people who were benighted also believed. Of course, because we
in the West were more technologically advanced weapons-wise, we
were the "winners" and thus had a tendency to promote our
culture's favorite beliefs beyond what we imagined to be the
folly of the less enlightened. We didnít notice that we were
simply promoting our myths.
Once the era of gross conquest and oppression died down and our
need to be self-righteous in what we did lessened; and once we
started looking around, it became more clear that we, too, had
thousands of mythic basic assumptions that we hadn't begun to
What Professor Burger was really talking up in the 2nd lecture,
by the way, is two words: Challenge assumptions.
So looking at our own myths and other people's myths became an
in-between academic study between anthropology and religion.
Comparative mythology. Around the late 1960s Joseph Campbell
among others re-framed myth. No, myths werenít what uncivilized
people believed, while we enlightened people had our superior
beliefs! On careful examination, Westerners had as many and
varied myths as primitive peoples. Myths are simply stories that
embody common assumptions. Myths are simply stories that embody
Joseph Campbell explored hundreds of western legends, including
current manifestations of them, and many whoíve followed have
had riches in the Disney and Star Wars and Star Trek and Sports,
and and and. We are immersed in stories that hide
underlying assumptions that go beyond romance.
Well, romance is one myth, in our culture, almost sacred.
Celebrated in song. But for much of history, romance was for the
pre-marital flirtations and occasional discreet or indiscreet
affairs, but hardly until the 18th century the basis of
marriage. Well, thatís a whole Ďnother story, except to say that
analyzing the myths of a culture exposes a great number of ideas
that havenít been neutralized and may then be acted out without
or maybe with shame.
Religion is chock full of myth, and another major myth is that
religion is done in churches and business is business and
ethical standards of course differ so whatís the problem. Some
folks donít buy this, but, hey, theyíre losers, so pay Ďem no
never mind. Ours is a profoundly hypocritical culture that has
not awareness of how hypocritical it is, in part because thereís
a lot of do-good-ism.
And though some may say itís a battle of sin versus
righteousness, there is so much hanky panky in the mid-range
that the issues are psychological, cultural, dealing with the
other categories I've talked about, language, social
embeddedness, and so forth.
This is not to say that psychological-ization excuses sin.
There was a bit of a drift in that direction in the mid-20th
century, to making excuses for sin. In West Side Story the song,
ďGee, Officer KrupkeĒ mocks this. Karl Menninger of the then
well-known Menninger hospital in Kansas wrote a book in the
1960s titled ďWhatever Became of Sin?Ē His point is simply
that for those who are willing to look at themselves critically,
it may be fair to analyze petty misdeeds. But psychoanalysis was
not meant to be an excuse for meanness and other pretty
destructive behaviors. The ethos of finding oneself and to hell
with spouse and kids had gotten out of hand, as had other things
that were absolutely worthy of guilt.
The point here is that thereís a lot to notice in common myths.
Itís not value free. Some myths are more anti-social than others
and should evoke guilt and shame. Psychology is not meant to be
a source of excuses.
Some folks carry spirituality to the point of mysticism. A
few have breakthroughs in this way. Mysticism---in the sense of
having a deep, compelling experience about the depths of what is
felt to be the object of spiritual relations---continues to be a
bit mysterious. But we should not back off of our considerations
just because we haven't figured out a way to examine the
phenomenon. Rather, psychology needs to be part of looking at
whatís going on. See my webpage
paper about this:
I talked about spirituality, and mysticism is just spirituality
on steroids. A small number of people want to take it to the
limit, and Iím reluctant to presume to say this is any more
abnormal than those who want to take theatre or sports or any
endeavor to the limits of their talents and ambition.
Nor am I praisin
g them: I think many people who
take it to the limit may be less than talented or driven or
trying to do something that is profoundly wasteful or even
wicked. But the point here is that it happens, and itís worth
noting. All kinds of folks, and the point is that spirituality
may be as valid and non-ďsickĒ as sports or politics or any
other endeavor. It need not be crazy. Occasionally it is, and
occasionally itís evil, so spirituality doesnít get a free rid.
But anything can be done foolishly or wickedly.
So if you have some spiritual inclinations or psychic or
parapsychological gifts, hey, see where it takes you. And if
youíve had a mystical experience, donít feel that you must be
crazy. Psychiatry has gone overboard in presuming to judge too
much based on the few who clearly were troubled in a negative
This is a lovely word: Things just open up in a kind of
emotional and intellectual breakthrough. A person having an
epiphany, well, it all falls together, it seems. It all makes
sense. Sometimes itís crazyótruly, literally. Sometimes it
works, and a great invention or discovery comes out of it. I
donít know that we can say a whole lot more about it other than
this opening up and onrush of ideas is not in itself either good
or bad. By their fruits shall ye know them.
So wrapping it up, I'll post more on my website. There's a
lot there already. Just google Adam Blatner and you'll get it,
Also, I want to invite you to email with me, if you have
questions. I enjoy the exercise of trying to answer them,
without claiming authority to provide the ultimately right
answers. The field is opening more and more.
We live in a deeply changing world. One of those changes is that
mind itself, the world of thinking, thinking about thinking,
meta-cognition, is becoming mainline. A century ago it was what
was out there, now more what is in here. And I noted that
thinking in its larger sense includes feeling, intuition,
imagining. It includes what contributes to your sense of self
and meaning. And that latter category bridges over into
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