May 19, 2020

Psychology from the Spiritual Standpoint – by Ella Goodall Cooper

Ella Goodall Cooper
We, as Baha'is, approach the study of psychology as we do every other science which is helpful to humanity, since one of our cardinal principles is that in this day science and religion must work hand in hand in order to bring to pass that spiritual civilization which is the goal of all true education. "Study the sciences," says' ‘Abdu’l-Baha, "acquire more and more knowledge. Assuredly one may learn to the end of one's life. Use your knowledge always for the benefit of others."

"Know thyself," enjoined Socrates, without, however, revealing any method of going about it. Nevertheless, the precept still holds good, and extends to knowing one's neighbor, since "the proper study of mankind is man." To the Baha'is this popular interest, far from being improper, is encouraging, for it is a token of people's interest in one another, which interest we believe will grow and grow till all come to recognize the truth of Baha'u'llah's saying, "This handful of dust, the earth, is one home."

In sharp contrast to the popular superficial and often selfish applications of psychology, are the earnest endeavors, profound and beneficent, of the conscientious psychiatrists and physicians, patiently working to unravel the intricate threads of maladjusted lives, using the valuable technique contributed by the psycho-analysts, to bring education to the normal, and relief to the abnormal, members of society.

To these men, Janet, Freud Jung, Adler and others, society owes a debt, which is ever growing, as the efforts, particularly those of Dr. Adler and his colleagues in Vienna, are being extended to cooperate not only with medical men but also with the educator and social welfare worker, and we ardently hope the circle may soon widen to include the enlightened and scientifically-minded religionist, as well. The efforts of this group are directed toward prevention of abnormal conditions through education, rather than merely the relief of the tragic situation after it has been allowed to arise. Is not this the object of spiritual education also?

One of the most distinguished of this group, whom we have lately had the good fortune to meet in America, is Dr. Alfred Adler of Vienna, whose psychology is a method of gaining knowledge of individuals, including knowledge of their inner life, and is founded upon a view of the individual as a whole in himself, an indivisible unit of human society. Thus, while it has grown up as a part of psycho-analysis, individual psychology only uses analysis for the purpose of synthesizing the whole life of the individual.

I have borrowed the above information from Dr. Adler's exponent and interpreter, Philippe Mairet, and will quote a few lines from the same source:

"The supreme importance of this contribution to modern psychology is due to the manner in which it reveals how all activities of the soul are drawn together into the service of the individual, how all his faculties and strivings are related to one end. We are enabled by this to enter into the ideals, the difficulties, the efforts and discouragements of our fellow-men, in such a way that we may obtain a whole and living picture of each as a personality… There has never before been a method so rigorous and yet adaptable for following the fluctuations of that most fluid, variable and elusive of all realities, the individual human soul"

It is precisely because all religions, and the Baha'i Revelation in particular, have something vital to say on the subject of this same elusive soul, that I have chosen to consider this adaptable method of Dr. Adler as being most closely paralleled by the Baha’i teaching.

To the followers of this teaching it is always gratifying to witness how such great and progressive men are unconsciously reflecting the Spirit of this Age. Dr. Adler touches on problems deep and far reaching, applying his principles to many spheres of life as well as to the art of healing, problems which we believe can be solved by the "sovereign remedy" brought by Baha'u'llah, the Divine Physician, for the healing of the nations. Thus it seems to me to be peculiarly fitting, in pursuance of one of His basic teachings - namely, religion must conform with science and reason that we, as Baha'is, should hasten to unite our efforts with those altruistic scientists whose services are being devoted to the amelioration of the enormous burden of mental misery that afflicts humanity today.

Religion, as such, seems to find scant favor at the hands of the psychologist, partly, perhaps, because many of the cures, for which religion in the past has claimed the credit, seem to him explainable upon a psychological basis, or, perhaps, because his experience with religious manias has been provocative of impatience for the whole subject, or, perhaps, because he feels religion has lost its ancient potency, or, perhaps, because he regards it not with the eye of faith, but as one seeking scientific truth.

Dr. Overstreet seems to dismiss it with a shrug, saying that many religionists are not really humanists, and that, "Religion, like a good deal of the rest of our life, needs at last to concern itself with real human beings." He refers, as do most scientists and educators, to orthodox religion or theology, but that is not what the Baha'is mean by religion.

Speaking scientifically, perhaps the great point of connection between psychology and religion, is that essential longing, which is present in all human creatures, the longing for individual immortality. Although science has demonstrated the indestructibility of matter, yet the actuality of that mysterious realm beyond this life has not been proved by any returned traveler, and man has recourse only to faith if he is to believe what the Prophets have always taught, and what mankind in general wishes to believe that it is indeed the real life of the indestructible soul, for which this brief span of years here is but the preparation.

The Baha'i teachings on this point give comforting assurance to sustain the seeking soul, at the same time appealing to reason and inspiring faith. We believe that faith in immortality and belief in spiritual realities influence conduct profoundly, and mould character to noble ends, and that one of the reasons why so much mental disturbance is painfully evident in the world, is the apparent failure of religion to set forth a unified, convincing and authoritative truth, freed from man-made dogmas and creeds, which will aid struggling humanity to grapple with the overwhelming problems of this complex, bewildering age. Our belief is that the Baha'i Cause does recognize and satisfy just that universal, crying need.

And to my mind, a most important point of contact between the Baha'i teaching and that of Dr. Adller is their common conviction of the fundamental "oneness of humanity." It quite thrills me to quote his declaration:

"We cannot escape from the net of our own relatedness. Our sole safety is to assume the logic of our communal existence upon this planet as an ultimate, absolute truth, which we approach step by step, through the conquest of illusions arising from our incomplete organization and limited capabilities as human beings.”

And is not the mission of the Baha'i Movement to unite all the races of the world?

Another point of contact is education. Dr. Adler speaks of it repeatedly. He advocates psychology as the "human science" which should be studied by laymen as well as by specialists, and shows that even the study of the abnormal is necessary to gain an understanding of normal processes (since the difference is only one of degree). He also states that the object of this education of the normal human being and the re-education of the abnormal one is the same - to fit both for a better understanding of human nature, and to develop the social feeling, because man is a social being, not to be considered as separated from human society, but one who must learn to take his place as an integral part of it.

Of course we agree heartily with Dr. Adler that human nature is capable of being educated, moreover that education must begin with the individual child from the moment of its birth, in order that its “behavior pattern” may be correctly and happily set.

'Abdu'l-Baha shows us that education to be complete should be both material and spiritual, in other words, it should be for the heart as well as the head. The Abbe Dimnet reminds us that Vauvenargues says, "Great thoughts arise from the heart," and Joubert, "There is no light in souls in which there is no warmth.” Hence, to the old question, "can human nature change?" we would answer in the words of Dr. Esselmont, a distinguished English physician and Baha'i teacher: "Both education and religion are based upon the assumption that it can and does change. In fact, it requires but little investigation to show that the one thing we call say with certainty about any living thing is that it cannot keep from changing."  

What has all this to do with modern psychology, you may ask? We earnestly believe that that" science  of humanity," as Dr. Adler calls it, can be of still greater value as a healing factor in dealing with disorders of the mind when it becomes touched and illumined by a vital, dynamic religion such as taught by Baha'u'llah, Whose appearance is the Sun of Truth in this day.

The vibrations caused by this new influx of spiritual power has brought into being many new schools of thought, numbers of which are concerned with the healing and re-education of suffering and maladjusted humanity. As we have noted, psychology itself has advanced until it has become an important instrument in the hands of   the best modern physicians - for it is acceptable to many who will not   listen to the worn-out dogmas and creeds of religion, as such, and yet whose needs demand something more than the science of materia medica alone. In this respect the rise of these movements, even though they be only pseudoscientific, has contributed to the whole ministry of medicine.  

The Baha'i ideal of the physician of the future might be of special interest here. 'Abdu'l-Baha says that the physician of the future must be a man scientifically educated and trained, in order to be a skillful diagnostician of disease (to know whether it be of mental or physical origin) and, in addition to this knowledge, he must be imbued "with such a love of God, such a love for humanity, such an intense desire to serve humanity, that his very presence in the sick room will be like   healing to the patient.

In this day, when disorders of the mind have spread over the world almost like a plague, physicians surely need to use both spiritual and material means of healing, ever striving to find the perfect balance.  

As regards man’s social development, Dr. Adler stresses again and again the necessity of early education in order to fix the life pattern of the child by habit, which becomes conduct, and eventually crystallizes into character. He always regards man as a social being and each individual soul as being motivated by the conscious or unconscious striving for a "goal."

It is evident then, in order to assist the souls to fit into their environment and function happily and cooperatively with their fellow beings, some kind of a worthy plan is necessary by which to guide their lives and develop their social feeling; and when ignoble goals are discovered, altruistic standards need to be substituted, and if they can be joyous, so much the better. "Joy gives us wings," says 'Abdu'l-Baha.  

The Baha'i teaching, upon the same basis of human evolution, offers a magnificent social program, because it is universal, constructed upon the corner stone of the unity of the whole human family; not only that, but in its re-statement of the eternal verities, it is marvelously adapted to the complex needs of evolving humanity in this new and wonderful age.

Progress is so rapid these days that the next generation may have to develop new and different powers in order to endure the high vibrations of our mechanistic civilization.  

Professor Meredith made the same statement that I heard recently made by Doctor Ray Lyman Wilbur, to the effect, that to-day the speed of life is so terrific that man's moral and spiritual consciousness has not yet caught up with the extraordinary rapidity of the material or external changes, thus causing a dislocation so fraught with danger that man stands aghast at the products of his inventive genius and power, not knowing how to cope with these new dangers that   threaten to overwhelm him.  

Thoughtful minds cannot but realize that unless man can somehow be educated to encompass these inventions and possess them for constructive service to society, they will surely possess him and destroy the world. Therefore, the education of youth to a realization of the   truth that we are our "brother's keeper," based upon science and   reinforced by the spiritual dynamic of real religion, is the only hope of   the future, if civilization is to be saved.  

Baha'is believe that the social program, revealed by Baha'u'llah and elucidated by 'Abdu'l-Baha, gives to humanity the solution of these stupendous problems.

In addition to the glorious basic principles, Baha'u'llah advocates certain universal institutions for service to all mankind, as well as giving certain vital precepts for the guidance and purification of the individual   life. How noble is His concept of a temple - called in the Persian, Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, which means something far greater than merely a temple or church, something indeed, for which we have no equivalent in English. His concept is that in every city there should be built a group of buildings set in a large and beautiful garden; the central building - its doors always open in welcome to all comers - to be the house of worship; around it, first, the hospice, where hospitality would be dispensed, perhaps to the weary traveler, perhaps to one who is temporarily out of work, or to one in need of shelter for a time; next, the hospital, wherein the physicians would minister unto the sick and needy, using both types of healing, serving the poor from a free dispensary; then, a home for the aged, a home for the orphans, and a home for the cripples and incurables; then, a school for the children and a great university for the higher branches of learning.  

Every child would be educated in an art or craft or trade or profession, boys and girls alike, for all Baha'is are taught the dignity of labor, and that work pursued in the spirit of service is acceptable as prayer and worship, in this new day.

Those who serve in this great and beautiful community center, would first enter the house of worship, lift up their hearts to God in any manner they desire, and then, inspired and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, they would go forth into these other institutions and serve all who come, regardless of color, class or creed.  

Such a plan would seem to appeal to the enlightened psychologist as   offering an ideal pattern for normal activity - the individual trained to work joyously and intelligently for the good of the group, thereby gaining his own satisfaction and happiness. Psychology teaches that emotional impulse must find its legitimate outlet if life is to be normal and happy. To the Baha’is, this plan of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar appears to be a superb plan of unifying social service for, with the Spirit -God - at the center, and Humanity at the circumference, the circle is complete.  

To sum it up, this is what the Baha'is mean by religion - the love of God, expressed in purity of individual life and deeds of joyous service to all mankind.  

Dr. Adler closes his book, "Understanding Human Nature," with these words: "The law of psychic development seems to us to be irrefutable. It is the most important indicator to any human being who wishes to build up his destiny consciously and openly, rather than to allow himself to be the victim of dark and mysterious tendencies. These researches are experiments in the science of human nature, a science which cannot otherwise be taught or cultivated. The understanding   of human nature seems to us indispensable to every man, and the study of its science, the most important activity of the human mind.”   

Since the human science and real religion both operate in the "realm of minds, hearts and spirits," may we not justly make a plea for their conscious and definite cooperation, believing that in thus working together hand in hand they may be able to transmute this science into the "divine art of living." 

(Star of the West [The Baha’i Magazine], vol. 20, no. 8, November 1929)