How to teach Indian Psychology?

Having just finished a two-semester intensive course on Indian Psychology with the Indian Psychology Institute (IPI), Puducherry, India, I have a few insights that arose from the way it was taught.

Indian Psychology[1], more than any other subject requires an experiential understanding of the matter beyond mere intellectual knowing. Thus any attempt at teaching IP must make that the focal point. This became clear by observing, that the influence of the educator, and for that matter also the therapist, is far more important than any technique or skill taught. Learning does happen in a space where people are free to wonder, ponder and explore, while being given the resources and support to do so, without being force-fed with mere information.

Similarly in therapy, as I can say from my limited experience with a few gifted individuals, it is not the technique that heals the person, physically or psychologically, but the space of love and compassion held by the therapist, who is matured and vast enough in their own being to carry the other’s weight, hooks and limitations. That ability to teach or help by “contagion” requires that one has already refined oneself quite a lot – having let go of trauma and emotional baggage and gained a deep insight into one’s own nature. It requires that one is universal and open enough to provide such a space. To sum up, Consciousness is more important than technique.

So how then can we teach by “contagion”? How to learn to be universal and open?

Several factors I could perceive then in this course:

Firstly a small group-size is beneficial in offering a space intimate enough for the participants to share freely and openly, to experience and release. Learning happens directly from the example and influence of the teacher, as well as the horizontal exchange between the students – seeing the others struggle, change and grow has a major impact on the learning journey. Last and least influential seemed the actual content, the information taught. However, it cannot be abandoned as it forms the frame and the focal point around which the group gathers.

That was attempted here by extensively learning about concepts in blocks over a prolonged period of time. Contemplating a psychological concept from different angles, naturally will lead to an experience of it, if that is “allowed” in the paradigm. Thus the students as well as facilitators should have an attitude of seeing themselves as psychological laboratories in which individual variations of universal processes can be observed. Then the knowledge becomes part of the being and is not mere words in the memory. In the dryness of mere intellectual understanding, the essence of IP is lost and the approach rendered useless.

There were several tools applied in the course to support and facilitate this experiential learning – self-study, daily journaling, project work and minutes of silence.

The need for self-study is self-explanatory once it is clear, that one has to know oneself to know others, and that looking within is the easiest and most direct way to study psychology.

To become rigorous and clear in inner perception, journaling[2] is very helpful. Apart from offering a way of seeing one’s own change and growth over time, it also enables one to move from these subjective observations to sharing them with others so that one can compare and study them objectively.

Projects do not only offer the direct link for sharing these findings within a theoretical framework, but also help to develop the habit of studying the theory, and simultaneously applying it in oneself. Working in this integrative manner, it is necessary, that the topic is freely chosen by the participants, preferably contextual to IP[3]. This freedom of choice is to ensure the personal relevance that will lead to the experiential understanding. If the above-mentioned methodology is applied, it is a near given that the theory in due time will become a living, breathing reality for the students. One begins to learn by experiencing the theory in one’s own being.

In line with the freedom of choice, similarly, techniques or practices should not be enforced or dumped as packages on the participants. Let’s take for example meditation. Instead of having half hour or hour-long guided meditations, it is much more useful to include short moments of silence within the course. In the beginning and end, obviously, but also in between the lesson, to give time to contemplate, reflect, ponder and integrate what has been heard and seen. Furthermore, it offers a “break” – a short silence – in which the students slowly get accustomed to look inside, in an age, where we are constantly focused outside of ourselves. Inherent in our biology all senses are turned outwards; this tendency, however, is aggravated tremendously by our sensorily-intense urban environment and culture of ubiquitous distraction.

Introducing body-work practises like Hatha Yoga, ATB[4], contemplation of breath etc. would be extremely helpful because psychological experiences can be induced and recalled by body sensations; and for most a calm body is essential for a calm mind.

The atmosphere and frame of a small institute, which I have experienced at IPI, is certainly difficult to offer in the context of a larger university with its loaded student-life. At universities, short retreats and workshops could be organized to provide the protected, intimate space and the deep concentration and intensity that are necessary for the “visceral understanding” of psychological concepts.

There was one more thing about the course, which supported our free learning and unhindered curiosity, and that was the fact that there was only one exam in the very end, meant simply to clarify the learning, instead of being a mere tool for grading. Contrary to my time in school, we were learning not for passing tests, but out of curiosity – out of the wish to learn, and that lead to a far deeper learning in these eight months than what I can recall from my thirteen years in school. Similarly on BA level, students would be much more curious and able to learn what is truly important for their understanding of the human psyche and life, if they were not forced to do bulimic learning and mere definition memorisation. How far this approach can be realised within the current paradigm is questionable, but still because of its importance, it should at least be attempted.

A few last words before closing: Even though a lot of the concerned scriptures are considered by many people as religious and of Hindu origin specifically, they describe very broadly and openly the universe and this strange phenomenon of humans within it. Seeing then the vastness of IP, it becomes clear that it is not for Indians alone or from Indians alone, but that it is a universal knowledge system, and thus should be taught free of the limitations of race, sex or creed.

[1]   Indian Psychology will from now on be referred to as IP.

[2]   Journaling has to absolutely be for the participants alone. The sense of safety in the privacy assures a more sincere and truthful account of what was observed. Writing for another, we distort to be perceived a certain way, thus hampering with the clarity and usefulness of observation.

[3]   A field so vast, it is hard not to be within it.

[4]   ATB – Awareness through the body. A technique developed in Auroville, inspired by the teaching of Sri Aurobindo. It attempts to explore consciousness through the body and the senses and move deeper from there.

2 thoughts on “How to teach Indian Psychology?

  1. Yes, I agree, well written

    I would make one slight amendment to the idea that it’s primarily about the Consciousness that changes the patient in therapy.

    Back in the 1970s and 80s, it was the overwhelming conclusion of all therapy research that techniques made no difference at all, that it was entirely about the patient-therapist relationship.

    This began to change, though only slightly, in the 90s – they began to discover that certain techniques could be identified for specific conditions. Here’s one of the most well documented examples. If you have a really bad phobia, you can either radically reduce the fear or even cure it in just a few weeks using systematic desensitization. You don’t even need a therapist. Just google it and practice it for about an hour a day – first in imagination, then in the present of whatever you fear. The Mother talks about this, its’ been explored for decades as part of “exposure therapy”, and it’s primarily the technique. You can be a really bad therapist and still teach it and it will work.

    On a much subtler and more profound level, another important discover has been of “common factors” in therapy. One of the most universal of those common factors is attention – or more specifically, present moment, non judgmental, accepting, open hearted attention – or in other words, mindfulness.

    Quite a few researchers are working on the idea that mindfulness may in fact be the key factor in therapy, in some ways just as important or possibly even more important than the therapeutic relationship. It is in fact heartful, mindfulness that is being cultivated when there is a strong, positive therapeutic relationship, and if one truly learns that while engaged with the therapist, then it’s possible to bring that into one’s day to day, moment to moment life.

    Ultimately, you can see this is bringing us back to Consciousness. But now it is not just the therapist-patient relationship. It is the nature of Consciousness as it manifests in the therapy room, within the patient him-herself, and in life (all life is Yoga!).

  2. Well written, Lucas.

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