Psychological ideas of Swami Vivekananda

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Psychological ideas of Swami Vivekananda

Psychology, as it is generally understood, is the study of the mind in its different aspects and functions. Psychologists arrive at certain conclusions and formulate theories of human psychology by studying the behaviour and conduct of human beings – abnormal, normal, and supra- normal – under various circumstances. They also make a study of animal behaviour, and the conclusions drawn are applied to human beings. Today highly advanced neurology is making possible the objective study of many psychological factors. In the light of a number of scientific experiments and investigations, psychologists are entering into the hitherto unknown regions of the human psyche, revealing unforeseen factors affecting human behaviour and conduct. Armed with the most sophisticated scanning instruments neuroscientists, and those in related fields, are forging ahead into the vast uncharted territory of the human mind, unearthing amazing psychological factors that influence conscious thinking and behaviour.

Swami Vivekananda was not a professional psychologist, but with his rich experience of yoga, his dealing with different types of people the world over, his keen sense of observation, penetrative intelligence, and spiritual insight, some of his utterances, counsels, and guidance reveal the most modern psychological ideas.

Union of Subject and Object

Swamiji considered sage Kapila, the father of Sankhya philosophy, as the best and the greatest psychologist of the world. Sankhya is the world’s oldest philosophy. Speaking about him Swamiji says:

The greatest psychologist the world has ever known, Bhagavan Kapila, demonstrated ages ago that human consciousness is one of the elements in the make-up of all the objects of our perception and conception, internal as well as external. Beginning with our bodies and going up to Ishvara, we may see that every object of our perception is this consciousness plus something else, whatever that may be; and this unavoidable mixture is what we ordinarily think of as reality.

This obviously implies that no theories or concepts regarding any branch of learning, no knowledge of any thing that we conceive of can claim absolute objectivity. Even the most scienfic theories are not precluded from this subjective factor of our experience, and Albert Einstein himself confesses this through his following observation: ‘Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. … He will never be able to compare his picture [of the mechanism] with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.(2)

If we consider this from the standpoint of psychology, it implies that whatever pain or pleasure befalls us is the creation of the subjective mind with the help of some external stimulus. Normally, our tendency is to blame the external world or other persons and events for every painful experience. However, Swamiji says:

“We have seen that it is the subjective world that rules the objective. Change the subject, the object is bound to change; purify yourself, and the world is bound to be purified. This one thing requires to be taught now more than ever before. We are becoming more and more busy about our neighbours and less and less about ourselves. The world will change if we change; if we are pure, the world will become pure. The question is why I should see evil in others. I cannot see evil unless I be evil. I can not be miserable unless I am weak. Things that used to make me miserable when I was a child, do not do so now.” (3)

The Mind’s Tendency to Project

During his wandering days in India, Swamiji stayed at Haripada Mitra’s house in Belgaum. Haripada Mitra was not getting along with his superior and would lose his poise even at the slightest provocation. When he narrated his predicament Swamiji remarked:

Know it for certain that the ideas we entertain about others express themselves through our conduct; and even though we may not express these in words, people react accordingly. We see in the external world the same image that we carry in our hearts; nobody realizes how true the saying  ‘The world is good when I am good’ is. From today try to get rid of the habit of finding fault with others, and you will find that, to the extent you succeed in this, the attitudes and reactions of others also change accordingly (4).

This advice of Swamiji helped Haripada Mitra overcome his problem and, as he says, helped open a new chapter in his life. Swamiji here was speaking of one of the important psychological phenomena called projection. Whatever we do not want to see in ourselves, we project it outside and see it in others; moreover, we become intolerant of it. ‘When some tendency in ourselves arouses guilt-feelings, we very commonly project it, and become inordinately critical in others of the impulse that we are trying to repress in ourselves. The man who is always complaining of other people’s conflict, or snobbishness, or meanness, usually has a tendency towards these foibles himself.’(5)

According to Swamiji, we must follow ‘the true Indian principle of looking subjectively for the cause of the objective.’6  It reminds us of the statement made by James Allen: ‘A man is continually revolting against an effect without, while all the time he is nourishing and preserving its cause in his heart.’7 Whenever something negative happens, we have to turn our attention inward and try to make corrections there, so that we will not be affected by the external factors. When we are bitten by a snake, we do not run chasing the snake to kill it; we rather pay attention to remove the poison without thinking of the snake.
This phenomenon of projection has another very important dimension. Whatever is projected comes back to us without fail, in some form or the other, at some time or the other, and in some way or the other. When it comes back to us we may not realize that it is the result of our own projection, and we wonder why we have to suffer at all for no fault of ours. To quote Swamiji:
Every vicious thought will rebound, every thought of hatred which you may have thought, in a cave even, is stored up, and will one day come back to you with tremendous power in the form of some misery here. If you project hatred and jealousy, they will rebound on you with compound interest. No power can avert them; when once you have put them in motion, you will have to bear them. Remembering this will prevent you from doing wicked things. 8

Echoing the same idea, the great trans-personal psychologist Ken Wilber says: ‘We feel the world hates us only because we are unaware of the small part of ourselves that gently hates the world.’ 9 And it also indicates our inability to express our love for others. Not only do we need the love of others, we also need to express our love for others, for our own personal growth. When we are able to do so, we do not feel that others hate us.  When we fail to project our love and sympathy for others, naturally, we project our own shortcomings and see their reflections outside. Ken Wilber continues: ‘Our carping criticisms of other people are really nothing but unrecognized bits of autobiography’. He remarks: ‘If you want to know what a person is really like, listen to what he says about other people’ (ibid.). All these psychological factors reinforce Swamiji’s emphasis on subjective change. To quote him again:

“The more we grow in love and virtue and holiness, the more we see love and virtue and holiness outside. All condemnation of others really condemns ourselves. Adjust the microcosm (which is in your power to do) and the macrocosm will adjust itself for you.” 10

Mental Atmosphere

The harmful effect of negative thoughts was demonstrated by an experiment done in Japan. The power of thought research was led by Dr Masaru Emoto in Japan. He got water from one source and divided it into two jars. Then he had a group of people focus thoughts of appreciation and gratitude on one jar, and thoughts of hate, anger, and despair on the other jar. He then froze the water from each jar, isolated ice crystals from each, and took photographs of them using high-speed photography. The difference between the water in the two jars was dramatic. The water crystals that had been exposed to the positive thoughts were beautifully, symmetrically shaped. The water crystals that had been exposed to anger were very ugly, distorted and [had] disturbing shapes. If you consider that 80 percent of our body is composed of water, you can see the importance of surrounding ourselves with positive thoughts as much as possible.11

Another important psychological factor that Swamiji draws our attention to has a great practical bearing on our life. The atmosphere surrounding us consists of different kinds of thought vibrations, both good and bad, and according to our mental state, we tend to receive those vibrations and thereby we either become better or worse. Swamiji speaks of this in his own powerful language:
It is quite possible, therefore, that this atmosphere of ours is full of such thought pulsations, both good and evil. Every thought projected from every brain goes on pulsating, as it were, until it meets a fi t object that will receive it. Any mind which is open to receive some of these impulses will take them immediately. So, when a man is doing evil actions, he has brought his mind to a certain state of tension and all the waves which correspond to that state of tension, and which may be said to be already in the atmosphere, will struggle to enter into his mind. That is why an evil-doer generally goes on doing more and more evil. His actions become intensified. Such also will be the case with the doer of good; he will open himself to all the good waves that are in the atmosphere, and his good actions also will become intensified.12
Another important point we have to remember is that it is not that there are no persons who will inflict pain on us, or there are no adverse events that perturb us. But Swamiji’s contention is that if we are strong enough within, external factors will not easily affect us. He gives us the example of the physical body that remains unaffected by the innumerable disease germs constantly surrounding it, as long as its immune system is sufficiently strong. Similarly, if our mental body is weak, there are hundreds and thousands of persons and events ever ready to destabilize us internally. We behave like puppets being played upon by external events. Swamiji’s succinct remark on this point is very revealing :
“The man that has practised control over himself cannot be acted upon by anything outside; there is no more slavery for him. His mind has become free” (1.92).
Here again Ken Wilber’s observation is worth quoting : ‘You will find that people and events don’t cause you to be upset, but are merely the occasions for you to upset yourself.’13 Howard Cutler says: ‘A tree with strong roots can withstand the most violent storm, but you cannot expect the tree to grow roots as the storm appears on the horizon.’14

Self Image

Swamiji insists on having a positive self-image, for our attitude towards the world and our relationship with others depend mainly upon our self-image. If one is suffering from an inferiority complex or a low self-image, one would imagine that others are not treating one properly, even though that is not the case. If others are laughing for some other reason, a person would assume that they are insulting him or her. Sometimes this kind of low self-image is formed due to circumstances. Swamiji says:
“Negative thoughts weaken men. Do you not find that where parents are constantly taxing their sons to read and write, telling them they will never learn anything, and calling them fools and so forth, the latter do actually turn out to be so in many cases? If you speak kind words to boys and encourage them, they are bound to improve in time.” 15
Having an inferior self-image is detrimental to one’s individual growth. It acts as a great hindrance to our push to achieve success in any field in the midst of adverse circumstances. Even the slightest adversity is enough to deter one in any undertaking. For a person of low self-image and a defeatist mentality, even advantages may appear as adversities, love may be construed as hatred, medicine may act as poison, and amity may turn into enmity. The Roman philosopher Seneca’s saying is very instructive: ‘It is not because things are diffcult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.’16
Here we can appreciate Swamiji’s insistence on developing self-confidence, faith in oneself. He says:
“The ideal of faith in ourselves is of the greatest help to us. If faith in ourselves had been more extensively taught and practised, I am sure a large portion of the evils and miseries that we have would have vanished.”17
He further says:
“To the man who has begun to hate himself the gate to degeneration has already opened; and the same is true of a nation. Our first duty is not to hate ourselves, because to advance we must have faith in ourselves first and then in God. He who has no faith in himself can never have faith in God”(1.38).
Self-hate is not only self-destructive, it also engenders the urge to destroy and injure and become aggressive when it is turned outwards. Self-hate induces self-punishment and self-condemnation, and also breeds jealousy among rivals and rebellion against authority. It is not possible to hate oneself and love others. Love of others presupposes love of oneself. Dr Alexander Reid Martin says: ‘Case after case shows a lack of self-love at the root of mental illness. If people had healthy love of themselves instead of carrying hidden burdens of self-contempt our psychiatric case load would be cut in half.” 18
Self-love does not mean selfishness or self-centredness. Dr Felix affirms that when one has self-love, ‘one has a feeling of dignity, of belonging, of worthwhileness, a feeling of adequacy—yet a healthy sense of humility’ (ibid). That is why Swamiji emphasizes: ‘The first step is joy of living. To laugh is better than to pray. Sing. Get rid of misery. Do not for heaven’s sake infect others with it.’ 19 This joy of living is possible only when we love life, rather than hate it.
We cannot, however, claim that we are completely free from all weaknesses. When those who are sensitive are overpowered by weaknesses, they cannot escape from feelings of guilt. But this should not discourage us, slacken our enthusiasm, and make us downcast, for these will further debilitate us. It is worth quoting here the words of the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza : “One might perhaps expect gnawings of conscience and repentance to help to bring them on the right path, and might thereupon conclude (as everyone does conclude) that these affections are good things. Yet when we look at the matter closely, we shall find that not only are they not good, but on the contrary deleterious and evil passions. For it is manifest that we can always get along better by reason and love of truth than by worry of conscience and remorse. Harmful are these and evil, inasmuch as they form a particular kind of sadness. … Just so we should endeavour … to flee and shun these states of mind.”20

 

Swamiji’s concepts of self-confidence, self-love, and joy of living are very relevant to the field of self-esteem psychology. Nathaniel Branden, a proponent of self-esteem psychology, writes in his famous book ‘Honoring the Self’ : “In human beings, joy in the mere fact of existing is a core meaning of healthy self-esteem. It is a state of one who is at war neither with self nor with others.”21 He further states, echoing Swamiji’s thought as it were: ‘High self-esteem can best be understood as the integrated sum of self-confidence and self-respect’
We can trace the progressive development of Western psychology from the very crude and low image of a human to the noblest concept eloquently underscored by Swamiji. We find Sigmund Freud and his followers stating that repression of lower impulses is the cause of neurosis. Later Alfred Adler pointed out that it is the repression of the will to attain power that is the root cause of neurosis. Further, we find humanistic psychologists like Erich Fromm and others demonstrating that the main cause of neurosis is the repression of hidden talents and capacities. Still further we come across Victor E Frankl affirming that the repression of the will to attain meaning is at the root of all psychological problems. Finally, we come to Ken Wilber, who says: ‘It is unfortunate that we in the West, over the past few centuries, have increasingly tended to repress the Transcendent. This repression extensive as it is subtle, is undoubtedly more responsible for the discontents of our present unhappy civilization than any amount of repression of sexuality, hostility, aggression or other superficial repressions operating on the upper levels of spectrum.’22

 

In this regard we can fully appreciate Swamiji’s emphasis on the manifestation of our inner divinity. It is the mind that needs to evolve and become pure. Otherwise, like a small cloud obscuring the massive Sun, our Atman remains covered and deluded. Swamiji says: ‘Manifest the divinity within you, and everything will be harmoniously arranged around it.’23

This is the most profound psycho-spiritual message of Swami Vivekananda.
(Source : Prabuddha Bharata January 2013)

References

 1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama), ..
2. .Quoted in Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu-Li Masters
(New York: William Morrow, 1979 ), .
3. Complete Works
4. His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda(Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, )
5. Rex Night, A Modern Introduction to Psychology (London: University Tutorial, 1948 ), .
6. Complete Works 8
7. James Allen, As a Man  Thinketh (London: Lulu),
8. Complete Works
9. Ken Wilber, The Spectrum of Consciousness (Wheaton: Quest Books, )
10. Complete Works 1.82
11. Quoted in Joseph Law, Living Greatness (Sydney : New Holland, )
12. Complete Works
13. Ken Wilber, No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (Colorado: Shambhala,)
14. Quoted in Living Greatness
15. Complete Works
16. 1,600 Quotes & Pieces of Wisdom that Just Might Help You out when You’re Stuck in a Moment (and Can’t Get out of It!), comp. Gary P Guthrie (Lincoln: iUniverse,
17. Complete Works 2.301
18. Quoted in Howard Whitman, ‘Love Is Healing’, The Reader’s Digest
19. Complete Works
20. Quoted in Willams James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Maryland : Arc Manor, ), 
21. Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self (New York: Bantam Books, ), .
22. No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth

23. Complete Works 4.351

By |2018-05-28T11:26:15+00:00May 19th, 2018|Prabuddha Bharata, Public Articles|0 Comments

About the Author:

Swami Nityasthananda is a senior monk in the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. He has previously served as the editor of "Viveka Prabha", a monthly Kannada magazine. He has written many books and has also translated many books into Kannada. He has special interest in human psychology. He has served as the Acharya in Belur Math and is currently the Adhyaksha of Ramakrishna Mission, Davanagere.