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Research Methods in Clinical Psychospirituality

Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D.
Director of Behavioral Medicine
University of Massachusetts Health Services, Amherst, MA


With the exception of the atheist at one end of the spectrum and the fully realized mystic at the other, most human beings would acknowledge that the reality they live in has three interconnecting spheres of experience, the physical, the mental or psychological, and the numinous or spiritual. During contemporary times, especially in the technologically leading nations, the paradigm of scientific materialism has come to exercise a dominating influence over the ways we value, perceive and even conceptualize these perennially interconnecting spheres of experience. In many cases this paradigm of scientific materialism has greatly devalued and even questioned the reality and legitimacy of the spiritual dimension of human experience. This brief paper supports the position that experience in the realms of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual are all dimensions human science and knowledge can and must explore, but that the criterions and cannons of validity and verification of their disciplines and methodologies, are subject to the particular dictates and circumstances of each of these realms of experience.

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     Research methods in clinical psychospirituality are similar in philosophy and structure to research methods in other areas of inquiry. There must be both a data base and data gathering leading to a body of knowledge; there must be observation of relevant processes and appropriate experience with the data of observation; and the data must be open to verification and replication by others using the same or similar methods. This leads to a body of knowledge in all science.
     There have been traditionally speaking three realms of human knowledge:
     a. The sensory or physical realm.
     b. The symbolic, cognitive or mental realm.
     c. The noetic, spiritual or transcendental realm.
     In each of these three, often interpenetrating realms, the data or datum of experience is present and immediate and not reducible to anything else. It may lead or be associated with something else, but in the moment of direct apprehension, it is the that of immediate experience (Wilber, 1982). This is the confession of both meditative practice and ordinary experience.
     Experience in this vein then is the direct apprehension, the immediate giveness of the datum or data in any of the three realms. Therefore, all human knowledge in this sense is rooted in experience, but not all human knowledge is necessarily rooted only in sensory experience. There is a mental-symbolic realm of direct experience that has its own criterion of truth and validation. Mathematical proof or validation of abstract theorems is one; aesthetic apprehension in music, art, etc. is another; insight with a moral or ethical dilemma is another; psychological insight of a dynamic nature with affect is still another. All can lead to the verification of a set of experiences. Therefore, there are different types and criterion for validation and proof dependent upon the area, realm of inquiry, and its appropriate methods of exploration.
     Sensory proof is in the corporal experience of the data, e.g., it tastes or sounds or feels X, Y, or Z. It is real and grounded. Mathematical proof uses a different methodology. Its cognitive and symbolic experience of the data are real, appeal to a certain aesthetic and elegant sense, but are not in the sensory mode. Its methodology is appropriately drawn from the mental-cognitive realm.
     Spiritual or transcendental truths are not in the sensory or even mental-symbolic realm, but in the noetic realm. This knowledge is outside the sensory and mental modes, but is not outside of experience.
     Therefore, each of the three realms is open to direct and immediate experience, apprehension and replication and these apprehensions are the data that lead to a body of verifiable knowledge in each realm. In each realm this knowledge is immediate and personal (Polanyi, 1962).
     Empiricism, as a research methodology, must be recognized to be an expansive and inclusive approach that is not limited to only sensory and symbolic data. We can suggest in this context then that there are at least three types of verification of methods and procedures for empirically and experimentally derived data:
     a. Instrumental verification, in which the research methodology says do this, observe that this allows for prediction in science.
     b. Intuitive or cognitive apprehension, which is the immediate and direct experience of the data itself in any of the three realms, sensory, symbolic, or transcendental.
     c. Group or communal confirmation, which leads us to consensual validation by checking the results of one's experience with the experience of others and other patterns.
     There arises in this process a body of data and knowledge and also a discipline of inquiry that is observable and empirically (in this wider sense) testable by direct experience by others which can then be either confirmed or refuted (Popper, 1965). In order to do so, the subject, in any of the three realms must be trained in the appropriate discipline. This allows for observation, replication, verification, and prediction of future situations.
     In the orthodox and traditional sciences we are familiar with and perhaps addicted to, the sensory and symbolic realms predominate. The ground of experience here is more mundane. In the last two centuries this has emerged implicitly as a philosophy of scientific materialism and its values have influenced our actual perception of the overall world process. In the spiritual or transcendental realm there is direct apprehension of the ground, as Spirit itself, as Being, as Consciousness itself, prior to mentalization, which while experienced is not experienced primarily in either the sensory or the symbolic mode. The bias of contemporary scientific methodology is a perceptual and ideological contraction of empiricism around sensory and symbolic events, all the while dissociating itself from the sublime and transcendental domain. This has resulted in nothing less than a spiritual epistemectomy.
     In the history of spiritual or transcendental apprehension, there has arisen a rich diversity of paths and disciplines conditioned by culture, personal constitution, and the plurality of human development. World cultures have also greatly contributed to the conditioning of our perception of the world process. The West is thought to value materialism and thus to have most recently stressed scientific materialism as the way to reality. The East, meaning primarily India, China, and Tibet, are believed to favor spiritualism. Africa, especially the ancient Kemetic Egyptian sciences of matter and spirit, are thought to combine the material and the spiritual. Personalism in the latter context invades the material as well as the spiritual. In this paradigm even the trees, the mountains, and other aspects of the wider ecology are perceived to be essentially, even at the quantum level, alive and conscious, to possess essences. There is no absolute distinction between mind and matter, form and substance, ourselves and the world process. The self is the center of the world process, animating it and making it living and personal (Asante, 1989). This Personalism dimension in the intricate corridors of one's life and decision making process profoundly affects the path or chosen psychospiritual discipline of one's practice. This again is why there are so many seemingly different paths. Each path has articulated a lineage and discipline(s).
     Each path has articulated a lineage and unfoldment of specific experiences and states of awareness. Deviations from these paths very often lead to pitfalls and symptoms, delusions, and distress. These pitfalls are observable and recognized by the teacher/master or earlier successful teacher of the particular path. Paths are rich and many, e.g., Yoga, Zen, Shamanistic, Esoteric, Christian, Cabalistic, IFA, etc., etc., and within each arise further elaborations. Therefore at a certain stage in each lineage, a teacher is required, just as in other realms of inquiry. We can be self-taught only so far!
     Clinical Psychospirituality focuses on this area of spiritual potholes and technical mistakes in each discipline. It helps to reveal the interface between the subjects unique psychological issues and vulnerabilities and tendencies, and those of the path. Its awareness and experience with the path's or discipline's research methods and procedures can help reflect how these personal tendencies inhibit progress or support unfoldment.
     In Kundalini Yoga for example, the teacher clarifies the internal, empirical and experiential difference between the perception of energy movement or pranotthana and Kundalini itself; Tantric discipline between body-breath-sensual currents and mere indulgence; between dreamy-visionary sleep (nidra) and meditation; between an hallucination and a vision or epiphany; between Kundalini arousal with its somatic and symbolic-visionary sequelae and the stabilization of this phenomena in the subtle and psychophysical self.
     Needless to say these practices absolutely requires the direct experience and training of the clinician themselves. These are matters that make the exploration of non-traditional research areas very similar to the other more well known, better financed, but also much younger human sciences.


Asante, M.K., 1989, Afrocentricity; Africa World Press; Trenton, NJ.

Polanyi, M., 1962, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Harper and Row, New York.

Popper, K.R., 1965, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, Harper and Row, New York.

Wilber, K., 1982, The Problem of Proof: A Proposal for the Verification of Sensory, Symbolic, and Spiritual Truth Claims. Revision 5,1, Spring, 80-100.

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