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Comparing Aspects of Eastern and Western Psychology


This article will compare Eastern psychology as expressed through its religious techniques of realization, with Western psychology--particularly in those psychologists, like James, Jung, Assagioli and Maslow who recognize the transpersonal aspect that is so central to the East. Some ideas and speculations will be articulated on what the implications of the wisdom of Asia is on modern psychology and what an approach to a synthesis might entail. In doing this the focus will be on the differing approaches to the personality (as a whole) and on the goals of psychology.

To generalize (and probably oversimplify), in important respects the East or traditional Asia and the Euro-American West have a complementary relation. Compared to the rational, extroverted and individualistic West, Asian psychology is more introverted, collectivist and mystical. Jung says the West believes "in doing" while the East in "impassive being" (Jung, 1958, p. 560). The occident has consequently developed a materialist science that is focused on the outer world--which it endeavors to control and exploit. In Asia, where most religions have arisen, consciousness has been directed inwardly to understand the essential nature of life. They have consequently developed very elaborate and refined metaphysical systems. Toward the outer world, they have been more accepting and fatalistic.

The basis of Eastern psychologies and the religions they are invariably an aspect of, is an understanding of the dual nature of the mind. Just as the mind is normally directed outwardly and occupied with the information about the world which is derived through the senses, it also (presumably) has the capacity to be redirected through meditative practices to explore the inner and subjective side of things. The systems of Eastern philosophy and the particular practices of Vedantic yoga and Buddhist meditation have developed over centuries of collective investigation. They are said to be as scientific in their own way as our modern Western science is, in that they have been created by discovering and testing--through repetitious experience and experiment--the laws of the inner world, as we have done in the outer. The instruments used, however, are not the technological ones of the West but the human mind itself.

Compared to extroverted Western thinking, the systems of thought which have developed in the East have much greater metaphysical complexity and sophistication. In modern psychology--even in the writings of the transpersonal psychologists -- there are relatively few concepts, in comparison to the East, that refer to areas beyond the personality and the physical component. The term unconscious , in particular, is used as if it had a prescribed meaning when in fact it's a catch-all that includes many things.

In Vedanta, a philosophical school of Hinduism, it is taught that there are seven planes or basic vibrations of matter/energy, which in turn are each subdivided into seven (Taimni, 1961). The physical world we live in occupies only the lowest three of the forty-nine states of matter/energy. The personality with its physical, emotional and concrete mental components is only the densest of the three essential aspects of the Self. The middle aspect, which is called the higher self or soul, is composed of three higher vibrations of energy--called the abstract mind, the intuitional level of unified knowing, and the spiritual will. The highest aspect, the spirit or monad, is composed of matter or energy of even finer vibrations. The higher self refers to the immortal individual who maintains a distinct identity reincarnating through a succession of personalities. The whole purpose of yoga and meditation is to unify in consciousness the higher and lower selves. When this has been completed then a further synthesis with the divine spirit or monad is possible.

The various types of yoga each are means of refining consciousness by spiritualizing the functioning of one or other personality aspect--Bhakti yoga (emotions), Jnana yoga (knowledge), Mantra yoga (sound), Karma yoga (actions), Laya and Tantric yogas (energy), Hatha yoga (body) and others. Raja yoga (mind), systematized by Patanjali, is considered the highest of these. It attempts to unify the consciousness of the personality and the higher self by practices of meditation which enable the mind to transcend the personal finite level altogether and merge with one's higher nature and that corresponding level of reality.

Buddhist Zen meditation--although more practical in its focus and less concerned with theory--attempts to do the same thing. (Suzuki, 1933) A link or connection in consciousness is made between the concrete personal mind and the abstract mind of the higher self. Later, an awareness of intuitional and spiritual levels is realized. The samadhi sought in raja yoga or the satori of Zen is an enlightenment epitomized by the Buddha. It is said to be a consciousness of the buddhic or intuitional level--a supermental awareness of eternal Truth as contrasted with the relative knowledge possible on the level of the mind. 

Suzuki lists eight characteristics of enlightenment (1933, p.16-22):

1. Irrationality; defies intellectual logic

2. Intuitive insight; a sense of seeing into the essence of things

3. Authoritative; the knowledge gained is irrefutable

4. Affirmation; it is a completely positive affirming experience

5. Sense of the beyond; an indescribable sense of coming home

6. Impersonal tone; it doesn't glorify the ego

7. Feeling of exultation; a sense of expansion or liberation

8. Momentariness; it is altogether new in the moment

Once one's life and consciousness are centered in the higher Self and the propensities of the lower self are overcome, the reincarnational cycle is over. One has learned to be who one is. This, simply, is the Eastern view. The West, too, has had its mystics and its religious advocates who have stressed actual experience over faith and theology. This represents the perennial difference between an exoteric and an esoteric approach. However, the West has emphasized belief and action on behalf of service in the world. Among Western psychologists who acknowledged a transpersonal possibility, was William James. James posited the existence of a spiritual self--one's inner and subjective being--that was responsible for religious and parapsychological experiences. He taught that our normal ego consciousness is not the only or most profound kind of consciousness and studied different paranormal states.

Carl Jung, likewise, was interested in altered states--particularly the transformative processes of alchemy and gnosticism. He made a related study of universal human archetypes and symbols. Individuation--the goal of self development for Jung--involved a movement to a deeper center of consciousness which unified the ego and the unconscious. Abraham Maslow in his research on peak experiences, "being needs", metamotivation and self-actualization attempted to formulate a holistic psychology of man which was based on his higher being or self--not only his lower nature. He believed in the possibility of a truly transpersonal psychology although he did not formulate it. Roberto Assagioli probably went further along the line of a purely spiritual process of self-realization in his methods of psychosynthesis. Psychosynthesis' aim is to become conscious of and identify with the higher self.

Although these psychologists have admitted the possibility in general terms of a more profound goal in psychology and psychotherapy than the Freudian or behaviorist ones, it is in their method of achieving these that the main difference lies between Eastern and Western approaches. Jung thought that yogic techniques were unsuited to occidental psychology--that to mimic the Asian "they had to deny their Western heritage...and cut themselves off from important parts of their own psyche" (from Frager, 1984, p.57) He believed that the process of self-realization should proceed organically from within, rather than result from some imposed method from without.

Maslow also demonstrates the Western approach in establishing a hierarchy of needs--physiological needs, safety, belonging, self-esteem and self development--which must be satisfied before more transpersonal elements can be integrated. Like Jung, he believed in an individualistic growth process that has to be based on healthy, normal, socially productive functioning. Self-actualization would naturally evolve when a person was living to the fullest and committed to a larger purpose in life. Assagioli used specific techniques like guided meditation and disidentification to access unconscious material from the superconscious and facilitate the integration of the personal ego with the higher Self.

In Western psychology the emphasis is on the ego and its adjustment to the world and the physical level. In Eastern psychology, although there are personal, social and physical benefits from the practice of meditation and yoga, the whole rationale and goal is basically a transpersonal one. The practice is set in a religious, mystical or metaphysical framework even if that aspect is not consciously acknowledged by some Western practitioners. However, some Eastern advocates of meditation would agree with Jung about its appropriateness for the occidental psyche. Alice Bailey, an authority on the esoteric tradition, distinguishes between the oriental and occidental psychology. The latter is more "positive...with the will and the concrete mind more highly developed" (Bailey, 1950, p. 255). A practice called Agni yoga (the yoga of "fire") is more suitable for advanced individuals in the West. Bailey calls Agni yoga "the yoga of synthesis [which is] union through identification with the whole--not yoga through realization or through vision [Raja or the meditative approach]." (Bailey, 1951, p. 429). From Agni Yoga (Roerich, 1929, p. 131);

"It is right to consider initiations, meditations and concentration outworn concepts because these concepts must be expressed in actions. Christ, Buddha and Their closest coworkers did not use magic formulas but acted and created in full blending with the spirit. Therefore in the New Evolution, the former artificial methods of yogaism must be abandoned--they are no longer suitable for the regeneration of the world. Through life one must attain. Raja, Jnana, and Bhakti yoga are all isolated from their surrounding reality (from active participation in life) and because of this they cannot enter in to the evolution of the future. This most unifying yoga [Agni] exacts an obligation to construct the entire life in conformity with a discipline externally imperceptible. It is based on the conquest of the spirit. In this, the heart holds an exclusive position."

This method is in accord with the active, extroverted individualistic Occidental psychology. It is also in accord with the way Christ, the founder and prototype of Western religion, taught His followers. They were not to stay apart and seek a realization through quiet contemplation, but were to go out in the world--acting out of love for their fellow man--and relying only on the (Holy) spirit. This approach embodies a more active synthesis of spirit in life. It also is more individualistic in that each person has to learn to be responsible and depend on himself without relying on the external guru--as is typically observed in Asia.

As the Buddha and Asian religion emphasized the importance of Light and established the goal of transcendent realization of that Light (enlightenment), Christ, for the West, emphasized the principle of Love and established a goal based on sacrificial service to others--who are seen to be actually part of our life. (Christ taught to "Love your brothers as your self.") These approaches reflect the differences between what are called the "Doctrine of the Eye" and the "Doctrine of the Heart", which are reflected in the different goals of Raja and Agni (spiritual synthetic) yoga.

Western Object Relations psychology also elaborates the related perspective that what we see and experience result from our projections. An implication of this is that everything which we seem to experience as outside is really within us. This view is echoed in the newer psychological formulations of Christianity like A Course In Miracles which also direct one to experience Love or spirit through relationship and service to others. The sole responsibility for the disciple working with this teaching is a continual at-one-ment with a (Holy) spirit which connects us with a unified Self or Christ. This attempt to align with and embody the One Life expressing Itself through everything is the Western or Agni yoga. It reflects our active, individualistic and mental psychology.

Nirvana, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist, derives from an enlightenment or realization so complete that there is no longer any necessity for rebirth. To do this one must deny the reality of the phenomenal world. Salvation, the Christian goal, derives from a love and faith so complete that one's life becomes centered in Christ--Who is and gives one's real life. This attitude to one's fellow man is really to recognize an equal divinity in him--and to "serve" him in some way. (I think the goal of psychotherapy itself is in accord with this.) Granted, this ideal has been very imperfectly actualized in Western societies. But it does demonstrate a difference between the more passive life-denying, life-withdrawing attitude within traditional Asian culture and the more active love and life-affirming ideal of Western culture. (In saying this, I think that our Western civilization has actually embodied a lot of divisive destructiveness that resulted from a very ego-centered and repressive power-seeking orientation.)

In conclusion, therefore, although there are real benefits to be gained from the practice of raja yoga or Zen meditation, that as a way of life these are not completely suited to Westerners, as Jung states. Due to the great interest and fascination with oriental wisdom there is a tendency to assume that the means and methods by which it has been realized are also to be mimicked. This is natural. However, as Maslow and Jung in particular have established, a stage model of progressive development which honors the whole individual as well as the ego is necessary for us. This means acknowledging the individual's freedom, will and intrinsic growth urge. It means that transpersonal experience will naturally be the result of integration and derived from the same dynamics. Central to these dynamics is an outgoing conscious love which eventually moves beyond a separative egoic identity by purposeful action to embrace the larger whole of which it is a part. In the process we both transcend ourselves as well as become for the first time all that we are.


Bailey, Alice. (1950). Glamour: a world problem. New York, NY: Lucis Publishing Company.

Bailey, Alice. (1925). A treatise on cosmic fire. New York, NY: Lucis Publishing Company.

Bailey, Alice. (1951). A treatise on white magic. New York, NY: Lucis Publishing Company.

Frager, R. and Fadiman, J. (1984). Personality and personal growth. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Jung, C. G. (1958). The collected works of C. G. Jung; vol. II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Roerich, Helena. (1931). Agni yoga. New York: Agni Yoga Press.

(Schuman, Ruth) Foundation for inner peace. (1975). A course in miracles. New York, NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc.

Suzuki, D. K.. (1933). Essays in Zen Buddhism; vol. II. London, England: Luzac and Company.

Taimni, I. K.. (1961). The science of yoga. Wheaten, IL: Quest publishing.