Metta Spencer

Therapy and Eastern Religion: A Study in Cultural Evolution

Association for the Study of Religion, Providence R.I., Oct. 1982.

I Accounts of Cognitive and Cultural Change

One who recognizes its Marxist origins is not surprised that the sociology of knowledge has for so long leaned toward materialist and structural kinds of analysis, such as usually explaining the content of ideas systems in terms of the special interests that they bolster or the social circumstances that have constrained their production. Happily, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) have partially liberated our tradition of research from this reductionistic tendency. Moreover, our thinking has been further expanded by the fruitful models for explaining the development of knolwedge that Jean Piaget, Thomas Kuhn, and Karl Popper have proposed. However, the job remains incomplete that will, one hopes, integrate their models with the sociology of knowledge. I hope to contribute to that integration in the present paper, which arises out of my study of what I call the "Consciousness Culture."

For more than a decade I have been participating in the widest possible array of mind-expansion organizations--therapies and training programs that promise at least some personal growth and, at best, spiritual transcendence. Examples are Gestalt Therapy, Scientology, est, Actualizations, Silva Mind Control, and a variety of seminars and lectures offered by gurus ranging from Ram Dass to Rajneesh. Such groups lack a satisfying generic label, since some of them are called "therapies", others "religions", and still others "educational courses" designed to improve management or communication skills. Most of them are also pursued for sociable and recreational purposes as much as anything else.

The diversity among them is obvious. What is not so apparent, however, is a growing unity--a common set of assumptions that seems to be shared quite widely across the whole spectrum of such groupings. In ongoing research I depict that culture as a coherent, unified set of ideas derived primarily from eastern religion. I would even claim that westerners are becoming Buddhists without knowing it, since the Dharma is coming in through our back door and becoming integrated with our own tradition in a new syncretic culture. While "fundamentalists" may dismiss these cultural hybrids as inauthentic, I do not. Every religious tradition, when transplanted to an alien society, takes on new forms. Indeed, purists who ape Asian rituals with precision seem to get less from their borrowed religion, often, than do the syncretists who combine outlandish assortments of teachings, developing a practice that is integrated with their awn inherited culture. Religious change may be as likely to represent evolutionary advance as the corruption of an ancient revelation. The new syncretism that I describe may be an example of such evolutionary progress, though it no doubt includes ingredients that are corrupt too.

Buddhism is being imported to western culture through therapy. Probably the majority of all adherents to this new east/west syncretism begin their exploration of it with some kind of therapy. What interests me is how conventional minds manage to adapt and include such heterodox notions. A new cultural system, after all, emerges only when thousands of people individually accept ideas that are deviant from the standpoint of the mainstream culture around them. Through what kinds of experiences are they brought to accept one after another of these views? Unlike other writers who pin it onto a personality aberration allegedly common to our period ("narcissism") (Lasch, 1978) I consider it to be a reasonable response to failures in the received paradigms--not a crazy response, but an evolutionary breakthrough. One need not, of course, admire every aspect of the movement to consider it, on balance, such an advance.

I interviewed therapists concerning the changes that had occurred in their thinking about therapy. Gradually, out of these conversations I came to think of cultures (e.g. the set of assumptions that therapists work with) as changing through a process not unlike Darwinian evolution. Systems of ideas (like organisms) can be viewed as competing in particular ecological niches (e.g. the clinical setting). And the fittest idea systems, like the fittest organisms, tend to survive, while others may lose support and drop out of the living culture into history. "Unfit" therapies, in this metaphor, are sets of ideas that prove unhelpful in clinical practice, shedding no light and resolving no personal dilemmas for patients. Progress arises from the continuous challenge posed by ongoing experience to the models we inherit or piece together, by which we orient ourselves and produce practical activities. The progressive evolution of the culture of therapy arises from the difficulties that therapists encounter when using their learned thories of personality.

One must contrast this Darwinian evolutionary model to the one shared by virtually all social evolutionists (except, perhaps, Bagehot) up to our day. Our usual evolutionary metaphor compares social progress, not to the evolution of species, but to the developmental phases of a single organism, an unfolding of pre-determined tendencies. But although many sociologists are aware of that failing in our evolutionary model, few have tried to shift over to a model that would explain cultural evolution as a process of natural selection, in which populations of ideas change over time. Only today do we glimpse the possibilities that a genuinely Darwinian evolutionary model offers the social sciences. (Blute, 1979) It is useful to note how it parallels certain other illustrious accounts concerning the progressive development of knowledge.

Both Thomas Kuhn (1962) and Karl Popper (1957) share something like a belief in the natural selection of ideas, however much their disagree on other points. Progress, they agree, comes through the process of testing theories, eliminating false ones so that the remainder, having stood the test of rigorous investigation, can be taken more seriously. (For our purposes, idea systems may equally well be termed "theories", "models", "paradigms", "schemata", or even "cultural traditions".)

Empirical research never proves a theory; at best it simply fails to disprove it under aptly-designed test conditions. Research always attempts to falsify theories--eliminating, as it were, the unfit ones so the remainder, as a population of ideas, evolves over time.

Piaget's developmental account of the child's mental growth is also consistent with this model. (Piaget and Inhelder, 1968) Children propose theories to account for their awn experiences and then test them with additional incoming experience, assimilating new events that do conform into their provisional "schemata" and "accommodating" those schemata when confronted with experiences that do not conform. Mind develops in a series of stairstep-like progressions, with radically new models being entertained at particular phases, as the child is forced to recognize inconsistencies between his current theories and his experience. Using Kuhn's term, one might even call these developmental breakthroughs "scientific revolutions" that each child undergoes independently, yielding ever more advanced paradigms for addressing additional experiences.

Subsuming Kuhn, Popper, and Piaget into the Darwinian model, we thus arrive at the generalization that individuals or groups adapt their cognitive systems only when their existing ones fail to work out when enacted. This is, however, a totally rationalistic explanation of cultural change--one that fails to account for the many "extrinsic" factors that may motivate one to favor a particular model over another that may actually be more apt or better-formed.

But surely any sociology of knowledge must be ready to recognize it when the process of reasoning or scientific testing is subverted by external considerations. Freudians rightly charge that one may be self-deceived by irrational unconscious factors, so that "reality testing" no longer is decisive. And Marxists rightly charge that some (and for "vulgar Marxists" most) of our beliefs are "ideologies"--chosen not for their interpretive superiority in addressing new events, but for the justifications they lend to the pursuit of our material interests.

Both Freudians and Marxists thus point to "extrinsic" considerations that make cultural (or cognitive) evolution much more complex than the Darwinian metaphor would suggest. Not all behavior is rational, let us admit. People may, for self-serving reasons, cling to ideas that have been falsified or demonstrated to be "unfit". Also, in some domains of knowledge, theories are hardly ever conclusively falsifiable anyway, and for them the Darwinian model of cultural evolution seems especially weak, since it is less clear on what grounds a theory or model might be selected out at adaptive or otherwise. It is easier to recognize progress in science and mathematics, say, than in religion, art, or social relations. Indeed, strict cultural relativists even deny that progress is possible or that comparative evaluations are ever warranted in those latter domains. Admittedly, where conclusive falsification of models is impossible, cultural evolution is ambiguous, but we need not rule it out altogether and it is my opinion that the Consciousness Culture represents an evolutionary advance within the overlapping domains of therapy and religion.

Nevertheless, it is important to expand the Darwinian model that I have outlined so as to accommodate the fact that cognitive schemata do not necessarily survive only because they are coherent, clear, or enlightening, but sometimes because they support the special interests of a powerful group or individual. Our model of cultural evolution can be improved on by incorporating in it the rather Marxian concept of investment. However, here "investments" are to be understood, not just as material interests, but as ideal interests as well.

People need models and theories about reality as the basis for organizing their own activities. They have, therefore, an investment in the coherence and adequacy of those beliefs. But people maintain their schemata selectively. They are not always disturbed by inconsistencies in their beliefs, but often tolerate quite a lot of cognitive dissonance without troubling to reconcile them. However, particular models will be salient for each person, because they provide a basis for major aspects of one's life. In such cases, the investment in such theories can be quite substantial, possibly not in terms of financial interests, but in terms of one's life structure. One is likely, then, to try to keep one's set of salient beliefs in good order, while letting the others remain incoherent. Let me illustrate.

Initially I began by interviewing therapy clients to determine how they chose therapists and how they combined beliefs drawn from seemingly incompatible therapies. I found that few clients actually worried about compatibility. Most often they combined beliefs in a glorious mish-mash of contradictions, and chose therapists on the basis of their friendship networks, not the techniques they used. Therapists, on the other hand, have to apply theories in their practice and for them theoretical coherence is more essential. They have a greater investment in the clarity and applicability of their schemata than clients do. For this reason, they pay more attention to selecting workable models of therapy.

On the other hand, they also have external investments that influence their acceptance of therapeutic models--the most notable one being concern for their own public reputations. To accept a particularly unorthodox model can be risky, depending on the nature of the professional and social network in which a therapist is situated.

Indeed, it is fair to generalize beyond my own subjects: The main "externality" (to borrow economists' term) that tends to corrupt the rational process of testini models is the desire to maintain agreement with others. Solomon Asch's famous study relating perceptual distortion to social conformity ought, I think, be chosen by sociologists of knowledge as a sacred text.

Notice that everyone confronts a kind of moral dilemma at times--a problem as to which criteria should guide our assessment of belief systems. On the one hand, commitment to our social group calls for us to participate actively in the ongoing criticism of our stock of shared schemata--our common culture. When received wisdom does not seem to apply, we owe it to our group to point that out, even if it means asserting that the Emperor has no clothes. But on the other hand, in the face of our group's demand for agreement, our desire for approval can induce us to sell out our commitment to the integrity of the group culture. Thus ideas may be "naturally selected" as much for the sake of conformity or the protection of special interests, as for the rational superiority of one paradigm over another.

The Culture of Therapy.

My research involved both participating in a variety of different mind-expansion programs and also interviewing therapists and clients about their ideas on therapy. I began by interviewing clients but I switched in 1977 to interviewing therapists, intending to map the subcultures within the therapy profession. I expected those who practice one type of therapy to be more receptive to other approaches that are conceptually similar than to those that are very different. But it became clear immediately that many therapists changed so often that, had I mapped the clusters or subcultures of therapies, a large number of the therapists I had interviewed would have changed within a month to another approach.

For this reason I again changed my strategy, shifting from the static portrayal of therapy subcultures to the project of portraying them as a typical "career line" through which given practioners change their techniques.

Though my observations are informed by considerable experience (mainly participant observation) they are impressionistic, not based on hard, quantified data. I know (or once did know) aboout 70 therapists well enough to have some sense of their professional orientations. This forms the main basis for my conclusions.

I came to think of the systems of therapy in terms of a continuum from right to left, in which (as with the political metaphor) the right represents the orthodox or conservative theories. The most extreme right would be Freudian psychoanalysis and Behavior Modification, as developed from the work of B.F. Skinner. The extreme left includes numerous approaches that some might not call "therapies" at all--meditation and yoga; rebirthing; regression to previous lives; energy-balancing processes such as laying on healing hands or combing "auras"; directing one's own "lucid" dreams while they are going on; surrendering to a guru; contacting spirit guides and advisors who have died, and the like.

In between these two extremes, we would locate various types of therapy that have developed during the past twenty years or so. SOMR are relatively comprehensible within the assumptions shared in western culture. Transactional Analysis, for example, is a technique that rests on Freudian assumptions but is simpler to learn and practice than psychoanalysis. It belongs near the right end of the scale. So do Assertiveness Training and Conjoint Family Therapy.

Gestalt Therapy, Bioenergetics, hypnotherapy, and Psychosynthesis, however, are all about equally heterodox and belong a bit further toward the left, though still near the middle of the scale. Still further to the left (but not at the extreme end) are Neurolinguistic Programming, primal therapy, and most of the personal training programs, such as est, Silva Mind Control, Arica, and Subud.

In the career of working therapists, this continuum can be compared to a Guttman scale. The right end is the most acceptable numerically and a regular decline in popular acceptance is found with each successive degree of unorthodoxy. Nevertheless, the evolution of the Consciousness Culture represent a dramatic expansion in the numbers who accept these "new age" assumptions.

When therapists change, they almost always try something as far left as their current practice, or even further left. They hardly ever move toward the right. Virtually all of the "left" therapists had moved that far gradually, having passed through the whole continuum, one therapy at a time. Anyone well versed in, say, Rajneesh's teachings, usually has also tried at least one therapy from all of the less radical levels.

Few of the therapists had been able to afford orthodox Freudian analysis but all of the ones to its left had read about Freud extensively or experienced some version of Freudian therapy.

The converse could not be said. Therapists of a conservative persuasion were generally unfamiliar with heterodox methods. Often they could not never identify these new approaches by name and they had no interest in reading the numerous paperback books that describe them.

Therapists to the right and left differed in their professional backgrounds and in prestige. The most conservative practioners I met were the psychoanalysts, followed by psychiatrists, social workers, and clinical psychologists. Ministers, who had trained in pastoral counseling, seemed slightly more eclectic. But the real ferment of ideas seemed to involved the "subprofessional" therapists--those whose training had been hit-or-miss from low-prestige institutions, and who sometimes supplemented their income with other types of employment.

All of these observations call for explanation. To propose one we must pay attention to both "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" influences on the popularity of therapeutic paradigms. Our Darwinian model explains the changing culture of therapists as adaptive response to the failure of older, established approaches, when they fail to meet the challenges of clinical practice. I call this an "intrinsic" source of change because it results from weaknesses or strengths in the theories themselves, not in the persons who hold them.

"Extrinsic" sources of change, on the other hand, are such factors as the motives of the therapists that bias their thinking toward models that support their personal interests--such as their claims to material advantages, their need to curry the approval of others, or some special axe they care to grind.

Extrinsic factors. In explaining why therapists of certain backgrounds were more disposed to try "leftish" therapies, it is likely that extrinsic factors are commonly important. The extrinsic category can include two rather different sets of influences: (a) those affecting the therapists' motives and (b) those affecting their opportunities to contact alternative paradigms.

Clearly, prestige-maintenance is a motive that influences the openness of Some professionals toward alternative methods and assumptions. It was clear that the most prestigious professionals were the least likely to know anything about the "popular" new approaches. In my interviews I asked therapists about the books and periodicals that they had been reading, the workshops and seminars that they had attended, and the discussions they had held with colleagues. Some Freudian psychoanalysts read almost nothing but Freudian journals. I recall one analyst who confessed with mild embarrassment that he did sometimes read Psychology Today. His shame was clearly about "stooping" to such popular souces of information. Below that level he would not stoop, or anyway would not confess. He could not identify most of the newer techniques such as Rational-Emotive Therapy, Reality Therapy, or Biofeedback. He had heard of Transactional Analysis and Rogerian therapy, but had read no books about them nor had discussed them with anyone. His attitude was not exceptional in his profession.

At the other extreme, I met therapists who were embarrassed when I named a type of, therapy that they had not tried. Some of them considered it their duty to keep current by reading dozens of paperbacks and New Age magazines and by attending workshops ranging between Adlerian childhood education and LSD therapy. These were almost always "subprofessional" therapists --people who perhaps combined a career as a masseuse or a recreation director with a little counseling, picking up their training in workshops or night courses and often practicing without any special credentials.

One must assume that status considerations affect these matters. Psychoanalysts, as elite possessors of a pricey expertise, are understandably reluctant to attend workshops or lectures given by therapists whose accreditations are more dubious. Psychiatrists are also extremely professionalized--sharing ideas and swapping experiences only with peers in their medical specialty. They prefer the Freudian approach because, as one psychiatric resident explained to me, "It's the only intellectually respectable one. It has a real body of theory, while none of the other cheap, popular techniques do." A partial exception to this generalization is that Gestalt Therapy is tolerated in many psychiatric training institutes. Few psychiatrists use Gestalt, but it is sometimes demonstrated to residents, and those who use it seem to run little risk of being being dismissed by their peers as heretics.

Clinical psychologists rely heavily (though far from exclusively) on Behavior Modification--an approach that is not hard to learn but has fairly high prestige, probably because of its theoretical linkage to experimental psychology. There are few programs available to subprofessionals that offer training in behavioristic methods.

Social workers, who do a good deal of counseling, cannot afford the long training involved in either Freudian analysis or academic psychology, but they still want credibility, since they are pursuing professional status seriously. Unlike most other therapists, social workers often practice under continuous supervision--even those who are well established and working in hospitals or agencies. Peer-influences strongly influence their openness to new methods. The social workers generally favored techniques such as Transactional Analysis, Assertiveness Training, and Family Therapy--methods that were easy to acquire but still quite compatible with the assumptions of the more prestigious approaches. To some extent, such preferences must be attributed to self-serving motives--extrinsic considerations--although it is impolite to point out this fact to the principals themselves.

Still, structural constraints may weigh even more heavily than special motives in accounting for the diffusion of "leftish" ideas. The organization of work affects the opportunity structure considerably in every profession, and certainly in therapy. Some therapists work in groups, usually formed on the basis of compatible training and therapeutic preferences. Such groups of practitioners are usually exceedingly insular and uncurious about alternative approaches. I have visited several therapy institutes with dozens of therapists and hundreds of clients, located but a few blocks apart, that are committed to different approaches. Most of their members seemed totally unaware that their therapeutic neighbors existed, and when they were aware, showed no interest in meeting jointly to exchange ideas. The separateness of therapy subcultures is surprisingly deep.

Solo therapists can be even more isolated. How can they gauge the value of new techniques? Therapy is the most private of all professions. Once a therapist is in practice, opportunities will be rare to observe a colleague at work or even to meet new colleagues, who are, after all, competitors. Attending a workshop offered by an innovator whose credentials are not established can be an embarrassment. Hence few recognized therapists encounter questionable new methods.

Looked at as "opportunity structures", the therapists' professional network is a particularly crucial "extrinsic factor" influencing their acceptance of alternative therapies. Most of the therapies with whom I talked had been strongly influenced by their associates. This is not surprising; people in all areas of life are known to be introduced to new experiences and ideas through personal contacts. Few people--especially professionals--just leaf through the phone book searching for programs to try out. They are introduced by friends or associates. This is one of the most well-founded generalizations that sociologists who study cultural change have discovered.

Max Heirich, for example, who studied religious conversion, found that converts were almost always brought into the new faith by people in their network. (Heirich, 1977) However, Heirich notes that the extrinsic factor, network relations, only has influence on certain people, not others. The potential convert is always someone who is already on some kind of "quest", and Heirich claims that such a quest, or spirit of readiness to entertain new ideas and discard old ones, results from having had one's "root reality" brought into question. I would call this "root reality" impairment an "intrinsic" source of cultural change.

Intrinsic factors. When one's current beliefs have proven inadequate to account for some unexpected new experience, it becomes time to go on a quest for a new paradigm, or to seek a new "schema", in Piaget's terms. In my observation of therapists who had changed their ideas, it seemed clear to me that the basis had always included some "intrinsic" factors--some reason for losing faith in one's previous assumptions. Therapists who moved to the left did so only one step at a time, as if pushed out inch by inch because of logical or empirical problems in the framework they had previously used. I will briefly illustrated with one example.

Sonia Brownlee, who had been a suburban housewife in the 1960s, moved back to Toronto in the early 1970s to attend the school of social work. Her marriage broke up and she entered therapy on the basis of a referral by a professor. It was Transactional Analysis, an approach that she called good, but "not deep enough."

After she obtained an M.S.W she began work in a mental hospital and was asked to serve as a subject there for a demonstration of massage in arousing feelings. .Powerful emotions were indeed stimulated, which made her re--consider her calm, talking method of therapy and take up Bioenergetics, a new method based on the ideas of Wilhelm Reich. The Reichian approach was very physical, and in the course of it she regressed to some early trauma of infancy. This experience (which had not been predicted by any therapy she had already known) made her decide to have a go at primal therapy. She indeed became a primal therapist herself and quit the mental hospital job. But eventually the primals that she and her clients experienced seem to include some from preceding lives. This new belief called into question the possibility of completing the project that primal sets itself--re--living all previously suppressed traumas. Just then her roommate died and she fell into a period of despair, uncertain about what kind of therapy to practice. Friends invited her to visit an Indian guru, and she accepted. Immediately she was overwhelmed by his presence and she became a follower. When I interviewed her, she was the leader of a Toronto ashram and spent much of her day in chanting and meditation, which she claimed was the best therapy she had ever experienced.

Now, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors can be seen in this story. Sonia's network was responsible for her introduction to each new therapeutic system. But she never tried the approaches her friends recommended unless she had become dissatisfied or puzzled by some lacuna in her existing approach. Her story is perfectly typical of those therapists who do change greatly. They do so parsimoniously, accepting a new approach with as few new elements as possible.


A Darwinian model of cultural evolution has been proposed, one that fits neatly other theories of scientific inquiry by such philosophers and psychologists as Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, and Jean Piaget. It is suggested that extrinsic influences do affect the theories that people will entertain, but that a precondition for such extrinsic factors to have effect is a more important intrinsic factor. That is, the model with which a person has been working must have been shown inadequate somehow, so that a revision seems to be called for. This assumption accounts for the majority of the career-line changes that were observed in a wide variety of working therapists over a period of time. Since cultural change is the result of aggregated individual changes, this study applies equally well to an explanation of personal cognitive development and to macro-level cultural changes, such as the current one which is bringing eastern religion into western society.


Berger, L. Peter and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966).

Blute, Marion, "Sociocultural Evolutionism: An Untried Theory", Behavioral Science, V. 24, 1979.

Heirich, Max, "Change of Heart: A Test of Some Widely Held Theories about Religious Conversion", American Journal of Sociology 83(3) Nov. 1977: 653-77.

Kuhn, Thomas S., The Strucure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism (N.Y.: Norton, 1978).

Piaget, Jean and Barbel Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1968).

Popper, Karl, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, (London, 1957).