Interview With Dr. Olga Louchakova-Schwartz
For 25 years Dr Olga Louchakova-Schwartz taught at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
She started at ITP in 1992, as an adjunct research professor, and worked her way up to being Founding Director of Transpersonal Education and Research Specialization (2004-2014), of the World Wide Learning Exchange Program (2007 -2013), and of the pioneering Neurophenomenology Centre, the first of its kind (2007 – 2015).
She is now Professor Emerita of Psychology and Comparative Religion. Dr Louchakova-Schwartz has authored more than 150 papers and book chapters in various areas of neuroscience, philosophy, and transpersonal psychology. She is editor-in chief of the upcoming book, “A Problem of Religious Experience: Case Studies in Phenomenology “, which will be be published by Springer in 2018. Her collaborative research (with Maria Kozhevnikov, Zoran Josipovic, and Michael Motes) in the cognitive psychology of Tibetan meditation was featured on the BBC, Science Daily, and other important forums. She is a Founding Director of the Society for the Phenomenology of Religious Experience and has many more strings to her bow.
Francesca Hector caught up with Dr. Olga Louchakova-Schwartz in December at her Berkeley home in the Bay Area to twang a few, from transformative practices and academic insights, to useful tips for students and unexpected encounters with harbour seals in the Pacific Ocean.
Olga, thank you for making time in your busy schedule for this conversation. Could you start by giving us a brief outline of your academic background?
I was trained as a medical doctor, a paediatrician and a neuroimmunuologist, and afterwards did my PhD in neuroscience, at the Pavlov Institute and the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Russia. My research was the area of autoimmune diseases of the nervous system. Then, I became specialised in psychotherapy and psychological assessment, studied comparative religion and spirituality, and after doing many psychospiritual trainings (e.g. breathwork, various kinds of meditation, Chi Gong, Kundalini Yoga etc.) I ended up teaching transpersonal psychology. I’ve also done a lot of independent studies with three leading phenomenologists, Amedeo and Barbro Giorgi and philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. I studied with several great teachers of Vedanta, Sufi scholars, and Hesychast (Christian mysticism). I became very interested in comparative religion and investigated it in depth, mainly through field research and with every traditional teacher I could get close to.
Was there a defining moment in your early studies and experiences which made you identify more closely with transpersonal psychology rather than other branches of psychology?
Yes, transpersonal psychology became very important for me in the late 1980s and 1990s, especially when I connected with underground spiritual groups in then atheistic Eastern Europe. My main focus was always psycho-somatic, so I had a lot of interesting experiences like yoga tummo – opening the inner heat of the body in very cold water, channelling, psychic viewing, meditative experiences, and of course various altered states of consciousness. I couldn’t find any explanations for these phenomena in academic psychology, medicine, or science. Around 1987, two psychedelic researchers, Evgeni Krupitski and Igor Kungurtsev, asked to use meditation groups I taught as controls in a clinical ketamine trial. Through these two researchers, and Toni Soidla, I learned about transpersonal psychology. The first book I read in transpersonal psychology was Wilber’s Spectrum of Consciousness. I was extremely excited, as if a light bulb switched on in my head. “Oh my God there’s a kind of psychology that takes these phenomena seriously and can conduct research in this area,” I thought. It was an exciting time! As you know, by that time transpersonal psychology broke through the red tape and became a part of mainstream “academic” psychology. Now, the cat is out of the bag, spirituality is acknowledged as a discipline in its own right, and also a part of medicine, business etc, and everybody is researching it. But back then, such possibility was quite exceptional.
Was there a specific practice or tradition that impacted you especially strongly?
Absolutely. Well, there are three, really. Kundalini Yoga/Buddhist Tantric practices, Christian Prayer of the Heart tradition, and Advaita Vedanta. There were nearly ten years in my life when I closely followed Sufism; I liked Gurdjieff’s studies a lot. And of course, inescapable Vipassana. I took time out of academia and worked as a spiritual teacher, using all these beautiful practices in an integral approach which I called Hridayam (“I am the Heart” Yoga). I was very interested in spiritual awakening, peak states, and human development, and studied with some remarkable masters who really made an impact on the consciousness of the 20th and 21st century.
Is there anyone you would like to mention?
I am very grateful to Harilal Sri Punjaji, and after his death, to Sri Ranjit Maharaj, a master from the Inch-giri lineage of Shakta Vedanta. Another very special master was Swami Dayananda Saraswati, a traditional teacher of Adi Shankara’s traditional Vedanta. But you know, sometimes a single encounter, a personal connection, or even an academic colleague can serve the same emancipatory purpose. For example, the historical and translational research of Zarathustra’s poetry by Martin Schwartz and the work of the Ibn-Arabi Society have had a profound effect on me. His Eminence Metropolitan Nikitas of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Lama Khenpo Paljor, and Sheikh Tayyar of Rifai Order in Istanbul are among my most respected teachers, but they themselves probably would not even know that.
Did you notice a difference between the Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan compared to the Kundalini Tantra of these teachers?
The style I was taught by Vladimir Antonov opens very detailed awareness of internal spaces of consciousness. It has a strong component of mindfulness and attentiveness. It is also associated with the mastery of kundalini energy which can be invited into different passages of the subtle body in order to generate different states of consciousness, and eventually open the possibility of intentional transformation of one’s character. There’s a deep knowledge of chakras, meridians and centres which is very hands on and psychologically transformative. In contrast with this very intimate knowledge, I don’t know if Yogi Bhajan’s style unveils high levels of esoteric knowledge to everybody, and even what levels there are. I don’t know who the preceptors are in his lineage, and that’s important because there are different lineages of transmission.
This intentional transformation sounds very interesting, and it ties in very much as an embodied resource through which you approach transpersonal studies on the academic side.
Yes, that’s a good insight of yours, Francesca. Embodied spiritual practices go well with higher education because one of the outcomes is enhanced intellectual capacity. Not that people necessarily need it, but it’s a nice tool to have. These practices really liberate the mind, make it flexible, and remove random mental chatter. It’s also a wonderful tool for converting unwholesome emotions into wholesome ones.
So does it make sense to say, based on what you’ve just shared, that a certain transformation of self, or a certain integration of aspects of self is necessary in order to address the transpersonal through academia?
Oh, that’s such a difficult question! I think that personal experience is very important. This is simply because without personal experience, it’s hard to talk about human development as we see it in transpersonal psychology, that is with a reach of the ego beyond itself, and with the recognition of deep realms of human pure subjectivity and pure consciousness. Especially when one teaches. Sogyal Rinpoche, a very advanced lama from Nyingma Lineage once said, “It helps when one knows what one is teaching”. However, one should never underestimate the capacity of the human imagination and capacity for reflective insight. There are many colleagues of mine who have never done yoga or practiced any of those formal spiritual disciplines, and nevertheless they have a deep understanding of transpersonal states. Either they’re born with it, or it’s attainable through intellectual reflection somehow. I think it’s more important to have an ethical mind, a kind mind, and to be intellectually developed. The capacity to read and write is important, but in a sense the ethics, attitudes, cultivation of a good mind and capacity to make choices is perhaps even more important than having experienced these states.
At the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in the 1990s, we had a rule of hiring only faculty members who had some kind of internal practice and were personally familiar with those spiritual states. I think this is also important because this feeds into a world view, an empathic connection with other people and a more intimate understanding of the interconnectedness of the world. It’s good to have a direct intuition of that.
Language and consciousness are so intricately linked…
Developing the theme of the transpersonal beyond spiritual and religious experiences, some of your work has focused on other territories such as migration and globalisation – how do these issues especially benefit from a transpersonal approach?
There is a concept of chronic and multiple migrant stress. Even though migration is a natural behaviour of human beings and an essential part of human history, current migration is characterised by a number of features which were absent in historic migrations. For example, the fact that people lose connection with their loved ones, immediate family or tribes. Out of this rupture comes deep grieving. There’s also the problem of adapting to the new environment, different social typology, different social signals, emotions, and different ways in which social institutions work, and healing systems such as medicine or therapy operate. Besides, the hosting societies often do not have resources to help the migrants; all this, and other factors, contribute to extreme and chronic stress, with adverse health consequences.
The statistics of mental health problems associated with migrants is not because migrants are bad people or something is initially wrong with their health. On the contrary, those who migrate are usually the stronger ones, the pioneers of their country. But the stress takes its toll. It leads to growing prevalence of mental health problems and physical problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, high risk of cancer and asocial behaviour.
Migrant stress is an important factor in reformation of the self and changes in consciousness. I am very interested in the subject, especially so given the number of migrants in the world. I think the count was more than 260 million people in 2016. I don’t think migration can be artificially stopped, even if someone wants to build a wall or close borders. The world is different now, especially in Europe where there are such a large number of migrants. It’s a matter of helping migrants with assimilation, education, doing something with the situation which is already there.
I think that transpersonal psychology must play a role in this because we do provide means of self-regulation and stress reduction. We know how to develop resilience, heal consciousness, and keep people healthy. In a sense transpersonal psychology is preventative personalised medicine. While we have different views on migration, and may love or not love transpersonal ethics, and principles such as non-violence, it’s absolutely clear that transpersonal practices reduce stress and bring out the best of resilience in people. That’s where I think we must step up to the plate.
In which other directions would you like to see the academic hubs of transpersonal journals and conferences evolving, in terms of content, inclusion, or any other aspects?
I think it’s important that there’s a study of human experience crossing over different disciplines. The study of subjectivity is missing in philosophy or science because we tend to study phenomena which can be reproduced, in large, statistically significant counts. Subjective processes are reproducible, but by means that are different from scientific observations and experimentation. So, reintegration of subjectivity in various areas of academic knowledge seems to me a matter of high importance, and I think that transpersonal psychology brings that dimension to its fullness, without chopping off religious and spiritual aspects of consciousness, and even make such aspects into very pragmatic kind of consciousness without mundanising them. Transpersonal psychology can dream. It has unbounded access to creativity.
Could you give a specific example within the context of transpersonal education?
What comes to mind is my work with our Alef Trust group right now. People come up with all kinds of interesting insights. The group is very alive. Everybody is passionate and connected with this growing age of consciousness, and interested in new knowledge. There can be a critical reflection, but this reflection is also vividly inspired. People reach out and want to connect with one another, they want to know. I teach in different environments and it often takes a lot of effort to wake up the group so that they become interested in the study beyond the level of skill, to bring out this creative, transformative component. It is much more present in transpersonal psychology and in the kind of people it attracts. Every time I read the group posts, there’s a live human connection, and it’s a creative connection. That’s very special, and I think it’s a repeated example. I’d like this to remain alive. I witnessed an opposite situation, even in transpersonal psychology. There can be a loss of connection with this transformative poetic energy of life, you could say “kundalini energy”, and it becomes a dry reflection, a kind of speculation and juggling mere ideas back and forth. That kind of turn is not interesting and not that useful, because philosophy or sciences are much more skilled in handling ideas. But transpersonal psychology fosters extraordinary personal creativity, and we have to keep this aspect alive.
How does that switch from being alive to not being so alive occur?
I don’t know how exactly, but I think it’s a community related process. Maybe what happens is that community leadership makes mistakes, in ethics, and in making their choices, and so the energies of the community stop flowing somehow. Then it becomes like a seed which lands on a rock and cannot really sprout. Ethical mistakes cut off the vibrancy of life.
It’s as if the life flow takes another direction, “ok, not there,” so it goes somewhere else…
Exactly. William James said “where the energies flow”, that is, societal energies. It’s a metaphor, of course. But he had a very embodied and experiential understanding, so it’s half metaphor and half description. And as you say, these energies of life get diverted.
Developing the conversation about energies going in a different direction, what feminine qualities would you like to see emerging beyond the masculine paradigm of academia, and how can we facilitate this?
That’s interesting. I’ve taught and worked in different academic environments, and it happened that my bosses were always women. My first boss, the director of two labs I’ve worked in as a scientist, was a woman. My dissertation advisors were all women in high academic positions; the director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine where I had my defence was a woman; and right now I’m teaching at the Jesuit School of Theology where my Dean is a woman! I’ve had the great luck of working with many academics who were women, and on top of that, I had women teachers in my esoteric schools.
Gender disparities exist, that’s a legacy of many centuries of cultural development, etc. But now, as women, we do have possibilities to write and to advance our careers in academia. Yes, it’s harder being a woman. The social gender disparities are real. But it also takes a lot to get rid of internalised disparity, that is, a cultural legacy of woman always being a helper. It’s a very strong “genetics”. I remember Maxim Gorky saying he squeezed a slave out of himself drop by drop; and evidently, he was a man. It is even more important being a woman.
Another thing that we must develop in ourselves as women is social awareness. I don’t mean the social awareness of need, helping the poor or the disadvantaged, which has always been the task of women. We need to understanding how social systems work, the intricacies of social hierarchies, reading the styles and the types, developing the capacity to speak in different environments, rhetoric, making one’s point, keeping the focus on what is important to us, and not being afraid to acknowledge it on an authentic level, and have certainty and stability in case of adversity.
It’s very personal. As a woman, it took me a while to squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop. But it’s possible now. Internal slavery is a cultural legacy, a remnant of patriarchy which is enforced by all the signals we receive day by day. It’s a day by day struggle, but in the current environment, it’s already possible to win the struggle. There are avenues where a woman in academia can succeed. Taking it on a case by case basis, establishing clear goals, working towards these goals, being patient with oneself, not in a hurry, and writing, writing, writing… and reading, reading, reading… this is the key.
That’s very practical and sound advice! Do you have any other tips or suggestions for the students of transpersonal psychology who are enroled in your course now?
My suggestion would be to study beyond transpersonal psychology, because transpersonal psychology doesn’t give explanations, on the contrary, it sets up puzzles.
Which studies would you recommend?
So many different things! I’d say medicine is very useful, it teaches you anatomy and the biological foundations of the human being. Philosophy too, such as phenomenology, analytic and continental philosophy, is extremely useful for transpersonal psychology. It helps to know a little of theology and understand how people conceive spiritual ideas in themselves. These would be the main three. All disciplines which explain the mind and human being in general outside transpersonal psychology are useful. Languages and history are very useful for transpersonal psychology as we (in transpersonal psychology) take many things for granted. We have a huge basket of phenomena in transpersonal psychology which need to be digested and researched, and we are like activists, record keepers on those phenomena, but we hardly have any means to understand them deeply, and for this I think we have to go out of the field.
What are you reading and especially enjoying at the moment?
Two wonderful books. One is written by the Norwegian philosopher Espen Dahl, called Phenomenology and the Holy after Husserl. Dahl bridges several phenomenological frameworks to see, explain, understand and describe how people come up with their ideas of the Holy. The second book, on religion and humour as emancipating provinces of meaning, is also a philosophical book, by Michael Barber, who will be a keynote at our Sophere Phenomenology Conference at the end of January. He studies social processes from the standpoint of the phenomenology of consciousness. Spirituality and religion are emancipatory provinces of meaning which advance us as human beings, and Barber studies this systematically and scientifically. One can have opinions about consciousness and the social world, or one can study them rigorously – so Barber is a rigorous researcher. They’re both “slow reading” books. I put them aside and then come back to them. It’s not a simple set of concepts. With Dahl it usually takes me three readings until I feel I’m getting it somewhat!
It certainly sounds like you enjoy being challenged!
Oh yes, it makes me feel more alive! Another thing I’m reading is a corpus of ancient poetry from around 1500 BCE. There was a poet priest called Zarathustra who was credited with starting Zoroastrianism, the most ancient extant religion in the world. He wrote 17 poems called the Gathas, in which he put forward what seems to be a very original concept of the deity, and a very interesting original concept of the human being. Schwartz’s translation really deciphers those compositions and it’s now possible to get an idea of what is really going on in Zarathustra’s poetry. The poet was very different from Nietzsche’s fictional character; real Zarathustra was very moral and even a self conscious person. I’m trying to tease out what’s going on with his spiritual experience, with all my transpersonal knowledge. With transpersonal psychology we become so flexible with our consciousness and get to know human experience so well that we can read ancient texts differently and notice things that others miss. For example, in old texts, human experience often loses its marker of being an experience. Coming from transpersonal psychology, it’s possible to reconstruct those dimensions of experience and embodiment.
Not just through the language…
Yes. And there are other examples, like Patanjali’s yoga sutras, which everybody thinks is a description of experience. I don’t know, nobody has done an analysis of where those concepts could have come from.
What else could they be if they’re not an account of experience? Do you mean metaphors for other worlds or subtle realms?
They can be pure ideas; or, they can be poetic exercises, stylistic moments. Or, they can be experiences that happened to somebody else rather than the author. For example, it could have happened several centuries earlier in another location, and then become a story which was passed on orally. Then somebody recorded it, without even really understanding it. Oral cultures had an exceptional capacity for memorising things. Concepts were borrowed and plagiarism was completely ok in ancient times. I don’t think it’s possible to take it for granted that the exact author had that exact experience. An experience has structures, so what also happens is that if somebody doesn’t understand exactly what was going on they transmit it incorrectly, etc.
On a personal level, have you found that your own understanding of the spiritual and mystical transpersonal experiences you’ve had has changed since the experience, and that you’d describe them differently now to how you would at the time?
No, that’s an interesting observation, but I don’t think so, I find it stays pretty much the same. The freshness gets erased. However, I think it’s possible to discipline the mind so it doesn’t go into unbounded interpretations, even though I understand what you mean, that something you experienced in life acquires new meaning as you age. But I think certain structures of introspective experience, at least in my case, stay the same.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not studying and involved in academia? How do you like to relax?
I love hiking and swimming in the ocean. My husband and I go north to Point Reyes National Park. The ocean is cold in winter, but I remember my yoga tummo days and dive right in. There are harbour seals, and seeing a nose of a seal sticking out of the water three yards away from me was a new experience! I used to be afraid of them, but now I can discern what they’re doing and whether I should get out of their way or not. Getting to know the animal world outside standard descriptions is absolutely marvellous! I also enjoy communicating with quails. They are very social birds, so if they’re in their native habitat they start communicating with you, showing off, trying to speak, and I can’t help wondering if this is something they picked up from all the people who visit, or if it’s a part of their social behaviour we know nothing about.
So never mind transpersonal, this is trans-species now…
Oh completely! Coyotes try to engage people; elk measure their movement against humans who are walking on the trail. I find it absolutely breathtaking. If it were possible I would have just lived there. It’s… I don’t know. That’s where I just don’t have the words. It’s not God but it’s something else.
We live on an amazing planet which we share with so many other living being.
Exactly. Science fiction is my other hobby. I am obsessed with Alastair Reynolds; I’ve just been re-reading Revelation Space. Reading and trying to interpret Zarathustra’s text is like communicating with the alien in Revelation Space!
Have you ever tried writing science fiction or any other kinds of writing yourself?
I wrote some poetry when I was younger, but no science fiction. I’m just consuming the knowledge of mythologised astrophysics which comes through these books! My task is more to write about human experience, to uncover the aspects of experience which bring out new philosophies and paradigms. I think phenomenology gives a language to transpersonal insight and makes it legitimate and understandable to others who might have not experienced it. I think it’s important to revitalise in this manner the areas of science where subjectivity is absent.
It certainly sounds as if you are navigating an interesting path! Thank you Olga for sharing these insights with us, we look forward to continuing to learn with you during the transpersonal psychology course.