by Joe Loizzo

Editor’s note: The following are excerpts from Tarka, Volume 0, “Yoga Philosophy, On the Scholar-Practitioner,” a publication from Embodied Philosophy. The full article is available here as well, courtesy of Embodied Philosophy.

Have you ever wondered why the trend in modern science, scholarship, and practical expertise seems inexorably headed in one direction— towards more and more narrow specialization? I have. Since I was a teen, for some odd reason, this trend has felt so wrong to me that, in hindsight, much of my adult life and work have been dedicated to answering that question and reversing the trend. Here’s some of what I’ve learned and done on my journey thus far to bring the pieces of our humanity back together again. […]

Why I Sought an Integral Approach and How I Tried to Embody It

As the son of immigrants from Sicily and Southern Italy, I grew up in a home more grounded in the culture of the ancient world than in the modern. That cultural distance from secular scientific modernity was reinforced by my early childhood in the old Europe of French speaking Switzerland. It was stretched even further by the integral nature of the interests that emerged in me as I came of age, no doubt stimulated by my family and my French Marianist high school. Those interests ranged across the humanities: Romantic poetry; the history of Western philosophy; Western mysticism, hermeticism and alchemy; Jungian analysis; Renaissance art; classical music and opera. But like the Renaissance figures whose reproduced paintings I hung on my bedroom walls, I was also deeply drawn to the practical—singing, guitar, carpentry, furniture-making, and sailing—and to science, especially anatomy, neuroscience, and neurophysiology.

Growing up in suburban Long Island in the sixties and seventies, I was well aware that my sensibility and interests clashed with the ambient culture of my peers and society. I knew that intellectual disciplines were considered superior to practical ones; that the sciences were supposed to matter more than the arts; and that philosophy, religion, and poetry were dismissed as arcane relics of a bygone age. I was aware that I was supposed to choose one of the disciplines I was passionate about and “succeed” by focusing narrowly on it in school and eventually making it my “bread and butter.” Both my parents, in their drive to assimilate into the dominant White Protestant culture of the US, urged me to do just that.

But something in me leaned towards and longed for a sense of wholeness, integrity and community that felt antithetical to the world around me and the society that was supposed to be mine. In fact, while both my parents had mainstream roles—my dad as a psychiatrist and my mom a history teacher—I noticed that they both drew strength from other sources. My dad nourished himself by listening to Neapolitan music whenever he could and by ritually re-reading the worn copy of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ he literally hid in his closet; my mom by reading the poetry of Dante and Emily Dickinson before bed, slipping quietly off to mass every Sunday, and spending much of her evenings and weekends gardening, as she had with her dad.

A final element of my home life that reinforced my inclination to resist my ambient culture was watching the diverging trajectories of my parents’ development. Since my mom and dad chose somewhat different strategies to pursue their common aim of assimilation, they unwittingly provided me with a sort of “double blind trial” of modern versus traditional approaches to living and learning. My dad chose a more radical assimilation strategy: becoming a physician and psychiatrist, committing more to modern scientific materialism, abandoning his religious education and practice as well as his practical skills—the accordion and carpentry—and relying instead on alcohol and food as stress-relievers. My mom chose a more hybrid strategy: getting higher education in history and sociology, becoming a high school social science teacher, but staying true to her religious education and practice, including her spiritual values of non-violence and social justice, abstaining from alcohol and over-eating, and relying on reading, gardening, and prayer as stress-relievers.

While my dad’s success as a psychiatrist brought more status and rewards than my mom’s teaching, his gradual trajectory towards increasing stress, burnout, depression, and irritability, combined with trading healthy practices for self-defeating habits, stood in stark contrast to my mom’s. While less outwardly successful, modern and Westernized, my mom’s fidelity to the old-world approach to learning—as a lifelong path of self-transcendence and compassionate community—combined with her marrying ongoing intellectual and practical endeavors, seemed to clearly contribute to her growing healthier and happier, aging and dying gracefully, with a strong sense of meaning and purpose. Although the findings of this real-life trial could have been just anecdotal, I soon discovered that the divergence I witnessed in childhood was entirely consistent with the findings of what came to be called positive psychology.

Given my home experience, when the time came for college, I went intent on studying religion and philosophy, not pre-med. I promised myself that if I chose to follow my dad and become a therapist, my focus would be not on modern medicine and psychiatry but on the neuropsychology and healing power of religious experience and practice. I packed my guitar and a handful of books: Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul; T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems; Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; Thomas Merton’s Contemplation in a World of Action; Sabota’s Atlas of Neuroanatomy. What I encountered when I began my studies not only confirmed but intensified my conviction that I was on the right track.

Joe Loizzo and Bob Thurman

Joe Loizzo and Bob Thurman at a Nalanda Institute Contemplative Psychotherapy retreat in 2014. Photo by Darren Ortiz.

In my first college religion class I was introduced to the ancient humanistic traditions of India and Tibet by Robert Thurman, one of the first Westerners to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. In the transformational depth psychology and contemplative neuroscience of Vajrayana Buddhism, I found a rich living tradition that exemplifies what I’d been longing for—the integration of science, psychology, spirituality, ethics and aesthetics to cultivate positive personal and social transformation. Gaining direct access to such a rigorous, complete, and meticulously preserved ancient tradition of human awakening felt like it saved me decades of scholarship trying to unearth long buried and forgotten traditions, as Jung had unearthed Western alchemy. Specifically, it offered me a time-tested paradigm and template for an integral human contemplative science and methodology for our day.

Of course, however profound and powerful, this tradition — developed at Nalanda University in ancient India and preserved in Tibet — would have to be cross-linked and updated with modern Western developments in physics, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, pedagogy, social justice, and optimal health. So it was clear to me that, to actually use the Nalanda tradition as a template for an integral science and practice of transformation today would require a multi-disciplinary approach that could bring together the siloed scholarly and practical disciplines crucial to the work.

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