Spiritual ideas of Swedenborg. Out of date?

spiritual ideasTogether Swedenborg’s spiritual ideas give a holistic theory – a very modern approach to human problems. By this, I mean his system of thought tackles the whole person — the heart, head and hands of daily living.

Spiritual ideas of heart, head & hands

Our heart is to do with what we feel and want – our affective side. Our head is associated with what we know and think – our cognitive aspect. Our hands represent what we do and say – our behaviour. If hands saying things sounds a bit strange, then remember that sometimes actions speak louder than words!

“The principal powers of the soul are three – to live, to feel and to reason”
(Dante: The Banquet, iii, 2)

Swedenborg’s spiritual ideas are in line with these psychological concepts of affective, cognitive and behavioural function. The three-fold terminology, that permeates all of his writings, reflects this. He writes about good or bad desires of the will, true or false ideas of the understanding and useful or disorderly actions of the body. The feeling, thinking and doing of daily living.

Spiritual ideas applied to personal problems

Consider these three aspects of troubled people. They are all likely to be negative. One may feel a loser and a failure, having a poor opinion of oneself and as a result giving up easily on tasks and challenges. Or one may feel unloved and lonely, believing others are untrustworthy or critical and as a result avoiding people. Or one may get frustrated and angry with oneself, believing that there is no way forward and as a result self-harming. In other words having negative feelings of the heart ties in with negative thoughts in the head and self-defeating behaviours of the hands.

Spiritual ideas and different therapies

Psychotherapists cannot facilitate change in all three aspects of a person all at once. One, however, has to start somewhere. Actually, the psychodynamic therapies start with the feelings, the cognitive therapies with the thoughts, and the behavioural therapies with behaviour. All schools of therapy aim eventually at the linking of all three together. This is because concern is for the wholeness of the individual and a realisation that only when there is congruence between, or integration of, the various sides to an individual can well-being and inner development be achieved.

Ideally, these three should be positive and link together in harmony if we are to thrive and experience well-being. Then in our heart we would have good rather than bad intentions, and an interest in, rather than an aversion for, what is true. In our head we would then have opinions that are wise and intelligent rather than foolish and dogmatic. And with our hands we would then act effectively and with freedom rather than in a self-defeating way.

Spiritual ideas about personal integration

This is why a common aim of psychotherapy is to facilitate the integration of our different fragmented selves into one self. Our previously separated feelings, thoughts, and actions can work together in one harmonious soul.

Pythagoras said that … if the healing art is most divine, it must occupy itself with the soul as well as with the body; for no creature can be sound so long as the higher part of it is sickly.”
(Apollonius of Tyana – Greek philosopher)

Essentially a new and different harmony of heart, head and hands amounts to spiritual growth; a new will, new belief and new practice.

One example of this ideal integration is when we really care about someone then we really want to understand them and do things with them. The more clearly we understand them and the more we do together then the more deeply we care. Realising what their needs are without doing anything to meet them due to lack of sympathy reveals no linking of these three components.

This is an example of one of Swedenborg’s spiritual ideas – that influx adjusts itself according to efflux. In other words, what had been flowing out from us, as seen in our actions, will affect what feelings and thoughts flow into our hearts and heads. We can act on the good impulses and right ideas that come to us from the heavenly realm. As long as we are disposed to do what is good in the right way then this inflow can continue. However, if we do not act on these impulses we can only expect the inflow of good to hold itself back and eventually dry up altogether as we close the door to heaven within our soul.

Spiritual ideas about spirit, mind and body

A deeper way of speaking about this composition of the human being is to talk about spirit, mind and body. In other words, the three-sided idea addresses the spirituality of the divine Spirit present within the individual’s psychological and physical makeup.

“Strong are the senses; stronger than the senses is the mind; stronger than the mind is the understanding; but stronger than the understanding is the Spirit.” 
(Bhagavad-Gita, iii, 42 – Hindu tradition)

“There is one single influx which is received by everyone according to his own disposition. This influx is an influx of affections from the Lord, from His mercy and life.”
(Swedenborg. Arcana Coelestia section 1285)

Copyright 2008 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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