Existential questions related to freedom, death, and the search for meaning inevitably open up spiritual issues. Psychotherapy that addresses life’s deepest questions has profound spiritual implications.
“Psychotherapy is the art, science, and practice of studying the nature of consciousness and of what may reduce or facilitate it.” – James Bugental, Psychotherapy and Process (1978).
The relationship between psychotherapy and spirituality is determined in part by how we define psychotherapy. The variety of psychotherapeutic approaches available today has been broadly divided into four areas: psychoanalytic, behavioural, humanistic, and transpersonal. Of these, only the transpersonal orientation explicitly addresses itself to spiritual issues.
Yet the profession of psychotherapy has been called the secular priesthood of our time, since people seek counsel from therapists in times of stress or transition, much as they used to seek advice from the parish priest. Some psychotherapists can and do fill the role of spiritual guide for their clients. Most do not. Unfortunately, few spiritual teachers are trained as psychotherapists. Boundaries between the two provinces are not at all clear, and in practice there is significant overlap. Nevertheless, there are important distinctions to be made between the role of the therapist and the role of the spiritual teacher.
One of the principal differences between doing therapy and teaching is that in therapy the clients lead and determine the content of the sessions. Therapist respond in whatever way is deemed appropriate, according to their beliefs and training. Teachers, on the other hand, provide the content to be learned or the practice to be followed by their students. Therapists who aspire to be spiritual teachers should be particularly careful about any tendency to be overly directive or to assume they know what is best for clients, rather than allowing their clients to find their own way.
Traditional spiritual teachers tend to emphasize discipline, obedience, and purification as basic requirements of spiritual practice. They may regard any activity that reinforces individuality, personal choice, and ego strength as going against the principle of selflessness. Traditional psychologists, on the other hand, may regard spiritual discipline as an avoidance of personal responsibility and relationship and an a escape from the demands of living in the world. Healthy personal growth depends on a process of individuation, becoming your own authority, and exercising freedom of choice. Since these different approaches may seem incompatible or contradictory, it is sometimes suggested that spiritual disciplines are best undertaken after personal development is complete. For example, Ken Wilber’s model of human development describes the human life cycle as consisting of an outward arc of personal ego development that precedes the inward arc of psycho-spiritual development.
As a psychotherapist, I have worked for may years with individuals doing both personal and spiritual work. While developmental maps are useful as a frame of reference, life never fits neatly into a theoretical schema. Psychotherapy is often perceived as being remedial, that is, as useful for healing emotional wounds of the past. Yet this is only part of what can happen in therapy. Growth orientated psychotherapy is not restricted to a medical model of remedial work. Existential questions related to freedom and the search for meaning inevitably open up spiritual issues. Whenever a person faces an existential crisis or a close encounter with death, spiritual concerns tend to surface. Thus psychotherapy that addresses life’s deepest questions has profound spiritual implications.
In the context of a therapeutic relationship, the therapist, unlike some spiritual teachers, does not impose beliefs on the client. By facilitating awareness of limiting beliefs, however, psychotherapy can accelerate and assist the process of spiritual development. The success of cognitive therapeutic modalities indicates the powerful effects of beliefs on everyday life. Consciously choosing beliefs in a time when a wide range of teachings are available is a challenge that may also be explored in the context of therapy.
The goal of both psychotherapy and spiritual practice is often thought to be the relief of suffering. Psychotherapy however, posits wholeness as a goal rather than perfection, and striving to attain a spiritual ideal can, from a therapeutic perspective, be an obstacle to healing.
Yet psychotherapy and spirituality also have a great deal in common. In particular, many of the processes that contribute to psychological health and well-being contribute to spiritual growth as well. For example, the following processes are an integral part of both psychological and spiritual development.
Telling the truth. Communicating the truth about inner experience is essential for effective change and growth. Psychotherapy provides a safe space for this.
Releasing negative emotions. Letting go of fear, guilt, and anger can be facilitated by therapeutic interventions and is valuable for both personal and spiritual work.
Effort and consistency. Progress in personal and spiritual development can be enhanced by effort and consistency, although too much effort may be counterproductive. Understanding resistance in psychotherapy can be valuable for anyone exploring spiritual growth. The ability to make a consistent effort, to follow through on intentions, and to behave in a way that is consistent with professed beliefs are fundamental requirements for all inner work.
Authenticity and trust. Authenticity is strengthened when what one says and does accurately reflects what one thinks and feels. It is necessary if one is to avoid self-deception and develop self-trust. When people feel untrustworthy, they cannot trust their perceptions of others or the world. Self trust is necessary when choosing a therapist or a teacher.
Integrity and wholeness. Integrity results from the practice of authenticity, and wholeness depends on accepting all one’s experiences. Allowing things to be as they are rather than living in a world of illusion and denial is basic for psychological health and spiritual growth.
Insight and forgiveness. To understand all is to forgive all. In spiritual practice one is taught to forgive others; in psychotherapy one learns to forgive oneself. Both are necessary for complete forgiveness and well being.
Love. Psychotherapy and spiritual practice can both lead to opening the heart and developing the capacity to give and receive love. Spirituality awakens the awareness of love’s presence in our lives; psychotherapy cultivates love in relationship.
Awareness. Depth psychotherapy and spiritual practice both cultivate awareness and non-judgmental attention. A therapist who helps clients develop self awareness can benefit from a meditation practice that enhances sensitivity to nuances of experiences.
Liberation. Both psychotherapy and spiritual practice can contribute to liberation from limiting self concepts. Freedom from fear and delusion, from the past, and from early conditioning are common goals.
Most psychotherapy tends to work with the contents of consciousness, with the aim of reducing pain and conflict and enhancing the capacity for love and work. This can be characterised as working on the content of the dream, exchanging nightmares for happier, more peaceful dreams. Ideally, spiritual practice is aimed at waking up and becoming aware of the nature of the dream and who the dreamer is. At its best, transpersonal psychotherapy aims at doing both.
Both psychotherapy and spiritual practice contribute to psychological health and spiritual growth. Unresolved psychological issues can impede healthy developments at any stage, and sometimes such issues surface only after much spiritual practice. The seeker must beware of the limitations of both therapists and spiritual teachers. Expertise in one domain does not make one an authority in the other, and few individuals are well trained in both. Psychological and spiritual development are inextricably intertwined, and both continue throughout life. In practice both psychotherapist and spiritual teachers do what they can to relieve suffering and help people grow in consciousness.