I am often asked about the role of spirituality in psychotherapy. The semantics can be confusing.
The word ‘psyche’ has two meanings: 1) the human soul or spirit, and 2) the mind. The term ‘psychology’ refers to the science of mind. Psychotherapy, in turn is defined as the “treatment of mental or emotional disorders by psychological means, especially those involving intercommunication, as by psychoanalysis or hypnosis.” Psychoanalysis is “the examination of a person’s mind to uncover the unconscious desires, fears, anxieties or motivating forces which produce certain mental and emotional disorders.”
You will notice that the first meaning of the word ‘psyche’, the human soul or spirit, is not included in the definitions of psychology, psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis. There has been no place for soul in much of traditional psychology or psychotherapy, and so, like the piece left over after putting the clock back together, it has been left awkwardly sitting there. Somehow, there was the knowing that it belongs in there somewhere, but where?
Soul, or spirit, defies scientific definition because science is a mind-set, a way of thinking, a tool used for examining the world, and soul is not found that way. Just because our tools do not pick something up, does not mean it is not there. Physical examination may not show what an x-ray shows, the x-ray may not show what ultrasound reveals, and ultrasound may miss what an MRI detects. As our tools become more sophisticated, we see more and more. Many levels of the physical world have been revealed to us over the course of time.
Similarly, there may well be many levels of awareness, and of mental, emotional and spiritual functioning of which we are only beginning to be aware. If soul does not exist for a practitioner, or theoretical psychologist, or it is outside the bounds of his or her domain, any “issues” relating to soul cannot be addressed. If those issues create symptoms such as pain, struggle, fears, anxieties or ‘motivating forces’, and the ‘cause’ of those issues is invisible, then the symptoms are considered to be mental or emotional disorders.
This creates a scenario of ignorance not unlike the days in which deaf individuals were considered to be mentally retarded. What if an individual has chosen a challenging lifetime in which to truly wrestle with the deepest, most intense themes in his or her karmic landscape? What if the mental and emotional struggles are a part of an elegant design in which the polarities of good/evil, control/surrender, love/hate, blame/compassion, right/wrong, yours/mine are becoming integrated. What if the struggles represent the fault lines running through consciousness: the meeting and grinding of the tectonic plates of those polarities, as the continents of our perceptions gradually shift creating new worlds of awareness? What if many mental and emotional ‘disorders” are the labor pains announcing the immanent birth of, or at least the potential for connections with the highest levels of our being?
Without some recognition of a soul’s journey, and an honoring of body and mind as the vessel or cauldron in which transformations and shifts are played out, life’s struggles become meaningless tortures. Attempts are made to ‘fix’ what is wrong (the disorder), to end the pain so that one may carry on as (or almost as) before. Perhaps ‘disorder’ is a good thing. Maybe the way we had ordered our world is now too limited, too restricted for the emerging soul consciousness. I tend to like disorder at times, because it means you can put things together in a brand new way.
Emotional pain, instead of being viewed as something aversive, may be a reminder that we are holding on to something that soul wants us to release. We may have to go fully into the letting go, grieving, disintegrating terror of it. We may have to enter the void. And yes, we may feel naked and vulnerable as the shell of ego falls away exposing the innocence and purity of our own soul. Once we have done this, it may be very hard to go back to ‘being’, as we knew it. ‘Disorder’ at the level of mind or emotions may be happening as a part of a divine ‘ordering’ at another level.
Spirituality in psychology or psychotherapy means recognizing that we are more than body, mind and emotions. It means accepting that there is more to our creation, our existence here than we will ever know intellectually. We do not have to have all of the answers. However we must retain a reverence for what is unknown, unseen. We can deal with the mundane; we can help people to function more effectively, and to feel better about themselves and their lives.
We must never forget though, that every being is a precious soul. A tortured being is one who is out of touch with the beauty of his or her soul, and forgets that our common journey is back to oneness. We honor that spirit with the gifts of compassion and insight, not with a diagnosis. There may be a diagnosis, but that is secondary – a symptom only, not a definition.
The Universe existed in all of its wonder and magnificence long before we arrived to attempt to define and interpret it. We belong to that Universe, formed out of the very same stuff of its stars. In the face of such a vast and endless Universe, I would be reluctant to limit my understanding of the miracle that is human life to what is defined in a science of mind, or limit my therapy with human souls to correcting ‘mental and emotional disorders.’ That is not the spirit in which I want to work, or the work my spirit wants to do.
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