Is Psychotherapy a Spiritual Endeavor?

United States

Psychology as a discipline has in many instances eschewed notions of the spiritual, situating itself in the hallways of secular science and academia. This tendency harks back to the early days in the late 1800’s, when psychology was first established as an independent scientific discipline, and sought to claim its place as a science, equivalent in empirical rigour to other branches of scientific endeavour. This attempt to prove itself a legitimate scientific field of study lead in extreme form to projects such as radical behaviourism, which denied the relevance of the mind as a subject of enquiry. Reflecting on this from a contemporary perspective, one is struck by the absurdity of this proposition: psychology as a field of study which excludes the mind as a subject of interest? It wasn’t long before early cognitive and humanistic psychologists pointed out the obvious: that human beings could not be fully understood by studying only their external behaviour; that psychology needed to embark on a study of consciousness and subjectivity, which would distinguish it from other branches of science; and that ultimately, psychology should take its place as a human science, rather than strictly a natural science.

At the same time as he explored the mystery of the unconscious and its symbolic expression in dreams, Freud also endeavoured to establish psychoanalysis as a science, and to gain acceptance within the scientific community. Freud distanced himself from the ideas of Carl Jung, partly because he feared that Jung’s supernatural and spiritual foci would cast doubt on the credibility of psychoanalysis. Jung’s theories involve looking at psychotherapy through a spiritual lens, as the individual is seen to move towards individuation and fullness of being by integrating different elements into the self. The aspect of the self to be grappled with, which may be an archetypal element from the collective unconscious, comes to the individual through dreams and synchronous occurrences. In contrast, Freud attempted to ground his theory in the idea of biological drives, and the struggle between mankind’s primitive nature, and the surrounding culture.

Humanistic psychology also played with notions of the “self”, with Carl Rogers writing about the self-concept, and proposing ideas of genuineness and congruence with the true inner self and that which is presented to the world. However, Rogers stopped short of referring to the “soul”, and humanistic psychology largely remained a secular theory. Ideas of self-actualisation, human potential and the ‘fully functioning person’ do seem to border on conceptualising the human being as driven by higher motives, and these ideas lent themselves to development by some humanistic psychologists into a new approach, transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology proposes that human beings are fundamentally spiritual beings, and opens the door to integration of psychology and psychotherapy with ancient and indigenous spiritual practices. While bookstore chains may feature shelves of literature on spiritual approaches to the psyche, transpersonal psychology remains largely outside of the mainstream academic discipline of psychology, most likely to be glossed over briefly in an introductory undergraduate course, but not a significant part of clinical training.

It seems to me that each individual practitioner faces the question of whether spirituality plays any role in their work. As a practitioner influenced by psychoanalytic theory and thinking, I am aware that Freud maintained scepticism towards ideas of religion and spirituality. Many psychoanalytic theorists might see spiritual and religious ideas as defence mechanisms; ways of denying mortality, human frailty or smallness, or easy explanations for human suffering, loss, and trauma. Religious and spiritual ideas have been seen as a delusion, in which humankind takes refuge against the unbearable blights of life on this earth. As Freud thought that an aspect of the therapist’s role is to promote patients’ functioning according to the reality principle, some psychoanalytic practitioners might follow suit, endeavouring to help patients face reality as it is, unaided by delusion. Where defences are left intact, this would be a concession to human frailty, not necessarily an acknowledgment of the sanguine nature of the patient’s spiritual or religious beliefs. While this might have been the approach in secular Vienna, many contemporary psychoanalytic practitioners working in the postmodern era might view patients’ religious and spiritual beliefs as important and valued components of the patient’s identity.

To return to the original question, though: is psychotherapy a spiritual endeavour? Again, I believe each individual practitioner thinks about this question in accordance with his or her worldview and therapeutic approach. In my view, spiritual practices and beliefs are not overtly part of the therapeutic process, as my understanding of my patient is constructed using the tools of our discipline, including empathy and curiosity about and exploration of unconscious dynamics.

However, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I see psychotherapy as spiritual work. A patient arrives for therapy, possibly with a clear presenting complaint. So often, the presenting complaint is the patient’s passport into psychotherapy, the real reasons being pre- or unconscious and inchoate: on some level, the patient is brought by his or her vague awareness of a process to be undertaken, which will involve becoming more fully him or her self – to borrow Jung’s term, a process of individuation which will involve confronting and shedding old, unhelpful defensive behaviours that once served the patient, but now constrain him or her from living fully. Robert Caper’s psychoanalytic text, A Mind of One’s Own, considers the view that optimal psychological development involves becoming fully one’s self, distinct from one’s objects. It appears that psychoanalysis has evolved from original ideas about neurosis and ordinary human misery, to a practice which holds the integrated, individuated self as a core value.

Freud offered us the concept of resistance, which is of key importance in understanding how the patient’s defence mechanisms may be mobilised against the therapeutic work and in the service of not facing what needs to be faced. Sometimes, a patient is open to working with and thinking about his or her resistances, venturing with courage into his or her internal world. I am struck by the watershed moments in therapy that can emerge from an accurate understanding of a dream or a poignant interpretation. I think many psychotherapists are aware of the magic of the psychotherapy process, and impressed by the way in which the unconscious elegantly expresses itself in dreams and other symbolic forms, and in the case of children, in play. Part of the mystery is how unconscious themes unveil themselves at the moment of therapeutic readiness, having lurked in the shadows imperceptibly until then.

Psychotherapy is meaningful work; it is an investment in a human life and an acknowledgment of its value; it is not a materialist or reductionist process, but rather a process which honours the person as a holistic and unique individual. If spirituality is about a concern with the inner life of an individual, and a belief that an inner path exists through which an individual can be lead to greater self-discovery, then I believe psychotherapy to be a spiritual endeavour.

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