Psychotherapy and Spirituality*
Winter 2015
By Michael Isaacs


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Psychotherapy and spirituality are both paths towards personal happiness.

This article will consider the similarities and differences between these two paths; how psychotherapy itself can be seen as a spiritual quest; and how those in spiritual life can benefit from psychotherapy.

My frame of reference in discussing psychotherapy will be analytic therapy, which model of therapy I am most familiar with. It is based on the three main schools originated by Freud, Adler, and Jung. That is, that there is an unconscious hidden world that exists in our minds. The more we can understand this phenomenon the more we can control our destiny.

For purposes of this article, I will define spirituality in a broad way. It is any belief and path that can lead to more love, compassion, freedom, truth, patience, joy, inner peace, beauty, gratitude, and forgiveness. Some further results of spiritual awareness are love of nature, love of children and animals; living more in the present moment; seeing the good in people and situations; feeling the presence of an invisible source of power, guidance, and knowledge; detachment from excessive need for person, place, or thing; a feeling of oneness with people and the universe; and living more in accord and in harmony with the laws that govern this universe.

It is important to understand that one need not be religious to be spiritual although one, indeed, can be both religious and spiritual. By the term “religion” I refer to organized religion, which embodies formal belief systems and rituals. Religion can prevent spirituality by demanding obedience and alliance with dogma or with the state. Religion does much good in the world, but, on the whole, it has failed to substantially bring out the love and compassion of its adherents. It has failed to elicit a sense of oneness and brotherhood among nations. True religion, in my opinion, is spiritual self-realization. It is that universal spiritual awareness that was awakened in the hearts of the likes of Mohammed, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Jesus, Abraham, and Moses.

From my experience listening to clients and as a student and teacher of meditation, I have concluded that there are eight major sources of human suffering.

Both psychotherapy and spiritual ends are devised to help mankind cope with these problems. Although these categories are over simplified and sometimes overlap, nevertheless, it will be helpful to enumerate them as follows:

1. Physical pain. Example- a broken arm

2. Normal unpleasant emotional states such as anxiety, fear, loneliness, resentment, sadness, grief, confusion, and feelings of inadequacy. Example- normal anxiety and fear of public speaking

3. Excessive emotional states. Examples- grief that does not abate;fears that lead to phobias and panic attacks; resentments that become permanent bitterness and cynicism; inadequacy feelings that build up to a pervasive and deep lack of self esteem and self worth.

4. Lack and fear of losing basic survival needs such as food, water,clothing, and shelter. Example-homelessness.

5. Loss of meaning and purpose in life. Example-a mother who dedicated her entire life to raising her children, suffers depression when they become independent and move away from home.

6. Self-destructive behavior caused by non-compliance with legal,ethical, and moral laws. Example-a college student caught cheating is evicted from school.

7. Loss of freedom due to oppression, tyranny, and economic exploitation by governments. Example-Castro’s Cuba.

8. Invasion and harm to one’s body. Examples-rape, war, murder,domestic violence, mugging, and torture.

The constraints of time and space in this article do not allow for a full length discussion as to how the fields of psychotherapy and spirituality offer solutions to these eight sources of suffering. Let me say, however, that psychotherapy is predominantly concerned with numbers two and three- the sphere of the emotions. Spirituality also ultimately deals with emotional pain, but its main concern is number five- the meaning and purpose of life. Guatama the Buddha, as a young prince, viewed a sick man, an old man, and a dying man in the streets of India. The reverberations of this scene caused him to dedicate his life to overcome human suffering.

Psychotherapy and spirituality both involve the individual pursuit of self-knowledge and happiness, but the paths and points of emphasis are different.

In therapy, the goal is to realize the truth one’s emotional self and others. The former can be illustrated by a patient of mine who saw himself as kind, charitable, and loving. This was not true. The latter is exemplified by a patient who idealized her boyfriend. He could do no wrong. Her unrealistic view of him made it virtually impossible for her to cope with the disappointment when discovered his faults and problems. Their engagement broke off. 

Therapy has traditionally been symptom oriented. As a general rule, people come to therapy when they have symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, inhibitions, anger management issues, inhibitions, and alcohol and eating addictions. In therapy, patients are made aware of their defense mechanisms. Examples of defense mechanisms are rationalization, displacement, denial, projection, repression, and intellectualization.

All defense mechanisms distort the truth. When we were young, defenses served a valid purpose by protecting us from unwanted feelings that we could not handle. But if these rigid defenses linger into young adulthood and adulthood they constrict the authentic personality. Truth and freedom suffer and unhappiness prevails. Here are some examples of the defenses:

 “I am not angry towards my parents because they did their best” is an example of rationalization. “I am not upset with my boss, but with my wife” is an example of displacement. “I am not an alcoholic” is an example of denial. “It’s all her fault” is an example of projection. When a patient can not
remember parental abuse and neglect and the loneliness, sadness, and anger experienced, it is the defense of repression operating. When patients are imbalanced by having excessive thoughts it is often a sign of hiding emotions and feelings. This is the defense of intellectualization.

As therapy proceeds, patients become aware of why defense mechanisms were needed for protection and adaptation purposes. Eventually, defense mechanisms are needed less as coping mechanisms. The authentic and true self now has the opportunity to emerge, bringing more flexibility and freedom to the ego.

Fortunately, the goals of therapy have gradually shifted with more people starting therapy (and remaining after immediate symptoms are removed) to deal with such general issues as unhappiness, lack of fulfilling potential, and unsatisfying inter-personal relationships. One patient of mine entered therapy because he had ulcerative colitis and was fearful of undergoing more surgery. Within three months his colitis condition improved dramatically. Notwithstanding that his colitis symptom, the original purpose of his therapy, was allayed, he stayed on for another two years to talk about emotional problems of long duration.

The central goal of spiritual life is more comprehensive and philosophical. It assumes a relatively normal life and morality. It gives tools and guidelines to learn codes of behavior such as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. It fosters the awareness of the truth of one’s transcendental reality and identity. Some have called this a “higher power”. It is to move closer to this spiritual identity and purpose. We have this ancient Hindu affirmation: “I am more than my body, mind, and emotion. I am spirit-one, eternal, immortal, and imperishable”. In Christianity we have “I and the Father are One”.

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(East Sussex, England: December, 1997)
Vol.22, No.12, December, 1997,
Michael S. Isaacs, M.S.W,  NCPsyA, San Francisco, CA.

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