Psychotherapy and Spirituality*
By Michael Isaacs
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Both avenues of psychotherapy and spirituality, if pursued with commitment, should lead in due time to an increased sense of well-being; more capacity to love and be loved; more emotional flexibility and control; more tolerance of self and others; a greater ability to understand and tolerate anxiety, depression, stress, and ambivalence; and, more self-esteem.
What are the tools and techniques of psychotherapy and spirituality?
In psychotherapy one of the main tools is free association. This means verbalizing whatever thoughts and feelings come to mind without censoring them. Other techniques are the analysis of dreams, word slips, fantasies, and defense mechanisms. Next is the analysis of transference. Transference reactions are the irrational and distorted thoughts and feelings toward the therapist. They arise because they were similar thoughts and feelings toward key figures in the patient’s childhood family life such as parents and siblings. We may have transference reactions toward many people daily, both positive and negative. So we find that there are certain people that we like and those we do not like and we may not be sure why. A patient can eventually remember more about the relationship with those past figures. He will have less need to project distorted thoughts and feelings on to others.
Some of the methods utilized on the spiritual path are contemplation, meditation, unselfish giving, giving of charity pursuits, learning from scriptures, learning from a teacher, devotional singing, and prayer. Contemplation is reflection, such as viewing with awe and loving appreciation of a sunset. Meditation is the practice of substituting a positive thought, feeling, or image for its opposite. For example, one can meditate on the word “peace”. Contemplation and meditation are usually experienced in a quiet place.
What are the respective therapy and spiritual attitudes towards thoughts and feelings? Both involve the art of observing and reflecting on thoughts and feelings. In therapy this is called the observing ego; in spiritual meditation it is called witnessing. In therapy all thoughts and feelings are, both conscious and from the unconscious are generally welcomed. Feelings such as jealousy, anger, sexuality, sadness, and love can be brought up to be expressed and analyzed.
In the ideal spiritual realm, feelings can also be acknowledged, but they are often seen as obstacles and substituted with positive feelings. Thus hate to be countered with love, instead of being expressed and understood. Similarly anger need not be analyzed. It is dismissed as not that important since it only a diversion from your path. One Indian sage has said that instead of wasting energy on anger, be angry toward yourself for not realizing enough spiritual truths.
Both endeavors are challenged by forces against change and growth. In therapy the process is called resistance. In spiritual life they are referred to as obstacles. In therapy, resistance is anything that gets in the way of the patient’s ability to talk and analyze. Examples of resistance are consistent lateness, missing sessions, not paying, not talking, and talking exclusively about the past and avoiding the present. Analyzing the resistance is important with regards to treatment. If the patient is not encouraged to talk about his fears and anxiety about the sessions and the therapist, there is a good chance that the patient will leave treatment. In spiritual life the teacher will help the student overcome such obstacles as lethargy, self-doubt, loss of faith, feelings of inadequacy, excess pride, and discouragement.
Both pursuits involve commitment, discipline, patience, repetition, and remembering.
Can spiritual endeavors be an aid to those in psychotherapy? Absolutely, because spiritual discernment will give answers and solace in the wake of the eight areas of suffering I have outlined at the beginning of this article. Some psychotherapy patients have enough ego strength to do both concurrently. Others have too little psychic energy left for spiritual pursuits because of their psychological conflicts.
Unfortunately there are psychotherapists that dismiss spirituality in their practice. They claim that it is an unrealistic defense against anxiety, a submission to the infantile need for an omnipotent father-mother. In some cases this is a correct assessment.There is no doubt that spiritual pursuits can sometimes be an avoidance of understanding the source of anxiety and learning how to tolerate anxiety. However, we cannot ignore the knowledge of thousands of years or religious wisdom revealed in the Scriptures, as well as the lives of enlightened Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews. Psychotherapy has only been available for approximately a hundred years. Countless individuals have spiritually evolved so as to effectively deal with the eight sources of suffering and find more peace, happiness, and freedom.
I encourage my patients to see the spiritual dimensions in their everyday experience and in their dreams. For example, a thirty-four year old patient striving to become more independent from his controlling father dreamed that he and his father were traveling together by car. In the dream, his father suffered chest pains and was apparently suffering a heart attack. My patient called an ambulance via the car phone. He was very concerned and upset about his father’s condition.
From my knowledge of my patient’s hostility and fear of his father, I surmised that one meaning of the dream was his anger at his father and the wish that he die. But that is not the only important aspect of the dream. That is, it also reflects the son’s spiritual values of love and concern. The dream reflects my patient’s lifelong yearning to be important and needed by a father who in real life hardly valued or wanted his son’s help.
Psychotherapy can indeed benefit those in spiritual pursuits. As mentioned elsewhere in this article, religion and spirituality can be a convenient means of avoiding addressing unresolved conflicts. This has been called “spiritual bypassing”. For example, a college student struggling to separate emotionally from parents to independence becomes a religious zealot. His pathological dependency on his parents is transferred to authoritarian religious leaders and doctrines. Anger, hurt, and resentment remain repressed in his unconscious. Any admonitions to this college student to love his parents unconditionally, as many religious teachers would advise, without the gentle unearthing of the underlying negative emotions, would be premature and not helpful.
Many spiritually evolved people, despite their spiritual insights and moments of peace, are left with feelings of emptiness, low self esteem, and a host of other symptoms.
To their credit, they have been able to realize the limitations of their spiritual practice. They have embarked on a path of psychotherapy together with their spiritual practices.
The longer I have been personally involved in the dual paths of therapy and spiritual quests the more I am impressed with the tenacity of the emotional obstacles preventing more happiness and freedom. I have concluded that more harm is done to us by not accepting and improving our humanity than by not realizing our spirituality. My clinical practice reflecting this is echoed by the this statement in by Joan Borysenko, PHD in her book, MINDING THE BODY,MENDING THE MIND on page 163:
“It’s hiding feelings, believing you have no right to experience them and therefore feeling helpless that leads to a more dangerous state…. The only negative emotions are emotions that you will not allow yourself or someone else to experience. Negative emotions will not harm you if you express them appropriately and let them go-bottling them up is much worse.”
Many people who are brought up in Eastern societies like India and Japan cannot understand why Westerners need psychotherapy in light of thousands of years experience in Eastern spiritual cosmology. What they do not realize is that our westernized society has bred certain problems that can be dealt with better and quicker by psychotherapy than spiritual answers. Among these factors are our penchant for individual independent living over community living and extended family; the mobility of life style; emphasis on materialistic values; alienation from nature; breakdown of marriage as an institution; and the trend toward looking for answers from other than traditional religious figures. Our consumer driven and technological way of life has given us great benefits by raising our standard of living. Too much time and energy, however, is spent doing and achieving rather than in activities focused on just being- more time to “smell the roses”. For many, too much energy is consumed by inner wounds and childhood conflicts to move to spiritual direction and answers to deal with life’s problems. For them, the reflective exploration in the world of feelings, ego, and human needs is what is necessary before a spiritual quest can be undertaken.
In conclusion, psychotherapy and spirituality are two avenues for self-knowledge, whether that aim is curative or positive well-being. Many who have expanded awareness in either or both areas have come from rock bottom, having suffered from the likes of addictions, shattered personal relationships, life threatening diseases, and loss of purpose and meaning in life.
We in the West can learn much from Eastern thought and our own great spiritual traditions. Similarly, those in spiritual life can be made more whole by psychological awareness.
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*YOGA AND HEALTH,
(East Sussex, England: December, 1997)
Vol.22, No.12, December, 1997,
Michael S. Isaacs, M.S.W, NCPsyA, San Francisco, CA.