A Guide to Spiritually Oriented Therapy – Is it Right for You?

First of all, what is spiritually oriented therapy and how does it differ from regular psychotherapy? A tome could be written on this, and more than one already has been! To put it very simply, spiritually oriented therapy is open to the idea that psychotherapy is a sacred activity or even a spiritual practice, that the sacred can be expressed in psychotherapy in a number of ways, that the spiritual dimension of presenting issues can be discerned, and that classically spiritual issues like faith, love, forgiveness and hope regularly come up in psychotherapy.  Additionally, spiritually oriented therapy takes seriously the notion that psychotherapy can legitimately be seen as care of the soul, as a forum for discovering one’s own spiritual direction, as a rich arena for experiencing and exploring the nondual perspective, and perhaps most importantly of all, a relationship within which the perennial mystery of suffering can be honored and tended, and one’s own unique, even sacred meaning can be made of one’s trials.  Let’s unpack each of those, shall we?

 

THERAPY AS A SACRED ACTIVITY:  “For millennia, physical and psychological healing was the province of shamans, medicine men and women, priests and priestesses.” (Lionel Corbett, The Sacred Cauldron: Psychotherapy as a Spiritual Practice)  Modern psychotherapies have been compared to ‘the cure of souls,’ (alternatively called, ‘the care of souls’), considered to be an important aspect of priestcraft within traditional Christianity.  Western psychology and psychotherapy have sought to vigorously sever themselves from any likeness of this sort and to be accepted into the fold of legitimately scientific disciplines for about the past century, reaching an apex in the 1950s with the behaviorists and their ultra-materialist lust for all things observable, quantifiable.  Hence the fervor for evidence-based practices.  Spiritually oriented therapy views therapy as a science, and an art form, and a sacred practice for all participants.  Spiritually oriented therapy leans into this likeness rather than covering it with the fig leaf of endless randomized control trials.

(This is not to imply that spiritually oriented therapy is not an evidence-based therapy.  Many spiritually-oriented therapists will blend a spiritual orientation with an evidence-based approach, like EMDR.  That is what I do in my practice.  However, therapies that address the deeper levels of a presenting issue tend to perform even better than evidence-based buzzword therapies, like CBT, in surveys taken years after completing therapy.  Basically, participants who had received psychoanalytic psychotherapy, EMDR, or another depth-based approach experienced results that held up years later, while participants in classic, pure CBT tended to have results immediately after a course of treatment.  Years later, though, results for the uber-popular evidence-based therapy, CBT, did not actually hold up.  I contend that this is because the plant was trimmed but the problem at the root was left unaddressed.)

Therapy may be seen as a spiritual practice for both participants in the therapeutic dyad.  For the therapist, it can be a spiritual practice to remain seated for hours, hearing volumes of the inner thoughts and pains of others in non-judgment, and holding all of this forever in confidence.  If the therapist is inclined towards the Dalai Lama’s sentiment that the heart of true spirituality is service and compassion, then providing therapy is a spiritual practice through and through.  Additionally, therapy can be viewed by the client as a practice of slowly becoming more and more conscious of one’s own defenses, attachment style, values, deepest desires and needs, in order to show up with more kindness, maturity and authenticity in the world and in our most important relationships.  Becoming more and more conscious could certainly be viewed as a spiritual practice.

 

THE EXPRESSION OF THE SACRED IN THERAPY: ‘Sacred’ is a very broad term, and therefore, the concept of experiences or expressions of it is also too broad to explore here.  Suffice it to say that for most people, the expression or experience of the sacred is known in a deeply personal, sometimes entirely private way, rarely articulated way.  Very often, the sacred has a feeling signature in the body, and each person recognizes this signature in their body in their own way.  Spiritually oriented therapy takes seriously that the sacred is a recognizable embodied feeling signature for most people, and that healing is more likely to take place in an environment where it is allowed or invited than in a scrubbed clean totally clinical setting with flourescent lights, though healing can occur there, too.

The spiritually oriented therapist accepts that their clients are likely to have had experiences of the sacred outside of therapy, and appreciates that these experiences can have profound qualities that sometimes even interrupt the client’s normal sense of reality.  The spiritually oriented therapist will more readily consider that their client has had a numinous experience (whether pleasant or unpleasant), and will consider this before jumping to pathologize the experience.

 

THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF THE PRESENTING PROBLEM: According to Carl Jung, a psychological complex almost always has a transpersonal core.  What does that mean?  For example, a mother complex may appear, on the surface, to be a set of issues stemming from a problematic childhood relationship with the mother which continue to crop up in adult life in maladaptive ways, causing the sufferer a great deal of embarrassment, shame, or other difficulty.  From a Jungian perspective, this complex can be viewed as a cluster of badly digested memories, core beliefs, painful stories and thoughts that continue to spin off of the complex into the present life of the client.  At the center of the complex, however, is the archetype of the Divine Feminine, in Her light and dark aspects.  It is in this way that the issue goes beyond the individual and actually touches a tremendous, collective, transpersonal force, that of the Feminine Principle.  It is also in this way that the spiritually oriented therapist is able to appreciate the depth of their client’s struggle.  What may appear trivial to an outsider is appreciated by the spiritually oriented therapist as carrying the depth and intensity of a battle with the gods.

 

CLASSICALLY SPIRITUAL ISSUES IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: Therapists regularly encounter issues of faith, love, hope, mortality, suffering and forgiveness in their offices, issues which are often brought to the church, the temple or the synagogue.  Spiritually oriented therapy seeks to understand how the client’s current spiritual belief system may be helping or exacerbating any one of these issues, and allows for the client’s own process in finding their own relationship to their own tradition, or in making their own meaning more generally, with regards to these perennial concerns.

 

THERAPY AS CARE OF THE SOUL: In a 2018 TED Talk on the Irish language, Donall O Healai told a story of a people who had traveled for many moons, and who were a very happy people, always dancing, laughing and singing.  After several months of nonstop travel, they paused, and the leader among them became silent.  All the other members of the group followed suit and soon there was a hush over all of them.  The leader closed his eyes, became very still, and appeared to turn inward.  When a traveling companion asked the leader what he was doing, the leader replied, “We have traveled so far, and so fast, that now we must stop and allow our souls to catch up.”  Spiritually oriented therapy takes seriously the idea that the therapy hour is a special time and space where the soul can be allowed to catch up.  Enough said (though more could always be said)!

 

SPIRITUAL DIRECTION IN THERAPY: It is important to distinguish between the spiritually oriented therapist and the spiritual director.  A spiritual director may provide directives, suggestions and advice which leads the participant in a particular direction.  The spiritually oriented therapist approaches the client with utter curiosity.  The attitude is, “I don’t know what your life is supposed to do.  I’m very interested, though.  Let’s take a look at this!”  According to Carl Jung, after successful psychoanalysis, a natural Christian will have become a Christian, and a natural Pagan will have become a Pagan.  The spiritually oriented therapist will likely appreciate this, and may be pulling for the participant in therapy to find their natural tradition, or their own answers, or even just their own relationship to overwhelming mystery, and practices for tolerating not knowing.  Above all, a good spiritually oriented therapist should always nudge their client towards finding their own soul-voice, their own sovereignty, and their own inner knowing about what is right for them, and trusting that as the highest spiritual authority in their life.

 

THE NONDUAL PERSPECTIVE IN THERAPY: There is a quiet revolution of Copernican proportions currently taking place in the scientific community.  Essentially, the question is this: Is matter the primary medium of reality, or is consciousness the primary medium of reality?  Some of the most brilliant neuroscientists who’ve ever lived have spent their entire careers trying to demonstrate how it is that the physical brain gives rise to consciousness and have never been able to do so.  It’s called the hard problem in philosophy and neuroscience.  Mark Gober, in An End to Upside Down Thinking describes his concept of consciousness this way:  Consciousness is universal.  It’s like water.  Individual units of consciousness (like you, or me, or another subjective individual) are like whirlpools within the river of consciousness.  Sometimes, some water from one whirlpool spins out and is caught by a nearby whirlpool.  He states that this accounts for many of what are called ‘paranormal’ experiences, such as parallel dreams, thinking the same thing at the same time, and many more.  A spiritually oriented therapist will consider that this strange, acausal connectedness that seems to be woven into the fabric of our world may account for the fact that they continue to attract people who are working on the same issue over and over, and that it is an issue with deep, personal significance to the therapist themselves.

Many spiritual teachers and traditions refer to one consciousness of which we are each an expression.  Because of this uncanny water-sharing aspect of consciousness, spiritually oriented therapists may often refer to the feeling of the “space between” without making an overt statement about either person in the relationship.  In depth psychology, the concept of the Self (with a capital ‘S’) is sometimes invoked to describe the force that seems to come through in the therapy relationship from time to time, which is bigger than the therapist and the client.  For example, a spiritually oriented therapist may state that, once in a while, when they get out of their own way, they find themselves saying the most powerful, perfect words for a given moment, but it’s as if the words are speaking through them.  It is not called on at will.  In some ways, this is the oracular aspect of traditional therapy.  Oracles, psychics and healers of a myriad of traditions will often say, when I get “Annalise Oatman” out of the way, that’s when I’m able to say what needs to be said.

 

SUFFERING AND MEANING IN SPIRITUALLY ORIENTED THERAPY : Sometimes, suffering is at its worst when it appears to have no point and no meaning.  Spiritually oriented therapy assists in constructing unique, sacred meaning of suffering (past or present), or allows the participant to develop the level of self-compassion necessary to find practices for tolerating meaninglessness if meaning cannot be found.  The spiritually oriented therapist may offer fairy tales or mythos that parallel their client’s struggle as a way for the client to see themselves in relationship to larger, universal, even cosmic patterns.  Additionally, a spiritually oriented therapist may offer practices for using pain, sadness or unpleasant emotions as a doorway into connection with all sentient beings.  For example, the spiritual teacher Pema Chodron once stated that when she feels inadequacy, she knows she is feeling the inadequacy of all beings.  The same can be applied to all difficult feeling states.

 

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