Spirituality and Psychotherapy: A Personal Reflection

by Pauline Emerson

This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.”

Lucretius (1st Century BC)

I came upon this quotation from Lucretius inscribed on a piece of sculpture in the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. It immediately spoke to me and for me and has remained in my memory for many years now. I don’t know what Lucretius understood of the “outward form and inner workings of nature” because I’ve read not one other word from his works, but I do know that my own current understanding of the outer and inner aspects of reality as I experience it, is causing me to see things in a slightly upside down and inside out sort of way and the implications of this for my personal life and professional work are presenting me with great challenges.

The outward forms with which I am preoccupied are particulars of my life such as time and place, relationships, physicality, personality, my biography and the theory and practise of psychotherapy, to name but a few. The inner workings of which I am becoming more and more conscious are not so easy to name but phrases which work for me include spirit, divine essence, God creating. The challenge arises for me from the fact that the more I engage these inner workings the more it has the effect of turning the outward forms upside down and inside out. And as it is among the outer forms that I live and work I find myself precariously placed indeed.

So, while my personal and professional experiences amidst outer forms have provided me with many and varied close encounters with “dread and darkness”, my experience of the inner workings of reality increasingly lead me back, again and again, to what feels like a fundamental truth or condition of being which says, there is nothing wrong, nothing has gone wrong. Other phrases which form in my mind out of this awareness are there is only God or you are exactly where you need to be. As one might expect, I find it very difficult to reconcile these apparently polarised positions within myself. Furthermore, they are never just an emotional or mental experience but rather they manifest at all levels of my being – mental, emotional, physical, spiritual and social. So, when I experience the polarisation it is a tense experience indeed. When however, I experience some degree of integration of the two positions it can be a deeply peaceful experience, albeit transient.

Being present to both the inner and outer aspects of reality as described above feels to me to be my core personal and professional challenge. Sitting face to face with either myself or a client brings me into direct contact with the full spectrum of reality. On the one hand, so many things gone wrong in life and in the world; so much dread and darkness! On the other hand, God creating! Nothing has gone wrong! The inner workings of reality are clearly not as they appear in its outer forms. The divine essence is simply not as it appears in its outer manifestations. Neither, it seems, is it diminished by them no matter how dark or fractured they appear.

While reconciling such paradoxical truths can seem utterly impossible to me, it has proven equally impossible for me to accept either one position as the whole truth. It doesn’t fit my whole experience to say all is dread and darkness, neither however, does it fit my whole experience to say nothing has gone wrong or there is only God. I simply need both positions to be true – because that is my experience.

The words on the page make that conclusion sound neat and tidy and seem to me to give a false impression of what the lived experience might be like. The actual experience is often a pendulum-like swing from one pole to the other with very little felt connection between them. And so the whole experience is never fully experienced and it is never possible to feel whole in the experience.

At times however, when the pendulum swings less widely and the two poles of reality sit a little more closely together and the felt connection between them strengthens, a certain type of alchemy occurs. The poles merge while mysteriously maintaining their separateness, so that in certain dark and dreadful circumstances the sense that everything is ok, that the situation is held, benign and meaningful becomes strong and real. It is not that there are no dark and dreadful circumstances any more but rather that their inner workings can be sensed or indeed experienced. Physical, emotional and circumstantial pain and brokenness remain in all the harshness that exists in the realm of time and place – the realm of outer forms – but at the pendulum’s still point such realities are touched by the inner workings of spirit, the divine essence within, the presence of God creating.

When I approach the still point of the pendulum – and it is always approach – whether it be experientially or as I do now descriptively in words, I inevitably encounter silence. There is a point at which the words must cease as they are themselves functions of polarised reality. So I have to loosen my hold on the words, and with them my sense of myself as a being fixed, separate and in control because I can name things. I have to let go!

Where does that leave me I hear myself asking, and I smile, as I am and always have been a passionate lover of words. Although I must confess a certain promiscuity, for I have loved silence also. I am left therefore with no option but to set up a ‘ménage a trois’ where I will continue to live in loving relationship with reality’s silent inner workings and its outer form with all its beautiful names.

But the moment I acknowledge both objects of my love and desire I realise that they, in fact, love and desire each other. The divine essence yearns for expression in outer form and outer form yearns for its own divine essence. And once again I hear myself asking ‘so where does that leave me?  Where do I fit in?’  The answer to this question comes as something felt more than understood – an intimation rather than a clear statement. I begin to feel that in some way the loving relationship between these two aspects of reality is actually what I am made of. It’s as if they are engaged in a continuous love act out of which I am continually being conceived and birthed; that this dynamic relationship is in fact what constitutes my very being.

This awareness slows me down, makes me quiet. In the quietness a softening occurs at the outer edge of my perception within which polarisations become less polarised. Oneness and separateness are not mutually exclusive. The still point of the pendulum can accommodate movement and movement finds its still point. Pain has meaning and does not mean that something has gone wrong. Darkness reveals its inner “sunbeams” and “shining shafts” somehow inhibit their own light, casting shadows.  Words unveil their silent source and silence speaks.

And so I can say the words world, life, pain, brokenness, and hear God. I can say the word God and hear broken, painful world. I can say the word psychotherapy and hear relationship and allow the work to find its place in the great order of things. Otherwise it becomes, for me, a sort of would-be remedy for the world’s perceived ills, a kind of mechanistic solution that is simply not sustainable. It stops being what it truly is – a relationship within Relationship, a participation in Reality (both its outer form and its inner workings) and becomes an intervention predicated on the mistaken perception that something has gone wrong.

I pause now, allowing myself to feel the tensions operating behind these words and I become acutely aware once again of the polarities operating within myself. I feel that while I am constrained by the limits of my humanness, I am simultaneously stretching beyond those limits. So much of what I am expressing here is clearly beyond my capacity as a human being. I am simply not evolved enough to embody and express the fullness of Reality in a sustained way which is why I fail and suffer and hurt myself and others and experience dread and darkness. Yet I seem to have some degree of access to it at some subtle and tenuous level of my being. It seems to me that the important thing is to keep the dialogue alive, to maintain the relationship between that subtle, intuited part of myself and the more embodied aspects that often flounder. As long as that internal relationship is maintained, the possibility of growth is kept alive. And as long as it is allowed to resonate outwards through relationships with people and the world around me so too is the potential for collective growth and development kept alive. And so the alchemy deepens, accommodating ever-widening polarities, giving rise to increasing degrees of wholeness.  Tension itself is the creative agent.

It is in this context that psychotherapy has its fullest meaning for me. Yet I feel shy about writing these things. For some reason I feel a bit naked and exposed when I use words like God and Love. There is a vulnerability in allowing myself to acknowledge the divine essence, the within of things, the inner workings (as I experience them) of my life and work in this public way. It’s a little like revealing details of my most intimate experiences and relationships.

And still, I’m doing it … another tense experience … another dialogue unfolding … thank God!

Pauline Emerson works as a Therapist and Supervisor at her home in Glenmalure, Co. Wicklow


Lucretius:  (1994)  On the Nature of the Universe  Penguin Classics    pg. 69