A Response to the Word ‘Spirituality’

by Paddy Logan

In my view, as a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist, Colm O’Doherty’s article, ‘Thoughts on a spirituality of psychotherapy’ (O’Doherty, 2013) points to an area of relationship that is perhaps under-resourced in much of traditional mainstream theory. Yet it seems to be a fundamental element in being part of the human species. No other creature shows evidence of such a deeply experienced urge to find meaning.

I know my own understanding of the word spirituality has changed radically over the years. I was originally integrated into the Roman Catholic version of what the word spirituality means through the ritual of baptism. Then, like so many others, I was taught the meaning of the word spirituality from the perspective of those who held a Roman Catholic version of its meaning to be the truth. By my 30s I had built up a robust intellectual context of the being I was talking to, and whose will I was trying to surrender to – the being called God with a son called Jesus.

For me, a deep and startling experience I had in my mid-30s, whilst in a state of deep submissive prayer, shocked me into realising that I hadn’t chosen this version of the word spirituality. Rather it had been given to me as a reliable self-contained reality in which I was unavoidably immersed – apparently at God’s will.

This intrusive moment of awareness was like a lightning bolt, and caused me to make a decision which at the time was very risky. I decided to abandon the immersion, the belief, the story of this spiritual source – the God being – and step into the world without it. I did this on the basis of a statement to God that ‘if you are there, and I am here, then let’s meet so I can decide for myself if you are real. In other words let me look at what’s around me as myself, and make up my own mind as to what the meaning is as I come to understand it’. I did not feel that was an unreasonable position given that the context for my original belief system had been fed to me rather than discovered by me. That set me free to follow my own sense of that urge to find meaning and begin an adventure which continues still.

I realise that the interior contexts we each individually hold as to the meaning of what spirituality is are undoubtedly deeply held and are a central resource for many who suffer without meaning. It is also right that we respect those interior contexts, as well as the relevance and meanings attributed to them by others. We enshrine the right to respect them in our laws.

A difficulty for me has been the question: ‘How can I successfully empathise with that deeply personal belief system in the client if my own mirror to that is different, and at the same time deeply personal to me?’ Can I let go of my mirror of meaning to the extent that I can join with you in your experience of your version of meaning. In a way it appeared to me that faith could potentially be an obstacle in that space.

The word spirituality seems a vague word for the varied and unique range of experiences that the client brings. Spirituality is a word deeply associated with the notion of other dimensions. These other dimensions are contextualised in so many extraordinary forms by humans and held as deeply sacred and personal – even to the extent of martyrdom. So for me it is not a word I came to trust with regard to understanding its meaning in the therapeutic space with the other person – the client.

I noticed it created lines in the relationship between what I understood in relation to the term spirituality, how I have contextualised that, what the client understood in relation to this, and how she/he had contextualised that. I have found that a challenging place at times when the spiritual dimension is dovetailed into the process and seems to separate me from the experience of the client. It’s as if we become two sides of a mystery with similar or radically different maps and meanings for that experience. Can I really meet you in that space if we are so differently engaged there? Another difficulty with exploring it for me at times has been that I find the quest for meaning a bit intoxicating. It has long fascinated me. Perhaps we are all susceptible to the mysterious?

The current way I resolve these struggles for myself is to see everything that is presented as an expression of the person. The person for me includes aspects of the physical, emotional, and cognitive that are conscious. I know there are also levels of unawareness and half awareness – semi-conscious, sub-conscious, unconscious. My involvement in the relationship seems to me to be about inviting the person to be more open to a more conscious participation in self- awareness, to become more self-aware. So it is primarily consciousness which is the force/substance/phenomenon I am working with. I think you can call the manifestations of that experience many things.

If there is evidence of a super-being, or a super-state of being, then consciousness itself is not a bad bet. It is a force whose effects are evident, but whose source is not. It appears to have no morality, judgement or prejudice in that it will manifest itself in every imaginable way – good, bad, and indifferent. It is a force which gives the attribute of presence to our species. If conscious existence is possible in a state other than the three-dimensional universe we find ourselves in – which my personal experience convinces me it is – then perhaps consciousness itself is the mysterious wave we surf into infinity. After all there can be no stop signs in eternity. The universe is unfolding from an unknown space beyond the big bang, and consciousness may also be unfolding from an equally unclear source. I came to believe that we each carry that source within us as consciousness of a self. At times when I am holding an experience with the other person within the energy of what we call unconditional positive regard, it can seem like we share in a very clear recognition of the validity of each other’s presence, the validity of being you. We can also call the manifestations of that experience many things.

Colm poses some questions at the outset regarding praying for clients, or the therapist giving a “nod in God’s direction” (O’Doherty, 2013: 34). The difficulty for me in doing this is that it would require me to falter in trusting the individuation process of this being who sits opposite me. Many times I have sat with someone expressing hopelessness, and suffering deep internal confusion, and what keeps me connected and in contact with the client is a belief that who they are is not confined by their past experiences. So I consistently seek to meet the person, and validate the person’s ability, however compromised it initially appears, to participate in a self-observed internal relationship. This way of working takes longer, and is more hazardous than a more solution-focussed approach. It does not include, for me professionally, a perception of the client’s experiences as connected to an external power source that is a mystery, and ultimately beyond their control. In fact, I have seen the struggle a client can go through when the object of the suffering is positioned in some external omnipotent source that can appear beyond responsibility, and therefore unavailable to respond transparently to expressions of human anguish. Its effects have appeared as disempowering in those instances.

My understanding of Rogers is that it’s not about where the clients’ consciousness of self is unfolding out of with regard to an ultimate source but what the clients’ consciousness of self is unfolding into – an immanent source. So it comes back to the dynamic of being and the extent to which one can be conscious of being human. That context is at the centre of much humanistic theory.

Could it be that the real movement of evolution is not upwards, outwards and transcendent, but downwards, inwards and immanent? Perhaps the real movement of evolution is not just “our own horizon of ultimacy” (O’Doherty, 2013: 37) but a horizon which is consistently immanent with possibility? I imagine that’s what consciousness could be seen to be seeking to do in many therapy rooms. Opening up the energy of unconditional acceptance continues to expand the individual human capacity for presence and contact. I guess you could say that’s a journey into grounding the divine. It might suggest that the kingdom of heaven really is within, that it’s mysteriously unavoidably you.

Paddy Logan is an IAHIP Accredited Integrative Psychotherapist in private practice in the Integrative Psychotherapy Practice, Rathmines, Dublin.

O’Doherty, C. (2013). Thoughts on a spirituality of psychotherapy. Inside Out, 69, 34-38.