Spirituality of the Psychotherapist – On Further Reflection…

by Colm O’Doherty

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out of them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

(Mary Oliver, 2004: 8)

Since I wrote the article, “Thoughts on a spirituality of psychotherapy” (O’Doherty, 2013), as well as receiving both private and public correspondence on the topic, I have had the opportunity of working with a number of people in a series of workshops on the theme of spirituality and psychotherapy. I continue to be affected by the richness of reflection and conversation that we created together during those days. That is the seed-bed for this further reflection on how the psychotherapist can work at the same time within two different perspectives – the psychological and the spiritual – without diminishing either or having to choose between them.

The psychotherapist
I would like to address the title, ‘Spirituality of the Psychotherapist’. In the previous article, I wrote about the spirituality of psychotherapy. Because of the very personal and powerful way many workshop participants spoke about their spirituality in the work, I am choosing in this article to write about spirituality in relation to the psychotherapist rather than to psychotherapy, focusing on the inner world and work of the practitioner rather than on the theory or understanding of psychotherapy.

Many books and articles have been written, and much research reported, about the relationship between psychotherapy and spirituality (Plante, 2009: 13-16) and as a result I think that the profession is in a different place from those earlier times recalled by Chris Mc Kenna:

Some years ago I was one of a number of psychotherapy colleagues who met for a day to talk about spirituality. We gathered cheerfully but left deeply shocked, wounded by the violent feelings that the topic had aroused.

(McKenna, 2005: 141)

At each of the workshops a number of people spoke about the relief they felt in having a safe space to talk personally about how their spirituality informed their work, and being able to do so without drawing down suspicion on what they were doing.

So while it may be easier to look at the topics of spirituality and psychotherapy, it is still not a simple thing to speak personally and publicly about one’s spirituality in the context of the work. Some workshop participants reported that at times such talk was heard as if spirituality = God = Church = Catholic Church, and that this can get collapsed into clergy, and further into clerical scandals. While this is literally reductio ad absurdum, there is some emotional force to it in the Irish context. Hence some psychotherapists retreated into a totally private place. There was also the fear of the work being seen as ‘psychotherapy-lite’, as flight or escape into the airy-fairy, and avoidance of the in-depth, of the complexity, of the dark and the painful. It was clear from the quality of discussion and reflection on the work by the participants during the workshops, that referencing spirituality need in no way diminish their commitment to the discipline and thoroughness of their professional practice, nor need it undermine the core importance of psychological theory and conceptual understanding in the work.

I think that psychotherapy and spirituality are routes that are travelled by people in their search for meaning. Behind them lie two other disciplines, philosophy being the source for psychotherapy and theology the source for spirituality. As regards psychotherapy, the original home of things psychological was within philosophy – the study of how to live well – and it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that this study moved away from philosophy towards the natural sciences with their scientific basis. As for spirituality, that is often seen as the study of theology put into lived practice – applied theology. I will therefore dare to venture into these more abstract realms of philosophy and theology as I search for ways of understanding how spirituality might be lived through the work of psychotherapy.

I begin the exploration with a philosophical question that relates to both spirituality and psychotherapy: what is the nature and meaning of the human person, and therefore of human well-being, a core concept in spirituality and psychotherapy? What is my nature, how did I come to be, what am I here for, where am I going? They are rather daunting, even intimidating, questions to which many of us do not give much explicit thought, and yet everything we do flows from some implicit position as regards these questions. How we respond to the circumstances of our lives gives evidence – however flimsy – of our philosophy of life, our world-view. We cannot avoid taking up a philosophical position, however implicit it might be.

Everyone lives his life on the basis of a conscious or subconscious philosophy, and a person’s philosophy of life is clearly apparent in his psychology.

(Packer, n.d.)

This is not simply about the work we do as psychotherapists, but rather about what perspective we have on life’s meaning – or meaninglessness – and of course, within that, the work that we do. What frame of reference do I bring to my living, what is my world-view, and what are the implications for my psychotherapy?

Let me tell you at the outset that philosophy and psychology are inherently connected…Without a correct philosophy, therefore, or at least an implicit knowledge of correct philosophical fundamentals, a therapist cannot help a patient change in any significant way.

(Packer, n.d.)

Such a matter has to be addressed personally, the shaping of each person’s philosophy. For myself, therefore, as I have been formed primarily – both by choice and chance – by the Western Christian tradition, this has informed my philosophy of life and my grappling with life’s fundamental questions of meaning. It is not that other philosophical traditions have not contributed richly to how I see life and to how I live, but rather my core orientation to life is deeply informed by the Christian philosophical tradition, enriched and enlarged by other wisdoms. Therefore in this article my focus is on the world-view of the psychotherapist, and in particular a world-view informed by the Christian tradition.

So as regards these philosophical and theological perspectives on the meaning of life, do I have to leave them outside the door when I see a client? Is not the psychological orientation sufficient, with all its wisdom, its truth, its learning, its values? The deeper I am imbued with all that psychology can offer, the more attuned I am to the riches and insights of good psychotherapeutic practice. And the more alive I am to the outer and inner worlds of myself and my client, then the more available I can be to work with the client towards a greater sense of well-being. But I am suggesting that all this is done within a bigger context and a wider horizon, a context of fundamental meaning and ultimate value, on the part of both the client and the psychotherapist. Neither psychotherapist nor client lives or works in a value-free or meaning-free vacuum. Even though possibly never referred to explicitly, meaning and value are implicitly woven into all that happens between client and psychotherapist. I am proposing that spirituality is one possible source of meaning and value for the psychotherapist, and I suggest that this is often hinted at when we use words such as ‘privilege’, ‘gift’, ‘sacred’ and ‘holy ground’ when discussing our work.

A couple of themes that exist in many forms of spirituality are transcendence – the sacred or the divine beyond the world – and immanence – the divine within the world. Within the specific Christian understanding these two terms refer to different modes of the presence of God. This reflection brings us into the realm of theology.

When considering the fundamental meaning of the human person, many spiritual traditions – for instance, Christian, Buddhist and some Hindu traditions – speak about the sacred and about there being a transcendent quality to existence. Within the Christian tradition one form of belief in this transcendent quality of existence is the understanding of eternity, in which this life partakes. Fundamental to such an understanding is the idea that life is not bound nor measured solely by our earthly existence; we are invited to think beyond that and value our lives both in the here-and-now and also as contributing to a greater existence, which is referred to in theological terms as the reign or kingdom of God. This concept may be familiar through the words ‘thy kingdom come’ in the prayer, Our Father.

In scripture one of the ways expression is given to the reign of God is through the healing work of Jesus, healing those broken in body and those broken in heart and spirit. While this healing work gave renewed health and well-being to a limited number of people who were suffering, it also had a larger meaning that went beyond any particular act of healing. It pointed towards a vision of a time – the reign of God – when all would be healed and suffering would come to an end – “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no mourning or sadness” (Jerusalem Bible, Rev. 21: 4). So the gospel work of healing took on a particular meaning, not just pointing us towards the reign of God but actually contributing towards its coming. This is the ultimate context that the Christian tradition offers for all the work of healing, wherever it takes place and whoever it is that effects the healing, that is, as contributing towards the coming of the reign of God. In our work of being with clients in their pain, their loss, their courage, their wisdom, and in our engaging with them with all that is at our disposal from the wealth of psychological understanding and experience, I am suggesting that we can do this with a belief in a broader context, namely that this work is also contributing to the reign of God. This is not to imply that such a perspective is better, deeper, richer or of more worth than any other perspective; it is simply claiming the place for a belief that the work of psychotherapy can contribute to the coming of the reign of God, and that such a perspective can enrich the psychotherapist’s appreciation of the meaning and value of their work (I think the idea that any action in the present can contribute to some future realm, as understood within the Christian tradition, has a resonance with belief in what is understood by karma in some of the Indian religious traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, whereby good action creates good karma, which can affect another existence).

The second theological theme I wish to consider is immanence, the divine presence experienced in the world. Within the Christian tradition Jesus is seen as speaking to us in a very intimate way of God, based on the belief that he is God’s presence among us. He has the name “Emmanuel” (Jerusalem Bible, Mt. 1: 23), meaning God-with-us. This belief in immanence is rendered in a domestic rather than theological idiom in Patrick Kavanagh’s words:

Men build their heavens as they build their circle
of friends. God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday – A kiss here, and a laugh again, and sometimes tears, A pearl necklace round the neck of poverty.

(Kavanagh, 1972: 42)

Rahner’s understanding of immanence in Christian theological terms is:

…according to Christianity, salvation is achieved not only within the explicitly religious sphere but in all dimensions of human existence… Thus, he is aware that in this sense the whole of the human sphere is religious and the whole of the religious sphere is humane.

(Rahner, 1999: 189)

God-with-us does not mean only calling on God when we are in trouble, but rather it is acknowledging that God is already present in the situation, prior to and independent of our asking. In this sense it does not mean calling on God while one is sitting in front of a client, but rather understanding that it is in the very work of psychotherapy, attending as best one can to all that is important and vital in the practice, it is in and through the engagement that happens between the client and the psychotherapist that God is with us.

Within the Christian tradition God is present in both immanent and transcendent ways. These are not thought of as being contradictory or in any way oppositional to each other. The transcendence or reign of God can be thought of as belonging to some unimagined future and yet is already with us through, for instance, the work of healing. And, on the other hand, the immanence of God is available in the everyday, yet nothing of the everyday can fully contain God. And spirituality within the Christian tradition can be seen as the living out of the awareness of this transcendent and immanent presence of God.

Bi-focal vision
I suggest that it is not a matter of the psychotherapist having to choose between the spiritual and the psychological but rather inhabiting the psychological role while at the same time appreciating how this can be understood as an expression of God’s presence. In trying to accommodate these two perspectives I have found it helpful to read about how Heaney thinks of the poet as adept “in the mystery of living in two places at the same time” (Heaney, 1995: 190). He acknowledges the need for “bi-focal vision” (Heaney, 1995: 198), where “the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to and allow us to contemplate the complex burden of our own experience” (Heaney, 1995: 10). In the context of psychotherapy this bi-focal vision can allow the psychotherapist to draw on two orders of knowledge, giving full attention to all the wisdom within the psychological, while believing that such work belongs within the realm of the spiritual – reality existing within reality.

What I have been addressing throughout this article is the inner disposition of the psychotherapist working within the two contexts of the psychological and the spiritual. It seems to me that if one were to think about what it might mean to give some expression of such a disposition, some reference to prayer might well emerge. In the previous article (O’Doherty, 2013) I tentatively raised the issue of prayer, and posed questions about what place, if any, prayer might have in the work. I appreciate that this is a most sensitive matter, and this was borne out in the workshops, as people felt very vulnerable and exposed when prayer was discussed. And yet it was felt important that space was given for such discussion.

In the light of my understanding of Emmanuel, God-with-us, I wonder if this opens a possible way to view the work, the session itself, as prayer, as an experience of God-with-us. This is not to imply that one is thinking during the session of God. Rather if one believes that “God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday” (Kavanagh, 1972: 42), then the day-to-day work of any of us can be thought of as being a setting for God-with-us. “No piece of reality is excluded from being a bearer of the holy” (Tillich, 1957: 58). The psychotherapy room in particular is certainly no stranger to “a kiss here, and a laugh again, and sometimes tears” (Kavanagh, 1972: 42). And furthermore, while not excluding other possibilities for prayer, simply calling to mind the word itself, Emmanuel, might well be a help to staying attuned to such an internal disposition.

I have been considering how the psychotherapist can accommodate two distinct perspectives – the psychological and the spiritual – without diminishing either, or having to choose between them. I have recalled how within psychotherapy such efforts have been looked upon with suspicion, if not outright rejection. I have suggested that they need not be seen as rivals, but rather as conversing companions, capable of enriching each other. I have referred to Seamus Heaney when he speaks of the poet as “living in two places at the same time” (Heaney, 1995: 190) and have suggested that this is an apt metaphor for the psychotherapist living within his profession, and within a spiritual tradition, in this instance the Christian tradition, through an understanding of the reign of God – transcendence – and the name Emmanuel – immanence. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that for all our insights, for all our reading and knowledge about philosophy and theology, at first and at last, when we sit with a client we are in front of what is ultimately mysterious.

Colm O’Doherty enjoys the luxury of working part-time. He is an accredited psychotherapist and supervisor with IAHIP, and is in private practice in Monkstown, Co. Dublin and in Ballina, Co. Tipperary. E-mail address: solemncolm@eircom.net.

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