A Humanistic Approach to Spirituality: Inclusivity

by Pat Comerford

Humanistic psychology and psychotherapy have a commitment to understanding and exploring a wide range of subjects reflecting the evolving nature of humanity. A sample of subject matters addressed by humanistic psychotherapists include gender, bereavement, ecology, multiculturalism, awe, spirituality and many more themes concerning us as human beings. Humanity, in turn, continues to impact on humanistic psychology’s and psychotherapy’s own evolving phenomenological understanding of what it means to be human.

While I accept that “humanistic psychology has no manifesto and, therefore, no official position with regard to spirituality” (Elkins, 2015: 681), I have however spent a large part of my life developing a personal understanding and sense of spirituality. In this article I will be addressing the theme of spirituality from a non-religious viewpoint.

Humanistic psychology and psychotherapy
Historically we owe a great debt of gratitude to Maslow (1943, 2014) for formulating Humanistic Psychology or “Third Force” (Wertz, 2015: 265 – 267) with its focus on:

…the holistic lived experience of the person (individual) and its implications for practice, pushing back on more mechanistic, reductionistic and dehumanizing approaches.
(Hoffman, Cleare-Hoffman & Jackson, 2015: 42)

Maslow, in writing his ground-breaking article A Theory of Human Motivation (1943), also acknowledged his own motivation for the article: “The present paper is an attempt to formulate a positive theory of human motivation” (370; bold type added).

This shift in approach to understanding humanity is comparable to Copernicus’ shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric perspective in cosmology (Scharf, 2014). The refocusing that Abraham Maslow brought to the psychology of humanity was a shift from a sickness to a health or human potential model. As an undergraduate psychology student in the 1970s, I studied this perspective, and it was a liberating experience.

From the religious framework it was a move away from the original sin opinion of humanity, or the fall from grace belief. Interestingly, a recent National Geographic cover article on Pope Francis I quoted someone close to the pontiff as saying about him, that: “What he will do is return the church to its true doctrine – the one it has forgotten, the one that puts man back in the center. For too long, the church put sin in the center” (Draper, 2015: 59).

While Maslow (1943) created a Copernican shift in the understanding, the study and the psychology of humanity it was Rogers (1947) who provided the “central clinical framework for the humanistic therapies” (Moss, 2015: 13) with his Client-Centered Therapy (Rogers, 1951).

Carl Rogers placed the person at the centre of his model. There is no reference in Rogerian theory and counselling to the person as a sinner or as being essentially flawed, damaged, or disordered. Studying these Rogerian ideas about the person helped to transform my view of humanity. The client-centred therapist has an attitude towards the client which means to “respect his capacity and his right to self-direction” Rogers (1949: 82). This core value and attitude of respect has been my guiding principle both personally and professionally for the past 36 years. I am imperfect and I get it wrong but I do make “a sincere attempt to become what we (I) could be” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1981: 58; bold type added) for my sake and the well-being of the people I relate with.

Being humanistic
The Irish Association for Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy (IAHIP) website gives a clear frame of reference for a humanistic and integrative approach to psychotherapy. While the provided frame of reference is best viewed as a whole, I will, however, pay attention to particular phrases that are especially relevant to the current article:

It believes that individuals are fundamentally responsible for themselves….Humanistic and integrative psychotherapy encourages the distinctly human qualities of choice and creativity….believes in the independent dignity and worth of individual human beings….This emphasis on individual freedom and self-determination is matched by a recognition of our interdependence and our responsibilities to one another, to society and to the eco-system.
(IAHIP, n.d.)

I would like to make explicit one other belief that is implicit in the above website statement, and this is the belief of the humanistic psychotherapist in the equality of all human beings. It is because of this egalitarian belief that the humanistic tradition particularly copper fastened an attitude of respect towards the individual, all individuals.

This commitment to equality characterises the humanistic tradition as one that has an inexhaustible belief in humanity. This, in turn, means that the humanistic psychotherapist is a person who is optimistic in spite of the “negative and destructive” (IAHIP, n.d.) forces encountered at times individually and collectively. Fatalism, as distinct from being realistic, has little room for the active and committed humanistic psychotherapist. This is not to say that some humanistic psychotherapists will not experience fatalism in their lives, and if they do there may then be a need for personal reflection, to increase attendance at personal therapy and supervision in order to maintain and strengthen one’s humanistic way of being in relationships and the world.

The humanistic and integrative ethos of the Inside Out journal is then naturally one of welcome and openness that provides the opportunity: “to facilitate diverse strands of thought and feeling that might open, develop, unfold and intertwine” (IAHIP, 2015: 2). The journal’s ethos is also a statement of commitment to: “the humanistic value of developing authentic relationships” (2). It is in this context of openness and authenticity that I present my own phenomenological understanding of a personal spirituality shaped by the humanistic tradition.

Being spiritual
What does it actually mean to be spiritual? The meanings of being spiritual have their origins in specific contexts and frameworks. We are familiar with the religious constructions of spirituality. As a humanistic psychotherapist my world-view of spirituality is rooted primarily in the philosophical studies of phenomenological ontology (Sartre, 2003, 2007) and particularly as presented in the existential approach to psychotherapy (Yalom, 1980).

David Elkins (2015) has given an excellent brief history of spirituality in the humanistic movement. He also offers his own “accessible model of spirituality” (686 – 688). In this model he suggests a framework based on his concepts of the Soul, the Sacred and Spirituality.

He draws on Moore’s work to suggest what soul is: “‘Soul’ is not a thing but [rather] a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance” (Moore, 1992, as cited in Elkins, 2015: 686).

For Elkins the sacred is substantially about experience: “characterised by various elements including a feeling of being overwhelmed, a sense of the mystical awe, a feeling of fascination, and an experience of intense energy” (686).

Essentially, Elkins (2015) considers spirituality to be:

…available to every human being ….is a human phenomenon…..is an inborn, natural potential of the human being….is found at the inner phenomenological level….has to do with our capacity to respond to the numinous…there is a certain mysterious energy associated with spirituality…the aim of spirituality is compassion (687 ‒ 688).

Moreover, according to him, spiritual growth is achieved by “nourishing the Soul through Sacred experiences [so that] spirituality is a process as well as a state of being in which our hearts open to the sacred dimension of life” (688).

A personal experience of spirituality
I will relate to Elkin’s (2015) model by sharing a personal experience. I had often seen in books Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus and have admired its beauty and appreciated the sheer skill of the artist. I was unprepared for how I felt when I actually saw the painting in the Uffizi gallery, Florence. I spontaneously cried at the limitless beauty of the work. I felt as if I entered another realm and could appreciate with awe in my bones the infinite potential of the creativity of humanity, and what is termed as an “existential infinity” (Schneider, 2015: 705). Using Elkin’s model and terms of reference, I deeply experienced (soul) Botticelli’s painting in an overwhelming manner (sacred) which helped me to connect at a phenomenological level (spirituality) to the artist and humanity in that moment with appreciation, love and compassion. My sense of being changed in that physical place and the immediate potency of that change in my humanity remained with me for several days. The experience also helped me to relate more fully and gently with the people around me.

A simplified understanding of spirituality
Siobhan Mahon (2012) has referenced some excellent methods for increasing the experience of being spiritual which include mindfulness, meditation, and the arts, to name just a few. I will use Mahon’s framing of spirituality since that makes sense to me: “We invoke the word spirituality to describe our human experiences of connectedness and depth” (8).

So can I connect with myself, with another, with humanity, with the planet, with the cosmology of the universe in ways that are humanistically soulful, sacred and spiritual? Humanistic psychotherapy provides a philosophically shaped framework, and tradition to help me make these connections with depth and meaning.

Spirituality: An etymological understanding
I also employ an etymological meaning of spirit that is “animating or vital principle, breath of life” (Barnhart, 1988: 1047). Over the centuries the meaning of spirit has been extended to represent a religious perspective. Adopting a simple posture I suggest, in the context of the etymological definition, that being spiritual is being able to breathe. Since human beings do take breath therefore all human beings are naturally spiritual. This means, however, that we do not have to automatically embed spirituality in a religious framework or system. Elkins (2015) has noted that Maslow: “viewed spirituality as a universal human phenomenon that did not belong exclusively to any church or religious group” (682; bold type added).

Humanistic approach to spirituality: inclusivity
My opinion is that in formulating any spirituality that has humanistic philosophy as its inspiration, it is the person who must remain central.

In Richard Rohr’s important meditation we are offered a salutary warning:

…when you start with universal theories, it makes it very hard to ever get back to respect for the particular. In fact you tend to find a reason to see that the particular is never good enough. It is always flawed and imperfect. There is inevitably a reason why this particular person or thing cannot be included, because it is seen to be abnormal, poor, broken, leprous, sinful or unorthodox.
(Rohr, 2015: bold type added)

Taking inspiration from Rohr’s wonderful meditation, the watermark or soul of the humanistic approach to spirituality for me is that it is inclusive.

I believe and have faith in the humanistic tradition as a worldview and philosophy that holds dear all persons as they are. It is worthwhile to quote Dr. William Glasser at this point:

…belief…is a behaviour that in control theory language would be called the believing (or the faithing) that we learn as we live. If we cannot learn to believe we cannot satisfy any need; it is an essential psychological behaviour analogous to the essential physiologic behaviour of breathing.
(Glasser, 1989: 4)

My faith or ‘faithing’ in the humanistic tradition has meant me becoming increasingly inclusive in my attitude, particularly over the last 36 years, and anchoring this philosophy in each breath I take as a man and as a psychotherapist.

In the Inside Out journal ethos it is stated: “Inside Out supports diversity and welcomes into dialogue all cultural, religious, social, racial and gender identities” (IAHIP, 2015: 2).

Personally, I consider that this is a complete statement of inclusion and it cannot be more concrete than it is. It reflects the truly humanistic attitude and value. The humanistic psychotherapist needs to hold and nurture this inclusive attitude through actively welcoming fully the client as they are into the psychotherapeutic relationship and including them in the process. Therapy is then not about “doing something to” the client, nor even is it about “doing something for” them (Rogers, 1949: 83). This particular professional approach to the person Rogers has also named as “nondirective therapy” (1947: 358). It is only when we are fundamentally inclusive can we then “treat individuals as persons of worth” (1949: 82). It is essential to recognise that even with clients in the therapeutic group setting that we continue to acknowledge them as individual persons.

This inclusive philosophy and attitude is also inherent in the multiculturalism approach to humanistic psychotherapy:

Multiculturalism accepts the existence of multiple worldviews….It offers a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” conceptualization that extols a relational view of language rather than a representational one.
(Hoffman, Cleare-Hoffman, & Jackson, 2015: 43) 25

I would suggest that any system of spirituality that does not have inclusivity at its core is not a fully humanistic approach to spirituality. It is more than likely a form of spirituality that has its origins in religion. I have personally directly experienced religious inspired spirituality that has not been inclusive due to established specific conditions and an established set of specific beliefs. This is understandable if you take into account that religious-based spirituality has its genesis in a theology or frame of reference grounded in the idea of “the opposites” (good or bad; saint or sinner; heaven or hell) and in turn this “means duality” (Krishnamurti, 2003: 21). It does not necessarily promote a whole and integrated worldview. In other words it is a theology based on beliefs about inclusion and/or exclusion in its system.

Continuing in this vein, if there was a theology for humanistic psychology and psychotherapy it would be a theology solely based on inclusion. The humanistic and integrative model is inclusive of religious perspectives but this is not always the case in reverse. David Elkins (2015), a formerly ordained minister, discloses that due to questioning “some of the conservative doctrines of my church….I was fired and excommunicated” (685). He was excluded and I too know what that feels like.

Inclusion and exclusion
This distinction between a humanistic perspective of spirituality (inclusive) and a religious-based spirituality (exclusive) is important to acknowledge because of the variety of worldviews we will encounter in the therapeutic relationship. If we strongly hold a particular religious-informed spirituality, in other words a faith-based spirituality, then by its precepts can we truly be present to the client who is having difficulties in their same-sex relationship, or the client who is examining their choice to have an abortion, or the ‘gender-variant’ client? If we have any personal awareness of holding an exclusive attitude as we support clients to address these types of personal concerns and questions then we need to self-evaluate to examine if we are being sufficiently humanistic in our attitude, orientation, and practice.

By the way, it is a legitimate choice for psychotherapists not to be humanistic in their approach to psychotherapy and instead to have a faith-based spirituality to guide the way they work and relate with clients. From the humanistic and integrative perspective it is important to acknowledge and welcome this difference in professional approaches.

Clarity and boundaries are necessary elements in our contracted psychotherapeutic relationships (Sills, 2006). It would be essential that we are honest with ourselves, particularly about our biases that could be influential in the relationship. We need to be aware of any religious and phenomenological biases that may have an exclusive quality to them. In turn, we need to be willing and ready to refer on clients if we have difficulty including them into our particular spiritual framework. Failure to do so creates unnecessary conflict of interests and potentially dangerous countertransference.

On the other hand, the humanistic psychotherapist will meet clients who do hold strongly to a set of beliefs that are firmly rooted in their particular religion. The humanistically-oriented psychotherapist needs to be aware if they hold any negative attitudes about religion, as that would interrupt their capacity to be present to the client. Equally, they may then need to attend more to what their personal philosophy is and possibly refer the client to another therapist if they are not at ease with the worldview of the client.

Concluding comments
Humanistic psychotherapists harbour a positive mind-set about humanity and hold dear to the six therapeutic or counselling conditions in all of their professional relationships. The first condition requires that the “two persons are in psychological contact”, and the second is that the client “is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious” (Rogers, 1957: 96), but the remaining four refer directly to the person of the psychotherapist. This is consistent with Rogers’s focus on “the attitude and orientation of the counsellor” (1949: 82 – 94). Identifying these conditions was a way to ensure an effective relationship or rapport (Richardson, 2000) with all clients since Rogers (1957) hypothesized: “that significant positive personality change does not occur except in a relationship” (96). This central Rogerian hypothesis has been confirmed in humanistically-orientated research (Norcross, 2010: 113 – 141).

The four specific therapist conditions are:

  • Congruence, realness, genuineness, being transparent, and integration,
  • Acceptance, caring, prizing and unconditional positive regard,
  • Empathic understanding,
  • The ability to effectively communicate this understanding to the client.

These conditions are the therapist’s personal resources to strengthen the therapeutic relationship so as to empower the client to effect personal change. The conditions are also about personal attitudes, a personal philosophy or as Rogers (1980) so eloquently said, it is A Way of Being, the title of his inspiring autobiography. To live in this philosophical way nurtures a growing and evolving inclusive attitude, and in turn a way of being personally spiritual in the humanistic tradition.

Finally, it is my profound belief that a spiritually-shaped humanistic psychotherapist with the fundamental attitudes of deep respect and inclusivity can enable clients and themselves to be free, creative, self-determining, and to be both independent and interdependent. This way of being helps to nurture and enhance an evolving humanistically-based spirituality which includes a greater sensibility in all matters cosmological, ecological and human/personal.

Pat Comerford is an IAHIP accredited psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice.

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