A Response to Pat Comerford’s “A Humanistic Approach to Spirituality: Inclusivity”

by Colm O’Doherty

I concluded an article entitled “Thoughts on A Spirituality of Psychotherapy” for this journal in Spring 2013 with the following words: “As the title indicates, these are thoughts about A spirituality of psychotherapy. Might they give rise to dialogue, comfortable or uncomfortable?” (O’Doherty, 2013: 38). It is in that spirit that I was eager to read Pat Comerford’s article, “A Humanistic Approach to Spirituality: Inclusivity” in Inside Out, Autumn 2015. I was particularly keen to read it as he approached the topic from “a non-religious viewpoint” (Comerford, 2015: 19), as distinct from the faith perspective out of which I wrote. I was very comfortable with his quotation from Elkins (2015), that Maslow “viewed spirituality as a universal human phenomenon that did not belong exclusively to any church or religious group” (cited in Comerford, 2015: 24). Pat then goes on to say that “the watermark or soul of the humanistic approach to spirituality for me is that it is inclusive” (24).

In the light of that claim I was taken aback with what I felt was an exclusivist stance towards humanistic psychotherapists who have a faith-based spirituality. He writes “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” (26-7). So Pat seems to be saying that one cannot practise as a humanistic psychotherapist if one has a faith-based spirituality; it is one or the other. According to this perspective, what we have is humanistic psychotherapy, whose ‘soul’ is inclusivity, actually excluding practitioners with a faith-based spirituality. And on what grounds are such practitioners excluded? According to Pat, people with faith-based spiritualities are excluded because such spiritualities have “established specific conditions and an established set of specific beliefs” (26). Yet that is the very nature of any group, including the group known as humanistic psychotherapists, i.e., that their particular identity is defined around “established specific conditions and an established set of specific beliefs”.

Pat goes on to say that a faith-based spirituality “has its precepts” (26), and because of this such a psychotherapist is unable to be truly present to clients whose life experience is at odds with, or other than, those precepts. Does this put into question psychotherapists having principles by which they try to live, while fully respecting the principles and lifestyles of others, reverencing the otherness of the other?

It appears to me that the stance that Pat favours is diametrically opposed to what is meant in the humanistic tradition by the ‘precept’ of inclusion and the respect due to the otherness of the other, whether that other be client or colleague-psychotherapist. For Buber, whose writings had a powerful influence on Carl Rogers and on the practice of humanistic psychotherapy, inclusion “is the extension of one’s own concreteness…without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity” (Buber, 2002: 115). If inclusion is to have any meaning, then it requires otherness. Inclusion is not about sameness, not about agreement, not about checking out if my precepts match those of the other, or if those of the other match mine. “Daily we psychotherapists are called to be someone who makes the empathic stretch to include in our horizon of understanding that someone whom we find challenging” (Orange, 2010: 10). We reach out to others in their otherness, enabling them to include what they often have excluded as ‘other’ in themselves. And on the same theme, quoting Buber, Orange writes:

The true turning of his person (the psychotherapist) to the other includes this confirmation, this acceptance. Of course, such a confirmation does not mean approval; but no matter in what I am against the other, by accepting him as my partner in genuine dialogue I have affirmed him as a person (2010, 28).

I respectfully suggest that Pat’s criticism of faith-based spiritualities in relation to humanistic psychotherapy appears to be based on a contradiction of his core value of inclusivity.

Colm O’Doherty is an accredited psychotherapist and supervisor with IAHIP, and is in private practice in Monkstown, Co. Dublin and in Ballina, Co. Tipperary. Email address: solemncolm@eircom.net.

Buber, M. (2002). Between Man and Man, London: Routledge.

Comerford, P. (2015). A humanistic approach to spirituality: Inclusivity. Inside Out, 77, 19-29.

Elkins, D. N. (2015). Beyond Religion: Towards a Humanistic Spirituality, In Schneider, K. J., Pierson, J.F., & Bugental, J. F. T. (Eds.) The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology (2nd ed.). California: Sage.

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

Orange, D. (2010). Thinking for Clinicians, New York: Routledge.