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“Knowing Yourself” – The Link Between Psychotherapy and Religion

By Anne Young

“The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not look, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, Lord. Feeling like shit.”

Shug in “The Colour Purple” by Alice Walker.

‘Psychotherapy’ refers to ‘healing of the soul’. The meaning of the word psyche is soul and ‘therapy’ is derived from the Greek therapeuo which means ‘I heal’. A psychotherapist, analyst or counsellor is someone whose awareness of her own intra-psychic wounds has led her to undertake a journey towards her own inner healing. She offers herself, in the paradigm of the ‘wounded healer’, to accompany another on a similar journey, a journey upon which we travel with our feelings and into our deeper selves. What actually takes place in the consulting-room is ultimately a mystery, but by participating in the therapeutic relationship in an ‘actively passive’ manner, the therapist hopes to awaken the ‘inner healer’ within her client. For it is the ‘inner healer’ who heals our wounds or illnesses, not the psychotherapist.

The Healing Journey

The belief in the importance of the healing journey has been central to all great universal religious beliefs since ancient times. As metaphors these beliefs represent a restless yearning in people to become whole, to be ‘at-one-with’ themselves. Psychotherapy focuses on our journey inwards so that we may arrive at a better understanding of ourselves, our motivations and actions. We do this by bringing unconscious processes into consciousness through analysis and synthesis. This is central to the nature of our work with individuals. Religious belief, on the other hand, defines this yearning for inner healing as a search for union with God, and traditionally the Church has encouraged us to direct our attention and ourselves ‘heavenwards’. Depicted as ‘in the sky’, this heavenly goal is popularly orientated away from our bod­ies and the planet on which we live. There is, however, another tradition with­in Christianity which is at the core of the gospel message. This tradition teach­es us to know ourselves so that we may be healed and transformed into the person we are intended to be. As Mother Julian of Norwich says, “We can never attain to the full knowledge of God until we have first known our own soul thoroughly.” It is this tradition which links psychotherapy and religion.

The Search for Meaning

By the term “religion” I do not wish to imply any dogma, theological doctrine or intellectual activity connected with any specific religious organization, although I do speak out of my own Judaeo-Christian tradition, and believe religion to have been a ‘transforming experience’ before it ever developed into a theology. As individuals we differ widely in our temperaments, and we will use different language to explain our beliefs, but one thing that does link us is our search for meaning in our lives. Without a vision, human beings are lost. ‘Religion’ reconnects us to that sense of awareness which underlies our exis­tence, and our value as human beings. It is “an overall way of experiencing life, of experiencing ourselves and our relationships together, an experience of growing personal integration or self-realization through communion with all around us, and finally our way of relating to the universe, the total reality which has, after all, evolved us with intelligence and motivation to explore this problem: all that is meant by the ‘experience of God’.1

Inner Value

Many people, in an attempt to reconnect with their highest inner value, decide to ‘leave their country’ and set out in search of the hidden treasure hard to attain or the pearl of great price, the Promised Land, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, otherwise described as the Garden of Eden. Paradoxically, although this special place lies within ourselves, we have to demonstrate a willingness to travel in search of it ‘out there’, to go on pil­grimage, before we are shown where it lies within.

Mircea Eliade tells a Jewish story which illustrates this truth. There was once a very poor, obscure rabbi, Isaac, son of Jekel, who lived in Cracow. Three nights running he dreamed the same dream of a treasure buried underneath the bridge leading to the royal palace at Prague. Determined to make the long journey to Prague in search of this treasure, he set out on foot only to find that when he got there the bridge was guarded by soldiers and inaccessible. When he saw the rabbi standing there, looking dejected, the captain of the guard kindly asked him what his trouble was. So the rabbi recounted his dream. The captain of the guard laughed: “You should not pay attention to dreams. Why, only the other night I had a dream about treasure. It was buried in the house of man I had never heard of, a rabbi named Isaac, son of Jekel, who lived in Crakow. But no sensible man pays attention to dreams.” Inwardly astonished at hearing this, the rabbi bowed low and thanked the captain. He hurried home to Cracow and began digging in a neglected corner of his room behind the stove, where he eventually un­earthed a treasure sufficient to end his poverty.2


The journey to discover these inner riches is synonymous with the search for wisdom. In his description of the journey, Michel Quoist writes: “To love is to meet oneself, and to meet oneself, one must be willing to leave oneself and go towards another.”3 The self we need to love and accept is all of our self, not just those aspects of our nature which are socially acceptable and good. We are called to delve into every nook and cranny of our personalities to unearth those forgotten, irrational and despised elements (feelings, instincts and impulses) which we have pushed away into our unconscious. Because we are alienated from this aspect of our nature, we are unable to live in a harmonious relationship with ourselves and our own deepest value, or, at the worst, we have no relationship with it whatsoever.4 Jung called this aspect The Shadow, and the natural process of inner-healing, which leads to greater knowledge of our inner world, he called ‘the individuation process’. Jung conceived this term to describe the process of differentiation whose goal is the development of the human personality.5 Like Guntrip, he con­sidered relationships with others crucial. The individual is not just to be “a single, separate being” but one who through the “process of individuation” actually grows into “more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation”.6 ‘Individuation’ is not “the sole aim of psychological educa­tion”, but rather “adaptation to the necessary minimum of the collective norms must first be attained. If a plant is to unfold its specific nature to the full, it must first be able to grow in the soil in which it is planted.”7 Although we can never become flawless or faultless, as we become better acquainted with ourselves and our little demons, we will mature into more wholesome human beings and have a beneficial effect upon the world around us. As an ancient Chinese proverb says: “One alone in silence who thinks the right thoughts changes the lives of thousands.”

The Hidden Treasure

Paradoxically, however, lying within our Shadow is not only the “unaccept­able remains of childish narcissism and the repressed energies of aggression and the sexual drive”8, but also the hidden treasure, that ‘pearl of great price’ which Christ promises us. If we are to have Life then we must acquire the knowledge of, and have the capacity to be in, a healthy relationship with the negative as well as the positive forces within us. Out of fear, most of us try to avoid setting out on this journey towards self-knowledge, often depicted as a journey into the wilderness or desert. Those who do are often accused of being ‘selfish’, but I would suggest that it is much more selfish to neglect yourself in a false attempt to be unselfish because you then deprive your families and friends of the fullness of your potential. “The mysterious way leads inwards. Inside ourselves or nowhere is eternity with its worlds, the past and the future … Now ‘inside’ appears to us so dark, lonely, shapeless, but how differently it will appear once this darkening has passed …,” writes the German poet, Novalis.9

A Psychoanalytical Perspective

The goal of the religious journey, however, takes us further than the personal maturity of adulthood implied by ‘individuation’. The religious goal is union with God whom we meet in the darkness of our nature. David Black, who has trained as a Jungian as well as a Freudian analyst, in an interesting paper tries to assess religion from a psychoanalytical perspective. He argues that Freud, who regarded religious belief as an “illusion” and childish, “sent psycho­analysis off along a false trail in relation to religion” because he confined his critique to those whose religious belief and behaviour was neurotic and superficial.10 Freud, says Black, made no attempt to investigate “the depths of actual religious experience”.11 It was the work of Melanie Klein, who further elabo­rated Freud’s theories on child development, who helps us gain a better pic­ture of an individual’s inner make-up. She believed that a psychologically healthy individual was one who was able to feel both love and hate towards the same people and things. The developing child experiences these as ‘inner objects’. If such intense feelings are not acknowledged and integrated, the personality becomes split by fears and hates resulting in neuroses and complexes of varying degrees of severity. Such an individual will be unable to relate pro­ductively to herself, others or the world around her. None of us, of course, is able to relate to others unencumbered by neuroses and complexes for we all have them; the problems and distress occur when we are unaware of them and they have us in their grip!

Reconciling Instinctual Forces

Black suggests that “religion is … a socially constructed and maintained system of internal objects, analogous to those spoken of in psychoanalysis … They may be understood to have a function of ‘containing’ the feelings, thoughts and fantasies arising in individual practitioners, and of making these experiences comprehensible. These objects then enable the believer to speak more truthfully of, and relate more fully to, the larger matrix within which the human world is situated. Finally … as with analytic internal objects, religious objects may best be judged by their long-term effects on the lives of believers.”12 That is to say that religious rituals and ceremonies function with the implicit purpose of enabling people to face and grow through their inner experiences. Ritual serves to bring us face to face with “an unknowable essence that we cannot grasp as such, since by definition it transcends our powers of comprehension.”13 Both religion and psychotherapy recognize that, for inner healing to happen, we must journey towards a creative relationship with our deeper selves. Reconciling the instinctual forces, or ‘inner objects’ lying within our unconscious is essential to our psychic life.

The Language of Dreams

The healing value inherent within religious rituals and ceremonies has gen­erally been forgotten in the busy-ness of our post-Enlightenment age. We so often behave more like ‘human doings’ and forget that we are ‘human beings’. By remembering and relearning the despised and buried language of dreams, we are able to reconnect our ego-selves to that sense of being and meaning which lies within those parched depths within us. On average, we spend a total of one and a half hours during every night dreaming. During sleep, the barriers established by our wills are lowered, and we become explorers of our dream world where the images and symbols constantly knock at the door of our conscious wills pressing us to correct and modify our unbalanced views of our own human nature, guiding us to the roots of our problems, both personal and collective. We tend to bottle up our trou­bles; past memories, and memories of memories, as well as new ideas, can be released and assimilated.

“Like a letter from one’s soul”, dreams speak to us naturally and spontan­eously in an obscure symbolic language which is not easy to interpret, and which is quite unlike anything we would expect with our rational minds. Instead, by producing vivid and picturesque images, often powerful and frightening as well as numinous and healing, dream symbols bear their message by means of metaphor; they represent more than their obvious and immediate meaning. Jung believed that “they issued from an intelligent, purposive and, as it were, personal source”14, a source which less rational and mechanistic-minded man was more in tune with than we are today. Each dream is highly personal to the dreamer and by working therapeu­tically with the dreamer’s personal associations, and by studying fairy tales, myths, art, poetry and literature, we can arrive at a better understanding of this long-forgotten language of the unconscious.

Common Ground

“I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me,” sings the psalmist.15 The Jews and the early Christians did not regard dreams with suspicion; they valued them as intrinsic to their material lives. The Hebrew Bible tells us that God speaks or appears to us in dreams16 and the writers record the dreams of many characters – Jacob, Joseph, the cupbear­er and the baker of the king of Egypt, Pharoah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Nebuchanezzar, Abimelech, Laban and Gideon. In the New Testament the dreams of Joseph, the Wise Men, Peter and Paul are recorded for their dreams have vital significance to the Christian revelation.

If we could again learn to value dreams in the way that the ancients did, our lives would be enriched and psychotherapy and religion would discover their common ground. We would learn new ways to co-operate in the peren­nial human quest towards self-knowledge, towards “another intensity” into union with God.


1. H Guntrip, ‘Religion in Relation to Personal Integration’, British Journal of Medical Psychology (1969) 42, p326.
2. M. Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1977).
3. M. Quoist, Prayers of Life.
4. M.E. Harding, The Value and Meaning of Depression (1970) pub. The Analytical Psychology Club, New York.
5. C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol 6, para 757.
6. Ibid, para 758.
7. Ibid, para 760.
8. C, Bryant, Jung and the Christian Way (1983).
9. Novalis, Fragmenti.
10. D.M. Black, ‘What Sort of a Thing is Religion? A View from Object-Relations Theory’, International journal of Psycho-Analysis (1993) 74, p614.
11. Ibid, p615.
12. Ibid, p625.
13. C.G. Jung, op.cit. Vol 7, para 399.
14. Ibid, Vol 11, para 35.
15. Psalm
16. 16. Numbers, Ch 12, v 6.

Anne Young trained at the Westminster Pastoral Foundation and with the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology in London. She is a Diploma Member of the Institute of Psychotherapy and Counselling, and has a Diploma in Transpersonal Psycho­therapy. She works in private practice in Dublin.

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