Transpersonal Psychotherapy is Not Psychotherapy

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Email: Brent Mitton

Throughout the last century we have become accustomed to accepting a clear dividing line between psychology and psychotherapy on the one hand, and religion and spirituality on the other, as if these two realms of human activity were as distinct from one another as chalk and cheese. However, the intent of those who would draw this line differs, according to which side of the line they find themselves standing. Coming from one side of this divide, religion and spirituality can look like little more than fantasies, irrational diversions from 'real life', throwbacks to earlier, more superstitious times before science had granted us a view of reality grounded in material evidence. From this point of view the twentieth-century western discipline of psychology is considered to be at least an honest attempt at a scientifically based grasp of the human condition.

On the other side are those who feel the 'call' of the spiritual life and consider it to be something altogether real. For them, the spiritual path represents an individual's way forward into true wholeness and even enlightenment. In a similar vein, the different religions of the world represent humanity's perennial attempt to make an experiential connection with the intelligence at the heart of the universe, with the sacred source from which all things flow. In such a cosmic context psychology and psychotherapy can seem shallow, blinkered, even irrelevant pursuits. Furthermore the practice of psychotherapy has come to be associated with the medical model of doctor and patient. It is seen as a problem-based pursuit, appropriate only for people burdened down by neuroses, 'issues' and pathologies, those who still have difficulty engaging in life in a way that is healthy. Deeply spiritual people often consider themselves to have risen above all that (though this conviction has all too often come at the expense of sweeping their own emotional patterns under the carpet). In any case their's can be the perception that the practice of psychotherapy is unfitted to deal with either the depths of the soul or with the heights of spirituality. At its worst, so goes their conviction, psychotherapy is inimical to spirituality; at its best it is out of its depth.

The history of twentieth-century psychology has certainly furnished enough evidence to support these views. Many social and intellectual forces have influenced the evolution of psychology and psychotherapy throughout the last century and have done their part in forming the devalued opinion we have of it today. Psychology as a discipline has aspired to establish its credentials on an equal footing with the 'real' sciences of physics, biology and the like, and sometimes with woeful consequences. In an attempt to be counted among the hard sciences it has attempted to reduce the psyche to a quantifiable object; in the process it has virtually lost touch with the psyche altogether. The image of the psychologist in a white lab coat surrounded by rats in cages provides an all too apt metaphor for much of twentieth-century psychological research. In addition to this materialist bias, with its thoroughgoing neglect of interior subjectivity, it has also addressed itself almost exclusively to the study of pathology, leaving the subject of psychological wholeness and self-realization virtually untouched. Add to this mix Sigmund Freud's insistence that all forms of religion are merely disguised sexuality, and one can easily see how twentieth-century psychology has both mirrored and contributed to the overall inability of modern Western consciousness to recognize its own spiritual depths.

Almost as if in response to this state of affairs, the image of the Buddha has dawned over Western culture in recent decades, offering its own alternative representation of what the full consciousness of our human condition might look like. What the Buddha purports to represent is the potential for realizing an apparently boundless awareness which, whilst fully cognizant with the realities of the human condition, is simultaneously at peace with it. This image turns out to resonate powerfully with the intuition of many Westerners. Other Eastern approaches to meditation and yoga are also being taken up as practices promising physical health, spiritual fulfillment and happiness. While the Western psychotherapist is perceived within the medical model as a sort of 'expert' - a technician or mechanic of the psyche, equipped with tools with which to 'fix' glitches in our emotional wiring - by contrast the Buddha invites one gently into an ancient way of self-understanding and heart-transformation. The Buddha is timeless and archetypal, and radiates with compassion and spiritual force. No wonder then that many Westerners feel a stir of recognition and find themselves embracing these ways of spiritual self-realization, and also find themselves impatient with the techniques and jargon, the complexes and neuroses that are the province of traditional psychotherapy.

There can be a problem with that, however. Almost all those who find themselves entering seriously onto a spiritual path, or who feel themselves responding to spiritual influences, also feel an understandable desire to be done with the more narcissistic predispositions and habits of their former, less evolved life. However, as spiritual life develops, one gradually recognizes that built into the very process of spiritual realization is the obligation to encounter and account for all of these deeply ingrained, shadowy patterns within oneself; indeed, the more eager we are to leave them behind, the more insidiously they re-emerge in new disguises to trip and bedevil us.

It is almost as if with each new deepening and opening, at each fresh encounter with larger spiritual energies, there emerge dredged up old negative patterns accompanying the experience. These are not disillusioning setbacks sabotaging our spiritual life, as we might tend to interpret them. In fact this increasing self-awareness of our shadowy tendencies is itself the nature of the spiritual process, and the necessary means whereby we are weaned from our old adaptations and granted access to a new depth of being. It would not be overstating the case to say that conventional psychotherapy, with its materialist and biological bias, is not designed to facilitate this process. Only psychotherapies of a transpersonal orientation have the context to address the unusual complexities that emerge as Spirit establishes itself in the human psyche.

There is no inherent reason why Western psychotherapies should continue to be characterized by spiritual shallowness. The work of Carl Jung has grown in public recognition over the last half-century, and his was one psychotherapy expressly evolved in the context of self-realization. Nonetheless the practice of psychotherapy has come to be associated in the public mind with the treatment of the damaged and unhealthy psyche. As a result the decision to see a therapist is itself to risk the stigma of being labeled 'unhealthy'. Nor does the term 'psychotherapist' evoke the sense of a 'spiritual guide'. This is unfortunate, because as well as those who are neurotically suffering, transpersonal psychotherapy addresses the spiritually evolving individual, the one called to go beyond the merely healthy life into one of spiritual self-transcendence. A transpersonal therapist will certainly work with what is 'unhealthy' - and does so on an ongoing basis - but from the transpersonal perspective a certain basic healthiness represents merely the foundation for the deeper spiritual process the therapist is trained to facilitate. In a century and profession that was hostile to the spirituality he represented, Carl Jung stood as an exponent of psychotherapy in this larger sense, as a spiritual initiate, himself capable of initiating and facilitating the self-realization of his clients.

I believe there will come a time when it is recognized by the psychotherapeutic community generally that human beings can only grow into wholeness when the sacred ground of all life is recognized and appreciated. Otherwise there is from the outset an assumed root alienation in our individual existence which cannot but fail to breed and reinforce threatenedness, maladaptation and anxiety. As Jung observed, the truly therapeutic event is the contact with the numinous. It is the very fact that we inhere in a divine ground from the outset that allows the perpetual possibility of this, and of a consequent spiritual realization and happiness. Bereft of this primary recognition, psychotherapy is itself simply another symptom of our alienation, rather than a solution to it.

Maybe as the vast societal shifts which are currently sweeping over our planet play themselves through, there will eventually dawn the consciousness that all of the forms we see within and around us, whether natural or artificial, are grounded in the sacred. Should that be recognized, then the very patterns of thought and behaviour which alienate us from the divine ground may be more clearly discerned and addressed, wherever and whenever they appear. As the great spiritual teachers have always taught us, we must first tackle that process in our own being. When the divine ground out of which we all emerge is universally recognized, then all sciences, all medicine and all psychotherapies will be 'transpersonal'. Until then, transpersonal psychotherapy is not 'psychotherapy' in the conventional understanding of the word.