The Interplay of Psychotherapy and Spirituality

I ran across this article, by Frances Vaughn and thought our readers would be interested in some of the points she made

Psychotherapy and spirituality also have a great deal in common. In particular, many of the processes that contribute to psychological health and well-being contribute to spiritual growth as well. For example, the following processes are an integral part of both psychological and spiritual development.

Telling the truth. Communicating the truth about inner experience is essential for effective change and growth. Psychotherapy provides a safe space for this.

Releasing negative emotions. Letting go of fear, guilt, and anger can be facilitated by therapeutic interventions and is valuable for both personal and spiritual work.

Effort and consistency. Progress in personal and spiritual development can be enhanced by effort and consistency, although too much effort may be counterproductive. Understanding resistance in psychotherapy can be valuable for anyone exploring spiritual growth. The ability to make a consistent effort, to follow through on intentions, and to behave in a way that is consistent with professed beliefs are fundamental requirements for all inner work.

Authenticity and trust. Authenticity is strengthened when what one says and does accurately reflects what one thinks and feels. It is necessary if one is to avoid self-deception and develop self-trust. When people feel untrustworthy, they cannot trust their perceptions of others or the world. Self trust is necessary when choosing a therapist or a teacher.

Integrity and wholeness. Integrity results from the practice of authenticity, and wholeness depends on accepting all one’s experiences. Allowing things to be as they are rather than living in a world of illusion and denial is basic for psychological health and spiritual growth.

Insight and forgiveness. To understand all is to forgive all. In spiritual practice one is taught to forgive others; in psychotherapy one learns to forgive oneself. Both are necessary for complete forgiveness and well being.

Love. Psychotherapy and spiritual practice can both lead to opening the heart and developing the capacity to give and receive love. Spirituality awakens the awareness of love’s presence in our lives; psychotherapy cultivates love in relationship.

Awareness. Depth psychotherapy and spiritual practice both cultivate awareness and non-judgmental attention. A therapist who helps clients develop self awareness can benefit from a meditation practice that enhances sensitivity to nuances of experiences.

Liberation. Both psychotherapy and spiritual practice can contribute to liberation from limiting self concepts. Freedom from fear and delusion, from the past, and from early conditioning are common goals.

Most psychotherapy tends to work with the contents of consciousness, with the aim of reducing pain and conflict and enhancing the capacity for love and work. This can be characterised as working on the content of the dream, exchanging nightmares for happier, more peaceful dreams. Ideally, spiritual practice is aimed at waking up and becoming aware of the nature of the dream and who the dreamer is. At its best, transpersonal psychotherapy aims at doing both.

Both psychotherapy and spiritual practice contribute to psychological health and spiritual growth. Unresolved psychological issues can impede healthy developments at any stage, and sometimes such issues surface only after much spiritual practice. The seeker must beware of the limitations of both therapists and spiritual teachers. Expertise in one domain does not make one an authority in the other, and few individuals are well trained in both. Psychological and spiritual development are inextricably intertwined, and both continue throughout life. In practice both psychotherapist and spiritual teachers do what they can to relieve suffering and help people grow in consciousness.

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1 Comment

  1. An interesting article. On this very special and spiritual eve of Obama’s inauguration, I would like to offer some additional thoughts about the relationship between spirituality and psychotherapy. There are important relational values, experiences and ideas which help people develop a sense of connectivity and universality that are key to spiritual experience. I thought I would mention a few.

    As a therapist, it seems the therapeutic process frequently can create an appreciation of our humble human experience of commonality with others, and that the process of transformation is a shared one, created with others. Martin Buber wrote about how the ‘I and thou’, the unity of self and other is what creates meaning and spiritual development. Much can be said about how powerful this is to healing and spiritual growth.

    Another experience of the therapeutic process is found in learning the importance of giving (particularly the giving of ones pain, vulnerability, humiliation as well as one joy, ones dreams and ones power) to important others in ones life. Giving is not only an important moral imperative. Giving is a growthful, developmental, transformative and spiritual act.

    A final experience I would like to add in the world of psychotherapeutics has to do with the creation of a cooperative work space or group community which is part of and makes a contribution to the entire human species, even if it is person by person or small groups. My experience and the experience of many I work with is that participation in this activity gives one the feeling of being connected to something larger than oneself, a life of connection and communion.

    I would enjoy hearing about the experiences of others on this topic.

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