Spirituality in the consulting room

Each new day and each new experience, trains one or more dimensions of our being – from the physical, to the intellectual, emotional, social and, last but certainly not least, the spiritual. In a hyperactive society, that tends to live everything at a fast pace, this latter dimension is often-times overlooked or tossed aside.

This article aims to underline the importance of the spiritual dimension in people's lives and more importantly, to point out how it can all be discovered in the practice of psychotherapy. Without a spiritual dimension, our day to day activities might very well seem like a mess of meaningless actions, all performed in vain. The therapeutic process itself can be jeopardized by a lack of trust in a higher purpose to our existence, something that transcends mundane preoccupations, current situations and the hardships of everyday life. Spirituality, in the therapeutic practice, is connected to personal evolution, to overcoming obstacles and, most of all, to personal development.

What is spirituality?

Numerous definitions on spirituality have circulated up to the present day, formulated by sociologists, psychologists, as well as by priests and philosophers. For instance, James (1981) regards spirituality as the ability of human beings to experience a union with something larger than themselves and to find greater piece in that union (p. 395). Religious leaders and pastors see spirituality as the meeting grounds for human beings and their divine creators. Humanists regard spirituality as a self-transcending experience that is shared between two or more individuals. For those who believe in God, it can be seen as their relationship to divinity.

In principle, spirituality is a process through which the individual transcends him / herself. When spirituality is experienced first-hand, the individual undergoes a state of transportation that is almost impossible to communicate, with ecstatic experiences being often-times recounted by people with profound religious inclinations.

Spirituality and psychotherapy, a common endeavour with the purpose of achieving well being

A few centuries ago, when psychotherapy was not a self standing discipline, priests had the role of instrumenting man's access to divinity. As a bridge between the humans and their spiritual condition, the priest also had the functions of confessor, adviser and general person of trust for the people that made up the community. Following that tradition, many people continue up to the present day to consult priests in time of spiritual need. On the other hand, many people have departed from religious practices, and prefer an approach that does not manifest any of the involvements of the priestly institution.

Psychotherapy may seem to be a plausible alternative, more so as it is comprised of a multitude of therapeutic approaches, and virtually each person can find one that fits in with their own personality scheme. However, it is important to know that spirituality is present at all times in the therapeutic practice. It couldn't really be any other way, since the purpose of therapy is both overcoming personal problems and finding a personal purpose, by self-developing and adhering to a whole. Out of the 4 main schools of psychotherapy (psychoanalytic, behavioral, humanistic and transpersonal), the transpersonal orientation is the one that especially addresses spiritual issues.

Spirituality in psychotherapy

Whether we are confronted with the death of someone close to us, with a serious illness that threatens our biological integrity, with a spiritual crisis that makes us question the very purpose of our own existence, the spiritual dimension is what provides illumination and it must be embedded into the therapeutic process. Here is how spirituality can help in the therapeutic practice:

  • Truth: Being truthful to ourselves helps us understand both what is happening to us, as well as who we are in order to cope with a given situation. In psychotherapy, we can find support for our own honesty, it being a safe and containing environment.
  • No negative emotions: becoming free of negative emotions (fear, resentment, guilt, anger etc) is achieved in a healthy way, with the aid of a therapist and helps us in freeing up the spiritual space for growth, in order for it to be filled with positive emotions.
  • Stability: No type of spiritual growth can be achieved without effort, persistence and courage. Overcoming resistances, trusting in our own forces and capacity of not abandoning when faced with hardships helps us in developing both the psychological dimension, as well as the spiritual – in other words, in growing and evolving.
  • The ability to forgive and move on: there is no evolution as long as we don't let go of the past and of resentments. Forgiving and accepting are instruments of growth and they involve the spiritual dimension of our being.
  • Love and openness: Psychotherapy, as well as spirituality, is helping us understand that it is important to open our hearts to receive and offer love. With the right guide, be it a spiritual guide or a psychotherapist, we can learn the lesson of authentic love.
  • Consciousness expansion: Depth psychotherapy, as well as spiritual practices (meditation, holotropic breathwork etc) have as a direct effect the expansion of consciousness and the plenary experimentation of life's events.

Conclusions

Both psychotherapy as well as spiritual practices contribute enormously to individual development. Regaining balance after difficult events, overcoming existential crises, searching for answers to personal dilemmas are all things that involve both a therapeutic endeavour, as well as a spiritual one. Psychotherapy itself can be considered a spiritual endeavour since it activates all the dimensions of the individual (West, 2000). A study of Shafranske& Gorsuch (1984) shows that spirituality and the problems concerning it must be approached in the formation trainings of psychoanalysts. On the other hand, there are numerous schools of therapy that place great emphasis on the spiritual dimension, such as the Jungian (spirituality as a method for curing alcoholism), the existential (Otto Rank) or the transpersonal (that aims to integrate the spiritual experience in theoretical frames within modern psychology and to offer modern man an image of spirituality that is accurately calibrated to this century).

References:

James, M. (1981). TA in the 80’s: The inner core and the human spirit.Transactional Analysis Journal, 11, 54-65.

Shafranske, E. P.& Gorsuch, R. L (1984). Factors associated with the perception of spirituality in psychotherapy. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol 16(2), 231-241.

West, W. (2000). Psychotherapy & Spirituality, Sage Publications Ltd, California.

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