Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Spirituality and Psychotherapy

Originally posted on November 25, 2012

Psychotherapy might be thought of as the art of bringing people forth into a greater potential; this art rests on the implicit world-views shared by the counselor and the client. What we call faith, spirituality, and religion partake of the assumptions about what it’s all about, albeit often only superficially. This essay is in part a response to a friend’s question about how these categories could be dealt with in therapy.

It is indeed fundamental is that our views of life, mind, the function of inspiration, inner voices, urges, etc. all hinge on the world-view which is in one regard metaphysical. That is, the modern world-view that predominates in academic and therapy circles has been materialistic, objective, pseudo-scientific or scientistic, etc. Now there’s a shift towards the opposite values. Still, though for clients and many colleagues, talking about anything to do with faith or spirituality tends to evoke layers of defensiveness lest you (the one using these words) be a secret and possibly unconscious evangelist for your own particular belief system.

The problem, as I see it, is that, most patients see these words as indistinguishable from religion, and religion generates many mixed feelings—different for each individual. Trying to talk about such things with clients who on one hand are suffering and want to please the therapist (at least consciously) is awkward, because it sets up a possibly unconscious dynamic of therapists unconsciously selling their own beliefs and the clients superficially “buying” them—but this partakes of the deeper dynamism of buying into parents, teachers, peers—a receptivity to introjection that also meets with a need for rebellion and individuation.

Another problem is that many clients (and not a few counselors) consciously or unconsciously suffer from the backwash of associations due to their interpretations of the meanings of such words as: savior; God; savior; redemption; saved; sin; hell; judgment; prayer; righteousness; purity; evil; good; saintly; and so forth. For some, these don’t matter and the words have been superseded by other words. I am clear that people develop unique and complex word associations between these and other words that, on one level, are “supposed” to mean one thing, and: people associated with teaching these words or evoking their notions; sexuality; irreverence and jokes; family members, loved and hated; teachers, loved and hated; misunderstandings; degrees of sensitivity (e.g., how seriously did they internalize notions of hell, torture, etc.); smells and tastes; being bored or charmed; and so forth. Very few can articulate what precisely they mean by any of the aforementioned words, and, you know, I don’t know that I would believe them. We are deeply entrained to believe that we say what we believe and deny mixed deeper feelings.

There are also fine and not-so-fine distinctions among people—even those who are imagined to be well-educated and “know better.” Many, for example, cannot differentiate between mysticism and mystification, or spirituality and spiritualism, or the male king judge god and the god-force-within, etc.

Spiritual Privilege

A related theme is that of "spiritual privilege," a term that notes that some people—not most!—feel free enough to pick and choose and even create their own synthesis of elements from different traditions, or not to believe this or that or anything. We should not assume that such people are morally depraved or rootless, and if we have spiritual privilege (I very much do), we should not assume that everyone—or even that many people—feel this emotionally free. Most folks still believe that if you are going to dare to change from the religion of your parents, you must choose one or the other of the major religions. Certainly not some “cult.” But you can’t just pick and choose. But of course many people do.

Regarding this, the concept of “interfaith minister” may assume that there is such a thing when in fact there may be a thousand sub-varieties. Indeed, I wonder if we are not approaching a time in which the content of what is believed is less important than the process of making a spiritual-symbol system work for you.

Bringing it back to the problem of counseling: So I think that talking about spirituality is not a matter for avoidance because it is taboo so much as there being a great danger of unconsciously foisting mind-pickling ideas on people who are not ready to deal with them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *