Therapy versus Spiritual Guidance.
I have been asked to write here about the difference between psychological therapy and spiritual guidance.
Good question, since on the surface they can look very much alike. And, in fact they are different sections from the same continuum – on the scale of human healing or development from immaturity and unfulfilled potential to full maturity and fruition. Full fruition means becoming our True Nature, our true Self, returning to our true nature.
As I was thinking about writing this article someone mentioned a book to me. The person didn’t know that I was thinking about this.
It’s Music and Madness by Ivor Browne, published by Atrium, Cork University Press, 2008.
His main theme is psychotherapy, although he does bring in the spiritual aspect of life towards the end of his book. What’s interesting is that in this book he gives the summary of his wisdom garnered over half a century of involvement in various aspects of human suffering and his efforts to contribute something to the alleviation of it, in Ireland. He also shares the trials and tribulations of his own life and his growing understanding of what it means to be a human, through his own life experience and his reading and experiences as a therapist.
“Later I realised that, even at its simplest, any change involves two things — work and suffering; the deeper the change to be accomplished, the greater the amount of effort, pain and suffering involved. People resist change for this very reason, even when they realise that change will have a positive benefit.” Ivor Browne Music and Madness
This statement applies just a much to what we usually refer to as the spiritual path. We have to take responsibility for our own healing and growth. Nobody else can do this work for us.
One message that comes across from reading this book is that one aspect of the role of the therapist is to help the individual become self-responsible, to help individuals catch up with arrested development that has been caused by unprocessed traumas or crises that arise as part of everyones’ life.
Browne states that there are two kinds of life crises: one, the natural crises of the various stages of life, leaving home, taking on a new job etc and, two, the crises that arise as a result of some traumatic event, loss of a loved one, rape, sexual abuse, accidents of nature and other personal traumas.
In the first type of crises, action is needed and the courage to take on the next phase of life.
“I realised the extent of the struggle which is involved for all of us in separating from our parental family and developing independence.”
I too have found that many people, who on the surface seem to be independent individuals, are still emotionally entangled with their family of origin, especially with a parent they did not have a good relationship with. A mature adult has to outgrow their parents in every way. This does not mean becoming superior to ones’ parents, or necessarily dismissive or detached from them. It means becoming able to see them and relate to them as ordinary flawed human beings who don’t have the solutions to all your troubles. It means becoming aware of what they did do for you by bringing you into the world and feeding and sheltering you for long enough for you to survive at least physically. It’s not until people have their own children that many become appreciative of what was done for them by their parents. Most of us take this for granted, as if it’s our right and feel resentment about all they didn’t do for us. If they did their best, and most parents do, that’s a lot to be grateful for, even making allowances for all their shortcomings.
Many parent/offspring relationships become stuck in the teenage phase. The offspring in trying to break away from parental dependence looks to the parents as if they are being rejected. If the parent does not understand what is happening or is so fearful for the offspring, they can become more controlling, thereby exacerbating the situation and relationship. This is where much of the problem arises and remains stuck until one or other of the parties involved makes a change. The other thing that happens is that parents usually hide their vulnerability from the children in order to protect them from worry and insecurity. Then to the grown children the parents appear unreal and unfeeling.
The relationship has become a dead relationship, with neither party willing to be honest with each other or to make meaningful contact.
This state of adult children, adults who have not outgrown their parents is an obstacle to further growth, especially spiritual growth, which is why I write about it here.
Here’s a link to an exercise that has proved beneficial to some people I know who had this problem: http://www.yogashanti.net/uploads/1/7/0/9/17092738/ritual_cutting_the_ties_that_bind_en.pdf
Browne states that in the second kind of crisis what is needed in order to move through it is to “feel” the pain and emotion and to go through it, and it this way it becomes integrated into the personality.
He has found that different therapies are necessary at different stages of healing or maturation.
One of the qualities necessary for spiritual growth is courage, the courage to take the next step and face into the unknown. This is no different from what is learned in the natural and inevitable course of a life. Life doesn’t stand still. It keeps changing. And we need to be able to adapt to the changes, be they in the external world or in our own inner world. Daily life, dealing with the world is where we learn these skills and then we can use them for our inner growth.
“but the significance of life crises, if they are not dealt with appropriately at the time, was a revelation to me.”
“The outcome of a crisis therefore depends not on the nature of the crisis itself but on how it is handled and whether the person manages to deal with it effectively. Indeed, if we did not have to face the stress of life crises, we would not develop at all.”
An example of a personal crisis, which may not look like a crisis on the outside, rather more like a realisation is here described by Browne.
“Until I came to Oxford it had never dawned on me that one could think independently about the nature of reality, or come up with solutions oneself.”
“If a question arose, they asked themselves, “What do I think about it”” This struck me like a bolt from the blue and I began to think, “If they can think for themselves, why can’t I do the same?” From that moment on, I began to do just that, never again being willing to accept unquestioningly the views of others.”
I too went through this, realising that I didn’t know what I thought or felt about many things. I didn’t know that I was entitled to think for myself or that what I might think would be valid. When I say valid, I was still thinking that if what I thought didn’t get the approval of the outside world then it wasn’t valid for me either. I hadn’t yet realised at this point that our thinking is for our own use and that doesn’t need the approval of others. This is a version of taking responsibility for yourself, taking yourself seriously.
The conditioning of the world teaches us to accept what others, especially experts, think is the best thing to think. Our parents were the experts of our childhood! It’s believing as opposed to thinking and few of us have learned to think for ourselves. The good news is that once you realise this you can immediately start thinking for yourself and a good place to start is to ask yourself, “Why do I think this, or that” as each thing comes up that you find yourself inclined to think or believe. “What is my evidence for believing that and does it gel with my experience?”
“If a crisis can be handled successfully, then the person is usually more mature as a result. However, if it cannot be overcome, then some maladaptive pathway is likely to develop and this often signals the onset of what later becomes formal mental illness.”
Browne goes on to describe his introduction to the ideas of systems theory and develops the notion of organisms being self-organising systems. Being a self-organising system is the definition of being a live entity. Self-organising systems operate on feedback loops, which can be either closed or open loops. Humans are open loops, with information coming from the outside into the system and this causing the need for adaptation of the system in order to maintain some degree of equilibrium.
This self-organising operates as much in the psychic dimension as in the biological arena.
“If self-organisation is the essence of what it is to be healthy and alive, then to deprive a person of the very quality of being in control of himself is the worst thing that could be done to him.”
Here again he is talking about the need for an individual to have control and take responsibility for their own lives. Society demands conformity but the individual needs to be able to find a way to live in society while at the same time have the freedom to follow their destiny. What many people don’t realise is that they can be conforming on the surface, live normally and at the same time direct a portion of their energy towards their inner growth. Nobody knows what you are thinking or feeling unless you tell them.
What you are thinking and feeling is what dictates the quality of your experience, so it is worthy of your attention.
Self-inquiry is the business of learning to observe your thoughts and emotions and test them against spiritual teachings.
It’s interesting to see Browne write this, since most psychotherapies lay emphasis on the individual conforming to society and usually prescribe medications to achieve this aim. The part about the individual being deprived of the means to manage his own life is rarely heard. The essence of spiritual teaching is to encourage the seeker to take charge of their own destiny while at the same time managing daily life in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary crises for anyone. It takes a fair amount of self-determination and perseverance and courage to do this but at the end of the day, whose life are you living anyways?
Society will steal your life if you let it. You have to take it back for yourself and have faith that you are not just a cog in the wheel of society, but really a divine being, the finding of which is the goal of all spiritual seeking.
“Over the years I have come to realise that psychotherapy is best understood as proceeding through discrete phases. These tend to follow one another naturally as the person works his/her way through the therapeutic process.”
The same could be said about the spiritual phase of life.
As obstacles are overcome or have fallen away the next phase presents naturally. This is why spiritual guides make one recommendation to one person and what looks like the opposite to another. It’s a question of the individual overcoming the obstacles to their progress.
One phase of therapeutic work Browne describes is the reappraisal phase.
“This reappraisal is quiet different from the experiential mode. It takes place to a greater extent in ordinary consciousness and is essentially a ‘cognitive’ phase. Just as during the experiential phase there is a movement of the traumatic experience from the present into the past, there is now a movement of the person and of their view of themselves from being fixed on the past to a state of ‘living’ in the present.”
This sounds rather like self-inquiry to me. As long as our view of ourselves is as a creature in the world, where we are our story, and what others see of us, we continue to act and feel from that perspective. The aim of self-inquiry is to become attuned to the view that what we really are is not a creature of the world but a child of God, or to use the language of Vedanta, The Self or Awareness. We become attuned to this idea by seeing the falsity of our previous, learned ideas and in seeing this they naturally fall away.
The movement is from what is unreal or relative to what is Real or Absolute.
We move from fragmentation to integration and as this movement proceeds there ensues an accompanying equanimity and peacefulness. This is what everyone seeks, to be free of suffering.
I learned a lot from my own period of therapy. The skills I learned from it were the same skills I used on the spiritual path: taking responsibility for my own progress, the courage to face the unknown, a willingness to hear new ideas, an acceptance of suffering as part and parcel of being a human being, a willingness to reappraise my understanding and goals at various stages.
At the end of the book Browne writes about his own spiritual path.
He quotes his own teacher Babuji as saying “where religion ends would be the beginning of spirituality”
I am more inclined to say “where therapy ends is where the spiritual path begins” and I don’t mean that the work of therapy is lesser in anyway but that it is the ground from which true spiritual path takes off.
Brownes’ own comment on this is,
“I now see psychotherapy more and more as rough work to remove gross impressions. This prepares the way for subtler cleaning, and for further spiritual development. Of course, not everyone is willing to continue further on this path and that is their right. But it remains true that the only really deep change is when this further step is taken.”
I do see that nowadays more psychologists and therapists are taking an interest in the spiritual path. Maybe this is because there is more information available on the internet about these matters, and because of this we are hearing about the many individuals who are awakening to their true nature.
“What we have failed to realise is that true human behaviour, the natural state of the human being, only exists when our spiritual nature is awakened, for we are, in essence, spiritual beings. This is the third stage of flowering of the highest heart, which unfortunately few of us achieve.”
Ivor Browne has been a voice of integrity and courage in Ireland for over fifty years, always doing what he could to alleviate the suffering of others and show the way by his own example. This book, which is not only the history of mental health development or non-development in Ireland over that time span, but Ivors’ own biography as well. He shares with us the history of his own inner growth and changes from shy boy to spiritual seeker and his growth in wisdom along the way.
May you be well Ivor!