Promises & Pitfalls: The Spiritual and the Therapeutic Path

Diana Whitmore

This article was taken from a talk given at a conference on ‘Souland Psyche’ at the Findhorn Foundation.

The spiritual path and the therapeutic path do not contradict each other, in fact they complement each other beautifully. We could say that these two fundamental streams are both necessary for the full and ripe evolution of our consciousness.

The therapeutic path often begins with pain, the prime motivating factor that drives people to begin to work on their personal development. We don’t seek therapy when we are happy and fulfilled, but rather when we hurt inside; when perhaps in spite of outer success, our inner world is suffering. Unconsciously, something vaguely beckons us. It is a promise that speaks to the impulse in us to differentiate ourselves from others and to experience our unique individuality. The therapeutic path promises independence, individuality, and autonomy. It promises potency and the experience of creating one’s own life. This promise and the pain bring us to the therapeutic path.

Most psychotherapy tends to work with the psychological content of our personality – our neuroses, our low self image and self esteem which have very often been damaged when we are children, our anger and our ability to assert ourselves – and all the other childhood experiences that have caused life to be less than we would want it to be.

The spiritual path promises something very different. It promises unity. It offers a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. It promises meaning and purpose and offers us the possibility of transcendence -the experience of being greater than the day-to-day identity that we have worked so hard to create. The spiritual path promises to alleviate our divine homesickness -the longing for some kind of goodness, truth, rightness or beauty. The spiritual path promises to speak to that deep homesickness, to heal that longing. It promises to liberate our suffering and provide us with inner freedom. It makes order out of disorder and sense out of the chaos and disintegration that we see around us in the world. It heals our wounded soul.

Pitfalls of the Therapeutic Path

If we work on ourselves with psychotherapy alone, we frame our existential reality as limited,neurotic, pathological. We see ourselves as ‘someone who is damaged and needs to be fixed’. A therapist’s task then is to help clients relieve the symptoms and get rid of their problems. The therapeutic path has a vision, sometimes bordering on dogma, of how healthy fully functioning human beings should be -’everyone should be open and honest’, ‘everyone should work on their relationship to their mother’, ‘everyone should be able to express their anger and deal with it’.

In this way the very context of the therapeutic path is also its pitfall. Anyone who has been in psychotherapy as a client for any period of time has most likely experienced that they can work and work on their personality, finding more and more limitations, more that is wrong and then becoming lost in their pathology. This was my personal experience doing primal psychotherapeutic work on myself at the Esalen Institute. I became more and more conscious – of every limitation in my entire personality – until I became lost in my awareness of what was wrong with me. It was only when after four years, I left Esalen and went back into the world that I discovered to my surprise, how much I had really grown – an experience that was unavailable to me when I was identified only with my pain and suffering.

If we stay on the therapeutic path for too long, eventually we encounter the largest pitfall, that which in psychosynthesis we call the existential crisis or crisis of meaning. It is the ‘so what’ crisis -what’s it all for? What is life really about? What am I living for? The philosopher Kierkegaard gave us a vivid description of the existential crisis when he said that it didn’t make any difference whether he was writing a symphony or getting drunk. It is the feeling that says, ‘there must be more to life than this’. Life can become gray, empty and meaningless. This can be a time of suicide and death for many people -either psychologically or physically.

What is happening in the existential crisis is that the transpersonal is beginning to call us. The missing ingredient to our life is the spiritual dimension. For some, this crisis leads to an intense spiritual awakening. We may have what Abraham Maslow called peak or transcendent experiences where we momentarily glimpse the beauty and richness of life and the immense potential within both ourselves and humanity. Sometimes, where we aspire towards the transpersonal through spiritual practice, this happens voluntarily. Sometimes it is involuntary and we have what could be called ‘eruptions’ from the spiritual world – experiences of insight and illumination or creative inspiration, fluxes or inflows of energy that come from a place deep inside us. It is curious how spiritual experiences often tend to happen when we least expect them -moments of crisis or pain, moments when we are grappling with a problem or moments when we are engaged in mundane activities.

Pitfalls of the Spiritual Path

I sometimes ask people if, as they open up to the transpersonal, they become healthier? Some say yes, some say no. I was upset when I realised that following a spiritual path didn’t necessarily mean that I would be healthier. I’ve come to believe that there is a regressive tendency, especially at the beginning of a spiritual awakening, and in a child-like way we hope that we are going to become who we deeply know ourselves to be and live happily ever after. My experience is that the spiritual path has its own unique set of pitfalls, developmental issues and pathologies (the pathology of the sublime), its own tendency to stimulate and energise shadowy things in us. It isn’t all sweetness and light, perfumed and holy. Self-realisation carries with it psychological pitfalls.

The biggest pitfall on the spiritual path, in the sense mentioned above, is what psychosynthesis calls the crisis of duality. Why are peak experiences called peaks? Why aren’t they called ‘pit’ experiences? In the moment, which is precious and right and full of goodness, it feels as if I have approached a sense of pure Being and everything else seems unreal. But sooner or later, I’m not there anymore -and in the next moment I am looking at the fact that there is war and starvation, or I’m talking to my mother on the telephone and feel irritated and angry. How can this gap between what could be and what is, be so large? It can be very painful and crazy making. It’s as if our personality has been temporarily overwhelmed by the peak experiences but it isn’t permanently transformed, and all the rubbish concealed by the high tide is revealed again. Roberto Assagioli likened it to climbing in the Himalayas. We can reach ever-greater heights in our Being, but we can’t stay there permanently because we can’t breath there. The trouble is that after these vivid flashes and realization of Being, ordinary life can feel like an illusion. Then we have the illusion that everything is an illusion.Every level of reality that we experience is valid and has its own place. Otherwise Being would not have chosen to play the great game of evolution.
Abraham Maslow called it ‘higher sidetracking’, Where we become so identified with the transcendent content of our spiritual experience that we devalue the rest of our life. It can make us crazy. It can form a ‘tyranny of the positive’ , where we are driven by our vision and our spiritual experiences. We tend to identify with the contents of our spiritual experience -with our love, with our joy, with our sense of unity. So that any time I’m not experiencing love, or not being joyful, I’m not being who I really am, and so I become only conditionally alive.

The crisis of duality can create a ruthless perfectionism, based on a valid spiritual vision, which represses whatever we judge as not being a part of our spiritual identity. My working hypothesis about the Self or soul is that it is the place of pure essential beingness in me that is unconditionally alive. I deeply believe that all these spiritual models, visions and principles are good working hypotheses. If we work with them and use them as such, then life can become an adventure. If we believe that they are TRUE, then the process becomes a tragedy.

After four years of residence at the Esalen Institute, I went to study with Roberto Assagioli. I thought that he would take me to the heights of my Being and I would finally find the God within me. To my horror, Assagioli ‘s therapy with me was what he called a ‘systematic exploration of my lower unconscious’ , or in other words, my shadow. After the years at Esalen I didn’t think I had a shadow anymore. I thought I had gone into all that stuff. Assagioli helped me to see how my spiritual awakening was actually triggering my shadow, triggering deeper levels of my own darkness. I asked him once, ‘this is pretty dark, darker than anything I ever did at Esalen. Am I going to have to become it? This is a terror spiritual people often have. He told me to practice high carelessness; that I was a silly fool and of course I didn’t have to become my shadow. What I needed to do was to face it head on, to embrace it, to put my arm around it and take it to the light.

I’ve since come to believe that this is indeed what needs to happen with the unredeemed aspects of ourselves. We don’t have to become them, but we do need to embrace them and take them with us. This led me to the insight that darkness actually seeks light for regeneration and perhaps light has the purpose of seeking darkness in order to illuminate it. Lights nature is to illumine. Light can’t illuminate light – it needs darkness to do that.

To see the shadow is to redeem it. We don’t have to act it out. We need to respect our defense mechanisms. They are there for a reason. If we meditate or use spiritual practice to tear them down before we are ready, some can have psychotic episodes from spiritual experiences. A lot depends on how integrated we are psychologically. If our personality isn’t strong enough to receive and utilize superconscious or spiritual energy, it can be like sticking our finger in an electric socket. For example, if we work on some of the really shadowy content in our psyche, say murderous rage, we can also connect with collective rage and experience it incessantly and still not be free of it. That’s not what we are meant to do. We’re meant to face it, to see it for what it is.

Jung defined the shadow as that which is unconscious and unredeemed. It’s not that the shadow is bad or something to be totally redeemed or gotten rid of, but rather it is something that will always be there. We may have our spirituality and some positive qualities in our shadow. We will always have unmanifest potential and as we expand our consciousness, there will always be another level of further potential to actualize.

The soul breathes in and the soul breathes out. When there is a breathing out we have these moments and experiences of grace and then the soul breathes in again and there may be moments that are barren when the ‘stuff’ gets energized and we are called to roll up our sleeves and start working. I believe that we cannot follow a spiritual path without also following a therapeutic path and vice versa. The question I would ask is how can we develop a psychotherapy that synthesizes these two realms?

We need a psychotherapy which consciously holds a life affirming context and which includes the pain and suffering that our clients bring to us. I suspect that transpersonal psychology is the very crude beginning of that synthesis, but we are still at the caveman stage of it. Transpersonal psychology hypothesizes that evolution is a reasonable bet, that there is some higher organizing principle which is meaningful and that each one of us is on a path of unfoldment. What matters to me most in it is the notion that our problems are not the result of mere inadequacy, that they are purposeful and evolutionary. Even more importantly, every pain, sorrow or problem that we have is intimately connected with the realization of our potential.

It is here that the therapist has two roles in all of this and is working on two levels. One is the role of the psychotherapist which we all know of. The other belongs to the priest, the teacher, and the spiritual guide. In the past we went to one or the other; in transpersonal therapy there is a fusion of these two roles.This can be a very dangerous thing. Think about what happens in the world of therapy. There is transference which occurs when the client transfers on to the therapist all their unfulfilled needs and fantasies from childhood. All the aggression, the unfinished parental issues are projected onto the therapist and the client wants the therapist to be the parent they never had… When we also work transpersonally, the therapist becomes a living symbol of the spiritual. They represent the eternal and the beauty that we have been longing for all our lives, not in the sense of being further along in their evolution or superior, but rather in terms of a function. Imagine the mixture where the person who represent mum or dad rejecting us in therapy, but also the soul or spirit rejecting us -which may be infinitely more intense, meaningful and painful.

In psychosynthesis we find that we cannot separate the two roles of spiritual guide and therapist, and that it is dishonest to try. Playing only the therapist, there is the danger that we may repress the sublime and interpret transpersonal experience as a desire for regressive unity, and if we only work with the transpersonal, there’s a big danger of suppressing our personal problems.

There is one more developmental step in this journey of transpersonal psychotherapy. That is where the therapist, accompanying the client on his or her spiritual journey, has to be naked. When the client seems to be making an evolutionary shift and their identity is shifting from personal to spiritual we have to put down our models, practices and techniques. Assagioli once said that it didn’t matter what the therapist and client do in this game of therapy, of catharsis and crying… Getting images and dialoging with our subpersonalities are just ways to keep our personalities busy while our souls are getting on with the work of human regeneration and healing. We have to surrender and embrace uncertainty, paradox an unknowing- to not know – and that’s not an easy thing!

Diana Whitmore

This article was taken from a talk given at a conference on ‘Souland Psyche’ at the Findhorn Foundation.

Read more from Diana here – The Psychosynthesis Trust

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