Therapy Meets Spirituality: A Psycho-Spiritual Discussion – Part 3: Seeing The World As It Is

Q: How does one begin to practice psycho-spiritually?

R: In the same way as one begins on any spiritual path, in the dual states of doubt and faith from where you question everything, and adopt the assumption that the world you see is not the world as it is, but merely the objective world of one’s inner life projected outwards as one’s own interpretation of the world. When you give up description, opinion and understanding, and realize that you don’t have to assume a position relative to other the insight dawns within you that you are not separate from anything else.

Q: But if you are not separate to anything else, how would you live?

R: In congruence and truth, out of the central heart of compassion for all living forms that arise in consciousness. You see the world is not as we see it; it really is quite different from our relative, materialistic, phenomenal way of seeing it.

Q: So when we see it like this are we happy?

R: Yes, but not in the way that you think of happiness from the relative standpoint, which is happiness balanced, or contrasted, with unhappiness, misery, depression and so on. This is a happiness which is not dependent on outward circumstances.

Q: So it’s not associated with satisfaction or fulfilment of desires?

R: Happiness is an attitude, a way of approaching the world and meeting events knowing that everything fundamentally is as it should be. Suffering is essentially of two varieties — conscious and unconscious. In unconscious suffering we don’t realize that our attachment to circumstances, positive or negative, is the fundamental cause of suffering. We perpetuate suffering by remaining attached to conditions, and these conditions will change — must change inevitably — because that is the nature of life; change is intrinsic to life and we are powerless to change that. But if we can embrace suffering and see that it is the means to our personal liberation, we take the ‘sting’ out of it and meet it happily. Whatever happens, we are fundamentally in touch with our true self and that true self exists within a fundamentally happy condition.

Q: Might this happiness be thought of as the goal of psycho-spiritual psychotherapy?

R: Maybe, but ultimately there should be no goal aside from to be as you are…

Q:…and then you’ll see the world as it is.

R: Yes, exactly! You will see the world as it is.

Therapy Meets Spirituality: A Psycho-Spiritual Discussion – Part 1: The Inner Journey

Recently I (R) met a clinical psychologist (Q) from England and the discussion we had was so stimulating I thought I would record it. Here it is in verbatim form.

Q: What are the outward signs of inner development, of spiritual development?

R: You will appear more as yourself, not in a flimsy, superficial sense, but more like you are in the truth of your inner nature. You will manifest your true character with less compromise, less need for personal attention and probably less self-importance.

Q: Why probably?

R: The outward signs of inner change don’t necessarily conform to our idea of what a spiritual or an inner-orientated person should look like. The inner path, or the spiritual path, is fundamentally the way of paradox, which in itself is a controversial statement. And also a statement that demands an explanation.

Q: And the explanation is?

R: That human awakening takes place through a process of contrary challenge; whatever you are comfortable with must be radically countered until the opposites of attachment and unattachment — to character, behavior, habits, familiarity, really anything you identify with as the separative I-Me-Mine — are shed, enabling you to reach the state of non-attachment. Everything will appear in relation to its opposite, to its counterpart. As you persist in the inner journey your world is seen as a mass of conflicting, contradictory urges and impulses for some time.

Q: Can you bring that down to earth for me, or express it in plain language?

R: You have to face everything which you have denied or repressed in yourself in both the inner and the outer worlds.

Q: But why would you even want to do that?

R: First, whether we know it or not, we all have a deep desire to realize our potential. That potential is real and to realize it we must become whole, which entails owning our repressed selves. Second, because reality is really rounded, rather than flat! Reality is rather like a sphere, so to be in it, you yourself must be rounded. The way most of us live is as partial human beings, by presenting and believing in ourselves as a certain identity we define ourselves through limitation and since everyone’s doing it, it doesn’t seem odd, until you wake up to the fact that your potential is way, way more than that.

Q: What is the relationship between human failings, imperfections and limitations and the divine, which by definition must be absolute, perfect and pure?

R: Your imperfect human condition is the vehicle, or the means, to your realization of your true self. Only by means of the unique faculty of self-reflection may a human being experience him- or herself as absolute and in their true nature. That’s the inner journey.

Sandtray Therapy and Spirituality

Clients reveal their inner worlds through scenes in the sandtray and humanistic therapists try to enhance this experience of clients through the verbal part of sandtray therapy. Humanistic approaches emphasize the importance of the relationship and believe in the importance of the core conditions. There is tremendous value in creating a climate for clients where they can take their time, tell their story, feel their feelings, and explore the fascinating and mysterious interior world of self. Good therapy is about the relationship. The relationship is the most important factor in any approach to therapy: far more important than any technique, knowledge, or expertise. Meta-analyses of counseling outcome studies have shown that the therapeutic relationship is highly correlated with positive treatment outcomes regardless of theoretical orientation or techniques (Frank & Frank, 1991; Hansen, 2002).

However, in people’s everyday lives meaningful relationships are not in abundant supply. Many clients who come to therapy do not have relationships in which they can grieve losses, struggle with ambivalence, and question assumptions and self-limiting concepts. Others come to therapy with questions about the meaning of their lives. They may feel empty, disillusioned, or doubtful because of recent awareness that they have centered their lives around something meaningless. Hope eludes many clients as they struggle with discouraging circumstances or self-defeating habits. Therapists who address big questions such as, “What should I do with the rest of my life?” help clients to rediscover meaning and hope.

Myers and Williard (2003) contended that spirituality is about meaning, growth and relationships. They defined spirituality as “the capacity and tendency present in all human beings to find and construct meaning about life and existence and to move toward personal growth, responsibility, and relationships with others” (p. 149). Myers and Williard noted that spiritual experience is “any experience or process in the life of an individual that creates new meaning and fosters personal growth as exhibited by the capacity to move beyond former frames of reference and risk change” (p. 149). Myers and Williard noted that their definition of spirituality is broad enough to include religious beliefs and secular ideologies.

Sandtray therapy allows clients to focus on the heart of things. When clients create scenes in the sand that focus on the way their lives are now they take the time to stop living in the periphery and center their attention on the core. Clients are good at distracting themselves with work, entertainment and activity but distractions only help clients cope; they do not help clients find meaning in life. Obviously, work can be meaningful and having fun is important but for many people, work is not meaningful and leisure time may be dissatisfying.

Humanistic sandtray therapy promotes healing and spirituality by helping clients to reconnect to their true selves. Fear is the primary factor that keeps us from reconnecting to who we really are and from being real. In fact, according to Kagan and Kagan (1997), people learn to fear one another in childhood and this fear tends to persist into adulthood. Kagan and Kagan noted that people have a fear of being hurt or hurting others and fear of being engulfed or engulfing others. Most of our fears are vague and seem irrational.

Even though we fear people, we also need people. According to Kagan and Kagan (1997), this approach-avoidance conflict characterizes most human interaction. “People appear both to approach and retreat from direct, simple intimacy with others. This approach-avoidance syndrome appears to be a cyclical process: Intimacy is followed by relative isolation, which is followed by new bids for intimacy” (p. 298). Given this approach-avoidance conflict, people establish a psychologically “safe” distance that is unique to each person. People tend to find a distance where they are somewhat intimate and safe (Kagan & Kagan).

If humanistic sandtray therapists build a therapeutic relationship in which clients feel safe, they can help clients overcome fears that hinder their ability to be who they really are and to develop meaningful relationships. This process of finding meaning can restore a sense of balance and peace and reawaken the spiritual nature of clients who have struggled to experience it.