The Role of Spirituality in Psychotherapy

Searching for Meaning

Whether conscious of it or not, each of us are journeying an existential quest for meaning, aiming for understanding as to our being in the world. Yet ‘we live in a culture that encourages us to look for happiness by directing our energies outward…’ (Groff 1993, p.94), while avoiding searching within for the answers. During our lives, most of us only experience glimpses of who we really are and of what life is truly about.  With our cultural norm placing so much emphasis on the attainment of object ideals, it is of crucial importance as human beings to avoid projecting our deepest desires and spiritual aspirations into materialistic living. It is a delusion to believe that is where the depth of true satisfaction lies. ‘Life is much more than materialistic survival…. life is spiritually dynamic’. (Redfield and Adrienne 1995, p.8)Just as sexual orientation, class, race, gender, ethnicity and disability become important issues to explore in therapy, so too is spirituality, religion, and values. This can highlight how a person lives out their faith in everyday relationships; one’s relationships being a continual piece of work that is given great relevance in the therapeutic dynamic. In this paper, I hope to explore the role of spirituality in psychotherapy. I am suggesting that psychotherapy can be seen as a spiritual process in itself, that the two are intricately linked when seeing a person as a whole being; mind, body, heart and soul because our aspects of relating are not only intra-psychic and interpersonal, they are transcendent too. ‘…Spirituality…in which the human and the divine come into contact with one another’ (Rowan 2003, p.44).I will discuss my sense of what it is to be human and portray my working definition of pastoral counselling and spirituality, while highlighting the implications this has had in my counselling practice by giving examples of my sense of spirituality in creation. I will also give space to the criticisms of spirituality and psychotherapy while giving prevalence to the paramount accomplishment of both, before concluding.

The Human Condition

The human condition envelopes the totality of experience of what it means to be human and to live human lives. This encompasses beyond that which is empirically obvious. Abraham Maslow warranted a person’s desire for spiritual values and the notion of spiritual longing, exalting them to the top of a Hierarchy of Human needs. ‘Spirituality is the sum total of the highest level of all the developmental lines’. (Rowan 2003, p.44) He said that humans desire to seek the highest reaches of consciousness and wisdom, the frontiers of creativity.In talking of his theory of self-actualisation, similar to Carl Roger’s concept of one’s self actualising tendency, Maslow described it as a person’s need to be and do that which the person was born to do, ‘….a yearning to become a ‘more than’ of who we are’. (Russell 2004, p.20) By which he meant a human’s ability to develop and evolve into broader levels of autonomy, spiritual and psychosocial living and individual power.From an existential viewpoint the four dimensions in which human beings experience the world can be understood in terms of the physical (umwelt), personal (eigenwelt), social (mitwelt) and spiritual (uberwelt). The spiritual dimension being the threads that weave and hold together, define and unravel the beauty of our essence in the rich tapestry that reveals our humanity’(Russell 2004, p.17). When working from a holistic model it can be understood that people enter into therapy because in one or more of these systems of self, something is not accurate for them, eliciting a reaction within to attend to these discrepancies.

Pastoral Counselling and Spirituality

The work of pastoral counselling is rooted in religious structures and western liberal theology. It draws on the resources of faith and confidence in a divine power with forgiveness being a key aspect of pastoral care. In their work, a pastoral counsellor integrates religious resources with insights from the behavioural sciences. Spirituality or soul, as I like to term it, on the other hand describes our unfathomable depth of being, a dynamic entity that is outside the realm of theology, transcending the human scale. It is a living from a place of authentic personhood. Spiritual counselling therefore explores this essence and life force, the most fundamental energy of our existence that is continually in process. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) described this as universal orgone energy, something that although unseen, is present. The spiritual dimension is the key determinant in how we are and in how we understand the world.

Example 1:

Ann came for therapy suffering from flashbacks of her father’s death and with struggles relating to his loss. During one particular session, she had been talking about how her sister’s home had suffered a fire and she said that the only materialistic object to have survived the fire was a clock belonging to their deceased father.  During this engagement, I remember glancing at the clock in my therapy room and noticed that it had stopped!  When I pointed this out to Ann and registered the effects it had on her, I realised that it was a pivotal moment in her therapeutic process. She spoke of realising that although her father had physically left, his essence was still very much alive. As Ann’s therapist, it was a deeply moving moment to have shared. Interestingly the clock did not need a new battery and it worked perfectly after that. ‘The deepest healing occurs not in the mind, but in the heart or soul’(Scott Peck 1997, p.272).

Psychotherapy and Spirituality

The function of psychotherapy is to assist one in recognising and attending to denied recollections, feelings and happenings that interrupt our journey of a wholesome and joyful existence. Psychotherapy is a journey of self-discovery for a client (and I) that allows for the realising of their infinite potential within. Similar to existential counselling the aim is to reflect upon, understand and clarify one’s life. Spirituality is being of ones spirit and since we are spirited beings, it seems inevitable that a person cannot undergo a psychotherapeutic journey outside the realms of a spiritual dimension.The work can culminate in participating in something akin to I-Thou relating which involves identifying the truth of the in-between.  Deriving from the Greek language theword psychotherapist, in fact, translates into soul attendant. Therefore, my role as a therapist is to soulfulness. The soul is one’s true spirit…’ (Scott Peck 1997, p.270), the spirit and life of my client being what I am responsible to. Moore (1992) talks of the focus of therapy being about the impoverished soul, whose neglect gives rise to symptoms such as that of anxiety and depression, problems which regularly emerge in my work as a psychotherapist. Jung also had a similar belief when he said, ‘neurosis…. is the suffering of a soul that has not found its meaning’. (Stevens 1994, p.125) The strength of one’s spirituality and the conscious nurturing of it have in fact been proven to have a positively significant impact on a person’s health and well-being.

Example 2:

Sean is a recovering alcoholic of thirty years sobriety. He shared his recollections of the day his life turned around after he reached his ‘rock bottom’. As a hospital inpatient, he found himself in the toilets, drinking and vomiting systematically. In the agony of this experience Sean said that he prayed and remembers saying, “God if I am meant to stop drinking, show me how”. This could be described as what Groff (1993) termed a spiritual emergency; in Sean’s perpetual drinking and vomiting he was resistant to change. Yet his praying led to his experience of a spiritual emergence; he gave up control and trusted the process. It was a fundamental moment for Sean because that was the last drink he ever had.‘The experience of ego-death is the primary stage in a process of death and re-birth’ (Groff 1993, p.120).  A key factor in all experiences of spiritual emergency is that incorporated within the plight; the solution to regeneration and metamorphosis. Due to many of us being so disengaged from our esoteric self, to encounter a soul awakening can suggest a descent into what in Greek mythology is termed as the ‘underworld’. It can be likened to the religious narrative of Jesus dying, resurrecting and ascending into heaven. It is the sequence of detachment, inauguration and reinstatement; the unnamed, yet continually experienced process of psychotherapy.It is of critical importance to people to create a meaningful life in the face of a meaningless universe’ (Scherers 2003, p.43). The types of fundamental questions that people struggle to find answers to, expressed explicitly or unconsciously during the course of many a therapy session, being; why do I exist? , what is it all about? , how can I be in life? , what is my purpose on this earth? , what will happen to me when I die? ‘The depths of spiritual bankruptcy contain within them the potential for tremendous transformation’. (Groff 1993, p.114)

 Example 3:

‘Life always waits for some crisis to occur before revealing itself at its most brilliant’. (Coelho 2003, p.52) Suzanne aged 33 was diagnosed with terminal cancer.She spent a harrowing four months in despair as she struggled to make sense of things, find her spirituality and trust in the outcome of her endeavours. After this dark period in her life she appeared transformed as she engaged back in to the world and re-connected with others. She seemed at peace, happy almost, and appeared deeply touched by the most basic of experiences. She recalled a dream to me, which she had had, which I felt explained the difference in her. She said that in the dream she had witnessed Jesus dying on the cross. She recollected that although they did not speak to each other she somehow heard him say, ‘I am with you in this, your suffering has meaning’. It seemed that in her pain, Suzanne became open to what might offer her comfort and in that, she was divinely met. ‘…An inner touchstone that serves as a core of reassurance in periods of trial and even darkness’. (Schreurs 2003, p.192)

Criticisms of Spirituality

  •  A resistance to psychotherapy
  •  Potential psychosis
  •  False explanation for life’s uncertainties
  •  Pathological
  •  Addictive as a magic solution
  •  Dogmatic and bigoted
  •  Motivated by fear/guilt, psychologically hindering
  •  Secular
  •  Stringent
  •  Produces infantile states, e.g. regression; ‘Other’ being a projection of the parent figure

Criticism of Psychotherapy

  • Narcissism
  • Unhealthy dependency
  • Rationalising of inactivity
  • Obsessional neurosis

The Ultimate Achievement of Both;

  •  Emancipation
  •  Increased realism
  •  Regeneration
  •  Completeness

Groff (1993) describes some of the qualities of spiritual maturity as being; discipline and responsibility, compassion and love, clarity and serenity, authenticity and honesty, faith, trust and inner security. I feel the above qualities are within and emerge from individuals who undertake a therapeutic journey whether spirituality is explicitly focused on or not. For me I do not see how they can be distinguished separately from each other.  ‘Engaging in spiritual change is basically engaging in a healing process’. (Schreurs 2003, p.134)


‘We do not have to be religious….to know that there is more to life than meets our eyes’. (Van Deurezen 2002, p.214) In the preceding pages, the notion of spirituality and psychotherapy as having an undeniable and exceptional union has been discussed, based on my sentiment of what I believe it means for us to truly live our lives.  Holding the spiritual dimension of each of my clients in my awareness, while honouring our relationship as the crux of the therapeutic encounter is the truth of what I can offer. The moment I can begin doing this is when I focus on my own morality and striving for authentic living. For ‘…it is far more difficult to live without any such system than it is to live with it’. (Foulkes 1975, p.159)References:Coelho, P. Eleven Minutes. (2003) Harper Collins Publishers. IndiaFoulkes, S.H. (1975) Group Psychotherapy. Methods and Principles. Gordon & Breach, Science Publishers Ltd. LondonGroff, C. (1993) The Thirst for Wholeness. Attachment, Addiction, And The Spiritual Path. Harper Collins Publishers. NewMoore, T. (1992) Care of the Soul. A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. Harper Collins Publishers. New YorkRedfield, J and Adrienne, C. (1995) The Celestine Prophecy. An experiential guide. Bantam Books. LondonRowan, J. (2003) Inside Out. The Journal of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy. DublinRussell, M. (2004) A Spiritual Dimension in Addiction. Eisteach. A Quarterly Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Volume 3 No 1. SpringSchreurs, A. (2002) Psychotherapy and Spirituality. Integrating the spiritual dimension into therapeutic practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. LondonScott Peck, M. (1997) The Road Less Travelled and Beyond. Spiritual Growth in an age of anxiety. Rider Books. London.Stevens, A. (1994) Jung. A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. New YorkVan Deurezen, E. (2002) Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy in Practice.2nd ed. Sage Publications. LondonWest, W. (2000) Psychotherapy & Spirituality. Crossing the line between therapy and religion. Sage Publications. London

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