Spirituality and Psychotherapy can be a wonderful blend of the human and divine, leading us into ever deeper explorations of psyche and soul, sun and moon, heaven and earth. Together they can lead us towards an understanding and embodiment of the peace and joy that we long for which arises when we are able to rest in the simplicity of the present moment and our true selves. Psychotherapy provides a grounded approach to looking inwards which is rooted in our humanity. It encourages us to turn towards those parts of ourselves that we have turned away from, it shows us where we have got lost in false beliefs about who we are and points us back towards the truth. This enables a safe and contained exploration of not only our difficulties but also the meaning and flow of life as it arises in all our experiences. Spirituality opens us to the transcendent, the luminous aspects of our nature that can deeply enrich our day to day lives. There is important overlap between the two because in the absence of a deep exploration of our unhelpful patterns of thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours, we may enter the world of spirituality in an unconscious attempt to escape our pain. Similarly, we may go off in search of a higher power, seeking outside of ourselves for the answers to a meaningful life without ever having witnessed or explored our own humanness. Perhaps we have believed that the answers to life’s mysteries lie outside us or maybe we are afraid of our pain and our deeply buried vulnerabilities. Likewise, if we begin to uncover the unconscious patterns which influence our lives without the guidance of our inner light which compassionately witnesses our inner states, we may get lost in the darkness or continue to repeat the same dysfunctional behaviours over and over.
When referring to Spirituality, I am speaking from my own experiences of the ever-deepening journey into the Self and the discovery of the transcendent that lives within each of us. The spiritual call is therefore not about escaping our humanity into states of unending bliss, but a deep dive into our messiness, our beauty, our strength and our vulnerability. When we have touched the core of our innermost feelings, we may discover our deep connection with life and a wholeness which is always present. We embrace our human lives in a more open way and come to discover the holy in the ordinary. We don’t become special or super human, we grow up and remember that which we’ve always known, that life is sacred.
So how does this translate into our daily life or the lives of our clients? How is a spiritual perspective useful in the therapy room and how can we use it to deepen our practice? In order to answer these questions it’s helpful to consider an issue that is common to many people and that regularly finds its way into the therapeutic space. A theme which frequently arises in many peoples lives is a deeply rooted sense of not being worthy or good enough. If we have spent any length of time delving into the depths of our own psyche it is likely that we will eventually come across a nagging feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness that can manifest in myriad ways. Perhaps we feel we are not a good enough in our roles at work or at home or as a vague sense of lack within. Maybe we never seem to get it right, we are trying our best but not getting there. Feelings of wholeness, contentment and being enough are elusive, maybe non existent. Of course this may set us on a quest to prove we are good enough and to dispel the negative feelings for good. The desire or compulsion to prove our worth is endemic in the western world, we are coached and cajoled to “reach our potential”, “live our best life” and succeed at all costs. Time and again we receive messages that we are not enough as we are and we believe those messages. To combat this we get busy, we seek, try, strive, work hard and do our best or we drop out altogether exhausted by the struggle.
The therapeutic alliance between therapist and client can provide somewhat of an antidote to this, a safe container for a client to explore their deeply held beliefs and feelings. The client may present as anxious or depressed, overfunctioung or underfunctioning in an unconscious attempt to ward off a deep sense of unworthiness or unlovability. As the client’s story unfolds they may be able to discover by means of skilled enquiry the roots of the problem which may bring forward feelings, the lie of unworthiness can be exposed and the truth of a person’s inherent worth can be not only discovered but lived. This process may take many months or years of therapy, the client’s tolerance to difficult affective states must be increased over time. The person is effectively unlearning and letting go of a deeply held belief of unworthiness that whilst unhelpful has served a function and given the client an identity of sorts. This may be only one of many beliefs about the self that the client may give up in the course of in-depth therapeutic work.
So where does spirituality come into this process? Quite often we are able to understand the unhelpful belief of not being good enough on an intellectual level however this does not always translate into an embodied experience of feeling good enough. In order to do that we have to be willing to enter into and feel the emotions which are associated with our beliefs and let go of the identity we have unconsciously created around them. So, if I wish to truly let go of a sense of not being a good enough person, its likely that I will have to contact and open to feelings of shame, fear, sadness etc and (most crucially) let go of the false identity I carry as being unworthy. This is often a difficult part of the process and can bring up as sense of who am I if I’m not always striving to be someone? Who am I if I’m not on a continual quest to be better? It is here that the spiritual intersects with the human as we discover who we are beyond or beneath the various false identities we have created for ourselves throughout life. As the therapeutic process deepens, we become increasingly skilled at watching the ebb and flow of thoughts and emotions. As we let go of old false beliefs about ourselves, we may start to wonder who we are without them. As we continue wo walk forward shedding old beliefs we may discover that although thoughts and feelings come and go, there is something within us that is vast, open and spacious, something which doesn’t change. We may move more into alignment with an observing presence as our experiences unfold. I will call this the ground of Being.
Beneath of all experiences there is quiet, silent space in which the highs and lows of our inner world is played out. This awareness sees the unfolding of our experiences but is not touched by it, it is this space that we endeavour to contact in meditation however our minds are so busy and identified with thoughts and feelings that we may struggle to find that inner space. It is easier to connect with this space, the ground of our being, when we have cleared away some of the unhelpful belief systems and old thoughts and feelings we carry in the body and mind. The process of shedding these old unconscious programmes which have been lodged in our system allows that peaceful space within to open up more fully.
As we move deeper into this inner space we may become aware that the sense of not being good enough keeps us stuck in a never ending cycle of striving to the better, a cycle that never seems to end. While we are hurriedly chasing after the next thing, we are in a constant state of running towards the future, that elusive place where one day we imagine we will reach the place of finally being good enough. So why is this a problem? Because it doesn’t work, fulfilment in the future is a fantasy because the only place that contentment can exist is now. While we are over thinking, worrying, distracting and planning we are not present in the moment. We have lost contact with what is here right now, the soft breeze on our faces, the sunlight streaming in the window, the smell of freshly cut grass. We have lost contact with our bodies and are anxiously inhabiting our minds, we have forgotten the ground of Being. It is an intrinsic part of our minds to be either ruminating on the past or anticipating the future which means we miss the vibrant aliveness of the moment we are in, the only moment we have.
Psychotherapy is invaluable in enabling us to see through and let go of some of the unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviours we have learned along the way. In essence when we let go of beliefs we’ve held about ourselves, we’re letting go of false identities. We give up unhelpful ideas about who we are when we realise that they are flawed and most importantly untrue. The deeper we can feel into our feelings the more we can release the psychic energy bound up in them and so free up space inside of our bodies and minds. The more we let go, the deeper we can move into the ‘space’ within. There is no end to the depths of this vast inner space, it is the ground of our Being and our connection with all of life.
We could say that Psychotherapy at its deeper levels involves the letting go of false identities which have created a sense of self, one example of this being the idea that I am not good enough. Spirituality asks the question who am I if not the false identities? If that which is untrue is stripped away, what remains? This is rich ground for exploration and can take us beyond the personal aspects of ourselves into something deeper. In this way the wounded parts of us may become the door into undiscovered territory, territory which may contain that elusive contentment we have been searching for and a deep inner knowing that we are perfectly fine exactly as we are. Perhaps the question of will I ever be good enough, dissolves.