Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practice

Many who practice meditation and contemplative prayer are also involved in psychotherapy, which often precipitates questions regarding the relationship between the two of these disciplines. “Can one grow spiritually without ever having psychotherapy?” “Does psychotherapy enhance meditation practice or vice versa? “ Can meditation be considered a form of psychotherapy?” Some authors see psychology and spirituality as simply different parts of a broad spectrum of consciousness, whereas others see these two practices as largely unrelated. Many psychologists encourage meditation as a support for psychological growth, whereas as others, such as CG Jung, saw meditation as a potential impediment to psychological development.

Traditionally, in the East spiritual practice has been emphasized with little attention given to psychological development. In the post-modern West just the opposite seems to be true; it would seem that for many in our culture psychology has largely replaced spirituality as the primary pathway to happiness. In our mainstream culture psychological wholeness is usually seen as the highest stage of human development.

We do not have the space to explore all the ramifications of this issue so I will focus specifically on the practical aspects of these questions. A clear understanding of the potentialities and the limitations of both psychotherapy and spiritual practice is very important for all spiritual practitioners.

 There are many forms of psychotherapy and many forms of spiritual practice so it is unwise to make too many generalizations about either one. What is important is to understand the intention of each discipline to see if they are mutually supportive or not.

A common denominator of psychotherapy and spiritual practice is the admonition to “Know thyself.” Virtually every form of psychotherapy and spiritual practice has an intention of increasing self-awareness; from this perspective these disciplines are mutually supportive.

Another common denominator might be that of “impulse containment”. Both disciplines usually encourage the recognition of impulses and desires without unconsciously acting them out. If one is encouraged to act upon his or her desires then it should be done consciously and with clear intention.

The biggest difference between psychotherapy and spiritual practice is the nature of the self that is being considered. In psychotherapy the concept of self usually references the personal self or the ego. We could say that most forms of psychotherapy are designed to strengthen the ego.

With most spiritual practice the self addressed is a transcendent self--something far beyond the personal sense of self. The general intention of spiritual practice is to dissolve attachment to the ego. The ego is seen as something that we have rather than as what we are.

In this regard these two disciplines seem to work at cross-purposes with one another. As one student said to me, “My psychotherapist is working to strengthen my ego and my spiritual teacher is committed to dissolving it!”

This apparent dilemma need not be problematic if we understand the right function of the ego and the right relationship between these two disciplines.

We need a healthy ego to function in the world, and yet ultimately the ego is not who we are. Psychotherapy can help us to heal and strengthen the ego;

spiritual practice can help us realize that we are more than the ego.

Much the same could be said regarding the physical body: we need to have a fairly healthy body to function in the world and yet we are more than the physical body. A healthy body is helpful in our spiritual practice, which in turn can help us see that we are more than the body itself. When we are ill or in great pain

In similar fashion, a healthy ego can help us realize that we are more than the ego itself. When we experience emotional turmoil or mentally instability it is be much more difficult to see this because all that we are aware of is our psychological distress.

Psychotherapy and spiritual practice can be mutually supportive if we have clear understanding of the intention and purpose of each, and of their proper relationship. All too often we try to use one to do what the other is designed to do! For example, we may be trying to use spiritual practice to avoid issues that may need to be addressed in psychotherapy. We can try to use our spiritual practice as a form of escape. (This is sometimes referred to as “the spiritual bypass.”)

Conversely, I have encountered many individuals who are frustrated with psychotherapy because it does not address their deeper spiritual needs. Psychotherapy can be very helpful, but it alone can take us only so far. Also, I have seen psychotherapeutic interventions used to treat what are actually spiritual emergencies. These interventions are often unsuccessful, and when they do seem to work they simply mask the symptoms while leaving the real issue unaddressed.

My general advice (for those who want it) is to find a psychotherapist who has a clear understanding of the nature and the purpose of spiritual practice, and to find a spiritual teacher who is psychologically literate and able to discern when psychotherapeutic intervention may be called for.

We are blessed to live in an era when we have access to both of these very powerful disciplines; yet this opportunity emphasizes the need for the wisdom to use each of them effectively.