Personal experience has underlined to me the power of combining psychological and spiritual work. Having helped others with the interplay of these two aspects, generally I have observed two different entry points into a path of integration:
A natural progression along the arc of human development
“The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.”
― Carl Jung
“We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human.”
As natural progression along the arc of human development
Psychotherapy allows us to fully experience our selfhood and humanity by looking at what blocks us. We might call this the work of creating a healthy ego or sense of self. It can often be painful in deconstructing our self; and in that process we may come to question how we have set up our lives, and how our identity and worth rests upon what we do. Many people arrive at this place organically come mid-life – more than the cliche “crisis”, there is much opportunity when we find out how life disappoints us; an opportunity that can take us beyond the limits of our ego-bound self. Whether discovered in on-going psychotherapy work, or coming to psychotherapy as a reaction to mid-life, the individual may realise there is more than self-development and individualism: seeing oneself as part of a greater, more meaningful picture.
Humanistic psychotherapy is enormously powerful at bringing an individual to their full power and potentiality, or what Carl Rogers called the “fully functioning” person. If “spirituality needs to grow from the inside out” (as according to Washburn) therapy from the humanistic view prepares a fertile soil for this growth. Closely related to the humanistic approach, transpersonal psychology goes further than an individual’s subjective experiences by including the influences of transcendent or spiritual experiences. Adopting this view, we start to get an arc of human development: one that transpersonal psychologist and philosopher Michael Washburn calls the ‘spiral to integration’.
- At birth, we are immersed comfortably in the larger ground, the source or the ground of being.
- In order to separate from our caregivers, we gradually develop an identity of body as separate, then mind as its own.
- Our ego-self or personality strengthens through activity and accomplishment. This in and of itself is not wrong, but does set up the risk of identifying with ‘doing’ over trusting ‘being’.
- Later in adulthood, we may find ourselves coming to face that the ‘identity project’ is limited.
- Akin to what the ancients called ‘the dark night of the soul’, the ego-bound life we often live in the first half of life slowly reveals its inadequacy, and the ego has to open to many of the things it closed off from early life (in its earlier necessary stage of development). This is an opportunity in which the ego can transcend itself.
Rather than transcendence being a developmental transition that moves straight to higher, transegoic levels it follows a spiral course that bends back upon itself, a movement that involves regression at some point, and so again opening up to the dynamic ground from whence the individual came.
Ultimately going beyond selfhood is an integration of within (the psychological) and the without (the spiritual).
“Psychotherapists are in a unique position in modern society to offer a sanctuary for individuals to sort out their lives and more intimately explore their direct experience” – John Prendergast
Spiritual practitioners looking to make sense of feelings and thoughts about their spiritual path whilst living in an everyday life may benefit from the integration of the spiritual and psychological. Spiritual mentoring is not psychotherapy in its classical sense, yet it does draw upon psychotherapeutic understanding, recognising we need to find meaning and purpose for fulfilment in our lives in the human, physical form. Nor is it spiritual direction, but it does provide a space for questioning, doubts and confusion. Spiritual mentoring is for those with a wish to become more conscious and become more skilful in their engagement with the world and others – to cultivate a life based on wisdom and compassion.
Who is the spiritual mentor?
To follow the Buddhist path, a practitioner often calls upon guides for the journey: one such guide is a kalyanamitra, or “spiritual friend”. Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa says such a mentor is someone “who reflects you like a mirror does”. There may be some elements of instruction and advice from the more experienced practitioner, but more importantly this is an eye-to-eye level, highly meaningful and personal relationship between ‘co-pilots’ or fellow pilgrims. The spiritual friend becomes a trusted companion with whom aspects of the path can be shared. With their own experiences on the path, the spiritual friend can be present to the experiences of the practitioner in a way that “listens someone into their own wisdom”. The mentor also has confidence in the practitioner’s potential to ‘wake up’, providing gentle assurance in exchange for the practitioner remaining accountable for their path.
Mentoring in this manner offers a place for the practitioner:
- To explore the full dimensions of their being
- To hold the process of transformation and individuation
- To integrate shadow aspects that may have been revealed through practice
- To talk through the inevitable ups and downs of the path
- To bring together psychological understanding with spiritual being
- To discuss the challenges of being a ‘householder’ practitioner with work, family and other commitments
How does it work?
- An offering open to buddhists and non-buddhists on another wisdom tradition path
- Whilst not psychotherapy, similar boundaries and contracting apply, including the importance of inclusion and confidentiality
- Often a monthly arrangement, but individual “check-in” sessions also available to fit practitioner needs
“Conversations which put aside the desire to effect change and instead simply share the ordinary things of life. It is a practice of non-attachment to outcome, compassionate sharing, and sort of deep listening which comes from mindful presence” – Caroline Brazier, Buddhist psychologist