The Psycho-Spiritual approach to our development
I have never met anyone whose formative years have not left them wounded in some way or carrying the healed scars from those wounds. Obviously, there is a scale here, but I do think that everyone’s journey needs both the psychological and spiritual aspects to it if we are to reach our potential. Our psychological work is about healing our wounded selves.
As a simplified model, we contact, interact and relate to the world in three basic ways, through our head or intellect, through our heart or feelings and through our bodies or sensation. Elsewhere I have articulated how trauma, in its widest sense, creates our woundedness and consequent insecurity and how in doing so it interrupts the connections between our head, heart and body. As well as hindering the development of any these parts, insecurity also hinders the development of whole self.
The core of our healing is, in my experience, always to do with the heart. Trauma’s effect is centrally about the self being wounded in an un-bearable way, it is our feelings that are overwhelmed. There are certainly consequences for our thinking and our bodies that flow from this, but they are secondary.
Healing often means working backwards through the sequence of consequences of trauma. This then means that we need to first attend to our thinking and our bodies, re-building our relationship with these parts of ourselves before we can move onto dealing more directly with the un-bearable feelings themselves. This is about repairing the connections between our heart, head and body, as well as developing the parts of ourselves that have been underdeveloped. This may be our heart in terms of being able to feel and label and understand our feelings. It may be our head in terms of developing our understanding ourselves in a cognitive way, from clarifying our own philosophy. Also, for most of us there is a need to tune into and become more sensitive to our bodies.
Our trauma may well have been held out of awareness for a long time, or it may be relatively recent, but we need the support of our whole self to develop our awareness of it and build our ability to face it. It is avoidance that makes us insecure, defensive and over-reactive. When we have eventually faced the full depth of the hurt, fear or distress, our insecurity naturally falls away.
In therapy there is the support of someone alongside us in this process, which is an important ingredient in healing, because the nature of trauma is that it happened when there not enough support and it left us isolated and alienated. Having someone on “our side” able to consistently support our heart to open, help make sense of our experience as well as challenging our internalised self-judgement, is deeply helpful.
We need to take responsibility for ourselves through increasing our self-awareness so that we can face our ‘what is’, face the reality of our woundedness, our lack of perfection. It is about knowing ourselves, about becoming more and more conscious, rather remaining un-conscious. It is about understanding the structure of ourselves, our motivations and defences. This is hard work at times and it can take a long time.
But, we also need to find self-compassion, which comes from facing and being with the depth of our hurt and learning to care for our wounded selves whilst letting go of self-judgement. This is where a spiritual connection can be helpful to our psychological development. It helps us to see that there is a larger, loving, and compassionate reality out there, of which we are a part.
The other aspect of our development that bridges the psychological and spiritual domains is this essential process of learning to “separate myself from myself” (Gurdjieff), or “to make an object out of what I’m subject to” (Kegan). We need to learn this in order for the many processes of self-awareness and healing to able to take place. Therapy only works through helping people to see, face and process what they have previously been unable to bear. We grow and develop by digesting / including what we were previously subject to. This is a “include and transcend” (Wilber) process, we become aware of what is in the way, work to deepen our awareness and understanding of it and thereby face and digest and assimilate it, thereby transcending it. Awareness of what we still remain subject to then naturally emerges into our consciousness, to be made into the next ‘object’ of study. Really this is classic “Gestalt Therapy” (1951) theory and has been around for some seventy years.
This process depends upon this shift in consciousness, a shift from being caught in identification, into a place where my “I” can be present and able to observe what is going on. This shift is both prosaic and profound. It is the un-bearable hurt, fear or distress in our trauma that forced us into identification, of which there many types, but clearly the deeper the trauma the stronger the identification, the more defensive and fixed the ego is. We are all victims to some extent and in some way, no upbringing can be perfect. It is true that many clients begin therapy with the words “I had a happy childhood”!
Rumi was so right with his “You cannot aim for Love, all you can do is work to remove the obstacles to love within you.” As we clear the obstacles we naturally move closer and closer to Love, Freedom, Consciousness, Energy, God or whatever you wish to call it.
Our essential nature is always trying to help us heal, be it in our body, our heart to heal and open, our head to understand, or our spirit’s desire to return home to its source. Our psychological “symptoms” (and many physical ones too), are simply the expressions of this ‘wish’ of the self for attention and healing.
To me the extraordinary thing about our spirituality is just the fact that sometimes we can have moments of connecting to it, despite all the obstacles we have in the way. It always feels like a gift, like grace. It is as though we are blessed by the sun bursting through our clouded selves at times. It is like this because of the staggering fact, as Wilber and many other “teachers” have made clear, that we are all already enlightened, but it is covered up by the layers of ‘ego’ that flows from our un-processed trauma and general un-consciousness.
As with our psychology, our spirituality has three basic ‘flavours’.
- Through our head, or put another way, through our consciousness / awareness, spirituality is about the movement into being present to myself, “I” aware of ‘I’ experiencing ‘what is’. And the most powerful version of this spiritual ‘what is’ is about connecting to the transpersonal Wholeness that exists in the depth of our ‘here and now’. That I am a part of the miracle of existence, all is only as it can be right now, and the evolution of Consciousness itself is at the core of it all.
- Through the heart, spirituality is about somehow our heart opening to a connection with Love. To being loved and therefore able to love. It feels like a connection to God, to the profoundly beneficent Goodness of Life. It is felt as deeply supportive and affirming. It seems to me that Love is always there when we open to the depth of this present moment.
- Through the body we can open and connect to Life’s energy. Here there can be a profound sense of being ‘at one’ with the energy of the Universe, vibrating deeply in tune with aliveness itself.
These three forms of connection obviously touch and influence each other, they can all give a profound shift in our consciousness into an awareness of “I” present to my experience. This process of “making an object out of what I am subject to” can itself be seen as working through our head, heart or body. If I have a puzzle to solve with my head then making the question clear and conscious is the first step, if I am clouded in my heart then making that cloud an object that I can study helps me attend to it, if there is a problem with my body, facing it and giving it my attention makes it something I can deal with. Every time we achieve this process of “making an object out of what we are subject to” and processing and integrating it, it is a mini “enlightenment”, we are freer than we were. Many people in relating their big “enlightenment” experiences talk about a sudden and profound shift in their relationship with themselves, identification with their small ‘self’ is dropped and the “I” becomes clear and free in its connection to an expanded Consciousness or greater Love or pure Energy.
All three forms also give balm to our heart’s insecurities which then recede into un-importance. Spiritual connection immediately supports our hearts to open and relax and our sense of separateness or alienation diminishes. As Helen Greaves (1969) put it, there is “Relaxation unto God” or a profound “letting go” into a deep opening, into the profound support of knowing that we a part of the Goodness of life, part of Consciousness, of Love, of Energy/Light, of God, of that which is the central theme of the Universe. This experience can build a deep trust. This is because connecting to the spiritual can deepen our knowledge of this underlying reality which we intuitively recognise as being more important and meaningful than all our personal concerns and identifications. Spiritual opening can only be a ‘here and now’ experience, and one that transcends the personal with its power and intensity of meaning. This connection then, is opening to a very special aspect of the ‘here and now’, with very particular qualities, including timelessness and ultimate meaning.
Each of these three forms of spirituality can also move us towards embodiment, i.e. towards the sense that our body is the container for our experience. Connecting to our bodies sensation always brings us back into a deeper connect with the ‘here and now’, grounds us deeper into what is real and visceral.
The power, that comes from insecurity being temporarily undone through spiritual connection, is often taken by our ego’s compensatory needs. It is brought down into the level of selfish unconscious need where it is used for aggrandisement or arrogance or ‘specialness’ so as to patch over the wounds of insecurity. This is part of what is called “spiritual bypassing”, the process by which we can avoid facing our underdevelopment through using the power that comes from spiritual connections. Again, this “underdevelopment” can be in our heart, head or body. This leads to any of the three forms of spirituality becoming quite ghettoised experiences with the result that the perspective becomes distorted, prejudiced and unbalanced, as in “this is the only true way”.
The techniques designed to help us open to the spiritual, be it meditation, ritual, prayer or ceremony can also work through either of these three emphases of head, heart and body alone, or in a combination of two, or of all three.
As an over-generalisation, in Abrahamic spirituality the connection is felt to be more through the heart to “God” or to the “Love of God”. For Eastern spirituality it seems to be more about the head and consciousness, with arriving at Emptiness or Nirvana or the un-describable ‘no-thing-ness’ of the Tao. The East also opened the path to spiritual development by using the body, through Yoga or Tai Chi or Martial Arts etc. (One exception to this is the Sufi’s whirling dervishes).
So, the spiritual can help with psychological healing, and many of the processes needed for psychological healing are the same as those needed for our spiritual development, so provide excellent practice. Psychological healing is essential for our spiritual development, it releases us, so that we can find that “relaxation unto God”. We cannot let go of our ego until we have healed it! And, as any student of spiritual paths knows, we cannot connect to God, find enlightenment, etc., by ‘trying to do it’. But what is clear to me is that Psychology can give us a practical way of “removing our obstacles”. I trust I have made the case for the necessity of integrating both approaches.
To explore this topic further please see extracts from these two books –
John Welwood’s “Towards a Psychology of Awakening” – click here.
Helen Greaves’ “Testimony of Light” – click here
The writings of Ken Wilber are also very interestingly focused on this subject – for a critical analysis of his “Integral Theory” – click here