Monday, 22 January 2018


Does one need therapy if one has real religious faith or does faith do everything and more that therapy can do? Can it heal the psyche by taking one's attention away from preoccupation with it and onto the great reality that is beyond it, otherwise known as God? And isn't Christian psychotherapy rather a contradiction in terms as one is to do with healing a damaged ego while the other is concerned with going beyond the ego?

These questions are prompted by a comment on an earlier post (see here). The commenter was talking about a discussion with a therapist about its aims. He (or she, I don't know) said as follows:

"I argued that therapy was based in the material and that most of its practitioners were atheists, and had bought into the materialist concept of the universe. My friend argued that this was not the case, that, in fact, humanistic/integrative therapists were open to the spiritual, and helped their clients to explore the spiritual. She said that she was impressed by John Rowan. Apparently, he is famous amongst therapists, and they look to him as someone to be respected for his insights into the spiritual." 

 The commentator then asked if I thought this man "really tapped into the spiritual in any way, or was he really talking about some touchy-feely emotions that he thinks are of the spirit, but which are firmly based in the material?"

I don't know the person referred to so I can't speak specifically but a quick look at his Wikipedia entry (not conclusive, I know) reminds me of people I have come across. In a way, they all go back to Jung and his attempt to marry the psychological with the spiritual but with the latter seen in the light of the former because that is the level the person is operating from and comfortable with. So he sees the spiritual from below rather than trying to lift himself up to its level and that means God is seen in terms of man as opposed to the other way around as should be the case.

Anyway this was my reply.

"I’ve not heard of him but I would tend to go along with your assessment that therapy, of any description, is a materialistic thing, not useless but not that useful either compared to a proper religious understanding which would basically comprise anything good that therapy has to offer and a lot more.

Many people nowadays call themselves spiritual and say that their work is grounded in spiritual principles, but I would see a litmus test of authentic spirituality, especially for Westerners, in the attitude to God. Does the individual believe in him and, if so, is he primary? Therapy is more about man’s relationship with himself than man’s relationship with God. Get the second right and you really don’t need the first at all. And the first can never lead to the second.

The word humanistic puts me off unless it is coupled with Christian and that comes first."

So what I am saying here is that therapy only operates on the level of the earthly self, which is to say, the human being as he is and as he appears to be in this world. On that level, it may be beneficial and help to heal splits in the psyche, but it has no proper spiritual value at all. Real spirituality is about putting oneself right with God. Therapy may help to heal an out of balance mind but it cannot go beyond the mind to the soul which is the only place true spirituality is to be found. 

The world will often try to co-opt spirituality and adorn itself with its colours. But I'm a purist in these matters as both Jesus and the Buddha, in their rather different ways, were, so there is good precedent for this attitude. You cannot compromise with the world. If you try to associate the spiritual with anything that is not the spiritual then that thing will assume priority  In effect, it means that your grasp of the spiritual is weak, and that you are using it to support the other thing.

That said, I expect some therapy can help to prepare the ground for a proper spirituality later on. But you mustn't confuse it, in any form, with a genuine spiritual approach. If you really want healing, you must turn to God, and fully not half-heartedly or in association with anything else. There is no true healing except in God.


Anonymous said...

That is a really good and full answer. I shall ask my therapist friend to look at it. She is extremely interested in the spiritual, and this may help her.

Thank you for this post.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for your question which set me thinking about the subject. Just for the record, I don't discount therapy for everyday purposes but I don't think it has much to offer from a real spiritual point of view.

ted said...

I like this quote from Earnest Becker in regards to therapy...

“Man wants to focus his love on an absolute measure of power and value, and the analyst tells him that all is reducible to his early conditioning and is therefore relative. Man wants to find and experience the marvelous, and the analyst tells him how matter-of-fact everything is, how clinically explainable are our deepest ontological motives and guilts. Man is thereby deprived of the absolute mystery he needs, and the only omnipotent thing that then remains is the man who is explained away. And so the patient clings to the analyst with all his might and dreads terminating the analysis.”

William Wildblood said...

Yes ted, it often does seem that there is a bit of power play going on, just like in the guru-disciple relationship when that is corrupted and ego enters in.

But the other question is can therapy, as we understand it today, ever be helpful spiritually speaking? And I don't think it can unless it is completely subordinated to the love and awareness of God.

Chris said...

I'm inclined to say that inner problems can have their source on different levels. Some problems are rooted on the level of the psyche in which case a psychotherapist could be helpful. But I agree that problems that are of spiritual nature will not be helped by psychotherapy. In fact, those kind of problems may even get worse with standard brand psychotherapy.

William Wildblood said...

Certainly. This post was inspired by a question about whether there could such a thing as a spiritual therapist and my feeling is that spirituality and therapy as we conceive it in the 21st century are two very different things pertaining to, as you say, quite different levels.

How effective psychotherapy truly is even on the level of the psyche is another question. Perhaps the only thing that really heals the psyche is renouncing the ego and that is a spiritual matter.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - as I prepare this year's lectures on psychiatry, this subject has been on my mind.

Ultimately, all therapy (whether medical or psychological) must be framed by religion or else it will become either a hedonic pursuit of pleasure (some kind of drugged out euphoria perhaps, or eventually a genetically engineered acceptance and tranquillity...); or else the attempt to eliminate suffering, and perhaps even the risk of suffering (tranquillization, lobotomy, ethanasia...).

Psychotherapy must also be framed by religion, or else it cannot know what it is aiming at. Some modern psychotherapy aims to make people efficient and obedient employees (presumably why so much therapy is provided, even imposed compulsorily, by employers). Others aims to make people happy or reduce misery in the short term, even when that means condoning evil - encourageing selfish short termism and the exploitation of other people.

In this respect therapy is like everything else in life - we should aim at bringing everything into order and coherence in light of our ultimate understanding of the nature and purpose of life.

In practice this cannot be more than partly achieved - but it is surely the proper aim.

William Wildblood said...

Bruce, my feeling is that if therapy is seen in the context of God, and fully subsidiary to that, then it can be a helpful clearing of the decks before real spiritual insight can begin to dawn.

But if, as I rather suspect is usually the case, the spiritual is seen as an extension of therapy and therefore really part and parcel of it, then it is not valuable from a proper spiritual perspective which was the idea behind this question.

But maybe it's horses for courses and for some people a spiritually focused therapy can be a good introduction to real religion.

William Wildblood said...

By the way I should make clear that all this is about therapy if considered as a kind of spiritual path, not when applied to people with definite mental health issues which is a different matter altogether.

Anonymous said...

I saw a therapist, and it was useful because after about six sessions I realised that the answer to my existential crisis was not to be found in the everyday solutions provided by an atheistic society. Suddenly, I had a longing for God as my answer. I wanted to unload all my fears about death-as-the-end at His door. It came out as a definite statement to the therapist

"I want to find out about God".

His reply was,

"Then do it."

From then on I began to read the bible, read all sorts of books and blogs about all sorts of spirituality. I found Bruce Charlton's Notions blog, and this blog, and I've been astonished and please that I have come to the conclusion that there is more evidence for an immanent and transcendent God than not.

That is as far as I have got, but I have to admit that going to a therapist and working through my misery was a crucial step in my quest for God. Shortly, after having the insight that I wanted to know God, I stopped going to therapy.

I now feel that there is probably purpose to life, and that purpose is provided by a loving God.

There is a long way to go because I still put the 'probably' into my sentences, but I am no longer the basket case I was before. The thing is I cannot be dishonest about something so important - I won't try to persuade myself out of nagging thoughts of unbelief. I want to believe, and I am much persuaded, but I am groping for a way forward into total belief. How to do it? Can I do it? I ask God to help me, and it seems that all I can do is ask, continue looking, and wait for God.

William Wildblood said...

So your experience rather supports my theory. Thanks! Therapy helped you to start asking serious spiritual questions but then it had done all it could do.

The spiritual path is not an easy matter and those who think it is really don't know much about it. God is not going to appear and tell you that you're right and here's your ticket to heaven but you may well be guided into certain directions which help you build on your faith and deepen your understanding. The thing is not to be put off by the world which will always scoff at anyone who takes spiritual matters seriously - as though they weren't the only really important thing in life!

I suppose if we really had total belief we could move mountains and walk on water. But the thing is to hold fast to belief regardless of doubts which are inevitable. Prayer helps a lot as does the attempt to imagine God or Jesus by your side and talk to them as though they were there. Because they surely are.

Anonymous said...

I've just read Bruce Charlton's blog "Living forever versus eternal life".

I must admit that my reason for wanting to know God when it dawned on me when I was seeing the therapist, was because I was afraid of death. Before that I was simply bitter and angry, as well as scared that life was meaningless - a rather cruel joke with no joker. Everything alive at that point was to be pitied, especially humanity with its understanding of mortality.

Now I see that loving God and his creation is just as important as wanting eternal life. (But it was not my first reason for seeking him out. Terror and weaselly cowardliness had me in its grip - I am embarrassed at the recollection). He put us here for a reason, and we are alive because of his will. For that I should feel gratitude. I do, but I also feel scared of him because he judges us. This is my next difficulty - how to love a creator when I fear him too. Now I've seen all sorts of books and articles by and about various mystics and theologians, and some say it is correct to fear God, and some say that the more of a contemplative/mystic, or saint one is, the less fear comes into it. It is a matter of theosis. I accept that but what it means for me is that I am at the bottom of the "theotic" ladder, and I know it. And the silly thing is I know the next rung is there, but I'm dashed if I can see it or feel it. After an initial flurry of research, learning, and knowing inside, I now feel becalmed like the Ancient Mariner.

What next? When next?

William Wildblood said...

There's nothing wrong with being frightened of death. Who isn't? it's a great mystery and probably starts many people on the road to a higher understanding. And have you ever considered that you wouldn't have felt that life was meaningless if meaning wasn't actually essential to it? That is to say, you don't miss something that doesn't exist. You feel hungry because you have a stomach and there is food and so on.

It's not that you have to love God as a kind of duty or spiritual requirement. It 's that God is love and he loves us and our true nature is to love him because he is love and the fulfilment of everything we need and desire. He is the source of everything good and beautiful and true. It's admittedly hard to love an abstraction but if you think of God as a Person, which he is, that's easier. Pray to him. Pray for strength and insight and love and the ability to serve others and endure suffering if/when it comes. Talk to him. He doesn't judge you like a judge on a high table with a stern expression and lots of punishments at his disposal. He judges, if he does, out of love and desire for our spiritual well being. So he doesn't condemn anyone but he wants them to see themselves. The wicked punish themselves. The repentant are brought to God regardless of their sins if their repentance is sincere. Remember the story of the prodigal son.

When people say you should fear god, they don't (or shouldn't) mean be frightened of him. It's fear as in awe or wonder. You fear God as the Most High but he is your Creator and he loves you as a Father loves his children. You have nothing to fear from God, nothing whatsoever.

I don't know if you know what the title of this blog refers to. When I was 22 years old I was spoken to through a medium in trance by spiritual beings who I call the Masters. Normally I have little interest in mediums and channellings and so forth but these beings were heavenly beings, in my estimation, and instructed me in spiritual matters over the next 20 odd years, quite a lot at first , less so as time went by. The book in the illustration of this blog tells that story. Anyway they were full of love and wisdom but they were also stern taskmasters who I feared in the sense i use the word above. Thus I was certainly not frightened of them but I recognised their authority and spiritual greatness and knew they were far above me.

The next step for you would be what it is for all of us. Pray, meditate if the contemplative element of spirituality appeals to you, read what you can and try to see the world through the eyes of someone for whom the reality of God is the background to everything. he will clear a path for you but it won't necessarily be easy because we all have a lot of work to do on the raw material of our self, and that self usually (no, always!) has a lot of stuff that needs to be burnt out. But it is all towards a glorious end. Never give up.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

I have your book. It was one of the many books I bought in a great fever of book buying. I read it quickly and not very thoroughly along with all the other books I'd bought. It seems silly now, it was as though I had an exam to pass, and not being a very good student, I felt I was cramming in May what I should have been taking on board all year.

I will pray, and think, and carefully read your book, then all the other books that I've skim read. After all, if either you are correct about reincarnation, or Bruce Charlton is correct about pre-mortal existence, fleshly existence, and post-mortal existence, then I need not rush about jumping from one book to another in the way that I have been doing. I've lived in this crackpot modernity of hurry-scurry for so long, I haven't properly unlearned its silly dance.