The Buddha spoke of suffering. Is this a good way in to explaining the “spiritual” in psycho-spiritual? Why, for example, should an atheist or a person without any practicing faith come to see a psycho-spiritual therapist? Is it necessary to be on a spiritual quest of some kind or might the client might be moved to practice spiritually as a result of therapy?
Everyone who is living and breathing has some experience, some sense, of something that is dear to them, which they prize and honor, something they revere or respect, someone they love and perhaps a person or a cause they would give their life for. Therefore everyone has some idea of the spiritual, that which is beyond the common sense of self as a self-serving entity engaged in survival and personal pleasure. The psychologist Jung went a step further and claimed from examining a huge number of dreams from different times, cultures and moralities and value systems, that humankind share a collective unconscious that is inherited and expressed in commonly recurring symbols and archetypes.
Everyone has a spiritual side, although they may call it by a variety of names; everyone values something or someone above themselves, even if it’s science, philosophy, the state of the world or ecology. But today we may well ask, “Isn’t science the new religion?”
The usurping of religion by science is the result of a pointless desperate conflict, in which human beings try to discover the “right” answer without any regard for the variety and the multi-layering of reality and their composite experience. For example, science cannot say very much about what is intuitive and instinctive, let alone what is numinous and in a completely different realm to the kinds of phenomena that science seeks to observe and measure. The spiritual, the transcendent and the divine are beyond words and experience. It is pointless to try to convince someone who is scientifically minded of the truth of spiritual, numinous events, just as it is futile to try to convince a spiritually-minded person of the absolute truth of science.
What happens when a scientist comes to you for therapy? Do they see another side to life? The pursuit of the inner realms, the experience of inner processes and the understanding of inner objects and their significance may be interpreted in any number of ways that are personal to the experiencer, to the client. Many a numinous experience has been minimalized and reduced to an emotional or instinctive, neurological event by the scientifically minded client. But we are all different, which is one of the wonders of being human; the differences, the variety, the uniqueness and the individual contribution each person makes to the whole.
Spiritually everyone one of us has an individual, unique contribution to make to the whole. But alongside this assertion is the idea that the end of spiritual attainment is to share in a common essence, which is sometimes called unity consciousness. One characteristic of religious cults is that everyone starts dressing, behaving and even thinking the same. So where are the individual’s unique human qualities in that?
Religious or spiritual cults have led to a sheep mentality. As in all walks of life and all pursuits, you have a very few people who remain questioning and non-conformist enough — free of the schizoid tendencies to feel insecure about belonging and fitting in — to withstand the collective power of the status quo, even when it is intensely weird, inhumane and corrupt. But everything that takes place in the name of spirituality is not necessarily any more spiritual than a political rally, a football supporters’ meeting, or even a drunken night out. All these pursuits invite and insist on a certain relinquishing of one’s individuality and embracing the ethos of the collective.
But in psycho-spiritual therapy work resolving childhood needs and desires are a primary concern. We work first with the unfinished business of personality, because only when the ego is fully formed and healthy do you have anything to surrender to the spiritual fire. The fulfillment of the ego is found in the ego’s surrender or relinquishing, because you are much more than the ego allows you to be. So this is a radical transformation that is achieved by locating yourself in your true center.
A person is more than their ego. This is apparent in quite ordinary acts of loving and sacrifice, even pleasure. But transcending the ego is a tall order for most people. In the pursuit of spirituality in the modern world it is important to remember that the early and deeply profound teachings of ancient spirituality did not have to deal with the central issue we have today and that is individualism. The modern world (and I don’t think we have to say western, as if it’s different from eastern; western and eastern dichotomies have always been confusing because the divide is more cultural and political than geographical) has progressively centralized the individual, so we have an attack of the ego forces nonpareil. No time in the past has ever had to face this issue and certainly not 3000 years ago in the Indus valley for example when your caste and station in life was very set and, unless you were aristocratic or of the priest class, you were involved in subsistence, in survival.
Today we have leisure, recreation, choice — even spirituality has become a tourist industry!
So we have to look at what the individual means in terms of spirituality. The spiritual path in the modern world is individual in nature and approach. First, this is obvious because you notice that people pic’n’mix their spiritual philosophy and methodology. This has its own difficulties; you follow Buddhism until you come across something you don’t like, then you bail out into Sufism or Taoism, until you find something you don’t like there and throw in a little mystical Christianity and some Course in Miracles. The obvious difficulty is that you cannot dictate your spiritual practice based on your personal preferences, for the simple reason that spiritual practice should challenge your personality at every turn, so if your personality is in the driving seat you are really not going to get anywhere.
Today we are saturated with spiritual wisdom and guidance, so comparing paths is unavoidable. Even the great Thomas Merton [controversial monk and Catholic mystic] was considering defecting to Zen in the last years before he died. But as Joseph Campbell remarked when he was asked if you have to let go of your religion to attain spiritual goals; no, you have to go the whole way to where the religion at its source represents the truth of the spiritual journey to awakening and liberation.
Individuality cannot be sidestepped. We must have a spiritual practice and methodology that embraces the individual and works with that, not by ignoring but by seeing how it can assist the venture of enlightenment. The ego is not just a fiction to be discarded, as if a few years of meditation will put paid to it. The ego must be understood and first put into service to the higher faculties of human existence.