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" If the world is a tree,

we are the blossoms "

Novalis

Reflections on Psychotherapy & Spiritual Teaching

November 18th, 2011

At a Psychosynthesis conference in Bordeaux today, I gave a talk which suggested a way of resolving the potential conflict or tension between the practice of psychotherapy and the practice of spiritual teaching. Here is the text of the talk and the exercise we followed afterwards, with some links and a translation in French:

In the Beginning was the Word…

Spiritual teachers and psychotherapists both use the spoken word to effect change. In this talk I explore the similarities and differences in these two ways of working with words, and suggest a third field of service that combines elements of both approaches.

Merlin with a rather enthusiastic student by Gustav Dore

Imagine the archetypal image of the sage with their disciple, the teacher brimming with wisdom, the young pupil wide-eyed and eager to learn. If they were druids, they would be seated beneath an oak tree. Together, through the process of talking and listening, the pupil, and the teacher often too, experiences insight, emotional support, and a growth in understanding and hopefully wisdom.

Now see the image of a psychotherapy client with their therapist. They’re probably indoors, rather than outdoors, the oak tree has become a potted plant, and the client may be lying on a sofa or sitting facing the therapist. What are these people doing? They too are talking and listening to each other. In some ways the outcomes and aims of their meeting are similar to those of the former couple, but in other ways they are different. Let’s explore the similarities and differences in these two contexts. Through doing this we might learn how to perform such tasks more effectively, avoid some of the difficulties that can occur when the two get confused, and even see whether in any way the two approaches can be creatively combined.

What are the similarities? Both aim to be of help to the recipient, with therapy focused on healing, and spiritual teaching focused on helping the pupil develop spiritually. Both these aims can be unpacked, with healing involving more than simply helping the client recover from wounding, and spiritual development encompassing a range of goals that will vary according to the spiritual discipline being taught. But both approaches aim to relieve suffering, though spiritual teaching includes a more ambitious goal.

Both approaches use the two key ingredients of speech and presence, the power of the word and focussed awareness. Both are working within an oral tradition – used in a loose sense of the term. At the heart of any oral tradition is the story, and the life-blood of both Psychotherapy and spiritual teaching is the story. But here is the difference within these two approaches: in spiritual teaching the story comes from the mouth of the teacher, in therapy from the mouth of the client. In spiritual teaching the stories are mythic, inspirational, often traditional and sometimes originating in a truly oral tradition, in the strictest sense of the term, meaning that these stories have been handed down across the generations from ‘mouth to ear’. In therapy the prima materia for the work is the story of the client’s life – not as a set of objective data, but as a subjective work of memory, part fact, part fiction. But even here we can see such a story as part of an oral tradition, if we broaden our understanding of that term. A client’s story has been handed down across the generations – strands coloured by the collective, trauma and triumph in the family line encoded consciously or unconsciously into the client’s story-line and hence into the way their life has unfolded. Read more