Even before Freud declared religion the "opiate of the masses," there has been a deep, and often bitter, split between psychology and religion. When psychology came to America it was dominated by the medical profession and modeled itself on the standards of the physical sciences.
Psychotherapy was to be the rational exploration of worldly causes and effects that would, in part, act as an alternative to superstition and religion. Over the years, many individuals and movements have attempted to bridge this historical divide, but during the past decade this effort has become part of America's social fibre.
New Age workshops, seminars, and books blending techniques from psychotherapy with practices from mystical traditions into programs designed to heal or enlighten have become big business. The fields of psychology, medicine, and even the so-called "hard sciences" also have been taking part in this renewed cultural interest in spirituality and mysticism. Never before have there been so many books and articles discussing how to incorporate perspectives or techniques from mystical traditions into the practice of psychotherapy.
As these trends grow, there are those that criticize both the motives and effects. Many critics blast the movement for the blaspheme of taking mystical practices out of their proper context. Others criticize aligning the serious undertaking of psychotherapy with the unscientific ideas of ancient religions or the New Age movement.
When I hear people voicing such criticisms, they do so with a passion. Behind each criticism is much emotion and personal attachment. Whether it 's the earnest follower whose sense of self is largely defined by a particular spiritual path, or the academic who fears his or her own loss of power and position in this shifting paradigm, the criticism is an act of self-defense. This is not to imply that their criticisms do not contain valid points.
Although it usually looks different, I have encountered the same type of emotionally charged defensiveness from defenders of the New Age. I recognize both, because I have experienced both.
When I'm not mindful, it's easy for me to join into such arguments; to get caught up in my own unconscious agendas and firmly held attachments. I have argued both sides. It can be tempting to point out the abuses and misapplications within the New Age movement with holier-than-thou "scholarly objectivity." At other times it is just as tempting to dismiss critiques of New Age applications of various traditions with platitudes about how, from a non-dualistic view "all is one," and therefore the differences between psychotherapy and mysticism are illusory and of no consequence.
These arguments, tempting to me, are largely based on a fundamental and common misunderstanding of mysticism. In the book Taoism: The Way of the Mystic , J.C. Cooper points out... "The term "mysticism" is often greatly misunderstood and confused with some wooly-minded and amorphous feeling, or an orgy of religious emotionalism, or psychic experiences to be found in trance or even synthetically in drugs. Mysticism may be inexpressible, but there is nothing nebulous about it. . . [In mysticism] only immediate knowledge is valid, the direct apprehending of the thing-in-itself, the whole, the breakthrough to the meaning behind the appearance."
Mystical practices (whether Christian, Taoist, Jewish, Buddhist, or other tradition) are essentially about experiencing oneness with divinity. Mysticism is about moving beyond the limitations that come from the false notion that there is a separation between us, our world, and God.
While certain practices and attitudes are offered by each tradition to connect to a mystical experience, these traditions also teach that mystical experience can happen to anyone at anytime. While I accept many of those teachings and attempt to take a non-dualistic perspective, I still find myself labeling some things as being mystical and others as not. How humbling it is to see how very dualistic I can be in my non-dualistic stance!
Mysticism is neither dualistic nor non-dualistic, but rather transcends this dichotomy. Mysticism is transdualistic, simultaneously holding both the union with, and discreteness from, all of Reality. Neither the phenomenal level of individual entities nor the underlying undifferentiated whole is excluded.
It turns out that mysticism is not about separation from ordinary experience, but about becoming more deeply a part of it. A mystical perspective attends to all levels of existence from moment to moment. It is about moving from beliefs to deep knowledge.
So what is the relationship between psychotherapy and mysticism? At the level of the phenomenal world, the two systems seem to have distinctly different goals. While the ultimate aim of mysticism is experiencing unity with the Ultimate, the goal of most psychotherapy is some type of improved functioning in ordinary living. Some schools of psychotherapy aim at helping one deal with internal conflicts, some to change ways of thinking, some to change behaviors, etc. Only a small number of psychotherapeutic approaches explicitly define spiritual growth, let alone mystical experience, as a goal. These differences are real, and glossing them over leads to a lack of clarity about the contributions and limitations of both systems. While the differences are real, using the transdualistic context of mysticism we can see that they are not absolute.
We just explored how mysticism includes attending to all levels of existence. From this wider perspective, all psychotherapy potentially aids in the facilitation of mystical experience. Each type of psychotherapy offers people an opportunity to attend to some level of their existence (thoughts, behaviors, emotions, etc) so they can overcome the limitations that come from lies that they believe about themselves and the world. Each offers people an opportunity to experience more of themselves and their power.
This is an important point: psychotherapy, like mysticism, is an inherently experiential process which facilitates movement from personal beliefs to knowledge.
By examining Greek roots of the word psychotherapy we see that psychotherapy and mysticism have more of a shared perspective than first meets the eye.
The first part of the word, psycho, comes from psyche, which may be translated as "soul", "spirit", or "being". The word therapeutic comes from therapeutikos, which may be translated as "attendant to." Therefore, psychotherapy may be defined as the process of attending to the soul.
In practice, most psychotherapy is good at attending to the phenomenal level of individuals' lives, but not as good at helping people explicitly recognize and directly experience their Divine connection with all. Here, the criticism that psychotherapy is distinctly different from mysticism has some validity.
On the other hand, mysticism, in practice, is often just as out of balance. Mysticism can become a path used to disconnect from oneself and others in the name of spirituality. You may have heard the saying that "s/he is so spiritually minded that s/he's no earthly good!" Some people use a mystical focus on the spiritual and Divine to avoid the sometimes painful and difficult experience of simply being human. In transpersonal psychology this is often referred to as "spiritual bypassing" and is the source of much of the criticism of mysticism being out of touch.
The potential of the New Age movement (as well as Christian and other religious-based counseling) is a blurring of the lines between mystical and psychotherapeutic approaches, in which both systems become practiced in a more holistic way. Through investigation of the meanings of both psychotherapy and mysticism, an authentic combination of the two comes to seem natural, and it is the split between them that is revealed as a false dichotomy.
Psychotherapy, at its most powerful and authentic, always includes the soul, and mysticism, by its very nature, leaves nothing out.
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