Text Box:  Psychotherapy, Spirituality and Our Search for Meaning

If you work in the fields of drug and alcohol abuse, mental health, or areas such as child abuse; domestic violence; suicide; depression and anxiety; family disruption; or in related criminal justice and welfare areas - then you would be well aware that there are many troubles in the world today.

If our indicators are clear, then these troubles are also increasing. Whether you are a member of the general public or work in one of the helping fields, or as a minister in a church, then you may have recognised that we are facing a social upheaval which individual efforts, along with Governments as a whole, are still a long way from being able to deal with effectively. 

If this quote from the Kabbalah (above) is to be believed, then  our lack of overall success stems from looking in the wrong place for solutions. We need to in some way include the spiritual ground of our being in how we approach these issues - whatever that may mean for each individual. 

An understanding of spiritual and mental health is not enough either. Bruce Lee talked of how understanding, without doing, is wasted. Any system of understanding spiritual and mental health needs to also develop integrated spiritual and psychological methodologies if we are to work with these modern day troubles of societies, communities and families.

Troubles which are not going away. Troubles which bring untold misery and suffering. Troubles which call us out to see ourselves and our world in a new light. Troubles which can ultimately transform us and those we live with and care about.

Troubles which can be understood psychologically and socially – and which stem from  “the failure to see the Grandeur of God clearly.”

The profoundly simple statement from the Kabbalah is like the power of a compass - it orients us in our journey to explore mental and spiritual health. This statement is a clear challenge to those who, consciously or unconsciously, separate the mental and the spiritual - or even deny that an alternative spiritual reality exists.

What is interesting is that this dilemma of current society, as described by Richard Hycner as “the Repression of the Holy”, is also clearly apparent in the story of the life of the Buddha.

The Story of the Life of Buddha

Buddha was the son of a king, Shuddhodana Gautama whose queen was called Maya.  For twenty years they had no children until one night in a dream the Queen envisioned her pregnancy. The Queen followed custom and returned to her parents home, and as she rested in the Lumbini Garden, she reached up to pick an Ashoka blossom, and the prince was born. 

They named the child Siddhartha, which means “Every wish fulfilled.” 

Shortly after Queen Maya died and the baby prince was raised by her younger sister.

A hermit named Asita foretold that if the Prince remained in the castle he would become a great king and subjugate the whole world. However should he forsake this and embrace a spiritual life, he will become a Buddha and a Saviour of the world.

The king preferred to keep his son and maintain the life of the palace (as many of us tend to want to perpetuate our physical and psychological self). He educated his son in matters of state and tried in ever way to distract him from things spiritual.

However one day while out in the fields, the young Prince saw a bird kill and carry of a small worm. He was deeply affected by such a simple but barbarous little death. He sat down in the shade of a tree and thought, “Alas! Do all living creatures kill each other?”

This little death affected him and became a spiritual wound, particularly in light of the death of his mother. More and more he thought about human suffering and death.

For ten years the King tried to cheer him up and distract him. He became immersed in the pleasures of the palace, but he could not block out his awareness of death. Finally he said:

“The luxuries of the palace, this healthy body, this rejoicing youth! What do they mean to me? Some day we may be sick, we shall become aged; from death there is no escape. Pride of youth, pride of health, pride of existence – all thoughtful people should cast them aside.

A man struggling for existence will naturally look for something of value. There are two ways of looking – a right way and a wrong way. If he looks in the wrong way he recognises that sickness, old age and death are unavoidable, but he seeks the opposite.

If he looks in the right way he recognises the true nature of sickness, old age and death, and he searches for meaning in that which transcends all human suffering. In my life of pleasures I seem to be looking in the wrong way.”

The Teaching of Buddha
Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai

Whether you accept Buddha as an historical person or not, the story of the life of the Buddha is a spectacular mythology which offers a poetic narration of the development of higher spiritual consciousness. I want to focus on a part of the story which directly addresses the struggle for mental and spiritual health.

If we view the story of the life of the Buddha as a blueprint for both our individual and society’s spiritual development, then we see patterns in the story which can offer wisdom in our search for answers to our personal and social troubles.

Looking in the Right Way

If we see the story of Buddha as a parable then there are some striking parallels with the modern day writing of Hycner’s Dialogical psychotherapy. 

Like Buddha, our spiritual nature is born into a situation where the outer physical reality dominates. The ruling part of our nature (the King or ego) is delighted with the advent of the spiritual (Buddha). But this creative power comes with a dilemma – this state of being can be used to subjugate the world as a great ruler (ego) or go beyond the physical world to become a spiritual being.

Our ego state (the King) prefers to maintain the status quo and stay immersed in the world of physical reality. Yet the spiritual within us keeps being called out to something more -something bigger and beyond the ego state of being. 

This calling comes at first as a bitter pill – and awareness of death. Yet try as we may to distract ourselves from the true state of physical reality, from the bigger truths of spiritual life, there is that which keeps calling us - tapping us on the shoulder and saying “what about…”

Eventually Siddhartha stops the years of continual distraction and empty living and sees there are two ways of viewing this situation – this struggle for existence.

The first way, which he calls the wrong way, is to ignore the awareness of sickness, old age and death, ignore the bigger picture, and seek the opposite.  

This parallels Hycner’s notion of the spiritual isolation of modern life which creates a void which must be filled, and is filled by things which don’t really fill it and create further longing – money, drugs, sex, even television. 

We ignore the bigger spiritual picture and immerse ourselves, like Buddha, in the opposite – “In my life of pleasures I seem to be looking in the wrong way” says Siddhartha. Or as the Kabbalah has said: “All the troubles of the world… derive from the failure to see the Grandeur of God clearly.”

The second way, which he calls the right way, is to recognise the transitory nature of this ego state and physical reality, and search for meaning that transcends it.

Drawing upon the Kabbalah, Buddhism, and Dialogical psychotherapy we can see striking parallels in how to look at and understand our struggle for existence. Such a perspective lends a revealing light to the current plagues of drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, mental illness, suicide and crime which our societies are struggling with. It seems clear that these are signs of not only psychosocial disorder but of a spiritual disorder –like the Buddha when he was Prince Siddhartha – we are a society without deeper meaning, a society which is looking in the wrong direction.

If we are to find meaningful solutions to these troubles of the world, we must seek answers, seek meaning, which include this deeper spiritual ground of our being. 

Maps and Myths

If we are to make this journey of self-realisation, it is apparent that a map would be useful, as would stories from people who have already travelled these roads. Such maps and myths are largely missing in Western society and this is apparent when one goes beyond the facade of materialism to look for meaning. Bede Griffith points to how religion and spirituality in the West has become quite limited. 

“In India everything has a sacred character - it meets one on every side – they are living in a sacred world. Every meal is sacred, and the kitchen is a sacred place in the Hindu household which no outsider is allowed to enter. Food must be purified and offered in sacrifice. Work is sacred and even the account books are sacred where ever book has a little sandal wood mark to make it sacred.”

The Cosmic Revelation
Bede Griffith p39

The Western world, he states, has become a profane world, where for the last three centuries we have tried to remove everything from the sphere of the sacred. Science has tried to eliminate the sacred, and while this approach has its value, we have developed a very uni-dimensional view of reality that is material. There is little to give maps and stories of meaning to life – no sense of a measure of or a mathematics for that which is not within the realms of physical or psychological science.

I've spent thirty years of my life working as a psychologist and psychotherapist with people with problems, - disorders that most health workers find daunting, such as drug and alcohol abuse and psychosis. 

When I first started teaching psychology in adult education classes, I somehow thought that people who did not have such difficult life problems would be more self-aware. I expected that they were coping or living a well-adjusted life with maturity and self-understanding. 

I learnt that this was not the case. The people I'd been working with who experienced difficult life problems were, in some ways, more aware - particularly those who were well into the process of dealing with their life problems and on the road to recovery. 

In working with, supervising, and training other health professionals over the years I soon noticed that they too were not, as a group, more self-aware. Even though they had numerous theories and techniques to apply to helping others, there had been little work done on personal development and awareness.

I discovered that the people with more awareness were usually those who had either:

had to struggle to overcome some major life problem, or  disorder such as drug dependence

had to undergo therapy themselves 

trained in a therapy model which involves their own personal work

had religious or spiritual experiences or background which was an experiential process and not simply organisational

had witnessed or attended to the suffering of others

some combination of these

The majority of people, including many in the health and helping professions, do not need to or perhaps want to venture inwards to self-understanding and self-awareness. There is little need to deal with such questions as posed by to the adult education classes, which in their simplest form are  "Who am I? Why am I alive?" 

There are psychotherapists such as Hycner who would argue that we are too caught up in the materialism of everyday reality to actually wish to attend to these questions.

However none of us escape the experience of the conditions of existence that the Buddha speaks of. We all must face birth, death, illness, decay, shame, and sorrow. It is at these times in people’s lives they turn to others, often in the helping professions, for a map to help them find their way through. 

Unfortunately many of the helping disciplines have maps to offer which are based on a limited, safe territory (such as observable behaviour) or more often they offer theorised maps and myths of the territory, which the helping professionals may have not actually trodden themselves. 

Yet these questions sneak up on us anyway, particularly at times of major life changes such as birth, marriage, divorce, illness and death. The human conditions of suffering as described by the Buddha, call us out of our normal lives to think about and question who we are and where we are going – and as this happens we experience our quest for meaning.