Text Box: Defining Spirituality within a Psychological Frame

“Psychotherapy arose in response to human suffering, and, as far as we can tell, human suffering has always existed. The ancient lineage of psychotherapy is seldom appreciated because Western culture considers psychotherapy as a relatively recent development of psychiatry, one of its subdivisions. If we define psychotherapy as the treatment of mental distress through psychological means, we find records of such practices of civilization, wherever priests, shamans and witch doctors appear. While psychiatry, a category of scientific medicine, is a modern development, psychotherapy has been associated with the sacred for thousands of years.”
The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy
Arthur Deikman, page 1.

“The general and basic cause of mental illness is thought to lie in leading a life that run’s counter to one’s deepest spiritual inclinations and insights and one’s inherent disposition”
Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry
Terry Clifford, page 137

“As Westerners we have little appreciation for the fact that there are many other psychologies. Zen Buddhism has a psychology; so do Yoga, Christianity and Sufism. These psychologies are a working body of knowledge which to some extent can be looked at independently of the religious belief system ordinarily associated with them.”
Transpersonal Psychologies
Charles Tart, page 5

“Modern psychology is an infant science, at once rash and crude. As in all infant sciences, the universal habit of the human mind – to take a partial or local truth, generalise it unduly and try to explain a whole field of nature in its narrow terms – runs riot here. The psychoanalysis of Freud takes up a certain part, the darkest, the most perilous, the unhealthiest part of the nature, the lower vital subconscious layer, isolates some of its most morbid phenomena  and attributes to it and them an action out of all proportion to its true role in the nature. To raise it up prematurely or improperly for experience is to risk suffusing the conscious parts also with its dark and dirty stuff and thus poisoning the whole vital and even the mental nature.

Always therefore one should begin by a positive, not a negative experience, by bringing down something of the divine nature, calm, light, equanimity, purity, divine strength into parts of the conscious being that have to be changed; only when that has been sufficiently done and there is a firm positive basis, is it safe to raise up the concealed subconscious adverse elements in order to destroy and eliminate them by the strength of the divine calm, light, force and knowledge.”
Sri Auribino or the Adventure of Conscousness
Satprem, page 242.


For some, spirituality and a spiritual reality are mostly a mystery or a badly used and ill-defined term. Yet people report experiences that they term spiritual and are a result of awareness or a reality other than the physical reality. Many are now reporting and writing about such experiences in therapy, both the therapists and clients. 

Thus, spirituality can also imply the existence of levels of reality, particularly physical reality and spiritual reality. 

Steven Rose, a neurophysiologist, in his book The Conscious Brain talks of the many levels at which the brain can be understood –  

quantum structure of atoms; 
molecular properties of the chemicals which compose it;  
the electron-micrographic appearance of the individual cells; 
the behavior of the neurons; 
the evolutionary or development history of these neurons; 
the behavioral response of the individual; 
the familial context and social environment of the person.

In comparing the holists and reductionists perspectives of reality, he goes on to say about these levels of description –

“Each of these descriptions may be complete in its own terms, yet which one is relevant must depend on the circumstance. A statement about a particular human being, ‘He is in love’, could b provided with a description at any one of these varying levels. It could be in terms of the social interactions of the particular human; of n analysis of his own ‘state of mind’; of a specification of the changes in hormonal level in his circulating blood stream and variations in sensory input; the altered firing patterns of the cells of the hypothalamus and cortex; new synapses in particular brain regions; changes in the rates of synthesis of proteins or other macro-molecules; changes in the quantum state of atoms composing his body”.  (Rose, S., 1976)

I read Rose many years ago while completing my psychology degree and I found his example above very useful in considering what frame of reference I and others were operating in when we talked about something. I realised how every experience could be said to have a physical, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual aspect - yet which of these labels we attach to the experience will possibly depend on our perspective, context, background, belief system etc.

Hence spiritual experience is that which people report as an experience of a reality other than that which is physical, which many then call spiritual and which some state is the meeting with this mystery.

The “ality” part spirituality describes as our ability. Hence physicality is our ability to experience the physical, emotionality is our ability to experience emotions and spirituality is our ability to experience the spiritual (Crocker, S. 1999).

Roberto Assagioli and Psychosynthesis 

The founder of Psychosynthesis, the psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, takes an existential and phenomenological approach to defining religion and spirituality. 

In defining the terms to separate religion from psychotherapy, Assagioli (1986) firstly notes two different stages of religion. The first is “existential religion” which is direct spiritual experience, often realised by founders of religions, mystics and in varying degrees by many people in everyday life. 

Second is the religion which is a theological or metaphysical formulation of such experiences, along with the institutions methods and forms developed to communicate to the masses. 

Psychosynthesis affirms the reality of the first religion and works in this area but is neutral to the second, noting that this second form is necessary, but the purpose of Psychosynthesis is to attain direct experience of the first. 

In many ways Assagioli makes the distinction between psychology and religion on practical grounds, offering definitions of terms such as “self” and “spiritual” and “religion” as being practical realities which can be experienced and altered by psychological techniques. 

For example, in defining the term spiritual he does not attempt to define or discuss what it is in essence but offers the fact of spiritual experience, an experience of what he terms the super conscious. He then uses the metaphor of electricity wherein we do not need to know the underlying theory or ultimate nature of electricity to use electrical appliances. Likewise, Psychosynthesis accepts that spiritual experiences exist and therefore includes and studies them with the purpose of therapeutic and educational utilisation. 
The same pragmatic approach applies in defining the “self” to his patients. Initially the notion of a personal self and a higher Self is presented as a hypothesis which can be verified or disproved as the therapy proceeds. How this is explained also depends on the background of the person, so that a religious person is told the higher Self is a neutral psychological term used for the soul. For agnostics it is whatever term or metaphor or symbol fits for that person. 

Wilson Van Dusen and the Design of Existence 

Wilson Van Dusen was a psychologist, Gestalt therapist, mystic and a colleague of Carl Rodgers and Fritz Perls. In his book The Design of Existence, proposes there are a number of terms that he would easily substitute for spiritual - 

1. our inner life
2. the significant aspects of life
3. the aspects of life related to eternity
4. your relationship to the order of existence
5. your loves
6. those matters that make you feel most elevated and free
7. your ideal
8. whatever matters most to you 

In essence, from Van Dusen’s perspective, spirituality is to begin to look for and see or experience the design of existence and the slight shift into a greater significance which occurs as we do. 


Themes in Defining Spirituality
Overall there are a number of important themes in attempting to define spirituality given the vast religious, spiritual and mystical writings and experiences of so many cultures. 

First, there are issues of language and culture. Some words in mystical and religious texts do not readily translate, such as Brahman in the Hindu, so we must involve ourselves in the frame of reference of the writings. 

The poetic language of mysticism reminds me of the work of Eugene Taylor. He makes a pertinent comment about language when expressing our spiritual experience -

“It is not generally the language of everyday discourse because it is so personal. It is not the kind of language that drives science or business, and it not the normally the speech we hear when talking to our neighbours, although it sometimes appears in the language of relationships, such as between intimate friends, or in the expression of romantic feelings. It is, rather, a deeply interior language.” (Taylor, E., 1997, page 2)

Second, each writer is using words to translate an experience. Some experiences are beyond words or if you have not actually experienced what the writer is talking about then there will be inherent difficulties. 

Third and perhaps most importantly, is that from the perspective of mystics and theology the “higher” is descending to the “lower”. We are speaking at one state of being, while what we are speaking about may only be experienced at a higher or more expanded state of being. 
Usually the mark of this is that what is understandable at the higher or expanded state sounds paradoxical at the lower state. For example the Carl Jung writing in the foreword to the Tibetan Book of the Dead quotes how when we discover the voidness of our own minds to be Buddha-hood and at the same time our own consciousness we will dwell in the state of the Divine Mind of the Buddha. (Jung, C., 1927)

This holds the paradox without shattering the beauty. This experience of losing self may seem at first very theoretical and wordy. Words do not always convey the experience which behind the words. This is sometimes better expressed through poetry, or art or music. 

This sense of losing oneself and becoming part of something bigger is not limited to such esoteric concepts. It may be found in everyday reality: in painting, in music, being in nature, cheering on your football team, being in a family gathering and laughing. There are so many areas where that which we are involved in is the direct moment and involves love and wisdom. 

At such times we "forget" our "selves" and be in the moment, beyond time and worry. While in the background there is a sense of "me" - this me is almost gone, enrapt in the greater All that we are a part of. Such states are hard to translate into to words at times, and sometimes poetry achieves this best: 

"And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things." 

Wordsworth,W. 
"Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey"