Psychology and Spirituality

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A talk to staff at the Kenilworth Clinic, Tuesday 11th May, 2010

by

Dr Richard Oxtoby, M.Sc, Ph.D.

Two quotes that I invariably use when lecturing are highly relevant to how I hope you will approach what I have to say this afternoon.  The first is by someone by the name of Bulwer,  “In learning what others have thought, it is well to keep in practice the power of thinking for oneself.  When an author has added to your knowledge, pause and consider if you can add nothing to his.”

The other comes from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: “The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom, but rather of his faith and his lovingness.  If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”

The Relationship between Religion and Spirituality

The Spiritual World is a non-physical category of existence which all religions attempt to help their adherents to access.  Unfortunately although the spiritual world, like the physical world, has an existence independent of any human being or anyone’s awareness of that realm, religions with their buildings, written documents, traditions and beliefs are the creation of human beings, and therefore, unlike nature in all its forms, far from perfect.  Being constructed and maintained by fallible human beings, with all their psychological baggage, every religion has its faults and inadequacies.  Whatever religion we hitch our wagon to (and I include Atheism as a religion, for good reason I think, if we study the works of Freud and Richard Dawkins) we can be sure that we are getting only a partial picture of a greater spiritual reality.  In my opinion there is good reason why Psychology and Religion do not make comfortable bed-fellows.  For me all religions have some vision within them of spiritual truth, but also a heavy admixture of purely human baggage, some of which at least amounts to nothing less than Psychopathology.  (For example, the belief that we are all fundamentally bad, miserable sinners and there is no health in us.  Such a belief has nothing to do with a perception of spiritual reality.  It is a form of purely human pathology which some religious people and some non-religious people suffer from.)  It is to be contrasted with a very different view, which again is not unique to either religious or non-religious people, that we are all made in the likeness of God, that we all carry the divine image within us.  At the risk of straying too far from the main theme of this talk I must share with you a few lines from a poem, Intimations of Immortality written by the 19th century English poet William Wordsworth.  The 4 lines are:

“Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home …”

We are not rotten at our core, we are good and beautiful at our core, however distorted an image of that beauty our outer selves carry – distortions created by the less than perfect life experiences we have all had in growing up.  But we arrive in this world not as miserable sinners, but “Trailing clouds of glory, from God who is our home”.

The more the spiritual essence of any particular religious point of view is contaminated by purely human psychopathology, the more Psychology and Religion will be in conflict in respect of that religious point of view.  By contrast, Psychology and Spirituality are, I believe, just two parts of a greater whole, and that relationship is the subject of my talk this afternoon.  To largely ignore the subject of religion in a talk about spirituality does not imply any lack of enthusiasm for the religions of the world, they are just not what this talk is about.

The Structure of the Human Mind

a) According to Freud: Conscious; Preconscious; Unconscious

b)  Jung added: Collective Unconscious

Jung went further than Freud in recognising that although much of the content of our Unconscious is personal, the residues of experiences which we have ourselves had, there are many features of the contents of our minds which we have in common with all members of the human race and which are not there as residues of any personal experiences we may have had.  He introduced the concept of the Collective Unconscious to describe these commonalities, and made much use of the idea of Archetypes, non-physical entities residing in the Collective Unconscious.  These archetypes are like templates around which aspects of our psyches constellate – archetypes like those of the Hero, the Wounded Healer, the Earth Mother, and so on.  In our presentation of ourselves to the world, we see the physical embodiment of these non-physical, and therefore spiritual entities we all carry within us and share with all humanity.

The Collective Unconscious

But it is not Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious that I want to speak about this afternoon.  The Collective Unconscious is but one aspect of a more all-embracing concept of the nature of those beyond-the-physical realities which constitute the spiritual realm, and those entities which the ancient Greek philosopher Plato described as occupying the Realm of Ideal Forms. Inherent in my approach to therapy is recognition of the importance of this broadly-speaking “spiritual” realm.  It is what underlies all purely psychological phenomena, and there are aspects of this realm, I believe, that we therapists are (often unconsciously) plugged into during our interactions with our clients.  I believe it could be helpful to be not just plugged into this realm in working with our clients, but to be conscious of the fact that this is what is happening. Such consciousness can be a powerful stress-reducing agent in respect of our work, and perhaps an important prophylactic against burnout.  In the next, and last section of this talk I shall suggest one method of getting powerfully in touch with these spiritual values, but first we need to look at what psychological experience we have when we are in touch with the spiritual depths underlying all psychological phenomena.  Where do we find these spiritual depths?

Encountering the Spiritual

Pre-eminently, I believe we encounter those spiritual depths

  1. Through implementing the ethical principles embedded within the world’s great religions.  A partial list is given below.
  • A passionate belief that it is “meet, right, and our bounden duty” (i.e. a “good thing”) to reduce the amount of suffering, (both physical and psychological) in the world.  Healing the sick in body or mind, reducing the amount of physical and emotional hurt in the world, is probably the major professed aim of all the work undertaken by all of us in the healing professions.  I say “professed”, because we can probably all echo that despairing cry of St. Paul, “The evil that I would not, I do, and the good that I would do, I do not.”  Understanding the concept of our “shadow” is essential if we Psychotherapeutic Saints are to treat ourselves with constructive kindness and gentleness in trying to remedy our shortcomings.
  • A compassionate respect for the unique individuality and infinite worth of every individual.  “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. “True humanitarianess consists in never sacrificing a person to a principle.” – Albert Schweitzer.  “If it comes to a choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” – Anon.  No system of psychotherapy, or any model or theory of human behaviour, normal or abnormal, should ever be regarded as more sacrosanct than the well-being of the individual to whom such “treatment” is being applied.
  • The adoption of a non-judgemental, forgiving attitude towards the wrong-doing of others, and even more fundamentally-importantly, of ourselves.  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  As St Francis of Assisi so beautifully put it, “It is in forgiving others that we ourselves are forgiven”.  Non-judgementalness is for me the hallmark of any therapeutic psychological intervention.
  • Inversion of the conventional power hierarchy; “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”.  “Whomsoever would be greatest among you, let him be your servant.” – a precept beautifully implemented in Jesus’ insisting on washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.  Hopefully not too many of us in the psychotherapeutic healing professions use the weight of our positional authority to demand “respect”, “subservience”, and “authoritarian submission” from our clients – not consciously, anyway, although some self-examination along these lines might be a worthwhile undertaking – “All power corrupts”, and clients do give their therapists power over them – often far too much.  Most of us, I suspect, regardless of what we think of Carl Rogers’ psychotherapeutic method, do try to practise “Client-centred therapy”.

“The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,

That prays in his distress,

Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, turk or jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.”

– William Blake.   Songs of Innocence

3. Nostalgia.  What is it? Essentially a longing for some beautiful experience of the past which is no longer part of our everyday experience.  At core I believe that experience is a sense of the absence of adversarialness and conflict, a sense of oneness with those closest to us, particularly our mother.  But even deeper than that core is the desire for that strange amalgam of the will to live and the will to love which are united in that core we call “God”.  There is sadly no time now to elaborate on what I believe ties together in one unified whole, love, sex, childbirth, early childhood experience, spirituality and that profound insight of Jesus, “Unless ye become as little children ye shall in nowise enter the kingdom of God”, but let me read you some poems and other writings on the theme of nostalgia, and invite you to close your eyes and see what emotions, images and memories come to mind in your experience from that time before, as A. A. Milne put into the mouth of the pre-school Christopher Robin, “They don’t let you do nothing anymore”, feelings which we first felt in that paradisic, Garden-of-Eden-type experience which all but the most tragically neglected of us knew in the earliest months, and perhaps even years of our relationship with a loving parent, no matter how tragically things may have gone wrong later after a beautiful start.  As I read these things to you perhaps you will find the thought that it is precisely those feelings of deep, loving contact and oneness with another human being which Jesus was talking about as constituting being “in the Kingdom of God”, of a oneness with all the positive forces of the universe, of a direct, wordless union and communion with God.

“The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.” Commenting on these words written by the early 20th century novelist Leslie Poles Hartley, one of his biographers wrote:

“‘Hartley ‘never forgot that summer’ and its promise – to a five-year-old – of a Golden Age: ‘almost literally, for I think of it as being the colour of gold.  I didn’t want to go back to it, but I wanted it to come back to me, and I still do,’ he wrote.”  Jane Brown  Spirits of Place London: Penguin, 2002.

“Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mystery of song

Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside

And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour

With the great black piano appasionata.  The glamour

Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

– D. H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)

I REMEMBER, I REMEMBER

I remember, I remember,

The house where I was born,

The little window where the sun

Came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon,

Nor brought too long a day,

But now, I often wish the night

Had borne my breath away.

I remember, I remember,

The roses, red and white;

The violets and the lily-cups,

Those flowers made of light!

The lilacs where the robin built,

And where my brother set

The laburnum on his birthday –

The tree is living yet!

I remember, I remember,

Where I used to swing;

And thought the air must rush as fresh

To swallows on the wing:

My spirit flew in feathers then,

That is so heavy now,

And summer pools could hardly cool

The fever on my brow!

I remember, I remember,

The fir trees dark and high;

I used to think their slender tops

Were close against the sky:

It was a childish ignorance,

But now ‘tis little joy

To know I’m farther off from heav’n

Than when I was a boy.

– Thomas Hood (1799 – 1845)

“When she read just now to James, ‘and there were numbers of soldiers with kettle-drums and trumpets’, and his eyes darkened, she thought, why should they grow up and lose all that?” (p. 65) – Virginia Wolf. To the Lighthouse.

Clancy Sigal writing of growing up on Chicago’s West Side, says in an article entitled “The Heart that Failed” (published in The Guardian Weekly of   ):

“… Like looming locomotives bearing down on us, jobs, sex and war were inescapable.  Some time around my twelfth year I had an eerie feeling of having joined an invisible marathon racing toward a vaguely unattractive goal: adulthood.  Even at the time I sensed it was a hard road to go.  I didn’t know why but there was something wrong with it.  Whenever I questioned the process, usually in a silly, offhand or embarrassed way, the predictable sneer was: “Aw, grow up!”  Ah, but what if, on the basis of a strong hunch, you didn’t want to?

“Too late.  Parties, spin-the-bottle and kissing games, led to real sex; age led to the military draft; the first shave to rejecting kid’s stuff in favour of the real thing; making money or in other ways getting on in the world.  Or simply, as with so many of us on Chicago’s West Side, surviving.

“I’m not sorry I missed being a teenager.  However, I deeply regret having lost sight of the golden city, a place of the individual imagination beyond the first fears of childhood.  When that special landscape of a child’s heart misted over, when I grew tough and “realistic”, I’m sure I began the process that landed me in intensive care.

“The case is unprovable.  I’m still doing the conventional expected things,.  I diet, exercise properly and listen to my friends’ and doctors’ advice.  But, behind their backs as it were, sometimes at night when the light is out, I snap open my imaginary telescope and scan the turreted battlements of a far-gone time which, if I don’t relocate it fairly exactly, surely will finish me off as efficiently as a fat-clogged artery.

“Even now, in hindsight, as I write about “growing up into a man”, the process seems so universal and natural that to question it, let alone momentarily reverse the flow, feels grotesque.

“But I wonder how many of us keel over with heart attacks as an inner protest against all this adult male stuff that nobody exactly forced on us, indeed seemed at the time a positive and necessary good in our lives?

“Second thoughts like this, jogged by trauma and medication, can be wonderfully therapeutic as well as chilling as the gallows.  We cannot abolish manhood as we know it.  (Why?, a child’s voice within wants to know.)  And I’m not even sure that, if we cancelled most of the obnoxious macho aspects, it would still erase the terrible rush to self-judgement that becoming a man, at least in America, entails.

“We leave behind too much in the scramble to sit at the adults’ table.  By wiping themselves out with “cardiac events” in such massive numbers, men may be voting with their hearts to get out of the trap at whatever cost.  If untended, the child within us becomes a terrible and terribly powerful enemy.”

But, one might add, nurtured and cherished, loved and appreciated, that child within becomes a constant and most powerful link with the divine.  “As ye again in spirit become little children, ye are entering the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, that place from which we came.  Those words of the 19th century English poet William Wordsworth, describing the newborn seem particularly appropriate to ponder at this point, “Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God who is our home. … Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”

2. Through the contemplation of beauty in art and in nature.  The Fibonacci sequence is one relevant part of it.  Named after the first European mathematician to discover it, the Italian Leonardo Fibonacci (although it was explored by Indian mathematicians a thousand years earlier).  This is the number sequence (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21) obtained by starting with the two numbers 0 and 1, and obtaining the third and subsequent ones by in all cases adding the preceding two together.  With some fairly simple mathematical manipulation this series of numbers generates a number variously described as the “golden section”, “golden mean”, or “golden number”.  This number, approximately 1.618, has been found to be a universal constant relating the lengths of various parts of some of the most beautiful shapes and objects in nature and in art (e.g. Greek Temples, the spiral shapes of shells, and the ratio of the length of the metatarsals of the human hand to the tarsal).  But I specifically want to focus on music, not because it is the only form of beauty through contemplation of which I believe we can experience the presence of God, but because I (in company with many others in the past and the present) believe it is a particularly powerful way, and one which has been extremely important to me throughout my life.

>> Let me read you some of the things people have said about the spiritual dimensions of music and then end this address by playing a fairly short (approx. 5 mins) movement of a violin Concerto by the 18th Century German composer J. S. Bach, which is one of the most deeply tranquillising (because deeply spiritual) pieces of music I know.

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” – Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.)

“Music, which gentler on the spirit lies

Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes.” – Tennyson.

“Through every pulse the music stole,

And held sublime communion with the soul,

…” – James Montgomery

In his autobiography the well-known Catholic theologian Hans Küng writes: “What would all work be without music, which makes the spiritual sensual and the sensual spiritual? … Music warms my heart and keeps my head clear“.

“Of all the arts beneath the heaven,

That man has found, or God has given,

None draws the soul so sweet away,

As music’s melting, mystic lay;

Slight emblem of the bliss above,

It soothes the spirit all to love.” – Hogg (perhaps James Hogg, 1770 – 1835)

“Without music life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900).

“After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” – Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963).

“Many music lovers are apt to get Bach mixed up with God.” Jan Swafford, in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music

“Music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired.”  Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480 – 524) De Institutione Musica

“All music, based upon melody and rhythm, is the earthly representation of heavenly music.”  –  Plotinus

“… music … is granted to us for the sake of harmony; and harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is … meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself.” – Plato, Timaeus, 47.

“Music is the art of the prophets, the only art that can calm the agitations of the soul: it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents that God has given us.” – Luther

“The meaning of song goes deep.  Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us!  A kind of inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that! – Carlyle.

“I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours.  But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places.  Music is the only means by which we feel these emotions in their universality.” – H.A. Overstreet.

“And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.”  –  John Donne

“Mozart is the human incarnation of the divine force of creation.” – Johann W. von Goethe (1749 – 1832).

“Each day I am reborn.  For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner.  It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life.  I go to the piano and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach.  It is a sort of benediction on the house.  It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being human.  That is Bach, like nature a miracle.” – Pablo Casals.

“Bach opens a vista to the universe.  After experiencing him, people feel that there is meaning to life after all.” – Helmut Walcha.

“Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.  When it breaks through his intellect (rational or emotional), it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affections, it is love.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“To a mind that is still the whole earth surrenders” – Chuang Tzu XIII

Play Bach Violin Concerto (2nd movement)

In summary:

God is some amalgam of Goodness, Beauty and Truth, Pity, Mercy, Peace and Love, and Compassion, seeking happiness for others, that which unites all opposites in one whole, and the two related principles of the Will to Live and the Will to Love (both others, and crucially importantly ourselves).  It is when the circumstances of our lives present us with situations in which we feel these emotions that we experience at least some facet of the presence of God.

“In learning what others have thought, it is well to keep in practice the power of thinking for oneself.  When an author has added to your knowledge, pause and consider if you can add nothing to his.”  Bulwer

“The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom, but rather of his faith and his lovingness.  If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” Kahlil Gibran.  The Prophet

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person.  Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have relit the flame within us.” – Albert Schweitzer

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