What is spirituality anyway?
How does it differ from religion (or not)?
How might our spiritual selves and the parts of us that seek healing meet in the therapy room? And is psychotherapy, itself, a spiritual pursuit of sorts?*.
I spoke with Reverend Dr. Stephanie Dowrick, Interfaith Minister, best-selling book author and former psychotherapist, to find out. Here are some excerpts from that interview:
What are your thoughts on the concepts of religion and spirituality – are these two different phenomena, or are they just different words for the same thing? And how might that impact the way you work with them?
Religion and religions may sometimes be worlds apart! And yet how can we forget that at the heart of all the world’s religions are profound teachings about how we should care for one another, value ourselves and others, care for the physical world on which we depend. The institutions of religion often forsake that, however, ruled by what exactly…?
We could name tribalism, pragmatism, sometimes even versions of nihilism from which spirituality ought to rescue us! I have spent a lot of time over my adult lifetime with religious groups of many kinds. They are all human institutions, variously flawed, as we also are. And all, as I have said, have at their heart sublime teachings to which we may choose, sadly, to be deaf.
I don’t see ‘spirituality’ as a purer form of religion. It’s a looser term but people can also make something highly self-interested out of their ideas about what spirituality is. It can be superficial and narcissistic. My sense is strong that what really counts is how people interpret their lives, including their religious or spiritual ideals: who and what they genuinely value and are willing to explore and express.
Some have said that psychotherapy, itself, is a spiritual pursuit of sorts*. What are your thoughts?
When it works well – that is, when the psychotherapist him- or herself takes their own development seriously and persistently and is able to be genuinely present in any open-minded way with clients – psychotherapy may include or embrace spiritual elements.
It is not of itself ‘spiritual,’ in my view, particularly where there is no interest in the guiding values or broad sense of meaning in a person’s life, or where there is little or no vocabulary to explore how that client is affecting others, as well as being affected. We may also be afraid to talk about the centrality of someone’s relationship with God: it can feel like a taboo or just ‘impossible’, yet this relationship may be as complex, problematic and passionate as any other. Maybe more so, for some.
At the heart of spirituality is our increasing capacity to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole. Coming with that are very real responsibilities about how we will affect other people, what we will regard as important, and of course how we will regard ourselves. This last is critical.
The key theme in my own new book, Seeking the Sacred, is that when we are able to think about our own lives as sacred, and not just as disappointing or neurotic or flawed, and when we are able to recognise in a deep way the intrinsic value of others’ lives (and not just the value of people who are useful to us, or who protect or flatter us), this will literally transform our way of seeing the outer world also and interacting with it.
I see this ‘shift’ as the necessary revolution that we need at this time, not least for combating the vast addiction we as a human family have to violence and to solving our problems violently. I was inspired in this by many teachers but also by Jung’s words: ‘The modern world is desacralised, that is why it is in crisis. The modern person must rediscover a deeper source of his [and her] own spiritual life.’ What is that source? How is it expressed in our lives and attitudes? How does it form us? These are fascinating and urgent questions.
Are there any particular therapeutic modalities that you feel work well with people’s sense of spirituality?
The obvious answers would be psychosynthesis and some forms of Jungian analysis, although much would always depend on the levels of insight and personal work done by the therapist. There are also now Hakomi and Buddhist psychotherapies offering new choices. And some somatic therapists are highly tuned to the spiritual – which is after all ‘lived’ in human bodies and all other forms of life. But in the end it will come down to what the therapist or counselor believes is important and how they consciously and especially unconsciously ‘allow’ and disallow certain experiences, and privilege some kinds of explorations and insights over others.
I would love to see a real change whereby all therapists and counselors were encouraged to explore openly and continuously what they regard as ‘spiritual’ challenges, first for themselves: what are the spiritual challenges in their own lives? How are they are approaching them and allowing themselves to be changed by them?
Can any of us afford NOT to question our most basic spiritual assumptions, including about what does and does not ground us in the heart of our lives, create meaning, allow for a bigger view, and a more respectful one? Including out attitudes to life and death? To the eternal, to the unseen, to the insoluble? In my ideal world, this would be a central part of our understanding of what it means to be human and therefore a central part of the ongoing training/ inner development that all therapists need until the day on which we hang up our shingle.
As an Interfaith Minister, do you still have a ‘home faith’? How do you work with spiritual beliefs that might conflict with your own, or with people who might challenge your particular deity? And do you have any suggestions for therapists who might face similar situations?
Let me answer the easier of your questions first! My home faith is Christianity but I spent many years of my life away from it also, and over the last thirty years or so immersed myself deeply also in other faiths, especially eastern spirituality. Now I am able to understand Christ’s teachings with increasing appreciation and also frustration that his calls to inclusiveness, love, joy and forgiveness are so often ignored in Christian settings! Clearly, I have been ‘formed’ by that variety of experience and by living in a number of different countries, also.
I spent many years with the Quakers (Religious Society of Friends). In my childhood we were both Protestants and, after my mother’s death, Catholics. I now give my spiritually inclusive services in Sydney in a Uniting Church – and still work often with Catholic groups. My bias is towards mystical, inclusive teachings grounded in an ethical awareness and responsibility.
How do I work with spiritual beliefs different from mine? Most crucially, I don’t have to be ‘right’! That’s harder than it may first seem – most of us adore being ‘right’ and may even need it to feel ‘all right’.
If our own beliefs cause us problems in being with people whose views are very different from our own, this is rich territory for urgent self-investigation. Therapy with someone interested in these issues, and who understands how inevitably they shape us, is certainly called for.
We should not be working with people if we want to influence them to believe as we do.
It is deeply helpful to know what has helped us in our most bleak moments – and to know that this is not a ‘recipe’ for others necessarily. Relying on spiritual strengths is a life-saver, but it needs to be explored with great respect for differences in outlook, culture and experience.
In therapy circles, ‘the person of the therapist’ is a term often used to highlight the role of the practitioner – something one sort of ‘steps into’ before the work begins. Do you have an equivalent ‘person of the minister’? How might the people inside these roles continue nourishing their own spirituality?
What a great question because wherever the role is confused with the complex and, in part, unknowable self, or is required to stand in for it, we will have problems. And we will cause problems. The archetypes of healer, therapist, priest, minister are all powerful. How easy it is to be sucked in or even wholly persuaded by them.
We should all be extremely careful, particularly of the projections we invite, as well as those we are simply ‘receiving’ – and often not so simply. How ‘important’ do we need to be to others? What is this compensating for in our own lives and most hidden sense of self? How ready are we to look at all the other roles we play and how ready, even eager are we sometimes to be a participant rather than leader, client rather than therapist, student rather than teacher? Should we be ‘inside’ our roles at all? These are wonderful questions to raise in peer supervision and also in our own self-inquiry through journal writing.
I think everything I have said makes it clear that the quality of our work will depend absolutely on the curiosity, commitment, tolerance and the humility we bring to our own development first.
Our work as therapists is merely one expression of that; never the sole one. I have learned as much, probably far more, from being a mother than from all my study and book writing. You know that I wrote my doctoral thesis on Rilke, and then a book [In the Company of Rilke]. ‘Love the questions,’ said Rilke. And then live into the answers rather than feeling an ‘answer’ is always and immediately needed. He also wrote, ‘Let everything happen, beauty and terror.’
In other words, don’t hide from the complexity of who you are, including your own strengths and beauty. It takes such courage to live an open-minded, enquiring life, a life of constant learning and increasing connection to self, others, this complex physical world, the sacred or God. But surely anything smaller fails to honour the gifts of this existence. I think that’s my guiding principle! In that way, Seeking the Sacred is the most autobiographical of my books. And it’s taken me years to be ready to write it.
Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick, PhD, is the author of five bestselling books, including Intimacy and Solitude, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, The Universal Heart and Choosing Happiness: Life and Soul Essentials.
After studying and practising psychotherapy, Stephanie went on to be ordained as an Interfaith Minister in 2005. She has given talks and conducted retreats and workshops over many years, on a variety of spiritual, psychological and ethical issues. She also gives monthly Interfaith services and weekly meditations in Sydney.
Stephanie’s latest book, Seeking the Sacred: Transforming Our View of Ourselves and One Another, is out now.
Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick was interviewed by Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar, editor, writer and psychotherapist.