Spirituality And Psychology: A New Openness?

by Penny Boreham

Bringing Spirituality To The Clinical Setting

“It is far more the urgent psychic problems of patients, rather than the curiosity of research workers, that have given effective impetus to the recent developments in medical psychology and psychotherapy”. C G Jung

Australian academic David Tacey, Professor of Literature at La Trobe University in Melbourne, has written a host of books on psychoanalysis, psychology, religion and spirituality and the connection between these areas.

Dr Tacey writes that clinicians are “often sceptical of spirituality as they sense it is an attempt to escape from personal difficulties and emotional trauma”, but he writes that it is more often than not the patients/clients themselves who bring the question of spirituality to the clinical setting. They often tend to express to their therapists/clinicians their sense that a lack of spiritual meaning has something to do with their illness.

A Post Secular Age

According to David Tacey “we have moved beyond the high watermark of secularism and perhaps live in a post-secular age” and this is a sign that civilization is in transition. We find it hard to articulate our sense of spiritual absence in this “non-religious age” and we are trying to find a personal language for our yearning, our search for meaning, in whatever way we can:-

“They grope towards it, using intuition, experience and whatever resources they can find, whether these are drawn from religion, popular music, movies or conversations with friends. Today we can speak of a client-led or grassroots recovery of the spiritual dimension in healing and health”. 

A Secular And Humanist Paradigm

Spirituality has been seen by many clinicians as “an obstacle to the therapeutic process rather than a source of healing”, says Tacey, and this is because those clinicians regard their job as ‘grounding’ their patients “in the ‘real’” and see this as necessarily excluding spirituality. Tacey states that a secular and humanist paradigm, and a biopsychosocial model, shapes their discourses.

“Many therapists and clinicians have therefore had to do their spiritual training by themselves, or with small groups of like-minded people. Often it is a matter of individual discretion and self-tuition rather than formal training as such. But try as some might to get up to speed with the client-led demand for spiritual input in therapy, there is a ‘spirituality gap’ between patients and clinicians”

Dr Tacey quotes the psychiatrist Andrew Powell who says that:-

“Patients’ attempts to talk about their spiritual beliefs and concerns are often met with incomprehension and mistrust. Sometimes the Chaplain will be called in but frequently the patient will be advised not to dwell on such matters, or else will find those experiences dismissed as delusions or hallucinations”

For clinicians to engage with their clients’ spiritual quest, David Tacey writes that there has to be receptivity:-

“There has to be .. a sensitivity that reaches out to the suffering patient and empathises with their condition and search. The client-centered therapist has to learn to go along with this drift into spiritual discourse, even if she does not fully comprehend its meaning. If the spiritual has been raised as part of the healing process, there should be the acknowledgement that this element has crept into the clinical setting, even if it makes both parties embarrassed owing to the prevailing secular paradigm”

A New Openness

Addressing spirituality and psychology, As Dr Tacey makes clear, ‘Spirituality’ has become a very general term and a therapist would need to find out what ‘spirituality’ means for a particular client, and whether it could connect him/her with sources of power and renewal, or whether “it might lead a client to a world of illusion”. David Tacey is exploring how spirituality can bring people into fuller health and a renewed relationship with reality but he also points out that some spiritualities can be pathologies.

David Tacey is challenging therapists to listen to the stories about the the spiritual with “a new openness” and explore how they might lead to health. Dr Tacey’s point is that we, in the west, do not yet fully comprehend what the east means by ‘universal mind’. We see the mind as shaped by individual experience, which he says of course it is, but we do not consider “the deeper layer which allows access to the realm which, in earlier times, was referred to as the realm of gods, spirits, or daimonia”.

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