Spiritually-Focused Psychotherapy
By Ron Thurlow, M.A., M.F.T.



 I have come to believe that therapy which takes transcendence somehow into account can be more effective than secular psychotherapy even with respect to apparently mundane emotions.
— Ken Wilbur

In recent years, large numbers of individuals in the West have made a conscious choice to seek enlightenment through spiritual practice. Traditional Eastern spiritual disciplines such as Zen, yoga, tantra and others have gained increasingly large numbers of followers. A deep longing for real meaning and purpose has prompted this spiritual search. It is a spiritual inquiry motivated by one question: “Who am I?” Unfortunately, the answer to this question appears in our consciousness from opposite realms — the personal as well as the spiritual.

As we progress along the path of enlightenment, the awareness of spiritual presence amplifies and the center of our identification gradually shifts away from the separated ego and toward the greater self or soul. This shift in the locus of identification does not come easily, nor does it come without crisis. The ego creates many layers of illusion and defense to protect its independent, isolated existence. Individuals on the path encounter progressively difficult and painful emotional disturbances as the ego fights to maintain its control.

Ancient patterns of fear and shame come forcefully into the awareness and demand resolution. It is not unusual for spiritual practitioners to experience visions or sounds that overwhelm the ordinary psyche and emotions. These and other psychological experiences that often accompany spiritual development may be easily misdiagnosed as common psychopathology. However, to treat these symptoms with interventions normally associated with neurotic or psychotic disorders would be a mistake.

With few exceptions, psychotherapy, as it is practiced today, does not take into account the special needs of individuals who are struggling with issues that arise from spiritual practice. Mainstream psychotherapy is primarily concerned with mental and emotional patterns leading to psychopathology and problems with social functioning. Therapy at present is primarily focused on symptom reduction.

Although, transpersonal psychology has for some time promoted the treatment of the whole person, including the spiritual life of the patient, only recently have a few psychologists and psychotherapists begun to explore treatment options that view the personality within the context of spiritual development.

This view of psychodynamics removes the personal ego from center stage and places it in the context of a larger center — that of the soul. A.H. Almaas wrote, “In our view, the self is a living organism that constitutes a field of perception and action. This is what we call ‘soul’.”

To provide psychotherapy that is spiritually focused, it is essential for the therapist to experience a shift in worldview. The therapist must be prepared to recognize and acknowledge the client’s dysfunctional patterns, not only from their personal psychodynamics, but also as a pressing issue that inhibits spiritual progress.

It is requisite that a therapist who chooses to serve people with issues related to spiritual awakening, also be involved in a spiritual practice. Roberto Assagioli said, “In order to deal in a satisfactory way with psychological troubles incident to self-actualization, a two-fold competence is required — that of the professionally trained psychotherapist and that of a serious student of, or better still, the experienced traveler along the way to self-realization.”

Psychological patterns that arise for people on the path may appear to be ordinary emotional conflicts. Yet these conflicts could have originated from a less common source. They may derive from the ego feeling threatened by a powerful, soul-directed move-ment to surrender identification with itself.

Ancient thought forms, referred to in tantric studies as samskaras, maintain an unrelenting grip on the ego throughout its evolutionary cycle. Within the aura of these samskaras the personality has evolved from animal-man to our present day normal, functioning human being.

The great illusion perpetrated by samskaras deludes our consciousness to experience each ego as separate from the soul and the spiritual life that created it. Spiritually-focused psychotherapy guides the pilgrim to resolve the web of samskaras and to experience her/himself as a spiritual being.

The sensitivity of the therapist is of utmost importance when endeavoring to assist someone who is dealing with psychological issues related to spiritual growth. In order to correctly assess the
client’s needs, the therapist must listen from a fine-tuned, intuitive center within him/herself. By maintaining rapport with the client while creating a space into which insight can flow, the therapist and client can discover together the pattern or patterns that are creating difficulty and inhibiting spiritual advancement.

Once the issue has been diagnosed, the therapist and client may develop a treatment plan using the client’s spiritual openness and expanded awareness to confront unresolved psychological patterns. Most patterns, when viewed from a clear spiritual perspective, are quickly seen to be infantile and illogical. They are revealed to exist only to protect the ego’s illusory separate identity. By sitting together in spiritual presence, transmutation of the pattern may occur. The pattern may simply dissolve into its component parts.

John Welwood describes the process, “Transmutation through unconditional presence happens somewhat differently in psychological and in meditative practice. In therapy, it is part of a dialogical process, and therefore always develops out of and returns to a reflective interchange. Reflecting on what has happened in a vertical shift also helps integrate the new quality of presence into ongoing daily functioning. . . .”

A client may have come to a therapist because of intense psychic experiences of either a visual or auditory nature. The therapist must be able to determine the genesis of these experiences and whether they are psychotic hallucinations or the product of an inflow of psychic or spiritual energy as a result of spiritual practice. Fear and paranoia are hallmarks of psychosis. Overwhelming bliss often accompanies an inflow of spiritual energy. When the therapist is able to listen in his heart to the client’s reported experience, it will be abundantly clear which situation he is dealing with.

A spiritually-adept therapist also works from a more insightful and holistic position when encountering ordinary psychological patterns in a person who is not actively or consciously on the path toward enlightenment. In fact, when a therapist regards any client with unconditional love and listens in a clear intuitive place, that which is in the client’s best interest will come forward.

Ron Thurlow has been licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist since 1989. He has been a student of metaphysics and esoteric studies for more than thirty years. Ron provides psychotherapy from an inclusive perspective. He views personality struggles as an integral part of spiritual growth. His private practice is located at 2541 State Street, Suite 119, Carlsbad, CA 92008. Contact him at (760) 729-9270.  

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