connecting psychotherapy and spiritual growth for human awakening
richard harvey on the process of personal growth
I am a psychotherapist. I came up on that idealistic, partisan wave of enthusiasm for personal exploration in the mid-seventies that was known as the Human Potential Movement. I work on that edge of therapy which has become known as “personal growth” and in nearly twenty years of seeing people—and I must have seen thousands in groups and one-to-one sessions—I am still in a state of wonder about my work, still amazed that people come in trust to tell me their deepest secrets and still marvel at how therapy “works”.
I have always held that there is nothing that is called “therapy”. Nothing, that is, outside of the healing relationship between therapist and client itself. So how come therapy works, when it does?
When a person comes to therapy there is usually a complex and conflicting mix of urges, pushes and pulls, desires, rationalizations, perhaps extreme emotions, strivings, fear and confusion going on. Hence the quite common phenomenon, following the relief of having picked up the phone and made the initial appointment, of not wanting to come to the first session at the appointed time. Usually a rational reason for starting therapy is presented to the therapist by the client, who has him or herself already presented and believed that this is the actual reason themselves. The unconscious, however, is like the hidden part of an iceberg, and in it is contained hidden, deeper reasons and a more profound purpose.
It is this purpose that the therapist does well to listen out for. Not that the client should not be believed. That would miss the point altogether. The unconscious and the conscious reasons for embarking on an inner journey may well be quite different, at least superficially, but in the conscious reason there may lie clues to the deeper purpose harbored in the unconscious, and anyway it is what the client believes and must not therefore be ignored or disrespected.
As therapy goes on there is likely to be periods of adjustment. Sometimes it is fine tuning. Other times it can feel like quite a jolt. It is like shifting levels, deepening into more authentic and profound fields of truth. Sometimes it is like changing gear; other times it is like stepping out into the unknown. The therapist (depending on the style of working) may go there with the client and be privileged to wander on that path which is not their own for the duration of the session.
It is the business of therapy to unlock the freedom and energy that are constrained by safe and habitual patterns of living. As these patterns become clear to the client the responsibility for the choices they are making is revealed. It is not, of course, the responsibility of “therapy” or the therapist to change anything at all. The client's own inner wisdom will lead them to the point of choice in their lives at the right time, and that time is usually when something needs to be done about it.
Making the serious and transforming decision to alter one's way of meeting the world on a radical level is a choice that releases us into the unknown. But the unknown is also the spontaneous, the exciting: it feels like living again, like recapturing an old vibrancy long-missed. Your eyes see in new ways, you feel as never before and you live your life in fascination, awe and gratitude.
The work of personal growth shows two faces. One side is the work on “me”—the strategy, the mask is gently lifted to uncover the authentic self, to remind us that it still exists and that it wishes to be found (and this may very well be the hidden, unconscious reason for coming to therapy in the first place). The other side is beyond “me”—the so-called transpersonal (or these days, psycho-spiritual), the mystical realms of existence. They are two sides of the same figure, so really not separate, not even really two at all. There is no reason why one side should precede, or follow, the other and indeed this is rarely the case in personal work. The personal and the spiritual will reveal itself in a jumble, a glorious mish-mash of material in which a life crisis can be re-visioned as a divine lesson, in which a spiritual helper may take the shape of a hated enemy.
It is partly to dispel, or transcend, this apparent dichotomy that a person may come to inner work initially. Even the pain of containing within ourselves conflicting emotions and the resultant turmoil is unequal to the unresolved, perhaps even unacknowledged, state in which our harmonious existence is critically dependent on spiritual, as well as physical, mental and emotional health and wholeness.
Therapy works in the end because of our innate tendency to return to the natural state of harmony, health and wholeness that is inherent in every one of us, however unaware of it we may be. The odds are, in many ways, loaded against therapy failing since all the power of the unconscious and the divine are on the side of personal deliverance. Whether that is what you want, whether that can even be imagined before it's encountered is something else and this in itself is humbling—the fact that I am not in control, that I fulfill my destiny whatever explanation I appease my mind with.
The “nothing that is called therapy” reveals itself in the end as a vehicle of transformation. It is the ship in which you made the journey to the other shore. You get out of it and, of course, you leave it behind safe in the knowledge that another vehicle will be there when you need one.
Sitting in my therapy room when my next client enters, here is the opportunity—in the client's trust , through their surrender of usual formalities, the rejection of the etiquette of repression, their willingness to find themselves and in my own resolve to “'be here”—here is the opportunity to shed falsehood and embrace authenticity, here is the opportunity to feel ourselves standing on the planet, the roots of the soul, with our heads in the heavens, the home of the spirit, and with everything in between.
This article was published in Vibes, an alternative therapy magazine, in 1998.