Spirituality & Psychotherapy

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Spirituality & Psychotherapy -

In Spirituality and Psychotherapy edited by Simon King-Spooner and Craig Newnes, Critical Psychology Series, PPC Books, 2001

11 November 2000

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY ‘SPIRITUAL’?

Dorothy Rowe

Religion has always been one of my interests – what people believe and why, and the consequences of different beliefs. This was the subject of my second book. I called this book The Construction of Life and Death but when the publisher HarperCollins acquired it from the original publisher John Wiley my editor changed the title to something more upbeat, namely The Courage to Live.(1) The theme of this book was that our metaphysical beliefs are central to the way we live our lives because these beliefs always concern the nature of death and the purpose of life.

All religions try to bridge the chasm that death creates in the project of our life by teaching that some important part of ourselves will continue on after death. Actually, no one knows what death is. All we can say for certain is that a living person becomes strangely still. Nevertheless we each choose one of the two possible meanings we can give to death. Either death is the end of our identity or it is a doorway to another life. Whichever meaning we choose determines the purpose of our life. If we see death as the end of our identity we need to make our life in some way satisfactory, though there are a multitude of ways in which we might define ‘satisfactory’. If we see death as a doorway to another life we have to live this life in terms of the next. For instance, if we see death as the doorway to either heaven or hell then in this life we have to strive to be good enough to go to heaven.

We are not likely to choose a meaning for death in a logical fashion by drawing up lists of the pros and cons of each meaning. Rather, one or other of the two meanings appeals to us because it confirms or strengthens that whole structure of meanings which gives us our sense of being a person. If seeing death as the end of our identity fits with how we see ourselves that is the meaning we choose. If we cannot bear the thought of not existing we choose to see death as a doorway to another life. Whichever we choose, we go on to construct fantasies which elaborate the meaning we have given to death. With death as the end we might fantasise about the cessation of pain or about how we shall be remembered after our death. With death as a doorway to another life we might fantasise about that next life. The fantasies which we create to elaborate the meaning we have given to death all have this aim, the maintenance of ourselves as a person.

Such fantasies have little relationship to logic and reason and what we might call reality. In my latest book Friends and Enemies(2) I speculate about a form of thought or a function of the meaning structure which I call ‘primitive pride’ which reacts immediately and ruthlessly to any threat to the meaning structure. This is not a new idea. It is implicit in the psychoanalytic concepts of defence mechanisms, particularly in rationalization. Karen Horney wrote about compensatory ‘pride systems’(3) while the American psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson discovered what they called ‘the psychological immune system, an army of rationalizations, justifications and self-serving logic’.(4)

Primitive pride operates without reference to reason and to what is actually going on. It protects our sense of being a person even in the most extreme conditions. Thus someone in the depths of depression and in danger of being completely overwhelmed by self-disgust can be implying in what he says to another person, ‘I might be totally bad but I’m better than you because I know how bad I am while you don’t know just how bad you are.’

Primitive pride can save us and it can destroy us. It is primitive pride which prevents people from seeing that in certain circumstances it would be in their long-term interests to compromise with their enemies. Thus primitive pride helps maintains the conflicts in Northern Ireland and in Israel. It is also primitive pride which reacts so strongly, even murderously, to anyone whose mere existence seems to threaten dearly-held fantasies. Down the centuries the infidel has been attacked and killed. Nowadays there might be ecumenical sweetness and light among the various religious groups, but a non-believer is still a threat. Even among those peace-loving people for whom spirituality is the highest good a dangerous person is one who asks, ‘What do you mean by spirituality?’ As I know only too well.

In 1997 BBC Radio 4 presented a series called Devout Sceptics . When I was invited to take part I was told that each programme would consist of an interview with someone who had no religious beliefs. In the weeks leading to the recording of my interview I persisted in thinking that the series was called Passionate Sceptics, a description which certainly applied to me. My error prevented me from thinking critically about who had set up this series and why.

Thus it was not until I was in the studio with the interviewer Bel Mooney that I discovered that the series was part of the God slot, that is, the period of airtime devoted to religious matters. I was quite cheered by the discovery that that BBC religious broadcasting had adopted such a broadminded approach. It is only of comparatively recent years that Thought for Today, broadcast during the Radio 4 Today programme, has included spokespeople for Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam, but all attempts by humanists to get themselves included have been adamantly rejected.

Bel began the interview by quoting from my book The Courage to Live where I wrote, ‘Despite, or perhaps because of my upbringing I have never been able to believe in a personal God and an afterlife.’(5) Bel said, ‘That was written in 1981. Is it still your position?’ I replied that it had always been my position and that I had never had any reason to change. I felt that I had stated my position so clearly that it needed no amplification but soon Bel returned to the subject. She asked, ‘You had a traditional Christian upbringing. Who was the God you believed in when you did?’

I replied, ‘I didn’t ever believe in God.’ I explained that somehow the belief in God had never taken hold. I had been sent to Presbyterian church and Sunday school and attended scripture classes at school, and so acquired a detailed knowledge of Christianity, but I never acquired a belief in God. Rather, I acquired an intense scepticism about anyone who claimed to be in possession of some absolute truth. Such scepticism is often the outcome of a Presbyterian upbringing. Presbyterianism rests on the individual’s conscience, and such a conscience will not allow lying to oneself. I could not pretend a belief which I did not have.

Moreover, my parents had not set me an example of belief. My father had no time for religion and was intensely sceptical of anyone who set himself up as a leader either religious or political. My mother sent her two daughters to church because she was frightened of what her mother would think if she did not, but she never attended church herself. She did not like people, and no man, whether earthly or heavenly, was going to tell her what to do. In my home there was no mention of God except as a rhetorical exclamation at times of crisis.

I thought my long answer had exhausted the matter but Bel was not going to let it go. I could now see that the interview was not going to one of the Anthony Clare variety, a gentle yet penetrating exploration of how the interviewee saw himself and his world. Rather, it was an interrogation aimed at forcing from me the confession that really, underneath, like all right-thinking people, I did believe in God. Now I had a better idea of what the title of the series actually meant and what the aim of the series really was. Each person interviewed might begin by claiming to have no religious belief but, through skilful questioning Bel would elicit from them, or bring them to understand, that they did have some spiritual or religious belief in some great power.

This kind of interview has a long history. During the Spanish Inquisition the inquisitors sought to wring a confession of faith from their prisoners, and so they developed in their interrogation the contrasting themes of ‘you poor wretch’ and ‘you have powers you know not of’, themes which Bel was now employing. The ‘you poor wretch’ theme was there in the way Bel kelp implying that, if I had no religious beliefs, I must live a barren, empty life in a world devoid of mystery, and with nothing ahead but death and eternal blackness. This is what many religious or spiritual people see as what we sceptics experience. I know it is a waste of time to say, ‘No, not really, my life isn’t like that,’ because religious or spiritual people do like to feel superior to us sceptics, but if Bel had asked me I would have said that I find life enormously interesting and enjoyable. I like people. One of my favourite pastimes is to be in a public place and watch people go by. If anyone cares to tell me a story about themselves I am completely enraptured by what they say. People are to me infinitely interesting. Moreover, I love the world. I watch the sky. I gaze at flowers, fields, mountains, gardens, any stretch of water, and bliss is to be beside, if not in, the ocean. Trees are my passion, such creatures of beauty, truth, reliability and safety. As a child I used to escape into the bush to avoid my mother’s dangerous temper, and there were the comforting, reliable trees. A woman – a psychologist colleague – once told me that she saw trees as alien and dangerous. I was shocked in a way that few things have shocked me.

I did not tell Bel all this but I did say that I especially loved eucalypts – gum trees as we call them in Australia – and that I had planted some in each of the gardens I had owned in England. I wondered whether Bel thought that at last I had confessed to a faith, albeit an arboreal one, and indeed she did, for she began to insist that all my beliefs were spiritual and I was most devout.

Alas for Bel, my love of trees does not amount to a religion. Though the bottom of my garden in London does bear a remarkable resemblance to the Australian bush, needing only a passing kangaroo to complete the picture, when I go there and give the solid trunks of these trees a pat, or even a hug, it is the pat or hug of friendship. I do not kneel down and worship them either actually or metaphorically.

Friendship is a relationship between equals. My trees and I are equals. We both exist. I find that so extraordinary and amazing that I do not need to add anything to it. To insist that all this had a Maker and that it was all part of some Grand Design would gild the lily so much as to destroy it. Admittedly, some of our experiences are so meagre and disappointing that they need to be polished up with various fantasies, but for me existence itself is not meagre and disappointing. It does not need fantasies about a Maker and other spiritual worlds. It is more than enough in itself.

Bel’s insistence that I was both devout and spiritual was yet another example of religious colonization. The Christian Church has always done this. Christian colonizers took overthe religious festivals of the people they wanted to convert and claimed them for Christ.All the human virtues are claimed to be Christian virtues, as if non-Christians cannot have a morality. In this way Bel insisted that must be devout because I had devoted my life to helping people. I assured her that this was not the case. I tried to explain that when I was born I was presented with a problem which I came to feel I had to solve in order to survive. It was, ‘Why does my mother behave as she does?’ Soon this question broadened to, ‘Why do people behave as they do?’ I now know the answer to that question. I arrived at this answer over many years of reading, listening to people, and writing to clarify my thoughts. The fact that a by-product of this intensely selfish activity was that some people found themselves helped by what I said is very pleasing to me because I would rather live in a world where people were happy than in one where people were sad and confused, but to claim that I had devoted my life to helping people would not only be a terrible lie but an insult to those many people, both devout and non-devout, who have spent their lives devotedly and unselfishly helping others.

What Bel did in this interview was to take the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘devout’ and stretch their meanings in order to prove the premises of her argument that, in fact, I held religious beliefs. Down the centuries Christian apologists have been adept at stretching and juggling the meaning of words, and at creating fuzzy meanings that mean one thing in one situation and something else in another but thus prove the apologists’ arguments. However, in earlier centuries no one would be considered to be a member of a faith unless that person professed that faith and accepted without question the dogma of that faith. Where a church had great political power many people professed that faith because not to do so meant exclusion from public life and often great economic disadvantage. For instance, in Britain until well into the nineteenth century people who were not members of the Church of England were excluded from the universities and from public office, and even later Irish Catholics were excluded from all economic advantages.

As the political power of the church dwindled in the twentieth century so the language of the church changed. The language associated with hell-fire and a vengeful God disappeared except from the discourses of the evangelical/fundamentalist churches where sinners still had to be frightened into repentance. Even in these churches the emphasis was on the good news of salvation, which meant that those who had been saved were told that they were now part of a community which offered endless love and security. Meanwhile, the mainstream churches watered down the demands of their faith, while many Westerners encountering the Eastern philosophies created forms of Buddhism and Zen which eschewed the rigours of those practices and beliefs for something much more cosy. All these changes allowed people to indulge in what Simon Fanshawe called the individual personal religions of the ‘pick and mix variety like a Woolies sweet counter’ with ‘a nice cuddly God who leaves loopholes’(6), something that the Gods of previous centuries never did. It was in this atmosphere that the word ‘spiritual’ came into its own.

All religions of whatever variety try to find words which imply virtue and special qualities and which are accepted without question. Politicians do the same. American politicians use ‘America’ and ‘the American people’ in this way, as does Tony Blair use ‘family values’. The word ‘spiritual’ might once have meant simply ‘relationship to God’ but now it is a Humpy Dumpty word which means whatever the speaker wants it to mean. Thus, whenever someone uses the word ‘spiritual’ to me I have to ask, ‘What do you mean by “spiritual”?’

The answers I have been given to this question are many and various but in general they fall into two groups. Both groups include the meanings ‘beneficial’ and ‘virtuous’ but they differ greatly in the extent of the territory they each cover. The first group covers only communing with nature while the second group covers power and magic.

The use of the word ‘spiritual’ to refer to the experience of feeling at one with nature often carries the connotation of feeling superior to others, and this comes from the vanity which is always grounded in primitive pride acting to defend the sense of being a person. Both individuals and nations have claimed superiority because they commune with nature. According to the psychiatrist and writer Takeo Doi, the Japanese ‘sometimes have feelings of superiority towards Westerners who in their eyes cannot easily become one with nature.’(7)

However, Takeo Doi points out that there is a very big difference between the Japanese see themselves in relation to nature compared to Westerners. He wrote,

In the Christian world view, God is the fountainhead of all existence. Nature may be a comfort for human beings, or even a companion, but it can never give human beings salvation. Human beings seek God and attempt to find peace with God. Even nature shares the anguish of humanity and awaits the salvation of God. In Japan, God, as a creator, is absent, and, therefore, human beings seek comfort by attempting to immerse themselves completely in nature.(8)

Takeo Doi went on to speculate that in Japanese society where conflicts in society are hidden in the shadows ‘It may be more accurate to say that Japanese turn to nature because there is something unsatisfying in the way they deal with human relations, rather than to say simply that they escape to nature from human complications. Only this would explain why the Japanese feel able to breathe again when they confront nature.’(9)

Whatever our nationality, an important part of our meaning structure, our sense of identity, is our feeling of belonging to the place where we were born. This never goes away no matter how many years we live elsewhere – hence the gum trees in my garden. A sense of belonging to a place is a sense of being at home there, of being part of that place and no other. Living in a place where we do not belong is very threatening to our meaning structure, but usually primitive pride comes to our rescue. When the white settlers went to America they were overwhelmed by the immensity and majesty of the land. To survive as a person they had to create an unquestioning belief in a personal God who watched over their every move, making a personal assessment of their virtues and vices and rewarding and punishing them appropriately. Thus they inflated their sense of their own importance and reduced the majesty of the wilderness to that of a servant provided by God to serve His and their purposes.

Their predecessors, the Indians, knew better than to believe in the rewards and punishments of a personal God in a land where the rewards may be unexpectedly easy (a readily captured buffalo) and the punishments inordinately harsh (an all-encompassing blizzard). Like the Australian aboriginals, they saw that the best way to survive in an inhospitable vastness was to see themselves as one with it.(10)

Australian aboriginal writers like Mudrooroo often use the word ‘spirituality’ when writing about their people, but they use it as a kind of shorthand to encompass many aspects of their life - their attachment to the land, the rules of their society, their history, how people should relate to one another, and the vast body of stories which inform them about the way everything in their land, human, spiritual, plant, animal, the land itself and its climate, behaves.(11) White settlers in Australia despised the aboriginals, but as the years went by many descendants of the settlers discovered in themselves an intense attachment to their land. Nevertheless, as Thomas Keneally remarked, ‘If we are so enamoured of Australia after three or four generations, imagine what a sense of possession the Aborigines have after 12,500 generations?’(12)

Alas, the aboriginal people are now suffering the ill effects of spiritual colonisation in the same way they had suffered the effects of Christian colonisation which robbed them of their homes and their children.(13) Many white ‘spiritual’ people, while expressing immense admiration for the spirituality of the aboriginal people, take the view that, as the aboriginal people have such a deep spiritual relationship to their land, they do not need unspiritual things like decent jobs, homes, health care and education.

When ‘spiritual’ becomes a Humpty Dumpty word what is lost is the specific reference to a very distinct and very important experience. This is what occurs when we cease to be wrapped up in our own concerns, cease to think about the past and the future, and attend only to the present and to what is before us. When we do this we reduce the number of our meanings or constructs which form a buffer between us and what is actually going on. We see what is before us with much more clarity and, in not concentrating on our personal concerns, we feel closer and even part of all that is around us. Such an experience can be the outcome of meditation or in what Buddhists call mindfulness, that is, close attention. It is an immensely important experience because it helps us keep our anxieties and wishes within reasonable limits, it ameliorates a painful sense of loneliness, and it helps provide the conditions whereby we can be happy. Happiness is not a goal we can achieve but is simply a by-product of what we do, and can be enjoyed only in the present.

Language cannot give a good account of what it is to be at one with our surroundings, just as language never gives a good account of all great emotional experiences. Being at one with our surroundings is a unique experience and thus might merit the word ‘spiritual’, but when this word takes on the connotations of superior virtue and contact with mysterious powers the experience itself with all its wonderment is degraded.

Throughout the history of the human race people have explained certain events in terms of unearthly powers, and these explanations have often been turned into religions which confer, or appear to confer, particular magical powers on an elite who guard their privileges jealously. Belief is demanded from the rest of the populace, and in return the elite promise to use their magical powers for the benefit of the populace.

Justification for all this has been claimed in different ways at different times and places, but at present with genes and the genome so much in the news many apologists for religion are claiming that there must be a gene for religion or at least that a need for religious belief is an essential part of human nature. Such justifications usually ignore the situation in which all human beings find themselves. We are a puny species blessed and cursed with consciousness. We know how puny we are and how vast the universe. We try to predict and control, but the forces of nature, indifferent to our existence, go their own way.

It requires great courage to see our situation as it is and to try to look after ourselves using our intelligence and creativity without resorting to fantasies of magic. It is not surprising that many people turn to magical beliefs to give them the illusion of power and control. In the short term such beliefs can help a person deal with his fears and give him hope, but in the long-term such beliefs prevent us from gaining the knowledge and understanding which we need both to survive as a species and to become fulfilled as the person we could be.

Describing religious belief in this way can be threatening to people with strongly held religious or spiritual beliefs because they do not wish to confront their own helplessness and limitations. To defend themselves they will protest that the non-religious attitude strips from our lives all that is best and reveals the world as a meagre, ugly, hateful place.

This indeed is how many religious or spiritual people see the world. Such a view has a long history in religions where all things material and physical are despised and only things of the spirit valued. Politically such a view keeps the rich rich and prevents the poor from protesting about their poverty. However, such a way of seeing the world can have its roots in earliest childhood.

When we are small children the adults around us use their power to persuade or coerce us into being good. Alas, being good means never being good enough, and so we can easily acquire a sense of being intrinsically bad and unacceptable. At times of crisis when we are being punished for being bad or we are punishing ourselves this sense of intrinsic evil can rise like a black tide and spill out over our surroundings. We are bad and the world around us is bad. Self-disgust becomes disgust with the world. A small child might destroy his toys: an adult might see trees as alien and dangerous.

Simultaneous self-hatred and world hatred make living impossible. Primitive pride comes to the rescue and suggests fantasies of a spiritual world outside the ordinary world, a place of redemption and salvation, and magical powers.

Such fantasies can enable a child to survive both physically and psychologically, but, if the child carries these fantasies into adult life and never subjects them to critical examination, that child’s life is spoilt because he can never just be, accepting himself and his world. Happiness is impossible. He has to continue to elaborate his fantasies and resist, violently if necessary, anyone who suggests that his fantasies are just that, fantasies. From this way of thinking comes endless religious wars and, in a peaceful society, the sense of danger a non-religious person can feel when confronted by a religious or spiritual person.

This is how I felt when I was being interviewed by Bel Mooney. Rather than simply explaining my views I was constantly being put on the defensive. There was the implied threat that unless I owned up to a religious belief I would be revealed as a much lesser person than I thought I was. I could have caved in, but the stubbornness of a Presbyterian conscience prevailed. I could not allow myself to be described as a spiritual and devout person with a religious passion for trees.

Curiously, in that same year, 1997, I came to the attention of a Buddhist monk, T.S. Abeywickrama from Sri Lanka and founder of the Wisdom Centre of the Universal Friendship Foundation. He wrote to me saying, ‘I was amazed and delighted to see a self-enlightened westerner for the first time through your illuminating article on Why Therapy Does Not Work published in The Times. . . Your article is graphic evidence that through your own experience you are enlightened to the reality that we know only what we have constructed in our mind.’(14)

In this article I had written...

While the world we live in seems to be solid and real and shared with others, what we each experience is our own individual construction. We can imagine events that occur without any relationship to us, but what we have is not knowledge but theories. In fact, everything we know is a theory, a construction, and this construction is inside our heads. . . Because all that we have are our interpretations, we are free to choose to acknowledge that what we have are theories and that we can use all means to test these theories, or we can insist that our theories are accurate representations of the truth.’(15)

Of course this is a statement in modern day terms of the essence of what the Buddha taught. I already knew that, and I also knew that understanding the Buddha’s teaching is enlightenment. Nevertheless, I was greatly amused and delighted to be told by a Buddhist monk that I was enlightened without my having to go through many hours of meditation in the sitting postures which I always found excruciatingly painful. However, the trouble with enlightenment is that it does not confer any magical powers. You just have to work at deconstructing your constructions in order to get as close as you can to seeing the world as it actually is, while all the time knowing that, constructed as we are physiologically, we can never see reality directly. There is nothing spiritual in that knowledge at all.

(1) The Construction of Life and Death John Wiley, Chichester, 1982, The Courage to Live HarperCollins, London, 1991.

(2) HarperCollins, London, 2000.

(3) see Christopher Mace ‘Socratic Psychotherapy’ Changes, Vol.17, No. 3, 1999, p.164.

(4) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 75, 1998, p.617.

(5) ibid xi.

(6) Simon Fanshawe Gets to the Bottom of All Things Spiritual Radio 4, November 2, 2000.

(7) The Anatomy of Self trans Mark A. Harbison, Kodansha International Ltd, Tokyo, 1986, p.155.

(8) op cit p.147.

(9) op cit p.151.

(10) Dorothy Rowe Wanting Everything HarperCollins, London, 1991, pp. 354-358, also Dorothy Rowe Friends and Enemies HarperCollins, London, 2000, pp.256-312.

(11) Mudrooroo Us Mob HarperCollins, Sydney, 1995.

(12) Guardian October 30, 2000.

(13) ibid pp. 283-4.

(14) personal communication January 6, 1997.

(15) ‘Why therapy Does Not Work’ The Times January 3, 1997