By inclination and background, I see psychotherapy as often overlapping with spiritual experience. Besides being a psychotherapist, I am a rabbi in Judaism’s liberal Reform movement and spent some years working in two synagogues.
The hunger for meaning, for personal authenticity, for connection to other people and to the world, and for a deeper experience of being alive – these are all needs and yearnings that overflow the little boxes we call psychology, spirituality, philosophy, or any other.
Working with emotional and psychological pain is one area where psychotherapy and spirituality can overlap. Much (though not all) of what brings people to psychotherapy is pain. Some pain can be alleviated, such as the pain of being in a bad relationship, from which you can extricate yourself. But some pain cannot be alleviated, it can only be borne, carried differently, for instance the pain of having had an abusive parent, or of having a miscarriage, or of existential aloneness. What can be done with such pain? Sometimes people find that out of their pain comes a bridge of connection to other people and to new parts of life. Pain deepens their sensitivities to others and they become more giving towards them.
This can be an experience of self-transcendence, when from our most personal inner experience, we go beyond ourselves, to reach and to give to others in profounder ways, to feel less isolated as a separate self. It is hard to imagine someone becoming a truly mature person without experiencing pain, crisis, loss.
The roots of psychology are in the world’s spiritual traditions. For instance, the great saying of the Oracle of Delphi (the priestess of the Temple of Apollo) was “Know thyself,” an injunction that is equally central to psychotherapy’s vision of the healing power of self-understanding and self-awareness.
The Indian spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, taught, "If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.” This, too, expresses very beautifully a truth that is experienced again and again in psychotherapy.
Even the word “psychotherapy” is a constant reminder of its spiritual core, since “psyche” is Greek for “soul”—a word that still expresses more of a spiritual outlook than a scientific one. “Soul” conveys the mystery and ultimate unknowability of our lives, the opening up to dimensions far larger than ourselves.
The core of psychotherapy is the same as it was millennia ago, when people brought their troubles—and some still do—to elders, priests and priestesses, tribal leaders, oracles, chieftains, healers, medicine men and women, shamans, confessors, a guru, a roshi, an imam, a rebbe. There is a comforting irony in the fact that one of the most powerful “techniques” to have influenced psychotherapy of all kinds in recent decades is the “technique” of meditation and mindfulness—a millennia-old, surely universal, spiritual practice. Only now we have brain studies to convince the skeptical that this age-old practice “actually works!"
Psychotherapy continues to be in the awkwardly fruitful position of being neither an art nor a science, of not fitting comfortably on either side of our dividing line of knowledge. In my understanding of it, this is as it should be, because psychotherapy is about far more than depression, anxiety, trauma, and other such diagnostic categories. It is a way of working with our yearnings to be more fully alive in all of the dimensions of our human being.