A New Anatomy of Spirituality:
Clinical and Political Demands the Psychotherapist Cannot Ignore*
* This is a lightly edited version of a lecture given in the series ‘Psychotherapy and Spirituality’ at the London Centre for Psychotherapy on 26 October 2002.
Andrew Samuels is Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex, Visiting Professor of Psychoanalytic Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and a Training Analyst of the Society of Analytical Psychology. Co-founder of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility and of Antidote, the campaign for emotional literacy. Trustee, Work-Life Balance Trust. Publications, which have been translated into 19 languages, include Jung and the Post-Jungians (1985), The Father (1985), A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis (1986), The Plural Psyche (1989), Psychopathology (1989), The Political Psyche (1993) and Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life (2001).
The bigger and more important the theme, the more personal the author’s connection to it is likely to be. So I will begin by sketching my personal development in connection with the themes of this paper. At about the age of eighteen, I was a highly political young man, but trying to realise my political dreams through the arts - specifically, theatre. We were a radical theatre company, in those days at the end of the 1960s when you could get money from the Arts Council for radical theatre companies. Then, after becoming a youth worker and a counsellor working with young people, I went into analysis, and dropped out of the political world for a decade. So, when Thatcherism came in, I was busy writing Jungian books. Gradually, the political side of my personality, and my interest in society, came back in and merged with my analytic concerns, leading to the formation of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility. Then, when I began to have children, as often seems to happen with men, a third strand came in, which we could call ‘spiritual’. Psychotherapy, politics, and spirituality - three sides of a coin! After the impact of having children, and the turning towards both organised religion and private religion fatherhood induced in me, I began trying to link up the practice of psychotherapy with my emerging spiritual and existing political concerns.
I will begin the paper by discussing some general issues and problems of definition. This is necessary when engaging with what I have heard called the ‘S’ word.Next, I will present an immodestly entitled ‘new anatomy of spirituality. The third section is on responsibility, and how that links to psychological and spiritual concerns. The word ‘responsibility’ is important to my thinking. Finally, inevitably, given my Jungian background, I feel that I must talk on the shadow of spirituality. We Jungians started the psychotherapy world off on what seems like its new line of taking spirituality seriously. But we always knew that, alongside the gold, there’s something potentially wrong with a spiritual approach. So, paradoxically, Jungians are prominent these days in addressing what’s the matter with the spirit, as well as what’s great about it.
THE ‘S’ WORD
When Captain Cook’s ship The Endeavour, anchored in Botany Bay a couple of hundred years plus ago, the aboriginal people did not recognise it as a ship. It was simply so big and so different from what they had in their mind as ‘ship’ that they didn’t recognise it as such. We don’t know what they did think, but we know they didn’t think it was a ship. It was only when the smaller longboats - rowing boats - were lowered into the water that the aboriginal observers of this scene realized that there were boats involved, and that there were people in the boats. Spirituality, if we are trying to define it, is something like that. We don’t really know that we are in that area until something happens to alert us to it. In Bani Shorter’s memorable phrase, everything is susceptible to the sacred (1995). This is a very good one-liner to indicate what happens before you can term something spiritual. Something has to happen that involves you ‘clocking it’, to use the modern argot. For everything can be susceptible to the sacred. It is significant that the lecture upon which this paper is based was not given in a church of synagogue, ashram, mosque or temple. We were in a lecture hall in a psychotherapy training organisation. And that setting influenced what we said and what we experienced.
In the new anatomy of spirituality, I seek to advance a vision of spirituality that is regular, ubiquitous and permeates every aspect of existence. It is not intended to be a lofty, exhortative, sermonising approach. Quite the opposite. My take on spirituality discerns its worm-like nature, not its eagle-like nature. Spirituality as an underneath as well as an over the top thing. And because approaches to spirituality so easily go over the top, it is often better to stay underneath.
So we can scarcely attempt a factual definition of spirituality. We can only given an aspirational one, and therefore whatever we say will be very vague. But there is huge value in vagueness - so much so that there is a philosophical sub-discipline called ‘vague studies’ and even a Journal of Vague Studies. I actually think this is a very important lesson for psychotherapists, especially British psychoanalytic psychotherapists and psychoanalysts. We get terribly hooked on spurious precision when it comes to words, spending much time and energy on the differences between guilt and depression, envy and jealousy, and so on. We speak and write as if we really know, and as if we can really make hard and fast distinctions. It is a kind of love affair of a very perverse kind with precision, and I believe it is deeply problematic, clinically and intellectually. There is something important about staying in the vague for as long as it takes. There are obviously dangers of vagueness but I think that spirituality may not be as dangerous a topic when it is regarded in a vague way as some others because, after all, spirituality has always been something that deconstructs our lives. Long before postmodernism was invented, the spirit was deconstructing daily reality in culture. Hence it is not a problem for me that I am vague about what I mean, or what anyone means by spirituality.
I will leave definition there, caught up in vagueness, thinking of Captain Cook, inviting readers to imagine themselves as those aboriginal people. And the longboats are slowly being lowered into the water, and recognition is gradually dawning.
A NEW ANATOMY OF SPIRITUALITY
There are four aspects to spirituality and the spiritual dimensions of experience that I shall consider: social spirituality, craft spirituality, democratic spirituality, and profane spirituality. In social spirituality, people come together to take responsible action in the social sphere, doing this in concert with other people. When this happens, something spiritual comes into being. Being actively engages in a social, political, cultural or ethical issue, together with others, initiates the spiritual. This is a very different perspective from one that would see social spirituality as being something done in the social domain by spiritual people. To the contrary, there is a kind of spiritual rain that can descend on people who get involved in politics and social issues with others - hence ‘social’ spirituality - in a certain kind of way. I call this rain ‘responsibility’. The difference should be clear: this is by no means an elitist perspective. Social spirituality embraces people who get involved with other people in political and social action - for example, the whole post-Seattle protest against global capitalism that our young people are getting into. What they’re doing when they get involved in the anti-capitalist movements and the environmental and ecological movements is to participate in a general resacralization of culture. To play on the word ‘politicized’, they are becoming ‘spiritualized’. When one gets involved in idealistic politics, sometimes - not always, one gets spiritualized. And so the anti-capitalist movement is creating its own spirituality and, in turn, being informed by the spirituality that it creates in a feedback loop. Political action leads to spirituality of some kind and spirituality informs political action. Of course, eventually it all falls to pieces. Either the police wreck it or people grow up. But there is a basic resacralising (Samuels, 1993) tendency worth recognising. The boundary between external and internal is once again challenged.
In analysis and psychotherapy, there are aspects of this social spirituality that we need to consider. Surely we no longer indulge in the typical therapeutic manoeuvre, when faced with a client who wants to go on a protest demonstration, of interpreting the anti-parental naature of that move, or understand political participation as defensive, resistant, avoidance, splitting, and so on. If there are people in our profession who still make knee-jerk interpretations of that kind, then what I would say to them is that they are caught up in yesterday’s good practice. But the old clinical perspective is today’s bad practice and ignores the individuating thrust in the client’s political and social commitments and actions. What this means, for example, is that, when you take an initial history or when you meet a client for the first time or when you’re interviewing a potential trainee, you don’t ask: ‘Well, why were you so involved in politics when you were eighteen?’ Do ask: ‘Why were you not?’ And why have you apparently got no social commitments at all? Do you read the newspaper? Do you watch Newsnight? I realise this reverses the way that most therapists have been trained to proceed.
I have written extensively about what happens when political themes enter the psychotherapy dialogue (most recently, 2003). Succinctly, within certain limits, the engagement of therapist and client in relation to something political can be mutually transformative. This is truly another example of social spirituality. In the therapeutic setting, as the therapist and client engage on 9/11 or the Hutton Report or Princess Diana, or the decline of the Labour Party, they can find - if they are open to it - a deeply transformative experience that may have a spiritual feel to it, in spite of the fact that the raw material was social, political, controversial, and difficult to deal with for all the technical reasons about suggestion that we know about. For we don’t want to foist our politics on our clients. The difficulties involved are highlighted by the fact that there are very few texts that help therapists to work in this area.
Before moving on to discuss craft spirituality, I want to touch on the pressing contemporary political problematic of martyrdom in general and suicide bombing in particular. This is a testing topic when thinking about social spirituality. Clearly, for those involved in it, the act of suicide bombing leads to the most profound spiritual transformation on the part of the bomber, no matter how wrong the act is from the point of view of victims of outrages committed by suicide bombers, or of people in the West who simply cannot comprehend how such a thing can come about. Actually, we need to be very careful here, because suicide bombing is not an integral part of any culture that I know of. It is a situational response to a complex sociopolitical situation. But our Western culture cannot comprehend how that came about in other cultures. Martyrdom nudges us up against some of the shadow aspects of spirituality, encouraging us to remember, in any rush to embrace the spiritual and bring it into our work and lives, that martyrdom and acts like suicide bombing are the most extreme, over-literalised form of social spirituality imaginable. We need to bear this in mind before rushing blindly into political and social action: that there is a place where it can go that is really quite horrific.
Now for craft spirituality. My thesis here is a bit startling: holiness is artificial. It is not something that we merely discover or find in our lives, or notice in God or nature, or in the psyche. We make holiness. We make it traditionally by building tabernacles, churches and by performing rituals - lighting candles, holding each other and so on.
To illustrate this point I want to reflect on the biblical figure of Bezaleel. Many people have never heard of Bezaleel, though there is a Bezaleel Design Institute in Tel Aviv. Bezaleel was the man who actually made the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. He made them to God’s precise instructions. When we consider these instructions, we may come to two quite different conclusions. One is that God is the most unbelievable obsessional neurotic! The other is that it really matters to God what is made by us in pursuit of holiness: what materials we use, what dimensions we go for, what bevels, joints, and other technical devices we employ.
And Bezaleel made the ark of shittim wood, two cubits and a half was the length of it and a cubit and a half the breadth of it, and a cubit and a half the height of it. And he overlaid it with pure gold within and without, and made a crown of gold to it round about. As he cast for it four rings of gold to be set by the four corners of it, even two rings upon the one side of it and two rings upon the other side of it. And he made staves of shittim wood, and overlaid them with gold. And he put the staves into the rings by the side of the ark to bear the ark.
Such work - maybe, potentially, all work - is a spiritual discipline. In our societies in the West, much work is meaningless and alienating. Nevertheless, even within the meaninglessness and alienation of contemporary work situations, people often develop and deploy a Bezaleel consciousness. They fashion portable tabernacles and sanctuaries for themselves, usually by ritual, often obsessional seeming: how you line up your pens, what colour pen you prefer to write in, how you close down your computer, which people you greet, and in what way. None of this does away with the appalling barbarism of capitalist work organisation, but all of it shows people trying to enter the domain of craft spirituality. Craft spirituality also spills over into aesthetics. Craft spirituality informs the artistic and creative impulse as well.
A great deal of this is very relevant to modern psychotherapy but, again, there do not seem to be very many books or papers about it. In fact, there is a lack of psychotherapy literature in connection with work and employment issues. This is somewhat surprising in that clients regularly talk about problems at work. I have hardly ever worked with a client who has unambivalently admired their boss! Rather, those clients that have admired their boss without ambivalance have usually been hopelessly in love with him or her, which isn’t much use either.
There are special issues for women in connection with work: the glass ceiling, the appalling continuing differentiation of wage rates, the enormous difficulty in getting the present Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Inland Revenue to engage with the issue of tax relief for child care which, although it should not be a ‘woman’s issue’, impacts more on the social and work lives of women than of men. A psychotherapist who does not engage with a woman client in those areas is not only guilty of a social omission, they are guilty of a spiritual omission as well. Because work - craft spirituality - cannot be split off from spirituality as such.
There certainly are craft spirituality issues for men as well. Most private practice psychotherapists don’t see many manual labourers. But we do see the children of manual labourers. That’s the harsh social fact about it, in private practice anyway. Have you noticed how difficult it can be for the more successful son to come to terms with what that means in relation to the apparently less successful father, who may be by now part of a long-term unemployed rust-belt declining industry in the North?
For both men and women, there is a very overt spiritual theme that has to do with work, which has been given the unprepossessing tag of work-life balance. (I must declare an interest here as a Trustee of the Work-Life Balance Trust.) There is a sense in which work-life balance may be the issue of our time. This includes more than having an annual go-home-on-time day! It’s much more than just addressing the chronic workaholism of the population - something that most psychotherapists know about as well, because it’s a problem a lot of us have. Getting your work and your personal life into some kind of balance is a spiritual matter and not only a social matter. Without decent work-life balance, can anyone really flower as a spiritual being, as a person with a soul? Yet work-life balance is not really discussed by psychotherapists. It is discussed by occupational psychologists, of course, and it’s increasingly interesting to economists and accountants. For companies that have effective policies on work-life balance do very well financially. Profit is by no means the right reason to go in for work-life balance but there is a bottom-line aspect that makes it more likely that this movement could have some social and political success. My main point here, when discussing craft spirituality, is to suggest that work-life balance be understood more and more as a spiritual and psychological matter.
I hope it is becoming clearer what I am aiming at in the paper. This is a contemporary take on spirituality, so that it can become ‘useful’, if you like, in apparently non-spiritual places: in the therapy room, in society, and in people’s work lives.
Third in the anatomy is democratic spirituality. This involves the bringing back on to all kinds of agendas - personal, political and clinical - of the idea of absolute equality. In all the discussions about equality of outcome and equality of opportunity, something has got lost. And that is this notion of absolute equality, which used to be called traditionally ‘equality in the eyes of the lord’. We are all equal in the eyes of the lord. This is a powerful idea, because it underpins any protest about economic inequality and the situation in the wider world in which women and children die because of economic policies undertaken by their governments at the behest of the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Democratic spirituality puts the notion of absolute equality, in all its glorious impracticability, back onto the agenda. In particular, democratic spirituality is an attempt from the spiritual end of the spectrum to engage with poverty, economic injustice and economic inequality. From the standpoint of psychotherapy, there’s a great deal that should be said but usually is not. With some notable exceptions in humanistic and integrative psychotherapy, and of people working in transcultural psychotherapy, psychotherapists in Britain, especially psychoanalytical therapists and psychoanalysts, are not adept at working with power issues in therapy. We still tend to prefer to put the client’s challenge to us down to their trouble with a powerful mother, omnipotent breast, phallic mother, great mother, terrible mother, or a castrating, law-giving father who says ‘no’. But there are power issues in the therapy relationship itself which, if overlooked, prevent a certain kind of spiritual communication between therapist and client from taking place. The idea of absolute equality, impractical as I admit, is an ethical penetration of the psychotherapy relationship which leads to an enhancement of the spiritual experience that it can generate.
A couple of final points in relation to democratic spirituality. The first reflects the influence of psychoanalytic thinking on spiritual thinking. In relational psychoanalysis, which is the promising new variant of psychoanalysis that is coming into this country from the United States associated with the name of Stephen Mitchell, the tools exist to describe a particular kind of democratic psychological relationship with God. If you like, this is a relational spirituality, in which one might surrender to the divine, but without masochistically submitting to it. Surrender, but not submission. This relational spirituality, coupled with what I have been saying about democracy and spirituality, is very suggestive and important for therapists. We discern a non-submissive, non-masochistic sense of veneration, in ourselves and our clients, to use the evocative language of Rosemary Gordon’s very important paper on this topic (1987). Being able to worship without having to masochistically submit to authority is a part of contemporary spirituality.
The last in the four was profane spirituality. Profane spirituality is about drugs, sex and rock and roll. In 1961 Jung replied to a query Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous with a critically important letter in which he advanced the idea that alcoholism was a spiritual quest that had gone off the rails. This insight can be applied to so many other addictions, up to and including shopping and workaholism. For the avoidance of doubt, perhaps I should make it plain that I am not saying that shopping is a spiritual activity. What I am saying is that there is a strand of energy in the act of shopping that connects to all the searching and questing that spirituality is commonly associated with.