Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Robert Masters - On Spiritual Teachers and Psychotherapy

A very cool and important post from Robert Masters this month. I think one of the major flaws of most spiritual teachings is the lack of psychotherapeutic focus. Most people are too flawed to progress very far along any spiritual path without also giving attention to the places where we are stuck, wounded, or lost in shadow.

This post goes a long way toward explaining the existence of abusive gurus -- those teachers who, because they haven't done their own shadow work, end up manipulating and/or physically and emotionally abusing their all-too-willing students.

This is the June, 2008, Crucible of Awakening from from Robert Masters.


Not so many spiritual teachers include psychotherapy to any significant degree in the work they do with their students, even when it’s obvious that the spiritual practices they are giving are not really working for some students, especially with regard to not addressing — or not sufficiently addressing — their deeper wounds and needs and psychosocial difficulties.

Rather than then having such students engage in some psychotherapy (and for the purposes of this essay, I don’t mean conventional talk therapy, but body-including, emotionally literate, truly integral psychotherapy), further spiritual practice is typically recommended, as if the only answer is to stay with the spiritual path prescribed by one’s spiritual teacher. If fault is assigned, it is almost always placed on the student, with none or very little brought to the spiritual system or teacher. (Such lopsidedness frequently characterizes dysfunctional relationships, generating endarkened shame and its compensatory offshoots.)

Many spiritual teachers/paths seem to view psychotherapy per se as something their students don’t really need, or as something, at best, to be done before getting into spiritual practice, or, now and then, as possibly something for seriously troubled students. Regardless of its transformational capacity, psychotherapy tends to be viewed by many spiritual teachers as simply a reinforcer of egoity (which in its conventional forms it unfortunately often is).

And why don’t more spiritual teachers recommend and include psychotherapy for their students? Part of the reason may be that they themselves have never done any psychotherapy, or have had a less-than-positive experience with it. Spiritual teachers who state or imply that psychotherapy is a lesser undertaking than spiritual practice, a mere dwelling and digging around in one’s personal history, are, however unwittingly, shaming those students of theirs who really need some psychotherapy, spiritually bullying and “shoulding” such need into a relatively mute and passive position.

A lesser undertaking? This is thick-as-a-brick elitism, revealing a spiritual teacher’s ignorance (and inflated view of his or her teachings). How many spiritual teachers possess a more-than-shallow understanding of and familiarity with psychotherapy and its various schools? How many can distinguish — or even bother distinguishing — mediocre or superficial psychotherapy from the adept stuff? How many recognize that highly skilled psychotherapy is itself, without necessarily trying to be so, often potently spiritual? And how many have themselves undergone, or even considered undergoing, such therapy?

More and more psychotherapists are using spiritual practices and perspectives in their work — and personal lives — but are many spiritual teachers using psychotherapeutic approaches in their work (and personal lives)? No. Shadowwork (acknowledging, facing, and integrating what we have turned away from, disowned, or otherwise rejected in ourselves) for them is usually either viewed as a waste of time, a mere regression or lower activity, or as something to be approached only intellectually (especially given that it is now becoming spiritually fashionable to pay lip service to shadow-work). Students who are chronically stuck in very difficult states, states that their spiritual practices are not adequately reaching and addressing, are often told to simply go more deeply into their spiritual practices (as taught by their spiritual teacher), rather than to also — or to instead — do some in-depth psychotherapy.

We need more spiritual teachers who are also highly skilled in psychotherapy. This doesn’t mean, however, that all spiritual teachers should be psychotherapists (nor that all psychotherapists should be spiritual teachers)! But we do need more who can wear both hats, and wear them well. And we need spiritual teachers who really understand psychotherapy and the need for it, even they are not psychotherapeutically skilled. To tell students that directly expressing anger is not a good thing (regardless of how it is expressed!), as many spiritual teachers are inclined to do, is a disservice to students, who may then muzzle and mute their anger in the name of spiritual correctness, assuming that they are sitting with their anger when in fact they are just sitting on it.

The relationship between spiritual teachers and their students is frequently plagued by unacknowledged parent/child transference issues, spiritually camouflaged codependency, and cultism, not to mention spiritual teachers who lack psychological and emotional literacy, teachers who could use some psychotherapeutic work, regardless of their spiritual attainment and access to exalted states. I don’t care very much about their capacity for entering into and abiding in various kinds of samadhi; I care far more about what they are doing with these states! It is very easy to confuse the attainment of such states with being at an advanced stage of spiritual practice (and with being a truly mature person!); students are usually very easily impressed by such spiritual credentials, perhaps feeling some pride in being so closely associated with a spiritual teacher who has certain powers.

Yes, honor the transpersonal, embrace and abide in (and as) it, but not at the expense of the personal and the interpersonal! Everything exists through relationship, so why avoid any of it? Why avoid getting intimate with all of it? Why relegate the personal and interpersonal to a lower status than the transpersonal or transcendent impersonal? To avoid any of it is to remain incomplete, regardless of our spiritual achievements. Real spirituality is radically non-avoidant, more-than-intellectually recognizing that if we flee anything in ourselves, it will multiply and fester and occupy every exit, enlarging itself so as to seize our attention, encoding its outcast will throughout the apparently healthier regions of us, exposing and deflating our spiritual ambition.

Psychotherapy is often viewed as being all about learning how to function better (through, among things, connecting the dots between past and present), but it’s not just about that! Psychotherapy, and I’m talking about body-including, emotionally literate, skillfully expressive, existentially alive integral psychotherapy, is inherently spiritual, in that it invites in ever deeper (and therefore more inclusive) perspectives, opens (at the optimal time), psychospiritual gates from the inside, and asks (also at the optimal time) the big questions and goes for something more real than answers. Such psychotherapy is both crucible and sanctuary for the kind of healing that liberates and awakens us, especially when it is combined with fitting spiritual practices.

Contemporary spiritual teachers who in their teachings and work don’t include psychotherapy, and who also act as if what they are presenting is, for all of their students, sufficient for spiritual awakening, are both deluded and dangerous. Yes, some students, a rare few, may not need any psychotherapy for their maturation, but their example should not negate the vast majority who would surely benefit from adding some psychotherapy to their spiritual practices.

Some spiritual teachers may not want to incorporate psychotherapy in their work with their students because they fear that some, perhaps many, of their students might leave them if they were to do some deep psychotherapeutic work. I recall being hired ten years or so ago by a company to work with their employees; in my interview with its president, he asked me if I thought that some of his employees might, after working with me, not want to stay with his company. He was clearly concerned about this. I replied that some might leave, and that my job was not to do whatever it took to keep them employed with him, but rather to help them take better care of themselves; sometimes this would mean that they would be renewed in their wanting to stay with his company, and sometimes it would mean that they would want to leave. What eased him was my asking him why would he want employees working for him who really didn’t want to be there.

Spiritual teachers for whom integrity (personal, transpersonal, and interpersonal) is essential have more interest in what’s truly best for their students than in keeping them. Such teachers not only have no aversion to their students doing psychotherapy, but in fact openly encourage it, in a clearly integral spirit. They recognize that spiritual practices may not sufficiently address or penetrate many students’ conditioning, and that other approaches, including the psychotherapeutic, need to be included, not to negate the spiritual, but to augment and serve it. For them, an integral approach to healing and awakening is not mere theory, but a deeply embodied, ever-evolving practice in which intimacy with all that we are is the curriculum and practice-path.

This may be anathema to gurucentric spiritual paths, but it is balm and catalyst and extraordinarily deep support for trans-gurucentric spiritual paths, in which students are fully backed in keeping their critical faculties alive and well, even as they surrender ever more deeply to the core imperatives of their being. Here, spirituality is awareness and love functioning as one, requiring no negation of (or separation from) the personal or interpersonal.

Perhaps if we were to choose, as part of our spiritual path, intimacy over transcendence — including intimacy with all that we are — we’d be more at home, more deeply aligned with What-Really-Matters. And is not this precisely where psychotherapy needs to work, and work closely, with spirituality? After all, real freedom is found not in eliminating limitation (one of spiritual ambition’s fantasies!), but rather through limitation. In turning toward our limitations and allowing them to serve our Awakening, we probably could not find a better team of allies than psychotherapy and spiritual practice.

Masters makes a lot of good points. From my perspective, good therapy will always have a spiritual component, so it then becomes a form of practice on its own.

1 comment:

Rev. Danny Fisher said...

He's great. Did you hear his interviews on the New Man podcast? Wonderful.