Jungian Psychotherapy and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
Just what is “emotionally healthy spirituality”? Is “spirituality” important? How does it contribute to emotional well-being and to psychological growth?
As I’ve indicated in some prior posts, the word “spirituality” is not my favourite word. It can easily suggest a sense of otherworldliness and disembodied “spirits”. This may be the nature of some peoples’ spirituality, but “spirituality” can often be something very different from that. The full sense of the word “spirituality” refers to something broader and deeper. Spirituality connotes the things connected with our very deepest yearnings, the things we value the very most, and the things that carry the deepest meaning in our lives.
I wish we had another better word than “spirituality”! Still, it’s hard to find a word in English that better expresses this broad reality.
So, how can spirituality, in the broad sense, help us toward emotional health and psychic growth? And when does it get in our way, or even actually hurt us?
Jungians are deeply interested in spirituality, it connects deeply to the unconscious aspects of human life.
Where Does Spirituality Start?
Genuine spirituality often starts with the things in life that we really yearn for the most, and that carry the greatest value. This can be a much wider range of things than we often think of as “spiritual”. The things that really engage a person at their core are often matters of spirituality.
Recently, I watched a CBC documentary on Randy Bachman, the Canadian rock musician who was the guiding light of the rock groups Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive. In it, another performer comments that, “it may sound blasphemous to say, but it seems that if Randy has any spirituality—it’s playing the guitar.” Yet, why is this blasphemous? if we understand spirituality as connecting with what has the deepest value and meaning in a person, this performer’s comment makes perfect sense! Someone’s “spirituality” might be grounded in their experience of playing music, or writing, painting, hiking, travelling or many other activities that engage the person in depth, but that aren’t “religious” in any traditional way.
Jungians hold that spirituality has very deep roots in the psyche. In fact, it’s rooted in the deepest parts of the human mind, which Jungians call the collective unconscious. It’s rooted in the archetypal dimension of the psyche. As Andrew Samuels et al. tell us, this is the inherited part of the psyche, where there are structuring patterns of psychological response to life that are related to instinct. It’s from these fundamental roots of the human psyche that true spirituality arises.
When Is It NOT Emotionally Healthy Spirituality?
True spirituality takes many different forms, but it is something that arises from the deepest layers of the individual. As Jung tells us,
From a psychological point of view, the phenomenon of spirit… appears as an intention of the unconscious superior to, or at least on a par with, intentions of the ego.
C.G.Jung, CW 8
This sense that spirituality involves some kind of a connection with something “greater than” the ego or individual personality is a key part of its value for the individual. As A. Bozek et al. assert, at its best, spirituality can have powerful positive effects on the individual, including the following:
- positive assessments of yourself and your previous life history;
- continued development as a person;
- the belief that your individual life is purposeful and meaningful; and,
- a sense that you can determine your own direction in life.
These are the characteristics of emotionally healthy spirituality. Yet, it’s important to remember that it’s quite possible for spirituality to be emotionally unhealthy. Certain kinds of spirituality can leave the individual feeling trapped in shame and guilt, feeling that the individual’s life is stunted and essentially meaningless, and that the individual is essentially powerless. As I’ve previously discussed, certain types of spirituality can ultimately lead to the individual feeling a profound sense of betrayal and/or a sense of religious trauma.
It can be extremely difficult when an individual is immersed in an unheathly form of spirituality, and is unaware of it. People can find themselves in a places of shame, guilt and fear, and have no sense that this is anything other than being “righteous”, or “following the spiritual path”. For people in that position, questioning a spirituality that is shame or trauma-based may seem to sinful and/or blasphemous temptation. Yet, to enable the individual to unfold and become who it is that they truly are, questioning crippling spirituality may be an essential part of the journey to wholeness.
In addition, there is the phenomenon that Buddhist case studies John Welwood first referred to as “spiritual bypassing”. In his words, spiritual bypassing refers to the tendency
“to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”
John Welwood, “Human nature, Buddha nature. An interview with John Welwood” in Tricycle
As Welwood wisely points out, we can sometimes use spiritual and religious practices to shield us from psychological work that we need to do to move towards becoming who we’re truly meant to be.
Meaning and True Identity
This whole question of our true identity is deeply interwoven with the nature of emotionally healthy spirituality. In my opinion, it’s a psychological truth that we need some form of spirituality as a part of our journey to wholeness, though our particular spiritual needs are very individual and vary widely. Humans have a deep need to find lasting meaning in human existence. This was the consistent message of Jung, shared by existential case studiess such as Victor Frankl. Yet, it’s essential that this sense of meaning be compatible with, and emerge from, our own unique selfhood and journey to wholeness.
Finding an emotionally healthy spirituality that meets our individual needs is often one of the most important parts of our journey to wholeness. Many people experience it as a deep and abiding need. At many different points in life, it may emerge as a very high priority.
The process of working with a supportive and attuned Jungian analyst or case studies can be a key part of developing a life affirming personal spirituality. In analytic work, we seek to integrate issues that emerge from a person’s daily life with the large scale themes that emerge in the course of a whole life journey. To have genuine support in such a crucial process can be vitally important, especially during major life transitions.
Wishing you every good thing on your personal journey,