Monthly Archives: April 2018

The relevance of Christ to depth psychotherapy 1

In this first post on this subject I’m looking at an overview of how we might see Jesus Christ as relevant to psychotherapeutic explorations. The priest Harry Williams did some thinking on this and directs us to the most obvious ways one of which is Jesus’s statement that …’I am the truth’ and to his disciples that  ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’

This can be understood as the need to get behind the persona or the false self to see what else is going on in our inner world. The persona helps us function but sometimes it can seem as if that is all it is, but it costs a great deal to keep everything else out of the picture and the more aware of this we are the easier it is to know what’s going on.

Here’s an example: I run into two people who are being very social, very upbeat and chatty. I become very social and upbeat and chatty to keep up with them. Once they have gone I feel enormously tired physically and mentally.

Another example: a woman approaches me in the church setting with a fixed smile she asks me to take on the responsibility for something which I don’t want to do (although in the past I might have agreed out of guilt and done it in bad grace!). In this instance the woman turns away and the smile is switched off and her face crumples.

Social and community life demands that we play certain roles but both Christ and psychotherapy ask that we don’t confuse what we really are with the roles which we sometimes have to play. We identify who we are with the part we have to play and in this identification we disguise our true feelings from ourselves. We imagine that those feelings are appropriate to the roles we have assumed and think of as us.

Jesus Christ when he drove the money changers out of the temple displayed ‘righteous indignation’ and it may be that I too can feel that or more likely it may be that what I imagine as righteous indignation is really something else: rage at my inherent inability to enjoy myself as do those I condemn. As Harry Williams reminds us what I am thinking of as righteous indignation is in fact a feeling of impotence, with anger and jealousy or envy resulting.

Similarly searching for the truth can bring us up against something I’ve covered many times on other posts – projection. As Harry Williams writes about it: I can be on a crusade against what I see as the pretentious ignorance of Mr Big but this may be in fact something I despise in myself – an infantile projection of the first Big I came across (Mrs Big this time):  my mother for not loving me as I wanted her to.

So depth psychotherapy shows up the sham and false feelings of which we are the victims and brings us into a realm of truth which sets us free in a very obvious way. I might still have the feelings but hopefully I am not blinded by them or in slavery to them.

The light of Christ shines in the darkness: ‘Thus it is God we meet whenever we meet something of our true selves, however unpleasant that something might be.’


Being aware of being human

Being compassionately aware of being human

‘Again our attention is focused on the need for enlightened awareness. God makes Himself known to us, not through the conscious ego, but as the still small voice of the true self. To hear that voice we must know how to be recollected even amid the activity of the workaday world.’ (Aelred Graham)

Here the word recollected also implies compassion as it is no use being attentive and aware but with an underlying judgement about how we should be to ourselves and to others; instead it is only if we are compassionate within and towards ourselves that we can connect with love and that can take us straight to the will of God. Here of course is the God of love and not the punitive task-master god.

In the west the punitive super-egoic version of god is very present; this god emerges in ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ and in ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and that can include meditation, worship and in our relationships with others. A Buddhist scripture offers sage advice:

‘Try not to seek after the true, only cease to cherish opinions.’

Here is the achieving and the striving and also the attachment to the sense of self bolstered by an identity and personal pride built on who I am in the sense of what I think and believe.

‘If you wish to see it before your own eyes, have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.

To set up what you like against what you dislike –  that is the disease of the mind.’

The craving for something and the aversion against something else preoccupies us to the exclusion of the true self, in other words God’s voice within us. The ‘owning’ of ideas becomes a self-conscious act to do with ‘me’ but if that can be relinquished and we act or observe unselfconsciously then it is ‘I’ and the true self is present. Without self-consciousness we are completely present, no projections and no expectations or desires, no judgement and then the mind is like a mirror: ‘unsmudged by hopes or fears, anticipations or regrets, so that one sees precisely what one looks at and judges only what one sees.’ Emotions will arise but are seen and so become feelings that can authentically direct our response; it is as it is and we are as we are.

Enlightened compassion

Acceptance of the range of human emotions and beginning the process of integration of what Carl Jung called the shadow means that the shadow is not so often projected or acted out. Such acceptance is akin to awareness and the realization of the existence of opposites that together contribute to the whole of the self. In psychotherapy this would be a growing acceptance of the rejected or denied parts of ourselves and the bringing of these parts into consciousness.

In an early book published in 1942 R. H. Blyth (1898-1964) the Zen practitioner and writer summarised the difficulties of life in this way:

‘How can we establish a harmony between ourselves and the outside world full of misunderstandings, deceit, and the suffering and death of those we love, when all the while we ourselves are full of that same stupidity, insincerity, cruelty and sloth?’

Alongside other spiritually minded Zen practitioners and indeed Christians he saw the solution as ‘an enlightened compassion’. The enlightened part means that what is happening in our inner world is no longer a mystery to us, so that we are no longer shocked or surprised by our reactions and the mistakes that we make; this is about developing awareness and getting to know our psyche. The compassion is that we can accept this and bring into the light all the different parts of ourselves. We can see our relationship to the pain we feel without denying it, so there is less and less need to defend ourselves and pander to the false self or the persona in the face of our own or indeed others expectations. In other words if we can have an enlightened compassion towards ourselves there will be enough of the true self able to be present in our relations with others and in the world.

As Aelred Graham asks: ‘How much of our conduct, how many of our attitudes, stem from the true self responding appropriately to the needs of the situation? How many, if carefully examined, would prove to be no more than postures, thoughtlessly or calculatedly adopted … conventions are to be recognised for what they are.’ The necessary enlightenment is to see beyond the surface and the self-deception, but not with shame or disapproval but rather with compassion. The path would be through contemplation though sometimes such awareness happens under stress or when the ordinary things of life no longer seem so relevant.

Cardinal Newman understood that when misfortunes came upon us, as they often do, then it was clearer that the real meaning lay beyond the things of the world including the conventions and conventional responses and what one might call false self organisation.

He writes of the illusions of the world and the way we mostly live in it in this way:

‘it floats before our eyes merely as some idle veil … and we begin, by degrees, to perceive that there are but two beings in the whole universe, our own soul, and the God who made it.’


He is Risen: Living Easter part 2

So resurrection is about liberation, power and hope. It is only through the cross that this renewal takes place and this may involve disagreement and unpopularity and alienation from others, but each is called according to their own purpose and grace. Thomas Merton writes of the Christian in whom Christ is risen who ‘dares to think and act differently from the crowd. He has ideas of his own not because he is arrogant but because he has the humility to stand alone and pay attention to the purpose and the grace of God.’ This may involve standing alone with Christ who liberates us from all forms of tyranny and domination.

Perhaps the most important section of the booklet-homily is when Merton writes that we are called to share in the resurrection not because we are religious heroes, but rather because ‘we are suffering and struggling human beings.’

It is so hard for us to believe that Christ is risen; rather, as with the disciples and the women who went to the tomb after the crucifixion, we secretly believe him in practice to be dead with a massive stone blocking the way that keeps us from reaching the living Christ. This too Merton thinks is what happens to our Christian faith – for Christ is not an inert object, not a lifeless thing, not a piece of property, not a super religious heirloom. Instead as Merton adds in capital letters towards the end of the homily – it looks as if he were shouting: HE IS NOT THERE, HE IS RISEN and indeed is going ahead before us.

And where is He going? Well to Galilee which is the place where the past can be recovered in such a way as to make it the foundation for a new and extended identity. Rowan Williams sees Galilee as ‘the soil on which a redeemed future may grow’.

So Galilee becomes the place of discipleship. And the path that leads from Galilee to Jerusalem is the path towards the place of suffering and death but also Jerusalem as the place of divine self-revelation. Here Merton understands that St Mark is speaking of the way of the cross so that if we are to meet with Jesus in Galilee then it is not necessarily some glorious trouble-free existence but rather a suffering discipleship, and an existence perhaps permanently characterised by human failure. But equally as the gospel implies but does not state explicitly, failure can be and is overcome because the power of forgiveness and restoration is in the end greater than human failure and its consequences. In Mark’s account Christ rises as the crucified one and Jesus can only be ‘seen’ and experienced by the way of the cross. This involves a letting go of the false self and the person we might like to be seen as so as to allow a new consciousness to emerge.

Merton says that to understand Easter and to live it we have to renounce our dread of newness and freedom. If we consent to new life and his emphasis is on the phrase if we consent to it, grace and trust are renewed from moment to moment in our lives. This Merton understood as the same mystery that is found in the Mass each time we participate when, ‘we die with Christ, we rise with Him and receive from him the Spirit of Promise who transforms us and unites us to the Father in and through the Son.’