Monthly Archives: October 2018

The heart of the personal 5

Harry Guntrip is interesting about self-delusion and how this applies to spiritual or religious experiences. His belief is that none of us can escape experiencing what we may not be able to explain but the danger lies in how we interpret this to ourselves. He writes: ‘deeply felt needs can persuade people that an intensely believed dogma or an assiduously practised form of worship is a real religious experience, when it may only be a substitute for “real relatedness”. Private experience has to be tested by comparisons and by the stress of life itself.’

In contrast fanaticism is a flight from emptiness within but Guntrip, referencing Jung, sees the one full answer to alienation as  ‘the basic religious experience of the universe as not alien to our nature as “persons”, a sense of oneness with ultimate reality akin to the experience of human love.’ We need a sense of connection with ‘God’ not because of powerlessness but rather because of isolation, loneliness, the sense of personal unreality, the answer to which is ‘personal relationship’. Guntrip finishes his lecture with the statement that the capacity to have this experience is intrinsically so important for personally satisfying and meaningful living.

‘Some of us do not have this experience, just as some of us do not have the experience of human love, and probably those who do, only have it imperfectly. We are all only partly free to have the full range of our possible human experience.. I would not dare to claim that I possess any great depth of religious experience, but only to have sensed enough to be convinced that it is a reality.’

This is not to do with professing a faith but rather it is the possession of the experience that matters and that experience is an integrating factor in life. It is the culmination of the ‘personal-relationship essence’ of human living. Guntrip returns to the foundations of such experiences in a paper he wrote on Psychology and Spirituality where he gives an example of a patient who said, ‘I have two problems, first religion and my position as a clergyman. I feel I have lost my faith. Second, from my earliest years I have had feelings of insecurity, and of being unwanted and uncared for, so that it is difficult to have normal relations with other people.’ Guntrip’s response was that these are not two problems but rather two aspects of the one problem. He writes:

The first revelation of God to a human being is not Christ, but in the love of the mother before the baby is old enough to know anything about God and Christ. If the mother evokes the infant’s capacity for loving, then he will be able to return love for love, and will grow up capable of knowing what “Christ” means, of seeing in this human life a manifestation of the indefinable things we mean by the word “God”. …God is met with us in a human life, for “God is love” and love is of God, even the unborn capacity for loving in the psychopath.

If healing love can reach through to the frightened heart then a soul is reborn.

The heart of the personal 4

Harry Guntrip understood that this ‘something’ called ‘religious experience has always existed and been expressed artistically and poetically through emotionally meaningful symbols. It belongs to the ‘personal’ side of living and in the same way psychoanalytic therapy also works through the interpretation of symbolized experiences of personal relationships.

Guntrip also gives an interesting slant on both religion – (perhaps here it is more appropriate to use the word spirituality a word not so in vogue in 1968) and psychotherapy as standing for a freedom and a person’s right not to be manipulated. This is in contrast to technology which he sees as the way material science is transformed into a social structure of living – again it is worth noting how much that has increased since the late 60s when Guntrip was writing.

Ideally both spirituality and therapy provide a setting for each of us to find out own proper mature selfhood. Guntrip thought that the psychotherapist seeks to create for a ‘person’ a situation of secure understanding relationship in which the person can grow at their own pace, out of all that has frightened them. In the end despite everything the reality of the person to be a ‘unique’ individual always reasserts itself.

Guntrip who understood from his own early life how destructive isolation is, gives some examples of dreams from those who feared an impersonal world and felt they could not survive in an impersonal or loveless environment.

In one a woman dreams:

I was alone on an empty seashore and terrified. Then I saw your house up the beach, but the tide had come in round me and I was cut off and panicked. But then I saw a boat tied to your gate and thought calmly “It’s all right. I can’t get to him but he can get to me!”

In another a man dreams:

I was hiding in a dugout. There was a vast nuclear explosion. Later I crept out and found everything destroyed. I was utterly alone and frozen with fear.

The same patient had a further dream where he tried to cut all feeling out and have a purely intellectual relationship with the world – what Guntrip calls a perfect schizoid dream. The man is back in the dugout, hiding from the outer world under a mechanical turret. It had two periscopes for eyes, two slits and a tape recorder for ears, and a hole for a mouth through which he transmitted messages to the world outside. Cut off from healthy emotional relationships, a prisoner inside himself, Guntrip writes that this man functioned as a bit of machinery for purely intellectual communication through scientific instruments which protected him from living contacts.

Guntrip uses this example to protest about what happens if we try to substitute science for religion. Religion or spirituality is then a way of experiencing the universe that does not condemn us all to meaningless schizoid isolation, but instead relates us to a personal heart of reality that we refer to by the indefinable term ‘God,’ experienced but not explained, the ‘ultimate indefinable mystery’.

The heart of the personal 3

In 1968 the psychotherapist Harry Guntrip gave a lecture entitled ‘Religion in relation to personal integration’ where he explored religion and psychotherapy as what he calls ‘great areas of human living’ that take us beyond the obsession with purely material ends – phrased so beautifully by Wordsworth in his famous lines: ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’

By religion Guntrip meant a basic human experience which however differently it can be expressed in different times and places is essentially the same for all people. He understood that science is not concerned with finding meaning, value or purpose in life or how we relate to one another – all things that make our existence significant . Rather he thought there was a need to move beyond science into the realm of moral and spiritual values to find the forces that can control science (which all things considered is mor elikely now to destroy us than save us) and then this brings us to the field of mental health and religion.

Guntrip thought that integration, maturity, mental health and religious experience are all closely related. he writes: ‘Integration is a product of personal relationship, and, as I see, human love and religious experience are two levels of the same phenomenon.’ He saw religious experience as:

‘an overall way of experiencing life, of experiencing ourselves and our relationships together; an experience of growing personal integration or self-realisation through communion with all that is around us, and finally our way of relating to the universe, the total reality which has, after all, evolved us with the intelligence and motivation to explore this problem: all that is meant by experience of God.’

Both ‘religious experience’ and ‘personal relations experience’ promote personal integration or wholeness of personality in which a human being feels ‘at home’ in both the human and the universal. They are about subjective personal meanings and values and so it is often the poet that can explain this best. Guntrip in his lecture again quotes Wordsworth:

I have felt,

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still

A lover…

This is the kind of knowing that involves experiences of beauty, of love and of the personal and religious way of feeling our oneness with the totality of the ‘real’. In this way religious experience is a natural phenomenon and usually expressed in emotionally meaningful symbols. Both religious experience and therapy bring healing.


The heart of the personal 2

If religion and spirituality is essentially about being alive then psychotherapy can help with that especially if our image of God has been damaged by our early experience of being mothered. It is true that everyone has some damage to a greater or lesser extent and this will also affect our attempts to find the love we missed out on through another person and that may include with a therapist.

Harry Guntrip details how some people coming for therapy saw him as a Christ-like figure in the sense of being someone who could save them – of course the danger here would be if the therapist also saw themselves in that role. The therapist is, as is the mother with their infant merely human with their strengths and limitations in their ability to love (a love they only have from their own experiences of being loved) and also journeying themselves through grace to become the person that God calls us to be – and in that sense more Christ-like.

In one of his papers Guntrip records the urgency and need of one person who came to see him and who, in one session, reported a dream:

‘I’m looking for Christ on the seashore. He rose up as if out of the sea and I admired His tall magnificent figure. Then I went with Him into a cave and became conscious of ghosts there and fled in stark terror. But He stayed there and I mustered up courage and went back in with Christ. Then the cave was a house and as He and I went upstairs He said, ‘You proved to have greater courage than I had’ and I felt I detected some weakness in Him.’

The patient associated the admired tall figure of Christ with that of his athletic father and then said to Guntrip:

‘I associate Him somehow with you, I’ve got the idea you may inveigle me into courage to face the ghosts and then let me down. Mother was the menacing figure. Father was weak, mute before her onslaughts. He once said it wasn’t a good thing to have one parent constantly dominating another in front of a child, but he never showed any anger at all.’

Here is the muddling of early parental relationships with the figures of Christ and God and the need as Guntrip says to bring into consciousness this person’s oscillating between the old fear of father letting him down if he tries to stand up to the violent-tempered mother, and the new wavering hope that the analyst will not let him down in facing up to the ghost within. ‘In this sense’ writes Guntrip, ‘the analyst is an exorcist who helps the patient cast out the ghosts and devils that haunt his inner world.’

Guntrip goes on to say that: ‘The analyst naturally does not seek to play the role of Christ or Saviour, but it is clear that the patient needs to regard him in this light, as one without whose help he can neither face nor give up his internal bad objects.’ By working through this the person can eventually see the analyst in a non-possessive way and out-grow the dependencies from childhood and so too the relationship with God and Christ can mature ideally freed from the most powerful of past projections.