Spirituality And Psychology: A New Openness?

by Penny Boreham

Bringing Spirituality To The Clinical Setting

Spirituality and psychotherapy

Spirituality and psychotherapy

“It is far more the urgent psychic problems of patients, rather than the curiosity of research workers, that have given effective impetus to the recent developments in medical psychology and psychotherapy”. C G Jung

Australian academic David Tacey, Professor of Literature at La Trobe University in Melbourne, has written a host of books on psychoanalysis, psychology, religion and spirituality and the connection between these areas.

Dr Tacey writes that clinicians are “often sceptical of spirituality as they sense it is an attempt to escape from personal difficulties and emotional trauma”, but he writes that it is more often than not the patients/clients themselves who bring the question of spirituality to the clinical setting. They often tend to express to their therapists/clinicians their sense that a lack of spiritual meaning has something to do with their illness.

A Post Secular Age

According to David Tacey “we have moved beyond the high watermark of secularism and perhaps live in a post-secular age” and this is a sign that civilization is in transition. We find it hard to articulate our sense of spiritual absence in this “non-religious age” and we are trying to find a personal language for our yearning, our search for meaning, in whatever way we can:-

“They grope towards it, using intuition, experience and whatever resources they can find, whether these are drawn from religion, popular music, movies or conversations with friends. Today we can speak of a client-led or grassroots recovery of the spiritual dimension in healing and health”. 

A Secular And Humanist Paradigm

Spirituality has been seen by many clinicians as “an obstacle to the therapeutic process rather than a source of healing”, says Tacey, and this is because those clinicians regard their job as ‘grounding’ their patients “in the ‘real’” and see this as necessarily excluding spirituality. Tacey states that a secular and humanist paradigm, and a biogpsychosocial model, shapes their discourses.

“Many therapists and clinicians have therefore had to do their spiritual training by themselves, or with small groups of like-minded people. Often it is a matter of individual discretion and self-tuition rather than formal training as such. But try as some might to get up to speed with the client-led demand for spiritual input in therapy, there is a ‘spirituality gap’ between patients and clinicians”

Dr Tacey quotes the psychiatrist Andrew Powell who says that:-

“Patients’ attempts to talk about their spiritual beliefs and concerns are often met with incomprehension and mistrust. Sometimes the Chaplain will be called in but frequently the patient will be advised not to dwell on such matters, or else will find those experiences dismissed as delusions or hallucinations”

For clinicians to engage with their clients’ spiritual quest, David Tacey writes that there has to be receptivity:-

“There has to be .. a sensitivity that reaches out to the suffering patient and empathises with their condition and search. The client-centered therapist has to learn to go along with this drift into spiritual discourse, even if she does not fully comprehend its meaning. If the spiritual has been raised as part of the healing process, there should be the acknowledgement that this element has crept into the clinical setting, even if it makes both parties embarrassed owing to the prevailing secular paradigm”

A New Openness

Addressing spirituality and psychology, As Dr Tacey makes clear, ‘Spirituality’ has become a very general term and a therapist would need to find out what ‘spirituality’ means for a particular client, and whether it could connect him/her with sources of power and renewal, or whether “it might lead a client to a world of illusion”. David Tacey is exploring how spirituality can bring people into fuller health and a renewed relationship with reality but he also points out that some spiritualities can be pathologies.

David Tacey is challenging therapists to listen to the stories about the the spiritual with “a new openness” and explore how they might lead to health. Dr Tacey’s point is that we, in the west, do not yet fully comprehend what the east means by ‘universal mind’. We see the mind as shaped by individual experience, which he says of course it is, but we do not consider “the deeper layer which allows access to the realm which, in earlier times, was referred to as the realm of gods, spirits, or daimonia”.

If you would like a weekly email about new posts on our blog please sign up for our mailing list in the box above right


  1. Comment by Terry wall on

    I think like a lot of things in life its not the thing its self which is right is wrong its how you are using it in your life and whether its promoting functional or dysfunctional behaviour.

  2. Comment by Ian Williamson on

    Hi !

    1 / To ‘ feel safe ‘ . Absolutely paramount . And to have a sense of being at home , comfortable , without ‘ threat ‘ , is the solid emotional base , essential for happiness and success in life .The emphasis on feeling safe in the Khiron ethic is most appealing .

    2 / I would like to make a philosophical addition to the discussion on spirituality .
    That is the bald statement : ‘ God is the problem . ‘
    ‘ The One and only ‘ God of Judaism , Christianity and Islam .
    God is the higher power , happiness is the reward for living up to this abstract . Suffering is somehow ‘ good ‘ . We see this elevated to pure psychosis on the news most nights . Anyone affected by ‘ God ‘ tends to disassociate from the real earthy world of creating a place that is comfortable and safe to live in . Believing in reward after death , and feeling guilty about material wealth pleasure ,and physical health . indeed ,, this addiction to higher power / authority , is the reason why people pursue ‘ addictions ‘ , that do have a
    ‘ real ‘ quality , desperately needed – to have something real in our lives . Something earthy ,comforting and ‘ safe ‘ . Call it comfort zone , as close as one can get to ‘ home ‘ .

    The multimodality approach is exciting as there is no ‘ one ‘ therapy to take a sectarian ‘ God like role ‘ Psychoanalytic / Jungarian , CBT / NLP , mindlessness and so on .
    Maybe one could discover this innate living in the real world human quality , through a multidisciplinary approach cutting through erroneous ‘ Authority ‘ and come to this natural
    inner space naturally . Hopefully the next generation won’t have suffer being the next ‘ lost generation ‘ – again

    Bit late in this conversation . None the less .
    My two pennies worth !
    Thank you


  3. Comment by Debbie Friedman on

    I was brought up according to Freudian principles (my father was a psychoanalyst) and I was therefore in therapy as a child, adolescent and adult. I am now a senior trainer, supervisor and psychotherapist in the Psychosynthesis tradition (Roberto Assagioli) so this subject is very close indeed to my heart. I know what it feels like to have my own sense of spirituality (not religious, but felt) seen as an encumberance to the work of therapy before I encountered a different attitude and approach. Once I experienced being in therapy with someone who held a psycho spiritual context everything changed. I felt met, acknowledged, valued and able to work through the neurotic issues as well as the existential. Some forms of depression, anxiety and even trauma are not neurotic but deeply existential and therefore need to be held as such (as Assagioli described mid 20th century). All the best with your work, Debbie

  4. Comment by Janys on

    My spirituality is my knowing of myself. In awareness I reflect on what I am coming to know.

  5. Comment by Hilary on

    If a therapist has no lived experience of healthy spirituality how can they work effectively in that area of experience with a client? To me this sounds like a limitation which in any other aspect of psychotherapy would warrant a referral to a more experienced therapist.

  6. Comment by Jackie on

    In 2014 , to assume people don’t have spirituality or that it is questionable from a therapists point of view I find vulgar . The Internet is awash with moral disregard and society / media seem concentrated on illuminating the throw away society , spirituality is big business. My point being that any faith or belief does not need to be justified to anyone , only that of the person it belongs too .

  7. Comment by cathy brooks craniosacral homoeopath on

    I find this incredibly patronising, as therapists, part of our work is to help clients get in touch with resources in their lives, spirituality can serve as a way in and certainly working cranially can be deepened if a client does have an inner spirituality.

    1. Reply by Penny Boreham on

      Hello Cathy,
      thanks for your message. David Tacey is talking about the tradition of psychotherapy that doesn’t recognise spirituality and I totally agree (as I am sure he would) that many therapists, and in particularly those who work cranially have a totally different approach. Do you think this is true?
      Very best

  8. Comment by Fi on

    I am often amazed by the narrow minded ness of some therapists/practitioners when it comes to spirituality,when is the very essence of the problem/ disease that often sinchronistically propels people to become therapists,psychologists and practitioners in the first place,so why forget or ignore this higher force that exists and often pushes people to their very limit so they can get in touch and honour the need to acknowledge and connect with their and .their patients spiritual side which can not only help ameliorate the mental anguish but also enrich and widen their thinking and their world.Of course spirituality can become a pathology but so can anything else when done to extreme,we live in an addictive society(to quote Oliver James), there are indeed worse things to become addicted to

Leave a comment