Spirituality - Psychotherapy

by Michael G McKimmy, PhD.

Part 1: Ambiguity and Poverty


In America, it seems spirituality and the attempts to analyze mental- even occult- phenomena, theories of the psychology of human behavior as well as strategies for dealing with emotional suffering have been related. Perhaps a simultaneous birth, even if by different parents. Freud may have feared and rejected the spiritual as anathema to the scientific, but when he and Jung came to America in 1909 and spoke at Clark University- it was Jung with his spirits, his “number 2” personality and his archetypes in us all that opened the American door to psychoanalysis. He, more than Freud, tapped into the American tradition of linking the mental and spiritual. In William James, one of those who made the Clark event possible, the spiritual, the paranormal, the scientific, the psychological all both converge and diverge. James experimented and wrote extensively about the American experience of the spiritual and psychological. His strategy was description. It might be that the safety of this perspective- to simply describe- allowed such a wide ranging gaze. He tried to describe at one time the visions of a medium and at another time the healthy minded religious person and always attempt to describe a significant difference between the two. But describing was not enough to offer a solution as to how the many thinkers and thoughts of things spiritual and things mental were related, but it was enough to allow so many different discourses into public realm. Not enough, because description, by viewing without participating, maintains a distance even when it is so close it seems intimate. Enough, because in an almost surreptitious way, the contradictory concepts of hypnotism and scientific observation, of psychic powers and psychological interview, of Mesmer, Darwin, Freud, Jung enter academic and popular discourse by means of innocuous, if also exciting description.

So here we are, heirs of this history, and needing more than descriptions. So here we are working our way through all these different ways of seeing the world and ourselves and beyond both. The range of options may seem new. So also, the danger and promise of ways to develop through spiritual discipline and or therapeutic regimens may seem a new development. Yet, a cursory look at the history of spirituality and the allied history of concern for mental health and mental healing reveals a wild and unpredictable narrative that has yet to contained within a single historical narrative. Many of the important names involved in this wild history have become but whispers, such as Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and the mental healing movement. Though his name is forgotten, his legacy continues. Unknowingly, we are still heirs of Quimby. Rather than James’ strategy of description, Quimby was immersed and active in the American flow of reaching beyond and looking within. While “mesmerizing” another performer, or entering an altered state himself, he asked questions, made connections, offered solutions to thousands of “clients.” He begins in the spiritual and journeys into the mental. Today, names well known, are seen in some contexts as being as eccentric as Quimby, others more mainstream. For example, Mark Epstien brings the spiritual in by way of Buddhism. An acceptable approach for many. Jack Kornfield, John Hillman, et al, through a neo Jungian appropriation of symbol, join the spiritual and mental in the collective unconscious- a single mythology.. Other books, tapes, web sites offer a variety of strategies and perspectives Many mutually exclusive. Some regarded as “serious” and other as New Age and simply a fad. Mutually exclusive judgments.

And still, my brief and schematic description has yet to name the normative model of our current culture- the medical. Illness determined by the numbers, focused on symptoms. Chemistry over psychology, even physics. A legitimate desire to bring order and symmetry to mental phenomena already present in those sciences. A pragmatic restraint for purposes of respectability. Yet, this approach announced a certain silence over the American history of the spiritual in the psychological. It attempts to raise the medical above the historical, as though its findings are timeless. The quantitative as an end in itself. Most recently, attempts are being made to find a way of hearing all these voices, yet other attempts seek the victory of a single approach. And the twin voices of despair and disillusionment respond to them all.

If there is a single observation to be made of all this it must be that a cacophony answers the seeker who asks about the spiritual and the psychological. So what to make of so many voices? So many voices with such histories. One manner of making our way in this context is to isolate a voice and follow its trail (trial). Another way, followed by many, is to separate the spiritual from the psychological and then bring them into some kind of relation. Perhaps this is the path most often taken by theorists from such disparate paths. Grist for other mills.

However, if we take the cacophony seriously as cacophony, we are left with ambiguity greater than “an” ambiguity. If no spiritual source establishes itself as the clear superior position, even as the “first among equals,” then the seeker is left with the ambiguity of plurality. Chaos and chorus. As this seems a bit abstract, concretely this might be experienced as - “what does the word ‘God’ mean,” or, “ what is the meaning of my suffering?,” or, “there is no god, yet the question of god continues,” or “ without a god, what remains the same?” The ambiguity of contradiction. The ambiguity of ambiguity.

In therapy, ambiguity occurs as well. Perhaps this is sometimes- perhaps most often-- the interruption of the spiritual with all of this ambiguity into the psychological. Jung into Freud, Buddhism into Jung, Mahayana into Theravada, Winnicott into Klein. Jung into Winnicott. You into me. Ambiguity into certainty. The client interrupting the agenda of the therapist. It may occur when the client after speaking rapidly and confidently about a situation falls into an “... I don’t know” and a silence follows. What might follow this silence? Too quick a response forecloses all possibilities. Dwelling in the silence opens a wealth of possibilities. Perhaps this term “ wealth” is the quickly passing presence of the spiritual.

Speaking cashes in this wealth. The words make concrete one possibility, the silence attempts at least a hesitation, at most a faithfulness. Hesitating before putting into language between two people a single interpretation of what is happening. Beyond those words, opened in the “I don’t know,” lies a near infinity of possibilities. Who is actually making the accusation? Who limits the claim with a defense? There are so many possible answers. This silence of the “I don’t know” is a faithfulness that might be more profound than loyalty to the person he speaks about. Faithfulness in listening beyond all the words already spoken and listening beyond all promises that a final answer will come. In that moment of such full silence, equally open between the possibilities of being right, wrong or the irrelevance of either. Freud talked of the therapist as maintaining an “evenly hovering attention” to anything and everything the analyst is presented- verbal or nonverbal. Perhaps in this silence the client is also faithful to Freudian dictums. A pause, a hesitation hard to endure without the assurance of a confident voice at the end to break the silence.

Remember that there is another person present. The therapist also dwells in that silence. That person might now also become uncomfortable. There is much work to be done in this silence. What might this moment mean? At times in the silence the client experiences the healing of not having to perform to be accepted. At times the client waits for reassurance that it will be acceptable to break the silence. Other times, at times there is a blankness, sometimes on both sides. “At times,” another instance of ambiguity. Clarity comes by speaking, but speaking eliminates all the other potentialities. Who will speak first?

Whoever speaks and whatever the speaker says, it occurs in and is in part determined by a particular context. Beyond James and the American tradition. There is a larger European and Asian tradition with a history of its own. Perhaps too quickly today the silent and listening therapist (as well as the client) either accepts or with equal haste rejects the possibility of an affinity of this moment with, for example, the Taoist notion of non being. One voice among so many, East and West. ===A voice the West has sometimes heard and rejected and at other times heard and romanticized. Today, the therapist and client sit in the echo of this ambivalence. Still, even today, many times both persons in the room may not know the word/name “Tao,” but the awareness of a creative negativity on any level may produce this ambivalence. And this “unknown spirituality” among all the other voices of spiritualities, religions and psychotherapies. With this image in this context, I offer the following from the Tao Te Ching, one of the many voices we might hear as we think about the nature of the spiritual:

“Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t”

While the substance that I touch and handle I call the pot, it is the emptiness both inside and outside that allows me to fill it and move it. While I call the walls now around me my home and it is on this visible and unmoving building I owe a mortgage, it is the window that allows me to look beyond the wall. It is the emptiness between walls that allows me to move in ways undetermined by the walls and unscripted by the designers of these or any walls ever. I trust in the room and its shelter, but it is only where the room isn’t that there is room for me to live in relation to the room.

For the client, it is sometimes the silence that gives room for speech. For the therapist, it is uncertainty that creates a space for theory and explanation. For both- for us all- speaking creates a place of security and limitation. A choice is made, and other options are closed off. At least for now.

Dwelling in my home and dwelling in my office is a constant and creative relation of matter and space, being and nonbearing, yin and yang.


Duality seems not enough to describe what is happening. The Tao is beyond a dual structure and so is the ambiguity of the silence in therapy. We have thought of ambiguity as a wealth and as a hesitation. This silence might also be described as a poverty.

“How happy (blessed) are the poor in spirit theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, Jerusalem Bible)

“Poor” can mean many things. Given the authority of the Bible, given the political power invested in and through the Bible, given what it has been given, the word poor in the first of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount has been an over determined word. It has been laundered of any economical meaning by defining “poor” as “humble.” In the history of biblical interpretation, this is, perhaps, the most common interpretation. Twentieth century liberation theology reduced “poor” to “oppressed,” which sealed its fate.

The Greek word is usually taken as a translation of the Hebrew word anawim. The word is used throughout the Torah to signify economic oppression, spiritual ignorance, political oppression, a state of idleness, or a state of emptiness and need. In Zephaniah 2: 1-3 all of these meanings seem possible for this word. The first phrase is impossible to determine, but seems to have been a call to reflection or submission such as “Go into yourselves,” or “bow yourselves,” perhaps it is best left undetermined. The verse continues, “nation without desire.” In effect, Zephaniah calls Israel (Judah), to look inside themselves as they are- if they are- those in a state of confusion so deep that there is not a clear desire for the divine or anything else. The lack of desire born of confusion.

Poverty on so many levels. An absolute poverty. This is the condition the Sermon on the Mount refers to as blessed. Happy is the person so poor as to be devoid of everything including desire.

The present times seem a time of such poverty. The (post) modern world is in part defined by the absence of a certain God. Still capitalized when referred to, but no longer a given in the popular understanding of the world. A time of many voices. A time of abandonment for many. The assured presence of a God “up there” so real just decades earlier now a story too simple, too self serving to be credible. When did this period in our history begin? For so many, after the 2nd World War. The atrocities and the blurring of a sense of God on one side created an ethical abandonment. For others, Darwin et al proved persuasive. Science seems an adequate way of talking about anything and everything, no room for a God to explain the unexplainable. Yet others, and this may overlap with the previous categories, “God” simply stopped working. Winnicott might talk here of the transitional object that is decathected. The bear or blanket that stops comforting. The symbol that stops being alive and real. So many ways to be abandoned. And yet, for many this concept of God remains real and alive and changing the course of personal and at least projected world histories. For these the rest of the world seems a vast wasteland awaiting the truth. Between these different responses to the present times, several thinker work at strategies for communication. They have yet to be found. The promises of societal harmony made by the mainstream religions failed. The promises that some marginalized alternative would save us all failed. The cure of the “talking cure” that psychotherapy promised has not saved our society. No promise we all acknowledge as still real, much less fulfilled. We are a people of no one desire. A desert of multiple and no desires. A time in which we cannot agree on the presence or absence of God, a tacit henotheism in the social contract of monotheism or its demise. Absolute poverty.

Yet, we are the happy ones, the blessed, for ours is the kingdom of heaven. But that is the very problem- what is heaven without a God? What is a kingdom without a king? Also, what happens if instead of a voice of rejection of God, there are so many voices offering so many alternatives without the promise of consensus every voice wishes to promise.

It seems, then, it is our lack of promise that is promise. No kingdom as a goal is the condition for heaven. Many names have been given to this condition. Perhaps few describe a state of affairs that includes those who accept what others have left behind. Perhaps we do not need a name, after all, we are talking about a lack, poverty. But a particular poverty. The loss of a particular God, one embedded in the body and soul of our language, culture, identity.

Perhaps we are blessed when we accept our condition. Blessed are the poor in spirit who know they are poor. Happy the ones naming their loss. What might follow cannot be named from this desert, what might be known is only the promise of poverty. Ambiguity and poverty.