F Ken Freedman







Articles by F ken Freedman

Sacred Psychology

F. Kenneth Freedman


The afternoon of July 28, 1966, was hot and sunny, with temperatures in the low nineties. Frank O’Hara’s body was resting in a standard coffin from Yardley & Williams Funeral Home in Sag Harbor that was covered with white roses and ivy and supported above a four-plot grave on metal poles. One of the scrub oaks of Green River Cemetery in Springs, Long Island, cast its black shade nearby.

O’Hara never much liked funerals. When his Aunt Mary, a nun, had died in 1956 he did not attend her burial at a convent in Massachusetts. He commemorated it his way in "Poem" (And tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock in Springfield, Massachusetts):

When I die, don’t come, I wouldn’t want a leaf
to turn away from the sun--it loves it there.
There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last
(Gooch, 1993).

O’Hara encapsulates in four rather Buddhist-sounding lines the core of most spiritual practices and beliefs, meaning, happiness isn’t necessarily spiritual, but in the off chance that it might be one wouldn’t want to miss it. Whether one misses it or not, it doesn’t last, which would imply that sadness wouldn’t either. The leaf wants the sun, but should the sun not be out then it isn’t out (there are no further karmic meanings to the sun’s visibility). No remorse, no judgment. What is, at the moment, is no more nor less important than what was or what might be. So, spirituality could be about sensing the connectedness between self and a "higher power," friends, the planet, the universe, and the energy that seems to be around us all (known to some as the Holy Spirit).

In this paper, I intend to explore the spiritual side of counseling, if, indeed, it needs to be classified as a "side." To me, it is part and parcel of counseling, whether explicit or covert. It is always a force that pervades my thinking and feeling, always informs my desire to help my client reconnect with him- or herself, his or her gods, and his or her sense of belonging.

The three authors I refer to look at spirituality similarly, but from very different perspectives, each of which represents a path which might lead us toward a reconnected, reawakened, and reŽnergized sense of self, and which might point to a path of enlightenment. David Epstein, M.D. is a graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School, and has a private practice in New York City. Dr. Jean Houston is a pioneer in human development, and internationally renowned as a scientist and philosopher, and past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently director of the Foundation for Mind Research in New York. Annabelle Nelson has a Ph. D. in Developmental and Child Psychology, an M. S. in Special Education, and a B. A. in Psychology and Mathematics from the University of Kansas. She is a researcher, author, curriculum developer, and has taught children, teenagers, and adults. With a lifelong love for imagery and the spiritual path, her interests range from learning-theory to mysticism. She presently works in private practice with people who want to integrate spiritual concepts into daily life.

The Buddha’s Psychology of Mind

At the heart of Buddhist practice (at least as discussed by Epstein (1995)) is the belief that suffering, along with joy and all other emotions, is a matter of perspective. How you look at the reality of what happened or is happening is more significant than the event itself:

Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perceptions of the realms--not the realms themselves--cause suffering (Epstein, 1995, p. 16).

Freud "discovered" this principle many years later with his belief that a patient’s

illness itself must no longer seem to him contemptible, but must become an enemy worthy of his mettle, a piece of his personality, which has solid ground for its existence and out of which things of value for his future life have to be derived (Epstein, 1995, p. 17).

Both Buddhist practice and Freud saw the need to "own" one’s feelings rather than set them apart from oneself and treat "them" as enemies, avoiding contact, and never resolving the conflict. One profound difference between the two, however, is the step beyond the "owning" of the feeling. Freud looked for a way to reconcile the feeling with the feeler, where Buddhist practice looks beyond the person feeling the feeling and examines the raw nature of Self. When one "works through" the emotions (which will be discussed later in this paper), one can take a psychological step back and look at the Self as a momentary event that occurs against a backdrop of eternity, a Selfless Self, if you will, that finds the amusement and delight in everyday emotions but attaches no long-term importance to them in the sense of personal identity or manner of relating to others. The Selfless Self seeks the God Realm but knows that it (the God realm) is here and now, in actuality, if one but turns one’s gaze.

I believe this concept provides another view of the counseling process, meaning that there is a step beyond coming to terms with ones emotions and learning to just cope, or, as Freud put it "to love and work." That step is the one in which one develops a deep and abiding sense of compassion for self, one’s gods, and one’s fellow creatures on this earth. That profound sense of belonging (apart from the sometimes debilitating need to be approved of and validated by, presumably, one’s parents), can help move a client into a more connected place, where events are not so personalized and where (in an "abundant" universe) the need for connection (self, others, gods) is stronger than the need to defend against a seemingly unfair, hostile world (the universe of scarcity).

Fowler (1981) refers to conjunctive faith, where a broader consciousness begins to develop:

Stage 5, as a way of seeing, of knowing, of committing, moves beyond the dichotomizing logic of Stage 4’s "either/or." It sees both (or the many) sides of an issue simultaneously. Conjunctive faith suspects that things are organically related to each other; it attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mind set (Fowler, 1981, p. 185 in Freedman, 1996, p12).

The next stage, universalizing faith, is defined by people who inhabit rarefied climes, including but not limited to such luminaries as Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dag HammarskjŲld, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Heschel, and Thomas Merton. [Fowler] adds, however,

...we must not fail to attend in the descriptions of Stage 6 to the criteria of inclusiveness of community, of radical commitment to justice and love and of selfless passion for a transformed world, a world made over not in their [leaders] images, but in accordance with an intentionality both divine and transcendent (Fowler, 1981, p. 201 in Freedman, 1996, p 14).

Many of my clients "present" with such notions that they are somehow doing something wrong (or some wrong is being done to them), that the world isn’t a fair place (to them), and their ideas and feelings are somehow being discounted or ignored (whether through neglect, abuse, homophobia, etc.). These feelings don’t represent the sum and substance of their problems, nor am I trying to oversimplify; rather there seems to be an underlying sense of the self’s proper place in the world that is misplaced. In these instances, I see my task as helping the client to come to terms with his or her own alienation from self, but then to help them see the Self as a possible illusion, and further to examine the nature of spirit in that equation.

As many a psychotherapist can testify, and as the Buddha so clearly recognized, our own selves can feel somehow unsatisfactory to us. We are all touched by a gnawing sense of imperfection, insubstantiality, uncertainty, or unrest, and we all long for a magical resolution of that dis-ease.

In one of his first writings about this, Freud recognized that the inability to tolerate unpleasant truths about oneself was essential to narcissism.

We do not want to admit our lack of substance to ourselves and instead, strive to project an image of completeness, or self-sufficiency. The paradox is that, to the extent that we succumb to this urge, we are estranged from ourselves and are not real. Our narcissism requires that we keep the truth about our selves at bay (Epstein, 1995, pp. 46 & 48).

In other words, we become what we resist.

I am well acquainted with one person who was in analysis for many years. Upon completion, her sense of self was clearly more established than when she started. There was more genuineness, clarity about events in her past life, and a fair closeness with her children. There was, however, a very strong undercurrent of anger, both at her parents and her husband, which remained unresolved. My sense was that there had been a lot of processing, but not much resolution about what to do with all that process. It may have been the analyst’s hands-off technique, but I also wonder about the lack of spiritual connection or awareness. There is a pervasive sense that this woman’s world is still one of scarcity, one of personal attack, and one of dis-ease.

In an oversimplified analysis, I would possibly use meditation, but certainly use counseling techniques designed to focus on the deep connection that that woundedness has to her identity. Being the wound is quite different from being mindful about the wound and knowing that it is neither the provenance of who one is nor one’s future. It seems that there is ample opportunity for cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, and insight modalities, among others, along with a healthy dose of the "something more" (what I call spiritual) ramifications of this person’s unyielding dedication to suffering.

The end of suffering is achievable, [the Buddha] suggests, not through the kind of unconditional love that many Westerners have imagined could alleviate their felt sense of unsatisfactoriness, not through the recapturing of some imagined perfection, but through the unconditional freedom of the enlightened mind: "What, now, is the Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering?" asked the Buddha. "It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking and abandonment, liberation and detachment from it."

The Buddha is suggesting something very radical here: that it is possible to isolate the forces of craving in one’s own mind and become both liberated from them and unattached to them merely from seeing that craving for what it is (Epstein, 1995, pp. 77-78).

From the psychoanalytic view this would find some approximation in the concept of sublimation. Unattachment and sublimation are different but could be seen through their respective cultural lenses as different paths leading toward the same goal. Fowler talks about sublimation in his stages of conjunctive as well as universalizing faith. It is the transformation of the suffering, through an enlightened view of the Self; into social action, perhaps, or volunteering; into wisdom about Self; into living a mindful life, fully emotional, fully connected, fully aware. And for me as a counselor, the challenge will be to help clients discover their own path toward enlightenment vis-ŗ-vis finding a way through the pain, through the suffering, through the grief, to an altered perspective about Self that can embrace events as they truly are while remaining detached from their significance (if, indeed, any can be found). This is a place of reality and also a place of intimate awareness of "more," of connectedness, and of abundant versus scarce universe. Epstein describes is well:

We are all haunted by the lost perfection of the ego that contained everything, and we measure ourselves and our lovers against this standard. We search for a replica in external satisfactions, in food, comfort, sex, or success, but gradually learn, through the process of sublimation, that the best approximation of that lost feeling comes from creative acts that evoke states of being in which self-consciousness is temporarily relinquished. These are the states in which the artist, writer, scientist, or musician, like Freud’s da Vinci, dissolves into the act of creation (1995, p. 82).

This is not meant as a call to abandon oneself to a higher power. My belief system is firmly grounded in the need to be human. The humanness to which I refer, however, is redolent of emotions and experiences, but detached. Detached how? Detached in the sense that one doesn’t have an ego investment in the outcome of the event or feeling. It is possible to be angry and yet not be so hooked by one’s own value system as to believe that the result of the expression is important. It is the fact of expression that is important, the knowledge that we as fully conscious human beings can fully express ourselves and still not be bound up in the momentary importance of the event. Thus we are fully aware of our feelings and their expression while simultaneously remaining connected to a larger temporal and spiritual network. As Epstein points out:

[Sometimes] the self is thought of as something that must be subjugated to a higher power. This notion very quickly enters the territory of thinly disguised masochism, for the tendency is to seek a greater Being to whom one can surrender, subduing one’s own emotions in an idealized merger experience where the ego boundaries are temporarily interrupted. The problem here is that the reality of the other is accepted and even revered, while that of the self is denied (Epstein, 1995, p. 97).

What Epstein (1995) suggests is a different way of seeing our emotions:

The Buddha taught a method of holding thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the balance of meditative equipoise so that they can be seen in a clear light. Stripping away the identifications and reactions that usually adhere to the emotions like moss to a stone, the Buddha’s method allows the understanding of emptiness to emerge. This is an understanding that has vast implications for the field of psychotherapy because it promises great relief from even ordinary suffering. As the third Zen patriarch, writing in the early seventh century A. D., articulated with great clarity:

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
nothing in the world can offend,
and when a thing can on longer offend,
it ceases to exist in the old way....
If you wish to move in the One Way
do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully
is identical with true Enlightenment
(pp. 101-102).

What, then, can one do to induce this state of emotional involvement coupled with non-attachment? How does one shape the residue of resolved issues into daily acts that keep one firmly rooted in human considerations yet simultaneously nurture a spirituality that fosters a sense of what Fowler would call conjunctive or even universalizing faith? I believe there is power in what I’ll call "holding the hope" for a client, especially if he or she can’t maintain a clear vision of themselves. With a therapist who keeps the hope alive for the client while he or she works through issues, the larger view can be discussed at an appropriate time, using the very act of holding the hope for the client as a model of the larger spiritual connection.

In a curious twist, the kind of remembering that Freud came to after abandoning the hypnotic technique and modifying his reliance on free association, what he called "studying whatever is present on the surface of the patient’s mind," is exactly the kind of remembering that the Buddha emphasized all along with his reliance on mindfulness. Freud saw this remembering as something that could only be done in the hours of psychoanalysis; the Buddha taught that it could be much more far-reaching, that it could be done steadily and consistently throughout the day. As Freud cane to see, the pursuit of this strategy sometimes yields important memories that can be valuable in making sense out of an individual history. Buddhist teachers have tended to de-emphasize the individual, historical memories that surface, preferring to aim for a constant application of mindfulness, a consistent remembering, which they have seen as more valuable than any single revelation about the past could be (Epstein, 1995, pp. 166-167).

The important part of this mindfulness is the detached awareness of events and feelings. It does not mean not having the feelings, quite the opposite. During the day, however, one can have the feelings and memories and feel them fully in body, mind, and spirit, and simultaneously observe the events without trying to shape the outcome, and further, without investing in the outcome. My own practice has been to meditate as I move through the day, if even for just a moment or two: I stop and breathe deliberately, look at the mountains, or the person I’m with, or myself, and try to sense the flow of energy, my connectedness, and my awareness.

Both meditation and psychotherapy often revel memories not so much of a specific traumatic event but of the psychic remnants of absence in one form or another. Dependent as we are on the nuclear family, on the attentions of, at best, two overcommitted parents, and oriented as we are to the development of independence, our culture tends to foster the internalization of whatever absence was initially present. Thus, if the relationship with one or both parents is strained, or if the child is forced to grow up before he or she is ready, there remains in that individual a gnawing sense of emptiness, a flaw that the person perceives as lying within himself or herself, rather than in early personal experiences. This flaw, which has been termed the basic fault, is often what one remembers in bodily form in meditation.

By the basic fault, I refer to what the English psychoanalyst Michael Balint means when he talks about the psychic remnants of inadequate childhood attention, a trauma so prevalent that it has spawned a chronic spiritual hunger in Western culture (Epstein, 1995, p. 173).

Repeating (chronicling a remembered event or feeling), is one technique for accessing the basic flaw, or the events surrounding its genesis. Both Freud and Buddhism emphasize that it is important to do more than simply rehearse the memories. Clients can and do repeat these events with such fervor that it seems to an inexperienced counselor that the full range of acceptance is occurring. Yet, if the client continues to act out or rehearse the events, the missing link appears, which can be about denial, among other possibilities.

One of the tools of staying in the present and actually experiencing memories versus repeating them, is mindfulness. Another is detachment. One can own the feelings more easily, perhaps, if the therapist helps her or him to have the feeling and not be the feeling. One can observe the feeling while having it; one can appreciate the event without completely abreacting. If the client can learn this process, the process that might eventually lead to a "Selfless Self," a tremendous relief can be attained

The lesson for psychotherapy is that the therapist may well have as great an impact through her presence as she does through her problem-solving skills. Especially when the root of the patient’s emotional predicament lies in the basic fault, in experiences that were preverbal or unremembered and that left traces in the form of absence or emptiness, the therapist’s ability to fill the present moment with relaxed attentiveness is crucial. It is not just that such patients tend to be extraordinarily sensitive to any falseness in relating, but that they need this kind of attention in order to let themselves feel the gap within themselves. It is much too threatening otherwise.

It is through the therapist’s silence, through his or her evocative presence, that this feeling can emerge in the here-and-now. The silence that I am referring to is not a dead silence, not a paralyzed one, but a silence teeming with possibility and texture (Epstein, 1995, pp. 186-187).

This "holding the hope" for the client is an intriguing phenomenon. I have been the recipient of it in my counseling, and have done it for others. It is a powerful tool. By being present with (or for) a client, there can be induced both a sense of emptiness and fullness. Emptiness because it can encourage unresolved issues to surface; fullness "because this kind of attention, or some derivative of it, is what we are all seeking" (Epstein, 1995, p. 188).

In my therapy, my counselor told me, perhaps a year ago, that my own talents were vast, and my feelings were real, and yet my involvement in life was almost non-existent. How? Simply that I refused to recognize my talents and abilities in a directly experienced way, that I kept pooh-poohing people who said they thought I was a good counselor. I disowned my feelings because I was taught at an early age that having them or expressing them was a one-way ticket to isolation. I wasn’t involved in life because to be so would require having and expressing feelings, and that concept was anathema to my child’s view of myself. And yet. And yet he held the hope because he knew that sooner or later I would come to the conclusion that I was connected to life, myself, my talents, and my feelings. How? Because every time I walked into the cesspool of self-deprecation, he questioned me in such a way that I had to admit to having done something or felt something or used my talents in such a way that clearly demonstrated that I was aware but completely detached (in an unhealthy way) from a wonderful event. So, he held the hope that I would find my way back to mindfulness.

This is a therapeutic technique. It is also a vastly spiritual event. He mirrored my own emptiness, thereby allowing me to step into my own real spiritual and emotional skin, which made it possible for me to do that in a very real way for my clients, which opens the way for me to be able to do that throughout the day. As my ex-lover says, "My prayer is your prayer."

Another profound observation that Epstein makes is referred to as the feminine quality of silence. The reference is to the therapist’s capacity to communicate non-verbally, both in the sense of quiet support, as well as a tacit understanding that the client be present with his or her own issues without feeling pressure to perform.

Indeed, the French psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel has explicitly referred to this capacity for nonverbal communication as a function of the therapist’s maternal aptitude. Those who question its usefulness, she insists, must have hidden fears of their own feminine side. It is this fear of the feminine that also makes the meditative state so threatening to many psychotherapists. They refuse to offer the state of mind that, by its very nature of noninterference, allows patients to discover their own sticking points (Epstein, 1995, p. 190).

I can relate to this admonition from both sides. My tendency is to problem-solve. I can be quickly hooked when someone asks with pain in their soul how to feel about some event. It is hard for me to step back, see the larger picture, see the client (or friend) as a whole person who is overshadowed momentarily by feelings or history or trauma, and gently ask questions that will help them discover their own path. Of course, there are times when advice is appropriate. No, I am talking about those times that I might have been more helpful if I’d not intervened and help the person in pain work toward their own version of reconciliation. There have been other times, to be sure, that I have been able to step back, and with a clear vision of where the client is, help them reveal themselves to themselves. I am mindful, however, of my fear of my own feminine side, mostly acutely when I suddenly realize I’ve been hooked into fixing.

Once the therapeutic relationship is well enough established to permit the patient to begin repeating the unresolved emotions of the past, the task of therapy shifts to one of learning how to be with those very feelings.

Much of my work as a therapist with a meditative perspective involves teaching people, in the context of therapy, how to pay attention to what they are repeating in a manner that is both meditative and therapeutic.

The emotions that we repeat are those we are most identified with and least aware of; they are what we resist knowing in ourselves and what we are in the most need of applying bare attention to. As the well-known behaviorist Marsha M. Linehan described it in a panel that I was a part of in 1988 entitled "The Buddha Meets the West: Integrating Eastern Psychology and Western Psychotherapy," even the most emotional or suicidal "borderline" patients turn out to be essentially phobic toward their own emotions. They display--or, in Freud’s words, repeat--plenty of emotion, but they are simultaneously estranged from and fearful of those very aspects of themselves that are so apparent to everyone else (Epstein, 1995, pp. 193-194).

During my own therapy, one thing which is clearer to me now (and will continue to grow through different aspects of "clearer"), is the vision my therapist had of and for me. It is equally clear that I created a space where I could come and experience the emotions that were forbidden to me as a child. And I grew into a clearer vision of myself--the one held deeply hidden in my soul. Of course I didn’t grow into his vision, but I understood that he saw the real me where I only saw a shadow of me, enmeshed and committed as I was to not experiencing myself fully. He created a space where I could grow, feel, cry, rage, laugh, be arrogant, be depressed, deny myself, and generally feel my way around in this new awareness. My technique in counseling others is proving to be quite different in that I don’t "explain" what might be going on with a client’s feelings or history (as does my therapist), nor do I use much of my own life as an example of "working through." What I tend to do, for now, is to indicate by my questions that there is life after therapy and that the client can find in his or her own self a solace they’ve never before known. That I hold that hope and support them in their own vision quest, and that I help them see where their vision of themselves is warped or faulty or overdeveloped, I help them develop the capacity to construct a clearer vision of themselves, one that they can take out into the world and use to connect with themselves, their gods, and their fellow humans. And we discuss the grand illusion under which we all strain--that there can be any sense of final or total resolution. And we discuss the issues around living with that uncertainty, meaning that holding that tension for themselves is an important part of being alive to both human and spiritual possibilities.

Part of the process, as Epstein describes it, is turning ghosts into ancestors:

Implicit in these widely cited analogies is the recognition that the difficult emotions generated by the original deficiencies do not actually go away; they may be enshrined on a shelf above the doorway as in a Confucian home, but they must be afforded great respect.

Once the scarring is identified, once the fault is recognized, once the anger is transformed into grief, the opportunity then exists for meditation to be used in a new way. Precisely because the scarring does not go away, the person then has the opportunity to zero in on the defect around which so much of the feeling of a substantially existent self has coalesced. Westerners who are subject to the basic fault cannot begin to explore Buddhist selflessness without looking first at how they are identified with their emotional pain. This is rarely a process that involves only therapy or only meditation; it is one that requires as much help as possible. Once cleared of the "violent resentment" that so clouds the observing mind, however, the process of working through can actually begin (Epstein, 1995, p. 201).

I have had many clients ask me if the pain goes away. I’ve always answered that it does not, but that we gain a bit of distance from it. I prefer Epstein’s way of looking at it: these pains and other emotions get enshrined, which makes them both visible and honored, in a way, bronzed, perhaps. They become somewhat static and observable from a distance where their meaning is still sacrosanct, but their power is greatly diminished. They become our personal ancestors and guide us as much by example as by negative model.

The point for a counselor is that this is another step in the process of mastering one’s fears. If a counselor can help a client see that feelings are not inextricably bound to the identity of the client, nor are a root cause, necessarily, of the client’s personality, the client can begin the journey to healing: through the Scylla of loss of self-identified as victim, and the Charybdis of self as no one in particular, to the isle of Self as Nonself, both eternally connected to feelings and gods and others, and yet not chained by the past nor doomed to live a predictable and predestined future.

Epstein talks about "working through" and describes it as a process by which one changes one’s view:

If we try instead to change the emotion, or the precipitants of the emotion, we may achieve some short-term success; but we remain bound, by the forces of attachment and aversion, to the very feelings that we are struggling to be free of....

So working through, even to Freud, was a process of making whole, of repossessing that from which we have become estranged, of accepting that which we would rather deny. It was also a process of making present that which was otherwise buried in the past, so that it could, in fact, be experienced as emanating from one’s own person. "We must treat [a patient’s] illness, not as an event of the past, but as a present-day force," Freud insisted....

Working something through, it turns out, means first coming to terms with its inescapability....

Working something through, it seems, involves not just the remembering of repetition of repressed material but the acquisition of perceptual skills that permit a development in what the psychoanalyst call the ego. Buddhism has always presented meditation as a form of mental development; psychotherapy has come to a place where it, too, has recognized the need for something more than mere insight. It can turn to Buddhism for instruction in how to accomplish this (Epstein, 1995, pp. 204-205).

It seems that with skill and compassion, a therapist could help a client both work through hurt, for example, and be simultaneously mindful of its present-day implications: what was frightening in the past need not be seen as carrying the same power today. It’s a double vision of remembered feelings and hurts and a broader vision of one’s self now as a spiritual sojourner.

Buddhism sees the "basic fault" as an opportunity for growth rather than an obstacle to be overcome or a monster to be controlled. Once the client is able to experience the feelings in a present state of awareness, the resolution moves closer. However, it does not obtain that identifying and honoring it makes everything healed and whole. It is this next step that is important, the step that puts perspective on the issue:

Such an emptying is indeed possible, the Buddhists assert, but it comes not just from making emotions conscious but from carefully examining the underlying feeling of identification that accompanies the emotional experience. In making this identification the focus, the Buddhist approach pulls the rug out from under the reactive emotions while opening up a new avenue for their working through.... By shifting the attention from the emotion to the identification with the emotion, the emotion is experienced in a new way. It is analogous to the experience of trying to see a distant star with the naked eye: by looking away from the star just a bit, one actually sees it more clearly.

This transformation is made possible through the examination of the self that feels injured, not just through examination of the feelings of injury. When the mythical nature of that appearing self is realized, the emptiness of the egoistic emotions can hardly be avoided.

In a psychotherapeutic context this approach is particularly useful because it permits a simultaneous appreciation of the intensity of the reactive emotions and of the precarious ground on which they are perched. Working through means coming to terms with both (Epstein, 1995, pp. 213-214).

A good example of this process is my own internalized homophobia. When I realized I was Gay (in 1949), I was bereft, both because I wanted someone to come and rescue me from being a "homo," and because I knew I couldn’t tell anyone about my "sickness." I was damaged goods, and I knew it. What I had to do was figure out how to live the lie.

The process I’ve gone through in my life is to identify that I was horribly in pain around this otherness, an otherness that no one else, I thought, had. My isolation and aloneness was nearly unbearable, and I came to identify with the feelings of isolation and otherness.

I have come to see that first, I am neither my isolation nor my feeling of being damaged goods. I am, rather, alert to the persona I’ve developed around that wound.

I have also worked through the wound caused, I thought, by my father’s "rejection" of me (his inability to say he loved me, supported me, stood by me in my hours of need, or applauded my emotional nature). I honestly thought he didn’t show love for me because he knew I was a homosexual, but couldn’t say anything about it since it was, after all, "the love that dare not speak its name." He has since stated that he didn’t know I was a homosexual; but agreed that he was emotionally distant and unable to tell me he loved me.

How I worked through it (and am still in process) was to recognize on an experiential level that my feeling of otherness and rejection were just feelings, much like sadness, or joy, or laughter. They had power over me because I, as a child, couldn’t stand back far enough to say to myself that I was a wonderful and gifted child and was Gay, too, and that had no relation to the "bad" events that were happening to me, or that those events, in fact, were the brainchildren of the perpetrators, whether or not they knew what they were inflicting on me, and that it was not personal to me, meaning, I was not at fault for those events.

And so I came to a place where I longed to be made whole by the forces that "can do those things," and realized at the same time that I was the instrument of my own wholeness. Further, my longing to be made whole was and is but a yearning and doesn’t define me nor drive my present life (even though that is still very much in process--working through, if you will). My Self is no longer as involved or invested in those hurts.

By uncovering not just the unresolvable feelings of narcissistic injury but also the subjective sense of "I" in a sensitive and supportive environment, psychotherapy can do what meditation practice alone often fails to accomplish: overcome the obstacles of a Western mind to find and hold the estranged and alienated self-feeling. By refusing to be put off by the sense of injured innocence that often precipitates out of a successful psychotherapeutic relationship, but instead using that feeling as a springboard for the investigation of the appearing "I," Buddhism offers the crucial link between working through and working toward that has long eluded psychotherapists. This link represents a shift in perspective that can suddenly make a closed situation seem open once again (Epstein, 1995, p. 220).

I realize that as a counselor I need to have walked in the territory at least to some degree before being fairly clear about the dynamics of transference and countertransference. It has helped me focus on the appearing "I" that has been there all along, according to friends and therapists, but that I have been unable to recognize for all the baggage that has surrounded me. I refer again to Fowler who talks about the later stages of the development of faith, where a person realizes there is more than just solving immediate problems; there’s more than resolving ancient issues; there’s more than learning to express anger and joy; there’s more than finding intimacy and acceptance. There’s another level of consciousness that opens the door to new levels of relating, especially to oneself, on what I call a heart level (as differentiated from a head level). It opens the doors to a spiritual awakening that Epstein has so eloquently captured and described.

Living the Wheel

Another approach to therapy is well limned in Annabelle Nelson’s (1993) book on the power of imagery (informed largely by Native American traditions). I don’t purport in this brief treatise to cover the full scope of her thinking. But I wish to at least acknowledge the profound insights she provides.

Nelson (1993) details Native American beliefs about mental health, and, not unexpectedly, echoes some of the Buddhist thinking on mindfulness:

In today’s society there are glimpses that the unconscious mind needs to be delved into and integrated into a person’s awareness. It is becoming clearer that it is a fallacy to attempt to stamp out and civilize what is dark and primitive in the unconscious. By doing this, one in essence commits suicide. The healing, spiritual, and creative potential of the person is denied (p. 8).

While a counselor might not choose to raise the issue of spirituality haphazardly, it seems an appropriate question, at least at intake. As discussed earlier in this paper, there is sometimes a question about what to do with one’s process and resolves. It is arguable that there is nothing more to do, that the client is ready to deal with life in a better way than before therapy and is now more capable of making informed and grounded decisions about events, feelings, and relationships. I contend that there is another piece of this process that can be helpful to many clients, and that is the tapping of what Nelson calls both dark and primitive, and healing, spiritual, and creative. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. Buddhist thought agrees that if we deny the existence of any aspect of ourselves we are most likely to become that very aspect (which is rather the opposite of Hamlet’s admonition to Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 4, when he says, "Assume a virtue if you have it not").

The medicine wheel (well described and illustrated in Nelson’s (1993) book) is another way of looking at, examining, and being integrally related both with what is real as well as "non-real":

It is a very important quality of the medicine wheel that no one direction is correct. All are equal to each other; each is necessary for the whole. This is a very different model of reality from scientific dualism, since there is not one correct reality nor one correct way of being. There is room around the circle for many different modes of knowing. The wheel mode for organizing reality allows the Native American world view to tolerate diversity and allows the spirit worlds to breathe in and out of everyday life (p. 13).

I don’t think I stretch the point when I mention a client who is a post-operative transsexual. She presented with extreme depression about work. When she was "outed" on the job, some people rallied to her support, and others denounced and harassed her to the point that she had to quit. An avid outdoor person and wilderness expert and guide, she despaired of finding work and paying her bills. What became immediately clear, is that she is living in two realities, if not more (and her detractors are clearly in denial about what reality might be and their own relationship to it). So, my job as a counselor is to help adjust to the new gender role (while memories of the old one persist), and to maintain self-esteem in the face of hatred and prejudice, and to suggest that there is something (a force? a power? a spirituality?) beyond these realities that not only was the impetus for her Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS), but is also carrying her now and will in the future.

I do not intend to oversimplify the process, but the point is for a counselor to be aware of realities that don’t match with prevailing customs or beliefs and to be aware of the debilitating effects of dualism. There is, as Epstein (1995) points out, the thought that has no thinker, and that might be related to the Selfless Self, and that might relate to Nelson’s idea that dualism, as in Western thought, might not be the only way to see reality.

People need a stable sense of self and love for the self before they can move to other needs. At the top of Maslow’s need pyramid is self-actualization. At this point a person comes in contact with the spiritual self and transcends the individual ego. It’s as if the individual ego needs to be nurtured, embraced, and loved, and then released to the universe. Maslow’s need hierarchy may be like the Zen monk’s hundred-step ladder. With patience the monk slowly climbs to the top. Then, the task is to jump. If a person does not eventually take this step of transcendence, then he or she holds on to separation and can never fully be whole with the deep spirit inside (Nelson, 1993, pp. 26-27).

So, with my client who is transsexual, the issue compounds. Her reality and the reality of the people with whom she is in contact don’t match. How to create a space where she can live her life fully and still deal with everyday realities? I suspicion that she will do better tending to the issues of safety and social support, finding those people with whom she can relate as her new self, examining her own sense of self worth, and finally, developing a profound sense of connectedness of all beings and creatures, a spiritual leap. For it is here, in the rarefied atmosphere of multiple realities and spiritualities that her strength will be found, and her own creative ways of dealing with a sometimes hostile world.

Another important concept is imagery. Nelson suggests that through imagery the conscious and unconscious minds can intersect. The creative force is summoned through imagery and presents its findings to the conscious:

Adopting the assumption that there is an underlying force in imagery work can be very useful. It allows a person to surrender conscious control of the image by believing that there is still some part of the mind, possibly the spirit, which is operative and will guide the imagery process. This force in the unconscious mind will present images of problems that need to be worked on, and then integrate information that is presented (Nelson, 1993, p. 49).

Then there is the story of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. It seems one of the writers for Edgar Bergen was to deliver a script to the Bergen at his hotel (actually, the writer, Jack, is the father of Jean Houston, author of one of the texts used in this paper (see References)). Jack went to the hotel with Jean in tow, and knocked on Bergen’s open door, but apparently Bergen didn’t hear--he was deep in conversation, about the meaning of life and love and how to cope with reality. And the deeply meaningful responses were coming from Charlie! Jack knocked again and was admitted. After giving Bergen the script, Jack asked "How could you be having such a deep conversation with Charlie, when you are Charlie?" Bergen paused, and then said that he knew that he was, in fact, Charlie, but when the question was posed out loud and he allowed Charlie to "answer," it was much more than he, himself, "knew" (Houston, 1987, pp. 91-92).

I have experienced this "other voice coming from God knows where" directly, though I didn’t appreciate the spiritual significance of it at the time: I was 16 or so and was impressed with a performance by Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight." I began imitating his old-man voice, freely and fluidly using the gestures and body I saw on stage (no, I don’t know where I got the talent--another "God given ability"?). I talked to people and would utter jokes and wisdoms and opinions that came from somewhere inside of me, but certainly not from my conscious mind (I was aware of that much of what was happening, at least!). Others were impressed and even imitated me, seeing, I suppose, the power of play and "other consciousness." Fascinating to have that memory while reading about Bergen and McCarthy in a book on spirituality. More fascinating still to see the value of that experience from this perspective.

As Epstein said (discussed earlier in this paper), sometimes, when gazing at a star, one must avert one’s focus ever so slightly to be able to "see" the star. It might be the same with spirituality: one can serve all the physical aspects of spirituality, for example, attending to the image of Christ on the Cross, or Ghandi marching to the Sea to make salt, or King in Washington delivering his "I have a dream" speech, or Mother Teresa cradling the vastly ill and dying homeless people in Calcutta, but to "see" the spirituality of these people, one must look inside to one’s own soul and find resonance. That "place" inside is, of course, untouchable in a literal sense. It requires a "leap of faith" to "see" the connection between the acts these people, and many others, perform, and the connectedness to universe, energy, God, Buddha, or however one’s sense of other is "known."

Both Nelson and Epstein agree that the path of spirituality is not the path of eternal serenity, bliss, and lack of emotions. It isn’t the denial of feelings and reactions to people and events that limns spirituality, rather it is the acceptance and even embracing of those sometimes turbulent feelings.

As Ken Wilber eloquently states, new-age thinking creates a modern version of Protestant guilt. Judging your feelings and assuming that you are responsible for situations that prompt negative feelings reinforces a sense of unworthiness and separation from God (Nelson, 1993, p. 59).

Nelson, as Epstein (discussed above) agree that one way out of the maze is to detach from your expectations (Buddhist), and to accept your human form completely. These ideas fly in the face of some practitioners who would have us deny that we think, feel, and live in human form, complete with illness and discomfort, and joy, and laughter.

Fritz Perls...pointed out a paradox that applies to working with emotions. You must accept an emotion before it will change. In order to heal emotional pain hidden in the unconscious, you must allow the emotions to emerge and sense them fully. Much of our work in being spiritual then is learning to be emotional. This can be transformed to spiritual work by learning to watch and feel without judgment. This is practicing alive detachment (Nelson, 1993, p. 65).

Where this connects to counseling, for me, is the point at which the client "sees" his or her own way through a predicament simply because he or she has connected with his or her own real Selfless Self. If it took me "holding the hope" for them, maintaining the stated belief that they were completely capable of working through the issues and living a full and compassionate life, then that would be my contribution to their spiritual and psychological growth. The point is not for the client to leave their beliefs and cleave to my view or interpretation of reality; rather it is for me to hold the hope and for them to find their own working version of it, and transform and transcend their own misfortunes and find their own very intensely personal path. When that moves in to the area of self-actualization, the client is responding, to my way of thinking, to a higher calling, which I classify as spiritual.

I can’t help but wonder if the role of the shaman isn’t similar to that of a therapist of today. While the journey sitting in a therapist’s office might not be as mystical in form or vision as we associate with the oracular nature of shamanistic work, the connection between client and therapist can reach those heights: I might have some intense words of wisdom for my client who is experiencing extreme frustration, but it is rarely a surprise when she reports years later that what really mattered in that session was not the advice offered (which no one now remembers), but rather the fact that I listened intently and gave her my full and compassionate support while she raged.

I have had students who were in my speech, acting, and directing classes from 23 years ago, come up to me in restaurants and other places and thank me for making a significant difference in their lives. What did I do? Inevitably, it isn’t what I thought I did. They remember a gesture, a touch, a word of encouragement, and usually not the actual class work. In other words, my manner affected them more than what was being taught. And, as I look back, I can truthfully say that part of my focus was indeed on the class work (I had to assign grades, after all), but my real intent was to give the students something they could actually use in their lives, beyond the scope of the class. I wanted their studies to have pertinence in their core lives, not just their academic lives.

So, we went on a journey together, them following my lead, but mostly us working out the issues together. In my Public Speaking classes, for example, most students were petrified to get up and talk. So, part of the class was dealing with those fears as well as the actual techniques of speech making. They dug down deep in their own psyches and found a place where they could hear my words of encouragement and connect them to their own sense of growth and learning, not unlike shamanistic journeys to retrieve the soul:

One of the major emphases of Joseph Campbell’s work is the documentation of the hero’s journey from legends of many different cultures. The commonality in these legends is that a person journeys into the unknown and is tested to the very core of the human experience. Many terrors and demons are faced along the path. The hero-heroine faces the trials and tests with courage and returns with a gift for humanity. The shaman in a similar way makes the same journey. In this age, such a journey plays particular importance in spiritual development (Nelson, 1993, p. 109).

I see similarities in counseling, especially my practice. I don’t know, nor can I predict, when a client will respond to something I say or to some silence or to some gesture. Nor can I document why they respond as they do or how they process the feelings. One day may be resistance and the next they’re processing. Certainly there is a connection between the issues being discussed and their capacity to assimilate the feelings. Beyond that, however, is the very fragile, and often controversial, relationship between client and therapist. I believe that the relationship itself constitutes some part of the spiritual nature of the process, not to mention any overt discussion of spirituality and how one maintains a relationship with "higher" or "other powers."

Whether the conversation is direct or indirect, I believe that at some point, that spiritual leap must be taken--at least if the top of Maslow’s pyramid is to be reached, or Buddha’s enlightenment is to be approached, or Erikson’s ego integrity.

Because of this evolution of consciousness, people now need to take the step of total surrender to the spirit within, instead of relying on others to do this for them. At this point a spiritual teacher cannot "save" others, but rather can only create an environment for a fellow human to contact his or her own inner healing force. Nor can a dominant protector keep another person from the dangers of the dark. The inner journey itself, must be taken alone. No one can take that jump into the unknown for another. Others can nurture, push, and energize, but now we are each our own shaman or hero-heroine. In essence, savior or martyr archetypes are being broken (Nelson, 1993, p. 111).

This belief in being led to enlightenment, especially where we surrender our power to gurus, rather than engaging fully in our own lives, responsibilities, and spirituality, needs to be a firm boundary in counseling. By this I mean, that I, as a counselor, can "hold the hope" and help the client discover new ways to deal with life, but I can’t be their conscience. They must develop their own. Is it purely scientific methodology that helps them achieve that? or is it some more mystical relationship between client and therapist? Is it possible that the very act of caring carries as much weight as the words exchanged in a session? The psychoanalyst W. R. Bion said that when psychotherapists are identified with their insights, their contributions become "psychoanalytically worthless" (Epstein, 1995, p. 41). So, I give of myself (after all, each session is an hour out of my life, too), and, if the chemistry is right, the client transforms him or herself into something more akin to a self-actualized person. A spiritual as well as psychological journey, I believe, if, indeed, there is any difference between the two.

It is all the rage these days for non-Native folks to identify some part of their lives with American Indian or Alaska Natives. It is well that this is so, but I devoutly hope that those time-honored traditions are not commercialized (made into Disney cartoons), because living close to the Earth is more than carrying a Native talisman and saying "I identify with the Sioux" or "I feel my roots in the Tlingit tradition." The value in Native history is the respectful way in which people related to their environment and their spiritual guides. This is not to say that all Native traditions are sacred. Rather they show us a path that integrates mind, body, spirit, and emotion in a way many people need to look at in order to integrate themselves into a more balanced life.

The North American continent presents different possibilities for spiritual development. The human consciousness, or mind, resonates with the physical environment of habitation. Native North Americans have created an Earth-integrated spiritual tradition. This means that they attempt to identify with nature rather than transcend it. The human experience is embraced in order to transform it to the spiritual dimension. It is a matter of imploding through one’s humanity into spiritual awareness. The process is one of transformation as opposed to transcendence, since a transcendent approach seeks to overcome the human experience. Tantric Buddhism also recommends transformation instead of transcendence. According to the Dalai Lama, human senses are not denied, but are used as a part of the spiritual path (Nelson, 1993, pp. 115-116).

I believe that the spiritual journey and psychotherapy intersect, among other places, at the transformation process. As Nelson (1993) says, one comes out of the process considerably changed, and many times not in the way they envisioned, if, indeed, they did:

The spiritual journey will exaggerate people’s greatest fears, will expose trauma and will show them that everything they thought they were, they are not. The journey will also magnify the love in the heart for the self and others, will allow one to hear the voices of angels, and will turn one’s smile into beneficence (p. 123).

My counselor spoke often of a spiritual path. To my credit, I helped introduce Transcendental Meditation to Alaska in 1974. It was quite controversial because many people thought it was about mind control and besides, hippies were trying to spread it around. Nonetheless, I fostered the classes and went through the initiation myself, and meditated for many years. I see now that my path might well lead me back to meditation, but with a different motivation. Part of it is due to the cancer ordeal I went through and the realization that there was something deeper, more spiritual that I hungered for, and part of it is due to having read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying simultaneously with The Dancing Wu Li Masters. My reintroduction to spirituality on an intensely personal level combined with some profound thinkers in this area changed my perspective nearly totally. And I see that there is tremendous value in being on a path, which I am. Enhancing it with meditation or yoga or some form of mindful participation in each and every act of life is a goal toward which I strive daily.

As I see my practice, helping others to find solace in a healthy spirituality is another noble goal.

The Search for the Beloved

Healing through the ages has taken many forms--modern therapy and spirituality being only the recent additions to the pantheon of beliefs and methods. In pre-Christian Epidaurus, for example, the "cure" was not about talking, but rather about everything else:

The citizens of Greece who made the pilgrimage to the sacred temples of Asclepios were offered an invitation to become what they could be, to gain a larger perspective on the self and the social order. As we have seen, this process involved a quickening of the total person through art, music, dance, drama, healing therapy, sacred practice, laughter, altered states of consciousness, and communion with archetypal realities....

In the Asclepian mode, the growth of consciousness as well as the healing of the body-mind was encouraged by a rhythm of dynamic input through theatre, philosophy, athletics, and so forth, followed by experiences like the...sacred dream. Such experiences created a context for the body and mind to shift into a more complex, coherent state of being. This state organically effected healing by reconstituting the reality of body and mind into higher order. Thus, too, the process of wholing was encouraged, for by taking in and integrating more ideas and experiences, both sacred and profane realities, the participant in the Asclepian became deeper, wiser, and more available for new inspiration and creativity (Houston, 1977, pp. 10-11).

When I read that passage, I was profoundly affected. Here was a "program" that demanded that healing involve mind, body, spirit, and emotions. It didn’t talk about them, it immersed the seeker in them and did so by elevating the seeker to the heights of emotion with tragedy, of release with laughter and comedy, of intellect with philosophy, of physical activity with athletics, and of mystical connection with imagery. This merging of human experience in an intense process of seeking, offers a kind of healing we only approximate in a therapist’s office. Would that I could take on clients with the stipulation that they go on a retreat that involves these ancient healing methods. I might even attempt something on that order just to see if it can be as effective in a modern day setting as it was in 403 B.C.

According to Houston, however, we need not reinvent the wheel (no pun intended):

Throughout history, deeper answers to the questions of life have been offered in the various traditions of sacred psychology--and not just answers, but practical methods of training to grow the godseed. Be it the sophisticated pshcyophysical methods found in various forms of yoga, or the spiritual practice of oriental martial arts, of the training of mindfulness in Buddhism, or of the imagination in Islamic mysticism, or the activation of courage and creative power in the shamanic practices of the North-South axis of the world, the tradition of the development of the god in us is very rich and always contemporary (Houston, 1987, p. 20).

It seems that one goal would be to have a retreat where such healing practices could be taught, and where they could also be integrated into everyday life in order that they be the most useful and meaningful. The Buddhist admonition that we must sense our spirituality in every word, thought, feeling, and activity is more important, I believe, than a week or two of retreat after which it’s business as usual. So, the issue, for counseling, is how to engage a client in full participation in life, so that they might self heal, in the sense of laughter, tears, exercise, spiritual practice, mental gymnastics, etc. Enlightenment seems more easily induced with a sense of balance.

As in psychotherapy, Buddhist practice, and Native-American ceremony, healing wounds, whether emotional or spiritual, is the focus. In sacred psychology, sometimes the wound is sought:

Soulmaking requires that you die to one story to be reborn to a larger one. A renaissance, a rebirth, occurs not just because there is a rising of ancient and archetypal symbols. A renaissance happens because the soul is breached. In this wounding, the psyche is opened up and new questions begin to be asked about who we are in our depths. These powerful questions need not lead to alienation and withdrawal, but can lead to the seeding of the world with the newly released powers of the psyche. A larger story is revealed by the wounding....

Wounding involves a painful excursion into pathos, wherein the anguish is enormous and the suffering cracks the boundaries of what you thought you could bear.... In the Greek tragedies, the gods force themselves into human consciousness at the time of pathos. It is only at this time of wounding that the protagonist grows into a larger sense of what life is all about and is able to act accordingly.

The sounding becomes sacred when we are willing to release our old stories and to become the vehicles through which the new story may emerge into time (Houston, 1987, pp. 104-105).

I can attest to the truth of those words. When I was in the hospital in Anchorage with 4 bleeding ulcers that couldn’t be stopped, I knew I was in trouble. I was still resisting any "lesson" that might have been inherent in the event--I was still outside myself and unable to connect with my spiritual self enough to "see" any significance. A friend (Joyce, who is married to Wes, my spiritual guide and great friend) offered a prayer for me, however, which at the time was a huge risk for her because she knew I didn’t buy any of that "spiritual stuff." Nonetheless, she took my hand and prayed. And I started to cry. I knew, somehow, that my defenses had been breached, but I didn’t know quite how. I knew my soul had been touched, but I didn’t know how. I knew I’d never be able to close that door on myself again, but I didn’t know what to do with it all. So I cried. So much so that the nurse came in and asked what was wrong. I didn’t know consciously, but some part of me knew that the shell was cracking.

When I was hospitalized in Seattle with cancer and undergoing extensive and very enervating chemotherapy, I thought, at one point, that I was breathing my last. As I lay there trying not to breathe too much because the pain was so intense, thinking I was dying, I "saw" what I couldn’t see in Anchorage when Joyce was praying her love for me. I saw that I had not been following a path that was supporting me in the best possible way. I saw that I had lived expediently but not mindfully. I had gotten into computers because I lacked the confidence to reach for what I really wanted at the time--theatre. I felt trapped in computers because I was making money and couldn’t see how to escape. What I finally saw was that by following my most intense inner beliefs about myself, I could change careers, contact my own real feelings, find a relationship with my gods, and contribute to the world in a way that had never before given me deep satisfaction and a sense of connectedness. Another, larger story emerged: I became aware (well after the cancer ordeal was over), that my parents had literally uprooted their lives and moved to Seattle to care for me--24 hours a day every day. No greater love could be expressed than their unstinting care and love. It put my suffering in a larger context (story) and gave me to believe and know, deeply, that I wasn’t alone. The seeds of a spiritual love, too, were planted, nurtured, and growing.

My dearest hope is that I can help people come to similar realizations about their lives and their souls before disaster strikes. It is, I believe, a matter of permission. If we become connected enough, mindful enough (enlightenment is still the goal, but not the necessary ingredient to make informed decisions), we can honor our own deep needs and desires (without attachment to the outcome), and give ourselves permission to change. The alternative is hardly acceptable: I suffered 5 near-death experiences before I "got it" and hope I can help others avoid that fate (but probably not):

So, too, must you breach that story that denies your full unfolding. You may deny and resist this truth with all the strength you can muster, but the woundings will continue, sometimes relentlessly, apparently meaninglessly, until you agree to wake up (Houston, 1987, p. 107).

Betrayal and forgiveness play a large role in therapy as well as spiritual growth. Our movies, literature, and television are rife with examples of "sweet revenge," and the glories of killing or getting even with one’s tormentor or enemy extolled. It almost seems that revenge is more marketable than forgiveness, and yet the latter is the root of growth.

This is why betrayal is such a strong theme in all the great religions and myths. It is the human gate to higher religious experience; it gives us the experience perhaps of God. In our betrayal, the other becomes the instrument of God, bringing us to a tragedy that needs our ennoblement in order to understand it. And the only way to be ennobled and to forgive truly is through love. In giving much more than one thought one could, one discovers that one has much more still to give. This is the mystery and miracle of love, and it changes the very fabric of reality, the very structure of our lives (Houston, 1987, p. 117).

There is truth for me in that statement. I carried around the pains and angers of my sexual abuse for many years, 41 to be exact. When I started working on my issues, the anger and pain were uppermost in my mind and body. After "working through" the pain, I saw that carrying around that pain and anger was only serving to inhibit me from fully utilizing my whole self, in my emotions, body, spirit, and mind. I was using valuable energy to hold on to the pain while stunting my own growth. My process of forgiving was a tortuous route: I finally looked squarely at my perpetrator and knew that he couldn’t hurt me any more (that took some anger work and pain work and a great deal of inner child work); I decided that his cruel acts were not the cornerstones of my adult life (they may have exacerbated my neuroses, but they weren’t the cause); I actively chose to not give energy to my perpetrator, allowing my anger or pain to exist but not shape my actions or thoughts (Buddhist detachment); and I built a strong support group for myself as an emerging person, not as a victim of incest). I’m not sure that I feel strong love for any of my perpetrators. Forgiveness, yes. Love? Well, I think of it more as detachment--neither love, nor anger: more like indifference. Perhaps there’s more work, still, in those feelings....

In counseling, forgiveness is one goal in the cases where betrayal or other woundings has occurred. The process of getting to forgiveness, however, may be different for different people. Repeating, as Epstein describes, or imaging as Nelson does, are good techniques. I would use whatever the client feels safest with, and work through the feelings, the body memories, the mental states, and the spiritual issues. The spiritual part, I believe, is that step beyond that we take at the moment we realize we’re living in the fear and in the past and don’t want that anymore. The exact process of getting to that moment and taking the "step off the cliff" is hard to describe, though all indicators are that it has a lot more to do with the relationship between the client and the therapist than the specific techniques used.

Just as realizing your own relationship with your Beloved is not easy, so helping another to realize his or hers is also fraught with difficulty. You must be careful to do what is appropriate and evolutionary for the other. Otherwise you become a compulsive cornucopia, burying someone under all the gifts you are pouring out. Your apparent generosity is not always appreciated, and indeed may be deeply resented, as we often see in the case of parents who do "everything" for their children and rob them of their own need for autonomy and identity. Teachers and therapists, indeed many who are in the helping professions, are caught in this conundrum (Houston, 1987, p. 135).

To enhance my ability to work with clients at this level, I have undertaken a course of Spiritual Guidance with Wes (mentioned earlier), a minister of some 50 years. I find myself as immersed in the discussions we have as I am in the techniques he uses to help me find my relationship with my spiritual self. He is extraordinarily gentle, especially around issues that could be more about psychotherapy than my search for my own spirituality. He questions and probes and offers his own views but never tells me how I am to conduct myself before this Other. I cherish our time together and feel I am on a path, whose destination is not nearly as important to me as staying as present as possible during the journey.

When Houston (1987) talks about the "colossal mistake" that we sometimes make, she touches a subject dear to my heart. It is denial.

You may have spent years of prayer or therapy or exercises to rid yourself of old patterns, yet they always seem to recur as either ego-grinders or lures to oblivion. That is the hallowed aspect of these habits--they are the tragic flaw that provides the opportunity to make the colossal mistake that will lure us at the optimal moment into the death of our little local self. Without this lure to local ego death, we could not gain the opportunity for grace, or love, or God to come and resurrect us (Houston, 1987, p. 167).

I spent years not heeding my true calling. As I think I’ve mentioned, I got into computers because I couldn’t find work in theatre in New York in the early 1970s. I was a teacher in Alaska and went to New York to follow a dream, albeit a very ill-informed and ill-conceived dream. My students in Alaska liked me and were learning not only about the class subjects but about life. I made it a point, as I have stated earlier in this paper, to integrate lessons with what goes on in the real world: a non-Ivory Tower approach. Somehow, however, I thought to be an actor and trundled off to The City. Failing that, I fell into computers, for which I had a talent, though it never challenged me as much as teaching. I spent years, however, building a company and trying to be happy. It wasn’t until I realized 18 years into my computer career that it wasn’t personally fulfilling and never had been. How to get out. I felt trapped in computers because it paid the bills and any retraining for, say, counseling, would be hard to pay for. So, I stayed in computers until I got cancer. That got my attention. My colossal mistake was to believe that I didn’t have the means to change careers. The cancer provided the death of my local self and gave me the gift of clear vision about who I am and what my life could be about. The hallmark of that epiphany, however, was the realization that I wasn’t alone, that there were angels guarding me (at one time in my narcotic-induced stupor, I looked up and distinctly saw and felt the energy of angels. Who’s to say what they were?). So, I came to grace and to my spirituality the hard way, which seems to be the "way it happens." I hope, in my practice, to help people through those crises, should they occur, and to live in grace more by choice than by happenstance. That may be lofty and unrealistic thinking; but it’s part of a vision.

The stories about transformations that can occur around suffering are legion. And it seems to me that in therapy there is not much emphasis put on the spiritual meanings of suffering. Much of the literature speaks to processing the hurts and coming to self-esteem and the ability to cope with the vagaries of life. There might be advantage to be gained from the spiritual aspects of suffering. Jaloddin Rumi, a teacher who lived and taught in thirteenth century Anatolia, tried to get his students to look at the value of suffering from a spiritual standpoint. His view was similar to the Buddhist approach wherein one has experiences and can also be the detached observer of them, which can provide valuable insight--as long as it isn’t personalized:

We take this attitude ["Why me?"] because we do not have the depth of insight to see ourselves in the extraordinary metabiological process of becoming more and more refined, more and more sacred, transparent to transcendence. If we could see this, our suffering would not turn into pathology. We pathologize because we cannot mythologize. We see ourselves as being overcooked by suffering and turning into sludge at the bottom of the pot. Also, many tend to keep on suffering to no purpose because the culture puts no purpose in its evaluation of suffering (Houston, 1987, p. 203).

He poses the question "What would your life be like if from this moment forth you regarded your sufferings as refinements?" (Houston, 1987, p. 204). An interesting perspective. Of course, during my own therapy sessions, I am not able to see suffering as refinement: it’s too close. But with a little time and perspective, I am more able to take that view. It’s a combination of detachment and appreciation for the event. Even while suffering, sometimes, I’m able to see that there is something bigger happening to me. And in my practice, I believe it’s important to at least keep this view in the back of my mind, even if it’s not appropriate at a given moment to broach the topic with the client. It can, however, be a powerful tool to help some people grow and learn, as long as it’s not being used as an escape ("I’m suffering for the glory of God").


It seems to me that there is a place for spirituality in counseling, in some form, because it provides an overarching sense of self in context with the universe. It is far too easy to live in the intellect with an egocentric view, and hard, indeed, to expand one’s consciousness:

We tend in our age to dread the closed mind more than the closed heart, not realizing that a closed heart can wreak infinitely more destruction than a closed mind. It is almost if, for many people, a membrane forms around the heart as a protection against more life, more feelings, more spirit. One can almost hear them saying, "I want my heart closed because if it’s not, I will go into overload. Ideas can come and go; these I can deal with; but, please, no more being vulnerable, no more love" (Houston, 1987, p. 204).

My experiences thus far have borne out the belief that one doesn’t know what one has to give until one is pushed beyond any reasonable limits. It is at the point where I believed that death was at hand that I could see clearly. See into my heart and soul, and watch dispassionately as my spirit lifted "above" my body and helped me see that there is a larger reality to which I might respond. In my practice, I hope to help clients gain that perspective and spiritual sense. If they must first burn in the fires of suffering, so be it; but having been there, I see a real and immediate value in both the psychological and spiritual paths.



Epstein, M. (1995). Thoughts without a thinker; psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith, the psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Freedman, F. K. (1996). Qualifying Paper. Anchorage, AK/Prescott College. Unpublished.

Gooch, B. (1993). City poet; the life and times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Knopf.

Houston, J. (1987). The search for the beloved, journeys in mythology and sacred psychology. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.

Nelson, A. (1993). Living the wheel; working with emotion, terror, and bliss through imagery. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc.




© 1999 F ken Freedman Counseling - Phone: 907-566-1708 - Fax: 907-248-2421 - Please send e-mail to: fken@alaska.net