Mention spirituality and the soul in polite company and you’re likely to receive a cool response. Ever since the Enlightenment era’s Descartes ushered in a split between body and mind we have reified the rational and denigrated emotionality and the spirit. We seem, as Diana Whitmore believes, to have grown as “embarrassed of our spiritual lives as sex lives were to the Victorians.”
Science, government and indeed our industry’s regulators demand that the outcomes of psychotherapy are measured and quantified with statistics and proven facts. While it is undeniable that advances in neuroscience have, over the last few decades, confirmed what pioneers such as Winnicott and Bowlby intuited from their research, where does this spiritual skepticism leave us regarding the existence or the experience of the soul in therapy?
Interviewed in Psychotherapy Excellence, author and psychotherapist Thomas Moore opines that not only do we not “trust what can’t be quantified” but “we have also lost faith in our thinking.” If this is true, how can we helpfully think alongside our clients? Writing about the act of thinking in her essay The Life of The Mind, the philosopher Hannah Arendt notes Plato believed that the “invisible eye of the soul was the organ for beholding invisible truth with the certainty of knowledge.” In other words, we lose much if we think without the soul.
Moore also reminds us that the word psyche is synonymous with the word for ‘soul’ in Greek and that Plato himself also frequently explored the notion of therapy in his writing, suggesting that “psyche” and “therapeia” can be translated as “service to the soul”. “In that way,” Moore believes, “we take care of it, we water it, we do all these things required to keep it healthy and happy.
For Moore then, psychotherapy is work in service of the soul. And this is different from “taking care of the person. It is not solving problems. It is care as you would care for a horse every day. It’s daily needs”. Care for the soul in the process of therapy, says Moore, can sometimes create conflict within the dyad. “There’s a little bit of conflict sometimes, sometimes a big conflict, between caring for the soul and helping a person manage life. Those goals don’t always coincide.”
What the soul wants “may not be what the person wants. In fact, often, it isn’t at all what the person wants. Not what is practical? What is financially okay? What emotionally will be soothing and calm? Divorce can be very upsetting, but maybe the soul wants that or needs it.” In this scenario the work of therapy is to try to explore this space between the two vantage points with the client, to see if the question of what the soul wants can be answered. This goal, Moore believes, can be attained by “listening well to stories. Not to a story, but to stories. Stories upon stories. Through dream analysis, through images and poetry which in addition to rational cognition can be more effective at working with complexity”. And throughout this exploration, Moore continues, our attitude as therapists must be free from judgment.
Moore echoes Jung who wrote extensively on the soul in psychotherapy. In Modern Man In Search of A Soul, the pioneering psychoanalyst critiques the elevation of scientific thought above all else, suggesting that it “can never embrace all the possibilities of life” and states: “The psychotherapist must even be able to admit that the ego is ill for the very reason that it is cut off from the whole, and has lost its connection with mankind as well as with the spirit”
So what is the soul? PE’s Tom Warneke suggests that the tendency to “define the soul as an ‘it’ rather than as a quality or a space” makes our task as therapists more difficult. Indeed Moore suggests we try “not to be too direct and to be multivalent in everything we do, to have a poetic mind, not to feel we have to tackle problems head on… on their own terms. But, to entertain all different dimensions and ourselves, as people, not to have to be solving all these problems directly, these rationalistic problems that really distract us from the work we want to do.”
This new series of interviews features an impressive line-up of well-known practitioners, researchers and writers who discuss the importance of the soul in our work as practitioners. They include Thomas Moore, Robert Romanyshyn, Chris Robertson, Mary Smail, Nigel Hamilton and Diana Whitmore. You can purchase the series outright at £135 or subscribe from £19.95 per month subject to 12 months and get access to all our series. Exlpore the full series here.
Jung, C, G. (2009) Modern Man In Search of A Soul Routledge: Great Britain
Arendt, H. (1981) The Life of The Mind. Harcourt Publishers Ltd: San Diego
Whitmore, D. (2001) Psychosynthesis: A Psychology With A Soul. The BACP Counselling Reader: Great Britain