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Unread July 17th, 2004, 05:20 PM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
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Default Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective


Sylvia Crocker - A Life Well Lived

To define spirituality I would start by borrowing from and paraphrasing a dear friend of mine, Dr Sylvia Crocker and her book A Life Well Lived: Essays in Gestalt Therapy. Sylvia has a sense of the mystery of spiritual experience and steps up to meet this mystery full bodied.

As I begin this definition I might also note that spirituality rests on the existence of levels of reality, particularly physical reality and spiritual reality.
Now not all gestalt therapists see this as the purview of Gestalt therapy, however there are those that do and Sylvia and I are two such Gestalt therapists. And interestingly enough as Sylvia writes in her book, it took a certain amount of bravery on her part to write about spirituality and religion.

For some, as Sylvia says, this spiritual reality is mostly a mystery yet people report experiences that they term spiritual and are a result of an awareness or a reality other than the physical reality - many often now reporting such experiences in therapy, both therapists and clients.

Hence spiritual experience is that which people report as an experience of a reality other than that which is physical, which many then call spiritual and which Sylvia states is the meeting with this mystery.

The “ality” part she describes as our ability. Hence physicality is our ability to experience the physical, emotionality is our ability to experience emotions and spirituality is our ability to experience the spiritual.

Roberto Assagioli and Psychosynthesis


The founder of Psychosynthesis, the psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, takes a very existential and phenomenological approach to defining religion and spirituality which I appreciate.

In defining the terms to separate religion from psychotherapy, Assagioli firstly notes two different stages of religion. The first is “existential religion” which is direct spiritual experience, often realised by founders of religions, mystics and in varying degrees by many people.

Second is the religion of theological or metaphysical formulation of such experiences and the institutions methods and forms developed to communicate to the masses.

Psychosynthesis affirms the reality of the first religion and works in this area but is neutral to the second, noting that this second form is necessary, but the purpose of psychosynthesis is to attain direct experience of the first (pages 194-195).

In many ways Assagioli makes the distinction between psychology and religion on practical grounds, offering definitions of terms such as “self” and “spiritual” and “religion” as being practical realities which can be experienced and altered by psychological techniques.

For example, in defining the term spiritual he does not attempt to define or discuss what it is in essence but offers the fact of spiritual experience, an experience of what he terms the super conscious. He then uses the metaphor of electricity wherein we do not need to know the underlying theory or ultimate nature of electricity to use electrical appliances. Likewise psychosynthesis accepts that spiritual experiences exist and therefore includes and studies them with the purpose of therapeutic and educational utilisation.

The same pragmatic approach applies in defining the “self” to his patients. Initially the notion of a personal self and a higher Self is presented as an hypothesis which can be verified or disproved as the therapy proceeds. How this is explained also depends on the background of the person, so that a religious person is told the higher Self is a neutral psychological term used for the soul. For agnostics it is whatever term or metaphor or symbol fits for that person.

Wilson Van Dusen and the Design of Existence

Another Gestaltist, Wilson Van Dusen, a psychologist, mystic and a colleague of Carl Rodgers and Fritz Perls, in his book The Design of Existence, proposes there are a number of terms that he would easily substitute for spiritual -

1. Our inner life
2. the significant aspects of life
3. the aspects of life related to eternity
4. your relationship to the order of existence
5. your loves
6. Those matters that make you feel most elevated and fee
7. Your ideal
8. Whatever matters most to you


In essence spirituality is to begin to look for and see/experience the design of existence and the slight shift into greater significance which occurs as we do.

Overall I would say there are a number of important themes in attempting to define spirituality given the vast religious, spiritual and mystical writings and experiences.

First, there are issues of language and culture. Some words in mystical and religious texts do not readily translate, such as Brahman, so we must involve ourselves in the frame of reference of the writings.

Second, each writer is using words to translate an experience. Some experiences are beyond words or if you have not actually experienced what the writer is talking about then there will be inherent difficulties.

Third and perhaps most importantly, is the higher is descending to the lower. We are speaking at one state of being, while what we are speaking about may only be experienced at a higher or more expanded state of being.
Usually the mark of this is that what is understandable at the higher or expanded state sounds paradoxical at the lower state. For example the Tibetan Book of the Dead states how when we discover the void ness of our own minds to be Buddha-hood and at the same time our own consciousness we will dwell in the state of the Divine Mind of the Buddha.

This holds the paradox without shattering the beauty. This experience of losing self may seem at first very theoretical and wordy. Words do not always convey the experience which behind the words. This is sometimes better expressed through poetry, or art or music.

This sense of losing oneself and becoming part of something bigger is not limited to such esoteric concepts. It may be found in everyday reality: in painting, in music, being in nature, cheering on your football team, being in a family gathering and laughing. There are so many areas where that which we are involved in is the direct moment and involves love and wisdom.

At such times we "forget" our "selves" and be in the moment, beyond time and worry. While in the background there is a sense of "me" - this me is almost gone, enrapt in the greater All that we are a part of. Such states are hard to translate into to words at times, and sometimes poetry achieves this best:

"And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."


Wordsworth,W.
"Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey" lines 93-103

Last edited by Brian O'Neill; August 24th, 2004 at 08:29 AM. Reason: Spelling
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