Spirituality And Relationships
by Bruce Crapuchettes
Printed in the journal called, "Psychotherapy In Australia" Vol 4 No 1 November 1997
In a survey of spirituality through the ages, Bruce Crapuchettes suggests its main contemporary use is to heal the wounded self through the committed relationship.
A mature man . . . that is what I want to become. But what exactly is a mature man? How will I know when I have arrived? What will it feel like? I have a hunch that maturity is one of the outward manifestations of something much deeper - spirituality.
WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
There seems to be some agreement among the world¹s great thinkers that we are all on a journey, whose objective is described in many ways: to become whole, mature, centred, grounded, integrated, aware, conscious, fully human, God-like. Words like soul, spirit, heart, and mind describe those deepest parts of our being which most excite and disturb us.
Harville Hendrix (1988) says that human beings yearn for their original essence and wholeness, that they long to become healed, to feel fully alive, to have access to all their functions (sensing, acting, feeling, thinking), and to have a sense of relaxed joyfulness, something he calls "spiritual."
When embarking on a spiritual path, we often start by creating a mental image of our intended destination. Slaves in the old south sang about heaven because they believed they would never find bliss on this earth, never, it seemed, become "real human beings" in their lifetime. Heaven, the sweet bye and bye, was where some day their spirits would be free, whole and alive. But while they believed that their hearts sang of a distant future, I am guessing that their inspiration came from a long-forgotten past, a faint memory from deep within. They felt an innate yearning to recapture their birthright - the original essence with which they, and all of us, were born, that of full aliveness and wholeness.
Here is my definition: Spirituality is the process of transcending the self, transcending the limitations of our evolutionary and learned reactivities, and creating meaning for ourselves through attunement to the structure of the world (which consists of matter, energy and interconnectedness). Engaging in love (agape) is the spiritual discipline that puts us on the spiritual path.
When we approach the world from a spiritually unevolved place, we see ourselves as all important in the universe and come from an egocentric perspective which we need in order to experience meaning. But as a result of our spiritual quest, we can derive our meaning as part of the whole, not the centre of it, we are able to see ourselves as a minute particle of the universe, yet fully important because we are part of the whole, ie. if we were missing, the whole would not be complete. We move from egocentric to interconnected.
In the religious tradition this act of transcendence was accomplished by surrendering to God, the centre, who thus forced us off centre stage. As physicists and cosmologists have grown in their knowledge and understanding of the universe, we moderns have come to realize there is no centre of the universe. The first law of thermodynamics says that everything is moving toward disorder, randomness rules. While this realization could precipitate an existential depression in some, others, who choose to live intentional lives and become more and more conscious, can instead create meaning from their relatedness to the whole. The process of transcending the self brings about an awareness of belonging to the whole and makes it possible to create meaning of every moment of our lives, even in a universe where there may be no inherent meaning. We can daily create meaning if we choose. But in order to do this, we must first experience healing.
THE PLACE OF HEALING HAS SHIFTED THROUGH HISTORY
Many significant shifts have developed throughout the course of history as to the cultural "place of healing." In America, the most traditional place of healing has been within religion. Christian theologians say we are created in the image of God but fell into sin by rejecting His invitation to remain in communion with Him. God "forgave us our sins" and invites us to rejoin Him and regain our original God-like image. The Christian path is a call to original wholeness through "loving God . . . and loving your neighbour as yourself." Although some religious leaders have fallen sorrowfully short of demonstrating unconditional love for all people, Christian scholars agree that a community of believers - the church - is the place where all are acceptable in the eyes of God and of each other. The idea is to feel the unconditional love and acceptance of God, and through His acceptance, to find self- and other-acceptance.
Using a psychological perspective to explain religious language (which I do not presume is the only or "right" perspective), God can be seen as the "good parent." He is reliably present, warm, loving, accepting, patient, guiding, and appropriately angry. In other words, God offers the ideal parenting that we needed, but never experienced as children. In ancient Times, God was too holy for the likes of us to speak directly with him, so "mediators" emerged. Priests and other religious leaders became the mediators between ordinary people and God¹s grace; they, representing God, became the instruments of our healing.
The political winds of self-ownership, individualism and democracy blew strongly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the nineteenth, Sigmund Freud ushered in a shift in our thoughts about emotional/ spiritual healing. Many people wanted to discuss their woes with a "real" human being who could relate to their life issues and respond with timely wisdom and understanding. The place of healing gradually shifted from the church to the couch. Psycho-therapists became the secular priests for our society, the new "good parents" our wounded souls had been searching for. Now we could sit in a room with someone, face to face, and experience the kind of connection that would bring us closer to feeling alive. This was an exciting shift for a society feeling increasingly untouched by the people and institutions its parents and grandparents had looked to for healing.
But society never remains static and new shifts are ever unfolding. Many have come to believe that the place of healing is within the self. Meditation is very popular as a spiritual discipline. While this has always been true in the Eastern tradition, it represents a significant shift in Western thought development. Like prayer, it is a process of quieting the mind, body, and spirit so that one might connect with a "higher power" or "universal intelligence."
Faced with the limitations of religion, psychotherapy, meditation, and other paths, along with the emergence of self-ownership, individualism, democracy, and free-choice marriages, the history of social and spiritual evolution may be making yet another shift in the place of healing. Hendrix (1988) postulates that the ultimate crucible for healing and growth is the committed, intimate dyad, the modern marriage, where the intimate partner becomes the "good parent." First the priest, then the psychotherapist, and now the intimate other.
The disciplines of philosophy, theology, religion, and psychology all recognize that there is a serious human problem, and are concerned with finding a solution. Contrary to the conservative theological view that man had fallen into sin, Freud (1933), Paul Tillich inThe Courage to Be (1958), and others, concluded that the fundamental disturbance of being is anxiety brought about by our fear of death. Martin Buber in I and Thou (1952) identified the anxiety that Freud and Tillich were talking about as basically a relational fear; the ultimate terror is not the fear of death per se, but the terror of the ³other,² and the associated terror of annihilation. If we let the other fully into our presence, we would lose ourselves and essentially disappear.
Hendrix (1994) says that the single most tragic loss to the human race is the loss of empathy that this "other-terror" engenders; when we experience physical or emotional pain, we automatically react by turning our attention inward and focus our energy on trying to overcome or relieve it. In other words, we become self-absorbed and become the centre of our world because of the pressing demands of our pain. This creates an illusion of separateness: them and me, in fact, them against me. They don't feel my pain, my hurt, my anxiety, my terror! So we experience alienation from the other and consequently lose our capacity for empathy, we come to fear others and treat them as if they were objects. As long as we remain in pain, our deepest terror is that of allowing the other¹s reality into our presence because, in doing so, we fear we will disappear, lose our own perspective, become extinct.
We have had good training in that often parents convey to their children that there is only one reality, theirs! Children, in order to remain connected with their parents and become acceptable family members, must surrender themselves and their reality. Forced to take on our parents' reality to please them, we began to split the world into "me" and "them", into good and bad, right and wrong. We worked hard as children to present a facade of what we thought was acceptable (good) and to hide what we thought was unacceptable (bad) in us. This intense desire to please our parents with the ultimate practical goal of surviving left us often full of rage or profoundly depressed because of the loss of our real "Self." We became hurt and wounded children, and our potential goodness, our original wholeness was chipped away, dismantled.
This damaged relationship with our parents can be called an object-subject relationship. And later, just as we were subjected, so will we "subject" others to a reduction of their self to being an object, in an attempt to protect ourselves from further injury the way our parents once objectified us. The only solution to the human condition, Buber claims, is to reach a place where we psychologically bring the other into equality with ourselves and develop what he calls a subject-subject relationship, an I-Thou relationship.
The spiritual journey is about bringing healing and wholeness to our damaged, split selves. To venture purposefully down this road is to make a commitment to transcend our woundedness, because out of our pain, we do things that are hurtful and unloving. It is almost impossible to separate what is hurtful to others from what is hurtful to the self, because, ultimately, they are one and the same. The goal of the journey, then, is to find a way to heal the hurts we experienced as children and move beyond them and make space to accommodate the reality of the other. This is love (agape).
TWO KINDS OF WORK
On the journey toward wholeness and aliveness, there are two kinds of work: growth work and healing work. Hendrix (1992) describes growth work as modifying our character defenses, and healing work as getting our emotional needs met (i.e., get our childhood wounds healed).
Because the intimate other triggers our terror of annihilation most, it is in their presence that the deepest level of growth and healing can occur. The actual growth and healing potential will be in direct proportion to the level of commitment and intimacy in the relationship. This concept of healing through relationship is so important, that Hendrix recommends that individual clients who are not in a committed relationship work within the context of a group so that the "work" will remain relational among equals.
In the adult intimate relationship, partners act as mirrors to one another. As a result of our childhood pain, we often do not feel good about ourselves and subsequently, we do not like what we see when our partner holds up the mirror. We look for an escape from the awful truth that is staring us in the face. We want our masks back. We want to run behind our fortress again, to bulldoze and "kill".
The committed, intimate relationship brings on the most intense experience of the mirror because, once we¹ve committed ourselves, we¹re essentially force fed a daily diet of cold, hard reality, there¹s no escape unless we abandon the relationship. Here is where commitment becomes the absolute cornerstone of growth and healing. We could opt to run away by filing for divorce, having affairs, committing suicide, or even losing ourselves in work, TV, or children. The spiritual journey is to move into a process of closing the escape routes, a far more difficult, yet infinitely more rewarding choice, for it propels us toward the full aliveness and relaxed joyfulness we ultimately seek, and what a laborious process it is! What an agonizing, terrifying experience to face the most hated parts of ourselves in our partner and choose to remain rather than run! It demands a desire and commitment to personal growth and evolution; the spiritual awakening is the growing awareness that instead of focusing on what our partner has to do to change, it is all about what we have to do. Our growth work is to search for our contribution to our problems, and take our share of the responsibility.
As Imago therapists, we begin with "other-reflection", asking each partner to take his or her best guess as to what it is about themselves that upsets their partner. This starts a couple on an amazing path of realization that there are (at least) two independent and equally valid realities! Next, we work on modifying our own character structure in ways that free us to become a healer for our partner, especially by learning to become "safe" for our partner so they can relax in our presence and let us in emotionally. This is indeed a spiritual awakening.
In the religious tradition, spirituality means transcending the Self by worshipping God. For Hendrix spirituality means transcending the Self by giving the partner's reality equal validity to ours, pushing through the terror of annihilation and making room for the other's existence and point of view.
ALIVENESS VERSUS MEANING
There has been much philosophical and theological attention on discovering the meaning of our existence, of death, and getting into relationship with the ultimate. In Hendrix' opinion, this is an interesting academic exercise, but what our souls really thirst for is to feel alive!
He points out that Madison Avenue is light years ahead of philosophers and theologians, for it has discovered the way to sell everything from soap and toothpaste to cars is to tell us that owning these things will make us feel more alive. "Your scalp will tingle!" "Your mouth will feel like a refreshing winter breeze!" "Toyota - oh, what a feeling!" They don¹t try to tell us how these products will bring more meaning to our lives. That¹s not what our souls are thirsting for. What we ultimately yearn for is aliveness, energy, the feeling that the powers of the very heavens are coursing through our veins!
In fact, aliveness feels so good that we can easily become addicted to whatever brings us those feelings for even a few moments. Sex. Chocolate. Business deals. Alcohol. Cocaine. Money. What happens is that when we experience that aliveness for a moment, we may conclude, "Good sex - that's the answer!" or "Money - that's the answer!" LSD can break through the mind's defenses and leave one sitting in the presence of the core. How thrilling! To be connected with our core energy is truly a moment of ecstasy. So we may conclude, as Timothy Leary, that LSD is the answer. Meditation can sometimes give us this feeling as well, because it can actually alter the chemistry of the brain. So too can such activities as long distance running, aerobics and Zen, because endorphins are dumped into the brain.
A "conversion experience" is a similarly powerful and energizing experience. Recently, an older gentleman, a wealthy businessman, was dragged reluctantly by his wife to the workshop I regularly lead. Their marriage was in a state of collapse and they were there as a last ditch effort. The man introduced himself as skeptical and being there "only by a thread." During the first part of the workshop, he remained very quiet and distant, as one would expect under the circumstances. By the end of day one he had posed a question or two. On the second day, to my surprise and delight, the couple volunteered to help demonstrate how to handle anger and rage constructively. After thinking of something in the relationship that he was feeling frustrated about, he was able to use my coaching to get into very energized expressions of anger. Suddenly he got in touch with the deep sadness behind his rage. Finally, during the last stage of the exercise where the couple is instructed how to hold each other, he fell into his wife¹s arms in convulsive sobs and remained there like a baby to be comforted by her.
Truly a conversion experience for this staid businessman. He was so excited and energized, he had just tasted a kind of aliveness that he had never experienced before. As with most converts, it was difficult for him to stop talking about it.
A conversion experience can feel so powerful that it truly can become life transforming. It can happen through a near death experience, during a Billy Graham meeting, or with a drug experience. It is so energizing to the system that we become convinced for the first time that "the journey" is really worth traveling. Wow, there is life! Where we once felt hopeless or lifeless, we now have drunk from the fountain of life itself. And that delicious taste gives us the energy to get on with the journey to finding lasting aliveness. A conversion experience is not healing, it is energizing and gives us the conviction and a cognitive understanding that there is a path, there is life. Now we know it and we want it!
It is easy to confuse the thing that induces the feeling with the actual source of aliveness. Peck (1993) writes that "with alcohol, pot or coke, for a few minutes or a few hours we may regain temporarily that lost sense of oneness with the universe. We recapture that deliciously warm and fuzzy sense of being one with nature once again." A possible explanation is that we, at our essence, are addicted to our original aliveness. There is an innate craving inside that draws us to the feeling.
Rather than settling for aliveness in the transient form however, the ultimate way to achieve lasting aliveness is to become an integrated human being, a mature person. We need to eradicate the split inside us by learning to honour the other and withdraw our projections. Nature supports this agenda via the chemistry of romantic love, the perfect catalyst to thrust us hearts first into the ultimate crucible for growth and healing: the committed, intimate relationship with someone who, contrary to our first impressions, turns out to be incompatible and least able to meet our needs!
DIALOGUE: THE MECHANISM FOR REGAINING EMPATHY, EQUALITY, WHOLENESS AND ALIVENESS
For Christian fundamentalists, being "born again" is the mechanism for regaining wholeness. For Tillich (1952), it is "absolute faith", for Freud "psychoanalysis." And for many new age thinkers, it may be "meditation," "holistic medicine" or various forms of "body work." Hendrix (1988) suggests that the ideal mechanism for achieving wholeness, and thus experience spiritual evolution, is the "Intentional Dialogue", a specific way of being in the presence of another such that one listens fully to the other's reality (by reflecting back - "mirroring" - what is heard) and validates its worth as being equal to the worth of their own (usually opposing) reality. The dialogue takes place within a blanket of warmth and empathy, thus Mirroring, Validation and Empathy. It is a simple structure, but must be adhered to carefully to provide a feeling of safety and validation. Dialogue is the spiritual discipline needed for the journey.
The fear, of course, is that if we validate our partner's reality, we may devalue our own. Is there really room for both our realities? Dare we take that chance? Can we really co-exist with full respect and equal honouring? The dialogue places us face to face with our vulnerability, our terror of the other, and our bottom-line belief that there can be only one truth, one reality, ours!
In their acceptance speeches for the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1994, both Arafat and Perez each mentioned they had discovered that "the only way to find peace in the middle east is through dialogue." Not "negotiation," but dialogue. Food for the soul, dialogue may be the new way to truly transcend our selves and our terror of the other. It brings about our emotional and spiritual evolution so that when we encounter the "enemy," we can be mature and centred enough to drop the need to annihilate, nor fall into the terror of being annihilated.
A NEW PATH
Possibly, with our ability for abstract thinking and self-reflection, we human beings are nature¹s most complex, wondrous, and sophisticated creatures, the very apex of all creation. Also, perhaps we are the most wounded and therefore the most harmful creatures to our ecology. If there is any hope for this planet, nature needs to figure out how to make mature men and women out of us and guide us to fulfilling our birthright, that of becoming whole and complete. This might not only stop damage to our environment, but might put us in constructive harmony with it.
The goal of the spiritual journey is not to become saved, perfect, or even good, it is to become integrated. The only way to become "whole" and to tap into our core energy and feel fully alive, is to withdraw the projections we put onto others and become one with ourselves, at ease with ourselves. As we learn to unconditionally accept the other(s) in our lives, then we become able to unconditionally accept ourselves. As we are healed by the unconditional love of another, we become energized to fulfill our dreams and our potential as mature adults and our creativity will abound unfettered by our childhood wounds.
Hopefully this is an attainable goal. I am very aware that other theorists believe that suffering and anguish is often the dynamic that nourishes creativity, and that we would not have a Van Gogh or a Nietzsche without their pain. But imagine what these men could have given the world if their early wounds had been healed and their creativity not fettered by their pain. Healing, wholeness, and integration of the psyche are an attainable goal. It may take five or ten years of conscious work with a committed intimate partner, but it is attainable in this lifetime.
Possibly our dreams and visions of eternal bliss are not about some future day in heaven, but are memories, memories of the original blissful essence with which we enter this world. It is our original wholeness that our psyches yearn for. We dream of re-finding ourselves and of re-becoming who we truly are. Sadly, most of us manage only to get periodic glimpses, tiny tastes of who we really are, and when we do it is indeed exhilarating. But alas, the "doorway to heaven" swings shut, and we become lost once again in the search.
To make room for the "other" as being equally worthy and deserving of our total respect, to transcend our fear of the others with whom we share this planet starting with our intimate partner, to honour their existence without fearing our own annihilation, this is the spiritual journey into maturity.
Buber, M. . I and Thou. New York: Scribner, 1958
Freud, S. "Anxiety and instinctual life", lecture XXXIII. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1933
Hendrix, H. Getting the Love You Want. New York: Henry Holt, 1988
Hendrix, H. Keeping the Love You Find. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992
Hendrix, H. "The journey toward the human condition". Plenary address at the National Conference of the Association for Imago Relationship Therapy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, September 30, 1994.
Peck, M. S. Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Toward Spiritual Growth New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993
Tillich, P. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952