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Article 1 of 3:
How the Spark of Spirituality Can Enhance The Practice of Psychotherapy

Since its inception, psychology has been a non-spiritual science, and the practice of psychotherapy has reflected this view of human beings.

How did this split between spirituality and psychotherapy occur?

It appeared with the birth of psychology and the vision of its first psychotherapist, Sigmund Freud. Freud was a product of the Industrialization of Western Europe. This wave of technological development swept people away from their villages, traditional customs, and religious supports. Corruptness within the heart of many religious institutions also contributed to the weakening of faith in the spiritual. Science became the new religion, and doctors the new priests.

Freud, a medical doctor, predisposed to think in terms of science, pathology, and diagnosis, conceived a psychological and pseudo-scientific theory of the self and its development. Based on this framework, he created a method of therapy (psychoanalysis) to assist the increasing numbers of individuals who were suffering inwardly and unable to cope during this time of chaotic change.

There was no room for religious or spiritual realities within Freud’s perspective. Freud believed that religion was primitive and outdated and that spiritual urgings were simply manifestations of an infantile-based longing to return to the womb. Determined to move beyond superstition and irrational beliefs, Freud created a rational model of psychotherapy which excluded ideas such as faith, soul, or God.

My intention is neither to denigrate Freud nor minimize his contributions to the practice of psychotherapy. Much of what he created is still applicable today. For instance, he discovered the significance of dreams in understanding hidden inner dynamics. He encouraged therapists to bring an open, non-judgmental presence to the therapeutic process.

In his latter years, Freud was deeply disappointed to realize that his psychoanalytic approach was inadequate to deal with the mysterious and non-rational inner forces that motivate human beings. His closest colleagues – Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, and Otto Rank, came to the same conclusion. Adler maintained that each person’s search for the meaning of life was the most important issue for psychology to address. Jung declared that psychology could least of all afford to overlook the spiritual life of a human being, and Rank claimed that psychotherapy would only have a significant effect when it brought the modern person “a soul without psychology”.

In spite of these realizations and reservations, most counsellors followed Freud’s approach until the 1950’s and 60’s. This marked a time of evolutionary change in the counselling field and a number of new modalities took root, many of which are in the mainstream today (e.g. Rogerian client-centered therapy, Ericksonian psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy). However, most of the new therapies continued to exclude the spiritual dimension.

I entered the world of psychotherapy in 1969, working as a mental health counsellor while simultaneously following a path of spiritual training. The strands of the psychological and the spiritual were woven together within the fabric of my work. However, in the assessment and treatment discussions amongst mental health professionals at the time there was only room for psychological and medical points of view. A rigid division existed between the spiritual and the psychological.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s that a bridge began to span this gulf and the eyes of the professional counselling community opened to the therapeutic benefits of spirituality. And this came from a force outside of their own doors – the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. The wildfire growth of this approach and the number of individuals whose lives were transformed by it could not be ignored. To date, AA is the only treatment approach of alcoholism which has been deemed successful by scientific research. And the psychotherapy establishment is still catching up. The 942-paged DSM-IV, the current reference manual for psychiatrists and mental health professionals, contains only four lines related to spiritual concerns.

The essence of 12-step programs is simple yet challenging – surrender to a higher power that is left to each person to experience in their own way. 12-step programs show us what is possible when two factors are present – the personal experience of surrender to a higher power, and the support of a community of like-minded individuals.

I, too, have benefited from this combination in my life, although in a form different from the 12-step programs. Of course, spirituality can manifest and be expressed in a variety of different ways. Many roads lead to Rome.

My own spiritual experiences and my awareness of the presence of spirit in the psychotherapeutic process, have enhanced my work as a counsellor in the following areas:

The scope of therapy: In addition to working with the full range of intellectual, emotional and behavioral issues, I am open to assisting clients to explore spiritually-oriented concerns and experiences.


I see clients as more than a pathological category or a series of complexes. I believe that at the core of every human being is a manifestation of spirit or higher power. I have witnessed within the counselling context, individuals connecting with their sense of essence, describing it in such terms as centeredness, knowing, peacefulness, clarity, integration, free of ego, coming home, etc. And this journey to essence is often difficult as clients encounter the fear, confusion, pain, frustration and deadness that can stand as guardians at the temple door.

Sometimes, however, the path to the core of our being is a gentle, unfolding process. A month ago, a client came from out of town for one therapy session. As she began to share her concerns I accessed my own sense of centeredness and listened. Her rhythmic pattern was to talk for a few minutes, pause for a few moments, then continue to talk again. As she paused, different ideas, questions and suggestions arose in my mind. When I considered expressing any of them, something within restrained me and I had a sense that for me to add anything at all would likely disturb or even contaminate the inner space that was being created by both of us. My sense of what was happening was that the chemistry of my deep listening and her way of talking was guiding her to her center. And the best way I could support her in her journey was to listen in stillness, remaining connected to my essence. The session continued in this manner with a few exceptions when it felt appropriate for me to share something verbally.

In this instance I wasn’t applying a standardized therapeutic approach. I was responding in a way that felt most supportive to my client and the unique design of her journey to her center. Three days ago, I received a letter from this client and will share an excerpt from it with her permission. “It is quite amazing to me how much that 1 hour session with you meant! Everything suddenly cleared. How much I talked, what I said, didn’t seem so important at the end. It all had to do with being in contact with the self, to pay attention, listen, being aware of the moment. Every day I feel a little more clearer, more in balance and I want to thank you for helping me get to that point! I have known for a long time that being true to oneself is very important but only now do I understand the meaning of it.” When the seed of the spirit is opened to and welcomed, it nurtures us and grows on its own.


My connection with spirit has brought to life within me feelings that support the clinical skills I have learned. Compassion, love, patience, acceptance, intuition, humility have grown through the beneficence of the Carver’s hand. Actually it is impossible to separate clinical skills from spirited ways of being.

As a human being with many failings, the flow of these feelings often slows to a trickle as I encounter forces within me that desire to strengthen my ego or harden my heart. At these times the antidote for me is to have compassion for my struggle and to turn towards my higher power. May I be helped to remember this step.

Based on my experience, I feel that the whisperings of the spirit can bring a positive spark to the practice of psychotherapy. And the blend of spirituality and counselling is being recognized and valued within the mainstream.

The Justice Institute, a publicly-sponsored training facility, has created a Certificate Program in Integrated Healing where I am teaching a course on the integration of spiritually and counselling. Other educational institutions in B.C. are also moving in this direction.

I am optimistic about the future of psychotherapy and I am committed to supporting others who are attempting to create a cooperative relationship between the psychological and the spiritual.

Article 2 of 3:
A Journey of Transformation

Mahmud Nestman is the director of the CURA Institute for Integrated Learning. The uniqueness of his four-day residential workshops, “Journeys of Transformation”, are what motivated me to interview him. These workshops are unusual in that there is no formal agenda or program, each participant is supported to discover their own path or process of unfolding, and often there is a strong sense of grace and synchronicity.

Q: Why did you found the CURA Institute?

MN: Cura is a Latin word meaning “care of the soul”. I wanted to create an institute that would care for the whole person, including their soul. I believe that if we take care of our soul first, the soul with its evolutionary intelligence will care for the body, mind and feelings. This caring will manifest as purification, refinement, and balance.

Q: What is the difference between traditional approaches to counselling and an integrated approach?

MN: Traditional approaches are primarily and often exclusively verbal. Freud called psychotherapy “the talking cure”, as clients and therapists engage in therapeutic conversations of a verbal nature. An integrated approach takes into account more than the verbal – for example, body-oriented sensations, breathing patterns, essential rhythms, these kinds of communications – verbal and non-verbal together.

Q: Can you give me an example of this?

MN: Let’s say you are experiencing a problem in your relationship with your partner. Something is bothering you, there is something between the two of you, you’re not quite sure what it is about, you want to discuss it with him, but you’re unclear and feeling anxious. So, as you are a spiritually-minded person you deal with it by attempting to transcend the uncomfortable feelings and focus on the positives. However, your experience doesn’t shift for you. When you’re relating with him you still feel tense. And though you’re doing your best to transcend these feelings and expand your consciousness, your body is actually contracting and tensing. Your conscious mind is trying to change to a clear channel but your deeper mind is registering static. That blocking or conflict that exists within you, it imprints in your body, imprints in your muscles, imprints in your tissues, imprints in your cells. Even if your conscious mind can tune out the difficulty, your body can’t.

And each of us has had experiences of being where we instinctively and habitually avoid something or hold back from something, and over time begin to feel a build up of pressure, tension, numbness or pain in our body. And, after a period of time our conscious mind just can’t unravel and let go of this pain even if we want to. We are unable to will ourselves past the defenses we have been reinforcing. However, the body holds the pain, and that pain can be the doorway to the meaning of the pain and the release of the pain.

Q: Can you explain how the pain can be a doorway?

MN: Let’s say, in your case, your tension manifests most strongly as pain in your stomach. Your deeper mind is tensing your stomach. It may be helpful to you if I assist you to focus your attention on your stomach ache. And as you do that, I notice that you begin to instinctively massage your stomach with your hand. I ask you to continue to pay attention to the ache in your stomach as you massage it in just the way that feels right to you, and as you stay with this process there is a strong possibility that images, words, feelings and eventually insight and meaning will emerge in your consciousness. For instance, perhaps the first awareness that emerges is a concern that your partner no longer loves you. The next awarenesses are of a series of experiences that have led to this concern. Then, after that, a constellation of fears emerge – fear that your concern is true, fear of being abandoned and being alone, fear of discussing your concern with him. As you uncover these awarenesses and discuss them with me, you experience a shift. You feel relief and your stomach ache has dissipated. You are still experiencing some fear and anxiety but you have gained clarity and grounding and some direction. So by going into the darkness, you experience an illumination of what was lurking in the shadows of your mind. And your conscious mind was being supported by me to do something other than analyze, rationalize or even try to transcend. It was being assisted to do something which is atypical for most of us, yet completely natural – pay attention to the uncomfortable sensations or communications of the body.

Q: That sounds quite remarkable. Does your therapy always proceed so quickly and smoothly?

MN: No. First of all, clients need to feel safe and trusting. At the beginning, my intention is to foster a climate where the client can feel free to be present, to show up. And think about it – how many of us really show up in our interactions with others? Are we willing to be transparent and honest unless we feel safe and trusting in the presence of the other?

Q: How do you create that safety in therapy and in your workshops?

MN: My intention is to be present in ways that blend spirituality and clinical skills. First of all, to have a relaxed attentiveness and a trust in the possibility of a natural process of unfolding. If I can sit with my client without an agenda, without trying to predict what is going to happen, yet paying attention to what is happening – now! – in the present moment, with a sincere interest in the unique person with whom I’m with, and an attitude of acceptance and compassion towards all facets of that person – their resistance as well as their openness – then I feel that I am doing what I can to help create a space for my client.

Q: Does empathy help to create safety for the client?

MN: Yes…definitely. Empathy is understanding what someone else is experiencing and expressing and then communicating our understanding of their sharing back to them. It is important that we are understood in our uniqueness – our way of seeing life, our ways of thinking, feeling, behaving. As therapist, my intention is to see the person as fully as I can, in the way they are bringing themselves forward – discovering the unique design of each person with whom I work, not trying to fit them into a limiting category of who I want them to be. This is a challenging yet essential intention for me to have as a therapist.

Q: In your program you have integrated spirituality with counselling. Why is that important to you?

MN: I see living life as a spiritual process. You might say that life is a process of learning about and engaging with spirits. Each of us has within us a variety of forces, energies, urges, desires, motivations, etc. They cannot be identified with material or scientific technology, but can anyone deny the existence of desires and longings and urges? These are invisible energies or spirits which are very real to all of us. All of us are primarily concerned, consciously or unconsciously, with doing the best we can to sort out, make sense of, integrate, and live life with all the different inner forces or spirits active within us. At the same time, we are doing our best to deal with the forces and spirits of others. For me, the intent of counselling is to support individuals to pay attention to and learn how to manage their biggest and most challenging project – their self. My friend, the playwright Lucas Foss, wrote a play called “Little Voices” which is about a man’s process and struggle with two inner voices – one voice which values comfort and addiction, and another which values spiritual growth. Sometimes our inner community of spirits communicates through our internal dialogue – or to say it simpler – through talking to ourselves. So which voice or energy do we listen to and follow in all of the differing situations of our life? How do we navigate through this inner and outer sea of spirits, which are often at odds with one another? Individuals come to counselling when they are unable to sort out their inner dynamics on their own.

Q: How do you work with invisible spirits or energies? How do you help clients sort out these inner realities?

MN: I believe that the deepest most fundamental energy within us is naturally programmed to guide us to a state of harmony within our self, with others and with that which is beyond us yet closest to us – call it God, the Creator, our Higher Power, etc. Our greatest pain is our separation from that state of being. When our pain or our soul-longing is strong enough and we are in a setting where we feel safe and trusting and sense that there is a real possibility that we will be supported to surrender to our deepest longing, our soul begins to make its presence known. One way in which this invisible energy manifests visibly is through rhythm, and rhythmic shifts begin to emerge. These are unconscious and spontaneous movements – swaying, rocking, twitching, shaking, placing a hand on an area of tension or discomfort, which begin to happen on their own, sometimes very subtle, often times more obvious. For me, these are rhythms of the soul, and I do the best I can to support my clients with these rhythms – to use what I have learned as a therapist and as someone attempting to follow my own soulful rhythms – to encourage them to surrender to the ebb and flow of their own natural rhythms with trust and courage and patience. Through this process I have seen many individuals come to a place of centeredness, peace and understanding. Often, of course, this process takes us through fear and suffering before we arrive at our center.

Q: I have some questions about your four-day residential workshops. First of all, why do you organize them?

MN: I believe that at times, we need an intense concentration of a certain kind of energy in order to make quantum shifts. These workshops are similar to going on a heroic journey. We leave the city and our ordinary reality and travel to a fresh place – where we open to the possibility of creating an extraordinary reality. As a group we gather our time, attention and intention together and create a container where with the help of grace we both allow and generate a transformational process to grow which is intense, playful, creative, heartfelt and soulful.

Q: I have heard that there is no agenda in your workshop and yet each individual is strongly supported by the group. How does this occur?

MN: No one has to do anything they don’t want to do. There are no shoulds, no exercises or particular ways people have to act. The group and I and my assistants, together, offer our attention, deep listening, suspended judgements, faith, caring, and forgiveness to one another. This may sound exceptional, and it is, yet it isn’t. We all have these inner resources, and most of us yearn to relate to one another in such ways. With modeling, encouragement and appreciation, these qualities blossom. In this kind of environment, individuals feel safe enough to step out and feel free to come forth in ways which are authentic and real for them. This is not always a clear cut and smooth process. At times it is difficult for individuals to welcome and open to what is emerging for them. To paraphrase the poet David Whyte – it seems impossible that the stone can be rolled away from the tomb of longing. But we’re willing to stay with the process and muddle through together, and sometimes it feels like the helping hand of grace guides us through.

As individuals are supported to do their work in ways that feel right for them, faith in this process and in one another grows and strengthens as the workshop goes on.

Q: In your brochure you state that a feature of the workshop is “working with sensitivity on the edge between conscious and unconscious awareness”.What do you mean by that?

MN: None of us really know what our next step is in our own process of growth. If we did it wouldn’t be the next step. It would already be present, so our next step is always unknown. That means that we have to move from the known to the unknown and through the unknown to the next known. And we can’t get there in a solely cognitive way. We have to take the experiential plunge. So my task as a therapist is to assist workshop participants with this process. And neither them nor I know how they are going to move through this process. But I work with them on the edge of their known conscious awareness and their wanting-to-emerge unconscious awareness. I want to work with them in a way that is encouraging without forcing and above all I want to pay attention to the moment-to-moment unfolding of their process on the boundary or edge between their conscious and unconscious experience. That edge is filled with such phenomena as fear, excitement, confusion, emptiness, deadness, pain, and the body-rhythms that I mentioned earlier. These are forms of communication that manifest as we journey toward our center.

Q: I am getting a sense of why these workshops are called Journeys of Transformation.

MN: The blend of my work and modeling, the heartfelt and skillful support of my assistants and the group, and the strong commitment of each person to open to the guidance of their own process leads the group through the desert to the oasis.

Article 3 of 3:
Listening to the Body: A Complementary Approach to Hypnotherapy

At times it can be difficult to resolve concerns through the use of the conscious mind. Natural mental mechanisms such as denial, repression, rationalization, distraction, etc., can make it difficult to know what we know that we are unable to let ourselves know. In some instances it seems impossible to find and face what is in our unconscious minds and to access the inner resources required to work through our difficulties.
Hypnosis is one way of assisting individuals to shift out of their limiting rational processes, move beyond their unconscious defenses and connect with their inner intelligence. Another way of connecting with the unconscious is through the body. The body reflects the contents of the unconscious mind. If we encounter a traumatic event in our life and only process part of it, the remainder of our experience is felt as stress, holding, and pressure in our body. If we act in ways that are incongruent with our deepest values our body will register this lack of integration as discomfort and tension.

Due to the instinctual influence of our self-protective defenses our conscious minds are able to tune out both physical and psychological pain. However, sooner or later our body will communicate its pain to our conscious mind. This pain – sometimes strong, sometimes only vaguely discomforting – is a potential doorway to our unconscious mind and to healing.

Using a body – centered therapeutic approach, the conscious mind is given an atypical function. It is supported to shift out of its preoccupation with analysis and anticipation and is encouraged to tune into the troubling sensations of the body, paying attention to the awareness that arises from this somatic orientation. As an individual follows this process they often discover that these body symptoms contain a whole constellation of images, feelings, needs, memories and understandings – staying attuned to the body messaging leads to the uncovering of underlying meanings.

An example of a recent therapy session of mine may help to further clarify this approach:

This was the first session for an individual who was suffering from depression that would not shift. In the past she had suffered bouts of depression that had lasted from one to four weeks. This episode had lasted eight weeks. During our session I noticed that whenever she talked about the “stuckness” of her depression, she placed her right hand in the center of her chest and rubbed it back and forth. When I asked her later in the session if she would like to try something experiential to work on her stuckness, she agreed.

First I asked her if there was anywhere in her body where she experienced the stuckness of her depression. After some reflection, she placed her right hand in the center of her chest. I suggested that she stay with the feeling of stuckness, paying attention to it rather than trying to change it. After more silent reflection I asked her what she was aware of. She replied that the stuckness felt like a brick. I encouraged her to stay with the sensation of the brick. She did so and soon the brick was transformed into a plant with tendrils like ivy that were winding around her chest right up and around her throat. She said that it felt like there was something trying to get out and couldn’t. When I asked her to stay with that image of the ivy and the feeling of something trying to get out and can’t, she spontaneously said, “Sadness, it’s sadness… and tears. I need to cry, to release the grief. I haven’t truly felt the grief of all of those recent losses.” (Earlier in the session she had informed me of three major losses she had suffered in the past year and a half). She became silent and after a long, deep period of inner reflection and gentle deepening of her breathing process I asked her if she wanted to continue with her inner exploration. She said no, that she had done enough for one day and she felt much better knowing what she now knew.

As with most therapeutic approaches, it is easier to describe the process than to actualize it. Assisting others to listen to their body/mind in this way requires perceptiveness, skill, sensitivity, patience and an ability to work in a moment – to – moment fashion with the client’s awareness. In my experience as a counsellor this modality is worth learning and bringing to the therapeutic endeavor. It is an approach that empowers the client as it supports them to learn how to follow and trust in their own unique form of body/ mind communication. It also saves the therapist from having to make interpretations and suggestions for the client.





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