People get so caught up in the content of their spiritual enthusiasms that they may give little thought to the emotions involved. Some adults tell me that they still follow the values taught in the church where they grew up simply because their family believed in it so firmly. It’s the family that accounts for the strong faith, not the spiritual ideas.
It’s important, then, not only to create a religion of your own but also, in the process, to be aware of psychological matters that are linked to the spiritual ones. Once you understand how religion can be personal and embedded in daily life, you can narrow the space between the spiritual and the psychological. Then, too, you can get involved in a self-therapy that is psycho-spiritual. You could begin to clear up any emotional blindness that could have a negative impact on your spirituality.
Most spiritual guidebooks recommend that a spiritual practice begin with attention to the basics of everyday life. The Catholic Ignation Exercises, used by millions to foster personal spirituality, begin with a life assessment. The Kama Sutra opens by recommending a close study and caretaking of your everyday existence before going on to the advanced states of erotic ritual. The Jewish Kabbalah Tree of Life embraces many aspects of ordinary living and connects them to high spiritual awareness. The Quran, too, links ordinary responsibility to the community with the highest goals of the spirit.
Many people begin a spiritual project—meditation, yoga, a new religion—while they have complicated emotional problems entangled in their spiritual longings. A priest once told me that the only reason he became a priest was that his father had tried to be one and failed. He wanted to make his father happy. The emotional element doesn’t have to be negative, as in the case of a man who told me he took up yoga to meet a woman with an interest in spirituality.
Connecting Soul and Spirit
From a different angle, we talk about being emotionally healthy and often overlook the spiritual emotions. People feel lost and depressed when their sources of meaning dry up, as when they lose a job that has given them purpose or when they no longer believe in a formal religion they’ve known for years. Divorce can create guilt and a deep sense of failure. Some people feel distress over the loss of their once supportive religious community and tradition. These problems are psychological from one point of view, but they have strong spiritual implications, as well.
As you develop a religion of your own, you might address your spiritual emotions in two ways: First, you may need to work through events of the past in which your strong spiritual feelings wounded your deep soul. I still feel bad about leaving my family at a young age, and yet I know that the meaningful life I now enjoy required the sacrifice. Second, in the future you can find ways to address both soul and spirit, because both need your attention and need to be connected.
My wife links soul to spirit by bringing tea to her yoga classes and inviting her students to spend an hour after class sitting, talking, and drinking her homemade chai. She’ll also ask her students to stop in the middle of their practice to paint images. In my practice of therapy, I respond when people bring up their childhood religion or their efforts to find a spiritual home or their thoughts about afterlife, belief, and wonder. We keep spirit and soul engaged and connected.
The Neoplatonic teaching on the soul, on which I base most of my ideas, sometimes sees the soul as distinct from spirit and yet at the same time spirit is part of the soul. That means that your spiritual life comes under the heading “care of the soul.” People often intuitively understand that their spiritual practices enhance their souls. What they often forget is that their spirituality is affected by their emotions, family background, and current relationships—the stuff of their souls.
I recommend self-therapy, exploring your fear, desire, sexuality, anger, personal past, and relationships. I don’t see therapy as fixing what is broken but rather tending to the whole of your psyche. Getting to know your deep soul may prevent you from venting raw emotions, acting out, and being depressed and addictive. It can clear the way for a spiritual life not sullied by psychological matters left untended. And it may accomplish some needed healing.
Here’s a checklist of activities you can do at any time as self-therapy:
- Keep a daily record of your dreams
- Talk to family members about early experiences and about personalities
- Talk to friends about your personal issues
- Read some good psychology books
- Spend time quietly in nature
- Walk meditatively
- Resolve some troublesome relationships
- Study your fears and longings
- Write out your personal myth, the deep story you are living
- Paint or draw the scenes and characters of your “inner” life
This is just a beginning. It will get you started. Most modern people are extroverted. They interpret their lives in terms of the visible and literal outer world. Your alchemical therapy begins with a new orientation toward the deeper, often inner patterns your life takes. It thrives on memories carefully reflected upon. Good, probing conversations also help. Let your family and friends be your informal and personal therapists (only in the sense I describe therapy here, not pretending to be professionals and not analyzing).
Twenty years ago I took a radical step by suggesting that “care of the soul” could replace psychotherapy. I was only following Plato and many other Platonists over the centuries. When I recommend self-therapy, I’m thinking of therapy more as care than as repair. Consider your spiritual emotions and keep soul and spirit tightly connected as you work through your problems. You can care for your soul every day by doing things that make your world more beautiful and intimate and by tending the wounds and bad habits that have accrued to your life. Follow your dreams, find the occasion to speak from your heart, and make a life that is more soulful than practical.
Excerpted from A Religion of One's Own by Thomas Moore. Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Moore. Used with permission.