During one recent session with a new client, he wondered aloud if I would respect his fairly conservative religious beliefs or seek to impose my (presumably) more liberal values. A day or so later, one of my long-time readers sent me an email asking how I deal with issues of faith in psychotherapy. It felt to me as if the time had come to address an issue I’d long wanted to write about. When I focused on what I wanted to say, it aligned with some other thoughts I’d been having about my friend Peggy Payne’s 1988 novel Revelation, recently re-issued as an eBook on the Kindle platform.
For the record, I consider myself agnostic, feel no need to persuade people to my point of view and have no quarrel with those who hold strong religious beliefs, as long as they don’t seek to impose them on me. In principle, my approach is to respect my client’s spiritual needs as something largely separate from their psychological and emotional needs.
On the other hand, I find that people’s relation to God, though unique and different from their relations to other people, is a relationship nonetheless and often problematic in ways that can be understood on an emotional and psychological level. For example, whether a Christian’s view of God stems from the Old or New Testaments often says quite a lot about the severity of their superego. A look at the ways someone suffers under the sense that God disapproves of or is angry with him or her can link to underlying self-hatred. That doesn’t mean the person’s relationship with God is fictional or merely an illusion. Rather, just as our projections of internal aspects of ourselves often distort our views of the people we know, it may also color our perceptions of God.
The God of one client, a devout man whose father had physically abused and neglected him, embodied paternal qualities this man had longed for in his own dad. He felt that God took a deeply personal interest in him and at pivotal moments in his life had sent direct messages to help clarify his confusion — as he was struggling with doubts about his choice of career, for example, and when trying to decide whether to marry the woman who eventually became his wife. My client’s conviction that God cared deeply about him was colored by the pain of his childhood but again, that didn’t make it a delusion.
I might also address a client’s religious beliefs when I see them being used in defensive ways. Highly devout men and women who strive to be extremely good Christians, who believe they ought to feel only love and compassion for other people, often struggle with unconscious hostility that might come out in other ways — in depression, say, or passive-aggressive behavior. Sometimes people adopt the role of an extremely good and superior adherent of their faith as a narcissistic defense against shame.
In short, I look for the psychological element in my clients’ belief systems. Rather than addressing or challenging those beliefs, I make use of the psychological aspects of those beliefs and how they function within someone’s character to help me better understand my client.
Looking at the psychological, emotional aspect of a belief system is also the way I approach the books written by a member of my writer’s group, Peggy Payne. In her most recent novel, for example — Cobalt Blue, scheduled for release in Spring 2013 — the heroine Andie Brown has a kundalini awakening in the opening scene, and the plot details the way this mystical experience wreaks havoc in her life. Before Peggy began to read this novel in our class, I had only the vaguest notion of what the word kundalini meant. Nothing in my own personal experience helps me connect to the spiritual event Peggy is describing, though within the book’s world, her vivid writing convinces me that it is “real.” Mostly, though, I approach Peggy’s novels from a psychological angle. I focus on the emotional conflicts and the part they play in spiritual crisis.
In Cobalt Blue, Andie relies on excessive repression and denial, remaining trapped in an Oedipal romance with her parents. I can see how her fears and defenses have led her to the current crisis in her life; the kundalini “wrong rising” doesn’t come about randomly but exactly because she’s in crisis but doesn’t realize it. Swain Hammond in Peggy’s novel Revelation has also come to a crisis point but doesn’t realize it. The opening paragraph shows him running a red light at an intersection he crosses daily and nearly crashing into a Jeep passing in front of him. Swain thinks:
“I should have demolished the one in the Jeep, kept going and plowed right through him, or at least yelled something. One good ‘fuck you.’ Once in my life I’d like to do that. The one time I ever do, it’ll turn out to be somebody from the congregation. Or someone who sees the Clergy parking sticker from the hospital and writes an outraged letter to the newspaper.”
Swain is a Protestant minister and he’s angry. He feels trapped in his life, mostly because he’s introverted and intellectual, ill-suited in many ways to his chosen career, and still struggling with unresolved feelings about his parents that make him deeply ambivalent about his beloved wife’s pregnancy. Shortly after the near-accident on page one, while examining a spot of early Spring color in his back yard, he hears the voice of God.
“It’s then, as he stops yards away from the plant — not at all a lady’s slipper — that he hears God for the first time. The sound comes up and over the hill. He stands frozen and feels it coming. One quick cut. Like a hugely amplified PA system, blocks away, switched on for a moment by mistake. ‘… Know that truth is …'”
Like Andie’s kundalini moment, Swain’s encounter with the divine comes at a crucial psychological moment and sets off a spiritual crisis. Like Andie, Swain’s mystical experience wreaks havoc in his life. Like Andie, his efforts to come to terms with his mystical experience lead him to confront and resolve the emotional issues that brought him to crisis.
Is there such a thing as kundalini? Does God really exist? When I read Peggy’s novels, these questions don’t matter to me because she makes the psychology of her characters so real and accessible on a human level that I can enter her fictional world with complete conviction. She’s a wonderful writer, her prose is exquisite, and I don’t know a writer better able to access emotions as they arise on the purely physical level. I highly recommend her books. Buy Revelation now on Kindle (on sale for only 99 cents!) and keep your eyes open for Cobalt Blue when it comes out next Spring.