Generally speaking, academic psychologists and professionals in the “mainstream” of the practice of psychotherapy do not see themselves as promoting a spiritual path. While they may make reference to religious or spiritual dimensions of human experience, they typically understand these as aspects of “personal growth”, that is, existential values that serve as guides for daily life. They rarely, if ever, offer any commentary on the metaphysical credibility of these values, since to do so is inconsistent with scientific values. Metaphysics are outside of the realm of science, which is conceived to be agnostic in matters of faith, driven primarily by a pragmatic, humanitarian, and “this-worldly” ethos. In this conception, spirituality is an essentially private system of beliefs, values, and/or ideas of equal value with the numerous other, non-religious guideposts to which the individual refers to bestow life with meaning.
The view of psychotherapy as an essentially secular, humanitarian endeavor is an indisputably true characterization of my discipline. But a growing school of scholarship suggests that basic assumptions of our modern, secular worldview derive from earlier, explicitly religious Western traditions. Modern people hold “agnostic” and secular values and goals that, upon inspection, are understandable as religious notions minus the concept of an imperial Deity directing the process. Hence, for example, early twentieth century sociologist Max Weber argued that our modern belief in the idea of “progress” (scientific, economic, social, psychological and otherwise) is a modified version of Christian ideas about the course of human life as an ascent from the lowly, sinful condition of fallen man to a redeemed state in heaven.
So, although clearly a modernist scientific discipline without any explicitly religious pretensions, psychotherapy has more ancient roots in religion and religious philosophy, and, at its core, may be understood as a “secularized” expression of these mythic conceptual systems. In fact, the entire notion of an “inner self” that requires care and concern is a Western religious idea predating the scientific era by many hundreds of years. Augustine of Hippo, called “Saint Augustine” in the Roman Catholic tradition, was among the first thinkers to postulate that one comes into contact with one’s essence by making what he called an “inward turn”. Specifically, by directing one’s thoughts inward, into the recesses of one’s mind, the Christian may enter into dialogue with God, he said. That is to say, God dwells within, and is encountered within a metaphorical interior “space” he thought. While we now take it for granted that religion is a “private” affair, a form of dialogue with a divine presence at the center of one’s mind that is shielded from public view, Augustine’s concept of the “inward turn” was a radical new idea for its time. Prior to Augustine, there is scant evidence of the idea of an interior “self” in the way that we think of this today.
This is not to say that ancient peoples had no sense of having inner, subjective lives; it is just that the interior realm of Being was probably not emphasized or particularly valued, at least not in the way that we do so in the modern world. Prior to Augustine, God was encountered primarily in one’s interface with the worlds of nature and society: the awe that a thunder storm or earthquake evokes, and the sense of bondedness with, and obligation to one’s human community were the prime sources of religious feeling. Intentionally or not, Augustine changed this: in the process of defining and describing the subjective “space” within the self where the Christian encounters the living God, he simultaneously encouraged Westerners to think of themselves as “interior” beings, that is, more or less clearly demarcated “selves”. And so, post-Augustine, truth is more and more said to be found within the self.
Starting at the time of the Enlightenment, the idea of the interior self as the arena in which one finds the divine started to change. Religious ideas began to wane at this time, brought into question by the rise of science. Like everything else, so too individual subjectivity began to be considered in increasingly secular terms. By the time of the modern era, the concept of the inner life as the place where one goes to explore the deep truths about one’s existence was largely detached from its early religious grounding. What evolved was a modified vision of the “inward turn”, one reframed without reference to God. People continued to look inward, into the private life of the mind, so as to locate essential truths about their lives, though without the additional notion that these truths are the fruit of a dialogue with God’s presence within the self. Hence, the Deity that Augustine thought that we discover by looking within the self was dethroned, and replaced by an invigorating confrontation with powerful private emotional states, fantasies, hopes, and needs. An authentic and immediate awareness of one’s affective experience became the new center around which to create a life lived truthfully and “fully”. In this way, the development of the private life of the self became something of an object of worship, and an enhanced sense of aliveness, leading to productive engagement with the world, became sufficient unto itself as the endgame of the inward turn.
The inward turn initiated by Augustine is not a uniformly positive thing: rather, it has both deepened and diminished our experience of life. For example, on the negative side, within the last fifty or so years, this preoccupation with inner experience has often appeared in degraded form in the attempt to titillate the inner self by force-feeding it an unending stream of new experiences. This has resulted in the citizens of Western industrialized societies becoming veritable experience hounds. Take the notion of the “bucket list”, for example: while superficially silly, the “bucket list” embodies the modern notion of a life well lived, inasmuch as one seeks and indulges in emotionally provocative encounters simply for their own sake. Yet, we are right to ask if this doesn’t cheapen our experience of life overall, inasmuch as it turns reality into, as a friend of mine once put it, “more and more about less and less”.
The inward turn is arguably the ancient source of the contemporary psychotherapeutic endeavor: psychotherapy retains much of the language and other trappings of Augustine’s introspective theology, though minus the presence of the Christian deity. So patients are encouraged to look within, to contemplate their motivations and strivings in Augustinian fashion, but without any clear notion that this process will put them in contact with any absolute and eternal standards of truth, much less the indwelling presence of the Creator. The quality of interiority that is developed in this process is one organized around highly personal, “this-worldly” meaning-making schemes. By this I mean that the psychotherapy patient looks within for the truth, and comes away, not with anything that is considered universally valid or absolute in a metaphysical sense, but with a heightened and intensified devotion to such individualistic creeds as “being true to oneself”, “loving oneself”, and “practicing self-care”.
Hence, psychotherapy, as a discipline promoting the notion of an interior self to which one may refer for answers about the meaning and purpose of life, arguably began in early Christianity, to eventually develop into its present form as a ritualized encounter with a professional to whom one expresses one’s awareness and assessment of one’s own “interior space”. A confessional which cannot offer absolution because it lacks the presence of an absolving Diety. Or, put differently, a confessional that offers us a kind of secular absolution, redeeming us for having failed to develop, refine, and express our subjectivity, by pointing the way to a more “authentic” existence: this is one in which we both find the courage to contemplate the stirrings of the self and forward its agendas in our daily lives.