in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Picturing the Soul

By the time you read this I will probably have delivered the Canisius Endowment Lectures at Dharmaram College, Bangalore. It has been a wonderful week full of memorable conversations, walks and visits. Much time has been spent in the splendid DVK Central Library where the hard-working Fr John presides. During this time I have put the finishing touches to the lectures and prepared the final manuscript for publication. This will probably take place in June but in the meantime I attach a 'sneak preview' of the beginning of the book and my lecture tomorrow. On Saturday I go to the Vidyavanam Ashram I spoke about earlier in the week but I will try and do another posting before I leave India next week.

best wishes


Picturing the Soul: Revisioning Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction


Chapter One: Picturing the Soul


This book arises from a glorious time spent in the quiet peace of Dharmaram College, Bangalore where I had been kindly invited to give the annual Canisius Endowment lectures. Each day I studied in the library while exotic butterflies flitted and the wonderful, chaotic life of India swirled around me. From these lectures, and the enriching encounters with the ever enthusiastic students of ‘young India’, this book grew. My aim in both was twofold: first to spend time mapping the use of what I today call ‘soul-language’ in the psychotherapeutic and spiritual direction encounter, and secondly to explore a theological/anthropological position that would be of real benefit in practical pastoral situations. As with much of my writings I am not so much drawn to academic speculation for speculation sake but rather would like to explore issues that impinge on those in day-to-day care situations. In making this journey I have adopted three perspectives that arise from my own life encounters, interest and background. The first comes from analytical philosophy, or more particularly, the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951). As described in my earlier Return to the Mystical (Tyler 2010) we can find in Wittgenstein a particular approach to interpersonal encounter (especially in the so-called ‘later Wittgenstein’) that stresses the need to recognise a choreography of saying and showing in all our interactions. I shall draw out the implications of this for psychotherapy and spiritual direction shortly. My second influence comes from what we may term the ‘Christian mystical tradition’ (again, see Tyler 2010). As the term is used in such a variety of diverging ways it may be worth my while simply to state how I shall use the term. I see it essentially as :


  1. A way of knowing (or unknowing) – a heart knowledge as much as a head knowledge.
  2. A way of theology/being –  by this I mean an affective theology based on being rather than a speculative theology, and
  3. A way of speaking/writing –  by this I mean that the tradition has developed certain strategies for getting its message across, eg paradox, aporia etc.


Again, I shall not write more on this for now as these are themes that I will elaborate and develop throughout the book.

The third approach I will use in this archaeological dig is from the psychological investigations of Freud, Jung and the founding fathers of Western psychology. Indeed much of the argument I will present here comes from this area.

From these three traditions then, analytical philosophy, the Christian mystical tradition and depth psychology I will construct some ‘pictures of the soul’ that survey this strange dance or choreography of saying and showing that we call psychotherapy, spiritual direction and counselling.  Before I do that, however, it is worth beginning with a theological conundrum and using this as the basis of our psychological speculation. In Christian theological terms we have a problem when we talk of God. As God is Creator not creature and cannot be part of creation, therefore anything we say of God cannot be God. Traditionally this has been called the practice of apophasis or ‘not-saying’ . Faced with this conundrum, Michael Sells suggested we have 3 alternatives:

  1. Silence.
  2. To distinguish between ways in which the transcendent is beyond names and the ways it is not. Here we have the classic scholastic distinction between God as God is in God’s Self and God as perceived in God’s creatures. i.e. an anagogical approach .
  3. To maintain the tension of the aporia and develop a form of performative discourse that realises that every assertion of the nature of the transcendent must be accompanied by another that denies it.( From The Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Sells 1994).


Now clearly option one is attractive and one often taken by many therapists and spiritual directors... a wise nod from the safety of the ashram, monastery or consulting room. Yet, being creatures of intellect we still strive to present an approach to the ineffable that is perhaps more satisfactory. The analogical turn is one found in the psychological consulting room (and even more so in the spiritual director’s practice) but the option I would like to stress in this book is the final one... what Sells calls ‘the mystical languages of unsaying’. As I have said,  this is a well-known and well-used strategy within the Christian contemplative tradition. Take, for example, Meister Eckhart, often seen as the ‘master of apophasis’. In his hard cutting and controversial ‘German Sermons’ he took this position to its extreme by suggesting:


Masters of little subtlety say God is pure being. He is as high above being as the highest angel is above a midge. I would be as wrong to call God a being as if I were to call the sun black. God is neither this nor that. And one master says ‘whoever thinks he has known God, if he has known anything, it was not God he knew’. (Walshe 76, Deutsche Predigten 10, p.150 )


Which leads to his ultimate and shattering conclusion:


Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally. (Quint 32 ‘Blessed are the Poor in Spirit’, Walshe 87, p.271)


As stated above, I see this mystical ‘performative discourse’ as one that uses ‘shock and awe’ as a tactic to get its message across...


Accordingly, I have come to appreciate more and more that psychology and spirituality are two wings of the butterfly that are both necessary if the fragile creature of the soul is to fly. However I must also emphasise that I am not advocating a sort of syncretic mush between the two. I believe that each must be faithful to its methodologies and origins whilst respecting its relative shortcomings and successes – a difficult tightrope to walk but one I will attempt in this book and hope that I do not fall off! For me, psychological and contemplative discourse are both languages of discourse for engaging with the essential unknowability that lies at the heart of the soul or psyche.

I shall conclude this opening chapter to turning to what I understand by psyche and how it relates to psychotherapy and spiritual direction.

Fritz Kunkel, when asked by Robert Johnson, how one learnt psychology suggested there are three ways:

  1. To read all ancient Greek mythology (I would add to this... all world mythology!)
  2. To read the collected works of Carl Jung. Again, I would add as much psychological literature as you can get your hands on.
  3. But the third, and best, way he suggested was to ‘watch and wait’ (Johnson 1996: 78)

The third, like our silence above, is probably the best and one that I hope you will continue to practice in your own lives and in those to whose care you are entrusted. The second is one that we shall engage with during this book. For now, though, I shall begin with the first and the origins and meanings of ‘psyche’ in Greek mythology...



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