in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 3 February 2014

Picturing the Soul

I finally pushed the button to send my Indian lectures to DVK for the publication process this morning. The proposed title is 'Picturing the Soul: Revisioning Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction'. They are hoping they will be published (Dharmram) by June. So here's a sneak preview from Chapter One...




The words ‘psychology’, ‘psychotherapy’ and ‘psychiatry’ all have their roots in the Greek word psychē/ψυχή . As well as attachments to the mysterious Greek goddess of that name the original Greek word relates to a number of concepts that can be translated as breath, bright, coloured, iridescent, moving, life, spirit and even butterfly (See Tyler 1997:82). These fragile creatures, so memorably described by the German poet Hermann Hesse in his poem Schmetterlinge im Spätsommer, have what the Germans call the sense of the unheimlich or ‘not-at-home-ness’ which often characterises the workings of what us children and grandchildren of Freud might call the ‘unconscious’:


          The time of many butterflies has come…

Expensively dressed, in pearls and satin;

          Glittering in jewels, they sway before us.

          Splendid and sad, silent and possessed;

          Strangers here, bedecked in the honeydew

          Of the arcadian under-meadows they left in paradise.

          Short-lived guests from the East,

          That we in dreams, forgotten homeland, see,

Receiving their pledge of a more perfect world. 

(Hesse, H. Schmetterlinge im Spätsommer in Schmetterlinge: translation Peter Tyler)[1]


From Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) onwards Western culture has sought to ‘pin down’ the iridescent, sparkling and constantly changing psyche into particular categories. In the hundred years or so since Freud published his first papers in Vienna the science and study of psychology has flourished and developed in many different directions. The direction taken by psychology and psychologists has often depended on their attitude to what is called the mind-body problem, or, as the contemporary British philosopher Colin McGinn puts it ‘how can the water of the physical brain be turned into the wine of consciousness?’[2] Simply put, when we consider the rich storehouses of our mental lives – dreams, fantasies, thoughts, memories, motivations etc. and then look at the physical processes of a chunk of grey material the size of an average cauliflower we seem to have two different materials – two different substances even – how can the two be related?

Although of great contemporary scientific and medical relevance this question is not new and has troubled philosophers for centuries, beginning with Plato (429 –347 BCE). How we respond to this question will determine our view of psychology, psychotherapy and ultimately of mind/soul. Broadly speaking, since the development of the cognitive sciences and medical approaches from the middle of the twentieth century onwards there has been a branch of psychology that tries to reduce, or at least limit the functions of the mind to those of physical brain processes (much present-day cognitive psychology would fall into this category) and a branch of psychology which attempts to interpret mental function without necessarily relating it to physical function (many psycho-analytic and counselling approaches would tend to fall into this category).

The ‘Father of Psychology’, Sigmund Freud, fell into both categories. Trained originally to investigate cognitive processes through physiological means under the influence of the then fashionable ideas of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821 -1894), he later became interested in the functioning of psychic processes qua psychic processes. His middle to later work shows the influence of both approaches and he seems to have lived in uneasy tension between the two. We shall return to this tension in our final chapter.

One of his earliest collaborators and original psychological thinker in his own right, Carl Gustav Jung (1875 –1961) tended to move away from reductionist views of the mind and saw mental processes as part of a larger, or in his terms, archetypal psyche out of which much of human civilization, development and indeed religion derives.

Following on the insights of Freud and Jung later psychologists have concentrated on key aspects of psychological development, the processes of intellectual thought and the development of human emotion and feeling. We shall return to these in a later chapter. Indeed, many of the developments and ideas of psychology over the past hundred years seem so self-evident to us and are taken for granted that we do not realize how relatively modern they are in terms of human cultural development. We speak easily and knowingly of someone being ‘extrovert’ or ‘introvert’ and we use phrases such as ‘the unconscious’ or ‘the ego’ without really considering what we mean by these terms. In fact, all of these terms, as used today, are relatively modern in their development and usage. Coupled with these developments of our understanding of personality we have also largely increased our understanding of the physiological functioning of the brain and how this relates to psychological functioning. The upshot of this is that we now have a vastly differing view of mind than held at any time throughout the 2,000 years of Christian history.


The Therapist

If the psyche is indeed ‘iridescent and sparkling’ like a butterfly, how then do we ‘heal the butterfly’ – be a therapōs of the psychē? If you have ever picked up a butterfly to release it from its prison in your house you will know the care required to transport it to freedom without damaging its gentle and fragile nature. This is the challenge that faces all who work with the psyche whether they be counsellors, therapists, clergy, lay healers, psychiatrists or spiritual directors. And it is on this delicate and finely wrought cusp between the gentle mystery of the life of the psyche and the intervention of the practitioner that this book lies.

          In seeking a mode of expression and analysis of this process a helpful guide is the postmodern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889- 1951). Commenting on the role of the philosophy in the contemporary world, he stated:


Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either.

It leaves everything as it is.  (Philosophical Investigations: 124, hereafter PI)[3]


Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. – Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain. (PI: 126)


Philosophy, like therapy, counselling or spiritual direction, is for Wittgenstein a process of seeing correctly what lies before us.[4] So, in the case of our trapped butterfly, we don’t have to prod and push it but observe its movements, how it flutters, now this way, now that, until we can see at which point we can gently usher it towards its exit and freedom:


What is your aim in philosophy? – To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. (PI: 309)


As Kunkel said, we ‘watch and we wait’.

[1] Die Zeit der vielen Falter ist gekommen…
                Kostbar an Farben, pelz- und samtbesetzt,
                Juwelenshillernd schweben sie enher,
                Prächtig und traurig, schweigsam und benommen,
                Aus untergangner Märchenwelt gekommen,
                Fremdlinge hier, noch honigtaubenetz
                Aus paradiesischen, arkadischen Auen,
                Kurzlebige Gäste aus dem Morgenland,
                Das wir im Traum, verlorene Heimat, schauen
                Und dessen Geisterbotschaft wir vertrauen
                Als eines edleren Daseins holdem Pfand.
[2] See, for example ‘Can we solve the mind-body problem?’ in Mind 98 (1989) reprinted in Philosophy of Mind: A Guide and Anthology ed. J. Heil, Oxford: OUP 2004.
[3] For more on the relationship between Wittgenstein’s philosophy and Christian spirituality see Tyler 2011.
[4] Wittgenstein uses the phrase Übersichtlichkeit – literally, ‘right seeing’ or ‘clear overview’. For an excellent recent discussion on Wittgenstein’s choreography of saying and showing in relation to his views of self see Chapter Two of Jose Nandhikkara’s Being Human after Wittgenstein (Nandhikkara 2011).

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