PSYCHOTHERAPY AND SPIRITUAL PATHS
with SEYMOUR BOORSTEIN, M.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Psychotherapy and Spiritual Paths." My guest is Dr. Seymour Boorstein, who is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Dr. Boorstein is an associate clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco Medical School, and he is editor of and contributor to a marvelous volume called Explorations in Transpersonal Psychotherapy. Seymour, welcome.
SEYMOUR BOORSTEIN, M.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, you've made quite a transition from being an orthodox psychoanalyst to now a proponent of the transpersonal approach, or the spiritual approach, to psychotherapy. One of the points that you make in your own writings in this area is that in order for a therapist to really do transpersonal psychotherapy they have to have a commitment themselves to a spiritual path, or to spiritual growth in their lives. I wonder if you could describe how that transition took place in your own life.
BOORSTEIN: Well, about fifteen years ago, when I was forty, on a whim I took a seminar with a group called Mind Dynamics. The seminar was given by an internist for physicians, and what it purported to do was to teach you how through certain meditations you could then make a diagnosis from afar without ever seeing a patient -- just knowing the patient's name, address, and whereabouts. At first I thought that this would be an impossibility, but somehow on a whim I just took the course. To my great amazement, it worked. I think four or five times I was able to do that, and I knew that nobody had told me the data, and I was getting it from a source other than what was normal. That was a total mind blower, as they would say, and this then led me to begin to read everything I could lay my hands on in the area of powers, of mythology, of mysticism, of religion, and to begin to sort out what had some validity and what was just interesting science fiction or just good fiction.
MISHLOVE: Freud himself in one of his writings, I know, stated that if he could live his life all over again he would have gone into psychical research. But psychoanalysis has yet to integrate these kinds of things.
BOORSTEIN: Unfortunately, I think that's true, and I think the official psychoanalytic stand is that issues having to do with mysticism really involve a pathology or a regression to more primitive states, rather than seeing it as a progression beyond traditional personality states, with the advantages thereof.
MISHLOVE: So after you had this experience, I gather, you began to try and develop a more integrated viewpoint, so that you could incorporate this somehow in your life.
BOORSTEIN: It took many years, and trying different meditational systems, such as TM and many others, to begin to sort out what they did for me personally, or didn't do, or for people whom I associated with, and then to begin very, very delicately, after many years, to experiment with introducing it into what I would otherwise call traditional psychotherapy, and begin to see the different results that happened. And many very amazing, more rapid, not cures but improvements occurred, and this led me to further experiment, further study, and to try further systems myself.
MISHLOVE: Just for a little further background, I think many psychoanalysts today are rather agnostic in their approach to religion. Were you, at the time you began?
BOORSTEIN: I would say till the age of forty I would call myself basically an agnostic or even atheist. And then, as I studied and was involved more in meditation and so on, I developed more of a sense that there was much more than meets the eye, and that the picture was far larger than we ever even conceived, and a whole sense of awe and reverence came more and more into my consciousness, so that I would now call myself a very religious person, but not necessarily in a traditional sense.
MISHLOVE: Perhaps more in an eclectic spiritual sense of some sort.
BOORSTEIN: More of the mystical spiritual sense.
MISHLOVE: One of the points that comes up in traditional psychotherapy a lot is the notion of transference and countertransference -- that a patient projects emotions onto the therapist that would otherwise be directed perhaps to parents or to lovers. And the therapist also may react to those emotions in ways that are not totally rational in therapy. As a therapist, when you enter that situation with this new approach, this mystical, spiritual approach to life, how does that affect the transference and countertransference relationships?
BOORSTEIN: Well, let me back up a little bit.
MISHLOVE: Am I getting too deep?
BOORSTEIN: No, no, no, we just want to make a step backwards. Before I ever even think of introducing any of these approaches, I carefully evaluate in the history, does this person have a set of religious beliefs? Would the introduction of this material make them uncomfortable, or disorganize them in any particular way?
MISHLOVE: You evaluate the client carefully.
MISHLOVE: I'm assuming, I guess, that you can't hide it -- if you have a mystical approach or a spiritual approach to life, that it will come out one way or another.
BOORSTEIN: I think it does, although with some people I will play it down, and they will not see it because they're not ready to look at that aspect. It can go on anyway, and perhaps later we might even talk a bit about it -- how even though what is happening looks like traditional psychotherapy without any added mystical or transpersonal things going on, nevertheless in my own mind they're going on, and that makes a tremendous difference in my own mind state, my own sense of well being, optimism, trust, and so on, which on some level is also communicated to the patient.
MISHLOVE: But you're careful in working with a patient, before you deliberately, consciously introduce this material, to sense that it would be acceptable to them.
BOORSTEIN: Right. One of the ways that I do that is by introducing, or suggesting sometimes, certain books that then give me a chance to see what kind of reaction they have -- for instance, a book like Ken Wilber's No Boundary, which is written from an intellectual point of view, and yet if somebody is going to resonate to the material there, they'll let you know. I'll try to tailor the books to the person's background. If they're Christian, it will be a Christian-background book; Hassidic or Jewish, it will be a Hassidic book; or Hindu, or Sufi, or whatever.
MISHLOVE: So that's one of the methods that you use to do transpersonal therapy. I guess some people might call that bibliotherapy.
BOORSTEIN: Right -- both to evaluate and later to help loosen some of the cement that keeps people locked into their either neurotic behavior or infantile behavior.
MISHLOVE: You know, some psychoanalysts and other therapists have reported that when clients come with a dream, often the client will have a telepathic dream that reveals things to the client unknowingly about the therapist -- perhaps things that the therapist did not wish to reveal. Has this ever come up for you?
BOORSTEIN: Actually it has. I haven't written about it; it's interesting you should ask. On a number of occasions, patients not only had dreams about something that I had never revealed to anybody, but they had the dream before the event ever happened.
BOORSTEIN: A precognitive dream about me. It was mixed in with other stuff in their dream, but it was so very clear. That was another mind blower -- that basically time didn't seem to flow as I seemed to think it always flowed, which would fit in with the mystic's view of time also.
MISHLOVE: Well, in a sense the therapeutic relationship is so very, very intimate, and it is out of these intimate relationships, where people develop a kind of bonding with each other, that parapsychologists have traditionally reported psychic communication occurs. So I would think it would be a very normal thing for that to occur in therapy. This probably goes beyond the sorts of things that are normally talked about in transpersonal psychotherapy, but a skilled therapist might want to learn how to project healing, to project love, to project positive things literally telepathically to clients.
BOORSTEIN: When I work with patients I often do think thoughts of compassion and love, totally unsaid, just going on in my mind while working with maybe a difficult person, or difficult material. So that does go on. Whether it's communicated or not, I have a sense that the total package seems to work much better than what I used to do -- that somehow the transpersonal catalyzes improvement and speeds up the process greatly.
MISHLOVE: Normally there's a kind of thin line, I suppose, between pursuing a spiritual path and being involved in psychotherapy. Alan Watts many years ago wrote a book called Psychotherapy East and West, in which he said that spiritual teachers of the East are really the equivalent of psychotherapists in the West. But I gather you might make some distinctions there.
BOORSTEIN: I don't think that that's quite accurate. I like to use Ken Wilber's nine stages of development, starting from birth to sainthood or the holy person. The first four or five stages are roughly equivalent to what we use in traditional psychoanalytic developmental stages, or Erik Erikson's stages of development. That's the area that psychotherapists know how to navigate best and help people who are stuck in those areas.
MISHLOVE: Could you enumerate them quickly?
BOORSTEIN: In the psychoanalytic jargon it's called the oral phase, the anal phase, the Oedipal phase, that kind of thing.
MISHLOVE: Stages of psychosexual development that one goes through as a young child.
BOORSTEIN: Right, and up to adolescence and early adulthood.
MISHLOVE: And the theory of psychoanalysis is that a person might get fixated or stuck in one of those stages.
BOORSTEIN: Right. Some kind of trauma will get them stuck, at least so the theory goes.
MISHLOVE: And that would result in a neurosis.
BOORSTEIN: In a neurosis, or depending if it's very early, borderline states or narcissistic disorders, or certain infantile states. In that area I don't think that the traditional gurus are equipped to be as effective as psychotherapists. However, beyond those states, the transpersonal, existential and beyond, the gurus are much more effective. I see really a need for the blending, where each has a very important piece to add. In fact, many spiritual teachers have a need for early psychological work -- well, many may be a gross exaggeration; some.
MISHLOVE: Some spiritual teachers could use a good therapist.
BOORSTEIN: Could use a good therapist, and in fact many have gone back for help.
MISHLOVE: And many therapists could use a good spiritual teacher.
BOORSTEIN: That's right, because many people on a spiritual path have leapfrogged certain psychological developmental problems and then they get stuck, or play out the earlier problems in a destructive way.
MISHLOVE: In other words, you could enter into a meditative practice, experience higher states of consciousness, altered states of consciousness, blissful states, perhaps even saintly states of being, and not really have your life together.
MISHLOVE: In fact it's very common. I think it's one of the things that turns many people away from spiritual paths, is that they see this going on -- that sometimes people use a spiritual path as an excuse for not dealing with their real psychological problems.
BOORSTEIN: Jack Engler, who writes in the latest book with Ken Wilber, Transformation of Consciousness, has a wonderful way that he puts it: going on the spiritual path is an attempt to lessen our little self -- our little egos if you will -- to lose that part of ourselves and develop the higher self. But he says it's very crucial that first you become a somebody before you become a nobody, and all too often, what you were just describing, is that people who are a nobody use this spiritual path to kind of validate their almost advanced state -- "See, I'm a nobody already" -- when they really are building a penthouse without a basement. And it can be disastrous.
MISHLOVE: Would you recommend, if a person like that were a client of yours, that they stop meditating and give up their spiritual path?
BOORSTEIN: For many people that would be kind of a narcissistic blow. They would take that as a criticism. For some actually I have done that, where a person went on a meditation retreat and became psychotic, and I tell these people no more meditating, do hard work and a grounding kind of everyday thing, so that they can no longer be in those spheres which are destructive to them, which is unmanageable by them. I don't remember who said it, but there's a wonderful quote -- I think it's Brown who said that the psychotic person drowns in the water that the mystic swims gloriously in, something like that -- Norman O. Brown.
MISHLOVE: In other words, we really have to develop an ego. That's an important part of our development. It's a stage we have to pass through before we can give up the ego.
BOORSTEIN: That's right. Or to then build an alternative or an additional structure to it. It's a tremendous error to try to leapfrog that, and many people do that, and then they use so-called spiritual strivings as a way to avoid life.
MISHLOVE: So for these kinds of people, is there some kind of a clinical term, for example?
BOORSTEIN: Some may be psychotic or borderline psychotic or narcissistic or very infantile. For some of them you may suggest, in order not to hurt their feelings, some very light, supportive, non-disorganizing meditative practice, maybe even reading spiritual literature.
MISHLOVE: In other words, if such a person has spiritual, mystical inclinations, they may find routes by which they can satisfy those inclinations through certain types of meditation, through maybe community involvement, or through service as a spiritual practice, but they should avoid other kinds of meditations and severe ascetic disciplines and things of that sort.
BOORSTEIN: In general I think that would be true. Unless it were very regulated by somebody who could supervise and would be able to monitor the situation, it's much better to leave that alone.
MISHLOVE: On the other hand, you must have many clients who you would recommend get involved in meditative disciplines.
BOORSTEIN: For most neurotic people who have that inclination, it can be very helpful to psychotherapy because it destabilizes neurotic defenses.
MISHLOVE: What does that mean?
BOORSTEIN: Let's say material that a neurotic works to bring to the surface may be defended against by normal neurotic defenses. But while meditating -- say, a seven- or ten-day retreat where you're just watching your processes, depending on what meditational system you're using -- the neurotic defenses begin to loosen and slip, and material which was repressed can then come to the surface.
MISHLOVE: I wonder if you can illustrate that with an example, Seymour. It sounds almost a little bit technical.
BOORSTEIN: Well, there's a person I know who actually had been in analysis with another therapist, and had a death of a parent very early in his life, and had never been able to access the sadness to it. It just never was able to be gotten to. During a meditation retreat, this material came up and flooded him with a sadness with which he wept for days and days, and he was able to identify the longing for the dead parent. It was more a feeling, because it was a preverbal experience. It was more of a feeling than an actual concrete thought, but for hours he wept and mourned, and then later was able to integrate it in therapy.
MISHLOVE: In other words, many times our neurotic defense mechanisms keep us from being in touch with our own feelings.
MISHLOVE: And through meditation we somehow get underneath those defense mechanisms.
BOORSTEIN: Sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't work that way, but oftentimes it can, and for the healthier people those kind of destabilizing meditations have that fringe benefit, in addition to the spiritual practice.
MISHLOVE: How would a traditional psychoanalyst view the introduction of meditation?
BOORSTEIN: Probably he'd be critical of it, as introducing a tremendous variable that would distort the transference, which in a way it does. But as long as you pay attention to that, and can keep an eye on it not being misused by the patient, it can have a positive effect.
MISHLOVE: When you say distort the transference, do you mean the patient might begin to think of you as a guru?
BOORSTEIN: Yes, and think that you have all kind of great spiritual wisdom and powers which in fact you don't, although you may have more than the patient has.
MISHLOVE: Is this also a problem in the spiritual path itself -- that disciples have a certain transference they project onto the spiritual teacher maybe more than is appropriate?
BOORSTEIN: Absolutely, and that's where you see many of the disasters where the teacher-student relationship gets abused.
MISHLOVE: Is there any way, if you're a spiritually inclined person and you meet a powerful person, that you can protect yourself against your own transference?
BOORSTEIN: Oh, that's a hard one, because really what you're asking is, how can you tell who are the ethical gurus and teachers from those whose own unresolved neurotic problems will get played out in the arena of the spiritual discipline? That's a hard one. One hears of so many --
MISHLOVE: We're kind of left on our own there, huh?
BOORSTEIN: Or you can ask around, ask other people who have been with the discipline, and see, is it leading to skillful behavior on the part of the followers? Are they doing things that are questionable? Are they doing things that are harmful to others, or is it bringing good for the general and all? That's a very rough guideline that I would use.
MISHLOVE: What about for a person who may have spiritual inclinations, and they know they need psychotherapy? Are they better off to find a transpersonal therapist?
BOORSTEIN: If they can find a transpersonal therapist that can do both, that would be ideal. I would be almost inclined to say that if it had to be one or the other, I would find a good psychotherapist first, and then when that's resolved, then find a spiritual teacher. Although you can do both. If the therapist doesn't get too upset by it, you can be involved in a spiritual path and do traditional psychotherapy.
MISHLOVE: One of the things that you've introduced into your practice, Seymour, is introducing A Course in Miracles to some of your clients. How has that worked? Can you talk about that a bit?
BOORSTEIN: Where to begin? It's such a broad --
MISHLOVE: Perhaps we might just briefly define what A Course in Miracles is.
BOORSTEIN: A Course in Miracles is a set of teachings written in Christian mystical language, which is really very close to or identical with Mahayana Buddhist writings, although it's written in Christian language. Really, all the spiritual writings are probably very close to each other, although each has their own cultural clothing that it uses. But basically it's a spiritual text. It's a do-it-yourself volume that has three hundred and sixty-five meditations, which lead to the lessening of the attachment to our little selves, and the moving towards our grander or higher self. It's a systematic --
MISHLOVE: It's a complete spiritual system.
BOORSTEIN: A complete spiritual system, right. And then the text is the explanation of how it all fits together and where it's all going, and how we got here, and why, and so on. Two important aspects of it that are valuable for psychotherapy, for those people who are turned on by it and can resonate with it, are that it's a very nurturing text, so that people who have low self-esteem will, I think, be very much helped by that. Also, it's very helpful in the way it works with forgiveness and the use of anger and that whole area, which is one of the main things that psychotherapists work with anyway. So those are the ways that I use it primarily, for people in that way. And they can do it by themselves without getting into the guru-student dilemma of is it an ethical teacher or not, because the student can close the book at any time, or reject it.
MISHLOVE: So you might recommend it for people who have low self-esteem?
BOORSTEIN: I recommend it for anybody, because it's basically a very gentle text and will not cause any psychological disruption. I think the worst that would happen is somebody would say, "Well, this just doesn't make sense to me," or "It's hogwash," and just reject the book.
MISHLOVE: So it might be something that could be used in almost any psychotherapeutic situation.
BOORSTEIN: I think so, I think so, although for many the Christian language turns them off, and they would not use that.
MISHLOVE: And I gather, if this would apply to the Course in Miracles, it might apply to any other spiritual text it would be safe to introduce in a therapeutic context.
BOORSTEIN: There aren't many total systems in one volume, or three small volumes, that you could introduce. Like the Buddhist texts -- there are many books written, but they are not total systems. Most books are probably not too destabilizing, because the person's own defenses will come to the fore and he will just reject it if it gets too threatening.
MISHLOVE: Seymour, I know your training has been as a Freudian psychoanalyst. The Jungians -- Jung was a student of Freud -- seem to have moved more into the transpersonal, spiritual arena, and have felt that the goal of psychotherapy is the full integration of the personality in all of its aspects. What do you see as the goal of psychotherapy?
BOORSTEIN: Well, in many ways that would be the same as the one you just mentioned -- to resolve all those variables, or things which keep the person from moving towards unity consciousness, or the no-boundary state. It's called different things in different traditions.
MISHLOVE: So in that sense, when we talk about unity consciousness, no boundaries might be like nirvana. It's almost as if really the proper role of the therapist at some level, as we move towards the goal of therapy, does become the role of a spiritual guide, in some sense.
BOORSTEIN: If the psychotherapist has that inclination and knowledge. Most psychotherapists, including myself, I don't feel are spiritual teachers. But in the broadest sense, anything you do which helps the person on his spiritual path, you could certainly say would be a spiritual teacher of sorts -- although I don't like to put myself out as that.
MISHLOVE: Seymour, we're out of time. Thank you very much for being with me. It's been a pleasure.
BOORSTEIN: Thank you.
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