Nondualism in the Clinic: Can Psychotherapy Help Two People Find the One Reality?

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image Transpersonal psychology—the umbrella term for psychotherapies that view human beings as more than just skin-encapsulated egos—has greatly expanded the scope of human psychology. In his review “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy”, a pioneering anthology about the application of nondualist spiritual views in the clinical circumstance, transpersonal psychologist D. B. Sleeth wonders if some practitioners are overreaching.

by D. B. Sleeth

For well over a half century—in an exotic, for some perhaps even quixotic, trend—Eastern spiritual doctrines have been finding their way into Western clinical psychology practice. In all likelihood, the first to hand-carry the message of Oriental mysticism to this country was Swami Vivekananda, a revered dark-skinned spokesman for India’s vast Hindu tradition. His eloquent, powerful, and unprecedented appearance at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 caused an immediate sensation, the effects of which are still reverberating today. In psychology, a steady stream of interpreters of Eastern mystical revelation have been hard at work, starting most notably with William James and Carl Jung. As a result of their and others’ spiritual insights, transpersonal psychology has come to be accepted as a formal member of the American Psychological Association. Continuing this tradition, John J. Prendergast, Peter Fenner, and Sheila Krystal have compiled an anthology of psycho-spiritual writings in “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy”, bringing a much needed focus on nondualism, one of the most difficult mystical doctrines of all.

However, like many attempts to expose Western people to the core doctrines of Eastern mysticism, “The Sacred Mirror” offers an interpretation of their nondual teachings that highly transforms their original meaning, compounding the difficulty. What makes nondualism so troublesome is that it runs counter to our usual intuitions of reality.  Fundamentally, the problem Westerners have with nondualism is twofold: (1) its core contention that there no absolute separation between one person and another; and, (2) its controversial implication that there is no fundamental difference between the true self of the individual and the Ultimate Self or God. (Obviously, the Absolute of nondualism—whether it be described as Consciousness, Self, Void, or even “God”—is of an entirely different order than the Deity of the Semitic religions.)

“The Sacred Mirror” aims to explore the implications of nondualism for the practice of psychotherapy. It is an extremely difficult task, especially in Western culture. Where it is entertained at all, the notion that there is no ultimate separation between self and other is sometimes thought of as too abstract and even alien an idea to be useful in clinical practice. And the idea that human beings might, in their very nature, actually be divine is anathema to prevailing Western sensibilities. However, this is core contention and controversial implication of nondualism. Futher, perhaps surprisingly, nondual points of view can be found in Western mysticism. For example, a famous medieval Christian monk, Meister Eckhart, exhorted spiritual aspirants to his own highest intuition: “I discover that I and God are one.” But Meister Eckhart was severely chastised by the Holy Roman Church for his “heretical” views. Other nondual mystics have fared worse. Some have faced forced ritual “purification”, torture, or, as in the examples of Giordano Bruno and Mansour al-Hallaj, even death. Clearly, identifying the very Self of human beings with God (however conceived) is an extremely controversial claim. This is why nondualism has been kept something of a secret within Western spiritual traditions, if not held to be a pure heresy. As David Loy puts it in his excellent book on the subject, “Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy”: “[In the West,] claims about subject-object nonduality, like the broad mystical tradition where they have found their most comfortable home, have survived as a puzzling subterranean undercurrent . . . a seed which, however often sown, has never found fertile soil . . .”

Nevertheless, the notion that our usual presumption that the ego-self and its every other can and should be transcended is seriously entertained by the contributors to Prendergast, Fenner, and Krystal’s daring attempt to introduce therapists to the potentially auspicious benefits of nondualism. In their introduction they tell us that all of the chapters were written for this volume by authors with first-hand familiarity with nondual awareness. In addition, many of them know each other and have participated in a living synergy through various contacts, including the presentation of their work at an annual conference, called “Nondual Wisdom & Psychotherapy”. The authors, who are either seasoned clinicians or established spiritual teachers, are quick to point out that this volume is neither synoptic nor gospel, but an exploration in progress, one that the reader is emphatically invited to join.

The nascent flowering of nondual wisdom now underway in the West is thought to represent new challenges and opportunities for the field of psychotherapy. Indeed, the authors suggest we are witnessing the emergence of an entirely new genre of psychotherapy. Prendergast makes this striking observation about the significance of this new genre: “Awakening nondual awareness adds a depth dimension to any of the existing schools of psychology, regardless of their orientation . . .. It is not so much that therapists integrate Being, as they are absorbed by it. As they more deeply attune with and embody the ground of Being, Presence is enhanced.” The author’s define “Presence” as “Being aware of Itself, whereby one’s ordinary sense of self and reality are literally nothing more than a dream from which we can potentially awaken. In fact, even while dreaming it is possible to be cognizant and thereby engage in lucid dreaming, the first stirring of nondual awareness.”

Clearly, the authors have chosen a formidable task: take the unusual mystical doctrine of nondualism and make it user-friendly for clinical service providers. To do so, the various chapters provide specific clinical techniques, or “skillful means”, whereby the clinician might effectively intervene with the client, enlisting the aid of traditional nondual practices. Peter Fenner suggests in his chapter, “Nonduality and Therapy: Awakening the Unconditioned Mind,” that the fundamental clinical goal of nondual psychotherapy is to awaken clients to their own true nature, which is thought to be the source of healing power. In fact, the unconditioned mind is said to be beyond suffering and ailment, literally, the very state in which healing occurs. We come to know our inherent nature through a letting-go or pruning process, similar to the idea of postmodern and phenomenological approaches to therapy. This approach is one with which Stephan Bodian explicitly concurs in his chapter, “Deconstructing the Self: The Uses of Inquiry in Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practice.”

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