Thoughts on Ritual, Psychology, and Therapy

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On various online forums in the holistic, alternative spirituality, Earth-centered, and Pagan communities, I’ve seen people make the bold statement that ritual and magic should take the place of psychotherapy. In fact, I’ve seen people actively discourage people from seeking therapy, referring to therapy as useless or even harmful for those with non-mainstream spiritual beliefs.

I don’t agree with that perspective at all.

The question to ask is, what do we want out of our lives? Do we want to live better, healthier lives? If so, then the next question is, how do we get there? And how can we encourage practices that help each of us to live our fullest potential? I believe that ritual work as well as psychological techniques such as therapy can both work together help us get there.

In fact, I have benefited greatly from therapy and from practices and personal work that come from psychotherapy and psychology. I believe that those of us who choose the path of holistic healing, alternative spirituality, or even just being “spiritual but not religious,” can still get a lot out of therapy. As I sometimes say, “Magic can’t fix everything.”

But, we can also get a lot out of various holistic practices too. Reiki, sound healing, meditation, and other rituals or ceremonies. It doesn’t have to be either or. It’s possible that both of these tools can work to inspire health and wellness, particularly for our minds and souls.

Baby and the Bathwater

I believe that the field of psychology generally threw out the baby with the bathwater and divorced spirit from the mind. A a lot of psychotherapy doesn’t fulfill our deep needs for ritual, among other things. However, there are psychologists and psychology schools working to bring the baby back into the bathwater. Carl Jung did rather a lot on that front, though there’s still more work to do.

At the same time, a lot of folks in the new age, Pagan , and alt spiritual community want to rely on energy healing and ritual when that isn’t enough. For some of the psychological and psychiatric issues some people are facing, ritual is not enough. Ritual work might help someone going through a crisis, but that person needs long-term counseling as well. A ritual or spell or Reiki healing isn’t going to suddenly fix someone struggling with Bipolar. The problem is that in the alternative spirituality community, we have a lot of skills with complementary healing techniques, however, we don’t have the professional skills in most of our ad-hoc groups for things like pastoral counseling, much less for in-depth psychotherapy. And that’s not even touching the whole aspect of people who need meds to balance their brain chemistry. When I hear people say that therapy is useless, or even dangerous, that’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater too.

“There was this one person…”
Now–some of the arguments against therapy are perhaps valid. I’ve heard horror stories of people who tried to explain their experiences of empathy, spirit communication, work with different deities, psychic abilities, or other alternative spiritual practices to their therapist. I’ve heard of folks who were met with everything from chiding and derision to being diagnosed with various disorders, and all because  they were honest about their own spirituality.

However, I feel compelled to note here that most of these horror stories are anecdotal, and are told second and third hand. What I mean is, I’ve never actually talked to anyone who has had this experience. It’s always, “I heard about this one girl who…” stories. I think that a little fear goes a long way. It’s not to say that this doesn’t happen. Anyone practicing a minority spirituality or lifestyle should feel out a therapist before hiring them. I know of several people engaging in an ethical polyamorous lifestyle, for instance, who have been chastised and even threatened by their therapists or doctors. You know what’s right for you, and if you’re working with a medical professional who is judging you for an alternative lifestyle, it’s time to hire someone else.

Why is Therapy Important?
One of the things people will hear me say a lot when I teach leadership and personal growth is, go get therapy. There’s a ton of issues that come up when we’re exploring ourselves. When I do a workshop on “Finding your Personal Magic,” or a shadow-work ritual where we face our shadows, or a leadership class where we discuss our own issues as leaders, things come up. We realize, we have an ego, and maybe we have some problems with egotism that are getting in the way of being a better leader.

Or maybe we have terrible self esteem. Or maybe we are so afraid of naming the thing we want for our lives, our big dream, that we can’t even speak it, can’t even articulate that we have magic, that we have power. Or maybe we’re terrified of public speaking. Or maybe we’re terrible enablers and codependents and people pleasers. Or maybe we’re high-strung Type-A and we drive away our volunteers.

What therapy helped me with was having a sounding board. To get outside of my head. While I wish I could have afforded therapy for longer–because, therapy definitely is a process that requires building a rapport with a therapist who knows you–I was able to get an outside perspective for some of the hamsterwheeling I was doing. I was also able to help pin down some of why I got as depressed as I do. I have a lot of avoidance behaviors; when I have screwed something up like missed a deadline when something was due, I bury my head in the sand and avoid calls or emails, and I spiral into depression. A lot of tools from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped me get out of the mythic mindset and out of that downward spiral. It’s not 100%, but I’m way better than I used to be.

In fact, I can’t even articulate all the ways that psychology and therapy has helped me. There’s no way I would be able to do the public speaking I regularly do, or face my social anxiety, or lead groups, without the therapeutic work I’ve done.

Skillbuilding
One of the reasons that I say that alternative spirituality shouldn’t throw therapy out is that there are very, very few leaders in the Pagan and alternative spirituality communities that have the skills to facilitate rituals and ceremonies and other healing work that can completely take the place of therapy. There are, for instance, a number of Pagans who have gained the skills to be pastoral counselors, and more Pagans beginning to work toward getting a Masters of Divinity or in general attending Pagan seminary classes to build those skills. There are Pagan leaders with a background in psychology. My mentors had that background, and it’s a big part of why their work was so effective.

Therapy and ritual can work in concert. We‘d be foolish, as ritual leaders and professionals, to discard the amazing tools discovered within the art and science of psychology, especially tools within Jungian/depth psychology which are a beautiful crossover to mythology and ritual work.

The original therapists were shamans, the medicine workers/healers/spirit communicators. Many of the techniques pioneered by modern psychology actually were originally practiced by the community healer. But, when the tools are taken out of context and spirit is divorced from mind, something is lost. However, that something that was lost is exactly what we find in ritual and spiritual work that focuses on personal transformation.

To increase my own skillsets in this area, I read articles and books on psychology. I learn about the neuroscience and trance states. I’ve even thought about going back to school to get more formal education in this area. There’s a MA in Transformative Leadership and Transformative Arts that I’ve been dying to do for years. In the mean time, I continue to learn as much as I can. I network with therapists in the Pagan, shamanic, and holistic communities and pick their brains whenever I can.

Transformative Ritual
The types of rituals I host are psychologically intensive. They ask people to release what no longer serves, to face their shadows, in order to reach for our dreams, our destiny, our vision of who we could be. That’s tough work. And, while the rituals I offer are a tremendous catalyst for people seeking that work, they aren’t the whole process. They can crack open the shell, but therapy or counseling is a place where individuals can take the work further, where people can break out of old patterns.

When people find that moment of catharsis in a ritual or workshop, that’s when I encourage them to try therapy or counseling. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not a judgment saying, “You’re nuts and need help.” It’s saying, if you want to take responsibility for your spiritual growth and your personal work, this is a way that you can get some assistance in doing that.

Beyond ritual work, many people will need a long-term therapeutic/counseling process. I believe that something like this can be offered by a spiritual leader in an alternative spiritual tradition, provided that minister, priest, priestess, shaman, Druid, or guru has at least some training as a pastoral counselor. However, there are some things that it really helps to have help from someone who has more extensive training. Pastoral counseling is often bridging the gap to get someone to a deeper process of therapy.

Some folks just need someone to talk to about their spiritual process, they just need someone to listen to them. Some people have never really had that–ever–in their lives. A person to just listen to them. And that’s a lot of what pastoral counseling is, just listening.

But there’s also a point when I recognize that someone is above my pay grade. That, I can listen to them, but they need more in-depth help than I can offer. And it’s not a bad thing at all. Therapy is an opportunity for us to face those old bad habits and work to course correct so that we’re engaging in life in a way that’s fulfilling.

What do You Want?
I believe that the marriage between psychology and spiritual work with rituals and rites of passage will bear some amazing fruit in the coming years. But to get there, those of us in alternative spiritual leadership have to learn many of the skills that we have lost. And, we have to work with the field of psychology that has thrown out a lot of the baby with the bathwater. There’s a place where these overlap and meet. Where psychology informs ritual work.  Where both work together so that we can be who we want to be.

Who would you be if you didn’t have the pain of your past holding you back? If you didn’t engage in the self-destructive patterns that keep you from the things you’d like to do? I work every day to live a life of joy. I don’t always get there, but through both transformative ritual work as well as therapy, I’m closer along the path than I was before doing that work.

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