Psychotherapy Can Be a Religious Experience – Joel 2:12
What does the practice of psychotherapy have to do with faith in God? Metaphorically, a lot. Listen to this poetic entreat given by Joel:
“Rend your heart and not your garments.”
The image of deliberately ripping open a tear in your heart, as Jews rip the collars of their shirt or jacket when hearing of the death of a loved one, is as painful as a kick in the gut. In this statement, Joel is referring to the deep and heart-felt rejection of a life of faithlessness and a return to the ways God set down in the Torah according to which the Jew is supposed to live.
I cannot help but hear this statement with my clinician’s ears. The tug I feel resonating inside me at the sound of these words reminds me of the many times I felt the rending of my heart in the therapy room while working with people in pain. The pain I felt was not theoretical, and the place from which I worked, while informed by the theories I had learned, was not in those theories: I worked from my heart and my gut and these were open to absorb the projections of my clients as a sponge absorbs water. I would let each client rend my heart and then used the understandings gleaned from these projections to show me the most effective direction to take while guiding my client to healing.
Too often, I have seen therapists who mistake their theories for heart. They don’t allow their clients’ pain to really touch them. In a way, they are right to do that, because being truly open to letting the clients’ projections into the intimate spaces of your heart is to voluntarily get into a roller coaster car that spins and twirls you every which way with no end to the ride in sight. When you agree to rend your heart, you agree to feel someone else’s pains and fears, disgust and horror, grief and also joy. And then from that place of deep comprehension, you can move your focus to a more cognitive space and allow your intuition and artistry combine with your knowledge and theories to decide, in practical terms, what to do.
It is an exhilarating ride and I would not have worked clinically in any other way. I don’t think we show enough respect for the faith in us and dependence upon us that our clients develop if we do not allow them to rend our hearts. If we therapists merely rend our garments, we put too much store in diagnostic labels and pay insufficient attention to the individual in front of us asking for our help. We need to allow the pain to tear into our hearts and guts, having faith in both the years of learning that forms the foundation and background to our work and in the emotions that are center stage.
Funnily enough, it was when I was most open to having my heart rent that I most felt as if I was an instrument through which some higher power had given me the honor of working.
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