At the Intersection of Psychology and Spirituality
Part Three of my interview with former monk and psychotherapist Thomas Moore
Posted January 17, 2014
In the third installment of my interview with Thomas Moore on his new book, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide To Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, we examine the psychological dimension of a spiritual practice. In the absence of culturally sanctioned religious authorities, for instance, how do we handle feelings of guilt? How do unconscious family dynamics shadow our spiritual development, and what are we to make of our nightly dreams? For the unmoored seeker, Moore’s insights provide a map toward a more profound spiritual connection and self-knowledge.
Pythia: In practicing personal spirituality, I’m curious how seekers would deal with questions of guilt. For example, if you’re a Catholic, you can go to confession, or make prostrations if you’re a Buddhist.
Thomas Moore: This is a very complicated subject. As a therapist I make a distinction between guilt, and feeling guilty as a symptom for what is lacking or what we need. "Guiltiness" can be a kind of phony guilt, a vague feeling of “I’m guilty”—but we don’t really know what we’ve done wrong. Perhaps we’ve broken a cultural rule that doesn’t mean much to us personally. For many Catholics, for example, sexual guilt stems from anxiety about sex within the Church itself. But that’s not real guilt, it’s guiltiness—and yet it’s got to be dealt with.
At the same time, there’s nothing bad about genuine guilt—we all need to feel responsible when we’ve done something wrong. One thing I learned from the Catholic Church is that a kind of liberation comes from the act of confession, which has a real genius to it. So I’d like to borrow from the Church and say that to be able to confess is a very good way of dealing with guilt. We all do things we wish we hadn’t. If we could confess them instead of hide them, it would help us to re-join our community, and to be straightforward in our dealings with other people.
Pythia: How do you personally deal with guilt?
Thomas Moore: I try to be a confessing person and to acknowledge, in a very sober and simple way, that I’ve got these imperfections, and that I need to confess them regularly. If you look at my writing, I’m always talking about how I make more mistakes than the people I work with.
Pythia: This takes us in the direction of psychology, as confession and confrontation with one’s less-than-perfect side is often why people go into therapy in the first place. Can you say something about psychological work, and how it’s part of a spiritual practice?
Thomas Moore: This has been my work all my life. The two are very closely connected, and yet I think they’re distinct. There are a lot of psychological issues in people’s search for a spiritual home and way of being. For instance, in my workshops I ask participants to reflect on the way they were brought up, such as their feelings about their parents, other relatives, or painful experiences they had when they were young. All those things have a lasting effect on our spiritual lives as adults.
Pythia: In fact, you write that people on a spiritual path might get “blocked or thwarted” by emotional problems and patterns from the past. Can you say more about what you mean by that?
Thomas Moore: Let’s say someone had a troublesome family background with a domineering father. When that person joins a spiritual community, church or synagogue, and a male leader begins telling them what to do, their experience with their father is going to transfer to this leader. In addition, in their search for a leader, that person might attach themselves to someone in an unconscious way who isn’t good for them. That goes on all the time.
Pythia: You write about dream work as central to your own personal religion. The practice of working with our dreams would seem to bridge the psychological and spiritual dimensions.
Thomas Moore: Yes, I agree. I’ve been a therapist for 35 years and all that time, I’ve based my work on dreams. Lately I’ve become even more dedicated to making the dream central to inner work. At the same time, good dream work can’t be done quickly and easily; I don’t even pretend to be good at it. But what I do know is that if we’re open to the dream and use everything at our disposal, they can be very important. They can become not just symbols of our psychological lives, but a form of spiritual guidance, a revelation of what to do with our lives—and in that sense they cross over into the spiritual domain.
Pythia: Dreams can be so puzzling. I’ve worked with my dreams for many years and just this morning I woke up after a dream with no idea of what it meant.
Thomas Moore: That’s just the way it should be! It would be terrible if you woke up and thought, “I know what this is all about.”
Pythia: Why do you say that?
Thomas Moore: Because dreams come from a place that is very deep and mysterious. Given our backgrounds that extend so far back in time, and all that stirs in us, as well as our material lives, we are all very deep and profound people. All this comes out in our dreams, so I think it would be weird if they were immediately clear! But I find that if we give the dream a little time, and don’t get anxious that we don’t immediately understand them, a lot can come out.
Pythia: So for the lay person who’s not in therapy, and who is thinking of making dreams part of their daily practice, how would you recommend they begin this work?
Thomas Moore: The first thing to do is record the dream, whether writing it down or taping it, as they vanish quickly. I recommend getting a little book and making it a ritual. This gives dreams a presence in our lives that is special and important. It’s also a good idea to have somebody that we can tell our dreams to. I tell my dreams to my wife, and my daughter tells me her dreams. Sometimes if I have a really special dream I might call up a friend who is quite talented working with dreams and ask them about it—this gives me another perspective. As there is such a close relationship between art and dreams, it would be a good idea to begin studying art more seriously, or to go to art galleries and museums and contemplate the images there.
Pythia: Dreams can also seem so mundane.
Thomas Moore: Even though a dream may seem mundane, I’ve never seen a dream that didn’t have vast depth to it. So even though it looks like a simple dream about what happened, or we think we know what it is, I would encourage individuals to take the dream a step further. Look at it another day, for example, and never feel that it’s finished, or that you know what it is. Usually the dream offers an alternative to where we are. That alternative may not be completely acceptable, not because it’s horrible, but because it means we might have to move on in life a bit.
Pythia: One of the ideas that resonated with me from your book is the idea that we all have spiritually gifted people in our lives. For example, you write about your Uncle Tom, a farmer. I’ve known people with similar depths of wisdom, such as the farmers I grew up around, or caregivers, and wonder if you could say more about how we can learn from these “ordinary mystics” outside of organized religion.
Thomas Moore: If you really appreciate what my book is saying, its message is pretty radical. What I’m trying to suggest is that we give up this narrow conception of what religion is, and what’s sacred and holy.
When we look with different eyes and see the sacred where it’s normally not seen, for example, we can see that a farmer who never goes to church, who doesn’t believe in God or talk about “holy this or holy that,” who watches television and reads the newspaper (like my uncle did) and who spends his time outside tending animals, growing things in the fields and watching the weather, can be more spiritual than someone who goes to church. So in that sense, my uncle is a very good model of a person who is religious, but who doesn’t look religious. The Catholic Church may have a wafer of bread—but the farmer’s got the wheat.
Pythia: Thank you for this shift in perspective. It’s a valuable gift for those who are feeling spiritually disconnected, or who are thinking about these things on the inside, without having anyone to share their thoughts with on the outside.
Thomas Moore: You’re welcome.