Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series about the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy adapted from a paper I wrote for my Intro to EWP course at CIIS. It is written from the perspective of a medium-term (around 4 years) meditator undergoing therapy. This first post includes an introduction and a short review of academic literature on the topic. Follow-up posts will include more of my own experience. I hope that this will serve to show why I no longer see spiritual and psychological work as separate but intrinsically connected. Just as importantly I believe that psychological well-being is not separate from spiritual well-being and vice versa.
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Over the last two years my spiritual life has centered around Buddhist meditation practice on the one hand and psychotherapy on the other. Throughout this time I’ve found that the two practices complement and support each in various ways. I’ve found that meditation builds on the foundation created by therapy and vice versa. I’ve seen the two practices intertwine – one practice unfolding inside the other – to the degree that it can be difficult to separate them at times. I’ve read different theories about the relationship between the two practices (see next section) but I’ve yet to reach any conclusions for myself on the nature of this relationship.

In this series of posts I will describe my personal experience of the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy. From that experience, I suggest, arises a complex dialectic between the two practices that is hard to reduce to any simple model. I will divide my experience into two sections: 1) how meditation supports therapy; and 2) how therapy supports meditation but the interdependence between the two practices is so deep that even this simple division will break. I’ll begin, however, with a brief review of relevant literature.

Literature Review
The relationship between psychotherapy and spiritual practice goes back to the very early days of psychology as a science. William James (1902), considered to be the father of American psychology, studied religious and paranormal experience extensively. Carl Jung’s memoir (1963) describes Jung’s relationship with Christianity and its influence on Jung’s life and his work. Jung was also a student of Eastern spirituality and was clearly influenced by such systems of thought when developing his process of individuation (e.g. Jung 1929). More recently, however, and as Eastern spirituality becomes a more familiar part of Western culture, we see an increasing number of studies looking at the direct relationship between psychotherapy and various forms of spiritual practice such as meditation.

One influential researcher in this field is Jack Engler, a psychotherapist and Buddhist meditation teacher. In Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation, Engler (1986) described a linear model with psychotherapy coming before meditation. He famously wrote “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody” (Engler 1986 p. 24), referring to developing a solid ego before turning to deconstructing the ego through insight meditation.

Epstein and Leiff (1986) describe meditation as a developmental process, the higher stages of which are “only accessible when the practitioner’s ego is sufficiently intact to withstand the regressive upsurge” (p. 57). They go into further detail describing the capacity for regression that is required to respond successfully to the different stages of the meditative path and the various pathological responses that are likely to occur at each stage. According to Epstein & Leiff, at least some of these pathological responses can be handled within the contemplative framework, for example pride and attachment to states of meditation may be made objects of meditation thereby allowing the meditator to pass beyond this hindrance. Epstein (1990) clearly breaks with Engler’s, now famous statement, saying that while it is clear that many with borderline personality structure will not benefit from intensive meditation practice, “this does not necessarily mean the the ego must be fully developed, integrated, cohesive, intact or in any other way ‘normal’ before the meditative experience can unfold” (Epstein 1990, p. 4).

Another model of the relationship between spiritual and emotional maturity comes from Cindy Wigglesworth (2006) who, following in the footsteps of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995), writes about spiritual intelligence (SQ). Wigglesworth (2006) defines spiritual intelligence as “the ability to behave with compassion and wisdom while maintaining inner and outer peace (equanimity) regardless of the circumstances”. The relationship between emotional intelligence (EQ) and SQ changes through life. Early in life (starting around age 22-25) spiritual intelligence depends on the development of EQ related skills such as empathy and emotional self-awareness. Later in life, however, as we focus on existential questions and following a desire for ego-transcendence the “SQ journey” begins. The development of SQ, at this point, reinforces the growth and development of EQ (and IQ as well). The model that Wigglesworth describes, then, contains a reinforcing feedback loop where emotional and spiritual maturity reinforce each other.

It seems that the linear model proposed by Engler (1986) is slowly abandoned in favor of more complex models describing a richer interaction between the practices of meditation and psychotherapy. In fact, in a more recent interview (Cohen & Engler 2000), Engler himself moves away from the simple linear model towards a less rigid structure. My own experience certainly agrees with the need for a more complex model of interaction. In the next couple of posts in this series I will describe my personal background with meditation and my personal experience in merging meditation and psychotherapy.

Engler, J. (1986). Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation. In K. Wilber, J. Engler, & D. Brown (Eds.), Transformations of Consciousness (pp. 17-51). Boston: Shambala.
Cohen, A. (interviewer) & Engler, J. (interviewee). (2000). The 1001 Forms of Self Grasping. In What is Enlightenment? Vol. 17, 2000.
Epstein, M., Leiff, J. (1986). Psychiatric complications of meditation practice. In K. Wilber, J. Engler, & D. Brown (Eds.), Transformations of Consciousness (pp. 53-63). Boston: Shambala.
Epstein, M. (1990). Meditation and the Dilemma of Narcissism. Journal of Contemplative Psychotherapy, 7, 3-19.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Dell.
James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience. Cambridge: The Riverside Press.
Jung, C. G. (1929). Commentary on “The secret of the Golden Flower.” In Collected Works, Vol. 13, 1967 (pp. 1-55). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1961). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Vintage.
Wigglesworth, C. (2006) Why Spiritual Intelligence Is Essential to Mature Leadership. Integral Leadership Review, 6(3), 2006-08.