Psychotherapy and Thelema: An Analogy

In the field of clinical psychology and psychiatry, there are several main domains of theory and practice, including the biggies: psychoanalysis and its derivative psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), existentialist/humanistic therapy, and family or systems therapy. There are numerous others, of course, such as narrative therapy, gestalt therapy, play therapy, and feminist therapy, just to name a few. Some of these are relatively similar, and others are wildly different.

Now then, it is arguable that someone going to a classic psychoanalyst will have a very experience than someone going to, say, a therapist trained in CBT. In the former, the client will likely be asked to lie on a couch and verbally free associate, with the analyst offering the occasional interpretation (not as simple as that, of course, but this is for illustrative purposes). The cognitive-behavioral therapist will most likely have the client sit up while they work together to examine his or her thought processes and behaviors that are influencing the symptoms or events that the client wants to change, often using worksheets and at-home exercises as central tools. Very different experiences.

It is again arguable, and I would agree with this, that not only would the in-session experience of therapy be different, but that the end results would be significantly different as well. Someone completing psychoanalysis (a process that can take years) might come away with a great deal of insight relating to their deepest personality traits and how their early childhood experiences have impacted their adult lives, whereas a client completing a course of CBT (which is generally short-term, often less than 20 sessions) might come away with only those thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that relate to a specific set of symptoms (e.g. depression or anxiety) having been explored or changed. Very different outcomes.

And yet, everyone agrees that both psychoanalysis and CBT are forms of psychotherapy. True, there are passionate and persuasive arguments on all sides regarding such issues as efficacy, efficiency, and validity. Many CBTers see psychoanalysis as turn-of-the-century witchdoctory while many analysts see CBT as shallow and cold. Both of them largely ignore the humanists.

And yet, everyone agrees that both psychoanalysis and CBT (and client-centered humanism) are legitimate forms of psychotherapy. While an average CBTer might argue that psychoanalysis is outmoded and inefficient, very few would argue (I believe) that it constitutes malpractice, while many analysts would concede that there is strong empirical evidence that CBT is highly effective in reducing many distressing psychological symptoms. Added to this are recent and compelling studies that suggest that a large chunk of what affects change is the relationship between therapist and client, regardless of theoretical orientation.

The key point that I want to make here is that even though all these various forms of psychotherapy provide different theories, approaches, and even outcomes, they are held together by the common goal of improving psychological well-being grounded in a common practice, that of two (or more) people talking to each other.

And finally, this brings us to Thelema. Just as the analyst and cognitive-behaviorist have very different theories about human psychology and methods designed to bring about change, so is it that many adherents of Thelema will have different conceptions of reality and techniques to promote spiritual development. Rather than focusing on specific theological beliefs or spiritual practices as strict measures of a global definition, Thelema is best served by defining it according to a basic set of principles and goals.

Now then, the nature of those principles and goals are open to discussion. I would offer the following as a possibility:

Thelema is a spiritual path that has the central goal of increasing awareness of and expressing one’s unique (True) Will, generally defined as one’s deepest nature or destiny. While the methods for accomplishing this Great Work are many, they focus generally on expansion of awareness, discipline of thought, celebration of the sacredness of humans and nature, and the gnostic uniting of consciousness with all other things. Adherents of Thelema commonly attempt to promote and embody the principles of individual liberty, critical thinking, self-reliance, self-efficacy, harmonious balance, and the virtues of courage, integrity, beneficence, and open-mindedness.

While the above statement is far from perfect, I believe that many adherents would agree with the basic precepts. Moreover, it is general enough to allow for a wide range of Thelemic articulations while being specific enough to differentiate it from other religious traditions.

I am not naive—I understand that there will always be those who will define Thelema strictly as the product of Aleister Crowley as embodied in his holy books (just as there will be those who define psychotherapy as the product of Sigmund Freud). I have no interest in locking horns with such folks: they are free to believe as they will. But I suspect that there is a large quantity of people interested in a broader, principle-based view of Thelema with more room for individual differences in belief and practice. Just as a person seeking therapy should have multiple options available to him, so should the Thelemic adherent have a choice.

Regardless of whatever impact (or lack thereof) I might have on the greater discussion, I am satisfied at least for myself in this orientation towards Thelema. I always have been and continue to be uncomfortable with narrow and rigid definitions of nature, whether corporeal or spiritual, especially when based on supernatural intervention. Perhaps due to my UU upbringing, I am far more comfortable with principles rather than supernatural beliefs. But more than comfort, a principle-based path is, in my experience, more pragmatic as well…it allows for greater flexibility as I grow and mature. Rather than trying to squeeze myself into an ever-more-narrow box of rigid beliefs, I am able to find new and ever-more-sophisticated interpretations of principles as I gain experience and perspective. Staying true to myself seems much better than staying true to Aleister Crowley. And, ironically, I’m not sure he would disagree with me.