Can Psychotherapy Bridge Worlds Between East and West, Spirt and Matter?

Transpersonal Psychotherapy has the potential to bridge the worlds between East and West, Indigenous and Western world views. There is a vast and quickly spreading movement of Westerners seeking wisdom and guidance from other traditions. There is valuable potential for Transpersonal Psychotherapy to integrate what is missing from Western society; spiritual meaning and connection to others and our world as a whole. When seeking meaning, Westerners can come across pitfalls from exploring non-western traditions. By exploring relationship, mindfulness of body, breath and emotions, and core beliefs based on personal history,Transpersonal Psychotherapy can integrate spiritual experience into daily life and address the pitfalls that create more suffering.


There is a cultural dissonance between collectivist societies and Western individualism. Indigenous and many Eastern traditions are collectivist, and when Westerners go to the teachers of these traditions, their radical individualist and reductionist values are overlooked. This can cause spiritual bypass, as the Western seeker cannot integrate their psychological material into the world views of collectivist cultures. This is why many meditators and people who have peak shamanic experience, find it difficult to re-enter daily life in the Western world.

The result is to bypass; focus on the spiritual experience and trying to reattain it, rather than integrate aspects of ourselves that react to unintegrated parts of ourselves. These can be lazy, defiant or otherwise resistant parts, selfish, full of desire or otherwise clingy parts. The dichotomy set up between spiritual experience and a lack of cultural attunement to the spiritual in the west, can lead to painful disappointment at best, and destructive reaction at worst. Both are a recipe for spiritual bypass, as chasing after peak experience can be a quick fix in this.

The concepts of Soul Retrieval and obtaining personal power found in Shamanic practices could be utilized by the Transpersonal Psychotherapist to introduce Shamanic work to the Western client.

Likewise, Shamanic experience of Soul Retrieval and  personal power can be held in a Transpersonal therapeutic setting with great efficacy. In her article in the American Journal of Public Health, Marlene Dobkin de Rios, PhD, focuses on hypnosis, behavior modification, and cognitive restructuring and their shamanic equivalents as ways to bridge psychotherapy and Shamanism. (Dobkin de Rios, 2002). She talks about the therapist facilitating the client in an altered state, or highly relaxed state where their parasympathetic nervous system can be activated. This relaxed state can be induced through drum journey, ritual, breathwork and guided meditations to give a sense of safety and well being crucial to any healing modality. Not only does the client find ways for themselves to heal, but the therapist can be more effective in attuning to a deeper unconscious level of the client’s experience. This engagement with the unconscious can be highly effective in changing the client’s behavior. One theory is that shamanic journeys take place in the “unconscious.” One way of defining the unconscious is that which is “unknown” to ordinary awareness. It does not take place in the space and time of our everyday lives. It takes place in an interior cosmos no less real than this one, but radically different. These realms can be more real to shamanic practitioners than what we consider real. Since Freud, Western Psychology has maintained that what takes place in the unconscious actually shapes our everyday life and determines our behavior. (McLeod, 2007).

Thus psychology understands the unconscious as the greater reality within which our ordinary awareness that is too fragmented and narrow to adequately understand. Shamanistic world views have a similar perspective in seeing that everyday events have a larger meaning that can only be appreciated when we journey out of the everyday into altered states. The forces of the Shamanic experience shape and determine what happens to us in our everyday lives. Dobkin talks about personal empowerment as an important element found in both psychotherapy and Shamanic work: “Calling on the presence of a powerful animal—such as an eagle, king of its dominion—can be metaphorically linked to the shaman who perceives himself as an eagle. The therapist tells the client that he or she can relax at will, anywhere and any time. The client is all-powerful, like the bird or animal.” (Dobkin, p. 5, American Journal of Public Health). Dobkin references a study conducted at the University of California Burn Center, that showed the efficacy of such altered states in controlling pain, treating depression, and helping injured workers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder to return to work.

Along with personal power, Soul Retrieval is an element found in both Shamanic work and Transpersonal Psychotherapy. Psycho-education about the term soul, is important here. It can be explained that a person can fragment a part of themselves when a trauma occurs, losing connection to their soul, or whole Self. According to Richard Schwartz of internal Family Systems Therapy, Self is both stable and unique as well as active and all pervasive; Self is compassionate inner leader and an expansive, boundary-less state of mind. (Schwartz, R. 1995, p. 10). Sandra Ingerman defines “soul” to mean vital essence, distinct from the body, the seat of “emotions, thoughts and sentiments.” (Ingerman, S. 2006, p. 7).

Soul and Self are often used interchangeably, although there are differences, this is a good start in bridging Shamanic and Western world views. People with an unstable sense of Self often do not have access to wisdom greater than themselves or to the ability to form solid relationships with their souls or others. Shamanic integration in psychotherapy can be used to help solidify and strengthen a sense of Self, and allow a client to function and lead from their soul, or essential natures. Eduardo Duran views trauma as a “Soul Wound” (Duran, 2006) and also looks at the impact of intergenerational trauma in this wounding.

Often the Westerner suffers from a reductionistic, materialistic soul wound. Through proper mentorship, shamanic experience can build healthy ego strength in Westerners suffering from soul wounds. Shamanic traditions recognize the uniqueness in the sameness, the relative in the absolute. This can be very healing for a Western psyche who has been more conditioned to see these polarities as difficult to integrate. In Shamanistic work, individuals can discover their roles based on their personal power and medicine, and how this contributes to the whole. Inner vision and experience give us a sense of personal power which is intimately interconnected to all of life. This can turn into a Narcissistic ego power without proper mentorship and humility. The awareness of a suitable Transpersonal Therapist could keep the Westerner in check and encourage them to seek guidance from their Indigenous teachers.

Shamanic experience can be used by Westerners to spiritually bypass, by inducing peak experience before a person is ready individually, and within their support system of friends, family and larger society. Indigenous healers do not always recognize Western limitations and pitfalls, and frame healing in the way that fits their world view, which sometimes cannot translate into the Western world view. Westerners go to Indigenous healers for healing, have peak experience and are released back into their worlds of fragmentation and materialism. Often there is not an ongoing relationship or mentorship between healer and Westerner seeking healing, so often the change brought about by the healing cannot be grounded in a sustainable, long term way. There is often little in Western society that can support a peak spiritual experience. Transpersonal Psychotherapy can offer ongoing relationship; a foundation for trust and integration grounded in both Western psychology and Spiritual understanding.

A therapy session can be the ongoing touchstone from which a client can integrate and re-experience their spiritual realms. This can create an ongoing relationship with their inner realms of empowerment and healing. It can also lead to spiritual practice, discipline and holistic care that can spread into all areas of their lives. A therapist can provide ongoing support and integration through talk therapy, somatic awareness and release, meditations and shamanic drum journey.

Eastern traditions with their emphasis on awakening and liberation from suffering can empower an individual to transform their pain and suffering into an opportunity for growth. However, there are some of the same pitfalls of spiritual bypass without attunement to Western psychological conditioning. Eastern traditions often value monasticism and renunciation and can be limited in navigating the terrain of intimate partnership, family and emotions. Harvey B. Aronson in his book Buddhist Practice on Western Ground talks about such pitfalls. “Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice offer many tools for profound spiritual development, but they do not address the psychological concerns of Westerners. Without more culturally appropriate interventions such as psychotherapy, even advanced meditators continue to suffer from anxiety, depression, isolating narcissism, or numbed disengagement.” (Aronson, 2004, p. xiii). At the source of Western suffering often lies social isolation on some level.

Psychotherapy can provide a missing link between meditation and the necessary relational experience to promote healing. Aronson points out how Westerners bypass relationship by using Buddhism to promote individualism: “Meditation is being appropriated for the purpose of increasing awareness, reducing stress, and enhancing the quality and functioning of our personal lives. At the same time, it gets woven into the individualistic narrative of our lives. Hence, meditation, as it contributes to positive internal experiences, can easily become significant in the service of our individualistic agendas for success.” (Aronson, 2004, p. 29). Thus, meditation practice falls short in transforming the Western psyche, and is most often used to feed the already established individual. Relational and mindful Transpersonal Psychotherapy can integrate the two worlds of individual and collective.

Westerners seek meaning and connection through other traditions and cultural dissonance can be a result. This dissonance limits integration of the two world views and spiritual by pass is often a result of westerners seeking spirit. Some traditions can give misleading guidance; Eastern traditions which value monasticism and renunciation fall short of offering students ways to benefit their intimate partnerships, family and emotions. Indigenous traditions can also encourage westerners to bypass by inducing peak experience before a person is ready individually, and within their support system of friends, family and larger society. When a Transpersonal Psychotherapist can be aware of these pitfalls, therapy can become a bridge between worlds and offer the Westerner valuable integration and relationship skills. This can be essential to long lasting healing.


Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. (2002). What We Can Learn From Shamanic Healing: Brief Psychotherapy With Latino Immigrant Clients.

McLeod, Saul. (2007). Psychology Perspectives.

Ingerman, Sandra. (2006). Soul retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self. HarperOne.

Schwartz, Richard C. (1995). Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

Duran, Eduardo. (2006). Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling With American Indians and Other Native Peoples. Teachers College Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s