Q&A with Kenneth Porter, MD, author of Apollo’s Lyre: The Art of Spiritual Psychotherapy

1. What is Apollo’s Lyre: The Art of Spiritual Psychotherapy about and why did you write it?

Apollo’s Lyre is an exploration of the ways in which a spiritual approach to life can enhance our enjoyment of life, and our capacity for wisdom, love and a sense of well-being. Similarly, I explain how a spiritual approach can increase the ability of psychotherapists to help their patients live fuller and more real lives.

I have been a spiritual psychiatrist and psychoanalyst for fifty years. The Kundalini Master in India who was my teacher for about fifteen years always told me I should write a book, and I just dismissed what he said as a nice fantasy. Then one day about five years ago I sat down at my desk after a full day’s work doing psychotherapy – and the book started to come out. I don’t feel that I wrote it. I don’t mean anything fancy by this – just that it felt like it came through me. When I reflected on it afterwards, I realized what was motivating me was a desire to give back. I feel I have been extremely fortunate in what my life has given me, and it’s time to return the favor to others.

By spirituality, I mean that our lives are most real, alive and enjoyable when we not only pay attention to the material aspects of our lives – which are important – but also to certain non-material experiences in our lives, such as love, wisdom, aliveness, realness, and the discovery of our true self.

2. Can you give some examples of how you incorporate spirituality into psychotherapy and how that has helped your patients make progress in therapy?

My basic spiritual approach to psychotherapy is to help my patients understand that the most important thing they can learn is how to be fully present with themselves in their own lives. This means to be as fully aware as possible of what they are experiencing, to fully accept it without self-judgment, and to understand it. In my presence with my patients I try to model this.

This can be a doorway to help us let go of unreal ego programs from the past, which interfere with our feeling real and alive, and can allow us to discover our True Selves – a key to happiness.

3. How do you incorporate spirituality into psychotherapy if a patient does not have any spiritual or religious beliefs. Or, in general, how does your treatment of a person with no spiritual or religious beliefs differ from those who do have spiritual or religious beliefs?

I find it easier to help people who already are on what we call the spiritual path. I share with them a set of understandings and beliefs that help the psychotherapeutic work go more smoothly. But basically my approach – which I outlined above – is the same regardless of whether a person has spiritual beliefs or not. Everyone can understand the importance of our being real, not judging ourselves, understanding ourselves, developing our wisdom and love and aliveness.

4. You talk about meditation, what type of meditation do you recommend for psychotherapy and how do you integrate that into your sessions. Do you guide patients through meditation in session? If so, what type of meditation and how long?

I have learned that for me, it works best for me to be a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst and not try to be a meditation teacher at the same time. I have tried to do both but it never works well. If someone is interested, I know where to refer them to develop a meditation practice.

There are two exceptions to this. With certain people who are able to do it, I offer them a guided meditation into their bodies, using their physical and emotional experience as gateways to higher spiritual experiences. This can be a powerful technique.

Second – I sometimes teach people how to do forgiveness meditation, based on a Buddhist approach. (For many years I was a teacher of Buddhist Insight Meditation.)

5. How about your work with patients on forgiveness and/or guilt? Do you incorporate forgiveness into psychotherapy? And, how would you incorporate forgiveness into psychotherapy and still allow for a healthy express of anger. Or, in terms of guilt. How would you work with someone who feels guilty about something they did in their past, but are unable to forgive themselves or let go of their guilt?

For most people what comes first in psychotherapy is to learn that feelings of anger, rage and even hatred are normal, are a part of being human, and can be experienced without any need for guilt or shame. So first I encourage this.

Second, for everyone it is very important to understand the inner critic – what psychoanalysts call the super-ego. This is the part of us that judges us. It was a necessary part of our minds when we were children, to teach us the difference between right and wrong. But it is no longer necessary for us as spiritually mature adults – and in fact is harmful. This is a long learning.

Third, for those or us who cannot forgive ourselves for some behavior in the past: what is most helpful is for us to understand that what we originally did, which we feel guilty about, actually made sense for us to do at the time. It was not an expression of something bad inside ourselves. This, plus accepting angry feelings, plus understanding  the super-ego, usually helps people free themselves of painful and unnecessary guilt.

Forgiveness comes last. After the first three steps I just outlined, comes the crucial step of forgiveness of others (and ourselves of course). I sometimes teach a model of forgiveness meditation based on the teachings of Buddhist Insight Meditation.

There is one exception to all of this. Rarely, individuals have never developed a super-ego. These individuals – sociopaths and psychopaths –  do not learn to feel less guilty. They need to learn TO feel guilty. But this is another long and difficult story.

6. How about the work of Carl Jung and synchronicity and archetypes. Do you ever incorporate Jung’s work into psychotherapy? If so, how and what sort of results have you seen?

Every psychotherapist has had his own experiences and developed his own frame of reference in doing psychotherapy. While I am very familiar with Jung’s work, and respect and admire it, it has never come to me as a guideline for helping people. However I do know that synchronicities are real and I validate that for my patients if they have those experiences.

7. What about dealing with fear of death or someone grieving the loss of a loved one? How do you incorporate spirituality into your work with someone who has a fear of death, and how would you incorporate into therapy with someone who is grieving the death of a loved one?

Grief is simple – yet oh so difficult. We need to fully experience all of our feelings toward the departed one – love, loss, feeling abandoned, anger, sorrow – and know that all these feelings are ok. We need to know that in grieving the loss of someone dear to us, there is no timetable. Some of us grieve in two days. Some of us grieve in many years. It is all alright.

Fear of Death is a hallmark of being alive as a human being. The more we can learn to live our lives fully and really, from our True Self, with love and wisdom, the more our fear of death begins to soften. And then we can accept Death as the ultimate teacher, teaching us that what is impermanent is not what is most important. But that too is a longer story. 

8. Have you experienced any serendipity or synchronicity in your life? If so, how?

Yes, I have experienced synchronicities many times in my life, both with patients and in my personal life. Once a patient was telling me about the favorite piece of music that she and her sister always listened to as children, and I heard the music in my mind before she told me what it was. Once I was away on a retreat when my dad was alive and well, and I had two dreams that he was confused, as if he had had a stroke. I ignored the dreams. As soon as I got back I got a worried call from my Mom – my father was in bed confused! Turned out from too much medicine. So these experiences taught me that synchronicity is alive and well.

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