Psychotherapy and the Care of Souls

Psychotherapy and the Care of Souls

by Thomas Moore
Famed Care of the Soul author, Thomas Moore, offers insights into what makes a good therapist. Hint: You can't learn it from a manual.


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To Serve the Soul

In Greek mythology, the wise healer and teacher Cheiron is part horse and part human, a centaur of sorts, but quite different from his wild and hardly civilized half-horse/half-human brothers. He did his work of healing and teaching in a cave. As a therapist, I sometimes think of myself as part animal, sitting in my cave, dealing with primal aspects of human existence, barely able to distinguish healing from teaching.

The modern therapist seems to think of the problems that come to him or her as deviations from the standard of normalcy and health. The point is to restore a person to a point where the presenting symptoms have been removed, as if by psychological surgery. I don’t see it that way. People come to me because deep down they can’t experience the joy of being who they are. They don’t feel in the positive flow of life. They may feel stuck in some repeating pattern that seems to go back far into their history. They may be focused on, or better, mesmerized by some symptom like an obsession or paranoia or anxiety. Generally, it’s the nature of life to flow, like a river, and not to be stuck or stopped.

Whenever I want to get on track with my work as a psychotherapist, I think back on the word. It is made of up two key Greek terms: psyche (soul) and therapeia (serve). “Psycho-therapy” means “to serve the soul.” Psyche is not mind or behavior, and therapeia does not mean healing or making better. I always keep in mind that my job is to serve the soul, or care for it. When I used an ancient phrase, common in Platonic literature, as the title of my most popular book, Care of the Soul, I was simply putting the word “psychotherapy” into English.

I think of the soul as the life in us that is immeasurably deep. Sometimes it feels like a spring or font of existence, making us feel alive and giving us something of a direction and identity. To a large extent it is autonomous, having its own purposes, desires and intentions. When you delve deep into it, you encounter basic human themes and patterns, what Plato and Jung and others call “archetypes.” The need for love, the desire to create, the comfort of home, the excitement of travel—these aren’t the characteristics of any particular person. They are, at least potentially, ways in which all people may experience life.

When these archetypal patterns come to life in a person, they usually have a strong force and allure. You are happy to be in love and can think of nothing else. You fear illness and death, and that emotion, with its clinging thoughts, gets hold of you. You glimpse a certain career, and you go after it with a passion.

Soul is intimate, embedded in life, vital and energetic. It seems to constantly want more life and vitality and therefore can be a threat to the status quo.
As you tend your soul, you may try to sense what it needs and wants, and you may discover that its needs may not dovetail with your own wishes.
As you tend your soul, you may try to sense what it needs and wants, and you may discover that its needs may not dovetail with your own wishes. In that spirit, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats said that his poetry came out of a tension between his own ideas and those of an antithetical self he felt inside him.

As I see it, this other being in us, the soul, is vaster than our small minds can contain. It’s strong and mysterious, and at times a true adversary. Our job is to get to know the soul and cooperate with it, understanding that our happiness and peace on earth depends on a positive and creative response to it. Psychotherapy may entail simply living in a way cognizant of the soul and its purposes.

Soul offers a deep and powerful sense of identity that counters any tendency to be caught in the limited understandings and values of the family or the culture. It asks that we each become individuals, not so identified with the structures around us. This need is so strong that I imagine it in the familiar imagery of rebirth: we are born into biological life and culture, and then we have to be born again into our own individuality and uniqueness. Along with Socrates, I would describe psychotherapy as a kind of maieutics, or midwifery. We have to assist at the birth of the soul into life, which implies the arrival of a unique person. Socrates said: “My concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in the travail of birth” (Theatetus, 150 b).

The Travail of Birth

The travail of birth is exactly what happens in therapy, to one degree or another. Travail means labor, but I see it more as a process. In formal therapy you reflect openly and seriously on the past, on dreams, on emotional difficulties, on relationships and a number of other issues, the material of a life, and process them. As you look more deeply and imaginatively at them, you see better what wants to be born and what hinders the birth. For many people, early traumas and bad parenting and unfortunate adult influences and threatening injunctions keep their longstanding hold and stand in the way of the soul’s movement into life.

Years ago I read the religion scholar Mircea Eliade’s unsettling description of a primitive rite of passage, and it has stayed with me. Young people would be placed in the earth, naked, perhaps under a pile of leaves, overnight or for several days, within a ritual context of masks, drums, body paint and dance. Then they’d be taken out and washed and clothed, adults now and fully part of the community.

I see therapy along these lines.
To be born into your individuality is no light matter. You need an impressive experience of death and rebirth.
To be born into your individuality is no light matter. You need an impressive experience of death and rebirth. Most of the time a real and transformative round of therapy is a step-by-step process of being reborn. The therapist is the elder in charge of the rite, but he or she is only the guide, not the healer. The point is to arrange an effective rebirth, letting the person then go on to discover his life. The therapist does not decide what life is best for the person, whether to be more dependent or independent, emotionally contained or effusive, whether to be married to a different person or to live somewhere else. The therapist doesn’t know what is best for the person, he or she can only assist at the birth of the soul.

Above all, a therapist needs purity of intention, the capacity to hear stories of suffering without responding unconsciously out of his own prejudices. A therapist has to know himself so well that he will pass on any temptation to engage in his own typical reactions. He will not take credit for any progress, and in fact will not think in terms of progress, but only care. Care is not heroic, it isn’t getting anywhere and it has no need to solve problems. A good therapist doesn’t see life as a problem to solve but as a gift to be observed closely and supported.

A therapist will not be deluded by the delusions of his patient. He will not be taken in by any loose complexes in his patient that try to trip up the therapist. If a patient says, “You haven’t given me your full attention today,” a good therapist won’t defend or explain himself. He might simply say, “You’re right. I’m preoccupied with my own situation today. Let’s start again.” He will not feel the guilt the patient wants him to feel and will not accept any adulation the patient tosses his way. Both are traps. He is neutral, not willing to get pulled away from his center by a patient’s neurotic need. In the face of sober and heavy influence, he may find neutrality in lightness of spirit and good humor. He may laugh easily but never sardonically.

Overcoming Our Complexes

A good therapist has moved past his need to help. While it’s true that doing therapy is being in therapy—the therapist may work through some of his own issues while being with another—the therapist is also neutral about his life work. He is not thrown when a patient doesn’t respond well to the therapist’s ideas and efforts. He doesn’t himself need a patient to get better or to go through the therapeutic process the way the therapist thinks is best. The therapist surrenders any pet enthusiasms, such as hoping that his patient will become more independent, artistic, self-aware, or emotionally expressive.

A good therapist has moved past his need to help.
This neutrality is not indifference but an achievement in the therapist’s own opus, the work of his soul. He is not led on by his complexes in relation to his patients, the deeper meaning of the interesting classical notion of counter-transference. He is not at all perfect, but he is not acting out with his patients. He has an unusual degree of self-possession. He can reflect effectively on his own allegiances, philosophies, theories, techniques and ideals. He has developed his own approach and is not completely identified with a given figure in psychology or with a special theory.

A therapist also has to know how to deal with complexes of the people he assists. Jung described a complex as a sub-personality. I would put it differently: a complex has a face. Acting out a complex is like putting on a costume, though you don’t know that you’ve put it on. These figures of the deep psyche that take over a person, like Dr. Jekyll swamping Mr. Hyde, are unusually intelligent, convincing and full of shadow.

A person with a mother complex may strike you at first as being caring, thoughtful and capable of deep emotion. Only later do you see that this figure, this daemonic possession, dominates the person and may suffocate and overpower others who come into its domain. A mother who is atrociously critical of her daughter may believe that she is only doing what is best. Others may tell the daughter how lucky she is to have such a wonderful mother, and the daughter is thrown into painful confusion. Should she be grateful, or should she run away?

The therapist has to deal cautiously with the complex that enters his consulting room. He must not get caught, but that kind of neutrality is not easily achieved. He may be especially susceptible to certain complexes and not see them for what they are.

Complex is not the best word, perhaps, but it is traditional and important. A complex is more like a powerful presence that can assume the cohesion of a personality, although sometimes it is only an urge or an impulse. It can completely overwhelm a person or it can be merely an influence. In any case, a therapist needs courage and circumspection to deal with one, whether in his patient or in himself.

Religious traditions teach as much about these presences as psychology does, and it might help a therapist to do some study in religions and even see his role as being both psychological and spiritual. Religion specializes in rituals that help us meet the complexes in highly symbolic ways. In traditional Catholic confession, for example, you acknowledge dark spirits that invade your life, and the confession of these presences goes a long way toward dealing with them.

Personally, I have cultivated powers of intuition, skill at working with images, and knowledge about traditional spiritual rites and images so I can be prepared for images people use in telling their life stories and reporting their night dreams. I have drawn on the model of C. G. Jung, who was concerned both to be an intelligent, rational thinker and researcher and at the same time to go to great effort to employ the non-rational methods of the spiritual traditions. He was a stone-cutter, calligrapher, painter, and architect in his own way, making his personal environment link closely with his inner life.

Guide of Souls, Leader of Rituals

My mentors—Jung, James Hillman, and Rafael Lopez-Pedraza—have emphasized the role of the mythic Hermes in the work of therapy. Jung said that the work or opus begins and ends in Mercury (the Roman name for Hermes). This means that in this work you have to be imaginative, clever, quick-witted and skilled with language. You appreciate paradoxes and apparent opposites. You see past and through any material that is presented, and you go beyond the modern notion of the highly educated, trained expert. You need a deep and probing appreciation for the intricacies of the psyche, and your preparation has to be both scholarly and personal.

I have a deep appreciation for the work of therapists and I honor and support any therapists I meet. They have a key role in modern life as they address matters of the soul and spirit. In some ways they are the modern priest, priestess, guide of souls and leader of ritual. Their work is challenging for all its depth and mysteriousness, but it is equally rewarding precisely because it goes so deep.

But some therapists make a mistake in thinking of their position as one of a trained advice-giver or aid to adjustment and smooth living.
Some therapists make a mistake in thinking of their position as one of a trained advice-giver or aid to adjustment and smooth living.
Their job, rather, is to be courageous enough to face the demons with their patients and get tangled in the complicated mysteries of a human life. To do their job effectively, they need to know depth psychology, philosophy, solid religious thought and art. They should be at home with dreams and extraordinary fantasies. They should be able to see through aggression and masochism to glimpse the positive mysteries trying to be expressed and lived.

This kind of therapist has thought deeply about the mysteries of human personality and doesn’t reduce them to simple patterns. Throughout his life and career this therapist continues to explore complex matters, prizing any resources that help, and faces his own complexes. He is always on the border, Hermes-like, between the inner and the outer, the personal and the universal, ordinary life and the sacred, and the surfaces and the depths. He is shaman-like, able to traverse levels of reality and experience. He has adapted to the mysterious nature of his work by being himself a mysterious person, not too easy to read and comfortable being neutral in the face of another’s passion.

The Cheiron therapist works in a cave, a place set apart from the normal way of seeing things. He needs a lot of animal in him to sense the many messages from his patient and from within himself. He has to take on the mythic dimensions of a centaur because work with the soul is too much for the human mind.
The therapist is willing to be bigger than life and almost other than human, a person of huge imagination, able to hold almost any manifestation of human struggle.
The therapist is willing to be bigger than life and almost other than human, a person of huge imagination, able to hold almost any manifestation of human struggle. He has to be naturally religious, in the sense of honoring the natural life flowing through himself and his clients and responding effectively to the great mysteries that only the best art and religious forms have been able to grasp. He is a person able to contain the immense joys and sorrows that visit every human life. And all of this in an ordinary person, humble in the best sense, in love with life and able to love those in distress. It’s a wonderful calling and a grace to those who accept it.

© 2014,, LLC
Thomas Moore Thomas Moore, PhD is the author of the bestselling book Care of the Soul and fifteen other books on deepening spirituality and cultivating soul in every aspect of life. He has been a monk, a musician, a university professor, and a psychotherapist, and today he lectures widely on holistic medicine, spirituality, psychotherapy, and the arts. He lectures frequently in Ireland and has a special love of Irish culture. He has a PhD in religion from Syracuse University and has won several awards for his work, including an honorary doctorate from Lesley University and the Humanitarian Award from Einstein Medical School of Yeshiva University. Three of his books have won the prestigious Books for a Better Life awards. He writes fiction and music and often works with his wife, artist and yoga instructor, Hari Kirin. He writes regular columns for Resurgence, Spirituality & Health, and The Huffington Post and has recently published A Religion of One's Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, Writing in the Sand: The Spirituality of Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels, Care of the Soul in Medicine, and The Guru of Golf and Other Stories about the Game of Life. Much of his recent work has focused on the world of medicine, speaking to nurses and doctors about the soul and spirit of medical practice.