in Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Journey
Author Posting. (c) G. Scott Sparrow, 2008.
This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by
permission of G. Scott Sparrow for personal use,
not for redistribution.
The definitive version was published in Mental Health, Religion & Culture, , January 2008.
triangles are usually considered symptomatic of family dysfunction in
systems-oriented therapy, but they may also serve a progressive,
transitional role in relationships. The author examines the phenomenon
and function of “progressive” triangles in East and West spiritual
traditions, and suggests that triangles comprised of seeker, mediator,
and higher power are common in both traditions, regardless of differing
views of human nature. A progressive triangle in the therapeutic
setting can be seen as a function of teleological transference, in
which a seeker’s spiritual aspirations are projected onto a mediator,
who provides support and direction for its further realization. The
implications of progressive triangulation and teleological transference
in contemporary practice are discussed.
According to systems-oriented family therapy, one of
the principal sources of distress in families is the failure of its
members to communicate directly with each other. Anxious over the
possible consequences of honest disclosure, they will confide in
substitutes––other family members, lovers, and friends––rather than
communicating with the ones with whom they have difficulties (Bowen,
1978; Hoffman, 1981). This proclivity for avoiding direct communication
by turning to surrogates was first acknowledged by Bowen who, in
believing that dyadic relationships are inherently unstable, came to
regard triangles as “the smallest stable relationship structure” and
triangulation as a problematic dynamic in families (Bowen, 1978).
Trained as a psychoanalyst, Bowen recast Freud’s original conception of
the Oedipal triangle into a here-and-now emotional process that can
take place between any three people. Fogarty (1976) contributed
to the concept by approaching triangles in treatment planning more
structurally by moving distanced parents closer to their children, or
by creating more distance between overinvolved parents and their
children. Guerin went on to differentiate between “triangulation” as
the reactive emotional process that activates a triangle, and a
“triangle” as a relationship structure (Guerin, Fogarty, Fay, &
Kautto, 1996). Minuchin further developed the idea by describing
how a triangle could express itself as a “cross-generational coalition”
between one parent and a child against the other parent, or as
"detouring" in which parents channel their relationship distress onto a
If the anxious avoidance of direct communication
promotes triangulation, then encouraging honest communication, in which
the individuals take responsibility for their respective contributions
to the relationship, constitutes a priority in alleviating marital and
family distress. Bowen believed that the best way to assist in
“detriangling” was to remain neutral and to ask questions designed to
help the conflicted family members become more aware of their
respective contributions to the problem and what they needed to change
in their own behavior in order to facilitate improvement in the
relationship. In so doing, Bowen (1978) believed that a therapist
could participate in a “therapeutic triangle,” which instead of serving
as a substitute for honest communication, creates a transitional
context in which distressed family members can deal openly with their
differences through the mediation of a respectful witness.
The Benefits of Triangles
Since family therapists normally come into
contact with triangulated relationships only after the problem has
become serious enough to bring family members into therapy, triangles
have become synonymous with family dysfunction. But triangles can
also serve as useful transitional structures whenever a third person,
or mediator, helps to bridge the gulf between distanced parties.
Bowen’s “therapeutic triangle” (1978) represents one such example of a
triangle working progressively within the therapeutic setting, but
triangles may serve a valuable function outside of the therapeutic
setting, as well. For instance, a husband may feel more willing to
disclose his grievance with his wife after confiding with a friend or a
counselor, especially if the confidant encourages him to do so.
Similarly, a daughter may have a better idea about how to talk with her
father about a difficult issue after her mother coaches her on how best
to approach him. Whenever a triangle promotes a better
understanding of another person and a greater willingness to
communicate with that person, then it might be considered constructive
in intent, and progressive in outcome. Thus, individuals may turn to
third parties not only as a way to perpetuate relational distance, but
in an effort to resolve it.
Bowen’s articulation of the role of triangles and
triangulation has had significant diagnostic power in relational
therapy, and has generated an array of treatment strategies built
around the concept. Given the ubiquity of triangulation in
relationships, it may be useful to inquire how this dynamic expresses
itself between individuals and the “ultimate” other––that is, one’s
higher power, or God.
While it is may not be customary to compare ordinary
human-to-human relationships with a person’s relationship with higher
power, it is possible that observations in one field can deepen our
understanding of the other if there is a willingness to compare and
contrast similar relational dynamics in each of these dimensions of
human experience. This cross-fertilization can work in both directions.
For instance, in a related work, I have hypothesized that “informed
love” ––that is, the experience of feeling completely known and
completely loved––is the principle curative factor in religious
experiences, Further, I have suggested that this curative factor can be
emulated in the psychotherapeutic relationship, as well (Sparrow, 2007,
in press). Conversely, the concept of triangulation––which has been
fully articulated in systems-oriented family therapists––may prove
useful in understanding some otherwise puzzling aspects of the
Triangles in Sacred Traditions
One does not have to look very far to discover
triangles and triangulation functioning in the spiritual life. In
religion traditions where the divine is considered ontologically
distinct from the human realm––such as in Judaism, and in
post-Augustinian Western Christianity––the gulf between heaven and
earth constitutes an a priori condition that confronts every human
being. This division is not a problem that can be resolved simply
through a change in perspective, or a breakthrough in awareness.
However, in other traditions, such as in Hinduism and Buddhism, God or
higher consciousness is considered humankind’s essential nature and
ultimate destiny. Human beings are estranged from higher power not
ontologically, but psychologically––that is, through a lack of
awareness of their true selves. As one might expect, triangles in
the Judeo-Christian tradition tend to become enshrined as permanent and
necessary aspects of one’s relationship with God, whereas triangles in
Hinduism and Buddhism are, at least in principle, symbolic and
Triangles in the Judeo-Christian Tradition . While a
thorough analysis of the evidence of triangles in the Judeo-Christian
heritage lies far beyond the scope of this paper, a few examples of
this relationship dynamic may suffice to establish its prevalence.
The Israelites of the Old Testament considered
covenant to be the highest expression of their relationship with God.
The statement attributed to God, “Listen to my voice, and do all that I
command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God”
(Jeremiah 11:4 Revised Standard Version) captures the essence of this
reciprocal arrangement. It was through honoring the covenant expressed
by Mosaic law that the Israelites would gain God’s blessings and
protection from their enemies. But it was initially through the
mediating agency of Moses that the law became articulated in the first
place. Priests and prophets served as mediators and conduits of
God’s will, while the ontological distinction between God and humanity
remained an irrevocable fact.
Jesus introduced a variation on the triangular
theme. In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the
life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In this succinct
formulation, he describes a triangular relationship in which he
occupies an exclusive mediating position between humankind and God.
However, Jesus also seemed to anticipate the gulf that his death would
create by alluding to a third “person,” who would continue to perform
his mediating role once he was gone: “But the Advocate, the Holy
Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you
everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).
By alluding to the Holy Spirit, Jesus encouraged his
followers to enjoy his continuing influence through a fully congruent
mediating spirit that was presumably available in all times and places.
This concept energized the early Christians and has been cited as one
of the reasons that the nascent religion appealed to so many people.
However, the emerging Church leadership, in its attempt to consolidate
its authority in the face of an array of opposing beliefs and
claims––eventually found it untenable to accept the diverse and
idiosyncratic nature of presumed experiences of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, the “spontaneous experience of the Holy Spirit . . . soon came
into conflict with the conservative imperatives of the institutional
Church . . . Individuals claiming the presence of the Spirit tended to
produce unpredictably variable revelations and charismatic phenomena”
(Tarnas, 1991, p. 157).
The second-century conflict between the early Church
and Montanus, in particular––who claimed to be channeling the risen
Christ in a first-person voice––was a pivotal moment in the Church's
consolidation of authority and its appropriation of the mediating
function. Many historians agree (Bradshaw, 1992) that Montanus and his
associates Pricilla and Maximilla––two women of rank––were actually
orthodox in their beliefs, and that their followers pursued a
particularly virtuous and ascetic lifestyle, but that their impassioned
reliance on the agency of the Holy Spirit challenged the authority of
the Bishops. By quelling the Montanists, the Church effectively brought
an end to the Holy Spirit’s independent agency, thus “shutting out the
charismatic gifts for seventeen centuries” (Bradshaw, 1992). This
suppression coincided with the Church’s restriction of the Holy
Spirit’s range of influence.
The authority of the Holy Spirit, invested by Christ in the original
apostles, now passed on in a sacredly established order to the bishops
of the Church, with the ultimate authority in the West claimed by the
Roman pontiff, the successor to Peter. The notion of the Holy Spirit as
a divine principle of revolutionary spiritual power, immanent in the
human community and moving it toward deification, diminished in the
Christian belief in favor of a Holy Spirit as solely invested in the
authorities and activities of the institutional Church” (Tarnas, 1991,
Another mediator––Mary, the mother of Jesus––was
venerated, beginning in the early centuries of the Christian era.
As early as 373, St. Ephraem heralded Mary’s mediating role, by saying,
"With the Mediator, you are the Mediatrix of the entire world,” and
“referred to her as “the friendly advocate of sinners” (Miravale,
2007). Mary was, “by 400 . . . occupying a mounting place in private
devotion that was soon to pass into the official liturgy” (Chadwick,
1986, p. 281). Her appeal can be traced, in part, to the importance of
the earth goddess to pagans who became early converts of the religion
(Tarnas, 1991, p. 162-164). Mary’s unique role as a human who gave
birth to the redeemer allowed for a natural transfer of devotional
sentiment from the pagan goddess to a human figure within Christianity
to whom worshippers could easily relate.
Another reason for Mary’s constellation as an
independent focus of worship in the early church was the widening
theological distance between Jesus and the human realm. In response
to an array of divergent challenges from various so-called
heresies, the “proto-orthodox” (Ehrmann, 2005) Church fathers
progressively asserted the divinity of Jesus over his humanity, thus
making it more difficult for the common person to imagine Jesus serving
as an approachable mediator between the austere Judeo-Christian
God and the world. The Church fathers were eager to avoid the
error of docetism––the Gnostic belief that Christ’s humanity and
suffering was merely an illusory performance for the world's benefit.
But ultimately, they were more concerned with asserting Christ’s divine
nature to avoid the perception that Jesus had been “only” a
man––a position held by the Ebionites, or Jewish Christians, and a
natural supposition given the way that Jesus was put to death as a
criminal (Ehrmann, 2005).
Through the consolidation of the orthodox position,
in which Jesus became increasingly synonymous with God, Jesus’ role as
an approachable mediator between God and humanity was progressively
undermined. Consequently, early Christians naturally turned to
Mary the mother of Jesus as an available and comforting substitute who,
as one of them, could represent their needs to the theologically
elevated, and increasingly ontologically distinct Jesus Christ.
In Chadwick’s words, “Because of this loss of solidarity between Christ
and the rest of the human race, the faithful increasingly looked
towards Mary as the perfect representative of redeemed humanity” (1986.
p. 282). This shift of worship toward Mary concerned the Church
authorities, who considered “the massive popular veneration of Mary . .
. to exceed the bounds of theological justifiability” (Tarnas, 1991, p.
163). Much in the way that the Church brought the Holy Spirit
within the walls of the Church, the problem “was resolved . . . through
the identification of the Virgin Mary with the Church” ( p.
164). Thereafter, the feminine and receptive qualities associated
with the virginal Mother became associated with the Church, which
in turn became viewed as the “Bride of Christ.”
Mary’s appeal to pagan sentiments accounted in part
for the Church’s initial appropriation of her mediating and feminine
qualities, but her elevation in theological status within the Church
continued unabated as a consequence of further Christological debate.
The question that necessitated some from of doctrinal reformulation
was: If Jesus was the perfect son of God, how could he have been born
of a woman, afflicted with original sin? The Church eventually resolved
this problem in the Middle Ages through the concept of the Immaculate
Conception, in which Christ presumably removed the blight of sin from
His mother at the moment of her conception, leaving her uniquely pure
among us.1 This all made sense within a Church eager to
incorporate various popular ideas into acceptable dogma. But as
Marina Warner says, the constellation of Mary has had its downside:
Soaring above the men and women who pray to her, the Virgin conceived
without sin underscores rather alleviates pain and anxiety and
accentuates the feeling of sinfulness . . . Any symbol that exacerbates
the pain runs counter to the central Christian doctrine that mankind
was made and redeemed by God, and, more important, is the continuing
enemy of hope and happiness (1976, p. 254).
In spite of the progressive elevation Mary in
Catholic Church dogma––culminating in the Doctrine of the Immaculate
Conception in (1854) and the Doctrine of the Assumption (1954)––the
elevation of Jesus and Mary in the Christian tradition has not entirely
prevented seekers from appealing to their traditional mediating roles
in the religious life. When asked why people overlook the doctrinal
distance between themselves and these lofty figures, one Catholic
priest simply replied, “People don’t want theology, they want love
(Sparrow, 2002, p. 143).”
In summary, the Judeo-Christian legacy reveals a
preoccupation with resolving humanity’s ontological split from God
through triangles in which the mediating factors have included
prophets and priests, a universally available spirit, human beings to
whom are imputed divine or inerrant attributes, and an established
canon of scripture. The eventual appropriation of these mediators
into institutional religious structures––and/or the tendency to elevate
the mediators to semidivine or divine status––accounts for the
psychological distance between these mediators and the people who
appeal to them, as well as the psychological impulse to find new ones.
Progressive Triangles in the Eastern Tradition
In Buddhism and Hinduism, the problem of humanity’s
separation from higher power is psychological––or a matter of
perception or awareness––rather than theological (Suzuki, 1987).
According to these religions, human beings labor under the illusion,
not the fact, of their estrangement from God. The resolution of
humanity’s perceived estrangement is always available through a
complete release from the conditioned mind, referred to in Buddhism as
the “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness” (Govinda,
1969; Suzuki, 1987). However, in recognition of the difficulty of
emancipating oneself from the compelling illusion of separateness,
gurus serve as external guides and catalysts in both Buddhism and
Hinduism for awakening a person to his or her true nature.
This triangular dynamic between guru, devotee, and
higher power is illustrated by the biographical account of the Tibetan
guru, Milarepa (1040-1143). The young seeker, who was destined to
become the second patriarch of the Kargyupa sect, went to study under
Marpa the Translator after using his psychic powers to kill his aunt
and uncle in revenge for stealing his family’s wealth. Marpa apparently
recognized Milarepa as a spiritual prodigy and his successor, but he
knew that he would have to adopt unusual tactics to facilitate
Milarepa’s spiritual refinement. Without explaining himself, he set
about to frustrate his disciple by making him do things, and undo
things, that made no sense to the young aspirant. Marpa would often
appear drunk or deranged, and he constantly changed his mind,
contradicting things that he had told Milarepa to do. Meanwhile, Marpa
steadfastly refused to admit his student into his inner circle, and
would dismiss him harshly––even to the point of beating him––whenever
Milarepa tried to attend the initiation ceremonies. Unbeknownst to
Milarepa, his teacher would return to his quarters each night and weep
over the role that he had to play. In effect, Marpa ceased to be the
approachable symbol of higher power, and became instead harsh and
In a state of suicidal despondency, Milarepa turned
to Marpa’s wife Dagmema for help and solace, thus establishing a
triangular dynamic between Milarepa and his teacher. Feeling sorry for
the distressed devotee, Dagmema pleaded with her husband on Milarepa’s
behalf, as Mary had pleaded with Jesus at the wedding at Cana. Even
though Marpa was initially unrelenting––as Jesus had been when first
approached––his wife’s compassion for the young disciple provided the
support Milarepa needed to persist in his efforts to win his master’s
approval. Finally, Marpa knew that Milarepa’s refinement was
complete. Exhibiting an apparent sudden change of heart, he
bestowed upon his disciple the full measure of his love and his
teachings (Evans-Wentz, et. al, 2000).
Milarepa’s reliance upon Marpa’s wife was not unlike
that of a Christian petitioner for whom Christ has become so apparently
austere and unknowable that he or she turns to Mary for mediation and
clemency. Regardless of the spiritual tradition, the pattern seems
clear: When the perceived distance between a seeker and a spiritual
mediator widens, another mediator is sought.
To illustrate this dynamic in contemporary terms, I
once counseled an elderly woman who happened to be a devotee of the
late Sikh guru Maharaj Charan Singh Ji, and who often prayed to him.
Knowing that she had never evidenced the slightest problem with her
earlier Christian faith, I once inquired as to why she did not also
also pray to Jesus, even though I had great respect for her guru. She
looked surprised, and replied as if it were an obvious fact, “Why,
Jesus has much more important things to do than to answer my prayers.”
When Progressive Triangles Become Stagnant
Progressive triangles can turn stagnant, and even
regressive––either because the seeker becomes too dependent on the
teacher, or the teacher begins to usurp the position of the
transcendent goal. There is a Mahayana Buddhist saying, “When the
master points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger.” This pithy
metaphor, which succinctly summarizes the Lankavatara Sutra (Suzuki,
1987), conveys the classic error of the seeker who fails to
discriminate between a reflection of the truth and the truth
itself. Stories abound in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of
spiritual teachers who intentionally frustrate their followers’
inclinations to worship them. For instance, when a devotee once asked
of a great saint, "What is my duty?" he replied, “Do you want me to
peel your banana and eat it, too?” (Chidvalasananda, 1989, p.
Jesus, too, was sensitive to the tendency of his
disciples to idealize him, and even to deify him. He admonished the
rich young man by saying, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good
but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18 King James Version).
Not all teachers or religious
institutions successfully resist the temptation to exploit their
followers’ dependency on them. By the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church
had taken to dispensing grace through the sale of indulgences, which
undermined its moral authority. Luther’s effort to remove the Catholic
Church from its mediating role left Protestants with a direct avenue to
God, but without a well-defined bridge into that relationship. In
contemporary times, Jung was particularly articulate in underscoring
the alienation that the Reformation fostered by disavowing the living
symbols and sacerdotal functions that had once served to mediate God’s
felt presence in this world. “Protestantism,” says Jung, “having
divested itself from much of the ritual and codes of the Catholic
Church, leaves the individual to confront his sins alone” (Jung, 1969,
Implications for Modern Therapy
Systems-oriented family therapists have become adept
at diagnosing dysfunctional triangles in relational therapy, and
psychodynamic therapists have been trained to recognize and treat
transference in the therapeutic setting. However, the concept of
progressive triangulation in the spiritual journey may call for a
broader view of triangulation and transference for the purposes of
conducting therapy with individuals who are also seeking a closer
relationship with higher power.
Given the function of mediators in spiritual
traditions both East and West, it may be important for modern
therapists to consider how they may be called upon to participate in
progressive triangles that arise as a natural outgrowth of a client’s
spiritual aspirations. Some therapists may reject outright playing a
mentoring role in their clients' spiritual lives, much less becoming a
symbol of a client's own higher power. That decision, of course,
depends on a therapist's theoretical rational for practice. But as Jung
was fond of saying, "Called or not called, God is present," alluding to
a quote that originated at the Oracle at Delphi. Whether one
interprets this statement from a metaphysical or a psychological
standpoint, it is certainly true that the presence or absence of a felt
sense of higher power comprises a significant aspect of psychotherapy,
whether it is acknowledged or not. Consequently, a therapist's refusal
to play an active role in the client's spiritual journey may merely
keep the clients from exploring a crucially important part of their
lives, and by implication, a valuable resource in their therapeutic
process. In contrast, therapists who accept the role of mediator/mentor
may perform a sacred function that is needed in this world without
representing themselves as agents of any particular religious
tradition, or as substitutes for priests and ministers. As
. . . fragmented and mobile, competitive societies leave many
without stable supportive communities and community figures, such as
priests, who previously supplied many valued facilities including the
confessional . . . (1999, p. 7).
Progressive triangulation is probably more likely to
occur when a client is consciously seeking spiritually; a therapist
makes it clear that spirituality has a place in the therapeutic process
and welcomes a discussion of the client’s dreams and spiritual
experiences; and the therapist is comfortable enough in his or her own
spirituality that the client may tacitly learn from and identify with
the therapist. As the client begins to regard the therapist as a
spiritual companion within the therapeutic role, the client may
experience a deepening connection with higher power as an apparent
result of the relationship. He or she may associate the therapist with
that experience, and come to rely on the therapist for mentoring and
guidance. In my twenty five years as a psychotherapist, I have found
that this is neither unusual nor ominous, and will tend to parallel and
support the therapeutic process. During this time of progressive
triangulation, clients will occasionally fantasize or dream about me in
ways that reveal that I have become a symbol for their higher power.
For instance, I once counseled a 25-year-old woman
who, as a child, had been severely abused by her mother, and whose
divorced father had been effectively prevented from spending much time
with her. She entered therapy addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and
vowing never to have children of her own. In the course of our
therapeutic work, her recovery entailed weekly individual and group
therapy, a Twelve-Step Program, a deep devotion to Christ, and a
regular meditational practice. Concurrently, she often dreamed of me in
ways that revealed that I had come to represent access to her higher
power. She often dreamed of coming to my home and talking with me and
my wife about spiritual matters, or just sitting quietly in the comfort
of our home. She said that such dreams gave her a sense of belonging.
While the obvious transference kept me ever-watchful of problematic
developments, she always treated me with respect, indicating to me that
the dream "visits" were not exclusively about her need to find the
parenting that she never had. It appeared that our relationship was
also serving as a springboard into communion with her higher
power. Her therapeutic work came to a successful conclusion
shortly after she reported two dramatic dreams.
In the first, she experienced herself as rising up
and floating above her bed. There she encountered a being of light whom
she identified as Jesus. The being embraced her and danced with her in
the space above her bed. Significantly, she had been a professional
dancer, and her mother had often intruded upon her career in efforts to
“assist” her. In the second dream she stood upon a shoreline and
watched a huge wave approaching. Out of the wave appeared a whale,
which beached itself in front of her. It turned its head and held the
woman's gaze momentarily before retreating into the water. The woman
looked down and saw that the whale had left a baby whale at her feet.
She knew somehow that she needed to care for it, so she took it into
her arms. Not long after, she terminated her therapeutic work with me.
She was free of drugs and alcohol and determined to make a fresh start
on her life. Soon after, she met her future husband and within a year
had given birth to a baby girl. Looking back, I believe it is accurate
to say that the spiritual dimensions of our relationship facilitated
her awareness of her own higher power, as represented by the two dreams
that she shared near the end of our relationship.
A similar story involves another client––a divorced
32-year-old woman who had been diagnosed by her previous two
therapists, as well as by myself, as having Borderline Personality
Disorder (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). From the first moment of our first session,
she expressed an intense transference––alternating between attraction,
fear of abandonment, and rage––apparently as a an outgrowth of her
childhood molestation. Her dreams and waking fantasies
predictably ran the gamut from overidealizing me to wishing me dead.
Our work revolved around recovering an enduring sense of an inviolate
self in the context of healthy therapeutic boundaries, but also
included a focus on her emergent spirituality, as evidenced by dreams
that she related to me during our sessions. Toward the end of our work,
she had a dream of digging into a rubbish heap, and discovering a doll
at the bottom of the debris. As she held it, it suddenly came to life.
About that time, she also began to report having frequent dreams
about me, in which I would come into her bedroom at night, sit beside
her bed, and talk to her about my life and our respective struggles.
Finally, in a dream that clearly foreshadowed the termination of her
therapy, she dreamt that I appeared in her room dressed in armor,
saying that I was leaving for some distant crusade. She heard me say,
“I cannot promise you that I will not leave, only that I will return.”
This dream portrayed the end of our therapeutic relationship, as well
as a sense of healthy relational distance that had become increasingly
tolerable within the context of her emergent sense of self. She began
to attend church for the first time since childhood, and met a man whom
she subsequently married. Today, she is a licensed psychotherapist
working in hospice care.
In my experience, most of the significant
indications of the importance of the progressive triangle are
depicted in dreams. However, in a few rare instances, dramatic mutual
experiences of "presence" have occurred during the therapeutic
hour. I had been working with a 30-year-old man, who was addicted
to opiates, for over a year when the following event occured:
One day, when he was feeling particularly despondent, we were talking
about people who had experienced Christ's direct intervention in their
lives -- including Bill Wilson, the founder of AA. My client expressed
a hope that Jesus would intervene in his life, too, since his own
efforts had failed. As he talked on about his deep desire for such an
intervention, I found myself praying that his yearning would be
Suddenly, I was "struck" by what felt like a wave of
energy coming from my left . . . I continued to sit in silence, looking
at and listening to my client as usual, not knowing where this was
going to go. After a few moments, my client stopped talking in
mid-sentence, looked in the direction from which I had felt the wave of
energy come, and then said, "What's happening? Something's happening
here." Then a second, stronger wave hit and I felt almost overwhelmed
by it -- like I was becoming a child again, and overshadowed by someone
with tremendous power and love. I suggested that we close our eyes and
be still. As we did, I saw white light. The sense of radiance and love
lasted for several minutes. (Sparrow, 2003, p. 17-18)
When my client and I compared notes afterward, we
discovered that both of us had experienced the “wave of energy” and
palpable sense of presence, but only I had experienced the light. He
admitted that he had become frightened and had resisted the full impact
of the experience, much to his chagrin. This extraordinary, consensual
experience would be termed shaktipat (literally, descent of grace) in
the Hindu tradition, defined as an initiation in which the Guru
transmits spiritual energy to the seeker, thereby awakening the
recipient’s dormant kundalini, or life force (“Siddhayoga Glossary,”
2007). Similarly, it might be regarded as the descent of the Holy
Spirit in the Christian tradition, or of shekinah in Judaism–– defined
as “a light created to be an intermediary between God and the
world” (Blah & Kohler, 2007). Each tradition cited considers
the light as a mediator in a progressive spiritual triangle comprised
of seeker, God (or guru), and the light.
Of course, I hoped that it would cure my client of
his longstanding addiction, but what was still missing was the man's
openness and commitment to change. His fear was, as we realized later,
a function of the same defensiveness that kept him wedded to his
addiction. And so, while the experience did not precipitate an
immediate cure, the man drew sustenance from it until––when he was
finally ready––he entered rehab. He has since remained drug free for
over two years. Whenever I hear from him, he mentions the above
experience as a pivotal moment in his journey to recovery.
Broadening the concept of transference
When considered from the standpoint of classic
psychoanalytic theory, a client’s elevation of a therapist to the
position of spiritual mediator would represent an unambiguous example
of transference. Within this model, the therapist would represent a
stand-in for the client’s parents and internalized authority,
regardless of whether the client’s feelings toward the therapist were
spiritual, erotic, or angry. While contemporary psychoanalysts have
augmented this view with the egalitarian concept of “sibling
transference” to denote transference between equals (Coleman, 1996:
Moser, 2005), transference, in accord with Freud's original
formulation, still refers to earlier events and relational dynamics in
a person's life. "Freud rejected the notion outright: the unconscious
had (was) an 'arche,' not a 'telos.' It referred back to infanthood,
but not forward to maturity" (Homan, 1995, p. xxxvi). In contrast,
teleological theories posit an individuating (Jung, 1972 ) or
self-actualizing (Maslow, 1962; Rogers, 1961) impulse that has as its
ultimate aim the emergence of a complete self. Such systems
clearly anticipate the benefits of progressive triangulation in the
emergence of the whole person. Jung, in particular, acknowledged that
transference could be progressive or teleological as well as
The analytic process itself is unconsciously directed by the archetype
of individuation, the impulse to grow in psychological depth and
complexity, and is an inherent property of the self . . . Transference
thereby acquires a teleological dimension, the symbolic intent and
meaning of which is revealed and experienced as analysis unfolds; this
is its prospective aspect, in contrast to the regressive projection of
unconscious material from infantile or other past experience. (Mijolla,
Within a theoretical framework that includes a
prospective or teleological function, the elevation of the therapist to
the symbol of the client’s higher power could be seen as a function of
teleological transference, the resolution of which is the further
actualization of a client’s unrealized spiritual potentials. However,
therapists who accept the concepts of progressive triangulation and
teleological transference must remain vigilant in distinguishing
between a yearning for God and transference of the ordinary type.
Within such an expanded theoretical framework, transference may come to
be seen as an mixture of unresolved conflicts and unacknowledged
spiritual potentials that co-inhere within the same person.
Serving in such a mediating capacity requires the
utmost in integrity. Alan Jones says, “A true spiritual authority
leaves us thinking our own thoughts rather than merely mouthing his . .
. A true spiritual authority leaves us with our own work to do” (Jones,
1999). Of course, it is easy for a therapist to decline the role,
for it can be quite burdensome. Just as a therapist may reflexively
discourage a client’s romantic feelings, or react to a client’s anger
without regard how these emotions may support the therapeutic process,
it may seem prudent to refuse a client’s projection of spiritual
yearning, as well. It may require as much beneficence and integrity to
weather a projection of a client’s spiritual hunger as it does to deal
with a client’s romantic attraction or anger: In both instances, the
success of the therapeutic process depends on never taking the
projection personally, nor exploiting the power that it may bestow.
Further, when participating in a progressive triangle, it is essential
to treat the client as an equal in value if not in status, as
emphasized by Kopp, who asserts unequivocally, “I will not accept the
burdensome illusion that we are not the same” (1971; p. 96-97).
In some cases, it is certainly wise to disqualify
oneself from the mentoring/mediating role. For instance, a Catholic
woman who, with her husband, had been seeing me for marital problems,
asked me to become her spiritual mentor within the counseling
relationship. Knowing that she respected me for my books concerning
religious experiences (Sparrow, 1994, 1997, 2002, 2003), I might have
consented if I had been seeing her on an individual basis. But her
renunciate spirituality had kept her aloof from emotional and sexual
intimacy in her marriage, much to her husband's distress, and so I
respectfully declined. My acquiescence would have created a
non-therapeutic triangle weighted toward the wife’s presumed interests,
which would have surely alienated her husband.
In regard to those psychotherapeutic clients for
whom I accept the additional role of spiritual mentor, I consider it
important to discuss with them how spiritual mentoring relationships
have a long history in Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, and
that if the spiritual dimension of the relationship progresses as it
should, the mentee will eventually experience a more direct connection
with higher power. By keeping the client oriented to this goal, the
therapist-mentor can minimize the chances that the client will become
unduly attached to the mediator, or that either party will succumb to
the “burdensome illusion” (Kopp, 1971; p. 96-97) that they are not
Fortunately, there is a well-developed and emerging
tradition of spiritual mentoring in Christianity, especially in the
Catholic (Barry & Connolly, 1986) and Episcopalian churches
(Edwards, 1980, 2001; Guenther, 1992; Hart, 1980; Jones, 1999;
Leech, 2001). Further, recent works show an increasing ecumenical
flavor (Anderson & Reese,1999; Bakke, 2000; Bumpus & Langer,
2005). Therapists who are inclined to augment their practice with
spiritual mentoring will find that these authors exhibit a thorough
awareness of the relationship between psychotherapy and spiritual
mentoring and, without exception, advocate for their greater synthesis.
Citing the current deficiencies in the traditional pathology-oriented
field of mental health, Edwards says,
. . . lacking deep roots as a discipline in value
theory, as well as in community (as opposed exclusively to
intrapsychic) covenant, psychology is prone to certain blind spots that
point to the needs for the complementary art of spiritual direction.
(1980, p. )
Regardless of the authors’ backgrounds, they agree
on one thing in particular: The role of spiritual mentor confers no
particular power or advantage. Instead, the mentor offers himself or
herself as a spiritual friend or companion, who may differ from the
mentee in terms of experience, but not in stature or power.
Summary and Discussion
In systems-oriented family therapy, triangular
relationships are, by definition, dysfunctional. They develop whenever
a person feels unable or unwilling to engage another person directly,
and turns to a another for comfort and support. The concept of
progressive triangulation has heretofore been limited to the
therapeutic setting, in which the therapist facilitates a
reconciliation between the distanced parties. However, a clear case can
be that progressive triangulation arises naturally whenever an
individuals attempt to bridge the real or perceived gulf between
themselves and someone else––including one's higher power–– with the
help of an intermediary.
The significance of this relationship dynamic, from
the standpoint of the phenomenology of religion, is that it provides a
lens through which one may view the struggle of individuals to balance
their devotion between transcendent and immanent expressions of the
divine. By considering that triangles can promote or retard a person's
spiritual development––depending on the motives of both seeker and
mediator––one can remain sensitive to the way that the spiritual
journey can be furthered or arrested within the same relational dynamic.
Within the context of the psychotherapeutic
relationship, progressive triangulation provides a way to understand a
client's constructive impulse to search for a closer relationship with
higher power through the mediating agency of the therapist. By
embracing the teleological nature of this impulse, and abiding by the
requirements of a progressive triangle, therapists can participate in a
forward-looking emergence of the client's deeper relationship with
higher power, which may in turn accelerate the therapeutic
process. A psychotherapist who participates in a progressive
triangle may effectively harness the impulse of the client's spiritual
yearning as a way to recast the therapeutic endeavor, from an exclusive
healing of past and current wounds and conflicts, to a process that is
overshadowed by––and to some extent governed by––the client's spiritual
Triangles in the spiritual life resemble ordinary
relationship triangles except, perhaps, in one significant regard:
While ordinary dysfunctional triangles can ultimately be resolved by
having the distanced parties communicate and accept responsibility for
their respective contributions to the disengagement, triangles in the
spiritual life cannot be resolved as long as the transcendent “other”
remains remote from the seeker's experience. Because the experience of
the transcendent tends to be elusive regardless of one’s spiritual
tradition, mediators may continue to play an important role throughout
a seeker's life. Indeed, history reveals that the alternating focus
between a direct and mediated relationship with the divine represents a
timeless dialectic that cannot be resolved merely by rejecting one and
asserting the importance of the other.
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