Spiritual Depths of Admiration in Family Therapy: Grihasta-Family Life as a Spiritual Path
By Stuart Sovatsky, PhD
“Where man and woman worship one another is the play of the Divine”
The Indic view of family life as a spiritual path, as pravritti dharma (the way of thoughtful intentions) or grihasta (householder spiritual path), is a psychology of interpersonal reverence that has no analog in conventional psychology. Heavily influenced by the medical model of disease diagnosis and treatment, conventional psychology has focused upon etiology, pathology, developmental arrest, and treatment of disorders, including the so-called “dysfunctional family.” The realms of extraordinary well-being and the potential resources for their emergence have been studied by transpersonal psychology, but little elsewhere.
The question to be raised in this study is: What constitutes a clinical practice of interpersonal love (admiration, appreciation, gratitude, care) that can rise to the level of reverence, that is, of “spiritually potent” forms of love–those of extraordinary duration and positive impact in family life?
The Therapeutic Intervention: Background
The intervention to be described in this paper and demonstrated at the Karagpur Conference has been implemented successfully with over one thousand client families (including ten in India) over the past 28 years. I first employed it as the probation officer for a juvenile criminal being sentenced as he was casually handed a cigarette from his father. I merely asked the son to thank his father, which he did. Then, unexpectedly, the father began to cry, and then the son, apparently in the poignancy of the long-lost intimacy that just then emerged, triggered by the simple, respectful expression of thanks at this especially despairing time. Yet, without my suggestion to give thanks, this moment of intimacy seems unlikely to have occurred.
Drawing from the above-noted concept of on-going family life as a spiritual path, I further elaborated such “therapeutic gratitude” and its (now predictable) reverberating aftermath into a set of sustained, clinical interventions. I first suggest that a “thanks” be expressed for some simple action, e.g., coming to a therapy session to try to avert divorce and its destructive aftermath, the handing of a tissue to one another, an apology for an impulsively delivered insult. A tearfulness (however subtle, at first just a quivering or slight moistening of the eyes) ensues that startles one or more family members when it is pointed out. I then request that each family member look into the tearful eyes of the others to see “the effects” of the expressed and received appreciation. This, again, startles family members who are now literally seeing unsuspected depths of effect of the expressed thanks, or admiration (or apology, or forgiveness.) With the guidance of the therapist, this moment of unsuspected appreciation engenders further tearfulness, blushes, contrition, and even love, according to client reports.
My most dramatic test of this intervention was in using them with a group of war-torn Palestinians, Israelis, adult Nazi Holocaust survivors and adult offspring of Nazi officers who were seeking “reconciliation” with one another by meeting together for a weekend. Stunningly, it worked in this context, as well. (See Sovatsky, 1998, p. 63-64) Here, I was exploring the ancient concept of sanatana dharma, the eternal or original spiritual path of the whole of humanity as a singular family.
The history of families and perhaps even world history is in part determined by the degree to which these subtle, fleeting “spiritual sentiments” (“soteriological” or redemptive sentiments in the ancient Greek and Christian formulations, yama and niyama in the Yogic system) are brought forth into discourse and perception. Thus, they can be strengthened to become inspirations for dharmic or spiritual actions that shape the course of family or international futures.
For example, Milton Friedman, advisor to Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and President Jimmy Carter tells this story behind the Camp David Accord: Sadat, Begin and Carter are relaxing late in the evening at the serene Camp David after fruitless struggles to draft a cease-fire document that day. In a casually friendly way, the one man, then the others, opens his wallet to show each statesman pictures of his children and grandchildren. Friedman says they suddenly looked at one another, with a shock of tears and discovered the inspiration to draft the Accord that stunned the on-looking world. That such a poignant, emotional experience could be equal to the demands of war-torn countries seems implausible, but if this story is to be believed, we must wonder at the wisdom of the saints, rishis, yogis and others who have taught this way of spiritual “path” for thousands of years.
From an un- or under-acknowledged appreciation to an acknowledged one, then to the detailed tracing of its reverberations among family members, now generating new expressions of appreciation, admiration, compliments, shared intimate glances, smiles and blushes-this mere elaborated continuity in time is what the metaphor “path” refers to. It is fashioned into existence by, over and over again, calling attention to the subtle or dramatic fleeting emotional phenomenology noted above. Otherwise, moods of cynicism, vengefulness, resentment or despair predominate and swamp these more subtle shows of intimacy and hope, generating more actions of hopelessness and negativity.
For a “path,” a spiritual path (a dharma, an enobling way of life, or a Yoga, a method of Union), is merely a series of moments that goes somewhere beyond one’s current averaged view or horizon of credible, auspicious possibilities. Thus, it is based in a faith (shraddha) that such auspicious possibilities exist and can be gotten to with credible utterances, glances, shows of emotions, new actions, new plans, celebrated successes, etc.
In the beginning, it is the therapist’s faith and the client-families’ faith in the therapist’s skill. Then it becomes the convinced belief of family members, and then of the therapist in his or her future work. Thus, a virtual culture of spiritual possibilities enters history, as far as its practitioners are capable of fostering its powers into the wider and more treacherous world. Yet, as the doctrine of anicca (impermanence) teaches, each time these moods of hope and reconciliation are brought forth, it is only temporarily so. At any point, via choice or unskillfulness, detours off the spiritual path and onto those of vengefulness or despair can be taken into adharmic activity, requiring the reconciliations of apology and forgiveness, but also thereby inspiring admiration for the courage and commitment involved in so doing. Thus, Gandhi utilized shows of the inherent inhumanity (adharmic actions) of an aggressor to cause their own shameful collapse, instead of resorting to retaliations of further violence.
Yet, on the other hand, the traceable reverberations of appreciations triggered by previous appreciations now generating further and further appreciations suggests a potential endlessness of such reverberations, if one cares to perpetuate the next one, then the next. Such an infinitely sustainable reverberation of sentiments of love, admiration, inspiration, hopefulness would seem to be the hallmark of a “spiritual” path, that is, a path that taps perhaps inexhaustible reservoirs of well-intendedness, creativity, endearment, reconciliation. This infinity, no doubt, is what the image of a coiled serpent implies representing the primal creative force of Kundalini in Yoga.
A mundane path, by contrast, only goes a few steps onto this path, yielding (only) “ordinary” powers of these sentiments for an “ordinary amount” of time. Hardly a “path” at all, the family “goes” nowhere into these more enduring depths and experiences them perhaps only at sustained, dramatic events such as funeral eulogies, marriages, births, or other infrequent commemorative gatherings. Even clinical techniques of “positive inquiry” or “giving positive feedback” typically only go so far as one reverberation. Therapies that have emphasized “going with the process,” or “catharsis of pent-up feelings” do have their place, but without attention to the sentiments I noted above, they rarely lead to the path I now describe.
The simplicity of the intervention-where admiration and appreciation are exchanged in a reciprocating chain-reaction-belies the profundity of grihasta (or Gandhian satyagraha), what Heidegger esteemed as dasein, as human dwelling and creation of “care-structures.” This potentially endless circularity of appreciation also engenders a meditative singularity of attention (dharana) that is at the heart of bhakti (devotional love: love that persists on and on and on) and also of rasayana (the emotional poignancy of spiritual sentiments, of longing, hope, bliss, despair, etc. made into a sustained, Yogic practice.)
By involving sustained eye contact during the communications, drishti (reverential, meditative gazing) emerges and adds further intimacy and emotional depth to the experience. By describing one’s response to seeing tears of admiration or of being appreciated, the “talking cure” veers away from the medical-clinical model of diagnosis and symptom management toward poetically evocative family sharings.
Here, the therapist holds the role of interpersonal rishi, “seer” of the subtle spiritual phenomena of love: the blush of shyness at being appreciated, the flutter of eyes, the quiver of lips at being admired or having one’s admiration be so highly appreciated. The therapist becomes a poet or interpretive kavi for the family through his or her deft naming of an emergent “micro-world” of love and nourishing rapport that otherwise withers quickly (“aletheologically,” into concealment, as Heidegger would say) and thus inappreciable in mundane life.
Yet in this micro-world, the radiances of ojas, tejas, auras, and other such Yogic phenomena of rasayana, the spiritual maturation of emotions, become palpable. The endocrine secretions that correspond to these Yogic radiances are reabsorbed into the body as endogenous nutrients which “grow” a more “spiritual” body, capable of secreting these “more spiritual” secretions-spiritual in that they correspond “molecularly” to the felt-sense of the noble sentiments. This is the ancient “inner alchemy” of Yogic rasayana noted in the Vedas as ‘sacrificing a sacrifice into further sacrifices,” what Foucault noted as ars erotica (arts of love) yielding “an absolute mastery of the body, a singular bliss, obliviousness to time and limits, the elixir of life, the exile of death and its threats.” (Foucault, 1980, p. 58)
The therapist works to create or help manifest this subtle, ideal world of grihasta by guiding family members to seeing its impermanent phenomenology and helping them become equal to the requirements of ontological impermanence by putting new feelings of appreciation, apology, forgiveness, etc., into words, again and again. By becoming equal to these ontological requirements of temporal impermanence, family members “mature,” they become “equal to” time-passage, rather than being “victims” of their histories and of impermanence itself.
And perhaps there are biochemical correlates to these outer radiances and actions that indicate endocrinological transformations that are on par with those induced by modern psychopharmacological medications. Perhaps such sustained communications can therefore be said to be “equal in potency” to such medications, as well. Perhaps they are capable of replacing some medications in certain cases, depending on the skill of the therapist-kavi to keep the intervention going on and on and on and on and on with his or her words. Such glandular functioning is the physiological side of “character,” the focus of the first stages of Yoga, yama and niyama, and of rasayana and its inner alchemy of beatitudes, saintliness and immortality.
Perhaps only the prolongation of such experience (as dharana becomes dhayana, and dhyana becomes samadhi, via prolongation of the one into the next and the next) is necessary to engender ever-healthier biochemistries of lacrymose (tearful appreciation), salivary immunoglobin A (a possible cognate to legendary amrita or soma, known to correlate with saintliness) and the subtleties of auras, ojas, virya, and so on.
Thus, the significance of grihasta, the family as the intergenerational conduit of such sentiments into the world, as well as that of the vrata (vow-takers), monastics (nirvritti dharma, path of surrendered intentions) who also choose to sustain their lives day after day in ways that foment such maturation. Together, these two variant spiritual paths have been the spiritual legacy of India to the world.
The Intervention Described
One family member recalls several events in his or her life he or she is most proud of, taking care of a sick relative, completing a course of study, forgiving a transgression, standing up to an injustice. He or she describes these events in great detail, taking ten minutes to do so, as the others listen in. Then each family member tells the speaker how he or she was moved by the speaker, moved to sentiments of admiration, of inspiration, of gratitude, just by listening to the speaker’s stories. Each speaker is queried by the therapist so as to bring out three to five minutes (or more) of details and elaborations.
“What most struck you about what you heard?”
“What character trait does your Mother possess such that she did what she just described to you all?”
“In what ways were you inspired by what you just heard?”
“You say you never heard this beautiful story before. What positive difference might it have made in your family life if you had known about this story years ago, and had thus felt such admiration over the course of these many years?”
In the next step, the original speaker tells the family members how their voiced admirations of her caused any new feelings of pride or self-appreciation in him or herself. The therapist draws out the many details of these new experiences that typically include:
“I didn’t know I was that inspiring. I feel humbled and more appreciated than I ever thought.”
“You mean those glowing smiles and tears I see in my family members are about me? That is more than I ever expected.”
This step is brought forth for another ten minutes.
Then, the rest of the family is queried, “What is it like to hear how nourishing and uplifting your words of appreciation were to your [Mother, Brother, etc.]? What is it like to learn how nourishing you must be as a person to hear that you have had this effect on your [Mother, Brother, etc.]? All that you did is to convey your admiration and this is the result. This step is drawn forth for ten to twenty minutes.
The next step has the original speaker be asked by the therapist: “All you did was to listen to the admiration of your family and to tell them how it made you feel. Now you are learning that in telling them what it was like to receive their admiration, you have given them a deeper appreciation for how nourishing of a person each one is, to you and in him or herself, as well. What is it like finding out that you have helped them to each feel how much more nourishing his or her love is?
At this point, it is very difficult to discern who is “giving” and whom is “receiving” admiration-all feel to be in “it” together. But, the therapist can choose to continue to ask the family to tell the original speaker his or her thanks for what they are now receiving.
At this point, a “oneness of love,” as the interconnectivity of family membership, becomes plausible. A similar mood of “oneness” ensues when citizens of a nation transcend ordinary differences during a crisis to “selflessly” give aid to one another.
The therapist can also mobilize this mood of optimism and love and ask family members to apologize for something or to address some other pressing issue within the family. The family then proceeds to practice such communication at home, week after week, until it has become grihasta, a pathway of family life as a spiritual flow. The therapist helps the family to celebrate its successful, returning again and again to this subtle realm of fleeting emotions. He or she also traces past divergences from this path, rectifying them with apologies, forgiveness, missed admirations, necessary compromises and the defining of new intentions, and plans for the future.
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