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Psychotherapy and Religion: Constructing Meaning and Experiencing the Sacred

Maurício da Silva Neubern

University of Brasilia


This paper seeks to emphasize that the construction of subjective meaning is of great importance in psychotherapy for understanding the subject's experience of the sacred. At the same time, it emphasizes that the construction of subjective meaning is linked to the recognition of the specificity of religious experience as a field that should not be reduced to another field of knowledge, as traditionally occurs in different models of science and psychotherapeutic approaches. Through a clinical illustration, it emphasizes that understanding subjective meaning is fundamental to the possibilities of dialogue in the psychotherapeutic process, as well as the construction of a therapeutic context that qualifies the subject's resources. The paper concludes by highlighting the fruitfulness of the experience of the sacred in the construction of subjective meanings, dialog as a condition for access to the world of the other and the technical possibilities available to the subject, based on their system of beliefs and social practices, to deal with their own demands.

Keywords: subjective meaning; religion; psychotherapy.

Current psychotherapeutic practice, largely inspired by modernity (Santos, 2000), can be considered to have two major characteristics when it comes to the religious experience2 of individuals. On the one hand, it is common for the constructions of meaning developed by the subjects to be, in some way, stifled or excluded in the face of an established theory, since this refers to a field that has already been colonized and is supposedly known by scientific rationality. For psychotherapists, what is seen as "communication with the spiritual world" may be the manifestation of some unconscious power (Mijolla, 1981), a dissociative disorder or multiple personality (Hacking, 2001), or even the expression of a certain discourse in a specific social network (Cerqueira-Santos, Koller & Pereira, 2004). As with other demands (Gergen & Kaye, 1998; Neubern, 2005), the subject's religious experience is replaced by some central notion of the psychologist's or therapist's theoretical system, which starts to generate meanings for them, to the detriment of what it actually means for the protagonists themselves. Under the auspices of individualistic, naturalistic, pathological and deterministic notions, the subject's own construction of meaning is mischaracterized and, as a result, remains unknown.

On the other side of the coin, this reductionist tendency implies not recognizing the ontological status of religious experience, that is, a specific experience with its own characteristics that is not reduced to other dimensions, be they psychological, social or cultural, despite having close relations with them (Carvalho, 1994). To explain such an experience, psychologists and their colleagues in science often resort to another field, such as genes and the brain (Rose, 2006), mythology (Nathan, 1999), language (Quintana, 1999) or a transcendent desire (Freud, 1927/1997), without seeking an understanding of the religious field itself, with its own characteristics.

From the perspective of this work, although religion has practices and social relations in a community or institution that share a system of beliefs, what defines it as a distinct subjective field is the experience of the sacred (Otto, 1917/2007), that is, what is defined by a tradition and by the subject as divine, which refers to a subjective experience that cannot be grasped in words, but remains in the sphere of the unspeakable within a system of beliefs or a culture. Although it is situated in a sphere deeply linked to the emotional (James, 1902/1987), this experience can generate meanings and senses, but remains inexhaustible, so that if it were absorbed or defined by words it would simply cease to exist.

Most often temporary3, it is not restricted to ethics or morality, despite its relationship with them, and commonly results in sensations described in terms of peace, wholeness and plenitude, which place the subject in a different perspective of understanding time, space and their destiny, in a happiness and bodily pleasure that seem to break with current circumstances (Eliade, 1965). It is also common to advocate communion with a higher spiritual power that is at the origin of things and the world and, beyond the typical limitations of the human world, offers the subject a distinct possibility of understanding recurring existential themes in people's lives, such as suffering, life, death, work and the other (Eliade, 1969; Otto, 1917/2007).

It is not without reason that its occurrence is linked to processes of religious conversion or radical life changes (James, 1902/1987). In this sense, it is worth noting that it is not uncommon for the religious experience to have marked therapeutic relationships through a considerable distance between its protagonists. The persistent tendency to translate what is happening to the other person without the proper reception usually puts psychotherapists far from what would be coherent in the search for a productive dialog in terms of change. Since psychotherapists don't recognize the experience of their subjects as a field that isn't limited to their theoretical contributions, it becomes difficult to gain a broader understanding of it, of the realities it constructs in their clients' daily lives, of the characters who inhabit it and how they occupy their positions, of what contact with the sacred is and, in a word, of the possibilities of meaning that arise from it.

In this way, even promising trends such as those brought forward by Lax (1997) and Anderson (1997) can be compromised, since the possibilities for conversation and dialogue can be significantly restricted if the existence of religious experience as a specific field of subjectivation is not recognized. It is worth questioning how far a conversation with a subject could go if, in the dialogue with themselves (Andersen, 1996), the therapist remains attached to some dominant conception of modern thought, where religion is an illusion or a by-product of some already colonized field.

Given the above, the aim of this paper is to highlight that the construction of subjective meaning4 (Gonzalez Rey, 2005, 2007) is of great importance for understanding the experience of the sacred (Otto, 1917/2007) in psychotherapy, since it does not reduce it to some previous field of knowledge, but seeks to understand how the subject experiences this experience in symbolic and emotional terms. Without pretending to try to explain the experience of the sacred, this raises the possibility of establishing a dialog on themes that often remain silent in the therapeutic relationship, despite their importance in the lives of clients, such as communication with the spiritual world, the impact of these contacts, the beings with whom they interact, the messages that are transmitted.

At the same time, the aim is to show that the subjective meaning of religious experience is also pertinent because it combines in a complex way (Neubern, 2004) the subjectivation of social, historical, cultural and institutional processes that also permeate this experience. This discussion will be developed through a brief clinical illustration of a young woman who asked for help with mediumistic and psychological problems.

Mariana, 30 years old

Mariana arrived at the author's office complaining of various things. She said she was depressed and claimed she really needed help, but she was afraid of not being understood because her previous therapeutic relationships had failed. Her therapists didn't respect her beliefs. She also said she had problems with her mediumship, as it was a door that made her more vulnerable and sensitive to suffering. In addition, she had developed a very intense sexual compulsion that caused her considerable suffering, mainly due to recent homosexual experiences.

As the youngest of four siblings, Mariana sometimes felt inferior in her family, as her skin was darker than the others', who were very fair and green-eyed. However, her mediumship gave her a prominent role in her social networks, especially in her spiritualist center, where she considered herself to have a mission to accomplish with this gift. Recently divorced, she had a five-year-old daughter and was very concerned about the examples she would set for her.

Dialogue and Meaning

As soon as she arrived at the doctor's office, Mariana put it this way:

I came to you because I think you can understand me and because I also really need help. My other attempts at therapy were unsuccessful. In one of them, the guy kept telling me to make diaries and write things down; in another, he wanted to indoctrinate me, because he was also a Spiritist; and a third time, he didn't understand me, because he said that Friar Giuseppe was an image of my unconscious - the archetype of the sage. For me, he's a person like you or me, only without the physical body. So, having seen your talk, I think you can really understand what happens to me. You seemed to have a sensitivity to the subject, a respect for it.

The passage above refers to the problem of the possibilities of dialog, which has been a recurring theme in recent decades in reflections on human relationships in the clinical context, particularly in psychotherapy. In general terms, the criticism of different authors (Anderson, 1997; Anderson & Goolishian, 1998; Gergen & Kaye, 1998; Gonzalez Rey, 2007; Neubern, 2004) lies in the tendency of therapists to reduce their clients' constructions to a priori categories and theoretical schemes of some theory established by the scientific community.

The perspective, inspired by the modern impetus, of a more legitimate and sometimes truer or more reliable knowledge than the others, ends up leading the psychotherapist to despise the other forms of narrative about the world in order to reduce them to a field in which he himself is the expert and the client has little to collaborate. This hierarchy, backed up by a supposed narrative superiority, very often translates clients' narratives that refer to religious themes into unconscious, sexual and oedipal processes, neurophysiological processes, disorders and psychopathological conditions, power relations in the social game or cognitive schemes that, in general, have little of the spiritual content that their protagonists have.

lhe atribuem 5.

From a clinical perspective, Mariana's story brings up the issue of misunderstanding, characterized by barriers that made productive therapeutic relationships unfeasible on several occasions. For her, it was of considerable importance that her perspectives were accepted, that her thoughts were understood and her beliefs respected, which in fact did not happen, as she perceived that her psychotherapists did not listen to her, but rather sought to engage her in certain therapeutic practices without showing any interest in her narratives or subtly offering her a more scientific way of understanding her problem. Here we necessarily come up against the problem of subjective meaning and its primordial importance for therapeutic processes involving demands linked to religious experiences. It is therefore important that understanding subjective meaning involves not only a theoretical conception, but also a subjective disposition on the part of the psychotherapist to allow it to emerge in the relationship with the client. One of the first points that stands out from this perspective is the need for self-questioning on the part of the psychotherapist, even when faced with beliefs that differ from their own about life, existence and the world, or simply about religion.

It is difficult for a psychotherapist to make himself available to understand the other person if he is too attached to his own theories, conceiving of them as exclusive narratives for understanding the issues brought up (Andersen, 1996). At the same time, they cannot abandon their theoretical conceptions altogether, because it is from these that certain processes emerge during a therapeutic relationship. This dilemma between apparently antagonistic needs puts him in the position of being two-fold in order to exercise his métier. On the one hand, especially when dealing with the subject, he needs to immerse himself in the other person's scenario, let himself be invaded by them and try to understand them from their own perspective.

For Mariana, Friar Giuseppe was a guardian spirit and not an image or a hallucination, and it was important that he was seen in this way. In this attitude, rushing to a conclusion is generally not welcome, as the psychotherapist must always be interested in knowing a little more, in other words, in trying to access what realities are generated from this figure, what impacts it has on her life, on her relationship with the sacred, with others, in short, what meanings are created from the relationship between it and the client. Being available for a sincere and interested understanding of the other person, considering what they say as something important to be taken into account and understanding that this is the reality constructed by the subject, are some of the attitudes with which the psychotherapist must enter the context of the dialogue (Andersen, 1997; Anderson & Goolishian, 1998).

Thus, when the author became interested in knowing who Friar Giuseppe was and what he said about the client, as well as about therapy itself, in other words, when he recognized him according to the client's own beliefs and meanings, it was possible to perceive a more intense bond in the therapeutic relationship, a feeling of complicity that was shared and recognized between these two people who met to discuss topics that were as delicate as they were important. This is perhaps where Mariana's idea of sensitivity and respect for a good therapeutic relationship comes from. On the other hand, in order to be able to theorize, it is up to the psychotherapist to reflect deeply on the role of theory in this practice, which is not always an easy task, since it requires a skill - knowing how to think (Demo, 2000) - that is not always easy to acquire.

Thus, even if she considered Mariana's protective spirit as an image, her theoretical construction had to focus on the complex articulation of subjective processes present in the relationship with this figure, aiming to understand how beliefs were articulated with her emotional processes both in her history and in her social action (Gonzalez Rey, 2007). The construction of meaning around how Friar Giuseppe appeared to Mariana therefore involves the subjective integration of social and family processes and events (Anderson & Goolishian, 1998; Gonzalez Rey, 2005), her belief system (Morin, 1991; Neubern, 2004) and her own participation as an active character in her life (Morin, 1994): he appeared to Mariana from childhood, in difficult or pleasurable moments, and always played the role of someone who cares, protects and advises. Through his interventions in mediumistic trances or dreams, she was able to gain an understanding of her past lives in which significant people from the present day appeared and events that were very much connected to her current situation. And although he didn't manifest often, he used to appear to her at the most crucial and important moments, such as her mediumistic crises, her wedding, her graduation and the birth of her daughter.

In this way, by sketching a brief understanding of how this figure made sense to Mariana, it is possible to consider that Friar Giuseppe was a superior figure, within her spiritist beliefs, deeply connected to the experience of the sacred and, at the same time, someone who played a paternal and caring role. She herself considered that, as her earthly father was problematic and absent, she needed the figure of her mentor so that she could get support and understanding in important life situations. In addition, it was he who opened the doors to something very important to her - the spiritual world - placing himself as a guide who would direct and instruct her in this complex universe. His magical interventions also opened up the prospect of associating a belief of her religion - past lives - with her current world, its characters, relationships and events.

In short, he was a central figure in her life, a person who occupied the position of caregiver, advisor, sage, father and gateway to the spiritual world, the position of someone who had known her for many centuries, which brought up emotions of intimacy, gratitude, love, affection and duty. It's not without reason that her conflicts were very intense, since her sexual behavior at the time seemed to confront the meanings attached to this mentor in her life, so that at the most critical moments, Friar Giuseppe came to signify her failure and ruin in the face of her spiritual mission.

What this perspective points to is the importance of theory seeking to offer conditions for articulating the various facets of processes that make up the construction of the subject's subjective meanings (Gonzalez Rey, 2007). In the position adopted here, this goal is much more interesting than trying to describe the patterns and mechanisms of the sacred experience. However, in terms of psychotherapy, attention must be paid to the way in which theories are subjectivized in the relationship, because the fundamental role of theory in these cases is not to suffice in itself, but to serve as a reference for the therapeutic process to deepen and develop. If theory occupies a position similar to that of a backdrop, and not that of an ultimate level to which information from the empirical world must be transposed, the therapist's task of understanding the various articulations present in the client's construction of meaning becomes possible. What appears before them is the client with the richness of their subjective universe and not the obligation to obey a reified entity, in order to encourage the construction of a bond in which access to the other is possible.

However, it is important to emphasize that this acceptance of the other also brings up the need for a reflective process on the part of the psychotherapist, mainly due to the impact that issues related to religion tend to have. It's perfectly possible for psychotherapists to feel uncomfortable, create prejudices, reject their clients and become distressed in their relationship with them, not least because their training, which is permeated by the historical battle between science and religion, doesn't always adequately prepare them to deal with such circumstances.

However, these processes must be conceived as "organic" parts of the human relationship and reversed in favor of the continuity of dialogue through reflective processes that transform discomfort into the possibility of asking questions and understanding the other (Andersen, 1996; Anderson & Goolishian, 1998).

The problem, then, is not one of having or not having prejudices, but of knowing what the prejudices are and how they can be used to create new questions and maintain the respect and consideration typical of the context of dialogue. This inevitably leads the psychotherapist to a transformation, since it is not only the client's ideas, emotions and meanings that change in a relational process of this nature.

After all, it is not by dogmatically clinging to one's own ideas that the therapeutic relationship fulfills its objectives, but by adopting a stance that allows for the possibility of them changing.


Experiencing the Sacred

On one occasion, Mariana recounted an experience with her mentor in the following terms:

There was a time when I was really bad, really depressed about it all. I was ashamed of Friar Giuseppe, because he knows about my situation. But I gave in and called out to him (...) I said a fervent prayer and called out to him. He appeared and stroked my hair (...) he had a beautiful, fatherly smile (...) he never judged me. I felt a kind of peace that I've never felt before. It was as if I had stopped struggling in the mud and someone had lifted me up and said: 'Look how small all this is'. I felt something so good, so full, so peaceful that I fell into a deep, gentle sleep after three nights of not being able to sleep properly. Much of what has been discussed so far is applicable to the various demands of psychotherapy in general, without there being a specific need to discuss in more depth what drives a person to seek help. With regard to religion, it is important to note that the construction of meaning is, above all, complex, as it can be permeated by several dimensions at the same time (Neubern, 2004).

Com Mariana, por exemplo, os significados sobre a mediunidade foram revestidos de vários processos, pois lhe conferiam um poder diante da fragilidade com que encarava a própria imagem; uma condição especial diante de seu sentimento de inferioridade (principalmente devido à cor da pele); e uma possibilidade de inserção na rede social privilegiada, pois todos recorriam a ela para alguma orientação, cuidado ou benefício. As suas reminiscências de vidas passadas davam-lhe mesmo uma explicação da sua vida, incluindo as suas principais dificuldades de relacionamento familiar: os seus problemas sexuais desde a infância remetiam para o seu passado em França, onde tinha desviado sexualmente muitos jovens. Isso deu-lhe uma compreensão particular e lógica da sua vida atual, onde localizou os seus antigos cúmplices (agora seu pai e irmãos), e também lhe permitiu conceber que a mediunidade lhe conferia novamente uma condição de poder que, desta vez, deveria ser usada para conduzir as pessoas ao bem.

The passage above from Mariana is very significant in terms of the construction of meaning and how the experience of the sacred, while contributing to her conflicts, also offers possibilities for shaping them differently. At the time she recounted this passage, she was still in a situation characterized by a very sharp separation between two important facets of her life: on the one hand, there was her socially accepted life, marked by an image as a mother, professional and medium with a mission in Spiritism; on the other hand, there was her troubled, hidden and marginal sex life, with various practices that were reprehensible to her beliefs and her social network. In the presence of any character belonging to the accepted world, the dominant sense was one of shame and humiliation, as she herself reported in front of the figure of her spiritual mentor, so that even though this figure made no mention of judging her, Mariana felt condemned in front of his gaze.

As the impasse was not resolved according to her expectations, in terms of being able to live only one of these sides, her suffering was intense and, in her reflections in her more introspective moments, her problem acquired the sense of something unsolvable, of a situation with no way out. However, when she reached a critical point in her suffering, Mariana decided to resort to a typical feature of her religion - prayer - calling on a protective figure, of whom she felt extremely ashamed - her mentor. This practice, which evoked an experience of the sacred, gave her a different perspective, bringing her the sensation of being taken out of the middle of an unsolvable conflict to be placed in an angle that opened up the possibility of giving a different emotional intensity to the dilemmas in which she lived. The impact of such an experience was considerable in many ways in terms of her constructions of meaning about her situation.

At first, the spatial displacement seems to suggest to her the idea that the problem can, in fact, be seen differently, that is, from a higher (spiritual) perspective that will help her to give value in her life to what she really deserves. As she seems to be going to a different place, there is also a temporal consequence in that her situation doesn't seem to be unsolvable at the moment, but could be in the future. Then there is the idea that the figure she was ashamed of is the one who gives her these possibilities, which opens up the prospect of using this resource other times. In short, the experience of the sacred, although not yet perceived as the beginning of a change, begins to infiltrate new meanings into the complex sense of impossibility and shame experienced by the client. A few points stand out with regard to the necessary reception of this type of experience.

First of all, it is important that the psychotherapist learns to recognize it in its specificity as a possibility that is present, but not obligatory, for the clients who seek their help. This shouldn't mean that he or she takes an obsessive stance when looking for it, but simply creates the conditions for it to arise, especially if it is related to the subject's demands. Thus, a mediumistic trance, a Catholic ritual or even a prayer are not necessarily involved with the sacred experience, because they can consist of mechanical practices configured much more with the social exchanges of their contexts than with the subject's receptivity to an encounter with the divine. In the experience of the sacred there is something that is not defined, perhaps because it is irrational, as Otto (1917/2007) would say, and yet it is full of an organizing power capable of having a profound impact on the subject's life.

This something beyond, associated with the feeling of the divine (James, 1902/1987), overwhelms the subject with a sense of peace that seems to transport them to another place from where they sometimes emerge renewed. In Mariana's account, this experience showed itself in the following way: instead of being judged, as she had expected, she felt welcomed and protected by this greater force that seemed to lay her down in another sphere from where she could comfortably appreciate the smallness of her daily problems and worries, resulting in significant changes in her body (relaxation and sleep, which had previously been difficult), as well as in the configurations of her problems. It's interesting to note that at the time the experience took place, the client still didn't seem to be very aware of the possible directions her process would take, but only rejoiced in the relief it gave her.

However, this account contains suggestions of quite significant changes that had a profound impact on her subsequent process of change, such as: that it was possible to achieve contact with the sacred, despite conflicts and shame; that it was possible to receive support and understanding from her mentor; that she could learn to value what really deserves to be valued (i.e. her spirituality), seeing things from a different angle. Although Mariana didn't yet realize it, this experience called upon a series of resources and processes rooted in her history and subjectivity (beliefs, practices and her spiritual mission) with which she needed to develop a kind of reconciliation in order to resolve her problems.

From the perspective adopted here, it is considered that the psychotherapist comes into contact with this enchanted and, in a way, absolute universe inhabited by gods and spiritual beings and can gain a more precise idea of how they act, transform and relate to their client's life (Akstein, 1972; Erickson & Rossi, 1979; Nathan, 1999). By understanding the place of these characters and powers, as well as their emotional implications in the subject's life, the psychotherapist can both construct their own meanings about the sacred, based on their theoretical frameworks and experience, and develop the posture of acceptance and sensitivity so demanded by clients who have a religious experience. Such a stance does not imply dissolving the psychotherapist's theoretical references in the client's beliefs (which would be the elimination of psychotherapy), but rather a pragmatic attitude in which theory works to articulate the processes that originate from the experience of the sacred.

Building the therapeutic context

In view of the above, Mariana's therapeutic process faced an unavoidable clinical problem. The experience with her mentor had triggered significant possibilities for change and they needed to be embraced if they were to continue to be effective. At the same time as it was important for her to believe that something new was happening, it was necessary for the author to recognize and qualify the resources and processes she evoked in terms of their therapeutic potential. However, at this point there is a fairly common difficulty regarding the use of techniques and the role of the psychotherapist. It is not uncommon that, in different clinical demands, a tendency to universalize the therapeutic setting prevents the subject from entering it with their legitimate meanings, which end up being replaced by established narratives in a particular psychotherapy community (Gergen & Kaye, 1998).

This is how, roughly speaking, marital conflict motivated by financial reasons can be transformed into an unresolved oedipal conflict with the mother, or depression due to unemployment can be seen as the result of oppression from the social world. With regard to the demands linked to religious experience, there is yet another facet of the problem in which the psychotherapist is afraid and hesitant to deal with this universe, as if any dialog with them could take them out of the role of therapist and link them to the role of shaman or spiritual leader. In this sense, Aponte (1996) reports the curious situation in which religious leaders refer certain demands to psychotherapy, at the same time as psychotherapists refer the same demands to religious help without assuming any accompaniment or psychotherapy for these people. It is not uncommon for psychotherapists to show embarrassment and unease in the face of spiritual practices, either not knowing how to use them in favor of the therapeutic process, or replacing them with traditional psychotherapy techniques, because these are already known, supported and supposedly superior, and their use ensures that they remain psychotherapists and are not mistaken for sorcerers.

Despite the dilemmas that exist in psychology as a science and profession (Figueiredo, 1996), the rigid and narrow stance with which the subject of religion has traditionally been dealt with in psychotherapy leads the psychotherapist to be very selective about the subject's processes, to a stance of exclusion in terms of their subjectivity, which can even compromise the progress of the therapeutic process. Faced with this dilemma, some considerations are necessary, since the psychotherapist must not abdicate their role in order for therapy to take place, but neither should they exclude the therapeutic possibilities brought up by the client. Firstly, in addition to an intense questioning of the technical liturgy, with the concomitant possibility of diversifying technical resources, the psychotherapist must be focused on reconstructing the subject's meanings.

He must create strategies for the client to return to his own universe (his internal and social subjective resources, his practices, his beliefs, his social network) and from there reconstruct his configurations of subjective meaning. As a large part of subjective suffering is linked to internal and external relationships in the client's subjectivity, the therapist temporarily takes on the role of a disrupter, an agent who produces disorganizations in the client's belief systems and social exchanges, so that new relationships emerge in these systems and solutions are created.

The role of spiritual advisor, guide, priest, father-of-saint should therefore be taken on by someone in the client's social network, so that, if necessary, the psychotherapist should work to find someone who can take on this role (Nathan, 1999).

In this condition, the psychotherapist can immerse himself in the subject's universe and from there use his resources in favor of the process of change (Erickson, 1952; Erikcson & Rossi, 1979). Aware that he is an outsider, he knows that he will enter this world temporarily and, with a few specific actions, he will bring about changes in the subject's relationship with gods, spiritual beings, powers, beliefs and other social actors so that the system itself is reorganized again.

At the same time, he needs to recognize these characters and powers, contact them, negotiate with them and, if possible, use their participation in favor of the therapy (Akstein, 1972; Richepport, 1994). Thus, he shouldn't prescribe communion for the subject so that he can be a good Catholic, but he can prescribe it, as in the prescription of tasks (De Shazer, 1989) so that he himself can examine the meaning of his faith in Catholicism; he shouldn't offer to perform spiritist disobsession in his office, but he can propose a role-play so that the subject himself can observe and represent how his relationships with the spirits and the people in his network are (Neubern, 2004); they shouldn't try to convert the subject to a particular religion, but if there is a need to do so, they can prescribe that they try to find one that gives meaning to their life; they can't propose a prayer ritual to fulfill a spiritual obligation, but they can propose it so that it triggers therapeutic processes that the subject is often unaware of, but which may be important for their psychotherapy. Therefore, he can stimulate, provoke and put the subject in touch with the wealth of subjective processes brought about by religious experience, which has its own technical apparatus.

In this sense, the most decisive moment of Mariana's psychotherapy was actually born out of the impasse she was experiencing: she couldn't choose one of the options that were, in themselves, incompatible in her belief system. Her spiritual mission could not coexist with the disorganization of her compulsive sexuality and all the feelings of guilt, humiliation and shame it caused her. She then approached the author claiming that the time had come to make a choice about her spiritual mission, because until now, despite occasionally feeling some relief, she felt that her suffering was intense and her situation had not changed significantly. Faced with this request, deeply permeated by emotional intensity, the author realized that it was time to use his experiences with the sacred as a powerful lever for change, especially given the privileged space it occupied in the client's life. This would happen in two ways: firstly as a re-contract, as a form of reconciliation with this power, a new way of relating to it; and, based on this experience, a series of measures aimed at breaking with the patterns of sexual compulsion.

Following the thinking of certain authors, such as those on sexual compulsion (Neubern, 2004) and alcoholism (Frankl, 1988), the author saw the experience with the sacred as the pivot for a reconstruction of various processes in her life, as well as a way of breaking away from the compulsive patterns imposed on the client. Thus, in order for the recontract to be effective, the author knew that it was necessary for the client to make herself subjectively available for it, in other words, available for a process of profound change in her life that would require a lot of commitment. He then told her that she was trapped in a dilemma with very powerful forces - sexuality and spirituality - and that she would therefore need shock therapy if her request was to be met. If she was willing, she should come back in three days and accept whatever the author proposed.

Even though the author said he accepted the proposal at the time, he dismissed her and asked her to think about it, returning only on the third day. On the appointed date, he offered her a hypnotic trance (Erickson, 1952), a familiar and useful procedure, and suggested that she see the important people in her life and talk to each of them about how she felt about her conflict and what she wanted to change. One by one, the most important figures in her network emerged: her father, her mother, her daughter, her leader at the center and, finally, Friar Giuseppe. In front of the first figure, her daughter, she burst into tears and said that it was very difficult to do; but then she was able to comply with the procedure so that, in front of each figure, she made a commitment to carry out her spiritual mission and abandon her compulsive sexual behaviors. And, in front of Friar Giuseppe's vision, she reported:

He's standing in front of me, smiling as always.

He listens to me carefully and says that he's been waiting for this decision for a long time (...) he also says that I've always had help and it's not now that help will be lacking. It's funny now (...) I see myself as a child going to his lap (...) he hugs me and strokes my hair (...) I feel a great peace again (tears) it's something very special (...) he says we can count on him.

Far from being a mechanical stage in a therapeutic process, this event was a kind of watershed for Mariana, as well as for her psychotherapist. Constructed by hand and taking into account, above all, the meaning of mediumship in the client's life - a spiritual mission - this moment meant a rebirth for her in terms of her commitment to this mission and, consequently, a series of reformulations demanded by it. Two points are worth highlighting here. On the one hand, the impact of the experience was made possible by a procedure very similar to baptism or early Christian conversion, in which the subject confessed their sins in public, underwent the ritual and assumed a new posture, sometimes even changing their name.

Even though it was an imaginary situation created by hypnosis, Mariana, perhaps for the first time, was able to openly admit her sexual problems to the significant people in her life and commit to them to adopt a lifestyle that was more in line with what was right for her. This allowed her to break out of her isolation, because when she was experiencing her problems she tried to cut off any connection with others, and to amplify this emotional channel with people who had great value in her life and could provide important resources for her process of change. Even if these people hadn't been consciously involved, they were already part of Mariana's problem and could now help to build solutions. The second point, deeply integrated with the first, refers to reconciliation with a very important dimension of her life - her spiritual mission. Mariana had felt a deep conflict in recent years, as ever since she was a little girl she had heard about a spiritual mission to be fulfilled through her mediumship, which was not compatible with what she herself called "sexual deviance". There was, therefore, a dimension of her life that she didn't relate to well, a dimension that was important and occupied a privileged place, but with which she couldn't connect without conflict, since sexual desire led her in an antagonistic direction.

It's quite significant that Friar Giuseppe was Mariana's last vision: after putting her life on the line in front of important witnesses from her social network, referred to by the author as 'guarantors', the representative of the sacred appeared, the one who inserted her into the universe of that experience beyond words. But what is most significant for the process is that this experience had always taken place a long time ago, but in a condition where the client received its benefits and influence, but couldn't feel entitled to belong to it. Now, it was she, Mariana, who sought her out, with the willingness to put her in her rightful place and the possibility of feeling that she belonged to this greater mission in a more whole and complete way. It's curious to note that after seeing her own image as a little girl being taken in by the figure of her mentor, the client recounted various memories of the kindly friar taking care of her as a child, as if she could review the place of this figure in her life.

In fact, building a therapeutic context with clients who have religious experiences requires that if the client chooses them as a central dimension in their life, this dimension must also be recognized in its importance by the psychotherapist who, within their professional role and personal condition, can make it a powerful instrument for change. After this episode, Mariana put an end to her "sexual rampages", but she also continued with her daily problems with her family, her girl, her work, so that she didn't stop being irritable about the procedures that prevented her from mastering the sexual impulse, requiring great effort to comply with them. However, the constant work through self-hypnosis, encouraged by her psychotherapy, or the trances at her spiritualist center provided her with the conditions to deal with her problems, her spiritual project (her mission) and also to open up other perspectives of meaning for her own life. As this dimension had been recognized and valued, psychotherapy became a space where Mariana could reconstruct meaning in her life, occupy new positions in her fields of social action and overcome her dilemma.


There are circumstances and events in religious experience that science is at a loss for words to deal with, either because of their complexity or because they are outside the scope of this branch of knowledge (Morin, 1991). When they do occur, there is really nothing left to say in terms of trying to explain them within the framework of modern rationality, since scientific and, more specifically, psychological knowledge has its limits and it is important for psychotherapists to be aware of them at the risk of compromising their work. However, despite the fact that such an endeavor is not possible, it is possible to engage in dialogue with the subjects in order to get to know the realities, that is, the construction of meanings, which are created in subjectivity from these experiences (James, 1902/1987). Here, of course, the psychologist has something to say and the psychotherapist something to propose when the subject brings them a demand that is permeated by religious experiences and, even more so, sacred experiences. It is necessary, therefore, to recognize religious experience as a separate field, specific and with its own characteristics which, even though it escapes explanatory and rational reach (Otto, 1917/2007), is a focus that generates fundamental meanings in the lives of many people.

Explaining what Friar Giuseppe would be like was not important to Mariana, who was much more concerned with the feelings of shame she felt in front of him about her sexual behavior.

If the author didn't recognize these configurations and their implications for the client's life, it would be impossible to establish a therapeutic process based on understanding their meanings and engaging in dialogue about them (Anderson, 1997; Erickson & Rossi, 1979; Gonzalez Rey, 2007). In other words, dialogue does not consist of a mere exchange of words, but of a stance that is willing to recognize and consider what is happening to the other person in their unique world, the role they play in that world, the stories they tell and the beings they interact with, no matter how bizarre, distant or irrational it may seem. Such a deep consideration of the other present allows the psychotherapist to get in touch with the experience of the sacred, always seeking to know more about how it is situated by the subject, as opposed to the fear that excludes it from the conversation or reduces it to some place that is safe, but distant and unproductive. Perhaps only then does the psychotherapist have the authority to conceive what the client's senses are, since they have been introduced to this world of such richness and complexity.

Finally, it is worth highlighting an important aspect with regard to the technical dimension, which is commonly conceived as the exclusive tool of the psychotherapist who has acquired it as a specialist. What was raised here was that people who have religious experiences are often endowed with great possibilities of personal and social resources, which can be considered a distinct form of technique (Akstein, 1972; Erickson, 1958; Nathan, 1999), as was the case with the prayer and trance used by Mariana. As the therapist delves deeper into the subject's belief system and social practices, as well as their constructions of meaning, they realize that they can trigger significant changes through a diversity of resources that the subject already has, but perhaps has not yet created the conditions to make better use of them or even assign them another value. This is how it becomes possible for the therapist to make change possible through the subject's own techniques, as they know them deeply, share them in their social network and, if they don't have the necessary mastery to use them correctly, have someone in their relationships who can fulfill this role. In this case, it is important that the therapist is imbued with the idea that he or she does not become the specialist of that particular culture, but the external provocateur who does not give up on maintaining his or her proposal for psychotherapy.


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Received: 03/08/2009

                                                                                                                                                 Last revision: 26/04/2010

Final acceptance: 03/05/2010



1 This article is the result of the author's research project, entitled "Subjectivity, Pain and Hypnosis: The Construction of the Therapeutic Context", funded by the University Center of Brasília (UniCeub) and registered with CONEP (National Research Ethics Council) of the Ministry of Health.

2 The term religious experience will be taken here as the subjectivation of various processes that make it up in its complexity: social, cultural, institutional, economic, etc. Among these processes there is also the experience of the sacred (Otto, 1917/2007), which refers to the experience of what is considered sacred or divine by the subject in their belief system.

3 The term religious experience will be taken here as the subjectivation of various processes that make it up in its complexity: social, cultural, institutional, economic, etc. Among these processes there is also the experience of the sacred (Otto, 1917/2007), which refers to the experience of what is considered sacred or divine by the subject in their belief system.

4 The term religious experience will be taken here as the subjectivation of various processes that make it up in its complexity: social, cultural, institutional, economic, etc. Among these processes there is also the experience of the sacred (Otto, 1917/2007), which refers to the experience of what is considered sacred or divine by the subject in their belief system.

5 The term religious experience will be taken here as the subjectivation of various processes that make it up in its complexity: social, cultural, institutional, economic, etc. Among these processes there is also the experience of the sacred (Otto, 1917/2007), which refers to the experience of what is considered sacred or divine by the subject in their belief system.

6 His belief system allows for a comparison with the systems studied by Tobie Nathan (1999), which always include the place of the other in the dramas of the subject's life and break with the solitary perspective of modern systems, where causality is associated with some impersonal entity, such as genetics, the brain or the psyche.

7 These instructions, respecting their belief system, were developed according to some authors already mentioned (Erickson & Rossi, 1979; Neubern, 2004), but it was not possible to describe them better due to the space limits of this work.

About the author:

Maurício da Silva Neubern: Psychologist, PhD in Psychology from the University of Brasília (2003), Adjunct Professor at the Department of Clinical Psychology, Institute of Psychology (UnB).

Mailing address: Darcy Ribeiro University Campus - ICC - South - Department of Clinical Psychology - Institute of

Psychology - 70910-900 Brasília/DF. E-mail address:


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