Ancient Religious Wisdom, Spirituality, and Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Marcus, Paul
Publisher:  Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003
Reviewed By:  Robert G. Kuisis, Winter 2004, pp. 71-74

Paul Marcus has made a rich and rewarding contribution to a growing body of literature that is intent on closing the breach that until recently existed between religion and psychoanalysis. One of the more surprising and striking changes over the past few decades, both within psychoanalysis and psychology as a whole, has been a gradual correction to the previous imbalance that kept matters of faith, spirituality, and ethics out of academic and applied psychology, including psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. There were many causes for that separation, and ways to describe its history. Miller and Thoresen (1999) summarize from a broad historical perspective the shift and differentiation in society’s definition of health and healing.

Earlier societies possessed a sense of health as not being just an absence of illness but including a subjective quality of life, including the peace and coherence that flows from meaning, and in which the functions of healing were placed in the community’s spiritual leaders. Later, society moved to an emphasis on a biomedical model of disease wherein the function of healing fell to medical-technological specialists. More commonly the split is described in terms of the relation between religion and science. Richards and Bergin (1997) describe the rise of psychology and psychiatry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when modern science was successfully challenging religious authority and tradition as the dominant worldview and source of truth. They delineate the assumptions of modernistic science and discuss how they conflicted with those of spiritual and theistic traditions: naturalism and atheism vs. theism; determinism vs. free will; universalism vs. contextuality; reductionism and atomism vs. holism; materialism and mechanism vs. transcendent spirit and soul; ethical relativism vs. universals and absolutes; ethical hedonism vs. altruism; classical realism and positivism vs. theistic realism; and empiricism vs. epistemological pluralism.

Recently, there are signs the distance between the two worldviews is lessening and the conflicts softening. Interest in spirituality is evident in society at large and within psychology and psychoanalysis, as manifest in numerous journal articles and books and even in panels at Division 39 conferences, in which analysts openly comment on their own belief system and how it impacts their work—offerings the like of which seemed impossible only a few years ago. Converse to the causes for the separation between religion and psychology are multiple reasons for the gap closing. Richards and Bergin (1997) cite discoveries in physics, changes in the philosophy of science, research on the brain and consciousness, renewed societal interest in spiritual phenomena, and research on religion and mental health. The result seems to be a more postmodern perspective in which the language and concepts of religion/spirituality/theology, on one hand, and science/psychology/psychoanalysis, on the other, are not seen as contradictory (nor able to be reduced by the other), but rather on different noncontradictory explanatory planes (Paloutzian, 1996).

Marcus’s book can be read effectively within this context. In a previous book (1998), co-edited with Alan Rosenberg, he asked contributors to represent a particular theorist and define their conception of the human condition, psychopathology and its alleviation. Clearly, he is comfortable with a view of psychoanalysis and its aims that includes existential questions of meaning and ultimate concerns. He describes analysis not just as a body of thought and brand of psychotherapy, but, as an “intellectual technology,” which is a narrative of the human condition and of subjectivity. The technology reference is unfortunate since this seems to run counter to his attempts to rescue psychoanalysis from a natural science perspective and reconnect it with hermeneutic, meaning-making disciplines, like religion, which he denotes as the other great narrative of subjectivity. In that framework, analysis offers a way to experience meaning and self-transformation, and the means to cope with the problems of despair, loss, tragedy, and conflict that assail the human condition. And it speaks to fundamental questions that analysands raise. What does it mean to be human? How does one create the good life or good society? What is the meaning of death, especially in terms of how we live our lives? And how do we achieve freedom and happiness in the face of suffering?

He bases the book on three assumptions. First, the spiritual quest, including the quest for self-transcendence, is a fundamental human activity, and one that psychoanalysis has not fully acknowledged or addressed. Second, psychoanalysis is in crisis because it has become alienated from its parental roots in ancient religious wisdom traditions that took up these existential questions and answered them in spiritual and ethical insights and moral philosophy. Third, psychoanalysis has much to gain from constructive engagement with these traditions.

The bulk of the book comprises chapters that present an illustrative text or person from the world’s religious traditions. Since his aim is to explore the positive wisdom for its potential value to the analytic reader, he acknowledges leaving out the dark side of religion. In structuring the book this systematic way there is some thematic repetition, which he acknowledges. I found this actually strengthens his aim, because it reinforces the concept of the “transcendent unity of religion” and the universal commonalities religions share, and, therefore, their relevance to analytic models of human nature and behavior. This is especially true in his spirited thematic emphasis on transcendence defined as a mode of being of encountering ultimate reality, but which involves a moral transformation in which one gives up an egocentric consciousness and self-centric mode of subjectivity and, in a Levinasian sense, embraces an ethic of responsibility to the Other.

Because of the richness of the material and range of traditions presented, in this review I will only highlight some of the specific concepts and practices as Marcus presents them, before turning to Marcus’s distillation of what, in the traditions as a whole, is of value for psychoanalysis. From Hinduism Marcus describes the Bhagavad Gita and views it as an allegory of the human condition, as an ethical text that illuminates humanity’s conflicts between good and evil and between ego-consciousness and selfish desires, on one hand, and a higher, God-inspired, for-the-Other nature, on the other. Three interrelated paths, of knowledge, of action, and of love, lead to a life goal of achieving God-realization in one’s outlook and relations to others. This in turn fosters a life of greater serenity, contemplation, freedom, and contentment.

Buddhism is presented as a masternarrative of the human condition, a redefinition and reconfiguration of subjectivity, as contained in its Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, and which enfolds a doctrine of nonself and a mode of being in the world that has a for-the-Other focus. In addition, the practice of meditation, typified herein by Vipassana or insight meditation, is a powerful and effective tool for freeing oneself from neurotic anxiety and fear, managing depression, and facing physical pain, illness, and death.

In the moral philosophy and anthropocosmic outlook of Confucianism, Marcus discerns a self-knowledge, self-realization, and self-improvement in the service of broadening and deepening one’s human relatedness, sociality, and sense of social responsibility. In it, self is “a center of relationships” and not locked into an autonomous individualism.

In the Chuang Tzu, based on the Tao and written during the golden age of Chinese philosophy, Marcus encounters a philosophy of life that emphasizes personal autonomy, spiritual freedom, the life of the imagination, and a cultivation of calmness and tranquillity. In the principle of wu-wei, or inaction, the ideal man renounces action that is occasioned by conventional concepts of purpose or achievement, or aimed at the realization of conventional goals to live and act more on a level of intuitive and spontaneous dimension of being that allows things to follow a more natural course.

In Marcus Aurelius and in the Stoic wisdom and emphasis on the dignity, freedom, and autonomy of the person, Marcus learns the importance of helping analysands to differentiate what they can and cannot control, to live in the present, and to cultivate humility and gratitude in their self-world relation and make responsibility to the Other a central concern in their lives.

Ecclesiastes presents us with “a series of free associations on the meaning of existence, the good that man can achieve in life and the problematics of attaining or creating an enduring sense of personal happiness” (p.119). Marcus sees in him a writer, like Freud, with intellectual integrity, courage, and a devotion to the truth. Also like Freud, he was trying to reconfigure his subjectivity, was committed to a relentless critique of himself and his world, and ended up advocating an attitude toward life characterized by resignation without despair, combined with an unwavering commitment to striving after joy in life. In this endeavor, he did not oversystematize a philosophy but respected and valued the complexity, ambiguity, and contradictory character of experience.

In the Confessions, Marcus finds a thinker in Augustine whom he aptly describes as perhaps the first psychologist of inner conflict and the divided self, and for whom love and its vicissitudes are central to the human condition and the pursuit of happiness. In his conception of love, as well as his psychology of sin (read narcissism and pride), doctrine of grace, and perseverance in the face of suffering, Marcus sees a notion of happiness and a dimension of experience that goes beyond how analysts dare to conceptualize.

In the Koran, the main text on which Islamic spirituality is based, we learn of the three stages of spiritual development: absolute surrender in the sense of commitment and dedication to the will of God; faith or intensification of one’s connection to God; and virtue, morality or beauty, in the sense of detaching from worldly interests and passions and living mindful of being in God’s presence. While noting the distinctions from psychoanalysis in language and the theocentric view that Islam possesses, Marcus sees a similarity in the value of self-accountability and a goal of man’s moral perfection based on unequivocal individual responsibility for one’s actions.

In summary, Marcus gleans themes from these traditions that inform what he calls a “spiritually animated psychoanalysis,” which is one open to transcendence, yet maintains its mandate to be a critical, disruptive, and demystifying discourse and practice. According to Marcus, the wisdom traditions—in facing the ultimate nature of existence—make three claims. The world is more integrated and harmonious than it seems, better than it appears to be, and more mysterious than we can comprehend. And from these flows another insight, that in adding onto them the ethical behavior and view of an ideal life and conception of human virtue these traditions offer a mode of being in the world of joy and enthusiasm for life that has the potential to be lasting (i.e., to be a life characterized by integrity, wisdom, and transcendence).

Finally, Marcus suggests how some of this wisdom can be integrated into psychoanalysis. Like these traditions, psychoanalysis has a value-informed perspective about what constitutes the ideal human life and of what works against it. As a starting point, analysts need to be clear about their values and those of their theories, and to be informed, knowledgeable, and culturally sensitive to the spiritual and religious values and strivings of patients. Moreover, Marcus suggests psychoanalysis can augment its secular view by cultivating a sensibility that is open to transcendence, and he proposes several themes whereby this could be done. The first is the arts of service, which borrows from religion’s regard for altruism and selfless service as antidotes to fundamental problematics in existence to be overcome, viz., selfishness, excessive self-interest, ego consciousness, and inordinate narcissism. While not suggesting directives be used, he is prompting analysts to “develop a more open, inclusive, interdependent non-self-centered subjectivity, in which the needs and desires of others, including one’s fellow citizens and the wider community, become central organizing notions for living one’s life at a higher level of psychological, moral, and spiritual development” (p. 186). In doing so, psychoanalysts would go beyond Freud’s “guilty man,” Kohut’s “tragic man,” or Fairbairn’s “mature dependence” to include a view of man living by a different existential orientation characterized by responsibility to the Other.

A second theme refers to problems of control and how to cope with the contingencies with which life besets us. Though analysis has a sense of adaptation to reality, Marcus suggests the spiritual sensibility that includes notions of mystery, forbearance, suffering, finitude, surrender, hope, divine meaning, and redemption—which may possibly be more helpful to some patients. Using Pargament’s (1997) work on psychology and coping, he mirrors the useful distinction that whereas a psychoanalytic view aims to assist people to gain control, a religious/spiritual approach assists people in coming to terms with the limits of control.

A third theme is forgiveness, or, as he cleverly entitles it, “to err is human, to forgive divine.” While taking care to point out many crucial distinctions between how psychology and religion (and distinctions within religions) handle its dynamics, Marcus suggests analysts be open to what a religious perspective adds, viz., that “the process of forgiveness, whether as the offended or the offender, can be enhanced by embracing the notion that we all have done wrong and require forgiveness, and we all need to be forgiving of others, ourselves and if it applies to the analysand, forgiving to God” (p. 194).

The last theme is the quest for transcendence, an overarching framework of ultimate meaning, significance, and purpose. As a discipline, psychoanalysis can develop a less reductionistic spiritual hermeneutics. In turn, analysts can decenter the ego and self for the process of self-transformation and be attuned to the role of values, purpose and ultimate meaning in patients’ lives. And in an inspiring finale, he calls on analysts to be open to the sacred aspect of the work of analysis and to the possibility that the mechanism of change in some cases may include an act of grace connected to the mystery of being or mystery of life itself.

This is indeed a rewarding book and if it is fair to expect a book with wisdom and spirituality in its title to possess some, then Marcus more than meets that expectation. To stay within a religious metaphor, to me as a reader, he is preaching to the converted, for I share his vision of psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic enterprise and a grand one at that—he is willing to take up the ultimate existential questions he defines. As a reviewer, however, and even a believer, I have some caveats I offer to him and other readers to consider. I agree with him that the days of a unified theory or model within psychoanalysis are over, and that there are irreconcilable claims regarding the human condition. Sandler and Dreher (1996), in writing about the problem of aims in psychoanalytic therapy concluded the literature cannot be brought together into a single definition. But I am not sure such diversity constitutes a crisis for psychoanalysis. As much as I appreciate this book, I was uncomfortable with the advocacy aspect of Marcus’s argument, namely, that to make psychoanalysis more relevant in today’s world of spiritual malaise and hunger requires a turn to the religious within the field. Psychoanalysis in its diversity of theory and practice and outlook will stand or fall on its own merits. And just as Marcus and others argue with validity that psychology should no longer approach religion with a reductionistic view, I think that point is valid within psychology itself in honoring the diversity and multiplicity of visions. In other words, the hermeneutic approach is not contradictory to but complementary to an empirical approach that emphasizes reason and is interested in insight or information more than in transformation.

As psychoanalysis and religion are reintroduced to each other, we need to pause and consider what is the most constructive engagement between them. Of four possibilities, conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration under a higher-level conceptualization, I think Marcus in this book draws a compelling illustration of integration. But I take to heart his call, in speaking for a spiritually animated psychoanalysis, that it also remains a “critical, disruptive, and demystifying discourse and practice.” For that to be the case, psychology and religion need to be clear about the distinctiveness of each and to be open to constructive and respectful dialogue. While Marcus shows what religion can offer to psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis has much to offer in return (e.g., in analyzing the developmental stages of religious belief, in understanding how it functions for an individual or community, and in helping differentiate pathology from authentic spirituality). Nowhere is that more evident than in taking up what he calls the dark side of religion. Given his aims, Marcus justifiably left this out of his book, though he did allude to it in several places, in references to the evil that can be done in the name of religion, to a fundamentalist or literal view, or to absolute notions of truth and morality. In exposing these dangers, psychoanalysis maintains its value not only to analysts and analysands, but also to society as a whole.

At the end of Marcus’s book is a bibliography of suggested readings in the growing literature that addresses the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion. It’s a pleasure to report that this is a book that belongs on any such list. I recommend it highly for those already interested in this topic and for those seeking to learn more about what has too long been neglected by the analytic community.


Marcus, P., & Rosenberg, A. (Eds.). (1998). Psychoanalytic versions of the human
condition: Philosophies of life and their impact on practice.
New York: NYU Press.
Miller, W.R., & Thoresen, C. E. (1999). Spirituality and health. In Integrating spirituality into treatment. W. R. Miller (Ed.), Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Paloutzian, R.F. (1996). Invitation to the psychology of religion (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Pargament, K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford Press.
Richards, P. S., & Bergin, A .E. (1997). A spiritual strategy for counseling and
Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Sandler, J. & Dreher, A. U. (1996). What do psychoanalysts want?: The problem of aims in psychoanalytic therapy. London: Routledge.

Reviewer Note

Robert Kuisis is a psychologist-psychoanalyst in private practice in East Hampton and New York City, NY. He is also an adjunct associate professor at New York University and the training director of the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, a pastoral-counseling center in New York City.


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