I receive a great many emails from readers and am deeply appreciative of the fact that each represents a desire of someone who has read my books or found me here on the web and wants to connect with me. I wish I could personally answer each message, but I can’t – at least not if I want to continue writing new books! However, since many of those who contact me do so in order to ask a question, I have compiled some of the most common questions asked about my writing and sense of calling and answered them in the following hypothetical conversation.
I know you were trained and for many years practiced as a clinical psychologist but most of your readers know you primarily as a spiritual teacher. If you had it to do all over again, would you become a priest or minister, or in some other way move more quickly and directly into the sort of spiritual work you have been doing of late?
If I were starting all over again I’d do exactly as I did. Clinical psychology was an excellent container for my calling for more than 35 years. It offered a framework within which I could understand and engage with people in the deep places of their selves. Intuitively I always seemed to recognize that these places are so profoundly spiritual that the boundary between spirit and soul is virtually meaningless. My work in psychotherapy never, therefore, felt less spiritual than my more recent work accompanying people who seek awakening and personal transformation through spiritual openness, contemplative stillness, and awareness. The two have always felt like two faces of the same coin, two expressions of the same calling.
I have trouble putting my calling into words but I have never had trouble knowing it. From the point of declaring my undergraduate major in psychology I knew that my calling was related to journeying with others around the deep questions of human existence. My driving passion in this has been the understanding and pursuit of transformation – not merely healing or even growth, but the unfolding of the self associated with a journey of awakening.
I write so I can know what I think. Writing is, for me, much more about discovery than communication. I always have my audience clearly in mind, but I write as a process of dialogue with that audience. And it is in that dialogue that I discover what I think. Apart from conversation or writing I don’t think I could advance in my thinking and understanding of the sorts of issues that most deeply interest me.
I can write almost any time I can be in front of my computer with at least 10 minutes free. Of course when I get into a book I try to clear whole days, weeks and sometimes even months just to write and at those points I will often write 12 – 14 hours a day. However, I get much of my writing done when sitting in airports waiting for flights or in the snatches of time between meetings and other commitments.
Contemporary authors would include Thomas Moore, James Hillman, Robert Kegan, Ken Wilber, Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Cynthia Bourgeault, Margaret Silf, Rowan Williams, Joan Chittester, Henri Nouwen, Basil Pennington, Marcus Borg, Matthew Fox and James Finley. But I actually read much more from past centuries than I do from our own. By far the authors who have influenced me the most would include the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz, the anonymous author of the 14th century Cloud of Unknowing, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, and Thomas Merton. These people I read over and over as I seek to unpack the profound psychospiritual wisdom I find in their writings.
The mystics provide our most helpful understanding of the map of the journey into God and the richest understandings that we have of the spiritual and psychological dynamics of this journey. Easily misunderstood and usually marginalized, the mystics offer us a number of valuable gifts that I think are tremendously important to contemporary Christians. And I happen to think they are even more important to those of us who seek to understand the contours of the human journey associated with the awakening and unfolding of the self.
I started reading Thomas Merton in my twenties and to this day he remains my favourite Christian mystic. Merton stirred my spirit but boggled my mind. I couldn’t contain him or the vision he presented but also couldn’t, at least for long, fail to notice the way he spoke to deep longings within me. I felt drawn to the journey he described but wasn’t ready to personally make it my own for many years. But long before I started on that journey myself, it was obvious to me that the mystics – Christian and otherwise – had critical relevance to psychology. In fact, psychology felt dreadfully truncated when it failed to include contemplative insights. Their contribution to spirituality is equally profound. Karl Rahner argues that “Tomorrow’s devout person will either be a mystic—someone who has experienced something—or else they will not be devout at all.” I think he is right. Spirituality without mysticism will always be truncated and less than truly transformational.