The Last Taboo: Encounters with God

By Laura D’Angelo

Amy, a secular Jewish psychoanalyst in her 40s, was negotiating pedestrian traffic on Fifth Avenue made thick by a visit from Pope John Paul II.  She looked over at the Pope Mobile, and saw the Pope standing in the street about six feet away. Then, the instant that changed Amy’s life. Billows of light – textured like silk – began flowing from the pope’s robes toward her. “The light was brighter than white, beyond color and clearly light itself,” Amy recalled. The ethereal fabric gathered in folds at her feet and filled her with joy. That moment awakened her spirit and divided her life into before and after.  The “after” was marked by visions that flowed like celestial silk, inspiring Amy her to seek out spiritual teachers for direction (Interview, 2009).

A gifted student of the psyche, Amy knew she had been addressed by something outside herself. The experience opened up her life. Amy converted to Catholicism and in her newfound church heard similar stories of mystical experiences. The details were different: the similarities, striking. “There is a sense of joy and peace. A sense of surprise – having found an answer to a question you didn’t know you had to ask… It’s always a wonderful moment of communion,” she said. “I feel that I’m unbelievably fortunate to have had a God experience.”

Amy is in good company. Throughout history human beings have reported experiences described as spiritual, transcendent or mystical. Amy’s experience is like that of Saint Paul, St. Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther King, Allen Ginsberg and Dostoevsky. Yet Amy is sad that her life-altering encounters with God remain closely-guarded secrets in psychoanalytic circles.  Sharing her experience with analyst-friends has been painful, like the time when one friend proclaimed over lunch: “You had a psychotic break.”

Interest in the dialogue between psychoanalysis and religion has surged over the past decade. This paper examines that burgeoning relationship through interviews with psychoanalysts transformed by their own mystical experiences but made uneasy in their professional lives by an abiding derision toward religion. Still, their divine encounters have informed their convictions  – backed by research – that when religious experience is not welcomed in the consultation room the patient may be harmed.

In Amy’s case, she keeps quiet about her conversion, even in forums dedicated to psycho-spiritual dialogue.  She wryly observes that analysts tend to be open to Buddhism – particularly Buddhism stripped of past life doctrines or pantheons of gods. But curiosity about Christianity is absent. “Try even mentioning Jesus at one of those meetings!” she said laughing.

During two separate analyses, Amy watched her analysts fumble with their own counter-transferences and confusion as she mined her mystical experiences for meaning. “Both analysts were courteous and polite,” she said “But ultimately treated my conversion in a patronizing way. One listened respectfully and the other tried to reduce it to nothing. It’s most painful when analyst’s intentions are good, but they don’t believe God is active in everyone’s life. It desecrates the experience.”

As a psychoanalyst, Amy welcomes spiritual inquiry from her patients. She recently helped a patient integrate a powerful mystical experience. “Not only did I respect it and affirm it, I knew how to enter into it. I had enough of a sense of recognition that I could tell him yes, God had spoken to him, but that it didn’t mean that he could sit back and do nothing and let God do everything. There was still work he needed to do psychologically, but God had promised to help him,” she said.

Making psychoanalytic use of spiritual material makes Amy an exception in a field born in opposition to religion. For Freud, religion was a grand illusion, religious belief  “a lost cause,” a “childhood neurosis” (1927, 1961: 53). Freud believed that God is a projection of our fears and longings for a father. Religion fosters obsession and escape from reality, said Freud who wanted to throw it out altogether. Freud envisioned a future where psychoanalysis would replace religion – curing people of the need for powers mightier than themselves.

Ironically, his chosen successor and “crown prince” – Carl Jung – became his chief challenger. Like Freud, Jung was a medical man. But unlike Freud, Jung was drawn to spiritual matters. Jung believed that we have a religious instinct and when we neglect it, we suffer a loss of meaning and fall ill (Ulanov, 2007: 61). Jung criticized Freud’s concept of libido as too narrow. For Jung, libido is more expansive than sexual energy; it is spirit or life force.

The fallout between Jung and Freud split psychoanalysis into practitioners who denounce religion and those who find value in it.  Psychoanalysis, for the most part, followed in the footsteps of Freud.  And Freud’s descendants have kept Jung in exile, barring the doors of their classrooms to Jung’s theories. One instructor at a psychoanalytic institute responded to a candidate’s question about Jung’s omission from the curricula by waiving her hand and saying, “Jung? He’s too hard to integrate.”

Jung’s unintegrated ideas have created a hole in psychoanalytic discourse. According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), 85 percent of Americans believe in God. A recent study by the Pew Forum showed that 75 percent of Americans pray at least once a week.  Religious patients often turn to Jungian analysts or therapists who openly welcome spirituality. Even then, it is often easier to talk about feelings of shame around incest or money than to talk about spiritual yearning or transcendent experiences.  Worried about exploring the unconscious dimension of their spiritual lives with their analysts, many people simply check that part of themselves at the door.

Prior to the Freud/Jung split, religion and psychology were united in their quest to heal the wounds of the heart and soul, says Jungian Analyst and Theologian Ann Belford Ulanov. “Ages ago psychology and religion were in the same riverbed. Care of souls was the precinct of psychology and religion. The pastor, the abbot or the nun gave a great deal of psychological advice,” Ulanov said. (Interview: 2008) “In the 20th century, depth psychology became its own discipline with many different schools and points of view. It became differentiated from religion and two rivers formed: one ran into psychology and the other into religion.”

Like spouses in a marriage gone sour, the two disciplines grew hostile toward one another. Psychoanalysis accused religion of being self-idealizing, pathology feeding, and encouraging people to pray away problems. Religion charged psychoanalysis with reducing the divine to a father complex, and then inserting itself as the pathologizing father. Each discipline staked out its territory and remained vigilant for signs of the other creeping over.

Like warring ex’s, they were more alike than they cared to admit. Psychoanalyst John Sloane writes: “Both offer ways of understanding and healing human suffering, conflict, alienation, and self-destructiveness. Both have their own fragmented, conflicting, and competing forms. Each has idealized founders, zealous disciples, scornful detractors, and heretical outcasts. Each school of psychoanalysis and each religious sect can be used to harm, as well as to help. Both believe that truth, whatever that is, can set us free” (2002: 444).

There has been a growing recognition that psychoanalysis and religion need each other. Religious leaders – bewildered by their congregants’ projections onto them  – have become interested in the tools of psychoanalysis. Clinicians – intrigued by the mutative agent in analytic work – are rethinking the boundaries of the unconscious. Ulanov asks, “What is this mysterious presence in the work of therapy that allows the analytical couple to behold something new that releases healing? What is it that makes for aliveness?” (2007: 65)

The dialogue between psychoanalysis and spirituality grew urgent in the United States  after 9-11. Horrified, people turned to psychology with questions about how religion drives people to kill. They asked theologians about good and evil, suffering and God, and agonized about ultimate meaning: What am I called to do in my life? What gifts am I not using?

In the dawning of this age, one practitioner sees herself as the love child of religion and psychoanalysis – not the offspring of a feuding couple. Paula was actually on the couch when she had the first of several mystical experiences (Interview: 2009).  In analysis for two years, Paula had railed against the Catholicism of her youth, deriding it as chauvinistic and repressive. During one session, after her analyst accompanied her to the deep layers of her psyche, she had a transformative flash. “I had this sense of a light, a warmth radiating from my solar plexus. It was so powerful and I thought “Oh my God. That’s God!’ I felt this amazing sense of unbinding, becoming free. It was a huge liberation. It felt inside me, not external,” she said.

Her analyst remained silent as Paula described what had happened. “He didn’t need to say anything. I could tell that this not only made sense to him, but that it was really wonderful,” she said. Then she blurted: “I AM NOT having a religious conversion.” Her analyst finally spoke. He said, “God Forbid.”

Paula’s spiritual path unfolded over the next several years. She practiced Yoga, meditation, sought out Buddhist teachers and swamis. “Basically, anyone who wasn’t Christian,” she said. She brought bizarre images that arose during meditation and prayer, to her teachers who helped her work with them.  “I never thought I was supposed to figure it out by myself,” said Paula.

Years later, Paula earned a doctoral degree and a psychoanalytic license, but the split between psyche and soul never tracked. “It made sense to me that a mystical experience would happen in the context of psychoanalysis. This is a process of clearing away all the stuff that binds you and keeps you immobile. I saw for the first time that I’m a free being. I saw all the crap I had done to myself and how it all got constructed. And that it didn’t have to be that way. It was a huge liberation and light and it was God.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but my analyst was a deeply religious person,” she said. “I know that if I had ended up in the offices of many of my analyst friends, they would have thought I was out of my mind and had no idea what to do with this.”

Out of one’s mind? One mind?

Gary Ahlskog, a Freudian psychoanalyst in New York City, said that a mysterious, unknowable core at the center of humanity is consistent with Freud’s theory of the psyche. Freud described the unconscious as a place of otherness, beyond the grasp of the ego. “The central point of psychoanalysis is that within each individual psyche there is a non-rational truth that is invisible to the naked eye. So why wouldn’t that non-rational truth exist at the center of humanity as a whole?” Ahlskog asked. “It’s not provable, but it follows from psychoanalysis’ own premise. Core truths are not visible – individually or in the collective.”

“What is most basic in our nature remains unknowable,” writes Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen in The Psychotic Core (2004: 15.) Eigen says Freud’s unconscious center reads like a description of the psychotic’s world. The id – “a volcanic upheaval, the seething caldron” – has the structure of madness: distinctions vanish between you and me, then and now, inner and outer. (Ibid:7). For Freud, psychosis is an “irruption of the unconscious, a weakening of ego ties with reality” and dreams are nightly psychotic events (Ibid: 6).

Jung envisioned a not-so-scary unconscious, a source of healing and transformation for the ego. The unconscious houses a pool of ancient wisdom that emerge as archetypes. Its boundaries are limitless, stretching beyond the confines of the individual ego. The individual and the world are deeply connected in ways that science now corroborates, but religion has always insisted upon.

Hans Loewald also anchored religious experience in the unconscious. A source of creativity and healing, the unconscious is a place where the self and the world are experienced as timeless and unified. Other theorists have explored the permeable nature of the unconscious, the blurring of inside and outside, self and other.  Thomas Ogden says the “intersubjective analytic third” is like a pool of unconscious waters into which analyst and analysand plunge, and from which they contribute and draw. Ulanov goes further, saying that the mutative agent is not constricted by the dyadic frame. It is the “fourth” dwelling outside the analytic couple, as well as within each person, and between them.

For Jung, we participate with divinity through the part of our psyche made for transcendence. “God has never spoken to (us) except in and through the psyche, and the psyche understands it….(as) the eye beholds the sun,” Jung said (Ulanov, 2007: 59).

These experiences are not always blissful, warns Ulanov. “Spirit is not a cozy presence but brings a sword, cutting through our joints, laying our heart bare….As clinicians, we ask what a person’s experience is of Spirit breaking in. Does it lead to health or illness? How does the person house this visitation?” Ulanov said.  “As a religious person, I look at the psyche and manifestations of Spirit through such questions as Where does this Spirit come from? Who authors such events? Who is calling?” (Ibid: 59)

Testing the Call

A recent dialogue of psyche and spirit  at a New York City analytic conference devolved into a shouting match between atheists and a believer. “I don’t care what you say. There is a God! I know,” shouted a woman, near tears. Others shot back, accusing her of intolerance. The verbal brawl reflected a linguistic bridge, dismantled by Americans who have eschewed the language of tradition.  Wounded by their own religious pasts, many Americans revolt against a deplorable God image that they unconsciously uphold. Often, it is a score-card God, punishing sinners, saving saints, galvanizing magical thinking, genocide and terror. For them, words like “Jesus” and “grace” evoke images of private and wide-scale atrocities done in the name of religion.

In reaction, some psycho-spiritual dialogue has split off from tradition, creating a counter-language, dipped in chocolate and rolled in rainbow sprinkles. At the center is a soft-core spirituality, a feeling that anything other-worldly is good. Unhinged from historic lines of exegesis, this spirituality does not subject itself to the time honored traditions of scrutiny. “There was a movement that said spirituality is a good bandwagon to get onto,” Ahlskog said. “From there emerged some fuzzy and semi-poetic thinking like `I believe in the great unknown, the indefatigable one.’ It is semi spirituality. It is invented spirituality. The vast majority of newagers run from text and tradition that has been bonafide throughout centuries of human existence. It’s easier nowadays to get educated and sensitive people to look twice at the Mayan calendar or astrology than it is to get them to look at Hebrew scripture.”

Uncritical acceptance rebuffs centuries of theological discernment and the “finding out” attitude of psychoanalysis.  In his book, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (1994), Theologian Christopher Morse makes a biblically-based case for faithful skepticism. He cites the New Testament (John 4:1). “Beloved, do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Proposoing 10 tests, Morse calls on the Christian community to discern the will of God in every generation, time, and place. Test the ecstatic experience and the church’s teachings, says Morse, to ensure they do not contradict relevant data or force people to act against their own consciences (1994: 61).

Depth psychologists have their own tradition of testing the spirit. “By their fruits you shall know them,” said Psychologist William James (1902: 292). A leading intellectual before Freud, James opined that we should judge the authenticity of spiritual experience by it consequences, not by the standards of medical science. “Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occiptal cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as a hysteric. Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate,” he said. (1902: 13, 14). A believer in religious pluralism, James said no one faith can claim absolute knowledge, just as no one person could know the many faces of God.

Communities of faith welcome but do not uncritically accept the “ecstatic experience” of potential leaders.  In the Reformed Protestant tradition, a call from God – which may include an ecstatic experience – is discerned by the larger community. An “inner call” must be endorsed by an “outer call” from a church community that oversees years of seminary preparation and rigorous examination. Faith traditions understand the power of religious experience to help build the psyche and the community. They also know that when the psyche is unstable, religious experience can be weaponized.

Saved or Shattered?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said his Gethsemane experience happened one night when he was 26 years old. (1958: 134-135). The phone rang and angry voice said, ‘Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you, before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’

Agonizing over the dangers to which he had exposed his wife and baby, he wanted to bow out without looking like a coward.  He said: “In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.

“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (1958: 134-135)

The next day, addressing a packed congregation, King said: “If I had to die tomorrow morning I would die happy, because I’ve been to the mountain top and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery. The old Montgomery is passing away and segregation is dying.”

Not everyone can tolerate, let alone and make use of such a powerful encounter with the transcendent. Some collapse under its weight. Joseph Campbell, America’s leading mythologist, said that the psychotic and mystic are in the same deep waters only the mystic swims and the psychotic drowns. (1972: 216)

In his book The City Within the Heart, (1981) R.C. Zaehner argues that Charles Manson had a bona fide religious experience – akin to enlightenment described by Zen Buddhists. Manson had walked 45 miles in the desert. “The sun was beating down on me and I was afraid because I wasn’t willing to accept death. My tongue swoll up and I could hardly breathe. I collapsed in the sand.  I looked at the ground and saw this rock out of the corner of my eye. And I remember thinking in this insane way, as I looked at it, “Well, this is as good a place as any to die.’ (Then) I began laughing like an insane man. I was happy.’ Then he got up `with ease” and walked ten miles to safety (1981: 40). Manson’s brush with Transcendence combined with reading of the Bhagavad Gita that says “on the absolute plane…killing and being killed are equally unreal” (Ibid: 37) became a justification for murder.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

In many psychiatric hospitals, it was considered a basic violation to ask patients about their religious experience for fear of fanning the flames of psychosis. But subsequent research has shown that forcing people to keep their religious anguish and ecstasy locked inside can actually make them ill.

Nancy Kehoe, a former Catholic nun and a psychologist doing postdoctoral work at Cambridge Hospital in 1975, was shocked at how religious material was ignored. She wondered: Didn’t a person’s religious belief effect their psychological profile, sexual life and belief?  “I mean, if someone is suicidal wouldn’t it be natural to ask, “Where do you think you’re going to go when you die?” Kehoe asked (Shorto, 1999:129).

Her colleagues confessed that patients regularly brought religious material to therapy. This made sense to Kehoe because people living on the margins of society tend to constantly contemplate the meaning of their lives. They wrestled with thoughts such as, “Somehow I brought this on myself. God is punishing me. I’m not just an inferior person – I’m an inferior soul.” (Ibid: 132)

Kehoe said: “The therapists were afraid to ask about religion,” she said. “I thought that was very intriguing given the fact they would ask the most intimate details about a person’s sex life, finances, politics and abuse history, but it felt too invasive to say ‘Do you pray?'” (Maxon: 2009)

In 1981, Kehoe started a spiritual discussion group called “Spiritual Beliefs and Values” at Cambridge Day Treatment Center. Staff was astonished at how people suffering from depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder wrestled with spiritual beliefs. Jews, Christian fundamentalists, Muslims, atheists, aged 20 to over 60, wondered aloud about God. They talked about whether its OK to be angry at God and about the meaning of their beliefs.

Her hunch was born out by the group that continues today – 28 years later. Research too has supported her findings. In the early 1990s, an Oxford study analyzed 5,000 psychotic and religious experiences for features of psychopathology and spirituality. Researchers concluded that the way an experience was treated by others influences how the person dealt with it. British Pastoral Counselor John Foskett said: “If they were listened to and accepted, individuals found ways to integrate even the most disturbing ideas and emotions. If they were ignored or pathologized by others, the trauma was aggravated.” (Ibid: 17)


Mystical experience – when it heals- can challenge an assumption that only analysis can cure the unmothered self, starved of the holding needed to grow. People who have encountered God say it’s more than a peak experience, or a one-shot jaunt with timelessness and unity. Rather, it is a structure-building experience – a transitional space that one can enter and re-enter as a source of aliveness. Living in the  “after” of a mystical experience, is living with gauze pulled from one’s eyes in a co-created third. So much so that the original in breaking of God – the visions, the voices – become beside the point. One analyst-in-training said: “It’s like I walked through this door and experienced these amazing, mind-blowing places, Africa, Asia, Iceland. I had the most incredible adventures, met the most unforgettable people. … And then someone like you wants to know:  `So, what was the door like?’”


  • Ahlskog, Gary. Telephone INTERVIEW.  10 July 2009.
  • Amy. (Alias) Personal INTERVIEW.  18 March 2008 and Telephone INTERVIEW. Aug. 2009
  • Campbell, Joseph. (1972) Myths to Live By. Penguin Books.
  • Eigen, Michael (2004). The Psychotic Core. New York: Karnac.
  • Erhardt, Richard.  Telephone INTERVIEW. 12 August 2009.
  • Freud, S. (1964 [1927]). The Future Of An Illusion. New York: Doubleday Anchor.
  • James, Williams (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience.
  • King, Martin Luther Jr. (1958). Stride Toward FREEDOM: The Montgomery Story. San    Francisco, California: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
  • Maxson, Lisa.  “Nun says working with people with mental illness has changed her life.”   Catholic News Service. 3 Aug. 2009.
  • Paula. (Alias) Telephone INTERVIEW.  10 July 2009.
  • Shorto, Russell. (1999). Saints and Madmen. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Sloane, John A. (2002). Beginnings: A Self Psychological Interface Between Psychoanalysis and Christianity… Free Associations, 9C:443-462.
  • Ulanov, A. (2007). The unshuttered heart: Opening aliveness/deadness in the self. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
  • Ulanov, A.B. (2008). The Living God and Our Living Psyche: What Christians Can Learn From Carl Jung. William B. Eerdmans Pub.
  • Ulanov, A.B. Phone INTERVIEW. 20 December 2008.
  • Wilson/Jung Letters. (1987). Spiritus Contra Spiritum: The Bill Wilson/C.G. Jung Letters. PARABOLA: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition (Addiction), 12(2).
  • Zaehner, R.C. (1981) The City Within the Heart, New York: Crossroad.

Laura D’Angelo, M.Div. is a candidate at National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. She earned a degree from Union Theological Seminary in the psychiatry and religion program.  She is a widely published, award-winning journalist with credits in national magazines, newspapers and academic journals.

3 Responses to The Last Taboo: Encounters with God

  1. ifpe says:

    Hello, Laura, and fellow readers,

    I certainly agree that spiritual experience is a profound human experience, and as such should be taken seriously during an analysis if and when it comes up. Many people feel more comfortable distinguishing “religious” from “spiritual” experience, finding difficulty with what they find to be issues of authoritarianism in religion and religious institutions, but feeling respectful of reports of spiritual experience. How do we address separation/individuation issues in discussing with an analysand religious beliefs and affiliation? Specifically, if we are in the religion=authoritarianism camp, how do we contain our own values to make room for the analysand’s separation/individuation issues vis-a-vis the analyst. And how do we address what we might see as merger fantasies in religious and spiritual beliefs and experience?

    I have found the writings of Paul Cooper to be useful in addressing spiritual and religious concerns in psychoanalysis.

    I also wonder, Laura, if you have more to say about Charles Manson. You say he had a profound spiritual experience in the desert, and cite his reading of a passage in the Bhagavad Gita as instrumental in his justifying murder. I wish you would have elaborated on this. I bet many psychoanalysts probably would conclude that he was psychotic, that msssive deprivation during his sojourn in the desert led to bizarre and psychotic fantasies, rather than to genuine mystical experience, and that he would have sought justification anywhere for his murderous impulses, whether in the Bhagavad Gita, the Old Testament, Shakespearean drama, or Hyde Park soap box orators. Would you care to comment? Would anyone else?


    Merle Molofsky

  2. Lara says:

    Hi Everyone!
    Just wanted to let you know that Gary Ahlskog is now featuring a website along with a blog. If interested, please visit

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