ISTDP and Islam

An Iranian student asked me last summer, “What is the relationship between ISTDP and Islam?” I answered, “This kind of therapy operates under the assumption that the patient is transformed by becoming at one with the emotional truth in this moment.” I asked her, “What is the meaning of the word Islam?” She answered, “Submission.” I agreed: “Yes. Submission to the truth.” I then told her about the theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas who said we should never submit to another man because it invites him to sin. Why? because the truth is always larger than any person’s opinion. As the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said, “Meaning is greater than interpretation.”
Whether we operate in the realms of religion, psychotherapy, or Wilfred Bion’s mystical psychoanalysis, all of us are listening to the sound of the reed calling out to us in Rumi’s Mathnavi to reunite with the truth.
As the great Persian Sufi poet Rumi pointed out, separation from the truth is the source of our distress. In spiritual traditions and psychotherapy we help patients see their defenses: the ways we lie to ourselves about reality and our feelings about it. As we help patients see their lies and let go of them, the emotional truth can rise up within them. And by becoming at one with the truth in this moment, we help patients heal.
And what about submission? In Islam and psychotherapy, submission does not refer to the worldly distortion whereby a man or woman submits to the neurosis of another human being, for that is the path of perversion—honoring a false god. Submission refers to our bowing before the truth, a bowing which, in a certain sense, is not even necessary since the truth, as the Sufis say, does not need to be known by us in order to exist.
As we let go of our barriers to the truth, our lies and defenses, the imaginary door disappears and the truth enters, often in an unsayable form. But throughout the eras in different religions and in schools of therapy, the great mystics, thinkers, and healers have offered what they could say to point to the unsayable. And in this dialogue between different thinkers, different eras, and different lands we wend our way on this caravan to the land known as Truth.






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