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Spirituality and Therapy

So, recently, we’ve had Easter (Christian), Eid (Muslim) and Wesak (Buddhist) which got me to thinking about spirituality and the role of spirituality in psychotherapy. I know that the festivals I’ve mentioned are religious and there’s a difference (and overlap) religion and spirituality. I don’t want to labour the point here so briefly, and this is my take on this and not necessarily correct, I see the difference as follows:
I think that religion is something external to yourself, something that you reach out to and bring into yourself, something you believe in and requires faith. Spirituality is largely an internal thing; it is something that grows from within and requires no faith or belief in anything external. Religions tell you what to believe (think Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad Gita or Tanakh for example). It is possible to be religious and not spiritual, spiritual and not religious and of course, it is possible to be both religious and spiritual; you can practice your personal blend of religion and spirituality by living spiritual truths within the parameters of your own religion. The line between religion and spirituality can be very nebulous.

Spirituality and psychotherapy are intertwined although some clients do not see this at first. One of the things that all my clients begin to strive towards at some is a quest for meaning (they do not all stay in therapy long enough to arrive at some resolution but that’s another story). As I say elsewhere on my website, my initial training was in humanistic and existential therapy; the search for meaning is an existential task, perhaps a spiritual task. Inherent in the way I work is facilitating clients in looking within, in noticing what is happening in their minds and bodies (or mind-body as I call it). Many clients look for an answer to their problems ‘out there’ if only the world was fairer, if they could earn more money, have better relationships etc. then everything would be alright. Depression, anxiety and so on are ‘caused’ by external people and events. Of course, these are important considerations, for example helping someone to leave an abusive relationship is often a therapeutic goal. Safety and stabilisation are major factors in trauma work and need to be in place before any deeper work can be undertaken.

A couple of key figures in humanistic therapy are Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs suggested that it is important for humans to get their spiritual needs met (once their more fundamental needs for food, shelter and belonging are met). Rogers talked about a ‘self-actualising tendency’. From his perspective, every person strives to be a creative, fully functioning being who desires to reach their potential. This striving is ongoing, motivational, and innate. The process of pursuing our full potential is what he called the actualising tendency. The orientation of all people is growth, autonomy, and freedom from control by external forces. It should be noted that self-actualisation as Rogers describes is the complete realisation of one’s potential, and the full development of one’s abilities and appreciation for life. This concept is at the top of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, so not every human being reaches it, but we can all strive to get there.

Because spirituality is so personal, so unique, it is difficult (I think) to define. Russell suggests it is: “the threads that weave and hold together, define and unravel the beauty of our essence in the rich tapestry that reveals our humanity”.

John Rowan, says this about spirituality:

• It is rooted in human experiencing rather than abstract theology.
• It is embodied.
• It involves linking with other people and the universe at large.
• It involves non-ordinary consciousness.
• That active engagement with spirituality tends to make people more altruistic, less materialistic, and more environmentally aware.
• It deals with the meaning that people make of their lives.
• It faces suffering and its causes.
• It usually relates to god(s)/goddess(es)/ultimate reality/the cosmos/nature etc.
• It often uses the words like ‘soul’ or ‘higher self’ or ‘true self’ or ‘transpersonal’ or ‘transcendental’ or similar.
• Techniques such as prayer, meditation, contemplation, mindfulness, yoga and t’ai chi are often used as spiritual practices.

So, for me, spirituality refers to the many interrelated and socially and culturally diverse elements by which humans experience the sacred or transcendental dimension of life. These multiple, interrelated and changing aspects include the desire for uplifting or awe-inspiring experience, the substance of such experience (beliefs, values, emotions, somatic experience, behaviours, relational-social elements), and the processes and practices that make possible such experience. The transcendental dimension of life includes theistic-oriented and non-theistic-oriented appreciation of realities larger than the individual self, an awareness that comes via experiences or relationships with the celestial, with others, with nature, with art, with music etc. It is not unusual for such experiences to be beyond words. (Adapted from Russell Siler Jones Spirit in Session (Spirituality and Mental Health). Templeton Press. Kindle Edition.

Also, as all relationships, a spiritual relationship can be a healthy one that increases our capacities for love, freedom, creativity, connection, morality, courage, and calmness. Or it can be an unhealthy one, contributing to experiences of anxiety, despair, isolation, a sense of meaninglessness, self-hatred, hatred of others, and ultimately violence directed at the self or others. As a trauma therapist my clients come to me as survivors of emotional, relational, physical, and sexual abuse. In the work I do clients need help and support with feelings of injustice, helplessness, hopelessness, despair, anger, depression, tragedy, and anxiety to name but a few.

These issues are existential, the ‘existential givens’. Psychotherapists such as Yalom, Bugental and May have written about these, and different existential theorists have taken slightly different approaches to the givens which can be broadly categorised as:

  • Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency
  • Death, Human Limitation, and Finiteness
  • Isolation and Connectedness
  • Meaning vs. Meaninglessness
  • Emotions, Experience, and Embodiment

I work towards transforming the tragedies of life into meaning, hope and connection, to engage with embodies trauma and to get an appreciation of positive experiences and an acceptance that part of the human condition includes having negative experiences (see my other blogs on radical acceptance).

I cannot make life any easier for clients, together we can make life easier to live.