Intersections of Spirituality and Psychotherapy

An important aspect of my life has been my interest and growth in spirituality.  I was raised in a sunrise_vert_1fundamentalist Protestant church, which I left as an adolescent, and I have continued to explore my spiritual experience, beliefs, and values for most of my adult life.  Currently, I am an active member of a progressive Protestant church, and I have read and studied aspects of Buddhist philosophy as well as meditation from a variety of spiritual perspectives over a number of years.  I don’t bring my spiritual beliefs or practices into my work as a psychotherapist directly, although I have answered “yes, I’m part of a spiritual community” when clients have asked about my spiritual or religious affiliation.  I have become aware of using some of the insights I have gained on my personal spiritual journey, and I have encouraged clients who have an active spiritual practice or affiliation to incorporate the strengths of that practice as an aid to their therapeutic progress.  This blog contains some of my thoughts and experiences related to the intersection of spirituality and psychotherapy.

Compassion for self and others is an aspect of therapeutic work for almost all clients.  Whatever the presenting issue or symptoms, clients are usually struggling with negative judgments about themselves and/or other people in their families, social network, or work setting.  My own experience of developing compassion within myself has taught me how complex this process can be.  At times I find acceptance of others easier than acceptance of myself, and at other times I may find myself being judgmental of others while viewing my perspective with compassion.  In general, though, I find that greater openness and acceptance of myself and others develop in tandem.  It is hard to hold on to judgment in one area of my life without it showing up somewhere else.  I have also found that there isn’t an end point to developing compassion, but instead a more gradual growing awareness of the absence of compassion in some circumstances and a growing ability to become more accepting.

Since my understanding and experience of compassion are rooted in my spiritual journey, I draw on this when I work with clients to help them expand their acceptance of themselves and others.  However, I don’t assume that my clients share my value of spiritual paths.  There are many therapeutic practices that can assist clients in developing compassion, and there are some religious communities in which compassion is less present than judgment.  This means that I join each client in looking for the path that is most congruent with her/his values and experience.  When clients have their own spiritual or meditation practice, I assist them in integrating this in their daily lives.  When clients don’t have an interest in any type of spiritual practice, I introduce the idea of mindfulness as a therapeutic tool and follow the client’s interest.  I also talk about ways of noticing present experience and slowing emotional reactivity as a path to developing greater compassion especially for oneself.  Expanding compassion is a slow process, so compassion for the slow nature of progress is often part of the therapeutic process.

Community is another issue that arises in most therapeutic work, since clients often enter therapy feeling isolated.  Many of their relationships are characterized by feelings of blame, burden, and judgment rather than mutual care and support.  I have experienced many benefits from being part of a spiritual community as an adult, though any human community contains the potential disappointments and conflicts that occur in all human relationships.  At best, I have been part of a spiritual community that is bonded by implicit and explicit agreements to treat all members with respect and to see the value that each member contributes to the greater whole.  The ritual of coming together as a group and being reminded of our shared values and practices is comforting to me, and it often puts the irritations and annoyances of my daily life into a larger perspective.

It is challenging to encourage clients to become part of a community when they don’t have a natural group in which they already participate.  Some clients find solace in a formal religious or spiritual organization, others benefit from a group practice of meditation or other mindfulness practice, and others value attendance in a 12-step group.  When talking with clients about isolation, I generally start by asking about their social relationships to identify any communities that already exist in the client’s life.  Sometimes the client is part of a naturally occurring group that they don’t identify as a source of support, such as a parent group at their children’s school, a book group, or an exercise or yoga class.  Even though these groups don’t have an explicit purpose of mutual support, they can provide clients with a place to start to reach out to others and to notice their thoughts and feelings in interactions with others.  Often the dissatisfactions that clients experience in these communities are related to the therapeutic issues we’re addressing including self-blame and judgment, experiences of rejection and exclusion that are reminiscent of childhood and adolescence, and a lack of self-assertion and other interpersonal skills.

If you have been thinking of ways that your own spiritual practices intersect with your work as a therapist, I hope these examples contribute to your work with your clients.  I’m interested in your feedback or additional thoughts and comments you have on this topic.