Spiritual Psychology and the Search for Nirvana
Posted Thursday, January 24, 2013 6:22 AM
A recently divorced man searching for meaning in his life blows all his money on spiritual retreats. A wealthy, successful lawyer is a closet alcoholic, getting drunk on only on expensive, vintage wine. A yoga instructor is so obsessed with perfecting poses that she has no time for socializing.
Suffering through these scenarios silently or simply being in denial, people like these often see themselves as more enlightened than most. That’s why instead of seeking therapy, these people feel capable of “self-help” -- an oxymoron if there ever was one. Retreats, books, DVDs, CDs, podcasts and more fuel this multimillion dollar business that purports to resolve what ails you, but its very existence relies on repeat customers who haven’t found resolution. Getting professional help is seen for some as a character defect.
The National Institute of Mental Health says that up to one-quarter of Americans have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. And the CDC reports that while one in 10 Americans over age 12 use prescribed antidepressants, most don't see a therapist. This is despite evidence that talk therapy can help. A new study from the United Kingdom published in The Lancet shows that while up to two-thirds of people don’t respond fully to antidepressants, they are three times more likely to experience a reduction in their depression symptoms if talk therapy was added to their treatment regimen compared with those who continued to take only antidepressants. Physicians with limited knowledge of mental health are prescribing pills when there might be a better way.
Therapy in the New Millennium
Psychotherapists have traditionally used talk therapy based upon the foundation of Freud to work through issues of being human. This Western approach was once exclusive of the more ancient modalities of the East, which view the human being as part of something bigger. No longer. Now therapy in which a client’s spiritual direction is integrated into more traditional methods treats anxiety, stress and confusion, among other conditions.
“These are not yoga and meditation sessions; spiritual psychotherapy is licensed therapy,” says Catherine Auman, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Southern California who herself is a spiritual psychotherapist. “I take an assessment of my clients to see what spirituality means to them. If it doesn’t resonate, I continue treatment without it. It’s not forced.”
Just what is spirituality? A 2012 Pew Forum Research study revealed that 19.6 percent of Americans identify as "spiritual, but not religious.” Clearly, while some do not identify with an established religion, many do feel a connection to others and the universe at large. Spirituality may encompass different things among people, but the view that life is not random and that we share a connection is common.
In the past, some turned to their organized religion of choice for guidance. Today with the proliferation of Eastern practices such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation and visualization, some people view these as a substitute for therapy. Many of theses activities do not carry the stigma that is associated with seeing a therapist.
“It is a mistake to think you can fully resolve deep-seated emotional issues this way,” says Auman. “While they may temporarily relieve stress they are not a cure, but rather a complement for the work of a competent therapist.”
Society and the Rat Race
Auman says that our society’s emphasis on the individual creates a void that becomes apparent to many once they become financially successful but still feel lacking. Compounding this problem is the feeling that pills and doctors can “fix” us, and we go on living our former lives. Spiritual growth is a journey that never ends, but is fulfilling nonetheless.
These days the emphasis on economic issues, while important, is overemphasized. In the recent presidential election, the candidates only talked about the quality of life in economic terms. The message: If you have money, then all of your problems are solved. But keeping up with the Joneses haven’t made Americans any happier. The Happy Planet Index (HPI), a ranking of 151 nations on happiness and well being, shows the United States ranking down the list of happy nations on par with sub-Saharan Africa.
But it is a mistake to completely divorce your mental and emotional health from the benefits of an understanding of how material wealth affects your life. A good therapist will integrate these issues with where you are and want to go on your spiritual path. After all, very few us are going to take a vow of poverty and become monks. A balanced approach to how our capitalist economy can accommodate simpler, more nourishing lifestyles will almost certainly push us upward on the happiness index.
When Spirituality and Reality Collide
So what if a broker on Wall Street finds that a spiritual path is taking her on a journey that exposes an underlying need for artistic expression? Does that mean her profession, and all the time and money preparing for it, are wasted? Not necessarily. A different approach to an occupation may be all that is needed to align one’s values with their current job. Life is more than your career, and satisfaction is often found outside of work.
In fact, it can be argued that our world would benefit from more enlightened bankers, CEOs and business leaders to begin to build an ethical structure for the economy to thrive with a long-term view. Of course, it is sometimes necessary for people to make career changes. This is where a spiritual psychotherapist can provide guidance that traditional therapy might miss.
Many people are uncomfortable talking about their spirituality, even though they feel it is an important subject. Having the comfort of knowing a therapist is open to exploring the topic can instill trust. Someone with a strict religious upbringing may need to “let go” of some deep-seated beliefs s/he learned while younger even though s/he has now embraced a new spiritual outlook.
Some family members and even friends are not supportive to those who seek a spiritual path. It can be hard to not have their blessing and resentment can take over. In therapy, methods are learned to stay focused on your own work and not let others derail your progress.
What Do I Believe?
It’s not uncommon for people to lack a spiritual connection. In fact, this is evident with more and more people identifying as non-religious and also non-spiritual. They may have never really thought about it deeply. It is important to examine feelings associated with spirituality honestly. Admitting that you don’t know is a start. Whether you end up agnostic, atheist, Christian or just identify as “spiritual” is all equally valid.
Finding a licensed therapist educated in spiritual psychology can also be difficult. Many unlicensed therapists may brand themselves as a “life coach” or as a guide to spiritual enlightenment.
The main thing to remember, notes Auman, is to make sure your therapist is licensed in your state. The days when you had to sacrifice sound mental health competence in your therapist for spiritual guidance is ending. “Finding your bliss can transform your life in ways you can’t imagine,” she says.
Mark Bizzell is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Danie van der Merwe, Spike (Flickr, Creative Commons).