Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Spiritual Interventions in Psychotherapy

Spiritual interventions can be essential to facilitating recovery and change. At times these could include:

  • Educating the patient about the spiritual emergence process that is part of a spiritual journey with a potentially positive outcome
  • Encouraging the patient's involvement with a spiritual path or religious community that is consistent with their experiences and values
  • Encouraging the patient to seek support and guidance from a credible and appropriate religious or spiritual leaders
  • Encouraging the patient to engage in religious and spiritual practices consistent with their beliefs (e.g., prayer, meditation, reading spiritual books, acts of worship, ritual, forgiveness and service)
  • Modeling his/her own spirituality (when appropriate), including a sense of spiritual purpose and meaning, hope, and faith in something transcendent

    Role of Psychotherapy
    Psychotherapy can help patients with religious and spiritual problems to shape their experience into a coherent narrative, to see the "message" contained in their experiences, and to create a life-affirming personal mythology that integrates their spiritual problem. These three phases of psychotherapy directed toward that integration are described below. In addition, spirituality plays a special role in psychotherapy with such patients.

    Phase 1: Telling the Story of the Experience
    Psychotherapy can be seen as a process of helping clients construct a new narrative, a fresh story of their lives. Psychotherapy does not consist in the cathartic healing effect of releasing traumatic repressed events and their emotions, but in reconstructing a person's authentic story.

    People who have had spiritual emergencies often do not receive validation for their experiences, or even the opportunity to talk about them. In the three case studies I have researched and published (Case Library), the hospital records did not mention any of the spiritual content present in these patients' episodes. The inpatient chart notes simply described them as delusional, having religious hallucinations, being preoccupied with space aliens, and making claims of having special powers. That information alone was sufficient to make the diagnosis of a psychotic disorder. In the medical model, further exploration of person's experiences would be unnecessary and could even exacerbate symptoms by reinforcing his/her "delusional system." Yet all three reported that working with me to put their story into writing was very helpful to them.

    The conventional practice of discounting the meaning of spiriutal emergencies is not therapeutically productive. The spiritual emergency itself isolates the individual from others. Then the subsequent devaluation and condemnation of the experience as "only the product of a diseased mind" results in further isolation, just when the person needs to reconnect to the social world. Thus, speaking one's story, putting the experience into words, is usually the first step in developing a life-affirming personal mythology that integrates the spiritual dimensions of the crisis.

    Phase 2: Tracing its Symbolic/Spiritual Heritage
    People in such crises do want their spiritual backgrounds and values to be taken into account. In my own spiritual emergency, I spent 2 months firmly convinced that I was a reincarnation of Buddha and Christ and was on a mission to write a new "Holy Book" that would unite all the peoples of the world. And I had been raised as a Jew! So, once I was back with both feet on my ground, this gave me great cause to explore these forms of spirituality with which I'd had minimal contact. In retrospect, I consider this period to be my spiritual awakening. But I could integrate it only after several years of therapy and work with traditional healers.

    The treatment literature documents that there is much therapeutic value in addressing a person's religious delusions. In cases where the person developed the grandiose delusion that they were God or the messiah, these stereotypical delusions of grandeur, inflation, and possibly inappropriate or demanding behavior could be embarrassing to the person. But the valid religious/spiritual dimensions of the experience can be salvaged through psychotherapy: What remains . . . is an ideal model and a sense of direction which one can use to complete the transformation through his own purposeful methods. -- John Weir Perry.

    I now view my own experience of having been Buddha and Christ as the ideal models for my spiritual life, and this has given me a sense of direction. My career as a psychologist researching spiritual crises, and my spiritual path derive from that event.

    James Hillman, Ph.D., maintains that: Recovery means recovering the divine from within the disorder, seeing that its contents are authentically religious. This recovery often involves helping patients reconcile their idiosyncratic personal symbols with parallels in symbolism and religious imagery. Eliade pointed out that the personal unconscious and "private mythologies" (which are part of spiritual emergencies) cannot awaken an individual. It requires: The general and the universal symbols [to] awaken individual experience and transmute it into a spiritual act, into metaphysical comprehension of the world.

    Much of my work in Jungian analysis consisted of learning how to explore the meaning of my personal symbols as they appeared in dreams and in my own spiritual emergency. This search for meaning by exploring parallels in traditional myths and religious texts has also played a role in the integration of many of the spiritual emergency patients with whom I have worked.

    Phase 3: Creating a New Personal Mythology
    People want more from therapy than a clear account and chronology (phase 1) and symbolic analysis (phase 2). They want an expanded and deepened sense of the meaning of their lives. Weaving the spiritual emergency into a life affirming personal mythology is essential for positive transformation and integration of the experience.

    Personal Mythology (Definition)
    Each of us has a personal mythology — beliefs about life that make up our view of the world. Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., co-author of The Mythic Path: Discovering the Guiding Stories of Your Past — Creating A Vision for Your Future, defines a personal mythology as an individual's system of complementary and contradictory personal myths. A personal myth is a cognitive-affective structure consisting of strongly ingrained beliefs with potent emotional components. Personal myths shape our expectations, and guide our decisions. They influence the way we behave with other people. They address life's most important concerns and questions, including...

  • Identity--Who am I? Why am I here?
  • Direction--Where am I going? How do I get there?
  • Purpose--What am I doing here? Why am I going there? What does it all mean?

    Personal Mythology in Psychotherapy
    When people encounter religious and spiritual problems, they are usually dealing with the existential issues delineated as part of personal mythology. So they need to develop a more sustaining personal mythology for who they are at that moment. Unfortunately, with spiritual emergencies, many of the personal myths that people develop are "dysfunctional." They emphasize pathological qualities and are not attuned to the person's actual needs, capacities, or circumstances.

    The therapist's task is to help such patients develop a new personal mythology. This is a narrative approach to psychotherapy focusing on the shared retelling of the patient's story, reconstructing it for the patient's benefit.

    Personal myths are developed using...
  • biological sources--physical limitations, genetic endowments
  • cultural sources--economic and political systems, books, movies, folklore
  • personal history--family, romantic relationships, friendships, work

    Spiritual sources often play a significant role in shaping personal mythologies. They can include nonconsensual reality experiences such as visions, past-life experiences, parapsychological experiences, and also spiritual emergencies. Such spiritual sources involve transcendence of ordinary life concerns and an experienced contact with a "higher" or "deeper" reality.

    Spiritual emergencies often involve experiences of this type which can become the foundation for a new personal mythology. The therapist can help post spiritual emergency patients build a new personal mythology with spiritual sources drawn from their crisis.

    Source: Spiritual Interventions in Psychotherapy

    See also:
  • Spirituality and Psychiatry
  • Therapeutic Interventions: Spiritual Crisis
  • Mental Health and the Torah
  • Healing Through Books: Bibliotherapy