The journey to wholeness is a courageous sojourn into spirituality. Confronting fears and resolving hidden issues, seekers are guided by people who know the way through the psychological and spiritual minefields that keep individuals from knowing themselves.
Spiritual psychologists are the guides that help patients on this sojourn. These patients realize the importance of spirituality to their mental and physical wholeness. Using spiritually-sensitive methods and standard clinical procedures, therapists enable a profound unfolding that will help their patients better understand themselves, resolve conflicts, and find peace.
Most people have some sort of spiritual tradition as part of their culture. Typically, their childhood religion set their value structure and defined their self image. While religion is uplifting for some, for many others, religion is more problematic, resulting in fears, intolerant attitudes, self-loathing, isolation, and a host of psychological concerns that keep people from moving forward in their lives.
The exploration of an individual’s spiritual experience is a topic that touches every aspect of life. A typical spiritual history embodies everything from the innocence of childhood to memories of people they loved – from expectations of family, church and community, and identity issues of adolescence (see Adolescence Developmental Psychology) – to the disillusionment of adulthood. Many have lost their jobs and their homes or have had war experiences – and fear God has abandoned them.
Because issues of faith are foundational to self-worth and identity, therapeutic interventions in these areas makes real sense. A resolution of problems on the spiritual level often stimulates longer-lasting change because issues are addressed at a deeper level. A problem resolved in the heart is often no longer an issue for the mind.
Connecting with the Patient
The therapeutic process belongs to patients – its their recounting of their own experiences that constitutes the roadmap for their therapeutic journeys. As patients tell their stories, the therapist becomes the story mediator, listening actively and asking questions that have eluded patients. Guiding patients through their stories is a subtle process. Without being intrusive, a therapist must keep the process moving.
The therapist – client relationship is often characterized by a strong energetic connection between two equal souls. While intently focused on the patient – hearing what is said, what is not said, the language that is used, and the emotion that is expressed – the therapist observes the thought processes, body language, facial expressions, and senses the deeper implications.
Principles of Spiritual Psychology
Because spiritual psychology is informed by Eastern spirituality, the therapeutic context includes elements that aren’t found in more traditional approaches to psychotherapy. Those elements concern the nature of human connections with God, a Creator, or a universal energy. Even in Western spiritual contexts such as Christianity, the conversation must include spiritual perceptions and constructs such as the soul or the presence of – and communication with – the unseen.
Spiritual psychology is, broadly speaking, theistic. Traditional Western religions believe God is separate from humans – living in heaven – although sometimes “He” is spoken of as living in the heart. In Eastern thought, God is the universe, having created itself, continuing to create itself, and being inseparable from humans because they are part of the whole creation. Therapists need to be able to treat these important distinctions with respect.
The therapist and the patient join in an empathic way, to journey into the spiritual morass, examining beliefs, conflicts, misunderstandings, blockages – anything that stands in the way of the patient’s healing and self-realization. Their combined energies create a safe space that allows even the most painful issues to emerge and be discharged.
Spiritual psychology understands humans as multidimensional beings with aspects of themselves residing in their physical life, in the different consciousness levels of their minds that aren’t readily accessible in daily life, and in the ‘realm’ of the spirit. (See the box, “What are the three levels of the mind?”)
While the mind is the source of impressions of day-to-day life – watching, interpreting, and storing memories of what it sees – the spirit is the grand observer, the non-judgmental librarian, and the presence of each person’s inner wisdom. This repository of wisdom located in the spirit is the reason that learning to access the spiritual level is so important.
Goals of a Spiritual Psychologist
Expanding spirituality – Helping patients learn how to connect to their own inner wisdom is one of the most powerful tools a therapist has to offer. The ability to hear one’s wise inner voice requires a quiet mind. As patients become more connected to their Creator, they attune to the higher thoughts and universal values such as love, compassion, generosity, beauty, among others – that the inner voice reflects.
Meditation and prayer are the foundations for spiritual expansion. Mindfulness – the practice of bringing the mind into the present moment – teaches patients that they don’t need to react to everything. It gives them the space to simply observe. Other meditative exercises allow patients to spend time contemplating concepts such as compassion or oneness with God.
Spiritual seekers often take strength from the successes of others. Therapists conduct group therapy sessions to stimulate and inspire their patients. The interaction with others who are struggling with similar issues can open the door to greater perspectives, allowing patients to also feel compassion for themselves.
Working through the issues that cause patients to feel separated from their souls enables greater spiritual growth. Spiritual beliefs unfettered by doubt and insecurity promote confidence and inner satisfaction, reducing the neurotic concerns of the personality, such as insecurity and self-judgment.
Self-realization is an understanding of oneself as a divine creation, a being filled with promise and deserving the full presence of God. In Eastern spiritual terms, the point of the journey is to understand that as part of creation, no one has ever been – nor can ever be – separated from God. The realization that everyone is part of God addresses issues of abandonment or isolation, and helps patients understand that the illusion of separation is something they can change.
A spiritual therapist working with patients who subscribe to Eastern thought will prescribe an ongoing meditative practice as well as a body therapy such as Tai Chi or Akeido. He or she may also use guided imagery to help process past crises, or relaxation therapies and visualizations to enable patients to discover and appreciate their strengths, joys, loves, and passions.
Self-actualization is the next step in enabling a patient to integrate new understandings, talents, beliefs, and dreams in order to become his or her best “self.” Contemporary spiritual philosophy suggests that as aspects of God, human existence is most honored by individuals becoming the very best they can be. Self-actualized people feel the full support of all their dimensions and turn their attention toward the service of humankind.
Patients who are ready to self-actualize have an open and accessible channel to their spiritual source. Typically, they have an established meditative practice and have freed themselves from the burdens of social guilt and expectation.
Critics of spiritual psychology don’t understand how talking changes the soul. Talking is simply one of the ways humans process information. New thoughts and perspectives come from the examination of old ones. It’s a building process everyone has experienced, and one that is at the heart of the talking therapy and used by all psychological approaches.
A change of perspective comes from within the patient, not from the therapist. The therapist is only the activator or guide who suggests going down one road rather than another. It’s really the fortitude of patients – observing experiences and options – that enables them to makes the decision to change.
If you desire to help individuals with many of life’s challenges, and appreciate a spiritual focus in the resolution of workplace stressors, family life, career decisions, relationship issues, and personal growth concerns, consider spiritual psychology.
Spiritual psychologists must have a PhD in most states to practice, and certain licensing requirements might also apply. Contact schools for offering psychology degree programs to learn more about entering the field of spiritual psychology.