There is something about the notion of spiritual transformation in psychotherapy that really appeals to me, and I think this is partially based on my respect for the work of one man in particular – William James. James is considered the father of psychology, and his best known work – Varieties of Religious Experience – extracted from a series of lectures over 100 years ago (1911), is still a classic.
Throughout the book is the ongoing theme of spiritual transformation, or to put it more concretely, a change, sudden or gradual, in the way we relate to the entirety of our being. In terms of spiritual transformation, this can mean feeling closer to God, or more connected to the Universe – but optimally for the purposes of therapy – to humanity. Ultimately, spiritual transformation allows a person to connect with some universal truth, and the essence of themselves that remains pure despite misfortune, trauma, depression etc.
Detriments to therapeutic progress can often be characterized as a feeling of isolation from or inferiority to others. But in terms of our collective humanity, this doesn’t make sense. We are all in this together. We know this, but this knowledge does not change what someone who is suffering from depression and anxiety actually feels. To feel a sense of separateness from others can be both a symptom and a cause of psychic distress.
What if we were able to see beyond that, to the truth of our connectedness? This may require some kind of transformation in our worldview. However, to have some insight into the totality of being can be a powerful experience. But how can this be achieved? I have a few ideas based on experience and on research that might be helpful.
Meditation is often regarded as the most accessible way to achieve this connection. Not only does this put us in touch with the spiritual dimension through contemplation and silence, but importantly, ongoing practice increases grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that maneuvers social relationships, in terms of decreasing fear responses and increasing connectedness.
Ritualistic practice of other sorts have always been prescribed for the existential issue of mortality, limitation and misfortune. Even if one is not religious – and by no means does one have to be to have a spiritual practice – the ritual of practicing being connected to something greater can the “true self” at the core of us all. Practicing a ritual, whether within the context of organized religion or more secular forms of practice such as yoga, meditation, being in nature, a regular volunteer gig, or other personal rituals can be invaluable in providing the sort of connection to transcendence that allows us to see a way beyond our material and psychological limitations.
Read the spiritual masters. There is a plethora of spiritual and transformational literature out there to help you make sense of things. Go for the classics, and use YouTube to help you along. Some of my personal favorites: Buddhist Dharma, the Bible, Carl Jung – Modern Man in Search of A Soul, Plato, of course William James – Varieties of Religious Experience. Two fantastic books that really get to the bottom of it: Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning and the great Tao de Ching, of which I am slowly blogging away. These books contain wisdom for the ages, and in the case of some of the ancient texts, the collective wisdom of generations.
While still somewhat controversial and of course illegal, the use of hallucinogens to achieve this is not a method that should be disregarded. James himself reported powerful feelings of connectedness through his own experimentation. The MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has taken the transcendental hallucinatory experience seriously for therapy of substance abuse, PTSD and depression. In the throes of a hallucinogenic state, many report connecting to the totality of being and can emerge from the experience with a new sense of connection and of feeling that one’s place in the universe is solid and that one’s being is valuable. MAPS ongoing research that continues to yield promising results will likely change the illegal status of certain substances in the near future.
Above is the great Carl Rogers, whose method was to cultivate “congruence” – to enable us to line up what we really are with what we feel we are and how we act.
Last, but far from least, transcendence is something that can be accomplished through therapy, no doubt – and as a therapist I truly believe this. Therapy itself, through connecting with an attuned and welcoming therapist allows a patient to explore themselves and their totality with encouragement and without judgment of their “true selves”. Ongoing exposure to the therapeutic relationship in which one discovers and gives voice to parts of the self that were stunted through a variety of developmental and environmental factors are allowed to blossom, and old defenses that are not longer needed can diminish and can cease “hijacking” the patient. As the “true self” strengthens, so does the capacity to tolerate others flaws and to empathize, and ultimately feel connected.