Psychotherapy and Spirituality: Birds of a Feather, by Gary L. Hellman, Psy.D, LP, LMHC
Psychotherapy and Spirituality are traditional methods of care for the soul. People use each of these methods to grow, to heal, and to face the deepest meanings of life. Each tradition focuses its effort in a rigorous practice as well as a thoughtful inquiry. However, these two traditions need some explanation when linked together. In this brief article, I would like to reflect upon some of the common themes and the new context in which these two traditions are increasingly used in tandem traditional methods of care for the soul. People use each of these methods to grow, to heal, and to face the deepest meanings of life. Each tradition focuses its effort in a rigorous practice as well as a thoughtful inquiry. However, these two traditions need some explanation when linked together. In this brief article, I would like to reflect upon some of the common themes and the new context in which these two traditions are increasingly used in tandem.
As a counseling center that serves the public, Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute operates in a fairly specific context. As licensed and certified psychotherapists we provide services to the community and to all people who come to us seeking assistance. We are a community of caring professionals. Often people have heard about our services through a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution, or frequently through their doctor, their employer or through a close friend.
Each person’s reasons for seeking counseling are unique; usually one event precipitates a call for help. Emotional pain such as depression and anxiety are very often what people describe when they first come into treatment. For some, life has become superficial, too commercial, and often meaningless. Frustration in relationships in family and in work life is plentiful. And in a large metropolis like New York City people are often very lonely.
Psychotherapeutic services have been organized in our society to address a person’s mental, emotional and interpersonal difficulties. A modern phrase suggests that treatments are for “behavioral health”. In our rational culture, a gulf has evolved between the exploration of the “sacred” area of a person’s life and the medical treatment directed to correct a “disorder”. It is fairly safe to say that most therapists have been reluctant, as well as untrained, to engage in or appreciate a person’s spiritual or religious life as a part of the resources for treatment.
In the light of the general need to care for and serve our large diverse culture and to protect the rights of all people from prejudice, we have established laws to ensure that a competent therapist is available; but this therapist may not necessarily be from the patient’s native tradition or religious heritage. As a culture, therefore, we have deferred to a rational scientific view in our thoughts about emotional and psychological care.
Spirituality’s Impact on Psychotherapy
As the twentieth century comes hurriedly to a close, there has been a decisive shift toward forms of psychotherapy that honor the deeply spiritual dimension of a person’s life. Psychotherapists therefore have taken additional training to learn about their own spiritual backgrounds in order to understand the psychological and spiritual dimensions of relationships that develop in treatment. The therapist must understand not only the “therapeutic frame of treatment” and the rich analytic traditions that explicate therapeutic processes, but also a deepening knowledge of spirituality and the importance of spiritual practices to each person in treatment. Each therapist learns to respect her personal spiritual depth as a vital dimension of a therapeutic process that is far more collaborative and interpersonal today than ever before.
A case in point
Recently a patient (whose characteristics have been altered to protect confidentiality) grew very angry with me. He wanted to know why God had caused his very serious illness and expected that I would know. My silence seemed simply to taunt him. From his perspective I was withholding vital information that perhaps could save his life or at least bring peace of mind. I found this interesting and disturbing. He was certain of three things: first, God had caused his illness; second, I knew why; and third, I wouldn’t tell him.
Now this is the one issue that a religious professional encounters in the process of treatment. After all, the patient supposes, isn’t my spirituality greater, deeper, and to be added to my psychotherapeutic training? If I was neither god, nor had no better ear to God than he, then what good was I?
My “ego spirituality” was cornered and defensive; indeed, why didn’t I have some answers, at least some soothing comfort? I am truly troubled by this illness. Though not AIDS, this illness, nevertheless, involves an overall decline of functioning and the prognosis is not good. I indeed truly care for this person both professionally and personally. I desperately wish for a cure, a miracle! I am also angry at God’s silence. My silence is lame in comparison, and in the anger of the moment, with no place to hide, and nothing facing us but the mystery of life, a protracted illness and an early death, we simply sit in the presence of that empty, silent void. My training as a therapist keeps me in my silence on behalf of the patient’s own process; my spirituality keeps me sitting in awe before the empty tomb of Christ, the mystery of death and life. Five minutes in such a state is a long time, and this hateful, angry silence lasted twenty!
At long last, my patient said, “You know, I just realized that if you knew why God had done this to me, you would have told me. And since you aren’t telling me, it must mean that you don’t know either! And that is an enormous relief to me.”
At that moment I experienced a large stone removed from my shoulders; my patient had become empathic with me and my longing ignorance, and we shared our longing and ignorance of the mystery of life and death.
In the closing minutes of the session, he said, “I had never realized quite so profoundly how we are both in this together, I mean you too! I am glad you are here with me.”
I said the only thing I knew: “Me too.”
Gary L. Hellman, Psy.D is Area Director in Greenwich Village of the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute. A Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, a Certified Pastoral Counselor, and a priest in the Episcopal Church, he has been a psychotherapist in New York City since 1975.