By David N. Elkins Ph.D., published on September 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
DURING THAT FIRST THERAPY SESSION 20 YEARS AGO HE LISTENED TO ME AS NO ONE had ever listened before. I told my story, the one I had rehearsed, but he heard the truth anyway. Near the end of the session, he said gently, "You are spiritually hungry." I began to cry. Me, a grown 31-year-old man. Because somewhere, deep inside, I knew he was right.
For the next two years, under the guise of psychotherapy, I was taught how to care for and feed my soul. The psychologist gave me the skills I needed to build a life of passion and depth. Today, as a clinical psychologist and university professor, I share this wisdom with clients and students because I believe that spirituality is essential to human happiness and mental health.
One of my graduate students told me she had gone for a walk on the beach in the late afternoon. As the sun was setting, she climbed onto a boulder at the water's edge. Gazing out to sea, she felt herself slowly becoming one with nature--with the sun descending toward the horizon, the waves crashing at her feet, the pastel colors that streaked the western sky. She said, "In that moment I felt eternity. I knew these things had gone on for millions of years before I came and that they would go on for millions of years after I'm gone. It felt good to be alive, to be part of all this. I was deeply moved and began to cry."
Contemplation, meditation, prayer, rituals and other spiritual practices have the power to release the "life force" in the deepest levels of the human psyche, levels that secular interventions cannot reach. Indeed, new evidence shows that religious and spiritual interventions can help when everything else has failed.
I encourage clients and students to first figure out what moves them deeply--whether it's Beethoven, Garth Brooks or the Grateful Dead, a hike in the mountains, or a day in an art gallery. Then, I help them design a regular, structured program to incorporate these activities into their life.
Studies show that most Americans want spirituality, but perhaps not in religious form. Researcher Wade Clark Roof, Ph.D., from the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that in the 1960s and 1970s baby boomers dropped out of organized religion in large numbers: 84% of Jews, 69% of mainline Protestants, 61% of conservative Protestants and 67% of Catholics.
Many left church and synagogue not because they had lost interest in spirituality, but because organized religion was not meeting their spiritual needs. In the 1990s and as we approach the millennium, it is obvious that Americans are becoming more expressively spiritual.
National polls show that 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God and consider religion important in their lives.
Spirituality is the fastest growing--one of the only growing--sector of the publishing industry, with literally millions buying books on the theme. Television programs such as Bill Moyers' "Genesis: a Living Conversation" and Hugh Hewitt's "Searching for God in America" have attracted large audiences. Newspapers and national magazines, including Newsweek, Time and the New York Times Magazine publish stories on "Faith and Healing," "Science, God, and Man" and "Choosing My Religion."
But this rekindling of interest is not only a return to traditional religion. An estimated 32 million baby boomers remain unaffiliated today, turning instead to Eastern practices, new age philosophies, Twelve Step programs, Greek mythology, Jungian psychology, shamanic practices, massage, yoga and a host of other traditions and practices. Many find spiritual fulfillment in music, poetry, literature, art, nature and intimate relationships.
The trend toward alternative forms of spirituality figures prominently on the spiritual landscape of America. More and more Americans are finding in spirituality what they're looking for in therapy--healing techniques and new inspiration.
As spirituality spreads, psychology can't decide to love it or leave it alone.
Back when it was a new science, psychology tried to distance itself from theological explanations of behavior and to discover its own truths through scientific inquiry Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, even declared religion to be nothing but a form of pathology--an obsessional neurosis that grew out of feelings of infantile helplessness.
Mental health professionals have learned from their own clinical experience that Freud was at least partly right--religion can be neurotic. Even those who are sympathetic to religion are reluctant to give it wholehearted approval. Many feel more comfortable referring clients struggling with these issues to a priest, pastor or rabbi.
BUT SOME OF THE MOST RESPECTED INDIVIDUals in the history of psychology--William James, Gordon Allport, Erich Fromm, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow and Rollo May--have made spirituality a major focus of their work. And Carl Jung went so far as to say that spirituality was such an essential ingredient in psychological health that he could heal only those middle-age people who embraced a spiritual or religious perspective toward life.
So like their forefathers, psychologists today are not unified on their attitude toward religion. But they confirm that it plays some sort of role in their patients' mental health.
In 1990, Edward P. Shafranske, Ph.D., of Pepperdine University, and H. Newton Maloney, Ph.D., of Fuller Theological Seminary, surveyed 409 members of the American Psychological Association about their approach toward religion and psychology. Nearly all respondents said they have assessed patients' religious backgrounds; 57% have used religious language or concepts with patients; 36% have recommended participation in religion; 32% have recommended religious or spiritual books; 24% have prayed privately for a patient; and 7% even prayed with a client.
From the rain dances of Native Americans to the celebratory dances of Hasidic Jews, from the whirling dervishes of Islam to the meditating monks of Zen Buddhism, from the ecstatic worship services of charismatic churches to the solemn, silent meetings of the Quakers, spirituality takes on many expressions.
The word spirituality comes from the Latin root spiritus, which means "breath"--referring to the breath of life. It involves opening our hearts and cultivating our capacity to experience awe, reverence and gratitude. It is the ability to see the sacred in the ordinary, to feel the poignancy of life, to know the passion of existence and to give ourselves over to that which is greater than ourselves.
Its aim: to bring about compassion. Its effect: good physical and mental health.
Supporting health benefits of spirituality is a growing body of research. The Harvard Medical School of Continuing Education presents a course, "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine," that brings together religious scholars and medical leaders from around the world to discuss the role of spirituality in the treatment of illness and pain.
Now in its fifth year, the course, under the direction of Herbert Benson, M.D., chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, attracts approximately 1,000 physicians, psychologists, nurses, clergy, social workers and health care administrators.
According to the professors who teach the course, approximately 60 medical schools now offer related classes--five years ago there were only three. And in 1996, a survey of 269 family physicians found that 99% believed prayer, meditation or other spiritual and religious practice can be helpful in medical treatment; more than half said they currently incorporate relaxation or meditation techniques into treatment of patients.
Herbert Benson has demonstrated in his research that while chronic stress is harmful to the body, daily meditation (a form of spirituality) can reduce stress and promote relaxation and overall well-being.
Today's research may be cutting edge, but the idea that spirituality heals is nothing new.
For thousands of years, long before the advent of modern medicine, people looked to spirituality for cures. Early animistic cultures believed spirits controlled everything, including sickness and health. In this system, the shaman--a person attuned to the spiritual world--was the archetypal healer.
When members of a tribe fell ill, the shaman used spiritual interventions to bring the patient back into harmony with the sacred world, to bring back their health. Cultures around the world today still depend on shamans for most of their health care.
Modern doctors don't give shamans much credit because they fail to subject their healing procedures to scientific verification. However, according to Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco and a leading expert on shamanism, the fact that shamans have survived over the millennia suggests that "they are doing something useful."
Not only do they use herbal preparations, such as Echinacea, that many of us now rely on, but they also use rituals and procedures that surprisingly resemble contemporary psychotherapies: Shamans establish rapport; they diagnose the problem; they initiate a healing process that often involves sophisticated use of imagery, dream interpretation, self-regulation and group support, says Krippner.
There are many explanations for the shamans' success rate. Most of us don't believe that shamanic ritual actually drives away evil spirits, along with our germs and diseases. The more palatable but cynical explanation is the placebo effect: If patients really believe they will get well by going through a shamanic ritual, then a certain percentage of those individuals will improve simply because of their positive expectations.
But shamanism may succeed for reasons beyond our current understanding, and without scientific inquiry, its healing power remains an enigma.
The best explanation for the effectiveness of spiritual interventions, whether performed by ancient shamans or modem day therapists, is that they draw upon the healing power of our "life force": our body's natural inclination to survive. Research in body/mind medicine is showing that we can either support or obstruct the life force by our beliefs, emotions and behavior.
Spiritual interventions heal--sometimes when traditional psychotherapy fails--because they untie the mental and emotional knots that prevent the life force from doing its work.
We have only recently begun to investigate the healing powers of religion and spirituality. We obviously need a lot more research in order to encourage HMOs, therapists and patients to see the value of spiritual growth for one's mental health.
Because spirituality is not just about healing. It's about the look of wonder on a child's face, the love we feel for a family member, the woods and fields after freshly fallen snow, the joy of soul-stirring music. It's about seeing the sacred in our lives--and opening the door to a life of passion and depth. These are the moments that feed our soul and make our lives worth living.
What is good therapy without these things?
Four Great Ways to Begin Your Spiritual Journey
RELAXATION AND MEDITATION "There is no greater source of strength and power for me in my life now than going still, being quiet and recognizing what real power is," says Oprah Winfrey on the segment of her daily television show called, "Remembering Your Spirit." Consult The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson (Dimensions, 1990), for a step-by-step guide to this kind of relaxation.
PRAYER Prayer may be the oldest spiritual practice and the most popular one in America. Almost all world religions consider a form of it central to spiritual life. "All the religions are true," says George Lucas, who plays on religious themes such as good and evil in his blockbuster Star Wars series. "Religion is basically a container for faith. And faith is a very important part of what allows us to remain stable, remain balanced." The mental and emotional release, along with a sense of connection to a transcendent dimension, may be at the heart of prayer's effectiveness.
SPIRITUAL READING Every world religion has writings it considers sacred. To help narrow the search, consult Who Reads What?, an annual list of the favorite reads of celebrities, which is rich with suggestions. Football coach Mike Ditka says the Bible puts everything in perspective for him. For Muhammed Ali, the Qu'ran is the best "spiritual, guiding book." A less traditional text, Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers (Dimensions, 1993) is a favorite of both talk-show host Leeza Gibbons and actress Carol Channing. Browse at your local bookstore or library until you find something that speaks to you.
TIME IN NATURE For Henry David Thoreau, who fled civilization to live on Walden Pond, nature was the temple of God and the perennial source of life. A powerfully spiritual moment--and one we have all experienced--is the instant we are confronted with earth's perfection and are filled with awe. The scientist Carl Sagan wrote about his time-in-nature experience: "The wind whips through the canyons of the American Southwest, and there is no one to hear it but us."
--David Elkins and Amanda Druckman
Thousands of Jewish people left organized religion in the 1960s and 1970s. But within the last 10 years, Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah, has drawn many back into the fold. "I felt there was something spiritually lacking," says actress/comedian Sandra Bernhard of her Jewish upbringing. When she was in her 40s, Bernhard's Brazilian fitness trainer introduced her to the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center. Kabbalah, an increasingly popular Jewish mystical tradition that developed in the 13th century, "offers a spiritual basis for all Jewish practices and traditions," Bernhard explains. "There is no real understanding of why you're Jewish without it."
But the lure of this medieval philosophy has transcended Jewish interest. Madonna is just one of the many non-Jewish celebrities who say Kabbalah has transformed her life. "It's about realizing how small my life is in the big picture," she says, "but on the other hand, how big it is. Kabbalah is about wonderment." Compared to the Catholic theology she was raised with, Madonna believes that Kabbalah is more adaptable to modern life.
Interest is spreading. Sarah Stich, a 16-year-old high school student in Colorado, checked out Kabbalah after seeing Madonna discuss her new passion on VH1, the music video channel. Stich signed up for an adult class in the Jewish mystical tradition because she thought it might give her the spiritual tools she needed to make herself happy. Tens of thousands of others have had the same idea: More than 29 new Kabbalah meeting places have opened in the last year around the country.
"The new popularity of Kabbalah shows that people are searching for deeper meaning," says Dovid Brownstein, a Hasidic Jew who was raised on practical Kabbalistic wisdom. "And this is wonderful, as long as the `fad' aspect of it doesn't dilute the tradition's real meaning."
Though dozens of studies have begun to examine religion's effects on our mental health, the subject has lacked sufficient funding for more in-depth research. Recently, however, The National Institute of Health Care Research, a nonprofit organization, began awarding grants up to $15,000 in support of academic projects exploring spirituality and psychiatry. Harvard University is one pioneer in the field of spirituality and mental health. Here is a sampling, according to some researchers, of what a dose of spirituality can do for you.
STRESS The Alameda County Study, which trails nearly 7,000 Californians, showed that West Coast worshippers who participate in church-sponsored activities are markedly less stressed over finances, health and other daily concerns than non-spiritual types (Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 1998).
BLOOD PRESSURE Elderly folks in a Duke University study who attended religious services, prayed or read the Bible regularly, had lower blood pressure than their nonpracticing peers (International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 1998).
RECOVERY In a Duke University study, devout patients recovering from surgery spent an average of 11 days in the hospital compared with nonreligious patients who spent 25 days (Southern Medical Journal, 1998).
MORTALITY Research on 1,931 older adults indicates that those who attend religious services regularly have a lower mortality rate. (American Journal of Public Health, 1998).
IMMUNITY Research on 1,700 adults found that those who attend religious services were less likely to have elevated levels of interleukin-6, an immune substance prevalent in people with chronic diseases (International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 1997).
LIFESTYLE A recent review of several studies suggests that spirituality is linked with low suicide rates, less alcohol and drug abuse, less criminal behavior, fewer divorces and higher marital satisfaction (Religion and Clinical Practice, 1996).
DEPRESSION Women with pious moms are 60% less likely to be depressed in 10 years than women whose mothers aren't so reverent, according to a Columbia University study. Daughters belonging to the same religious denomination as their mothers are even less likely (71%) to suffer the blues; sons were 84% less likely (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1997).
A Duke University study of 577 men and women hospitalized for physical illness showed that the more patients used positive religious coping strategies (seeking spiritual support from friends and religious leaders, having faith in God, praying), the lower the level of their depressive symptoms and their quality of life (Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders, 1998).
PHOTO (COLOR): Prayer may be the oldest spiritual practice and the most popular one in America.
The Healing Power of Faith: Science Explores Medicine's Last Great Frontier, Harold G. Koenig, M.D. (Simon & Schuster, 1999)
The Soul's Code, James Hillman (Random House, 1996)
Everyday Sacred: A Woman's Journey Home, Sue Bender (HarperCollins, 1996)
Adapted by PH.D.
David N. Elkins, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and professor of psychology in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University. He is the president of the Humanistic Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association and author of Beyond Religion: A Personal Program for Building a Spiritual Life Outside the Walls of Traditional Religion (Quest Books, 1998).