From Mindless Din to Deep Mindfulness
The journey of spiritually oriented psychotherapy
Posted Mar 22, 2018
Several years ago, I participated in a group exercise at a job orientation that became a guiding metaphor about how to tune in to my inner voice amid the clamor of modern life.
The goal of the exercise was to walk from one end of a large room to the other, blindfolded, while navigating an obstacle course of napkin “landmines” that had been scattered across the floor. In order to make my way, I would have to hone in on the voice of a single colleague, who stood on the opposite end of the room guiding me step by step, while others, through cacophonous din, tried to drown out my guide by shouting both good and bad directions. As I recall, it was a fun but difficult exercise, and I barely made it across.
Sometimes life can feel that way – like we are clambering through the darkness, unsure of which steps to take while distractions thunder around us. As for distractions, modern life offers plenty of them. From email, texts, advertising, social media, television and streaming videos, to family, colleagues, and friends, we are constantly being inundated with competing and often conflicting messages about how to lead fulfilling lives that will make us feel valued, loved, accepted, maybe even admired.
Ultimately, the questions become – how do we tap into the guiding voice that will lead us to our desired destination, steering us away from temptations and traps? And how do we embrace the journey with curiosity about, and compassion for our inevitable missteps?
Ask one who meditates, and they will swear by mindfulness – using breathing practices to observe our thoughts with emotional distance and objectivity. An artist, alternatively, will espouse the virtues of art, music, writing, dance, acting – as a mirror for reflecting our heart’s yearnings. A member of the clergy will likely direct you to practices and precepts aimed at connecting you to a higher power and universal truths, while a more classically trained psychoanalyst will invite you to probe unexpressed childhood feelings towards caregivers to free you from entrenched psychological complexes.
And they’d all be right, more or less.
That’s why if you ask a spiritually-oriented psychotherapist, you may find someone who embraces it all – mindfulness, creativity, religion, psychological inquiry, and more, as avenues to help people hear and follow that hushed inner authentic voice that whispers their truths – what some call the soul.
What is Spiritually-Oriented Psychotherapy?
What is a spiritually-oriented psychotherapist? A spiritually-oriented therapist is a licensed mental health professional who, among practicing a wide variety of therapeutic modalities, addresses the connection between mind, body and spirit and the role that people’s spirituality and religion, or lack thereof, plays in emotional health and well-being.
Although definitions vary, spirituality is often defined as a person’s sense of connection to something larger than themselves – described by the mythical Yoda as “an energy field created by all living things… (that) surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Encounters with this force often evoke a sense of love, presence, acceptance, joy, humility, oneness, and meaning.
Religion can, and often does, evoke a similar state of consciousness. However, religion is typically organized around a set of beliefs about reality that belong to a system of faith and worship, typically of a deity.
Spirituality may or may not play a role, especially when obedience to religious tenets is emphasized over personal soul resonance. While many religious people describe themselves as spiritual, spirituality does not presuppose a belief in God or a higher power.
Traditionally, many therapists have shied away from discussing religion and the spiritual dimension of the psyche because they felt out of their depth and wary of wading into ministry, or because, taking a cue from Freud, they pathologized such an orientation as symptomatic of magical thinking and neurosis.
But that is changing as research supports the benefits of a holistic approaches to mental health and mindfulness becomes more mainstream. Additionally, research has shown that healthy normative religious practices are often associated with better coping, and less depression, isolation, suicide, anxiety and substance use.
Facilitating Deep Listening
While spiritually-oriented therapists are trained in multiple modalities – for example, psychodynamic psychotherapy, CBT, and somatic therapies – some may also be ordained clergy. Using tools like mindfulness and creativity, spiritually-oriented therapists apply their knowledge of the psyche and sensitivity to spiritual/religious concerns to help clients get curious about the nature and intentions of the “voices” vying to guide their lives, and discern whether they resonate with, or push up against a deeper internal knowing.
Consider the group exercise I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Metaphorically speaking, the spiritually-oriented therapist is neither positioned as the guiding benevolent voice at the opposite end of the room, nor as one of the good advice-giving voices of the masses. Rather, he or she is a curious, observing presence that helps the client listen more deeply to the murmurs of the soul while holding a compassionate space for existential noise and turmoil.
What are the meaning and origins of the voices, and which resonate most deeply? What gets in the way of hearing and trusting one’s inner guide? Similar lines of therapeutic inquiry fine tune the clients’ inner ear to the steady or insistent whisperings of his or her soul, cutting through the cacophony on the path from confusion to clarity.