As the Windhorse approach is a form of contemplative psychotherapy, it is rooted in a whole person perspective. This points to viewing a person in the entirety of their being: their physical, social, and mental-spiritual world. And as it’s becoming more widely recognized that mental health challenges are a whole person phenomenon, leaders in psychology as well as the faith communities have begun to identify the need to better integrate psychological and spiritual approaches in order to optimize conditions for recovery.
One of the national leaders in this recognition is the Interfaith Network On Mental Illness, which was co-founded in Boulder, Colorado in 2007 by Joanne Kelly and Reverand Alan Johnson. Below is a statement from their website (email@example.com):
Our mission is to increase awareness and understanding of mental illness among clergy, staff, lay leaders, and members of faith communities. We also seek to educate therapeutic professionals, family members, and the general public about simple things that can help someone struggling with a mental illness, including their spirituality/faith. We aim to help everyone, especially faith communities, more effectively develop and nurture supportive environments for persons dealing with mental illnesses, as well as their families and friends.
Another leader is psychologist Dr. Ken Pargament. He has been on the vanguard of this evolution as a clinician, teacher, and author, and his book Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy is a seminal work in this emerging area of study and practice. On May 16 – 18 of this year, Dr. Pargament was the featured presenter in a conference organized by INMI and co-sponsored by Windhorse Community Services. The conference was titled, Sacred Matters: Integrating Spirituality into Mental Health Care and Mental Health Care into Faith Communities.
Just prior to the start of the conference, Dr Pargament participated in a podcast recording that will be aired June 8th, on the Windhorse Journal. As a preparatory companion to the topics covered in the podcast, below is an excerpt from Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy (pages 342 – 345). We hope you find this as inspiring and useful as we do, and we invite you listen to the lively and informative conversation captured in our podcast.
NO NEED TO WHISPER
Throughout this book, I have encouraged clinicians to take a closer look at the spiritual dimension of life. In the process, I hope it has become clear that there is no longer any need to whisper about spirituality in psychotherapy— not to our clients, not to other therapists, and not to ourselves. Let me highlight four reasons why it makes good sense to give spirituality a greater voice in psychotherapy.
- Reason 1: Spirituality is a natural and normal part of life. In the past, many therapists whispered about spirituality or avoided the topic entirely because they didn’t know what to say. It is true that there are special challenges in trying to make sense of this elusive process. Yet spirituality does not fall outside the realm of human knowledge and comprehension. We can develop a better understanding of spirituality just as we can learn more about other dimensions of life: biological, psychological, and social. This understanding must go beyond simple stereotypes if we are to do justice to the richness and complexity of spirituality. In developing this understanding, we must also avoid the temptation to view spirituality as illusory, as a set of beliefs and practices ostensibly devoted to the sacred, but in reality designed to satisfy more basic needs. Spiritually integrated therapy rests on the fundamentally different premise that the yearning for the sacred is a primary, irreducible aspect of human nature. The sacred speaks to our deepest dreams and aspirations, the truths we hold to be timeless, our sense that there is something that lies beyond our everyday experience, and our most fundamental assumptions about why we are here, how we should live our lives, and what if anything we leave behind. Any psychology of human behavior remains incomplete without an appreciation for the motivation to know and connect to the sacred.
- Reason 2: Spirituality contributes to a more complete accounting of human strengths and weaknesses. Even though spirituality is a natural and normal part of life, it is not inherently good. Spirituality does speak to the best of human nature. As we have seen, a wide range of empirical studies and clinical reports point to the same conclusion: spirituality plays a positive role in the lives of many people. But we have also seen that the sacred quest can go awry in as many ways as a car can break down: people can define the sacred in narrow, constricting ways that squeeze the life out of themselves or others; they can elevate themselves to the position of gods; they can follow pathways that destroy the spiritual goals they are trying to achieve; they can freeze the search for the sacred into static, lifeless form: and so on. I have presented a way to distinguish spirituality at its best from spirituality at its worst through the notion of spiritual integration. But regardless of whether it is part of the problem or part of the solution, expressions of spirituality reflect a natural human desire: the desire to know something transcendent, something boundless, and something of ultimate value and truth.
- Reason 3: Spirituality is a therapeutic fact of life. The reality is we cannot divorce spirituality from the therapeutic process. The choices are to be more explicit about it, to tiptoe around it, or to reduce it to something else. I have argued for the former approach—to take spirituality seriously in its own right—because doing so makes for better treatment. Like it or not, spirituality is fully interwoven into human experience, including what takes place in the therapy room. The question, then, isn’t whether to address spirituality in psychotherapy. Therapeutic neutrality toward spirituality is impossible. As with every other dimension of behavior, spirituality will be shaped one way or another by the therapy process. The real question is how we choose to address spirituality in psychotherapy.
- Reason 4: We are now in a position to move from theory to practice. I have not written a cookbook here. Because people see the sacred and approach it in so many diverse ways, there can be no single approach to dealing with spirituality in therapy, no single course of treatment. However, spirituality can be assessed as carefully, thoughtfully, and systematically as any other dimension of life. Questions about a client’s spirituality are just as important as questions about his or her medical history, social relationships, and emotions. Therapists can encourage their clients to draw on their spiritual resources in therapy, just as they encourage them to access other resources, such as medical help, social support, physical exercise, and self-help books. Therapists can also address a variety of spiritual problems that may interfere with clients’ health and well-being, just as they would attend to other problems that pose a barrier to change. Practitioners do their clients a great service when they understand and address spirituality as a significant issue in and of itself, a potential resource as well as a potential source of problems. In contrast, practitioners who overlook spirituality in treatment diminish their effectiveness as helpers, for they neglect the part of life that makes people most distinctively human.
In short, times have changed. Mental health professionals can now talk about spirituality openly and unapologetically. There is no need to whisper. We do, however, need to become more spiritually literate and articulate as individual clinicians and as a helping profession. There is more work to be done.
PUTTING THINGS TOGETHER
In the preface of this book, I said that I believe in a “unified field theory,” a perspective that could link a way to understand spirituality, based on theory and research, with a way to address spirituality in our efforts to help people. We aren’t there yet, but we are taking some promising steps in the direction of “putting things together” for our clients and for ourselves as therapists.
Of course, helping clients achieve greater spiritual integration in the course of psychotherapy is not a panacea; it does not lead to a life free of failure, longings, or pain. It means confronting challenges as best we can, while recognizing our limits as human beings. Attempts to eliminate all suffering, experience all there is to experience, or refuse to see that every choice comes with loss are bound to fail. Integration means a life that is constructed as much around defeat and hurt as around attainment and joy. This is certainly not a new idea, but spirituality at its best offers another perspective, a different way of viewing the world. Through the sacred lens, we see that pain and loss, while part of life, are only that. They are not the full story and they don’t have the last word: in suffering, we can find meaning and purpose; in the confrontation with human limitations, we can discover new sources of strength and inspiration; in the most difficult of relationships, we can transcend self-preoccupation by attending to the pain of someone else. And, through the lens of the sacred, we can see ourselves in broader perspective, as small but significant parts of the larger stream that flows through and beyond our individual lives.
Spirituality at its best also offers a different way of viewing psychotherapy. Seen from the perspective of the sacred, the therapy office is more than a room; it becomes sacred space. The role of therapist is more than a job; it becomes a vocation. The relationship between client and therapist is more than a professional working alliance; it becomes imbued with sacred power. Furthermore, once sanctified, psychotherapy functions like other sacred objects: generating sacred emotions of awe, gratitude, humility, and trepidation; serving as a center of identity and self-definition for the therapist; and becoming a resource that supports the practitioner throughout his or her career (Brady, Guy, Poelstra, & Brokaw, 1999; Oman, Hedberg, Downs, & Parson, 2003). I like the way therapist Nancy Devor (2002) put it: “I am aware at times of the power I hold and how tender a plant, the human spirit. One should never enter the therapy room without humility. . . . I cannot imagine having the courage to do this work without faith” (p. 3). Thus, the integration of spirituality into psychotherapy adds a vital dimension to the way we understand our work. When we look at psychotherapy through the lens of the sacred, we transform the way we see our clients, ourselves, and the nature of change.
Kenneth Pargament is professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University and Adjunct Professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor Medical School. He has served as Distinguished Scholar at the Institute of Spirituality and Health in Houston. He has published over 300 articles on religion, spirituality, and health, and authored The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice and Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred. Dr. Pargament is Editor-in-Chief of the 2013 two-volume APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality.
Among his awards are the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association in 2009, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ohio Psychological Association in 2010, the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Professional Chaplains in 2015, and the first Applied Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Award from Division 36 of the American Psychological Association. He received an honorary doctor of letters from Pepperdine University. He was recently acknowledged as one of the 50 most influential living psychologists.