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Spirituality and Psychotherapy

by Bruce McCarter, Psy.D. (originally published Fall ’05)

THE TOPIC OF SPIRITUALITY AND PSYCHOTHERAPY is very much a “hot” one in the fields of psychology and mental health. Its roots date back to William James and Jung but for many years it was considered unscientific, in the last 15 years or so there has been a steadily increasing interest and acceptance in the importance of attending to not only the mind but also the body and the spirit. We have come to recognize some of the limitations of our scientific reductionist heritage. The experience of clients and providers alike revealed that our tendency to compartmentalize the mind and body, and usually ignore the spirit, often resulted in temporary “fixes” without healing at the core. While “whole person” care used to be associated with alternative or new age approaches, it has become much more mainstream.

One potential danger in including issues of spirit in the mental health equation is that the provider may in some way impose his or her beliefs on the client. It is possible, however, to encourage people to cultivate the vitality of whatever spiritual tradition is already present in their life. If there is no active connection to a spiritual path then the provider may simply encourage the individual to explore and pursue whatever path or tradition feels right to them. For some this may simply mean taking time to honor their inner life through such activities as journal writing, walking in nature, artwork, or taking time for quiet contemplation.

By taking care of ourselves in these ways we are exercising some of the few areas that we actually have some control over in our lives. This can be very empowering. Currently one of the most common techniques that is being applied from a spiritual tradition is that of mindfulness training. Mindfulness is most frequently associated with Buddhist meditation, but as a mental “skill” Buddhism does not have a monopoly on it. Mindfulness refers to the trained capacity to reflect and bear witness to one’s unfolding mental process and emotions without judgment, without reactivity. This ability has many benefits and applications. From chronic pain to anxiety and depression, mindfulness has helped people arrive at new insights and perspectives on their moment-to-moment experience. Here at Windhorse mindfulness is cultivated through contemplative practice, primarily on the part of staff, and basic attendance. When staff engage in mindfulness and contemplative practices it helps them find greater balance and calm in their mental states. They are thus able to be more present and attuned in their “basic attendance” shifts with clients. Mindfulness has been proven a formidable antidote to burnout.

Basic attendance benefits clients on many levels, helping people shift from disturbing mental content to focusing on what is happening right now, in their body, in their interactions with others, and in the tasks we all need to complete in order to function in our lives. Basic attendance also fosters a different quality of therapeutic relationship, a spaciousness that leaves more room for people to be authentically themselves, to find trust, and to find common ground.

In short, we are not really adding spiritual issues to our therapeutic work as much as we are simply recognizing that a spiritual component is already there. Intrinsically unfolding in our efforts to negotiate lives in which there are so many paradoxes and mysteries.
Dr. McCarter is vice president of the board of directors here at Windhorse. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He is the founder and director of the Ahimsa Institute for Buddhist and Peace Studies. He welcomes further dialogue on this topic with any who might be interested.