Therapy for Spiritual or Religious Issues

Helping People Bridge the Spiritual and Mundane

Scientific psychology cannot fully explain spiritual mysteries. Parapsychology has made important advances but is often unfairly debunked by rationalists who ignore repeated findings of well-controlled experiments (see Radin, 1997). 1 But no pronouncement of science can deny that spirituality and religion are crucial inner realities for many people. I believe that psychotherapy can uniquely help people on spiritual journeys.

People may have intense and challenging experiences on that journey. Sometimes they may find themselves in a spiritual crisis. My focus is not on spiritual emergencies, but there are resources available that can be found with an internet search, which can bring up pages like this one on the ACISTE website. Although experienced with emergencies, that is not my practice focus. As an outpatient therapist I work with people who can reliably cope, are not at risk or in crisis, do not have thoughts of self-harm, and are seeking to grow. Here’s a link for more on my acceptance criteria.

As someone interested in the interface between science and mysticism, I have also been exploring the subtle energy aspects of spirituality. For those similarly interested, please see the section on transpersonal and Jungian psychology in my writing.

When one has a spiritual experience, it usually stirs up personal issues and wounds. It can also raise important questions by disrupting one’s previous worldview and calling into question old habits. Emotional turbulence that follows such encounters can be grist for the mill of psychological growth. Psychotherapy occupies a place in between transcendent experience and worldly life. It can serve a bridging function, helping one forge stronger connections between spirituality and everyday life.

The Call of Spirit

Spiritual experience may come through dreams, synchronicities (meaningful coincidences), the yearnings of the heart, and the strivings of the mind. It often first appears during times of crisis, great loss or personal challenge, despair or emptiness, or when one suffers and sees no solution. For some, spiritual awakening can come out of the blue, without any personal crisis, or as the result of prayer, meditation, or an intense physical experience, such as childbirth or life-threatening injury or illness.

Typical Issues Addressed

As a psychotherapist, I believe that respecting a person’s religious beliefs is similar to honoring their ethnic or cultural diversity. I don’t attempt to define spiritual truth or favor any religious tradition. I have worked successfully with people of various beliefs and traditions that honor the wisdom of basic human kindness. I only address spiritual concerns if a person brings these to therapy. Although the following list is not complete, issues we may address psychologically include:

  • Struggling with belief and doubt
    • Questioning one’s faith or beliefs
    • Wondering whether to cling to belief or also allow learning through experience
    • Concerns about a spiritual teacher, guru, pastor or priest
    • Perplexed with the Higher Power concept in 12-step programs
    • Discerning spiritual bypass — where spirituality is used as defense — from giving spiritual practices enough chance to succeed
    • Overcoming spiritual inflation — often people first having spiritual experiences can develop a sense of specialness. I don’t believe a person needs any spiritual experiences to live a spiritual life, one that is focused on love, truth, integrity and service
  • Health issues
    • Discerning spiritual experience from mental illness
    • Coping with mental illness without denying spirituality
    • Wondering whether physical symptoms are spiritual side-effects 2
  • Relationships
    • Conflicts caused by differing spiritual or religious beliefs
    • Friends or family don’t respect, support or understand your spirituality
    • Maintaining relationships despite inner turmoil and ecstasy
    • Increased needs for time alone
    • Exploring your relationship to the divine by recognizing your concept or image of God 3
    • Outgrowing old relationships
  • Increased sensitivity
    • Energetic activation of thoughts and feelings
    • Coping with intense emotions, thoughts and perceptions
    • Contagion of feelings
    • Intuitive perceptions
    • Sensing non-physical presences and discerning this from mental health issues or brain phenomena 2
  • Exploring the mystery of dreams and visions
    • Precognition
    • Clairvoyance
    • Lucid dreams
    • Big dreams that seem to comment on larger realities than your life
    • Out-of-body experiences (OBEs)
    • Exploring dreams that seem mundane to find guidance for living
  • Self-discovery
    • Increased self-knowledge
    • Increased love
    • Finding one’s vocation

Readers familiar with Jungian psychology will find a detailed discussion of spirituality and psychological transformation in my dissertation. Its introduction and a full copy in text-searchable format can be accessed through the following link: Individuation and Subtle Body: A Commentary on Jung’s Kundalini Seminar. (An excellent study aide for reading the dissertation is Samuels, A., Shorter, B., & Plaut, F. (1986). A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Inc.)

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1. Radin, D. S. (1997). The conscious universe: The scientific truth of psychic phenomena. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

2. Whenever you have physical symptoms you find troubling, I’ll refer you to a physician to be examined for physical illness. Such referrals are a necessary safeguard that leaves us free to explore psycho-spiritual phenomena that may be experienced physically.

3. Just as people have relationships with other people that may be healthy or unhealthy, their attitudes toward spirit may be shaped by what they learned in early family relationships. Or, in some cultural worldviews, attitudes may be shaped by past life experiences. For example, a person who was made to feel guilty by their parents may feel guilty when they attempt to relate to God. As they heal the negative impact of their early relationships, they may open more fully to their experience of God. I differentiate the image or experience of God, otherwise known as the Godhead, from the Creator, because one’s God image may be distorted by conditioning. It is for this reason that some religious traditions refer to the actuality of God beyond the God image as being indescribable or transcending attributes.