It is very frustrating to address psychological and spiritual growth in two separate arenas, and if help is needed to seek help from two different consultants – usually a psychotherapist and a minister or spiritual director. I specialize in bringing the two areas of growth and development together and interweaving attention to both areas. Though I work with clients of many religious and spiritual traditions, the focus of my own study and practice is on the integration of psychotherapy and spiritual growth with the aid of Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness, and meditation practice.
Psychological growth and spiritual development takes place within the three phases of 1) disorder and addiction, 2) existential issues of isolation, meaning, willing, responsibility, and death; and 3) spiritual development. Psychotherapy and consultation can address each of these phases in both a consecutive and interwoven fashion. Each area of development beautifully enhances and facilitates the others.
Contemporary life presents the challenge of learning how to be satisfied and feel joy in the midst of uncertainty and unmet needs. The primary focus of Buddhist philosophy is the effort to reduce anguish in the midst of dissatisfaction, illness, and death. However, often it is not only the more serious conditions that are causing distress in our society. It is rather the extensive and pervasive dissatisfaction and anguish moment by moment that torment so many. We live in a materialistic culture and have many expectations. When many of our needs are not met, we feel frustrated, dissatisfied, discouraged and empty.
Psychological and Spiritual Growth
Both of these areas are equally important. Psychologically, it is necessary to develop a clear and strong sense of self, a strong ego, and to work on the other goals and tasks that are standard in the psychotherapy process such as working through past traumas and family dynamics, learning how to change and transform negative emotions, developing balance in our lives, and living a healthy lifestyle.
As an extension of psychological development, it is possible to move further into our creative and spiritual potential – into a journey of exploration. My Zen teacher, Robert Aitken, often said, the practice of Zen is the perfection of character. Spiritual work involves a dedicated effort to reduce negative qualities and behaviors and to increase positive emotions, behaviors, and values. It is helpful to study the Buddhist precepts as ideals and guidelines and to reflect on higher positive qualities or virtues such as patience, tolerance, kindness, and compassion.
It is important to understand how each of us can move forward in our own psychological and spiritual growth and development, the differences between the goals and methods of psychological work and the goals of spiritual development and formation and how psychological and spiritual growth can be intertwined and integrated. Through our own efforts to have an awakening understanding and experience that can free us from suffering, we can find our way to reduce or be free from discouragement, anxiety, confusion, anger, fear, isolation, and alienation. Through such a spiritual pilgrimage and experience, we extend our awareness and concern for the larger environment – for all things – since it is possible to experience a personal self, body, and mind that momentarily is forgotten and falls away and a self/mind that includes all things.
Psychological growth and development includes extrication from disorders and addictions such as compulsive behaviors, generalized anxiety, or depression. It includes an effort to establish a strong and stable identity, as well as the development of self-esteem through self understanding, character change, and personal accomplishment. It includes the ability to change negative thought patterns, to manage emotions, and to change undesirable behavior. It includes developing skills, improving work and social relationships, maintaining primary relationships, and articulating values and goals. In short psychological development means establishing a healthy and functioning life with meaning.
Your psychological identity is the set of personal and behavioral characteristics which make up your unique personality. Many people come into therapy without a clear sense of their own identity. This lack of identity or sense of self is often because someone in the nuclear family had a strong, dominant or negative influence combined with a lack of validation and affirmation. Sometimes there is a tiny self inside, underneath everything else, that is barely in awareness, and is hidden and seldom expresses itself. Usually it is feared that if the self were to express itself, rejection would result, and the potential loss would be too frightening and overwelming. The task is to slowly get in touch with who you really are, work through the past negative relationships and fears, develop an awareness and acceptance of your strengths and weaknesses, become aware of your interests and values, and formulate your goals for the future.
My Zen teacher, Robert Aitken, said: “When you think of the number of happenstances that coalesced to produce you, then you realize how unique, and precious, and sacred you really are. Your task is to cultivate that precious, sacred nature, and help it to flower.” I always tell my clients, “Notice that he didn’t say ‘one of your tasks’”. He said, “Your task.” (Robert Aitken, Encouraging Words)
From the Buddhist perspective, both mindfulness practice and the daily practice of sitting meditation are the foundations of spiritual growth and experience. The primary component of Buddhist practice is sitting meditation. Meditation is an effort that requires diligence and discipline. It is through study and through meditation that understanding and insight can develop, as well as the experiences that lead to a deep level of joy, equanimity and peacefulness.
Your spiritual identity is a set of religious and spiritual values, beliefs, goals, and behaviors. We often think of spirituality in terms of interests or beliefs, but it is also important to look at spirituality in terms of behavior. What we are actually doing and how we are acting in our daily life is what really defines our spiritual identity at any particular time. Reading spiritual topics, or talking about spirituality, or even thinking about spirituality is not being spiritual. Reading, speaking, and thinking indicate an interest in spirituality. Our spiritual identity is the values, beliefs, and goals that we are living out in behavior in our current lives. This is a hard way to look at spirituality and may be discouraging. But it can also motivate us to learn how to put our spiritual interests and beliefs into practice.
Attachment and Detachment
When Sidharta Gautama sat and meditated under the Bodhi tree around 500 B.C., he realized that attachment is the cause of suffering. Our attachments are manifested as expectations, preferences, opinions, judgements, analyses, and discriminations. When these forms of cognition keep us from experiencing our pure sensory input and the natural environment, we suffer. With practice, problems, disappointments, setbacks, and frustrations still occur, but when “bad things” or negative events happen we can experience them with acceptance rather than be attached to the way we prefer things to be. It means that when we have a “bad day” that we can experience the bad day, too, as a good day — with peacefulness, gratitude even, and equanimity.
Self Center, “No-self”, and Compassion: In Jewish and Christian traditions, attention is not given to the loss of self except in the context of losing oneself in mystical union with the divine. But in Buddhist philosophy there is a specific focus on “no-self”. There is a great deal of confusion regarding this concept. It does not mean that one should not have an identity or sense of self. On the contrary, it is necessary to be well grounded in your identity and to have a strong foundation of a sense of self. To have a sense of your gifts as well as your accomplishments, and to own and integrate your memories, history, relationships, goals, and values are all important. In Buddhist teaching the experience of “no-self” can occur through a dedicated daily meditation practice. Robert Aitken often quoted his teacher, “The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.” In part “no-self” means pure experience without preferences and discriminations. It is letting go of attachments and aversions. Dogen Zenji said, “All you have to do is cease from erudition, withdraw within, and reflect upon your self. If body and mind should fall away naturally, the Buddha mind will immediately manifest itself. If you want to find it quickly, you must start at once.”
Transformation and Spiritual Practice
In the book, Ethics for the New Millennium, His Holiness The Dalai Lama writes, “Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony which brings happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected to religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system…. Thus spiritual practice according to this description involves, on the one hand, acting out of concern for others’ well-being. On the other, it entails transforming ourselves so that we become more readily disposed to do so. To speak of spiritual practice in any terms other than these is meaningless.”
Whether you are working on self esteem, anxiety or depression, relationship issues, career development, creativity or other issues we can address each issue from both psychological and spiritual perspectives. My clients have very different religious and spiritual histories and beliefs. I work with each within the context that is their own unique framework.