The Role of Religion and Spirituality in Treatment

How religion and spirituality impacts treatment

More so than ever before, religion and spirituality are playing a central role in the therapeutic process. Part of the reason for this trend is studies that show the significant influence that spirituality and religiosity have on everyday life. For example, one study indicated that 61% of Americans consider themselves to be moderately or very religious, while one survey revealed that over 40% of Americans have had a religious experience that altered the course of their lives. Although the American Psychological Association has acknowledged that it has become increasingly commonplace to incorporate religion and spirituality into psychotherapy, at the same time this practice remains under-researched.

What is Spirituality?

Spirituality has been defined variously as, “a search for the sacred,” and as a “cultural fact.” Spiritually transcendent experiences present a unique dilemma for therapists. By definition, they seem to defy conventional thought about cognitive processes, development and/or change. For example, a spiritually transcendent experience can instantaneously alter a person’s point of view and/or behavior. In contrast, it is a psychological truism that since one’s problems did not transpire overnight, they cannot be solved overnight. This conventional thought is turned upside down when individuals report, as in the case of a spiritually transcendent experience, that their life, “changed in an instant.” As is often the case with a spiritually transcendent experience, what follows is not only a quick but an enduring change in behavior and thought.

There has long been a debate within the field of psychology as to what constitutes a spiritually transcendent experience. Transcendent is a word whose meaning suggests a departure from the realm of earthly, or grounded reality. Definitions of transcendent include: surpassing or exceeding usual limits, extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience, being beyond the limits of all possible experience, comprehension and knowledge, transcending the universe or material existence.  Individuals who report a transcendent experience usually describe it as an emotional, physical or mental leave-taking.

There are several avenues by which individuals report such leave-taking of the senses or physical realm, and researchers have studied these in-depth. For example, there are near-death experiences, drug-induced experiences and spiritual experiences. In terms of spiritually transcendent experiences, psychologists have historically considered these experiences to be a break from reality, and thus a form of pathological behavior. Nonetheless, transcendental experiences are recorded across cultures, including events such as apparitions and near-death experiences, and discussion as to whether these experiences are abnormal or miraculous has existed since they have been recorded. Premodern thought tended to view them as the latter, but the scientific method came a different way of viewing such phenomena.

Today researchers and clinicians recognize that transcendent experiences promote health and healing, as evidenced by a growing body of research which demonstrates the beneficial effect that religion and spirituality have on overall well-being.

A Matter of The Mind

The renowned 19th-century psychologist William James was an early believer in the view that one’s religious belief was strongly correlated to healthy psychological function. James was one of the first psychologists to consider transcendent experiences as significant and he posited that psychologists should study religion’s role in promoting mental health and that personal religious experiences should be a part of the therapeutic process.

In the 21st century, the originator of the Positive Psychology movement, Martin Seligman, has placed transcendent experiences among the positive events that can be used to increase well-being. Seligman has written extensively about the value and impact of virtues and strengths on character, with transcendence being one of them.

After studying the writings of eminent Eastern and Western thinkers, Seligman compiled a list of what he considers the virtues that are held in universal esteem: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. He describes transcendence as, “appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality.”

Spiritually transcendent experiences provide meaning and life-altering outcomes for untold numbers of individuals. And as such, these experiences deserve, perhaps demand, a place within the therapeutic milieu. As William James asserted, “in delusional insanity, paranoia as they sometimes call it, we may have a kind of diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down.”

So, while reports of loss of contact with the environment have historically been viewed as aspects of mental illness, e.g., depersonalization disorder, there is an intriguing and compelling body of evidence that points to such experiences not as mental health breakdowns, but as spiritually transcendent experiences. In fact, there are a plethora of modern-day experiences (that are much sought after), that contain elements of lack of contact with the environment or loss of control, experiences that have traditionally been viewed as psychopathological symptoms. These include peak experiences such as those described by Abraham Maslow, being in a state of flow as described by Seligman, and mindfulness.

A recent study found that 74% of subjects identified themselves as both spiritual and religious, with a belief in a higher power being a core aspect of both perspectives. As such, this is an exciting time for individuals who wish to participate in counseling and have their religion play a primary part in the process.

Across cultures and throughout history, transcendent events have been a part of the human experience. Although the individuals experiencing these phenomena may use different terms (or find no words at all) to describe their experience, there is a common thread among the reports, in that these experiences are described as acute yet long-lasting, powerful and impactful.

As such it is important to explore the profound significance of spiritually transcendent experiences within the therapeutic experience.

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