Spiritual Struggles

Spirituality and Therapy

Struggles with spirituality or religion often cause significant emotional and psychological distress. I’ve worked with many clients who feel profoundly troubled by questions of spirit. However you define these questions, whether in a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, pagan, atheist, agnostic, or any way, something about human nature wants to ask about the nature of soul, spirit, God, or other realities that we know very little about but find ourselves deeply curious to discover.

While certain individuals don’t seem so oriented to spiritual concerns, at least until trauma, illness, or the prospect of death comes up in their lives, others were either born wondering about these concerns or were brought up in families or religious communities that put spiritual questions at the forefront of consciousness.

So why and how do spiritual concerns become struggles that can cause a person to suffer emotionally? This is a complex question, but let’s consider a few of the reasons. We live in a culture dominated by the success of the natural sciences and an awareness of the historical origins of religions. Both of these tend to make us uncertain about the “old time religion” that we may have grown up with. What seemed like clear and certain knowledge of who God is and how to know God, for example, may crumble when a person starts studying the world through the lens of natural science.

Suddenly questions come up, such as whether what we call God might be the result of certain structures in the human brain that create an image of an ultimate reality. Or we start seeing that the holy scriptures of our religion contain contradictory information if read in a very literal way, and this shakes our faith. We don’t know what to believe anymore. Or the spiritual leaders we had trusted end up betraying our trust in some way, and we are left in a crisis of faith. Or it dawns on us that something we took for granted, for example a moral teaching on sexuality, has actually caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

Pushed further, a person of faith may begin to doubt that the God they trusted is really so trustworthy after all. I remember when I was studying theology in graduate school in my 20s, we had a professor who taught a course on theology after the holocaust. How are we to make sense of God, or are we, in a world where horrors beyond our imagining take place? This is an intensified form of what used to be called “the problem of evil.”

These days, especially in a town like Portland, many people explore spirituality outside of the major world religions. Westernized forms of various eastern traditions, such as meditation and yoga practices attract many seekers. Yet my clients sometimes struggle in these communities too. They may constantly seek for the true path that they hope will relieve them of life-long emotional struggles, and the constant seeking itself becomes a problem. Or they may beat themselves up for falling short of some imagined, perfectionistic standard of true meditation, for instance.

The many gurus that have sprouted up sometimes cause a lot of harm to their devotees as well. We would all like to idealize someone, a powerful figure who promises to deliver us from our problems. And it may work for awhile, but often the guru or teacher later is exposed as a mere human being, and is sometimes even abusive in the realms of money, power, or sex, and followers end up disillusioned and despairing.

More “pop” versions of New Age spirituality tend to commercialize the spirit. Every new method has a trademark, and turns into a profit-making system. They may promise to help you transcend the anxieties and struggles of living in the world. They may fantasize about escaping the limitations that we all suffer. Illness becomes something you should be able to visualize your way out of, and when you can’t cure yourself, you feel doubly guilty for somehow not being conscious enough, and you end up in a depression.

I studied philosophy and religion before I got interested in clinical psychology, and so I’m quite familiar with all of these questions and searchings, both from an intellectual standpoint, and from my own personal experience wondering and seeking answers to the questions that we all find ourselves asking about the nature of things.

I favor an open attitude to these questions. Wondering and questioning, in my view, are far more interesting than pretending absolute knowledge, or thinking we can pin God or Reality or the Cosmos down in a formula of doctrines. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that by nature we desire to know, but that this desire begins in wonder, and every question we answer leads to further questions! By shifting our focus from attaining certainty to lingering in our wondering and curiosity, we enter a far richer landscape, and one where we don’t get so caught in impossible dilemmas that can quite literally drive us mad.

True faith opens us to an infinite horizon that will never cease to stimulate our wondering nature and lead to further and further questioning. For me, living in this space is the essence of spiritual transformation.

Dream On

We depth psychologists talk a lot about dreams. But what is it to dream? And what is it not to dream?

Psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden has this to say in “On not Being Able to Dream”: “Much has been written on what dreams mean; relatively little on what it means to dream; and still less on what it means not to be able to dream.” He goes on to tell about Wilfred Bion’s notion that the activity of dreaming is more fundamental than we normally think.

Dreaming is not identical to the “dreams” we wake up remembering. Instead, when we are functioning well, dreaming is happening all of the time, waking or sleeping. It is the unconscious psychological work of linking elements of experience that have been stored in memory. Dreaming makes sense of our emotional realities by making these links and giving elements of experience form. This can take place while we are sleeping, and it can take place while we are awake.

I remember consulting with a very experienced psychoanalyst a few years ago about cases. I asked him how he worked with dreams in his own practice, with his own clients. He said that his approach had changed over time. Now, he said, he thought of each session itself as a kind of dreaming. In other words, each session enters the space of making associations, links, and playing with meanings. Client and therapist dream up the session together and so engage in learning from experience.

In this view, the background experiences held in memory are raw ingredients. We can’t digest experience without first dreaming it. The act of dreaming cooks the raw ingredients. It creates a meal that we can eat and share with others.

Bad things happen when we can’t dream. At the extreme, some individuals become unable to dream when in a psychotic state. Psychological digestion is disturbed, and the results can be catastrophic. For most of us, there may be moments of failing to dream–aspects of self and world that we choke on and need help to swallow and metabolize. That’s where psychotherapy comes in and creates a vessel for this alchemical work.

“Every Rule”

Not so very long ago, before the cold and wet, I had occasion to play foursquare with a group of elementary school kids. It got competitive and wildly hilarious both. Rallies were sometimes long with dramatic saves and shots. I began to play for real, and our collective energy intensified. We taunted each other and did spins and slams and low shots that couldn’t be gotten.

Now, you may not know it, but these days each time you end up the server in a game of foursquare, you get to set the rules for that round. It could be basic rules, no additions or subtractions. Or you might allow double hits, or serving outside the box (“birdie out of the cage”), or “bus stops,” “back stops,” and the list can go on and on.

One of the kids was new to me and had moved to the states from another country some time ago. I had a sense that he might feel a little bit the outsider, though we all got along great. I liked him; he had moxie. He introduced us to a new notion when he got to the server’s box. He called it “every rule.” It’s a little hard to define “every rule.” In practice it meant every player could try any move at any point, and could try its opposite too. “No” did not exist. Some players liked trying this and kept calling for “every rule” when serving. Others were disgusted by the chaos it created and tried to reign us back to sanity.

But by that time a mania had taken hold and we found ourselves in the thrill and hilarity of breaking down the very notion itself of rules. This was lots of fun. Then, at a certain point, different for each player, it became dull. If all was permissible, then the server could devise a serve that no one, not even a superhero, could possibly return. Taken to its logical extreme, “every rule” took the fun out of the game. It spelled the end of the game, actually.

Still, I feel fondly towards this experience of everything permissible. I can’t even try to describe the irruption of fantastic, here-to-fore unthinkable moves made possible under the reign of anarchy. We broke through to a new level. At the same time, as we danced on the edge of the thinkable, just one more step and experience became dull, predictable, since any player could exploit permissiveness to score a boring personal win.

I offer these memories as an instance of breaking down and breaking through the given rules; of soaring into permissive freedom; of recognizing both the necessity, and the relativity, of boundedness. In a strange way, some degree of boundedness was necessary to experience the thrill of unboundedness. Otherwise, the unbounded thrill lost its interest and its creativity.

Dis/connected Connection

The other day I headed up to the mountains. Just for a day. I’m lucky to live in Portland, Oregon, where that’s possible–to drive up into the wilderness and back within the space of a mere 10 or 12 hours. I gave myself a day off from my counseling practice, from family, colleagues, friends, and the familiar sights and rhythms of the city. To go away, and to come back. It’s important. It always feels good and leaves me with a reminder that “I want to do this more often.”

I left early so as to make the best of my time. The night before, in an uncharacteristic spurt of organizational prowess, I laid out everything I needed for the time away. When I woke before my alarm, I slipped out quietly into the cold air and dim light of early morning and was on my way.

It was about 20 minutes into my drive when I found myself reaching for my cell phone, only to find… no phone. Not in my pockets. Not in my bag. Not in the storage area under the armrest. Nowhere. I stopped and rifled through everywhere I could think to look. Twice. Nothing. Had it fallen out of a pocket onto the street? Was it on the table at home?

I noticed my anxiety rise as I contemplated my venture without that apparently indispensable tool, the cell phone, that only 15 years ago I did quite well without. What if I had car trouble? Or sprained my ankle on a trail? What if there were a family emergency? Or a client crisis? No one would be able to reach me, and I could reach no one, short of a pocket full of change and the rare sight of a pay phone. I reproached myself, my disorganization, my mistake.

Now, just to clarify, I don’t have a phone with lots of fancy stuff. No iPhone. No “apps.” Not even a less expensive knockoff of said device. No offense to the wonder of those technologies, but I don’t particularly want anything like that. I have a recording of the singer Tom Waits telling stories and jokes to an audience in Birmingham, Alabama, and I like it when at one point he laments the cell phone that is also a camera. “Why can’t something just be what it is?” he asks. My phone does have a camera, but it’s basic. I went for one that can take a beating too, which is fortunate, since I’ve already left it lying out in the grass on a dewy night once or twice by accident. It has a permanent defect now where the damp got in and messed up the display, but it works fine.

As the absence of the phone sunk in, I found myself driving down the freeway and country roads, slowly letting go of my anxiety at being dis/connected from the spirits of the air, those invisible transmitters of text, image, and voice, to other humans far from the actual place I inhabit at any one moment. A strange calm came over me, and a release. I was free in a new way for that day, from the fear driven by my attachment to those invisible connections. Then it was evening, and I was back. Nothing bad happened. I felt happy and refreshed and wondered whether I would leave my digital device behind on purpose next time. I thought to myself that maybe–thanks to technology–never being dis/connected means never really getting a chance to go away, and to come back, and I expect the soul wants that chance.

What Can’t be Spoken

I’ve had a little hiatus from writing here on this blog of mine. The holidays, travel, fun, stress, the usual suspects. And a certain hesitancy to pick up the virtual pen and write again. Even the word “blog” irritated me just now as I wrote that first sentence. Blog … what sort of word is that? Blog, bog, log, boggy feelings, being weighted down, a mere cog in the wheel … the associations that come to mind are not particularly pleasant. It sounds like something that gets stuck in one’s gut and needs medical intervention to remove it. “Thank God, I went into the surgecenter and got that blog removed yesterday. I feel so relieved!”

Can you feel my resistance and irritation? What can really be said, I wonder, in the end? What use are words? These are dangerous thoughts for a therapist who practices “the talking cure.” My funk will pass, I know, and likely I will write my way through it and into a space where the words mean something again. They will communicate thoughts and feelings, and I won’t feel so bloggy.

In the meantime, I will report that I have recently been perusing the websites of many local artists here in Portland, Oregon, exploring the art realm here and looking at many images of sculpture, painting, drawing, and photography. I have also been watching a few documentaries on great masters, including Pablo Picasso, Michelangelo, and Louise Bourgeois. Among the many motivations, conscious and unconscious, leading me to these explorations stands a feeling that sometimes the important things cannot be spoken. They must be formed into images.

In his book, The Art of Sculpture, Herbert Read identifies the work of sculpting as the artist’s formation into image of an emotive state that exists within. Whether this is a comprehensive definition that holds true for all sculpture in all times and all places I don’t know, and don’t frankly care. For my purposes it works well. Reading this led me to take up hammer and chisel myself this past week and begin shaping a large block of aerated concrete–into what form, I don’t yet know. But something is moving now; that much is clear. There is an intelligence and an emotional reality embedded in the material, and it’s my job to notice what it wants, and to help it come into being.

Already I feel less bloggy. Something like this process I am describing often happens in therapy. Things get stuck. Words don’t come, or when they do, they don’t say what we want to say. Then an image comes, in a dream, a waking fantasy, or a piece of artistic work, and the flow of communication of thoughts and feelings comes back, and with this flow words once again mean something, and even prove indispensable.