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.

Midlife Crisis (and Transformation) in Portland?

What might a so-called midlife crisis really look like? And does it really happen here? In Portland, aren’t we (I’m generalizing to make a point) pretty well put-together? We’re conscious about the environment, intentional about what we eat, invested in local communities, authentic in relationships, and so on….

It’s not good or bad to have these ideas about being conscious and well-put together, but it’s important not to take them as literal truths. Part of the danger of such literalism is that something important could get overlooked: that there come times in life where our self-image falls apart–a little or a lot–and may even need to fall apart for us to transform. Midlife is a period where this sometimes happens, leading to a renewal of life and self.

The so-called midlife crisis is often seen in psychology as happening as early as 35 years old, and often later, at some point in the 40s or 50s. The psychologist Carl Jung contributed a lot to the psychology of midlife. Jung’s view feels a little old in some ways, but still holds deep insight if we adjust for cultural changes that have occurred since his time. Jung argued that the first part of adulthood usually focuses on adapting to life in society. We get educations, find work, build a career, have relationships, become parents, and thus establish a well put-together place in the world.

It’s usually once we have been through a lot of this stuff of life’s first half that we may reach a critical moment. It certainly doesn’t happen to everybody, but something may come along to upset the structures that we have so carefully built and tended in the first half of life. The outward cause of the upset could be a death, an illness, a divorce, the loss of a job, a new relationship, an inner malaise, a depression, trauma, or any number of events on the outside or inside of life that threaten to shake up the known structures of life and self.

A lot of strong feelings can come through during this time. It’s not necessarily all bad or all good feelings that come, but an intensity of feelings and a variety too. The Jungian analyst Murray Stein and others have written about midlife crisis as a kind of second adolescence. If you will remember the tumultuous feelings and developments of your first adolescence, you might get some flavor for the second adolescence of midlife. Like the teen years, midlife can be a major transition into a new phase: what Jung called the “second half of life.”

And like the teen years, midlife can feel unsettling. We can feel confused and uncertain of the future. It’s often a rich and satisfying time as well as a challenging one. We may begin to realize that the old structures of our life could use some readjusting. We may begin to enjoy living in ways we forgot we knew. A feeling of renewal can come, and a feeling of increasing freedom to be ourselves.

The midlife crisis and transformation doesn’t tend to happen without struggle. There’s a reason people in one form of midlife crisis or another end up in therapy. In Jung’s view, therapy can facilitate a long-term process of change. The uprooted feelings of midlife can lead into a new feeling of rootedness, deeper in our real selves than we had imagined possible. Then life can proceed out of a new source of vitality and development.

I ran across this poem by Pablo Neruda today, and I think its language evokes some of the feelings and potential of the so-called midlife crisis and transformation.

Lost In The Forest
by poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips:
maybe it was the voice of the rain crying,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.

Something from far off it seemed
deep and secret to me, hidden by the earth,
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist half-open darkness of the leaves.

Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind

as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood—
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.

In Between Places

There’s a lot in this quote from Jungian analyst Murray Stein’s book Transformation.

When a person goes through deep change, from one way of being and living to another, there is a time in between being the old self and becoming the new self, and this time period is confusing, disconcerting, sometimes exciting, and difficult.

Stein calls this period “liminality”–which means a time in between.

“In liminality, a person feels at a loss for steady points of reference. When the established hierarchies of the past have dissolved and before new images and attitudes have emerged fully, and while those that have appeared are not yet solid and reliable, everything seems to be in flux. Dreams during this psychological metamorphosis tend to show themes both of breakdown (images of buildings being torn down, of changing houses, sometimes of actual dismemberment and physical disintegration) and of emergence (images of construction, giving birth, marriage, the divine child). Angst is the mood of liminality. A person is ambivalent and depressed, and this is punctuated by periods of enthusiasm, adventure, and experimentation. People go on living, but not quite in this world. The analyst feels like the old man in the dream quoted above–watching a process unfold, observing the seasons passing, waiting patiently for new structures to emerge and solidify. It is an article of faith that what is under way is ‘a system “developing itself,” a process embodying the whole specific nature of the living creature’–faith that a butterfly will emerge from the cocoon where liminality reigns.”
-from Murray Stein’s book, Transformation: Emergence of the Self.



Yesterday Portland heated up once again nearly to the 100 degree mark. We were in an “excessive heat warning” until 10pm.

There’s a form of heat that happens sometimes in therapy. Things heat up. It can even feel a bit uncomfortable at first, until the client discovers that he or she survives and even feels liberated and energized from going through the heat.

During a heating process, clients may feel emotions that warm, such as anger, desire, or sadness. Learning to move through such feelings can create a greater sense of aliveness, and more resiliency for facing challenges.

Considering that so many clients who seek therapy are suffering from feelings of deadness in some way, learning to face and claim more warmth can create a shift towards aliveness, and a re-entering into the flow of life. Whatever was stuck, whatever was feeling dead, in need of change,  de-pressed, can begin to transform.

The psychologist CG Jung found many images from the ancient tradition of alchemy that expressed psychological processes such as heating up, cooking, and distilling. These images became a lens through which Jung could see and experience the work of psychological transformation.

Image of alchemical heating apparatus:

Alchemical apparatus for heating process

The processes I am talking about generally take some time, commitment, and attention in therapy. The heat comes and goes, as it does right here with the outside weather. Today it’s been 10 degrees cooler, and tomorrow maybe a few cooler still.