The Significance of
Existential, Religious and Spiritual
Problems in Psychotherapy
By Nancy Poitou, M.A., M.F.T. ©1997
There are several reasons why existential, religious and spiritual problems are important in psychotherapy. First it is important that therapists recognize that existential, religious and spiritual beliefs are at the foundation of individual, cultural, and societal frameworks of belief and expression of internal and external experience. Whether the therapist or client recognizes it as an integral part of life or not, conscious and unconscious beliefs about the nature of human existence and its meaning lie at the core of our relationships, values, ethics, morals, and how we act and interact in public and private life.
There is a second problem or question that lies in the wide variation of how theorists and mental health practitioners regard religion and spirituality. At one extreme Freudian psychological theory regards religion as mass delusion and individual neurosis stemming from childlike fear and anxiety. To the opposite extreme transpersonal psychological theory regards religious and spiritual experiences as a possible cure for society’s ills and earth’s survival. Between those two extremes is a position that prefers not to address the issues as presented but to reduce them to biological processes and psychological factors. Some theories reduce their significance to a defense mechanism. For example Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch (1996) review theories that see anxiety, guilt, and deprivation as a source of religion, “For many people moral anxiety based on guilt and guilt activates religious concerns” (p. 19). In this way it could help the anxious and deprived feel more peaceful as to whether the universe is a friendly place or not. Some might explain their deprivation as God’s punishment or can justify the deprivation as something God has done to test our faith, or to purify our souls, or that we will be rewarded for suffering in the afterlife.
A third question or problem asks: without any educational requirements or training of mental health professionals what determines how therapists respond to existential, religious and spiritual problems? Do therapists draw from their own experience and their religious or spiritual beliefs or do they limit their responses to the theories they have accepted as their theoretical orientation? If they respond from one of these two positions, how do they respond to existential, religious and spiritual problems that fall outside of their theoretical orientation or their religious or spiritual beliefs? Shafranske and Gorsuch (1984) ask,
To what extent do psychologists recognize, respect, respond to or influence the spiritual or religious values of their clients? To what extent does a psychologist’s personal beliefs and personal history, in respect to religiosity, influence clinical work? To what extent does a psychologist’s training prepare the practitioner to be aware of the religious orientations of clients and spiritual issues within psychotherapy? (p. 232)
Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch (1996) warn that, “Humans are valuing beings, and if there is a specific human nature, it may be to act on values--to accept what is liked and reject what is disliked. People’s interests complement their biases and prejudices, and religion is an area that people do not deal with dispassionately” (p. 3). It becomes impossible to separate the therapist from their beliefs, their chosen theoretical orientation and how they respond to existential, religious and spiritual problems that are addressed in the therapeutic encounter. Value-free therapy does not exist because therapists are not free of values and in the controversial area of religion and spirituality it would be difficult to find a therapist without any opinion. Jones (1996) states, “Psychology is, in American society, filling the void created by the waning influence of religion in answering questions of ultimacy and providing moral guidance” (in Shafranske 1996 p. 131).
To begin with there is a growing awareness that clients do bring these issues into therapy and that with the variety of religions and spiritual beliefs and the cultural diversity of our populations, therapists needed a way to name these presenting problems without delegating them to pathological designations. A significant but subtle addition of a newly added “V” code to the DSM IV. “V62.89 Religious or Spiritual Problem,” moves such problems into the domain of the therapist. The DSM IV. states about this “V” code, “This category can be used when the focus of clinical attention is a religious or spiritual problem. Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith, problems associated with conversion to a new faith, or questioning of spiritual values that may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution” (1994, p. 685). The APA (1994) reconsidered its former stand in light of demands that they become more sensitive to differing world views arising from an increasingly multicultural society.
A clinician who is unfamiliar with the nuances of an individual’s cultural frame of reference may incorrectly judge as psychopathology those normal variations in behavior, belief, or experience that are particular to the individual’s culture. For example, certain religious practices or beliefs (e.g., hearing or seeing a deceased relative during bereavement) may be misdiagnosed as manifestations of a Psychotic Disorder. Applying Personality Disorder criteria across cultural settings may be especially difficult because of the wide cultural variation in concepts of self, styles of communication, and coping mechanisms. (APA p. xxiv).
The new “V” code can refer to any number of, and, wide range of spiritual and religious crises. These include, religious experiences, peak and transpersonal experiences, ecstatic, blissful experiences, conflict between experience and religious doctrine, religious fear, conflict between conscious and/or unconscious beliefs and experience, conversion and cult experiences, confrontations with mortality, existential crises of meaning and moral conflict, to mention a few. Because of the inclusion of this new “V” code and the problems it encompasses there is a new awareness. Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch (1996) state, “As a part of this new awareness, religion and spirituality can be considered psychotherapeutic tools” (p. 407).
Are psychotherapists ready to deal with the spiritual or religious aspect of their clients? Most psychotherapists are trained to diagnose and treat psychopathology, the scientific study of mental diseases and abnormalities. Evaluating the validity of an individual’s beliefs is of utmost importance in assessing the mental health of a client. Targeting dysfunction and maladaptive behaviors, magical thinking and delusions can be terms used by therapists for a belief that conflicts with the therapist’s definition of normality. Shafranske and Gorsuch (1984) state, “Within the context of psychologists’ professional and personal perspectives on religion, it is relevant to address the profession’s preparedness to respond to the spiritual dimension which the majority of Americans -- and we might purport the majority of consumers of psychological services -- attest to experience within their lives” (p. 232). Bergin, Payne, and Richards (1996) write that,
A therapist needs to be open to an assessment of religious and spiritual needs even though he or she may not initiate such topics. Avoiding religious issues or routinely redirecting spiritual concerns in therapy is no more justifiable than refusing to deal with the death of a family member or fears of social encounters. Religious and spiritual concerns can be initiated by the client, but therapists are always in a position to approve or disapprove, to be open or closed to the concern, or to show interest or lack of interest in the experiences and perceptions of the client as they take on spiritual meanings. Can there be a separation, in practice, between one’s professional and personal values (Beutler, Machado, Neufeldt, 1994, p. 120)? (in Shafranske, 1996, p. 313)
Lukoff, Turner and Lu, (1992) state that, “Knowledge of specific features of religious and spiritual belief systems is often essential in clinical decision-making, e.g., to assess assertions such as, ‘God spoke to me.’ This may, but does not necessarily, indicate the presence of a hallucination and/or a delusion . . .” (p. 48). Pathology or human potential, religious behaviors and spiritual experiences whether adaptive, evolutive or detrimental are not easily discriminated by the untrained eye. Whether termed spiritual experience, transpersonal experience, mystical experience, exceptional human experience, peak experience or religious experience, they refer to experiences that are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Some appear to the observer as mental disturbance. Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch (1996) state that, “. . . a committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry indicated that it was unable ‘to make a firm distinction between a mystical state and a psychopathological state’” (p. 410). To further complicate the distinction Grof (1985) states, “. . . a clearly psychotic state can evolve into an experience of mystical revelation. Individuals involved in spiritual search and practices occasionally confront psychotic territories within themselves, while schizophrenic patients often visit the mystical experiential realms” (p. 309).
In our most revered testing mechanisms, there is a fine line between creativity and psychosis. Creativity researcher Frank Barron (1977) states, “The creative individual not only respects the irrational in himself, but courts the most promising source of novelty in his own thought . . . The creative person is both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, crazier and saner, than the average person” (in Harman; Rheingold, p. 50). Lukoff, Turner and Lu, (1992) conclude that, “. . . studies have found that people reporting mystical experiences scored lower on psychopathology scales and higher on measures of psychological well-being than controls” (in Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch 1996 p. 411).
In a study of Religion and Subjective Well-being in Adulthood: A quantitative synthesis by Witter, Stock, Okun & Haring (1985) found, “Results indicate that religion is significantly and positively related to subjective well-being. The authors conclude that ‘religion should not, as has often occurred, be ignored in testing causal models of subjective well-being in adulthood’” (in Turner, Lukoff and Lu, 1992, p. 49). In a study of divine relations, social relations, and well-being, Pollner (1989) stated that, “In fact, participation in a divine relation was ‘the strongest correlate in three of four measures of well-being, surpassing in strength such usually potent predictors as race, sex, income, age, marital status, and church attendance’” (in Lukoff, et al., 1992, p. 50). With these facts in mind, it seems as though the mental health profession is operating on an unconscious level in this area. Turner, et. al. (1992) observe that, “Although the role of religion in therapy has been acknowledged since Jung, little is known of the dynamics and effective components involved” (p. 50-51).
Some therapists may hold negative opinions or have unresolved issues with their religious past. M. Scott Peck (1978) states, “. . . there is a tendency for them [therapists] to consider any passionate belief in God to be pathological. Upon occasion this tendency may go over the line into frank bias and prejudice” (p. 224). Without knowing where the therapist stands on religion, will a client feel safe enough to reveal religious or spiritual concerns? Peck tells a story about a college senior who had been in therapy for a year, but was unable to tell his therapist about his desire to join the monastery. Though Peck wanted to encourage him to talk to his therapist about such a serious life change, and to trust the therapist to be objective, he did not. Peck (1978) wrote,
For I was not at all sure that his therapist would be objective, that he would understand, in the true meaning of the word. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists who have simplistic attitudes toward religion are likely to do a disservice to some of their patients. This will be true if they regard all religion as good or healthy. It will also be true if they throw out the baby with the bath water and regard all religion as sickness or the Enemy. And, finally, it will be true if in the face of the complexity of the matter they withdraw themselves from dealing at all with the religious issues of their patients, hiding behind a cloak of such total objectivity that they do not consider it to be their role to be, themselves, in any way spiritually or religiously involved. For their patients often need their involvement. I do not mean to imply that they should forsake their objectivity, or that balancing their objectivity with their own spirituality is an easy matter. It is not. To the contrary, my plea would be that psychotherapists of all kinds should push themselves to become not less involved but rather more sophisticated in religious matters than they frequently are” (p. 224).
We know that the countertransference of the therapist affects therapy. For example, if sex is an uncomfortable subject for the therapist the client will learn the first time the client brings it up in a session. Feeling the discomfort of the therapist, the client will take a cue that the therapist does not want to hear about it and this important aspect of the client’s life may never be fully addressed. And so it may be with the spiritual life of the client as well.
Currently the Board of Behavioral Science requires that MFT graduate students receive during their education 10 classroom hours on human sexuality; however there are no requirements in the area of religion and spirituality. Lukoff, Turner and Lu, (1992) say of our more educated mental health professionals, “Despite the importance that religion plays in most patients’ lives, neither psychologists nor psychiatrists are given adequate training to prepare them to deal with issues that arise in this realm” (p. 47). Barnhouse (1986) observed,
Thus psychologists and psychiatrists are often operating outside the boundaries of their professional competence, which raises ethical and educational concerns. Barnhouse has pointed out that, ‘Sex and religion are, in some form, universal components of human experience. . . . . Psychiatrists who know very little about religion would do well to study it’ (p. 103) (in Lukoff, Turner and Lu, 1992, p. 48).
In “Religions, Values and Peak Experiences,” Abraham Maslow (1964) looked at the ability of psychologists to address these issues and found them wanting, perhaps not willing to address them, and unaware of how little they actually know,
. . . this is true of the psychologist whose ratio of knowledge to mystery must be the smallest of all scientists . . . Perhaps it is because he is so innocently unaware of his smallness, of the feebleness of his knowledge, of the smallness of his playpen, or the smallness of his portion of the cosmos and because he takes his narrow limits so for granted that he reminds me of the little boy who was seen standing uncertainly at a street corner with a bundle under his arm. A concerned bypasser asked him where he was going and he replied that he was running away from home. Why was he waiting at the corner? He wasn’t allowed to cross the street! (p. 46).
Maslow (1964) urges us to consider the human potential, “. . . aid the person to grow to fullest humanness, to the greatest fulfillment and actualization of his highest potentials, to his greatest possible stature. In a word, it should help him to become the best he is capable of becoming, to become actually what he deeply is potentially” (p. 49). Lukoff, Turner and Lu (1992) state, “In summary, available research has established religion’s potential to foster positive mental health. However, its potential for preventing mental illness can only be inferred at this point” (p. 50).
Considering the potential for well-being, and as Menninger (in Walsh and Vaughn, 1988, p. 133) wrote, the possibility of going beyond to become “weller than well” is a significant question to ponder. Why is there a prevalence to pathologize or ignore the religious and spiritual life of clients by the mental health profession and mental health educators?
Maslow (1964) urges us to cross the street and look at the existential, religious and spiritual problems, “Education must be seen as at least partially an effort to produce the good human being, to foster the good life and the good society. Renouncing this is like renouncing the reality and desirability of morals and ethics. Furthermore, ‘An education which leaves untouched the entire region of transcendental thought is an education which has nothing important to say about the meaning of human life.’ --Manas (July 17, 196
3)” (p. 58).
When we see clients do we only look for dysfunction? Do we see them in terms of psychopathology to be eliminated, or can we look deeper? We are taught to look for pathology and ask ‘what function does this serve?’ Waldgrave (1989, 1990) asks, “ . . . when therapists use a physical science model to seek the ‘correct diagnosis’ with the ‘right interpretation or explanation’ in order to ‘treat’ the ‘pathology’, they frequently further entrench the problem-centered web of meaning by further defining it. . . . Thus the meaning created in therapy can actually strengthen their problem’s influence over them, offering scientific explanations for its onset and persistent domination” (p. 13). Do we ever ask what does this mean to the client? “. . . it is intended to emphasize that central to practically all therapeutic problems is meaning, whose created pattern determines the manner in which the problem is responded to” (p. 13).
Whether the client’s meaning system depends on religion, spiritual beliefs, or a personally defined existential system of meaning, therapists need to be more attentive. To do this we must engage a different mindset, “Instead of addressing a known pathology, therapists engage in conversation, listening respectfully for the articulation of meaning by the person or family. The conversation enables the generation of new meaning by the therapist. The threads that the family have woven into a problem-focused pattern, are joined by new threads of new color with different meanings that encourage new possibilities, or ways of resolution and hope” (p. 13). The reductive approach is no help to clients trying to find answers, LeShan (1990) states,
Whether it is worse for the scientists who study human feelings and behavior to explain these as a bunch of connected reflex arcs, or to explain them as artifacts of an advanced computer, or to explain them as a collection of reaction-formations to pathological drives -- which of these is worse for the effect it has on our attitudes toward ourselves and for the future of humankind -- is a moot point indeed. All these things play a part in our being, but they no more explain them than the nuts and bolts that hold an automobile together explain and make up the automobile. . . . It is largely for this reason -- that the scientists who should be responsibly working with the spiritual and aspirational aspects of human beings have rejected this area as unworthy of them -- that those people who are seeking to find these parts of themselves go so frequently to the irresponsible, kooky, and predatory groups that pretend to have knowledge and working methods to help us grow in these ways. . . . When psychologists realize that these positive aspects are real aspects of being human and they are of tremendous importance to us, then people will not have to seek the solution to their needs at the hands of second-rate gurus, nuts, and those seeking to make personal fortunes out of these hopes and aspirations” (p. 126-127).
Invalidated, reduced, ignored, demonized or pathologized therapists could overlook the potential in the ‘peak experience.’ Lack of understanding of ‘spiritual experiences’ and issues is a central theme in the book ‘Spiritual Emergency,’ by transpersonal theorists Stanislav and Christina Grof (1989) who write in the introduction, “. . . some of the dramatic experiences and unusual states of mind that traditional psychiatry diagnoses and treats as mental diseases are actually crises of personal transformation or ‘spiritual emergencies’” (p. x). In an interdisciplinary exploration of these ‘peak’ experiences, the authors state that in many cultures, ancient and modern experience profound transformational consequences that our western society has long invalidated. The Grofs (1989) continue,
The concept of spiritual emergency integrates findings from many disciplines, including clinical and experimental psychiatry, modern consciousness research, experiential psychotherapies, anthropological field studies, parapsychology, thanatology, comparative religion, and mythology. Observation from all these fields suggest strongly that spiritual emergencies have a positive potential and should not be confused with diseases that have a biological cause and necessitate medical treatment. (p. x)
Grof (1989) writes, “We are now realizing to our surprise that, in the process of relegating mystical experiences to pathology, we may have thrown the baby out with the bath water” (p. xii). If clients bring us their experiences and we pathologize or ignore rather than explore them we may lose the most powerful tool for healing, the human psyche.
What meaning do extraordinary experiences hold for our clients? Near-death experiences have become more prevalent due to advances in medical and resuscitation technology. Studied by transpersonal theorists, the near-death experience has great potential for harm if invalidated and labeled as hallucination and great potential for personal transformation and healing if addressed and integrated by the client. Ignored, it is a lost opportunity. Researcher Cherie Sutherland (1992) after contacting over 200 subjects from all over Australia settled on a sample of 50 which included 15 men and 35 women whom she used in her doctoral dissertation research. Since she was focusing on the aftereffects the near-death experiences, the episode had to have been 2 years or more past, reasonable geographical accessibility within the eastern states of Australia and English-speaking. Sutherland states that, “Almost all of them are changed by the experience and through their interactions with others these changes move beyond the personal, beyond the lives of individual experiencers into the social realm, presaging a profound transformation of great benefit to society as a whole” (p. 243). Morse (1994) states that “Research has also shown that paying attention to spiritual issues has an immediate practical effect on human suffering. Paying attention to a patient’s feelings and spiritual beliefs can lead to shorter hospital stays and the use of less pain medication. It has also been documented to reduce costs and unnecessary procedures” (p. 125).
National surveys from 1980 to 1985 indicated that 15% of Americans have been near death, 8% have had a ‘near-death experience.’ This experience puts an immense strain on personal relationships. The person who has had the near-death experience often becomes more optimistic, yet experiences the breakup of primary relationships. This paradoxical result is due to a change in priorities, and values which result in less interest in acquiring material possessions. This study done by Cherie Sutherland Ph.D. (1992), showed that another change in priority was a “. . . widespread desire for knowledge” and a strong desire to help others. Almost three-quarters of those she interviewed made major career changes, many to a work that involved helping others, many expressing an increased interest in social issues. “When death is no longer feared, it is possible, as has been shown by these experiencers, to engage in meaningful relationships with the dying, to abandon immortality projects and to see attachment to immortality vehicles such as money, fame, and heroism as ultimately illusory. Such crucial changes in attitude provide a fundamental challenge to the widely accepted norms of Western society” (p. 242).
Near-death experiences not only heal the individual but in a transpersonal sense ripple out to benefit the whole of society. Can therapists afford to ignore the possibilities inherent in listening to and facilitating the integration of these experiences and their effects on relationships, the family and society? In the work of the therapist the potential of successful resolution and integration of near-death and other peak, spiritual and paranormal experiences is too great to ignore. Our society stands on the precipice of self destruction. Stanislav Grof (1989) suggests, “On the collective scale, the loss of spirituality might be a significant factor in the current dangerous global crisis that threatens the survival of humanity and of all life on the plane” (p .xiii). Considering this potential how can we afford to ignore or minimize this type of experience in the therapeutic setting? To pathologize it would be a crime. The gap between spirituality and psychology can be bridged.
Authors define religious experiences such as ‘Mystical Experience,’ ‘Glossolalia’ or ‘speaking in tongues,’ ‘Conversion’ and ‘Scrupulosity’ (Mora 1969 in Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger and Gorsuch 1996, p. 414) as “. . . the religious manifestation of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” (Askin Palutre, White, and Van Ornum 1993 in Hood, et al., 1996, p. 414). Also, they indicate that the “Religion of Mentally Disordered Persons” deals with concepts which are closest to straddling the fine and variable line between pathology and normal cultural and religious behavior, “. . . refers to intense religious experiences and conversion as ‘adaptive regression’ that may ‘help reorganize a weakened ego’” (Hood, et al., 1996, p. 416). The effects of various religion on the individual has yet to be studied.
Argyle (1959) found context and culture can make a great difference in determining the difference between pathology and religious behavior. Religions such as Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, and Orthodox Judaism and the countries in which they predominate show the lowest suicide rates, while suicide rates for Protestants are “two to three times higher” (in Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger and Gorsuch, 1996, p. 417). However members of a religion may be less willing to report the death as suicide, except if evidence is undeniable, witnesses reveal it as such or it is publicly known. Gibbs (1966) observed that the Jewish Zealots at Masada in a mass suicide protested their lack of freedom and are remembered as examples of a principle founded on an admired quality of commitment to human dignity. Contrasted with the mass suicide at Jonestown and the People’s Temple there seems to be no research that can be generalized to all religions and all religious people (in Hood, et al., 1996, p. 417).
The significance of existential, religious and spiritual problems lies in three areas. First, therapists need to be aware that beliefs and meaning are central themes inherent in existential, religious and spiritual problems, which are at the foundation of individual, cultural, and societal frameworks of experience and at the core of values, ethics, morals and therefore how people interact in relationships. Second, without any educational requirements, therapists are faced with wide variations of what theorists say about religion and spirituality. Therapists need to be aware of their own beliefs in order to recognize and respect their influence on clients’ existential, religious and spiritual beliefs and need to consider the issue of values in this controversial area. Third, therapists need to address these problems in a well-informed way so not to miss the dismiss the human potential nor the opportunities inherent in the cultural, clinical and experiential aspects of existential, religious and spiritual problems.
Existential, Religious and Spiritual,
What does it Mean ?
In “A Generation of Seekers” a study of the religious and spiritual experience of “Baby Boomers” started in 1988, Wade Clark Roof and his researchers interviewed hundreds of this generation on the phone, and, also, visited churches and synagogues in an effort to understand their search for a spiritual home. These researchers sought to “. . . learn as muchas possible about their religious and spiritual biographies, . . .” (p. 2). Asked by their research subjects “Why are you asking questions about religion and spirituality?” Roof (1993) answers,
Because there is widespread ferment today that reaches deep within their lives. Members of this generation are asking questions about the meaning of their lives, about what they want for themselves and for their children. They are still exploring, as they did in their years growing up; but now they are exploring in new, and, we think, more profound ways. Religious and spiritual themes are surfacing in a rich variety of ways -- in Eastern religions, in evangelical and fundamentalist teachings, in mysticism and New Age movements, in Goddess worship and other ancient religious rituals, in the mainline churches and synagogues, in Twelve-Step recovery groups, in concern about the environment, in holistic health, and in personal and social transformation. Many within this generation who dropped out of churches and synagogues years ago are now shopping around for a congregation. They move freely in and out, across religious boundaries; many combine elements from various traditions to create their own personal, tailor-made meaning systems. Choice, so much a part of life for this generation, now expresses itself in dynamic and fluid religious styles. Religion and spirituality, of course, are an integral part of human culture, or the web of meanings that inform peoples’ lives. Culture has to do with making sense out of life and formulating strategies for action; and the ideas and symbols that people draw on in these fundamental undertakings are, implicitly if not explicitly, saturated with religious meaning. Religion is itself a set of cultural symbols (p. 4-5).
Brown (1988) reviews some definitions of religion, “William James defined religion as what people do with their solitude. Robert Thouless identified it with the solutions (and the disputes) that its traditions have about ‘the world as a whole’. How people make those received solutions their own (which some people seem unable to do). How to build inner confidence, security and a sense of authenticity, are central religious and psychological questions, if we are not to be plagued with doubt until we confront the ‘last things’” (Brown, 1988 p. ix). Brown (1988) indicates that, “. . . W.H. Clark (1958) identified three forms of religion, a primary religion based on ‘an authentic inner experience of the divine combined with whatever efforts the individual may make to harmonize . . . with the divine’ (p. 23), a secondary religion that is routine and based on obligation, and a tertiary form of religion that is accepted on another’s authority.” (Brown, 1988 p. 7).
In Roof’s (1993) study of Baby Boomers he found that they fell into three categories. These three types are “Religious” or “theism”, “Spiritual” or “mysticism” and “Secular” (p. 123). Between the Spiritual and Religious styles is “the great spiritual divide” (p. 119). “So different are the worlds that we can think of them as representing the polar extremes around which much of boomer religious and spiritual life is organized today. This great spiritual divide is expressed in four very fundamental ways: in boomers’ views of the self, of religious authority, in their meaning systems, and in their spiritual styles” (p. 119). Roof (1993) writes,
Mysticism and theism as meaning systems encompass very differing beliefs, symbols, and ‘pictures - about God, about human nature, about the forces that shape life. More than just differing orientations toward religion and spirituality, these broader universes of meanings - or ways of organizing and conceptualizing life - came to be restructured during the 1960s and 1970s. . . . a large set of indicators of traditional theistic belief varies with exposure to the counterculture. An image of God as a father, viewing life as influenced by God, beliefs in eternal life and in the devil, . . . a pessimistic conception of human nature all are held more strongly by those who did not embrace the 1960s. Likewise, a set of items tapping mystical consciousness varies in the opposite direction.
Having God ‘within’ us, being influenced by new insights learned from ourselves, being alone and meditating, belief in reincarnation, and regarding all religions as equally true and good - all are endorsed more strongly by those who did embrace the sixties. This constellation as a whole is predictable on the part of those drawn toward an alternative meaning system. Clearly, along a theistic-to-mystical axis, there was and still is a deep polarization of symbols, meanings, and assumptions about human nature (Roof p. 124).
The first category of the religious or theistic type, Roof (1993) described the self of the religious perspective as needing to be constrained and controlled, “Putting self ahead of others is sin” (p. 119). Roof writes,
. . . sinful, the self must submit to religious authority. . . . authority rests in an external source: a transcendent God who has saved her through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of which is revealed in the Bible. . . . What the Bible teaches is ‘timeless’ and ‘objective,’ part of a larger plan of salvation offered to those who believe, She uses a language of faith, informed by biblical and church tradition, to describe her relation to God, to a religious community, and to the world (p. 120).
Roof (1993) described this style as “authoritative” where the self then must be tamed through “mastery and control” (p. 121), “. . . the individual believer must stick to the narrow path and honor the moral and religious teachings as revealed through the scriptures” (p. 122). This is “a deductive religious response” (p. 121). Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch (1996) describe a similar “fundamentalist mindset”, that includes “religious rigidity,” an authoritarian structure and leaders who are endowed with a special relationship with God has been “. . . described as involving extreme dogmatism and a need for simplistic ‘quick fixes for problems involving marriage, children, sexuality, or society’” (p. 426). Reduction of negative experience to the dichotomy of good vs. evil eliminates complexity and promotes simplistic answers.
The second category is Roof’s (1993) reference to “Spiritual” or “Mystical” types of belief in the study of baby boomers as talking about, “. . . centeredness, connectedness, harmony, journey, quests -- all arise out of personal experience. She draws on religious traditions, but in the context of the self and its search for meaningful experience” (p. 120). Roof describes this as a “meaning system”,
A mystical meaning system is one, . . . that seeks wholeness and overcoming of the barriers separating people from one another and from God and nature. Emphasis is on feelings and experiences in life more so than cognitive understandings. Hence ‘explorations’ and ‘journeys’ are the means through which Mollie [a subject in the study] discovers who she really is. . . . an inductive religious approach: She begins with human experience and reaches out to the many religious traditions for whatever insights she can find. One picks and chooses. One absorbs all that contributes to self-understanding. God is immanent, to be found ‘within’ her own life experiences. In its most radical form, hers is a vision of God and self and world that is one. Like all mystics, Mollie believes that the force responsible for shaping reality is her own frame of mind. Morality stems from this encompassing vision. Virtue lies in being sensitive to her own needs and being open and honest. Feelings and authenticity give shape to her moral outlook (p. 120).
Roof’s (1993) description of this ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ style finds that there is an ‘expressive’ style of ‘letting go’ which “. . . encourages acceptance and finding harmony in the way things are . . .” (p. 122).
Roof’s (1993) third category is a “secular style” “. . . with individualistic meaning systems, highly secularized in their conceptions of the forces governing life, but who affirm in one way or another a divine power or presence, even if they admit to uncertainty in their belief” (p. 126). More than a third “. . . admit they have doubts about God and have minimum or no contact with religious institutions” (p. 126). The ‘secular’ style lacks a completeness as a system of meaning, and when crises arise so do many existential, religious and spiritual problems. Roof (1993) finds this belief system wanting,
. . . yet it leaves her without a fully satisfactory explanation of why things happen, or could happen, in life. She despairs when she thinks that fate might overwhelm choice ultimately, in part because her metaphysics fails to provide much of a final explanation of how these two principles come together in her own life. The lack of a transcendent symbol in secular language limits its capacity to create an overarching ‘sacred canopy’ that is meaningful, locating her life in a broader symbolic world. . . . secularists we talked to often expressed the lack of a broad encompassing framework for interpreting their lives and a yearning to be able to express their deepest feelings about life (p. 127).
Informed by psychology this secular style encompasses both “individualistic and social scientific meaning systems”, this group would not be sure about God (p. 127). Roof (1993) states,
the individual, not God or mystical consciousness, shapes life; she creates her own world in relation to family and very close friends. Her philosophy that people’s own choices determine the meaning and purpose they find in life comes not out of any traumatic experience of the sixties, but from having grown up in a secular family where belief in God was not an issue. . . . it simply was not discussed. . . . more a-religious than antireligious” (p. 126).
Roof (1993) found a small group, in the ‘baby boomer’ study “ . . . 4% of our respondents were avowedly atheistic or agnostic” (p. 126). He categorized agnostics and atheists as a part of the ‘secular’ style as well. These three categories of belief systems are likely to have different existential, religious and spiritual problems. The cultural revolution of the 60s divided the baby boomer population into these three groups (religious, spiritual and secular), not the factors we might expect, such as childhood religious upbringing region, age, social class, nor education. They were effected by these factors, but none come close to shaking up the foundations of belief as the 60s as did an era of cultural upheaval and change.Lukoff, Turner and Lu (1992) rightly acknowledge the difficulty in distinguishing between religion and spirituality, “While there is no consensus about the boundaries between religiosity and spirituality, a frequently drawn distinction in the literature, which we adopted, utilizes the term religiosity to refer to ‘adherence to the beliefs and practices of an organized church or religious institution’, (Shafranske & Maloney, 1990, p. 72).” (p. 43)
For the purposes of this thesis, when I speak of people who are ‘religious’, I define as those who believe in an external God. For most religious, God is the father. One extreme example would be fundamentalist Christians would hold beliefs in heaven, hell, and the influence of the devil. This group perceives humanity as sinful and believes in submission to an authoritarian God. For example, Christians would believe in salvation through Jesus Christ and following the direction of Biblical scriptures with a literal interpretation. Other religions and an adherence to them that could also be considered fundamentalist, orthodox or traditionalist would exhibit similar strict adherence to religious authority, rules or dogma that are clearly structured and strict adherence to religious doctrines and scriptures. Some less authoritarian churches and religions may have less structure and less of a literal interpretation of scripture but would still be defined as ‘religious’ and identify with a particular denomination. There is a wide variety of behaviors in a religious person, some attend church, identify themselves as being of a particular denomination and yet their beliefs do not fit within the confines of that religious doctrine. They would not be likely to talk to other members of the church about their privately held beliefs. Then there might be some church members who rarely attend services yet may have a wide range of beliefs and still would identify themselves with a particular denomination. A ‘religious’ population is not easily defined.
Lukoff, Turner and Lu (1992) in a definition that I agree with, defined “Spirituality is used to describe the transcendental relationship between the person and a Higher Being, a quality that goes beyond a specific religious affiliation (Peterson & Nelson, 1987)” (p. 43).
When I speak of people who define themselves as ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’, this means that they would not describe themselves as religious, nor do they participate in organized religion. Roof (1993) states that this group that prefer the description of ‘spiritual’ hold “a vision of God and self and world that is one.” (p. 120). Integrative and inclusive, this group is open to looking for the wisdom in many or all religious traditions, open to discovery and the reality of individual experiences. They may have grown up with a denomination but have found that it is too restrictive or dogmatic. It is an open style of letting go and finding harmony and acceptance in the way life unfolds. It emphasizes personal freedom and choice in determining meaning and purpose. In spirituality, the transcendent aspect of humanity is honored and respect is held for nature, relationships and the sacred in everyday life.
When I speak of the ‘secular’ type, I am referring to those whose beliefs about existence remain minimally defined. Like Roof’s (1993) ‘secular’ style they are a-religious as opposed to anti-religious, they appear to have no need of a religious or spiritual viewpoint of life and it is quite likely they do not. For some of this group there may be a time in life when they experience a spiritual crisis and movement toward a religious or spiritual orientation might result. This may be a result of life-changing events, confrontation with mortality or pain that is mental, emotional or physical in which an explanation may be necessary that gives meaning to the event. However it is also possible for people in this category to be able cope with the life crisis in such a way that they would question their current beliefs but not change them and in that way would remain in the category of secular. This group would also include those who would describe themselves as ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist.’ For the ‘secular,’ ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist’ who experiences something of a spiritual nature that conflicts with their belief system, the experience could result in a move toward a religious or spiritual belief system. For other crises such as a confrontation with mortality, anxiety may arouse a need for meaning. Resolution may be obtained through an existential meaning system, to focus on existence rather than a spiritual or religious system that emphasizes metaphysical dimensions of meaning.
I define ‘psycho-spiritual model’ as a way of understanding the connection of mind, body and spirit. Within this model is also a theory of consciousness that includes conscious, subconscious, unconscious and superconscious aspects. It a way of looking at both individual and collective consciousness that includes separate, interconnected and the unity aspects of consciousness. The psycho-spiritual model is transpersonal in its perspective and has been developed through the study of consciousness research including, dreams, peak experiences, meditation, altered states of consciousness, contemplative practices, sleep, biofeedback, psychic experiences, ESP and parapsychology. It is also influenced by psychology, theology, physics, philosophy and anthropology. ‘Higher Self’ refers to the highest form of consciousness that the individual can access, that is of a superconscious, metaconscious or supraconscious level. This highest form of consciousness is referred to in many religious traditions by various names. It is the most holistic aspect of mind.
When I talk about ‘existential, religious and spiritual problems’, I mean conflict, confusion, disorientation, guilt, where the individual’s solution to a problem or crisis lies in addressing questions regarding beliefs, meaning and purpose. It might be said that the sufficiency or deficiency of a belief system is called into question. Resolution may require greater definition of beliefs toward a sort of ‘cosmic world view’ to such questions as, 1. Why do I/we exist?, 2. What am I here to do?, 3.Who am I?, 4. What makes me different or the same as others?, 5. What is my or our relationship to the interplay of forces, cause and effect or to a supreme force?, 6. What is my real potential?, 7. What is the meaning of life over and above survival?, 8. What do I believe God is and does God exist?, 9. Why do I and others suffer?, 10. Why me? 11. Why does life seem unfair?, 12. If God exists, why does God allow suffering?, 13. How can we create a more peaceful state of existence?, 14. What happens when we die? To these questions science fails to give satisfactory answers.
These questions and probably more usually arise as a result of a problem or crisis, at times when people experience something that shatters or challenges their present belief system, either conscious or unconscious. These important questions arise when people feel out of control or are in great physical, mental, emotional or spiritual pain. When they are faced with life changing events or with mortality either their own or of someone they are close to. As a result they may need to feel there is meaning to life, to feel connected to the divine, or to feel that their actions in life have meant something, that they have made a difference to someone, somewhere at some time. Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, and Gorsuch (1996) have found that, “Research confirms this view that God becomes part of the ‘big picture’ for the significant things that happen” (p. 30).