(Part 3 is here.)
Making Meaning through Spirituality
It must be understood that many people cope with crisis in what is considered a healthy way. Some people are obviously more resilient than others, and there is growing evidence that spiritual factors may be the cause.
Initially, the religious/spiritual struggle may result in a loss of faith. However, “resolving the discrepancy may involve religious/spiritual growth,” and “more research is needed on how and when meaning systems provide comfort and a source of stability versus how and when they change in response to stressors like bereavement” (Wortmann & Park, 2009).
Often the client must come to terms with a new way to find meaning, especially if a tragedy has befallen them. “Spiritual emergence” is defined by Bray as an “integration of spiritual and transpersonal experiences triggered either by the psyche’s readiness to transform or by highly stressful emotional or physical events …” (2010). Traumatic events cause many people to draw on their spirituality to make meaning of the world. Studies have shown that people who have a spiritual belief system, no matter the kind, recover from trauma faster and realize a positive adjustment in mental health and well-being.
In a study incorporating spirituality into cognitive-behavioral therapy in an acute psychiatric setting, Rosmarin reports that patients are “encouraged to harness spiritual resources and address spiritual concerns with the hope of ameliorating symptoms and enhancing motivation and treatment compliance” (Rosmarin, et al, 2011). Nearly half the patients found efforts to integrate spirituality into their treatment desirable, and another third enjoyed exploring their spirituality within the larger program.
Clearly there is a need and a desire for psychospiritual intervention, and a need for therapists with skills in this area. Hodge discusses four guidelines “to assist practitioners in using spiritual interventions in an ethical, professional manner that fosters client well-being: client preference, evaluation of relevant research, clinical expertise, and cultural competency (which should be understood as including spiritual competency)” (Hodge, 2011).
Still, therapists often find themselves walking the precarious line between the psychological and the spiritual. Many fear crossing that line, for various reasons. Many therapists are not trained for spiritual intervention, and Hodge makes a good point when he states: “Lack of training on the proper use of spiritual interventions is a problem” (Hodge, 2011). Also, many clients are reluctant to discuss spirituality in a therapeutic setting, and so counselors respect their right to decline psychospiritual intervention. Additionally, “clients have a right to expect that mental health professionals have some degree of expertise in the interventions they implement” (Hodge, 2011); therefore, in order to implement psychospiritual intervention, it is imperative that the therapist be trained, or at the very least, consult with someone who is expert in such matters, such as clergy.
The qualified therapist’s sensitivity to the client’s experience and human desire to make some kind of meaning out of life can lead to psychospiritual modes of intervention and therapy that can actually help the client attain post-traumatic growth from a spiritual and existential crisis. Spirituality and religion have been shown to be important tools to help people develop resilience and healing from a life-changing event. It is crucial for therapists to be trained in psychospiritual intervention before attempting to incorporate religion/spirituality into therapy. However, spiritual intervention can be a mitigating practice in the treatment of bereavement, depression, and PTSD, especially if the client indicates either a strong faith or a “dark night of the soul.” Furthermore, both conventional and unconventional techniques may be utilized to help the client extract meaning from the crisis event, thereby developing peace and experiencing healing. Timely intervention could reduce instances of long-term psychological disorder created by a crisis of meaning.
When considering how to help those who are in the throes of existential crisis, the therapist will do well to remember the words of Peter Bray: “Those who survive stressful life events may need to explain their posttraumatic experiences in spiritual terms that are centrally positioned in a broader framework than is currently available” (Bray, 2010). This means new and innovative ways to assist in the existential conflict resolution that plagues so many must often be devised by the therapist trained in transpersonal intervention. Knowing how to work within the client’s religious beliefs is imperative if the client is religious. “Communicating effectively about spiritual and religious perceptions requires ‘a multidimensional frame of reference that is inclusive, holistic, and integrated’” (Cashwell & Young, 2011, p. 135). This is where shamanic practice can be helpful.
Shamanism and Shamanic Practice
Shamans have thrived in indigenous cultures for centuries, and act as a bridge between the unseen world of spirit and the material reality of humanity. “Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirits traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities to heal others or help their community” (Scotton, 1996). The practice is found in cultures all over the world, with the focus on spirit travel, or soul flights – altered states of consciousness that distinguish shamans from other healers.
Shamanism has great healing potential for the Western world, which may be why it has enjoyed resurgence in recent years among Westerners. Modernization, with its trend toward the belief in the absolute “truth” of science, seems to have stripped Western culture of the deeper meaning that can be found in indigenous spirituality. “The West has suffered severe fragmentations that led it to lose its connection with nature, with all that is vital, with human subjectivity, and, in general, with all the subtle, sensitive and intangible dimensions of existence” (Llamazares, 2015).
“Shamanism is a transformational ordeal of dismemberment and rebirth recorded for centuries among tribal peoples around the world,” Downton claims, and likens the shaman’s process to Jungian individuation, or the process of attaining wholeness. He goes on to say that shamanism provides a “mythic structure for understanding those periods of dramatic transformation…in consciousness” (Downton, 1989). When the collective unconsciousness breaks through into consciousness, the individual is transported across the barrier into a new reality. This is a spiritual emergency, but the shamanic initiation can make sense of it.
Shamanic healing is transpersonal in that it treats any disharmony of the whole being (body, mind, and spirit), and attempts to restore a natural state of health. It also involves contact with supernatural beings or compassionate helping spirits that carry out the healing.
(Next Time: The Shamanic Therapist: A Trained Psychospiritual Guide)
(Excerpt from “A Transpersonal Approach to Existential Crisis: Shamanic Methods in Therapeutic Practice” [graduate paper]
© 2016 – Cindy L. McGinley. All rights reserved. )
Bray, Peter. (2010, April). A broader framework for exploring the influence of spiritual experience in the wake of stressful life events: Examining connections between post-traumatic growth and psycho-spiritual transformation. Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, 13(3), 293-308.
Cashwell, C., & J. Young, 2011. Integrating spirituality and religion into counseling: a guide to competent practice (2nd edition). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Downton, J.V. (1989). Individuation and shamanism. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 34, 73-88.
Hodge, David R. (2011, April). Using spiritual interventions in practice: Developing some guidelines from evidence-based practice. Social Work: 56( 2), 149 – 158.
Llamazares, A. M. (2015). The wounded west: The healing potential of shamanism in the contemporary world. ReVision, 32 (283), 7-23.
Rosmarin, David H., Randy P. Auerbach, Joseph S. Bigda-Peyton, Thröstur Björgvinsson, & Philip G. Levendusky. (2011). Integrating spirituality into cognitive behavioral therapy in an acute psychiatric setting: A pilot study. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, Volume 25, Number 4, 254.
Scotton, B. W., Chinen, A. B., & Battista, J. R. (1996). Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Wortmann, Jennifer H. & Crystal L. Park (2009). Religion/spirituality and change in meaning after bereavement: Qualitative evidence for the meaning making model. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14:17_34.