Trust in a benevolent universe is a key to spiritual health.

Even if your spirituality does not include a Supreme Being, children need to feel that the universe smiles on them. Einstein said that the most important decision each person makes is deciding whether or not this is a friendly universe.

Dr. Laura Markham, Great Spiritual Lessons Every Child Should Learn

Laura Markham is no relation to me and I don’t know her. However, I admire her work.

As I read and think about this quote, it seemed to me that this is an important decision for adults as well as children. To what extent is one of the foundational purposes of psychotherapy to help people shift their perception from a world of malevolence to one of friendliness?. How do we help our clients shift their perception from a malevolent universe in which they feel victimized to a benevolent universe in which they are loved unconditionally?

Psychotherapy involves a sense of reverence

Lorraine Wright in her article, Spirituality, Suffering, and Beliefs writes about an incident that occurred when she was being observed working with a family behind a one way mirror. A team member who was observing said to Lorraine that

"...what he believed to be the most powerful aspect of my clinical work with families: the notion of 'reverencing' that occurred between families/clients and myself. In those moments of reverencing, there is a profound awe and respect for the individuals seated in front of you. It is not a linear phenomenon in these moments. I feel that same reverencing from family members being given back to me. In those moments of reverencing in clinical work something very special happens between the therapist and the family; it is something felt by all - a deep emotional connection. I know and have felt these moments in therapy, both in the therapy room and from behind the one-way mirror as a supervisor or team member."

Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy edited by Froma Walsh, p. 63

I am reminded of Jesus' statement that where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be. There is something about psychotherapy that can be sacred not in a religious sense but in a spiritual sense.

Psychotherapy is a trust between the therapist and the client(s) where the psychotherapist is duty bound to put the clients needs ahead of his/her own. The psychotherapist is ethically bound to use his/her personality in a purposeful way to help the client get the clients' needs met. There is a deep listening that is empathically profound and an attentiveness that goes way beyond the ordinary. It is the conscientious attentiveness on the part of the therapist that makes psychotherapy hard work in the sense that it takes discipline to set aside one's own narcissistic preferences and desires in service of another. This "being there" for another is what begins to make the rapport sacred and the quality of reverencing begins to emerge.

Discussing clients spiritual beliefs as part of therapy

I have been reading Spiritual Resources In Family Therapy edited by Froma Walsh and there is an article in the book by Lorraine Wright entitled, "Spirituality, Suffering, and Beliefs: The Soul Of Healing With Families."


Lorraine describes herself as a family therapist/nurse educator who works predominantly with families experiencing illness. She says some interesting things like:


The influence of family members’ spiritual and religious beliefs on their illness experiences has been one of the most neglected areas in family work.” P. 62


I wonder why that would be? What is the fear or the constraining beliefs that therapists have that would make it nonconductive to discussing clients' spiritual beliefs as part of the therapy?


Part of the contraints probably have to do with the split between the secular and the sacred, between science and religion, between evidence based practice and the clinical arts, between the psychological helper and the ministry.


I have been trained as a psychotherapist not as a pastor and our roles are different and yet without understanding and taking into account my clients' spiritual and religious beliefs especially when they are suffering, I am not likely to be of much help.


Thankfully, there is increased interest in the health care professions in the role that spirituality and and religion play in a person's physical health and mental well being. To describe someone as "broken hearted" or as having "killed their spirit" is to describe a person who is in need of some sort of spiritual uplift. There is a difference between a physical cure and a healing of the spirit.


My friend and colleague, Ed, recently died on June 30, 2008 at age of 56 of Esophogeal cancer. I last had lunch with him on June 18,2008. Even though physically he was having difficulty his spirits, as always, were good. I am not sure what Ed's religious and spiritual beliefs were, but he loved life, he loved people, and he lived every day up to his last to the best of his ability and for this I am very grateful to Ed for inspiring me with a great example of how to die.


Paul Pearsall, the neuropsychoimmunologist, who had four near death experiences himself, said, that no therapist can hope to be of much help to someone unless the therapist understands at least three basic things about the person's world view. The therapist needs to understand how the client would answer these three questions: Why was I born? What is the purpose of my life? What happens to me when I die?


I usually don't ask clients directly these 3 questions unless they come up in our conversation but usually by the 3 interview I have some good understandings of how they might answer these questions.


"I don't know. I don't know, and I don't know" are not good enough answers and people have to be pushed sometimes to a scarier and more difficult place, but if they trust the therapist enough, they usually can come up with some sort of answer that probably means more than they would like to believe.


The purpose of a healthy spirituality is to decrease suffering as both Jesus and Buddha and other spiritual masters have taught. This is the same goal of good psychotherapy.


Death is our final destination in this journey of life

Death is a natural thing. It is part of the life cycle, and yet we fear it because we are afraid of the loss of those we love and we fear our own extinction.

The ego fights for its survival. It cannot see beyond it's own interests. It fears its own demise, and yet we intuit that there is more to us and more to life than our own egos. We have learned in many instances "to rise above it" and let the ego's instincts dissipate. We have learned to empathize with the experience of others which requires us to transcend our own ego and put ourselves in some else's place. There are many ego deaths every day if we are aware of them.

Death is the letting go of the ego and dis-identifying with our body and going on into the great beyond whatever that may be. It is our final destination of the journey here on earth and it is a transformation which we can only guess at.

We are told by spiritual masters like Jesus, Buddha, and others than death is nothing to fear. It is going home to the place from which we came, the mystery of God.

Facts and opinions - making our own reality

The New Agers tell us that we can create our own reality.

What they mean is, as best as I can determine, that we can make our own meaning.

We usually cannot change the facts or the circumstances.

As the proverb says, "You have a right to your own opinion, but you do not have a right to your own facts."

As the bumper sticker says, "Reality is when it happens to you."

The facts can be tough sometimes. The truth can hurt. Shit happens.

In the United States we have lived though a delusional period in our national politics when policies were based on ideology not on reality. Many people are now calling for a reality based politics not an ideologically based politics.

In our personal lives, we probably function more effectively and efficiently, if not not more happily, when our decisions and choices are based on reality rather than fantasy.

If a 12 oz. can of soda has 6 oz. left it it, it is a fact that there are 6 oz. gone, but whether you choose to interpret this fact as the can being half empy or half full is up to you and the expectations of others for how they would like you to interpret the fact.

The events of your personal life and our national life roll on. These events are facts and indesputable, but you get to write the history and the history you write will influence how future events and facts are perceived.

As Bobby McFerrin sang in his great song, "Don't worry, be happy." Video lasts 3:43

To be kind, honesty is required.

I share with my clients the idea that honesty is the sine qua non of a good relationship. A relationship based on dishonesty is not worth having because the feedback one gets from the partner is distorted, it is based on illusions and misunderstandings. The feedback has very little value. As they say in the computer field, "garbage in, garbage out."

Further, lying takes unnecessary emotional energy. The liars' anxiety goes up a bit because now they must expend the energy to keep the lie straight with other communications and/or to keep the truth in the dark. That lying is stressful for most people, and has physiological symptoms of stress, is the underlying assumption of how lie detectors work. These machines, supposedly, are able to detect these more subtle symptoms of stress which the human eye cannot detect.

Can people who lie be kind? At a superficial level, I suppose they can, but at a spiritual level it is very difficult because there is a pretense, a charade, and illusion created which is not authentic, not genuine, and comes between the people in the relationship.

In counseling I often hear the complaint, "He/she is not the man/woman I thought he/she was!" Or, "if I knew then what I know now, I would never have done it."

Learning the "truth" can be very disillusioning and often comes with a sense of betrayal. The dishonest presentation of self was not kind, but in the long wrong cruel, even if the cruelty was unintended.

Honesty is the best policy and in the long run is the kindest thing. Remember, being nice and being kind are not the same thing. You can be "nice" and lie your ass off - salespeople and politicians do it all the time, but being kind always requires honesty.

Honesty is also directly related to one's mental health. People who lie and equivocate loose track of who they really are, what they really think, how they really feel. They not only mystify others, they even mystify themselves and they loose their authentic voice. As Polonius says in Hamlet, "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man."

Memorial Day- A time for honor and glory or truth and reconciliation?

Abu Ghraib This is an essay I have wanted to write for some time, but have never felt confident that I had the words to accurately express my thoughts and feelings. I have looked for other authors who could state the ideas more clearly and succinctly than I can, but having found none, I have decided to take the risk and try to express the idea myself.

On this memorial day, I have a great deal of difficulty honoring and paying tribute to people who have engaged in immoral, unethical, and perhaps even criminal behavior. I am talking about soldiers who willingly and readily engaged in the killing in the immoral wars in Viet Nam and Iraq. Participating in the immoral wars of empire is not an honorable or moral activity. The defense that the soldier is “only doing their job”, and “just following orders” is the same as the German soldiers who transported the Jewish people and manned the crematoriums during the Holocaust. This defense was judged to be inadequate in the Nuremberg trials after World War II and it is not adequate for our soldiers immoral activity in a war of imperial conquest now.

There are courageous and heroic people who objected to the criminal activity and said “Hell no, I won’t go!”, and who rejected further service. I call these soldiers, “Soldiers of conscience” because they have reflected on the activities they were being ordered to participate in and judged them immoral and objectionable and at great personal sacrifice said so and refused to participate. They're people of conscience I admire, honor, and respect and yet the majority of Americans seem embarrassed by them because they force us as a nation to examine our nation’s policies and activities and we are conflicted and ashamed. It is another example of the classic case of the little boy saying to his mother, “The king has no clothes on!” and she tells her son to “Hush up!” because she fears the reprisal and retribution for his honesty.

As a therapist, I hypothesize that a great deal of what gets diagnosed as PTSD is a case of overwhelmingly guilty consciences at what was done, or what was seen done, and what was participated in, and yet there is no socially acceptable mechanism for individual soldiers and us, as a nation, to confess our sins, acknowledge our guilt, ask for forgiveness, and repent. This spiritually cleansing strategy has been labeled by the current Republicans and conservative pundits as “cut and run”. And yet it is much more psychological and spiritually healthy to call a spade a spade, take the bull by the horns, determine the nature and degree of harm done, and attempt to rectify and repair the harm.

Our current political climate and culture is too imbued with hubris to admit mistakes, take responsibility for immoral and illegal behavior, admit wrongs done, and apologize and make amends. So the iconic images and ideas of Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo, of extraordinary rendition, of deceit in justifying a pursuit to war, makes us as a nation hide our shame by sporting yellow “support the troops” magnetic ribbons on our cars and pretend that memorial day is a day to celebrate the heroic sacrifices of the activities of soldiers who have engaged in immoral, illegal, and unethical acts in our name.

We do no service to ourselves and to them when we lie and deceive ourselves and others about the horror we have inflicted on Iraq, Viet Nam, and other people’s around the world.

As Nuremberg trials concluded, at the end of the day, the individual conscience is supreme and to excuse one’s moral choices saying “ I was serving my country” or “I was following the orders of the Commander in Chief” is no defense.

When we look at the indicators of mental health among our soldiers: the rates of PTSD and other psychiatric problems, the suicide rates, the dysfunction among military families, I have to ask myself on Memorial Day, who is kidding who? If this activity is so grand and noble why the terrible psychic sequelae?

We have allowed ourselves as a nation to follow a delusional administration, and a dysfunctional congress into engaging in a pre-emptive, immoral, and illegal war. As Michael Moore pointed out on Larry King live over 100 million Americans, about 1/3 of the voting public knew the war was wrong. Millions more around the world knew the war was wrong. The United States essentially declared war alone with many more nations being unwilling than the touted few who were willing. The Pope and other major religious leaders around the world declared the war immoral. How can this be the occasion for honor and tribute? It will only make us crazier. It is better to call sin what it is – sin, and then go from there.

I honor the prophets, like the little boy who saw that the emperor had no clothes on, and thank them for their enlightened witnessing when those in power and the “moral majority” who support them have lost their way.

This Memorial Day should be a day of reflection and repentance. Let’s stop glorifying and honoring what is morally ugly. Let’s provide opportunities for truth and reconciliation instead of military jingoism and chauvanism. What many of our soldiers need is moral cleansing, along with our leaders, and then maybe it wouldn’t be necessary for them to kill themselves and go nuts.

Here is video with Darrell Anderson who is one veteran whom I admire and honor very much. The video lasts a little over 4 minutes and is worth every second.

The map is not the territory - How not to live life.

Wrong_map Us therapists talk about the map not being the territory. We carry around in our heads all these "shoulda, coulda, wouldas" and chastise ourselves because our models, the templates we have in our heads, were not good guides to our behavior and consequential experience.

What do you say to people who have made mistakes and messed up their lives because they have certain assumptions about how life should be and how life is that aren't accurate? As the teenagers used to say, "well, duh..........................!"

My gentle answer to disillusioned clients is to PAY ATTENTION, reflect, observe, and learn from your experience. Make your own maps, don't borrow or use other peoples. Socrates said, "An unexamined life is not worth living." How many people do you know are living examined lives? Most people are walking around in a fog trying to follow their maps and the map is wrong and they don't know it until life hits them up along the side of their head with a two by four.

Some wrong maps in our culture:

    1. Fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after.
    2. Money will make you happy.
    3. Life, in the long run, is fair, or life is not fair, so stop your sniveling and suck it up.
    4. People in authority know what they are talking about.
    5. Be afraid, but don't worry, we'll protect you.
    6. You are a sinner and are going to hell if you don't believe and agree with what we tell you.
    7. You were born defective and inadequate and have to work very hard, be very smart, and please everyone to prove that deep down you're not the worthless person that you feel you are.
    8. Drinking, drugging, gambling, overeating, promiscuous and compulsive sex, religiosity, overworking, compulsive exercise, cutting, starving yourself to death will make everything OK.
    9. Taking a prescription drug advertised on TV for people who are unhappy will make everything OK.

There are many, many more maps that people mistakenly take for the territory but, perhaps this is a good start for now. Maybe I'll mention some more in future articles. If you have some of your own suggestions add them to the comments.

Living an examined life in freedom

Crying_child We don't get to pick our families; we are stuck with them until we get our driver's license. We don't get to choose how we are raised; for the most part we are a captive audience.

But when we become adults, if we become aware enough, we begine to see the choices we have and we can begin to live consciously. Socrates said "An unexamined life is not worth living." and I often wonder how many people are living examined lives?

Personal power comes from examining our psychological legacy and making conscious choices about how we will live our lives. To do this requires help from someone more conscious that we are. Find that person and start living today.

Through depression and into sorrow

Sorrow So much of what gets diagnosed and called "depression" in our modern society is really a disguise for sorrow. Sorrow is the emotion we feel when we experience loss. It is normal. It is appropriate. It is not pathological. It is not abnormal. It is not a psychiatric disorder. Sorrow is part of our human existence.

The more we love, and the more attached and bonded we are, the more sorrowful we will feel when we loose the love object. Our sorrow is a testament to the significance  and importance of that which we have lost.

Depression leaves us listless, uninterested in life, perhaps even wishing to end life, but sorrow is a rich diamond mine of cherished memories and rich experiences which honor relationships developed in a life well worth having been lived.

The challenge in our modern culture is to go right through the depression - forget the antidepressants- and go right into the sorrow. It is in sitting with it, observing it, relishing it, as painful and awful as it is , that we touch the deepest part of our humanity, of our souls.

Grief, sadness, and sorrow require understanding, consoling and comforting. It requires crying tears of sadness and shoulders to cry on. It requires a willingness to sit in the heart of darkness until it lifts and the sun appears once again.