SPIRITUALITY: JUMPSTARTING A CYCLE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATION?
There is a general consensus that spirituality is good for you. This may be the only point of agreement about spirituality these days. Traditionally associated with religion or the occult, spiritual belief and practice in the 21st century are variously and personally defined. There is much disagreement, even conflict, between one perspective and another. Yet, from feeling refreshed after a yoga class to a sense of being re-born through a personal relationship with God, the benefits of spiritual expression and growth, however conceptualized, are certainly affirmed by the practicing individual.
Why? There has been scientific research to explore this link between spiritual practice and reported sense of well-being, although the explanations given are entirely rational. It is noted that the brain patterns of individuals in prayer or meditation are similar to those seen in deep relaxation, which is considered a healthful state. Thus, it makes sense that people who incorporate regular periods of these activities into their lives would show an overall positive effect. It is pointed out that individuals who turn to prayer or meditation during times of crisis may actually be using coping strategies that are similar to biofeedback or the relaxation techniques taught in a therapist’s office.
From a purely psychological perspective, it is also acknowledged that there may be healthy byproducts to a "spiritual" lifestyle. People who are so oriented tend to get involved in groups of like-minded individuals, either as an avenue for worship or to work on projects that exemplify their values. There may be a network of social support and constructive interactions in the service of a common goal. There may also be more time spent in reflection, with an emphasis on self-examination, weighing moral choices, and finding meaning in life.
Beyond the vague healthful effects described above, spirituality may be the most powerful psychological resource we have. As a clinical psychologist of twenty years, I have consistently observed that those individuals with spiritual investment (no matter what the religion or “spiritual” orientation) react similarly to each other, but differently from those for whom spirituality is unimportant, in dealing with emotional crises and difficult life events. The potential impact on a person’s psychology is immense and can be transforming. Genuine commitment to spiritual belief and practice seems to result in paradigmatic shifts in the individual’s experience. This translates into the discovery of new, positive feelings beyond purely psychological emotions, a meaningful “bigger picture” worldview, unique coping strategies, and a more rewarding and authentic sense of personal identity.
Spiritual exploration and practice can be transformational on several levels psychologically. A kind of generic understanding of spirituality today is that it is how an individual finds a unique, nurturing, and deeply emotional connection with something greater than one’s self. When we go “within,” certainly during prayer, meditation, or contemplation, there is a sense of going beyond ego, becoming merged with and transcendentally connected to others, the Universe or God. Whether or not such perceptions are ultimately explainable by science will not be addressed here. From a subjective and uniquely personal perspective, it is this sense of inner connection to something greater than ourselves that is the hub and dynamic of spiritual experience.
It is this internal connection to something greater that becomes a haven, retreat, and existential lifeline. Over time, it may become a source of guidance, soothing, and even “unconditional love” in an individual’s life. In addition to this awareness of “presence” or greater connection, the individual may seem to access other “spiritual” feelings beyond the more common, reactive psychological emotions. There may be reports of a soft-hued joy, peace, clarity, even certainty, which is perceived as a mental, but not intellectual “knowing.” With increased spiritual practice, such feelings begin to generalize beyond the meditative setting or activity.
Spirituality may produce actual changes in learned, automatic thought patterns and behavior. Traditionally, spirituality has meant “living philosophy” or applying universal principles of faith, unity, and service in thought and action. This opens up an entirely different way to view one’s self, one’s life, and the surrounding world. Often spiritual individuals see themselves as living on two levels at once. They experience negative emotions and react to obstacles like everyone else, but their beliefs offer a “bigger picture” dimension or “perspective of wisdom” (which then competes with the immediate and reactive negative feelings). No matter how dark and long the tunnel, this can be an anchor and lifeline in the midst of emotional storm.
The spiritual person also commits to seeing his or her own life as a meaningful journey, involving learning and purpose. Within this context, there is the opportunity to re-frame and transcend long-term psychological issues, trauma, and even biological challenges. There is also the directive to focus on and maximize the positive in one’s life. As a result of all these factors, the sense of personal identity often transforms. Over time, spiritually committed individuals get in touch with and begin to live from an awareness of themselves as an evolving “soul” as opposed to the programmed psychological sense of self that develops out of childhood and cultural learning.
Self-esteem becomes measured through spiritual values, which are not only authentic and positive, but paradoxically “ground” the individual as to how to deal with most situations in everyday living. Spiritual individuals also begin to recognize, respond to, and honor the “soul” in others. This leads to new and unexpected avenues of meaningful connection and relationship, and a willingness to take risks and try uncharacteristic positive behaviors, that are then reinforced as part of the individual’s overall identity.
In contrast to the psychological focus on “fixing” damage and problem areas, spirituality is progressive, a commitment, even lifestyle. Active spirituality opens up an ongoing cycle of personal transformation that can only build on itself, often subtly, but over time carries the potential for not only enhancing but re-configuring an individual’s life.
March 29, 2004
About Dr. Judy Marshall
As a spiritual psychologist, Dr. Judy Marshall seeks to bridge the gap between spiritual and psychological understanding. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1983. In two decades of clinical practice, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests in self-esteem, depression, creativity and aging. Her newly launched website, Psychmaster.com, provides basic, understandable information about psychology and spirituality. Psychmaster tapes, CDs and e-books—all written and narrated by Dr. Judy Marshall—seek to answer fundamental questions about how spirituality and psychology interact, the reality of mental health and illness, coping with the challenges and tragedies inherent in human existence and achieving actualization and fulfillment. For more information, contact Dr. Judy Marshall, Psychmaster, P.O. Box 401, Beverly Hills, CA 90213, 310-286-0443, www.psychmaster.com