Spiritual Therapy for the Non-Religious
Spirituality is a word that means many different things to different people. It helps to get as specific as possible when describing spirituality, especially as it relates to psychotherapy. Spiritual therapy may sound, at first blush, like religious therapy such as Christian-based or Buddhist psychotherapy. However, spiritual therapy doesn’t have to be religious in nature at all. Any therapy that helps uncover deeper meaning and purpose in life, or helps in understanding the truth about oneself, is spiritual. In fact, more and more people consider themselves spiritual without adhering to any particular religion. I often hear people say things like, “I’m not so sure that God exists, but I know that I feel connected to something larger than myself.” This deeper connection seems to be related to a sense of belonging that feels spiritual in nature.
I like to think of spiritual therapy in terms of awakening. Any process of sudden or radical change can be considered an awakening because it can feel like waking up from the life we once knew and into something unexpected. Sometimes we wake up gradually and sometimes we wake up suddenly. When it’s a sudden shift into a new way of being and seeing, we can feel disrupted, frightened, destabilized, and confused.
In my psychotherapy practice, I often see people who are in the process of a profound awakening. They are no longer fully asleep, but they haven’t completely woken up yet either. They come in frightened or angry, unsure of themselves and where they are headed. Sometimes an awakening happens because something in life has dramatically shifted, such as when a loved one dies or a job is lost or health fails in some way. Life forces us into new situations, and being creatures who tend to avoid change, we freak out and suffer. On the other hand, sometimes awakenings just happen. Maybe intuition rises strongly and tells us that a relationship is no longer working. Maybe we feel like we’ve spent so many years climbing the ladder of success only to discover it has been leaning on the wrong wall, as the popular metaphor goes. These cases can sometimes be even MORE destabilizing because we don’t see them coming. When this happens it can be easy to slip into despair or to lose trust in oneself.
However, as you engage in the hard work of spiritual therapy and pass through the crucible of awakening, something magical can begin to happen. With a profound shift of this type, it’s as if your busy 2-dimensional life expands into 3 dimensions. You draw a deeper, sweeter breath; life becomes colorful again. It’s so relieving to be back on the planet, awake and ready for what might happen next instead of just going through the motions, numbed out and depressed. Life gets delicious and a bit blissful. It fills out and gets juicy when we are awake to it.
The most profound form of awakening is also the most clearly spiritual. It involves the dawning recognition of your true nature as a human being. When you come to see that you are truly valuable and lovable as a being and that your very nature is that of Love, of spirit, you come to a deeper sense of wholeness and at-homeness in your very being. You start to feel really o.k. for the first time in years. Individual problems and struggles loosen the iron grip they’ve had over you. It doesn’t mean your life is now perfect and problem free, but you become happier and more in tune with your intuition. Lived from this perspective, life becomes a sacred gift.
It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist or an agnostic or a Gnostic. Awakenings happen to people of all stripes. Spiritual therapy, then, is a way of walking through the awakening process. It serves to help people make sense of the vast and profound changes they pass through in this life, for the short time they’re here on Earth. It helps them find their own bearings in the confusion of the in-between state and to come to terms with the truth about their human existence. The profundity and the depth of the endeavor is what make it spiritual. This is the great artistic work of the human soul, not simply a shift in the machinations of the human mind.
Spiritual therapy helps people re-establish a greater sense of wholeness and wellness. Often a sense of awe and gratitude arises in response to waking up and letting go of the pain and struggle we’ve become accustomed to. This is the work of spiritual therapy, which is open to everyone regardless of belief.
Corey Flanders is counselor in Providence, RI with expertise in existential challenges, spiritual guidance, loss of meaning, anxiety, depression, and trauma.. He combines excellence in evidence-based therapy techniques with his lifelong experience as a meditator to help clients move beyond symptoms and lead more fulfilling lives.