I recently spoke at a religious retreat at the Loyola House of Retreats in Morristown, New Jersey. The subject was the integration of religious belief and practice with psychological understanding. Contemporarily, the fields of religion have been considered a separate entity from psychology. Yet there is a growing awareness that this may not be an either-or scenario.
Modern psychology is not much more than a century in its formation. Sigmund Freud is usually credited with beginning the movement. Systems of orienting human beings to the great mysteries of birth, life and eventual death have always existed. Religious systems carried this task for many centuries.
But with the dawn of the scientific age, religion took a back seat to the medical model. This medical model now dominates much of the field of mental health. An early analyst, Otto Rank stated that because religions “lost the Cosmos” humankind became neurotic. As a result, we had to invent psychoanalysis to deal with this neurosis.
An early analyst, Otto Rank stated that because religions “lost the Cosmos” humankind became neurotic. As a result, we had to invent psychoanalysis to deal with this neurosis.
The quest for symptom relief in modern society’s psychology
I am primarily a Jungian by orientation and so tend to be more welcoming to a religious perspective. Carl Jung stated that his most successful patient work happened when a patient gained a religious perspective. Now he did not mean that one should run off to join an institutional system. Rather that one should seek to acquire greater existential meaning in one’s life. How this looks and feels to me differs from another’s.
Today, modern therapy often focuses on relieving symptoms, such as depression and anxiety. Medication is a part of the treatment process to assist in the reduction of symptoms. For some individuals this is a preferred and desirable approach. For others, a deeper therapeutic approach is necessary.
There may be a future of possibilities for one’s life which are not yet realized.
Depth psychology and religion share this orientation to a large extent. Symptoms may be considered as meaningful on an existential level. There may be a teleological nature to a person’s suffering. In other words, there may be a future of possibilities for one’s life which are not yet realized.
Jiddu Krishnamurti was an early teacher of Eastern traditions to the West starting in the 1920’s. He presented a memorable thought; that it is not a sign of emotional health to be well-adjusted to a sick society. Now we can readily see the sickness in a society, such as the Nazi regime in the past century. But how adept are we at questioning the “sickness” of our own society? Are we emotionally healthy if we do our best to fit in and copy the trends of the time?
Looking for answers to emotional wellness in the medical model
The West has become rich in materialism and technology generating many benefits. Perhaps this moves people towards the unhealthy habit of always looking (often in futility) for external answers. Rather than going inward, our contemporary society promotes this approach. I sometimes counsel patients who look outside of themselves to alleviate their suffering. There is a search for the right tool or technique that will lead to perfect wellbeing.
At times I must be blunt and state to a client that I have no specific external homework for them to “practice.” The practice is actually the cultivation of going inward. And by all means engage in a practice, such as meditation, to help facilitate wellbeing. Towards this regard we have an atypical answer. Provided by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell when asked about his spiritual practice. His reply was that he swam 44 laps in a pool daily and ended the day with a scotch!
However, as Jung noted, she or he who looks outward alone, dreams. He or she who looks inward, awakens. We have become too often a society of symptom management. And we frequently follow a medical styled model in the search for emotional wellness. We wonder, “can this pill solve my issues?”
I am a firm believer and practitioner of appropriate psychopharmacology. I have treated outpatient psychosis and severe states of depression. In these instances I am grateful for the “blessings” medication can provide.
We frequently follow a medical styled model of psychology in the search for emotional wellness. We wonder, “can this pill solve my issues?”
Cultivating and defining one’s spirituality
I have never seen a medication alone solve a client’s existential problem. This issue still demands a therapeutic discussion, with grounding in some spiritual practice. Now this practice can be quite varied in approach. It could mean embracing a formal religious or spiritual practice or not.
I knew a man who traveled to India in search of a Guru who would help him solve his addiction problems. Instead of having this suffering man adopt Eastern traditions, the Guru asked a simple question. “To what spiritual tradition were you born into?” “Why I was raised in Judaism”, his reply. “Well then, my son, go back home and be a Jew!” So he did, and having met him 10 years later, Jay is a sober practicing Jew.
How adept are we at questioning the ‘sickness’ of our own society? Are we emotionally healthy if we do our best to fit in and copy the trends of the time?
Perhaps this is an example of what set 12-step programs into motion in the first place. Analytical psychologist Carl Jung suggested to an alcoholic patient that he seek a religious conversion. As a result, AA and other forms of addiction treatment came to fruition. But at the core of this process is the exchange of the drink of a spirit with the cultivation of the spiritual. I have a personal friend who often attends open meetings because, “they feed my spirit.” She is not an alcoholic, but she admits being hungry for that which is spiritual. And Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are exactly where she gets her fill.
Clients often ask for homework that they can “practice”. The practice is actually the cultivation of going inward.
The interrelationship between psychology and religion is a consideration of profound importance. Volumes have been written on the subject and volumes more await. Some 2500 years ago the great pre-socratic philosophers, such as Paramenedes, cautioned against our current Western cultures’ propensity to require clean divisions among the academic disciplines. This most definitely pertains to our understanding of the roles of psychology and religion in the welfare of the human soul. Perhaps it is time to regard their warnings and open the dialog.
Your Turn: What possibilities in your life have not yet been realized? How have you cultivated your spirituality? I’d love to hear what’s helped you in the comments below.