As a psychologist with over twenty years of clinical experience, I believe that spirituality can transform personal psychology. After evaluating hundreds of people through the legal system, I began to notice that—no matter what the religion or country of origin—people who had faith or spirituality in their lives seemed to react similarly to trauma and challenges, but differently from those who were not spiritually involved. People who were spiritually oriented also seemed to cope better with life’s challenges and to be overall more satisfied with life. I also noticed these same trends within my therapy practice.
These observations were brought home to me when I was awakened to faith and began to incorporate spiritual ideas into how I lived my own life. A sensitive person, with chronic struggles with relationships and low self-esteem, I found that spiritual values were more in sync with my core—and who I wanted to be. Through my developing relationship with God, I began to discover a foundation of peace in my life and new avenues and ways to relate to others. Over time, the “old” struggles and emotional torments that had been so central in my existence seemed to recede into the background, as I followed a new “way” and found what felt like a truer identity. It is for all these reasons that I feel spiritual belief and practice can be a tremendous and sustaining resource in recovery.
HOW DOES SPIRITUALITY AFFECT US PSYCHOLOGICALLY?
First of all, let’s look at spirituality in terms of personal experience and perspective. Spirituality is not simply about religious rules and regulations or even doctrine, although there are universal core spiritual principles that appear in all religions. True spirituality is “living” philosophy. When people begin to incorporate the core principles into how they live their lives, this affects how they see themselves and life in general, how they behave and interact with others, and even how they feel physically and emotionally.
It is well established by academic psychology that how we view the world affects how we experience the world. This is the old question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. This is so important in recovery—to maintain an attitude of hope and personal empowerment, although in a spiritual perspective, true empowerment comes from a connection to the Higher Power and investment in spiritual values. These values are positive and “higher” level (i.e., in contrast to the “lower” level materialistic, narcissistic, and competitive values so often found in contemporary society). This leads to more authentic, purposeful and ultimately rewarding behavior—and results in positive feedback from the environment.
SPIRITUAL TOOLS FOR RECOVERY…
Let’s look at core universal spiritual principles—and how they can be implemented and positively affect recovery.
PRINCIPLE #1 – A BELIEF IN A HIGHER POWER
How one defines a Higher Power is deeply personal and varies from one individual to another. The important point is that a “living” belief in a Higher Power creates a sense of meaningful connection to something beyond one’s self. When one has a sense of connection to God, this translates into actual spiritual feelings of belonging, being cared for, peace, serenity, replenishment, physical and psychological harmony, and (at least temporary) respite from emotional ups and downs in response to the stresses of daily living.
Such spiritual feelings wax and wane but are strengthened by periods of prayer, meditation, contemplation, communing with nature, and going into an internal quiet space (however that occurs for the individual). There does seem to be a place within our consciousness—that we go so far into ourselves that we are beyond ourselves. Here we are able to transcend psychological problems and painful emotions and feel infused with inner tranquility for a period of time. For people of faith, this is where they feel close to God. Beyond prayer or meditation, all sorts of activities can lead us into this quiet, reverential state—such as creative pursuits, gardening, listening to music, even doing routine chores.
It is easy to see how a regular spiritual practice can be a day-to-day emotionally stabilizing and replenishing regimen. Seeking spiritual connection can also be a source of guidance and anchor during emotional upheaval and personal crisis. This is why people of faith speak of the central importance of their relationship with God, who is both caretaker and guide. Often someone will come out of a meditative or contemplative session and feel resolved about a specific issue—or just psychologically renewed in general and ready to push forward. During emotionally difficult times, an internal sense of spiritual connection can provide a psychological lifeline and perspective of wisdom. Even in the midst of turmoil, there is a sense of connection to something meaningful and true beyond ourselves—and the realization that the immediate crisis will eventually pass.
PRINCIPLE #2 – THE IDEA THAT WE ARE SPIRITUAL BEINGS WITHIN PHYSICAL BODIES
This principle means that, as individuals, we are on an evolving spiritual journey as we go through life—and we have spiritual purpose. This goes beyond theory of what life is about. Truly believing that you are a spiritual being will impact on how you live your life and view yourself. From a spiritual perspective, each of us is equal but unique in the greater spiritual family, which is a source of support and opportunity. Each of us has our own path—with challenges and possibilities. We are always learning—and can always use what we have learned for our highest good and to serve others. This spiritual perspective reframes psychiatric symptoms and substance abuse as human challenges that the individual faces, instead of categorizing, limiting, labeling, or focusing on such problems as “damage” or central in terms of the person’s identity or self-esteem.
“Living” this principle in recovery means that the important thing is the quality of life, learning from the experiences of our life—and our contribution to life. Certainly, people in recovery tend to have a lot of “life material” arising from their challenges in what they have experienced and are learning—and a lot to offer as a result, which is the essence of purpose. Others can always learn from what we have personally encountered. Everyone has wisdom and potential, if they will allow it. But everyone defines and experiences this in his or her own way. While it is important that we all take responsibility for our lives (each one of us is captain of our own ship, so to speak), this means there is no one standard of wellness or success, although society often portrays life that way. When we get in touch with our “spiritual being” within, guided by the Higher Power, we will be on our right and unique spiritual course.
PRINCIPLE #3 – THE IMPORTANCE OF CHARITY AND COMPASSION
“Living” this principle can be difficult for human beings. It means trying to respect others we meet in life as fellow spiritual travelers, putting our own narcissistic agendas and negative reactions aside, and trying to remain cooperative and compassionate as we relate to others. This can be a balancing act in our dog-eat-dog society and particularly challenging for some people in recovery, who may have issues with trust, boundaries, and codependency (and thus may be giving compassion where it is not warranted).
One rewarding way to practice this principle is involvement in activities that actually serve others—or in groups or projects that have a higher purpose. This can lead to new ways to relate to people, exposure to others who also are looking to serve, and an enhanced sense of value and purpose. Serving others can also actually feel good. Many people describe the same types of “spiritual” feelings (of peace, harmony, and transcendence) that occur in meditation or prayer when they engage in altruistic activities or reach out to someone is a selfless way. Over time there may also be the development of friendships and bonds based on shared interests, mutual respect, and integrity.
Spirituality, like recovery, is a transformative and ongoing but often uneven process throughout life. Like recovery, it requires continued commitment and discipline of the individual but also reaps immense rewards.
Dr. Judy Marshall received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.
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