Archive for May, 2009

How does religion come up in a therapy session?

Monday, May 11th, 2009


Sometimes religion enters psychotherapy the moment the client enters the room. This was the case with Nancy. Her bright face and warm smile changed to an urgency as she sat down. Leaning forward on the edge of the couch she clasped her hands and told me that she no longer knew how to pray. Her son had been an ex patriot in Mexico and his life had been threatened by a corrupt official. She had been in daily contact with him and the embassy arranging for immediate departure. She prayed for his safety as fervently as she pursued embassy officials and knew, from all her past experience with prayer, that he would arrive safely. When she was told of his murder, she sunk into grief and a crisis of faith: her prayer had not been answered despite her belief that it would be. The very faith that had sustained her in past losses was threatened. This left her bereft.

Other times it enters in surprising ways by those who had never discussed experiences in anything but secular ways. Ann, an anthropologist, during an intense moment in telling her story in group therapy one night reached beneath her collar to pull a chain to reveal a medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Ann had long since left her nominal Catholic faith and was drawn more to Buddhism , yet, she explained, the virgin had become her mother long after the death of her own manic depressive mother.

Or the therapist may hear something in the client’s voice, cadence or metaphors that suggest something of faith. And with patience and gentleness the therapist without being intrusive may welcome the subtle spirit into the session.

A reasonable question remains. “How can a therapist open therapy to spiritual concerns a person might bring if the therapist shares no common tradition with the person? This is the core question addressed by James and Melissa Griffith in Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy. They have found that they can best do this when they “stay in the position of an anthropologist meeting another person in an unknown culture….The skills most helpful for opening therapy to the spiritual and religious domains have been those for preparing our own selves to meet someone not yet known- the fostering within ourselves of curiosity, wonder and openness to the being of the other.”

Henri Nouwen speaks of creating a “friendly emptiness”. In his book Reaching Out, Nouwen uses various phrases to try to capture the essence of hospitality. The therapist with different beliefs from the client may offer hospitality in the way of “friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving him alone. Hospitality”, Nouwen explains, “is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” “It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness,” he writes, “ but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way.”

Hospitality and patient listening can provide the necessary sanctuary within which one’s faith will most likely be expressed.

Click on the image of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman to see more work by the artist

East and West: Buddhism and Psychology

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009


Below is a link to an article from the Vancouver Sun on Buddhism and psychology. It describes and gives some historical background on the interest of Western psychotherapists in Eastern religion. Douglas Todd, the article’s author, sees the potential richness in this fusion but also writes of those who caution against superficial treatment of these disciplines.

The risk of any interdisciplinary endeavor, such as the blending of religion and psychotherapy is of diluting both and thus diminishing them. Each is a discipline and practice in it’s own right; and as any serious disciple and practitioner can tell you each is a life long endeavor. Yet, not to seek to draw upon religion because of being committed to psychotherapy would be to ignore a vital source for exploring the interior world. It is best to proceed, but to do so with humility.

Ancient Buddhism and modern psychology