Archive for the ‘psychotherapy’ Category

Dealing with Difficult Emotions through Mindfulness

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

Beginning in October I am offering  Exploring Mindfulness,  an eight-session book discussion and support group for starting, re-starting or maintaining the practice of mindfulness.

mindful1Mindfulness can be described simply as seeing clearly in the here and now. I chose Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart as our guide because, through this book, she is a calm and reassuring voice in helping us to accept life as it is.  She is also a clear and articulate teacher with practical guidance for facing our fears, anger and loneliness.  I find her approach, which comes from the Buddhist tradition, to be extremely relevant to psychology and therapy as we practice it today.


Beginning on October 3, 2014 there will be the opportunity to take this class in person and/or through an online discussion.  One can choose from a Friday or Saturday morning class, or through a blog discussion that I will post each Saturday morning. The post will correspond to what will be covered in the Friday/Saturday classes.  One could choose to participate via the blog discussions alone, or through some combination of the blog and in person.  The minimal expectation is to read the book, but everyone is strongly encouraged to commit to a daily mindfulness meditation practice for 90 days (10/3 -12/31). It is okay if it is only five minutes a day—establishing a habit is the key to developing mindful awareness in a way that will make a difference in ones life.

In order to support a 90 day practice, after the first six sessions the next two sessions will be spaced two weeks apart.  After that there will be two more blog discussions every other week.

Each sessions will include three parts:  1) a teaching from the book or audio/visual from Pema Chödrön or some other teacher in the Shambhala school from which she comes; 2) a guided meditation practice; 3) questions, discussion and support for developing a practice.


Fridays 7:10am – 8:40 am Saturdays 9:00am – 10:30 am In-Person Class /Online Comment
10/3/14 10/4/14 In-Person & Online
10/10/14 10/11/14 In-Person & Online
10/17/14 10/18/14 In-Person & Online
10/24/14 10/25/14 In-Person & Online
10/31/14 11/1/14 In-Person & Online
11/7/14 11/7/14 In-Person & Online
11/14/14 11/15/14 None
11/21/14 11/22/14 In-Person & Online
11/28/14 11/29/14 None Thanksgiving Week
12/5/14 12/6/14 In-Person & Online
12/12/14 12/12/14 None
12/19/14 12/19/14 Online Only Christmas Week
12/26/14 12/26/14 None
Wednesday 12/31/14 Online Only 90th Day

Each group is approximately one hour and twenty minutes from the time we begin.  I have designed it so that if you can only stay an hour you can leave after the meditation practice and before the discussion.  In order to maintain the necessary concentration, though, I ask that an effort be made by each person to not arrive or leave from the start of the teaching to the completion of the meditation.

There is no cost per se, but each participant in the class is welcome to offer up to $5 per class.  Money will not be formally collected but can be placed in the “hat”.


The classes will be held at 227 North Duke Street in the city of Lancaster—halfway between Walnut & Chestnut on the left hand side. My name is on the shingle. Once in the building the group room is the 1st door to the left.   It is on-street parking and meters require 6 quarters for an hour after 8am but not on Saturdays.  I always keep quarters handy.  Lemon Street is 1 ½ blocks away and there are no meters there.

Please contact me at to let me know that you’d like to take part and I will send you the necessary information and answer any questions you have.

To learn more about Pema Chödrön click on her name. If you scroll down you can watch a YouTube video of Pema being interviewed by Bill Moyers as part of his Faith and Reason series.  To order the book click this title, When Things Fall Apart.

To find out more about by therapy practice go to HOME

Ministry Assessment Program (MAP)

Friday, June 15th, 2012

In addition to my work as a therapist in my own practice, I coordinate the Ministry Assessment Program (MAP) at the Samaritan Counseling Center where I have worked for sixteen years. MAP assists leaders in various religious denominations to discern which candidates seeking ordination have an authentic vocation in ministry and are psychologically and emotionally sound enough to proceed. Our evaluations are just one part of a rigorous vetting and formation process.  It can go on for several years with personal, academic, and theological reviews and tests at different stages along the way.

You can imagine, then, what it feels like to be a candidate coming to a psychologist for an interview about very personal things and to undergo extensive psychological testing—intimidating to say the least.  It is important then, that the evaluator approaches this process with respect and consideration for the feelings and privacy of the candidate.  The fact is that the vast majority of those who come before us are sound psychologically and many are talented and experienced to boot.  We hope, then, to give them something for their trouble— to create  an experience for  them that will help them to better understand themselves and to help them grow while at the same time encouraging  them.

Sometimes candidates have an experience during the process that is not all that different than what clients experience in therapy.  Though the expressed purpose of the process is evaluative not therapeutic, in my experience some of the best assessments turn out to be therapeutic as well. If I listen to the candidate attentively and appreciatively, candidates often find the words to say who they really are and why they are on their particular spiritual journey.

I am reminded of a young man who was surprised to find his eyes filling up with tears when he told me about how deeply affected he was by the hymns in his childhood church. “I had a lot of energy “, he recalled, “was nervous and insecure.  The songs told me that I and other people were important.” I wanted to get across, in the report, the depth of the emotional connection with God and others that he conveyed to me. I wrote, “Music seems tap in to his emotional and spiritual core—the part of his experience that he finds hard to articulate.”  It wasn’t that he felt called to music ministry. He is an energetic advocate for social justice who sees evangelism as creating a sense of community outside the church walls in the inner-city neighborhood of his church.  His high energy, though, could at times be a liability—sometimes leaving him tense and restless. Music was a potentially quieting experience for him and a pathway of his spiritual life.  One of the recommendations I gave was, then, for him to “foster this part of himself, perhaps through using music as a regular practice of prayer.”

I hope that I am getting across that a good assessment captures the “person” not just data—that in the right environment candidates sense it is safe to talk about what’s most important to them.  And as one would expect in this work what is most important is often a meaningful  relationship with God and others, or the sense of being a part of “something larger than oneself”.  As I wrote in a previous post on therapy and spirituality,  I hope to grasp  “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”.  It is not the role of a psychological evaluation to judge a person’s theology or beliefs, but I would fail to know them if I did not come to understand what these things mean to them.

I have learned to take the stance that  James and Melissa Griffith wrote about in their book  Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy: How to talk with people about their spiritual lives. They try to “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.”

As the  candidates receive feedback several weeks later and eventually a copy of the final report, we hope to mirror back to them their hopes, fears, gifts as well as the places they may be in  need of healing or growth. When we are successful,  we have done it in a way to preserves their dignity and they feel like we “got them”.





The Sacrament of Penance and Therapy

Monday, January 4th, 2010

I have been reading a little book of essays by writers who are Catholic. In Signatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments each writer was commissioned to write about one sacrament while including personal experience and the history of the sacrament as context.

Author Patricia Hampl wrote the essay “Penance”. In reflecting on the history of Penance, Hampl draws our attention the communal nature of the sacrament in the early church and its essential communal function for all time. “It is strange”, she mused, “that the sacrament of Penance should be so thoroughly associated with privacy, even secrecy.” This is certainly the experience of many baby boom Catholics christened with pre- Vatican II sensibilities (many of who have never darkened the door of a confessional in their adult life.) The fear and shame of our own sins told to God as represented by our parish priest were mercifully covered with a prescribed privacy. This was followed by the relief in stepping out of the ordeal with a child-like joy at being made anew. The prelude of fear and shame have been transformed into awe and humility, the most basic religious dispositions.

This, Hampl points out, was not always so. The “felt need” for the sacrament she writes was at the beginning “rooted in the ancient world’s elemental commitment to the community, not in modernity’s abstract concern for the individual.” Yet she acknowledges a sort of paradox in the birth of this deeply communal sacrament “the individual counts- counts absolutely.” She refers to Luke 15:4-7 (e.g., …I tell you there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine people who have no need of repentance.”)

It is here in her essay that Hampl refers to therapy, with its modern orientation toward the individual, as a counterpoint to Penance with its ancient orientation to the community and the importance of the individual to the whole.

“The joy in finding the repentant sinner is not the kind of satisfaction to be found in the therapist’s office, where the lost and scattered shards of a life are excavated and carefully pieced together to form the essential thing: a life worth living bred of a life story worth telling. “Penance”, she continues, “was intended to heal a different wound- not the break between a person and individual consciousness (or a personal past), but that between the self and the community, which for the ancient, was the core of existence”.

To really understand another’s religious experience or world view we must understand how their disposition is shaped by the forms they have inherited. In the case of a Catholic, the sacrament of Penance holds the memory of a time when to not be part of the tribe was to die. Nomads, in the arid wilderness, living a fragile tightrope between survival and death, could easily be shattered by the selfishness of one of its members. Fear of separation, guilt for failed duties and shame for putting self before the group were necessary and adaptive attitudes of survival. Superficial pop-psychology portray fear, shame and guilt as enemies of self-actualization imposed on the individual by conventional society. But in the context of a loving community they are the cornerstone of the most beautiful aspects of religious sensibilities. Fear, shame and guilt play, in ones family and communal life, the same role that pain plays in ones bodily experience, as a warning signal that something wrong needs to be made right. Fear, then, becomes awe, shame becomes humility and guilt becomes the impetus for reconciliation and restoration of ones place as a contributor to the welfare of the community.

To be communal is also to communicate something important between the individual and the community- that is, it is insufficient to be contrite, confess to God and oneself internally as part of healing because it is incomplete if one is not reconciled to the community. The communal aspect may not be so obvious in the actions- the actual confession may be an quiet encounter between penitent and priest- but the act of “going to confession” is communal and is expressed in many churches in communal penance services particularly offered during Advent and Lent- times set apart in the seasons of the church for prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Hampl points out that the references to sackcloth and ashes comes from the church as it entered the third century AD. “Though the modern mind”, she acknowledges find this image “histrionic or unnecessarily humiliating. The community had to see, in public weeping, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, clear symbols of repentance so that the reclamation of the individual into the congregation could be entire.” Coming out of the therapist’s office in a sack cloth, Hampl acknowledges would be “a strange even sadistic exercise”. But in “the early church the individual was being reunited with the community, not with himself. Penance was not a psychological but a sociological act.”

As Hampl tells her own story the reader finds that she like many of her Catholic peers had left the Sacrament behind- in her case for thirty years. She ends with her experience of the Sacrament in it’s post-Vatican II form while on a silent retreat at a monastery. In her experience of what is now called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she spoke face to face with an elderly priest. So modern in its intimacy, where one can lower or raise ones eyes in shame or connection, the experience is still ancient with the priest representing Christ and the community with whom she reconciles and in a more “public” way then behind the screen.

As she progresses toward this experience where “you don’t get to understand; you just get to acquiesce”, she becomes more disparaging of psychotherapy. In retrospect the 18 months of therapy she experienced, which she recounts with a touch of comedy, seems self-indulgent, and its self-understanding and reconciliation with the self. Contrasted with the acquiescence of the sacrament, the analysis of therapy was found wanting.

Trying not to be defensive as psychotherapy took it on the chin, I wondered about her journey or in psychological terms, the course of her identity development. Was the casting about the “scattered shards” of her life to form a story, as she described her course of therapy, however incomplete, somehow a preliminary to her later spiritual and communal reconciliation? At ones mid-life there is an opportunity to look back on ones life from a potentially wiser perspective. Wisdom, however, is not gained through age and experience alone. It is gained through self and spiritual awareness often developed through falling apart and struggling to reform oneself. Yet, I and my fellow psychotherapists should take the hit. A little slap in the face is always an opportunity to shake free of the arrogance brought on by taking too seriously the value of ones profession.

Here’s where I agree with Hampl’s critique: One will never, as it were, figure oneself out. And even as a psychotherapist who respects the role of guilt and shame in our interpersonal lives, I must perhaps take some responsibility for the overzealousness of psychology in its brash call to liberate clients from the tyranny of religious legalism. Religion, like any human enterprise, can go awry. Yet religion at its best points to what is best in us and what transcends us. Perhaps it is best in the end to acquiesce and stand “ shivering in the growing cold,” as did Hampl after the sacrament, “unable to make out the hinge of sea and sky, glad of that confusion, glad to give over to the mystery at last.” I, for myself, draw upon one of the fruits of my spiritual formation as a Catholic child: humility- freed now from excessive guilt and shame (with the help of psychotherapy.) As I accompany my clients among the shards it is not so much as a doctor or expert but as a humble companion with some experience. Humility is, in the end, an important disposition for the therapist as well as the client if there is to be healing and growth.

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