On Psychology & Spirituality

Personal Definition of Spirituality

The practice of some form of spirituality is for many people an important part of their daily lives. Yet the term “spirituality” itself can mean different things to different people. As you may recognize, for some people, spiritual practice automatically connotes having a theistic set of beliefs, in which the central focus surrounds a belief in God. Yet under the heading of the term theistic spiritual practice can be two sub-categories: a belief in God through involvement in a chosen religion vs. on one’s own, without any religious involvement.

But now let’s look at people who identify themselves as atheists, who of course disavow a belief in God or a God-like figure. “If you so choose, please feel free to replace the word God with words you may prefer, like Higher Power or Spirit. Just for consistency, I will stick with using God.” From the standpoint of a theistic bent regarding spiritual practice, it can almost be concluded that atheists do not do any type of spiritual practice. In order to dismiss this conclusion entirely, one can choose to define one form of spiritual practice in “earthly”–i.e., non-theistic–terms. Allow to me propose a definition of spiritual practice that cuts across theistic and atheistic belief systems. At risk of sounding glib or oversimplifying the matter, that definition is: anything you do that LIFTS YOUR SPIRITS. With the understanding that there is a range of how much lifting of your spirits a particular spiritual practice can provide you. So therefore, one type of spiritual practice you do may lift your spirits a small amount, another one a bigger amount, and a third one a very significant amount.

Taking this notion one more step, you can end up with two categories fitting this definition of spiritual practice. The two categories can be called theistic practice vs. in this case “personal/situational” practice. If you are a theist, your spirits can soar to varying degrees through some type of connecting to God, be it in a house of worship, or for that matter anywhere else you feel that connection to God, as for example looking out at the ocean, or walking in the woods. Yet truth be told there are non-theistic ways to make your spirits soar too– sometimes every bit as much as involving a theistic spiritual practice. Take the same two situational examples I just listed: staring out at the ocean and walking in the woods. Simply stated, many people can experience an uplifting in their spirits by doing either of these two things, without feeling any connection whatsoever to God. Spiritual uplifting can also occur from doing anything like, e.g., listening to or playing your favorite music, doing yoga, eating a wonderful meal, attending an event you find highly entertaining, reading an absorbing book, doing rewarding volunteer work, attending an inspiring class or workshop, watching a child play and laugh, or making love. And certainly these examples do not exhaust the the list of what any of us can find to be a spiritual practice to lift up our spirits–none of which requiring any belief in or feeling any connection to God!

Spiritual Practice Applied to Psychological Distress

People who seek professional help for psychological problems such as anxiety and depression may or may not view spiritual practices as a beneficial tool in their efforts to manage these conditions. In my experience, most psychotherapy techniques are not primarily spiritually-oriented. Instead, they are geared mainly towards efforts to, e.g., create more positive cognitions, manage stress and fear better, build up self-worth, and improve the quality of relationships. Mainly through talking things out with the therapist and then doing occasional “homeworks” to apply what is discussed in session is how these techniques are seen as hopefully helping people reduce their clinical symptoms.

I would like to propose here that there is room to bring spirituality into psychotherapeutic treatment. In this context of spirituality though, I am going to focus mainly on theistic spiritual practices. My main point is to very much encourage anyone who has a strong religious or personal belief in God to utilize this belief in a manner that maximizes its potential therapeutic benefit. More specifically, let’s suppose you are mired in the throes of episodes of depression or anxiety. As an alternative to attempting only to e.g., utilize more positive cognitions, practice specific symptom-management techniques, or do non-theistic mindfulness meditating–as many therapy approaches are geared towards–you might start utilizing some type of THEISTIC spiritual practice to better manage and control your clinical symptoms. Thus for example, when you are conscious of feeling overtaken by a bout of depression or episode of anxiety, as a spiritual practice try in your own way turning right to GOD, such as through some type of preferred prayer, or simply talking to God in a manner that makes you feel like you are turning to Him for, e.g., comfort, courage, inner emotional strength, and determination. All of which can, if your faith in God is solid, provide you with at minimum needed situational relief from your clinical symptoms, and at maximum more confidence that you can control these symptoms from taking control of you.

Yes, you can also psychologically benefit from non-theistic spiritual practices (or for that matter, prescribed medication for more intense symptoms). But if you can embrace theistic spiritual practice–without the necessity to have to practice it through involvement in organized religion–then my own personal/theistic belief is that God is always there inside you, anytime and anyplace you need to turn to Him. So you can if you choose turn to Him especially for help in dealing with your depression or anxiety–or for that matter any other stressful psychological challenges you are faced with. I therefore encourage you to give yourself the option of a spiritual practice involving going right to God as quickly and regularly as you can. By doing so, hopefully you can come to feel you have a strong and trusted ally inside you, to help you cope with your psychologically challenging problems.

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