|How I Incorporate Spirituality In My Practice As A Psychotherapist
In my eating disorder therapy group the other day, I asked Clara, one of the patients, to lie down on the floor and pretend she was dead. After the usual disbelief and uncomfortableness I get when I ask the patients to do something strange like this, I managed to get Clara prone on the floor and every patient into a serious contemplation of what it would be like if Clara were actually dead. What would we be feeling? What would we all be missing? If Clara died right now her body would still be here but what would be gone? Everyone thought for a few seconds and then someone said, "Her soul would be gone", then another said, "Her spirit" and they all then agreed that both of these things would be missing. "Yes", I said, "We would have her body here but not her soul. In that context the body seems pretty useless doesn't it?. I now want you to think of a loved one. Is there anyone here who would rather have that persons body than their soul?" There was an appropriate and deeply felt silence in the room. "Isn't that what you are in essence doing to yourself when for the sake of appearance, to have the body you want, you destroy your spirit and betray your soul? How much time have you spent lately paying attention to and cultivating your body and how much time on cultivating your soul? Both body and soul need to be nourished yet while you have been preoccupied with your body, you have been neglecting your soul."
The above exercise, which came to me after viewing my own father's body after his death, led to a discussion of how each of my patients could begin to attend to and nourish her soul. It is through moments like these that I believe I bring a spiritual, or I like to say, soulful, aspect to my work as a psychotherapist.
Although I do not think of myself as a religious person, I have come to view my treatment of eating disorder patients as the cultivation of neglected souls and psychotherapy as a form of spiritual practice. Rather than focusing on eradicating symptoms or solving problems, the goal of therapy is to bring about meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction to patients' lives. Thomas Moore in his book, Care Of The Soul
, tells us that the great malady of the twentieth century is loss of soul and that, "When soul is neglected, it doesn't just go away, it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and the loss of meaning.....By caring for the soul we can find relief from our distress and discover deep satisfaction and pleasure."
The two main aspects of caring for the soul involve:
1) Observing, accepting and interpreting what the soul presents
2) Bringing more soulfulness or sacredness to ordinary life.
The first aspect, observing, accepting, and interpreting, involves helping my patients to understand the meaning of their symptoms; what their soul is manifesting and why. For example, when patients are ashamed of their bingeing and/or purging or enraged and hateful towards these behaviors or themselves, I re-direct them to work at accepting that these behaviors are there for a reason and that together we will work to learn what meaning they have or what purpose or "adaptive function" they serve. In following my philosophy that every eating disorder patient has a healthy self and an eating disorder self, I tell my patients that they have to learn from their eating disorder self because that part of them is representing something that they are unable to express. This means contacting the eating disorder self and accepting it in order to ultimately transform it.
The second aspect of cultivating the soul involves bringing spirituality or soulfulness into everyday life. Books like Lynda Sexton's Ordinarily Sacred
or Thomas Moore's, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life
, helped me formalize this concept in my work. Making things more spiritual or sacred means taking time to notice, to pay attention, to revere, to be mindful of the little things, to be creative. The following are examples of how I bring this aspect of soul or spirit into my work at Monte Nido:
- Growing flowers and bringing them into the patients rooms and the offices
- Story telling, especially using myths
- Using altars and angel meditation cards
- Taking morning walks in nature
- Using Goddess statues to teach about the sacred feminine
- Turning ordinary things into special things; sea glass into necklaces, wood into talking sticks
Too many times I hear patients saying things like they don't have time for work or their family or church or school because they have to "focus" on their recovery. I think this is the wrong idea and I tell them so. To me, finding meaning in work, spending time with family, sharing reverence and worship with others, and seeing soul in ordinary things are all forms of recovery. Recovery is doing life in a meaningful, deeply felt spiritual way, realizing that all of it is sacred if we only take time to notice, appreciate and understand it.
Carolyn Costin, Director, Eating Disorder Center of California and The Monte Nido Residential Facility