An elderly client with chronic health issues sits as comfortably as she can with arthritis and while still recovering from a stroke. She leans forward in conspiratorial manner and whispers, “You might think I’m crazy, but I often read an old book I picked up years ago on reincarnation. It makes sense that I’m going through all of … this.” She retrieves a well thumbed, slim volume from her bag as we settle into a constructive discussion around what therapeutic opportunities may be gained from otherwise unpleasant circumstances.
As part of an outpatient group I was facilitating around improving and maintaining general wellbeing, I drew heavily of the good work of Craig Hassad, a Melbourne-based physician who highlights the importance of approaching wellness in a holistic manner.
By holistic, Dr Hassad is referring to ‘seven pillars’ of health namely:
2. Stress Management
All of which collapses into the neat little acronym, ‘ESSENCE’. Nice!
My group thought so to, except for a certain unease around the third pillar. The preparatory notes that had been helpfully compiled by a colleague forewarned of this potential sticking point and suggested different names that could be afforded the spirituality pillar such as ‘beliefs’ or ‘what you consider to be your place in the world’, neither of which seemed to really fit the purpose intended. It bought to mind, though, how references to spirituality were so often avoided, which in my case probably amounted to a desire to avoid what I would loosely term ‘God talk’.
Disclaimer: I don’t follow a religion or believe in a God or any other being who holds the purse strings to life and all it entails (up to and including ‘karma’). But I have found substantial personal benefits in reframing the various challenges of life as opportunities to enhance insight. Viewing upheaval as a lesson, or a therapeutic opportunity, rather than an indictment of my human rights has encouraged me to view circumstances proactively rather than feel defeated by the weight of pessimism and just plain crappy luck.
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Likewise, while moving through decades of practice, I’ve started seeing distinct benefits of spiritual belief acting as a lever to motivate positive change. In fact, constructive reframing of events based on a personal philosophy goes hand in glove with the CBT paradigm. Thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be examined in relation to how we experience events based on our general philosophy on life. Garnering our personal take on spiritual philosophy has the potential to purposefully examine our cognitions and subsequently our feelings and behaviours – regardless of beliefs around an afterlife or the presence of an omnipresent being.
Interestingly, it seems our brains may be naturally geared toward reaping the benefits of practicing some form of spirituality. Dr Jennifer Sweeton, for example, provides an interesting two hour online lecture on neurotheology – the study of how neural phenomena correlates with the subjective experience of spirituality. It seems that our brain appears to be preconditioned to work favourably within the context of spirituality. In this respect, research has demonstrated that people who practice some form of meditation linked to spiritual awareness strengthen the neural pathways responsible for lowering anxiety and depression which in turn increases social awareness and empathy. Better yet, it benefits cognitive functioning generally.
Like regular exercise, this can only be a good thing!
Perhaps most importantly for those of us who aren’t inclined toward religiosity is examining the value of a positive philosophy of life that doesn’t necessarily fall into a ‘life after death’ paradigm, while not dismissing the more conservative beliefs of clients that do. This can be achieved by using terminology that is more neutral and less judgemental, such as ‘life being a lesson or therapeutic opportunity’ rather than a punishment or circumstances to be endured until such time as a benevolent God grants a reprieve.
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Whether through the quiet practice of mindfulness or the more conservative approach offered through regular church attendance – or something in between – the solace of spiritual belief and practice holds the potential to extend the therapeutic value of a humble 50 minute session that otherwise may have become lost in the clinical sterility of a mainstream consultation.
Carolyne completed her qualifications in psychology at RMIT University, Victoria, and is currently completing her Masters of Human Rights Law at Monash University, Melbourne. While completing her undergraduate and post-grad studies, she worked in direct care with children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
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