Monday, October 11, 2010

Religion is not Psycho-Therapy

I've been thinking a lot lately about how psycho-therapy and spiritual practice relate to each other.

For most of my life I've had a pretty low opinion of psychology as a discipline. This probably comes from the introductory courses that I took in University. These did absolutely nothing to try and explain what therapy of any sort looked like and the quality of the science was absolutely dreadful. (I remember having to read a paper with a graph on it that would have failed an intro statistics course because it consisted of a dozen or so points that were joined together like a jagged lightning bolt---which signified absolutely nothing at all.)

My recent "adventures" in PTSD has caused me to do a dramatic reassessment of this opinion. First of all, the description of the symptoms associated with my complaint has proved to be so "spot on"---with the dissociation, flashbacks and recurring nightmares, that it would be silly to deny that the profession has actually been able to define a specific syndrome with some accuracy. Secondly, I have been significantly impressed by the way the profession has been able to come up with a technology that has been able to help me.

The therapy that I am following is called "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing" (EMDR), which basically involves bringing up painful memories and having the therapist initiate a form of rapid eye movement by having me follow her fingers as she waves them in front of my eyes. I've done some reading on this therapy in the skeptical literature and there are questions about how important the eye movement is to the therapy as opposed to simple process of talking through my past experiences with a sympathetic therapist. And the theoretical explanation of how the eye movement helps (some say it involves "reprocessing" childhood trauma), doesn't really seem to be based on orthodox brain physiology. But in spite of this, the literature still seems to indicate that the therapy actually works.

Even these caveats are reassuring to me. Real medicine doesn't have everything tied up in neat little bows. Instead, it advances by fits and starts. We forget this now, but until we developed a lot of our most recent knowledge, a lot of therapies were developed purely by trial and error. For example, many medicines that we take for granted---such as aspirin, morphine, etc, were derived from herbal concoctions and no one at all had a clue how they worked. Yet they did, so we used them. I suspect, in the same way, that we really don't know why some psycho-therapy works and others doesn't. But by being part of the scientific culture, people share their experiences and test out different practices to see how they work. And fortunately for me, this new PTSD therapy seems to be effective (at least in my case.)

This leads me to the main subject of this post. What is the relationship between religion and psycho-therapy?

As I see it, a large part of religion, or "spirituality", has always been the search for some sort of psychological healing. Buddhism, for example, is based on the ideal of personal enlightenment as a end to human suffering. And the solution it offers is specifically based on learning to see the world in a new way, not in trying to change the world as it is into some sort of heaven on earth.

Daoism has significant similarities in that it teaches the ideal of the "realized man" who learns how to accept the world as it is and live in harmony with the Dao by following the "watercourse Way".

Like all religions, Christianity is a mixed-bag. But the sort of Liberal version that I believe makes the most sense to me, would posit that the message of Jesus is about learning how to live a full life in the midst of a world that is damaged by "original sin". That involves doing your best to be a good man by helping your neighbours (e.g. the "golden rule") and it also involves having a significant degree of fearlessness when confronted by evil (e.g. picking up your cross and following Jesus.) It also involves having a signficant degree of faith in the ultimate value of life and optimism about the future (e.g. "be like the lilies of the field".)

As I see it, these different spiritual traditions all have significant psycho-therapeutic value as ways of looking at the world.

Beyond the theory, however, they each developed specific meditational practices aimed at learning how to quiet the mind and develop habits of being that allowed at least some practitioners to develop some serenity in the midst of a troubled world. Meditation, prayer, ritual and so on, can help. Indeed, a self-help book that I read on PTSD by a member of the Menninger Clinic specifically recommends meditation as a way of managing the anxiety that is a key element of PTSD. He also suggests that "faith" is a key element of personal recovery: faith in yourself, faith in the therapist, faith in the therapy and faith in your eventual healing.

The question arises from my new-found respect for psychology about why bother with religion or spirituality at all? If we have problems, why not go to a psychologist instead of a priest?

I think that the first answer is that psychologists are primarily focused on individuals who are in "crisis". In my own case, I was having flashbacks and was desperate to find some way of avoiding these very troubling experiences. I think that the sort of issues that religion deals with aren't quite so immediate. People can have real doubts about the meaning of life, but that isn't the same thing as being totally paralyzed by fear while suffering from heart palpitations and sweating buckets.

There are practical issues around therapy, though. It is very expensive and even the very generous benefits package that I receive from my workplace plus the Canadian healthcare system refuse to pay anything towards my therapy, which comes to $100/hour. Obviously anyone who didn't have as much disposable income as I do would find this cost prohibitively expensive. As long as therapy costs so much, there is going to have to still be a place for the work of "amateur" therapy in the form of spiritual practice. But it might help immensely if people teaching meditation and prayer were able to take some introductory courses in psycho-therapy in order to recognize people with specific problems and had some understanding of the issues involved. It would be wonderful if ecclesiastic institutions could offer real, science-based counselling as part of their spiritual practice. I recognize that pastors at churches often receive some training in counselling while at the seminary, but I doubt if many Buddhist, Daoist or other teachers can make the same claim.

There is another element to this issue that I think needs to be considered. As a discipline, psycho-therapy tends to treat individuals. Religions are often considered in the same way. But it could be argued that they also offer therapy for entire societies. I first thought about this when I read something by Thich Nhat Hanh where he wrote that he thought that the next great Buddhist "world teacher"
would not be an individual, but rather a community.

I think that Hanh is onto something there. Part of the problem that our society faces, IMHO, is that people have gotten too in the habit of thinking of us as individual human beings and not enough as communities. I suppose that this makes sense, given the extreme individualism that our society holds so dear. But I cannot see how this makes individual people any stronger. Instead, I think that it tends to make those individuals more vulnerable to being manipulated by outside forces. Paradoxically, I think that the only real ability that we have to grow as individuals is with the loving support of a community of friends and neighbours. Take them away and we become totally dependent on the economy for everything---food, shelter, entertainment, opportunities for personal growth, etc.

Moreover, one of the things that I've learned from dealing with PTSD is to have a lot more humility when it comes to my ability to be self-created. It takes a lot out of any sense of "rugged individualism" to realize that at the age of 51 I am still trying to come to terms with the damage done to me by my family, almost 40 years ago.

All of these have taught me that, in agreement with John Donne, "No man is an island". And if we are interconnected, it strikes me that the role of religion and spirituality is to develop means of fostering that interconnectedness in a positive and helpful way.

This isn't to say that I don't acknowledge all the horrors done by misguided, confused and out-and-out vile religious people. But everything that human beings do carries the fingerprints of human frailty. And religion and spirituality are no worse (even if no better) than anything else.

1 comment:

Paul Sunstone said...

Joseph Campbell famously said that both the saint and the schizophrenic were in the same waters. The difference was the saint could swim and the schizophrenic could not. I think Campbell's remarks illustrate how close -- but still distinct -- religion and psychology can be.