How spirituality can enrich psychology

Psychology has been enriched by cross-fertilization with Buddhist ideas and practices. Mindfulness resulted from combining aspects of Buddhism with psychotherapy. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who deeply respected Buddhist teachings, started this cross-fertilization process. He used core Buddhist teachings to help people cope with physical and psychological pain. This combination of Buddhism and psychology has been thoroughly tested and vetted using rigorous scientific testing. Mindfulness is clearly very helpful for many people struggling with very difficult issues.

Some, but not all, aspects of Buddhism are included in mindfulness. For example, mindfulness includes the Buddhist thinking about attachments, suffering in life, and the nature of thoughts; it also includes the practice of meditation. Mindfulness does not include the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, karma or practices such as prayer flags.

The goal of this blog is to explore an analogous cross-fertilization: might something useful emerge from combining wisdom about God with psychotherapy? The cross-fertilization will include the nature of God and how God is experienced by individuals. The main focus will be beliefs that are common to nearly all God-based spiritual paths, however God is named. The combination process would include practices intended to deepen one’s relationship with God. The combination process would not include specific teachings about an afterlife.

People who have a direct experience of God are called mystics (to differentiate them from people who formed their notions of God strictly from other sources). Based on their experiences, they often describe having a close and loving relationship with a divine presence. One example is Teresa of Avila who described how we have different parts of us and how they interact to bring us into closer (or more distant) connection with God.

Teresa’s conception of people as having distinct parts (different rooms in a castle in her extended metaphor) overlaps with the prevailing concepts of psychology. Most psychologists conceptualize people as having parts. The most common example us that people have an id, an ego and a superego. Richard Schwartz describes people as consisting of an internal family of characters (protectors and exiles). This blog will explore this concept—shared by spirituality and psychology—might be enriched by a cross-fertilization between these two fields.

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