On Hope and Transcendence: Reflections on the Intersection of Spirituality and Psychotherapy
Many years ago, while working on my post-graduate degree, a professor suggested reading a book called On Caring, written by Milton Mayeroff. To be honest, the title did not impress me as eloquent, presumptuous, or even complex enough to contribute to my personal quest to be the best version of a therapist I could fathom at that time. Yet, trusting my professor’s expertise and everlasting enthusiasm, I decided to follow his advice. As I was reading page after page of this easily understandable material, I came across, unknowingly to me at that time, a passage that would define my theoretical approach to therapeutic interventions. Milton Mayeroff stated: “…hope is not an expression of the insufficiency of the present in comparison with the sufficiency of a hoped-for future; it is rather an expression of the plenitude of the present, a present alive with a sense of the possible” (p. 32).
Having worked with a variety of populations, crossing the intertwining paths of each and every defining characteristic that makes us unique, there has been a unifying voice: a need for transcendence. In its purest form, transcendence can be viewed as a quest for significance and interconnection with the Other. When you are in the shared space of the consulting room, and you as a clinician are allowed in the Other’s ethos, you become a tool to translate, facilitate, and identify the Other’s expression of self.
Transcendence is a concept that is closely associated with hope in its essence, and a must-have curative factor in the consulting room. Transcendence is defined by Peterson and Seligman as “strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning” (as cited in Hood, Hill and Spilka, 2009, p. 431). Hood et al. (2009) adds that “the virtue of transcendence includes appreciation of beauty and awe, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality” (p. 431). In our role as clinicians, we cannot overlook these factors for the sake of rapid resolution of a client’s presenting problems. These features are an intricate component of our sense of well being, and our sense of belonging. When we connect to our clients as facilitators of change, we need to start from their construct of reality. This starting point leads to their goal-setting, and the belief that they can achieve these goals. Hope and transcendence become a pathway towards successful fostering of their possibilities. Life orientations transform into a way of coping and transcending in the world that allows seeing yourself in a positive light.
How do hope and transcendence relate to spirituality and healing? How can we, as clinicians, effect the process, the continuum of well-being? It has been discussed that spirituality focuses on religious and/or mystical experiences. Yet, it could also be argued that spirituality should be defined under strict theoretical and technical considerations, according to how the person constructs his/her experience. For instance, consider the newly arrived immigrant, attempting to acclimate to her new context. This person’s worldview could be operationally defined as her destiny. This assertion takes us back to Mayeroff’s definition of hope, with the assumption that this person would have a better chance of improving her opportunities of success. In terms of spirituality, her strength to overcome multiple new challenges may rely on her conceptualization of a higher power that would assist her in finding meaning in her new endeavor. In this sense, spirituality transforms into a phenomenon that reveals efficacy in providing support to this person.
Consider the elder that has lost his life partner at a time in his life where it is hard for him to differentiate himself from his significant other. Spirituality may take up the form of security, a way of explaining himself in the here-and-now, towards the near future, for what there is to come. In terms of spiritual development, this elder may access spirituality as a way of explaining and moving through his grief process. Spirituality can be defined at its core as an experience; and as such, prime material for the therapeutic space. Spirituality has populated people’s narrative throughout history. When we engage in a therapeutic relationship with the Other, it is a paramount consideration in our work as clinicians to consider, and adopt, such narrative as a curative factor. When transpersonal experiences become the core of our therapeutic focus, we cannot deny the significance of prayer as it is practiced, the importance of meditation when it is used, the magnitude of a Church/Synagogue/Temple/Mosque when it is a supporting community.
Dr. Thor Johansen discusses in his book Religion and Spirituality in Psychotherapy (2010), that there have been major developments in the field of psychotherapy in terms of integration of these two concepts. He notes that there has been a noticeable increase in publications on the subject, along with the inclusion of the Religious or Spiritual Problem V-Code as a diagnostic code. He also points out the promotion of professional organizations and degree programs that emphasize the focus on integration. In terms of practice interventions, spiritual assessments are gaining support and adherence to build a more integrated and holistic stance to assist in the person’s journey. The application of this information can be materialized through collaboration or referral. Clinical approaches that are spiritually sensitive include art therapies, narrative therapies, meditation, restorative justice, rituals and ceremonies, prayer, and stories of healing. As Social Workers, we have an ethical mandate for competency. Within the ethical standards of the profession, in particular, cultural competence and social diversity, we can operate as clinicians in a safe, respectful, and ethical manner.
Being a Social Worker, with my own biases and beliefs, my own reservations and accomplishments, I invite and welcome the intersection of spirituality and psychotherapy. In the hope, that we have a better chance at becoming more wholesome human beings.
Hood, R. W., Jr, Hill, P. C. & Spilka B. (2009) The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. New York, NY: The Guilford Press
Johansen, T. (2010) Religion and Spirituality in Psychotherapy: An Individual Psychology Perspective. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, LLC
Mayeroff, M. (1990) On Caring. New York, NY: First Harper Perennial