It Doesn’t Take A Sufi…

A young man in another state contacted me for online consultation, having learned that I’d written about Sufism, particularly Idries Shah’s work.  He was reading Shah’s books, and wanted to include this interest, as well as other issues in his life, in our discussion.  I made it clear that I am neither a Sufi nor a spiritual teacher of any kind, and that such information about spiritual psychology as I’d gathered over the years was not he same as being a qualified spiritual teacher.  We could try a consulting relationship as long as we had that straight.

It turned out that he had an intense desire to find “the truth,” and thought he could do that by reading Shah’s books by himself and finding the way to break through from where he was into that truth.  He seemed like a good guy to me, responsible to his customers and company in his work, striving to live a morally good life and treat other people well, and genuinely called to inquire within himself for the mystery of being.  However, he was very introverted both by nature and upbringing, having been restricted to his home while growing up by a parent with rigid religious beliefs and acute fear of the outside world.  Aside from his job, which he liked well enough, he spent most of his life by himself at home, had few friends, close or casual, no romantic life, and no hobbies or other interests aside from video games.  On his job, he barely earned enough to get by and was not on a career path for advancement; although his company did offer some opportunity for that.

It didn’t take a Sufi to see that he was unbalanced both in his approach to spirituality and to life; living an over-isolated lifestyle in the name of his quest for truth, and concentrating his ambition on achieving a solitary spiritual breakthrough, rather than reaching out for life, love and learning while continuing his spiritual quest.  I pointed out that, as far as I knew, spiritual development requires being able to live a normal life in society, to have relationships with people of different backgrounds, and to have a balanced life of which the spiritual search was a part.   Accordingly, I advised him to seek more social life, and more engagement in life in general, outside the solitude of his apartment.  That was several months ago, and he’s trying.  Although he lives in a city that has at least some resources for social, recreational, educational, vocational, and other life enrichments, he doesn’t find it easy to reach out.

This young man’s situation is an example of how the spiritual search can become co-opted in the service of one’s existing personality and behavior patterns.  The truth is that psychological growth, whether in our ordinary lives or in spirituality, often involves disconfirmation of how we think of ourselves, others and life, and requires stretching ourselves into new experiences which may be unfamiliar, unexpected and uncomfortable.  In my model of how the brain learns in psychotherapy and spirituality, this involves the development of new neural networks, and new interconnections among existing neural networks.  In fact, multiple examples of how people short-circuit their spiritual search are included in Shah’s literature, which this young man had read.  Fortunately, because he was familiar with this literature, he was immediately able to recognize his situation when I pointed it out it to him.

Sometimes psychological growth involves confirmation of subtle experiences that we’ve tended to ignore.  I advised him to pay attention to small experiences of perception, “little ‘e’” enlightenments, rather than looking for a “BIG E” breakthrough; which reflects an approach to learning also mentioned in Shah’s literature, and in fact supported by it.  But he still craves that “big breakthrough;” even though he has read that such cravings are more often characterized by unfulfilled emotional needs than genuine spiritual ones, and that too much emotion decreases rather than increases perception, spiritual or otherwise.

Of course, there are congregations and paths that privilege emotion and call it spiritual, and perhaps he’ll find his way to one of them.  Eventually that might even be a way for him to realize what emotion can, and can’t, contribute to the spiritual search.  One of my clients is a chaplain who was, for a time, a member of a charismatic sect, which cultivated highly emotional experiences within a cult-like atmosphere.  It served his needs for a time, and when it didn’t any more, he moved on.

It All Goes Together

The current fashion in diagnostic practice is to isolate the emotional from the personal, and both of these from the spiritual or meaning-of-life.  Mostly, the personal and spiritual/meaning-of life issues are ignored, and the focus is mainly on the emotional.  So, for example, a patient may be diagnosed as depressed or bipolar, without further elaboration of their personality functioning or their spiritual or meaning-of-life issues.  We see this in medication advertisements on television, and in the way that diagnosis is usually done.


In fact, while diagnosing people in this way may be better than nothing, because it might lead to treatment decisions that might help with the emotional parts of disorders, it falls far short of a more comprehensive approach to understanding and treating human beings in distress.  In order to understand a human being more completely, we need to understand her/his emotional (“affective”) functioning, personality functioning, and spiritual or meaning-of-life orientation and issues.  And we need to place this understanding within the context of two stories:  the story of the person’s life, and the story of the situation or problem that brought them into counseling/therapy.


Now, understanding these issues doesn’t mean that they must be completely understood; that would be the work of a lifetime.  They just have to be understood well enough for treatment to take place.  And gathering this information, this “data,” is itself part of the treatment, for it encourages the patient/client into sustained reflection on her/his life and self, and builds rapport between counselor/therapist and client/patient.


At the Illinois Counseling Association 2012 Conference

I’ve just completed the Illinois Counseling Association 2012 conference, in Springfield, Illinois, where I presented as well as attending.  Here are some highlights:

On Friday, 11/9, in Reclaiming the Future:  Preparing Disengaged Adolescents for Productive Lives After High School, Ginny Fenski-Mathers presented the alternative high school program where she counsels in Rich Township District 227 (Matteson).  Her program is for students who have “detached themselves from the traditional educational process,” by becoming “credit-deficient” (e.g., falling too far behind to graduate in traditional high school) or being “students who are in danger of leaving the educational setting before earning a high school diploma as a result of dropping out, being pushed out, or being ‘aged out’ of school.”  The primarily problem is that these students have become “disengaged.”  “Most of the students we work with lack a sense of belonging; they feel that they don’t belong anywhere.”

Disengaged students may be dealing with traumatic losses, such as critical illnesses in the family, homelessness, etc.  “Just about every student coming into our setting are dealing with grieving issues.”  Fenski-Mathers quoted grim statistics:  “80% of jobs require post-high school education, 82% of criminals are high school dropouts, including 59% of federal inmates.”

Family support can be key to helping disengaged students graduate, and parents must come in with their child “on day one” of the alternative program.  Student risk factors include academic (unidentified learning, behavior and/or emotional disorders, learning gaps for one reason or another), social-emotional (undeveloped social skills, unresolved grief, negative perception of the environment), home (poverty/homelessness, high family mobility, illness or abuse in family) and life (gang association, drug and alcohol use, pregnant/teen parent, or incarcerated) factors.

Fenski-Mathers’ program is an evening (4:00-8:00 PM) program housed in a high school, which provides self-paced computer instruction with teacher support in each classroom.  “Most teachers teach to the average, so classes don’t work as well for these kids.  Self-pacing with support is more user-friendly.  The computer provides visual and kinesthetic contact, and the teachers provide 1:1 support and auditory input.”  Each staff member “adopts” 5-6 seniors each year, to see them through, nudging them along and running social and program interference for them.

Fenski-Mathers’ colleague Josh Collier then spoke movingly about the need “to make them feel that they belong.”  Much of what we teach, he said, is “social skills and anger management.”  The perspective on anger is, “Anger is just unresolved hurt.”  “Many kids don’t even know what a healthy relationship looks like, “he said, so thye have to teach even that.

Fenski-Mathers has been with the program since its inception, 12 years ago, and her dedication (along with Collier’s) was apparent.  When twelve of her students voted after a voter preparation program at the alternative school, she felt, “…their ‘I voted’ stickers really said, ‘I belong’ to the community.”

In Reconceptualizing Adventure-Based Counseling:  Activities for Everyday School and Clinical Settings, Kimberly Hart and Charles Myers presented activities “beyond simply talking with clients and listening to others talk to you” for teaching and counseling.  The group did a number of “warm-up” type activities, designed to help members experience and discuss feelings rather than just talking about them.  Such exercises, which go back to the days of Encounter Groups (which I participated in as an undergraduate), can be helpful for “breaking the ice” and helping strangers (or people who know each other within very restricted roles) to feel a sense of human connection, and that happened very easily in this group of counselors and counseling students.  Beyond that, such exercises can be useful for opening doors into deeper feelings, attitudes and experiences of members, but those results are often difficult to harvest and integrate meaningfully into the group.  In some ways, the two sets of goals–establishing connection and digging deeper–can’t very effectively be done at the same time, it seems to me; although the warm-up goal can precede the dig-deeper one.

There were poster sessions on Friday and Saturday; I only got to Friday’s.  The poster I was most enthusiastic about featured the “Living Room” program, a mental health crisis respite program that is an alternative to the emergency room, presented by Courtney Emery of the Turning Point agency.  E.R. services are hugely expensive and, except for patients who really need inpatient admission then and there, not usually the most appropriate service for persons with mental health crises.  A program staffed with trained mental health counselors can both offer better care and reduce treatment costs.

I was invited to join a small party for dinner–in fact, participants in the Activities session earlier–and then chatted with several counselors after we returned for a “desert bar.”  There was a warm open-heartedness from so many people in this group of counselors, which was quite distinctive among conferences I’ve attended.

On Saturday, 11/10, in Why Can’t My Client Change his/her Financial Behavior, financial adviser Wallace Larson focused on an issue that I think is far too underrecognized as a source of distress, conflict and trauma:  personal economics.  “Through both nature and nurture we absorb messages about money,” he said, which “frequently…cause a dysfunctional relationship with money.  In couples work, “Money conflicts in relationship can evoke unfinished business, unconciously,” from a client’s past.  Experiences like growing up in a home where the refrigerator is empty at the end of the month because the money’s gone, or a home that becomes foreclosed, can exert a powerful influence on the developing child.  And, “T.V. shows images of homes which send messages about wht to spend on.”  Larson’s references to “financial infidelity” and “financial enabling” identified important categories of dysfunctional financial behavior.

Larson has a website and newsletter, at

In When a Soldier Comes Home:  Reviving the Relationship with Family and Society, Renee Saltzman and Lynette Sanchez introduced the way soldiers are taught to think about themselves as they enter military life; which includes the fact that only Army soldiers are “soldiers;” Marines and “Marines,” Navy are “Seamen,” and Airforce are “Airmen.”

Among the challenges facing soldiers (used generically) upon return are “New Self versus Old Self;” the soldier has become, in some ways, a different person as a result of his or her deployment.  And so, of course, have the spouses, children, friends, and family members whom the soldier left behind and now returns to.  There are “existential issues” having to do with the significance of ordinary life compared with the urgent intensity of life-and-death during deployment.  “Unemployment and homelessness” may plague returning soldiers, and “predatory higher education recruitment,” focusing on their G.I. benefits, is a specific problem.  (One Marine, who had suffered a brain injury and was signed up by a higher education recruiter after returning home, couldn’t remember the courses he’d signed up for.)  Excerpts from a poignant video of a Marine discussing the experience of coming home after 4 years in Iraq were played.  “We were told what to do in the Marine Corp, and have to be a self-starter outside,” he observed  But, the Marine continued, most soldiers don’t want any training when they are done with their service, they just want to come home.  “A lot of guys think they’re OK (but) they’re really not OK.”

Kashunda McGriff presented A Relational Cultural Approach to Working with Undocumented Students.  She emphasized the “Fear of getting caught, deported, sent to a country where they don’t know anyone,” that can plague undocumented students who came here as young children, or perhaps were born here to undocumented immigrant parents.  Such children may feel that they belong neither to the U.S.A. nor to the country of origin of their parents.  Their inability to visit family members back home, including for significant events, contributes to their sense of isolation and lack of belongingness.  Their parents may have suffered from pre-migration trauma, and may feel guilt about leaving relatives behind.  “Immigration enforcement has changed a lot since 9/11,” McGriff emphasized.  Students “may be responsible for speaking for the family, for parents who may be unable to speak English.”

In Relational Cultural Therapy, healing and change are seen as coming from the relationship between therapist and client, in which the therapist helps clients feel connected by respecting and accepting their experience.  The approach is egalitarian and sees chronic disconnection from society as often due to oppressive power relationships.  The theory originated at Wellesley College, where it was founded in feminist theory, though it has evolved to be more inclusive, McGriff said.  She offered a quote from one of the founders, Jean Baker Miller, “All forms of oppression encourage people to enlist in their own enslavement.”  McGriff’s demeanor was warm, respectful, inviting, welcoming; she’s a counselor anyone would want to be accepted by and would open up to.  But I could see how another practitioner might be more strident and overtly ideological.

I spent most of the period before my presentation reviewing it, but was able to arrive in Eric Dutt’s session on Living a Purpose-Driven Life:  A Critical Overview of Cultural Motifs and their Impact in time to hear Dutt, who is from India, give an example of how people from different cultures may experience the same thing.  Dutt considered drone strikes from an Eastern and Western point of view.  From the Western point of view, such strikes are carefully managed, as warfare goes, and the deaths of innocents, or “collateral damage,” are regarded as minimal and worth the military and security goals of the operation.  From the Eastern point of view, however, the scales of value are reversed, such that the killing of innocents is seen as so terrible that it outweighs the value of killing and discouraging militant terrorists.  This was quite an eye-opener for me, and I asked Dutt, after the formal session ended, how he would explain such terrorist acts as suicide bombings, which of course kill many innocent people.  “Those are done by ideological groups,” he explained, not people grounded in the basic values of their culture.

Then I presented my program, A Model for Incorporating Spirituality in Clinical Practice.  My goals were to:  1. present a model of spirituality that makes psychological sense and is neurocognitively and traditionally informed; 2. to consider the model’s contribution to our understanding of how psychotherapy works (since the method of therapy is more powerful than the ability of any extant theory to explain it, imho); 3. to discuss how the model can be incorporated in clinical practice; and 4. to provide some time for participants to try putting it into practice.  My presentation introduced spirituality as a necessary topic in clinical practice; differentiated spirituality from religion, and considered emerging trends in an expanded view of cognition.  These included neuroscientist Roger Sperry’s view of how consciousness can self-organize the “top-down reorganization” of mind, psychologist Robert Ornstein’s “Multimind” concept of the inner life, and the “Observing Self” concept of psychiatrist Arthur Deikman.

In this model, spirituality is understood as a natural potential for self-transcendence in which the individual connects with some source of higher values and/or experience in the process of self-observation in a way that can have a top-down reorganizing potential in personality and behavior.  Therapy provides many micro-experiences of self-transcendence, usually not noticed for what they are, while the client reflects on her or his internal life, and these micro-experiences cumulatively support increases in consciousness leading to top-down reorganization.

The model doesn’t advocate any particular form of therapy, but sees this kind of micro-self-transcendence (which, far from being an emotional or ecstatic experience, is so small and seemingly mundate that it is easy to overlook) as existing in most or all forms of therapy that are effective.  Therapists who are aware of it can induce it more mindfully.

I had planned to sing a few songs as part of today’s presentation, but had a bad cold and could barely talk, let alone sing; but I played parts of a couple of songs from my laptop.  As always, I left the program thinking about how I could have improved it; less lecture and more time for experiential practice would have been a better mix, I felt.  But participants had good comments, were interested enough to ask me to post the current version of my slideshow (rather than the one I’d sent in earlier and subsequently modified), and the break-out practice sessions, in which participants alternated serving as therapists, clients, and observers, hummed with energy and seemed, in some cases, to get quite deep quite quickly.  A participant said she’d be including some of my slides in her teaching, which I approved of as long as my work was given with attribution to me, and the same participant delighted me with the comment that she’d entered this session, the last of the conference, feeling so tired that she was worried about driving safely home, but after our session she was so full of energy and ideas that she’d was certain she’d be fine.