Working with both traditional psychotherapy as well as spiritual practices — such as meditation, prayer, or yoga — in parallel can aid in divorce recovery.
Artie, a 43-year-old divorcing Catholic in a great deal of pain, made an appointment to see me one summer afternoon. He thought he was making an appointment with a “run of the mill” psychotherapist with standard credentials and training. When he arrived at my office, he saw that I had a small votive candle burning on the table next to my chair, and a variety of spiritual symbols from various faiths on the walls and on the bookshelf. He sat down without a word and started to cry. When I asked Artie what his tears were about, he said he needed to be forgiven for pursuing his divorce, and that he had been praying for guidance. When he looked around my office, he sensed he had found a place where he would find healing for his spiritual pain.
Beth, a 37-year-old separated Jewish mother of two, told me in a session that she no longer felt comfortable attending synagogue. Everyone was a family there, she said, and everyone knew her marriage was ending. “I feel ashamed,” Beth told me. “I’ve come to realize that I’ve been worshiping at the wrong altar: my marriage, my husband, and my children have become my gods. I’ve grown away from a true connection with my Creator. I need to know I’m still okay with God.” I asked her if she knew any Hebrew prayers, and she was surprised when I suggested she start her sessions in meditation for healing while I sat quietly beside her.
There’s nothing like the upheaval of divorce to shake you into the need for a little soul-searching. Artie and Beth both realized that using religion, prayer, or meditation would make all the difference to their divorce recovery. And don’t think that those who seek some form of spiritual or faith-based healing are necessarily religious nuts, or those on the fringes of society: they can be Fortune 500 tycoons, artists, school teachers, housewives, retirees — anybody.
Studies have shown that a commitment to prayer or meditation is a helpful tool in recovery from all kinds of emotional trauma as well as chronic indecision — equally useful for divorcees, parents, or business people. This commitment is a personal one and not one that needs to be dictated by any particular religious group. Conversion to one form of organized religion or another is not the goal, and there are many paths to choose from. You can pursue your spiritual life on your own, or in your religious community. In fact, even atheists and agnostics can benefit from exploring values and beliefs.
Exploring Spiritual Therapy
Is it ever appropriate or helpful to use prayer to work through the difficult issues surrounding your divorce? To use a Higher Power to help in making decisions? Can we expect a therapist to support us in using these tools? The answer to these questions is “yes.” Let’s face it, psychotherapy has only been around for a little over 100 years, while the spiritual disciplines have been around at least 5,000 years — they must have something to offer! Yet not every therapist is comfortable in this role, and some are so immersed in their own particular religious identity that venturing into “God talk” may have you feeling shamed or blamed. When spiritual seeking has been stifled by rules that are too rigid, or dominated by patriarchal dogma, a great deal of damage can be done.
How do you explore spirituality with your therapist? My intake form includes the question: “religious/spiritual background (if any).” Many therapists don’t ask this question, but I’m comfortable doing so as I’ve had training in spiritual therapy. I also ask clients about their values and what gives meaning to their lives. What you believe — about yourself, the world around you, and metaphysical questions — is a powerful force in your life whether you’re religious or not.
Life crises such as divorce, bereavement, addiction, and abuse may cause you to consider therapy. You can draw considerable strength and comfort from a course of counseling — and perhaps from medication on a temporary basis — but traditional therapy usually doesn’t address “soul” questions. Whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you’re a religious person, you may want to explore your spirituality with a counselor. Meditation, introspection, calming the outer noise to listen to the inner self: these are tools for growth — and they don’t represent any particular religious dogma.
When you view your relationship alongside your path of personal and spiritual growth, you may notice a correlation. Perhaps your marriage occurred at precisely the right time for you to learn acceptance, unconditional love, patience, or forgiveness. Or were your relationship difficulties the result of conflicts in your past — or even your past life (if you believe in reincarnation)?
Your past conditioning (adolescence, childhood, etc.) will inevitably color your present. That’s why the combination of personal-growth work (books, courses, psychotherapy) and a spiritual practice can be so effective: you’re working to remove your old stumbling blocks and to deepen your inner life at the same time.
To heal your soul after divorce, you may need to bring your lofty spiritual ideas and inspiration down into the world of your ordinary experience. I call this “practical spirituality.” Gaining an understanding of the spiritual life and its relevance to our day-to-day concerns is vital and necessary. Much of ordinary common sense can be applied to the process of inner growth. For instance, you need to find regular time for meditation and to have a reasonably balanced lifestyle.
Meditate on this
You don’t have to use words like “spiritual,” “God,” or “prayer” to nourish your soul. Meditation and yoga, for instance, are very accepted in mainstream society; no one will accuse you of religious fervor for practicing either one. “People who practice yoga and meditation report they have more self-confidence, sleep better, eat better, and that their stress and anxiety levels are greatly reduced,” says Helen Goldstein, director of The Yoga Studio in Toronto. “And 20 minutes of meditation has the positive effects of two-to-three hours of sleep.”
There are many different kinds of meditation: some practices require only seconds of your time; some can take years. You don’t have to be seated in the lotus position in a Buddhist temple to meditate (although for some people, it helps!). You can practice meditation at every moment of your life: while drinking tea, washing the dishes, or mowing the lawn (see “Mindfulness Meditation,” right, for more about this).
Meditation in the Judeo-Christian sense usually means some type of prayer: supplication, invocation, or intercession. Either type of meditation can be an extremely useful tool in accessing your inner resources and in integrating your experiences.
Prayer or meditation can also be an effective form of therapeutic imagery. Once the body and mind are in order, the individual is open to making a connection to the spirit and perhaps to discovering a sense of purpose in life. According to Gerald Epstein, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center, “Therapeutic imagery is the mind thinking in pictures, which form the natural language of the inner life giving us new ways of solving life’s problems — whether they be physical, social, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, moral, ethical or creative.”
“The relationship with a Higher Power is an individual one,” writes Micki McWade in Getting Up, Getting Over, Getting On: A Twelve Step Guide to Divorce Recovery. “Some of us call our Higher Power ‘God’; some ‘the Universe’; others believe in angels, and the list can go on…” McWade notes that some people use the power of group support to help themselves heal. “Some of us have rejected the religious practices that we learned as children,” she continues. “Others were never taught any religious tradition. Some of us have experienced rejection from those traditions for various reasons, including divorce… we don’t have to be religious to have contact with our Higher Power… just ask and be open to the possibilities.”
One of the issues a spiritual counselor can help you deal with is the notion that you are bad or sinful because you have made the decision to separate or divorce. “Divorce is not falling off the path of life, it is taking a different one,” says J. Randall Nichols, a Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and the author of Ending Marriage, Keeping Faith: A New Guide through the Spiritual Journey of Divorce. “Those who walk it are involved in a process that has to do with the deepest springs of who they sense themselves to be, what they are now worth, and how they are regarded — not only by society, but by whatever name they put to that cosmic purpose, destiny, and presence many call God.
“Divorce has a way of bringing some people into the church or temple and driving others away; but for almost everyone it raises questions about ultimate meanings and concerns regardless of the religious or theological language one speaks,” Nichols continues, adding that the Bible “does not have a clear word about divorce, but it does have a clear word about something far more important: the restoration of broken humans.” And isn’t that what therapy is?
Spirituality and Well-Being
Today, society seems to be renewing its interest in the health of the soul. As the transformative potential of spiritual experience is recognized, its commonality with psychotherapeutic techniques becomes obvious. There is a growing tolerance, even active scholarly curiosity, about spiritual matters and their ramifications for our well-being.
Why is this? For one thing, people who nourish their spiritual sides tend to live longer lives. This is according to a study by Dr. Chandrakant Shah, a professor of public health sciences at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine. Dr. Shah’s study shows spiritual people to be more forgiving, less stressed, and less likely to smoke and drink than their secular counterparts.
Even the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which mental health professionals and insurance companies use as diagnostic criteria, now includes a section on religious and spiritual problems: “Examples include distressing experiences that involve loss or questioning of faith… or questioning of spiritual values that may not necessarily be related to an organized church or religious institution.” In other words, spiritual issues are now officially considered relevant for people in therapy.
However, spirit-focused psychotherapy is still rare in these days of quick fixes; it takes time and effort to connect with soul. The goal of soul-based therapy is not symptom relief but the discovery of meaning in the symptoms that, in Carl Jung’s formula, are the soul’s means for getting our attention. Change comes not so much through learning new ways of being, connecting past experience to the present, and gaining insight (although these are important); rather, healing comes through the experience of having one’s soul carefully attended to and understood. ”
Using Spiritual Therapy
What kinds of problems can be addressed using a spiritual approach to therapy? The depression that goes along with major life transitions such as divorce is an obvious answer; depression very often brings with it a search for meaning. People suffering from addictions — such as alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, sex, or destructive relationships — can also benefit from a spiritual approach.
The longing to go beyond merely coping with divorce-related anger or grief to feeling happy and fulfilled again is perfectly natural — and there’s nothing inherently weird in trying to accomplish this inner journey using tools such as meditation, prayer, or affirmations. This is a very challenging time, and you can use all the help you can get — whether you believe you’re getting it from a Higher Power or merely tapping into your own Personal Power.
Finding a spiritual therapist
Qualified therapists may have many different kinds of training. Aside from looking at the initials after their names, how can you choose one who will be helpful to you? Here are some guidelines to consider:
- Ask about professional credentials and training. In many places, there are no legal standards to define who can practice psychotherapy. If you seek pastoral counseling or psychotherapy, ask if the practitioner is affiliated with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (for a referral, call 800-225-5603 or visit www.aapc.org) or the Association of Interfaith Ministers (call 877-652-5709 and ask for a referral to a “Minister of Spiritual Counseling”). In Canada, consult the Canadian Psychiatric Association (613-234-2815; www.cpa-apc.org) or the Canadian Psychological Association (888-472-0657; www.cpa.ca) for a referral to a reputable therapist willing to discuss spiritual issues.
- Ask your clergy person or family doctor for a referral.
- Choose a “Jungian”. Therapists who have some training in Jungian analysis are more open to working in a spiritual way, so ask about their background.
- Ideally, the therapist should have some knowledge of different cultures/faiths.
- The therapist should be willing to answer questions about his/her training and experience as it relates to your particular spiritual quest. You will want a therapist who is willing to listen carefully and explore spiritual issues with you, rather than one who offers a “quick fix.”
- Don’t limit your search to therapists your insurance company will reimburse. Ask whether the therapist works on a sliding-fee scale.
- Above all, trust your instincts about finding the right therapist for you.
Basically, “mindfulness” meditation is the art of paying attention to your life as you live it, moment by moment. You can practice it while engaged in everyday activities; for instance, when you’re eating, notice every piece of food you put in your mouth, the flavor, texture, and scent. Devote all your attention to savoring every bite — don’t watch TV, read a book, or distract yourself in any way from the task at hand. When taking a walk, pay attention to how your body feels as you put one foot in front of the other; the feel of the wind/sun/rain on your skin; the smells, sights, and sounds around you.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are is an excellent resource if you want to learn how — and why — to cultivate mindfulness in your life.
Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D. MSTh, is a therapist, spiritual counselor, and life coach. She is the author of I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One. She has lived through two divorces and is now happily married. Dr. Blair is the Director of the Divorce Resource Network and maintains a private practice in Hawthorne, NY.