Sunday, April 6, 2014

MENTALLY ILL OR JUST ENLIGHTENED? Part II.



As some of you might remember (and now we shall see who has been reading my blog and who hasn’t!), I wrote some thoughts about spirituality in counseling a while ago. Back then I already suspected that it wasn’t going to be the last time – and look, I was right :)

What inspired me this time was a class discussion, during which alternative religions like shamanism came up. As usual, I was a little taken aback by the attitude by some of my fellow counselors – we are taught to be highly sensitive of other people’s beliefs and values, but you would never guess from some of the comments my classmates – and even the professor – were making. Apparently it’s only the major world religions that deserve respect; if someone identifies with alternative religious paths, she cannot expect to be dealt with in kid gloves. (It wasn’t the first time something like that happened either. In one of my previous classes an outraged classmate got his panties in the twist upon discovering that a whole bunch of us believed in chakras. I’m very tempted to share some of his comments here, but it might give his identity away and I otherwise like him – plus I don’t want to get sued.)

As a person who is (hopefully) going to work with a shaman on some of her health issues, I don’t feel exactly comfortable sitting in class where shamanism is being openly mocked. But there is a silver lining: I finally realized that for years I was biased against Christians (and when I say “Christians,” it goes without saying that I mean those aggressive, fundamental ones) in counseling because I genuinely believed that by default they were the ones most likely to impose their own values on clients. Now I feel that I owe them an apology. Atheists, I’m sad to report, are equally willing to proclaim dumb everyone who doesn’t share their worldviews.

But anyway, this is just an introduction to explain why I’m returning to a topic I already wrote about and why I will probably do it again in the future. There is something specific I want to discuss in this post and I’m very curious what is my fellow counselors’ take on it (and no, I’m not going to hold against you if you disagree with me – disrespect pisses me off, a different opinion doesn’t).

I just recently finished a book by a British author and spiritual teacher William Bloom, The Power of the New Spirituality. Dr. Bloom is heavily into the mind-body-spirit field, which is why I like him and why I checked out his book. His spirituality reminds me a lot the philosophy of my Unitarian Universalist church: He too believes that people can live spiritually without being religious, even atheists. If you are interested in learning more, well, that’s why the Universe created Google!

But here is the case that caught my attention: A while ago, Dr. Bloom worked with a gentleman, a science teacher, who was raised to be absolutely and completely unable to express his feelings. As a little boy, he was by nature intuitive and creative, but he was born into a military family and his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all officers, who took a great care to beat any “unmanly” expressions of feelings out of him. Becoming a science teacher instead of joining the military was the only rebellion he was capable of and as an adult he dealt with a whole bunch of issues (unsatisfying intimate relationships being just one example out of many). And here he is, in Dr. Bloom’s workshop, learning for the first time about mindfulness and self-healing.

So what does his mind do?

It goes cuckoo.

As Dr. Bloom puts it, the gentleman was “sitting on a cauldron of repressed emotions” and because he made too much of a spiritual progress in relatively short time period, his mind couldn’t handle it. It ended with him standing up in a group and announcing in a booming voice that he was Moses and would lead the group into the new age.

And this is where it gets tricky.

Several decades ago, he would probably end up in an ambulance, followed by the closest mental hospital. And I have a very strong suspicion, especially after participating in some of the aforementioned class discussions, that some of my colleagues wouldn’t say no to such an intervention even today.

But that’s the thing: If you integrate spirituality into counseling - and more and more practitioners out there believe that we should - than you have to be prepared for people sometimes displaying behaviors that might seem very, very strange to you, but don’t necessarily indicate mental illness. As Dr. Bloom says:

This crisis might seem extreme from one perspective, but in a spiritual context it is not so unusual. In many traditions it is understood that we might be filled with divine energy and even taken over by it, causing us to shake and feel overwhelmed. Speaking in voices and tongues is another phenomenon common to intense religious experiences, when people lose a sense of who they are and create a temporary new persona.

Dr. Bloom’s client needed only to calm down and to talk to some folks that treated him with respect and unconditional positive regard, and pretty soon he was as good as new, feeling shaken and mightily embarrassed about his outburst, but otherwise healthy and ready to go back to his life – except with some new experience and knowledge.

Imagine the damage that might have been done if a mental health professional, who viewed the world strictly through the lenses of hard-core science and considered everything spiritual a big pile of - (well, insert whatever word you would like), happened to be the one running the show!

Now, does it mean that we should let folks who claim they are Moses run around without any concern?

Dr. Bloom certainly doesn’t think so.

I need to tread very carefully here because I don’t want to make light of depression or manic behavior, especially when it’s accompanied by psychotic delusions, which require expert medical care. Nor do I want to appropriate serious psychological suffering and trivialize it by speculating that it is all a meaningful spiritual process.

Yes, even Dr. Bloom agrees that there might be a time when calling that ambulance is one and only option. 

But finding the line and making the right decision is what stresses me out. HOW CAN A COUNSELOR EVER BE SURE!? I don't have the answer - the purpose of this post (or the whole blog, for that matter) isn't to pretend that I know everything - just the opposite, really!

I think the key, as everything in life, is BALANCE. We are lucky to live in the modern age, which, for all its problems, is becoming more and more diverse, and our society is now more than ever willing to consider that some things that used to be pathologized might actually be normal after all. As counselors-in-training, we are supposed to be leaders in this movement for acceptance and celebration of diversity. Let us think twice before we start mocking and ridiculing spiritual practices different from our own – if WE are not able to set an example, who will!?



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