Lecture: The Challenges of Traveling a Psycho-Spiritual Path in Today's Postmodern Western World
“Religious or Spiritual Problem” is a diagnostic category (Code V62.89) in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (1994) for mental health professionals. Acceptance of the category was based on extensive reports of clients coming to therapists who were experiencing conflicts related either to their religious institution, or to experiences and questions of a spiritual nature. This category was incorporated into the manual in 1994, but it has taken until 2012 for a conference or training to take place in order to help therapists and social workers understand how best to address such issues.
JUDITH MILLER: I never thought I would see in this incarnation psychologists and counselors getting certified for working with spiritually transformative experiences.
Why did I fly from the East coast to this conference? I think my story is not all that different from people here. As a young adult I started having spontaneous mystical experiences and they were shocking to me. I was from a secular Jewish family, a newly minted psychologist and there was nothing in my training and background to prepare me for what was happening. At the time I was working at an agency with individuals with seriously mental illness, with diagnosis of schizophrenia, psychosis and so forth. It was startling to me in terms of religious ideation, which is what they were talking about, was very similar to what I was experiencing. So I was in a bit of a dilemma; I could not go to my supervisors and tell them about it. It was the 1980s. There were no psychotherapists I could go to. I had a husband, two children and two dogs and I was trying to balance everything. I knew I wasn’t mentally ill; I just knew it. But it was disconcerting to say the least.
So I think that my spiritual path was really supported and guided by spirit—and I think everyone’s is, even though we don’t often realize it. Synchronistically, just as I was feeling as unsettled as I could be, I got a brochure in the mail from the International Association for Near-Death Studies. And as I read over the material, I discovered that people who had near- death experiences were reporting experiences very similar to what I was going through. However, they had died and I hadn’t. So I still had a bit of a problem.
Anyway, I went to a conference of IANDS and became very active in the 80s. I started counseling people who had had Near-Death Experiences and eventually became president of the Philadelphia chapter, and sat on the IANDS board of directors.
But the highlight of the whole thing was at Barbara Whitfields’s house in Florida, where a group of us mainstream psychologists got together on a weekend to set up guidelines for people who were having mystical /spiritual experiences. There we were, with our own experiences, and finding out that our secret fear was that we were all crazy. Here was a whole household of us and it was quite wonderful.
To sum up my work: I have been trying to bridge psychology and spirituality for 20 years in various ways. I’ve been in academia, feeling that our generations of psychotherapists are pretty bad in terms of creating a bridge, but thinking maybe I can help foster a change in the next generation. I have a clinical practice where I try to help people understand the meaning of their spiritual experiences and to support them on their spiritual quest; I utilize Holotropic Breathwork as a tool in this process and have worked closely with spiritual seekers not only in this country but in Europe. I have learned many things over the years.
But what I want to talk about today is what it really means to be spiritual. I think that in the twenty some years since I’ve been involved in this work, being “spiritual.” or “spirituality” has really become a kind of hot topic. We can see this on the dating sites – “I’m looking for someone who’s spiritual, not religious.” And in the publishing business, there are so many books out there now.
Not to be negative, because conversations are so much more evolved than 20 years ago, but I do believe seriously that a lot of what is being termed spiritual is a very superficial description of it.
At Columbia, where I’ve been teaching for 13 years, I’m not in the clinical department, I’m in the human development department. Because even though my training was in clinical psychology, human development has become my academic home. Because I feel the very topic suggests that there is no glass ceiling.
The psych textbooks include biological, psychological, emotional and cognitive development, but they don’t have spiritual development. So that’s where I come in. I’m able to say that this is also a part of being human. I think there’s more of an opportunity to get that point across than in clinical or counseling psychology, which focuses so much on psychopathology. There is a glass ceiling in those disciplines, which stops at the level of the ego.
So this is how I’ve been maneuvering myself in academia and it’s also how I’ve gotten so many grey hairs, because it hasn’t always been easy.
So what does being spiritual mean? There are three themes I want to address. And each of these three are potential traps, where people who feel that they are spiritual, who say they are on a spiritual path, get stuck.
First, you need to be clear on what worldview you hold
Second, you have to be committed to traveling a challenging path of inner development, which is lifelong. It is not just an STE or an NDE or an experience of enlightenment in a workshop;
Third, you have to realize that you are engaging in something, which is not to be taken casually
This is very important.
So what do I mean by a worldview? Every culture throughout time has been structured according to its particular worldview. It helps us understand ourselves, make choices, gives us values to hold onto, has to do with the level of faith that we hold and also the way that
we live in the world. It helps us deal with pain and suffering and provides answers about the meaning and purpose of existence.
So if we look at the different worldviews across time, we have the Premodern, the Modern, and the Postmodern. And each of these has served as a supertheory or paradigm for interpreting human experience.
The premodern worldview says what God is and what it’s not. It says that only institutionalized religion knows the ultimate truth and only the leaders have the answers. This was very big in the West in medieval times and as we know, it even exists today in certain parts of the world.
The modern worldview, which was prevalent in the 20th century and also exists today, says that nothing is true unless it can be verified by the scientific method.
The postmodern view holds that there is no ultimate truth, because everything is relative and determined by individual perceptions. And this has been a paradigm at the end of the last century and also today.
So even though the premodern, modern and postmodern views arose during different time periods, the western world today remains deeply divided as to which worldview is defining how life should be lived, how people should think and believe. I think many of us in the transpersonal field; in the arena of spirituality, also have conflicts about worldview.
And I think when one is on a spiritual path, whatever little conflicts are there, are where we can get stuck and halt our progress.
Most people feel safe and secure when those around us share the same worldview. However, if someone has an NDE or an STE, consequently his or her worldview begins to change. It can feel very threatening and even personally dangerous.
You know what it’s like when someone has a personal experience of God and it’s wonderful, while everyone around is saying that “she is crazy and needs medication.”
So the prevailing worldview in much of Western culture is postmodernism. It is especially prevalent in medicine, in psychology, most of academia, and among most of our liberal and progressive friends.
So to repeat, with this worldview, there is no Ultimate Truth. It holds that everything is relative, determined by individual perceptions. And if there is no ultimate truth, then there are no absolutes. There is no higher power, no soul, no light or darkness, no good or evil, no God.
I was at Columbia yesterday and a woman there named Laurie, who talks a lot about being spiritual. We were talking about the latest trauma in NYC where a man raped and killed a little girl. I made the comment, “It’s just shocking that there is such evil in the world.”
She looked at me and said, “You can’t really say that Judith.” “Why not?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “You don’t know what he went through with his own abuse in his past to make him that way.”
“I don’t care,” I said. When he tortured and raped and murdered that little girl that was evil.”
Of course that created a whole dialogue in the class. This is what I’m talking about; there is a split in people’s consciousness at this time in the world, even among people who consider themselves very open, progressive and spiritual. This split can keep people stuck in their process on their path because if there is no ultimate truth, no absolute, then what do they think spirituality is about?
So the first thing I am suggesting when it comes to spiritual development, people need to reexamine their relationship to 21st century postmodern thought. Because you can’t be really spiritual if you accept a postmodern worldview, because it rejects all absolutes.
So if you want to be spiritual, really be spiritual, you need a new worldview. So instead of postmodernism, I’ve come up with a new one, which I call a psychospiritual worldview.
Here’s what it is:
It recognizes that all things, including us, are sacred.
We are infused with spirit, or at least part of us, is infused with spirit
It recognizes that we all have an extreme point, a deep center at the core of our being where our personality and human nature touches the Absolute and at this place, where one’s true being is penetrated by what we in the West call God or the God Force, this is our soul.
And God is the eternal source from which the soul draws its energy and power. When we feel cut off from God, the soul withers. When we reconnect, the soul comes alive and we grow spiritually.
Another aspect of the psychospiritual worldview is to recognize that as imperfect human beings, we live in a world of dualities. And we have dualisms. We have, as Jung says, shadow; we have our soul, which is light, and all spiritual traditions aim for the same thing, which is to reach that place of Oneness, where distinctions disappear and we become one with God, with nature, with each other.
To get to that place, which in the East is called Enlightenment, we here in the West in particular, have to work with dualities. We have to work with light and shadow to get to that place of Oneness. Because if we don’t work with them, then it’s superficial at best and it’s not the truth. And the entire world of sacred traditions tells us that the process inevitably unfolds in the direction of love and wisdom.
In the West we can call that Christ Consciousness.
That’s why I call it a psychospiritual worldview, because in the West, how are you going to work with those dualities unless you incorporate your own psychological, emotional, personal wounds?
That’s what this means. The mystics used the term purification, when they talked about their lifelong process of working through to Union. Purification means to work with this inner shadow, with the darkness. St Teresa was fighting the devil and the priest was throwing holy water on her and this is an acknowledgement of what our task as human beings is.
So I’ve just spoken about some important themes about holding a psychospiritual worldview.
The thing that we are left with is to understand that our lives and our processes are our sacred reality. And this is the umbrella over all.
The second aspect of being spiritual: it really is to recognize and acknowledge that you are traveling a path of inner development. The mystics refer it to as a path because it is an ongoing growth process. It is about finding out about whom we really are, our true identity. Psychologists and sociologists are doing a lot of work on identity formation and some of the great psychological theorists like Erik Erikson said that identity is the important focus over the lifespan. Everyone agrees to this.
Typically in our postmodern world when we talk about identity, it’s about gender identity, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic, accepting if you are obese, we have to totally take in and accept whom we are. But there is one thing that is eliminated and that is spiritual identity.
And in terms of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are talking about mystical roots. If we take it to a mystical level, there is no separation between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus was a Jew, for goodness sake. But everything that came after was all about politics, ego and power.
What I have seen over the years, working with many people in American and Europe, if they were born into the Judeo-Christian religion, or even into a Western secular household, if they have let that go and turned to shamanism, or have become a Buddhist or taken up any other path, invariably over time, something will come up from their deep consciousness that refers to their own mystical roots.
If they have rejected their birth religion for all kinds of reasons, they will turn away from what comes up. They would much rather have a kundalini awakening or feel their chakras open than to acknowledge that the vision of Jesus is something that they need to pay attention to.
My experience is that when people do that they are totally thwarting their own spiritual development. They get stuck and don’t move forward. Which is not to negate any other path—Buddhism, Hinduism, shamanism, Sufism, because as I said, they all lead us to the same place. But part of being whole is to integrate and open to whatever comes to us in our consciousness and in our process. It’s not for us to choose what to accept that comes to us or what to turn away from.
Because the more of our true identity we integrate into our being, our worldview, our personality, the greater our spiritual development.
Third, spiritual development from my perspective is a definite psychological process. It’s a complete reorganization of the self on higher levels of consciousness and therefore, there are stages that spiritual seekers need to travel.
There is a kind of politically incorrect perception in the postmodern world, because spiritual development suggests that some people are not as evolved as others. Because we are “all the same.” Ergo: the person who went to a workshop and had a high is the “same” as a person who has been dong spiritual work for 20 years.
I disagree. I think that spiritual development varies according to individuals, how seriously we take it and the work we do and there are stages on the path that seekers need to acknowledge and travel. So while NDEs and STEs are catalysts, they are not enough. They don’t make a person spiritual. In my opinion, such a person who has an experience needs to be supported by traveling a path of psychospiritual development, in order to integrate the experience into the personality and way of living.
Such work is long-term work. There are times in a person’s life when we can deal with these processes ourselves. At other times, we need a teacher, a guide. Sometimes we need help identifying our areas of shadow, of woundedness. The places where our worldviews become conflicted.
The path I’m talking about that I’ve conceptualized into three stages comes from my own spiritual evolution, from the path of hundreds of my clients in the US and in Europe; it also comes from my own research and reading the Western mystics, specifically Christian mystical literature and the Jewish Kabbalah. As a result of all this, I see contemporary Western seekers following a path that has three major stages.
I should add that this is also adapted from Evelyn Underhill, who wrote the classic work on Western mysticism in 1911. She described five stages; I condensed it to three to make it more understandable.
The stages are:
Awakening, Spiritual Illumination and Union
If we talk about characteristics of Awakening, it has do with the individual having a sudden glimpse of the transcendent, a breakthrough in consciousness. This can occur through a vision, an NDE and STE, a big dream, a psychic or paranormal event, a synchronicity, a religious experience, or a big dream.
That’s one way and everyone in this room has had one, no doubt.
The other I call “Asking Big Questions.” This is for the person whose life is just fine, he has good relationships, good career, and there’s a gnawing inside. Psychology has called it a midlife crisis. But it’s much more than that. I’ve seen increasingly that it is happening in young people as well: “What’s my life about?’ What happens at death? Is there a God? This can trigger something too, a total reorientation.
So what are the challenges that come up in Awakening?
It can be exciting: “Boy, look who I am!” a person can feel powerful and very enlightened, or else very crazy. You can feel disoriented because your worldview is shaken up. There is identity confusion, there is confusion over your new feelings vs. society’s view, and you can feel weird and alienated from others.
There is a resolution: you have to accept the ambiguity of not knowing, because you are not going to solve everything all at once.
You have to be willing to remain in confusion and slowly let your old self die. But keeping in mind—and this is where a spiritual guide comes in—that after ego death comes rebirth.
You also have to be open to receiving guidance and you have to be doing spiritual work in a very committed way. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to integrate spiritual experiences into your personality and daily life.
You also have to trust your process in spite of opposition from others. Most important, you have to surrender to your experiences. So even if you’re a shaman and you have a vision of Mary or Jesus, you’ve got to surrender to that and have to be open to that and follow that.
The second stage: spiritual illumination: what does this mean? Well, if you can move through awakening in a committed serious way, you’re going to start to have more profound spiritual experiences. They are going to be so strong that you may feel as though you have a foot in two worlds—the physical and the spiritual. And certainly there’s going to feel a conflict with that.
In many ways you’re feeling totally connected to God, in many ways you have spiritual fulfillment and joy. But there are big challenges as well. You can be overwhelmed by your experiences. You can also get to a place where you say, “Okay, I’ve lost a lot of my ego,” but I have a special and unique relationship with you-know-who. So I may not discuss it with others, but I am certainly better than others.”
Or, on the same ego level, you can feel completely unworthy: “How could God speak to me?”
Both sides of the coin are ego, because it’s the identity. And in fact, it’s nothing like that.
The goal is to become an empty vessel and just be filled with the energy of the divine and then follow it. It’s not about you. But that takes a lot of work and development to get to that place.
So there’s a method to the madness, because any kind of spiritual attachment, whether it’s “I’m better than anybody else,” or it’s “I’m not worthy,” what typically then will happen is that you will go through a period of what the mystics have documented as the Dark Night of the Soul.
Well in addition to the mystics documenting this, many popular authors have written about
Dark Night of the Soul. So I often hear from contemporary spiritual seekers, “Oh, I’m in Dark Night of the Soul now.” “Why is that? I say. “Well, I broke up with my boyfriend, I lost my job, this is really a Dark Night for me and that means I’m going to be spiritually reborn.
No, that has nothing to do with it.
Dark Night of the Soul is suddenly when your relationship and connection with God stops. So rather than seeing wonderful visions, you close your eyes and you see black. It’s the deep pain of suddenly feeling abandoned, there’s no connection, and many of our Western mystics went through years of that and they were desolate because of the emptiness. There is no psychological ego left maybe, and there’s not even a spiritual ego attachment.
Well the reason for this is to get to the next stage, which is called Union, a place where all the dualities, the opposites and the distinctions vanish. Boundaries disappear into Oneness with God and all beings, illusion dissolves that we are separate from God, the I as a separate entity has no meaning, and there’s the awareness that one’s essence is pure consciousness. So spiritual union really involves the union of the whole self with the divine.
So therefore ego attachment, whether to the material world or a special attachment to spirit has to dissolve. Because what Union is about is knowing that you are just a physical empty vessel and that God force in your soul at the core has been able to fill you up because it’s not being pushed away by ego and fear and other stuff.
And what’s the point of all this? The point is the follow that energy wherever it takes you and to know that it’s all One and that there’s no separation.
So the felt presence of God is perhaps the most awesome experience a human being can have and really leads to a permanent change in the personality.
So in closing: a spiritual path is not to be taken casually.
I want to leave you with a quote from a contemporary spiritual teacher named Andrew Cohen, whom I really admire:
Something profound happens at a soul level when someone makes a commitment to his or her own spiritual development. And of course when you make that commitment, you don’t know what you’re committing to. But what you do know is that it is a commitment to that which is Absolute, to that which is non-relative, to that which means everything. Once you say yes to the Absolute, to God, there is no going back, even if you wanted to reconsider down the line. In other words, from the depths of your soul, an inner contract is signed.
Question: we’re a bunch of people who have had STEs and you say this is only the beginning of the journey, there’s a lot of work to do and you say the individual needs to find a teacher. Where? One can go to Barnes and Noble and take out a lot of books and it’s not going to be enough. You’re talking about uncharted territory and so where does one go to get help at your level?
Judith: My personal experience and that of the many, many people I’ve worked with over the years: when an individual gets to a place to where you can completely trust the experience that you’ve had, whatever it is, and not disclaim it because it doesn’t fit your worldview, your community, etc., if you can really surrender to it and hold the discomfort, you will be spiritually guided. Whether it’s by a book falling on your head that explains the experience, or a guide comes along, or a deep knowing arises within, it’s really a pact that you’re making between yourself and spirit. You’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to trust, surrender, I’ll pray, Guide me,” and then I think it will really help. Whether the teacher is in physical form or from an inner place.
Originally published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, 31 (2), Winter, 2012, 98-110 and inaugural conference for ACISTE: The American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences