On religion and spirituality

YOUR EXTENSIVE coverage on spirituality (December 2003 Monitor ), was both timely and thought-provoking. On a very personal level, I was able to relate to the article by Melissa Dittmann, "Struggling to keep the faith."

At the time I entered my undergraduate training, I perfectly fit Ms. Dittmann's profile of the conflicted and homesick student who seeks comfort from his faith. So much so that I enrolled in a church-supported university as a theology major, with aspirations on becoming a pastoral counselor.

But this is where my experience veered from the path described in Ms. Dittmann's article. I found the faculty, and especially the students, in the religion department to be the least well-grounded in the university. Moral superiority took precedence over supportive spirituality. In contrast to the more typical collegiate experience, as described by Ms. Dittmann, this lack of empathy from fellow theology students drove me toward the psychology department, where I found a commitment to positive healing that included spirituality.

As a result, I have emphasized the importance of getting in touch with one's own spirituality throughout my 30 years of clinical practice.


Albany, N.Y.

IN THE ARTICLE "STRUGGLING to keep the faith," the photo on the top of the page, of Kim Mecca, has her looking skyward with a spiritually fulfilling gaze. The article, however, deals with Kim Mecca's problems with her religious beliefs in the sense that they did not sustain her at college (with a name like Mecca they should have).

Apparently, students like Kim Mecca seek out religious advisers instead of psychologists to help them because psychologists tend not to be religion-oriented--thank God. Sorry, I mean, that's probably true. But I never felt that to be an obstacle in the treatment of "religious patients."

After the patient gets through reciting her religious issues, one could ask about her specific problems at school that she didn't have at home--her roommates, classmates, teachers, etc. Then, the conflicts between her strict religious conscience and the realities of a college life can be dealt with. In a college counseling situation, no attack is made on religion. In fact, you might want to support whatever defenses the student presents.


Boca Raton, Fla.

IN THE DECEMBER 2003 ARTICLE "Religion and spirituality in the treatment room," Carrie Doehring and William Hathaway combined their efforts toward developing a rationale for incorporating spirituality and religion into a psychotherapeutic environment. It is a misguided attempt not only because it ignores the process of conceptualization and concept formation in theory-building, but also because it lacks an understanding of the value of therapeutic communication and the occurrence of a critical moment in the treatment room--the "silence."

"Spiritualism," for instance, is not unlike a classic projective technique stimulus--it can mean different things to different people in different situations. In one of the major references cited in this article, one religious practitioner admits that spirituality has "multiple meanings." It is thus multidimensional.

Gardner Murphy (1970) had addressed this very issue in an interview held over 30 years ago. He characterized the then-prevailing view of scientists, including psychologists, concerning the study of religion, in this way: "Let us study the religious experience as a phenomenon and not commit ourselves to any philosophical interpretation."

Following her interview and characterizing a contemporary view, on the other hand, Doehring described a religious or spiritually guided phenomenon as "experiencing a third presence in the room," which she interpreted as "a God presence"; or is it that she was simply experiencing "how one mind speaks to another mind, beyond words" (not worlds), and thus was learning to "listen with the third ear"?


Western Carolina University

I HAVE JUST FINISHED READING the articles on spirituality and mental health in the December Monitor. May we expect to see soon articles on astrology and mental health? And do you also plan to run a monthly column on horoscopes?


University of Vermont and Florida Mental Health Institute

Longboat Key, Fla.

YOUR DECEMBER 2003 ARTICLE, "Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology: a match made in Nirvana," on the emerging collaboration between highly seasoned meditation practitioners and researchers in cognitive neuroscience was excellent, but told only part of the story. Monitor readers interested in this research initiative should be aware that the Mind and Life Institute has been the guiding organization for the meetings between psychologists and the Dalai Lama that have generated the research. Their Web site (www.mindandlife.org) offers a more detailed view of what has gone on and ways that interested psychologists can join in the dialogue.

For instance, the institute maintains an ongoing listserv of psychologists interested in doing research or finding clinical applications. And the institute is offering a weeklong summer program for graduate students or postdocs who want to make this area a focus of their research.

While your article would make it appear that this research collaboration involves only Tibetan Buddhism, that is not the long-term goal. The Dalai Lama, who sparked the initiative, has repeatedly said that the research should look at all methods of meditation, whether Buddhist or from other contemplative traditions.

For those psychologists intrigued by the applications of contemplative practice in business and workplace settings, hospitals and health services, higher education and schools, as well as with social activists and other groups, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society offers a range of programs (www.contemplativemind.org). The center offers grants to professors who are utilizing the contemplative mode in their teaching.


Northampton, Mass.