Meditation, Spirituality, and Mental Health
Until relatively recently, yoga, meditation, and non-traditional spirituality – as opposed to classical religious practices – were widely perceived in the West as esoteric pursuits with little to offer mainstream society. Now they are highly-valued, prominent fields of endeavor with massive cultural buy-in. Having dedicated 40+ years to this “questionable arena,” it is rewarding to note the positive shift in public opinion, and, the appreciable enhancement such activities have made on so many lives. In fact, writing an article like this is challenging because there is no longer a dearth of information on the topic but, rather, an exhaustive volume of research requiring extensive time to read, process, and apply. On the up side, an abundance of scientific literature now attests to a range of psycho-social and body/mind benefits resulting from meditation and Sacred practices, (i.e. pertaining to religion or spirituality). Fortunately, these positive outcomes are no longer points of anecdotal testimony subject to academic dispute, but, matters of established fact. For psychologists then, several especially relevant questions arise regarding how to include this domain within the scope of practice. Specifically, when is it appropriate to engage patients on topics pertaining to the Sacred, meditation, and related activities? When is it viable to suggest patients explore such in adjunctive alignment with on-going therapy? And, when should these topics or practices not be addressed?
Such questions require more time and space to address than this brief article allows. Accordingly, readers may find additional value and a more comprehensive understanding of these issues in the APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, & Spirituality (2013: Kenneth I Pargament, PhD) However, to capsulize two key areas let me answer the last question first: Psychotic patients and those with too severe a character disorder are best served by not engaging in mystical or meditative pursuits as such activities could de-stabilize their mental coherence or trigger added psychiatric complications. However, many less severe patients confronting depression, anger, anxiety, stress, hypertension, addiction, insomnia, chronic pain, or, mild-to-moderate neuroses, defensiveness, compromised self-awareness, and self-destructive behaviors may benefit considerably from intelligently applied meditation if they are sufficiently motivated to practice. There is even related evidence suggesting that therapists who engage in meditative practices themselves, or hold to compassionate spiritual paradigms, may passively contribute to enhanced therapeutic outcomes.
The results of these findings is genuinely encouraging yet there is still no standardized body of information guiding psychologists to “best-practice” scenarios for different patient types and conditions. This can put a burden on therapists to learn about the functional impact of different meditative and spiritual practices, plus the brain-body changes arising from each. In short, it gets complicated quickly. From my experience, though, such detailed assessment is not always necessary or even useful. The bulk of real therapeutic value arises more simply in what I describe in Meditation as a Way of Life (Quest: 2014), as continued receptive spiritual attunement and what Herbert Benson, MD of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, Beth Israel-Deaconess Hospital, Boston similarly identifies as the Faith Factor. Simply put, potent healing progress can arise when a Relaxation-Response state is repeatedly cultivated through prayer or meditative techniques, and, when it is associated with deeply-held, affirmative philosophic, religious, or spiritual convictions. This cumulatively triggers top-down, nerve-cell-firing brain patterns linked to healthy states, aka “remembered wellness,” which, when infused with profound spiritual faith, helps catalyze internal transformations that significantly aid patients in disengaging from toxic thought patterns and related negative behaviors.
At the end of the day, the precise meditation technique or spiritual belief a patient practices may be less important than the fact that they repeatedly seek receptive attunement with the Sacred and, by doing so, invoke a faith factor and the subtle psycho-energetic dynamics associated with it to restore greater wholeness to the body/mind. The capacity of what I term “the deep self” to induce or accelerate healing through meditation and spiritual practice has been repeatedly demonstrated. The key challenge, then, is learning how to beneficially harness sacred skills and knowing when or where to refer patients when they might benefit by related assistance. Despite needing to locate viable resources, it is exciting to have a spectrum of integrative therapeutic tools which, though age old, have garnered modern respect through scientifically demonstrable beneficial outcomes.
Rev. Alan Pritz is an Interfaith Minister with a Minneapolis-based spiritual counseling/coaching, and consulting practice who’s trained in and taught meditation for 32+ years. Author of the award winning book, Meditation as a Way of Life: Philosophy & Practice (Quest: 2014) Reverend Pritz assists individuals and organizations with meditation, spirituality, and related themes to promote personal health, growth, and work/life balance. For information about his Minneapolis practice and services visit: www.awake-in-life.com.
- Beyond the Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson M.D., Times Books: 1984
- Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, by Larry Dossey, M.D., HarperCollins: 1993
- Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD, Bantam Books: 1990
- Meditation as a Way of Life: Philosophy & Practice, by Rev. Alan L. Pritz, Quest: 201
- Meditation and Psychiatry, Michael McGee, MD http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719544/
- The Link between Religion and Health: Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor Edited by Harold G. Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen
- Meditation: What You Need To Know: NIH https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
- 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/
- The Physical and Psychological Effect of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research by Michael Murphy, Steven Donovan, and Eugene Taylor http://www.noetic.org/sites/default/files/uploads/files/Meditation_Intro.pdf
- What Role Do Religion and Spirituality Play In Mental Health? Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD, http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/03/religion-spirituality.aspx
*Article originally written for the February, 2016 edition of the Minnesota Psychological Association Newsletter