The Psychology of Spirituality – An Interview with JKP author Dr Larry Culliford

Dr. Larry Culliford is a psychiatrist, lecturer and author. He co-founded the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group, and is former Chair of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Here he answers some questions about his new book, The Psychology of Spirituality: An Introduction.

Tell us about you and your background, and why you wrote this book.

I was born in Surrey on St Patrick’s Day 1950. Although I was baptised in the local Church of England church, none of my family were very interested in religion. Despite this, loving Bible stories, I gravitated decisively towards Christianity at school. I also loved science, studying physics, chemistry and biology in preparation for medicine at Cambridge. Somehow, I already knew that there was no fatal incompatibility between science and religion, and that both contributed to a wider form of wisdom and truth.

Later I became interested in psycho-somatic illnesses, in how mental distress seems to cause or contribute to physical symptoms. After qualifying as a doctor in 1974 and working for a year in the NHS, I went to New Zealand and Australia. Some stories from my life at that time are in the book. I worked as a GP and then trained to become a psychiatrist. A number of experiences convinced me that the art of medicine involved healing people, rather than simply suppressing or removing symptoms. It was more than simply the application of science. I liked to take my time with patients, ask questions and really listen to the answers. Psychiatry allowed me to do that. Psychiatric patients also brought with them a whole new set of conundrums.

I started to think, and started to write to help me make sense of my thoughts. I realised, still in my twenties, that physics and chemistry did not explain life fully, and biology (including the biology of the brain) did not explain consciousness and the mind fully. It struck me then that personal psychology didn’t explain interpersonal and group interactions fully, and that social psychology had limitations too. To complete the picture, these four (physical, biological, psychological and social) required a vital fifth, ‘spiritual’ dimension. You cannot understand anything properly until you take all five into account. According to the holistic paradigm, connections between the five dimensions are seamless. The boundaries between them are more apparent than real.

Rather than abandon the secular scientific model of understanding how things happen in the universe, I found myself extending it in a way that allowed answers to ‘why’ as well as ‘how’ questions: questions about finding meaning and having a sense of purpose in life; questions about values and morals, about how to be and behave; questions that lead to wisdom, in addition to facts. I learned a lot about holistic (as opposed to dualistic) ways of thinking, years ago, from Eastern faith traditions and practices, particularly Buddhism and Zen. I have had my thinking cap on ever since, and this book is my best attempt so far to make a coherent narrative of it all.

What is the new holistic or ‘psycho-spiritual’ paradigm, and why is it taking hold at this point in time?

The holistic, psycho-spiritual paradigm refers to a universe that is awe-inspiringly sacred and unified. Whatever happens in one part, and in one mind, affects (if only infinitesimally) what happens everywhere else, and in all other minds.

Each person is vitally linked to the divine whole through a core consciousness or ‘spiritual self’, and through this to both the natural world and to everyone else. Here lies a valuable source, which many people already know about intuitively and depend on, of guidance and wisdom, of creativity, courage, hope and strength. The ‘everyday ego’, on the other hand, is more selfishly concerned with surviving and thriving in the material world. According to the new paradigm, this dualistic split begins in infancy and plays itself out through six stages of spiritual development towards eventual reunion, harmony and maturity.

Spirituality and psychology have been kept apart for too long. It is good news that, in terms of both personal and social psychology, the psycho-spiritual paradigm has arrived to point a valid way forward. Evolving since William James published The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, it was boosted considerably by the work of Carl Jung in the last century, and extended more recently by several pioneers, including James Fowler, John Swinton, David Fontana and Victor Schermer. This book offers some final pieces to the jig-saw, linking the whole picture together.

For example, rather than something to avoid, adversity (such as when a person is ill or dying, or facing other kinds of loss, such as bereavement) becomes more acceptable, because it presents opportunities for spiritual development. The book explains in detail how emotional healing leads directly to personal growth.

The paradigm is taking hold now because many people have intuitively come to recognize its value at both personal and social levels.

‘Conformist’ stage three, for example, is associated with a universal drive to belong to a social group, but this often leads to a kind of us/them, right/wrong, win/lose, success/failure mentality that provokes widespread mistrust, contributing to destructive antagonism and conflict. However, ‘individual’ stage four also brings problems, resulting in feelings of rejection and painful isolation.

The idea that there must be a better way has grown strong in many people, who understand that what we each think, say and do matters. What we each reject, avoid saying and don’t do is also just as important. As a remedy, people are finding their own ways to develop spiritual skills through a range of spiritual practices that are not necessarily based on religion. These developments are covered systematically in the book’s two final chapters.

Spiritual practices essentially involve taking control and allowing the mind regularly to grow still. The benefits are considerable. Usually gradually, but occasionally in sudden bursts of insight, something seems to happen. Spiritual values (like honesty, kindness, generosity, patience, and compassion) begin to take hold. Desires give way to contentment. People naturally become less possessive, more flexible in their ideas and behaviour. Lives are simpler, and a comforting sense of kinship with a much broader variety of people emerges.

Generally less fearful, we are more co-operative and less competitive, living day by day with greater joy, spontaneity and freedom than before. This benefits the people around us, and many others more indirectly. Social evolution will involve more people moving out of the illusory comfort zone of stage three, entering and surpassing stage four, into ‘integration’ stage five and beyond.

In addition, in the field of psychology and in other disciplines, the deployment of spiritual skills means that the search for objectivity associated with the former secular, scientific model can now profitably be complemented by a suitably contemplative methodology to achieve deep subjective insights that are equally valid and reliable… and may prove of superior value.

In the book, you use Barack Obama’s personal story to illustrate the stages of spiritual development. Why him?

U. S. President Obama has a high public profile. His best-selling autobiography, Dreams From My Father, written at the age of 33, describes a man during individual stage four, resisting temptation to conform to a social group that is governed by self-seeking material values, while trying to avoid isolation and discover his true identity. He writes clearly about a number of powerful experiences that can be interpreted as spiritual, prompting and guiding his development towards integration stage five and a commitment to spiritual values.

What does it mean for those in the helping professions to have ‘spiritual skills’ in practice? What is their role in the spiritual development of their clients and patients?

Medical conditions, mental health and social problems all involve people experiencing distress and disability, facing losses and the threat of loss. The basic spiritual skill, of being able to rest, relax and create a still, peaceful state of mind, underpins others, such as empathic ability and emotional resilience, which allow us better to understand, comfort and guide those people in difficulty who are suffering. These are skills that give people the courage to witness and endure distress while sustaining an attitude of hope, and the inner strength to be able to give without feeling drained.

When we feel tested by our work, instead of being negative, seeking to avoid adversity and suffering, we can take it as an opportunity each time to learn and grow wiser. There are several illustrative vignettes and personal anecdotes about this in the book. It often involves giving up cherished attachments and accepting one’s limitations, being better able to grieve losses and let go, rather than continue fiercely to resist changes and loss. Taking a positive attitude to suffering sets an example also to the people we are trying to help.

The book’s final two chapters focus on these key professional skills, and on various spiritual practices, religious and secular, that can be used to develop them. People who engage with such practices in a disciplined way will gradually move forward through the stages of spiritual development and come to be motivated less by fear and anger, much more by seeking and achieving equanimity, satisfaction, respect, contentment, and freedom from suffering, not just for themselves but for everyone else too. It is a calmer, happier and more useful way to be.

Tell us a little bit about the chapter in the book about taking a ‘spiritual history’ – how did you develop this and what is its function?

Some years ago, I was asked to write an article for a psychiatry journal on assessing the spiritual needs of patients. I was also putting together a short course for medical students (described in the book) on spirituality in health care. I read what others had already done, but also thought about it myself. This often involves keeping a topic or problem in mind until inspiration strikes. Insights and solutions arise more easily, I have found, since learning to meditate many years ago. I think of it as tuning into my spiritual awareness in a way that has become a pleasing habit, and somewhat ordinary, rather than the tedious and confusing chore it often felt like at the beginning.

Professionals are often understandably wary of religion; but spirituality (the ‘active ingredient’ of all world religions, so to speak) can no longer be ignored. It operates as a dimension of experience for non-religious people too, even if they are not much aware of it and do not accept it. As described in the book, plenty of good healthcare research shows that paying attention to the religious/spiritual dimension contributes (in wide range of physical and mental illnesses) to preventing ill-health, improving speed and degree of recovery, reducing persistent distress and minimising the consequences of disability.

Taking a spiritual history is a sensible first step towards avoiding the mistake of throwing the spirituality baby out with the religious bathwater. A number of checklists and protocols exist, but a simple and direct way involves the use of just two sets of questions: 1) “Are you religious or spiritual in any way?” (“Please tell me about that.”) 2) “When things a going badly for you (such as when you are ill), how do you find strength and comfort, sources of courage and hope?”

Even in those who deny being religious or spiritual, the second question gets to the heart of what gives their life meaning and provides them with important resources. It opens up the spiritual dimension for at least some kind of preliminary discussion.

In Chapter 3, I have told the story of a female medical student reporting back after asking a patient about her spiritual life and how it helped her cope with her illness. With great enthusiasm, she told her fellow students and me, “That’s the first time in three years as a student that I have felt I’ve actually helped somebody”. It was a valuable breakthrough for her.

Genuinely enquiring about a person’s spirituality, and listening to what they say, tends to deepen rapport, and can by itself be therapeutic. At the very least, taking a brief spiritual history in this way allows a professional to decide whether there might be a religious or spiritual component either to the problem or the solution, and whether a more experienced person – such as a hospital chaplain – might help clarify and remedy the matter.

What is the goal of spiritual development?

The goal of spiritual development involves living meaningfully and gratefully, moment by moment, day by day, in an untroubled way that enhances one’s feeling of harmony with unified nature, fostering trust, respect and affection mutually between you and all fellow travelers on life’s journey. This is fully consistent with Christianity, as well as with the core teachings of the other major world faiths, which together represent a vast treasure-house of spiritual wisdom. There is no need to take my word for it. The book offers ideas to ponder, questions to consider and exercises to try. Why not experiment for yourself?

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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