Psychotherapy and Spirit

After finishing my blog post yesterday I decided to dive into some of the Transpersonal therapy material that I’ll need to get familiar with over the next few years. To assist with my understanding I will occasionally use my blog as a place to share thoughts and notes on the readings. So, this might be kind of dull or boring to some people.

The first book on my list is “Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy” by Brant Cortright, and thanks to the magic of technology it only took a handful of seconds to purchase the Kindle version and have it on my phone and computer. I choose this book to start with because Naropa University requires you to reference it in their Statement of Interest, which makes me think it is pretty important to be familiar with it.

Chapter One of PaS is simply titled Basic Assumptions. One of my concerns about Transpersonal Psychotherapy is that it could be used to justify pseudoscience, but so far so good. This chapter defines the terms (always a good sign), presents assumptions, breaks things into theory and practice, and highlights some problem areas.

Transpersonal psychology is a merging of spiritual teachings and practices with modern psychological understanding. It “studies how the spiritual is expressed in and through the personal, as well as the transcendence of the self”. The spiritual aspect might give some science-minded individuals (including myself) some pause, but you can have spiritual experiences and believe that spiritual growth is important without a belief in the supernatural. Spiritual can simply be an aspect of the human experience that is nurtured and strengthened through meditation, psychoactive drugs, altered states of consciousness, or other spiritual practices. I believe it can be completely part of the mind. Instead of ignoring or pathologizing spirituality (as some psychological schools have done in the past) you can integrate spiritual practice into psychology. Spiritual practices have often neglected psychology as well and would rather only use dogma, holy books, prayer, or spiritual practices to help with mental healing and prosperity.

Unlike some schools of psychology, transpersonal psychotherapy does not have a particular writer or founder. It is much broader than specific viewpoints and, like all theories, is a way of viewing reality but it is not reality itself. Transpersonal psychotherapy is still realitively new on the scene and there are still much to be tested, but that also makes it an exciting time to get involved with it. In the past TP has focused on “high end” experiences like bliss, ecstasy, and awe, but neglected “low end” experiences like day-to-day life. This is changing though as TP grows and more data becomes available.

Transpersonal psychotherapy is also able to integrate practices from other schools of psychology because it is more of a relationship than a structured set of rules. It is a viewpoint. “Transpersonal therapy lies not in what the therapist says or does, but in the silent frame that operates behind the therapist’s actions, informing and giving meaning to specific interventions. It is thus a wider container which can hold all other therapeutic orientations within it.” Transpersonal therapists may use psychoanalytical, behavioral, or humanistic techniques as they are appropriate for a certain circumstance.

The transpersonal approach makes several basic assumptions:

  1. Our essential nature is spiritual. This is the merging of the spiritual practice and psychological traditions, with primacy going to the spiritual.
  2. Consciousness is multidimensional. We can gain knowledge about ourselves and happiness by tapping into other dimensions of consciousness that aren’t accessible in our standard experience. This can come through drugs, fasting, hypnosis, meditation, etc. These experiences can be beneficial and enlightening.
  3. Human beings have valid urges toward spiritual seeking, expressed as a search for wholeness through deepening individual, social, and transcendent awareness. As humans, as individuals and as a society, become more advanced we no longer need to spend as much time and energy on “base” needs like food, water, and shelter. Instead, we can pursue higher “spiritual” needs like self-actualization, belonging, passion, fulfillment. Spiritual practices are a valid way to reach the upper levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
  4.  Contacting a deeper source of wisdom and guidance within is both possible and helpful to growth. There is more knowledge within us that we can easily access consciously and it is beneficial to access it to have a more blissful life.
  5. Uniting a person’s conscious will and aspiration with the spiritual impulse is a superordinate health value. It is harmful to have any part of our being be unfulfilled, including spiritual pursuits (which I think can vary in depth among people). If someone feels a spiritual drive they will be better off if they look into that and practice spiritual growth. Transpersonal therapists should not subscribe to any specific dogma as being “true”, but should honor the paths each person chooses for themselves.
  6. Altered states of consciousness are one way of accessing transpersonal experiences and can be an aid to healing and growth. 
  7. Our life and actions are meaningful. Maybe not in some cosmic sense, but they are meaningful to us and can have a great impact on those we love.
  8. The transpersonal context shapes how the person/client is viewed. In the transpersonal approach is more “heart centered” than many practices and views the client as an evolving being and, along with the therapist, a fellow seeker.

Transpersonal therapy, like all practices, have challenges, particularly being rigorous in the development and testing of theory. Spiritual experiences are subjective and it is important that they are grounded in sound theory, and hopefully it can create “a more psychologically-informed spirituality and a spiritually-based psychology”

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Graduate School – Transpersonal Psychology

The idea of going back to school has been floating around in my mind for quite some time. I enjoy learning and I find the school environment works pretty well for me, particularly in smaller classes where I can be mentored by a challenging professor. I was lucky enough to have that in undergrad and I think I can find that in grad school as well.

What hasn’t been completely clear is what I want to study in grad school and why I want to study it. Generally, we treat formal education as fulfilling two purposes: research/discover an area of interest or passion and gain the skills necessary for a career. The former can generally be done without school in the modern era. School is often unnecessary for the latter as well, except when there is certification necessary to practice and finding a mentor outside of the academy is difficult. Either way, going to grad school appeals to me, even if it is just an experience that I decide wasn’t right for me, at least I had the experience.

So, what do I want to study? As much as I love Economics I don’t have any interest to pursue it professionally or in any advanced way (sorry Dr. Calcagno!). The only field that has really appealed to me consistently since high school is psychology and the older I get the more that passion grows. I have a couple of interests within the field. If I decide to work on the clinical side I’d like to help individuals who are LGBT, polyamorous and/or in sexually open relationships, and I’d like to use some “non-traditional” methods. If I decide to work on the research side (which would probably involve more schooling but my economic background could provide some assistance) then I want to study sexual diversity within a society, particularly with regard to kinks and paraphilias.

What do I mean by “non-traditional” methods? I mean using things like meditation, psychedelic drugs (including MDMA), spiritual practices, and other altered states of consciousness. This seems to broadly fall under the field of Transpersonal Psychology, which is basically spiritual psychology. I know that my hippy, Burner side is showing with this, but I don’t think spiritual necessarily means pseudoscientific. I tend to take a similar view of spirituality as Sam Harris and think that spiritual practices and altered states can be beneficial to people without resorting to supernatural explanations.

It will be 5 years before I am really ready to enroll in grad school due to my bike ride, prereqs, and this shitty $65,000 student loan Sword of Damocles hanging over my head. That time is probably good though, it will give me time to research transpersonal psychology more and see if it really fits for me. If things do fit I hope to enroll in Naropa University’s fall 2021 MA Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program. They several interesting specializations. At this point Mindfulness Based Transpersonal Counseling is my first choice because of the explicit focus on human sexuality, yoga, and Jungian Dreamwork. I also like the Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy due to the focus on the outdoors and the natural world, as well as the Somatic: Body Psychotherapy because of the focus on touch and connecting the mind, spirit, and body.

I have my work cut out for me. Between the three programs that interest me there are 62 books that are recommended reading, as well as 6 undergrad courses that I will need to get credits for. I can knock out many of the readings on the bike ride, though I’m not sure how many are actually necessary. To be honest, I feel like I will be competing with much younger people out of my league and I need to be really on top of my game to be accepted at my age (though, I’ve heard that some grad programs would look at 20ish years of travel and life experience as a good thing). While on the ride I can also take free online courses to become familiar with the material before enrolling in a course for credit at a community college. There are also tons of YouTube videos by professors and authors on this subject that I can watch. I will also need some real world experience by working or volunteering in a “helping” profession and working directly with clients. Ideally, I will also find a transpersonal therapist to see for my own mental health needs once we stop the bike ride. I’ve got a Excel checklist ready to go.

All in all, I’m excited. It has been a long time since I’ve had any sort of focus. I tend to hop around from subject to subject trying to learn on my own, which is fun but it isn’t necessarily the most efficient way. Now, I feel like I have a path to explore something that I’m interested in and can maybe lead to passion and inspiration.

The Myth of Sex Addiction

I just finished “The Myth of Sex Addiction” by David J. Ley. The book was pretty good and I recommend it if you have an interest in sexuality or psychology. As you can probably tell from the title Ley does not believe sex addiction is a real thing. Though, like a good scientist, he is skeptical and more of a sex addiction agnostic than atheist. His main complaint is that the people who treat sexual behavior as an addiction have not done anything to prove that is an appropriate label, or that their treatments work.

The definition(s) of sex addiction are numerous and they often include conflicting definitions or definitions so broad and arbitrary that it tells you nothing. For example, seven orgasms a week is considered a sex addiction. Well, that is just a normal week for some men who masturbate daily (particularly during the teen years) and can be one sexual session for some women I’ve been with. Placing an arbitrary number, absent any other factors and without any peer-reviewed data, in order to make money off of the diagnoses is not medicine, it is fraud.

The truth is, there have not been any research done to properly determine if sex can be addictive, much less what that would look like or how to properly treatment. “Sex addiction” is mostly an unholy alliance between people who don’t want to take responsibility for their actions, a “medical” industry that is mostly religious but makes millions of dollars annually, and a modern media that cares more about sensation than journalism. It is sexy and good for ratings to focus on the sexual exploits of the rich and powerful, and the rich and powerful (particularly white) are the ones diagnosed as sex addicts. Sex addiction is a privileged diagnoses for those that can afford it.

Ley’s criticism about the sex addiction industry and lack of scientific rigor was spot-on to me and made a lot of sense. He didn’t try to prove that sex addiction didn’t exist, but that isn’t his responsibility. As he said in the book,

In the realm of scientific investigation, it is the responsibility of the believers to evaluate the validity of their hypothesis. If they cannot then the null hypothesis, that the believers are wrong, is assumed to be true. Despite the challenges I have received in writing this book, it is not my burden to prove that sex addiction doesn’t exist. Instead, the field of sex addiction must proves scientifically that it does exist. And to date, that proof is not forthcoming. Telling men with problems that they have a sex addiction and then having them become evangelists for sex addiction does not constitute proof. It is possible that investigations of hypersexual disorder may demonstrate that there is some kernel of truth here, but even that will not prove that the addictive process at work. Until then, the scientific answer is that sex addiction most likely does not exist if it cannot be scientifically demonstrated.

The problems and harm from “sex addiction”, like cheating on your spouse or spending large amounts of money on pornography or prostitutes, are symptoms of other problems in a person’s life or society. Sex is not like a drug and can’t meet the necessary requirements to be classified as an addictive drug. Ley hypothesis that the real thing that sex addiction therapy is supposed to “cure” is normal male sexuality. Men and women are sexually different on a physiological and psychological level. Evolution has made the genders pursue different priorities when it comes to sex, and for men things like variety are evolutionarily important. By stigmatizing this you force men underground and unable to discuss their feelings and desires, and by making it an illness you take away their personal responsibility.

Sex, like many urges, are strong, but we are not slaves to our urges. By allowing for an open and honest conversation about what men tend to want out of sexual partners and finding a middle ground without religious judgement can allow for greater mental health.