The New Program in Spiritual Psychology at Columbia
I recently read a New York Times article which described a new program in spiritual psychology at Columbia University, the first of its kind at an Ivy League school. In my eyes, this program, started at the very place where Helen and Bill scribed A Course in Miracles forty years ago, is a very positive development. I hope that this program and others like it will bring concepts like spirituality and love into the mainstream of academic research where they belong, and that it will even help make the Course itself the subject of serious study that it deserves to be.
According to the article, in January of this year Columbia created a “spirituality” concentration within its masters in clinical psychology program, and also developed a new research wing called the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute. This is a bold step into territory that the field of psychology has typically kept at arm’s length. Yes, there have been psychologists like Carl Jung who have had a positive attitude toward spirituality, and there have been other institutions which have developed programs with a more spiritual perspective (like the California Institute for Integral Studies, which I almost attended). But, as the article says, this new program aims “to experiment with integrating psychotherapy and spirituality in ways seldom seen at a major research university.”
The director of the masters program is Dr. Lisa J. Miller, who says that her goal is to train “spiritual psychologists” who will, in the words of the article, “put nonmaterial concepts like love and connection at the core of their efforts to heal.” Drawing from disparate sources ranging from Jung to Buddhism to “ancient Judeo-Christian traditions,” Miller says that the Columbia program aims to go beyond conventional notions of healing to the ultimate bigger picture. In her words:
This takes it beyond simply the analytics of physics and says that love is in the fabric of the universe. We can grow healthy and move past suffering if we don’t simply look at ourselves as isolated but look at ourselves as part of the greater consciousness of love.
With the prestige of a Ivy League institution behind it, the new program is getting the kind of support that smaller programs can only dream of. For instance, Miller recently received a 2.5 million dollar grant to study depression and other psychological problems of adolescence, a grant that Miller will use to research spiritual therapies that she believes can address the core issues behind these problems. As I said earlier, this language of spirituality represents new territory in the academic field of psychology, but Miller says that today, academia “has been remarkably open to this language.”
Moreover, the program has already begun to produce positive clinical results. For instance, graduate students Biagio Mastropieri and Lorne Schussel recently led a sixteen-week group therapy program at Covenant House, a sanctuary for homeless youths. The program consisted of discussion of goals, relationships, and barriers to growth, with meditation at the beginning and end of each session. In the eyes of many of the young men who participated, the results were truly transformative:
Over the course of 16 weeks of group therapy and meditation, a bond had formed among them, the young men said, one that they said filled them with a sense of possibility.
“It’s just like a balled fist,” said Roger Elliott, a Covenant House resident and an aspiring actor who asked that his stage name be used to protect his privacy. “If your fist is balled, there’s nothing going in and nothing going out. And what this has done for me is open my balled fist.”
As I said above, I think this program is a very positive development, for it brings into the mix factors that I think need to be taken seriously in any account of human psychology and any approach to mental healing. Not surprisingly, though, the program has its critics. David Wulff of the American Psychological Association, for instance, says this:
From my perspective, psychology must remain neutral. With the assumption that we are inherently spiritual beings, I worry that therapists who come out of such a program are going to be approaching their clients with this expectation that they have to contact their spirituality, and I don’t know where that is going to leave some clients.
Of course, it’s perfectly appropriate for Wulff to not assume that we are inherently spiritual beings, and I’m sure he’s right that this assumption would be problematic for some people — people who would probably therefore seek a different kind of therapy that is more helpful to them. But psychology, like any other field, not only has never been neutral, but cannot be neutral. A researcher always has a point of view, a theoretical perspective; this is inevitable. Psychology, in fact, has been dominated for much of its history by atheistic perspectives like classical Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Why not also include an alternative perspective that says the spiritual dimension matters?
True, any theoretical perspective brings with it the danger that a researcher could hold onto it so rigidly that he or she avoids evidence that would contradict it. But this is true of any perspective. And since we cannot avoid having a perspective, the solution is not a futile attempt to be “neutral,” but the willingness to hold one’s perspective loosely enough that it can be let go when the data contradicts it. A theoretical perspective is simply one’s best explanation for the evidence at hand, and as new evidence reveals itself, we need to revise our theories accordingly.
So, unlike Wulff, I’m not troubled by the assumption that we are inherently spiritual beings. I don’t think this assumption is unscientific, any more than the assumption that we are hopelessly conflicted mixtures of id-ego-superego or automatons governed by brain chemistry is unscientific. The question is always which assumption is best supported by the evidence. Which assumption, which explanation, best accounts for all of the data?
And in fact, there is a growing body of evidence supporting the view that nonphysical mind (which could also reasonably be called “spirit”) is at the heart of who we are. Fields like mind-brain studies, parapsychology, the study of near-death experiences, the study of the past-life memories of children, and yes, quantum physics, are more and more pointing to a nonmaterialist view of reality in which nonphysical mind plays a prominent role. (A book on this subject which I heartily recommend is a tour de force summary of mind-body research entitled Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century.)
Along these lines, one thing I love about the new Columbia program is its willingness to affirm the importance of love. While Miller says that academia is open to this language (and I hope she’s right), it has always seemed to me that “love” is the Word That Shall Not Be Uttered in academic circles. This has always struck me as incredibly odd. Especially in the humanities (including psychology), where the subject of study is human beings and what motivates them to do what they do, how can something as central to human life as love be ignored?
My fiancée Patricia has shared with me a striking example of the absence of the topic of love in academic discourse. She is a sociologist whose specialty is migration. Of course, a major question in that field is “Why do people migrate?” What motivates them to move away from the communities they grew up in and take their chances in a strange new land? Many theories are put forth and discussed: economic, political, demographic, etc.
But Patricia says that when you actually ask migrants why they chose to migrate, the central motivation is clear: Because they love their families, and so want them to have a better life. The other factors then come into play, of course – for instance, because migrants love their families, they might migrate to a place where their economic prospects are better – but love is the driving force. And Patricia says virtually no one in her field is really talking about this.
Therefore, I welcome Columbia’s new program, which brings to the mainstream of psychology a new perspective of spirituality and love. I think it is long overdue. I think this perspective has long deserved a seat at the table of serious academic study. Sure, some of the claims made by those with a purported “scientific” basis for their spirituality are dubious, but there are plenty of dubious claims within mainstream academia as well. At their best, spiritual perspectives in psychology and related fields stand on solid ground, and are worthy of serious discussion.
I believe that A Course in Miracles, too, deserves a seat at that table. I have long dreamed of a day when the Course would be an object of dedicated study in the academic world, a participant in the “larger conversation” about the nature of reality and the meaning of human life. So, I am heartened that, at the very place where the Course was scribed – a Course which even includes a supplement describing a form of psychotherapy rooted in spirituality and love – a new vision is beginning to grow. Perhaps the participants in Columbia’s program will eventually take a closer look at that strange book that was written in their basement forty years ago. And perhaps this will be another step toward the welcoming of A Course in Miracles as a source of immense gifts to the world.
Source of material reported on: Merging Spirituality and Clinical Psychology at Columbia
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