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Can Mental Health Problems be Healed by Spirituality alone

Some people say that psychology is the ruling religion in America, and that psychologists serve as modern priests. Their function is to free us from guilt, and to guide us to a higher mental state, a sort of self-directed and responsible bliss.

People who say this have never been to California. There are practitioners in California who can solve, forever, whatever mental problems or spiritual failings a petitioner is burdened with, using only stones, burned sage leaves, or perhaps a finger drum. Sometimes, it is said, even psychologists take their knottier personal problems to them.

In our everyday lives, we know we did not reach our present level of expertise (if any) in whatever field without study and practice. It takes ten days to get over a cold, and longer to recover from the flu. It is unreasonable to expect to throw off a lifetime of conditioning, or a traumatic event, or both, with a ritual cleansing or a series of therapeutic massages. Nevertheless, given our optimistic human natures, that is exactly what some expect to do.

That is not to call all spiritual counselors charlatans. The majority of the fringy ones appear to drink their own kool-aid. I only mean to point out that change, of any sort, is difficult, and it is not on sale at the corner store.

Spiritual counseling certainly can work, perhaps for a couple who want to stay together but who have faults they need to forgive in one another. One of the beautiful uses of religion, I think, is to help us to forgive others, and ourselves.

At the same time, most genuine religions have standards of conduct, and it is hard to see how it would hurt a marriage for both participants to try to behave up to a standard. If spiritual counseling helps a couple to be more loving too, then it has served a high purpose.

Many human problems, though, are real toughies. Many are never solved, or not to the point that a sufferer will never have to think about them again. That is, some of us will always be coping with personality problems. If it helps someone with an intransigent problem to think of it as a spiritual test, then that is a good thing.

My understanding of AA is that it takes a spiritual approach to a chemical problem. For some people, that works. My understanding of psychological counseling is that it helps a patient understand why he keeps hurting himself or herself. For some people, that works. I am writing this in California, where we say, “Whatever works.”