From Depression to Spirituality
I approach the role of the humanities in psychological education as not only critically necessary, but also as one that is increasingly ignored, marginalized, forgotten, repressed and condemned to linger in the shadows that haunt our discipline. —Robert Romanyshyn
As a former educator, the topic of incorporating STEM into our curriculum often entered the conversation during our faculty meetings. “Students need more engagement in math and science,” some teachers fervently chimed in, strangely side-stepping the simple fact that some of our adult learners were illiterate. The humanities, the arts, and history remained in the shadows, curiously undervalued and seldom the front-runners of our discussions.
The Road to Empirically-Based Healing
Despite being an artist and a staunch supporter of humanities, I nevertheless understand the benefits of STEM in education and psychology. In fact, long before my spiritual and mystical experiences, I anchored my initial interests in psychology to social cognitive theory as proposed by Albert Bandura (e.g. vicarious reinforcement, triadic reciprocal determinism, and the importance of self-efficacy), and cognitive therapy (or CBT) by Aaron Beck (e.g. cognitive triad, schemas, cognitive errors). Since both models follow empirically-based research, I was instantly drawn to both theoretical orientations. Having lived with a long history of severe depression, I latched onto the quantifiable research that demonstrated a reduction in depressive episodes and increased self-esteem.
Depression, Be Cured!
While at the University of Pennsylvania, I saw a therapist who practiced at the Center for Cognitive Therapy. She was the first therapist to exclusively tackle my depression and the “automatic thoughts” that perpetuated my angst and fed into the vicious cycle of my depression (AKA cognitive triad). There was no time to reflect, philosophize, or delve into “victimhood” during my therapy. Instead, I was given weekly homework assignments that would help to restructure my thinking patterns. After about 4 – 6 weeks, I started to see results (full disclosure: I was taking an antidepressant in tandem with therapy). I was no longer in the depths of despair. She had helped me to retrain my thoughts and my behavior by changing my negative views about myself, my future, and my world.
Yearning for an Inexplicable Thing
Then, something strange happened. I wanted my therapist to help me understand this inexplicable thing that was festering within—a yearning to escape my sense of internal hollowness that was often unremedied by pills and CBT. How do I delve into the depth of something bigger than myself? What is this thing called “inner wisdom” and “higher self” that seem to operate from another dimension? These terms that I had recently heard another graduate student use during her art critique had now become a beacon guiding me toward the curious unknown. These questions my therapist did not answer because “in its push to become a behavioral science, psychology had deleted consciousness” (Arons and Richards, 2015, p. 163). All that mattered was retraining the mind in this reality as if to say that my heart was nothing more than a pump.
Melding the Quantifiable with the Mysterious
In the end, I wanted to transcend my physiology, particularly because its inadequacies imprisoned me. Today, as I ate my lunch, a TEDTalk appeared on my YouTube home page—a synchronous moment that ultimately inspired this post. Columbia University professor and clinical psychologist Lisa Miller, who once viewed depression as a disease/illness recounted her inspiring journey from depression to spirituality as she and her husband struggled to conceive a child. The accounts of her spiritual guidance and ultimate emergence triggered a profound sense of recognition, instantly understanding how vastly different we become at the moment of such numinous experiences. Dr. Miller ended up conducting research on depression and spirituality by using brain scans to explain how spirituality can safeguard or lessen the side effects of depression. In other words, she used quantifiable methods to demonstrate the benefits of something that is seemingly unquantifiable.
The Certainty of Uncertainty
It is human nature for us to want to understand the world we live in. This may be particularly true when it defies “ordinary” explanation. In the meantime, while we wait for science to design the instruments that can test our mystical experiences, we must heed the wise words of Pema Chodron and remain “comfortable in uncertainty.” We must trust the spiritual guidance as it arrives, reminding ourselves to enjoy our brief and blessed journeys on this planet knowing that the only certainty in life is uncertainty.
Arons, M. & Richards, R. (2015). Two noble insurgencies: Creativity and humanistic psychology. In The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Theory, Research, and Practice (Schneider, K. J., Pierson, J. F., & Bugental, J. F. T., Eds.) Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
Beck, A. T. (1979). Cognitive theory of depression. New York: Guilford Press.
Miller, L. (2014, July). Depression and spiritual awakening: Two sides of one door (video file). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7c5t6FkvUG0
Monte, C. F., & Sollod, R. N. (2003). Beneath the mask: An introduction to theories of personality. Hoboken: Wiley.
Romanyshyn, R. D. (2012). The necessity for the humanities in psychology: The psychologist and his/her shadow. The Humanistic Psychologist, 40, 234-245. DOI 10.1080/08873267.2012.696504.