Sunday, 26 June 2011

Psychiatry and Spirituality

On Friday I went to a local meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Spirituality Interest Group. I'm not a psychiatrist, but nor were several of those attending. For example, there were several trainee counsellors. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of these two words, as Psychiatrists have always had a reputation for being anti spiritual. This is clearly no longer true as their Spirituality Group is the largest of the college's interest groups. This local offshoot attracted about a dozen of us, of different religious and professional backgrounds.
We started by looking at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs which shows the different levels of need we have, from basic physiological needs, to those of self-actualization, becoming the person we want to be. Some of us argued that it shouldn't be hierarchical and that a holistic view would be better. Maslow's view can see spirituality and fulfilment as something that can only happen once all your basic needs have been met. This doesn't fit with the vibrant spirituality you often find in areas of poverty, or, conversely, with the lack of spirituality amongst many affluent societies. It was, however a useful starting point, and we thought about which area of the hierarchy we spent most time in - I like spending time in the higher areas, and am not so good at doing the practical stuff. My wife, who looks after the children while I go to work, is bogged down in the lower regions, rarely getting a chance to do something for herself.
We then looked at the influence of our parents on how we live - what elements we have taken from them, and what is new that has come out of this. This was in the context of looking at Trinities of different kinds, and Hegelian Dialectic The idea of two opposites (Thesis and Antithesis) coming together and being resolved in a Synthesis, that transcends both of them. This is also a theme in Jungian psychology See this article here for more on Jung's ideas about opposites. I won't divulge too much about my parents, but suffice to say that over the years I've realised that I'm not a carbon copy of my Dad, but that I have a lot of characteristics from my Mum, which I also give thanks for!
We also did some mindfulness exercises focusing on our breathing, making a note of the thoughts that arise, but then focusing back on the breathing. As a Christian, I have no particular problem with this, but prefer meditation to be focused on God. This could be a useful way to prepare for prayer and contemplation though, and I might try it! We also looked at the Grail Quest and the story of Parsifal as metaphors for the search for meaning in life. I made the point that the grails quest can be seen as illustrating our constant search for the unattainable - if only I had a bigger house, a better car, a better job etc, then I would be happy. True happiness surely comes from an acceptance of what we have, not seeking some mythical object. There was an interesting discussion about the grail being empty - it needs to be empty, so that it can be filled. This can be applied to how we should be - several religions talk about kenosis, or self-empyting. In Christianity this leaves us open to being filled by the Spirit.
All in all a very interesting day, and it's good to know that there is an acknowledgement of the spiritual in Psychiatry.

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