The word “psychology” is derived from the Latin word psychologia, meaning the study of the soul. Ironically, psychology researchers have largely avoided matters of the soul in fear of threatening the scientific legitimacy of the field. As a result, even though spirituality and religion are important to many clients, there’s no one standard approach to addressing spirituality in therapy.
Spiritual practice, religion and psychotherapy share a range of overlapping features, not the least of which is the shared pursuit of a purpose-driven life. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with its focus on treating whole human beings in their individual contexts, shows particular promise as an approach to psychotherapy that can function in tandem with spiritual and religious practice.
In 2007, Kenneth Pargament, PhD, a lead expert in the psychology of religion and spirituality identified three broad qualities of human experience that represent key ideas in spirituality and religion: transcendence, boundlessness, and interconnectedness. Let’s explore how ACT also touches upon these three qualities.
According to Pargament, transcendence is the sense that an experience and awareness goes beyond our everyday, usual, or ordinary understanding. It can be experienced as an aspect of nature, or God’s nature, that goes beyond the material. Transcendence provides both a sense of omniscient, divine presence and a sense of hope and safety, as the limits of the material world are seen from a perspective of oneness.
In ACT, transcendence occurs as a client transcends the ordinary processes of the mind in favor of experiencing a larger, broader sense of awareness that goes beyond categorization. Defusion skills help to reduce the attachment to categorization, and experiencing the self through perspective-taking involves pure awareness, rather than awareness of something. This awareness is key to the experience of transcendence.
In a religious context, a person may rely on a transcendent being to relieve pain by “giving suffering over” to God. In ACT, a transcendent sense of self allows the ongoing flow of experience as suffering is “given over” to simply being.
Boundlessness is the experience of a vast sense of self that is not restricted by space and time. Our relationships to time and space can block our understanding of limitlessness and connectedness.
In ACT theory, verbal relations include both poles: hot contains within it the idea of cold; good contains within it the idea of bad. Similarly, the deictic frames of space and time are expansive: now includes then, and here includes there.
Expanding from either/or to both/and in ACT work facilitates a connection to a sense of boundlessness. Time and space are no longer points on a continuum but the entire continuum all at once. This shift creates a sense of the eternal and infinite, which is related to the third dimension, interconnectedness.
Pargament defined interconnectedness as a sense of unity with others and the world. It is a similar process to boundlessness, but one that focuses specifically on the dimensions of “I” and “you.” “I” and “you” are defined relationally—they are interconnected. Consideration for “you” is equal to consideration for “me.” Perhaps love is an appropriate word for this experience.
In theological traditions, interconnectedness is referenced when members of a faith are spoken of as being “children of God,” or when the bible refers to the church as “one body.” ACT theory includes a similar idea, based on the natural science of awareness.
In spiritual, religious, and therapeutic work, these three qualities each play a role in reducing human suffering. ACT helps clients relate more flexibly to their internal events by observing experience from a transcendent point of view, which promotes a felt sense of boundlessness and interconnectedness.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted with permission by New Harbinger Publications from ACT for Clergy and Pastoral Counselors: Using ACT to Bridge Psychological and Spiritual Care edited by Jason A. Nieuwsma, PhD, Robyn D. Walser, PhD, and Steven C. Hayes, PhD, 2016. Robyn Walser, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, expert in acceptance and commitment therapy, and co-author of The Mindful Couple, ACT and RFT in Relationships and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma-Related Problems, among other ACT books.
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