From the Classroom: On Spirituality and Religion in Counseling

This essay was written as a discussion post for my graduate course in Multicultural Counseling (Jan 2019). 

As might be expected, spirituality and religion, within counseling, is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. This week, we are reviewing a case study involving ‘Katie’ and her experience of life through the lens of religious identity (Thomas & Schwarzbaum, 2006). This essay will examine her spiritual and religious influences and then pivot into a discussion about how to facilitate a counseling session that is inclusive of these influences. Interestingly enough, identity and context, which are essential aspects of the human experience (Hays, 2016), are at the very core of nonduality and Self-realization. They were also important to several transpersonal forerunners like Jung (Vienne, Corbett, & Whitney, 2017). This intersection of psychology, spirituality, and nonduality offers an integrative approach that can help resolve issues of identity in cases just like Katie’s.

Spiritual and Religious Influences

Like everyone who inherits their parent’s spiritual or religious preferences, Katie’s religious identity began as a set of conditioned beliefs (Sue & Sue, 2016). Informed by a strong cultural connection with Catholicism within the dynamics of the family unit, Katie had no real choice in the early stages of her spiritual journey. Eventually though, rote memorization of religious facts became unfulfilling and left her with deeper and more meaningful questions (Thomas & Schwarzbaum, 2006). After marrying her best friend, a gentlemen of Jewish faith, and having children within their interfaith relationship, her entire world was flipped upside down and brought her more deeply into the folds of her own religious persuasion. It also expanded her openness, acceptance, and capacity for spiritual diversification. Indeed, her exposure to another religious viewpoint enriched and enlivened her experience of life in new and unique ways. Altogether, these factors have strongly influenced Katie’s views of life, family, and self; giving them a context that is inclusive of both Christianity and Judaism while honoring, in her own way, that which is most meaningful to her. From the perspective of nonduality, exposure to alternative spiritual and religious views is highly encouraged as it increases openness and receptivity to the undercurrents that are present in every tradition. In fact I am giving a talk, this Sunday, on this very topic (Bemis, 2019).

Facilitating the Counseling Session

As a counselor, it is wise to be well read across a variety of faith traditions. My own work as a nondual spiritual teacher and inner presence coach is in direct alignment with the core foundations of all esoteric mystical transmissions; including Christian Gnosticism and Monasticism, Several sects of Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta in the Hindu tradition, Sufism within Islam, Kabbalah within Judaism, Taoism, Sikhism, many forms of Yoga, and several other lesser known contemplative wisdom traditions. This broad spectrum of knowledge is incredibly valuable when engaging with students and clients who are struggling with matters of identity and faith. Even more important, however, is true religious experience, or the direct apprehension of nonordinary states of consciousness (Lynn, 2017). It is my experience, and that of all nondual teachers and practitioners of nondual counseling, that direct experience is the most powerful agent of transformation imaginable (Lumiere, 2012). Therefore, if I were to facilitate a session with someone like Katie, I would work with her to examine the core aspects of both Christianity, the actual teachings of Christ, and Judaism, or the Kabbalah’s teachings that are in direct agreement with Christ (and vice versa). As I explained to a friend recently, there are only two ways that we can examine these similarities. Either every contemplative spiritual tradition is working from the same manuscript, or these commonalities spring from those who have come to their own direct, immediate, and intimate experience of themselves as that which is beyond all manner of identification. So in working with Katie, we would gently explore what brings Christianity and Judaism together so that she can transcend their apparent differences and arrive at their unitive core. This may not be a ‘traditional’ approach to counseling, but it is exactly how the nondual-orientation approaches all aspects of the human experience – leaving behind what separates and divides to arrive at that which is inseparable and indivisible. I offer this explanation of my own work as an example of how a counselor’s spiritual or religious philosophy might affect the process of counseling. Because of this, it’s always important to ensure that the client is setting the pace and direction of things, exploring spiritual and religious themes within a comfortable context, and being honored within their selected mode of identification.

Conclusion

Spirituality and religion, for many people, are where the very core of their identity springs from (Sue & Sue, 2016). Because of how personal the topic is, it is a delicate subject matter to broach with some clients. Yet, as counselors, this area is rich and fertile soil for inner exploration and the flowering of consciousness. Katie’s story is a common tale that demonstrates the perils and pitfalls of an expanded religious view, but also a story of opportunity and inspiration that come out of this very same expansion of views. In this essay, we have discussed Katie’s spiritual and religious background, described their overall influences, and examined one way that the counselors own views might influence the process of counseling. In the end, everything really is a mystery (Thomas & Schwarzbaum, 2006), but to say “because I said so” falls quite short of the mark. To explain that the conceptual view of reality belongs to the mind, that all concepts are completely made up, and that the deepest truth is impossible to express as a concept, is a much more direct way of engaging in the dialogue. It helps diffuse the mind and begin the radical shift toward the heart that is so common across all such teachings.

References

Bemis, B. (2019). An Introduction to Nonduality: The Sacred Heart of All Traditions. Retrieved from https://awakeningintolife.com/satsang-in-the-park-3/

Hays, P. A. (2016). Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lumiere, L (2012). The Ultimate Secure Base: Healing Insecure Attachment in the Nondual Field. Undivided: The Online Journal of Nonduality and Psychology, 1(3).

Lynn, S. J. (2017). Anomalous, exceptional, and non-ordinary experiences: Expanding the boundaries of psychological science. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 4(1), 1–3.

Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2016). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Thomas, A. J., & Schwarzbaum, S. (2006). Culture and identity: Life stories for counselors and therapists. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Vienne, B. (2017). Corbett, L. & Whitney, L. (2016). Jung and non-duality: some clinical and theoretical implications of the self as totality of the psyche. International Journal of Jungian Studies, 8, 1, 15-27. The Journal Of Analytical Psychology, 62(4), 622–624.

Awakening Into Life: Nonduality from the Heart

In nondual spiritual circles, we could say that there is a certain range, continuum, or bandwidth of teachings that bring the spiritual aspirant or seeker to full and final fruition.  These types of teachings live at the heart of all contemplative wisdom traditions. 

There is a great commonality across them – which points to an absence, a presence, and living in the presence of absence.  Another way that we can imagine this is by looking at it as a journey.  This journey takes us up a mountain, exposes us to the view from the top, and then carries us back down the mountain.  In Zen it is said that there is a mountain.  Then there is no mountain.  Then there is a mountain again. 

In each case we are seeing a very simple arc revealing the full and mature expression of inner understanding.   One cannot get caught in the net of the mind, including the net of non-duality that the mind may cling to.  If we truly understand this term, and what it is pointing toward, it must, by its very definition, be a completely inclusive explanation of reality.  This inclusiveness is what I point to when I use the term Love. 

It has other dimensions to it as well – but they may express Love in a manner that we are unfamiliar with.  I describe these dimensions as Love’s cleansing fire, Love’s compassionate embrace, and Love’s playful dance.  All three are dynamic movements within the grand harmony of our Being.  When we are ready to pay attention, to really pay attention, we can see these forces at work in every moment of our unfoldment. 

I would advise those who are of a true heart to become aware of your suffering and study it well.  Also study the suffering that you may be creating in the lives of others.  Become a student of suffering.  As you encounter this suffering, embrace it with an open heart and ask yourself, ‘what am I holding onto here?’.  If you look closely, you will see that you are identified with a thought about a person, place, thing, idea, or experience.   There is an attachment, or a clinging to views that is present somewhere within the uncharted territories of your unquestioned assumptions. 

Be gentle in your examination and inquiry though.  Don’t stand under the shade of any one tree for too long, or you’ll never feel the sun on your face.  Recognize, right now, that this whole journey inward is taking your toward a transparency that reveals the true unitive nature of Life as completely indivisible, always and forever whole; but in a way that is beyond all manner of conceptual understanding.  Here, the earnest are destined to come to rest in the fullness of emptiness.  This is the place I refer to when I use the word Heart.  A Heart that is open, spacious, silent, and still. 

Traditionally, and empirically, those who find this place often tilt themselves in the direction of service – humble service to Love and Wisdom.  It is not always so, therefore do not let this become a trap either, but it is a common occurrence.  This means that non-duality isn’t ‘disengaged’ in the manner that the mind may attempt to assert.  What we are disengaged from is the mechanics of the mind as the governing force in our lives, surrendering completely into the Heart of Wisdom instead. 

When I say that this site, Awakening Into Life is about ‘Nonduality from the Heart’, this is what I’m talking about.  I tend to keep the focus of our conversations on gently and tenderly letting go of our fear, doubt, and uncertainty – and to test the waters of our own self limitation to see if they are real, or if they have been imposed by a conditioned perception.  Is this conditioned perception the truth?  Or are we still in the mind?  So I’m drawing us down into a deeper dialogue that prepares us to enter a wordless reality that the mind is simply never going to be able to understand. 

When this becomes clear for us in our own direct, immediate, and intimate experience, and we find ourselves opening up to what’s really here, our hearts become free to honor their full expression.  But we cannot bypass the shift that delivers true transcendence.  Going up the mountain is indeed challenging and rewarding – and so is seeing the view from the top.  But never forget that the last part of the journey takes us back down the mountain again, into the compassionate embodiment of our humanity.   This is the fruition of the pathless path, where one crosses the threshold of the gateless gate, and takes their first steps on the infinite last mile. 

~From the Heart of Bradley


—Bradley Bemis is an Orlando-based spiritual teacher of non-duality and Self-realization, an inner presence coach and guide, and is currently working toward his Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. He offers a combination of public discourses and private sessions for those who are interested in exploring the enlightened insights of nondual wisdom.  Learn more at awakeningintolife.com.