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Exploring the Psychology-Spirituality Link with Dr. Matt Welsh

Posted on 17 February 2020, 10:41

How does a clinical psychologist avoid conflicts between science and spirituality?  That was the first question I had after discovering Spiritual Media Blog, a website that features articles, interviews, reviews, and other posts about spirituality, psychology, and inspirational entertainment by Matthew Welsh, J.D., Ph.D., (below) a clinical psychologist practicing in the Chicago area. (spiritualmediablog.com)

 welsh

According to the website, Welsh created the blog after graduating from law school, his objective being to provide a source of inspirational content, media, and entertainment.  He began his career in Hollywood working for an entertainment agency, and then worked as a trial lawyer in Indiana before he decided to pursue his calling to become a psychologist. “My initial objective was to raise awareness for emerging conscious entertainment,” he explains.  “I started it after I left Hollywood, working for a major entertainment agency, because I felt like there were a lot of inspiring movies about consciousness and spirituality being made that were not getting the attention they deserved from Hollywood filmmakers and producers. I wanted to create a blog to raise awareness for these inspirational films. Over the years, after leaving my job as a lawyer at a law firm to become a clinical psychologist, my interest has expanded to psychology. Now, part of my blog’s objective is to also provide practical information people can use to help them develop spiritually and psychologically, as well as to raise awareness for inspirational movies. I do this by featuring guest posts, reviews, and interviews with some of the thought-leaders on topics related to psychology, spirituality, and inspirational entertainment.”

I recently put some questions to Welsh by email and he graciously replied:

How did you become interested in the subject of spirituality?

I was about 20 years old studying in college and very stressed and burnt out from life. I had been putting an extreme amount of pressure on myself at the time to make the best grades so I could get a good job after I graduated. That led me to experience a lot of anxiety, stress, anger, and unhappiness. So, I began to look for something else to find happiness, purpose and peace in my life. I started reading a lot about psychology, spirituality, philosophy, and personal development. One of the most powerful and helpful materials I found was a William James essay on four signs of a mystical experience and other teachings about connecting to God, our Higher Self, or some Ultimate Reality through meditation and our intuition. I began to practice meditation on a daily basis and listen to my intuition (which I believe is the voice of our Soul). Meditation and paying more attention to my intuition really helped me to become more connected to God and my soul/spirit. Since then, I have continued to read spiritual literature and incorporate a variety of spiritual practices into my daily life. When I connect with my spirituality, I feel a deeper sense of peace, purpose, practical guidance or inner knowing even if I am going through highly difficult external circumstances I don’t understand.

How do you define “spirituality”? In your introductory “10 practical tips for finding and living your calling” at your website, you refer to intuition, synchronicity, inspiration, internal values and other character traits.  I’m sure a humanist would agree with all those.  Does your definition go beyond what humanists accept?

I define spirituality as our connection, experience, or personal relationship with our Higher Power or some Ultimate Reality. Some may refer to this Higher Power as God or Spirit. So, yes, my definition of spirituality does go beyond what a humanist would accept. A humanist would likely define spirituality as a search for meaning and connection in our life. I respect that definition and people who have that definition of spirituality. But, for me, spirituality is a belief in something that transcends this physical or material world such as the soul, afterlife, or God / Ultimate Reality.

Let me reword the question I opened with:  Can one be “spiritual” and find meaning or purpose in this life without believing in a spirit world or a larger life beyond this one? 

I do believe a person can find meaning or purpose in this life without believing in a spirit world or larger life beyond this one. For example, love, connection to others, appreciation of beauty, a sense of adventure, personal growth, family, friends, work, or living a life of integrity may provide anyone with meaning or purpose in this life even though they do not believe in a spirit world. While these values and goals are noble and can provide meaning and purpose, I do not believe they are necessarily spiritual because in my opinion spirituality includes a belief in the spirit world or a larger life beyond this one.

You’ve quoted Carl Jung in some of your writing.  Jung said that “a man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it – even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss.”  Is such a belief acceptable to today’s mainstream psychology?  If not,  are you able to o incorporate it into your clinical practice without inviting professional sanctions or peer disdain? If so, how?

That belief is probably not acceptable in mainstream psychology. However, I can still incorporate Jung’s belief into my practice as I help my patients accomplish their goals by respecting, incorporating and working with their values and beliefs without imposing my values and beliefs on them. For example, psychological problems (e.g., depression, PTSD, anxiety, relationship problems, substance use, etc.) can be successfully treated without a belief in life after death or any spirituality. My goal as a psychologist is to help patients relieve their suffering, grow and develop as a person, or accomplish whatever goal they are hoping to achieve. It is not necessary to have any spiritual beliefs for me to help my patients achieve their goals.

However, even though it is not necessary to have any spiritual beliefs, I do believe incorporating my patients’ spiritual beliefs and practices into psychotherapy is helpful. Mainstream psychologists may not specifically endorse spiritual beliefs. However, most mainstream psychologists would encourage therapists to understand a patient’s values and religious or spiritual practices and then work with these beliefs and practices to help the patients achieve their goals.

I do this by asking patients if they have a religion or spiritual beliefs. If they say no, then I do not try to impose or incorporate spirituality into my work with them. However, if my patients do have a spiritual belief system, then I work with the patient to help them draw upon these beliefs to find greater peace, meaning, purpose, motivation, or relief. For example, if someone is grieving the death of a loved one and believes in an afterlife, then I may ask them if they believe their loved one is watching over them. Then, I may ask them how they can live their life to honor that loved one or bring their loved one peace in the afterlife, knowing their loved one is still watching over them. Further, I will also talk to many of my patients about how their faith, religion, or spirituality can help them cope with anxiety, depression, or trauma in their life. For many, their spirituality and religion provide helpful coping skills to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, decrease substance use or find more strength and resiliency during tough times.

The humanist claims that one can lead a fulfilling, productive, balanced, and mentally hygienic life while not believing that there is anything beyond this life, but William James didn’t agree.  As he put it,  “The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well – morality suffices.  But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind.”  Does your experience disagree with Professor James?  

I disagree. I do believe that it is possible for someone to lead a mentally hygienic life while not believing that there is anything beyond this life. I think spirituality and a belief in the afterlife does help someone lead a fulfilling and mentally hygienic life, but it is not necessary.

Back to Jung, he said that most of his patients were people who had lost their faith and could no longer find meaning in life.  I suspect that a clinical psychologist today would not want to dig that deeply.  Does a modern-day clinical psychologist get into this at all? Is it possible to explore spiritual matters without getting into religion?

Yes, many psychologists attempt to incorporate meaning and purpose into their therapy and explore spiritual matters without getting into religion. For example, Victor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who eventually founded existential psychology and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. Many psychologists incorporate his teachings about existential psychology to help their patients find more meaning in their life. One of the easiest ways to do this is to ask patients what their values in life are or what gives their life meaning and purpose. Further, if the patient says that spirituality is one of their values or gives them meaning or purpose, then it can be very helpful to have a conversation with them about their spirituality. That can be especially useful for patients who are thinking about suicide, have experienced trauma, or have lost loved ones.

Does your clinical practice involve treating people grieving the loss of a loved one?  If so, what is your basic approach to this?

Yes, my basic approach is to give them the space to experience, express, and process their emotions. This may range from guilt, regret, anger, depression, or anxiety about their own death or their loved one’s death. One helpful exercise is to ask them to write a letter to their loved one expressing any thought or emotion they would like to communicate. Or, I may ask them what their loved one would say to them now.

Giambattista Vico, an 18th-century Italian philosopher, wrote that men first feel necessity, then look for utility, followed by comfort, then pleasure, and finally luxury, after which they finally go mad – when “each man is thinking of his own private interests.”  In that pursuit of pleasure and luxury, there is, according to Vico, a certain social disconnection, which involves moral, intellectual, and spiritual decline. Do you think such a mindset might account for the chaos and turmoil in today’s world?

Yes, it is often difficult for people to find a balance between self-care and making a contribution towards others. When we are too focused on helping others, we often neglect our basic needs, such as sleeping or taking time for ourselves. However, when we are overly focused on our own wants and needs, we risk trying to take other people’s energy, money, power, etc., and that does cause social disconnection.

How do you integrate spirituality and psychology into your life?

For me, spirituality and psychology compliment each other and have both been helpful throughout various challenges and stages of life. Psychology helps me stay grounded by better understanding and expressing my authentic emotions in a healthy manner, or identifying unhelpful thoughts or behaviors and replacing them with more helpful ones. However, my spirituality provides me peace, faith, purpose, and direction when I am facing circumstances I don’t understand or asking questions that transcend psychology and the material world. Without spirituality, my life would lack peace, faith, and purpose. But again, psychology helps me stay grounded and deal with my human emotions, needs, and experiences in a healthy manner.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.


Next blog post:  March 2


Comments

Ududy22
I thought the German NDEs were impressive in their similarity and in the after-effects they had on the lives of those who experienced them. Many of these people exhibited great joy when remembering their experience in the afterlife and their life was turned around for the good when they came back. They all lost their fear of death.  Some were precognitive in that they saw some of their future life which turned out to actually happen as they saw it in their NDE.  If people were fantasizing or hallucinating these NDEs, then why the similarity?  Why the absence of pain?  Why the white light, the tunnel, meetings with the deceased with instruction being given that “It’s not your time.”  Why would a dying brain or subconscious mind say that ‘It’s not your time’? Time for what?  Where is ‘back’ when they are told “You have to go back?  Many did not want to go back.  What is the logic in a dying brain saying ‘You have to go back?”

These videos of German NDEs are very good.  I recommend them to all who are interested in what happens during the dying process. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 29 Feb, 19:26

AOD,
Concerning the German channel NDEs you’ve recommended - they are impressive and touching. Even with no veridical evidence included, it is hard to imagine the brain having the peculiar ability to create just that sort of experience, with the similarities in content, the tone and the clarity, as it is assaulted by extreme biological conditions.

ududy22, Sat 29 Feb, 15:22

Michael
I don’t know why some psychotherapists would be opposed to a spiritual explanation for a patient’s NDE experience except that some people are just not knowledgeable of the multitude of information supporting a spiritual existence. Maybe those psychotherapists are just young and haven’t had much experience with the realities of life.
 
The linked video of Ms. Winkler is typical of these German NDE-ers in that she exhibits extreme joy when recounting her experience in the spirit world. Once she accepted that what she experienced was not a hallucination she was able to reconcile with her parents and move on with joy in her life.
 
This German website, Empirische Jenseitsforschung,  has some extraordinary NDEs.  Unfortunately not all of them have an English translation but there are many that do. One may have to turn on the closed-captioning to get the translation.  The auto-translations are not accurate so look for the ones that have a translation done by a person. Sometimes this comes on with the video. This is a site worth perusing. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 26 Feb, 15:41

Rick,
I agree with you except that I am more than “mildly skeptical”. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 26 Feb, 15:04

Rick, watch out for the propaganda. In 1983 I took part in an experiment with a materialisation medium. All five senses are working at one of these experiments. I was asked by an etheric person if there was anybody I would like to meet. My “dead” father materialised. He was able to produce his old physical body for recognition purposes. He came with all his earthly smells. I handed this experiment over to Professor Archie Roy of the department of astronomy at Glasgow University in order to carry out an update of Sir William Crookes experiments in 1874. The medium that I worked with had six recently deceased people materialising at every experiment. Not just one person like Crookes had. The full story can be found on my website:
http:/www.scsad.afterlifeinstitute.org
Finger prints and DNA prove survival. This is such conclusive proof that in some countries people can be executed on this evidence.

Michael Roll, Wed 26 Feb, 11:51

For example, the great Scottish pioneer of television tells on page 66 of his memoirs, ‘Sermons, Soap and Television’ that a scientific contact of his took the finger prints of a “dead” person who materialised at one of his experiments. These prints were identical to those on the dead physical body. In future experiments we will be able to also take DNA.

Michael,

That is fascinating and I’d like to know more about it. I don’t suppose the book is widely available, especially here in the U.S. Can you quote from the account, or summarize it?

I am mildly skeptical, though. What possible use could fingerprints be for a spirit? (Come to think of it, I’m not sure what purpose they serve for living persons, except as an aid to law enforcement.) And why would spirits, who from all accounts don’t reproduce or develop physically the way we do on this side, have DNA?

Rick Darby, Tue 25 Feb, 19:29

How right Mike Tymn is to point out to be very careful of connecting the subject of life after death with religion. The ministers of religion are making a quick buck out of something that is natural and normal, a branch of physics.
For example, the great Scottish pioneer of television tells on page 66 of his memoirs, ‘Sermons, Soap and Television’ that a scientific contact of his took the finger prints of a “dead” person who materialised at one of his experiments. These prints were identical to those on the dead physical body. In future experiments we will be able to also take DNA.

Michael Roll, Tue 25 Feb, 09:39

Michael,

I do believe there was purpose in the Church identifying Jesus as God.  It gave the masses something to visualize.  Viewing God as some kind of cosmic consciousness gives a very abstract picture and is difficult to hold on to.  Unfortunately, the Church went too far with it.

Michael Tymn, Tue 25 Feb, 05:38

Amos,

A very interesting video. Thanks for sharing, but why would suggesting a spiritualist explanation be contraindicated?

Michael Tymn, Tue 25 Feb, 05:33

The philosopher Jesus was turned into the god known as Christ because of the story about him being seen by his disciples after he was killed. Two thousand years ago people thought that this was something that was supernatural. In 2020 we now know that this story is natural and normal. It is a scientific fact that every person on Earth survives the death of their physical body. My local newspaper in Bristol recently presented the scientific case for survival after death. Nothing like this would be allowed on mainstream media outlets in England where the Church and the state are still established.

Michael Roll, Sun 23 Feb, 11:05

Here is another NDE video of a woman who was told by her psychotherapist that she had experienced a hallucination and not anything spiritual. She accepted his verdict for 20 years, denying what she had experienced in her NDE.  Eventually she found other people who had a similar NDE and was able to come to terms with what she experienced.
 
Rather than promoting spiritualism, this psychotherapist did the opposite and directed his patients to a materialistic nihilistic explanation of the NDE.  So which is worse, suggesting a spiritualistic explanation as part of therapy or actively denying it?  See the video and decide for yourself. -  AOD

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAP-JuC2Vew&list=PUxZod2wYQ7PwXotyA1qnYQA&index=6

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 22 Feb, 17:12

Rick,

Sorry if I misunderstood your comment.  However, I am not suggesting that a therapist should try to “convert” a person to a belief in survival, only that he/she might mention to the grieving nihilist that there is much scientific evidence suggesting survival and that the person might want to explore it.  In fact, I did that very think yesterday when I received an email that an old friend from 50-60 years ago transitioned yesterday morning at age 87. The email was from his widow.  I had the impression that both the friend and his wife were nihilists as they had expressed anti-religion sentiments in some email exchanges.  I also had the impression that they thought my books dealt with “religious” matters.  I tried to explain to them that I am not religious and belong to no religion, but I don’t think they really comprehended.

I replied to the widow’s email yesterday, recalling my friendship with her husband and ending with a comment that I believe he lives on in a larger life, again stating that it is not a religious belief and is based on scientific evidence.  However, I doubt that she will fully grasp what I said.  So much is lost in the semantics of it all—religion vs spirituality vs metaphysics.

The whole Church vs. State issue does not appear to distinguish metaphysical and existential matters from religion.  For example, in the case in which atheists are claiming that a statue of the 10 Commandments should be removed from a public square, I have been unable to find any indication of an argument that the 10 Commandments were supposedly given to Moses before a “Church” was built around his teachings.  If the 10 Commandments preceded Church and Religion, why are they subject to the Church vs. State argument?  Am I missing something here?

Michael Tymn, Fri 21 Feb, 23:26

Rick and I could probably have good debate on his comment that spiritual beliefs have no place in a therapist’s practice.  Here, again, we run into an assumption that spiritual matters are solely within the domain of the churches.

Mike,

I did not say that spiritual beliefs have no place in therapy. I thought I made it clear that therapists should not try to convert clients to any belief system, however enlightened the therapist believes it to be.

I certainly don’t think spiritual practices are solely within the domain of churches or priests.

But it’s really down to the evolution of the individual; trying to impose it from the outside, however well-meaning, is likely to flop and is arguably unethical. A client comes for help in dealing with problems of living, not for indoctrination in Spiritualism, New Age, or any other philosophy.

As I wrote, “Welsh is also right to be willing to work with the spiritual impulse that already exists in clients, helping them to bring it to the surface and apply it to their lives.”

Rick Darby, Thu 20 Feb, 20:25

Michael,
The link I provided to the German NDE will provide access to many exceptional NDEs but I am not able to get them all with one click.  I have to search in YouTube for additional ones.  I think they are all exceptional accounts perhaps more authentic than the American ones.  I am impressed by the sincerity of the people and the detail they provide when they are telling their stories.  They light up with joy while they are speaking and one would have a difficult time denying that what they experienced was not real to them and something other-worldly. These people have done a lot to convince me that a spirit world exists somewhere. I highly recommend taking the time to find the rest of these NDE accounts in YouTube. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 20 Feb, 14:18

Mike (Tymn) how right you are about those who have an invisible God in the sky on their side. In my experience they hate the scientific backing for a separate mind and brain. Especially those within the one-god religion of Spiritualism. Just like the Vatican they want to keep the whole subject in the hands of priests and ministers of religion. It’s all to do with money. Who is going to pump money at the priests if people should find out that it is a scientific fact that even atheists survive the death of their physical body?

Michael Roll, Thu 20 Feb, 11:24

Amos,

Thanks for the interesting link and to others for their comments. Rick and I could probably have good debate on his comment that spiritual beliefs have no place in a therapist’s practice.  Here, again, we run into an assumption that spiritual matters are solely within the domain of the churches.  Who says they are?  Just because the churches embrace the idea of life after death does not mean it is limited to being a church or religious matter.  I’d call it an existential matter that can be discussed independent of church and religion, even independent of God.

Michael Tymn, Wed 19 Feb, 20:09

Dr. Matt Welsh would be drummed out of the club in the UK. All our psychologists start from the same base as Einstein that we don’t have a soul - “when we are dead, we are dead.”
The religious and scientific establishments control most media outlets in the UK. My scientific survival letters are only published in the local press. All scientific support for survival is censored on mainstream media outlets in the UK. This is not the case in the USA as I have done 13 nationwide radio broadcasts across the USA - The Jeff Rense Radio Programme. I am too old to do any more broadcasts. However, Professor Peter Wadhams of the geophysics department at Cambridge University is now doing the radio broadcasts with Jeff Rense. He starts from the correct scientific base that Sir William Crookes discovered the so-called spiritual part of the universe in 1874.

Michael Roll, Wed 19 Feb, 11:35

Matt Welsh places the line between psychotherapy and spirituality where it should be. A therapist has no business trying to drive a client into a form of spiritual belief, any more than into a political position.

Such manipulation is unlikely to succeed in inducing more than a superficial acceptance, anyway. As William James showed in The Varieties of Religious Experience (great quote from James, by the way), metanoia takes place in the deeps of the psyche, often long before it bursts into consciousness.

But Welsh is also right to be willing to work with the spiritual impulse that already exists in clients, helping them to bring it to the surface and apply it to their lives.

Rick Darby, Wed 19 Feb, 05:41

I think it is interesting that people who are severely depressed, have suffered severe abuse or attempt suicide and have a near death experience often are totally transformed by that experience with spirituality.  That is, they may be relieved of anxiety and depression as well as physical illnesses. After the experience with spirituality they have a will to live and appreciate life.  Their life is often transformed in that they may quit their job to enter the helping or creative professions.  They may eschew money and other material possessions and often divorce their spouse, leave their family and take their life in a completely new direction.

Here is one of a series of excellent videos of people who have had an NDE and been transformed by it.  –AOD

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcQtMYNqK4I

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 17 Feb, 15:49

Thanks for that, Michael. Excellent questions, excellent answers. Interesting and thought provoking.

Keith P in England, Mon 17 Feb, 11:50


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