Saturday, November 21, 2015


I was born and raised a Methodist.  My father was a Catholic and had some problem with that church despite the fact that many of his siblings were devout.  To this day, I have a vague notion of what being a Methodist means.  I remember going to a church that looked like a large house from the outside.   It was a very modest building.  There were a hundred or so people on the inside.  They became familiar faces over time.  I was always interested in what the clergy had to say and the message varied considerably.  I did not know it at the time, but being a protestant clergy is a very political position.  People have to like you or they start to talk and that talk can eventually undermine your ministry.  Even as a kid I thought I could figure out how serious the minister was by what he said.  Was it a rote presentation or did he brings things alive.  I don't mean in the entertaining sense.  Could he (we only had male ministers in those days) get a serious lesson across in an inspirational way?  I was always impressed with how little commentary there was about this central feature of the church service.  It seemed routine to go there, listen to the sermon, sing a few songs and leave.  No enduring message or feeling.

It wasn't until I was a teenager that I saw the inside of a Catholic church.  I was there for my father's funeral.  Several of his devout siblings arranged for the funeral service to occur in the Catholic church despite the fact that (to my knowledge) in my 15 years on earth at that time - he never set foot in church.  In assessing what the church looked like, I recall thinking that "this is the big time."  The structure was huge compared to the Methodist church and the architecture was inspiring.  No wood framing.  There were concrete arches, stained glass, symbols, and actual sculptures of Christ on the cross everywhere.  In a Methodist church there is usually one large plain wooden cross.  The stained glass is always basic with the words: "Faith, Hope, Charity".  The acoustics were definitely different.  Words spoken in a Methodist church tend to project out about 15 rows and rapidly drop off in volume.  In the Catholic church the sound carried and echoed all the way back to the last row.  That last row was at least 4 times the distance of the last row in the Methodist church.  Since then I have been in many churches Catholic and Protestant - typically for weddings and funerals.  Even though the church architecture can be an impressive instrument for the speaker - it all really comes down to the clergy.  Are they doing more than dialing it in?  Are they inspirational?  Is there intellect behind the spoken words?  Can they convey the idea that there is something much larger than our individual conscious states out there?  Those were my first lessons in spirituality.

When I was in the Peace Corps in the 1970s, a fellow volunteer introduced me to a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.  On the surface, it was a book about a cross country motorcycle trip by the author and his son.  Below the surface there were lessons about philosophical approaches to life - both eastern and western philosophies.  There was also a flashback to a crisis in the author's life when he was in graduate school and developed a psychotic depression while in the midst of an academic interpersonal conflict with one of his professors.  The lessons for me from Pirsig's book was that spirituality is really independent of other contexts.  He summarizes it in this statement:

“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha - which is to demean oneself.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values.

After reading Pirsig's book five times, I concluded that he had an unprecedented intellectual look at what he described overall as values.  He also had a look at spirituality in a very unique way and could see it it places where it is not commonly seen - like welding or motorcycle mechanics.  Moreover, it was also a view that made immediate sense to me.  I had been doing the same thing for years.

That brings me up to my work as a psychiatrist.  In that work, spirituality ranges all of the way from religious delusions to the higher power concept in Alcoholics Anonymous and all points in between.  I don't know how many people I have talked with who believed they were God or Jesus or Satan or The Antichrist - but I have had hundreds of conversations about those topics.  On the quieter end of the spectrum, I have had even more conversations with people who were anhedonic, hopeless, spiritually bereft and who felt abandoned by God.  Many of these folks felt as though any spirituality they had was gone.  They lost interest in it like everything else and they had doubts about whether they wanted to get it back.  Did it really mean anything when they had it?  Getting it back turned out to be a critical part of their recovery.  I try to figure out a way to describe it in my clinical assessments and it is difficult.  Some have suggested using the term to capture the Gestalt of the person, but I think it is more complex than that.  In many ways it is like describing people who are charismatic and trying to use the appropriate descriptors.

There is an experiential aspect to spirituality that requires concrete examples rather than me just writing about it.  For that I will turn to a couple of examples from the best interview program anywhere - MPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  I consider it a laboratory for the spectrum of human consciousness and it contains a lot about spirituality.  The first example comes from a story about Iris Dement.  She is a folk singer who began singing in the Pentecostal Church.  Until you hear an explanation of someone who is in that church or experience what they are doing - it is very unlikely that you know what is happening.  After carefully developing the context during the interview she summarizes it at this intellectual level (1) :

   "I saw my parents use music to survive.  They had to have that music.  My mom had to sing and my dad had to go to church and he had to hear that music washing over him and through him.  It wasn't a, "Oh, this is nice"; it was a, "I'm not going to make it if I don't have that."  So I've felt that that's my job.  That's how I think of what I do.  I have to give people that lifeline, you know, that I saw my parents reach out for, and that I was taught to reach out for, and so that's what I aim to do.  And I guess I don't feel like I can do that without that connection to the spirit."

When I listened to that interview and heard that quote, I realized that had just experienced one of the best examples of spirituality.  I encourage anyone with an interest to listen to the audio and have that same experience.  I think that you have to look past your taste in music to what motivates this artist.  Too many people get stopped in their tracks by thinking: "I don't like folk music" or "I don't like country music" or some appalling lack of knowledge of the Pentecostal faith.  Listen to the audio from the perspective of what motivates Iris Dement and keeps her going.

The second MPR experience on spirituality just occurred and it was the final push for this post.  I heard Terry Gross interviewing the Iranian born photographer Abbas on his series of photographs about what people do in the name of God.  The process of the interview is again very important.  Gross sees a spiritual element in one of the photographs but Abbas does not.  He comments that his relationship with God is purely professional - he has no stake in religion.  At the same time he describes some experiences that were moving while he was engaged in photography(2) :  

"Of course.  You know, I mean, you can't touch such a subject without being touched and moved.  I remember very vividly, for instance, a mass in France among the Benedictines, you know, it's monks. They're different from priests, you know, monks - very moved by a mass.  Normally when there's a mass, I don't listen, I just take photographs because it's always the same.  But this time, you know, the father who was saying mass was very spiritual.  He was talking about Jesus, not as a distant prophet, but as a personal friend.  So suddenly I start listening, and I became very moved.  In most religions, at least one event made me - well, I wouldn't say a believer but a participant....."

Like the Iris Dement story, I encourage listening to the actual audio and Abbas description of his technique before and after this excerpt.

What is spirituality?  It is not the same thing as religion, but for some people it is very close.  I also think that it is not easily acquired.  I don't think it is as easy as declaring a higher power.  Spirituality might be haunting rather than reassuring - it may not be a good feeling but it probably leads to a sense of calm.  I like Abbas's idea that it can make you a participant.  I can see it as an unconscious emotional force that probably has some obvious and many not so obvious origins that leads to consistency and may be noticeable by observers.  Some very spiritual people are described as serene and others as inscrutable.  It is not listed in the DSM-5 and that is a good thing.  It is another aspect of conscious experience that psychiatry neglects for the most part.   As far as I can tell, it is like an experiment in consciousness.  Like the examples I gave - you know it when you experience it.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1.  Terry Gross.  Fresh Air on National Public Radio.   For Iris DeMent, Music Is The Calling That Forces Her Into The Spotlight.  October 21, 2015.

2.  Terry Gross.  Fresh Air on National Public Radio.  Photographer Abbas Chronicles 'What People Do In The Name Of God'.  November 19, 2015.

3.  Melissa Block.  All Things Considered on National Public Radio.  A Nephew's Quest: Who Was Brother Claude Ely?  July 14, 2011.

Story of the importance of Pentecostals in rock and roll, especially Brother Claude Ely - with parallel comments about the spirituality involved in that music.  If you doubt it - read the last two paragraphs of the written story first.

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