The greatest Spiritual lesson from my Secular graduate program

In the Fall of 2008 I was in the final stages of applying to my graduate program.  I’d finished my GREs, submitted my application, and just had my interviews left before I would know whether or not the University of North Texas would let me try and become a counselor.  The interviews lasted almost and entire day and consisted of several group and individual discussions.  At last we were all brought together into a classroom with the professors to ask any additional questions we had before the day’s activities were over.  I asked the one question I hadn’t asked all day: “How long does it reasonably take to graduate?”  It was a 48 hour program (I opted to take 60 when the program was reaccredited half way through), at 12 hours a semester was 4 semesters a realistic goal?  The professor who answered was very straightforward:  “No, 4 semesters is not realistic.”  He then elaborated–he didn’t talk about prerequisites and internship placement, and all that stuff that truly did make it unrealistic–he said that we as students needed to be with them longer than that so that they would have sufficient time to change us into the type of people we needed to become in order to be good counselors.  He went on to explain that we would leave this graduate program different people than when we started.  He said that the

program didn’t push people towards change, it was just a natural process that resulted from learning how to help people through therapy.  He kept on going and talked about students who had, as a result of their program, gotten divorced, changed friendships, cut ties with family, changed religions, etc.  He said that we wouldn’t all experience such dramatic transformations, but that we would be changed nevertheless.

Well, here I am 5 1/2 years later, still married to Laura, still in touch with close old friends, I have mostly good relationships with my family members, and I’m still Mormon (although I had previously written about a time that my strength in my beliefs was momentarily weakened)…     So, what changed in me you might ask?

The answer to that, in one word, is Faith.

I never thought of myself having a relationship with a word, but I have a formed as deep a relationship with the word “Faith” that many people feel towards entire beloved novels or ongoing television series.  Just like people can learn more about a book from reading it time and time again, or a TV show by going back and re-watching the first season, I learn more about faith every time I read something new about it or even take a minute or two to contemplate it.

So what kick-started my love affair with this word.  Well, my graduate program prided itself on encouraging students to know, understand, and adopt one of the great theoretical approaches to counseling.  Oh how I struggled with that.  I tried out all of my teacher’s favorites: Adlerian, CBT, Person-centered, Choice, etc., and none were a good fit.  I eventually was painted into a corner and declared that I was Existential!  To which my professor and graduate advisor said “no way,” that I couldn’t be that theory until after I graduated, at which point they suggested I check out a few books on Gestalt Therapy.

It was reading through these books that I began to finally understand what our teachers talked about when they said they wanted us to be connected to a theory.  I liked this Gestalt stuff.  It added light to me and my understanding.  It provided framework and justification for the approaches and techniques we were being taught to use as therapists.

The thing about Gestalt that won my affections towards it was the idea of awareness as a constantly flowing river. It deemphasized the idea of a deep submerged subconscious and instead look to understand that our conscious is only capable of handling so much awareness at once and that the way a person shifts awareness from one things to another becomes a matter of habit and learning by adolescence and early adulthood.  The counseling theory is that by training someone to understand their cycle of awareness will bring about a natural change towards a better life, as opposed to symptom identification and management of other theories.  (I’ve just tried to condense Gestalt into a single paragraph, please forgive me the oversimplification.)

As I learned more and more about this idea of awareness, within me sparked the memory of something I had not read in over a decade but sounded familiar:

If men were duly to consider themselves, and  turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of  their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of  all action, in them; that without it, both mind and  body, would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental.

These words come from Joseph Smith Jr.’s Lectures on Faith. Now in Gestalt, the idea of awareness is what drives people to action.  To see more of the parallels: continue to read Joseph Smith’s lecture:

Were this class to go back and reflect upon the  history of their lives, from the period of their first recollection, and ask themselves, what principle excited  them to action, or what gave them energy and activity, in all their different avocations, callings, and  pursuits, what would be the answer? Would it not  be that it was the assurance which we had of the existence of things which we had not seen, as yet?— Was it not the hope which you had, in consequence of  your belief, in the existence of unseen things, which  stimulated you to action and exertion, in order to obtain them? Are you not dependant on your faith, or  belief, for the acquisition of all knowledge, wisdom,  and intelligence? Would you exert yourselves to obtain  wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that  you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown  if you had not believed that you would reap? Would  you have ever planted if you had not believed that you  would gather? Would you have ever asked unless you  had believed that you would receive? Would you have  ever sought unless you had believed that you would have  found? Or would you have ever knocked unless you  had believed that it would have been opened unto you?  In a word, is there any thing that you would have  done, either physical or mental, if you had not previously believed? Are not all your exertions, of every kind, dependant on your faith? Or may we not ask, what have you got, or what do you possess, which you  have not obtained by reason of your faith? Your food, your raiment, your lodgings, are they not all by reason of your faith? Reflect, and ask yourselves, if these things are not so. Turn your thoughts on  your own minds, and see if faith is not the moving  cause of all action in yourselves; and if the moving  cause in you, is it not in all other intelligent beings?

Over the next few weeks (especially since I had a research paper due on the topic) I was consumed with understanding more about both the Gestalt view of awareness, and finding a truer understanding of faith.  Faith no longer felt abstract to me–something hypothetically stronger than belief, but less than knowledge–it felt more like a moral obligation.  In fact, the more I understood about faith, the less knowledge I realized I actually had.

As living beings constrained to living in the present who can have no true knowledge of future events, whether one second from now, or a million years from now, faith is absolutely necessary in order to make any decision about our future.  Anything from an innocuous choice about what groceries to purchase for dinner (we don’t know if something will prevent us from getting home) or major decisions about who to marry (we don’t know if our companion will remain the same person in the years to come).  As I began work professionally as a counselor I began to see what the earlier Gestaltists saw: people who either through habit or choice could not let their awareness touch on their biggest fears and insecurities about the future.  Through the lens of faith (not even in a religious sense), I could see these people as having not having faith or convictions that their choices could bring about a better future.  I just found myself amazed at the parallel lessons I was learning from men of science from the 1950s and a self-proclaimed prophet from the 1830s.

Now, for you readers who do not share my religion, I’ll grant to you that you don’t have to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, but I would hope that you could at least find some appreciation in his thoughts and philosophies.

The value that this understanding has brought to me in my life is that it provides me with the perfect tool for self-evaluation.  If I am experiencing anxiety or stress, I can look within myself and try and understand what I’m fearful about, where is it within me where my faith is weak and my fear is impeding my action? I can then decide whether my faith is insufficient and then act, or I can realize that I’ve put my faith in the wrong thing and need to fix that.  After all, the prophet Alma taught that for faith to work, the thing we have faith in must be true.  If we have “faith” in something that is untrue, then it is not faith, it is simply belief, and it is a belief that will someday break.

For me this makes faith far more intentional and somewhat risky.  It is easy to have faith in things that have been proven true in the past.  As Aristotle taught that tossing refuse into the street would produce rats, he could replicate that result, although his understanding of the mechanism was completely wrong.  As we understand more, the exercise and risk of faith lessen.  However, having faith in something that is completely unknowable is still very risky.  I cannot prove the existence of an eternal Christ-the-Savior empirically, but I still make decisions with the assumption of His existence.  Recognizing the room for doubt in that arrangement actually makes my decision to act in faith more personally powerful and meaningful.

I am hopeful that the thing I have faith in will prove to be true.  Which I suppose is what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews meant when he said that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

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Emotional Mindfullness

I’m undergoing an interesting emotional exercise today, and I’m not doing it on purpose.

On Christmas Eve I started feeling the signs of an upcoming cold or sinus infection.  Well, after two weeks of good days and bad day it finally morphed into a full on bacterial sinus infection last Thursday.  I’m unfortunately all too familiar with these.  I have major pollen and mold allergies so all too often my sinuses will flare up and then turn my nose into a very hospitable breeding ground for all manner of nasty bacteria.  Fortunately I started allergy shots about a year ago and my 4-5 infections per year have dropped to just this one in the past year.  So I’m thankful for that.

My least favorite thing about sinus infections is the congestion.  It’s not your everyday nasal congestion, it’s my-sinuses-feel-like-two-baseballs-are-shoved-up-there congestion.  So much pressure.  So much pain.  So little breathing.  It’s misery.  I’ve tried just about every decongestant modern medical science has to offer.  Sudafed PE (phenylephrine) is a joke, I think it is only sold as a placebo.  Afrin (oxymetazoline) does eliminate the congestion but breaks the proverbial dam that is the congestion and turns my nose into a river, plus they say not to take it for more than a day or two.  So as far as non-prescription stuff goes that pretty much leaves me with ordinary Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), your everyday ordinary decongestant that they keep behind the pharmacy counter (thanks to all the people who try to cook it into meth).

Now, I’m no doctor, just an ordinary consumer who has had a lot of experience taking this drug, and boy do I have a love-hate relationship with it.  Most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it gives me insomnia, and sometimes it doesn’t.  The one thing that I know for sure is that by the 3rd or 4th day I’ve been taking it, I get hit with nasty anxiety.  And guess what today is . . . that’s right, day 4.  It’s always a huge debate whether or not to take it, but when the choice is either to spend the day not breathing or spend it with some anxiety, sometimes breathing wins the debate.

It’s funny because I used to not know that this was one of the side affects.  I used to attribute these feelings to the stress of having missed a few days of work . . . but I wouldn’t have that feeling if I missed work for a different illness.  A curiosity, but never one I explored deeply.  Then I finally went to grad school and learned about all these things in the world that can trigger mental health disorder symptoms in an otherwise healthy person.  Conditions like hyper or hypothyroidism can cause depression or anxiety.  Birth control pills can cause depression, and so can some acne medicines.  It’s quite remarkable how many there are out there.  And there is was on my professor’s PowerPoint:  Sudafed can cause anxiety.

It was quite the revelation.  Never had I read the little section on the box of potential adverse effects.  So I started experimenting (back then I got enough sinus infections that I could do self trials).  Sometimes I’d use the Sudafed and boom, anxiety.  Other times I would forgo it or just use it the first day, and miraculously no anxiety.  It seemed all too ridiculous.  I’d always thought of anxiety as this whole mental disorder, a problem that was due to something requiring therapy and new approaches to life, but here in this case all it was was me taking a non-prescription medicine for one day too many.

Despite me knowing all this now, I still find myself on days like today, where I would just rather breathe.  So here I am, trying to get through work, constantly having to remind myself that not every email that comes is relates to some crisis and that every phone call isn’t going to be some angry student or parent about to yell at me.  Days like these give me great empathy for my friends, associates, and clients who suffer from anxiety.  It’s such an unpleasant sensation and some days mindfulness, breathing exercises, and thought re-framing can only get you through the day and just can break the symptom.  In this case only a good night’s sleep or two and 24 hours with no Sudafed will only do the trick.

Hopefully by tomorrow I’ll be able to breathe on my own and not need it.