Employ Spiritual Practices Ethically

By Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
May 15, 2014

Employ spiritual practices ethicallyPsychologists, and so many other mental health professionals, have fairly recently discovered the age old benefits of meditation and spirituality. Perhaps they are late to the party given the fact that the great wisdom traditions have offered so many meditative, spiritual and religious benefits to mental and physical health functioning for thousands of years.

Better late than never as the psychological community has now embraced some, but not all, of these traditions and practices with great enthusiasm. For example, in a recent survey conducted by Professor John Norcross and colleagues about the future of psychotherapy mindfulness meditation was listed as the top number one future trend in the field as viewed by a large group of leading psychologists.

This is not surprising given the number of conferences, workshops, books, journal articles and other materials that have emerged on mindfulness during the past decade. You simply can’t go to a psychological conference such as the APA annual convention among others that don’t offer more than enough programming on mindfulness applied to just about all clinical problems and diagnoses. These offerings are typically very well attended with standing room only available for late coming attendees. Other meditation, spiritual and religious practices have also become very popular within the psychological and mental health community as well in recent years with yoga being another good example.

While these unfolding professional trends are welcomed as long as they are delivered in evidence-based and ethical ways there are several unintended consequences that emerge when psychologists and other mental health professionals attempt to integrate meditative, spiritual and religious practices into professional psychotherapy and consultative practices. Issues of competence, respect, responsibility and concern for the welfare of others must be addressed in a careful and thoughtful manner.

Certainly the APA Code of Ethics as well as ethical codes from other mental health organizations highlight the need for professionals to be attentive to and competent with multi-cultural practices both respecting and being well aware of diversity issues that involve ethnicity, race, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion and other matters. Additionally, our ethical codes requires us to be both aware of and able to integrate state-of-the-art evidence-based clinical assessment, intervention and consultation services that are based on contemporary scientific findings and best practices available.

So, before offering services that integrate meditative, spiritual and religious techniques and wisdom, ethical psychologists should carefully and thoughtfully consider several critical issues. In this brief article I would like to highlight a few of them that, if considered and acted upon with humility and integrity, will keep professionals from getting into ethical troubles.

Competence: Attending an all-day continuing education workshop or reading a how-to professional book certainly doesn’t make someone an expert in this or any complex area of practice. How much training and supervision is really needed to become competent in providing professional services is not often easy to answer. Careful and thoughtful consultation with colleagues who specialize in the integration of spiritual and religious techniques is needed as well as perhaps ongoing consultation with clerics and other professionals and organizations that specialize in this area.

Respect: While some meditative and spiritual practices and techniques have been enthusiastically embraced by the professional psychological community (e.g., mindfulness and yoga) others that are associated with more western religious traditions that might include religious dogma and theistic approaches really have not been embraced at all. Most secular psychologists might feel comfortable encouraging clients to engage in mindfulness meditative practices but not, for example, centering prayer, which is very similar yet is from the Christian (most especially Roman Catholic) tradition. Our personal and professional biases and prejudices about religious and spiritual behavior and organizations likely put us at risk for respecting some but not all spiritual, meditative and religious traditions.

Responsibility: If we are to appropriately integrate meditative, spiritual and religious techniques into our professional practices we need to take the responsibility to be adequately trained and supervised in this area of work and to humbly limit our professional practice in ways to ensure that clients are getting state-of-the-art service while referring to colleagues and others (including clerics) for services that we can’t adequately provide. Most psychologists feel comfortable consulting regularly with doctors, school teachers and other mental health professions but rarely feel comfortable working with clerics and spiritual and religious professionals.

Concern: Contemporary research and best practices clearly have demonstrated that the great wisdom traditions within the meditative, spiritual and religious perspectives have much to offer psychologists and other mental health professionals. Our ethical guidelines also demand that we strive toward cultural competence being careful to consider and integrate diversity issues into our work that includes not only ethnic, gender, racial and sexual orientation but religious diversity too. Fortunately, there are many resources now available to us to ensure that we practice in an ethically competent manner. Although currently popular, mindfulness and yoga are really just the tip of a very large iceberg of meditative, spiritual and religious practices that can be successfully and ethically integrated into contemporary clinical services. And when question arise there are plenty of professionals, organizations and clerics to ask for help.

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Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J. Univer-sity Professor and directs the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara Uni-versity. He is an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and is past president of APA Division 36. He has authored or edited 19 books including Religion, Spiritu-ality, and Positive Psychology: Under-standing the Psychological Fruits of Faith; Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012 and Spiritual Practices in Psychothera-py: Thirteen Tools for Enhancing Psychological Health. He maintains a private clinical practice as a licensed psychologist in Menlo Park, Calif. His email is tplante@SCU.edu.

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