Dr. Tony Zimbardi, PsyD, LMFT
Author of : Forever Dads
Phone Number: (323) 851-1304
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Psychotherapy: The Mind/Spirit Connection, Frontiers, Vol. 27, No 2, Copyright June 3, 2008
Psychotherapy: The Mind/Spirit Connection
By Tony Zimbardi, PsyD
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. Behind all discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable.
-Albert Einstein, “What I believe” 1930
The above quote is Einstein’s answer to whether or not he was a “religious” man. He speaks of the mystery of faith and belief. I ask, what relationship between two people can be more mysterious, therefore spiritual, than that between therapist and patient? The relationship we have with our therapist is often one of the most intimate (non sexual) that we’ll ever have, certainly with someone for whom we know almost nothing about. And this relationship, as Einstein’s description entails, sits at this cradle between art and science. Psychotherapy is often referred to as either one of the “Behavioral Sciences” or the “Healing Arts.” I’ll let you be the judge on that. But what I would like to do here is to explore, the spiritual nature of the psychotherapeutic process.
If you asked them, most people would probably not consider psychotherapy to be a very spiritual experience, either in content, nor relationally. In fact, I occasionally have a patient who leaves therapy citing the reason, “Oh, this has been a good experience, but I think the answers to my problems lie not in therapy, but in exploring my spiritual side.” I smile, knowing that what they are actually running away from in leaving the therapeutic relationship is often just that, exploring their spiritual side.
Freud wished for therapy to be accepted and respected as a science. However, Freud himself once wrote in a letter to a friend, “the secret of therapy is to cure through love.” Clearly, even men with intellect such as Freud and Einstein understood the power possible via exploring that intersection of the mysterious and the loving/healing nature of out relationship with ourselves, and often with our personal definitions of a higher power. Here I’d like to explore the spiritual underpinnings of the three most widely accepted forms of psychotherapy: Psychoanalysis, Humanistic and Cognitive Behavior Therapies.
Psychoanalytic, psychodynamic and object relations therapies are all based upon providing a structure for insight, for the patient to come to know himself. What could be more spiritual than self-exploration? As well as the therapeutic “neutral” stance of the analyst, creating a psychologically “safe (neutral) space” often referred to as a “container” for the client to explore his thoughts and feelings without judgment. This idea of a “container” also resonates with me akin to the safe space created via a Church, Synagogue or Ashram.
Like Freud, M. Scott Peck, MD (The Road Less Traveled, 1978) also believed in both the importance of the therapist’s role in “loving” the patient and in the spiritual nature of the therapeutic relationship; Peck calls love, “the driving force behind spiritual growth.” The final section of his book explores his concept of “Grace.” Peck defines grace as “the powerful force originating outside human consciousness that nurtures spiritual growth in human beings.”
Humanistic/Transpersonal psychology studies the transpersonal (transcendent) or spiritual aspects of the human experience. Similarly to Freud, Humanistic therapists hold the stance of “unconditional positive regard” for that of their patient, choosing to see them in their highest light. As described by Lajoie and Shapiro, (1991-02), humanistic psychotherapy is “the study of humanities highest potential, with the recognition, understanding and realization of unitive, spiritual and transcendent stages of consciousness.” Issues explored in this school of therapy include spiritual self-development, peak, mystical and metaphysical experiences of life. In the counseling room, we mighteven call those “ah ha” moments that occur during session to be “transcendent” experiences.
Finally, I equate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in line with thinking of Buddhist and Religious Science philosophies. Cognitive Behavioral therapies look at how your thoughts manifest your feelings, which in turn, dictate the actions you put out into the world. In 60’s lingo, we create our own reality. The Buddhists would call this concept of what we put out, which returns to us as “Karma,” sort of the what goes around, comes around approach. Religious Scientists (Science of Mind) teach the importance of creating your own reality though your thought process. Taking that one step further, they believe that what we put out into the world (our actions) return to us multiplied, abundantly.
Cognitive therapy focuses mainly on your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The Buddists call this concept, “mindfulness.” In other words, Mindfulness can be described as being aware of your present moment, without judgment, reflecting or thinking. This concept has recently gained momentum with the 2004 hit best-seller “Power of Now,” by Eckheart Tolle.Tolle’s most recent book “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose” (2007) requests we all ponder “We must ask life what purpose it has for us?”
I’ll conclude by sharing that one day on the way to work, a talk radio station had Deepak Chopra as it’s guest. Someone called in and said, “Dr Chopra, I just so want to be a spiritual person, but I have no idea how. How do I become more spiritual?” He answered very simply, “By becoming more human.” Chopra teaches that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. We’ve seen this concept modeled through actions and behaviors of figures like Buddha, Christ, Gandhi and Mother Theresa.
Whether you explore your spiritual side in therapy is up to you. But know that in the very process itself, whether you see a psychodynamic, humanistic or cognitive behavioral therapist, you are engaging in a very spiritual relationship already. And based upon what you’ve read thus far, what could be more spiritual than self awareness and behavior change? Whether or not you believe in Karma, know that how you choose to show up in this mysterious world of ours, is about the most spiritual thing you can explore.
Tony Zimbardi PsyD is a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hollywood. More of his writing can be found at www.drtonyzimbardi.com
"The Couple that Prays Together: Some Tips For Reclaiming God From The Religious Right And Exploring Spirituality As A Gay Couple" - Frontiers, Vol.24, No. 21, copyright February 28, 2006
The Couple that Prays Together: Some Tips For Reclaiming God From The Religious Right And Exploring Spirituality As A Gay Couple
Frontiers, February 28, 2006 Vol.24, No. 21
By Tony Zimbardi, PsyD
As a mental health clinician, I see how wounded so many gay men and lesbians are by their early experiences with organized religion, leaving many, as adults, with no spiritual life to speak of. I’ve also seen in recent years how we’ve done ourselves a disservice by abdicating any claims to words like “tradition” or “values,” as if those terms could never apply to gay couture. So, it’s pretty ironic that the most radical things on the “homosexual agenda” today are also the most traditional: gay marriage and gay parenting. And those early wounds have caused many couples interested in sharing a spiritual life, feeling at a loss on how to find one. So, below are five tips on becoming a more spiritual gay couple.
Tip 1: Become more human. Deepak Chopra said that the way we become more spiritual is to become more human. So, get in touch with your humanity. For instance, while in your car, support one another on reducing your road-rage reactions, or give that dollar’s worth of change to the homeless person with the cardboard sign at the bottom of the freeway exit ramp. It can also mean something as simple as forgiving each other, or more importantly yourself, for any conflicts you may have created, so you each can continue to move forward in your relationship.
Tip 2: Church shop. Many gay people have a negative reaction to organized religion because we grew up in one that basically told us we were going to hell. Well, religion has changed a lot in the last twenty years. What I mean by church shopping is to set aside Sunday mornings to go to a new house of worship week after week, until you find the one that feels right for the two of you. Have you looked in the religion section of the Community Yellow Pages, or in the display ads in this very magazine? There are now gay-specific non-denominational churches and synagogues everywhere in Los Angeles.
Tip 3: Explore your inner journey together: Finding your way inward as a couple may be a little more challenging since inner work is usually about the individual. However, certain solitary activities can still be shared. For instance, Yoga is done in a group situation, but is a solitary activity designed to get you in touch with your higher self. The two of you could take a Yoga class together or buy a DVD to practice together at home. Taking a silent nature walk together could provide the same benefit. Or, the two of you could keep a gratitude journal together. Once a week, you could open it and come up with ten things that as a couple, you’re grateful for in your life together.
Tip 4: Pay it forward. Giving back is the best way to feel good about yourself, volunteering as a couple is one way. Go to www.volunteermatch.org for resources. Charitable giving is another, something as simple as cleaning out that closet full of designer clothes every six months and making a run to Out of the Closet or Goodwill. Or, host a dinner party-fundraiser at home. Prepare a fabulous meal and ask your friends to bring a check made payable to your favorite non-profit.
Tip 5: The family that prays together, stays together. As corny as this may sound to some of you, my partner and I join hands before every meal and express a few words of thanks to whichever one of us made the meal, and also express a few words of gratitude for what we share as a couple. My partner and I had been consistently following a similar spiritual path when we met, attending the same non-denominational, gay-friendly church on opposite sides of town. So, when we decided to move in together, we found a gay practitioner at our church and went for six “pre-marital” counseling sessions. They were invaluable. We then had a “house-blessing,” inviting friends, lead by the same church practitioner. After, our friends commented that they had never been involved in any kind of spiritual celebration that involved gay men deciding to live together. They all commented that it felt like our new house together, instantly became a home.
So, there are some ideas on how to bring a little spirituality into your lives as a couple. Take what works for you, throw away what doesn’t, because as the years pass and you reflect on your lifetime together of happy and sad memories, it helps to have something bigger than yourself to believe in. Sharing a spiritual life as a couple will definitely pave the way to one day looking back upon your lives with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Now that’s something to be grateful for.
"Searching for Meaning in Our Lives" - Being Alive LA Newsletter, copyright December 2003
For Meaning in Our Lives
"The 10th Anniversary of the Death of a Love" - A&U Magazine, Issue 88, copyright February 2002
Tenth Anniversary of the Death of a Love: An Examination of Grief
"Our First Relationship with a Man: Father" - Genre, Vol. #93, copyright June 2001
Our First Relationship
with a Man: Father
By Anthony Zimbardi, PsyD
The month of June has become known for two somewhat-polarizing events for gay men: Gay Pride…and Father’s Day. So for just this month, I’m taking a slight departure from the norm on the topic of “relationships” and writing about the first significant relationship each one of us ever had with a man, that guy otherwise known as “Dad.” Most of us received our original messages of what a man ought to be from dad: masculine, a jock, strong and silent. The irony is that many of us who felt that we could never live up to that image as children embody those traits today. The part that we have a hard time letting go of is the part that dad didn’t want us to be: effeminate, musical, sensual and well, just plain…gay in every sense of the word. Reconciling who we are, who we were and who we were raised to be can be a lifelong task for many gay men, and the answers to all of these lie in our relationship with our first male role model, Dad.
The irony of our desire for a healthy relationship with Dad is that he wants the same thing from us that we most desperately want from him; to be accepted for who he is. And this can come by accepting two facts; 1) You cannot start all over again as a child and, 2) You have to come to accept in your heart, that no matter how bad your childhood may have felt to you, your father was only doing the best that he could, given who he was at the time. For those of us who experienced a father who was rage-full, abusive or who may have been an alcoholic, this can be a very tough task. However, there is still a way to heal yourself. And that is, to take the high road. Whether or not we are spiritual, the Ten Commandments even from a secular perspective, are a pretty fair way to live: don’t lie, cheat, steal or kill and, maybe most difficult of all, honor your mother and your father.
So, the first thing is to remind yourself that you are not your father and you are capable of treating others with dignity and respect. Send a note or a card for Father’s Day (yes, it can be difficult finding a Hallmark card with just the right amount of neutrality and ambivalence), but it can be done. Perhaps in your entire lifetime your father gave you only one gift, and that was the gift of life. What you do with your life is your gift to yourself, and as a by-product, one to him as well. You may decide to throw your life away as a form of punishment to your father, or you may become the man you always wanted to be. Whether we like it or not, who we become is both a testament to who our parents were as well as who we decided to be either as a result of who they were, or in spite of who they were. The choice belongs to each one of us. And whether or not the gift of your success is a gift to only yourself, or to your father as well, remember, he didn’t do the work for you. You did the work yourself, and for that, during Gay Pride, hold your head up high because you are a man with a reason to be proud.
"On God Guilt & Being Gay" - EDGE, Issue 364, copyright June 25, 1997
On God, Guilt & Being Gay
By Tony Zimbardi, PsyD
Most people reading this article probably grew up in a Judea/Christian household. And whether you were raised Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, chances are you were taught that it was not okay to be gay. As children, many of us kept secrets from our parents and authority figures because we had feelings that we knew my have contradicted their teachings. We often times grew up with a strong sense of guilt about our sexual identities. Many of us were also taught that God "punishes" those who are wicked. For instance, some struggle with thoughts that AIDS is Gods punishment for being gay. Many never reconcile their feelings of religious guilt with their gay identity. Instead of dealing with these painful issues, many gay men and women frequently turn away from organized religion, and ultimately from whatever desire they have to connect with a sense of having God in their lives.
In his book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner comes up with one or two key concepts which may help many deal with their confusion over the role they were taught God played in their lives. Many of us were taught to experience God one-way as we were growing up and are experiencing God in a very different way as adults. Of these irreconcilable differences, among the main concepts is the understanding that God is all-good. We usually received this message long before we were ever taught that God punishes the wicked. In understanding an "all good God" the rabbi goes on to educate us that a "good God is empathic, that He feels and indeed shares our pain. Our good God also created all living things; this includes "(although not specifically stated) gay and lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. There is comfort to be found in understanding that He shares our anguish over prejudice, hate crimes and the loss of so many due to AIDS. The rabbi says that although God feels our sadness, there is nothing He can do about it. The God Rabbi Kushner writes about is not found through answered prayers (the way we were we also taught that Santa would bring us whatever was on our list if we were good). But instead is found in the grace and dignity in which we are able to handle the unspeakable tragedies which we as a community experience and overcome on a daily basis. By this I mean hate-crimes, homophobia and continual AIDS losses.
When we understand this concept of an all-loving God, we are liberated from the concept of a punitive God. The question then becomes: Are we ready to let go of that God? Its not always easy to let go of the familiar, even when it brings us pain. As human beings, we tend to stick with what we know. So what does holding onto our guilt do for us? We must each ask ourselves if there is some secondary gain to holding onto a guilt inducing deity? If not, one is then free to explore the understanding that God will not condemn us for being gay and that God did not create AIDS as our punishment. When asked where God was during the Holocaust, survivor Viktor Frankl writes in his book "Mans Search of Meaning," that He was in the prayers said on the lips and in the hearts of those men and women as they walked to their deaths in the gas chambers. So where was he? He lived within their hearts.
We may then ask ourselves where God is in our gay lives? Is He not to be found among the volunteers of your local Gay & Lesbian Center or PFLAG chapter? Is He not to be found among the volunteers who work to bring services to those with AIDS- the buddies, the laundry assistants, those who deliver food and those who simply hold a dying hand? Does God not act in the fiery passion of the members of ACT UP? This concept may be hard for many to swallow, but liberation always involves giving up what is familiar (even if its not good), to embrace a new idea.
Once we can let go of a familiar God that punishes us, causes us to feel guilty and perhaps most difficult of all, one who answers prayer like the way we were taught Santa might, we can open ourselves up to God. We are free to explore our beliefs in a broader context. This may or may not involve a concept of God or an organized religion, or, then again, it might.
When we ask ourselves as a community, where is God? It helps to remember that God is all good; we will not find Him in the hearts of the Falwells or Phelps of this world. Where we will find Him is in our own community. All one needs to do to let go of thee old ideas of God is to look at the heroes and role models that are inspiring gay and lesbian youth in the world today. These men and women live lives that inspire others on a daily basis to accept themselves and give back to their own community. Or, in the words of one life-time bachelor who only hung out with a bunch of other guys (oh, and one reported "bad girl") about 2000 year ago: "love they neighbor as thyself." Now, the next time you feel any religious guilt, take a cure from the more contemporary Church of Religious Science and "just let go, and let God." Miracles still happen every day; you can be a part of them!
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