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February 13, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, February 13, 2004

Being light, seeing light Being light, seeing light (February 13, 2004)

Spiritual counseling helps people face disease, weight loss

By Diana Reynolds Roome

Obesity might not appear, at first glance, to have much to do with spirituality.

But anyone who believes the body is closely connected with mind and spirit will hardly be surprised to learn that recently the "Dr. Phil" show contacted the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto with a request for help.

Joell, a Bay Area woman, was referred to "Dr. Phil" because her 611-pound weight has brought her life to a halt. At 34, she is suffering from diabetes, edema (severe swelling of the legs -- one weighs almost 250 pounds), and is barely able to leave home. She is also at serious risk for further disease, especially to her heart and circulatory system, and her friends and sister fear for her life, according to Dr. Phil McGraw's Web site. Joell told Dr. Phil that she started using food to make herself feel better as long ago as fifth or sixth grade, and whenever she was sad, depressed or hurt. Now she says, "I don't want to live like this anymore."

"What you need to do," said McGraw, "is start changing your thinking, your feeling, your environment, and the way you interact with food."

This is where ITP comes in. Already noted for its research and teaching of psychology (McGraw's mentor happens to be Frank Lawlis, a past president and faculty member), the Institute is also unique in is its emphasis on the spiritual dimension of human life. This is an area that traditional academia, with its emphasis on scientific evidence, has tended to leave well alone. But many people can attest to the effects of emotions and beliefs on the body, and for almost 30 years, ITP has been exploring and proving some of those connections.

"We look at the whole person learning and try to educate the body as well as the psyche, the mind and the emotions," said Paul Roy, psychologist and dean of residential programs, "What happens in the body affects the spirit and vice versa."

Last November, Roy put together a team of three ITP therapy interns (one of them a nurse), a nutritionist, several exercise specialists, and a massage therapist to help the client, whose case was aired on "Dr. Phil" last Monday.

They have many tools at their disposal. Meditation has been shown in several research studies to reduce stress -- often a cause of overeating. Counseling helps uncover different ways to understand and deal with problems. The healing process is energized by spiritual practices and also tapping into creative abilities -- maybe art or expressive writing. By finding a new balance, so that physical needs become less dominant, a life can more readily be transformed.

Ultimately, ITP examines the way the individual fits into the wider community, and how that dimension would help or hinder her in achieving desired goals. In the case of Joell, this may mean not only building a familial or local support group, but looking at the ways society itself promotes unhealthy lifestyles, sedentary habits and destructive eating patterns. Though few people react to imbalances so dramatically, many need help for problems that are less obvious to the world but only too clear to themselves.

Until recently, the Palo Alto-based research and education institution has been considered cutting edge, if not downright over-the-edge. It has quietly pioneered studies in meditation, shamanism, myths, dreams, intuition, prayer and healing, peak experiences, yoga, tai chi, and a myriad of other topics -- some of which are now mainstream enough to feature on popular magazines and TV programs, besides "Dr. Phil."

"For a long time we were seen as almost 'la-la,'" says Robert Schmidt, co-president of ITP. "Ten years ago when we attended a conference, not many people came [to our presentations]. Now it's a hot topic, and people are standing in the hallways. There's a whole shift ... in seeing that spirituality really does impact psychological and physical health."

Fred Luskin, part-time professor at ITP and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, has recently received national acclaim for his research on the physical impact of letting go of anger and resentment. Forgiveness has long been emphasized by all the major religions, but for the first time Luskin has shown that letting go of blame promotes physical as well as spiritual health. By repeatedly experiencing fear or fury -- by dwelling on inconsiderate drivers, bad marriages, politicians, or the unfairness of life in general -- people hurt nobody but themselves, he says.

"For somebody with a 30 or 40-year grievance against their parents, it's incalculable how many times they've put their systems into stress, how little they've been conscious of that, and how little responsibility they claim," said Luskin at a recent ITP open house. Luskin's HEAL (Hope, Educate, Affirm, Long-term commitment) method involves centering and conscious breathing, which can lower blood pressure, stress chemicals and increase physical vitality.

As for the effect of the body on the mind, studies have indicated that exercise fights depression, and ITP trains its students to use such tools in their practice, rather than relying solely on medications.

ITP's students come from all over the world, partly because the curriculum draws from many traditions and worldviews, especially ancient religions. A new global doctorate program makes it possible for people to learn at a distance; some combine part-time study with full-time jobs, and others are committed full-time. Many are graduates of very different disciplines, or come from the working world as attorneys, physicians, nurses, engineers, social workers or artists.

The American Psychological Association has honored ITP dissertations with at least one award per year. While obtaining a master's or doctorate degree in clinical or transpersonal psychology, students study, research and write, but are also expected to develop their own qualities -- increasing their capacity for compassion and empathy, discernment, and openness to differences.

"It's a nice balance between working on yourself and getting an education," says Marcel Janssens, a software engineer now in his second year of ITP's part-time master's program in counseling psychology. "I wouldn't have my own growth so well supported or strongly encouraged if I went to a regular school."

ITP has also supplied the broader approach that he felt was missing in other psychology programs, and it enabled him to do research into transpersonal aspects of software engineering -- an endeavor he sees as creative and artistic.

Doctoral research dissertations at ITP have explored such topics as the impact of meditation in the workplace, spiritually-based marriage, storytelling as compassionate connection, prayer and healing and problem-solving with dreams. Many (under supervision) eventually offer their skills as counselors in the community.

Spiritual counseling, outside the mainstream religions, is a comparatively new resource for people who wish to put their lives in a wider context or explore their deeper purpose.

"People went to get therapy when they had a problem [in the past]," says Pat Luce, co-president. "We look at spiritual counseling as a healthy part of life, not pathology. The approach at ITP is that we're all on a journey."

Joell's journey will be aired as she progresses. "You have got to be a willing spirit," McGraw told her, and she is responding to the challenge. Recently, she was able to take a step in the right direction when she attended a niece's baby shower.

With help from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, there's hope that the journey will take her toward a new spiritual -- as well as physical -- lightness of being.


Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, 1069 East Meadow Circle, Palo Alto 493-6835, February 17, 7 p.m.,

Robert Frager on A Sufi Perspective on Transpersonal Psychology, Colloquium Series (open to the public) Feb. 24-27;

ITP On-Line Open House March 2, 7 p.m.; Dr. Arthur Hastings speaks at Campus open house (first Tuesday of every month) Dr. Fred Luskin, Forgive for Good (HarperCollins);

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