February 22 by The Running Son
Michael Appleton for The New York Times
Marina Mazur, left, and Allie Jordan, right, Columbia students, work with residents of Covenant House in a therapy session.
The psychology graduate student ran a wooden stick across the edge of a Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl on Tuesday and asked the five homeless young men sitting in front of him to listen to the undulating sound, and to raise their hands when they could no longer hear it. One by one hands went up, until well after the sound had seemed to dissipate.
Then the student asked the men to take long breaths and to visualize themselves not in their current circumstances — living in transitional housing near the Lincoln Tunnel — but as their “best selves.” With eyes closed, the young men pictured those best selves loving their present selves. Then they visualized sending that love across the room, first to one of the other men, then to all of them.
After 15 minutes, they opened their eyes. They were still in a fluorescent-lighted conference room at Covenant House with a few plants, a coffee machine and a microwave. But their faces were relaxed. Over the course of 16 weeks of group therapy and meditation, a bond had formed among them, the young men said, one that they said filled them with a sense of possibility.
“It’s just like a balled fist,” said Roger Elliott, a Covenant House resident and an aspiring actor who asked that his stage name be used to protect his privacy. “If your fist is balled, there’s nothing going in and nothing going out. And what this has done for me is open my balled fist.”
The therapy sessions were part of a new effort by Columbia University’s clinical psychology program to experiment with integrating psychotherapy and spirituality in ways seldom seen at a major research university.
Mainstream psychology programs traditionally exist in the realm of academic language and empirical fact, keeping the supernatural at arm’s length. But in January, Columbia began a spirituality concentration in its clinical psychology master’s program, and last month, the university created a broader program, the Spirituality and Mind-Body Institute, to conduct research and host colloquia.
There were already institutes around the country — like the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and Sofia University, until last month known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, in Palo Alto, Calif. — teaching from similar perspectives, as well as faith-based universities that teach psychology in particular religious contexts. But Columbia is the first Ivy League university to develop a master’s concentration in spiritual psychology.
“It’s a very significant step, because outside of the faith-based training programs, these training programs related to religion and spirituality have been few and far between,” said Julie Exline, the president of a division of the American Psychological Association focused on the subject. “It helps to make the topic seem more mainstream and less fringy.”
At the same time, this kind of psychology has critics. “From my perspective, psychology must remain neutral,” said David Wulff, a past president of the same division of the association. “With the assumption that we are inherently spiritual beings, I worry that therapists who come out of such a program are going to be approaching their clients with this expectation that they have to contact their spirituality, and I don’t know where that is going to leave some clients.”
Applications to Columbia’s clinical psychology program, which is based in Teachers College, have risen, and there will be 186 master’s students this fall, up from 108 last year. About one-third of the master’s students will pursue the concentration.
Lisa J. Miller, the professor who leads the concentration, said she was training “spiritual psychologists,” who put nonmaterial concepts like love and connection at the core of their efforts to heal.
“If you tell me you know something in your gut, I say that’s hard data,” said Dr. Miller, who co-hosted a cable television series on psychic children in 2008. Science, like intuition, she said, is “another arrow in our quiver.”
She encourages her students to find their own directions in research and healing based on their insights and quests. Biagio Mastropieri and Lorne Schussel, the Ph.D. students who led Tuesday’s meditation session at Covenant House on West 41st Street, said they were influenced by time they had spent in the Utah desert with Dr. Gary Weaver, using positive visualization and wilderness experiences like camping to treat troubled adolescents.
The Covenant House sessions consisted of about an hour of discussion about goals, relationships and obstacles, book-ended by 15-minute meditations. Though Mr. Schussel sounded a Buddhist bowl, the word Buddhism was not mentioned.
“It’s not like we came here to do Bible study,” Mr. Elliott, 21, said. But he said the sessions seemed to increase his own, Christian, spirituality. A prayer is your soul pouring out, he said, which is something he became more able to do.
Some of the men said they had seen greater success at work and in their relationships as a result of the sessions.
But basing psychotherapy around spiritual concepts is a delicate matter. Whose spirituality? What tenets? For Dr. Miller and like-minded thinkers, the answer lies in moral and intellectual principles and practices that they argue are healing and universal.
They say their teaching is rooted in, among other things, Buddhist meditation and philosophy, the work of Carl Jung, “ancient-Judeo-Christian traditions” and insights drawn from quantum physics.
“This takes it beyond simply the analytics of physics and says that love is in the fabric of the universe,” Dr. Miller said, sounding more Deepak Chopra than Freud. “We can grow healthy and move past suffering if we don’t simply look at ourselves as isolated but look at ourselves as part of the greater consciousness of love.”
Through the new institute, she recently won a private grant of $2.5 million to study depression and other disorders in late adolescence, problems that she hypothesizes are spiritual in nature and can be treated with spiritual therapies.
“We are infinite and evolving and sacred,” she said, and though her words might not sound academic, academia, she said, “has been remarkably open to this language.”