Welcome to the Spirituality and Recovery Blog

We hope to post about religion, faith-based initiatives, and spiritual practices and resources and mental health recovery as we develop our understanding and a vibrant community of spiritually informed practice. Please share your ideas, concerns and resources with Lael Ewy at lael.ewy@wichita.edu. Please comment on our posts and share your own experiences, thoughts, questions and resources.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spirituality, Healing, and Relationship

by Lael Ewy

The following interview with Joan Halifax gets at the heart of the interactions between healing, spirituality, and our relationships with each other and the natural world.

Extreme states of mind may very well be part of spiritual awakening, and our healing process afterward a part of being integrated into a larger sense of self.

At just under 3 minutes, this is well worth watching:


Photo: "Awakening" by Denis Colette

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Support Groups--Adding Vitality to Spiritual Community

Spiritual and faith communities are often the occasions, and often supply the locations, for support groups. These groups may or may not have any kind of specific spiritual component; rather, they ride on the strengths and structures provided by people coming together for mutual uplift.

In the following, Angela Gaughan and Clinton Haas provide an example with some helpful links.

--L. E.

Photo credit: NLanja

Support groups are a great way to help find support and comfort from people that have walked a mile in the same shoes, sometimes even farther. There are groups that support a plethora of ailments and issues. 

When community volunteer Rebecca McKanna was in need of a fibromyalgia support group she checked a variety of community resources, one of which was the online support group database coordinated by the WSU Center for Community Support and Research (CCSR). The online database contains over 2,500 local and national support group resources. Groups on the list cover a wide range of topics, some of which include medical conditions, parenting, caregiving, grief and a variety of other topics.

 “I just needed one,” said McKanna. “My family didn’t want to hear about it anymore. I prayed about it and when I couldn’t find a group, I decided I needed to start my own.”  

McKanna held her first meeting in April. Only one other person came, but subsequent meetings have grown with as many as 16 people in attendance. 

“Because of this group, I feel less crazy, less doubtful and a huge sense of relief. It’s wonderful being able to talk to people who know your struggles,” said McKanna.

Support groups are a responsible, cost-effective and practical means for people coping with life crises and health issues. Most groups are available free of charge and are led by peers. People who have been through similar circumstances not only sympathize, they know where others are coming from and can show that they are not alone. 

CCSR regularly updates the support group database and welcomes new groups like McKanna’s fibromyalgia group to join. The database can be found at www.supportgroupsinkansas.org.
For more information or to have support groups added to the database, contact Angela Gaughan at angela.gaughan@wichita.edu or 316-978-5496.

Here is a glimpse at a few groups in the database. Go to the link for more details.

Fibromyalgia Support Group in Wichita
Second Monday at 6:00 p.m.
First Mennonite Brethren Church, 8000 W. 21st St., Wichita
Contact:  Rebecca McKanna at (316) 722-2828

Celebrate Recovery in Kansas City
Celebrate Recovery is a recovery ministry based on biblical principles with a goal to let God work through us in providing His healing power through a Christ-centered 12 Step program.
Kansas City locations go to:  http://crkc.net/find-a-cr-group/

This group is dedicated to the support, education, and advocacy for families of people with mental Illness.
Consumer Support is at 7:00 p.m.
First Presbyterian Church, 2900 Hall St., Hays
Contact:  Ann at (785) 625-2847

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Teasing Out the Lessons of Spiritual Crisis

By Lael Ewy

Sunrise Storm by Aristocrats-hat

David Lukoff (1998) describes the difference between spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency this way: “In spiritual emergence, (another term from the transpersonal psychology literature), there is a gradual unfoldment of spiritual potential with minimal disruption in psychological/social/occupational functioning, whereas in spiritual emergency there is significant abrupt disruption in psychological/social/occupational functioning.”

What meaning can we make of this distinction in our own lives?
A recent series of blog posts by activist/poet/mental health entrepreneur Corinna West (2013a, 2013b) provides some guidance. In addressing a spiritual crisis, West applied multiple tools, including the practices and techniques of several faith traditions, some of which she found more helpful than others. 

A few important ideas can be gleaned from this:

-->The Western world is more comfortable with the idea of spiritual emergence than it is with spiritual emergency. Part of this arises from stigma. People who we believe to be “fragile” or “at risk” are not trusted with sudden anything, much less rapid realignment with or reassessment of the spiritual forces in their lives. We tend to interpret any dire change as a crisis, in need of immediate and sometimes coercive correction, no matter the situation. Being a very religious set of people, this is exacerbated in the case of spiritual emergency in the US. Gradual change is both less noticeable and less scary—for those going through it and those who care for them. 

Spiritual emergence is preferred. But it isn’t always possible.
-->Not all faith communities are equally equipped to handle spiritual emergency. West (2013b) found her non-denominational spiritual community more helpful than her Christian community. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the faith tradition itself, but might be specific to a congregation or community. In this country, we don’t generally think of “church” as a place to take your spiritual emergency, even though a lot of potential supporters—from pastors and priests to mental health peers and other laity—might be found there. Being aware of how equipped your own faith community is to deal with a spiritual community could help you decide where (or where not) to seek help. 

-->We have to find what works for us. In West’s (2013a, 2013b) case, she chose to engage several different faith traditions. If your beliefs or loyalties have you staying within one spiritual path, you might have to consider who within that tradition could be your best support. Faith traditions are complex, and so one leader or counselor might not be as supportive as another. One set of doctrines within that tradition might be at odds with what you want to accomplish, but another might not be. A spiritual emergency might even give you a chance to discover aspects of your chosen faith that are new to you, such a mysticism or meditative techniques that are not part of everyday practice but still uphold the values you hold dear. Spiritual emergencies, as frightening as they may be, can also be opportunities for discovery. 

-->Consider complementary supports. Spiritual succor can be found in unexpected places. Scriptures and sacred stories are full of important figures retreating into the wilderness to sort through their spiritual issues, from Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the desert to Siddhārtha Gautama’s time beneath the Bodhi tree. Connections made with family and friends can be spiritually uplifting and stabilizing. West (2103b) mentions connecting with spiritual teachers as well as preachers; she writes about “reground[ing] yourself” through rituals and diet. During spiritual emergency, potential peers actually increase, since many people go through spiritual crises who never have been labeled with a psychiatric diagnosis.    

Spiritual emergence and spiritual emergency both have the potential to change us in positive ways, to strengthen us and increase the depth of our spiritual experience. If you have the opportunity to engage in spiritual emergence, you’re lucky. But if you find yourself facing spiritual emergency, you may discover the degree to which you were already blessed.      

Lukoff, D. (1998).  From spiritual emergency to spiritual problem: the transpersonal roots of the new DSM-IV category. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38(2), 21-50. http://www.spiritualcompetency.com/jhpseart.html.
West, C. (2013a, Jan. 2). Christian tools for handling spiritual emergency. Wellness Wordworks. Retrieved from   http://wellnesswordworks.com/christian-spritual-crisis/.
West, C. (2013b, Jan. 4).  Some non-demonimational tools for removing spiritual beings. Wellness Wordworks. Retrieved from http://wellnesswordworks.com/removing-spiritual-beings/.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Spiritual Crisis as Transformation

by Lael Ewy

reBIRTH - hommage un partie  by jtravism

Just about every faith tradition has some kind of story of death and rebirth, from the familiar tales of Persephone in Hellenistic mythology to the execution and resurrection that is at the core of Christianity. This idea keeps coming up because it is at work all around us: as the high season of summer declines through autumn and the earth seems to die in the throes of winter, we look forward to the verdant rebirth that is the spring. As physical bodies die, their matter gets turned back into the stuff of life through the bodies of scavengers, bacteria, plants--the cycles of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and water.  

The arcs of our states of mind, too, undergo periods of waning and waxing: from zenith to azimuth, we all go through cycles of suffering and joy.

Such intimate connections between our physical universe and our inner states of being underscore the fundamentally spiritual nature of psychological distress as experienced by many people. In an excellent exploration of the subject, Jeff Foster argues that depressive breakdown can be "a call to awakening," that what we emerge into during an emergency is as important as the stressors that push us there to begin with.

The Strengths Model of mental health care suggests that risk is a necessary part of recovery. With so many mental health services still focused on stabilization and maintenance, how can we use times of crisis to refocus on what can be gained from the experience, on how a spiritual death can lead to a new appreciation of actual life? As people experiencing mental distress, how can we help our providers understand that some of what we are experiencing is a necessary part of our growth? As providers, how can we have the faith (all puns intended) and confidence in those we serve and our  relationships with them to know when these processes are running their natural course?

And above all, how can we all support each other in learning the lessons spiritual death and rebirth have to teach?           

Rebirth by Antonio David Fernández

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Religious Freedom: Restraint as Opportunity

By Lael Ewy, MFA, CPS

US Constitution, Photo courtesy Mr T in DC

The most common issue we’ve encountered as we have explored spirituality and mental health recovery comes from service providers who are worried that they will run afoul of the 1st Amendment’s “establishment clause” if they even approach the subject of a person’s spiritual life.
The actual clause reads thus: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (U.S. Const. Amend. I). Various interpretations of this amendment have set the bar fairly high: working within the framework of Medicaid services delivery, I am subject to a law Congress has made; therefore I ought to tread carefully so that I am not seen as promoting a faith or prohibiting others’ exercise of their own.  My own code of ethics as a Certified Peer Specialist states that I shall not “practice, condone, facilitate or collaborate in any form of discrimination,” including against any particular religion (State of Kansas, cited in WSU-CCSR, 2006, p. 5), an idea reinforced by the precept that I shall “at all times respect the rights and dignity of those [I] serve.”

A quick look at the American Psychological Association’s policy manual suggests similar guidelines, though they go on to note that the APA “encourages collaborative activities in pursuit of shared prosocial goals between psychologists and religious communities when such collaboration can be done in a mutually respectful manner that is consistent with psychologists’ professional and scientific roles” (APA, 2007, p. 4).
Those shared goals mentioned by the APA suggest a direction to go. And, with the usual caveats that I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, we can at least explore a few ideas about how to approach a person’s faith and spirituality as we move toward the shared goal of mental health recovery.

Defer To Agency Policy and Code of Ethics

First, and obviously, if you’re working for a mental health center or other organization that has a specific policy regarding discussions of religion and faith, defer to that. Defer, also, to your own professional code of ethics. 

Don’t Evangelize

This also ought to be obvious, but avoid trying to convert those you serve. That’s covered by the policies against “discrimination” above. You can discriminate against (“Your religion is bad”), and you can also discriminate in favor of (“My religion is good.”). Neither is kosher ethically, and both are unproductive. If we believe in self-determination, we are beholden to be aware that with the position of service provider comes power and authority, and to suggest to people how to believe in matters of faith is an abuse of that power.

Their Faith (or Lack Thereof) Is Their Own

Respect people’s right to practice (or not). That’s the second part of the establishment clause, and it’s important not just to the aforementioned notions of self-determination, but also because we each have different ways of believing, even within a given religious tradition. You might share a faith with someone you serve, but that does not necessarily mean that you experience that faith in the same way. You might view the bosom of your church as a place of solace and safety, but another might view it as a place of judgment and shame and may find recovery easier if she stops going. That’s okay; it’s her call. You can find out where she is on the subject by listening.


A big part of finding out when, if, and how a person wants to talk about spirituality is to listen to what she says about it. This may seem like a simple thing, but it’s sometimes hard to see through the cloud of our own ideas about how spirituality ought to work for people and see how it actually does. Our relationships with spirituality, particularly those of us who grew up inside specific faith traditions, are often as complex as the relationships we have with people—and often as deep. To try to sum up my relationship with my Mennonite background as good or bad, supportive or problematic, freeing or smothering, simply does not meet the charge. It has been all those things at various times, sometimes several all at once.


If by listening you pick up on the idea that a person’s spiritual life is important to him, or that it is important to his recovery, you have an indication that asking about it might be OK. Open-ended questions can help determine what the person’s relationship with his spiritual life is like and what he thinks it might do for (or against) him. At the right time, questions like “What does being a Methodist mean to you?” or “How could your mosque help support you in making this change?” could help a person get in touch with spiritual resources or determine how one’s spiritual life might be working at cross-purposes to his recovery.

Free Your Mind

Last, be open to the possibilities. Since everyone’s experience of spirituality is unique, being open to what is going on for a person spiritually and not pressing with interpretations of your own can lead someone to self-discovery. Many people experience what psychiatry would label symptoms as deep spiritual experiences. Even atheistic existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of “angst” as not merely a matter of personal experience but as a result of a consciousness relating to the universe as a whole. One woman’s vision may be, to a mental health practitioner, hallucination. If so, they have little to discuss: the person having the experience may feel dismissed and misunderstood, and the practitioner, by reducing the woman’s experience to something that has no basis in reality, may be missing an important insight into how that woman sees the world.

Profoundly spiritual experiences may even be disturbing, but that does not necessarily mean they are unwelcome or bad to those going through them; the least appropriate response may be to try to “treat” them or medicate them away. Difficult spiritual experiences may be both deeply meaningful and an avenue to a whole new life, a whole new way of thinking. Just about all religious traditions have stories or rebirth through tribulation and trial, yet we are terrified that any setback or difficulty is a treatment failure, not an opportunity for growth. A respectful look through others’ spiritual lenses, even though they might not be the ones through which we look, can help create and maintain relationships of healing and of hope.

Following these points can turn what seem to be legal and ethical restrictions into assets for the service relationship, creating safe places in which people can express themselves freely without the fear of being told their faith is wrong or that their mental distress is a source of shame.

It is also far from an exhaustive list. Please contribute approaches that work for you in the comment box below. We’d love to hear from you!     


American Psychological Association. (2007). Resolution on religious, religion-based and/or religion-derived prejudice. In The Council Policy Manual. Retrieved from  http://www.apa.org/about/policy/religious-discrimination.pdf

U.S. Const. Amend. I

Wichita State University-Center for Community Support and Research. (2006). Code of ethics. Kansas Peer Specialist Basic Training Program for Certification: Facilitator’s Guide. Wichita, KS: WSU-CCSR.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain

by Priscilla Ridgway, PhD

Meditating in Union Station. Photo Credit: Wayne MacPhail

Many people interested in spirituality and recovery from serious mental health concerns may have felt like I did about brain imaging technology. I thought such research could contribute little or nothing to our understanding of the ineffable, because the transpersonal or spiritual dimension is “beyond measure.”  Imagine my surprise when I found brain imaging technology helps reveal the positive impact mindfulness meditation!

Yale post-traumatic stress researcher Steven N. Southwick (2012), reviews brain imaging studies of mindfulness meditation linked to cognitive reappraisal. These studies show heightened activation of parts of the brain that relate to more rapid rebound from, and quieting of anger, mistrust, and fear that are associated with improved resilience after trauma. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine recently spotlighted brain imaging studies that shows that mindfulness meditation increases brain connectivity (Kilpatrick, et al., 2011) and increases the volume of gray matter in the brain in areas associated with learning, memory, and emotional control (Holzel, et al., 2011).

The demonstrated improvements in brain volume and connectivity are in contrast to other research in which the onset of schizophrenia is associated with the loss of gray matter in parts of the brain (Tang, et al., 2012; Dazzan, 2011). Recent brain imaging studies at Yale University show stressful life events such as job loss and divorce are also associated with reductions in the gray matter in parts of the brain that regulate emotions and other physiological functions such as blood pressure and glucose levels, even in people who have no clinical symptoms (Hathaway, 2012). Early abuse has been found to reduce brain volume in adolescents that impact areas associated with motivation, working memory, emotion processing and control of aggression (Hart & Rubia, 2012). Another line of inquiry found that some psychiatric medications (such as the antipsychotic medication haloperidol) give rise to a structural remodeling of the brain that trims brain dendrites, thereby reducing gray matter volume (Science Daily, 2012). The impact of some drugs on brain structures has been replicated in animal studies by Dr. Shitij Kapur of King’s College, London, demonstrating a 6% loss in brain volume over what would be the equivalent of 5 years of medication usage in human subjects (Science Daily, 2012).

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to have other salutary effects besides improving connectivity and increasing brain volume. Some of these impacts were described by Holzel (no date) in a Harvard Medical School presentation, and include

  • ·         Increased physiological and psychological relaxation

  • ·         Improved mood

  • ·         Increased ability to contend with challenging situations

  • ·         Improved concentration and memory

  • ·         Reduced blood pressure

  • ·         Reduced cortisol levels

  • ·         Improved immune function

Mindfulness meditation has become a common component of mind-body medicine. One study assessed women with newly diagnosed cancer. Those who participated in a short series of mindfulness meditation workshops showed improvements in mood, reductions in depression, improved energy levels and reductions in a variety of measures of stress (Speca, et al., 2000). Many mental health conditions are characterized as “stress vulnerability disorders,” so learning this effective stress reduction technique could prove to be a boon to some in their recovery process.

Such studies show that the brain has the capacity for plasticity and can literally restructure on a cellular level toward positive effects that  makes the individual more stress resistant and resilient.                         
So what is mindfulness meditation?
The practice of mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism and is thousands of years old. It is a process of relaxed but focused attention.  Recently mindfulness meditation techniques have been put to use in behavioral health programs, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), in mind body clinics, in education and leadership training, and many more applications.

Want to try mindfulness meditation? 

The process is simple, but takes some time and focus to fully master. Here is how I have been taught to do this practice:

  • ·         Sit comfortably upright in a chair, with your spine straight and your feet flat on the floor.

  • ·         Place your hands, palms up, in your lap. You can touch your index finger and thumb together.

  • ·         Place your gaze a few inches in front of your nose and close your eyes, or better yet, nearly close your eyes, until only soft fuzzy light is seen.

  • ·         Begin to observe the interplay of thoughts and sensations in your mind and body for a few moments, then let those thoughts and feeling go, gently.

  • ·         Begin focusing on your in-breath and out-breath, breathing in and out of your nose. If you like, you can tie the breath to a word of phrase of your choice, such as “calm” or “peace.”  Try to perceive the full sensation of the in-breath and the out-breath.

  • ·         When thoughts or sensations arise, notice them gently and nonjudgmentally, and then bring your attention back to your breath and to the word or phrase you are using.

·         Practice mindfulness meditation for a few minutes, building up to ten or twenty minutes once or twice a day.

Recordings with guided practice are available to help in learning and practicing mindfulness meditation. Simple directions and free videos, lectures, e-books, and recording are available online:

How have you used meditation in your practice, or in your own mental health recovery? Please share your experiences and resources.


Dazzan, P., Soulsby, B., Mechelli, A., Wood, S.J., Velakoulis, D., Phillips, L.J., Yung, A.R., Chitnis, X., Lin, A., Murray, R.M., McGorry, P.D., McGuire, P.K., & Pantelis, C. (04/25/2012). Volumetric abnormalities predating the onset of schizophrenia and affective psychosis: An MRI study in subjects at ultrahigh risk of psychosis. Schizophrenia Bulletin. Advanced access downloaded from http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org on 09/24/2012.

Hart, H., & Rubia, K. (2011). Neuroimaging of child abuse: A critical review (2012). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6(52): 1-24.

Hathaway, B. (1/09/2012). Even in the healthy, stress causes brain to shrink, Yale study shows. Yale News.

Holzel, B.K. (undated) Neural correlates of mindfulness practice. Power Point. Boston, MA: Harvard Medical School.

Holzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerrasetti, S.M. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional gray matter density. Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging. 191: 36-43.

Kilpatrick, L.A., Suyenobu, B.Y., Smith, S.R., Bueller, J.A., Goodman, T., Creswell, J.D., Tillisch, K., 

Mayer, E.A.., & Naliboff, B.D. (2011). Impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction training on intrinsic brain connectivity. Neuroimage. 56(1): 290-298.

NCCAM (01/30/2012). Mindfulness meditation is associated with structural changes in the brain. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

NCCAM Clearinghouse (undated). Backgrounder. Meditation: An introduction. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Schatz, C. (4/08/2011). Mindfulness meditation improves connections in the brain. Harvard Health. Accessed on the World Wide Web, 9/20/2012 at: http://health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-improves-connections-in-the-brain.

Science Daily (05, 2012). Psychiatric medications’ effect on brain structure varies. Science Daily. Accessed  from the World Wide Web http://www.sciencedaily.com/release/2012/05/120508103915.html.

Southwick, S.M.  & Charney, D. (2012). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. Cambridge University Press. See also ResilienceInUs.com.

Speca, M., Carlson, L.E., Goodey, E., & Angen, M. (2000). A randomized, wait-list controlled clinical trial: The effects of mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine. 62:613-622.

Tang, J., Liao, Y., Zhou, B., Tan, C., Liu, W., Wang, W., Liu, T., Hao, W., Tan, L., & Chen, X. (2012). Decrease in temporal gyrus gray matter volume in first-episode, early onset schizophrenia: An MRI study. PLoS ONE. 7(7): 1-6.