At the Intersection of Spirituality and Mental Health

How the Light Gets In

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

A psychiatrist once told me that when people reach a breaking point with a mental health issue, they tend to deal with it in one of three ways:
  1. Drugs (prescription or otherwise)
  2. Therapy
  3. Religion

The religion part was the surprise punchline but after a few beats it made sense. If a person is facing their mortality, it’s understandable that a conversion might take place under that kind of clarifying pressure. And certainly, if a person already has a faith tradition, then it would make sense that their religion would be sustaining for them when they are struggling.

But then there is the “spiritual but not necessarily religious” side of the house where someone at their lowest chances upon the portal through which they find their connection to something bigger than their own currently reduced self. Maybe precisely because they are at their lowest. As Leonard Cohen so famously sang, the cracks are how the light gets in.  A lot of soul searching can happen in those humble, broken times.

Not coincidentally, these are times we might find ourselves using tools or taking up practices like yoga and meditation, all techniques that cultivate awareness. For example, one powerful tool to use when in a state of emotional dysregulation is to label the distressing feeling and rate it on a scale of 1 – 10. Say the feeling is shame which you rate at a level of 7. Pretty soon you notice it has gotten even worse. Now it’s an 8. At this point you remember to deliberately start breathing. As the energy gradually settles your mind begins to think about other things and you move on. Then a while later a few volts of shame momentarily flare back up and grab your attention, so you continue to monitor the situation from above until the whole thing has passed.

As you bring these awareness-cultivating practices on board, at a certain point you may begin to wonder about that quiet presence doing all the monitoring. Is it always there? Is that just you being aware? If so, how come the awareness is always so calm when you are coming apart at the seams?

It’s the stillness at the center of this particular kind of awareness that seems to me to be the portal to something not wholly us. No matter whether the mind has been stilled by awe-inspiring beauty or lulled by repetitive movements or guided by meditation or stopped in its tracks by disabling stress, I think it’s in that quiet open space that something spiritually mysterious can happen. During one low point in my life, amidst all the yoga and meditation and also a generalized desire to lay on the floor, I heard a voice say, “Child, you are perfect as you are.” Clear as day I heard that voice and it freaked me out. Was that me? Did I just blurt that out? But for one I don’t say things like that and for two I certainly wouldn’t have called myself, “child.”

Maybe this voice actually was my own, telling me what I most needed to hear though it seemed a curious thing to land on. Perfect isn’t top of my list. I would happily settle for wonderful. But whatever its origin, this voice found me at some sort of intersection of spiritual openness and distress, and I have forever more been open to the mystery and more able to access the experience of awe.

Dropping low isn’t what any of us want but, oh my gosh, traveling that road to mental health…it has its wonders. 
Stay true to something,

NOTE: For more consideration of the intersectionality of spirituality and mental health, don’t miss this robust conversation among various faith healers this Thursday from 1:30 – 3 pm. The Zoom link will take you directly to the panel discussion. If you have any questions, contact Marwa Hassanien at