Monday, July 21, 2008

Spirituality and Sexual Health

One of the approaches to treating sexual compulsivity is the use of the 12-steps. In my work, I don’t use this method. Nevertheless, I do recognize the importance of spirituality. In many ways, I think spirituality can shape and focus our values, goals and behaviors. The goal for this section is to help you clarify “How consistent with my spiritual values is this behavior?”

It is important to start out the conversation about spirituality by introducing a distinction between spirituality and religiosity. The distinction reflects the different between the individual and the community. Spirituality reflects my faith, values, and experiences of the holy. Religion/religiosity reflects our community’s experience of faith, values and the experiences of the holy. The two are different, but yet related. It is through my experience of spirituality that I connect with a community of faith.

This distinction helps us address a number of religious barriers to spiritual health. The two issues I raise are fundamentalism and lack of education. Fundamentalism occurs in two primary ways: scriptural fundamentalism and dogmatic fundamentalism. This entry isn’t designed to go into great detail of fundamentalism. Essentially, fundamentalism sets up a thinking error that one particular view of scripture or one particular belief is the only right belief. What this creates is a series of judgments about who qualifies as a person of faith, or the one-way that faith can be expressed. In other words, this is the one and only way. In an attempt to help people, the fundamentalist approach usually results in excluding others.

I also think a lack of education is a barrier to spiritual health. Too many people simply have too little education in their faith tradition to begin the process of uncovering the richness of their tradition. In my own experience, not many people can explain many of the dogmas and doctrines. Some of these religious beliefs can provide a rich resource for future growth. From a personal point of view, my religious faith affirms the power of forgiveness, redemption and value of the individual. As a person moves toward increased spiritual health, it might be helpful to increase your education within your tradition. This might be helpful in affirming your sexual health.

The process of developing a sense of spirituality is to recognize the importance of story. Spirituality starts and ends with a theology of story. This is a process where we identify experiences of God (and by “God”, I mean higher power, goddess, spirit, wisdom, the absolute, the “all,” etc. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to use “God.”) A theology of story helps us recognize that scripture is simply a collection of stories of people’s experiences of God. Typically, these oral stories were written down, collected and “canonized” across time. In other words, a person had an experience of God, shared it with another person who was so inspired that they shared it with others. The application of the theology of story to our daily living is important. A theology of story asks “What experiences of God in my life have I encountered?” Experiences of God are not limited to scripture. They happen all the time. It is recognizing the experiences that we begin the process of seeing how God is present in our life.

The difficulty with story is that we have lost the ability to share and add new stories. Many people deny or minimize their experiences of the holy. Furthermore, because of fundamentalism, scriptures have unfortunately become a basis to condemn people instead of being a collection of people’s experience of God. The use of scriptures as a weapon has led to a difficulty sharing our personal stories within the religious traditions. For me, part of the process of developing spirituality is to understand how we experience God in various ways.

To do this, I want to set up a positive position on sexuality by establishing a goal-orientated spirituality. I want to highlight three similar approaches to understanding spirituality. These approaches are positive spirituality, generativity, and creative mythology. Positive Spirituality emphasizes a process of uncovering the values by which I choose to live my life. It is future oriented. It is the process by which we make decisions and express our values as a reflection of our experience of God. Positive Spirituality focuses on goals or values such as wholeness, integrity, fidelity, growth, etc. that a person seeks to express. For those with a religious tradition, these values which we choose to live by can come from our community experience. There is a lot in of values or beliefs identified in the scriptures and various traditions that can be positive. Examples can include love, integrity and responsibility. In the development of a positive spirituality, the individual identifies new ways to express the presence of God’s action in their life. These values are then used to shape their life. A typical example of this is the “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do) bumper sticker. A person with a WWJD has declared “As a Christian, who believes in Jesus, I use his life to shape my behavior as an expression of by beliefs.”

Whereas positive spirituality is future focused, generativity focuses on the “now.” Generativity is the question/value of how a person involved is being made whole, generated or regenerated in his/her life. Generativity asks the question: “How am I being made whole in the now?” In other words, in this behavior (or with this thought) am I brought to a sense of wholeness/fullness, or am I left distracted and broken. In the realm of sexual health, is this behavior helpful or a hindrance to my well being.

A third approach to developing a person’s spirituality is the concept of Creative Mythology based on research by Joseph Campbell. For him, Creative Mythology focuses on how meaning is created and conveyed in people’s lives. He defines Creative Mythology as “present when an individual has an experience of order, horror, beauty, exhilaration, which seeks to be communicated through signs, images, and words. If this realization has a certain depth and import, touching the heart, his communication will have the value and force of a living myth.”

The part that I like is the experience of something amazing, either good or bad, that shifts your understanding of reality. It is in this experience that you have a connection to God. This experience is then shared with other people. Creative mythology is an attempt to express meaning in a person’s life of something greater. Mythology is a way my heart speaks to your heart. (Notice the similarity between creative mythology and the concept of intimacy as discussed in the intimacy section.)


It may be helpful to review your understanding of scripture and tradition to create a positive approach to morality and higher power: scripture and tradition are not always an enemy to spirituality. Within a tradition, a sense of wholeness and acceptance is possible. A community is created through tradition, whether it be a long-term tradition such as the Catholic tradition or the short-term tradition of fellowship after a 12-step group.

Spirituality also requires a person to make a commitment to take responsibility for his/her life. You need to step forward to identify and claim values toward which you will work in your life. What works for me won’t necessarily work from you. While we may learn from each other, our path is uniquely our own.

Such an approach is not easy, particularly in an American society in which the media emphasizes to get by with the least possible.

For some people, it may not be possible to use scripture or tradition as a way to shape their spirituality. I also recommend a number of other resources. There are some very good authors and/or experiences available. Three examples of these are provided here. I highlight them simply as examples, rather than instructions on activities to complete.

  • Landmark Education or similar programs focus on creating possibility
  • Course in Miracles
  • Power of Intention (Dwyer)
  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey)

Finally, another strategy is to start from your personal experience. The following exercise may be helpful.

  • First, name three people who inspire you. These people may be real/fictional, living/dead, someone you know, or simply someone you read about. For each individual, highlight why this person is an inspiration to you. Examine the values that they expressed in their life. As you think about each individual, you may start to identify themes that are important to you.
  • Second, name three times when you’ve experience a sense of timelessness. In this sense, timelessness is the experience of time passing without awareness. Think of a young child playing outside all day. You yell to the child “Come, in for bed.” To the child, the day passed with a sense of timelessness. They simply were completely in the moment. As an example, some individual sessions with clients pass so quickly, I simply didn’t realize the time was gone. Other, as you could guess, drag on. In the moments that they passed quickly, I look for the themes that made the time pass quickly. (I also use the other moments for self-reflection; I can learn from them as well!)
  • Third, as you examine the individuals and experiences in your life that are important, highlight common themes, values, and experiences. These common themes, in my opinion, are expressions of your experience of God in your daily living. In more formal theology, you have experienced the immanence of God in your life connecting you to the transcendence of God.

Final word

It is important to emphasize that spirituality is not an end product. Each of us, as we’ve come to understand our experiences of God in our experiences of a Higher Power, of the holy, of the sacred, have developed images, stories, and ideas that we communicate to other people through our stories. It’s an ongoing process and we take our history with us.

Final-Final Word

He who knows, knows not.
He who knows not, knows.

Joseph Campbell
Power of Myth

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