I’ve long been interested in faith, psychiatry, and healing. When people are severely depressed they lack  faith that they can be healed. They also lose faith in themselves. These can be very dangerous states.  I frequently find that it is only my conviction and reassurance that my patient will get better that pulls the patient through the first few weeks it takes until medication and treatment work to alleviate severe depression. Sometimes I feel like  a sherpa, carrying my patients over the mountain–reassuring them they can do it–and seeing their joy once they have reached their destination, relief from emotional anguish.

Faith and belief are not subjects we were taught in medical school.  Traditionally, science, religion, and spirituality have spoken very different languages and held each other at arm’s distance.  Yet for many people these are extremely important sources of solace and meaning in times of difficulty. My interest in how belief and faith affect the human condition led me to engage in psychoanalytic study groups related to psychoanalytic perspectives on the Bible. For over two decades I have co-chaired three Rado Advanced Psychoanalytic Study Groups. All have been sponsored by the Association of Psychoanalytic Medicine and Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. I also participated in a psychoanalytic group devoted to parenting, another fascinating topic that has enriched my work with patients over the years.

   Psychoanalysis Perspectives on the Bible & Related  Texts 

This unique and pioneering study group met monthly from 1994-2007 to examine the rich, multi-layered Old Testament texts with accompanying articles and books by psychoanalysts and Biblical scholars. Looking at insights from classic Rabbinic commentators, it became clear that 1,000 years before Freud, many of these thinkers were aware of the multiple dimensions of these texts. We read one of the most important and least understood texts: the philosophical masterpiece by Moses Maimonides,  The Guide to the Perplexed,  in which he reveals in “disguised” form, the secrets of the Bible and mystical Judaism, as he understood it. This led to a further multi-year study of the Jewish Mystical tradition from medieval times, including works by the Kabbalists and some of the most important writers today.

Given that religious and spiritual experience had traditionally been regarded as anathema to psychoanalysts, this group offered for all of us the first in-depth psychoanalytic examination of many of these topics. Many of these sessions will soon be available on audio.

   Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience

Each month since 1994, I’ve co-chaired a group in which Columbia University Psychoanalytic Center psychoanalysts explore topics and readings with the goal of bridging the gap between how individuals who are religiously observant and/or identify themselves as being spiritual and how psychoanalysis has traditionally understood such behaviors and attitudes. The members of our group come from different religious backgrounds and  bring to our discussion a variety of spiritual experiences and traditions, as do featured guests. Topics and readings have included:

  • The neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of mysticism, meditation, and related religious and spiritual states
  • Jacob Arlow’s Ego Psychological Approach to Jewish Mysticism & Kabbalah
  • Differential diagnosis of healthy, growth-enhancing vs. problematic religious/spiritual involvement
  • Columbia psychoanalyst and consultant to Catholic seminary  Rich Gallagher, M.D.’s work on “demonic possession” and exorcism with the Catholic Church
  • Erik Erikson’s Epigenetic Stages of Religious Development in individual and society
  • Hans Loewald on Religious Experience
  • Psychiatric Views and Uses of Meditation: Joseph Loizzo, M.D., M.Phil. (2000): “Meditation and Psychotherapy: Stress, Allostasis, and Enriched Learning”  in Muskin, Philip, M.D. (2000): Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Psychiatry. Washington,DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc. Chap. 4: p. 147-180
  • William Meissner “The Role of Transitional Conceptualization in Religious Thought”
  •  Discussion of Payne Whitney Grand Rounds about a patient with delusions being commanded by God to do penance through physical suffering. Pesented by Kevin Kelly, M.D., including 5-page reading list of psychiatric and psychoanalytic perspectives on religion and spirituality prepared by Samuel Pauker, M..D (Grand Rounds Reading List 5:9:07)
  •  Freud’s “Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)” (The Schreber Case)
  • “Spiritual Emergence” and inclusion of “Religious or Spiritual Problem” in the DSM-IV diagnostic manual, including review of paper by  David Lukoff, Ph.D., one of the driving forces behind this inclusion
  •  Freud’s “A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis,” SE V.19, p. 69-105
  •  Psychiatric literature regarding ‘demonic possession’ states and exorcism, including the “Jerusalem Syndrome”
  •  Review of work of Moshe Spero, Ph.D.,  Israeli ego psychoanalyst
  •  Freud’s The Future of an Illusion
  • David Fisher’s work on relationship of Sigmund Freud to Roman Rolland and its influence on Freud’s evolving ideas about religion and spirituality
  •  John Rosenberger’s work on sin and mental illness from 400 BCE to the late 19th C.
  •  Two papers on Catholicism from Psychoanalytic Inquiry’s recent volume on Religion and Spirituality (Volume 28, Issue 5, November 2008: Susan  Parlow, M.D.: “Personal Transformation in Karl Rahner’s Christianity: Constructed by Love”, (p. 570 -579); W. Meissner, MD:  “Psychoanalysis and Catholicism —Dialogues in Transformation” (p. 580 – 589)
  • Jonathan House, M.D.-Discussion of Mideast crisis. Can psychoanalysis shed light on breakdowns of empathic communication in the Arab Israel conflict?
  • Articles from  2009 edition of  Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychotherapy devoted to religious issues in countertransference
  • In-depth exploration of issues of Buddhism, and meditation
  • Discussion of Hinduism

Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Religion and Spirituality 

This diverse group of mental health professionals, who met from 2007-2009, included psychoanalysts from a classical ego psychoanalytic point of view and those from the newer ‘relational’ school; clinicians and non-clinicians; and academics and non-academics. Presentations alternated between those of a clinical nature  and those focused on religious texts. Presentors, discussants and participants included: David Stein, M.D.; Paul Marcus, Ph.D.; Eric Marcus,M.D.; Karen Starr, PsyD; Jill Salberg, PhD.; Irene Wineman;  Brian Grobois, M.D.;  Tony Stern, M.D.;  Jennifer Nields, M.D.;  Michelle Friedman, M.D.;  Jan Carino, M.D.;  Professor Harvey Sober;  Ellenor Ehrenkranz, Phd, MSW;  Yitzhak Berger, PhD; Miriam Arond, MA; Sarah Pauker, MS;  Lionel Arond; Sherry Katz-Benoit, M.D.; Pam Ehrenkranz,MSW;  Matt Greenberg, MSW;  Shelley Eisenman, M.D.; Al Dressinger, M.D.;  Brian Fallon, M.D.; Steve Gelles.

Topics included:

“Faith as the Fulcrum of Psychic Change: Applying the Metaphors of Transformation of Jewish Mysticism to Psychoanalytic Process” —Karen Starr, Psy.D. , Visiting Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, presented work from her book Repair of the Soul:

“Metaphors of Transformation in Jewish Mysticism and Psychoanalysis” on the interrelation between Kaballah and Psychoanalysis. Discussant: Paul Marcus, Ph.D., Training and Supervising Analyst with the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (NPAP) in NYC and author of numerous books, including Ancient Religious Wisdom, Spirituality and Psychoanalysis (2003), Psychoanalytic Versions of the Human Condition: Philosophies of Life and Their Impact on Practice (1998) edited, Marcus and Rosenberg, and Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Holocaust: Selected Essays  (1984) edited Steven Luel and Paul Marcus.

“Jonah on the Couch, Part I” The Biblical story of Jonah reads, on one hand, like a fairy tale: a man runs from God, is swallowed by a whale, survives and learns a powerful lesson. On the other hand, it is tapped to be read on the most important Jewish religious day of the year, the afternoon of Yom Kippur, as a rather mysterious tale of God’s forgiveness and the power of redemption, which has great meaning for all three monotheistic religions. We gave the tale a “fresh read” from a number of psychological points of view to help understand the unconscious roots of the strange power of   this story.

“Jonah on the Couch, Part II” A review of Avivah Zornberg’s “Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight”and Jill Salberg’s “Jonah’s Crisis: Commentary on Avivah Zornberg’s ‘Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight.’ ” Special thanks to Avivah Zornberg for graciously allowing the group to read and use her paper for discussion prior to its publication.

“Clinical Issues in the Treatment of the “The Very Religious Patient:  A Double Case Conference”—with psychiatrist Brian Grobois, M.D. and child and adult psychoanalyst Irene Wineman-Marcus. The discussion focused on special issues entailed in working with members of the Orthodox Jewish community and their extended families, communities, and religious leaders.

“A Unique Pastoral Counseling Program”with Michelle Friedman, M.D. a graduate of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and member of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine faculty about pastoral program she launched and oversees at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. She also presented her research findings on issues of sexuality and abuse in the ultra-Orthodox  Jewish female population.

“Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Passover Haggadah” in light of Erik Erikson’s theory presented in his paper, “The Ontogeny of Ritualization.”We explored the psychodynamic underpinnings of the Haggadah from two theoretical points of view:  Erik Erikson’s milestone 1996 paper, “The Ontogeny of Ritualization” and Avivah Zornberg’s theory on the nature of biblical narrative, the role of the unconscious preserved in the Midrashic literature, the preservation of the “voice of women” in that literature and how this pertains to the multiple narratives that constitute the Haggadah.

“Can Religion and Spirituality Enhance Human Development?” Discussion with Jennifer Nields, M.D. of  her paper on “From Unity to Atonement: Some Religious Correlates of Hans Loewald’s Developmental Theory” 

“Humor, Self Hatred and the Construction of Ethnic Identity: A Psychoanalytic Dissection of an Episode of the Larry David’s TV Show – ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ “ An important part of one’s religious identity is the ethnic identity to which it is inevitably attached. But what is the relation between these? We examined one example of this phenomenon, in the form of an episode from the Larry David Show, called the “Survivor.” Plus, readings by Sandor Gilman on “Jewish Self Hatred”.

“Psychoanalysis and the Sanctification of the Ordinary”—Eric Marcus, M.D. Director of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalysis, shared his religious upbringing and orientation and how it has impacted his work as an analyst and therapist. He sketched out his concept of  “Sanctification of the Ordinary”and the role that religious and spiritual elements play in clinical work.

“Looking for God in All the Right Places: On Developing an Adult Religious Outlook: The Relevance of the Work of Emanuel Levinas on Religion for Psychoanalysis”—Paul Marcus, Ph.D. author of Being for the Other: Emmanuel Levinas, Ethical Living and Psychoanalysis and one of the foremost authorities on the psychoanalytic relevance of Emmanuel Levinas’s work and his concern for the Other, argued for the need for psychoanalysis to re-infuse itself with concern for the ethical concerns for “the other”— as a safeguard to  modern man’s predicament of drowning in narcissistic preoccupation with the self.

“On the Relationship of Violence in Religion and Spirituality “— How the Messiah Became a Pacifist: The First Jewish Jihad – The Maccabean Revolt through the destruction of Jerusalem and the institution of Normative, i.e. Rabbinic Judaism.” We explored the psychology of groups, what they teach us about religious experience, spirituality, and the dangers inherent in the desire to give oneself over to charismatic leaders and groups.

 “Things Are Not What They Appear – Nor Are They Otherwise: What Do We Make of  Synchronicity?” A presentation and discussion with Tony Stern, M.D. Synchronicity is a Jungian term for things that occur simultaneously and seem to illuminate each other with importance.  Using this as a point of departure, psychiatrist Tony Stern, M.D. led a discussion of four of his papers:  “The Light of Faithful Awareness” (2007) about his spiritual awakening to Buddhism, “The Narrow Ridge: Insights from Zen, Judaism and Psychoanalysis” (2006), focusing on the work of Martin Buber; “Psychosis and Religion Conversion” (2002), how to distinguish psychosis and religious experience through the example of Sri Roma Maharshi, one of the most admired saints of India; and his introduction to a book he edited Everything Starts from Prayer: Mother Theresa’s Meditation on Spirtual Life for People of All Faiths (1998)

“Dreams: Bridges between Psychoanalysis and Jewish Thought: A Paper by Jill Salberg, PhD.” Jill Salberg, PhD, an Analytical Training Supervisor at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis,  Supervisor of candidates in its analytic training program, Process Group Leader at the Chovevei Torah Rabbinic Seminary,  and writer of numerous papers on psychoanalysis including on Freud and his Jewish Identity,  gave a fascinating overview of dream analysis as it appeared in Talmudic and Kabballistic sources leading up to Freud. She is especially interested in the locus of authority of who is bestowed with the power as interpreter.  For Freud, she argues, it was the analyst. She contrasts this with the more Relational perspective of dream interpretation as a vehicle, not for some definite interpretation, dependent on the authority of the analytic interpreter, but on an interactive vehicle for empowering the patient, the dreamer,  to become their own authority.

“On the Ethnic Construction of Identity and Counter-Identity Through the Lens of Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock” Is there a stitch of religiosity in Philip Roth? The group had diametrically opposing points of view. On the surface: Philip Roth goes on a chase in Israel of a man pretending to be him, raising money for a project called Diasporism – to send the Jews of Israel back to Europe to save them from the upcoming Arab Holocaust. It winds up involving Roth, he says, in a scheme of the Mossad, and a long meditation on what, if anything he owes the Jewish people; the nature of identity, and narrative truth. His subtitle, “And Jacob Wrestled with and Angel Until Dawn” comes from a famous line from the bible during which Jacob, unable to sleep,  dreams that he wrestles with an angel/demon/God/himself until dawn. The book discussion ed to refection on ethnic identity.

“My Visit with Brazilian Healer John of God: An Hour Videotape of His Healing and Discussion ” Janel Carino, M.D. psychiatrist and Columbia psychoanalyst, is a lifelong spiritual seeker and a student of energy healing systems. She recently went to Brazil to visit a healer to whom thousands flock yearly, known as John of God.  He seems to have multiple personalities, or dissociative states, during some of which, he goes into healing trances. People pass in front of him during which he does ‘removals’, purporting to remove (no surgery) some kind of foreign substance from them.  After this, and after a recovery period at his institute, they frequently feel recovered or better. There are many strange things under the sun. This kind of thing may test our allegiance to William James’s injunction to be open to the Varieties of Religious Experience which people find important, and live by.  But this is exactly the kind of thing for us to think about. Jan presented an hour long video of John’s work and healing, and led a fascinating discussion.

“Chi Gung Energy Systems for Health”—Harvey Sober, a martial arts and Tai Chi grand master and one of the most knowledgable integrators of Eastern Taoist Religion, Meditation and Traditional and Mystical/Kaballistic Judaism, Harvey Sober shared his own experience of coming to understand and use principles of Chi Kung for health and healing. A Professor of Biblical Archeology and Hebrew at Yeshiva University as well as the originator and Grand Master of the Torah Dojo system of the Hard and Soft style martial arts, Harvey has trained thousands of students in the U.S. and Israel.  It was a very special opportunity to hear from Prof. Sober outside of his usual teaching venues.