The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneAugust 2011: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Our Spiritual Life:
The Priestly Part of Our Being "Priestly Advisors"
Part III: The Lens of Personal Experience

Oh, what have I done, trying to write about spirituality? This is Part III. (Part I was on religion and whether you were in or out of one; Part II was on individuation.) And it's not getting any easier, although I like doing it. I so much do not want to exclude anyone or hurt anyone's feelings (nothing new there for an HSP).

Yet from my first interviews with HSPs, the subject was obviously so important to us, for too many reasons to name here. I realize that almost anything I say will not be true for some of you, not interesting to a great many, and perhaps offend a few, so please be patient. My hope is to give you an opening for thinking. George Steiner wrote, "Where the word of a poet ceases, a great light begins." I wish I were a poet, but perhaps at the end of this article some little candle will be burning.

The Need and Desire for Personal Experience

I recently read a book review in the New Yorker by James Wood of a collection of essays called The Joy of Secularism. The review is titled "Is That All There Is?" and begins with the story of a friend of Wood's, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who sometimes "anxiously" lies awake at night, wondering if there is any meaning in life. Wood seems to be saying in his review that some spiritual hunger remains in many people after they have written off religion as a bunch of hooey. I almost had to laugh. Oh, those secular non-HSPs. They only wonder in the middle of the night.

One thing most HSPs (and many others) seem to agree on is that, inside of religion or outside of it, we want personal spiritual experiences, day or night and however we come by them--prayer, meditation, contemplation of scripture, vision quest, numinous dream, yoga, pure devotion, through certain works of art or the creative expression of a vision, pilgrimage, receiving a seemingly divine message, or being in nature with the sense of a union with all of life. There's a growing list. As Walt Whitman imagined in a poem, "There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done... Every man shall be his own priest."

I think my brother, a sweetly devout convert to Catholicism, still wants a priest beyond himself. But I think you see Walt's point, the same point made in a book I reviewed in the May 2001 issue of Comfort Zone (in paper), Lionel Corbett's The Religious Function of the Psyche. He has observed that we are each capable of contact with the divine, especially through our dreams. Biblical accounts of God's contacts with humans have many of those occurring through dreams. Corbett sees us as especially needing personal experience and personal knowledge in the modern era, when the factual details of dogmas that our ancestors had faith in are now being questioned, so that faith alone as a spiritual experience is more difficult. Many people, especially those with recent college educations, question whether there's anything to believe in at all.

We HSPs, however, are more persistent. For example, we tend to seek news of others who have had transformative experiences. We read or listen between the lines for what seems authentic and are inspired. We want the same for ourselves. After all, weren't all the "dogmas" based on someone's personal experience--Jesus, Buddha, Abraham and Moses, Mohammad?

This desire for an experience of our own is not about being greedy or arrogant. Some HSPs' paths require years of effort before the experience they seek can occur. They know that a spiritual experience should feel like something, so it must happen in the body, the brain, the nervous system, even if it is a subtle body and a subtle nervous system. That may require training the mind and body, and the ways are not proven. This seeking requires humility, persistence, and courage.

Besides culturing mind, body, and spirit, we also need knowledge, information, and practical wisdom from those who have succeeded. Again, there is plenty of that being offered. In fact, sometimes we see religious or spiritual movements that we find suspect. They usually begin with a spiritual experience, but was it some mass induction by a charismatic narcissist? In the long run, is the individual's experience taken over again by dogma, or are individual spiritual experiences acknowledged, even if they are counter to dogma? But then, do we expect every path to accept any experience as valid? Do we give equal credence to a mystic and a schizophrenic? Does it matter? Are there distortions or are all experiences equally valid?

For most people, spiritual growth involves a number of steps, each gained the hard way, by pursuing a spiritual path that may take some twists and turns or even come to dead ends, so that a new path must be chosen. In that sense, an HSP's intuition helps. We may have a better sense about whether the path is the problem, or that we were off a bit or distorting something. For example, many people have believed that God is a loving protector who would tend to their needs if they prayed enough, and then hit a terrible disaster, as the Jews did with the Holocaust. For many, it was back to square one. What is God then?

We All Have a Lens, but What Does It Do?

If we are seeking an experience that somehow pierces the mystery of the divine, how much does the lens we bring determine what we see? Surely we all have a lens. We all project on to God or the absolute, at least when we choose our metaphors, because there is no other way to describe these. When someone speaks of a loving universe, for example, or even "the hand of God," they are speaking from their experience as humans who love and have hands. We will always speak of God in some human way, and that is one reason that Eastern religions and traditional Judaism say that we cannot talk about God, there is no word for this. It is beyond human experience. We would be crazy to think we could fathom it fully, except perhaps after years of meditation.

Suppose I try to eliminate that human element, and hope to be looking at the ultimate equivalent of pure light. But I am still probably wearing a lens with some color, so that I describe that pure light as green, for instance. That may be all right. Pure light is made up of many colors and the mystery has been described many ways, by many traditions. But what if we are looking through lenses distorted by our personal stressful life experiences? Can we learn to correct for that? If we were mistreated by religion, as Karen Armstrong describes in A Spiral Staircase, her account of being a highly sensitive nun in a harsh convent, can we go on as she did and see religion through fresh eyes, as in her book A Case for God? If we have periods of deep doubt and no spiritual experience, what do we do?

Attachment and God

Personal experience, clinical experience, and research have all made me consider a particular lens, one of many, that can affect our religious experiences. I have written so often on attachment style that I hesitate to explain it again here. If you are not familiar with "secure," "anxiously insecure," and "avoidant," go to the May 2006 newsletter article on grief and scroll down to "Looking at it in Terms of Attachment Style." HSPs, being more responsive to their childhood environment, are more likely than others to be insecure IF their parents were relatively insensitive, clueless about raising a sensitive child, or unable to help them feel soothed and secure when faced with life's stresses (not to mention if their parents were neglectful, unavailable, abusive, or just terribly inconsistent). On the other hand, the data suggest that we can be exceptionally secure when raised by supportive, caring parents. Besides being more susceptible than others to parenting as children, we are also prone to be more spiritual, for many reasons. So if there is a way that attachment and spirituality interact, it seems that they would interact even more so for us.

How Does Your Attachment Style Affect Your Spirituality?

Remember that what I am about to tell you is from research studies in which certain things tended to be true, but were not always. You will have to decide for yourself, in your own case. Still, it makes sense to think about attachment as a lens affecting spiritual thought and experience if you assume, as these researchers do, that through the ages, people have turned to religion in part to deal with the distressing realities of life such as natural disasters, the losses of those most dear to us, and the fear of one's own death or aging. In childhood, we turned to our attachment figures in times of stress, perceiving them as wiser and stronger. By adulthood, we mostly expect others to be helpful in some ways but not strong and wise enough to resolve for us these ultimate distresses (except when they are telling us about Something more comforting than themselves).

Whatever our rational ideas, however, we develop in childhood an "internal working model" of how much help and caring we can expect from another person when we are in distress. If adults use that model when they imagine the mystery behind creation or God--the research I will cite refers to God, so I will now stay with that issue, if the Buddhists will excuse me--then secures and insecures would have to have very different feelings about God and very different religious experiences.

I realize that life events eventually cause us to question a view of God as a source of security, an all loving and perfect parent. Too much goes wrong. Yet it is difficult to shed this "working model," as it is so early and so central to life. Thus, I do think it continues to operate even when people think they have risen above such things.

A summary of the results of the research on attachment and religion* would be that those with a secure "working model" are more prone to be religious automatically to the degree that their parents were, and to experience God or imagine God to be more loving and available than insecures, who imagine a God who is more distant and unloving. Interestingly, those who enter a religious vocation (priest, nun) are more likely to have had a loving relationship with their parents and to report a close, loving relationship with God.

On the other hand, persons who are insecure, whether determined by asking about their childhood or their close relationships as adults, tend to be more insecure and distressed in life, and while they do not have the more automatic faith of a secure, they tend to have more sudden religious conversions, especially during times of stress. Even if they convert more slowly, more of them tend to "find religion" in adulthood, as if seeking and then finding at last an attachment figure (if not in God than in a spiritual community) who is loving and a source of safety in times of distress. Further, insecures' religious experiences tend to decrease more than others when they are less distressed--for example, when they are in a good human relationship, their religious interest tends to subside. (Secures report increased religious interest when they enter a new romantic relationship.)

Remember, these results do not apply to all insecures. I really do not mean to imply that all insecures are spiritually fickle. I can imagine just as easily that their spirituality, focused by their need, can grow especially strong with time, perhaps sometimes even leading to their becoming an "earned secure."

What Do You Do When Threatened or Distressed?

It is an important question for HSPs, how much we can turn to a spiritual source for comfort when we are stressed. The effect of attachment on feelings about God when a person is under stress has been shown experimentally. When threatened in the laboratory and shown subliminally God-related words, secures (in this case, feeling secure in adulthood in a romantic relationship) were even more likely than when not under stress to report afterwards that they would turn to God as a help in times of need. They also had more positive feelings about religious images.

Insecures in these experiments, when made to feel threatened and shown God-related words subliminally, tended to report, even more than usual for them, that God is not helpful in times of need. They were behaving as insecure children do in times of stress, in that they turned away from attachment figures rather than towards them. (This does not contradict the other finding, that they are often converted to religion in times of stress, because in these experiments God was not consciously on their mind as a possible solution to the threat they were feeling. They still might have been responsive if someone presented God to them as the solution.)

I do believe that HSPs really must find a spiritual source of comfort and that it must be a repeatable experience, or one that has repeated often enough to remember well and find comfort in. So our attachment "internal working model" can be an obstacle to finding that. What can we do?

So What about Your Lens?

To begin with those of you with a secure working model, your lens would seem to pose no difficulty. If a secure person complacently followed their parents' religion, they might be distressed when a crisis came that it did not help with. But most secure HSPs have probably looked ahead to that day or passed it already. More likely you would feel conflicted or guilty about not adhering precisely to what your parents taught you, including if they taught you to be an agnostic. You know you cannot bend your spiritual path to please others, but it is painful to see loved ones hurt by our choices.

From this research it, it seems that insecures have to watch out for being swept up into a spiritual path because it promises or briefly provides a temporary relief from feelings of insecurity. There are rarely any quick fixes to insecurity, even spiritual insecurity. When the new path stops creating that supportive feeling, it does not mean the entire pursuit was invalid and you should become an atheist. That would be returning to a faith in an internal working model that was created by the actions of others rather than the one you were born to have. All children are born set up to attach and love, and I think all adults are set up to have spiritual experiences. But while you have your insecure internal model, you may find it impossible to conceive of a benevolent God or universe, or feel compassion for yourself, until you have more experience of benevolence and compassion on earth.

What's troubling, of course, is that those HSPs most needing comfort because of histories of abuse or neglect may find it least easily because their past continues to distort their personal experiences so that they cannot possibly find comfort. Those who tend to be an avoidant insecure may not only eschew God as a good parent, or even a parent, but doubt the whole idea of looking to any spiritual experience for comfort. That is a shame, given as I said before, that we humans seem to come into the world with a predisposition not only to attach to our parents, but to seek God. We don't know why that is, but it seems very, very true, and I don't think it can be easily reduced to some survival need. (One scientist explained religion by the fact that early in our evolution we had to beware of cave bears and sabre tooth lions, so of course we developed a special sensitivity to the presence of large, mysterious, all powerful beings!)

We are probably the only species that seeks a meaning for life and will commit suicide if it cannot be found. Given that depression and suicide often go with insecure attachment, and depression is more likely for HSPs with bad childhoods, beware of giving up on spirituality. It may be dangerous as well as wrong.

What to Do?

I think the good news is that, with the encouragement of those who have found some lasting and meaningful comfort in their spiritual path, insecure HSPs can be the ones most motivated to search for their own way and to find this thing which they need so much. I think reading about a variety of spiritual experiences as described by others, when they feel authentic, can be very helpful. Adopting a practice that they do without rethinking it constantly can build a consistent inner experience.

But first you must stay out of the avoidant working model, which makes you think to yourself, "I know I’m alone, I can't count on anyone or anything, I'm nothing but a bunch of atoms formed into a brain that produces a sense of a personal ego that cannot know anything beyond what I've been taught by somebody else, and what's more, I'm fine with that." It's not true, and especially not the last part.

Insecure HSPs, however, are more often the anxious type, which means they are highly, highly motivated to find what they need through spirituality. They only have to be careful about reenacting their past and entering into another abusive or neglectful relationship, even if it is a spiritual one. They also may fail to recognize the dawning of their comforting spirituality until it is burning bright.

Spirituality and our experiences of it cannot be reduced to or explained by childhood. Never. I hope that is clear. Our attachment lens is best seen as a part of our individuation process, and as I described in the last issue of Comfort Zone, working on it is a complement to our other spiritual pursuits. There is nothing wrong with your spirituality coming through an attachment lens, even one of insecurity, especially when it is not taken as a vision of ultimate truth, but as a sort of deep wilderness or dark night of the soul that you must expect along your particular path.

We all have some sort of attachment lens. It can't be avoided, at least at first--we all need love and have a history of our successes and failures in human relationships. We naturally look for love or something like it in our final spiritual truth. Indeed, many spiritual traditions see love as a path to the divine or to the highest state of consciousness, not just a description of it. Most traditions say that acting on a sense of love and compassion for everyone is in itself a path and an essential spiritual experience.

Some also speak of the spiritual experience that comes from those moments of unspeakable depth that pass between two people who deeply understand and care for each other, as Martin Buber or Sufis such as Rumi have described. These particular spiritual experiences, the ones involving human love, may be especially helpful yet elusive for insecure HSPs--it is their nirvana, their Holy Grail. These moments are all too brief however, always, which demands that insecures accept the impermanence of every human relationship and experience, while learning that the memory can develop into something with an eternal nature. These "eternal moments" can be part of a truly lasting security, what HSPs who are insecures especially must find and keep within them.

For secure HSPs, these "I-Thou" moments, to use Buber's term, may come more easily. But for that very reason you need to attend to this part of your spiritual path because it will bring you to such good places. And for all of us, I hope our experiences transcend our personal limits and cleanse the lenses with which we see.


* Links with asterisks are articles that you'll either need to purchase to read, or your local library may be able to get it for you.


August 2011 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
Reading : About that Psychology Today Article/Why We Are Sometimes SO Emotional
Research: Recent Genetic Findings
Our Spiritual Life : The Priestly Part of Our Being "Priestly Advisors." Part III: The Lens of Personal Experience


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

August 2011 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

Reading : About that Psychology Today Article/Why We Are SO Emotional Sometimes?

Research: Recent Genetic Findings

Our Spiritual Life : The Priestly Part of Our Being "Priestly Advisors." Part III: The Lens of Personal Experience



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