Heal distress — Can spiritual practices help?


healAccording to established research, one in four of us experience some form of mild mental health difficulty each year. Even if you do not suffer – what the medics call – identifiable psychiatric morbidity – nevertheless you still may feel bad; fed up, irritable, worried or distressed. In which case, if you are to be calm, contented and fulfilled, something needs to inwardly change. You may wonder if your spirit needs to heal, then can spiritual practices be of benefit?

Going on a retreat to heal distress

When life gets too stressful then you probably start looking at holiday brochures. If you can afford it getting away to some lovely place for couple of weeks, can be very attractive. A holiday allows us to escape from the responsibilities of home and work. Beautiful and inspiring settings may bring harmony into one’s life. When we get a rest from the ordinary strains of living, we may become emotionally refreshed.

A spiritual retreat may help one reconnect with one’s inner life, one’s hopes and aspirations, values and principles. The religious person may use some of the time to engage in self reflection and prayer with the aim of reconnecting with God.

Practising meditation to heal distress

Meditation is passively observing our experiences simply as mental events without personal attachment to them; trying to focus attention and suspend judgement whilst maintaining objectivity. A huge challenge I believe if you are suffering more than a mild degree of anxiety or depression.

However it is possible with repeated practice to learn to focus  the mind and emotionally distance oneself from random thoughts and feelings. It needs self-discipline to sit down quietly staying focused on one thing at a time: not easy with a mind that is easily distracted by fearful thoughts and is prone to wander off into fantasy.

I would suggest that from a religious perspective, meditation —  say on the words of sacred scripture — brings about calm because it involves transcending self-orientated concerns, opening up an inert life force, and gaining spiritual awareness of the Divine.

Adopting an attitude of mindfulness to heal distress

Those who advocate an attitude of mindfulness in the hum-drum of ordinary situations, claim it can bring about a greater attention to reality. This means being in the moment and getting absorbed in the here and now. For example being aware of one’s surroundings; listening more fully to what others are saying.

With this attitude of mind it is said we become less occupied by mistakes of the past and worries about the future for we see things as they are rather than in terms of our desires and fears.

Being mindful of habitual ways of thinking is central to a well researched form of therapy known as cognitive-behavioural therapy.  Individuals with self-defeating and irrational thoughts, are helped to create and focus instead on constructive realistic ways of thinking. Focusing on how things really are means facing reality instead of fighting the experience of trying to make it something else.

From a religious perspective, being in the moment brings about a consciousness of what is called the eternal now. This is an illuminating perception that transcends time-bound concerns. It flows from a Divine Mind which is both present within and also beyond time and place.

Christians believe in this Holy Spirit of God whose presence many say they feel when sitting in silence to create a space in the heart for Him to find a home in.

They say, when you turn to this source, the Divine can flow more consciously into your  experiences of life and you feel uplifted, creative, illuminated. When the love of self no longer rules your heart, then you  rise above your worries concerning the transient things of the world.

Confessing guilty feelings to heal distress

Many distressed people are able gain self-insights and begin to acknowledge their guilty feelings with a non-judgmental counsellor. This confession would be meaningless without a degree of self-examination. It is all about searching one’s heart to discover any repeated desires that infringe one’s own principles — one’s own conscience of what is right and wrong in human conduct.

Would it not be nice if we could just change our bad feelings simply by better understanding them? Just having clearest self insight? However, according to the spiritual philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, to heal the understanding with its thoughts and insights, is to heal a person only outwardly. What needs also to change is the inward aspect of the individual — what is felt, wanted and chosen. Therapy for the understanding alone would be like palliative healing, failing to touch the inner malignity.

Psychotherapists talk about resistance by the patient to making personal change because of self-insights that remain only on an intellectual level. Emotional acceptance of what change is needed is more of a wrench than mere acknowledgment because it means real acceptance of the consequences of giving up old ways, old pleasures and old attitudes.

One religious view is that unless we have a change of heart, we can easily retract something that we had only acknowledged in the mind the previous day. We may have recognised where we are going wrong but what is crucially important is an emotional acceptance of a way forward. Religion and psychotherapy are about personal change if they are about anything. The challenge of both is accepting a need to change.

From a modern Christian perspective, repentance is to do with wanting to change from ways of living that are recognised as self-defeating and unworthy.

Just as many alcoholics attending Alcoholics Anonymous may believe that they cannot cure themselves without surrendering to a higher power to help them conquer the demon drink, so religious people believe that it is God who heals the spirit, and it is the gift of healing that can transform the persons life and character through a process known as salvation. For them healing of the spirit takes place through a humble turning to God in prayer.

“Pythagoras said that … if the healing art is most Divine, it must occupy itself with the soul as well as with the body; for no creature can be sound so long as the higher part of it is sickly.” (Apollonius of Tyrana – Greek philosopher)

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Sympathy – Can I feel more warmth to others?

sympathyIf there were no such thing as sympathy for the plight of others, then indeed the world would be a sorry place. In public life there would be no social harmony: at the workplace no cooperation: and within the home no loving kindness.

On the other hand you might wonder whether sympathy is always a good thing. How realistic is it to try to be on good terms with everybody? Should we try to sympathise with the criminal as well as the victim, the swindler as well as the honest trader, the reckless driver as well as the casualty? To answer this I would suggest it is possible to have sympathy for an individual yet feel harshly about any bad actions that person wants to do.

Without this distinction I believe we can do harm by acting with sympathy. Examples of this might be giving in to a child’s demand for a inappropriate toy, or donating money to a poor person who wants to buy drugs, or voting for government handouts where there is no attempt to distinguish between those who want to remain dependent on benefits and those who are genuinely seeking gainful employment.

Can sympathy be learned?

With some people, feeling warm and having sympathy, seems to come more naturally than with others. What if you are a suspicious kind of person, who is a bit sceptical about other people’s motives? Or someone who sees yourself as tough-minded with a competitive disposition more interested in winning rather than cooperating? Or perhaps you like to keep yourself to yourself and are not interested in other people and do not find being friendly comes easy? If so, you may be wondering whether it is actually possible to learn to feel more sympathy. How could anyone find more patience when someone gives them aggravation and how find more concern for the demands of an angry person?

Moving house

This is a bit of a jokey suggestion but it might help you to become more willing to care about and help your neighbours if you were to live in a smaller community where you meet people on a regular basis. If you live in an urban environment people are less likely to know each other.  In the United States we find such well-known expressions as “Southern hospitality” and “Minnesota nice” in those rural states away from the East and West coasts. Researchers actually found that people in the West, Midwest and South do tend to have higher average scores on agreeableness than people living in other regions of the United States.

Acting with sympathy

It is obvious that the way we feel affects the way we act. But in cognitive-behaviour-therapy it has been found that this can also work the other way around. Sometimes how we behave influences our feelings. You can learn to feel more sympathy by acting in a sympathetic manner. The way this works might be to do with the positive responses we get back from our own actions. For example it so happens that agreeable people who are more sensitive to the needs and perspectives of others, are less likely to suffer from social rejection. Children who are less disruptive, less aggressive and more skilled at entering playgroups are more likely to gain acceptance by their peers. It is easier to acquire sympathy for others who are friendly towards you.

Argumentativeness and feeling sympathy

One obstacle that hinders learning to feel sympathy is wanting to win an argument at all costs. It is not easy to see any merit in the other fellow’s point of view if you are focused entirely on your own line of reasoning. You can hope to sympathise a little bit with what he or she is feeling if you are prepared to pause and put into words what you think is being said to you. Likewise when you are tempted to feel anger in a conflict situation, then counting to ten, and consciously avoiding any coercive tactics, can help you discover possible constructive ways forward that involve sympathy and cooperation rather than rudeness and fighting.

Practising helping others

The more we help others the more we discover what their needs are. Only when we empathise with their predicament can we hope to feel sympathy. I imagine that most people are more likely to want to help their own kith and kin and part of this is probably because they’re more aware of the needs of those whom they regularly see. How much more sympathetic can we be when we become even more familiar with what other people’s needs are.

Challenging hostile thoughts

I would suggest it is impossible to feel sympathy and hostile at the same time. One way forward is to notice why you have resentment or antagonism. Is this possibly due to social prejudice against a member of a stigmatised group, or because you are jumping to conclusions about someone because they are so different from yourself? Like the individual who is uncouth rather than refined, dishevelled rather than tidy, quarrelsome rather than amiable.

By questioning the reasons for one’s attitude, it is possible to moderate negative feelings. Wanting to condemn someone means we are blinded by the bad and failing to notice the good in them and surely this judgmental attitude is an obstacle to feeling sympathy.

Sympathy as an aspect of spirituality

Feelings of sympathy may be skin deep. Having some degree of sympathy for one’s partner may be an advantageous expediency that suits one’s own needs e.g. when married partners have some sympathy for each other because they want to stay together mainly for the sake of the children or because they cannot afford to live apart.  I think similar reasons for feeling sympathy applies to other ordinary familiar contexts. But you have to start somewhere and I would claim that further cultivating a generosity of spirit is essential for spiritual growth.

“To desire and expect nothing for oneself and to have profound sympathy for others is genuine holiness”. (Ivan Turgenev)

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Having Compassion


Path of Integrity” Week 6

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto – October 28, 2012

I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. {5} “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (GEN 45:4-5)

  1. Judah’s Plea
    1. Judah can represent love to the Lord. He can also represent the opposite loves of self and the world.
    2. Judah has inherited the role of first-born son in Jacob’s family.
      1. Leah produced the first 4 sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and then Judah.
      2. But, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi all committed serious offences against their father and had been disinherited, leaving Judah as the official firstborn, and the son who was in line to inherit all of Jacob’s wealth.
        1. It was oldest take all, no even division among the children.
      3. However, Jacob made no secret that he preferred his wife Rachel and showed Rachel’s oldest son, Joseph, preferential treatment.
        1. Judah had reason to believe that he might be pushed aside and the full rights of the firstborn be given to Joseph.
        2. He had good reason to hate Joseph because Joseph was the one son that stood between him and great wealth and power. It didn’t help that Joseph dreamed that Judah would someday bow down to him, and that he was sent by Jacob to spy on the rest of them as they went about their business. All the sons of Leah (and the handmaidens) wanted Joseph dead – but it was Judah who came up with the plan that not only got rid of him but generated some cash – sell him into slavery.
        3. The picture of Judah in the letter of the Word at the start of the Joseph story is of a very hard, murderous, selfish man.
    3. Now compare that man to the Judah that is revealed when confronted by Joseph during the second trip to Egypt.
      1. At a time when Jacob is dithering about going back to Egypt and putting his family at risk by waiting too long to buy food, Judah forces him to act for the good of all.
      2. When the question of Benjamin’s safety comes up, Judah gives his word that he will take care of his brother (even though Benjamin, as Rachel’s oldest son, is likely to get the inheritance of the first born)
      3. He says to his father Jacob, “I myself will be surety for him; from my hand you shall require him” (Gen 43:9). Judah is now a man who steps up and takes responsibility when courageous action is required.
      4. But while in Egypt, Joseph’s trap is sprung. Joseph’s cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph announces that his punishment is to remain in Egypt, a slave. The character of the man Judah has become emerges: Judah gently suggests that it is Joseph’s fault that Benjamin is on the trip at all and that losing Benjamin will kill Jacob. Then he says,
        1. For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father forever.’ {33} “Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. {34} “For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me, lest perhaps I see the evil that would come upon my father?” (Gen 44:32-34)
        2. Judah is now offering to give his own life to save Benjamin from slavery, and thus his father’s life.
  2. At this point Joseph is moved with compassion and reveals himself.
    1. {4} And Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come near to me.” So they came near. Then he said: “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. {5} “But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.
      1. He forgives them.
    2. We want the Lord to forgive us, and He tells us how we can earn His forgiveness.
      1. In the Lord’s Prayer, “and forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”
      2. In the responsive which commonly follows, “O Lord, forgive us our trespasses. As we forgive those who trespass against us.”
      3. We earn the Lord’s forgiveness by being willing to be forgiving of those who have cause us harm.
      4. Be willing to ask for forgiveness from others – which implies a willingness to recognize that we have ourselves done things that hurt others.
    3. However, a person cannot be forgiven while they remain in the active state of whatever it is that is causing harm.
      1. JOH 5: The paralysed man by the pool of Bethesda. He had been waiting beside the pool in the hopes of being the first to get into the water for 38 years. Jesus saw him there and asked him if he wanted to be made well. He said that he did, so Jesus said, “Take up your bed and walk.” And he did!
      2. What got the attention of the chief priests was not that Jesus had healed a man that had been ill for 38 years, they were upset that He did it on the Sabbath.
        1. (John 5:10-14) The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” {11} He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” {12} Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” {13} But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place.
      3. What’s interesting in this context is what happened next. Jesus was always tying the healing of natural diseases to the healing of spiritual ills.
        1. {14} Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
      4. He was being warned that having been forgiven, he had better not go back to the old ways or the spiritual sickness would return with even greater power.
      5. Recall the lesson about the woman caught in adultery. The people wanted to stone her, but Jesus wanted to forgive her. But His final words to her are key: “Go and sin no more” (JOH 8:11)
  3. If you want forgiveness, you have to STOP what it is that you are doing wrong, and be willing to forgive others.
    1. We want others to assume the best of us, should we not also then make the effort to assume good motives in others? At least until proven wrong.
    2. And this leads us full circle to the topic for this week, having compassion.
    3. Joseph was in the position to punish his brothers for the wicked things that they did to him.
      1. But, he was able to see from Judah’s plea (and other elements of the story) that these were not the same men who had wished him harm those many years ago.
      2. He was able to see the big picture, see how what had seemed to be a terrible tragedy had actually played out in such a way that it saved thousands of people’s lives, including his own family.
      3. And, he was able to see that the disorders of the past were no longer active with them, and so all the elements were in place for him to be forgiving:
        1. His brothers were in a state of order, and
        2. He was stepping back from the situation and trying to see things as if through the Lord’s eyes instead of hanging on to his own anger. When we try to see things as if through the Lord’s eyes, rather than our own, we are able to feel compassion and forgiveness.
    4. And we feel blessed, we feel a sense of happiness and order that comes when we put ourselves in the stream of providence and let the Lord lead our lives.
      1. Next week, in our 7th and final sermon in this series, we’ll talk about these blessings that come to us from surprising sources. Amen.



First Lesson:

(John 8:3-11) Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, {4} they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. {5} “Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” {6} This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. {7} So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” {8} And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. {9} Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. {10} When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” {11} She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

Second Lesson: AC (Elliott) n. 5867

The previous chapter dealt with the internal man, which is ‘Joseph’ – with the initial steps taken by the internal man to become joined to the external natural man, which is ‘Jacob’s ten sons’, through the intermediary, which is ‘Benjamin’. The present chapter too deals with the internal man – with the actual joining of it to the external natural man. But since the two are not joined together except through spiritual good from the natural, which is ‘Israel’, the internal man prepares to link this good to itself first.


Abram Separates from Lot


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Dawson Creek – October 21, 2012

  1. The Lord established His covenant with Abram.
    1. They were in Ur, present day Kuwait, when the Lord called him to travel into the land of Canaan and beyond.
      1. If Abram obeys the Lord, and worships Him alone,
      2. Then the Lord would protect him, give him land, and many descendants.
    2. They set out with Terah, Abram’s father, Sarai, Abram’s wife, and his brother Haran’s son, Lot.
      1. Their first stop is Haran, a city in the north, in modern Syria. There Terah dies.
      2. So Abram & Sarai resume the journey with their nephew Lot, turning south and heading through Canaan into Egypt.
      3. In Egypt, Abram tells Pharaoh that Sarai is his sister – which is true – but it leads to trouble. Pharaoh takes her into his household and the result is that all of the women become barren. The truth is eventually revealed and Pharaoh sends Abram away with great wealth.
        1. Pharaoh has been informed in a dream that Abram is a great prophet, and he doesn’t want Abram angry with him – so he gives gifts.
    3. So, as the Lord promised, as Abram travels he becomes very rich in sheep and cattle and other possessions.
      1. So rich, in fact, that it is no longer practical for Abram and Lot to travel together.
        1. So many animals that the herdsmen were having trouble finding enough grazing, and were coming to blows over the various meadows.
        2. They had to separate. Abram gave Lot the choice.
  2. The Stories of the Word were all written in Canaan because that land, more than any other, has features that correspond to heavenly things.
    1. The Sea of Galilee
      1. Fresh clear water in the mountains, full of fish = the Word.
    2. The Jordan river, the boundary of the land = introductory truths.
      1. Truths because it is water, introductory because it is the boundary that separates the non-church from the church.
      2. This is why John and Jesus baptized in the Jordan river (See TCR 510).
    3. At the other end, the Dead Sea.
      1. 1300 ft. Below sea level. So full of minerals that nothing can live in it at all. Surrounded by desert with some of the highest temperatures in the world = represents the sensual degree of the mind, or what human beings would be without the Lord’s inflowing and uplifting love.
    4. Mountains, because they cause you to turn your face upwards toward heaven = love to the Lord
      1. But to live up there means more work
      2. Not so many luxuries
      3. But highly rewarding to those willing to work.
    5. Cities of the Plain (Sodom and Gommorah) = the Love of Self.
      1. Well watered land would support more sheep without having to walk so much.
      2. Live in a house instead of a tent.
      3. Markets nearby where all kinds of things can be purchased.
      4. And you also get to live nice and close to lots of wicked people.
    6. Lot chose the valley, and bad things began to happen to him.
      1. Kidnapped, then rescued by Abram
      2. Loses all his money and becomes a beggar in the gates of the city.
      3. Angels come to warn him, and the people of the city attack the angels.
        1. Which leads to even worse crimes
      4. Finally, Lot and his family have to flee as the city is destroyed by the Lord, and his disobedient wife is turned into a pillar of salt.
    7. Meanwhile, Abram is doing very well
      1. Enough servants that he has a personal army!
  3. We all have thousands of ideas every day.
    1. We need to chose what will become part of our mind.
    2. How do we make the right choice?
      1. Ask yourself, “mountains or valley?”
      2. or, “What would the Lord think?”
      3. or, “What would my family think?”
    3. Abram represents the Lord in this story, and we are represented by Lot.
      1. The Lord gives each of us a choice
        1. Mountains, or valley.
      2. Lot selected the valley, the “easy” way, and lost everything.
      3. Abram selected the mountains, the “difficult” way, and became the father of a nation.
    4. Reflect on the reading from the Spiritual Diary that was read as a lesson:
      1. Spirits, both good and evil, travelling together on a road.
      2. In the middle of the road was a great stone, in shadow. The good could see it, but the evil could not see it.
        1. The stone, the rock, the cornerstone of faith = the acknowledgement of the Lord in His Divine Human.
          1. This is the same as the “pearl” which forms each of the gates of the Holy City.
        2. On one side of the rock there was a path that led to heaven, on the other a path that led to hell.
        3. Evil spirits did not see the rock, stumbled, fell, and lay as if dazed. When they got up they argued that they had done as many good deeds as anyone else and so deserved to go to heaven just as much as anyone else. But when their interior thoughts were opened and revealed, it was seen that the were vile and hated the God, and could not travel the path that led to heaven.
        4. But they were also told that it was within their power to not think evils about God, and to refrain from doing things that were against the Word.
        5. They did not wish to do so, and so continued on their way into hell.
      3. This is instructive for us, still in the world, who have time to make changes to our ruling love.
        1. Refrain from thinking evil things about God – about His motives, or His failure to give you the blessings you want.
        2. Refrain from doing things that are against the Word, and thus against the life of charity.
        3. When you bring your life into order on the level of your mind, not just your deeds, then the Lord can flow in with good affections and the good thoughts that accompany them.
        4. This lead to the acknowledgement of the Lord in His Divine Human, a ruling love of good, and puts us on the path that leads to heaven.
        5. It’s not the easiest path, but the destination is worth the effort.
    5. (Mat 7:13-14) “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. {14} “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. Amen.



First Lesson: (Mat 7:7-14)

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. {8} “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. {9} “Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? {10} “Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? {11} “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! {12} “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. {13} “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. {14} “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Second Lesson: SD 5798


I conversed with angels respecting the fact that it is believed that it is difficult to tread the way to heaven, because so many things must be done and all lusts forsaken, besides many things more. Wherefore, as occurs in the spiritual world, the matter was shown by means of a road, which signifies truth which leads. A road appeared at the right, where both the good and the evil trode. It was the same road; but, when they reached to a certain distance, there was a great stone, in shadow, which the good saw but not the evil. From that stone, which is called the cornerstone, a road led to one side and another to the opposite. The evil went on the opposite side, which was behind and sloped downwards; but the good went the other way, which inclined upwards. The latter led to heaven, the former to hell. That stone signified the Lord and His Divine Human. The evil did not acknowledge it: the good did acknowledge. It appeared that the evil fell upon it, because the stone was in shadow. Hence was shown that the moral life which both evil and good lead is the same, but from a different source; the evil do it from an infernal source, the good from a spiritual source. The evil who travelled it, were those who led a moral life like the moral life of the good About the cornerstone, see Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10, 11; Luke 20:17, 18. They who fell upon the stone said, that, when they fell, they lay as if dazed. When they got up, they said that they did goods as much as the others – they were permitted to enumerate some of these – and that, therefore, they were equally entitled to enter heaven. But they were merely goods of civil life in external form; for the interiors, which were of the thought and of the love, were opened, and they were vile, and also defamatory about God, especially about the Lord. They angrily declared, also, that they were not able to do good of themselves; how, then, could they travel the way leading to heaven? But they were told that it was within their power, not to think evils about God and about the Lord, and thus to shun such things as are against the Word and against doctrine, and against the doctrine of their faith; and when they shun evils of thought, then, from the Lord, good affection and consequent thought inflows, and thus they are brought into good by the Lord; and so far as they are in this, so far they come into the affection of truth.