Blog 3 | John A. Otte

Spiritual Group Therapy

Monthly Blog 3

Ten of us sat in a circle in the library of the retreat center. It was a beautiful room, with floor to ceiling books lining the walls and dormer windows high up on the 20-foot ceiling, letting in fresh high desert air. This was early fall several years ago and I was co-leading a spiritual retreat with my dear friend and co-therapist Brenda. This was the Saturday afternoon group, the penultimate group of the weekend retreat.

As with every meeting that weekend, we had started the meeting with a 10-minute meditation. The meditation had just ended and as we sat there in comfortable silence the wind came up. It’s a bit difficult to describe this experience (more on that later). We had felt a breeze a few times up to then, with the windows so high up in the roof, it wasn’t a direct breeze, more like feeling the air move around us.

But what we were experiencing now was a direct breeze that seemed to gather and swirl as it moved around us. It was impossible not to notice this wind. My immediate thought was “Pentecost” and if little flames had appeared above the heads of those gathered there I would not have been surprised, frightened maybe, but not surprised. I looked across the circle at Brenda and we made eye contact, a little smile appeared on her face, and I knew that she knew what I was thinking, “Holy Spirit”.

I don’t remember who shared what after that but what I do remember is that love filled the room and everyone, including the two therapists, opened their hearts and told their truth. Sometimes, as a therapist, you can feel healing while it is occurring. You can feel the power of love in the moment. It is a beautiful and wonderous thing to behold.

I once had one of those moments with an old client of mine. It was a dark, cloudy day and he was in a lot of pain over the struggles of his son. My office was filled with his despair and pain, and I felt helpless to alleviate his suffering. As the session neared the end, something strange happened. I have been in this office for 20 years and I can honestly say that nothing like what occurred that day has happened before or since.

A golden light filled the room, and I mean filled the room, like the air itself turned radiant gold. We both looked outside and there was the smallest of breaks in the clouds, and you could see the barest glimpse of the sun, but nothing that would explain the gold light that enveloped us. My client said “wow”, and I said “yeah”. We both had big smiles on our faces as the session ended and we both went on our way. His suffering was gone.

Later that evening I received a text from my client, he asked “did that really happen?” I replied “yes, I believe it really did” but, I, too, had my doubts. I have thought about that morning many times since, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that we really don’t know how to understand those moments when we experience the divine. In fact, we can’t understand them, and that’s because what we’ve experienced isn’t human.

My spiritual mentor, Dano, whenever he talked about his Higher Power, he would say “that Power that I don’t understand”. Dano helped me see that my perceptions of a Higher Power (HP) were based on childhood perceptions of my parents. I miss Dano because I could have had this conversation with him. How, when we do experience our HP in a direct way, like in group that day, or with my client in my office, when we think about the experience later, we doubt, we question, we don’t believe.

I got back into group therapy about 10 years ago with my good friend Al. We talked about how we could do a “spiritual” group, and, ultimately, we started a group together. Al was both an organizational psychologist (he would dispute that characterization, but he is) and a spiritual director and we connected on both levels, both spiritually and psychologically. He was also a gifted group therapist and we worked well together.

We decided that to have a “spiritual” group we would do two things; first, we would start the group with a five-minute silent meditation, second, we would ask that Power (or HP) to come into the process. I have come to realize that our thought process around how to build spirituality into group therapy was divinely inspired. We were both blown away by the process of that first group, as I have been in the groups I’ve done since, and I do those two things in every group I lead.

There is something about asking that Power into the process that changes everything. A simple request and hearts are opened, wounds are exposed, and, above all, unparalleled healing energy infuses the room.

I have seen glimpses of Divine Love in almost every group I have led since. Sometimes, the energy is so palpable that I can’t hold back tears. And most often, those moments occur in shared, comfortable silence. Thomas Keating, one of my spiritual heroes, said that “God’s language is silence, everything else is a poor translation.” And, I must say, when we allow ourselves and those around us to “just be”, grace and love are bountiful.

But group therapy is about sharing one’s truth, and listening top others do the same, the silences, when they occur, happen organically, after there’s been much verbal sharing. Spiritual Group Therapy is ultimately about community building, a community that’s built on sharing one’s truth. If you’re reading this, I sincerely hope that you have the chance to participate in this kind of community.

I believe it’s why we are here.