How Ignatian spirituality enhanced my cognitive behavioral therapy
In 2015, I became depressed during my transition to a new university after three years of attending my local community college. As a disabled Vietnamese student whose parents escaped Vietnam to seek better opportunities in the United States, I was raised in a faithful home where my educational pursuits were the expected way for me to contribute to the family.
Living away from my home was a new experience for me. I missed my parents’ home cooking, my local parish, my choir friends. Most of all, I missed the familiarity of the local eateries in San Jose, where I have lived since I immigrated to the United States at the age of 4.
I have dealt with language barriers, adjusting to a new country and making new friends. But the primary challenge of moving to my new school came from my cerebral palsy, which requires me to use a wheelchair at times. At home, I moved easily around town and had assistance from my friends and family. The streets of my new cities of Oakland and Berkeley were filled with unfamiliar faces and crowded with cars.
Don’t show your emotions. Be strong, I told myself.
One day, as I was crossing the street to get to my class, a red car zipped by so fast I was seconds away from getting hit. Later, as I made my way back to my apartment, I found myself battling a wave of exhaustion. I fumbled for my iPhone and dialed my dad. Three rings later, his tired voice answered my call. “Hello?” I forced myself not to cry. Don’t show your emotions. Be strong, I told myself. “I want to go home, Dad. I’m tired.”
Home is where the heart is right? But where is God? After giving myself a moment to pause, I asked my dad to call the paramedics for me.
A few minutes later, the paramedics arrived and took me to the E.R. Like a scene out of “Grey’s Anatomy,” several doctors asked me endless questions. I mumbled my answers, mostly in a dazed state of mind. They diagnosed me with a panic attack and then transferred me to another hospital when I started exhibiting symptoms of suicidal ideation. In that moment of stress, I was emotionally blind and could not see the purpose of living.
After coming out on the other end of this ordeal, I ended up deciding to leave Berkeley and move back home to San Jose. I remember wheeling myself with my dad into an advisor’s office and picking up a pen to scribble my signatures on the medical leave documents. The moment of truth came as I sat with the acceptance that I needed to practice better self-care and compassion before taking on new endeavors. It’s okay not to be okay. God doesn’t judge you.
In that moment of stress, I was emotionally blind and could not see the purpose of living.
This moment of truth also led me on a journey to encountering two tools that helped me practice self-care and compassion: therapy and Ignatian spirituality. Over time I realized I could deepen my own spirituality and self-acceptance with the practices of a 16th-century saint combined with the techniques of modern psychology. It’s okay not to be okay. God doesn’t judge you.
When I met my therapist, she spoke to me briefly in Vietnamese. I was shocked because she did not look Vietnamese. I mustered up the courage to ask her about her background, and I found out she was half-Vietnamese. She had lost both of her parents as a child and learned Vietnamese in her upbringing by her grandmother. Ah, God, this is what you were preparing me for. Her speaking in my mother tongue felt like a warm hug.
I opened up to her about the difficulties of school, but mostly about how I always seemed to feel anxious about my expectations as the eldest daughter in a Vietnamese Catholic family. I grew up attending Mass and following my dad to his weekly Saturday catechism classes. These were followed by Vietnamese language immersion classes. I felt the need to be a great example for my siblings.
Ah, God, this is what you were preparing me for.
Gently, my therapist asked me what I wanted most in life. I grew quiet, and after a few minutes of silence, I responded, “I want to be peaceful in my heart and mind.” She asked me what peace meant to me. The question made me reflect on how I dealt with my trials previously. As a child I was taught the Hail Mary and the Our Father as part of our nightly family rituals of prayer and petitions for safety and protection. Like any other young child, I was guilty of dozing off halfway through long homilies. Am I a good Catholic?
I sat in my therapist’s well-lit office every two weeks, processing my need for self care along with my role in the family as an immigrant daughter in a religious family. My therapist made eye contact with me, at times nodding and validating my feelings. When I finished my conversation with her, she reminded me of the grounding techniques of using my five senses to focus on being present and feeling gratitude.
My year-long break from school allowed me to rest and take walks on the grounds of Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara. As I walked slowly up to the big statue of the Virgin Mary, I bent down with my eyes closed while the cool wind blew around me. A wave of calmness washed over me as I felt tears dripping from the corners of my eyes. Silently, I asked her for guidance on which school to transfer to.
My therapist reminded me of the grounding techniques of using my five senses to focus on being present and feeling gratitude.
After applying again and with careful discernment, I transferred to Santa Clara University, where I met many Jesuit mentors and friends from Christian Life Community groups. Fr. Manh, the CLC director, guided us each week with conversations and themes of Ignatian spirituality for different stages of our lives. Most of all, these weekly meetings gave me new friends to accompany me through my joys and sorrows.
In the five steps of the Examen prayer of St. Ignatius, I found the “reviewing of my day” to be a crucial part of my resilience and recovery. Facing my struggles and talking about it to God through journaling is similar to confronting my distorted thoughts in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Positive affirmations are similar to the awareness of one’s needs and asking for graces in Ignatian spirituality.
Ignatian spirituality and the Examen prayer joined the rosary and petitionary prayers as parts of my own path to God. I discovered that I can experience God’s love in all things. I developed a new habit of finding God in the little moments throughout my days. On breaks from classes, I would ride in my wheelchair while the cool wind blew in my face. Every day, I would grab my phone out of my pocket and snap as many pictures of the sun and clouds as I could.
Positive affirmations are similar to the awareness of one’s needs and asking for graces in Ignatian spirituality.
As the sun emitted its light, I felt God’s presence through the warmth. The white clouds fascinated me as they shifted shapes. I marveled at the gift of nature, of God’s creation. Reviewing my day and observing moments led to new appreciation of the stillness amid the chaos and constant distractions from my never-ending busyness. In these realizations, I found God to be a friend rather than the judgy father figure that I saw as a child. He carried me with the grace of patience rather than the usual impatience that contributed to my anxiety.
Each breath I inhaled and exhaled became the movement inside me. The movement of the spirit calmed me down in the stillness of the day. The prayers became a mantra that I focused on. The distractions became more like pebbles than rocks, much easier overcome.
It occurred to me: St. Ignatius must have created the Examen as a form of spiritual cognitive behavioral therapy.
When I spoke with my therapist, she did not deny my struggles, rather, she listened and comforted me. She acknowledged that my struggles were valid and gave me the tools to change my distorted thoughts. In those sessions, I sometimes broke down in tears—a very natural part of my recovery process—but those tears have surprisingly helped me find God by allowing me to release my anxiety. Letting go is an ongoing process that I constantly strive to practice.
St. Ignatius must have created the Examen as a form of spiritual cognitive behavioral therapy.
These acknowledgements from my therapist are similar to how I utilize the Examen to help me recognize God working in my daily life. While my therapist sat down physically to help me process my feelings, I have also learned to recognize God by becoming aware of the happenings of my days. God is present the whole time, and I had not realized it until I experienced the gift of slowing down. He is in control.
Mental health is seldom talked about in my home due to the cultural barriers between my and my parents’ generations. However, I have learned that every living human being has a yearning to be understood at the deepest levels of ourselves. We are all broken in some ways and no one is perfect. I have found that God loves me despite my brokenness. He is patiently waiting for me to come to Him.
Through the gift of encouragement from my psychotherapist and the Examen prayer, I have embraced my healing journey as one that, like the Jesuit motto, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, glorifies God by finding him in all things. Seeing him in the good, the bad, the little moments that make me aware of how I can improve myself each and every day. He walks with me no matter what I am going through, and I am grateful for that.
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