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Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Couples by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.


Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. Is Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (1977). He is a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor in the State of California. His personal website is http://members.aol.com/clinebellh/index.htm, and his email address is clinebellH@aol.com. Published in 1977 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, this book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5. Methods of Spiritual Enrichment and Inner Renewal


Among all my patients in the second half of life -- that is to say, over 35 -- there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.( Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1943) p. 264.)

-- Carl Gustav Jung

Spiritual enrichment and inner renewal are important ways of increasing mid-years creativity. They are an essential foundation on which to develop a more mutually-enlivening marriage. This is an area in which ministers have unique and essential contributions to make in marriage counseling and renewal.

Inner poverty is a common cause of marital boredom and conflict. Alienation from oneself always produces distancing in relationships. I have noticed in myself that whenever I get disconnected from my inner space, or allow it to become cramped or cluttered, my close relationships suffer, as do my teaching, counseling, and writing. Taking time to reconnect with my center and to make this inner space a better place to be "at home" has salutary effects on these relationships and activities.

John Gardner states pointedly the danger of inner deadness: "'Keep on growing,' the commencement speakers say, 'Don't go to seed. Let this be a beginning, not an ending.' It is a good theme. Yet a high proportion of the young people who hear the speeches pay no heed and by the time they are middle-aged they are absolutely mummified"( Gardner, Self-Renewal ) Mummified mid-years marriages both reflect and increase inner mummification. Marital resurrection is possible, beginning with revitalization within each of the partners.

Increasing the spiritual sharing in a marriage deepens the care and intimacy of that relationship. "Quite apart from any churchy or churchly considerations, the spiritual dimension of a marriage is a source of food for spiritual growth and health. . . . The moments of sharing on the spiritual level are tender, precious moments in a relationship."( Clinebell and Clinebell, The Intimate Marriage, p. 179 ) Such moments become increasingly important and wholeness-giving in the second half of a marriage.

This chapter aims at helping increase the aliveness and enjoyment of inner space -- the place where each of us is most with ourself and from which we reach out to others. Numerous methods are available now for the spiritual-intellectual growth work which produces inner renewal. In the. following pages, I will describe several of these methods which have been helpful to me and to mid-years persons with whom I have counseled and shared enrichment experiences. I hope these methods will encourage you to discover other ways as well for enriching the vertical dimensions of your life and your marriage. I suggest that you try each method with your spouse to discover if it works for you. Remember, spiritual growth is contagious. Spiritual growth in others is best facilitated by persons who are themselves growing.

Communicating About What Matters Most

Marriage partners can stimulate and support each other's inner renewal by taking time to talk regularly about their real concerns. Sharing your intellectual, spiritual, and value struggles can encourage each other's spiritual growth and strengthen vertical dimension intimacy.

To practice this kind of communication, find a quiet place and take turns, as a couple, completing the following sentences. Take them one at a time, spending as much time as you need to discuss thoroughly the issues and feelings that arise: "The ideas and issues which excite me most are . . .;" "The things that are most worth living for right now are . . .;" "I feel the most joy (pain, hope, lonely, together) when . . .;" "What I really believe about God is . . .;" "I feel closest to (most distant from) God when . . .;" "I get spiritually high when . . . ;" "The beliefs that mean the most to me now are . . . ;" "The beliefs from my childhood which no longer make sense are . . .;" "Life has the least (the most) meaning for me when . . .;" "I feel closest to you (most distant from you) spiritually when . . .;" "The way I really feel about the church is . . .;" "I'd like to do the following, to enjoy more spiritual sharing . . .;" "To enrich the spiritual life of our family, I'd like to . .;" "Other things about our spiritual growth that concern me are . . .;" "The way I feel about discussing these questions is . . ."

If you haven't talked about such matters as these for a long time, or ever, it may be difficult or embarrassing at first. But with practice, sharing on this level can become deeply satisfying.

Intellectual Renewal

Research shows that if you continue to exercise your mind, your intellectual powers can be at their peak during the middle years.( See Simon, "The Vintage Mind," chap. 8.) The energies and creativity of your mind will continue at a high level long after your body has slowed down, if you keep using it. To love God with your mind means to use your mind -- that marvelous, mysterious, creative gift of God -- as fully and productively as possible, throughout your life.

An educated person is one who enjoys using her or his mind in lifelong learning.( This is a paraphrase of a statement attributed to Robert M Hutchins) The mid-years offer fresh opportunities to learn what you really want to know (in contrast to what others think you should know). It's a time to enjoy acquiring a new skill, hobby, or language. My best friend always wanted to know more about philosophy and the history of ideas. Now in her early fifties, she has completed her doctorate in that area. She's excited by the discoveries of new mind-stretching truths. Psychiatrist Robert N. Butler, in discussing creativity in the later years, declares that the goal of these years is to become an "autodidact" -- literally, a selfteacher.( Robert Butler, "The Destiny of Creativity in Later Life," in Psychodynamic Studies on Aging: Creativity, Reminiscing and Dying ed. Sidney Levin and Ralph J. Kahana (New York: International Universities Press, 1967),

Without a doubt, your mind has rich undeveloped and underdeveloped capacities. Allow yourself to enjoy the adventure of discovering these inner powers.

Here's an intentional approach to intellectual renewal. Begin by listing in your growth journal all the subjects, issues, and problems you'd really like to know more about./ List all the skills you'd enjoy having. Compare your lists with those of your partner. See if there are areas of shared interest./ Select one of these areas to develop together./ Now each of you also pick an interest to develop on your own./ Decide what books, seminars, people, courses, and other resources will help you explore the issues or acquire the skills you have chosen as your personal and your shared growth goals./ Write out workable plans for moving ahead in widening your own mental horizons and enriching your intellectual intimacy.

Meditation for Inner Refreshment

The hectic pace of the mid-years makes it essential to develop effective methods of centering -- ways of contacting and renewing one's inner space. Many persons are discovering that the techniques of meditation help them experience regular inner refreshment. One busy mid-years couple reports that the two periods they spend meditating each day gives them a tonic for tensions as well as other rewards which far surpass their investment of time.( From a personal communication) Research studies reveal that various forms of meditation and relaxation produce significant changes in body chemistry, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption that probably benefit physical, mental, and spiritual health.( See Benson, The Relaxation Response ) Meditative techniques are excellent ways of enlivening one's devotional and prayer experiences.

I find that meditation breaks help me rest my hyperactive mental motor and renew my inner energies. Charlotte has encouraged me in my efforts to develop regular contact with my "serenity zone," by being willing to share her longer experience with meditation.( Lewis and Streitfeld Growth Games, p. 57. For a helpful section on meditation, see pp 57-74)

Here are some guidelines for meditating, derived from her approach and various other sources. I suggest that you try them now. While standing, relax your body by tensing and releasing all your muscles three or four times./ Now sit in a comfortable, straight-backed chair, in a quiet place, in whatever posture allows you not to be preoccupied with your body. After you read the following guidelines, close your eyes and practice them for fifteen to twenty minutes. Take several deep breaths, allowing your tensions to flow out as you exhale./ Focus your attention on your breathing. Be aware of its continuing inflow-outflow, inflow-outflow. Notice that the air is cooler as it flows in, warmer as it flows out./ Become one with your breathing.

Don't try to achieve any particular mental state or goal. This form of meditation aims at the opposite of trying to achieve. Let go. Flow with your experience wherever it carries you. Each time you exhale, try repeating over and over, one word or a short phrase which feels comfortable to your mind. Concentrating on one sound may help you center your consciousness by quieting the inner conversations and interrupting the tumbling stream of feelings and thoughts. I find that the inner sound of "one," or "peace," or "shalom," or "warm," helps me quiet and experience my consciousness. Pick a word, perhaps, from your religious traditions, which has a good feeling for you, but not one which will trigger a theological discussion within your mind.

It may also help you to center if you form and focus on a picture or image back of your closed eyelids -- perhaps a rose, a snowflake, a sunset, a cross, a star of David, a mandala. Try different sounds and/or images, until you find one sound or image, or a combination of a sound and image, that helps you achieve refreshing quietness within. If thoughts, outside sounds, or itches occur, don't fret or fight them. Just observe them passing through your consciousness. Continue to focus on your breathing and your centering sound and/or image.

The meditative state is somewhere between ordinary waking consciousness and sleep, but it is different from both. It varies for each person and on different occasions. Occasionally it may bring feelings of transcendence or ecstasy. Research evidence shows that salutary bodily effects often occur, even when the subjective experience doesn't seem particularly helpful. Most people find that, with practice, meditation provides refreshing oases in their day.

Over a period of several weeks try meditating twice a day, before meals, for about twenty minutes. If you find that you have trouble disciplining yourself to meditate twice daily, a training course in Transcendental Meditation or some other approach may increase your motivation. Share and learn from each other's experiences with meditation.

Enriching Your Inner Space

Meditation brings inner renewal by opening you to the deeper resources of your consciousness. Active imagining is a complementary method of inner enrichment.

For example, try closing your eyes and picturing your consciousness as a space or a room within yourself./ Now expand your consciousness by pushing back the walls of your inner room, or change it in other ways to make it a better place to be at home./ Now, imagine that you are opening yourself to let warmth and light flow into your inner space and your whole body the warmth and light of God's healing, energizing Spirit./ As the warmth and light fill you, let them flow out through your hands, to blend with the warmth and light of your spouse and surround you both./ Continue this for at least ten minutes./ Now, discuss your experience with your spouse./ Experiment with other images to enrich your inner world./

Developing Your "Other Side"

As Carl Jung made clear, inner wholeness, particularly after age forty, usually requires developing one's neglected "other side" -- the soft, nurturing, feelingful, vulnerable side in a man and the strong, assertive, analytical side in a woman. Our culture's narrow sex-role stereotypes encourage us to ignore or reject these rich, balancing sides of ourselves. The spiritual lopsidedness which results becomes increasingly limiting in the second half of life. By claiming their neglected sides, a couple enhances the inner resources which each brings to their marriage. They can appreciate and enjoy more dimensions of each other's personhood, thus increasing their intimacy in relating.

Befriending the so-called feminine and masculine sides in oneself and one's partner can also facilitate spiritual enrichment by increasing each person's openness to the nurturing, comforting, and confronting-ethical sides of religious experience. Our spiritual health is enhanced by thus keeping the maternal and the paternal sides of our experiences of God in balance.

A couple can help each other develop increased inner wholeness by affirming more liberated, whole behavior when it occurs. A husband's appreciation of his wife's assertiveness, and a wife's appreciation of her husband's soft, nurturing behavior, can help each accept and develop these sides of themselves.( For further methods of liberation see the two books by Charlotte H. Clinebell listed in the Annotated Bibliography.)

Open Yourself to Peak Experiences

Because life in the mid-years often becomes dull and two-dimensional, energizing moments of transcendence are vital to renewal. Psychologist Abraham Maslow regarded such moments as "peak experiences," little moments of self-actualization which are one of the ways we grow. (Abraham Maslow, "Self-Actualization and Beyond " in James F. T Bugental, Challenges of Humanistic Psychology )(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967) He regarded these little mystical moments as life-validating in that they make life worthwhile and unified. They are "integrative of the splits within the person, between persons, . . . and between the person and the world."( Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, 2d ed. (New York D. van Nostrand, 1968), p. 210.)

One cannot create such spiritual highs. They are a normal part of life and experience, but a part we often ignore. Our task is to become more aware of and open to them, and more able to celebrate them when they occur. Slowing down our pace, and increasing our experience of the "now" through meditation, can enhance our awareness of the moments of uplift which are easily overlooked in our hectic lives and inner dullness.

These precious moments often occur in commonplace events. It increases my awareness of a special moment if I pause within myself when it occurs and simply let myself enjoy the experience. Later, I may write the letters P.E. (peak experience) beside the jotting I've made about it in my personal log. In plateau times, when life goes fiat, it helps to return to these jottings and enjoy reliving the peak experience of a child's smile, a breathtaking sunset, a moving encounter with a person, a sexual high, a majestic strain of music, a feeling of connectedness with the flow of life and with the Spirit of the universe.

So let yourself savor these mountaintop moments; let yourself relive the lift and the gratitude you felt for the gift of transcendence. Share peak experiences with each other. Enliven your marriage spiritually by finding more experiences which give you peaks together. (See Lewis and Streitfeld, pp 72-75)

I am writing this during the week before Easter. As I once again experience within myself the drama of these special days, I am moved by the power of the inner experience of Easter. All growth is a process of death and resurrection, which means that growth involves struggle, risk, and pain. Before any of us can be reborn to more open, loving marriages, some of the self-absorption and defensiveness that distances us from each other must die. The good news is that resurrection to new aliveness and new relationships is possible!

Psychiatrist Fritz Kunkel, in his discussion of the "continuing creation," declarcs: "Easter, rebirth, the new creation, is either a convincing inner experience which changes our character and our lives, or it is nothing at all.... Creative power fills our souls.... Life and Light and Love begin anew."( Fritz Kunkel, Creation Continues (Waco, Texas: Word, 1973), pp. 267-77) To witness continuing creation in a person or in a relationship is a profoundly moving peak experience. When I see it happening in an enrichment group or a counseling session, I know that I am indeed standing on holy ground.

Peak experiences are invaluable resources for handling constructively the accelerating losses of the mid-years. These experiences can increase awareness of the larger context of one's life. In these fleeting moments of rebirth to larger dimensions of self, relationships, and the Spirit, something of the larger life becomes experiential. My brief, fragile life is part of an ongoing creative process -- part of a reality in which I can participate and which will continue after I am gone. In my participation in this process I transcend my puny, time-and nature-bound existence. I belong! I am a small but significant part of the larger life!

Putting Away Childish Things

One of the blocks which prevents persons from enjoying more spiritual adventure and transcendence is the cold inner lump of unfaced doubts, obsolete beliefs, and fossilized fears of God left from childhood. Reducing this logjam helps clear the inner channels for the flow of spiritual energies. Letting go of the childish feelings we project on the universe can release us to experience the reality of the energizing Spirit of growth and love. The realism and spiritual hunger of the mid-years can give one courage to risk letting go of obsolete beliefs.

Here is a method of doing this spiritual maturation work. Try it with your spouse or in a spiritual growth group.

In your growth journal, list the religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices which make sense to you intellectually and are important in your present life./ Discuss the list with your partner and/or your group./ Now list the religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices which no longer seem valid or important, even though you still go through the motions of paying them lip service./ Discuss these with your spouse and/or group./

Getting the things you affirm, and those you don't, out in the open can help you let go of leftover spiritual baggage. This lets you reinvest your spiritual energies in growth-producing adult faith and values. Childish beliefs often have scary, irrational feeling associated with them. At first you may feel as though you're losing your faith, when actually you're just allowing it to grow up.

If do-it-yourself methods don't lighten your load, get the help of a competent pastoral counselor trained in the skills of a coach-facilitator of spiritual growth. Your personal religion can be a weight on your spirit, or it can give your spirit wings. Putting away childish things can release you to let yourself frolic and fly spiritually.

Renewing Basic Trust

Periodic renewal of the inner springs of trust helps enrich the mid-years spiritually. The conviction that life is basically trustworthy, in spite of its pain and disappointments, undergirds a trust-full marriage.( The term basic trust is from Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton 1950) Unfortunately, most of us operate on the basis of gut-level, works-righteousness theology. Our lives are driven by the hope that if we keep conforming, pleasing others, trying to achieve, obeying the "shoulds," perhaps someday we will feel accepted within ourselves. A driven lifestyle stemming from this illusory hope reaches a point of diminished or negative returns in the mid-years. The awareness dawns gradually that the works-righteousness path cannot lead to self-acceptance and renewed trust.

To find a better path requires that you experience love, the love you do not have to earn because it is simply there, already there, in the relationship itself. In traditional Christian language this kind of love is called "grace." To experience grace in relationships -- with one's spouse, one's spiritual search group, one's counselor -- is to experience growth, healing, and trust renewal. Such experiences help to make us aware of the good -- the image of God -- within us. They help us to "accept ourselves as being accepted" at our center.( This is the way Paul Tillich described the experience of grace) The accepting love of others thus becomes a channel through which the loving Spirit -- the source of trust and growth -- can enter and renew our inner lives. As Martin Buber put it: "The extended lives of relations meet in the external Thou. Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou."( Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith, 2d ed. (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1958), p. 75.)

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