What is Spirituality? – Keith Kurlander and Dr. Will Van Derveer – HPP 88

Keith Kurlander, MA, LPC

Dr. Will Van Derveer

What is the relationship between mental health and spiritual health? How do we define spirituality? Are there differences between a mental illness and spiritual illness?

That is the topic of today’s episode, where we explore the shared elements of spiritual well-being and mental health, how they support one another, and where these areas diverge.

Will and Keith dive deep into a conversation around spirituality, their own personal experiences, the technologies used in spiritual traditions and the field of mental healthcare, and how these synergistic fields interact with each other in overcoming states of suffering and achieving wellness.

Show Notes:

The Role of Spirituality In Mental Health – 01:22
“One way I like to conceptualize spirituality is the relationship that we are having with our experience, which of course is partly determined by the framework that we’re applying to our experience”

The Spiritual Path – 05:10
“I think the first really authentic spiritual experiences I had were experiences in nature, being out in the woods, really feeling the lightness of the forest, feeling connected to that I think those were the most authentic and deepest experiences I had as a kid”

The Overlap Between Mental Health and Spiritual Traditions – 15:54
“There’s a lot of distinction. I think there’s both. And again, like I go back to, there seems to be different aims, though, for the person who goes into a spiritual tradition, or the mental health space for help. And using the tools in these two spaces, or tends to be different aims, it seems like and different uses for some of these technologies”

Peak Experiences and Ego Development – 27:24
“So peak experiences and speaking more of the peak experiences being these internal states that we experience, whether it’s about the interconnectivity of all things, or expansiveness of consciousness, there’s the Samadhi states, of course. So just curious about that. And then, of course, there’s people on the spiritual path, and all they’re pursuing is an enlightened Samadhi. That’s their thing”

Psychedelics and Spiritual Experience – 31:14
“I think it’s definitely an aspect of spiritual bypassing, which would be that the ordinary is actually uncomfortable. Seeking a change from the ordinary repeatedly is an addiction. I think it’s very common in psychedelics, and also in spiritual traditions to be seeking kind of an exit hatch, right from being in your normal day”

Understanding the Higher and Lower Self – 42:28
“The lower self sometimes is defined as the animalistic mind. Obviously, there’s sort of the religious model here of higher and lower self, and it’s defined more morally, but that’s not so much what I’m talking about right now. A higher self being more of the divine mind, divine experience, or the unbounded mind, non-relative mind”

Full Episode Transcript


Keith Kurlander, Dr. Will Van Derveer


Dr. Will Van Derveer  00:00

Spiritual elements could be personal or it could be transpersonal. It could be intergenerational, it could be cultural. There’s all kinds of influences that are at play inside of the individual that are not necessarily about the individual on the spiritual level.


Keith Kurlander  00:22

Thank you for joining us for The Higher Practice Podcast. I’m Keith Kurlander with Dr. Will Van Derveer. And this is the podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health. Welcome back, today, we’re going to dive into a conversation about what is spirituality, we’re gonna do this together, Will and I, we’ll see where this takes us. And this is really going to be about defining, really, when we talk about mental health and spiritual health. What’s the difference? Is there a difference? is spiritual health necessary for mental health is not met seems like a really important conversation to have. Do you agree with that Will?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  01:12

yeah, definitely. It’s an interesting sort of murky area, the overlap and interplay between spirituality and mental health.


Keith Kurlander  01:22

Yeah, so that’s what we’re gonna take a stab at today. And we just have seen so many people over time defining, first of all these terms differently, but also, it seems like such an important conversation to have when we’re thinking about optimal mental health, which is what’s the role of spirituality in optimal mental health? Is there a role? Is it essential or not? So that’s where we’re going today?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  01:45

Yeah, here we go.


Keith Kurlander  01:46

You want to get started?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  01:48

Yeah, I start thinking about the meta experience of life, as we navigate the suffering and the challenges that we inevitably face as human beings. And one way I like to conceptualize spirituality is the relationship that we are having with our experience, which of course is partly determined by the framework that we’re applying to our experience. I remember when I was younger, in my early 30s, diving really deep into Buddhism, and having the opportunity to meet some Tibetan lamas from Tibet, and just noticing how joyful they were, and playful and hilarious. And because I was a physician, I was privy to the fact that some of them are really suffering with physical illnesses, cancer, and all kinds of problems. And it just blew me away that they were so joyful, and funny. So it really opened my mind to what happens when you have a very healthy relationship with what’s happening in your life.


Keith Kurlander  02:52

Yeah, my early day into the investigation of the human experience, and myself and other people was really in the paradigm of the conversation of spirituality. That’s kind of where I started. And also philosophy, which is another interesting thing of like, how do you even separate that out? But so for me, like the conversation started with the language of spirituality. And then I started getting exposed to what you’re talking about, like meeting these people, and teachers who seemed much more joyful than me. At least it looked that way. Yeah, of course like you said, You’re privy to actually seeing that in some ways. There’s a lot of problems going on there too. But it did open my mind in this kind of world of spirituality of like, oh, there’s people that devoted their lives, to seeking some sort of internal experience of balance, or whatever it is, for some people, it’s more ecstasy and that kind of stuff. And so that’s where I began, spirituality is sort of that term where I started was more about people who were actively engaged in seeking the highest experience they could achieve in life, before I really started getting involved in the mental health space, which seemed like it was a different conversation. But there’s so much overlap in these two conversations and these two frameworks, because I guess ultimately, these are frameworks, these terms really point out a framework of being and doing. Would you agree with that?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  04:23

Right, yeah, for sure. Framework or being and doing and kind of qualitative experience of getting outside of oneself. The feeling of being more connected to the universe, to the earth to divinity to God to being kind of opened out and opened in. It’s kind of hard to put words onto and then the being and doing piece, I think is a really important element of where we come together and think about things related to spirituality as not just an experience, but also the action that is taken out of that space of being.


Keith Kurlander  05:10

Right. It’s also like what you’re speaking to is there certain technologies that have been developed, for instance, in the spiritual traditions that we use in order to accomplish certain things right? In the spiritual traditions, and then there’s certain technologies that have been developed in the mental health traditions to achieve certain things. And there is overlap. And we see more and more overlap now. Yeah. As we’re starting to have the conversation here. One thing I think that’s going on between these different sort of categorizations of life is, it seems like we’re somewhat trying to answer different questions. And there’s a little bit of a different pursuit. For me, the spiritual pursuit, has Initially, the spiritual pursuit was more around, looking into the essence of things, the nature of reality, and getting relief from suffering, and trying to whatever it was, have a mystical experience, or just get some relief from being absorbed in my mental experience, and seeing some other essence of reality. And that’s where my spiritual pursuit began, my mental health pursuit began very differently. Now, where did your spiritual pursuit begin?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  06:26

I think my spiritual pursuit began with looking at pictures of the Dalai Lama that were held on to the refrigerator by magnets that the home I grew up in. I don’t know why my mother was so connected to the Dalai Lama, that she loved him, and she was not a Buddhist. We went to church at the Methodist Church. And as a young boy, I’ve sensed that there was a gap between what I would now call ritual or the things that were done in church. And what it seemed like the rituals were trying to get people to, I don’t remember having a spiritual experience at church, as a boy. And so I remember being resistant to going to Sunday school and going to church. And I was lucky that my mom really supported my curiosity. And I ended up as a teenager starting to go and check out different spiritual traditions and really explore. And so I think the first really authentic spiritual experiences I had were experiences in nature, being out in the woods, really feeling the lightness of the forest, feeling connected to that. I think those were the most authentic and deepest experiences I had as a kid.


Keith Kurlander  07:46

Yeah, well, when you’re speaking, what I’m really thinking about here is when we talk about what is spirituality, for the child, it seems like it tends to be around seeking connection, Authenticity, truth, and that might be what it is for the adult to I have to think a little bit more about that. But it’s interesting to define like, what is a spiritual pursuit? Obviously, that’s defined by an individual, but it seems like for me as a kid, too, as you were talking like, yeah, there was so many parts of my childhood that I would actually call spiritual pursuit, reflecting back on it, like my first my conscious spiritual pursuit was unless probably six or seven. And I used to stare into a corner of these two adjoining windows, in my parents bedroom, where, when I would look in a certain way, I would see an infinite amount of myself in there. And I will just sit there and contemplate, what does it mean that something can be infinite? How is that possible? What does that even mean? And that was my spiritual pursuit. As a kid, I would sit there and stare and go, what does it mean that something can be infinite. And there were other things. And I think we all have this as kids, like, I remember, I used to squeeze my eyes as hard as I could, until everything got red and it was just go as long as I could, and enter some kind of state, and did that often as a kid. And so there was obviously some form of my own creative form of some kind of meditation. And I think as kids, we were seeking things our own way and trying to find like, what’s actually going on? So I’m just arriving more at what is spirituality. And I think it’s sort of this pursuit for truth and connection, authenticity and meaning. And some people might claim they’re not spiritual, but we can probably find ways in their life that they’re doing that is my guess.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  09:39

Right? The search for meaning is something that. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a person who’s not in their own way on a search for meaning, which is a spiritual pursuit. Exactly.


Keith Kurlander  09:52

Yeah, and then fast forwarding to adult life, things get a little more interesting in terms of the complexity of the tools that we could try out. And yoga and these different Eastern traditions I got involved in and but ultimately, it was sort of for me is still about looking for a greater answer for me of how to be well in this world and experience more of the nature of truth in essence.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  10:25

Yeah, one of the folks we interviewed a few weeks ago, Bruce Tift, talks about the two paths. That’s the developmental path. And then there’s the, he calls it the traditional path, which is essentially that we’re already home, no matter where we are, no matter what’s happening, there’s always the opportunity to deeply connect with the present moment and what’s actually happening. And to sort of go outside of the boundary of ego and our opinions about what’s happening, that’s always there. But there’s also this trajectory of development that I think you’re talking about of the tasks that happen at different stages of life and stepping into adulthood. For me, also has included this challenge of Who am I and what am I here to do? What is my purpose? What’s my mission? And it’s evolved for me over the decades. But I think that my life without actively engaging with what is my purpose, and what’s my mission would not feel good, and would have an absence of spirituality in it.


Keith Kurlander  11:37

And an absence of some sort of meaning. That’s exactly what I’m hearing. That sort of sets the trajectory of what your life is about. And what’s interesting about going back to the statement you made about Bruce Tift, there’s sort of a thing in there of like, Well, right now everything is spiritual. Which is on one level, for me very true, in my experience, and on another level, it just sort of ends the conversation of like, okay, everything is spiritual. So it’s sort of like defining life as a spiritual experience. But I think that, it seems like most people outside of just saying that’s true, like, it seems like spirituality, as people become more consciously identified as spiritual. It seems like it’s about a way in which there’s a trajectory, that a person’s on this more of like, this developmental piece of trying to get some questions answered throughout life, and that we’re working with in different ways through our lifetime.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  12:41

Absolutely. Working through in different ways, and maybe looking for answers in different places, as well. One of the things that, I think is something that in maybe in Boulder, Colorado, or in our local, small group of friends, it’s easy to take for granted that the view that divinity, or the sacred or whatever term you want to put on, it is not only something outside of us, but it’s also something inside of us. But I think that there are spiritual traditions where it’s not so clear. And you might be taught that there’s the human experience, and then there’s the experience of the Divine that’s outside of you.


Keith Kurlander  13:28



Dr. Will Van Derveer  13:29

Banchory, God in the sky is gonna throw a lightning bolt if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, or that kind of thing. So


Keith Kurlander  13:36

A moral God


Dr. Will Van Derveer  13:38

A moral God. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly.


Keith Kurlander  13:40

Right. Yeah. And it seems like this is where I get interested in this overlap with sort of the mental health traditions. And when we talk about optimal mental health and, or spiritual growth, it seems like the spiritual traditions, there’s different technologies in the spiritual traditions that more arose in the conversation of spirituality over time, meditation. And there’s also other movement based somatic practices, there’s contemplative traditions and these, where it does include some form of mental exercise, there’s discourse, where it’s about talking to the spiritual elder, and there’s all this stuff. And then in the mental health traditions, which is more modern. There’s other techniques, we have therapy, which is a mental tradition, the coaching space arose, which is really in the mental health traditions, in my opinion. There’s all these tools in the book, talk about biohacking now and in the mental health space and all these tools, and then there’s a lot of overlap, where now you see a lot of the spiritual. The technologies that arose in the spiritual tradition are being utilized in the mental health space a lot more and more and more and I don’t know. As much vice versa, I don’t know if you see as much as sort of these mental health traditions kind of infiltrating the spiritual space as much. So they’re sort of separate. And they’re sort of not separate, right spirituality and mental health. And if we talk about these as traditions and ways of being. There’s a lot of overlap. But I do think there’s different technologies, and they’re aimed at sometimes a different purpose and these two traditions.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  15:30

I think about, for example, the use of Eastern traditions, meditation traditions in psychotherapy, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, the framework of shamanic healing or soul retrieval, which often takes place inside of a psychedelic psychotherapy session, for example,


Keith Kurlander  15:50

Right, from family constellation work, you’re starting to see that stuff pop up too.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  15:54

Internal family systems in psychotherapy could be looked at as a shamanic process. hypnosis, again, similar to a shamanic journey, it goes on and on. And when we talk about psychotherapy traditions, I also want to just name them for talking about a Western tradition here. And we’re talking about kind of North American Eurocentric kind of, in some ways, appropriation of other traditional frameworks of meaning,


Keith Kurlander  16:28

And I guess, a lot of the mental health field, and the conversation of mental health, which again, I wasn’t alive three 400 years ago, but I don’t know if it was talked about ever this way before, it is a sort of Eurocentric Western invention. And of course, then we get into like, a whole diagnostic way of looking at mental health, that there’s definitely different things that also were appropriated from other traditions in the spiritual traditions or the indigenous traditions in the mental health space. So there’s a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of distinction. I think there’s both. And again, like I go back to, there seems to be different aims, though, for the person who goes into a spiritual tradition, or the mental health space for help. And using the tools in these two spaces, or tends to be different aims, it seems like different uses for some of these technologies. Right?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  17:24

How would you describe your personal use of those technologies? Like what’s the difference for you about the reason to pursue mental health versus the reason to pursue spirituality?


Keith Kurlander  17:40

Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think on some level, my answers, this is going to be an arbitrary distinction that I make, in my own mind, like what I’m defining as mental health hacks or spiritual hacks, so to speak, it’s somewhat of an arbitrary distinction. Because in the end, it’s really about me having a certain experience in the world. So in the mental health space, for me, I want to optimize my focus, I want to optimize my mood regulation. I want to have more optimal cognitive patterning, that is stable and not too bothersome, in terms of like a final wall that you find my face, it’s like driving me nuts. So you know, I guess when I think of like, the tools in the mental health space, where I’m doing, like mental health hacks, I’m looking, I guess, that mostly my cognitive, emotional, kind of nervous system experience, which includes a lot of hacks, that includes the types of things I eat, and it includes tracking my sleep and includes making my body sure my body’s working properly in terms of how the systems work together and function medicine has, and it includes a lot of different things. For me it would include the five minutes I’m taking every morning sitting now, in meditation for my quick meditation, I would think of that more as almost a mental health hack at this point. And I could say more about the spiritual sort of hacks and the aims there, but for me, the mental health hacks and the aims is creating a stable sort of nervous system, brain health, and sort of cognitive experience of the world that feels stable, and there’s a lot of presence involved. And this is where the overlap starts to happen with spirituality, a lot of presence focus, more flow states. What would you say for you about, and again, this is arbitrary and on some level.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  19:45

Yeah, just to go one step deeper before I speak to that, how would you say, the pursuit of let’s say, you could have the highest degree of mental health or you could have easy access to flow states as often as you want. Why would you want that? Like, what? How does that benefit you to have that?


Keith Kurlander  20:12

So I think there’s a few answers for me here. One is, so again, this is like, what is the question I’m trying to solve about why I’m doing this? What’s the answers I’m seeking? And I think one is that, I think, mentally, I’m seeking stability and a sense of inspiration. I want to live in as much as I can in the state of inspiration, versus desperation. And so I think that’s probably the biggest question for me, I’m asking myself with these mental health hacks, which is how do I continually get into higher levels of inspiration and more often, and out of more of the desperate experience in myself, that might be overwhelming, or suffering, or whatever it is? And then the second part of that is, how do I actually behave in a way that allows me to have the most influence over my destiny, and about the things that are important to me. So it’s also about getting into a place where I have the most efficient level of behavior in my life, to create the life I want. So for me, like that now this is also good. I could say a lot of this in the spiritual conversation, too. Although, generally speaking, I would say most people don’t talk about the spiritual conversation this way. But yeah, that’s it. That’s how it answered the mental health conversations. Like, that’s what I’m going after I’m going after higher states of inspiration. Having them happen more often throughout the day, getting back to them as fast as possible, and being able to stay efficient in my behavior. There’s other things around details around what I want, like relationships and these kinds of things. But I think this is like the 30,000 foot answer.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  22:02

Yeah, I would say, I think we’re pretty similar. And what we want, and we have very different paths. And I think, for me, the framework that kind of makes the most sense at this point in my life is that there’s a large payload of benefits to the world that I carry in me. And I want to give that as fully as I possibly can. And my instability, my mindset, my regulation, my attachment patterns, with my life, my way of feeling dynamic, and stable, is just very aware that there’s a limit on how much I can give when I’m not regulated or unhealthy in any dimension of my life. And so I’m playing the long game of, hopefully, 15 more years of giving, and being creative, and being in connection with what is along the way, and feeling those beautiful moments of inspiration, and appreciating the challenges of getting back into those states when I fall out of them. So for me, I think there’s, what’s emerging here is like a sense of practicality . For me, the mental health component is like a vessel that delivers the gift that I carry in my heart. And if I get really bent out of shape about an email that I perceived as hostile or judgmental or something, and I obsess about it for a whole weekend, I just wasted a whole weekend if I could have been giving good things to people, right.


Keith Kurlander  24:12

It’s amazing how it’s so funny. You say that, like just how I could spend so much time in arguments in my head with people that never ever will happen. And shouldn’t happen. It’s funny. Yeah, so I like how you’re talking a little bit more about service and purpose. It sounds like how your mental health can lead to serving in a certain way in the world. And it’s interesting because I’m, it’s such a good thing to think through because I am like, Oh, so because when is my purpose, what I call that really where my spirituality is, it’s about how much I can engage my purpose in the world and how much I can be purposeful and have service in the world, I don’t know why I’m putting it in spirituality necessarily. But I’m trying to think like now that you said all that, like, Am I just defining mental health for myself as my own internal experience, basically? And then I’m starting to lean toward like, well maybe I’m defining spirituality as sort of like what the outer expression and outer connection outside of my personal self is. But I don’t know, this is a very interesting thing. I don’t think we distinguish this conversation very often about spirituality and mental health. I think that it’s important because this is what we’re talking to, first of all, our clients and patients every day, if we don’t even realize it is about like, how well can you live? Is there something deeper going on here that you’re pursuing? What are the hacks to get us there? What are the technologies?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  25:55

Yeah. I’m reminded of a conversation we had with Steven Hayes, the originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and he was talking about how his therapy, the result that you get when that therapy works well as psychological flexibility. And it’s interesting that some of the psilocybin research out of Hopkins produces a similar result when they give psilocybin to healthy volunteers, the measures on the outcome show interpersonal psychological flexibility as a result. And so I think that’s kind of like a, maybe an overarching goal that I would have with my mental health is to maintain flexibility and a balance between knowing my values and what I believe, and also an open heart to other people and their position, their point of view, which can often be very different from mine.


Keith Kurlander  27:01

Right? Yeah. So there’s definitely this aspect of empathy, compassion, in terms of the developmental piece.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  27:13

Right, I think you and I tend to think of relational health as part of mental health, which not everybody would do that, put it in that category, right?


Keith Kurlander  27:24

Let’s talk a little bit about spiritual experiences, where we can even call them peak experiences for the moment just to define it better. And the role of that, in these conversations of what is spirituality, and how does that relate to mental health. So peak experiences and speaking more of the peak experiences being these internal states that we experience, whether it’s about the interconnectivity of all things, or expansiveness of consciousness, there’s the Samadhi states, of course. So just curious about that. And then, of course, there’s people on the spiritual path, and all they’re pursuing is an enlightened Samadhi. That’s their thing. They’re like, I want to, I believe in this lifetime, I can get to a place where I will reside in Samadhi, for the rest of my life, and be in some kind of eternal equanimity. And I’m just so just curious about these peak experiences, and what’s the point of them? And are they necessary for mental health? I would say for me, I’ll just say quickly, I want to hear what you have to say here. But for me, they definitely informed my desire for personal development, these peak experiences around more of the nature of things and expanding consciousness, and they’ve definitely inspired me to also relax a lot of my assumptions about reality. And I’ve had so many, I would say, those are the two biggest takeaways for me of peak experiences is, which is like a really relaxed my assumptions around reality. And then also, you know, just opening more to just this concept of love. And so in some way, I would say that it seems like they have been essential for my mental health. But I don’t know for me personally, that it’s essential that I even have another one again, in order to remain mentally well, and I’m sure I will, and obviously, I will want to die, but it’s not something I’m seeking. I’ll say it that way. Like I want to go have the next peak experience. That’s not even something on my mind.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  29:45

Mm hmm. I think this developmental phase that people go through, and for some people, it lasts a lifetime and for other people. Maybe it’s 10 minutes, right? Of going and seeking out peak experiences, I’ll say that for me the the value of the peak experiences to get outside of my default mode network or outside of my personality for a period of time and actually experience, possibilities that were unknown to me before, and certainly had the impact that you’re talking about of permanently altering my assumptions about how reality works, and what the collective unconscious is like, and how are we connected to other humans and to the animals and the plants. And so I think there’s a quality that kind of opens up when I have a peak experience that is really useful to keep the personality from getting too brittle, or to crusted over. I think that I’ve noticed in my life, that spiritual practice is what kind of keeps opening my heart over and over again, to getting outside of my very kind of obsessive compulsive neurosis. This is how I like to think about my thinking patterns that need to be broken up from time to time.


Keith Kurlander  31:14

Yeah, you might be right about it being a developmental part of the path. But then again, I’m also wondering about so for some people, the path is to seek some kind of experience that, although we talked about this, in the Enlightenment path like that, I mean, I would call like a sustained peak experience, or some kind of just completely mind-expanding experience. And that just seems like one of the paths for people just like to go after that. And again like, that isn’t my path though. But it’s also been really helpful for me to have peak experiences, and I think about psychedelics in this conversation. Because psychedelics is a peak experience, if you’re altered,


Dr. Will Van Derveer  31:59

it’d be a trough experience to


Keith Kurlander  32:01

if it’s exactly well, right. And I would call it a peak experience. Yeah. So it could be a peak or trough, which is all peaks. So if you’re actually like, altered, and you don’t have one of those experiences, where you just kind of run through it, and then like, nothing happened, which is its own thing. But it’s, we’re, I mean, we’re basically it’s an intervention. And now in medicine, where it’s like, we’re basically saying, like, you’re gonna have an experience that is so out of the ordinary of your normal state of consciousness that it might, that this will hopefully disrupt your way of being and open a pathway into a new way of being. But even with psychedelics, there’s people who can end up just doing psychedelics all the time, because they’re just seeking to keep having non ordinary experiences. over and over and over.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  32:51

Yeah, I think what you’re talking about is spiritual bypassing, maybe? Yeah.


Keith Kurlander  32:56

Yeah, I think it’s definitely an aspect of spiritual bypassing, which would be that the ordinary, quote and quote is actually uncomfortable. And so seeking a change from the ordinary repeatedly as an addiction. I think it’s very common in psychedelics, and also in spiritual traditions to be seeking kind of an exit hatch, right from being in your normal day, like,


Dr. Will Van Derveer  33:23

Right, I mean, that’s the definition of addiction, right? I don’t like what I’m feeling. And I’m going to usually unconsciously go do something to fix up how I’m feeling, right, right now. And I mean, takes me back to my first meditation retreat as a young man and the teacher, explaining, you’re going to be sitting on these cushions all day in one-hour increments, and you’re going to feel an edge and nor are you going to want to move. And just notice the desire then to go move and get more comfortable and don’t do it. And it was just such an incredible empowerment over the course of that week to realize that I could gain sovereignty over my monkey mind that wanted to adjust myself constantly.


Keith Kurlander  34:13

Yeah. Yeah. And this is a good overlap of where the spiritual traditions and the mental health, so to speak traditions, but also the pursuit for mental health really overlap, because any good meditation teacher is going to call out spiritual bypassing, and they’re going to look for it and to help call that out. And you’re using meditation practice to dissociate. I mean, basically, I think meditation practice is actually about learning when we’re using meditation practices to dissociate like that’s one of the main parts of meditation practice. We’re just trying to see if we’re actually using it to dissociate or not and trying to learn about that process. But there’s plenty of people that never engage that and just use meditation to associate their whole life.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  34:55

I did hear some of that myself.


Keith Kurlander  34:57

So do I. I dissociated my twenties away. It was a fun ride, actually a little dissociated world that I was living in. And I had every intention that I was doing something else, but I actually wasn’t.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  35:12

Same here. I mean, it’s incredible how easy it is to trick yourself and think that you’re very present. Your awareness is very fresh but actually you’re not there.


Keith Kurlander  35:22

You’re not there at all fine.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  35:24

Maybe more and more subtle layers of that is right, develop yourself spiritually. Right.


Keith Kurlander  35:29

Yeah, and that learning is obviously key for mental health, because we’re learning about fine tuning our radar on when we’re present or dissociated, which is all about mental health also, obviously, right? I mean, that would be another. Going back to when you asked me like, what am I actually going after, with the mental health hacks? It’s like, I think another aspect of what I’m going after, is to be wakeful to when I’m dissociated, and learning how to get back to presence quicker. Yeah. And now that would be a very probably synonymous definition for me and spiritual. Yeah. Then my spirit, too. And this is where it for me, there’s no distinction. Yeah.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  36:11

Yeah. I mean, that’s a great example of the alignment of mental health and spiritual health around like, How quickly can I be back in presence? Oh, yeah.


Keith Kurlander  36:23

Yeah. And then I think my own learning in that part is that, for me, it’s about returning. And it’s not about attaining. It’s just about returning to presence, returning to presence and waking up to presence and waking up to presence. And until I have a different perspective, where I’m like, okay, I’ve attained presence, and I’m there for good. Right now, I’m going on the gamble that the few people that have ever attained that supposedly, in this world, to me is probably not true, because then why is it only a few people ever attain? It seems really unlikely that there’s something that and it’s like, it seems really unlikely that there’s some experience that only like a handful people every 100 years would ever attain. I’m just not buying it as much anymore. So for me now, I’m more around, it’s a return to presence. That’s the practice.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  37:14

Yeah. Well, I mean, there might be like, a Michael Phelps of meditation with


Keith Kurlander  37:20

Yeah, I mean, that’s right,


Dr. Will Van Derveer  37:22

I’m seeing gold medals.


Keith Kurlander  37:23

And until I get there, I’m just gonna have to go on, and I’ll buy it. But the problem is the only way that we think that exists is by the person who said they’ve obtained it, right. And there’s so few of them. Right. So I just don’t even know what that means.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  37:37

And that would be hard medical study to do. It will be very hard.  Verify that.  Right. very hard.  I agree. I mean, I get suspicious about the kinds of people pursuing states, rather than pursuing the equanimity to be able to remain in presence and not dissociate from any state. That happens right in our lives. That seems like a lot more reminds me of a saying in Hawaii, they have of don’t pray for small waves, pray for the strength to surf the big ones. It’s like trying to manicure our experience and only have certain experiences or peak experiences all the time, because we think that somehow that’s so much better than not being in a peak experience.


Keith Kurlander  38:23

Right? Yeah. And as we’re dancing between sort of spiritual mental health conversation, it’s just really, for me, I think about this concept of returning to presence, I don’t actually think you can really be present and mentally ill, I don’t think you can have long periods of presence in your life, and also, like suffer from a mental illness. I don’t know if that’s possible. What do you think about that? Do you think you can really reside in presence a lot of the day for months on end and have a mental illness?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  38:59

Well, I think, just on a practical level, when we think about different conditions, we’ve talked about ADHD and the inability to pay attention. So that’s a problem with.


Keith Kurlander  39:12

So that’s my definition Yeah, that was basically saying, nope, if you’re not attentive, you have this disorder,


Dr. Will Van Derveer  39:19

right? And then with depression, you’ve got obsessive thinking going on. And you can go and you believe your thoughts.


Keith Kurlander  39:26

That’s right. And as you’re ruminating, so that’s out the door. Right.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  39:29

So and then the ups and downs of bipolar disorder, the inflation and deflation cycles that go on with that. I mean, that’s a huge perceptual roller coaster, where people can even, of course, be very delusional and not present at all. Right? I think all of the major mental illnesses when they’re severe, and they’re untreated, definitely interfere. That’s why I think about like, mental health is sort of almost like the causes and conditions of a spiritual path. Like if If you’re not well mentally, you’re gonna have a really challenging situation spiritually as well.


Keith Kurlander  40:07

Mental illness is sort of, it’s a, I think I really liked what you just said mental illness is, seems to be a certain condition, with different symptoms and behaviors that we can point to, as a result of the presence issue. We can’t maintain presence and the different constellation happens that we call mental illness. But when I think of spiritual illness and spiritual health, we might define spiritual wellness as different conditions. But it’s still probably an issue of presence, right? Like when I think of spiritual health and mental health, like, if presence is the foundation for both, which I would imagine it is, I would imagine, presence is the foundation for spiritual health. But spiritual wellness, we might be talking about differently to mental illness. And obviously, this is an old transpersonal psychology, conversation of spiritual emergencies versus mental illness and spiritual illness. So I think of spiritual illness, more allegorically sometimes tends to be more archetypical, when we talk about it, in the conversation, soul retrieval issues and a sense of deep existential issues, which obviously could flow into the mental health disorders. But typically, the deep existential, like it’s really consolidated to that, like I would see that more as a spiritual analyst, and you’re not suffering from all those other symptoms that we would talk about as a mental illness. I don’t know if I could, do you feel like you can separate out spiritual illness and mental illness?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  41:43

I agree with you that I tend to define mental illness as a personal health journey. And with what you were just saying about the transpersonal dimensions of spirituality, I definitely would include the transpersonal realm in terms of what’s afflicting a person in a spiritual illness. So just on that basis, that’s one distinction that comes up for me that a spiritual illness could be personal, or it could be transpersonal. It could be intergenerational, it could be cultural. There’s all kinds of influences that are at play inside of the individual that are not necessarily about the individual. On a spiritual level, right, I think about it.


Keith Kurlander  42:28

Yeah. And one thing we haven’t talked about too, is sort of the notion of the higher and lower self in this conversation. And so we can just play a little with terms here. The lower self sometimes is defined as the animalistic mind. Sometimes, obviously, there’s sort of the religious model here of higher and lower self, and it’s defined more morally, but that’s not so much what I’m talking about right now. A higher self being more of the divine mind, divine experience, or the unbounded mind, non-relative mind. And yeah, I’m just curious if we play with this for a moment. How does this impact spirituality? What is mental health? higher mind? Lower mind? Right, right.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  43:12

Let me just flush out a little bit of what I added to add what you said about lower mind, I’m kind of borrowing from Eva Pierrakos here. The idea that the lower self is sort of, you could say, an unhealthy ego, maybe going away from pain and pursuing pleasure, constantly associated a lot afflicted by in Christianity, they call the seven deadly sins, and acting on those impulses constantly. So I would say that it goes back to the developmental path of developing a healthy ego, teaching the lower self how to pee in the right place, and not poop on the carpet. What I think is really critical in human development is developing a healthy ego. The problem with Western psychology is that too often it leaves us there with no further instructions, no further path after the development of a healthy ego.


Keith Kurlander  44:08

Yeah, this is an important distinction you’re making right now. Right? Because often, again  and more sort of lumping in for the moment in the mental health conversation more of a Western psychology model, for the moment, that Yeah, often it’s about refining the ego, and that’s where it ends. And yeah, I think that so is the lower self, not only being ego, but it can also, I think ego can also act as a bridge to the higher self. But in probably the most exaggerated form, which you kind of mentioned for lower self is more of an addicted self, high levels of pursuing pleasure and high levels of avoiding pain, right. And I think that framework shows up in a lot of religious teachings and sin for instance. And what’s interesting is, I think historically in more of the mental health space, we’ve mostly left out what you’re saying, which is well, what’s after ego? Right? Yeah. What’s the ego 2.0? What’s next? And that’s where the spiritual conversation and the spiritual traditions really shine. Absolutely a light on what else? Is there? Yeah. And there’s pitfalls in both traditions, right? There’s pitfalls to actually amplifying ego in unhealthy ways. In the spiritual traditions, as we know, we’ve seen so many spiritual leaders act out over time. And there’s pitfalls in the mental health traditions, when you leave it out. You say this is as good as it gets.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  45:46

Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of disturbing to think of a healthy ego without anything out there beyond that, to connect with to plug into to receive energy from and to feel inspired about and see possibility with. On the other hand, without the healthy ego, the access to that landscape outside, the ego is pretty darn hard to access.


Keith Kurlander  46:13

I mean, it’s kind of terrifying. Just think I’m the center of the universe. If that’s all there is, okay, I’m just the center of the universe. My experience is it, it ends there. That’s kind of terrifying. If you had to face that every day, and that was your truth. And that was true. And this is it, that’s all you get.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  46:31

In astronomy, we thought that for a long time Galileo got in big trouble for saying maybe there’s something else going on. Right?


Keith Kurlander  46:40

Exactly. So maybe there’s something else going on. So I think there’s something else going on here. And this is where I think the mental health landscape is really benefiting in more recent decades around the integration of spiritual technologies, to say there’s something more going on here, and then also starting to look at maybe really reducing this to a pathological lens of you’re either sick, or you’re well, mentally, like that’s, I think that perspective, too, is it’s got to go away at some point, because it’s like, there’s no artificial distinction that’s really going to help people at the end of the day, it’s more like, how do you get better? How do you live a better experience? Absolutely.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  47:29

I mean, that’s a big part of our frame of integrative mental health is that this is a spectrum, right, from illness to wellness, and we’re all on it. Another duality that came to mind, as you were speaking, is this duality of developing a healthy ego first, and then having a spiritual life. Right, as opposed to developing both in parallel or one before the other. I think my journey was a little bit jumbled compared to most people I meet, and that the spiritual life attracted me so strongly when I was a young man. That I disconnected from purpose and mission, at the time I felt like I was on purpose and mission, but compared to how I feel now, in my life, it’s like night and day, right, I think the more traditional trajectory that Carl Young, and the developmental psychologists talk about is like getting more into spirituality later in life.


Keith Kurlander  48:36

Right. And I think what you’re also pointing out is, I had the same trajectory, right, where I went very internal, in my pursuit, in my 20s. And so very vertical, so to speak, and sort of was like, not that interested in the horizontal, right, which is more talked about as the action, the service. And then historically speaking, though, in religion, a lot of religion actually advocates that it’s like you just over focused on the service oriented path, right as a way to attain the vertical, right. And I think, as we’re starting to wrap up here, like  what I’ve just been, like, evolving into is, it’s all about an integrative approach. It’s an integrative approach. And it’s somewhere in the middle of holding the vertical and horizontal of really living in pursuing purpose and service, while also exploring and experiencing the more existential, eternal, infinite dimension of reality is an integrated path for me now, I’m more of an integral philosopher at this point in my life, I would say, very integrated about my path, and I think that was a part of my development of learning was I did what most people do, which is you polarize and you get idealistic. And you try and separate out these two paths, I think I just feel more whole as an integrated being than trying to separate it out.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  50:16

Same here, I think that’s well said. And I, I definitely relate to that polarization and putting spirituality in a kind of a silo that was in my head, not necessarily related to changing my daughter’s diaper, for example, right. And so I just want to say, as we finish up here, the vertical and the horizontal, at this point in my life seem to be informing one another, and flowing between each other. And it’s like, I need to take on enough challenges on the horizontal to stimulate growth in the vertical. And I have to be plugged in enough on the vertical to fully support all of my things on the horizontal. Yeah, and there’s this really cool, like, mutually nourishing thing when I’m aware. And then I fall off, and I have to remind myself so.


Keith Kurlander  51:20

funny, as you said, Your daughter’s diaper. Hey, watch my two and a half year old do the whole pre trans fallacy thing. But we won’t get into that at the moment. But you know, about the pre transplant. That’s Kimble Burstein. Okay. But that’s more speaking about just won’t get into that in a moment. But just that when I watch my daughter, and I often like I’m just trying to return to where she’s at right there. Because she’s like, in the moment, most of the time, she’s giving, she’s sharing or not sharing, but she’s like doing her thing. And then every once in a while, she has her existential question, right? she’ll throw it out and be like, Where did I come from? And I’m like, Where do you think he came from? And her current answer is the earth. Hey that’s a better answer than I’ve got right now. So I’m like, I’m gonna go with that. I’m like, so there’s sort of this like, is it returning? Yeah. But I also know that it’s not only returning because, you know, obviously, we develop more complex brains and can experience other things as we grow older. And just think that this integrated path is really where I’m at. And I think it’s helpful to talk about these distinctions between spirituality and mental health, the overlaps, the different types of questions we’re trying to answer in those two paths. Ultimately, I think we’re all just trying to figure out, how do we live well, and influence the world? in a way that’s important to us?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  52:52

Yeah. How do we care for ourselves and the quality of our experience and take good care of ourselves while we also take good care of our families and our communities and the planet?


Keith Kurlander  53:06

Well, I think we should end there.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  53:08

Sounds good.


Keith Kurlander  53:09



Dr. Will Van Derveer  53:09

Thanks. Okay.


Keith Kurlander  53:09

Thanks. We look forward to connecting with you again on the next episode of The Higher Practice Podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health.

Keith Kurlander, MA, LPC

Keith Kurlander, MA, LPC is the Co-Founder of the Integrative Psychiatry Institute (IPI) and Integrative Psychiatry Centers (IPC), and the co-host of the Higher Practice Podcast. He graduated Naropa University in 2005 with a master’s degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology, and he has practiced integrative psychotherapy and coaching with individuals, couples and groups for over 15 years. After years of treating highly complex patients, as well as a personal journey of overcoming complex trauma and mental illness, he turned toward integrative psychiatric practices as a key component to achieving mental health and understanding the healing process. He brings a professional and personal passion toward innovating the field of mental healthcare.

Dr. Will Van Derveer

Will Van Derveer, MD is co-founder of Integrative Psychiatry Institute, co-founder of the Integrative Psychiatry Centers, and co-host of the Higher Practice Podcast.

Dr. Van Derveer is a leader in the integrative revolution in psychiatry and is passionate about weaving together the art and science of medicine. He has published in the field of psychedelic medicine, and he has provided MDMA – psychotherapy for chronic treatment resistant PTSD in clinical trials with MAPS, the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies.

As medical director of the Integrative Psychiatry Centers, he oversees a busy ketamine assisted psychotherapy practice.

Dr. Van Derveer is a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABOIM). He studied medicine at Vanderbilt University and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.