Although the vast majority of Italians report that they belong to a religious tradition, pastoral counseling remains a relatively young field in Italy compared to other helping professions, such as social work, mental health counseling, and psychology.
This spring, however, the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education’s own Kirk Bingaman, Ph.D., traveled to Padua, Italy to discuss the role of faith and spirituality in mental health and wellbeing.
In April, Bingaman, an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling, presented at a conference—“Know Thyself: Identity and Purpose of Pastoral Counseling”—at the Theological Faculty of Triveneto.
“Pastoral counseling is an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating in-depth knowledge of psychology and psychotherapy as well as theology and spirituality,” said Bingaman. “The pastoral counselor is therefore equipped to address issues on multiple levels of human experience, including the spiritual life of clients.”
At the conference, Bingaman discussed his research on neuroplasticity, which refers to the ability of the human brain to adapt and change across the lifespan. With every new experience—creating a memory, learning new information, or adapting to a new situation—the brain undergoes structural changes, generating new neural pathways and reshaping existing ones.
Bingaman argues that we can harness the power of neuroplasticity through contemplative spiritual practices such as mindfulness meditation, by which clients learn to notice thoughts and feelings without judging or exacerbating them. The practice has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety.
“We can literally change the functioning and connectivity of the brain through contemplative, spiritual practices that strengthen the neural regions associated with health and well-being while calming those associated with stress and anxiety,” Bingaman said in his talk.
“This is the power of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to modify its structure and functioning. As we devote ourselves to these contemplative practices, we gradually reprogram the brain day after day.”
Religious and spiritual traditions around the world have long affirmed the benefits of contemplative practices, Bingaman said; now, the mental health community at large has come around to their therapeutic value.
“Contemplative prayer and meditation have always been considered a valuable practice from a spiritual point of view, and now neuroscience is telling us about its psycho-physiological benefits,” he said.
“This suggests that contemplative practices are not, as some might say, self-indulgent or an escape from ‘real life.’ Rather, they strengthen our capacity for self-care [and our ability]to take care of our personal and professional relationships.”
In addition to presenting, Bingaman also served as a second faculty supervisor for the dissertation of Barbara Marchica, a doctoral student at the Theological Faculty of Triveneto: “The Identity and Purpose of Pastoral Counseling: The Dynamics of Conscience Between Interiority and Self-Knowledge in View of Bernard Lonergan’s Theological Anthropology.”
Read more about Bingaman’s latest research in his faculty profile in Fordham News.