Spiritual Counseling and the Journey of Becoming Part 2: The Spiritual Counseling Paradigm

As I explored in Part 1 in my reflection on my own process of individuation and the accompanying themes of fate, responsibility, and synchronicity—with Becvar (1997), I have come to hold all of life is a spiritual process, and therefore, all therapeutic work to be deserving of a spiritual orientation, even if at an unspoken level.[1]  Further, I see health—in the greatest sense of the word—to be normative.  That is to say, we are evolving beings that need to continually engage in our individuation process to be in optimal health.  As Becvar (1997) quotes,

Health is seeking out all of the experiences of Creation and turning them over and over, feeling their texture and multiple meanings. Health is expanding beyond one’s singular state of consciousness to experience the ripples and waves of the universe. (Achterberg, 1985, p. 19, in Becvar, p. 142)

Holding this perspective, the role of spiritual counseling is to support and bear witness to the individuation process.  It is a delicate act of providing unconditional acceptance for clients in whatever conditions they find themselves and offering experiences or resources that can shift their relationship with life towards greater fulfillment.  In what follows, I wish to concisely explore the themes have emerged for me as essential to an optimal spiritual counseling paradigm.

Safe space. If spiritual counseling were a house, its foundation would be laid on a safe and sacred container for the work.  This carries both physical and emotional dimensions, facilitated by the structures in which counseling takes place as well as by the presence and intentions of the counselor.  In the most basic sense, the physical space needs to be sufficiently comfortable and private to contain the process.  While it is not the most critical aspect of the process by any means, I do agree with Becvar (1997) that as we seek to encounter the potentially turbulent waters of the psyche through counseling, having an orderly physical container and pleasant environment creates safety.  On the part of the counselor, a compassionate attitude underlying respect for the client is essential.  As Jung (1972) discusses, it can be simply this presence of an adequately supportive person for clients to begin their “descent” into the unconscious.  I tend to frame this in a more positive way in that the co-creation of the safe space between the client and practitioner is the foundation and perhaps only essential characteristic of spiritual counseling.  Similarly, the presence of the counselor—his or her own relationship with awareness—is impactful on the space.  It is through these un-teachable skills, that the practitioner facilitates a space in which healing can occur (Fulton, 2005).

Acceptance.  The curious paradox of spiritual counseling is that underlying the desire to facilitate positive change, it can be invaluable for the counselor to hold an overall acceptance of the client’s situation exactly as it is.  Becvar (1997) explores two facets of acceptance through the themes suspending judgment and trusting the universe.  Without diminishing the suffering of the client, the role of the counselor is to hold the mystery individuation with appreciation for all of its contours.  This unspoken appreciation for the human condition—and the perfection of our at times messy lives—is likely not addressed directly with the client but serves as the backdrop for the work.  In the words of Frankl (1986),

If all [people] were perfect, then every individual would be replaceable by anyone else.  From the very imperfection of [people] follows the indispensability and inexchangeability of each individual; for each is imperfect in [his/her] own fashion. (p. 69)

For practitioner to fully hold this perspective enables him/her/them to be with the depth and vastness of the client’s Soul, whose purpose may actually be fulfilled by the challenges that they face.  Beyond not attaching to particular conditions, the impact of this perspective makes it possible for the practitioner to regard the Soul of the client beneath the fluctuations of behavior and personality, facilitating subtle yet palpable results.  As Wellwood (2003) explores, our human experience contains the coexistence of transcendence and immanence, and within the play of material life the lessons of the soul are encountered.  As practitioners, it is our responsibility to honor both of these dimensions.  Furthermore, it can be helpful for the counselor to recognize and even share with the client that our capacity to feel has but “one dial.”  That is, we aim to feel and accept the totality of our experience, even the difficult, for the sake of greater love, joy, and meaning.  Paradoxically, as we accept our clients unconditionally and support them to uncover fundamental acceptance for themselves and all their experiences, fosters a climate for positive change.

Authenticity as the goal.  In line with an underlying acceptance, I find it is ideal for the practitioner to hold an open-ended goal for the client to more fully realize their authentic Truth in whatever form that takes.  Careful not to impose values, expectations, or even well intentioned hopes on the client’s process, spiritual counseling should inspire the client’s own expression to arise.  Certainly, there can be value in giving the client suggestions and co-creating activities for her/him/them to engage with life in a different way.  Inevitably this process will be shaped by the experiences and expertise of the practitioner.  This is not necessarily a hindrance but needs to be delivered with care not to quell the inner fires that are ignited in the client’s own intuitive and compensatory evolution towards wholeness.  As Frankl (1986) states, “Our aim must be to help our patient to achieve the highest possible activation of [his/her] life…” (p. 54). Therefore, I think it is most important to support the client in discovering their own “acorn”—to shine a light on their soul rather than trying to supply answers in the darkness.

Values, purpose, and quality of being.  In the intimation of Frankl (1986), uncovering and supporting the actualization of the client’s values, purpose, and desired “qualities of being” can be a powerful dimension of spiritual counseling.  I believe it is immensely empowering to tap into our core values and to realize that we have means to fulfill those values in some capacity immediately.  Unlike concentrating on the particularities of the client’s goals, focusing on their underlying values is always generative.  For example, if the client desires a new relationship, looking specifically towards attainment of that relationship can yield more suffering, whereas creating opportunities for intimacy, companionship, and love within the resources that the client already has is directly supportive.  Likewise, gaining insight into the purpose of our lives, can give vitalize the “particles” of our days.  Of course, unfolding “life purpose” is a lifelong process, but we can still hold the vision of purpose to anchor the counseling frame.  The final intertwined dimension of this theme is upholding qualities of being and action over particular material attainments.  Again, in the tone of Frankl (1986), it is not what we do but how.  The spiritual counselor’s goal is, thus, to guide the client towards inner states of fulfillment and facilitate greater agency in the client’s attainment of these states (albeit, without perpetuating attachment to certain states over others).  From the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, we uncover the inner source of peace and love that is our Truth (Whitfield, 2009).  In this way, we honor the client’s stories without getting too bogged down by them to guide the client towards their ever-available wholeness.

Interconnection. Finally, the overarching perspective that I hold essential to spiritual counseling is that of interconnection.  This teaching is expressed in the understanding that our liberation is entwined and that supporting each other is integral to our liberation.  In this sense, on a deep level no one is really the “helper” or the “helped.”  It is a process of two souls coming together for the sake of mutual healing.  Assuming a stance of humility, the practitioner works towards releasing ego drives to “step out of the way” for healing to arise in the co-created container of the counseling process.  I think of Jack Kornfield’s (2009) awareness that getting nervous before teaching is a reminder that he teaching meditation, not teaching himself.  With Becvar (1997), I agree that all healing is self-healing (p.68), but also recognize the power of a witness and a guide in the process.  Through our fundamental interconnection with all of life, I believe that spiritual counseling for individuals facilitates healing and growth on a collective scale.

This brief sketch of the themes I find integral to spiritual counseling seeks to emphasize a flexible yet grounded approach to holding and encouraging the individuation process.  On multiple planes—from physical to subtle—spiritual counseling creates a context for strengthening a containing myth that enables unshakable belonging in this world.  Furthermore, the process allows meaning to emerge and illuminate the underlying harmony within life’s chaos.  As Hillman (1996) reminds, “Of all psychology’s sins, the most mortal is its neglect of beauty. There is, after all, something quite beautiful about life…” (p. 35).  For me, it is a capacity to behold the fundamental beauty of life that differentiates spiritual counseling from its non-spiritual counterparts.  May we walk in hand with beauty through all our inner and outer works.

References

Becvar, D. (1997). Soul healing. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Frankl, V. (1986). The doctor and the soul: From psychotherapy to logotherapy. New York, NY: Random House.

Hillman, J. (1996). The soul’s code: In search for character and calling. New York, NY: Random House.

Jung, C.G. (1972). Two essays on analytical psychology. R.F.C. Hull, Trans. In Read et al. (Series Eds.), The collected works of CG Jung (vol. 7). Princeton, NJ: Bollingen.

Fulton, P.R. (2005). Mindfulness as clinical training. In C.K. Germer, R.D. Siegel & R.R. Fulton (Eds.) Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Osterhold, H. (2011). Synchronicity, Meaning and Transformative Power in Illness and Injury. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Dissertations and Theses database.

Kornfield, J. (2009). The wise heart: A guide to the universal teachings of Buddhist psychology. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Tarnas, R. (2006). Cosmos and psyche: intimations of a new world view. New York, N.Y.: Viking.

Wellwood, J. (2003). Double vision: Duality and nonduality in human experience. In J.J. Prendergast, P. Fenner, S. Krystal (Eds.). The sacred mirror: Nondual wisdom and psychotherapy. St. Paul, MI: Paragon House.

Whitfield, C. (2009). The Vedantic self and the Jungian psyche. Chennai, India: Arsha Vidya Research and Publication Trust.

Notes

[1] Written originally at the California Institute of Integral Studies for the graduate course Spiritual Counseling Skills with Dr. Helge Osterhold, 2013

 

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