Where can one turn when not fulfilled by the offerings of ‘classic’ mental health therapy?
In recent years a field of self-improvement has emerged and received much attention, as if it were a new field of practice, and that is the field of, spiritual direction.
I do not call spiritual direction a new field, for it has been around much longer than the discipline of psychology, a term and practice familiar to many more people. If people, today, are experiencing emotional, psychological or mood problems, they can call any number of professionals for help; a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse, professional counselor. Thankfully, medical insurance plans cover treatment for most mental health related problems, which makes it easier for people to seek help.
Where does one go if his, or her, life is not fraught with serious mental health issues that can be addressed by of one of these professionals? Who can people talk too if they feel a need to improve their life, if they see life containing more than the material, and recognize the invisible, spiritual world? This is most readily acknowledged as a world created and overseen by a divine being whether it be called “God”, “Yahweh”, “Buddha”, “atman”, the “Holy One”, “Allah”, “Higher Power”, etc.
It is about seeking a relationship with a higher power, and this invisible world of spirit, that spiritual direction comes into being. People, for millennia, have sought out holy men and women; people who seem to have wisdom about life that comes from beyond the six senses or simple common sense. These could be a rabbi, monk, roshis, priest or simply wise men and women recognized by others for their inherent and profoundly spiritual self. People seek out these guides to help them to be a better human being; usually meaning, to become a more loving and compassionate human being – one seeking to be more intimately united to the Divine.
In this relationship of seeker and teacher, or guide, the teacher listens carefully to the one seeking guidance trying first to understand how they see and understand the Divine in their lives, what name they give to the Divine, their history with the Divine and what they hope to achieve through the spiritual direction. Even in this domain of the spirit, as in psychotherapy, the way of unfolding the seeker’s aspirations involves the person talking about his or her life, their ups and downs, joys and disappointments, and, yes, life’s problems. Yet this is not the focus of the relationship but only a means to understand how the Divine may work within and be a part of one’s life issues.
The difference from psychotherapy lies in how the teacher or guide responds. The spiritual guide may take on more of the role of “coach”, actively engaging in the recommendation of readings or techniques to enhance one’s spiritual life. Often, the sacred texts of the one who is seeking guidance are used and readings from it are recommended for reflection and discussion. In this relationship the deeply spiritual part of the seeker’s life is the focus of the discussions and not adjunctive, as it might be in a psychotherapeutic relationship. Depending on the seeker’s needs, shared prayer may also be part of the time spent in spiritual direction – something seldom done in classic mental health therapy.
Spiritual direction can be beneficial to someone who is in psychotherapy but also wants to give more specific focus to their spiritual side. Those looking to recapture an enriching childhood relationship with the Divine will also benefit from the addition of spiritual guidance in their sessions. What had once sustained and brought great joy may have been lost and can often be reawakened with some nurturing, spiritual, guidance.
This is, certainly, the case for any person who has a deep relationship with the Divine and simply wants to deepen it and enrich it with more expert guidance.
MAPS, MSW, LCSW
Michael Hugo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and holds a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies. He has a passion for working with youth and has specialized in addressing issues specific to men.
Michael’s understanding of family systems makes him equally effective working with couples and facilitating communication between youth and parents. He has combined clinical social work and spirituality throughout his career.
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