Reimagining Spiritual Direction


I wonder how many sleepless nights you've had, wrestling with the question of whether the practice of spiritual direction will ever be retooled for the the spiritual landscape of the 21st Century. If you have lost sleep over this, I feel your pain. But chances are you haven't been caught in the clutches of this question like I have. Why do so few people know what spiritual direction actually is? Can spiritual direction be unhinged from its religious roots? Why are so many spiritual directors white, male, theist and over 40? So let me address a few of these matters briefly.


What is spiritual direction?


Spiritual direction is a thing. It is not a modern innovation but an ancient practice that essentially entails one person offering another spiritual guidance and counsel. I can't possibly cover its roots and history in one post. Though spiritual direction has a variety of expressions across different religions as well as Eastern spirituality, it is often associated with the Christian tradition. Theologian John Cassian of the 4th century provided some of the earliest recorded guidelines on the Christian practice of spiritual direction. He introduced mentoring in the monasteries in which each novice was put under the spiritual care of an older monk. Benedict of Nursia integrated Cassian's guidelines into what is now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict.


Spiritual direction is rooted and widespread in the Catholic Church, offered usually but not exclusively by a priest. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are a popular example of guidelines used in spiritual direction in the Catholic tradition. Many spiritual directors today are trained according to Ignatian mindsets and methods. As conceived as a religious ministry, spiritual direction involves a recognized person of wisdom and spiritual discernment (spiritual director) who provides counsel to a another (spiritual directee) who seeks deeper faith and the discovery of God's will in their life. The spiritual director aims to discern how the Holy Spirit is at work within a person's heart and life situations that might provide clues for their next steps in growing closer to God. In spiritual direction sessions, the director listens and asks questions to assist the directee in his or her process of reflection and spiritual growth.


Does spiritual direction relate to non-religious people?


The answer to the above question is "no" and "yes".


First, "no". The Christian religious framework historically wrapped around spiritual direction makes it inapplicable to a non-religious person. The Christian theist conception of God, as well the traditional theological answers to life's existential questions, are likely not to be considered credible to a non-religious person. The Western world is increasingly becoming a secular society. More people are identifying themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and "nones" (the religiously unaffiliated).


A growing number of people today have spiritual interests but reject traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. Gradually, the word spiritual came to be associated with the inner realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines.


There are also a growing number of people who seek support and counsel as a result of suffering spiritual abuse or being damaged through their involvement in fundamentalist and toxic religion. Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is the term most commonly used in the mental health field to identify this. A significant part of my work over the years has been counseling people in recovering from the harms of religion, and cultivating a meaningful spirituality outside the religious framework. As a Chaplain with the American Humanist Association, I encounter many people who embrace ethics, compassionate living and spirituality, but do not hold any belief in the supernatural. Because "spiritual direction" is often associated with religious ministry and the Christian tradition, many of these people would assume that spiritual direction is not applicable. to them.


I have been a non-religious Spiritual Director for over 15 years. In my previous life before leaving organized religion I earned a Master of Divinity degree and served as a pastor at the largest Christian church in North America. My academic and professional training since leaving religion include comparative religion, philosophy and Jungian psychology. I am a certified interfaith and interspiritual spiritual director and incorporate various components in my work with people such as psychology, Eastern spirituality, humanism, philosophy, the arts, and science. Many of the people I have counseled over the years were damaged by their involvement in religion, and are cultivating a spiritual but not religious approach to life. I have worked with men and women across a spectrum of beliefs from Theists to Atheists.


Over the years of my association with other spiritual directors and involvement in spiritual direction circles I have noticed that there is an inordinate number of people who are male, white, over 40, and theist. That is not a judgment, just an observation. In my view there needs to be more diversity in the area of spiritual direction that reflects the multicultural, pluralistic, and non-religious segments of our society, as well as connect meaningfully with millennials and other generations.


That's the "no" part of the answer to the question: Does spiritual direction relate to non-religious people?


Now, the "yes" part.


The term “spiritual” is understood in many different ways and from diverse perspectives. Spirituality relates to our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings, powers, longings and dynamics that govern life and our human journey. It includes our desire to become fully what we are, and realize our highest human potentialities and possibilities. There is also a transcendent aspect to the spiritual, a sense that we belong to and participate in an ultimate reality that is greater than our individual selves and often unfolds in peak experiences beyond mundane events. People may equate the spiritual as being sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness. The outcome of a spiritual process or experience is often described as transformative, awakening, unitive, metamorphic and liberating.


Whether a person subscribes to a particular religious tradition or belief-system about God, identifies with a non-religious or secular outlook on life such as atheism or humanism, or someone who would consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”, the spiritual component of the human journey is meaningful, consequential and accessible to every person.

There are many beneficial pathways for cultivating a spiritual life and an evolving spiritual journey. Religion contains many symbols, stories, rituals, wisdom and experiences that meaningfully connect people with the spiritual dimension within themselves and the world. There are many different spiritual practices people find meaningful such as meditation, mindfulness, self-examination, yoga, body work, simplicity, time in nature, self-acceptance, study, soul friendship, and activism.


Philosophy offers a wide landscape of perspectives and viewpoints that speak to the deepest questions about human existence, life’s meaning, and our place in the universe. Psychology provides insight and tools for the inner work and process of becoming a healthy, whole, integrated, liberated and fully-developed human person. The sciences provide a foundation of knowledge for understanding the dynamics, structure, laws, processes and behavior of the physical, material and natural world and universe. The arts are a vehicle of creative self-expression across a wide spectrum of outlets including literature, performing arts, and visual arts.


Human beings and the experience of life has a deeply significant and meaningful spiritual dimension. A person may or may not find that religious involvement is a meaningful pathway for cultivating the spiritual aspects of who they are and their human journey. One does not need a religious tradition, defined belief system, or organized religious community in order to fully cultivate, access and actualize the spiritual part of who they are. I discuss non-religious spirituality in more detail in this article.


What spiritual direction isn't


The second term “direction” is often misunderstood. People often equate a person who is “directing” as someone who is controlling or dictating a process. The definition of a “director” is one who is “in charge of an activity, department or organization.” In spiritual direction, however, the term “direction” is meant to convey guidance, assistance, companionship and support, which is offered by the spiritual director to another person or group of people who seek to deepen their experience of life and spiritual journey.


Spiritual Direction is the practice of being with people as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the transcendent, or to learn and grow in their own personal spirituality.

There are a spectrum of mental health and personal development roles that make various contributions to one's personal growth, health and wellbeing, which include: therapist, pastoral counselor, life coach, personal mentor or spiritual teacher.


It’s important to distinguish what Spiritual Direction isn’t.


Spiritual Direction is not life coaching, which is supporting a client in achieving a specific personal or professional goal by providing training and guidance. Spiritual Direction is not mentoring, which is showing or modeling the steps, practices or process to be emulated by another. Spiritual Direction is not teaching, which involves imparting knowledge, ideas or principles from an external source that is deemed as authoritative. Spiritual Direction is not therapy, the goal of which is to feel better and function more successfully, or treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder. Spiritual Direction is not a guru relationship in which a master initiates a novice into a deeper spiritual life.


If spiritual direction is none of that, then what the heck is it???


Spiritual direction offers a safe, accepting, and non-judgmental space where another human being can be truly seen and heard, and have the freedom to express where they are on their spiritual and life journey. Spiritual direction explores the meaning of one’s life, and supports a person's unique journey toward wholeness, self-actualization and relationship to the sacred or transcendent. In spiritual direction one investigates their inner self, what matters most to them in life, and the root causes of chronic unhappiness and disharmony. In spiritual direction a person has the freedom to determine what "spirituality" means to them, and how to cultivate meaning, happiness and peace in their lives. Spiritual direction encourages and guides a person to strengthen their relationship with themselves, and to find wisdom and answers they seek inside themself. Spiritual direction explores a deeper understanding of the spiritual aspect of being human.


There are notable differences between therapy and spiritual direction. Therapy focuses on problem solving and fixing, while spiritual direction is about embracing the struggles. Whereas therapy focuses on healing mental anguish or illness, spiritual direction is about listening to the teaching of one's pain. Therapy focuses on developing the ego, while spiritual direction is about letting go of the ego. Therapy tends to be goal-directed, while spiritual direction is about moving toward a life of harmony, integration and wholeness. Therapy focuses on changing behavior patterns, while spiritual direction is about divesting oneself from the false beliefs behind the behavior. Whereas therapy focuses on the interaction between the therapist and the client, spiritual direction is about the interaction between the person and their inner life/self and one's transcendent point of reference. Therapy focuses on the challenge of misperceptions, while spiritual direction is about the cultivation of inner wisdom.


A spiritual director is one who accompanies another on their spiritual journey. It involves being fully present to another human being, deep listening, and seeing and honoring the sacred mystery of the soul of another. A few metaphors for spiritual direction include:

  • Midwifery – the art and skill of assisting another human being in the birth, emergence or opening of new spiritual life.

  • Anam Cara – soul friendship and companionship that nurtures and holds a space where a person feels safe, seen, accepted, validated and free to explore their life journey, inner world, and soul.

  • Sherpa – a skilled and experienced individual in soul work who assists, supports and guides another in their spiritual journey and soul expedition.


What happens in a spiritual direction session?


I have a spiritual direction practice in Nashville through which I meet with people face-to-face. Several years ago, I began doing this work with people all over the world through video calls. There are several reasons why people contact me for spiritual direction, including:

  • Desiring to explore ultimate reality outside the framework of religion

  • Seeking a more expansive, meaningful and human spirituality

  • Interested in investigating the meaning behind their spiritual experiences such as dreams, synchronicity, and peak or transcendent moments

  • A life crisis has caused them to question their personal or religious beliefs

  • Searching for answers to life’s existential questions such as the meaning and purpose of life

  • Interested in exploring spirituality beyond the boundaries of their religious background or tradition

  • Wanting to address the root cause of unhappiness and disharmony in their life

  • Desiring a whole relationship with themselves through self-discovery, self-acceptance, self-trust and self-care

  • Needing to unshackle themselves from toxic religious beliefs

I have a framework and process I typically utilize in doing spiritual direction work with a person. It begins with a personal inventory, which I review before our first call or session. This helps me know a person's background, spiritual and life journey, and what they hope to gain from spiritual direction. Individual sessions or video calls are scheduled at the frequency that is most useful to each person.


Each spiritual direction session is different, depending upon the person and situation. It's not uncommon to begin a session with some kind of centering practice such as silence or meditation. A session typically involves discussing and processing spiritual matters that the person feels compelled to explore. There are many different modalities that can be utilized in a spiritual direction session that relates spirituality to the body, mind, heart and spirit. I follow up each spiritual direction session with an email summary of the session and some additional thoughts, resources and suggestions for further exploration. It's not uncommon for a person to have an assignment, activity, investigation or exercize to work on between sessions. I desire that each person leaves a spiritual direction session feeling seen and heard, having gained greater acceptance and insight for where they are in their spiritual journey, and the necessary guidance and support to continue on their path.


People typically sign up for a series of spiritual direction meetings or calls: 3-session, 5-session, 8-session. There are also customized arrangements that include a 1-year plan. You can find out more about these plans at this link. I also offer spiritual direction groups and retreats, as well as train and supervise other spiritual directors. For more information about these or related matters, you can email me at: jimpalmerauthor@gmail.com


Though each Spiritual Director develops his or her own unique approach, there are common skills, characteristics and commitments that are integral to the life and work of a Spiritual Director, including:

  • Actively engages their own soul work and spiritual journey

  • Has training and certification in spiritual direction

  • Participates in peer supervision

  • Devoted to lifelong learning, including the study of various faith, wisdom, spiritual and philosophical traditions, as well as other relevant areas of knowledge such as philosophy, psychology, and the natural sciences

  • Follows universal ethical guidelines, summarized as “Do no harm”

  • Shows respect for the agency of directees—that is, the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices

  • Honors confidentiality of directees in accordance with the Guidelines for Ethical Conduct

  • Inspires others to explore and embrace: trustworthiness; vulnerability; openness; courage; faith; integrity; transformation

  • Practices deep listening and nurtures spaces of safety, acceptance, validation, empathy, vulnerability and authenticity where directees feel seen, understood, valued, and supported

  • Integrates values into daily life, such as: non-judgment, inclusion, contemplation, compassion, and service for the common good


Parting thoughts


In addition to my work as a spiritual director, there are other related areas in which I hope to make a contribution. People need to be made aware and educated about the significance of spiritual direction for any person's life. It seems these days that the world is chock-full of life coaches, mastermind groups, motivational speakers and self-help gurus, but in my view the work of spiritual direction connects with people on a deeper and more consequential level, and a more direct path to true peace and happiness. I would like to update and expand the work of spiritual direction to a more diverse group of people, and beyond its traditional religious framework. I hope to inspire more women, people of color and millennials to be spiritual directors. All people are spiritual. Whether you are theist, atheist, humanist, activist or anything else on the spectrum of religion, spirituality or philosophy, spiritual direction aids spiritual and human flourishing on an individual and societal level.

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