I've been reflecting on why I love Spiritual Direction so much, in both the giving and receiving.
What could possibly be so special about repeatedly sitting across from another person and sharing the inner workings of our heart and mind? How can slow conversation, interrupted by periods of silence, be exciting? Can meeting with someone for one hour a month actually be transformative and healing? Isn't intimate, vulnerable sharing awkward and dangerous?
These are questions that may come up after hearing a description of spiritual direction (click here if you don't know what spiritual direction is).
At the core of my answers to all of these legitimate questions is the experience that this relational spiritual practice is subversive and life changing. It is subversive in that:
Spiritual Direction is not tied to a particular institution, theology, or religion.
Spiritual Direction can be traced back to some badass characters who came to be known as the "Desert Fathers and Mothers." These were early Christians interested in actually practicing the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth. When the church became The Church of the Roman Empire, tied to hierarchical systems of power, oppression, and control, these women and men ditched the now "official" religion. They set up tents in the desert where they prayed, meditated, fasted, and studied. Eventually, people started coming to them with spiritual questions and concerns because, as it turns out, sitting in silent prayer and meditation has a tendency to cultivate wisdom. (Go figure!)
The beauty of the practice of spiritual direction is that the "directee" (a.k.a. the client/seeker) gets to guide the conversation, using their own terms for God/Mystery/Spirit/Universe, and approach whichever topics they choose. This is not limited to "spiritual" things such as concepts of God or religious topics, but instead can be any issue in a person's life (e.g. relationships, doubts and questions, trauma, career discernment, grief, family estrangement, body image, sexuality, gender identity, etc!) The directee need not worry about the director imposing their beliefs or theology on them because the director's role is actually NON-directive. (Say WHAT? Come again?) Yes, a Spiritual Director does not actually direct another person's spiritual path. There's a word for that. It's called manipulation. Instead, the director points the other person toward the real director in their life: That Mysterious Spirit that can only be felt and experienced, never fully explained.
Now that's subversive -Being given permission to experience your Higher Power instead of being given a set of dogma, rules, or concepts of God that don't work for you!
Insert personal anecdote: When I started meeting with my spiritual director 9 years ago, I trusted her because I could tell she was not married to a limited version of God or traditional spiritual practices. She was quirky and out-of-the-box, to say the least. Many of my struggles at that time were related to the church. I now have a term for my experience: religious trauma. For this reason, I would never have sought out a pastor to talk to. I needed someone whose experience and training was from outside the seminary so that I could feel safe.
Spiritual Direction includes and honors the body as part of spiritual practice.
In the west, we have a tendency to get locked into our thoughts, disregarding the messages sent by the body. Spiritual direction values all parts of us: Mind, spirit, emotions, and body. It all matters. It's all connected. Wholistic spiritual health cannot be achieved when we neglect such a large portion of the human experience.
Insert personal anecdote: I sought out my spiritual director because she was the first person I'd ever encountered who used the words "spirituality and sexuality" in the same sentence, and in a positive way! The first several years of our work together were largely about unlocking the trauma lodged in my body and mind around issues of sexuality. I learned how to listen to the messages my body was sending me about captivity and liberation, self respect and self love and self expression. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to my spiritual director for providing the loving, nonjudgmental, non-anxious, and encouraging environment in which I could undergo this healing process!
Spiritual Direction subverts our habits that lead to suffering.
Self-criticism, resentment, revenge, anxiety, restlessness, anger, fear, shame, doubt, laziness, numbing out...these are all habits with which most humans can relate. Oftentimes we just settle for these states of being because we don't actually believe we can change, aren't willing to put in the footwork, or are not even aware when we are stuck in them. The practice of sitting with a spiritual director is a great opportunity to "zoom in" on our patterns. In what ways are these habits benefitting me? (They must be beneficial in some way if I keep coming back to them). Together we question if these patterns of operating are actually adding value to my life and the life of others. Through deep and persistent soul searching, we can find our underlying motivations, and discover healthy alternatives and freedoms we never imagined were available to us. This difficult yet rewarding work is truly counter-cultural. Just take a look at the people in prominent positions of politics and entertainment, or puruse social media for a few minutes to discover that self awareness, reflection, and compassion are undervalued in our society.
Insert personal anecdote: I am a perfectionistic personality. While this has served me in some ways (creating great art work, getting all A's in classes) it has also harmed me and others in many ways. My high expectations can lead to intense self criticism, self righteousness, procrastination, resentment, and disappointment. When I've taken the time to recognize and deeply examine this personality trait, at some point I became sick of it instead of indulging in it. I could see that the costs outweighed the benefits. While this tendency still arises in me, I now have the awareness to notice it in the moment, pause and reflect, surrender my impossible expectations and will to my Higher Power, and choose to act from a more realistic and compassionate place. This is but one example of the inner shifts that have come to fruition as a result of my time spent in spiritual direction. As a result, I feel much more happy, whole, and free to be my beautiful/imperfect self!
So there you have it. Spiritual Direction is a subversive underground movement, carried through the centuries by Christian monastics, which is now breaking into the mainstream. It's time has come. It is my hope that this practice spreads into all corners of our culture, both inside formal religions and out.
The Peaceful Rebellion has arrived!!
I'm a Spiritual Director, Enneagram Educator, and Liberationist-Buddhist-Universalist-Mystic-12 step-Queer-Christian. Playing with questions, answers, and surrender.