How is spiritual direction different from therapy?
I function off the principle that whatever is deeply human is also deeply holy.
The actual conversation in spiritual direction could start from a similar place as therapy, or could be totally different. "I'm feeling overwhelmed by this big life transition and don't know how to move forward." "I crave union with this divine Mystery, but don't know how to get there."
I personally use tools from both the world of spiritual direction and from the world of coaching. Spiritual direction has a long lineage in various traditions, like the 4th century desert mothers and fathers sought out for a "word of wisdom" or the Celtic anam caras cherished for their soul friendship.
Spiritual directors, depending on their approach, may be mentors, companions, gurus, trail guides, thinking partners, teachers, coaches, soul friends. It's usually a good sign if they have training or certification; but as in therapy, a license to practice does not indicate how much inner work the practitioner has done themselves, or how profound is their capacity to listen. I've found that the best spiritual directors have walked a good bit of the path and can offer some insight on the terrain. Because you're navigating some deep waters, it's important to feel resonance--that you feel seen and understood.
My favorite directors, coaches, and guides are like good chefs who know how to balance acidity and salt.
Only in spiritual direction, the two most important elements are challenge and mercy. A spiritual director must be intuitive and nimble enough to adjust these proportions from moment to moment. There are vulnerable spaces where you need tenderness and understanding; other times you need someone to be loving enough to mention you have spinach in your teeth (or that are coming across as controlling). The right proportion of challenge and mercy are the key to rapid and transformative growth.
Good question! If therapy and spiritual direction were a Venn diagram, they would overlap, but are distinct practices.
Each can be practiced in a wide variety of ways.
Therapy, as you may know, can be anywhere from the very practical work of looking at your day to day life and how you can find the tools you need to navigate stressors - to the deep work of healing childhood wounds. It is more clinical/scientific in its approach, and often has the aim of resolving our maladjusted behaviors and ways of thinking. It is particularly equipped to support mental illness, to which no non-clinical approach (spiritual direction, coaching, friends) can compare.
Spiritual direction also does a good bit of deep diving, but its approach is more holistic than clinical. -- A caveat: this is my approach to spiritual direction. There are some spiritual directors who will focus on your prayer life and listening to the voice of God. I like to include those things within the greater context of your life.
I don't believe the sacred is separate from the mundane: everything is bound up with the Holy. So that might include walking through changes in relationships; how to be spiritual in an emotionally mature way; feeling at home in your own skin; tuning in to your heart's deepest desires amidst what you think you "should" do; walking through the anger and bewilderment and pain of grief; and any other number of topics. I function off the principle that whatever is deeply human is also deeply holy.
How is spiritual direction different from coaching?
I'll start by saying that my personal approach is going to be different from others'.
Having spent time in both spiritual and coaching worlds, I incorporate aspects and tools from both no matter who I'm talking to: an executive, a spiritual seeker, etc.
I'm not one to focus exclusively on the "spiritual" (prayer, discernment, how God is showing up in your life), as I see that as only one small aspect of the spiritual. Holiness is wholeness. So whatever we need to explore to help you be whole, to be fully yourself: that's the aim for spiritual direction.
It might include behavioral patterns, listening in to your deepest desires, learning to listen to your body, exploring relationships, where you feel stuck, what makes you come alive.
The same topics might be covered in a coaching relationship.
In spiritual direction, I will explicitly speak about the divine since the person usually comes with that expectation. We generally use spiritual language in that relationship, and it often serves as a starting point. What is the divine doing in my life? Where is the invitation? How do I satiate the hunger that I have for more?
Coaching, on the other hand, tends to start from a practical place, since that is generally what brings people to the relationship. Depending on the person, we may or may not speak in spiritual terms. The deeper work we do usually starts from a concrete issue. (Toxic people at work? What’s within your power to do? Who do you have to be in order to respond the way you want?).
The critical piece, from my way of approaching it, is to be incarnational in either relationship. There is always inner work and outer work to be done. There's no true spiritual direction happening if it's not impacting the way you speak to your partner or how you respond to that morning surge of anxiety. On the flip side, no real coaching happens if you're not uncovering the narratives that are keeping you snagged.
If you've got a practical project to work through - getting your mission into the world, motivating a semi-dysfunctional team, figuring out your next career move - coaching may be the right fit for you.
The biggest difference is the lens, language, and starting point.
What's the point of spiritual direction once you're spiritually mature?
It depends what kind of spiritual direction you're looking for! As you hinted, the need for a guru or teacher greatly dwindles as you mature spiritually.
In earlier stages, it is hugely helpful to have a mentor who models and teaches how to attend to the divine. Gradually, you begin to internalize the questions and methods so that you can often get yourself unstuck, or can catch yourself when you notice yourself in an old pattern.
However, even for the most advanced/woke/holy among us, some sort of objective relationship is immensely helpful. Our ego never dies - sometimes we need someone to help us laugh at ourselves, notice any blindspots, and be a thinking partner. I love being able to verbally process some of the practical things with my coach--family snares! misunderstandings! discouragement!--while being able to quickly spiral down into the core issues underneath.
It's not that I couldn't do those things on my own, but that I can do it much more quickly when I have a partner who is listening deeply and is totally for me.
How often do people meet for spiritual direction?
Most people meet once a month for an hour.
Some people like to meet more frequently, which is especially helpful at the beginning as we're getting to know each other. It can also be helpful when you're going through a particularly demanding time, and need a place where you can feel grounded.
How can I get the most out of spiritual direction?
You get the most out of spiritual direction by preparing for it all month!
Jot down what you’re noticing about yourself, the struggles you have, and questions that bubble up.
Be frank about what is most helpful. Your spiritual director is there to support you! When you're clear about what's been valuable (“I really love the silence you allow and your homework suggestions”) and what hasn’t been (“but I sometimes don’t get your analogies”), you can get more of what you like and less of what you don’t.
Not sure what to talk about?
Try some of the ideas below, or talk to your spiritual director about how you’d most like to grow!
What do people talk about in spiritual direction?
Life! And the myriad ways the divine shows up in it.
A few of the popular topics people bring up:
Self limiting beliefs; their inner critic
Suffering, illness, and grief
Discerning God’s will
Their relationship to their religion of origin
What spiritual practice is best at this season in life
Life transitions (retirement, starting a business, divorce, empty nesting, changing careers)
Still have questions?
Shoot me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click below to schedule an intro call!