My last blog offered a definition of spirituality which I feel could bring some clarity to our discussions in the counseling field. Certainly it won’t work for all uses of the word ‘spirit’—bare chested men at a playoff game or a manic bipolar on a shopping spree all are examples of ‘spirit’. But in the area of religion and spirituality, especially for counselors, I think spirit identifies an essentially reality—a powerful process. I suggested this functional definition for our use as counselors: “Anything human can be considered spiritual for an individual if in the belief of that individual it connects him or her to that which is beyond.”
Here I want to emphasize to me what is most critical for counselors: In the area of spirituality (and religion), DO NO HARM.
If someone believes or feels something is spiritual for them, that ‘something’ is a ‘Finger pointing to the moon.’
I suggest these four guidelines for counselors:
First of all, do not try to straighten or correct or remove that ‘finger’ whether it be ‘the world coming to an end in 2012’ or ‘Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior’ or whatever—the finger is never the issue;
Secondly, never assume that you know anything about that ‘moon’ that the finger is pointing to for that person except for what the client describes about its light, its impact on their life. (In philosophy, this issue is related to the problem of other minds—except here it is raised to a higher level.)
Third: Always remain open (and humble) to any description of significance of the light from that ‘moon’. Since the spirit is beyond, it is unique to that person.
Fourth: On the other hand, as counselors, we should have skills to elicit from a client the effects that moon has on that individual.
Many have suggested that religion and spirituality should be taught in counseling programs. I would strongly agree but not as usually advocated. The program I would propose would include a major component of self-awareness of the power and assumptions one has as well as those counseling techniques to deal with the effects that the spiritual dimension (and religion) might have in an individual’s life—techniques to respect both the finger pointing to the moon and the effects the light of that moon might have on that individual.
Here are two personal experiences which illustrate what I am saying:
Many years ago, a good friend of mine and I were a part of an experimental faith community. She was a physical therapist who was exploring alternative beliefs and practices such as yoga and Jungian psychology. The Gospel of John in the New Testament was very meaningful to her as she felt Jesus was speaking directly to her. However, I was proud of my knowledge of the Bible having studied hard for 7 years for my PhD and taught for 10 years. So I told her that the Gospel of John most likely was not written by one of the original disciples and was probably composed toward the end of the first century etc. etc.
Because she trusted me, this devastated her and she went into a serious depression. Of course she had difficult psychological issues she was dealing with anyway, but I inadvertently took away her moon by trying to correct her finger pointing to that moon—and its light went away.
Fortunately I have learned from my mistakes. Last week, a client said she was having experiences of her father ‘speaking’ to her. She asked me if I thought he really was speaking to her. My reply was that I didn’t really know about that but I offered to do a kind of Gestalt-like 2-chair work to explore the power that experience was having on her thinking and feeling.
I neither affirmed nor denied her ‘finger pointing to the moon’ but offered her an experience that might clarify further what she was trying to make sense of—the affect of the light of her ‘moon’.
Since the spiritual can be so much more powerful than the present, shared world, we as counselors must be sensitive to the dynamics of the client’s processes even if we cannot affirm or deny their reality. And since they are ‘beyond’ we can neither affirm them nor deny them.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.