ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Jan 17, 2012

A Spirituality is Critical for a Counselor

[I realize last year I wrote my ‘Last Blog’. But because Rebecca Daniel-Burke left the door open for me to offer an occasional blog and several readers responded so encouragingly to that ‘last’ blog, I have decided to use the ACA blog as a way to clear out ideas that continue to make their home in my mind--ideas that could be useful to us a counselors.]
Andrew Harvey in his amazingly personally honest book, The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, describes the dangers of being morally sensitive without a sense of some dimension the ‘beyond’. I would like to assert quite absolutely that it is (almost—I’m hedging) impossible for a counselor to be available to many clients honestly and accurately without some sense of a ‘spiritual’ dimension. Individuals in this world experience unimaginable brutality, cruelty, pain and suffering. We as counselors must deal with such individuals. To do so we strength and resources equal to the task in order to listen carefully, acknowledge their experiences and help clean up the mess of such, truly, unimaginable, indeed transcendent cruelty. If we don’t have that strength, we can easily either become overwhelmed, depressed or worse; or just as bad, numb ourselves and ignore the brutality that some of our clients have had to face. Psychological theories are based rational observation supported by evidence carefully collected—the cruelty I am talking about is irrational.

To give just one personal example which I was close to: Carolyn McKinstry describes in her recentl book, ‘While the World Watched,’ her experiences as a pre-teen young girl as 4 of her friends were dismembered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Not only was the safe haven of her church blown away and she suffered PTSD for decades but the happy mood of the whites who gathered around after the bombing was expressed with sayings like ‘There are 4 more we don’t have to deal with.”

Being a statistician as well as a counselor, I realize how important it is that we must be guided by the most effective ‘psychological theories and practices’ in dealing with clients. But that work is not enough. We must have an openness to something beyond those theories and beyond our clinical plans and observations. How would you give Carolyn McKinstry hope if she came in with the PTSD she suffered for decades? and even more difficult, how would you deal with the ones who did the bombing if you were assigned as their counselor?

Both Harvey and McKinstry agree that the only way to not be overwhelmed is to keep hope and hope often cannot come from that which is seen and experienced but only by sensing something that is beyond—beyond a rational, scientific, ‘evidence based’ practice.

There are 2 important dimensions to this dynamic:
This first one I add with some trepidation that I will be misunderstood. I have experienced enough of what we as human beings tend to do with our conceptualizations of our experiences of that which is ‘beyond’ to know how destructive and manipulative they can be. (Those who bombed the church truly believed they were doing God’s will.)
What I call experiences of the ‘beyond’ (i.e., spirituality) are like flowers that bloom with spectacular surprise but then fade. Flowers do not last. I realize that some do try to keep dried flowers, even freeze-dry them. But their power is not in the flower but in the blooming! Some mistake a picture of the moon (or the concept of God) for the moon (or God) itself after the moon (or the experience) is gone. Many rituals are offered to give individuals experiences of the transcendent—perhaps they are more effective than just mindful living. I don’t know.
The most I have to offer in terms of experiencing that which is ‘beyond’ is that one must acknowledge that such a dimension exists and occasionally impinges on our everyday life. Such experiences can give meaning and hope to an otherwise meaningless and hopeless situation—think Viktor Frankl and the German concentration camps. Grace Hipona in her last 2 ACA blogs rightly emphasizes the importance of hope and meaning for our clients. Building on her blog, I would suggest that every counselor must have some sense of something beyond, otherwise hope and meaning become thin and unbelievable--tinny.

I claim that we as a counselors must acknowledge the existence of such a dimension in order for us to clearly hear and acknowledge some of the cruel, brutal stories of our clients and not become hopeless ourselves. To be able to affirm how brutal they were but still provide hope for a better future.
Careful—I am not saying that we should lay our conceptualization of the ‘spiritual’ on our clients any more than we would try to lay on our client the ECG pattern of our own heart!
My second critical point is that ‘Miracles’ do happen; impossible change does come about. George Wallace as governor of Alabama in those days proclaimed ‘Segregation . . . forever.’ and called out the Alabama National Guard to prevent Vivian Malone and James Hood as Afro-Americans from entering the (all white) University of Alabama. But later in his life he met with them and apologized for his behavior, said his behavior was wrong and thanked them for their courage to stand up to him!

Miracles of change do happen and we as counselors must always be open to such possibilities—otherwise our own soul might dry up and we offer our clients only counseling techniques and faded theories.

I believe that a sense of something beyond (=a sense of the spiritual) is critical for us as counselors to keep our ability to listen clearly to stories of cruelty and brutality and still offer our clients a hope which will bring about change and healing so that the client can get on with his or her life.



Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD'

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