I’m not sure about your training, but I know that the training I received in my masters and doctoral programs didn’t leave me feeling fully prepared for researching spirituality or for talking about spirituality in counseling. And spirituality, in particular, has a special place in my heart. Thus began my journey to studying it and incorporating it into the work I do with clients.
When compared with spirituality, religion is much more clear-cut, so to speak. There are clear guidelines, dogma, a body of followers, and practices that go hand in hand with any type of religion (most, although not all). Spirituality, on the other hand, is way less clear. Not only is it highly individualized and personal, but it doesn’t include a body of followers, it isn’t guided by external (i.e. outside of oneself) dogma, and it doesn’t come with a specific set of practices. Now, I understand, there are some types of spirituality that do, but by and large, that’s not the case.
In addition to spirituality being highly individualized and personal, it’s also really, really difficult to study. I might argue that it’s difficult to study because it’s highly individualized and personal. The way it’s been done in the past has been tautological (or circular). For example, let’s suppose a measure of spirituality use items that ask about purpose and meaning in life. This sounds good, right? Ideally, yes. However, when that same researcher wants to assess whether people with high levels of spirituality have higher levels of well-being, asking about purpose and meaning in life (and calling it spirituality) sets us up to fail in measuring what we’re trying to measure. Why, you ask? Well, it sets us up to fail because we already know that having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is positively correlated with well-being. So when we say we’re measuring spirituality, but then we ask a purpose and meaning in life question and call it spirituality, then we can’t even really be sure what we’re assessing. Am I making sense here?
It’s not that spirituality doesn’t give people a purpose or meaning in life, but we can’t assume that every person gets their sense of purpose or meaning in life through spirituality. It could very well be that somebody who identifies as atheist has a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life. If they took that spiritual assessment that I was describing earlier, then it would register them as spiritual. And while you and I and others might say, “well that’s because they are spiritual,” that’s not really fair for the person who is atheist. Again, am I making sense here?
SO, we’re left with a conundrum. We know how to measure religion and we know that for many people (not all), religion and the various aspects of religion serve as protective factors for mental and physical health. We just don’t know (and can’t say) the same for spirituality.
With all of that said, I’m absolutely not saying to ignore spirituality. No, not by any means. I love spirituality. I am saying that if you want to study it, I would recommend you be very careful in doing so. I’m also saying (although I haven’t said this up until this point) that spirituality can absolutely be protective and helpful for people who adhere to a specific set of personal beliefs. As well as protective for people who find strength in believing that there’s something larger/transcendent in life (even if they don’t call it God or Allah or any other higher power that we’re familiar with). It can be a wonderful thing to have and hold onto.
Lastly, I haven’t even talked about incorporating it into counseling, but there’s too much to write about that for right here, so I’ll leave it for next time. Happy studying!
Tara Vossenkemper is an Assistant Professor and counselor educator with Central Methodist University, along with the founder and a practicing counselor with The Counseling Hub, LLC (located in Columbia, Mo). Tara specializes in working with relationships (using Gottman Method Couples Therapy), anxiety, existential issues, and spirituality. You can read more about Tara and The Counseling Hub at www.thecounselinghub.com.