Spiritual counseling offers clients sessions that focus on the spiritual side of their being. Spiritual counselors may look at their clients through a lens that is unique from other forms of counseling, in which the presenting problems are explored for the spiritual growth or lessons that lie within them. Coming from this perspective can help clients to explore the deeper meanings of what they are experiencing. Many spiritual teachers remind us that it is spiritual understanding, especially from personal experiences, that can alleviate the mental and emotional challenges that we face. There is flexibility with how much focus you have on the spiritual grounding of the presenting issues that your clients face, and many counselors find that this depends on the level of readiness of their clients. Some clients may be ready for their egos to fall apart into a deeper awareness of who they are, others may be working on integrating their spiritual experiences into societal life, while others still may be new to more formal spiritual practices and teachers, yet wanting something to shift in their lives.
One of the aspects of spiritual counseling to be aware of is that the people coming to you will have various spiritual beliefs and goals. For example, in 2002, Melton identified more than 2,300 different religious and spiritual groups in the United States alone, which is discussed in the book Spirituality and the Therapeutic Process (2009). It can be important to clarify for yourself before starting a spiritual counseling practice whether you want to work with people of different spiritual backgrounds and beliefs or whether you want to focus on a more specific population of people. Each person is unique, with different backgrounds, goals, and abilities. What is it that you bring to a spiritual counseling practice? Is there are certain population you feel most drawn to working with?
The cultures that people are a part of can also influence how they interact with you in a counseling session. Familiarizing yourself with a client’s culture may give you a basic understanding, however, it is important to be open to asking questions and not making assumptions about the culture that your client is a part of. An example of this comes from my work with people who are a part of the Yurok tribe, which is the largest Native American tribe in California. While it is very common amongst many people in the United States to respond quickly to questions or statements in a conversation, this is not a traditional part of many Native American tribes’ ways of communicating. They tend to leave longer pause times between questions and in conversations. If I was to continue talking or asking questions and not give enough pause time between my words and those of my client, I may not give enough time for her/him to feel comfortable in sharing deeply. This is just one example of the many important differences that can be present between cultures. In general, becoming comfortable with silence in spiritual counseling sessions can be a valuable gift to offer clients. Within some moments of intentional silence, a client can have a moment to center and see what lies beneath the surface level of her/his awareness. For clients who do not take moments to pause during their day, it can be a powerful resource to offer techniques for how to slow down, focus on their breath, do a body or emotional scan, and feel into what is going on energetically for them.
Taking a moment of silence, deep breathing, visualizations, and energetic clearing are just a few of the many techniques that can be used during a spiritual counseling session and afterward by clients. With so many techniques for spiritual growth and healing available today, it can sometimes be overwhelming at the outset of developing a counseling practice to know which techniques to offer. According to Pargament in Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred (2007), “it is important to tailor spiritual resources to both the particular case and the particular problem. For instance, many clients may gain strength and support form religiously based rituals. Not all will do so, however. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse, for example, are often unable to disentangle religious rituals from the abusive clerics who enacted them”. The emphasis is then on the individual and what works for her/him rather than what has worked for others or ourselves. One way to work with this is to ask clients themselves what has sustained them in difficult times in the past or what has brought them deep peace in their lives. Each of us has the answers within for what will work best for us and asking questions to help clients get in touch with their own answers can be very empowering for them. For clients who feel a lack of resources for dealing with challenges, it can be helpful to offer them several different techniques and then get feedback from them on what works best in order to find out which practices to delve deeper into together.
There is a vast range of spiritual and holistic healing practices that you can have as your own tools to use with clients who are interested in doing so. Over time, many counselors have a broad scope of therapeutic techniques so that they can customize each session particularly for the individual client. Some spiritual counselors feel drawn to teaching from their perspective on spirituality to the people who come to them, while others feel called to focus on helping their clients explore their own beliefs and come to their own conclusions. Both of these techniques can be helpful, and you can certainly have a fluid practice that moves between various ways of interacting with your clients.
In helping clients to use spiritual techniques, Pargament reminds us of is that it oftentimes takes time and practice to experience the benefits of spiritual practices. It can be helpful for us as spiritual counselors to encourage our clients to stay with spiritual practices that they are drawn to or that have been of benefit to them in the past; there can be a tendency, especially in fast paced societies, to let go of practices prematurely when issues aren’t quickly resolved. This is one of the jewels of spiritual counseling: that we are not trying to simply give quick fixes for issues that are coming up for clients, but are instead going into the depths of the issues, trying to find what is at their source. This type of transformation can have tremendous impacts on a person’s entire sense of self and way of being in the world.
This is an excerpt from one of the 25 required master’s courses in the University of Metaphysical Sciences curriculum.