The place of Spirituality within Counselling

I believe that a person is more than just the sum of their parts – whether those parts are our physical body, the contents of our minds or something more difficult to define.

sunsetIn Psychosynthesis a person is said to embody of a host of ‘subpersonalities’ – all the different roles into which we fall and the different people we become in different situations. However, above and beyond all of these subpersonalities is something more – an ‘I’ – who could be described as the central core of who we are. A classic Psychosynthesis exercise that I learned from Will Parfitt [1], draws our awareness to all the parts of us but then helps us to see that they alone do not totally describe us. In the exercise, attention is drawn to our bodies, our minds and our emotions. Once we have noticed each of these things, it is easier to let go of the various ‘identifications’ that we carry and to look beyond them to try to find the ‘I’ at the very heart of our Selves.

In the practice, we focus our attention on aspects of ourselves – body, mind, soul, emotions and say ‘I have a body, but I am more than my body’, I have a mind, but I am more than my mind’. I found this exercise was immensely useful in expressing the idea that I was all these different things yet none of them entirely defined me. I believe I am more than all of the parts of me – there is something more.

The nature of this ‘I’, this ‘something more’ is a question that has occupied humans for as long as we have existed and the opinions are as numerous as the individual people who hold them. In some sense, this search or connection with this part of oneself can be thought of as a spiritual act.

For some, an organised religion, attendance at a place of worship creates a very obvious spiritual life, for others, their spirituality is a private thing that is barely defined. In twelve step programmes, the participant is required to find a ‘higher power’ in which to put his or her trust in order to heal from their addiction. This higher power does not have to be God, or Allah, Buddha, or Jesus – it can be as simple as allowing a person’s group to be their higher power. There is however, a need for something. It is also the case that people completely eschew spirituality preferring instead, a rationalist approach to life where everything can be explained entirely by science and where consciousness is merely a function of brain activity. Few would deny, however, that thinking about the meaning of life and the nature of being can engender questions and difficulties of a ‘spiritual’ nature!

In my life, spirituality fills a need in me, a yearning for something I can’t quite define, although I know it when I feel it. When I haven’t tended to my spiritual self I begin to feel the yearning. It is a pull to connect, to plug into the life force. For me, I find that ‘life electricity’ in nature and ritual and it’s important to me. It fills a space within me that is not filled by anything else. Without it, I am not fully alive, I feel dull and dreary – something is missing.

RhyneI have also in my life had experiences that are beyond the rational, seeing things that have behaved in ways contrary to normal reality, and have had feelings that might be termed ‘peak experiences’ – a term that comes from Abraham Maslow’s work [2] and that he describes as “rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the [experient]”. These types of experiences might come from nature, art, music, relationships, sex or physical achievements but, to me, they are most of all about spirituality and about the connection we have to out higher self, to Spirit, to God or even just to certain excitable areas of our brain.

Maslow considered these peak experiences to be one of the most important experiences that we can have as humans. To him they represented that a person was ‘self-actualising’ – a term used to describe when a person is able to work towards being all that they can be, to become truly themselves.

Everyone will have their own ‘peak experiences’ and their own way of expressing their spiritual aspect. It is important to note that, in talking about the ‘spiritual’, I do not necessarily mean the religious although for some the two will equate and that is fine. Spirituality can be as simple as fulfilling the desire in life that is beyond the acquisition of things.

Some people believe that religion or spirituality, or the desire to connect with the ‘numinous’ are an instinctive human trait. Carl Jung, one of the founders of Psychoanalysis firmly believed that this was the case writing that ‘Spirituality is so important in mental and physical health because every human has within and innate impulse to know the Divine, to form a conscious relationship with something larger than oneself.’

In my work as a counsellor, I have noticed that many of my clients want to bring a spiritual experience or a religious belief into the sessions but have been wary – not knowing how I might react to this. They are often relieved when I make it clear that their spirituality, in whatever form it might take, is a welcome addition to the work of therapy. It has sometimes led to a new openness from them and enhanced our relationship.

In counselling then, if I go to talk about my problems, I need my counsellor to see me as a whole person, not just as a collection of parts, one of which isn’t quite working properly. If my counsellor is not open to my spiritual dimension, or I do not feel open to bringing it into the sessions because I feel my counsellor may not understand, I am not able to be fully myself in my counselling sessions. How then, can I expect to be entirely free to heal and develop?

So, spirituality in counselling conveys a host of benefits:

  • It honours the whole person, taking into account their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual selves. It ensures that every part of a person is brought into the process of counselling including their Higher Self, their God Soul, the transpersonal or whatever other names on wishes to apply to it.
  • The Client is able to safely discuss metaphysical matters without worrying that they are ‘doing it wrong’ or bringing in something that is ‘irrelevant’ or that they need to keep such things out of the counselling process.
  • It honours the diversity of human experience, acknowledging that all people experience the world in a different way.
  • It takes into account the concept of spiritual emergency – that a person may be experiencing a spiritual crisis rather than, say, a mental health issue. Spiritual Emergence or Emergency is something taken for granted in many cultures outside the Western Paradigm and can be a powerful, transformative experience [3]. However, it can also be alarming and scary, particularly if it something entirely new to a person. If a counsellor has knowledge of both spiritual emergency and mental health issues, they have some room to judge which may be occurring rather than leaping to the wrong conclusion!
  • A person on a spiritual path can find themselves face-to-face with aspects of themselves that they had not considered. The journey can be difficult and sometimes even traumatic. Spiritual counselling means that support is available for the particular issues that a spiritual journey may uncover.
  • The counsellor too is able to bring themselves fully into the process internally by making a space for spirituality – their own spirituality being just as important as that of the client. Although, it is unlikely a counsellor would overtly discuss their spiritual beliefs with a client, simply being mindful of spirituality brings with it the energy of acceptance.

I feel that to fail to consciously and mindfully include space for spirituality in the counselling process is to fail to entirely include both the client and the Counsellor fully in the process. Inclusion does not have to be overt or overwhelming – for example, I would not display any iconography or paraphernalia that specifically referred to one belief structure – and can be entirely client led.

Finally, as we as humans are more than the sum of our parts, so bringing the spiritual into counselling brings more than the sum of those parts described above – it brings in something less tangible but no less valuable for that.

Notes:

  1. For more on disindentification and Will Parfitt’s exercise and thoughts see: http://www.willparfitt.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/disident.pdf [accessed 17/01/15]
  2. For more on Maslow and Peak Experiences see Maslow, A.H. (1964). Religions, values, and peak experiences. London: Penguin Books Limited.
  3. For more on Spiritual Emergency see Grof, S. and Grof, C (ed.) (1989) Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation becomes a crisis.

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