We have an incredible new resource in Thomasina Wharton, as she brings a focus on spiritual direction to her role as Director of the Center for Wellbeing. Not surprisingly, several people have wondered, “But what is spiritual direction?” and “How is it different from seeing a therapist?”
For thousands of years mystics have discovered and refined practices that develop a relationship to God (or Spirit or Presence) and that deepen this connection within an individual. Spiritual direction, then, is an ancient path for seekers, religious and otherwise, who long to find themselves (or meaning or purpose) by searching for the divine. The practice might include periods of silence, intentional breathing, keeping a journal, walking as prayer, or inviting an image to speak.
Spiritual direction involves deep listening. The “answer” to whatever question one might bring is waiting to be discovered within the directee, by the directee. Because our lives are often chockablock full of distractions or appointments, what one is seeking can be obscured by words and old habits, or by the judgments we carry about the feelings we feel or the thoughts that we think. Deep listening honors the individual’s soul and trusts its capacity to embrace what it finds. It begins with the assumption that the divine is present and within, and eager to be found.
The spiritual director acts as a mid-wife—not causing the new birth or even bringing it—but present to the directee’s labor and encouraging it, knowing when to wait and when to push, creating as much safety as possible in an inherently risky situation. Spiritual direction is to “hold space” and time for the one who is giving birth and for the one who is being born. The director resists the temptation to control or manage the work that the directee has brought, choosing instead to tend a space of compassion for the directee to do what only she can do.
The goal of therapy is learn how to make healthy choices, to feel better or more empowered, to function and communicate more successfully. Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of therapy as offering tools to help us get out of our dark caves. The goal of spiritual direction, on the other hand, is to explore the meaning of one’s life, and particularly of our suffering, and to nurture one’s relationship to the divine. Taylor likens it to realizing that one is in a dark cave and wanting to go further in. Rather than offering external information or guidance, spiritual direction helps one listen to the Spirit within, believing that the knowledge one needs is already present in the directee.