What is Spiritual Counseling?
We are going to reframe the concept of counseling for you. When you add spirit, you are no longer just counseling, you are also healing and transforming. Taking a cue from our Shamanic, Hindu, and Buddhist cousins, we practice holistic spiritual counseling. We work with all five Lightbodies: physical, mental, emotional, etheric-karmic, and spiritual-soul. We work multi-dimensionally and have learned real healing cannot take place without addressing all these levels in some manner, something our Native American Medicine Men and Women have known for thousands of years. We will break these concepts down further for you in the Holistic Spiritual Counseling Certification Training, but this is a basic definition. You will quickly discover that many of our concepts and suggestions will be challenging and controversial. They will fly in the face of standard therapeutic tradition. Moreover, we do not claim to have all the answers or that we are always right. Our training is food for thought, and it is a handbook to guide you—not dictate to you. In fact, we will be thrilled with any and all students who go beyond the training and create new levels of skill and concept. There are no gurus in this work. There are only seekers, helpers, and co-creators.
It might surprise you to learn that spiritual counseling works with all major therapy areas: individual, group, marriage, couples, and family therapy. A spiritual counselor also has a lot of tools in their healing toolbox. Many spiritual counselors are also hypnotherapists, Reiki Masters, or Healing Touch practitioners (or follow similar healing modalities) and are certified in a variety of spiritual and healing practices (like energy and chakra work, shamanic traditions, spiritual readings, past lives, sound healing, meditation, bodywork, mantras, and so on). Our late friend, Denise Walkingbird, was a shaman. We love her definition of what makes a shaman: “A shaman is someone who choreographs energy for the purpose of healing.” I think that works pretty well for spiritual counseling, as well. Spiritual counselors have their personal toolboxes, so all of them bring more than just talk therapy to the table. In finding their unique spiritual path, each counselor must discover the vantage point and modalities that work best for them.
The Counselor’s Spiritual Quotient?
There are a few things that might interfere with someone pursuing this line of work. We are not sure how an atheist would be able to do spiritual counseling, since it requires some form of belief in an afterlife. You need a sense of divine providence and goodness, various skills in healing energies, and the acknowledgment of some form of a Higher Power, be it God, Goddess, Divine Energy, or Force. Although we tend toward more of a Universalist tradition, many of us are slightly more agnostic. Agnostics believe there is something “out there,” they just don’t know how to or wish to define it. That seems to work fine in this practice. It also might be difficult for a fundamentalist, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu believer to undertake this vocation. Their end of the religious spectrum is relatively conservative, absolutist, and exclusive. They tend to believe their path is the only right path. Fundamentalists, and Conservative Christians, Jews, and Muslims would also struggle with concepts of reincarnation, karma, being a partner with God and a co-creator of one’s destiny, religious beliefs other than their own, and the pantheistic idea of God being a part of all of us (i.e., “the God and Goddess Within”) and everything, to name a few.
Those pursuing a career in spiritual counseling tend to align more with their respective religion’s liberal and progressive end. They tend towards inclusivity rather than exclusivity. They welcome diversity. They lean towards pluralism—a respect for all faiths—and universalism, acknowledging that all religions hold some fundamental, underlying truths in common. Knowing this, one should consider their own spirituality and beliefs. What is your spiritual counseling quotient? Where do you stand as a person of faith? How will that help or hinder your spiritual counseling role?
There is an important side note. Clients come to us from all traditions. We have successfully worked with people from many spiritual traditions (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Native American, Rastafarian, Neopagan, Goddess, and so on), and even atheists devoted to the betterment of humanity. In spiritual counseling we do not impose our beliefs but meet the client where they are. Thus, spiritual counseling is not the same as Christian Counseling which is Bible-based and focuses on Jesus. In spiritual counseling, as noted, we never evangelize or impose our spiritual beliefs on anyone. Although we are not averse to bringing in relevant quotes and teachings from the Christian or Hebrew Bible (or the Muslim Qur’an, Hindu Vedas, or Native American sacred history for that matter), it is not a Bible-based approach. The spiritual approach is purely voluntary, and we have some traditional clients with whom we remain traditional. However, most people are intrigued and want to try out these newer techniques. The late Wade Clark Roof, who centered his career around the pioneering sociology of religion, found that although many Americans are no longer very religious, they are still very spiritual. James Beckford has likewise found this to be a worldwide phenomenon.
What Spiritual Traditions Can We Use?
Following a more Universalist bent, we are not bound to any one tradition in holistic spiritual counseling. We have discovered and explored the beauty found in nearly every major spiritual tradition known to humanity. It is why we tend toward Pluralism and Universalism. It seems that all the great traditions and spiritual teachers were giving similar messages, even if there were cultural, linguistic, and historical differences. (For example, “Love your Creator-Creatress,” “Love Creation,” “Love the Created.”) That said, there is nothing wrong with choosing to stick with the traditions you practice or are most comfortable with. There is plenty of richness in your belief system that will work in spiritual counseling. We utilize several traditions instrumental in our work, like the Buddha Noble Eightfold Path, the Native American Medicine Wheel, Yin and Yang, Jesus’ Parables, Shamanic Principles, Reincarnation, Chakra Energy Work, Yoga paths, and Goddess Meditations, to name a few. This is hardly an all-inclusive list, and you will certainly add your own, but our clients have certainly enjoyed the lessons from these teachings, which we will explore in our Holistic Spiritual Counseling Certification Training.
There are other notable and equally useful spiritual tools—such as Astrology, Tarot Cards, Akashic Records, Palmistry (palm readings), Iridology (eye readings), Divination, Oracle Cards, Angel Cards, Sound Healing, and so on. These can assist clients in understanding themselves and their life paths. Spiritual readings are not fortune telling, but rather provide spiritual insight and guidance. For the skeptics out there, we can only say that we have witnessed and experienced Spirit working through these tools in ways we cannot always explain, only that it is helpful and often on target.
Your First Spiritual Counseling Client
Spiritual counseling requires a level of self-awareness and self-honesty that is a step above what is expected in standard counseling training. So, your very first client is YOU! Counselor, heal thyself—or at least get the help you need to begin the healing process. It is a dirty little secret in our profession that many of its practitioners are pretty screwed up themselves. Of course, it is part of the human condition, so it’s not terribly unusual and no one expects perfection in our own lives. However, we have a special responsibility as role models for healing and change to ensure that we have done our own work, and that we would not ask our clients to do something that we have not already done or would not be willing to do ourselves. We must be authentic and genuine. This is not just an excellent therapeutic principle, but a foundational spiritual principle. If we are to be holistic spiritual counselors, we must act spiritually in our personal and professional lives. Otherwise, we are hypocrites.
Spiritual counseling requires that your energy be of a higher love and helping vibration, or it is ineffective. Spiritual counseling is all about vibration and spirit flowing and speaking through you. Unresolved issues act like static—and they make it difficult for spirit to break through. Here are some points to consider:
If you have an addiction issue (including daily marijuana use), you need to have worked your own Twelve-Step program in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Marijuana Anonymous (MA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), Adult Children of Alcoholics/Addicts (ACA), or codependency/relationship addiction in Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous (CODA). Sadly, we have known too many counselors with those issues, and, like all active addicts, they remained in denial. Suppose you are addicted and not in recovery and are counseling people with those issues. In that case, you greatly undermine the spiritual energy of your work and your ability to be of assistance.
If you come from a dysfunctional family or have traumas from your past, you need to work on them in therapy. If you believe in therapy, then you must be willing to do it yourself. These issues can haunt us for decades and interfere with our ability to connect with spirit. We know a couple who were both popular psychologists and worked in private practice together. Sadly, they began having marital troubles, and it ended in a bitter divorce. They were both excellent therapists, but what kind of role model did they provide for their clients? Their clients were very torn and almost felt like they had to take sides—like the bewildered children in an acrimonious divorce.
You need to role model the courage to face the pain and hurt you ask your clients to tackle. A young marine we worked with told us that walking through our door was sometimes more frightening than anything he had faced in the marines. I remember that feeling when I walked through the door to my therapist’s office decades ago. It often ranged from nervousness to sheer terror as I felt utterly exposed and vulnerable. I knew I had to confront incredibly painful emotions and memories I had spent years avoiding.
Spiritual counseling requires you to be more open and sharing than in traditional therapies. It is never appropriate to make the session or an issue in a session about you. Still, sometimes your personal experiences help the client understand their own experience. As an incest survivor, I have helped thousands of people with their own sexual abuse by sharing a bit of my story as a survivor. They know I understand. Likewise, because I have done twelve-step work, I understand the process of recovery more intimately than someone who has not. Taking a page from Native American ways of teaching, we are often story tellers. Relevant stories provide rich color and are an effective means to teach a lesson without preaching or lecturing. Stories can come from personal experience, from your clients, from movies and books, from news events, and even from meditations and spiritual experiences. It is your story treasury and library.
Part of the sharing in spiritual counseling is the sharing of the love vibration. We care deeply about the people we work with, and this presents unique ethical challenges. Thus, you better be sure you have worked out your boundary issues. Spiritual counseling is nurturing and caring, even healing, but it is not rescuing or becoming intimate with the person you are helping. That would just make us another codependent therapist, a therapist with poor boundaries, or a wounded Messiah on the cross trying to save everyone. Spiritual counseling, first and foremost, recognizes each person is on their own journey. We can assist and guide, but we cannot change anyone or save someone from himself or herself. That is their job.
It may seem obvious, but the spiritual counselor needs to have resolved any issues they may have regarding people of different cultures, races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual preferences, as well as people who are overweight, elderly, disabled, and so on. We all have prejudices, some conscious and some not. Prejudices have to do with the way we think. Discrimination is prejudice in action. More than once, I have found a hidden bias that did not even belong to this lifetime but still carried over into my subconscious mind. What if we were a Confederate soldier in a past life carrying all the prejudices of that era? What if we were morbidly obese in a prior incarnation with all the ridicule and self-hatred that engendered? What if we were an arrogant king or queen who believed others were inferior? I found it was always an unresolved, wounded part of my psyche, and once identified and healed, the prejudice melted away. It is imperative for spiritual counselors to identify their prejudices because they will leak out in some way.
Gurus need not apply. If a spiritual counselor has a savior complex, that is ego and narcissism. Spiritual counseling is not about saving, but about helping and healing. Paradoxically, when we step back and let the therapeutic process and the power of spirit take over, people are saved. We don’t save anyone, but we help people liberate themselves. We have seen many miracles in our offices or in our client’s lives that we knew were due to the counseling—the counseling, not due to us! We often say we are just a flashlight lighting the path that they choose to walk. We can advise them if it seems like the wrong path, but in the end, the direction and pace is their choice.
To begin with, we don’t like the term “client” or “patient.” The first is too businesslike, and the second is too medical model. We are moving into something new here, so we prefer to call the people we work with “the people we work with.” However, bowing to common usage, we will use the term “client.” As you might guess from this perspective, the boundaries in spiritual counseling are different from those in traditional therapies. Most of us in the field have moved away from the strict Freudian rules, where the client may not even see the therapist’s face, and if they do, the therapist must maintain an expressionless demeanor. We have become more real and more human, but we’re still influenced by those early conventions. However, in the Holistic Spiritual Counseling Certification Training, we will be essentially redefining the counselor-client relationship, moving it to a more of a partnership, collaborative, and collegial connection. This allows the client to feel they are understood at a deeper and safer level, and that their counselor “gets them.”
Beyond the Freudian ideology of the faceless therapist, there are genuine concerns about handling transference and countertransference reactions, as well as inappropriate love and sexual interactions. These concerns cannot be minimized, so, as we discussed above, the spiritual counselor needs to have a level of self-awareness and maturity that allows them to recognize and healthily resolve those issues before they become an issue. In short: to nip them in the bud.
We have also heard stories where the therapist’s needs get in the way of the client’s needs. One client reported seeing a prior therapist who let the first half of her therapy session be about her, but the second half was about her therapist. Her therapist would share things about her marital problems and personal life, and they clearly were not teaching moments. The session had moved to the therapist’s issues. Obviously, this is never an acceptable therapeutic practice. We are present in session solely for our client’s needs. That is being a professional. So, where do the boundary lines begin and end?
In the 1970s, clinical researchers proposed the concept of GEM: Genuine, Emotional, Motivating. They discovered that therapists exhibiting those traits were more effective irrespective of the therapeutic model they used. Ideology was less important than being authentic and caring. That still holds to this day, especially in spiritual counseling. As an example, one of my clients is a skilled, creative, and compassionate clinical psychologist. We have done some great work together in helping her heal her wounded childhood. We are great believers in something the great gurus describe: In working with an adept (a student), they point out that the relationship can flow back and forth, where the guru teacher is sometimes the student, and the student becomes the teacher. Sometimes our work flows back and forth in this manner. Sometimes I am her spiritual counselor. Sometimes I am her mentor. Sometimes I share personal experiences when they are a teaching tool. Sometimes I am her teacher. Sometimes I am her colleague. Sometimes I am her student. She noted that those times when she becomes the colleague and teacher mean so much to her. They are so validating of her knowledge and expertise. They boosted her confidence, and they acknowledge her contribution to the work and to me. She appreciates what she calls “my humility” when I am comfortable not being the authority figure and giver, but instead am the receiver. I care a great deal about her, and she cares a great deal about me. My wife and I would be perfectly comfortable if she were in town to go out to dinner with her and her husband. This is very different from traditional therapies.
Adding another example, sometimes, I will run into clients outside the office. I am also a minister, and they may even be members of our Universalist Church. I seem to develop amnesia about the fact I may know more about them than almost anyone else in the world. My office is like Las Vegas for confidentiality. What is learned in the office stays in the office. The spiritual element transforms the therapeutic context. Spiritually, we see ourselves as colleagues working with our clients on their issues; we are partners in healing. This levels out the old, outdated superior-subordinate paradigm of counselor-client. We are not the wise gurus filling our client’s empty vessel with our golden wisdom. It also puts a lot more responsibility on the client for their own healing. When we start a session, we ask them what they would like to work on. We don’t let them get away with, “Oh, I don’t know.” We may have an agenda, but they need to have an agenda, too. We remind them that it is their therapy session, not ours.
Not everyone is comfortable with or understands these new boundaries, especially if they are used to more traditional counseling relationships. Some want to place us in that authority figure or guru role. We work with them to transition into more of a healing partnership, and most make the adjustment. Another aspect of this relationship to consider is the emergence of social media. We are not on social media very often, other than to keep tabs on our spiritual community, and we don’t share highly personal information on there. Some clients might be perfectly comfortable being friended on Facebook or Instagram and allowing us to use it as a spiritual networking tool. Others may not see it that way, since they use social media purely for connections with friends, family, and love interests. You need to know your client, and they need to know where you are coming from before dipping your toes into the social media pool.
That about covers it. Hopefully, this gives you a clear idea about what holistic spiritual counseling is and all its challenges. It is a wonderful field, so if you are called to it and called to broaden your counseling and coaching practice into spirituality, it will profoundly transform you and your clients.