Counseling and Spirituality

Al Heystek

Several years ago a member of a men’s therapy group at the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill made a comment in a very matter of fact and memorable way. He said, “There’s more to counseling than understanding our thoughts and feelings—spirituality is also an important part of it.”

Sunshine Behind CloudsWhat did he mean? What he seemed to be driving at is something that may be quite obvious and self-evident: there’s a dimension to growth and change that is beyond our own personal experience of what we think and feel. Growth and change also has to do with friendship, love, and community. It has to do with relationships and connections to what we most cherish in our human experience, our deepest values. It is this dimension of life that helps us wrestle with our most profound questions of what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

What is Spirituality?

Spirituality can be defined in countless ways. A very basic way to define it is to say that spirituality is the quality of concern about the human spirit which is beyond the concrete, tangible world of material things.

"I Love U" Written in Beach Sand

Clients have often appreciated the notion that spirituality is related to but different from religion. And for those who don’t believe in God, spirituality offers a universal inclusive understanding. Client discussions have produced this definition: spirituality is simply “living with a spirit of love and respect for myself and others.” That definition has been central to many client discussions.

When a young dad’s values of love and respect, for example, don’t match up with his actions, statements such as this can result:

“Yesterday I was way over the line with my seven-year-old son’s defiance about not getting off the computer and going to bed. I got loud and really angry with him. I knew later I had overreacted.

“I went to my son later and asked how he was doing. I let him know I could understand if he felt hurt about my getting upset, and then I apologized. I told him we all can have angry feelings, but that doesn’t mean we can act in mean ways. And I told him that it wasn’t his fault I got so upset. I told him I would work on this to do better next time.”

Friendship Fist BumpThis vignette is rich in the realm of spirituality. In our work with men, we see how important it is to have support—friendships, a church group, a therapy group—where men can regularly check in and be transparent and accountable. In this example, being part of a therapy group enabled the young dad to think in terms of his values, how he acted out of integrity with those values and needed to have some corrective action. We might say that spirituality is the process of corrective action. Living with respect and love may be a laudable goal, but we also need a means of correction when we are out of integrity.

Where the Good Road and the Road of Difficulties Meet

In our groups, men get the chance to see how they could behave differently the next time there is a painful experience, but they receive something else that’s equally important.  When they make an effort to hold themselves accountable—or even when they don’t—they aren’t met with judgment and shaming, but with acceptance and respect. Fear, anger, and judgment lead to isolation and the strengthening of a shame narrative. When we experience love and acceptance, spirituality is in the midst of that.

A prayer of the Lakota holy man, Black Elk (1863–1950), reflects a similar notion about the intersection of suffering and spirituality: “Great Spirit, the good road, and the road of difficulties you have made me cross; and where they cross, the place is holy.”

The place where we face ourselves, see some truth, and feel some deep pain, becomes a rich opportunity for acceptance, change, and new hope. This is spirituality, and this is love. And as you might imagine, it applies not only in counseling, but in life, as well.