Spiritual/Existential Counseling

All problems are psychological, but all solutions are spiritual. — Thomas Hora

spiritual counseling

This is a great quote from Thomas Hora.  If we get to the just of it, is there anything behind our never-ending thoughts, anxieties, and fears?

One way to view spirituality is to say that spirituality means going beyond. Going beyond these thoughts, anxieties, and fears.

My approach to spiritual counseling and existential counseling is rooted in my practice of Zen Buddhism.  Obviously, there is no requirement to be a Buddhist to discuss spiritual/existential issues with me.  In fact, I appreciate all spiritual discussion rooted in a desire to move beyond our small self, and it’s accompanying self-critical storyline.

Important spiritual/existential questions to discuss in therapy:

  • How much time do I have before I die?
  • How much control do I have in my life?
  • What values do I wish to live my life by?

The purpose of discussing these questions is not an exercise in bleakness.  It is a reminder to live the life you wish to live.  It is a reminder to appreciate the moment and live life by your deepest values.  Because, how much time is there to lose?

Spirituality and Psychotherapy

Since there are myriad definitions of spirituality, spirituality is subjective.  One of my favorite definitions of spirituality that can be applied to psychotherapy is by who else, but the Dalai Lama himself.  The Dalai Lama says:

I say ‘spiritual’ without meaning any particular religion or faith, just simple warmhearted compassion, human affection, and gentleness.  It is as if such warmhearted people are a bit more humble, a little bit more content.  I consider spiritual values primary, and religion secondary.

I love this quote because not only does it illustrate the Dalai Lama’s simple and inspiring view of humanity, it implies that spirituality is innate to all people, and religion or other spiritual prerequisites are not required.  Thus, how does one become what the Dalai Lama refers to as a spiritual person?

For spiritually or existentially inclined therapists and clients, this is an important question.  Are there ways therapists can help clients develop spirituality?  The answer is yes.  So first, it’s important to discuss what blocks these innate spiritual qualities communicated by the Dalai Lama.

We block our innate spiritual qualities by believing we can control all of life’s disappointments and sorrows.  That, if all life’s loose ends were resolved then life would be great.  We would get what we want, and be liked and loved by everyone.  There is nothing wrong with attempting to resolve life’s many issues and resolution is a purpose to therapy.  However, the struggle for resolution needs to be accompanied with the belief that there are several things out of our control.  As stated above:

  • How much control do we have in our lives?
  • Do we have control of when we will die?
  • Do we have control if love will be reciprocated?
  • Will I keep my job for years to come?

Often we believe we have more control than we do.  So when things go bad we often insert a self-critical storyline for an explanation.  For example, “X happened because there is something wrong with me, I am lacking.” Or, my relationship ended because “I am unlovable.” When we add these self-critical explanations that stem from our core beliefs, suffering follows.

Spiritual qualities emerge the more we drop the storyline and just experience life.  This doesn’t mean be uninterested, or a doormat.  It means being mindful and heeding the sage advice of 12-step programs, “Life on life’s terms.” When you can mindfully turn to the direct experience of life without the ego armor, life is more intimate.  The ego wedge between you and reality is removed and suffering diminishes.

The result can be exposing and humbling, and ironically, there needs to be some degree of ego strength to go into this uncharted territory.  However, if you persist in this manner, our innate spiritual qualities emerge.  Everyone possesses basic goodness and tranquility, however, they can be blocked by our ego armor masquerading under the guise of protection and security.

In order to be humble and content, one needs to be humbled — not defeated — by life’s circumstances.  One needs to realize maintaining control over all of life’s circumstances can’t be done — it is exhausting and counter-productive. Contentment in the present moment is the result of letting go.  As a result, warm-hearted compassion, human affection, and gentleness have the opportunity to emerge.

In her book, The Places that Scare You, Pema Chodron tells a story receiving sage advice when she was six years old:

I was walking by her [an old woman’s] house one day feeling lonely, unloved, and mad, kicking anything I could find.  Laughing, she said to me, ‘little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.’

Right there, I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice (2001, p.3).

Thank you, Pema. We always have a choice.  It takes courage to give our innate spiritual qualities the opportunity to emerge.

Therapy can be the start.  Voicing vulnerabilities in the presence of a trusted friend or therapist can make them less salient.  Spiritual/existential therapy encourages mindfulness, prayer, 12-step study, or anything that helps people live with a little less ego armor.

Again, what is it behind our fears, anxieties, and core beliefs? Who is it that thinks and feels?