A Counselor’s Journey from Sympathy, to Empathy, to Compassion

Healthful counseling is a two-way street. But that’s not new information, is it? As a spiritual counselor, you undoubtedly joined me long ago in affirming that basic reality.

If someone is asking for counseling, a level of distress, conflict or suffering obviously is present. In some cases, a counseling session calls upon me to go even deeper than usual, far beyond pity and much deeper than tolerance. On those occasions, I lean on the wisdom of a particular set of spiritual guides.

What are those familiar guides? They are the mishaps, mistakes and wrong assumptions in my own past. I gathered them along my journey from youthful self-awareness to ever-heightening compassion for self and others.

My hard-won lessons grace the “current me” with the knowledge that God was making it possible to discover my own spiritual wholeness at any time. It had always been there, waiting for me to search inside.

And now my life lessons sit in silent solidarity as I outwardly affirm the same potential for those I counsel.

“A therapist doesn’t heal, he lets healing be.”
—A Course in Miracles


Lessons Learned Along the Way

In a much earlier career, I became a substance-abuse counselor. In an internship, one job was to counsel women jailed for public intoxication. I poured my heart, soul and all of my energy into the assignment. What could be wrong with that?

Well this, for a start: So drained were my emotions that I often retreated home for a nap after morning sessions, just to build up strength for the afternoon.

What a fast teacher that internship turned out to be! Very quickly, it became clear that the counselor’s job was not to pour personal energy into the counselee, their challenges or their eventual outcome.

Only after that realization could I begin to relax as a counselor. My spiritual-energy field opened, allowing the “God energy” to flow through me in words and in consciousness.

I didn’t expect it, but the city jail taught me about freedom, along with the need to let go of ego over the outcome and keep my role of counselor to be Spirit-led.

These days, I remember that my own wellness—physically, emotionally and spiritually—is crucial to my effectiveness as a counselor and a minister. Walks in nature are one way I restore balance, keep fit, and feel gratitude for life and for the guidance that comes my way.

Another way I move away from stress (or distress) back into balance is through regular journaling. A God letter, I call it. When devoted to a theme, my God letters broaden my mind and often provide guidance on which issues I might nudge an individual counselee into exploring.


The Session

Over the years, as you have likely come to know, a person with a troubled heart must seek inside, for that’s where the answers always wait.

To prepare for each counseling session, it has long been my practice to surrender, pray for guidance, and approach the meeting with curiosity and reverence.

In the meeting, my first steps include: learning how clients see themselves and reminding them of their intrinsic value. I let each know I see them as a person, not a puzzle to be pieced back together.

Next comes my most essential task. It is to offer compassionate listening and sometimes, for clarity’s sake, to inquire what options might be considered. While the other person looks deep inside, my job is to silently hold the vision of wholeness, to know on the spiritual level that wholeness is present.

That internal search can reveal much.

Very often, clients who insist they have sought counseling for problems that are strictly external are surprised to discover how deeply those conflicts are tangled with the issues that most trouble their internal selves.

Usually the sensitive area involves self-worth—or more accurately, a sense there is not enough goodness inside. Not surprising, is it? Too often we are acculturated into believing that our worth depends on how well we do certain tasks. But even star performers find fleeting value, at best, if they pin their personal self-worth to others’ approval of their outward accomplishments.

[Editor’s Note: Spiritual counseling generally is conducted for 3-5 sessions. Ministers and spiritual leaders should have a mental health counselor or agency referral list available for any additional assistance for the congregant.]


The Benefits

“We teach best what we most need to learn.”
—Richard Bach

It may not be immediately apparent, but spiritual counseling benefits all parties involved. My active intention in counseling sessions is that a gift for myself, an insight perhaps, is being revealed by Spirit. I also trust that a seed of healing has been planted in those whom I counsel.

The interactions of a session can sit with me for days as I seek to unravel what has been stirred in me.

So many gifts for myself have come from counseling others: personal insights, a deeper level of understanding of my own motives, awareness of our common humanity. Often my witness to others’ suffering and confusion has prompted me to nurture a deeper awareness of my own need for self-care and kindness. Gratitude arises from feeling that a light, an awareness in other words, has come from the interchange.

All of this, of course, never fails to move me to a deeper connection with Spirit.

Often I am reminded of the encouraging wisdom of the late author John O’Donohue:

There is within us, at the soul level, an enriching fountain of love. And you do not need to go outside of yourself to know what love is … this is not selfishness and it is not narcissism. Rather there is this well-spring of love with the heart and we can whisper awake the deep well of love within ourselves.

For me love is the constant, waiting to be remembered, to be owned, to be activated. God is so Good.

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