What is Spiritual Direction and Companionship?
Meeting with a spiritual director or spiritual companion can be a meaningful step to help you find wholeness and balance in life, not to mention connect with God, Allah, The Universe or however one names the ground of all being. Below are some resources to help you understand the healing modality of spiritual direction and spiritual companionship.
Please contact us here if you have a question you think we should add to these FAQs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Spiritual Directors International (SDI) is a global educational nonprofit. We are committed to supporting and growing access to spiritual direction, spiritual companionship and the deep listening, open questions and compassion our healing modality offers. In short, we are an invitation to be your true self.
- We have more than 6,600 members spread across 40 countries — spiritual directors and spiritual companions who offer support and companionship to people so that they may integrate spirit with the rest of their lives to feel whole.
- We invite everyone to join us on the Public Square of Spiritual Direction and Companionship, where all people are welcome with their spiritual traditions and orientations intact – or no tradition/orientation at all.
- We respect the spiritual independence of each person and believe our lives grow richer and deeper, the more we embrace the diversity of faith and practice.
- We honor listening as the active art that allows spiritual knowledge to emerge.
- We work on the assumption that all beings are connected, and that this connection often is revealed in mysterious and wonderful ways.
- As a nonprofit organization, SDI is devoted to educating and supporting the people who choose spiritual direction/companionship as a calling. We do this through our annual conference, webinars, online courses, spiritual journeys, SDI Press Books, our website and our publications including our international journal of spiritual direction and companionship, “Presence.”
Join us on the path of awareness, practice and presence. Not everyone has a religion, but everyone has a spirit. Why not choose to know that spirit in an authentic way?
Now is the perfect time to accept your true self – within your chosen tradition or without – and begin the journey of a lifetime.
Please remember that this journey of spirit need not be taken alone. That’s why spiritual directors and companions do the work they do. That’s why SDI is here – to listen, to support, to embrace deep connection and invite all others to do the same.
Here’s one definition:
Spiritual direction aims to help us experience the eternal and the infinite aspects of our true nature through the wise, experienced and compassionate company of another human being.
But that definition, though accurate, is inadequate in important ways.
Here’s the truth.
Comprehensively defining an intensely personal and sometimes mystical experience is an impossible challenge. Any definition is limited by its very nature and therefore bound to come up short when compared with the actual experience of the limitless.
This quote from SDI member Marian Cowan, CSJ gives important context:
“Spiritual direction is a time-honored term for a conversation, ordinarily between two persons, in which one person consults another, more spiritually experienced person about the ways in which God [or however one names the Divine, Holy or Universal] may be touching her or his life, directly or indirectly. In our postmodern age, many people dislike the term ‘spiritual direction’ because it sounds like one person giving directions, or orders, to another. They prefer ‘spiritual companionship,’ ‘tending the holy,’ or some other nomenclature. What we call it doesn’t make any real difference. The reality remains conversations about life in the light of faith… Although spiritual direction has had a burst of new life, it is really quite ancient. Across both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, we find people seeking spiritual counsel. The Queen of Sheba sought out the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus gave us examples in his conversations with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, in the ongoing formation of Peter and the other disciples. In the early church, people flocked to hermits in the desert for spiritual counsel. Across the centuries we find striking examples in some Irish monks, in some German Benedictine nuns, in Charles de Foucault, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, and others. Today, spiritual directors come from many traditions … [including Judaism, Sufism, Buddhism and other faiths].“
In spiritual companionship, a trained or experienced companion uses deep listening to encourage the spiritual story of the other to unfurl. Through this relationship, the person seeking companionship is empowered to explore a deeper experience of God, Allah, Tao, The Universe, or however you may refer to the ground of all being and, at the same time, enjoy a deeper experience of their own lives.
They often do very similar things. The difference often arises because of training, spiritual tradition or simply an intuitive sense of the practitioner, who chooses the name that he/she/they feel best fits their calling.
Many spiritual directors honor this traditional name for its history and because their training is in spiritual direction. Many spiritual directors also come from a faith tradition where the term can connote certain religious beliefs as well as core ideas of companionship like respect for the agency of the other and honoring contemplative “space” for discernment.
Other people have trained in spiritual direction but prefer to call themselves spiritual companions, spiritual guides, soul friends, anam cara, or give their spiritual care other names. Some might smile and quote Shakespeare and say: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Whatever their preference, the name clearly matters to those who offer deep listening care. This is a person’s vocation after all. And how we refer to ourselves is always deserving of respect.
If you are looking for spiritual direction or spiritual companionship, it might be useful to ask any prospect why they use the name they do and how it reflects the way they offer spiritual care to others. More on the essence of our calling can be found in these posts: A Portrait of a Spiritual Director/Companion and The Hallmarks of a Spiritual Director/Companion.
- They offer deep listening which helps people find and follow their own spiritual path
- They ask insightful, open-ended questions that help people connect with their authentic selves
- They allow space for stillness and silence (contemplation) to help people become aware of what is deep within them
- They build trust and openness by being authentic, kind and open themselves
- They do not proselytize, nor seek to influence or convince, but instead walk alongside people as they make their individual and unique spiritual journeys
- They honor the free will and discernment of each human being, especially in spiritual matters
- They offer a mirror to those they companion so they may see themselves as whole beings if they so choose
- They help the people they accompany create a stronger relationship with self and others and God, or however they refer to the ground of all being.
- They hold themselves accountable to a supervisor, and community.
- They follow universal ethical principles, with the most important one being to “do no harm.”
The term “spiritual director” has many associations and a long history in the Abrahamic faith traditions, where it has been closely associated with certain strands of Judaism, with spiritual directors referred to as “Hashpa’ah” or “Mashpai’h,” (depending on the strand); Christian and, much later, in particular Ignatian spirituality; and in the Islamic Sufi path, where the spiritual director is known as a “Murshid.” But even within these traditions there is great (and increasing) variability in how the terms are used, defined, and contextualized. The common approach that they share is that in all of them, the spiritual director is a spiritual companion who looks to engage with seekers in an open and non-judgmental way, steeped in contemplative practice and deep listening, to provide guidance and enable seekers to get closer to God.
In Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Vajrayana Buddhism, spiritual teachers or guides are referred to as “gurus,” which in Sanskrit means “weighty or grave,” with the connotation of “elder teacher” or esteemed teacher.” But the long story of that term contains overtones of someone who removes spaces and obstacles that may lie between us and our spiritual evolution. Gurus can develop highly personalized relationships with seekers, with a dynamic that is distinct to each teacher but that is deep and all pervasive.
In most strands of Buddhism, it is more common to refer to spiritual “companions” or “friends,” rather than to “directors,” “guides,” or even “teachers.” These friends encourage and allow us to evolve, such that the Buddha was reported to have said that spiritual friendship is the sum total of the spiritual life (in the Meghiya Sutta of the Pali Canon). Spiritual friends help seekers by fostering intimacy; virtuous conduct; conversation that inspires and encourages practice; diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for the good; and insight into impermanence. Spiritual friends, therefore, are the most important key in the spiritual path.
Other examples include followers of Indigenous religions, who usually work with Shamans, or Taoists and Confucians, who learn how to connect with their true natures through wise and learned teachers.
Finally, a significant portion of the over 1.1 billion people worldwide that the Pew Research Center (2010) refers to as “unaffiliated,” many of whom describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” seek connection with a higher power and a larger meaning in variety of ways.
“Spiritual companion” is an inclusive term which encompasses many of the characteristics we have already described, in conjunction with significant training or experience in deep listening and other key skills and knowledge. For more ideas from an SDI Task Force convened in 2017, click here.
Find a Spiritual Director or Spiritual Companion
Locating and interviewing a spiritual director or companion is an important step in your spiritual journey. SDI’s desire is to provide an easy, inviting way for seekers to connect with a spiritual director or companion, to find a training program and/or a retreat center. We also help existing spiritual directors and companions find supervisors and additional training resources.