One Spiritual Director’s Transformation

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My first vocation was as a physician. For eleven years I studied and trained to get myself through college, medical school and residency. I had taken the tests, put in the hours and hours and hours in the hospital, learned the protocols of how to be a physician and how to operate within the medical field with integrity and professionalism. I also practiced interacting with people… a lot. Patients, families, nurses, colleagues. With all of them, I listened. I learned. I got curious about the deeper story, the “what’s really going on here” that is so important in the practice of medicine.

I retired very early from medicine, choosing to turn my attention to caring for my family and my soul. It was at this point that I discovered spiritual direction. Since the first time sitting down across from my first spiritual director, spiritual direction has been my foundational transformational practice. First as a directee, but then, even more transformative, as a spiritual director. The countless hours of presence and listening have shaped me and grown me. After all this practice, I know how to ask a powerful question. I know how to tune in to the energy of the directee. I know how to create a setting that allows each of us to be truly present. Most importantly, I know how to let go, how to surrender to the movement of Spirit. The practice of spiritual direction emerges and grows itself in and through me as I learn to show up. As I show up, I learn to return home to who I was always meant to be. I have become more and more myself. The great genius that I have been gifted within this lifetime is to ​be a Listener.

When I look back, I see that I approached my training in spiritual direction similarly to my medical training. I believed that there was a clear delineation of how to “be” a spiritual director. Always do this, never do that. this is spiritual direction. that is not.

Following a structure within which I was practicing allowed me to deepen and master the skills that are foundational to the tradition of spiritual direction — deep listening, releasing my judgments, having no agenda for the directee, trusting each individual to God. I am so grateful to the masters of spiritual direction who laid down the foundation upon which the rest of us can build.

There is a new name for what I do. It is called ​transformational listening​ . Many of us have at some time struggled with the title “spiritual director” and indeed, SDI is now using the term spiritual companion. This new phrasing, ​transformational listening​ , resonates with my deepest knowing.

However, the Divine is ever new and creative and so, over 17 years of practice, my way of being with directees has continually shifted. I began to use a mantra to transition into the session. I started choosing a reading, scripture or poetry to begin the session, always listening to where Spirit might be guiding as to what was needed, a way of praying for and being with my directees before the session started. Then I began guiding us in grounding practices at the beginning of the session, using the three aspects of our being –body, mind and spirit– so that we both might listen through all these aspects, not only our thinking minds. There have been many other changes.

Oftentimes in supervision I would wonder aloud, “If I bring this element into my spiritual direction sessions, am I still a spiritual director? Am I adhering to the rules?”

The consistent practice of entering into the flow of Spirit with my directees eventually led to a knowing so insistent, so clear, so exciting that I could no longer keep practicing within the box that I had created for myself as a spiritual director. Spirit carries one where she will and Spirit has now carried me to a very new place in my practice of spiritual direction.

First, there is a new name for what I do. It is called ​transformational listening​ . Many of us have at some time struggled with the title “spiritual director” and indeed, SDI is now using the term spiritual companion. This new phrasing, ​transformational listening​ , resonates with my deepest knowing. As I look back at the process, isn’t this what happened?

Sometimes in the space of a breath, sometimes over many, many years, my directees and I were changed. We were different at the end of a session or at the end of a year, or three or even ten. And that change, that transformation came about from listening. I believe that listening is the foundation of all transformational spiritual practices. Whatever brings about change and growth in our lives is, in some way, based in listening. So, the participants in transformational listening are called co-listeners. Yes, one of the co-listeners is the guide for the session, but the transformational listening session must be ​co-created ​ or else nothing shifts, flows, or emerges, the new that is so powerfully needed in us does not arrive.

There is much more to this new process than I am able to share here. What is so humbling is the way this process simply arrived. In me, in my co-listeners. Occasionally, even now, the question will arise, “Am I still a spiritual director?”

The answer is, I’m not sure. But, as Spirit is growing and changing my process, it feels that a similar transformation is taking place at SDI. I sense that we are an ever growing “bigger tent” that includes so much more than I used to understand spiritual direction to be. The acceptance and expansiveness that I am experiencing at Spiritual Directors International, affirms to me that whatever I call my practice, as long as radical listening is my foundation, I belong to and with the community of Spiritual Directors International.


Rebecca Johnson is a transformational listener and an ADHD Coach living in Anchorage, Alaska where wilderness is her constant transformative inspiration.  Her website is alaskaspiritualdirection.com, though it does not currently reflect the new emergence of transformational listening.  You can contact her at rebecca.johnson@hey.com with comments or inquiries. 

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