What is Spiritual Companionship?

Meeting with a spiritual companion can be a meaningful step to help you find wholeness and balance in  life, not to mention a sense of connection with however you might refer to God, Allah, The Universe, or the Ground of All Being, that which connects us all.  Below are some resources to help you understand the healing modality of spiritual companionship.

SDI is an educational nonprofit, serving 7,000 members in 42 countries around the world. We are committed to supporting and growing access to spiritual companionship and the deep listening, open questions and compassion our healing modality offers.

Spiritual companionship is a relationship in which a companion allows through deep listening the spiritual story of the other to unfurl. Through this relationship, the person seeking companionship is empowered to explore a deeper relationship with God, Allah, Tao, The Universe, or however you may refer to the Ground of All Being.

“Spiritual companion” is an inclusive term which includes:

  • Spiritual directors
  • Chaplains
  • Some clergy, Sangha, Rabbis, Imams and other people who offer companionship and wisdom
  • Life or Soul Coaches
  • Psychologists
  • Social Workers
  • Healing professionals
  • Anyone who offer listening care

A spiritual director is a type of spiritual companion. We believe the term “companion” is broader and more inclusive, and points to the heart of the work, which is to walk alongside with others as friends, listening to and honoring the sacred stories being told. We recognize also that spiritual companionship can happen in a myriad of vocations and modalities, and so use the term as a more inclusive way of offering welcome to those who have not specifically trained as a spiritual director.

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 “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 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: for example, by working with philosophy teachers as their guides, or through their work with psychologists, and other types of counselors.

Here are some ideas.

First, spiritual companionship should be an inclusive, rather than an exclusive concept. It should always strive to welcome and invite, rather than to separate and divide, which it does on occasion, often unwittingly.

Second, at their roots, spiritual companions are individuals committed to helping others seek and find connection with a higher power, however that power might be defined. This characteristic always holds true, regardless of one’s particular religion, spiritual understanding or orientation.

Some other key identifying factors of a spiritual companion can include:

  • being rooted in personal experience, and displaying “depth.”
  • engaged in following and upholding universal ethical guidelines, summarized as “Do no harm.”
  • accountable in a community setting.
  • committed to contemplative, compassionate listening, with respect for the agency of companions they accompany.
  • seeking supervision by others and being accountable to their communities.
  • committed to ongoing education and learning.
  • 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.

Though it can look similar, it is very important to note the differences between spiritual companionship and mental health support. With a wide variety of helping relationships available, the chart below can help you to compare which companionship modality is right for you.

Comparison of Helping Relationships: Nurturing Mental and Spiritual Health and Wellbeing

One-to One Helping Modalities People involved
(Who comes? Why?)
Goal/Purpose
(Why stay?)
Relational Process
(What happens?)
Techniques
(How does it work?)
Content
(What to talk about?)
Assessment
(How is it going?)
Professionalization
Spiritual Direction A person who is mentally stable and mature and is seeking Mystery many name God Deepen one’s relationship with God; discover, attend to, and savor presence of God every day Telling of stories; open responses; silence; waiting; noticing together God’s guidance Sharing; listening; discernment; and contemplative practices, e.g. prayer, surrendering ego to God’s guidance Daily life, relationships, deepest desires, struggles, prayer, God’s presence and spiritual directee’s responses Discernment; mutually agreed-upon evaluation; deepening of relationship with Mystery many name God Potential for fees or exchange of services; variety of training programs; not accredited; professional guild
Pastoral Care A mentally stable parishioner or member of a congregation in need of specific pastoral services To receive spiritual support in a time of need, transition, and growth Clergy or spiritual leader offers a service; parishioner receives its spiritual benefits Depends on the service needed. Examples may be: house visit, sick visit, liturgical service, programs, etc. Revolves around the specific life events of the service being offered Formal methods like boards, elders, bishops, etc., depend on community Fees for services, not for visits; training usually in seminary; oversight depends on denominational structure
Pastoral Counseling A mentally stable person with areas of dysfunction who seeks a faith perspective Facilitate growth, personal integration, and freedom of choice through increased self-knowledge and awareness of God’s healing within a faith context Talking, getting it out; advice giving; support; resolving issues; client and counselor discern faith meaning together Understand the source of the issues; provide techniques and ideas for how to become more free; model healthy interactions between client and counselor Relationships; life experience related to areas of pain, shame, and guilt; discover God’s presence in the healing process Increased sense of freedom, independence Fees might be covered by parish or by person; academic training programs; accredited institutions offer training
Psychological Counseling
(developmental)
A mentally stable person with a specific problem seeking help finding a solution Alleviate pain and disorder, resolve inner conflicts, and promote growth and integration Talking; analysis; often learn “through” relating with the counselor Get “under” the issues; teach or model techniques; problem solving, challenging Relationships; life experience related to areas of pain, shame, and guilt; discover places for healing Developmental comparison to others in similar stages; increase in personal freedom, independence Usually involves fees; academic training programs; certification monitored by state and national standards
Psychotherapy
(abnormal psych)
A mentally unstable person; unable to function Get back to—or achieve—healthy functioning; recover from trauma Depends on form of therapy; return to stability and functioning Will vary depending on the school of practice, e.g. pyscho-somatic, shock, hypnosis Life dimensions related to the problem Diagnosis by skilled practitioner Usually involves fees; specialized training programs; certification monitored by state and national standards
Coaching or Mentoring A mentally stable apprentice, often a “junior” seeking to model an admired “senior” Set and attain specific goals in chosen area of life; increase one’s capacity; learn a particular trade Often marked by a specific time period with specific steps based on goals Intake; setting goals; assessing progress; imitating; teaching, networking; encouragement Usually centered on a specific area like, health, career, relationships, etc. or balance between areas Acquisition of skills; accomplish goals; vitality of relationships; life balance Can involve fees or other benefits; variety of courses and training; areas of specialization; life experience
Discipleship A mentally stable community member seeking to be formed in a particular faith tradition Become familiar with one’s faith; be held accountable by others in living out one’s faith Teaching; modeling; witnessing; evangelizing Spreading the Word; personal testimony; communal gatherings Components of faith such as beliefs and practices; assessing one’s growth and ability to witness Adherence to disciplines; commitments to the community; increase in numbers; deepening personal engagement Fees unlikely; often done by volunteers who are recognized and authorized by a particular community
Sponsorship A mentally stable person seeking guidance from another individual who has experience in the tradition ( e.g., AA*, RCIA**) Become familiar with the tradition in order to choose whether to follow it or not Teaching content such as practices, beliefs; sharing stories and experiences; learning from others in the past Storytelling; accountability; checking in regularly and frequently Sponsor relays information about the tradition; sponsee asks questions, integrates content into daily life choices Sponsee chooses each and every day and also at a certain “conversion” point to belong to the group or tradition Fees unlikely; stipends or donations from the sponsoring group possible; mostly done by volunteers who are recognized for their adherence to the group

* Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve-Step Recovery
** Rite for Christian Initiation for Adults

© 2015 Christine Luna Munger
Spiritual Direction Certificate Coordinator
Saint Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

Find a Spiritual Companion

Locating and interviewing a spiritual director/companion, chaplain or life coach 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 companion, to find a training program and/or a retreat center. We also help existing spiritual companions find supervisors and additional training resources.