Editor’s note: The executive director of Spirtual Directors International, Rev. Seifu Anil Singh-Molares, wrote a version of this piece for the SDI newsletter “Listen” in 2017. The response from our membership was so positive and strong we wanted to share it here in hopes of widening the discussion and hearing more from the community. Please let us know what your answer is below in the comments. (And for context on the above quote — check out the cool 4-minute video with Rev. Vaccariello.
What is a spiritual director/ spiritual companion?
One question, many answers.
The term “spiritual director” has many associations and a long history in the Abrahamic faiths traditions, where it has been closely associated with certain strands of Judaism, with spiritual directors referred to as “Hashpa’ah“ or “Mashpaiâ” (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.
Given all of this, how are we to approach the issue of who qualifies as a “spiritual director/companion/guide/teacher/friend/counselor/advisor?”
Here are some ideas.
First, spiritual direction/ 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 directors 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 the particular spiritual configuration or orientation of the directors and seekers.
At a recent retreat of the I had with the SDI Coordinating Council, we identified some other key factors to look for in authentic spiritual directors, namely that they be:
- rooted in personal experience, and display “depth.”
- willing to follow universal ethical guidelines, summarized as “Do no harm.”
- accountable in a community setting.
- committed to contemplative, compassionate listening, with respect for the agency of directees.
- supervised by other spiritual directors and accountable through that direct supervision.
- committed to ongoing education and learning.
What do you think? What characteristics do you see as essential in a spiritual guide? As SDI strives to broaden its spiritual director public square, your thoughts are most encouraged and welcome.
Please write your response in the comments. And thank you for listening to your own spirit as you engage here. We are a community that thrives as each member shares his or her experience and wisdom.