A Personal Journey Exploring Spiritual Awareness In The Person Centred Counselling Relationship
“The transcendent, the indescribable, the spiritual” (Rogers 1980a pp.130)
My research gave me the opportunity to explore my fascination and passion in endeavouring to understand how people relate or connect with each other. How we interact, how relationships build, how trust within specifically a person centred relationship evolves and what happens between counsellor and client that enables mutual meeting at a deeper relational depth. Those special moments in sessions when a unique connection is present in the counselling room that creates a feeling of transcendence. Rogers describes this as:
“When I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me… then whatever I do seems to be full of healing.. But these strange behaviours turn out to be right in some odd way. At those moments it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes part of something larger” (Rogers 1980b pp 129).
The aim of the research was to explore the meanings of spirituality and how and if these meanings relate and link to relational depth experiences in person centred counsellor/client relationships. Are particular personal elements required to create a therapeutic environment where these experiences can take place? Also in relation to practice and therapeutic outcome, is there tangible evidence to suggest that these transcendental moments truly exist and if so, what effect if any, do they have on the level of depth reached in the therapeutic relationship.
In terms of research methodology I was presented with a dilemma. How was I actually able to research therapy and spirituality. William West asked the question “ how to systematically explore therapy and spirituality whilst remaining true to the territory and to the human beings involved” (West 2004a pp.115)
I turned to Clark Moustakas who developed a research model called heuristic enquiry.
“From the beginning and throughout an investigation, heuristic research involves self dialogue, and self-discovery; the research question and the methodology flow out of inner awareness, meaning and inspiration” (Moustakas 1990a pp11)
I was able to work in an organic way both immersing myself in the subject through preparation, exploring spiritual meanings in my own personal therapy, meditating and being more conscious of my own physiology whilst in the process of researching.
I invited four Co-researchers to offer their thoughts on two research questions. Katharine a counsellor working on an M.A. on Spirituality and Counselling, Jan a Counsellor and Tutor of Counselling. Brian Thorne, Counsellor and author of several books exploring spiritual dimensions theologically and therapeutically. My final Co-researcher was an experienced psychiatrist, referred to as Co-Researcher 1.
I invited responses on two research questions:
What does spirituality mean to you?
Have you ever had an awareness of what you have described as spirituality when working with your clients?
The first question evoked a philosophical and conceptual response on the whole. The second relating more to the discussion of the nature of spirituality as a potential feature of a practical working therapeutic relationship. For some the meaning of spirituality was steeped in a religious backdrop whilst others had a secular view.
Co-Researcher 1 gave the following description:
“So it could be argued if it (spirituality) is indefinable then how can you conceptualise it”?, he continues by adding “it is a struggle to explain, simply because I think it is very easy to lapse into jargon and to give all sorts of potential explanations as to what it is, but I think that the nature of spirituality almost defies description and I think that you lose essence and sense if you try to use adjectives to describe it because I don’t think there is one”.
However, he goes on to say and this links up and seems to represent a generally accepted level of thought in this research that:
“Spirituality is about a level at which you connect with people and that this sense of connection, the sum of parts if you like is greater than the whole, in as much as it’s something that you are aware of in much the same way that you are aware of beauty and yet if ask someone to define it, it is extremely difficult to do so”
Katherine struggled to find a finite definition. She linked to the idea that “it’s to do with the energy inside of you, to do with connecting all parts of you and being whole and it’s being connected to everything around you, plants and animals and nature”
Co-Researcher 1 suggested further that he felt “people make mistakes confusing spirituality with religious beliefs, I don’t think the two are connected… I think it’s innate, it is something that exists within us and without us…”. He believed in the “persistence of spirit” but not in a religious sense.
Jan in contrast as a Christian explained that “ for me spirituality means a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and so that’s very alive and active and inner and I have multiple expressions of that.” Jan very much experienced her sense of spirituality as being “something concrete” and tangible as it was externalised through her practice and human interactions.
Brian Thorne refers to the growing interest in trying to come up with a definition of spirituality. “ We have now realised that there is a difference and a very considerable difference between spirituality on the one hand and religion on the other”.
Brian linked his definition of spirituality to a “yearning in people”.
“ What I mean is that yearning with its implications, and the implications are usually to do with finding purpose, finding meaning, finding something which can actually embrace experience and make some sort of sense of it, and above all perhaps something which can give an all embracing understanding of what is means really to love, what it really means to be loved, what it really means to be creative..”
Brian Thorne’s concept of yearning related to believing that “each of us have a part that actually yearns for some kind of ultimacy”. He went on to say;
“If there is an acceptance of uniqueness and essential essence then there is a basis for understanding spirituality irrespective of whether there is a belief in G-d or a higher power. In other words what I am saying is that it is possible if you think about it in those terms for an atheist to be deeply spiritual”
Brian referred to his colleague Dave Mearns who is an atheist. Whilst he did not believe in G-d or religion he acknowledged the “existential self”. He describes it as
“a truly wondrous entity” and talks about “capitalising self” to make apparent “the sheer magnitude, complexity, uniqueness and beauty of this concept” (Mearns et al 2000a pp57).
So whether religious or not both viewpoints celebrate the powerful phenomenon of human uniqueness and “stand in awe of the infinite resourcefulness of the human person” (Mearns et al 2000b pp.55)
In answer to the second question the responses opened up the area of discussion I had explored earlier in the piece regarding the quality of presence of the therapist and use of self while working with their clients how this affected relational depth. This was inspired by Rogers in his later work seeming to evolve from doing therapy to a way of being in therapy. This process shifted his view from humans becoming to humans being. His therapy moved from non-directive to being experiential.
The concept of congruence being, possibly the most distinctive aspect of person centred therapy. Rogers believed congruence occurred when “the feelings the therapist is experiencing are available to him, to his awareness, and he is able to live these feelings, be them and to communicate them if appropriate”. Val Wosket talks about the counsellor’s “edge of awareness”, she illustrates this by quoting Liejssen,. “ Waiting in the presence of the not yet speakable and being receptive to the not yet formed” (Wosket 1999a pp.30)
My Co-researchers offered their own experiences and thoughts in relation to their own practice. I experienced Katherine as being very tuned into her sense of spirituality.
She was particularly aware that when she was being congruent and trusting her intuition when working with clients she seemed to connect on a deeper level. She had a sense of how to recognise and work with a spiritual element in the counselling relationship. She suggests that the possibility of the spiritual part or configuration of self emerging should be “allowed space in the room”, to be intrinsic to the therapeutic process, she felt that acknowledging the spiritual in a counselling relationship could sometimes lead to a deeper level or depth of connection.
Co-researcher 1 when discussing relational depth was more cautious about making this assumption, he was not necessarily sure that spirituality or spiritual awareness correlates directly with therapeutic effectiveness… “ You can have people with a great sense of spiritual awareness or you have an awareness of their spiritual awareness but is does not necessarily mean that is it going to be helpful in terms of the work you are trying to do with them, particularly if they have specifically defined problems or issues”
Jan talked about an experience she had with a client, following on from her idea of how spirituality is “concrete, real and practical in nature”. Jan suggested that the most spiritual moments often occurred “ at times when there is a real sense of depth and a sense of G-d in the room that can happen in the silences”.
Brian Thorne referred to “magic moments” in therapy, he did not offer specific experiences but he talked about his personal view on what he felt characterised them.
His emphasis was on recognising the “utter uniqueness of this person who is with me, and yet at the same time our utter connectedness and that as we recognise each other as totally unique beings and yet at the same time totally if you like interconnected bonded beings then there is that magic moment which tells us we are in the presence of something larger and that something larger can be conceptualised if you like as the G-d head. It can be conceptualised as the totality of humanity, it can be conceptualised in all sorts of ways. Somehow there is more going on than just to the two of us in the room”
Brian Thorne continued by discussing the “notion of a spiritual discipline”. He considers how person centred counsellors could find ways of preparing for these experiences. This indicated to me a shift in attitude, now viewing close spiritual encounters as viable occurrences that require consideration by the therapist and are treated respectfully in the counselling relationship.
William West talks about the emergence of “psycho spiritual practitioners” and he proposes that rather like Brian Thorne that there should be in place elements of practice that need attending to and explored. For example in terms of “language, soul attending, spiritual self care, appropriate supervision, courage, ethics, necessary knowledge, and an agenda for change”. (West 2004b pp. 142)
What seemed apparent from this research is that all my co-researchers acknowledged the spiritual aspect of a person whether viewed in a religious sense, or as an innate core energy or as was described “vital source”. This may not always be apparent or available to detect on a conscious level.
In my own client work, before I start a session I pray for guidance and inspiration. I centre myself, inviting positive, loving energy in to my being. I had the most profound experience with a person when training at a residential. I knelt opposite a person who I did not know in silence. I then had an urge to stand behind her for a short while. I knelt back down facing her and placed my hands on my knees palms facing up. She took my hands. I turned my hands over and held hers very lightly. I was aware of tuning into her energy; I aligned myself to her breathing and focussed on inviting in love and light. The silence continued. I felt a combination of intensity and peace. We were sharing space and time, totally still, with no expectations just content with being in each others presence. She described the experience afterwards saying how she had felt heat running up her arms and she experienced an overwhelming release of emotion in her chest which brought her to tears. She felt this experience had taken her to a place where she had not even reached in her personal therapy. She thanked me and seemed genuinely moved by this encounter. I felt I had been given a gift. I could see tears in her eyes, symbols of feelings only known to her but acknowledged by me in the moment.
She described the encounter as feeling like a spiritual experience. I felt we had connected on an innate level. Words were not necessary; just Being together was enough.
If we allow ourselves to be open to experiencing the whole person, mind, body and soul, I propose this creates a different vibration or combined energy force in the counselling room. The quality of presence a counsellor can offer is paramount. By combining the inherent qualities of the core conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard and being able to trust our own authenticity, I believe this can provide a resourceful therapeutic environment for personal growth, in depth relationship and sometimes transcendent spiritual experiences.
Brian Thorne talks in terms of “heightened awareness” and goes on to say “ I feel in touch with myself to the extent that is not an effort to think or know what I am feelings. It is as if energy is flowing through me and I am simply allowing free passage” (Thorne 1991 pp77)
It is easy with this subject to talk in abstract terms but what this research has shown and I feel is very important to clarify is how the abstract can link and have an effect in reality, on counselling relationships.
William West suggests positive action aimed at the counselling profession to help those counsellors already working with client’s psycho-spiritually in terms of the inclusion of training around spiritual issues in counselling and psychotherapy courses supported by the BACP and UKCP.
Brian Thorne talked about the “current rampant materialist culture” and this links to Oliver James’s concept of Affluenza. There seems to be a yearning and impatient desire (quick fix) in today’s society to pursue the material in order to acquire status and kudos.
This consequently creates a diversion, obliterates or provides avoidance of being able to available for search of personal meaning or to make meaningful sense in peoples lives. There seems not the time to nourish our inner selves, soul, existential self, however you wish to describe it, so maybe as counsellors/therapists it maybe useful to be aware of how some of our clients many need to rediscover and replenish this vital part of themselves amidst the counselling process.
“ I am compelled to believe that I, like many others, have underestimated the importance of this mystical, spiritual dimension” (Rogers 1980c pp.130)
This research has shown and led me to believe and conclude never to underestimate and to always be aware of the importance and relevance of the spiritual dimension as part of a therapeutic relationship.