Walking the line

This past week has been one of consolidation. Mid-way through the first academic term of the New Year, it has been helpful for me to take a step back from client work and reduce my teaching-related commitments to a minimum. Having worked last weekend facilitating a gestalt training workshop, it was also important to find space and rest a little – I have learnt from previous years how much this weekend of group and emotional process takes out of me (even though its one of the most rewarding aspects of my educator role).

Having the choice to find my own rhythm with my Ngöndro practice, private practice admin, writing, and updating website material, I have been able to bring attention to how I make those choices – to notice the “shoulds” and how they might become “coulds”. Thankfully with Spring now beckoning, the early bird in me is supported by the lighter mornings allowing an organic, gradual unfolding into my day. I have really enjoyed my early morning ritual this week: 2 hours of Ngondro practice, breakfast watching the sun rise, tea and journalling…with an always present cat to remind me of the wisdom in slowing down.

Even at a slower pace, with a list of “coulds not shoulds”, I have still been incredibly productive. I’ve been able to officially unveil two “new” offerings on my website: to formally state my online therapy services (which I am committed to retaining within my private practice portfolio post-pandemic); and also announcing my focus on “spiritual and psychological integration” as I am calling it. Having deeply reflected upon this over the Christmas and New Year break, I have come to realise how important it is that I use my own journey as a basis for giving others a similar opportunity.

On my path, I have been fortunate to work with many kind-hearted and generous mentors straddling the psychological / spiritual line. Therapists and teachers who have encouraged my spiritual curiosity; and likewise, meditation teachers who have a deep understanding and respect for psychological theories. Right now, as I scan across my support team – I have a Jungian therapist who is also a Tibetan Buddhist teacher; I have a supervisor who is also a meditator in the Buddhist tradition; and my meditation mentor has a deep interest in Jungian psychology and the enneagram (a system of character structure that I am beginning to fold into my psychotherapeutic understanding and work).

I don’t believe that spiritual and psychological integration is easy nor straightforward: indeed, it feels that my current book writing is my attempt to understand the “what, why, and how” of my own explorations in bringing the buddhist teachings and practices into my psychotherapy work – my own manual of practice if you will. I am finding my way, bottom up. It is important to me on two levels: to improve my work and being of better service; and to help my own path toward waking up. There is nothing like deep 1-2-1 relationship for showing up my sharp edges, and I still learn SO much from my clients and my students.

One aspect of walking the line between spiritual and psychological domains that I have been contemplating lately is how compatible the role of therapist is with that of spiritual mentor. Are they the same? Can one be both at the same time? What are the differences in view and intention? Do they involve the same skillset and even basic attitude toward what might be healing? What are the ethical considerations are being one or the other, or both (especially since the avoidance of “dual relationships” is so integral to our code)?

On the new webpage dedicated to my spiritual and psychological offering, I present the idea of the spiritual friend, or “kalyanamitra”. Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa says such a mentor is someone “who reflects you like a mirror does”. As Ethan Nichtern (one time spiritual mentor of mine) writes in his book “The Road Home”, there may be some elements of instruction and advice from the more experienced practitioner, but importantly this is an eye-to-eye level, highly meaningful and personal relationship. If ever I try to call my meditation mentor my ‘teacher’ she gently corrects me, likening us to ‘co-pilots’. Yes, she might be a further down the path than me, but this is my unique path, one I am accountable for. There is something more of a sharing quality. I drive my path, she offers support – perhaps a nice analogy is like a bowling alley – I am responsible for the pacing and direction of my path; she offers the rails that stop the ball going off into the gutter. This is not literal however – as something I have come to realise is going off path IS part of the path! So the containment of the spiritual mentor is holding a position that the student is already awake and to convey gentle reassurance that everything is workable.

There is much commonality across spiritual mentoring and the therapeutic attitude; and undoubtedly all I have learnt as a therapist underpins my mentoring (and indeed, what has found commonality in my coaching work). Any ‘helping’ role requires what Rogers conveyed as the ‘core conditions’ – empathy, unconditionality, and congruence. The Humanistic and Buddhistic views share an understanding that a the individual has all they need to come through the other side of obstacles and challenges – by offering a fertile environment that holds and honours the process, the person will grow. Of course, some approaches, like Gestalt, maintain that the growth environment requires more challenge (think of how a young tree needs the challenge of wind to grow a stronger, resilient trunk). Whatever the therapeutic modality and nuances, we can suggest that both therapeutic and mentoring roles are empowering.

Probably the most significant aspect of my contemplation on this area has been to consider what might differ between the two roles: and I have found it helpful to reflect on client work and instances where the work has entered a deliberate transition: the client has ended therapy and comes back to work with me as a mentor for their meditation practice. The need for an ending feels important for me; not only to go through the associated feelings that can get stirred in endings, but also to bring attention to the transition, the associated shift in emphasis and, the change in how our relationship is defined – essentially, to re-contract. The main aspects I see that change across this line are my disclosures and an almost indescribable shift in presence. Listening is intrinsic to both therapist and spiritual mentor, yet there is a quality of ‘deep listening’, a whole body listening afforded by the presence of both practitioners in the room, that allows the mentor to “listen someone into their own wisdom”. Relatedly, I sense that this is perhaps why a spiritual mentorship sees a shift from empathy to compassion, and from unconditional positive regard to unlimited friendliness or maitri. Chogyam Trungpa, the teacher I cite earlier, talks about the mentor as speaking the “same neurotic language”, who both knows and shares the experiences of suffering, and at the same time is accepting of the student’s “neurosis as well as their sanity”. In some ways, we can see the remit of the therapist to help get a client ‘back on track’ toward wholeness; a spiritual mentor however sees the student as already on track, no-where to go other than be with ‘what is’: to encourage the student that what is being experienced as confusion is actually the stuff of wisdom.

A few other aspects in the difference. Firstly, the directivity that often appears in spiritual mentorships – when it comes to instruction on practices or advice. Another is the role of inspiration – as a more experienced practitioner, this provides role modelling and courage to move through. I think of my recent experiences of Ngondro. Knowing both my therapist and my meditation mentor have been through it, knowing they may have had different experiences yet they understand the challenge – that somehow opens up a permission within, that this is do-able, that this IS waking me up despite the confusion being stirred! And that brings me to another distinction: whilst both the therapist and spiritual mentor are providing something of a container for growth, arguably as therapists we are helping our clients in ‘growing up’ (in development terms), no doubt the spiritual is about ‘waking up’. This is part of what differentiates the humanistic and transpersonal views of therapy, perhaps what many of my colleagues will understand as helping our clients separate (find independence) compared to helping someone individuate (which encompasses interdependence). Finally, it must be highlighted that therapy depends on honouring subjective perception and the world view of the client no-matter how different that is to one’s own. Whilst not always the case in spiritual mentoring (as I have worked with some clients housed within wisdom traditions outside of Buddhism), the “View” is shared, and becomes a common intention in the room. As Rob Preece puts it “an aspiration to cultivate a life of awareness, wisdom and compassion engaged in the world for the welfare of self and others”.

As I conclude these Friday morning musings, I am coming to two useful distinctions for my work ahead: firstly, we are talking about the nature of boundaries – both therapist and mentor make possible a container for process, but the therapist role feels more like a guardian, holding boundaries firm so that process can ‘bump up’ against it. Spiritual mentors might place more emphasis on the creative chaos within than on holding the order around – and as fellow practitioners, they take part in the dance of the mandala*. Secondly, speaking to the ‘growing up’ and ‘waking up’ involved on the path of psychological and spiritual integration, it feels as if the two practitioners in the mentoring partnership are ‘waking up’ together. As I write that I think of author Sheldon Kopp, as I credit him with a turn that my psychotherapy took back in 2018 when becoming familiar with his work: to see myself, in fact allow myself, to be a fellow-pilgrim to my clients. Looking to take on more spiritual mentoring work involves taking that invitation more deeply.

And I am deeply excited to be doing so!

Mandala* You might recognise the image that is the icon for my website is based on the mandala principle – in fact I created it during my Masters research nearly five years ago to the day!

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