It’s Thanksgiving, and many of us are spending the holiday apart from our extended family and friends due to a surge in new Covid-19 cases. Instead of gathering around a table, we are streaming on zoom or picking up the phone for a good old fashioned conversation. As we strive to connect with loved ones in new ways, I find myself relying on tools I’ve learned in my spiritual direction practice.
The ancient art of spiritual direction puts a premium on silence and reflective listening. As a spiritual director I am continually surprised by how thirsty people are to be heard. I see clients once a month and an hour goes by quickly as they share their ups and downs, thoughts and experiences. When it’s appropriate I ask them about their spiritual lives and practices. They probably wouldn’t discuss their spiritual life with a therapist or even a fellow church member, but spiritual direction gives them a space to explore it.
As a spiritual director, I am continually surprised by how thirsty people are to be heard.
I’ve seen how spiritual direction techniques can be used in everyday conversations, and what happens when we don’t offer space for others to express themselves. For example, “I’m so stressed,” Linda tells her friend Ruth. “Ted and I just can’t agree on the amount of social contact we should allow for our kids.”
Linda continues, explaining how Ted allowed the kids to hang out with their friends at the mall without her permission, but Ruth interrupts, sharing how she and her husband recently argued about his visit to see friends at their apartment.
The result: Ruth thinks she showed compassion to Linda by offering a similar story, but Linda didn’t have the chance to fully express herself.
Allowing for a few moments of silence or holding back advice unless it’s asked for may seem strange, and it’s not appropriate for every conversation. But now more than ever people are craving space to wrestle with their thoughts.
The concept is not new. Spiritual direction has been a part of church life for centuries. It was first administered by Catholic priests to their charges in monasteries and abbeys in the middle ages. Teresa of Avila, for instance, writes in her autobiography several times about going to see her spiritual director to get guidance.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Catholic nuns began to practice a new form of the ministry, less about directing one another and more about supportive listening. Lay Catholics began to ask for this kind of spiritual direction and subsequently Protestants sought it out as well. These days, you can find hundreds of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and interfaith spiritual directors on the Spiritual Directors International web site. Although it is not a licensed profession, the majority of directors do extensive training, over a course of two or three years. It is a healing ministry, akin to chaplaincy work and counseling, but with its own flavor.
Spiritual direction is a healing ministry, akin to chaplaincy work and counseling, but with its own flavor.
A good spiritual director allows the person they are sitting with to explore their story fully. That means the director doesn’t jump in with their own story. They don’t judge whether the person is right or wrong, good or bad. Unlike a counselor, they refrain from giving advice or fixing problems. They ask open-ended questions punctuated with insightful observations.
“Susan, what seems important to you today?” a director might ask at the start of a session.
Susan shares how her boss has been demanding and she’s having trouble working from home. “It’s a shame,” she says, “because normally I take pride in my work. I am wondering if I should talk to my boss or just let it be.”
At a pause in the conversation, the director responds, “I’m hearing you say that your job is central to your identity. Is that right?”
Susan nods and explains how much she normally enjoys her work. Her face lights up.
“I can see your excitement talking about your job,” says the director. “I’m wondering what you hope to achieve by talking to your boss.”
In the end, Susan comes up with her own solution to her job concern. She will talk to her boss about how much she loves her work but that she needs more time to complete projects. Susan then moves on to share both the joy she has on her morning walks, which she describes as meditative, and the grief she is experiencing after a friend passed away.
“There’s something about being a witness to people’s struggle—how it is for them—more than somebody to come up with solutions. A lot of what I do is be quiet,” says Helen Cepero, a spiritual director and author of several books on contemplative spirituality.
Most of us are uncomfortable with silence. Even a few seconds can feel awkward. However, I find silence can be productive. Sometimes I will simply ask, “Is there anything more you want to say about this?” Often there is something more.
Giving our loved ones space in conversation is a gift. The average friend might not be able to reciprocate if they are untrained in reflective listening. That’s OK. Simply modeling a different way of communicating is powerful. It often leads to a more satisfying level of conversation.
Some describe spiritual direction, or deep listening, as a form of prayer.
“When two people are listening deeply, there’s something else present—God, holy, sacred,” says Kay Lindahl, an interfaith minister and author of the book Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening.
Lindahl says that long before we have deep conversations, we can practice 20 minutes of centering prayer at the start of each day. If that sounds daunting, she says even one minute is helpful.
This is how I prepare for a session. Before I pick up the phone to call a good friend or work with a client I take a few minutes to pray and clear my mind of distractions. Then, during the conversation I’ll maintain an awareness of my “presence.” Am I fully listening? If distractions enter my mind, I push them aside, knowing I can consider them later.
Lindahl recommends using I language in your conversations. Say “I experienced this…” rather than stating generalizations like “we all know,” “everyone says” or “of course.” It can take practice, but it’s best to avoid using the words “never” and “always.”
“Using I language has been a big shift for me,” says Pamela Carrahar, a spiritual director who trains other directors. “My conversations with my adult children have been transformed.”
And what about those times we disagree with our friends or family? We can expect to face differing opinions in our holiday gatherings. When that happens take a few deep breaths. Say, “I’ll consider what you said.” If our friend irritates or disappoints us, acknowledge the emotion and don’t linger on it.
But what about those perennially difficult phone calls with family members that push all our buttons? You might change the tenor of a fraught conversation this Thanksgiving by asking questions a spiritual director would ask, such as “What gave you joy recently?” or “Where are you finding peace these days?” Encourage your conversation partner to go beyond one-word answers. Ask them to tell you more about their experiences with sensory details. Draw attention to rich points of their story with phrases like “I appreciated what you said about…” “I noticed your excitement…” and “I wondered about…” After they’ve fully shared you can share where you’ve found your own places of refuge.
If you follow this practice, it can become a refreshing counterpoint to the type of competitive and frenzied interaction we see modeled today on TV and social media. Turn on any news show or political debate and you’ll see people talking down to each other, talking over one another or asserting their superiority. This breakdown of civil discourse makes it imperative to cultivate the art of listening in our personal lives. We may not agree with our conversation partner, and we certainly cannot change how our public leaders communicate, but we can create changes in our small circles that ripple out far beyond us to change the world.
This practice can become a refreshing counterpoint to the type of competitive and frenzied interaction we see modeled today on TV and social media.