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Counselling and spirituality: Not so strange bedfellows

By Anne Kelliher


The  aim of this article is twofold: a) to give some insight into the model approach to spirituality and b) to make a few suggestions in relation to working with clients’ spiritual issues in a professionally safe manner. My approach will be academic in nature. This has its drawbacks in that a topic integral to our being human in its fullness (Emerson, 2010) may, for some readers, seem to lack the very vitality that is of its’ essence due to this approach. However, sound practice is based on sound theory. It is the framework that supports us and grounds us and that we draw on, quite consciously to begin with, but with less consciousness as the art and craft of our sacred work is integrated more into our being.

Spirituality, what is it?

On one level, because of its deeply personal nature, one’s spirituality is as unique as the individual who holds it. Yet, no matter how one conceptualises one’s spirituality, psychologists of religion suggest that there are certain elements integral to a wholesome spirituality. The model approaches of Elkins and his team (1988) and Ingersoll (1994) are attempts to create a fuller picture of the essential elements of a wholesome spirituality, and the inter-relationship between these elements. From their extensive research both men concluded that spirituality is a complex, multidimensional construct composed of several major elements.

Elkins et al. (1988) suggested that spirituality has nine major components: Transcendent dimension, meaning and purpose in life, mission in life, material values, idealism, altruism, awareness of the tragic, sacredness of life, and fruits of spirituality. West (1998) saw this list as “a fairly comprehensive list of some of the likely topics that can arise around spirituality within the therapeutic relationship” (p.1). Ingersoll’s (1994) emphasised that spirituality has observable and non-observable elements”. The observable elements point to a truth that is ever unfolding. In order to avoid the illusion of full explication, Ingersoll used the term description instead of definition when speaking of spirituality. He named the following seven components when describing spirituality: meaning, conception of divinity, relationship, mystery, experience, play and integrative dimension (p.101).

The components will now be reflected on in more detail. With this information to hand, it is hoped that therapists can more accurately check if a clients’  spiritual journeying is moving them towards a fostering and concretising of the dimensions, or if it is a means used by clients to remain infantile, irresponsible, isolated, apart from everyday reality, i.e., less human.

An examination of the components of Elkins’ (1988) and Ingersoll’s (1994) dimensional models of spirituality

Transcendent dimension/Conception of Divinity: This “crucial” (West, 1998) dimension proclaims that spiritual persons have a sense of the ‘more’ to life. They are convinced that what is seen is not the whole of reality. This belief, Elkins and his team (1988) suggested, is grounded on a personal experience of the transcendent. They underlined how some people hold a deeply personal relationship with what they have experienced and call it by names such as ‘Higher Power’, ‘God’, ‘The Divine’. Others, they said, take a more psychological view believing that this dimension “is simply a natural extension of the conscious self into the regions of the unconscious or Greater Self” (p.10). But whatever the metaphors used to describe this transcendent dimension, spiritual individuals believe that “harmonious contact with, and adjustment to, this unseen dimension is beneficial” (p.10). Prayer and commitment to a religion is the end result for many (Worsley, 2000).

Mystery: Ingersoll (1994) emphasised the necessity for a tolerance of mystery, for the “ambiguity of the spiritual” (p.102). Simultaneously, he accentuated the necessity for researchers and spiritual leaders to create some vocabulary that both recognizes the mysterious and provides people with a way to talk about it. He respected the innate difficulty there is in verbalising this element of the spiritual.  Ingersoll suggested that one way of facilitating the verbalising of mystery is to define the manner in which individuals experience it. He believed that the term ‘negative capability’ most aptly defined this experience, an experience demanding “the ability to be in mystery or doubt without any irritable reaching after fact or reason” (Keats, as cited in Ingersoll).

Clients need to be well grounded, with a healthy level of psychological, emotional and spiritual maturity, if they are to navigate safely the realms of negative capability, of “a transpersonal” experience (Sutherland, 2001). Sutherland stated it thus:

In healthy mental and religious functioning, the line of demarcation separating the two spheres of the personal/ psychological and the transpersonal/spiritual allows for a process of oscillation. …………..Oscillation is, for most people, an unconscious process. ……People with high schizotopy are vulnerable to unmanaged oscillation ……(this indicates) a movement into the transpersonal that may quickly deteriorate into psychosis………the profiling of schizotopy identifies people who are not sufficiently integrated, psychologically or spiritually to manage the elements of their exposure to the transpersonal. Open awareness degenerates into boundarilessness.” (p.383).

Sacredness of life: According to Elkins and his team (1988), spiritual people see life as a whole. For them, life is infused with sacredness. They often experience a sense of wonder, reverence and awe even in non-religious settings. They do not “dichotomize life into sacred and secular, holy and profane” (p.11).  Rather, they hold that the sacred is in the ordinary,

Meaning and purpose in life: Both researchers noted that the hunger for meaning and purpose in life is a constant refrain and yearning in humankind. In the view of Elkins et al (1988), the spiritual person has struggled with life’s fundamental questions of good and evil, meaning and non-meaning, redemption and loss, and has emerged from the “existential vacuum”(p.11) believing that life in general is deeply meaningful.  Elkins and his team accepted that, “The actual ground and content of this meaning vary from person to person” (p.11), but all hold the general tenet that one’s own personal life has purpose and meaning. The questions of value, choice and inner freedom hover in the shadows of this dimension. For many people these issues are overwhelming and some seek counselling support to deal with them (Sperry 2001).

Relationship: Ingersoll (1994) stressed that the aims of all mythologies, including religious based mythologies, is to address relationships. Sheldrake (1992) postulated that spirituality’s main function is “surveying the complex mystery of human growth in the context of a living relationship with the Absolute” (p.50). A frequent focus in therapy sessions is the issue of relationships, intra-personal, inter-personal and for some, with their Higher Power. Elkins et al. (1988) spoke of the relationship aspect of spirituality under the headings altruism, idealism and awareness of the tragic.

Altruism: According to Elkins and his team (1988), the inter-connectedness of all humans and a strong sense of lived social justice are integral to the spiritual person.  They held that the spiritual person is touched by the suffering and pain of others, and knows that “we are our brother’s [sister’s] keeper” (p.11). The awareness that “we are all part of the continent of common humanity” (p.11) drives the person to altruistic action, suggested Elkins et al.

Idealism: According to Elkins and his team (1988), the spiritual person is a visionary and is committed to the betterment of the world. S/he is committed to the actualisation of positive potential in all aspects of life and to high ideals. S/he sees and loves how things/people are whilst also being open to what they may become.  This requires true compassion, including compassion for oneself (Chodron, 1994).  Without compassion towards oneself it is difficult to embrace another aspect of Elkins et al.’s model of spirituality which is linked to relationship, i.e., awareness of the tragic.

Awareness of the tragic: According to Elkins and his team (1988), a solemn consciousness of the tragic realities of human existence is alive in the spiritual person. Whilst this awareness brings depth and seriousness to him/her, it does not, however, lessen the person’s appreciation, joy and valuing of life. This struggle with the tragic continues to-day, and at times presents in therapeutic settings. Awareness of the tragic, and of one’s relationship with all of creation, gives one a mission in life (Elkins et al.).

Mission in life: Here, Elkins and his team (1988) used very traditional religious language. The spiritual person, they argued, has “a sense of ‘vocation’……..a calling to answer…….a destiny to fulfil…..is metamotivated and understands that it is in ‘losing one’s life’ that ‘one finds it’” (p.11). This call is experienced as a sense of responsibility to life. Mission in life is closely allied to another component – material values.

Material Values: According to Elkins et al. (1988) the spiritual person does not seek ultimate satisfaction in money and possessions. Neither does s/he seek to “use them as a substitute for frustrated spiritual needs.”(Elkins et al., p.11), knowing that “ontological thirst” (p.11) can only be satisfied ultimately by spiritual values/gifts.    Unless human beings recognise their spiritual core, Singer (1990) declared, they will relate to the natural world in a manner that will trap them in a world of material forces, a world resistant to their aspirations of freedom. Buber (1973) believed that people’s enslavement to material values resulted in a silencing of the spirit, a cutting off of the spirit from itself.

To have the ability to relate in a wholesome manner with material things is a hard won stance as recognised by Assagioli (1975). Only adults who have a healthy attitude to material matters can actualise their potential in some meaningful measure, and can engage in play as understood by Ingersoll (1994).

Play: When play is truly playful, individuals forget themselves and give themselves to something greater than themselves, in a giving that is simultaneously pleasurable, according to Ingersoll (1994). Without the balance of play “An excessive concentration on our work, achievements, or spiritual quest can actually lead us away from the presence of love. In the work of soul, our false urgency can utterly mislead us” (O’Donohue, 1997, p.32). In order to be open to play, one must be open to “experience” (Ingersoll, 1994).

Experience: The spiritual person lives moment by moment, fully present to the ordinary. “An adequate description of spirituality must refer not only to peak experiences, but also to the ordinary behavioral correlates”(Ingersoll, 1994, p.103).  To live in this manner, open to the sacredness of each moment, one must be in one’s own skin. The spiritual person is a body person.

Ingersoll (1994) suggested that often when people are talking about looking for meaning in life, what they are really wanting is a vibrant experience of life, of being fully in their body. Many clients present because such intimate contact with themselves is missing. This fact is poignantly underscored by K.D.Lang (1992), in her song titled, “Outside Myself”:

The thin ice covers my soul My body’s frozen and my heart is cold and still.   I’ve been outside myself for so long Any feeling I had is close to gone I’ve been outside myself for so long.

Such dis-ease with oneself, Moore (1992) held, is the consequence of living out of tune with one’s humanity, one’s spiritual longings. When these longings are denied, then people turn to other substances such as drugs and alcohol, which Huxley (1977) termed “religion’s chemical surrogates” (p.54).  .

Dimensional Integration: Ingersoll (1994) stressed that the dimensions “function as an integrated, synergistic entity”, being “complementary, not exclusive categories” (p.104). Spirituality is, he concluded, “an organismic construct distinct from religion” (p.99). He believed that his approach formed “a new conceptualisation of spirituality and its place in human development and the therapeutic encounter” (p.99).

Elkins and his team (1988) did not speak about integration in the spiritual life.  However, it is implicit in their understanding of the ‘fruits of spirituality’.

Fruits of spirituality: According to Elkins at al. (1988), if one lives life as outlined in their model, one is incarnating the fruits of spirituality. “True spirituality has a discernible effect upon one’s relationships, self, others, nature, life, and whatever one considers to be the ultimate.” (Elkins et al., p.12).

Implications for counselling/guidelines for spiritual interventions in thecounselling process

I think it true to say that at least one of the above dimensions  will have presented to the majority of therapists reading this article. If so, your clients have presented with what experts in the field understand to be issues of a spiritual nature; and, they deserve to have them(selves) understood, listened to, and worked with as such. This depth of work must be entered into in a conscious manner by the therapist. I suggest the following as supports to the practitioner in helping clients to move to a spiritual life marked by a deep humanity and an integration of the dimensions outlined above:

i) Appropriate reading – e.g., Cashwell & Young (2005), Chandler, Holden and Kolander (1992), Goldberg (1983), Grof and Grof (1989), Haronian (1972) Sahafi (1999), Vaughan (1979; 1986), Walsh and Vaughan (1980), and Zappone (1991)   – is always, I find, a good place to start.

ii) A clear knowledge of the professional boundaries of both counselling and spiritual direction is necessary if one is to work ethically within one’s own professional limits (Faiver & Ingersoll, 2005). Counsellors open to the Transcendent may expertly and comfortably sit with clients who are wondering who they want the Divine to be in their lives. However, if this becomes the central reason for meeting, it is time to refer onwards in relation to this issue as it has become one for spiritual direction. It may also be timely to support the client in seeing if this focus is a means of avoiding other developmental issues. Cashwell, Myers and Shurtz (2004) named this manner of avoidance “spiritual bypass”. They declared that although often entered into unconsciously, spiritual bypass is a means of avoiding unfinished business. “The spiritual identity becomes the individual’s persona while the unfinished psychological business, considered too undesirable by the person to acknowledge, is repressed and relegated to the ‘Shadow’” (pp. 403, 404). It is frequently used to compensate for anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, dependency issues and narcissism. For example, an individual who is drawn towards social isolation arising from feelings of inadequacy may be inclined to spiritual writings and teachings that promote detachment and renunciation.

iii) The importance of access to a supervisor open to, and competent in, working with issues of a spiritual nature is paramount. Such availability is not automatic (Kelliher, 2007; West, 2000). The importance of both sound supervisory training and basic training as a counsellor in the area of spirituality, and the lack thereof, was also noted by Kelliher and West.

iv) The explicit inclusion of a module on ‘Spirituality in the counselling context’ in basic training courses is, I believe, a matter of urgency. According to Irish research (Kelliher, 2007) over 50% (75) of the 141 practitioner respondents reported ‘Lack of preparation’ in this area, whilst 14 reported ‘Indirect preparation’. This latter was instigated by trainees in their personal development work. Yet, 133 respondents declared that they had been presented with spiritual issues in their therapeutic practices.

Shafranske & Malony (1996) proposed that the following four components be integral to basic training open to including a spiritual/religious component as a means to remedy and redress the current status of training in relation to spiritual/religious issues:

a) a values in psychological treatment component

b) a psychology of religion component

c) a comparative-religion component, and

d) a working with religious issues component.:

West (2000) emphasised the necessity of a multi-cultural component. Guidelines from Irish based counselling bodies are sadly lacking in relation to the inclusion of  spirituality and other multi-cultural issues within core training.

v) In relation to training, the distinction between pastoral counselling training, i.e., training which looks at spiritual matters within a specific faith paradigm, and general therapy training open to the spiritual, i.e., training which reflects on spirituality/religion as a phenomenon, i.e., in a more general and scientific manner, must be understood.

Concluding Remarks

Spiritually is a lifelong choice. It is a process which can be conceptualised on a continuum.  When healthy, it moves individuals towards a way of life that is inclusive, expanding, and socially aware. Such individuals have deep insight, and a comprehensive and constructive sense of ethics and values. They think globally, but not to the detriment of their immediate situation. A spiritual life can occur within or outside the context of an institutionally organised religion, and not all aspects of religion are assumed to be spiritual.

Counselling is understood by a growing number of practitioners as a valid space for clients to reflect on this aspect of their lives. Burke and Miranti (2000) were of the opinion that one is ethically remiss if one hinders clients from bringing their spirituality into their therapy.

Anne Kelliher, Ph.D., Director of Training Kerry Counselling Institute.  Anne is in private practice in Cork and Tralee and is an accredited supervisor with IAHIP and IACP.


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