Many people when first hearing about spiritual direction wonder how it compares to counselling/therapy and coaching. Each of these practices are so valuable and there are some similarities between them. You will notice that all three place an emphasis on conversation and intentional listening. In each case, the process is assisted by the host asking you questions that help you process where you are and where you are going. Having said that, it is important to note that each has a different purpose, different intention, and different methodology.
I am not a coach or a counsellor — so I hope in writing this that I don’t do either of those practices an injustice. However, let me try and note some particular and significant differences. Coaching will often have a focus on operations, problems and solutions — ‘how can I do this better?’ ‘How can I achieve this?’ Or, ‘how can I fix this?’. The coach may be looking for particular topics to explore and desiring to funnel the conversation to an output that tends to be goal focused. Counselling/Therapy (which takes many forms) it is particularly helpful in working through: a particular problem, an emotional issue or a mental health condition. Both these are important and valuable practices — and I would encourage you to engage with a good coach or a counsellor if they provide what you need at this time.
So, what is it that is particular about spiritual direction? The practice of spiritual direction is marked by an attentiveness to God in the life of another. There is an underlying assumption is that the Spirit involved and present in all aspects of the life of the person receiving direction (the directee) and within the conversation itself. Because of this approach, the sessions have a prayerful and contemplative feel to them.
Spiritual direction creates soulful, prayerful spaces helping you articulate, savour and integrate the various experiences of your life. You will find that in spiritual direction we are not problem solving nor trying to tell you what to do or think or push the conversation to a particular outcome. Rather we are attending to the presence of God and the movements of the Spirit in your life, we seek to draw your attention to the Spirit’s activity in you life, helping you to articulate what you notice and how your feel invited to respond. This attentiveness and responsiveness is facilitated by prayer, contemplation, and meditation — for example, there maybe times during a spiritual direction session where there will be space for you to engage in a particular prayer practice. The assumption with this being that directors do not create the relationship between the directee and God but (as R. M. Dougherty writes) “witness it unfolding”.
Spiritual direction (to reference J. Neafsey), is a means of accompanying people on their journey towards an openness to the mystery of God free from ego games and free to make a fuller response to the mystery of God. Spiritual directors accompany people on this journey helping them articulate, savour and integrate the various experiences (‘peak moments’, loss and failure and ordinary life).