Spiritual Direction and Psychotherapy: A Question of Focus

One very common question asked about spiritual direction is what distinguishes it from psychotherapy. This can be a very complex question to answer. There is indeed lots of overlap. We have psychological and emotional responses to the movements of Spirit in our lives, which reveals a prompting— drawing or repelling—from engagement with that particular moment. These can be particularly emotional, or not.  

What distinguishes Spiritual Direction, however is a deepening and broadening of our sense of Mystery, our sense of Oneness, or sense of being a part of Creation - unique in our expression of the sacred, and yet a part of the All.

Throughout many centuries, and to this day, people define spiritual direction differently.  Below are a few of the definitions I have come across personally. The ones included below are rooted in the Christian Tradition.  Of course, there are many more, from multiple traditions.  I hope you find these few helpful as you develop your own definition.  

Perspectives on Spiritual Direction

  • Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment. (James Keegan, SJ, Roman Catholic, USA, on behalf of the 2005 Coordinating Council of Spiritual Directors International)
  • Spiritual direction can mean different things to different people. Some people understand it to be the art of listening carried out in the context of a trusting relationship. It is when one person is trained to be a competent guide who then “companions” another person, listening to that person's life story with an ear for the movement of the Holy, of the Divine. (Rev. Jeffrey S. Gaines, Presbyterian, USA)
  • "Spiritual guidance, as I will use the term, refers to all the pastoral responses which have been called 'care of the soul'...since the time of Gregory the Great in the sixth century, insofar as these pastoral functions raise our awareness of God's call and our appropriate responses. Spiritual direction particularizes spiritual guidance to each person's unique experiences, life circumstances, decisions and yearnings. Furthermore, spiritual direction always involves an explicit covenant to sensitize persons to God and encourage them to deepen this relationship in all its ramifications... It examines the human side of the divine-human relationship, namely, our capacities to receive grace and to co-create with God. It probes possibilities and limitations in how we human beings structure our world into a coherent whole. It dwells particularly on how we understand ourselves in relation to the environment and to persons, including our own selves and God." (Elizabeth Liebert, Changing Life Patterns: Adult Development in Spiritual Direction)
  • Although spiritual direction has had a burst of new life, it is really quite ancient. Across both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, we find people seeking spiritual counsel. The Queen of Sheba sought out the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus gave us examples in his conversations with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, in the ongoing formation of Peter and the other disciples. In the early church, people flocked to hermits in the desert for spiritual counsel. Across the centuries we find striking examples in some Irish monks, in some German Benedictine nuns, in Charles de Foucault, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, and others. Today, spiritual directors come from many traditions...(Marian Cowan, CSJ)