Spiritual direction involves caring for and attending to the whole of a person. Our emphasis is on the soul or spirit of a person and so we often spend time developing habits of prayer and contemplation that facilitate deep connection between our experiences of the Divine and our conscious mind. In some cases however, and particularly when serving survivors of trauma, engaging the body is the best way to help make those connections.
Physically moving, both as a gentle state during a direction session and as spiritual discipline, can help relieve symptoms within a person as they work towards healing connections within a fragmented self. Trauma is often held in the body as the physical responses of fight, flight, or freeze become stuck. These excesses of hormones and neurotransmitters become literal blockages that make it difficult for survivors to access some of their higher brain functions and leave them vulnerable to unpredictable instinctive responses. Including tailored movements into direction sessions can help directees connect more deeply with their own experiences and help them to remain grounded and present while doing so.
Deciding how to engage the body in spiritual direction is a wonderful opportunity to discuss with your directees what helps them in very practical ways. For some, taking a leisurely walk while you talk and pray together may be the only chance in their busy life to be outside and moving. For some it may be needing to pause at regular intervals to check in with their extremities. Literally feeling their feet inside their shoes, wiggling their fingers, or shaking their head. Some may find that beginning or ending a session with gentle stretching helps them to release anxiety. Others may find it most helpful to have something to do during the session such as coloring -which helps coordinate the hemispheres of the brain- using a sand tray or other tactile meditation device.
Our emphasis is on the soul or spirit of a person and so we often spend time developing habits of prayer and contemplation that facilitate deep connection between our experiences of the Divine and our conscious mind. In some cases however, and particularly when serving survivors of trauma, engaging the body is the best way to help make those connections.
Of course, we directors are people too with our own physical limitations and comforts. Be honest about what your limitations are and find something that works for both of you. There are many kinetic meditations that could be practiced by your directee alone such as using a candle to focus on, measured pacing, taking a trauma-informed yoga class, or changing postures regularly during prayer. Some directees even find it helpful to create choreographed movements to accompany a personal lament or prayer or a favorite passage of scripture to help them connect with it. Be open to what works for your directee.
In a broader sense, any physical activity or expression can be viewed and treated as a spiritual discipline. In everything we do from washing dishes, to exercising, to laughing at a comedy, there is an opportunity to connect to the Ever-Present-Ever-Loving. How might you encourage your directees to use the activities already built into their lives, those that seem mundane, to be a pathway to connection with the Divine? Allowing even the smallest of physical routines to be a reminder of Love is a powerful way for survivors to connect with themselves and to experience Presence in their bodies in healing ways.
Recommended Further Reading:
The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out, by Susan Pease Banitt
101 Trauma Informed Interventions, by Linda Curran
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Calhoun
Erin Jantz received her Master’s Degree in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from the Institute for Spiritual Formation. She also holds a B.A. in developmental psychology and has furthered her education with trainings in trauma care from Boston University and intensives with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. She has been practicing spiritual direction since 2012, helped to author ICTG's Spiritual Formation Resource Guide, and also teaches and speaks on a variety of spiritual formation topics. Erin lives in Southern California with her husband and their four marvelous children.
A colloquialism that I often hear applied to parenting, but that I find true for much of life, is, “The days are long, but the years are short.” It is used to describe the paradoxical experience of some days seeming to be full of trials and “never ending” and yet, it seems that we blink and those days are just a memory in our past.
The phrase strikes me as being true about the work done in spiritual development as well. Sometimes it feels as though, for better or for worse, we are stuck in an experience. As if we have reached our maximum depths and broadest understandings only to face a dull and unchanging future. Of course, this is not actually the case. In my opinion, even the most wise and enlightened among us only begin to dip a toe in this lifetime in to what is possible within the human experience.
Philosophical musings aside, we journey through this life bound by space and time and we inevitably experience ourselves as stuck within one or both. Especially when trauma disrupts our normal flow. I have found it helpful in my own journey and practice of spiritual direction, to try and name the season my soul is in during these experiences of stillness. Like the seasons in nature, there is a flow to our growth. The seasons of the soul are not always equal in length, nor are they guaranteed to progress “in order.” However, having a sense of place in the long-term story of our lives helps us to appreciate our present season and lean in to whatever growth may be happening beneath the surface. I find that the simplest categories for these seasons correspond to those of the natural world, winter, spring, summer, and fall. Although, it can also be rewarding to personalize those names. Each season has two faces to it, acknowledging which we are walking in can help us find joy and gratitude or sobriety, whichever is needed for balance. Where might your soul find itself these days? Where is your directee?
May be characterized by explosive growth. Storms followed by sunshine and refreshment. Everything feels new and full of possibility, and the new is easy to discern. There may be a freshness to experiences, or a feeling of “airing out.” A time of cleaning house. It may also feel frenetic or overwhelming, like there is too much to see, a bombardment of the senses. Perhaps a longing for what is to come.
This season often feels like contentment, fullness, stability, abundance, relaxation and relief. A feeling of fun or freedom that lingers around even our mundane decisions. In American culture, summer is often treated as a unique and special season, even when we are out of school-age and no longer experience huge schedule changes. Perhaps there is a longing for adventure or a change of scenery. On the other hand, there may be a sense of being in the desert, of thirst, of the Light being too bright.
In this season there may be an emphasis on reflection and remembering. On the gathering in of hard work, harvest, abundance, feeling grateful and satisfied. On the other hand, there may be preparation for what is to come, hunkering down, and storing up. There may be a sense of seeing difficulty coming.
One of my favorite things about trees is the work they do in winter. When they seem barren and exposed is actually when all of the growth done during spring and summer is turned into solidity and strength. This is an integrating season. A deepening of roots in the quiet days. A time of coziness, rest, and waiting. For some though, winter may also be represented by a sense of dryness, exposure, being stuck, or buried.
How have you experienced the seasons of your soul’s growth? What names have helped you identify and appreciate your present placement in life? Where do you see the Divine in each?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Art of Spiritual Direction, by W. Paul Jones
Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women, by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Elizabeth Liebert
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