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.
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