Humans have great capacity for joy and health. Despite the great damages sometimes inflicted on us by each other and our planet, deep within each of us is the ability to heal. We are able to find goodness in the mundane and the extreme. This innate gift of healing, of moving toward wholeness, is what we mean when we use the word resiliency. This capacity for resiliency is something that we can develop and strengthen in our daily lives so that when we find ourselves in crisis, we have already laid down a path that will bring us back.
Spiritual direction is one activity that people can engage in that increases their capacity for resilience. There are several ways in which this occurs. In spiritual direction, we facilitate truth telling and we practice holding hope. We create safe spaces in the absence of crisis, so that when things are hard, directees have somewhere to turn to discern Divine Companionship through what has happened and their healing processes with other care professionals. We wrestle with concepts like forgiveness and help to establish healing rituals and sacred spaces.
Spiritual direction also contributes uniquely to brain health in what has been termed, Neurotheology. We know that being validated by feeling heard, leads to feeling safe. Neuroimaging studies have shown that when someone hears a statement that mirrors their inner state (what we would call a compassion statement) the right side of the amygdala lights up to underline the accuracy of the reflection. Research also has shown that when people pray (whether that person be a Buddhist monk, Jesuit priest, or a Pentecostal praying glossolalia) that the brain is exercised in a unique way that causes it to thicken like a muscle. Connections between the different areas of the brain are strengthened which helps prepare the brain to handle traumatic experiences.
Spiritual direction also provides a unique form of training to individuals. Like athletes who are preparing for a race, participants in spiritual direction are strengthening important internal connections. Directees are developing “spiritual fitness.” When used positively, spirituality and religion provide a sense of belongingness and purpose in life. Spiritual direction provides practice at finding Presence in the day-to-day. Allowing these habits to become part of one’s daily life provides a grounding and normalizing experience that is readily accessed in times of struggle. Spiritual direction also helps build internal structures that can affect how we perceive and internalize the realities of our circumstances. Much of the experience of participating in spiritual direction is about meaning-making. The meaning that we make out of our lives changes both what and how we remember.
Finally, good spiritual direction is a safe, compassionate relationship. A relationship in which all emotions are welcome and truth-telling is encouraged. Traumatologist, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk said, “Traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships…The role of those relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety, including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged, and to bolster the courage to tolerate, face, and process the reality of what has happened.” He gives an excellent description of the gift of spiritual direction.
The unique and important support that spiritual companions provide through our physical and emotional presence, as well as the help of pointing directees toward the Presence of God, is invaluable to health and wholeness. In all cases, but particularly with survivors of trauma, we are caring for the mind, body, and soul in our work. Let us be intentional in helping to provide holistic care to those we journey alongside.
Recommendations for further reading:
Roadmap to Resilience: A Guide for Military, Trauma Victims and Their Families, by Dr. Donald Meichenbaum
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION BLOG
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.