Some differences between psychological counselling and spiritual counselling

The counselling in progress

How is counseling psychology different from spiritual counseling? In fact is there any difference at all? Who should seek a counselor and who should search for a spiritual director? Can one not go to both at the same time? And if this is spiritual counseling, why take money for it? Is that not simony?

The most important difference between the two is that counseling psychology is an Enlightenment discourse: an empirical approach that tries to quantify every single human emotion. In all its forms like Transactional Analysis et al, it prioritizes the therapist over the client. The client is maneuvered to enter into acceptable paradigms of behavior. For example, a DSM IV criterion has to be met to diagnose a client with a particular disorder. So someone may be hearing voices and thus gets a diagnosis from amongst the many schizo-affective disorders. The counseling psychologist depends on previous empirical data to classify and then treat prodromal symptoms, if any. The interference is aggressive and supplemented with antipsychotics and anti-depressants. Current neuropsychiatry sees emotions as chemically mediated and as products of molecular and synaptic mechanisms. The client is the Other here who is subsumed by the professional counselor and the professions of psychiatry. It is essential to seek psychological and psychiatric help when one figures out that his/her life is going awry. It may not be apparent to the client herself but people around her would notice the prodromal manifestations of mental illness. No amount of meditation can cure clinical depression or obsessive compulsive disorders or somatoform disorders. If someone suffers panic attacks the best course for the person is to approach first a psychiatrist and then go into one of the many therapies till the panic attacks disappear. Similarly if someone is suffering from explosive bursts of anger, then there are typical antipsychotics with longer half-lives which can free the person from relationship destroying rage-bouts. And often the client is brought to the mental health care professional involuntarily. A bipolar person will hardly realize that s/he is manic or depressed. Outside intervention is needed to treat the disease. No amount of positive wishing can cure malignant brain tumours. Only proper medical care can bring the situation under control. Spiritual direction on the other hand is a very ancient discourse and here God is the true counselor. The spiritual counselor is only a catalyst for the client to have the God-experience. Spiritual counseling in its most traditional form involves a triad: the client, God and the spiritual director.

Christ with the Apostles/the prototype of Christian spiritual direction

Traditional spiritual counseling in all the major religions of the world demand a consensus between the client and the director: they both agree to the existence of transcendence and metaphysicality of the cosmos. Within their dyad they admit the main source of inspiration; God/Brahman/the concepts of Moksha and Nirvana. The Desert Fathers used to maintain that only a fool has himself for spiritual guidance. Unlike in certain psychiatric illnesses none can force another to seek spiritual guidance. Unlike counselling here the onus is on both the guide and the directee to discern the Will of God in both their lives. And then to proceed to commit oneself to a life freed by the power of truth. Whereas the psychoanalytic encounter occurs in the infamous couch; the spiritual opening up of two souls need more informal and relaxed settings. I prefer cafes and lunches to talk things over in the first meeting. Good food in an appealing environment helps open up ourselves and slowly the client can reveal what s/he expects from the encounter. It is not some preformed paradigm into which the client has to be accommodated. Rather there is an absence of introjection and openness to the possibilities of a third dimension existing within the seen realms of life: the existence of the soul. Counselling psychology does not agree to the existence of a soul. The spiritual counselor while acknowledging the powers of the body and mind and their synchronicity also acknowledges the power of the human soul/spirit and the power of an external agency (Brahman/God/Arihants/Bodhisattvas) to help both the client and the guide to take part in a journey together. Spiritual counseling is psychological counseling plus training in mysticism.

Be afire with the Passion for the Divine

A spiritual counselor has to know the difference between depression and the Dark Night of the Soul. A psychologist need only know the former. Spiritual counselors may have to be use psychological testing and various sociological methods to conduct a mental state examination of the client and on the bases of the results of these tests, one has to proceed. There is no documented prognosis in the path to the Divine. And to answer one of the questions raised earlier; yes a person may need to go to a counselor and a psychiatrist to control organic problems and at the same time when impulse control has increased carry on with spiritual therapy.

As far as I am concerned I have a child to settle in life and there are no free lunches. So I provide a service and I want some tangible reward from it for spending time away from my wife and daughter. Thus I do not see the transaction of money as simony. It would not be my dharma if I did not take money for this service.

The Spiritual director's model is this: to embrace the other till the Other is the Self

This is the second stage in understanding what a spiritual counselor does.

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2 thoughts on “Some differences between psychological counselling and spiritual counselling

  1. Shubho, thank you for making this distinction. In many cases, I would agree with you. A psychologist must rely heavy on previous data (e.g. the DSM). However, the DSM only points to symptoms and not a cure. I consider myself a Biblical Counselor, not a spiritual counselor. I come from a uniquely Reformed Christian background. I recognize the significance of medical diagnoses and treatments, knowing there limitations and value. You and I have commonalities and differences. Where we differ is that I would say that freedom only comes through the person and work of Christ and Him alone. Does that mean people will stop suffering once they become a Christian? Of course not. However, people will find a hope that can be grasped that only other approaches can taste. Thank you again for the post.

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