The Sacred Power of Deep Listening: Spiritual Direction Demystified
In the eight years that I co-pastored a young, thriving, progressive church, I noticed something surprising—people entrusted me with stories they had never told before. Stories of sexual assault or spiritual abuse, stories of heart-wrenching betrayal or cruel abandonment, stories of unhealed wounds that continued to fester just below the surface. The people who told these stories were ordinary folks. Most of them lived a middle-class lifestyle, earned a college education, and worked professional jobs. Many were engaged, married, or parents of young children. If you encountered them in public, they looked like individuals who led successful, fulfilled lives. As a pastor, however, it quickly became clear that no human being truly “has it all together.” Instead, most of us have endured a traumatic encounter with violence, a shameful secret, or a gnawing wound that continues to dog our lives. Many of us have not fully healed from the most troubled chapters of our lives, but we do our best to get out of bed each morning, take our medicine, and move through our days.
According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, trauma endured as a child puts you at risk of adverse health outcomes as an adult. (Click here to take a 10-question quiz to learn your ACE Score and the associated risks for your adult health). Most Americans have an ACE Score of 1 or above, but those with a score of 4 or higher have “a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems.” Entering into an intentional journey to heal old wounds can greatly reduce this risk.
Serving a predominantly white, middle class, educated church, the stubborn pattern of childhood trauma arrived at the door of my office unexpectedly and often from the least likely individuals. Equally surprising was the immense chorus of relief expressed after I offered just one thing—deep listening, freed from distraction, preoccupation, and interruption. Reflecting on the privilege of offering this gift to others, I once said to a friend, “What if deep listening is actually the answer to everything?” In fact, there is not one problem I’ve encountered whose way forward didn’t involve some form of deep listening. Kenneth Blue notes, “Intensive listening is indistinguishable from love, and love heals.”
What is deep listening? It happens, in many cases, through one-to-one sessions that are completely confidential. Deep listening happens when one person creates a safe, curious, and emotionally intelligent space so that the other can speak about whatever is on their hearts. Mostly, it does not begin with childhood trauma or confessions of long-held secrets, although it can. It begins with whatever is ailing one’s soul in this moment, whether it’s discernment about a major life transition, persistent spiritual questions, relationship struggles, agonizing grief, or doubt about one’s identity or vocation. Deep listening begins with whatever someone brings into the room to discuss, and it honors the act of vulnerability, or exposing one’s true self. Deep listening incorporates moments of silence, slowing down the frenetic mind so that the deeper wisdom of the heart can show up.
Deep listening does not present a silver-bullet solution or offer a diatribe of “should haves.” Suffering and struggle can, after all, be inexplicable. Instead, the listener calls forth the presence of God/Spirit/Love—that power that is greater than our individual selves. The deep listener trusts that the power of God’s love is already at work and asks simple and probing questions to discover where resilience, mercy, compassion, and wisdom reside within.
Spiritual Direction is an ancient practice that is undergoing a revival essential for our times. Most people have never heard of it, and yet it is increasingly available as a modality of healing, awakening, and holistic living. Spiritual Directors are not teachers, despite the semantics that associate “direction” with instruction. Spiritual Direction can be summed up as the holy practice of deep listening which fosters one’s capacity for transformation. It honors life’s most perplexing questions not with quick-fix answers, but by leaning into the holy wisdom that flows from struggle. A Spiritual Director is a skilled, authentic contemplative who accompanies you along your journey as you seek healing, build resilience, pursue the hunger of your heart, and imagine new possibilities on the horizon. Over time, working with a Spiritual Director cultivates your capacity to move through major life transitions with grace and health, awakening you to the spark of the divine in all things, all beings, all situations.
Professor Gordon Smith tells of the days of old when hermit desert monks who lived in caves far from the cities were thought to possess the greatest spiritual wisdom. Pilgrims heading into the desert to secure counsel from desert monks often walked many days only to find the wise saint had moved farther into the desert to avoid the crowds of seekers. Booking an appointment online was impossible, so seekers had to venture farther into the desert, sometimes waiting for hours in silence before the desert monk finally agreed to listen to the one who had pilgrimaged for days.
The age in which we live reveals the marks of profound spiritual hunger. We fill our days with frenetic activity that does not satisfy. We fill our bodies with an overabundance of food that fails to yield health. We fill our minds with the vapid chatter of cell phones and social media, re-wiring them to reject stillness, contemplation, and deep engagement of complex matters. Our social interactions, and sometimes even our relationships with family and close friends are fraught with false flattery, ulterior motives, or rudimentary crankiness. Our work, after many years, can digress into a daily grind, sometimes in toxic settings. And yet, there are fewer spiritual guides, wise elders, or ascetic gurus, even deep in the desert. Spiritual Direction offers an opportunity to step back and consider the larger narratives and patterns of your life, to consider possibilities for transformation, and to awaken to the reality of love—God for us, with us, and in us.
Spiritual Direction FAQs
Is a Spiritual Director like a therapist? If not, how are they different?
While Spiritual Directors come from a variety of backgrounds and training, we are not therapists. Instead, a Spiritual Director will notice when issues arise that could benefit from therapy and encourage you to seek it out. Nor is a Spiritual Director a Life/Career Coach or Wellness Practitioner, though all of these may be complimentary services one could seek. A Spiritual Director will create a safe space for contemplative listening, reflecting back the wisdom arising in your own heart, and guide you in the exploration of spiritual practices designed to loosen the grip of your inner critic and keep your heart centered in authentic living with greater intentionality and purpose. Perhaps the greatest gift of Spiritual Direction is that it welcomes whatever arises with compassion, curiosity, and love.
Is Spiritual Direction tied to doctrine and dogma?
No. While a prerequisite for Spiritual Directors is embracing a healthy theology, a Spiritual Director accompanies one from “believing a truth to living a truth,” in the words of Alice Fryling.
How often does Spiritual Direction take place?
Often Spiritual Direction sessions take place once a month for an hour-long period. The frequency is best discerned by the individual seeking services in consultation with the Director.
Can Spiritual Direction happen remotely?
Yes. Spiritual Direction can take place in person, through video conference, or by phone.
What happens in a typical session?
Many sessions begin with a time of silence, a short spiritual practice (such as a guided meditation or sacred reading), and/or an opening prayer. Next the Director will listen deeply to whatever is on your heart. They will ask thoughtful and clarifying questions, listen contemplatively to your responses, and close with affirmations and insights about your journey of the heart.
Can Spiritual Directors serve people of varying religious backgrounds?
Yes, depending on the Spiritual Director. In my case, I am rooted in the religious tradition of Christianity with some background knowledge of Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. I offer deep listening and spiritual practices that could benefit someone of any background, though most of my experience is serving people raised in the Christian tradition.
How do I get started?
Visit my webpage on Spiritual Direction and click on the “Inquire Here” button, or to search more widely, visit the Spiritual Directors International website’s Seek and Find Guide for a Spiritual Director in your area with your preferred background.