Petition (a prayer for selichot)

Spiritual direction from both sides now

This month I begin seeing spiritual direction clients -- a.k.a. "directees" or, in Hebrew, mushpa'ot. (The name for a spiritual director in Hebrew is mashpi'ah; the two words share the root שפע which denotes divine abundance or flow.) As I've mentioned this milestone to people in my life, many have asked, "what exactly is spiritual direction?" And I've thought: aha! A blog post is in order!

Spiritual direction is a relationship, a process through which one person helps another discern the presence of the sacred in their life. This discipline exists in many religious traditions (I know, for instance, that Jesuit priests in formation are required to be in spiritual direction -- as are ALEPH rabbinic students.) In my corner of the Jewish world, this relationship is called hashpa'ah (which, again, derives from the root meaning abundant flow from God.) In the words of my training program, "Hashpa'ah is the traditional term for the relationship with a spiritual director or mashpia who offers guidance and teaching on matters of Jewish faith and practice, and on a personal relationship with the Divine."

(As the wikipedia entry on spiritual direction notes, this Hebrew term is common in the Chabad-Lubavitch community and also in the Jewish Renewal community. Among Orthodox Jews who come from the less mystical and more rationalist end of the spectrum, a spiritual director is more likely to be called mashgiach ruchani. A mashgiach is someone who advises on the kashrut of a kitchen, and a "mashgiakh ruchani" is someone who advises on the spiritual lives of others.) In English, the name for this process or relationship is spiritual direction.

A variety of answers to the question "what is spiritual direction" can be found here at Spiritual Directors International. Among those answers, my favorites are Liz Bud Ellman's assertion that "Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday" and James Keegan's assertion that "Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment."

Tilden Edwards, director of the Shalem Institute, writes the following about what he terms "spiritual guidance:"

Spiritual guidance...though it may get its impetus from the changes required by a particular life situation, does not usually aim at dealing with the situation itself. Spiritual guides are more interested in how people connect their living of certain situations (perhaps difficult ones) with their inner desire to live a loving relationship with the divine Other whose call the situation represents.

My teacher and friend R' Shawn Zevit writes:

Spiritual direction is a process for exploring our connection with what we experience as God, Spirit, Truth, Ultimate Values, however we express and understand the sacred in our lives. Unlike psychotherapy, which may focus on a problem needing a solution, Spiritual Direction attends to the experiences of connection to, or distance from, God/Holiness/Truth/Core Values...during times we feel whole, as well as times we feel shattered.

In a practical sense, what does this look like? In my experience, that varies. ALEPH requires all of its ordination students to be in spiritual direction, so I've been in hashpa'ah since 2005 when I began the rabbinic program. I meet with my mashpi'ah once a month over Skype; we sit face to face (or as near to that as we can manage through our webcams), we take a moment of silence, perhaps a blessing or a prayer is offered, and then we talk about what's happening in my spiritual life. She offers guidance, asks good questions, may sometimes prescribe particular practices or suggest spiritual exercises she thinks I ought to take on.

There's a quality of holy listening, in a hashpa'ah session, which is very powerful for me. I'm speaking to a single person, but I'm also always speaking to God; it seems to me that God is the matrix in which our conversations unfold. Of course, just because that's a metaphor which works for me doesn't mean it will work for anyone else; that may not be how my mushpa'ot see our emerging relationship! And that's okay too.

At the start of 2009 I entered ALEPH's three-year training program in hashpa'ah; it's as part of that program that I'm now beginning to take on mushpa'ot. I'm humbled and honored to be taking on this new role...though I want to be very careful to honor the sanctity and privacy of the relationship between myself and my mushpa'ot, so I imagine I will write about this work rarely and then only in very general terms. Anyway, this is another step on the journey toward becoming the rabbi I want to be.