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SPIRITUAL COUNSEL


©  2018 Prajna Fire
Metta Buddharam Temple | Bodhgaya, India

Buddhist Context


Buddhism has a long tradition of "spiritual friendship," a close connection between a practitioner and one farther along the path than they, in which direction, clarity, and guidance is shared to further their progress.


The original terms of the Sanskrit ((kalyanamitra) and Tibetan are instructive (ge wey she nyen): they literally refer to a "friend of virtue," someone with "benevolent excellence," Since "virtue" and "excellence" here connote spiritual values and practice, the terms are often translated as "spiritual friend."


Historically, this individual can be of many different kinds, from a fellow sangha member to a teacher of philosophy or meditation, to a guru in Vajrayana practice. The main elements of the role are present right in the terminology. The spiritual friend is one who is grounded in the virtue, or excellence, of Buddhadharma, and acts out of good-will, benevolence, and friendship with respect to others in sharing their lived experience of the Dharma.


Tibetan Buddhism in general (and the Kagyu lineage in particular) has a storied history of "ear-whispered" transmission of Buddhadharma directly from one teacher to one student, or at most, a select few. Such intimate transmissions ensure rigor, continuity, and integrity of the teachings, particularly those traced to an individual teacher's mystical experience. Often, when specific teachings or practices thus transmitted were in danger of disappearance due to being so closely held, a teacher at the end of a chain of transmission would disseminate the instruction more broadly to ensure its survival.


The relation between teacher and student, however, is more than just a spiritual game of tin can telephones. It is a dynamic exchange that goes back and forth in a nonlinear pattern of instruction, queries, answers, more inquiry, and guidance. This style of instruction is alive and well to this day between Dharma teachers and close students who receive personalized training targeting their individual needs and practice development.


For example, this is the pedagogical approach we experienced both in monastic training and individual retreats in Asia as well as in three-year meditation cloister in Colorado. Basic, general instructions on a given practice are provided to a group at large. Each student then engages the practice, encountering confusions, doubts, obstacles, as well as insights, glimpse experiences, and fruits of meditation.


As they grow in the practice, the practitioner returns to the retreat master with practice details and questions for advice, guidance, and further instructions. Given the on and off the cushion scope of Vajrayana practice in cloistered retreat, this guidance often extends to self-reflection and character development as well.


Modern Expressions


That is all well and good, but is there a viable role for spiritual friendship in modern life, among the daily push and pull of duty, desire, and doubts? Particularly in the midst of the masses of information available to us about Buddhism, through books, websites, videos, and, more recently, a seemingly endless stream of Zoom, facebook, and youtube video teachings, is there any value added by individualized spiritual friendship?


Unsurprisingly, we respond with a resounding "Yes!" Indeed, it is the very plethora of information that initially makes a spiritual friendship valuable. The glut of materials for spiritual practice can easily lead to years of skimming the surface without attaining significant depth of understanding. The mind-boggling access to written materials can lead us into the pitfall of mistaking a conceptual grasp of particular subject matter for the vital knowledge and experience that Buddhist practice emphasizes as central to healing, transformation, and transcendence.


Guidance from a spiritual friend can help us see our blind spots with more clarity. We gain perspective from another's knowledge of Dharma and ability to view our choices with the objectivity. Discussion, debate, and introduction to experiential practices that allow us to take in the knowledge more holistically can add immense dimension to our spiritual development. Perhaps most importantly, spiritual friendship can, if we are willing, hold a mirror up to spaces within us that can use more attention, whether through Dharma practice, self-reflection, or even formal therapeutic modalities such as psychoanalysis, therapy, and addiction or trauma recovery.


In fact, modern life in the West, with its emphasis on self-help and ready access to psychological support, has in some ways added to the healing dimension of spiritual friendship and meditation practice.


Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic


During the course of the last year of pandemic life, more people of all faiths--including no faith at all--turned to spiritual friends for support. Spiritual assistance came in the form of priests, ministers, rabbis, and lamas in churches, temples, and Dharma centers, to be sure.


Nevertheless, another, less well-known class of "spiritual friend" stepped forward to assist those in need. The New York Times noted that during the pandemic, many Americans flocked to a spiritual director, companion, or, as we refer to it at Prajna Fire, "spiritual counsel."


Aims for this kind of spiritual guidance are as varied as the individuals seeking it. Some may seek to explore their relationship with the faith of their birth, to gain support for life events in a manner than reconciles faith and reason, or to expand their understanding of what is ultimate. Others may seek guidance after a crisis of faith or explosion of doubt. Still others want to explore personal histories related to addiction, trauma, or other behavioral issues through a spiritual lens, to complement psychological intervention.


Ethical Concerns


In an interpersonal context as tender as spiritual counsel, it is vital to recognize and honor wholesome ethical guidelines, just as in similar interactions such as therapist and client, clergy and parishioner, doctor and patient, and the like. This class of interpersonal involvement necessarily includes a dynamic of power imbalance and boundary propriety.


While psychologists, doctors, teachers, and clergy are often subject to standardized codes of conduct, no such established norms exist in the realm of spiritual counsel. Although the spiritual counsel engages the counselee's psyche as much as any of these professions, in the United States, for example, there is no centralized licensing or supervisory body for spiritual counsel. This void makes it all the more important to ensure that clear guidelines are in place when working with any given spiritual counsel.


Spiritual Directors International is one group of companions in spiritual counsel which has spearheaded the articulation of ethical guidelines for this vital and tender interpersonal exchange. At Prajna Fire, we adhere to this code of conduct. Some guidelines are obvious (or should be!), such as prohibitions against coercive, romantic, or sexual relationships between teacher and student, or counselor and counselee.


Concurrently, Prajna Fire honors the sovereignty and integrity of students and counselees, Skillful ethical guidelines do not infantilize individuals. Rather, they acknowledge the personal power, right to consent, and wholesome boundaries we all possess as healthy individuals. As in any one-on-one interaction, students and counselees are 50% responsible for sustaining relationship propriety. Nevertheless, in recognition of the power inequities, teachers and counselors retain 100% responsibility for the dynamic at the same time.


In addition, at Prajna Fire, everyone participating in our Dharma offerings and spiritual counsel has equal access to our teachers and counsel. For the sake of the wellbeing, clarity, and understanding of individual students, counselees, and the community as a whole, even appropriate dual statuses which some students may share with Prajna Fire teachers and counsel (colleagues, family, friends, peers, and the like) are treated as secondary to the teacher-student/counsel-counselee connection.


For more on how we engage this vital topic, see Prajna Fire's Mission and Ethos.


Spiritual Counsel in Action


As Westerners steeped in traditional Tibetan Buddhist training, our understanding and offering of spiritual counsel bridges traditional and modern paradigms, depending on the purposes for which a seeker requests spiritual counsel.


Not Therapy


Spiritual counsel is not therapy. Practitioners of spiritual counsel may be therapists, psychologists, or other forms of mental health care providers. Many are not. Spiritual counsel itself is not therapy. To the extent a counselee chooses to bring therapeutic issues into spiritual counsel, these are addressed from the framework of the particular thought system grounding that counsel--in the case of Prajna Fire, from a Buddhist perspective.


There are certainly overlaps between spiritual counseling and therapy, however, a central difference lies in their respective aims: therapy is most often oriented towards healthy intrapersonal functioning, whereas spiritual counseling sees this as a natural outcome, a happy byproduct of broadening our perspective and experience on the path of transcendence.


While not a replacement for therapy for individuals requiring acute care and attention, many counselees do find that spiritual counsel provides a viable alternative to clinical approaches when the need for targeted therapeutic care is not immediate. Spiritual counsel is also employed as a powerful adjunct and counterpoint to clinical mental health care when the counselee is actively engaged in healing through those modalities.


Of course, that is not to say that psychological and emotional issues do not arise in the process of spiritual counsel. They certainly do, as in all our interpersonal connections. Indeed, psychology recognizes that phenomena such as transference (together with countertransference) occur, in the context of which a client transfers emotional habit patterns onto the therapist. Other dynamics may also arise, such as projection, dependency, and the like, depending on the client's psychological makeup. Therapeutic techniques may seek to harness these energies in aid of the healing process.


Similar dynamics occur in spiritual counsel. Rather than actively enlisting these energies, spiritual counsel allows the emotional forces that arise in the interaction to occur within a space of caring support, to empower the counselee's discernment to come forward in the freshness of present experience, rather than through the murk or ingrained habit patterns. The spiritual counsel may, for example, bear witness to the habit patterns arising between them and the counselee, holding space for the individual to make a choice to recognize, engage, or disentangle those energies, to the extent they find healthy and appropriate.


Simply put, spiritual counsel relies on expanding the counselee's self-knowledge through providing a sanctuary for their lived experience, as opposed to therapeutic intervention. The agency of the counselee is paramount in shaping, and possibly ending the relationship.


This is not always for everyone. The spacious character of spiritual counsel can seem too shapeless, or even trigger discomfort that a counselee may choose not to address. Indeed, in our experience, a "crisis point" occurs with frequency in spiritual counsel: a crossroads at which the counselee must affirmatively choose to continue their development in the spiritual counsel context, or not, as the case may be. Similar to an instinctive "fight, flight, or freeze" response to threats, a counselee may become resistant, tune out, or wish to end spiritual counsel if transformation endangers their comfort zone.


Despite there being as many trajectories as there are counselees, healing is certainly a fruit of continuity in spiritual counsel. The significant difference from therapeutic approaches lies in the reliance on an interpersonal space of sanctuary imbued with the philosophical perspective that grounds the counsel relationship. Often, individuals find that a spiritual perspective attunes them to their embodied, present moment experience as a reliable basis for recovering an inner poise that serves as a foundation for healing and even transcending habit patterns, independently or in conjunction with clinical modalities.


Spiritual counsel especially shines as a means for deepening spiritual practice, accessing emotional support in peak situations, and transforming perspectives that no longer serve the counselee, to encourage an affirming and engaged approach to life. In these areas, healing occurs as a natural outcome of the alignment of the counselee with higher aspirations in holistic engagement with their life.


Practice Instruction


When it comes to instruction in Tibetan Buddhist practice, our approach aligns with the "ear-whispered" model of one teacher transmitting pith instructions from their own experience to one, or at most a few, students at once (see Buddhist Context above). Private sessions differ from the usual approach to public talks in a Dharma center for a group of students, in that the individual experiences of both teacher and student are able to interact more vibrantly than is possible in a group of many students.


This close contact allows for greater openness, directness, and immediacy in providing instructional and other supports to a practitioner's individual experience in meditation. Over time, the teacher-counsel comes to know the student-counselee's personality, practice style, strengths, resistances, and more. In turn, the counselee has the opportunity to build their capacity for trust generally and in the teacher-counsel, opening up more receptivity to feedback, which can at times be challenging.


In addition, the connection that develops through ongoing spiritual counsel is invaluable in guiding the practitioner through the distractions common to spiritual practice. Particularly in the Vajrayana practices emphasizing purification or requiring large accumulations of mantra repetitions or the like, resistance, boredom, restlessness, and "greener grass" syndrome pose obstacles to the practice continuity that yields experiential results which the practitioner may be seeking by trying on a series of other practices to see which sticks.


In these circumstances, our blind spots often take over. It can be difficult to be clear-eyed and objective without a steady, impartial observer who has been there before providing the space, inspiration, and motivation to explore our inclinations with precision, gentleness, and humor. The ability to guide a counselee to explore their blind spots, and any associated emotional issues, is one of the most important functions of spiritual counsel.


Emotional Support


Seekers also come to spiritual counsel for assistance in times of urgency, such as bereavement or emotional unrest, as well as for support with addictions, or crises in romantic, familial, or work relationships. Counselees may also seek targeted support in peak life moments such as a new marriage, parenthood, personal illness, caregiving for a loved one, or preparing for death.


Certainly, spiritual counsel has no monopoly on providing assistance in these areas. Indeed, psychology, analysis, group therapy, recovery, life coaching, and myriad other modalities also work with the psyche, each in their own style.


Some situations in particular, such as deep trauma and unhealed emotional wounds, necessitate including therapeutic techniques as vital components of a seeker's healing arsenal, laying a secure foundation for the seeker to explore their individual circumstances safely. Spiritual counsel works hand in hand with such therapeutic modalities.


But why add a spiritual dimension at all? Is that even necessary?


We believe spiritual counsel has a unique contribution to make in times of urgency, emotional support, and healing. Firmly grounded in a thought system--a philosophy, or worldview--spiritual counsel enables a seeker to engage in their process in a holistic context that brings perspective and empowerment, not only to individual issues, but life as a whole. Spiritual counsel that resonates in harmony with a seeker's brightest aims weaves a fabric of courage, self-worth, and belonging that is invaluable.


Transformation


When a seeker invites spiritual counsel into their life beyond the cushion and immediate circumstances, to face their personal history, character, and life aims, the value of counsel grounded in a trustworthy spiritual view truly comes into its own. Here, the counselee-practitioner has established a spiritual practice, and even deepened their understanding beyond the merely intellectual level.


Next they begin to inquire into more panoramic ramifications of the view that undergirds their meditation. Through exceedingly individualized and experiential inquiry, the counselee-practitioner is encouraged to embody their practice through conduct, growing into their integrated experience of the view grounding the counsel relationship.


Spiritual counsel for transformation purposes is long-term in character, and incorporates all of the previous aims of spiritual counsel to meet the diverse concerns and changing needs of the counselee as their view, meditation, and conduct evolves.


Continuity


As with any spiritual practice or self-development process, continuity makes all the difference in spiritual counsel. Whether taken up to address a short-term issue or ongoing personal development, repetition and reinforcement of the counsel work yields best results.


The details will vary with the intended aims of the counselee, of course. For example, in addressing an acute life situation, a few weekly sessions may be sufficient, while crafting, instilling, and growing a spiritual practice benefits from regular sessions every four to six weeks over the course of a year or more.


In the latter case, a general rule of thumb is that a minimum of three monthly sessions is vital to co-create the space for long-term development. From that point forward, the sanctuary of spiritual counsel begins to mold its rhythms organically to meet the needs of the counselee.


At Prajna Fire, we place a premium on the independence of the counselee. Each individual chooses when to begin spiritual counsel, the frequency for engaging it, and when to continue or leave off of the counsel relationship. That is not to say that it is easy to do so--the close connection built in spiritual counsel goes both ways. Skilled spiritual counsel, however, strive to leave aside their own preferences and wishes, prioritizing the counselee's exercise of discernment and free choice in determining the contours of counsel, and remaining available for a wholesome disconnect, continuity, or reconnection, as needed.


Ending Counsel


As with any other interpersonal connection and self-growth enterprise, spiritual counsel has a natural life cycle, which may end for any number of reasons: life constraints, proximity concerns, a needed time of foundational healing outside the counsel space (see Not Therapy above), or simply the completion of the intended purpose or trajectory that spurred the resort to counsel (see Emotional Support above).


Perhaps the most difficult for the spiritual counsel themselves (and a reason to favor an individual with strong practice grounding and personal boundaries) is when the counselee confronts inner resistances that manifest as a need to part from the counsel relationship, either temporarily or indefinitely. When it is not possible to discern with complete accuracy what is most beneficial for the counselee, we consider it most wise and respectful of the counselee's sovereignty to allow the counsel connection to dissolve until such a time (if at all) when it can again be of service.


Viewed as a branch of servant leadership, when the good of the other is the paramount objective, then discerning the moment at the end of the arc of impermanence is an integral part of spiritual counsel. Indeed, at Prajna Fire, we consider obsolescence a coup in of our spiritual counsel work!


Ultimately, the counselee grows into their power, their self-knowledge, and their spiritual practice to the extent that the particular counsel relationship is no longer necessary. A counselee may choose to continue to meet with their spiritual counsel to enrich their development further, but the cadence and style of the connection shifts to a new octave.


In summary


Spiritual counsel at Prajna Fire, is a mutual practice of creating an individualized sanctuary space for the nourishment and integration of Buddhadharma as the operating principle of the counselee's life. The grounding and perspective of Buddhist thought enlivens a wholesome space for the counselee to inhabit as they identify, unfurl, and transform their unacknowledged qualities into accessible and well-trained tools for engaging spiritual practice on and off the cushion with poise, resilience, and sensitivity.


Booking Options


If you would like to sample spiritual counsel with Yeshe and Zopa, you have a few options, all accessible for online booking at your convenience:

  • book a complimentary 30 minute Dharma Drop-in session to explore possibilities;

  • book a 45 minute individual meditation instruction session (or form a group and request a combined session);

  • book an individual 60 minute Spiritual Counsel private session with Yeshe or with Zopa to begin the process;

  • choose a benefactor plan to build continuity in spiritual counsel while supporting our Dharma offerings scholarship fund; or

  • request an Urgent Appointment for a 60 minute private session for support in times of crisis or acute need.

  • We appreciate your understanding that we do not have the resources to manage session scheduling via email, text, or other messaging formats.

As with all our Dharma offerings, private sessions are available on a sliding scale, ranging from free to the comparable value of spiritual counsel. The generosity of our benefactors keeps the dana choice in the hands of the offeror.


Offerings of the comparable value and beyond support our Dharma work and scholarship fund, and have our enduring gratitude.


We are glad to offer our programs as a reciprocal practice of generosity, and hope this approach provides both freedom and helpful information for all our supporters.


Should you have any other questions, feel free to email us at any time.

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