Becoming Your Own Spiritual Director

In the past centuries, few people have attempted to climb the spiritual mountain without the help of a trusted guide or guides who knew the terrain. Even the great masters themselves had guides.

The Buddha spent six years studying meditation and ascetical practices with at least two teachers of his day before he experienced enlightenment on his own. Jesus spent time with the desert ascetic John the Baptist, and before that the Gospel of Luke tells us that as a youth Jesus was discovered by Mary and Joseph in the Temple of Jerusalem, where he was conversing with the "doctors of the law," listening to them and asking them questions.

In our own time, Ram Dass, perhaps our first home-grown American spiritual master, spent years in India under the tutelage of Neem Karoli Baba. And Gangaji, one of the most respected women spiritual teachers we have, credits her teacher, Sri H.W.L. Poonjaji, and his teacher, Sri Ramana Maharshi, with showing her the way. Even the Dalai Lama was tutored by a number of highly respected teachers and guides before he assumed his own role of world teacher.

I am speaking, of course, about people who have devoted their life and work to mastering the spiritual path before turning to lead others along its challenging twists and turns.

Most of you have families, jobs, commitments to so many other people that you're not likely to be able to follow that extreme route to realization. Nor should you necessarily. Yet even people in the mainstream of life, with one foot in the workaday world and the other gingerly testing the spiritual waters, also need a spiritual guide, also known as a spiritual director, to help them find their way.

A spiritual director's job falls somewhere between a guru or clergy on one end of the counseling spectrum, and your psychotherapist on the other. But gurus like Gangaji, Ram Dass, and the Dalai Lama rarely have time to work with individuals, and clergy are generally tied to their particular traditions.

If you are connected with a mainstream religion, such as Christianity or Judaism, or, these days, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, you may be able to call on your priest, minister, rabbi, lama, or other congregational leader for guidance and counseling. Their time is also likely to be limited, as institutional religions, like corporations, have been downsizing in recent years. And psychotherapists by and large are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with taking a spiritual approach to solving life issues.

Call it the Sigmund Syndrome or whatever you like, therapists have traditionally been suspicious of spirituality in general and religion in particular, although recently some have begun to be more open to spiritually oriented therapy.

For all those reasons, people on the path have increasingly been turning to spiritual directors who have been trained to guide lay people irrespective of any given tradition. When you are involved in a contemporary spiritual practice, you will open doors within yourself that let in great insight and the potential for astonishing spiritual growth. Yet at the same time you may be stirring up the shadow aspects of your psyche and soul. Swami Muktananda once said, "The mystical path is best not taken. But once begun, there is no turning back." If you stir up the unfamiliar and unfriendly areas of your psyche without processing them, you can make big trouble for yourself. And giving up your spiritual quest at that point out of fear and confusion will only leave you feeling more unfulfilled than before you started out.

"The mystical path is best not taken. But once begun, there is no turning back." Muktananda

This is where holding the hand of a spiritual director is essential. The concept of a "spiritual director" first emerged on a significant scale in the fourth and fifth centuries among the Desert Fathers, Christian monks who lived in the desert regions of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, either alone or in small religious communities. Local Christians often sought out these holy men for advice on living their faith. The practice was handed down and popularized by monks and priests who saw the value of a "soul guide" in deepening faith.

Today, the concept need no longer be tied to mainstream Christian beliefs, for many spiritual directors are connected with nontraditional religious groups such as the Unity Church or Science of Mind. One spiritual director in the northeastern U.S. was a Zen monk for ten years but now teaches people by creating koans--riddles used by Zen masters to transcend the logical thought patterns of the mind--based on Jewish and Christian scriptures. Blending his Zen training with his own Christian upbringing and his studies with Jewish scholars, he is able to help people from a wide variety of spiritual traditions. Yet what religious label could you put on what he does?


The title of John O'Donohue's lovely book "Anam Cara" is Gaelic for "soul friend," a loving companion to whom you can unburden your heart as you move along your spiritual path. It is also someone you can count on to be both caringly supportive and brutally honest if need be. "A friend," he writes, "is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you." But, he tells us, the term was originally used in the early Celtic church to refer to "a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide, . . . someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart."

"With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart."

So we see the evolution of the idea of a spiritual director from a Christian mystic, monk, or nun, to a specially trained person in any spiritual tradition, to an inspired friend or companion who has the love and guts to tell us when we're careening down the wrong trail. I believe that we are capable of evolving this role still further, and I'll discuss that in a moment.

But first, you may be wondering how to know if you need a spiritual director. Are there signs, hints, maybe the onset of certain emotional or psychological crises that make one consider that a director would be appropriate, even essential? Problems can be one powerful motivation for seeking out spiritual direction, but they're not the only one. A sense of emptiness or lack of fulfillment from material pursuits, a feeling of being lost in your spiritual practice, disappointment with or anger at God, even a series of unusual dreams may awaken in you the need for guidance.


Ask yourself what you would want in a spiritual director, assuming you could find one. First on your list would probably be a nonjudgmental attitude, one that accepts you no matter what mistakes you feel you are making. The capacity to offer direction rather than giving orders would also be part of it. Those of us who grew up with judgmental, punitive religious traditions don't need any more orders or judgments!

Tibetan Buddhists speak of wisdom and compassion as the two wings of the eagle that enable it to soar. One without the other results in an imbalance. Wisdom without compassion can acquire the cold-hearted attitude of "I'm doing this for your own good, so you'd better like it!" Compassion that lacks wisdom to guide it can end up placing you in the Victim role, helping everybody but yourself. You need both wings to thrive, and a good spiritual director has to know how to balance insight with loving kindness.

Something else you'd want in a great spiritual director would, of course, be access, availability. Given the fact that your spiritual life is a daily journey, you would ideally like to be able to consult with your director on almost a daily basis. But the fact is that most directors might be available once a month or a little more often than that, and might make themselves available to answer occasional questions by e-mail. But this service is usually not free. Spiritual directors have to eat, too, and they can charge anywhere from $25 to $75 for an hour's session. At that rate, once a month might be all you could afford.

All this leaves you with one very desirable option, which is the further evolution I mentioned earlier: Learn how to be your own spiritual director. That raises questions about how you serve yourself in the capacity of spiritual director, and what guidelines you can turn to. Is inner spiritual direction just a matter of prayer, or is something more complex involved?

Fifty years ago, there were virtually no spiritual masters in the West. We had lots of clergy, and plenty of traveling evangelists, but very people who could be considered enlightened--and most of those were visitors from the East, like the Indian mystics Yogananda and J. Krishnamurti, Zen masters Soyen Shakyu and D.T. Suzuki, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and a few others. Today there is an astonishing abundance of teachers, men and women, monks, nuns, and lay people, and from a wide range of both Eastern and Western traditions. This richness makes it possible for more of us to gather insights from pursuing spiritual direction through the major spiritual traditions. As a beginning step, I'd like to offer you a few guidelines, insights, prayers, or working suggestions from each of several spiritual traditions.

In Christianity, for example, there is a tradition known as the examination of conscience. This usually preceded the sacrament of confession and was intended to help the faithful recall their sins. We already spend enough time criticizing ourselves and agonizing over our shortcomings, however, so I'd like to propose something based on that tradition but much more constructive, something that you can do as your own spiritual director. The best time for this examination is probably just before you go to sleep at night. Close your eyes and review your actions during the day. Recall especially any interactions that elicited an emotional reaction from you. Without judging or criticizing your role in the scene you're reviewing, see how you might have reacted differently -- or not have reacted at all. Replay the incident, but see yourself stepping back and not getting drawn into an emotional state, instead retaining your equanimity.

You can extend the examination even to small moments -- being cut off in traffic or getting the runaround from a bank clerk. See yourself responding in a more measured way, understanding that the other person is probably coming from a place of unconsciousness. I'm not suggesting playing the patsy for anyone, but you can correct someone's unacceptable behavior without blowing up or acting rude.

As you're reviewing events, be sure to look at those in which you were pleased with the way you responded, reinforcing your own positive behavior the way a good spiritual director might. Maybe you helped someone without expecting anything in return. Or maybe you did NOT react impulsively to someone's rude or frustrating actions. Remember that you can use those moments when somebody pushes your buttons to look within and observe how you do the same thing to other people, perhaps unconsciously. That can be a great learning process. You may want to use a journal to write down a few specific areas that you need to work on, such as containing anger or jealousy of others' success. Keep track of how often these incidents arise and whether you can minimize your reactions. But also write down the reactions you felt good about, so that you can encourage yourself to repeat and expand those behaviors.

Another venerable Christian tradition, this time taken from the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, is known as the prayer of the heart. Russian and Greek monks would repeat a simple prayer known as the Jesus Prayer thousands of time a day, the Christian equivalent of a Buddhist or Hindu mantra. The original form was usually some variation of: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The goal is to internalize the mantra so thoroughly that it goes from being a "prayer of the lips" to a "prayer of the intellect," and finally a "prayer of the heart," no longer something thought or said by us but something we are--namely, a state of prayer that continues uninterrupted, even as you consciously go about doing other things. If you are not from a Christian background or are uncomfortable with this, you can substitute another short prayer, like St. Francis of Assisi's "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace"; Meister Eckhart's "The seed of God is in us"; or Lady Julian of Norwich, who in a vision heard Christ say, "It's all going to be all right; it's all going to be all right; everything is going to be all right." You may also alter the format completely to make it more universal, such as, "May all beings know wisdom," or "The kingdom of heaven is within me."

You can find many times and places to repeat your mantra, ideally building up to the point where you are saying it subvocally and without thinking about it. You can make it the first thing you think on waking up, before you even get out of bed, and the last thing you think before going to sleep at night. After a time, you may be surprised to find how comforting it can be to say your little prayer in times of stress or when you're feeling down, when you're driving a car in dangerous or trying circumstances, as well as when you're rejoicing over a lovely moment in nature or the pleasure of being with a dear friend or loved one. You may even repeat it while you're exercising, or anytime you're alone.


The Buddhist tradition offers a number of deeply meaningful prayers and exercises that many Westerners find appealing precisely because they are not associated with the religions of childhood. But the goal of Buddhism at its deepest level is not essentially different from the goal of mystical Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other spiritual path. It's all about teaching us to stop identifying with the separate self as though we're somehow disconnected from the rest of humanity.

Jewish teachings said "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said "Love your enemy." The Prophet Muhammad said, "None of you really has faith unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself." The Buddha taught that all human suffering comes from believing that each of us is a separate entity. It's one thing to acknowledge that truth intellectually, quite another to find ways of bringing it all back home. In the crush of everyday living, it's easy to lose your focus and descend into thoughtless reactions. That is where you might normally turn to a trusted spiritual director--in this case, yourself.

"Jewish teachings said "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said "Love your enemy." The Prophet Muhammad said, "None of you really has faith unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself."

One popular Buddhist tradition for realizing the vital truth of our interconnectedness is contained in the Metta prayer, derived from the Metta Sutra (or "Sutra on Kindness," a key text of Theravada Buddhism), the theme of which is the development of loving kindness. Intended to be recited daily by both monks and lay people, the text is simple: "May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you always be happy." The full text goes on to state, "Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none by anger or ill-will wish to harm another. Even as a mother watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world, above, below, and all around without limit. And so, cultivate a boundless good will toward the whole world, free from all ill-will or enmity.”

Begin by moving the focus of the basic prayer onto yourself, because you must have compassion for yourself before you can extend it to others. ("May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be well, etc."). After you are comfortable with that, think of a person to whom you feel especially close and concentrate on this person as you say the Metta prayer, substituting "you" for "I." ("May you be filled with loving kindness, etc.") Next, move your consciousness to take in those people toward whom you feel rather neutral--people you interact with at the bank, gas station, grocery store, or at work whom you neither love nor hate. Then expand your frame of reference again to take in those people you consider your enemies. These may be individuals--someone at work, a former spouse or lover--or groups, including even those groups which you may have a just reason to oppose, like greedy corporations, or terrorists. Then just sit quietly and imagine that you are one of the multitude of beings in the universe. Extend thoughts of loving-kindness to all beings in the universe as you repeat the prayer. ("May all beings be filled with loving kindness, etc.")

The Buddha once said in explaining the manifest happiness and good health of his monks, "They do not repent the past, nor do they brood over the future. They live in the present. Therefore, they are radiant. By brooding over the future and repenting the past, fools dry up like green reeds cut down."

He was defining one of the key principles of the Buddhist tradition, which is shared at the mystical level of insight by all the great wisdom traditions: Live in the present moment. When you are in the present moment, you are in the presence of God. As my friend Ron Roth likes to say, nobody ever talks about being in the Divine Past or the Divine Future -- it's the Divine Presence that we all want to be in.

Present moment living is one of the simplest principles to state and the most demanding to realize. Another word for this kind of awareness is mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation is practiced by thousands of people in this country, often as a simple way to reduce stress related to work, illness, chronic pain, or just the everyday anxieties and challenges that make up what the mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls "full catastrophe living.”

Dozens of books have been written on this practice, but you can begin by simply picking up a stone, a flower, a teacup, a paperweight, your cat, or any ordinary object and perceiving it closely. Observe the object without trying to describe it mentally or have any "thoughts" about it. The first thing that happens when you do this is that you slow down your thought processes and step, however briefly, out of the inevitable current of your busy life. You may form a relationship with the object, perceive some inner essence or beauty in it -- or not, because the results don't really matter.

Stepping outside your unconscious mindstream and focusing your full awareness on something is its own reward. After you've done this for as long as you're comfortable with it, put the object back down, but leave it in sight. As your eyes fall on the object throughout the day, let yourself gently renew your relationship with it.


I highly recommend that you use a journal or notebook to enter all your observations and keep a record of your progress. Make note of all the questions, insights, breakthroughs, and dilemmas that emerge in this work. Also note all of your expectations of God, along with your private spiritual and/or life agendas, such as, "God will reward me (or notice me, or make my life more special) if I do ______.

I'd like you to try using whichever technique works best for you. You can, of course, try more than one, and once you're comfortable with them, you might "mix and match" any of the four simple techniques I've just given you. For example, you could apply present moment living to an examination of conscience on the spot. When something upsetting happens and you react unconsciously, step aside as soon as you're able and go within. Look at your reaction without judgment, but with an eye toward seeing how you might have responded differently. Once you've done so, then lay down the situation and your reaction, just as you might an object. (You can also enter it in your journal.) Just let go of it and move on. As another example, if you feel drawn to the Metta prayer, you might use it as your daily mantra, or prayer of the heart, reducing it to a single phrase of your choosing, e.g., "May all beings be filled with loving kindness."

Keep to a daily prayer/meditation discipline, even if you set aside no more than five minutes on some days. Do not miss a day. Whatever happens, do the work.

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