Wednesday 3 June 2009


What boundaries might we draw between spirituality, counselling and chaplaincy? I ask because I’ve just come across a series of leaflets offering ‘Tarot and Counselling’ ‘Spiritual Counselling’ ‘Voicework and Counselling’ and ‘Reiki and Counselling’. I was reminded of one of my teachers on a (post grad) counselling course who was tediously all too eager to talk about out of body experiences or the colour of our auras. She used new age nonsense to make herself feel uniquely qualified in the intangible and would become insufferably smug if anyone questioned the validity of what she was talking about, as if we were all too primitive to appreciate her special knowledge. As a bona fide, old fashioned, not new age Witch I found her abuse of power repellent and wasn’t inauthentic enough to schmooze or massage her ego. Our relationship was not good.

From that experience I learned to keep disciplines separate. When I’m a psychotherapist I’m a psychotherapist and overtly Pagan thoughts don’t really come into it. When I’m doing ritual then I’m not being a psychotherapist. When I’m being a Pagan chaplain I find myself flowing between states; patients need to find their own answers and they also need guidance and debate around Pagan beliefs and behaviours. When we’re in spiritual crisis we don’t need debate we need answers but those answers need to reflect our own way of being in the world. Knowing when to be more one way or the other is a subtle art in which I am by no means expert.

People desire direction, there’s a part of us all that longs to be told what to do and this is where things like tarot come in, they can offer guidance and structure. There’s nothing wrong with doing tarot or reiki or voicework but to attempt to combine it with counselling is unethical. The only thing that goes with counselling is counselling, and the only people who are competent to call themselves counsellors are qualified counsellors. UK trained and qualified counsellors find themselves in an invidious position and it’s why I favour the term psychotherapist for my own work, to distance myself from the very many people with no qualifications or even training who are free to call themselves (and believe themselves to be) counsellors.

The mystery of spirituality confers power on those who say they understand it. Shamanism needs a bit of showmanism but we have to be very clear about why we might choose to use it in our work. It’s one thing to put on a robe for ritual work, quite another to pretend (or actually believe) that we are having a clairvoyant moment which we must share with a vulnerable person who has come to us in need. Whose needs are actually met? Who has the power? As any Pagan knows, names confer power and the names ‘counsellor’ or ‘chaplain’ or ‘clairvoyant’ have enormous power. People respond to these names with trust and a lowering of their daily defenses. When we visit chaplains, counsellors and clairvoyants we do so because we are vulnerable.

I have moments of clairaudience and it’s never been useful to pass on a message from The Beyond ™. Something similar to clairaudience or clairvoyance might be called autheticity. I would propose that being consciously authentic is more important than learning esoteric skills. We don’t have to act on our authentic feelings – it’s seldom productive to scream and run away from a gathering of inauthentic people – but we can acknowledge those feelings and learn from them. The same is true for our work with patients, we can be aware of what we’re feeling, take honest ownership of our feelings rather than attribute them to anything supernatural, and weigh up the pros and cons of sharing the feelings with the patient. If in doubt, don't. Once the relationship is strong and trusting it’s more possible to risk being openly authentic but in a short-term relationship that involves no major crisis there’s little call for it. The relationship is about the needs of the patient over anything else.

It may be tempting, not least because a patient requests it, to do some kind of divination especially when someone is in crisis. Personally, I avoid it like the plague. People can become easily and unnecessarily upset and can hear things that aren’t said. It feels wrong on every level, not least tampering with an individuals power to decide for themselves. In PR terms, in my opinion, it belittles the professional nature of the role of Chaplain, something that is very hard won for Pagans. We are the instrument through which a relationship is made; cards, crystals and pendulums get in the way and act as a distraction. We need to be able to withstand the full force of anxiety, unanswerable questions and fear without diversion.

When a patient wants to do divination for themselves, however, I feel less strongly about it. Personally, I dislike the overt use of paraphernalia, it feels inauthentic to me, but if a person can't make an important decision that must be made urgently, and if they wish to use divination, that's their choice and one that I will witness and, if necessary, help bring a positive interpretation to. We all need something like that distraction when things get intense, but we still must take personal responsibility for the actions that may result from our understanding of it. To say "The cards told me to donate/not donate a kidney," is not taking responsibility.

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