There are times when I have felt that after nine years working as a counsellor, I’m finally getting my head around what counselling is, what it might be and what it is for. Such moments usually come unexpectedly and surprise me that different areas of my professional and private life seem to be coming together. They alert me to the fact that work over time does bring knowledge and facility, and, with luck, insight that will enable me to recall these fleeting moments and later explore them further. Experience. With the passage of years, I feel I can claim a degree of that now. So, the counselling part of the title, Counselling for the Spiritual, is the relatively easy part of the issue.
The other part, the spiritual, is a different matter. That feels harder. Harder to put into words that have real meaning for me. Yet I have a sense it’s important to try.
I’ve had persons come to speak with me over the years, who start with something along the lines of, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I don’t know why I feel this way. Maybe I’m depressed. I don’t know. I’ve been on different medications, and I don’t think they’ve really helped. They’ve taken some of the pain away, but they’ve taken other stuff away, too. I mean…I don’t know, it feels like kinda numb, you know, like I can’t really feel things anymore.”
What I’m hearing, among other things, is that someone is having a deep and extended experience of not knowing.
So, together we talk. We explore what might be standing in the way of feeling better. We explore what might be missing. And often, together, we find something. Maybe there are a few things that have made someone’s life feel like it’s not what it should be. When we find those things, we then talk about how they might be changed so that he or she can create a life closer to what they really want. Once that happens, our work together comes to its natural end. Task complete. All good.
And then there are others. They’re different. Things are not so simple. For them, though we find stuff that stands in the way and other stuff that is missing, none of it adds up to a neat answer. There’s no Aha!-Yes!-that’s-it! sort of experience. It appears there’s something else, something more that holds the key to the whole messy business, but right now we have no idea what it is or where to find it even though we’ve learned a lot of important stuff along the way.
Now, I, too, feel enfolded in a deep sense of not knowing. But I’m comfortable with it. Not always, but mostly. From experience, I know that not-knowing has its own way of developing. I need to be patient and listen.
At first glance, not-knowing is not an experience that has much to recommend it. It’s kind of like an empty space inside your head–and in your heart. Arguably not the sort of thing you’re likely to offer a friend having a crappy day if you’re wanting to console them. But hold on. This emptiness is also an openness, into which new things can enter.
Of course, there’s new…and there’s new. A new car, new job, new smart phone, new girl or boyfriend–all these items are new and, in my experience, can be enormously exciting. But, once having them, the excitement, the newness of them, will gradually wane. That does not in any way detract from their inherent value. What it does do is call up that thirst for newness once again, and even if I have the means to trade in my car or boyfriend at the end of each financial year, I may find with the passing of time my excitement in doing so has diminished. All that newness may eventually start to feel like the same old same old.
There’s another sort of newness. It sometimes leads us to bemuse our friends with statements like: “It’s mind-blowing! It’s…I can’t explain it. It’s…I don’t know, it’s what it is…if you know what I mean. It’s completely opposite to everything I’ve always thought, you know, like completely…I don’t know…”
From the outside it may sound like we’re still in not knowing. Maybe even more deeply. Same person speaking, same words, but all of it feels different. Feels new. Exciting, now.
It’s that! That exciting newness that comes unexpectedly out of nothing, out of not knowing, which is as close as I think I’m going to get right now to what I mean when I say the word, spiritual. Strangely, it’s a not-knowing that suddenly morphs into a type of knowing that transforms everything even the way we see the old car and old boyfriend.
There seems to be something in the not-knowing place that allows freshness to enter. When I stop to consider my own experiences of feeling lost, unable to imagine my next step, with a view that sees such lostness as the precious, first step of growth, I am more ready to welcome it. Not-knowing approaches now as a friend.
In ancient Greece, a well-known philosopher and town gadfly suggested that ignorance was the origin of wisdom. It’s where knowledge begins. I take from this that when I encounter this profound sense of loss and disorientation in others or myself, rather than quickly offering a solution to fill up the empty space, I would do well to stop and take a moment to quietly nurture what the emptiness contains.