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Spiritual Aspects of Helping

Posted on August 29, 2014

Early in my career, I become very interested in the spirituality of my clients and the role it played in the healing process.  I was fascinated by the potential power of faith and belief to change lives and heal past trauma.  While the discussions we had were fruitful and often led to a great deal of insight, something always seemed to be missing. 
Following my research into the history of healing in different cultures, I think I’ve finally understood what I was missing when trying to bring spirituality into my work, and it had nothing to do with my approach or my clients’ ability to connect with a “Higher Power.”  I’ve realized that conversations about spirituality never achieved their potential impact because I wasn’t connected to the spiritual nature of the work of healing.
Throughout most of human history, physical and psychological healing was done within a spiritual context.  The shaman, medicine woman or man, rabbi or priest utilized a connection to the spirit as part of their healing methods.  It is only recently that we have secularized medicine and psychology, and while we often integrate the client’s faith or belief system into our work, we have paid much less attention to ourselves and the spiritual connections of the healer.
Touching a patient during a physical examination, talking about past traumatic experiences, and helping a client find their first permanent housing situation are incredibly powerful acts that many of us perform daily in our work.  Day in and day out, we venture into the realm of trauma and pain to bring hope and healing.  Most of us are in this profession for a deeper reason, but we seem to spend little time connecting back to what brought us into this difficult work in the first place.
I have been thinking a lot about my own work in this light quite a bit recently.  Even though I do much more training than direct work with clients these days, the privilege and honor of training others is no less a powerful experience.  As I read about the healers of the past, I’ve taken time to ask myself what draws me to this field and keeps me so passionate about the work you all do.
I realized that I have a spiritual connection to the work of healing that I’ve rarely paid much attention to or spoken to others about in much detail.  A recent book I read explains that many traditions saw things like trauma, pain, and suffering as a tear in the fabric of the universe, and by healing the person who was suffering, the healer also healed their community and brought the universe back into its natural state.  Today, the physicians, case managers, therapists, nurses, administrators, and others I work with are doing the same thing for their communities as the shamans of old did for their tribes.
In a few trainings lately, I have met a group of nuns who have fascinated me greatly.  Here are wonderful and humble ladies who have dedicated their lives to the spiritual work of helping the poor.  They seem to live and breathe their work, and do so with a quiet honor that I respect tremendously.  I started to wonder how these women remain healthy and engaged when this type of approach to “work” would burn out most of us after just a few months.  I don’t believe that this energy is a result of not having a spouse or kids to take care of, but that it is something much deeper that all of us, on some level, can also connect to in a very practical way.
These Super Sisters are connected to a spiritual tradition of service and faith that many of us have lost in the secularization of healing.  All of us have been “called” to this work in one way or another.  This calling comes from somewhere deep inside ourselves, and is connected to the essence of who we are as people and healers.  This calling has directed us away from wealth and prestige and into a life of service to our communities and those suffering within those communities.
It is not hard to put the label of spiritual on this calling.  You combine the power of the calling with the intensity of the work we do every day, and it is easy to see why, historically, healers have been the spiritual leaders of their communities.  Like the Sisters of Providence, I believe these healers of the past owed much of their health, well-being, and power to this connection with spirit.  What this spirit is called seems of little importance (at least from a historical perspective) – what matters is the ability to connect a calling within one’s self to a “Higher Power” or cause (i.e. feeding the hungry, ending homelessness, providing health care to those that can’t afford care). 
When we connect these two things, we increase the energy and power we have to change lives and the health of our communities.  Yet it seems there is little opportunity or time for us to talk about our calling or cause.  This is one of the reasons I believe burnout and vicarious and secondary trauma are so prevalent in our fields.  When you lose a connection to your core reason for doing the work, you become vulnerable to the dangers that are inherent to helping others. 
Take a moment this week to think about your core and your cause.  If you really want to challenge yourself, spend some mindful time reflecting on the calling that brought you to this work.  Use part of your next team meeting or lunch with a friend or co-worker to share your stories.  I find this is a powerful experience for the person sharing, as well as those that hear the story of the person’s life. 

And if you want to share with the community, feel free to do so in the comment section.

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