The Importance of Spirituality in Therapy
Interview with Dr. Russell Siler Jones on the spiritual dimension of therapy.
Posted Jun 27, 2020
Spiritual experiences happen and when they do, they can often be life-changing. These moments can often lead people on a trajectory that changes them forever. Allowing these conversations and being prepared for them in therapy is an important step in recognizing the spiritual dimension of human life.
Russell Siler Jones, Th.D., practices psychotherapy in Asheville, N.C., and authored Spirit in Session: Working with Your Client’s Spirituality (and Your Own) in Psychotherapy. He directs the Residency in Psychotherapy and Spirituality for CareNet/Wake Forest Baptist Health and the Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy Program for ACPE: The Standard for Spiritual Care and Education.
JA: Why did you set out to write your book?
RSJ: One of my callings in life is to help psychotherapists feel more competent and confident in working with spirituality. I believe psychotherapy clients get better care when their spirituality is included, and I believe therapists themselves find their work more meaningful and nourishing when they’re paying attention to the spiritual dimension.
I was 25-plus years into practicing as a psychotherapist and 10-plus years into directing a training program in psychotherapy and spirituality for CareNet/Wake Forest Baptist Health. I’d gotten the hang of how to teach this in ways that everyday therapists could relate to. One afternoon I was running in the woods and whoom, in the span of about three minutes, this book was basically downloaded to me. I also received very clear instructions to write it in an entirely conversational voice—the way therapists actually talk—and to be as spiritually authentic as I could, so the vibe of the book matched the topic.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?
RSJ: You don’t have to be a spiritual expert to have meaningful spiritual conversations. You have to be humble, curious, and willing to go there. It also helps to feel a degree of reverence for the endless, wondrous ways that spiritual experience happens. But the essential expertise is not having any special answers. It’s knowing how to listen generously and ask good questions. I’m guessing your readers will understand that what I’m talking about here is not head-xpertise, but heart-xpertise.
JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?
RSJ: I don’t know if this is a lesson, per se, but I think the book bears witness to the way the smallest of moments, things that happen out of the blue and are over sometimes before we even notice they’re happening—experiences and intuitions that affect us and mean something to us that we definitely can’t prove and probably can’t even put into words—that these still-small-voice moments and mustard-seed intuitions are the things our entire lives can take shape around. And we’re wise to let that happen. People talk about those experiences in different ways, some theistic, some non-theistic, but the book is full of examples of how those sorts of experiences become transformational and foundational and add to our capacity for resilience.
JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?
RSJ: One is that everyone is born with an unlosable treasure of capacities that the religious and wisdom traditions consider spiritual: kindness, courage, gratitude, calmness, intuition, and a holy host of others. Whether they consider themselves spiritual in some explicit way or not, everyone is spiritual.
So, no matter how tragic or stressful a loved one’s circumstance, we can trust they already carry within them the seeds of hope and resilience. Sometimes the best way to help is just to watch for those seeds to crack open and then support them with a little water and sunshine.
For instance, our friend takes a deep breath, which is a powerful spiritual resource. So maybe we say, “Yeah, that’s it. Just let those deep breaths keep coming,” and breathe along with them. Or he says, “I need to get out of here and take a walk.” And we say back, “That makes sense. Want to go by yourself, or would you like company?”
Also, remember that spiritual energy is deeper than words and it’s contagious. Just showing up with an open heart exposes whoever you’re with to a radiating, resonating spiritual wattage that their own heart will notice and attune to.
JA: What are you currently working on these days?
RSJ: I’m helping develop a national training and certification program in spiritually-integrated psychotherapy that will launch this year. It’s been in development for several years, with the support, first, of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), and in the past year, of ACPE: The Standard for Spiritual Care and Education (AAPC merged with ACPE in 2019.) It’s a specialty training for therapists, like specialty training in play therapy or EMDR, that will help them get better at weaving spirituality into their psychotherapy work. For anyone who wants to know more, there’s an interest list on the ACPE website.
I direct the Residency in Psychotherapy and Spirituality for CareNet/Wake Forest Baptist Health. Our residents are associate-licensed therapists practicing in counseling centers across North Carolina who join a two-year cohort for learning and professional formation. We’ve had the most amazing people go through this program for the past 12 years. And we just did the math on this: 95 percent of them are still working as therapists.
I’m also doing a little writing. Psychology Today just picked up my blog, and I’m beginning to feel the rumble of another book. We’ll see!
JA: Anything else you would like to share?
RSJ: Thanks for giving me this opportunity to connect with your readers. Thanks for the work you’re doing through the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Thanks for your book, A Walking Disaster, which I loved, and for all the other things you’re doing—seen and unseen—to help people survive and thrive.
Jones, R.S. (2019). Spirit in Session: Working with Your Client’s Spirituality (and Your Own) in Psychotherapy. West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: Templeton Press.