Why did you want to train as a therapist?
It was a slow journey. My background is in nursing; I really liked working with people, patients as well as staff. I got into management and teaching and it was at a time when I had also just had children. I wanted to discover what I really wanted to do, and I was seeking a deeper level of connection. And, at the same time, I was going through a spiritual epiphany, which is not uncommon around birth. I had done a spiritual direction course, led by the diocese, as part of my affiliation with the church. The course got me into one-to-one work. The combination of all those things made me think I wanted to work at a deeper level. So, I did an introduction to counselling course at Reading University and loved it and then tried the diploma. It became clear to me that one-to-one work at a deeper level was where I felt at home.
As I gained more therapeutic hours, I found the split in identity too much. It took a long while to drop my nursing registration, but it finally felt the right time. I felt I inhabited the role of therapist fully then. I feel very provided for, because the roles that emerged for me post qualification pulled together a lot of my interests. I thought about what would be the perfect job for me and decided it would incorporate therapy with spirituality. I was offered a job at a theological college (Ripon College), working with ordinands. They’re at the college for a two-to-three-year training programme and go through massive transition into their roles. Working at the college requires some understanding of the Christian world, and the spiritual is very explicit in that role. It was perfect for me.
Do you feel the issue of spirituality is raised sufficiently in counselling and psychotherapy?
From my initial experiences, I would say not. I was a practising Christian and I was struck by the inherent atheistic tone underlying my counselling training. The training was very analytically focused, so there was an assumption that spiritual/religious beliefs were infantile (from Freud’s ideas). In Freud’s thinking, a sign of maturity is when you reject your religious beliefs. My background in nursing was very holistic, involving body-mind-soul. I found the analytic world quite narrow. My optional seminar, that I had to deliver, was looking at spirituality.
I was struck that, in a group of 26 students, the make-up of the group was largely atheistic. I was really shocked. I chose an analytic course because it had a good theory base that grounded it and it felt rooted.
While training, I attended a conference in London, looking at religion and spirituality in psychoanalytic work. Neville Symington, a psychoanalyst who was interested in analysts’ underlying philosophies of mind and also in the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion, was there as one of the key speakers. He was a catholic priest and is based in Australia now. The conference fuelled my interest in the field. Psychoanalyst and Fellow of the British Psychoanalytic Society, David Black, edited a very good book, Psychoanalysis and Religion in the 21st Century, and his approach also gave me hope.1
During my training, I found that if I brought my interest in spirituality to supervision, it was often dismissed. People have spiritual experiences and I was interested in how we can understand that within our working frameworks and not just dismiss them.
There were many synchronistic moments during my training that supported my thinking in this area. In a world where you’re a minority, it might mean you could be seen as a fanatic. I was sensitive about this myself. I felt passionate about the interface between therapy and spirituality. The work of the Association for Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counselling (APSCC), which was the forerunner of BACP Spirituality, was another shoot of hope. My research interests were another source of encouragement. I didn’t want to do another master’s and knew my passion for the subject wasn’t going away. I was fortunate to obtain PhD funding at Reading University and have written about my experience of studying for a PhD in an article that was published in Thresholds.2,3 There was a definite sense of provision, encouragement and momentum. I did a part-time PhD, and my fieldwork was with psychodynamic counsellors and their understanding and experience of spirituality in practice. My supervisor, Sally Richards, moved to Oxford Brookes, and Alistair Ross, a key source of encouragement, came to Oxford, where I was based, to lead the Oxford Psychodynamic Counselling course. It was meant to be.
Do you find clients raise issues of spirituality in your work?
Yes. Clients pick up if it is OK to talk about spirituality. If you’re receptive to spiritual matters, they can come up anywhere in the work. I aim for my practice to be a place that is receptive to people of all belief systems, including those who feel they have no spiritual/religious beliefs. Raising issues of spirituality is a relatively frequent occurrence in my practice. At the college where I work, I can go straight in and talk about spiritual matters. The ordinands are going through ‘formation’ as part of their training. But this also occurs in my private practice and in my work at a hospice.
I believe that some people really need to do a particular Christian training. They need a particular framework. This wasn’t the case for me; I didn’t feel a Christian counselling course would be inclusive enough. I wanted to work with people on the edge of groups. I wanted to go beyond my Christian understanding. I think a Christian’s choice of training depends where they are theologically, spiritually and psychologically.
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How do you think an understanding of spirituality can help us in our work as counsellors and therapists?
Many clients are looking for meaning and we need to discover what’s important to people. We often need to ask our clients deeper questions. Counsellors and therapists need to be open to our clients wanting those spaces. When I first did my training, I felt there was a certain ontology; the only truth, the only way to understand the world. I think we need to think about aspects of spirituality and be equipped and not frightened and have an openness and receptivity to acknowledge that people have a spiritual side, even if we disagree with that, so we can begin to understand where the client is coming from. I’ve worked with atheists (as supervisees) who acknowledged they couldn’t address spiritual issues with their clients and who referred their clients to therapists better suited to working with spiritual matters. It is necessary for us to acknowledge our limitations, and knowing when to refer people is so important.
In many therapeutic encounters, there is a sense of a space beyond, which is co-created, and there could be many definitions of that space, depending on your particular ontology. I might use a Christian framework to understand it. Winnicott wrote about transitional space, a third space where the therapist and patient enter into another space. Someone might say, God’s in that space and there’s a sense of deeper union. Some people might use an analytic/psychodynamic framework and, for example, may say, Well, that’s Winnicott’s transitional space.4 A therapist who is an atheist would rely on their atheistic knowledge and experience. Counsellors and therapists need to be aware of their frameworks and be courageous enough to admit their limitations. For true authenticity, you have to have thought about your own attitudes to spirituality, so you can allow space for the other and not dominate with your own views or block any discussion. We need to be enabled to really be ourselves in our work.
I think it is absolutely vital that spirituality is included as part of counselling or therapy. Spirituality might be taught at the end of a course and/or something additional to a course. I understand why it hasn’t been included when you consider the cultural origins of our profession and packed curricula. It could be integral, but this requires much more thought. I think counselling and psychotherapy trainees need to look at religion and spirituality as a subject. They need to reflect and answer the question, ‘Where are you?’ in these territories. This enables receptivity to the other.
Do your supervisees want to explore spirituality?
My supervisees do touch on spiritual matters. They know I’m receptive to exploring spiritual issues in relation to their client work where necessary. We need such processing time and supervision to help explore and to integrate our understanding of spirituality in relation to our clinical practice.
How do you resource yourself spiritually?
An important question for me is: How do we live authentically and in congruence, without imposing our beliefs, and be receptive to what our clients bring? I’m particularly interested in when it works and when it doesn’t work and how to make sense of those experiences.
In my research, people with religious/spiritual practice would use it to equip and resource themselves. There is sometimes a feeling of ‘without memory or desire’,5 an emptying of your mind in a kenotic sense. Emptying of yourself to be receptive to the client. Some people use religion as their ontology. For example, God is here and everywhere and encompassing this work, with their spiritual practice being enough to prepare for it. There are different levels of awareness of that.
I need a spiritual practice to sustain me for the work I do. For me, there’s something important in having a daily practice. Morning and/or end-of-the-day prayer time, quiet time, reading, belonging to a church, going on retreats, are all important elements for me.
Do you have any particular books or writers you turn to?
The writers who sustain me include Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey, Anthony de Mello, and Richard Rohr. Margaret Clark’s book, Understanding Religion and Spirituality in Clinical Practice, was very helpful when I began my work as a psychotherapist.6 Generally, I read more articles and theses than books. I find a lot of writing about spirituality is not analytically focused. I believe that there is a need to pull together and synthesise many of the varied writings on spirituality and therapy.
How do you look after your spiritual wellbeing?
I think that a regular rhythm of prayer, quiet time, reading and relaxing is essential here. The hardest experience is when you have tricky clients because, after sessions, you can be left with things. Prayer can be helpful in letting go; for example, when you’re stuck or you want to shake things off. I’ve found Pete Greig’s book, How to Pray, very helpful. It is about how to pray realistically when life is full. It is my book of 2019; very simple and profound.7
How would you advise counsellors and therapists to practise self-care?
Counsellors and therapists lead such sedentary lives. We are also prey to feelings of omnipotence and can lose focus on what is ethical. We do need to ask ourselves challenging questions, such as, ‘Am I well enough to see this client?’ Spirituality plays an important role in self-care for many people working in counselling and psychotherapy. We could all benefit from being well resourced and more resilient. An important question is, ‘How are you nourished and do you have a sense of wellbeing?’.
For me, movement is spiritual. I like to jog, swim, play badminton and to walk. The connection between the physical and the spiritual enhances my experience. Also, taking time to just ‘be’ is vitally important to me.
Are there any areas that you feel warrant more attention?
The question, ‘Do we understand human beings as having a spiritual side?’, demands of us to know where we are in relation to this. We need to be aware of our defences and continue our work around these. I think we need a willingness to accept there’s a lot we don’t know about the world and that we can know what we know and be open to not knowing, a sense of unknowing. Many counsellors and therapists may struggle with their own beliefs being different to those of their clients. We need to have thought about these things so that any difference in beliefs doesn’t frighten us when it arises in our practice.
Would you say therapy was an impossible profession?
I think it is tough, and as long as we carry on thinking and reflecting on our experience, it becomes possible. This is like all spiritual journeys which are ongoing and continually developing.
1 Black DM. Psychoanalysis and religion in the 21st century: competitors or collaborators? London: Routledge; 2006.
2 Buckeldee J. Spirituality in psychodynamic counselling: an exploration of counsellors’ understanding of and engagement with spirituality in practice. Unpublished PhD. Oxford Brookes University; 2016.
3 Buckeldee J. Experiences of undertaking research into spirituality – a personal and spiritual journey. Thresholds 2017; autumn: 4–8.
4 Ogden T. The analytical third: working with intersubjective clinical facts. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 1994; 75(1): 3–20.
5 Bion W. Notes on memory and desire. In: Spillius (ed). New library of psychoanalysis, 8. Melanie Klein today: developments in theory and practice, vol 2. Mainly practice. London: Routledge; 1988.
6 Clark M. Understanding religion and spirituality in clinical practice. London: Routledge; 2012.
7 Greig P. How to pray. London: Hodder & Stoughton; 2019.