One of the things I have long been aware of in a spiritual direction context has been the importance of my own journey. As a spiritual director I must attend to my own journey. I cannot accompany others if I am not consciously present to the ‘stuff’ of my own life.
In the spiritual direction conversation itself, of course, my preoccupations must be put to one side. Without this, I cannot be present to the other person in any useful way given the expectations of the conversation. My own stuff may be triggered, but I simply note those moments and come back to them later when I am on my own.
Nonetheless, once the directee has left the room, I don’t feel a great temptation to continue to ‘feel with’ them. I may need a little time for an internal debrief. And there may be things I need to take into my own prayer and reflection, but I find the line fairly easy to draw.
But does the same hold true in close personal relationships?
I have been walking alongside a friend through the illness and recent death of her husband. In such circumstances, how she is, affects me far more deeply. I do have a strong sense of empathy and I believe it is part of my role at the moment to attend to her.
But in the last week or so I have begun to recognise the importance of attending to my own journey too. I have needed to take time to grieve. I have needed to pay attention to the greater trajectory of entering mid-life. I cannot be there fully for the other if and when they need me, unless I invest also in myself.
It is so tempting at these sorts of times to put my own needs to one side because they appear so much less than those of the other. But if we do so everyone loses. I cannot be there fully for the other; I will not be able to allow the other the freedom to process in their own good time if I am putting my own journey on hold.
Paradoxically, I can only be fully present to the other when required if I am fully present to myself. Let me risk stating the obvious – when I say ‘being fully present to myself’ I don’t mean indulging in whatever numbing behaviour works for me. Rather allowing myself to enter the vulnerable spaces that I need to in order to heal. So being fully present to myself isn’t selfish.
It is only if I have invested the time I need to in myself, that I will be able to walk alongside the other through the winding path of avoidance, numbing and raw vulnerability that is the path of grief. My task as friend is not to get the other to be anywhere. It is simply to pay attention to what is needed on any given day and to do that. And I am beginning to recognise that I will only have the capacity to do that if I am not waiting for her to heal before I begin to attend to myself.