Spiritual direction is all about the mind-body-spirit connection. Although directors are fond of talking about “getting a person out of their head and into their heart,” what we really mean is we hope to assist our directees in seeing themselves as a whole person, not just a head full of thoughts sitting atop a neglected body. And who really can separate a mind from a body from a spirit? Some medical professionals may try but even they are moving toward a more integrative way of treating clients.
Here are five of my favorite books on the theme of integrating mind, body and spirit:
How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman
Newberg—who says he is not particularly religious—became fascinated with the neurological changes that occur when people have spiritual experiences. He writes, “If you contemplate God long enough, something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change (page3).” Drawing from his background as a neuroscientist, he finds that contemplative spiritual practices and belief in a loving, nurturing God can enhance cognition, make us more creative and, over the long run, change how our brain functions. This is a great, easy to digest book with lots of practical exercises and illustrations. I think it is a “must-read” for spiritual directors and would be enjoyed by many spiritual seekers.
Your Brain at Work by David Rock
While this book is primarily a business book about understanding how your brain processes information in order to overcome distractions and “work smarter,” Rock has such a way with words that every person I’ve recommended this book to has treasured it. He has some simple explanations of why meditating or “clearing the stage in your mind” leads to insight. And offers images and stories that have helped many people (myself included) learn to meditate, stay in the present moment, and remain focused. If you don’t read anything else in the book, read the section “Intermission: Meet the Director (pages 87-98).” In this case, the director is you as the observer of your thoughts. Spiritual directors can use this exercise to help directees who want to become more contemplative. I would especially recommend this book to people who find themselves increasingly distracted by technology while at work.
Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow by Peter A. Campbell and Edwin M. McMahon
While the first two books I mentioned were about the brain, this book enters the mind-body-spirit theme via the body. Campbell and McMahon are big believers in the psychological practice of focusing, a technique taught by Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago. Focusing helps a person tap into emotions and insights by spending time with a distinct “felt sense” in their body. The authors, employing their Jesuit spirituality, take it a step further and show how focusing is a spiritual practice. “There is a felt truth, a felt meaning, a felt direction within each of us, an embodied sense that can free us and guide us into the future (Intro XXIX).” Many spiritual direction training programs include the focusing technique as a tool for directors to help directees in discernment. Directors would be wise to learn the focusing method—it’s fairly easy to remember and works well with many directees. I normally like to use the questions from the method organically within a session (such as asking “where do you feel that emotion in your body?”) although sometimes I will ask a directee if they want to go through a focusing process during the session. Directors need this book for background and seekers will likely enjoy the book’s perspective.
Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
This is a classic mind-body text from the stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kabat-Zinn has incorporated his Buddhist mindfulness training into training that people of any spiritual tradition (or none) may use for health and wholeness. This book includes lots of exercises, drawings and stories that will entice you into cultivating mindfulness, whether it’s around food, stress, aches and pains or for better brain functioning. Kabat-Zinn’s life work has been to teach us to bring awareness to our actual feelings, observe them without judgment and accept what is. Spiritual directors will find the illustrations and exercises are great tools for assisting the directee who is seeking to become more mindful.
The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration and Meditation by Joel & Michelle Levey
Here’s the ultimate “how to” book on letting go! It is just what the title indicates, a compendium of exercises to help you relax, concentrate and meditate. Zen breathing, Sufi breathing, body scan, kitchen meditation, creative visualization—even a meditation for driving (you open your heart to the other drivers as you make your way down the road). I liked a few of these enough to read the instructions into a digital recorder so I can play them back and do the exercises without having to consult the book. It’s great for traveling. This is another good book for spiritual directors to have on hand when a directee asks for suggested practices for relaxation, concentration and meditation.
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