Spiritual Director, Jon Gottsegen, shares some of his time, energy and passion with MysticMag.
Why did you become a Spiritual Director and how did your life subsequently change?
Before I pursued Spiritual Direction, I was trained and participated in leading services and in other spiritual leadership, and I was considering how I could best help people connect to their Spirit and the Divine. At the same time, people were telling me that they felt safe talking to me and that I was good at creating a space for them to touch vulnerable places. I realized that I loved being in this special type of connection with people. After working with my own Spiritual Director for several years, I decided that Spiritual Direction was my soul offering that I could bring to fellow seekers.
I feel called to be in sacred space with people doing their deep work. I love accompanying them as they touch the depths of their soul and their connection to Spirit. I feel humbled and blessed that people trust me with this holy work and with their truths, their joys and their struggles. This is a way for me to serve people and to bring more of the Divine spark into the world, and it also fires up my soul.
Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi (affectionately known as Reb Zalman) likened our souls to tuning forks that vibrate uniquely in our own Divinity and, in the process, inspire others’ tuning forks to vibrate with their own vibration. As I work with people, and I feel that soul vibration, I get to be more in touch with my own Divine spark and learn about myself. Consequently becoming a Spiritual Director has expanded and deepened my own spirituality in both expected and surprising ways. The Spiritual Direction training itself was transformative, and the ongoing practice of Spiritual Direction continues to deepen that transformation. Among many other things, it has refined my perspective of how to be ‘in listening’ relationship with people and the world. It has enhanced my integration of different parts of my life, including different aspects of my spirituality. And most of all, it has provided, and continues to provide, an expression of the offerings I have to bring to the world and a reminder that it’s OK to be clear about that offering. I mention these things, because this is part of what I bring to Spiritual Direction and others may see these yearnings in themselves.
If you could define the ‘sacred’ what would that be?
Sometimes I say, I can’t put exact words on it, but you know it when you see it or feel it. The word sacred derives from the Latin word sacer, meaning to separate or distinguish, presumably for ritual purposes dedicated to the gods. In Hebrew, we have the word kadosh, which means holy but also means separate. This is distinguished from chol in Hebrew, which means all or everything else. Here’s the thing though, we (i.e., I) also believe that everything is infused with holiness. That is, everything is infused with the breath of the Divine or the Source of Creation. Our spiritual practice opens us to more awareness of that breath. (Note: I’m deliberately avoiding the word “God” here because some people find it problematic so it creates a block to connecting with the God-ness. Often I like to ask people, what name or word resonates with them).
So, what does sacred mean? To me, sacredness is a feeling of connectedness to Divinity, that Source, our Source, which is all the same. It’s a feeling of tapping into that which is beyond ourselves, and at the same time that which is our highest or most essential self, through which we can be in this world in a way that brings blessing and healing. Although we are constantly in relationship with the world whether we know it or not, when we attend to the ubiquitous Presence, we enter into a sacredness, different from the way we may usually show up. It feels different, precious, delicate, perhaps even fleeting, like the thin, small voice Elijah heard in the cave. Our aspiration, or my aspiration anyway, is to make this feeling more present or regular in my life. Like the great mystics, engaging this sacredness in every breath.
How important is the role of nature in your own spiritual practice and when directing/accompanying others?
Nature is one of the foundations of my spiritual practice. I’ve written about what this means to me on my website. In nature we can feel the interconnectedness of everything. She can be a teacher and a model. She is fierce and also loving and nurturing or, using a term from Bill Plotkin’s work, generative. When I’m in nature, I practice surrender and attentiveness. I’m touched and filled with a feeling of love. I’m aware of relationship that we are in all the time. There’s also a sense of awe, which Rabbi A.J. Heschel has said is the foundation of spirituality. Awe can be felt in vast, magnificent landscapes where we feel our own smallness, and it can be felt at small things, the call and response of chickadees, the persistence of beavers taking down Cottonwood trees, or simply the deep green of the Ponderosa Pine needles against the crisp, blue Colorado sky.
I bring these lessons to working with people in nature. She provides the container and conduit for touching places in our soul. She can also provide a way of taking people out of their heads, out of the constant self-talk or rumination. Through nature we touch our own wildness and inter-connectedness. When I’ve led people on “spirit walks,” I’ve invited them to wander with a certain intention or attention in mind. For example, and a propos of the last question, I’ve invited people to wander and let themselves be called to a place that feels sacred. Through this process of opening to the sacredness of the land, the land calls to and shows them their own relationship to sacredness. When I work with people remotely, there may not be direct involvement with nature, but I have offered suggestions for people to do nature-based practices between remote sessions as well.
How do you work with those who seek your Direction?
I view myself first as a holy mirror, as my teachers have called our role. I may not be explicitly directive, unless asked for suggestions, instead reflecting back to the Directee and asking questions to help her discern more fully how Spirit or the Divine is present in her life. I like to say I unveil the Mystery at the various forks and turns in the trail of her life. Through this process the Directee is deeply listening to herself, co-listening with me to her own yearnings and blessings. In this way I may be more of a Spiritual Companion, as many like to say, rather than Spiritual Director. The craft in this work is creating that space and listening in a way that invokes and evokes this exploration along the trail.
In terms of the actual form of a session, I like to start by creating a sacred container for the sharing that will occur. We often start with some silence for the Directee to feel what’s on her heart at that particular moment. I then follow the lead of the Directee. Whatever questions, issues, or feelings arise at the moment are the ones that need to be followed. This is part of following the guidance that is available to us
In addition to talking or silence or a wander in nature, if we’re outside, I may lead a visualization or meditation or journey, or even engage in some parts work. I might ask the Directee to offer a prayer, or we might chant. I like to refer to liturgy, poetry or scripture that might come to mind, and I draw on the wisdom I’ve gained from my teachers, earth-based practices, men’s work and other life experiences. We close the sessions intentionally with a blessing, and I often enjoy asking the Directee to bless herself, because that is something people haven’t done before, and they often don’t realize their own capability for blessing.
In your experience, do you feel that people go on to lead fuller and happier lives once connecting with their ‘sacred’?
I would say generally yes, although I would rather talk about joy than happiness. In terms of a fuller life, this is an important question because if one thinks of a fuller life as doing more, having more, experiencing more, and so on, then connecting with their sacred does not necessarily lead to a fuller life. I believe that connecting to one’s sacred opens one to feeling more of their own fullness that exists already. Our sacred helps us to feel our wholeness and beauty which includes our wounds and brokenness (we are human, after all).
In connecting to our own sacred, we recognize the complete makeup of our wholeness and how those wounds help us to bring our gifts into this world. We can transform those core wounds into sacred wounds. In my tradition of birth, Judaism, and in other traditions, this work of transformation is described as a return to Divinity, and it is more valued by God than perfection, if that even exists.
This process of return helps us grow and manifest aspects of sacredness that we aspire to live into the world, such as loving kindness, awe, strength and healthy boundaries, balance or equanimity, and compassion, among others. This also helps us to feel more grounded, with more possibility for flow, and we feel more capacity for gratitude, forgiveness and love. We get glimpses of ourselves as God sees us. So, yes, I guess this is a fuller and happier life!
How do you see the future of spirituality in our ever-changing modern world?
There has been recent research on the changing demographics and appeal of traditional religious communities and the growing interest in alternatives to traditional places of worship, but I have to admit that I haven’t studied this topic deeply. Consequently, these comments are from my own experience and observations. There seems to be more interest in connecting to nature now and a recognition of the benefits of this connection. This has been magnified, if not created, by the pandemic. For example, there is growing interest in things like Forest Bathing (I am also a certified Forest Bathing guide), which isn’t spiritual per se but focuses more on mindfulness and wellness.
This contrasts with the increased prevalence of technology in spiritual offerings, also motivated by the pandemic. Video streaming now makes a wide variety of religious practice options available across the planet, and communities now have people attending their services from wide geographic areas. Even with this expansion of possibilities, it seems to me that people still long for a more personal connection and in-person interactions. There is a trend to micro-communities and spiritual laboratories at these smaller scales. So while there is an expansion of global connectedness on one hand, there is still a desire for personal, individual-scale connection. I think both trends are important and will continue.
Perhaps it’s just the people that I interact with or a wish on my part, but I think there is also a growing desire to understand other faiths and practices. Reb Zalman used to say, “The only way we can get it together is TOGETHER.” He encouraged the philosophy of “deep ecuminism” from Matthew Fox.
I think the only way we are going to be able to survive, never mind thrive, in the modern world is to recognize our own full humanity and the humanity of others. As expressed in the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, I am what I am because of other beings. This includes our own Spirit and the interconnectedness with others. While it’s important to strive for justice and policies and actions that help the world, many of the issues we’re seeing are one of spiritual disconnection. The deepening of our spirituality provides motivation and foundation for these worldly pursuits, and, no less important, it enhances our flexibility and equanimity, making us better able to adapt or respond to the ever-changing world.
If you would like to find out more about Jon Gottsegen, visit https://www.jonspiritualdirectioncolo.com/