This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

Spirituality and Counseling

 Manasi Pahwa.

Phd. Student

Deptartment of Psychology

University of Delhi.



If we want to understand a human being in all his dimensions we must include among the biological, psychological, and sociological dimensions, the spiritual dimension as well.

Most traditional forms of counseling and psychotherapy help in the strengthening of the ego, and ‘Ego’ is the root cause of most problems people face. The goal of counseling should shift from “Ego-growth” to “Inner-growth”. ‘Inner growth’ means finding the kingdom of heaven within, finding oneself.

For a counselor it becomes important to develop skills not only of empathy but also of understanding and love. Love brings profound healing, and understanding brings lessening of fear.

Thus, if counselors can decrease their concern with functioning, and fitting the client into our sick society, and practice the healing art, with compassion, skill, and mindfulness and most importantly, if they can treat the spirit, it will help people transcend pain and ills.


People seek the services of professional helpers – counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists – when their capacities for responding to the demands of life are strained, when desired growth seems unattainable, when important decisions elude resolution and when natural support systems seem unavailable or insufficient.

Thus, counseling is an interactive process characterized by a unique relationship between counselor and client that leads to change in the client in one or more of the following areas:

1. Behavior (overt changes in the way the client acts, their coping skills, and/or relationship skills).

2. Beliefs (ways of thinking about oneself, others, and the world) or emotional concerns relating to these perceptions.

3. Level of emotional distress (uncomfortable feelings or reactivity to environmental stress).

The desire for change can stem from identified problems, such as loneliness, uncontrollable anxiety, or poor social skills, or from a desire for a fuller life, even in the absence of clear problems in functioning. An increasing number of clients are seeking counselors for a purpose of finding meaning in their lives, for personal growth or for increasing their creative potentials.

It has often been observed that clients who are immensely benefited by counseling frequently relapse or face other conflicts which they are unable to face and become almost as disturbed as they were previously, seeking professional help again and again or end up seeing themselves as failures.

Most Indian counselors more often than not use commonly held beliefs in karma, and surrendering to the Higher Power as a way of reaching out to the client. But, this is done in a very haphazard manner and this may increase pessimism or if effective is so for a short while because even Indians do not look at this way of reaching out as potentially effective and scientific.

Hence the question remains – How can Spirituality and the Indian perspective improve skills and techniques of counseling?

Historical Background:

Counseling in some way or another has been used by different people since the beginning of mankind e.g., by parents, teachers, friends, elders, etc. It was to the medical practitioner or family doctor that people went most frequently. Earlier, medicine was not as specialized as it is today. The family doctor was not in a hurry. He sat down by the bedside of the patient and gave his time to listen to what the sick person had to say. It was in those conversations that the family doctor was faced with problems, which were not the usual medical problems of fevers and aches in the different parts of the body. The problems presented by the sick person had much to do with worries, depressions, fears, anxieties and inner struggles. The family doctor was interested in helping the patient with these problems also, but did not know how to handle them. As he was by practice biology-oriented, he felt that there must be some underlying pathology of the brain or the nervous system, which was responsible for these types of problems. Because these problems were of a different nature than the ones studied in medical colleges, they were labeled mental.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the discoveries of Griesinger, Kraepelin, Ramon y Cajal, and others established the so-called ‘organic viewpoint’ on the nature of mental illness. The contributions of these scientists showed the deep personality disorders known as ‘general paresis’, ‘cerebral arteriosclerosis’, and ‘senile psychoses’ were caused by some pathology in the brain. With these biological discoveries, it was thought that they could cure the patient by surgically removing the pathology from the brain. This view, though strongly supported in some cases, was not held by all medical men. The reason was that over 50 percent of the mental patients failed to improve by these means. This challenged the belief in brain pathology as the sole cause of mental disorders. This new current of psychiatric thought held that certain types of mental illness are caused by psychological factors. Thus, some mental disorders might result from the fact that the patient felt unable to cope with his inner frustrations and conflicts, and thus learned to adopt unhealthy responses in his efforts to adjust.

Origins of Counseling:

The psychological viewpoint became manifest in the use of hypnosis to treat hysteric patients. A significant contribution in the field of mental illness was made by Breurer. He allowed the patient under hypnosis to talk freely about himself and his problems, and to display considerable emotion. On awakening from the hypnotic state, the patient felt relieved and improved. This was he beginning of a change in the mode of treatment, namely, to give importance to the patient and to what he had to say about himself, and to give him time to communicate his feelings, and this change was enhanced by Freud (1856-1939). He was the first to dispense with hypnosis altogether and to create the conditions favorable for the patient to relax and communicate freely his thoughts and feelings. Thus it was Freud who popularized what goes today by the name of psychotherapy and counseling. He demonstrated that the patient’s symptoms represented the outcomes of his attempts to meet his problems. Thus, Freud showed great understanding and respect for the mental patient. This was quite a different perception of the mental patient than the one most people had entertained about them before. According to Freud’s view, the counselor can look upon the mental patient as who is struggling hard to adjust to his environment. In this very hard struggle he makes mistakes and adopts faulty ways of thinking and behaving which is called symptoms. This understanding of mental illness brings the patient much closer to the counselor. It brought forth an understanding that anyone could one day meet with a very subjectively hostile world, and in his efforts to survive, he too might develop strange ways of thinking and behaving, which might not be appropriate in the culture which surrounds him. Freud developed this method ‘psychoanalysis’ which dominated the field of psychotherapy for half a century.

Carl R. Rogers and Client–Centered Therapy:

A great pioneer in the forties was Carl R. Rogers in the United States. He objected to the psychoanalyst’s way of gathering data about the client and of interpreting the causes of his illness. Rogers held the view that the client is the best source of the information about himself, and that he could diagnose himself if he was adequately helped by the counselor. Rogers did much to shift the focus of attention from diagnosis to the relationship between counselor and counselee. He tried to pinpoint the ingredients of the helping relationship, which, according to him, is the main factor in helping people with problems.

In 1942 Rogers published his first book, Counseling and Psychotherapy, where you can find the ideas just presented. In 1951 he put forward his theory of personality and offered a blueprint for counseling in his book, Client-Centered Therapy. In 1957 Rogers published a paper, “The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change”, in which he says: “Drawing from a large theoretical context, six conditions are postulated as necessary and sufficient conditions for the initiation for a process of constructive personality change.”

These conditions are as follows:

1. Psychological contact between counselor and counselee.

2. The counselee is in a state of incongruence.

3. The counselor is integrated in the relationship.

4. The counselor experiences unconditional positive regard for the counselee.

5. The counselor experiences an empathic understanding of the counselee’s internal frame of reference.

6. The counselor communicates to the counselee his empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard at least to a minimum degree.

“If these six conditions exist,” Rogers says, “and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of constructive personality change will follow.”

In 1961 in his book, On Becoming A Person, Rogers modified his thinking in the light of research findings and reduced the above six conditions to four conditions, three on the part of the counselor and one on the part of the counselee.

These conditions are:

1. The counselor must be congruent, that is, his words must be in line with his feelings (congruence).

2. The counselor must have a warm acceptance and esteem of the counselee as a separate person (acceptance).

3. The counselor must have the ability to see the counselee and his world as the counselee sees them (empathy).

4. The counselee must experience himself as being fully received. That is, whatever his feelings, silence, gestures, tears or words, whatever he finds himself being in this moment, he senses that he is psychologically received just as he is by the counselor (communication).

Thus, Rogers’ model of counseling is a two-dimensional model. It includes the person of the counselor (one dimension) and the person of the counselee (the other dimension). The counselor must, in his relationship with the counselee, adopt these three attitudes of congruence, acceptance, and empathy. He must be able to communicate them to the counselee. On the other hand, the counselee must feel that he has been fully received by the counselor

Skills Required by a Traditional Counselor:

Three of the core skills of an effective counselor – empathy, positive regard, and genuineness – were described by Carl Rogers (1957) as the necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change.

Empathy: Rogers (1961) defined empathy as the counselor’s ability “to enter the client’s phenomenal world – to experience the client’s world as if it were your own without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality.” (p. 284). Bohart and Greenberg (1997) described three categories of empathy:

Empathic rapport – “primarily kindness, global understanding, and tolerant acceptance of the client’s feelings and frame of reference” (p. 13).

Experience near-understanding of the client’s world – “what it is like to have the problems the client has, to live in the life situation the client lives in,… what it is like to be him” (p. 14). This perspective includes conscious as well as some unconscious elements of the client’s experience.

Communicative attunement – “The therapist tries to put himself or herself in the client’s shoes at the moment, to grasp what they are consciously trying to communicate at the moment, and what they are experiencing at the moment” (p. 14).

Positive Regard: Positive regard is caring for the client for no other reason than the fact that he is human and therefore worthy. Caring is shown by the enthusiasm one person shows being in the presence of another and by the amount of time and energy one is willing to devote to another’s well-being. The experience of being cared about helps restore and develop a sense of caring for oneself. It creates energy and encourages a person to respond to the demands of life. A counselor’s caring can increase the client’s enthusiasm for work and growth.

Roger’s (1957) developed the concept that the counselor’s caring for the client can be unconditional. Because the counselor does not have a role in the client’s life outside the counseling situation, he can become the client’s instrument for change without a lot of preconceived ideas about what behaviors the client should exhibit. The counselor’s respect for the dignity and the worth of the individual remains intact regardless of client behaviors.

Of course, an effective counselor will experience positive regard for the vast majority of his clients. Although caring is not as directly experienced as empathy, it will become apparent to the client through the counselor’s spontaneous statements that acknowledge the validity of the client’s struggle for a more satisfying life.

Genuineness: Rogers (1942) originally defined genuineness as the characteristic of transparency, realness, honesty, or authenticity. He has also used the term congruence to suggest that a genuine counselor behaves in ways that are congruent with his self-concept and thus consistent across time. The counselor shares thoughts and feelings in ways that do not manipulate or control the client.

To be fully genuine in the sense described by Rogers, counselors must know themselves very well. They must have clear pictures of their personalities and how the elements of personality are expressed in significant events and relations with people.

Critique of the traditional methods of counseling:

Most traditional methods of counseling, including person-centered counseling are based on a theory of personality referred to as self theory. This theory puts forth one’s view of oneself within the context of the environmental influences, one’s actions and personal satisfactions. If provided with a nurturing environment, people will grow with confidence toward self-actualization. If they do not receive the love and support of significant others, they come to see themselves lacking in self-worth and to regard others as untrustworthy. Their behavior becomes defensive (self-protective), and growth towards self-actualization will be hampered.

Thus, it can be said, the theory of personality that person-centered counseling is based on; is not of self but of ‘self-image’. Hence, person-centered counseling looks at a person, as an image of a person built up over many years, in layers that are complexly woven together.

This self-image is the creation of a personal unshareable “I” – the Ego. The ego takes up on the job of selecting and rejecting experiences and thus creates isolation, since anything that picks and chooses creates a gap. Between you and something you have rejected there is a gap. Between you and me there is a gap, because we have chosen not to have the same experience – our egos are separated. In fact, we all take it for granted of that we couldn’t possibly share experiences not fully. I cannot enter all of your emotions, fears, wishes, and dreams, nor you mine. The best we can usually do is try to build bridges of communication, which often prove too weak to hold.

When these bridges breakdown over time, they lead to problems. Thus, a client in counseling seeks guidance for the relief of this psychological distress. The counselors relieve obstacles and inhibitions in the process of growth and help the client to overcome these conflicts. Hence, counseling empowers the client to cope with life situations, to reduce emotional stress, to engage in growth-producing activity, and to make effective decisions.

But, all these solutions are not permanent. Counselors may try to help the client become “fully-functioning” i.e., to live as effectively as possible in the worldly sense, and may even be successful to a certain extent. But, this like attacking the outcome of the problem rather than the root of the problem.

In traditional Western perspective of psychotherapy and counseling, “spirituality” is not recognized as an authentic aspect of the psyche. Historically, the relationship between therapy and spirituality has been a troubled one. Freud (1928) asserted that spiritual and religious concerns were “a universal neurosis.” This, has contributed to the psychotherapy’s uncertainty and ambivalence about spiritual issues.

Yet, parallels can be drawn between spirituality and counseling interventions. Counselors help clients make and implement life decisions. There’s always an emotional dimension to the decision making. The better we can understand our own inner reactions, our memories, hopes, fears, dreams the better “insight” we have, the better the decisions we can make. This interior realm is often called the person’s “inscape.” Counseling is an intimate participation in the inscape of another. By the classic definition, this is an act of magic. The counseling session is another kind of set-apart time, devoted to the client during which by the client’s permission, and by our own focused will, we change our consciousness. For that time, as best as we can, we set aside our own inscape to enter theirs, hoping to help them explore it more fully. Hence, counseling in itself is spiritual. Both could be considered as schools of self-knowledge; by removing ignorance the seeker is able to discover and reunify himself in order to be or become his real self. Self-knowledge is seen as the key to discovery of the seeker’s integrity.

Thus, both these schools of thoughts are concerned with the painful process of making the unconscious conscious; the seeker no longer sees reality as he likes it to be but as it is, and as a result the seeker gains a clearer perception of the world and a greater capacity to understand others, i.e., the self is expanded and the unconscious is able to be constructively integrated within the total personality.

Again, they both assume the existence of hidden potentials and resources, though these are differently perceived by counseling and the spiritual traditions. An increased self-knowledge gives an ability to integrate these hidden potentials and resources. Western perspective of counseling and psychotherapy as well as psycho-spiritual discipline aim to bring about changes in consciousness and both explore the essence and nature of man, his well-being, and the individual’s meaning in life. Both view suffering of man due to his failure to become whole. This suffering will gradually diminish and disappear and be replaced by a taste of openness, self-awareness and inner harmony.

Despite these meeting points, the two approaches do not have the same goals, methods or outcomes. Psycho-spiritual disciplines tend to show the way to a kind of inner harmony and relief of tension and as such may have psychotherapeutic effects and benefits, but it is not a technique of intervention in the strictest sense. Spiritual growth is concerned with metaphysical, moral, cosmological and psychological truth, whereas counseling is more concerned with the growth of emotional and mental processes and healing the disturbed individual; the latter encourages a sense of mastery over oneself and one’s dynamic conditions of life, whereas the former fosters a sense of freedom from attachments and surrender to the Divine. Spiritual growth involves the whole person and is, unlike counseling, is less occupied with painful conflicts and its improvements.

Though the traditional methods of counseling are effective, yet they fall short of helping the client gain complete control over himself. It may try to fit the client into the society, but does so by teaching him to fight circumstances rather than accepting them and trying to find a way of by-passing them. Strengthing the ego, self-esteem, and independence are not harmful, they are indeed necessary. Yet, only this strength is not enough to live life to the fullest.

Replacing ‘Ego-growth’ with ‘Inner-growth’:

Setting ego aside means setting memory aside. When that is done people are no longer isolated. The individual mind narrows our awareness down, as if we are looking at the world through a peephole. Thus, it becomes necessary to sacrifice the ego for serving purposes beyond individuality i.e., the universal Self.

This universal Self gives rise to a universal consciousness. It flows forever and embraces all thoughts, emotions, and all experiences. It can be understood with the help of the following metaphor: “Insofar as you are one person, you are like a drop in the ocean. Insofar as you are part of the universal awareness, you are the whole ocean.”

Hence psycho-spiritual disciplines recognize the limitations of rationality within the personality. Intellectual knowledge cannot solve the final questions in life; it often prevents the development of intuitive spiritual experiences and subdues “ man’s creative mastery of the self”. In contrast to the traditional beliefs of counseling which seeks “causes” and attempts “adjustment”, the spiritual approach emphasizes inner liberation for the attainment of reunion with the universal Spirit. Actually spiritual development is concerned with other realms of existence, with the fulfillment of man’s increasing awareness of levels of excellence and awareness of existence as part of a cosmic-design.

Traditional counseling and psychotherapy are primarily concerned with the art of healing psychological disturbances through behavior modification, resolution of psychodynamic conflicts, and personal growth. It can be effective in resolving stubborn psychological blockages, freeing the self for growth. As such this becomes a fertile ground for psycho-spiritual disciplines, which deal with the higher realms of being.

Psycho-spiritual growth is more an art of living in tune with the Infinite. When one gets in tune with the Infinite, he regains his innocence and his power of universal love. Innocence is our natural state, before it becomes covered over. What covers it over is self-image. When we look at ourselves even when we are trying to be completely honest, we see an image built up over many years. A person in touch with the Infinite sees himself everywhere he looks because his sight is innocent. It is unclouded by judgments, labels, and definitions. That person knows he has an ego and self-image, but he is not distracted by these things. He sees them against a backdrop of totality, the whole context of life.

Ego is “I”; it is the singular point of view. In innocence this point of view is pure, like a clear lens. But without innocence the ego’s focus is extremely distorting. When one is able to rid himself of all labels for things, he sees them afresh. For him there is no dust on the lens, so the world sparkles with newness.

To dissolve the ego, one requires the overwhelming force of love. The power of love is the power of purity. The word love is used in many ways, but in its true sense, the meaning of love is “that which dissolves all impurities, leaving only the true and the real”. As long as you have fear, you cannot really love. As long as you have anger you cannot truly love. As long as you have a selfish ego, you cannot truly love.

Love is the air we breathe; it is the circulation in every cell. From its universal source love permeates everything. It is the ultimate power, because without using force, love brings everything to it. Even in suffering loves power continues its work, far out of sight of the ego and mind. Compared with love all other forms of power are feeble.

The real power in life is internal. To be able to see the world in the light of love, which can only come from within, is to live without fear, in unshakable peace.

There are many secrets to love that escape people’s attention. To get love, you must first give it. To make sure that another person loves you unconditionally, you must place no conditions upon him or her. To learn to love another, you must first learn to love yourself.

Love needs to be uncovered, stripped of layers of anger, fear, and selfishness that obscure it like old shellac. To achieve a totally loving life, purify the life you have. There is no right or wrong approach to love. Thus, a person desperately searching for love is like a fish desperately searching for water. Life can seem extremely unloving, but it is really the eye of the perceiver, not the world “out there”, that deprives anyone of love.

Learning to set the ego aside happens in stages – there are many layers of isolation, fear, habit, selfishness, and anger that prevent us from experiencing love. The lead role in learning to contact the universal force of love can first be taken by the mind. The mind can take a new perspective, and then the reeducation of emotions and beliefs can follow. The mind simply needs to learn that, there is a force of love present everywhere, that it can be trusted to bring life into order and peace.

If titanic forces like gravity and the immense energies that fuel stars manage to coexist without destroying one another, then your own life will be upheld. Fear and doubt say this can’t be true; our deep belief in struggle is based on the notion that if we didn’t fight to survive, we would be crushed by nature’s random indifference. But, there exists a different way where fear, violence, and destruction are reflections of our own mistaken beliefs. In the light of trust, as it develops slowly over time, one finds that one is a privileged child of the universe, entirely safe, entirely supported, and entirely loved.

This shift in perspective symbolizes movement towards ‘Inner growth’. ‘Inner growth’ means spending more time praying, giving, helping others, loving. It means getting rid of pride ego, selfishness, anger, guilt, vanity and ambition. It means being generous, spending less time accumulating things, worrying, being in the past or the future, and hurting others. ‘Inner growth’ means finding the kingdom of heaven within finding oneself.

Skills an evolving counselor needs to get in touch with:

Traditional counselors are stuck in the illusion that functioning is the ultimate goal. Thus, they keep struggling to help their client to strengthen their ego, decision-making skills and ability to struggle against all odds and become high achievers in life. But, inner peace and joy are actually more important. If the counselor can decrease his concern with functioning and fitting the client into our sick society, then he can gradually help to increase the inner joy of his client.

The goal of counseling should shift to help the person to learn, to become God-like. It stands for turning human beings into gold, turning our base qualities of fear, ignorance, hatred, and shame into the most precious stuff there is: love and fulfillment. Counseling should lead not to ‘Ego growth’ but to ‘Inner growth’. Hence, the entire outlook of the counseling process changes from empowering the client emotionally and mentally to include spiritual empowerment as well.

A question that most counselors very often face is: “What, after all, must we do and be to heal ourselves, and to have the energy to heal others?” Counselors must see deeply into themselves, their personal fears and prejudices and convention and opinions, so that they may stand thoughtfully, clear-sightedly, on reality.

They, must love, not just those who abut upon their lives, but love the potential for the awakening that stirs within every life form, so that they can glimpse in the turmoil around them the possibility of an upward-reaching nature. They must accept, bow, acknowledge that death will lead everyone – them and their patients away, but be able to spark faith, hope for the next moment’s luminosity in those who are pained, defeated, cynical and withered.

Hence, for a counselor, it becomes important to develop skills not only of empathy, genuineness, and positive regard, but also of love and understanding. Understanding can help to heal old traumas. Love brings profound healing, and understanding brings lessening of fear. It is also important for a counselor to heal himself. It is necessary for the counselor to enable self-healing through, self-awareness, self-knowledge and freedom from past conditionings. The counselor heals self and others through introspection and self-responsibility.

It is hard work to stay out of the rut. To search within, to truly understand oneself, to foster a sense of detachment and perspective – these are difficult tasks and they require much patience and practice. The journey is arduous and long, but well worth it. To be truly happy requires an understanding of life and death, and a loving, forgiving, spiritual nature. Introspection, meditation, loving service and kindness – these are some of the steps along the way. Practicing forgiveness of oneself and others, working to eliminate anger, fear, greed, self-centeredness, and false pride – these are yet more steps.

Thus, if counselors can practice the healing art with compassion, skill, and mindfulness, and most importantly if they can treat the spirit, they will help people transcend pain and ills.


All around us, we see people restless and searching… searching for meaning in their lives, searching for the purpose of their lives, searching for peace in their lives, and searching for relationships that last and don’t disintegrate into power struggles. In reality, people around us are evolving, trying to understand the universal truth, which is just within reach, but needs a new orientation to grasp it. The turmoil and crisis that most people face, is because they have forgotten this basic lesson. There is no such thing as a loveless person – there are only people who cannot feel the force of love.

It is time we learn and teach that the energy of love is potentially more powerful than any bomb and more subtle than any herb. We just have not yet learned how to harness this most basic and pure energy. When we do, healing at all levels, individual and planetary, can occur.


Chopra, D. (1995). The Way of the Wizard: 20 Spiritual Lessons For Creating The Life You Want. NOIDA, India: Gopsons Paper Ltd.

Fleishman, R. P. (1994). Vipassana Meditation: Healing the Healer. Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri, India: Vipassana Research Institute.

Freud, S. (1928). The future of an illusion. London: Hogarth Press.

Fuster, M. J. (1980). Personal Counseling: An Integration of Carkhuff’s models. Bombay, India: St. Paul Publications.

Harrow, J. (1996). Retrieved on November 24th 2004 from the website:

Patterson, E. L., & Welfel, R. E. (2000). The Counseling Process. (5th ed.). C A, U. S. A.: Brooke/Cole. Thomson Learning.

Rivett, M. & Street, E. (2001). Retrieved on November 24th 2004 from the website:

Vrinte, J. (1996). The Quest For The Inner Man: Transpersonal Psychotherapy and Integral Sadhna. Pondicherry, India: Sri Mira Trust.

Weiss, B. (2000). Messages From The Masters: Tapping into the Power of Love. London, U.K.: Piatkus.