Spiritual Directors International

The Home of Spiritual Companionship

What Makes a Good Spiritual Director

Guest Author: 
Rev. Seifu Anil Singh-Molares


Editor's note: The executive director of Spirtual Directors International, Rev. Seifu Anil Singh-Molares, wrote a version of this piece for the SDI newsletter "Listen"  in 2017. The response from our membership was so positive and strong we wanted to share it here in hopes of widening the discussion and hearing more from the community. Please let us know what your answer is below in the comments. (And for context on the above quote -- check out the cool 4-minute video with Rev. Vaccariello.

What is a spiritual director/ spiritual companion?


One question, many answers.

The term “spiritual director” has many associations and a long history in the Abrahamic faiths traditions, where it has been closely associated with certain strands of Judaism, with spiritual directors referred to as “Hashpa'ah” or “Mashpai’h,” (depending on the strand); Christian and, much later, in particular Ignatian spirituality; and in the Islamic Sufi path, where the spiritual director is known as a “Murshid.” But even within these traditions there is great (and increasing) variability in how the terms are used, defined, and contextualized. The common approach that they share is that in all of them, the spiritual director is a spiritual companion who looks to engage with seekers in an open and non-judgmental way, steeped in contemplative practice and deep listening, to provide guidance and enable seekers to get closer to God.

In Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Vajrayana Buddhism, spiritual teachers or guides are referred to as “gurus,” which in Sanskrit means “weighty or grave,” with the connotation of “elder teacher” or esteemed teacher.” But the long story of that term contains overtones of someone who removes spaces and obstacles that may lie between us and our spiritual evolution. Gurus can develop highly personalized relationships with seekers, with a dynamic that is distinct to each teacher but that is deep and all pervasive.

In most strands of Buddhism, it is more common to refer to spiritual “friends,” rather than to “directors,” “guides,” or even “teachers.” These friends encourage and allow us to evolve, such that the Buddha was reported to have said that spiritual friendship is the sum total of the spiritual life (in the Meghiya Sutta of the Pali Canon). Spiritual friends help seekers by fostering intimacy; virtuous conduct; conversation that inspires and encourages practice; diligence, energy, and enthusiasm for the good; and insight into impermanence. Spiritual friends, therefore, are the most important key in the spiritual path.

Other examples include followers of Indigenous religions, who usually work with Shamans, or Taoists and Confucians, who learn how to connect with their true natures through wise and learned teachers.

Finally, a significant portion of the over 1.1 billion people worldwide that the Pew Research Center refers to as “unaffiliated,” many of whom describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” seek connection with a higher power and a larger meaning in variety of ways: for example, by working with philosophy teachers as their guides, or through their work with psychologists, and other types of counselors.

Given all of this, how are we to approach the issue of who qualifies as a “spiritual director/companion/guide/teacher/friend/counselor/advisor?”

Here are some ideas.

First, spiritual direction/ companionship should be an inclusive, rather than an exclusive concept. It should always strive to welcome and invite, rather than to separate and divide, which it does on occasion, often unwittingly.

Second, at their roots, spiritual directors are individuals committed to helping others seek and find connection with a higher power, however that power might be defined. This characteristic always holds true, regardless of the particular spiritual configuration or orientation of the directors and seekers.

At a recent retreat of the I had with the SDI Coordinating Council, we identified some other key factors to look for in authentic spiritual directors, namely that they be:

  • rooted in personal experience, and display “depth.”
  • willing to follow universal ethical guidelines, summarized as “Do no harm.”
  • accountable in a community setting.
  • committed to contemplative, compassionate listening, with respect for the agency of directees.
  • supervised by other spiritual directors and accountable through that direct supervision.
  • committed to ongoing education and learning.

What do you think? What characteristics do you see as essential in a spiritual guide? As SDI strives to broaden its spiritual director public square, your thoughts are most encouraged and welcome.

Please write your response in the comments. And thank you for listening to your own spirit as you engage here. We are a community that thrives as each member shares his or her experience and wisdom.



Rev. Seifu Anil Singh-Molares is executive director of Spiritual Directors International. A practicing Buddhist spiritual director himself, he has had a varied career as a journalist, a scholar, a corporate leader, a social entrepreneur and the co-founder of the Preeclampsia Foundation and the Compassion Action Network.


Diane Rudebock's picture
Submitted by Diane Rudebock (not verified) on

Hi Anil,
I was a first time attendee at the 2018 SDI Conference in St. Louis. I am a Spiritual Director and also a Veriditas Certified Labyrinth Facilitator. I am presenting at our International Labyrinth Society Conference in October and I would like to give a copy of your article as a handout with the poster presentation I am doing entitles, The Companion of the Labyrinth in Spiritual Direction. May I have your permission to give a copy of this article including the quote from Rev. Dr. Carol Vaccariello?

Admin2's picture
Submitted by Admin2 on

Of course, Diane. Please distribute it to as many people as you like. We love it when the people share information about spiritual companionship. Should anyone else want an easy-to-print copy of this post, please contact Steven crandell at stevenc[at]sdiworld.org.

Rae Haddow's picture
Submitted by Rae Haddow (not verified) on

I came across your site and organization in a cascading set of podcasts and listened to two today (one with Yogacharya O’Brian and yourself & one that you were interviewed for the Listen podcast) that discussed this topic. It resonated so deeply and unfortunately the piece about the falsities of some self-proclaimed guides also rang true. As I have matured and explored my own path, I believe there are a few things I am looking for in a spiritual companion:

- willingness to be open and learn from their seeker and share discovery
- willingness to meet the seeker where they are and support them in finding the best path inward for that seeker at that time in their lives (and to help them ‘graduate’ as development occurs)
- the ability to see a broader perspective and to help the seeker find the divine in all situations

I found this article so refreshing. One of the things that was spoken about in the Listen podcast was around those instances when one is overcome with the feeling that the Divine has granted you the experience of opening the door and letting in the divine breeze. The example I remember was around the speaker’s grandfather playing music at the cabin after people went to bed and hearing this tune brought the feelings and knowing (later in life) back to the speaker. I had a similar feeling when listening to the two podcasts. The feeling of knowing that this is the truth and that the authentic intent of this organization feels real and right.

Thank you for this opportunity to explore and to come back to what I know to be true.

Admin2's picture
Submitted by Admin2 on

Grateful for your insightful comments above, Rae. Your points about what you look for in a spiritual companion are beautiful. Would you mind if I shared them with our community on our blog? I am Steven Crandell, Director of Content for SDI. You can contact me at stevenc@sdiworld.org. Also I will pass along your comment to our Exec Dir Rev. Seifu Anil Singh-Molares who wrote the above post and Matt Whitney who hosts our blog. I imagine they will be delighted to read your comments. More from Matt here: https://www.sdiworld.org/blog/sdi-encounters-contemplative-podcast-about... More from Rev. Seifu here: https://www.sdiworld.org/sites/default/files/2019_april_listen_-_final.pdf

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