Spiritual Directors International

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What is "Soul-tending"? -- Watch this video of a bird bathing in human hands and you'll see what I mean

Guest Author: 
Rev. Dr. Sushmita Mukherjee


This video* came to me in a rather serendipitous manner. For me, it speaks more deeply to the essence of spiritual counseling, also known as spiritual companionship, than any definition I have ever come across.

Think of the video as a metaphor for an ideal spiritual counseling relationship

Here, the cupped palms hold a steady, safe and highly reliable container, within which the bird is free to find its own rhythm and direction. If we take the cupped hands to be the counseling container, and the bird to be the soul of a counselee – then this image really comes alive. Within the container there is divine grace, which flows steadily. The container does not “create” the water, its source is “transpersonal.” The palms are cupped enough so the bird feels safe and contained, but not are so closed off that the bird may suffocate or feel constrained. The bird trusts the container enough to engage with the water at its own pace and of its own volition. Diving into the water when it feels ready, even drinking from the font for a time, and then jumping out to “dry land” to rest and recoup before diving back in. The container appears safe enough that the bird can move across the threshold of dry and wet at its own pace. It is not being forced. So, it does not need to fly away in an effort to escape the pressure.

Depending on our orientation, we can describe and relate to the water in the video as divine grace, God’s love, an encounter with the unconscious, or an encounter with one’s disowned emotions. But whatever words we use to frame the experience, ultimately, it is an experience of freedom as one approaches a threshold of a numinous encounter.

A reality check for the counselor

One of the risks of this type of interpretation would be that the counselor may begin to identify oneself as the source of the “steady, safe and highly reliable container,” and forget that while the counselor is indeed being called to provide a container, that they are equally a bird, being held in the cupped palms of the divine. And in the cupped palms of their own teachers and mentors. We will do well to remember that we do not do this work alone. We are each held gently in the compassionate cupped palms of an infinite wisdom beyond all our conceptions. When we do not know where to go next, we can trust and relax into this ever-present container of safety.

The naming of the profession

Right now, I am establishing my identity as an (inter)spiritual counselor, and the question of what to call myself keeps popping up. I have not yet come to a place of comfort and ease with any of the monikers.

In the world of professions, the known names are “spiritual director,” or “spiritual counselor.” Neither of these sit right with me. I am certainly not a “director.” I do not believe that any person can “direct” another person’s soul (although I know that not everyone agrees). Nor do I feel like a “counselor” or a “coach,” because I very rarely tell people what they should do.

One of my teachers uses the word “spiritual companion.” I like that a lot more than either director or counselor, although it is still missing something for me.

Some people use the term “soul friend,” or “Anam Cara,” or “Kalyanamitra,” but I am not sure the relationship is truly one of “friendship” as we conventionally understand that word.**

“Soul-tending”: a newly emerging sense of my calling

As I sit with what I feel I am called to do in this work, the word that is emerging for me is “soul-tending.”

First, the word “soul,” for me, feels more embodied than “spirit.” “Spirit” feels more airy; more up there. In my stance in life, I am leaning more and more towards “soulful,” rather than “spiritual.” I also like the fact that the Greek word for soul is “psyche.” So, soul-tending includes all inner or “psychological” work.

And I am really falling in love with the word, “tending.”

First, when I sit with the word “tending,” it conjures up the image of a gardener – tending to the plants. Sometimes the tending is gentle – like in watering, adding fertilizer, or turning the soil. At other times, it can feel ruthless – such as when the gardener is weeding, pruning and shearing. But the gardener’s ultimate goal is the thriving of the plants under her care.

When I look up the etymology of the word “tend,” what I find is fascinating!

Our word “tend” comes from the Latin, “tendere,” meaning "to stretch, extend, make tense; aim, direct; direct oneself, hold a course." The PIE (proto-Indo-European language) root for this word is “ten,” meaning "to stretch." So, our word “attention” or “attending” originates from Latin “attendere,” meaning "to stretch toward" [from “ad,” meaning "to, toward" + “tendere,” meaning "stretch"].

Taking the idea a bit farther, we find connections with the word “tender.” “Tender” comes from Latin “tenerem” (nominative “tener”), meaning "soft, delicate; of tender age, youthful." It is related to Sanskrit, “tarunah,” also meaning "youthful, tender," to Greek “teren,” meaning "tender, delicate," and to Armenian “t'arm,” meaning "young, fresh, green."

And that brings me right back to the beginning image of the gardener – tending the young, green “tendrils” of possibility. It is an image of the potential for healing and wholeness.

So, the job of the “soultender” (just like that of a bartender), is just that. To tend (or attend to) the soul – the psyche. And the goal of this tending is to nurture the green tendrils that bring “greening power” (Viriditas) to the soul being tended. For a deeper delve into the idea of Viriditas, please see here.

The soul, infused with this Viriditas of attention and tending, becomes vital and verdant. It can now thrive, and in time, transmit its Viriditas, its greening power, to other tendrils in its proximity.

And the gardener, the soultender, watches with fascination, this tremendous mystery of growth, of this greening and renewal. In rare instances, the gardener may be gifted with a glimpse of the blossoming of the mystic heart. A blossoming of which he/she was an agent, yes, but also equally, a beneficiary.


Acknowledgment: many of the nuances of this post were born in conversation with my Spiritual Companion, Rev. David Wallace.

* I do not know the original source of this video. If you are the creator, or know them, please reach out to me. I would be honored to provide credits.

** Editor's note: For more ways that spiritual companions describe themselves, please see SDI's "Portrait of a Spiritual Director" here: https://www.sdiworld.org/about-sdi/portrait-spiritual-director


Rev. Dr. Sushmita Mukherjee, PhD, is an ordained interspiritual minister, with a part-time practice providing spiritual direction to individuals and groups. She is also currently in training to further refine her craft of interspiritual counseling. Trained as a biophysicist in India and in the United States, she works as an Associate Professor of Research at Weill Cornell Medicine, the medical college of Cornell University, in New York City. Her scientific work focuses on high-resolution microscopy and image analysis, and their applications in cutting edge biomedical research. She is thus very finely attuned to the nuances of images, and the stories images can tell (in scientific parlance, this is called “image analysis”). Sushmita’s spiritual direction work is also deeply influenced by Jungian/archetypal thought. She thus sees images as carriers of potent symbols and as sources of mythopoesis. Images, for her, are living psychic entities which have the power to influence our thinking, and if consciously aligned with, have the power to transform our souls and our lived lives. Sushmita loves to write, to visualize, to chant, and to create art that lives at the interface of science and soul. Her work can be seen on her website: https://www.on-seeing.com/


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