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Defining the Spiritual Experience

by Elfie Hinterkopf, Ph.D.

Chapter 7

Excerpted from Integrating Spirituality in Counseling: A Manual for Using the Experiential Focusing Method
American Counseling Association, 1998


The author presents a process definition of spirituality that includes the spiritual experiences of all clients in counseling in a culturally respectful way. The distinction between process and content brings clarity to the subject of spirituality in counseling. An example of using the Experiential Focusing Method to help a client experience her spirituality is given, and implications for practice are discussed.


Need for a Process Definition of Spirituality

Example of using Focusing to help a client experience her spirituality

Implications for Practice




Defining the Spiritual Experience

A clear definition of spirituality can enable counselors to respond more sensitively to their clients. Even though much thought has been given to the topic of spirituality, confusion still exists as to how it should be defined for purposes of counseling.

Two confusions that need to be resolved to arrive at a clear definition of spirituality are the difference between spirituality and religiousness and the question of theism and non-theism. These issues can be resolved through Gendlin's theory of experiencing (1961, 1964).

The first issue relates to the difference between spirituality and religiousness. In this book the term "religiousness" will be used to mean adherence to the beliefs and practices of an organized church or religious institution (Shafranske & Malony, 1990). "Spirituality" will be used to refer to a unique, personally meaningful experience (Shafranske & Gorsuch, 1984). Although spirituality may include various forms of religiousness, spirituality does not necessarily involve religiousness. A clear definition of spirituality helps counselors respond to their clients' spiritual issues whether a client's spirituality is associated with a religion or not.

The second issue relates to theism and non-theism. Most talk about spirituality in Western tradition makes reference to something greater than ourselves, such as God, Higher Power, or the divine. On the other hand, psychotherapists who have divorced themselves from religious organizations sometimes borrow from Eastern traditions and talk about spirituality in terms of "extraordinary" events, such as visions, near-death-like, past life, and out-of-body experiences. At times they omit mention of God or the divine. Because many people are spiritual but not theistic, a comprehensive definition of spirituality for use in counseling separates spirituality from religious reference to God or the divine. At the same time a comprehensive definition of spirituality includes the rich expression of religious reference to God or the divine frequently associated with spirituality.

In dealing with spiritual issues, the counselor needs to respond sensitively so that a growth-producing process can occur for the client. However, if the counselor has a definition of spirituality that excludes some type of content--for example, spirituality is only that which is connected to an organized religion or theism or extraordinary events--then the counselor might respond insensitively to content that does not fit that definition.

The purpose of this chapter is to present a definition of spirituality that is not restricted by the nature of spiritual content but instead includes the spirituality of all clients by concentrating on spiritual process. A case example of using the Experiential Focusing Method to facilitate spiritual process will be presented, and implications of a process definition of spirituality for the practice of counseling will be discussed.

Need for a Process Definition of Spirituality

I have found that Gendlin's theory of experiencing (1961, 1964) brings clarity to the confusion found in defining spirituality. Gendlin has made an important distinction between process and content in psychotherapy. He has described the experiencing process as paying attention to vague, implicit, bodily feelings in a special way so that they unfold and bring new explicit meanings that result in physiological relief or release. He has said that content involves symbolizations, or what the process is about. Applying this distinction to spirituality, content might involve words such as God, Christ, Mother Earth, Allah, Higher Power, and past-life, near-death, and ESP material.

The distinction between process and content is crucial in the practice of counseling in general and for integrating spirituality in counseling in particular. The counselor needs to be able to follow process in therapy to determine whether a response or an intervention has been helpful to a client, i.e., has an intervention made a felt difference in a client or merely a mental difference? Content words, such as God, have different connotations or meanings for each individual. If a counselor concentrates on spiritual content to the exclusion of process, especially when encountering unfamiliar spiritual content, the counselor may risk becoming judgmental.

My goal in defining spirituality was to develop a definition that would be useful in psychotherapy and counseling and would include the spiritual experiences of all clients in counseling (Hinterkopf, 1994, 1995). This definition would point to the client's experience of spirituality, which would be beneficial to the client's growth.

Therefore I am proposing the following definition of spirituality or the spiritual experience:

a subtle, bodily feeling with vague meanings that brings new, clearer meanings involving a transcendent growth process.

First, the spiritual experience involves a subtle, bodily feeling with vague meanings. The client has a vague, subtle feeling that can be attended to in the body at the present time. Spirituality involves subtle feelings, a bodily sense, and not simply a cognitive belief system. For example, a client may have a vaguely "good" feeling that involves a large sense of peace and calm in the chest or a vaguely "uncomfortable" feeling that includes a sense of emptiness in the torso area. The feelings are subtle, elusive, hard to describe, and more than can be put into words. The feelings are not just single emotions such as happy or afraid. They can be located in the body, for example in the throat, chest, or stomach. The vague, complex feelings carry implicitly felt meanings or meanings that are only vaguely felt. The exact meaning is not yet known.

Second, this subtle, bodily feeling with vague meanings brings new, clearer meanings. "Bring" implies that people frequently perceive that they do not cause these new, explicit meanings to occur. At first the client senses an unclear feeling that carries only implicit meanings. As the client continues to pay attention to the unclear, subtle feeling in a gentle, caring way, new meanings unfold and become more clear. For example, as a client pays attention to a vague feeling of peace and calm, the client may receive a new, explicit meaning or understanding of "accepting another person's differences."

Third, a spiritual experience involves a transcendent growth process. "Transcend" means to move beyond one's former frame of reference in a direction of higher or broader scope, a more inclusive perspective. Such transcendence is essential to human growth. A transcendent growth process, found in all human beings, involves moving beyond one's own unhealthy egocentricity, duality, and exclusivity towards more healthy egocentricity, inclusivity, unity, and a capacity to love (Chandler, Holden, & Kolander, 1992). The movement from unhealthy to healthy egocentricity might involve the ability to become more assertive or the increased ability to stand one's ground.

Gendlin (1996) has described this growth process in the following way:

...when a person's central core or inward self expands...it strengthens and develops, the "I" becomes stronger. The person--I mean that which looks out from behind the eyes--comes more into its own....

One develops when the desire to live and do things stirs deep down, when one's own hopes and desires stir, when one's own perceptions and evaluations carry a new sureness, when the capacity to stand one's ground increases, and when one can consider others and their needs....One comes to feel one's separate existence solidly enough to want to be close to others as they really are. It is development when one is drawn to something that is directly interesting, and when one wants to play. It is development when something stirs inside that has long been immobile and silent, cramped and almost dumb, and when life's energy flows in a new way. (pp. 21 - 22)

Spiritual growth involves bodily felt release, more life energy, feeling more fully present and whole, a sense of feeling larger and being able to accept or reach out to more parts of oneself, to more people, and to more of life (Campbell & McMahon, 1985). For example, a client feeling peace and calm who receives a new understanding of "accepting another person's differences" may have the growth experience of accepting others more as they are, thus reaching out to more people. After a spiritual experience, growth usually occurs in many areas of the client's life.

When I taught Focusing in Japan, the importance of a process definition of spirituality for cross-cultural counseling was confirmed by participants in my workshops. In the West people often think of spirituality as involving more self-transcendence and love for others (content terms). The Japanese are raised with the assumption of oneness and unity with other people and their environment. Their language reflects this assumption. Personal pronouns, such as I and you, are frequently omitted from sentences. For the Japanese the process of spiritual growth tends to involve developing more healthy egocentricity, more of a sense of individuality and separation. When Westerners speak of spirituality in terms of unity and self-transcendence (content terms), Japanese people may have the reaction that they don't need spirituality. When I spoke about spirituality in process terms (implicit feelings unfolding into more explicit meanings that bring more easing and life energy), they could see the relevance of spirituality in their own lives.

This definition of spirituality includes what is often referred to as "transpersonal experiences." Transpersonal experiences involve an expansion or extension of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries and beyond the limitations of time and/or space (Grof, 1976). Spiritual process may include transpersonal experiences, such as intuitive, psychic, and mystical experiences. Also, when referring to spiritual content, I assume that transpersonal content is included.

The growth involved in spiritual experiences is often essential for personal development. However, for various reasons, the client's experiencing may be "stuck," "structure-bound," or incomplete. When this is the case, the question for counselors is what can be done to help develop and facilitate the spiritual experience. At this point the experiential Focusing Method may be applied.

Example of using Focusing to help a client experience her spirituality

This example demonstrates how I used Focusing to help a client experience her spirituality in a way that involved more separation from her father, as well as a sense of becoming more whole. I am sharing highlights of the session that illustrate the client's spiritual experience along with a few of my therapeutic responses. The actual time taken for this part of the session was about 20 minutes.

Mary, a seminary student, said that she wanted to work on the difficulty she had in finding a time to pray. She mentioned that "something seemed to be in the way" of her "taking time just to be with God." It didn't make sense because she now had more free time in her schedule than in previous semesters.

I invited her to take time pay attention inside to that "something" that seemed to be in the way. I said that she could describe the feeling to me when she had the words. (Words such as "something," "sort of," and "kind of like" frequently indicate unclear feelings with vague meanings. At such times it is helpful for the counselor to invite the client to take the time to sense into these vague feelings.)

After about 45 seconds she said that she had "a vague nauseated feeling that felt like gagging along with fear and anxiety in her chest and stomach." She said that she was astonished to have such negative feelings about something that she really wanted to do. I suggested that she stay with the whole feeling in a gentle, caring way and notice what it had to tell her.

After almost a minute she cried and said that it felt like being alone with her father who had sexually abused her. She realized that she had confused time alone with God with time alone with her father. She reported a feeling of release that corresponded with her realization. In the next session Mary reported that she had been able to have a daily prayer time.

This example involves a spiritual process, not because it involved God (spiritual content), but because it involved a vague bodily feeling with unclear meanings that, when gently attended to, brought new explicit meanings along with felt release. In Mary's case the transcendent growth process involved accepting more parts of herself as separate from her father, along with a sense of feeling more whole in her relationship with God.

A transcendent growth process may, but does not necessarily, involve a deity or higher power. Some clients refer to a deity or higher power by such names as God, Christ, Allah, Mother Earth, higher power, or universal energy. Other clients, not referring to a deity or higher power, may report that their spirituality is found in service to others, the environmental movement, or more assertiveness. A transcendent growth process may involve associated qualities, such as faith, love, interconnectedness, living in the flow (the Tao), allowing (rather than trying to control), and non-attachment (Lukens, 1992). A spiritual experience may also involve existential questions, such as questions of meaning and purpose, because such questions frequently lead a person's attention in a direction of higher or broader scope.

Implications for Practice

The use of such a broad process definition of spirituality can help a client integrate seemingly conflicting parts regarding spiritual issues within him- or herself. This definition can help the person rise to a broader view so that he or she can embrace aspects of both parts. For example, one client, who had conflicting parts that she had introjected from her Christian mother and agnostic father, was able to integrate the life-giving parts from both parents. In addition, she was able to reject aspects of both parts that were not life affirming. The result was a reduction of inner conflict and an increased sense of peace within herself.

Although the spiritual experience is usually a dramatic or life-changing moment, it is almost always part of a larger growth process. Before the dramatic moment there are often many small steps or movements. For example, the client may make a new distinction or connection or give his or her perceptions more recognition than before. Such small steps may be seen as part of the spiritual growth process and need to be affirmed by the psychotherapist.

In counseling, the therapist needs to let the client decide whether a particular experience is spiritual. However, if a client asks a counselor whether an experience is spiritual, I believe it is important that a counselor give at least a brief definition of spirituality to explain his or her response. For example, if a client asks me whether I think his or her experience was spiritual, I might answer, "Yes, if I define spirituality as a special kind of experience in which one reaches out to more parts of oneself, others, and life."

My definition of the spiritual experience assumes that psychological growth and spiritual growth are synonymous (Helminiak, 1987). It must be remembered that this is a process definition, not a content definition. Although the content of a spiritual experience, such as "God," "Christ," or "higher power," may be extremely inspiring because it carries such rich, implicit meanings for a particular person, my definition is concerned with the psycho-spiritual change process. To describe the psycho-spiritual change process in which many growth events occur, the term "psycho-spiritual experiencing" may be used.

For some purposes it is useful to make a distinction between spiritual and psychological content. However, for counseling, what is essential is that the same growth process is involved with both. This means that a counselor who is familiar with psychological issues need not turn away from the client when spiritual issues arise. Rather, the counselor can continue to use the same methods, including Focusing, to facilitate growth. Similarly, spiritual directors can also work with psychological issues when they arise. Of course, in either case, a referral may need to be made when issues arise that are beyond the helper's expertise.

Any definition of spirituality that depends solely on content will be judgmental because it will exclude some people. Judging whether a client's experience is spiritual or not, based on content or on the client's words, has the disadvantage that words, such as "God," "Allah," or "Christ," have different meanings or connotations for each person. Instead, this decision can be based on the client's experiencing process. For example, does the client feel more easing and life energy? Is the client able to accept or reach out to more parts of him- or herself, to others, and to more of life?


This chapter has shown how Gendlin's theory of experiencing can be used to develop a definition of spirituality useful for the practice of counseling. The use of such a process definition has many advantages, most importantly, it can include the diverse spiritual experiences of all clients in counseling. In the next chapter I will describe how Gendlin used his theory of experiencing to develop the Focusing Method. It will be seen that the client's attention to experiential process is vital both for spiritual growth and for success in psychotherapy.


Campbell, P., & McMahon, E. (1985). Bio-spirituality: Focusing as a way to grow. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

Chandler, C., Holden, J. M., & Kolander, C. (1992). Counseling for spiritual wellness: Theory and practice. Journal of Counseling and Development, 71(2), 168-175.

Gendlin, E. T. (1961). Experiencing: A variable in the process of therapeutic change. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 15, 233-245.

Gendlin, E. T. (1964). A theory of personality change. In P. Worchel & D. Byrne (Eds.) Personality change (pp. 102-148). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Gendlin, E. T. (1996). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: A manual of the experiential method. New York: Guilford Press.

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Hinterkopf, E. (1994). Integrating spiritual experiences in counseling. Counseling and Values, 38(3), 165-175.

Hinterkopf, E. (1995). Die Dimension Spiritualitat in Beratung und Therapie. Unpublished manuscript. (Available from Focusing Zentrum Karlsruhe, Schillerstr. 89, 76352 Weingarten, Germany)

Lukens, L. (1992). Focusing: Another way to spirituality. The Folio: A Journal for Focusing and Experiential Therapy, 10, 65-72.

Shafranske, E. P., & Gorsuch, R. L. (1984). Factors associated with the perception of spirituality in psychotherapy. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16, 231-241.

Shafranske, E. P., & Malony, H. N. (1990). Clinical psychologists' religious and spiritual orientations and their practice of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 27, 72-78.

This chapter is from the book, Integrating Spirituality in Counseling: A Manual for Using the Experiential Focusing Method by Elfie Hinterkopf, published by the American Counseling Association. Used by permission. The book may be ordered from the American Counseling Association Distribution Center, P.O. Box 631396, Baltimore, MD 21263-1396 Telephone: 1-800-422-2648, non U.S. 610-594-2651, Fax 610-594-7570. (Discount for ordering ten or more copies)

Biographical Note

Elfie Hinterkopf, Ph.D. is an international workshop leader and licensed professional counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. She has an M.A. in anthropology and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. She studied the Experiential Focusing Method with its originator, Dr. Eugene Gendlin, at the University of Chicago, has been teaching Focusing for almost thirty years, and has written numerous journal articles and a book, entitled Integrating Spirituality in Counseling: A Manual for Using the Experiential Focusing Method published by the American Counseling Association. Dr. Hinterkopf taught counseling psychology at the graduate level for many years, directed a National Institute of Mental Health research project, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in India.

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