Journey back to integrity: Therapeutic relationships

A black and yellow striped butterfly with long tails, perched on a long green stem. There's leaf litter and green woods in the background

In each job I’ve had, I’ve tried to shift my time and attention toward the activities where I feel happiest, authentic, courageous, and content. I’m in the flow and my spirit is lit up and engaged. These activities were when I was mentoring and coaching my graduate student co-instructors as instructional faculty. As an instructional consultant in a teaching center, it was when I was co-facilitating a graduate student learning community on transgression

I ensure some loose structure in each of these community relationships: 

  • a time and space to meet together
  • consensus and commitments to what we wanted from each other and how we would achieve that
  • a theme and a couple readings as resources
  • a question to expand our sense of what’s possible in ourselves and in our communities
  • an encouragement to grow developmentally 

And then we improvise. Improvisation isn’t a free-for-all; it has rules of engagement so that improv partners can trust each other, explore an idea together, expand our conceptions, and wake up the mind, heart, and spirit a little. (See Tina Fey’s rules of improvisation from Bossypants, 2011). We are co-learning, co-journeying, and improvising in these community relationships. The graduate students bring their own wisdom of experience and academic knowledge to the conversation. They share their desires to be more authentic and courageous versions of themselves. The space becomes more than the sum of the parts as we co-construct it. Unlike my experiences teaching undergraduate classes, each iteration of these community relationships with graduate students is wholly unique. The moments are unrepeatable because of the singular assemblage of people, knowledge, and dreams.

I know my spirit lights up when I’m doing that kind of direct, community- and relationship-building work with graduate students. I provide a holding space for them to be vulnerable, express themselves authentically, and expand their sense of themselves. Those relationships are having the same effect on me. It’s therapeutic for all of us.

My current role in a graduate school doesn’t automatically have direct, community-building work in it (which opens up lots of questions for me). As I went on my leave of absence in April, I knew that when I came back I would need to deliberately engage in work that is in integrity with my heart and spirit: community-building with graduate students. 

So I’m currently co-facilitating a summer workshop series for graduate students on transforming your research expertise into a course experience (here’s the syllabus, if you’re interested). And it’s wonderful. The graduate students talk about why their research areas are personally important to them. They raise excellent, engaging questions about teaching and learning. They share readings and practices that have been thought-provoking to them. They support each other as peers, colleagues, and co-journeyers. We speak truth to each other about fears, joys, heartaches, and insights. 

To be clear, we have our share of disagreements, conflicts, disappointments, and mistakes in these communities. But those moments are always manageable and we work together to restore our commitments to each other. And we use those as moments to learn from and to grow from as a community.

My spirit is returning to me as I come back into what brings me joy – being in direct relationship and community with graduate students. I’m regaining confidence in my facilitation skills, academic knowledge, and wisdom of experience. In those communities, I have a sense of purpose, I’m putting my gifts to service, and I’m in alignment with my values. I feel renewed and enlightened when I’m in those gatherings.  

I’m currently reading Dr. Thelma Bryant’s book, Homecoming (2022). Two nights ago, I read the chapter “Community Care and Self-Care.” The section on pages 102-103 about spiritual self-care made me gasp. I’ve excerpted it here. I think it captures what I think happens in these communities.

On a deep level, there is an essence to who you are that is much more than the sum total of your experiences. You have a spirit and a soul. You can spend time spiritually edifying and nourishing yourself so you can go beyond the emotions of living and truly come alive. I have a spoken word piece that goes, “Why walk when you can fly? Why walk when you can fly? What are you doing on your knees, dragging wings?” Your soul has the capacity to take flight. You have spiritual gifts, and the reality is that you’re too gifted to be bored. Spiritual gifts include but are not limited to wisdom and discernment, faith, healing, teaching, giving, leading, and serving. If you’re bored, it means that some of your spiritual gifts have been asleep. There are rich layers within each of us, and when you become aware of all that is within you, hidden treasures rise ot the surface. The stress and trauma of life may have kept you from seeing the bounty within you and may even have convinced you that you are an empty shell. There is a part of you that you may be neglecting; you may have never been introduced to your spirit or you may have lost sight of it, but it is important. Your spirit is a part of you, and in this homecoming, we don’t want ot leave any part of ourselves behind. A part of your homecoming is awakening your spirit, or as we say in my faith tradition, “Stir up your gifts.” Your spiritual gifts may have been dormant for a long time, but there is more to you than your body, your mental health, and even your heart. We can think of soul care as activating your spirit; awakening and raising your consciousness is the path to holistic wellness.

How do you awaken spiritually? How do you connect with your spiritual gifts? You start by spending time in meditation or prayer. You may also read sacred texts, engage with the arts, pursue your purpose, align your life with your values, and utilize your spiritual gifts. We do not all have every gift, but we all have a gift. You can start utilizing your gifts as a way to nourish yourself so you are no longer holding back but living life in flow and alignment with who you are and what gifts you carry. Additionally, a part of soul care is using wisdom in selecting spiritual communities who nourish your soul. If the aim of your spiritual tradition is love and connection, but your community leaves you feeling rejected and disconnected, this may not be a place of growth and healing for you. All communities are made up of flawed people, so the aim is not perfection but a community in which there is honesty, accountability, safety, affirmation, and growth. A part of your soul care may involve leaving or transforming a community, or finding new places where your soul is fed and where you can also be a part of helping others. If you have been hurt in a spiritual or religious community, soul care may mean stepping away from community for a season as you heal and eventually deciding if you are open to exploring different, safer spaces. It’s important to know that one tradition doesn’t have a monopoly on harm or abusive practices. People have been hurt in temples, churches, mosques, spiritual centers, meditation groups, and yoga classes. So if you are seeking community, look at the words and actions of leaders, teachers, and members, and pay attention to how your spirit feels when you are present and when you leave. The aim of soul care is to be nourished, edified, renewed, enlightened, and loved.

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