As a mental health professional, we are in a unique position in a person’s life.

We are working directly with our client’s mind and attempting to help them live a life of less suffering and more possibility.

But wait…hasn’t that been the role of spiritual gurus for thousands of years?

Actually, it has in many respects. The role of the guru is to guide the disciple to work with their own mind so they can evolve and move beyond unnecessary states of suffering.

However, there’s one BIG difference between a spiritual guru and a therapist.

The typical therapist is focused on personal development as a means to less suffering in the mind and higher states of human potential.

The typical guru is focused on transpersonal development as a means to less suffering in the mind and higher states of human potential.

This distinction is very important. There are therapists who function along the spectrum between the personal and transpersonal. And there are spiritual gurus who also function along the spectrum between the personal and transpersonal.

But the norm is to operate mostly in one place or the other.

Transpersonal development is the vertical path. It’s the capacity to disidentify with the mind where more expansive states of consciousness are revealed that are non-personal in nature. Many believe the vertical path is where we can discover the essence or nature of reality.

Personal development is the horizontal path. It’s the ability to bring more organization and harmony to the mind so a human being can access more of their worldly potential.

The vertical and horizontal paths are represented in the cross.

Both paths are about alleviating unnecessary suffering in the mind and unlocking potential. However, the vertical is focused on essence and the horizontal is focused on form.

The therapist-client relationship comes with great responsibility just as the guru-disciple relationship does.

In order for the guru to be effective, they must teach from a place of self-knowledge of the transpersonal experience.

In order for the therapist to be effective, they also must teach from a place of self-knowledge of the personal experience.

If the guru relies too heavily on dogma they will not understand the uniqueness of the individual.

If a therapist relies too heavily on theory they will also not understand the uniqueness of the individual.

If a guru chooses to not look deeply into both the shadow and light aspects of their personality they become highly vulnerable to misusing their power with their disciples. They can engage in sexual misconduct, financial abuse, or misguide disciples into false realities even without direct malintent.

If a therapist chooses to not look deeply into both the shadow and light aspects of their personality they become highly vulnerable to misusing their power with their clients. They can engage in sexual misconduct, financial abuse, or misguide clients into false realities even without direct malintent.

There’s no difference in this regard between the guru and the therapist.

The guru and therapist are helping clients discover more truth, less suffering and a better way of life. That responsibility is tremendous because it relies so much on doing your own work. However, the reward of helping someone gain more truth and less suffering is unquantifiable.

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Keith Kurlander

Keith Kurlander is the founder of Higher Practice, a company dedicated to helping therapists achieve their highest potential in private practice. He has two decades of combined experience in business administration, group facilitation, teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level, yoga instruction and as a licensed professional counselor in private practice.