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Spiritual But Secular

Soul coaches help clients live a life of purpose

By Anne Bokma

Michelle Herder couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but “something was lacking” in her life. The 39-year-old Toronto municipal employee had a good job and long-term circle of friends, but her perfectionist streak was making her miserable. “I was always striving, and I had goals for everything all the time — I wasn’t loving the way I was,” says Herder, a self-admitted “control freak.”

Herder, who grew up Catholic, didn’t turn to the church for guidance. Instead, she hired a soul coach, shelling out $700 for Kimberly Carroll’s seven-week “life reboot program,” along with seven other participants. They drummed, meditated, journalled and used art therapy and body movement to figure out how to lead better lives. Some of the exercises — such as creating a visioning board with glue sticks and magazine cutouts — had her rolling her eyes at first, but Herder credits the program for transforming her life: she took up outdoor photography, began mentoring youth aging out of foster care, started dating again and became more open with people. She doesn’t feel she has to be perfect anymore. “I feel more at peace, and life feels more honest and satisfying. I feel more connected to the universe and everything in it.”

The experience was a little like church. Sharing with others in the intimacy of a small group felt like a “sacred space,” she says, and the one-on-one coaching was similar to “the whole confessional and absolution thing.” Carroll’s guidance was key to her success: “It would have been impossible for me to do this work on my own.”

Carroll says many of her clients are like Herder. “They have a deep longing inside. . . . People are looking for meaning, and they aren’t finding it in the same places their parents and grandparents did.”

You might call Carroll a personal trainer for the spirit. A growing number of soul coaches are urging their clients to do the inner heavy lifting to figure out how to live a life of purpose. Carroll says her work goes well beyond what critics might view as obsessive introspection. Her clients make changes that benefit not only themselves but also the world, such as becoming vegetarian or volunteering overseas. “Spiritual exploration is incredibly important to our well-being, but we can’t just stay on our meditation cushions and navel-gaze,” she says. “We have to take action.”

Soul coaches are the latest incarnation of an ancient tradition of spiritual guides, says Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and author of Spiritual, But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. “Soul coaches are responding to the new niche in the spiritual marketplace somewhere between churches and psychotherapy,” he writes in an e-mail.

Does the United Church have something to learn from these people? Christine Ciona certainly thinks so. “A lot of people aren’t attending church because they are receiving spiritual nurturing via other pathways,” says the self-described “joy guru and abundant living guide” who offers a six-week soul-coaching experience for $280, as well as meditation, drumming, reiki, yoga and hula-hoop classes.

Ciona is also a member of First United in Swift Current, Sask., where she served as a designated lay minister and incorporated some of her soul-coaching practices into the worship services. She introduced chanting and expanded the traditional moment of silence into a full five minutes of guided meditation. “There was a lot of shifting in the seats,” she admits. “The intention was to use this time to go deeper.” Ciona also ran “spirit circles” in the church during the week, creating an altar with “worry stones” and crystals, offering meditation and movement, and holding themed discussions. There are “infinite possibilities” for the church to help members deepen their spiritual lives, she says.

Ciona may be on to something. The people who come to her for soul coaching “are unhappy on some level and not feeling abundant in their lives and don’t know why.” Traditional worship and sitting passively in a pew won’t satisfy these folks, she says. “People are spiritually hungry and want more. That’s why meditation and spiritual retreat centres are packed, and people are willing to spend $3,000 to go to Bali to touch the face of God.”

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

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