Spiritual direction is the practice of being with people as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the divine, or to learn and grow in their own personal spirituality. The person seeking direction shares stories of his or her encounters of the divine, or how he or she is experiencing spiritual issues. The director listens and asks questions to assist the directee in his or her process of reflection and spiritual growth. Spiritual direction develops a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. It is not psychotherapy, counseling, or financial planning.
While there is some degree of variability, there are primarily two forms of spiritual direction: retreat direction and regular direction. They differ largely in the frequency of meeting and in the intensity of reflection. If the directee is on a retreat (lasting a weekend, a week or even 40 days), he or she will generally meet with their director on a daily basis for one hour. During these daily meetings, exercises or new spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina are given to the directee as fodder to continue his or her spiritual growth. Regular direction involves a one to two hour meeting every four to eight weeks, and thus is slightly less intense than retreat direction, although spiritual exercises and disciplines are often given for the directee to attempt between meetings.
Within Christianity, spiritual direction has its roots in the Early Christianity. The gospels describe Jesus serving as a mentor to his disciples. Additionally, Acts of the Apostles Chapter 9 describes Ananias helping Paul of Tarsus to grow in his newfound experience of Christianity. Likewise, several of the Pauline epistles describe Paul mentoring both Timothy and Titus among others. Tradition tells that John the Evangelist tutored Polycarp, the second-century bishop of Smyrna.
John Cassian who lived in the fourth century provided some of the earliest recorded guidelines on the practice of spiritual direction. He introduced mentoring in the monasteries. Each novice was put under the care of an older monk. Benedict of Nursia integrated Cassian's guidelines into what is now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are guidelines for spiritual direction during a retreat.
In Judaism, the Hebrew term for spiritual director differs among traditional communities. The verb Hashpa'ah is common in some communities though not all; the spiritual director called a mashpi'a occurs in the Habad-Lubavitch community and also in the Jewish Renewal community. A mashgiakh ruchani is the equivalent role among mitnagedim (adherents of the mussar tradition). The purpose of hashpa'ah is to support the directee in her or his personal relationship with God, and to deepen that person's ability to find God's presence in ordinary life. Amongst Lubavitchers this draws on the literature and praxis of Hasidism as it is practiced according to Habad standards, and to Jewish mystical tradition generally. Spiritual mentorship is customary in the Hasidic world, but not necessarily in the same way.