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Spirituality SIG: A Spiritual Invitation Just For You

February 1, 2020

As oncology social workers, we have much clinical experience affirming that health and well-being involve the total person. We have witnessed our clients being profoundly impacted physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually by a cancer diagnosis. We conduct bio-psychosocial spiritual assessments and know that spirituality is a resource many draw upon as they confront deep fears, struggle to find meaning and search for hope. Canda and Furman (2010) state it so well:

“We also know that many of the people we serve draw upon spirituality, by whatever names they call it, to help them thrive, to succeed at challenges, and to infuse the resources and relationships we assist them with to have meaning beyond mere survival. We all have different ways of understanding and drawing on spirituality. And in social work practice, all of these ways come together, knowingly or unknowingly” (p. 3).

I have made many AOSW presentations inviting us to address the spiritual needs of our clients. This article offers a different invitation to focus on our own spirituality. Dudley (2016) affirms, "Understanding and claiming our own spirituality can prepare us to help our clients discover, understand, and affirm their own spirituality“ (p. 26). Ultimately, attentiveness to our own spirituality builds awareness and clinical skills in attending to the spirituality of our clients. Thus, I extend two invitations to you to better understand and claim your spirituality to better serve your clients.

Invitation 1. A Week of Daily Questions to Ponder

I invite you to take one week in which you commit to ponder one question daily on your drive, commute or walk to or from work or at another time in the day that works best for you.

  1. How would you define your spirituality?
    Think about what you hold sacred. What gives you hope, guides your way of being in this world and connects you to something beyond yourself?
  1. How does spirituality, by whatever name you call it, impact your professional and personal lives?
    What do you believe your purpose is? Think about sources of peace, comfort, joy, satisfaction in your life. How and where do you find meaning? How do you think about, live life and decide what is important?
  1. What are key beliefs, values, ways of seeing the world that guide your life and the work you do?
    What is the “glue” that holds you to the work you do? Ponder how your beliefs led you to the work you do and help you be present to the daily problems, suffering and pain of others. How might spirituality impact your view of yourself and your clients as individuals of worth and value?
  1. What helps you when you are afraid or discouraged in your work?
    What comforts and encourages you most during the difficult times of being an oncology social worker? What does your belief system say about trials and hope? Who or what inspires or motivates you?
  1. How does the individual client you see in front of you impact your day?
    How do you open yourself to see your clients as mind, body and spirit? What has been a peak experience with a client in your oncology social work practice? How have you mattered to your clients?


Invitation 2. Incorporate a Spiritual Practice

I invite you to choose at least one practical tip from the  list below to infuse awareness of your own spirituality in your daily practice this week.

1. Mantras
Mantras are short phrases that we can repeat to ourselves to help us focus and provide centering, encouragement or motivation. Choose a mantra to use this week from the list below or design one of your own.

  • Awake! Awake!
    When you are feeling distracted or stuck in busyness and routine that distracts you from who you want to be or from your true work, use this mantra to draw you back to being present, attentive and open to where and with whom you find yourself.
  • I comfort when I am able.
    In the daily work of witnessing pain, suffering and barriers to meeting needs, reminding ourselves of our abiding capability to comfort in whatever way we can shifts our focus to what we can do even when there are real limitations and many things we cannot fix.
  • I am a present witness.
    We often minimize the power of our presence. I have an unknown author quote hanging in my office that reads, “This not my story, I am not in charge of writing the beginning nor the end. I am a witness to the story. And that may be enough.” Remind yourself of your value of being a witness to your clients.
  • I wonder.
    This mantra has utility in many settings. Perhaps you are encountering an angry person who appears closed to any opinions offered. Use “I wonder...” to prevent getting caught up in their emotions and reacting with defensiveness. “I wonder what is going on with this person that is causing this response or reaction?”

    We can also “I wonder” during a team decision-making process. “I wonder what ideas we might come up with if we imagined what our patients might advise us to do? A favorite “wondering” I often share with clients to help them think about their internal thought process is, “I wonder what would happen if you didn’t believe everything you  told yourself?” Wondering….what a powerful invitation to see things differently!
  • I honor and see my clients.
    Clients long to be truly seen for who they are, not just as their cancer diagnosis and symptoms. Our unique social work perspective of the dignity and worth of the individual provides a north star to guide our practice of honoring, respecting, esteeming and truly seeing each person. Any opportunity we have to acknowledge, speak or affirm that we honor and see clients centers us on our purpose.

2. Pause and Be Still
The quiet stillness of one moment—or even 30 seconds—to calm the inner and outer chatter of life can make a significant impact in you day. Try using a centering pause to empty a space inside yourself before your next client. Pause, saying to yourself, “I am now going to see and be present with Mary. I make a space for her.” Try using a 30 second pause throughout the day as you transition from one activity to another, complete a difficult conversation or “switch gears.” Just close your eyes and pause---just be still to notice and affirm what just happened or make space to transition to the next  activity. It is only 30 seconds! You can do it and it will make a difference.

3. Meditation
Meditations can help us focus our awareness, observe without judgment and get a new perspective as we move through our day. A favorite meditation of mine is to use the time spent walking from one destination to another to do a “Loving Kindness Meditation” in which one focuses on compassion and wishing others well ( Try walking through the hallways of your workplace looking at those you pass and intentionally in your mind’s eye wishing them wellness, safety, peace and joy. What an inner and outer difference you might make!

Another idea is to schedule a five-minute break to walk outdoors to try a walking meditation (

4. Gratitude Transitions
Gratitude has been shown to be good for our health and well-being. So, making a place for gratitude in your life can be an impactful spiritual practice. As you begin your day, consciously note three things you are grateful for….for your job and the amazingly resilient patients you get to meet, for health, for loved ones, for colleagues, for a good cup of coffee, for the beauty in nature  — the magnitude of gratitude is endless. At the end of the day as you transition home, reflect on the honor of being taught about life by your patients, the challenges you survived, the smiles or tears you witnessed, the small step forward on a project. Your spirit will benefit from the power of gratitude!

5. Rituals
Rituals bring us comfort, help us acknowledge that something important has occurred and celebrate meaningful moments. They can be big or small. Thank about how you might add ritual to your work life as a way of ordering, connecting and remembering the meaningful work you do. I once partnered with a colleague to share a meaningful quote with each other at the beginning of every week. We each kept these in a journal that became a living collection of thoughts we could return to again and again.  A ritual of journaling once per week about a significant experience, sending an “I appreciate you” email to a co-worker once a month or starting a ritual with your interdisciplinary team around honoring the work you do together are ideas to get you started.

I hope you will consider accepting these two invitations to further explore and engage your spirituality in service to your clients. May they add awareness, energy, connection and compassion to your oncology social work practice!


Canda, E., & Furman, L. (2010). Spiritual diversity in social work practice: The heart of helping (2n ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Dudley, J. (2016). Spirituality matters in social work: Connecting spirituality, religion, and practice. New York: Routledge.

About the Author

Debbie Mattison, LMSW, ACSW, OSW-C

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