By Petra Halbur
The reconciliation of sexuality and spiritually – body and soul – is a struggle for many people. Yet DeShannon Barnes-Bowens, a psychotherapist and an orisa priestess in the Yoruba/Ifa tradition, has found that these two facets of identity are not only compatible, but inherently linked. In her clinical work with survivors of sexual abuse, and through the organization she founded, ILERA Counseling & Education Services, Barnes-Bowens draws on psychotherapeutic and spiritual models of care to help people of all faith traditions bridge the sometimes painful gap between sexuality and spirituality.
For Barnes-Bowens, the orisas, or spirits, of the Yoruba/Ifa tradition are energies or aspects of a universal, loving God. Barnes-Bowens is initiated as a priestess of Osun, the orisa traditionally associated with femininity and sensuality, fertility and prosperity. “Osun is the love of the divine,” she explains. “Osun is the harmonizing factor in creation. Osun is fertility. Osun is sacred sexuality.” Whether in healing rituals or traditional counseling, Barnes-Bowens’ work is suffused with Osun energy.
Barnes-Bowens was raised in the Baptist faith and still considers herself a “woman of Baptist roots,” but she has been a Yoruba/Ifa practitioner for the past thirteen years, and a priestess for the past nine. In addition to this grounding in the Yoruba/Ifa tradition, she was ordained in 2010 as an Interfaith-Interspiritual Minister through the One Spirit Learning Alliance. Barnes-Bowens’ personal spirituality supports and informs her work as a therapist. In fact, she describes her seminary education as a “more profound” experience that better prepared her to work as a psychotherapist than her traditional, secular degree in counseling.
Barnes-Bowens acknowledges that many therapists are reluctant to broach the topic of religion, largely because “that’s the way [they’re] trained . . . it’s drilled into [them] to keep those things separate.” She admits that this distinction between psychotherapy and spirituality is there for good reason, as many people feel abused or ostracized by their faith traditions and seek a refuge from those experiences in therapy. She recalls, for example, organizing a series of group counseling sessions to be held at a church, and having potential participants refuse to attend simply because of the congregational setting. “Religion gets a bad rap,” she says, “and sometimes it deserves it.”
Nonetheless, a purely secular model of psychotherapy overlooks the needs of many clients. So Barnes-Bowens encourages people to broaden their perception of what organized religion or spirituality can bring to their lives. “I ask people, ‘What is the truth and what is the lie to you?’ Not what a book says, not what your tradition says, but what is true for you? What lights you up? What makes you expand? What makes you more loving about yourself?”
To continue the conversation with DeShannon Barnes-Bowens, please join us on June 17th at the Social Work and Religious Diversity conference. Click here for information and registration.