Dawn Zurlinden found her voice - and her calling - teaching voice lessons. When she…
An Interview with Jeff Jackson, Spiritual Coach
Jeff Jackson’s work at The Ranch has brought his life full circle. He grew up on a cattle ranch in Texas, and has “come home” to the same peaceful setting at The Ranch. Riding horses and making music were cherished parts of his youth, and now he leads equestrian groups and music therapy sessions with his clients. Filled with doubt about religion at an early age, Jeff has found the answers to his deepest philosophical questions and helps others conduct their own personal investigations as a spiritual coach.
Storytelling Through Music
Growing up, music was always one of Jeff’s passions. A Texas native, he moved to Tennessee to pursue a music career. He became a staff writer/artist for a publishing company on music row and now incorporates creative songwriting into his group, “The Music in Me,” at The Ranch. Clients write and play songs and record their music on a CD that they can take home. Through music, clients are able to let down their guard and begin to explore their emotions in a new way.
“In the music business, I’d be put in a room with different writers I’d never met,” Jeff recalls. “What could’ve been an awkward situation turned into an instant connection through music. Before I knew it, I’d written a great song with a complete stranger.”
In recovery, clients make the same type of connection with the part of themselves that has been lost or invisible, says Jeff. They write their ideas down and record their song in first person, but then they listen to it as an outsider looking in and realize, “That’s me telling my story, and my story matters.”
Through the Eyes of a Horse
Equine therapy is another simple but powerful experience at The Ranch, according to Jeff. Using metaphor to draw comparisons between the way clients interact with the horse and the way they interact with themselves and others, clients gain helpful insights into their way of living.
“If you have a round pen, a horse and a person, you can do therapy – often without even knowing you’re doing therapy,” says Jeff. “Horses don’t lie or play mind games. They react to people the way nature tells them to, which can help clients see themselves more clearly.”
Working with horses also gives clients a chance to decompress between education and therapy sessions. On trail rides, they don’t have to chase skeletons or reveal secrets, Jeff says. They can just ride up the hills and look back over the beautiful scenery and the valley where they do their therapeutic work and gain a new perspective.
“As you walk across the ranch, you may see a therapist and client talking down by the river or a group in the round pen working with horses,” Jeff explains. “There’s something about being in nature that helps people lower their guard. Hearing the trees blowing or the horses eating grass, it’s a very different experience than sitting in a room with four walls.”
A Safe Place to Ask Life’s Biggest Questions
The Ranch’s natural setting is an ideal place to begin asking the big questions that drive so many people to escape with drugs, alcohol or other destructive behaviors. “Is there a god? Who is it? What do they want to do with me, if anything?” These are the three most universal questions presented to Jeff by clients at The Ranch.
In spiritual coaching sessions, Jeff provides a safe place for people to ask the tough questions. Rather than focusing on specific religious principles, Jeff believes Christianity is not about a religion but rather a relationship with God. Clients don’t have to agree with his perspective. After all, he doesn’t have, or pretend to have, all of the answers. Rather, he helps set their own personal path of inquiry in motion – a process that is enhanced by knowing there’s a person in their corner who will go into those dark places of questioning alongside them. After formal treatment ends, Jeff invites clients to keep in touch with updates and additional questions.
There is no particular religious or spiritual prerequisite to coaching sessions with Jeff. Sessions are strictly voluntary and give clients an opportunity to talk about their spiritual questions or core beliefs. Some clients already have strong religious beliefs, some are opposed to religion and others are confused about what they believe. Regardless of their belief system, many clients have found the spiritual coaching sessions thought-provoking and in some cases life-changing, so much so that Jeff has started small-group roundtable talks to accommodate the high level of interest.
“There are common questions most all human beings have pondered at some point in their lives,” Jeff says. “I grew up in church, but I had big questions as a teenager. Because of my own struggle to get answers, I have great compassion for our clients.”
Like many of his clients, Jeff was turned off by the self-righteousness and inauthenticity he observed in religion at an early age. While some of his fellow churchgoers honored God in their words, their deeds told another story. What he discovered is that it wasn’t church or religion, but human beings doing what they sometimes do. Instead of running from God and living for himself, he embarked on a lifelong journey in pursuit of truth.
“Eventually I learned to never judge a philosophy by the abuse of the philosophy, but to always go to the founder. People do things in the name of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean He would do it that way,” Jeff explains. “This realization led me to go outside my comfort zone and question what there was beyond what my church and denomination had to say.”
Jeff tells his clients, “Don’t cheat a choice just because of your beliefs from the past.” Those who have never believed in God – or who have never believed in themselves – find that those choices don’t have to define their futures.
“Treatment largely revolves around healing psychological wounds, but there are also philosophical underpinnings that often get overlooked and end up keeping people in the cycle of addiction,” Jeff says. “My goal is to help clients open up to investigating their own philosophies and decide, ‘Is this really working for me?'”
In investigating their deeply held beliefs, many clients come to think of themselves, their lives and their spiritual beliefs in a new way. Jeff calls these “a-ha” moments. For example, those who have been resistant to having a relationship with God may look at their background and realize that they are running from any type of authority figure. Perhaps they had one or more adults in their lives that hurt or disappointed them and they’re afraid God will turn out to be like everyone else. Jeff walks clients through this process of evaluation so they can decide if they want to continue holding onto those beliefs or start making changes.
Finding Answers Together
“When I tell people I’m a Christian, they assume I fit a certain stereotype,” Jeff says. “But when they get to know me, they realize I’ve really thought about my beliefs and have worked hard to find answers. I’m not a religious freak; I’m a regular guy sharing my story and letting my heart be known to the world.”
Because of his own belief system and his inherently skeptical nature, Jeff does not pressure his clients to adopt any particular way of thinking. He meets them where they’re at, with a unique blend of seriousness and humor, and asks them to consider, “Is spirituality right for me?”
“Speaking the truth in love can never be forced or coerced. It must come from a place of want to, not have to,” Jeff says. “Clients are welcome to disagree with me and, at the end of the day after all of the intense discussions, each client knows I care deeply about them.”
Most sessions start out on a lighthearted note. Jeff may ask, “How are you feeling” or “Where are you at with the Big G this week?”
“There’s a time to get serious, but this should also be a fun journey,” Jeff says. “I’m not just a person who works at a treatment facility. I’m one human being connecting with another human being, laughing a lot and crying a lot based on a real friendship that has been built. Getting to know the clients, not just the reason they’re at The Ranch but as human beings, is the real reward of my job.”
Many clients at The Ranch struggle with low self-worth because of the mistakes they’ve made in the past. They get stuck in the belief, “I’m a bad idea,” says Jeff. Whether or not they believe in God, he asks them to consider his perspective for a moment: “If God already knows all of my mistakes, the mere fact that I exist suggests that in spite of those mistakes, He believed I was a good idea to create.”
“The only person who can tell us the intention of a work of art is the creator,” Jeff continues. “If there is a God and He created us with a purpose, mistakes don’t mean we’re not worthwhile; they’re a sign we have some adjustments to make.”
At The Ranch, Jeff spends a lot of time helping clients find their voice by speaking their truth – and then realize that their voice matters.
“It is my belief that every person has been created by God with something special to offer, not just on an individual level but to the story of human history,” Jeff says. “This brings a different context to why each individual should have a voice – what they have to say is truly worth hearing.”
Reconnecting Head and Heart
Whether through spiritual coaching, equine therapy or music therapy, Jeff guides clients through an experiential process designed to help untangle their thinking and reconnect their heads and their hearts.
“What often happens is that clients disconnect and try to find something – anything – to fill the void. Their thinking keeps them stuck,” Jeff says. “But when their heads and hearts start working on the same team, the smile I see on their faces lets me know they’re on their way.”