Thursday, August 17, 2017
Some thoughts about therapy
I was recently asked to summarize my thoughts about therapy: why one would want to enter into therapy, what we do in therapy, and the nature of the therapeutic relationship, according to the way I have come to understand it. Of course there are many reasons to be in therapy, including the treatment of very difficult conditions such as clinical depression, anxiety disorder, suicidal ideation, PTSD, OCD, and so forth. But most of the questions I receive are more existential in nature, not related to a specific clinical diagnosis, but more to what the Buddha referred to in his first noble truth as the anguish or dissatisfaction we feel when we lose touch with the great mystery. Please keep this in mind as you read through my reflections, and seek professional help if you are struggling with one of these clinical diagnoses.
For each of us, there are times we feel there must be more to life: we feel stuck, lost, hopeless, restless, bored, confused, or that something is just "off." Perhaps we've gone through or are in the midst of a major life transition: a change of career, the ending of a relationship, the death of a friend or family member, a disturbing health diagnosis, or a profound loss of meaning or purpose.
Or maybe there is no catalyzing outer circumstance that we are aware of: we're just feeling exhausted, unclear, or unsure of what we're doing here and what is being asked of us. We sense the possibility of feeling more connected, more alive, and being more intimately engaged with ourselves, others, and what is possible. We have some vague intuition that there is a miracle taking place here and that we have some role to play, but we can't quite access it. We long to engage in the play of lover and beloved, to dance in the mysteries of inner and outer nature, to rest in the beauty of a sunrise, and to stand in awe at the wonder of life as we sense it raging inside and around us. Or, we are completely hopeless and do not sense this possibility; but still, here we are. And the longing and burning are at times our only companions.
We wonder if we are burdened by our past and if there is anything we can do about it. We hear about things like healing and spiritual awakening, and long to engage in these mysteries, but are unsure what they actually mean, and how they might be relevant in our busy modern lives of work, money, family, aging bodies, tired minds, weary hearts, and unending to-do lists. We are aware of a call deep within: an authentic desire for presence, purpose, meaning, and true intimacy, but somehow these experiences remain just out of reach.
In response to this inner call, for thousands of years curious and courageous women and men have sought counsel from shamans, priests, guides, lamas, yogis, healers, rabbis, dervishes, and their modern counterparts, psychotherapists and spiritually-attuned counselors and teachers. Because most of our early wounding arose in interpersonal contexts, many believe that it is best explored, unwound, and untangled within a relational matrix. The path of individuation (becoming who you truly are) is unique for each of us and it is often difficult to explore fully on our own. The terrain is shadowy, slippery, and at times hidden, and without a guide or fellow traveler, it is only natural to get lost, distracted, and side-tracked along the way.
Developmentally, each of us had to disconnect from certain aspects of ourselves in order to maintain the tie with our caregivers, to avoid the devastation of shame, and to fit into a world that was not able to hold the majestic, creative brilliance of a young, fiery heart. This neural groove of self-abandonment required us to split off from important dimensions of who and what we are, disavowing our native sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and the wild uniqueness of our true nature. As young children, we had no other choice than to sequester this material into the unconscious, doing whatever we could to fit in and align with the collective, often at the expense of our own individuality and creative, soul-based self-expression.
We took this step not because we were neurotic, pathological, "lost in our story," "caught in the ego," or because there was something essentially wrong with us, but in a way that was intelligent at the time - in fact massively creative - in order to ensure our own psychic (and sometimes physical) survival. We are wired to do what we must to receive whatever affection, attunement, and mirroring was possible, in order for our young brains, hearts, and nervous systems to grow. Coming to confront, hold, and integrate this split-off material as adults - often in very challenging ways in our relationships - is a critical dimension of the journey.
Each of us comes into adulthood with a particular narrative that is the lens through which we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. In part we inherit this narrative from our parents - and in part from the collective itself - creatively crafting it as a way to make sense of early empathic failure, lack of mirroring and attunement, insecure attachment, and developmental and situational trauma of all kinds. Together, in an ongoing relationship, with a skillful, attuned, empathic "good other," there is a unique opportunity to re-author, re-imagine, and rewire these pathways and begin to consciously participate in a life oriented in a wise mind and wide open heart.
Rather than organizing the therapeutic relationship around the elimination of your symptoms - or even orienting it in "solving your problems" (though relief and solutions can and do occur along the way) - we become more interested with your ongoing discovery of wholeness, with the unfolding of your unique journey of individuation, and the experiential discovery of a life of meaning and purpose. We work together within the relational field to transform and re-organize the ways you have come to see yourself and the world that may no longer be serving the deepest longing within you, and discover together a sacred dimension of reality that is always, already here, not dependent upon you first resolving all your symptoms, transcending your vulnerability, eliminating difficult feelings, clearing up your past, perfecting yourself, transforming all of your neurosis, or "completing" some mythical spiritual journey.
Instead, you are invited to discover the vast space around your emotional world and life circumstances, and the experiential realization that the freedom you are longing for is actually here now. You need not leave yourself, apologize for what you are, go on some self-transformation project, or abandon yourself any longer. Buried within your neurosis is immense wisdom; a rich, abundant, open field in which the raw materials of the sacred world are already present and awaiting discovery. This space is not separate from who you are and is overflowing with qualities of love, compassion, luminosity, and presence. In other words, even your "problems" cease to be "problematic" any longer, but instead become allies on the path and portals into a new life.
Buried inside your difficult emotions, limiting self-narratives, disturbing bodily sensations, feelings of existential anxiety and depression, and even within a sense of meaningless and purposelessness, there is intelligence, wisdom, and creativity; a non-ordinary gold hidden within the darkness. These symptoms and disturbing energetic movements are psyche's attempt to reach you, to remind you of something you may have forgotten, and to invite you to recommit to what is most important. Not what you thought was important or were told was important - you are no longer able or willing to live someone else's life - but by way of a direct, fiery, and compassionate confrontation with the life that is moving within you.
We all lose touch with the wholeness of our true nature along the way, especially in the busyness of our inner and outer lives, in the maintaining an array of spiritual and other identities, and in the unending and exhausting lifelong project of self-improvement. Together, in the safety of an attuned, resonant field, we can come to (re)discover and explore the guidance that is appearing (albeit often in disguised forms), erupting inside and around you, and how you might receive and most skillfully respond to the signs, symbols, and messages that are longing to reach you. No matter where you are, you can start now, in the safety and magic of the present. Even though at times you may give up on love, please know that love will never give up on you. It will search for your into eternity, spinning and shapeshifting unending forms in order to reach you and seed you with its qualities.
Engaging on the path of the heart, healing, and awakening with another human being as a fellow traveler and guide can be immensely helpful, as we all have unconscious organizing principles, self-narratives, and unmetabolized somatic and emotional wounding that may be standing in the way of our living a life of natural freedom, intimacy, sacredness, and aliveness. Research over the last few decades has consistently suggested that it is the relationship between client and therapist (or student and teacher) that is more impactful than any particular theory or technique.
In others words, it is not technique that heals, but relationship; more precisely, a specific type of relationship organized around spaciousness, presence, and empathic attunement. When all is said and done, in my experience, it is love that heals. But just what this "love" is we must discover for ourselves. Of course as therapists we all have a toolbox of techniques we can turn to, but in the end love is the ultimate medicine. As Freud once said to Jung, “… psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love.” When all was said and done, even the old man knew.
In good therapy, we enter into a crucible together that in many ways is beyond time and space. Together we bear witness to the wild reality that you are not a project to be solved or a broken person who needs to be healed in any conventional sense. You are a mystery to be lived, a pure form of the absolute as it erupts into the relative, seeding this place with your wildness, your heart, your brain, your body, your creative uniqueness, your raging sensitivity and vulnerability, an unprecedented assembling of color, texture, of dark, and of light. It is the honoring of this eruption that will serve as the foundation for the therapeutic container and journey.
My new book – The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You – is now available