guest post by Ben Ross
Recently I went for a walk with someone I’m supposed to be helping in my professional role as a psychotherapist working for a community mental health agency.
It was a hot day and for some reason I’d been feeling deeply drained the entire week, so drained it was difficult at times to think or remain standing up.
I didn’t want to be a therapist at that moment. I thought of times – parts of sessions – when I’d met with this person (a child) and held back on asking any question that felt remotely therapist-y. At a certain point during these sessions, I would feel guilty, afraid that maybe I wasn’t doing my job, that certainly something that felt like hanging out, joking around, being playful without a clear agenda and laughing couldn’t be deep therapeutic work.
This time I decided I would just see what happened (I could always put the role back on if it seemed called for). It helped that I was at my wit’s end with exhaustion, and in the midst of a seven-month-long run with no vacations, burned out and unsure of every therapeutic theory and technique under the sun.
Discovering a Field
The session started off as it had other times – with relaxed joking, a banter we’d developed over time – a blend of absurd imagination and a gentle, caring way of joshing with each other (otherwise known as teasing, but that word carries too many negative associations to feel true to this experience) that felt like it just flowed. We’d mix in thoughts on nature (because we were walking outside by trees, under a vast, open sky and acres of farm fields), and then go back into imagination and this playful joshing around.
At one point we found ourselves across from a field, maybe five acres big, that had been completely harvested, where we sometimes would go looking for leftover potatoes sticking out of the dirt. In the wide expanse of the dark, slightly moist earth, we could see the edges of potatoes breaching like the crests of waves far out in a windswept ocean.
“Oh my Jesus,” he said, “look at this.”
I laughed, knowing he loved picking up the leftover potatoes (a legal activity known as gleaning) and bringing them home for dinner.
We wandered around the field picking up these earthy suns, looking for the hugest ones we could find, when I realized that I was so thoroughly enjoying myself I had forgotten about time, or about being a therapist, or about strategies of any kind, and suddenly this fellow human (I’ll call him Jason, though that isn’t his real name) asked me, “Since you’re my therapist, what word describes me?”
I laughed, realizing how absurd the labels seemed in that moment of wandering huge fields, wondering at the world together, learning from each other’s imagination and simply taking joy in each other’s presence and way of being.
“The word is ‘client’,” I said, and laughed again.
Then Jason joked about how I had ruined his mental health forever with something especially absurd that I’d said earlier in the session (joshing with me, playing with limits maybe, or just playing) and we both laughed.
“Yeah, what a great therapist I am,” I said, and we laughed some more, and didn’t use these words or any kind of therapeutic jargon the rest of our time together, unless talking about feelings, imagination, strengths and interests somehow belongs to the realm of psychotherapy more than to simple humanity.
Relief in Forgetting
The truth is, for almost that entire hour, I had forgotten I was a therapist – or, more accurately, forgotten to fixate on concept rather than simply being in the complex flow of direct experience.
It would enter my mind at times, and I’d smile a little thinking of it, because the word “therapy” seemed so inadequate, when what was actually happening at that moment was a flow of connection that defied language, made of the energetic quality of being together, the “nonverbal” connection (to approach using therapeutic jargon) – the embodied bond of an authentic meeting between two living beings who actually enjoy, like and care about each other.
I think it’s possible that in the moment that Jason told the joke about me being a horrible therapist he was expressing a relief around doing away with that artificial, power-over role, escaping that professional seriousness with its focus on gathering information over relating, and being freed from the sense that I was attempting to direct the process of our time together through an imposition of will (even if this was very subtle, and pursued with all the best intentions of collaboration and client-centered therapy).
Rather than being our actual selves with real relating at the center and everything else in orbit around that.
Constellations of Sacred Relationship
It wasn’t that I stopped thinking about Jason’s world, or even about psychological theories during that hour. It’s that I had let myself not know what was ultimately true, had let go of my role as the expert, and had rooted in the simplicity of a flow of feeling, intuition, and play.
Somehow, in that open space, thoughts and theories were seen to flow from, constellate around, and express themselves at the edges of this essentially “sacred” encounter (in the root sense of the word, referring to something “set apart” from rigid categories or the mind’s focus on utility).
At the time it occurred to me that this experience might be what was referred to in the Tao Teh Ching as “doing without doing.”
I also think now of Martin Buber’s descriptions of what he termed the “I-Thou” relationship as an encounter free from the mind’s objectification of experience.
This is not an anti-intellectual stance, but a stand in simple admission of not really having an ultimate answer or framework, a recognition that the flow of beingness and deep immersion in presence has a wisdom beyond my best theories and pre-planned direction, and a sense of interbeing that is prior to and more heartfelt than anything I could engineer.
It feels important to mention that the flow that happened on the day I’m describing was probably greatly helped by the fact that Jason and I had worked together awhile, and gone through difficult moments where I had openly and carefully communicated to him that aspects of his thought and behavior were hard for me to connect with.
And this flow was probably helped by the times that we talked through his anger with me when our time for that day was ending, or times we worked through disagreements about where we would walk or what activity we would undertake that day (hammering out our best compromise), or times I had to set limits on behavior (such as beginning to chop down a neighbor’s flower garden).
And yet these interactions also seemed most effective when I communicated simply as a human being what I was feeling and thinking, rather than being focused on a theory in my mind that supposedly gave me special authority and expert knowledge.
The Art of Being Human
What I’m trying to convey is that I think what works best in therapy – like what seems to work best in life – is actually what flows the most effortlessly and naturally (though this effortless flow can be difficult to relax into and to trust). It’s the art of being human in a real, caring relationship with another human being. What’s amazing is how easily this experience of humanity (which I would say consists of genuineness, care, transparency, and a deep desire to both connect with and truly understand the other) gets lost in the pursuit of a special theory or expert position.
Ironically, I could cite theories to support this way of working (particularly the work of Jon G. Allen on mentalizing and attachment, and the vast scientific literature on attachment and the healing power of attuned relationship) but I don’t want to go further down that road other than to mention it. My point in mentioning it at all is to convey that I am not anti-science and don’t believe that what I’m presenting is an anti-scientific point of view.
And yet I do think this point of view is beyond science, and in that sense I would be only partially true to myself and my experience (and Jason’s teaching of me the other day) if I justified my actions with another theory.
What seems most deeply true to me is that in that presence of genuine not-knowing (which I couldn’t attempt to make into a deliberate strategy without obscuring its essence of realness) there is an experience that is inherently beyond mind, beyond words, and deeper than concept.
I think all of life, when seen directly, is actually like this: emergent from a mysterious center that defies definition, like the stars in a galaxy orbiting a supermassive black hole.
And in this place beyond definition the heart is somehow more free. And action is somehow more effective, words convey deeper meaning on more levels, and a bonding takes place that provides more healing than any set of answers or skills or goals (without denying the importance of any of these, as tools, like a map or a compass that help to make a journey possible, while the journey itself is what counts).
In other words, it seems to me that the deepest understanding and healing are made of the actual experience of belonging, the felt sense of not being alone, of being inseparable from others and from life.
And it seems to me that all the powerful and useful insights of therapy and healing relationship, as well as the deepening of compassion for self and others, emerge from this experience like the earthy suns of potatoes from the dark, real ground of true encounter.
In this place of encounter – in the actual present – there isn’t room for the idea of a “serious expert me” to take center stage, because play naturally takes over from seriousness, and the actual heart of laughter suddenly makes it all clear: we’re here, alive, isn’t it full of wonder, isn’t life deeply good, and aren’t we also just as deeply good, and lucky to be a part of it?
(Ben Ross 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
Ben Ross is a person who lives in Western Massachusetts, where he practices getting out of his own way so he can clearly hear people as the love they already are, share with them in the deep goodness of life in all its vulnerability and struggle, and be as outrageously sensitive and creative as life wants him to be. He graduated from Naropa University with a Master of Arts in Contemplative Psychotherapy and works as a therapist in community mental health. His blog can be found at: www.luminousearth.wordpress.com