What I do is simple to state but not as simple to achieve:
- I focus on buried and distorted emotions. They can result in depression, anxiety, constriction and illness.
- I focus on belief systems that are deeply imbedded and toxic, such as: I am undeserving — I can never achieve or be happy – I will never find love — and many others.
- I always stay alert for medical illnesses that disguise themselves as psychological.
- I do not deal with drug treatments. If they seem necessary, I refer people to specialists in the field.
- If I am successful, suffering is lessened or eliminated. Even more joyous is when buried personal gifts emerge and begin to flower.
The title of this article might much better be written as ‘What I think I Do’. No therapist really knows what they do. They can only speak of what they think they do. I first began to realise this when I was a resident in psychiatry at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. Dr. Otto Fleischmann, head of the psychoanalytic institute was doing psychoanalytic psychotherapy behind a one-way vision screen, in full view of all the students. One day his patient brought a dream to him. Suddenly Otto sat up, alert, leaned toward the patient, and started writing furiously every word that she said. From then on anew pattern emerged; she brought a dream to every therapy session. We told Dr.Fleischmann that he had by his behaviour instructed her to bring him dreams. He believed that it was simply a natural result of the process of psychotherapy.
For several years, when I had difficulty with a patient I would send them to Dr. Alexander Lowen, one of the founders of bioenergics (a body and psychoanalytic psychotherapy). Al would do a consultation and report back to me. He gave me all kinds of analytic, bioenergetic and body information about the patient, none of which was the least bit helpful. So I started instead to go with my patient and watch the consultation. The information I needed was there before my eyes. Al would very often respond to something about the patient differently than I would have. It might be something in the patient’s attitude. It might be something that the patient said. Al responded so automatically and intuitively that he in no way thought of reporting this to me. But I knew I would respond differently and less effectively.
I was teaching at Yale when I started to be able to see auras. A patient came in with the clearest fear aura that I’d ever seen. He acted completely confident and self possessed – and so I said to him, ‘You’ve been terrified all your life, and you’ve never been able to share that with anyone’. The patient was stunned, couldn’t speak another word. In fact, the interview had to be ended after about five or six minutes. It was all he could tolerate. Auras were not acceptable at Yale, so when the students asked me how I knew so much about the patient, so much that had not been revealed in all their clinical interviews, I couldn’t tell them. (I don’t remember what I told them.)
I believe that a person’s theoretical orientation, their techniques, though important, are not crucial. Who a therapist is, is much more important than anything he knows or anything he does. In all theoretical approaches to therapy there are therapists who are incredibly effective, and there are therapists who are ineffective. All have the same theoretical orientation. All know the same techniques. It is much more important that you know what your therapist is like, how he functions as a human being in this world, than what his theoretical orientation is.
We can look at people whom we call patient or client as if there were a series of layers of being around them. The outer layer would be the layer of their symptoms. The next layer might be called the layer of the experiences and beliefs that lie behind the symptoms. A deeper layer is a layer of ‘character’, character being defined as the attitudes and beliefs about the nature of reality, about the nature of mankind, and the adaptive attitudes, the survival attitudes, that naturally grow from these beliefs – attitudes and beliefs that may be accurate and useful, or extremely dysfunctional. I look for the ‘Prime Directives’, the powerful early teachings, direct and indirect, that strongly influence our beliefs that evolve into character.
A still deeper layer I call the layer of the person. Here we find the emotions, which are so central, important and often difficult parts of our existence. Here we find self-esteem. Here we find the eternal, often unfulfilled, longing child. Below this layer is something that has many names – the transpersonal, the layer of the vital force, the layer of quantum intelligence.
When I see a patient, I try to evaluate at which layer they are willing and able to work with me. If it is at the layer of the symptoms, very simple and supportive psychotherapy, simple listening, will very often produce useful results. Of course, operating at the other layers requires a very different approach. It’s important to be aware when a patient shifts the level at which they are operating. This can happen suddenly, sometimes dramatically. It’s important to be able to follow them as they move from one level to another.
At the personal / transpersonal interface unusual things start to happen. People move into altered states of consciousness. They may sense that they are more than their thoughts. They may sense and experience that they exist in an energy field within their bodies. They may begin to see auras. They may have sensations of tingling and streaming moving down their bodies, especially toward their feet. At this level of experience and learning I believe learning can be more rapid and profound.
I believe that the excessive use of intellect is the death of personal learning, growth and transformation. I will do anything in my power to move people to a level of learning and experience beyond the level of constricting intellect. There are many ways that I do this. I almost never make an interpretation. I will formulate the information that I believe the patient needs to hear as a sentence, hopefully a poetically effective and brief sentence, and ask them to say it to me, using my name and making contact with my eyes. The effect of this is totally different from receiving an interpretation. An interpretation is received through the ears and gets filtered through the intellect, and even if agreed to, doesn’t touch the core of the person. When a sentence is said and comes through the patients own vocal cords, their voice being heard in their ears, a whole different dynamic is established, which does often reach to the core. Then strange things start to happen. People can feel in their bodies the truth of their own statement. People feel it as emotions, as shaking, sweating, or tingling in their extremities, or hot or cold body sensations.
I take this approach because therapy from my perspective is mostly, not exclusively experiential learning, not intellectual learning. Perhaps it is the child in us, relearning. The intellect primarily is the servant of the status quo. I will use any technique of re-education that permits the person I am working with bypass the intellect, to let down excessive, constricting controls. This is necessary for healthful re-education and healing.
I believe that everything I need to know the person in front of me called patient also knows, but because of much negative conditioning, finds it difficult to become aware of. So they let me know in some roundabout way. All I’m doing, very often, is creating their awareness of what they have indirectly passed on to me. Words must be listened to. But words are very often empty, misleading, deceptive, self-limiting and the product of the intellect, that I have already stated is attempting to maintain the status quo. It is my belief that we are all afraid of mental health, of the considerable potential that exists in each of us. Fear finds its servant in control, in the intellect, so that we will settle for an unpleasant status quo rather than move toward a fulfilled way of being in this world. One of my favourite philosophers has said that the world is a hospital, and we are all patients in that hospital. Even when we wear the hat of doctor or therapist, we are all patients in that hospital. Everything I’ve said is also true for me.
I look at every person who comes to me for help, for assistance in growth and evolution. I look at each of them as if they had a golden centre, golden place where the homunculus, the little person inside, is absolutely healthy, functioning, completely normal human being with a bit of the divine enfolded in their being. I hold that vision no matter what my patient does. They will not want me to stay there. It will make them uncomfortable. But just as Michelangelo saw the completed sculpture in the block of stone and simply had to remove the excess, as you look at the golden centre which is present in every individual, no matter how buried in how many layers of protection and pathology and trauma, the dross, the part of all of us that we call neurosis, that part of us that contains our unnecessary suffering, will stand out in great highlight.