The experience of being in therapy leads to the awareness that there is more to us human beings than we might think. This first recognition of one’s complex dimensionality can be inspired by a therapist providing a verbal snap shot of how she sees you. This image may take you by surprise or it may be something you already suspect. Once this image is offered, the therapy process has begun. Whether you agree or disagree with this reflection of yourself is not important. What is important is that the therapeutic dialogue has started. Your therapist is doing her best to see beneath the surface of what you are talking about so that she can create an opening in your habitual perception of who you are. Whether this moment contains a startling revelation, or a positive reflection of something the therapist has begun to recognize in you, this opening interaction can communicate a number of important things. First and foremost among them is that your therapist is going to say openly what she sees and feels, both about herself, and about her perceptions and feelings in relation to you, the client. This event is intentional in its communication that both therapist and client have the right to become aware of what they are feeling, thinking, and intuiting, and to express those perceptions as clearly as possible.
This trial and error interaction can open the door to honest dialogue between client and therapist. As your therapist she is going to describe what she is seeing and sensing about you, as a way of creating a reflection for you to look at and consider. If her reflection is accurate, an immediate sense of rapport is often the result. We humans often like being seen for who we are, so there is validation for us in this experience. The reciprocal process of revelation and understanding, where the client is self-disclosing and the therapist understands, begins to create a bond between the two that gradually affirms that the therapeutic relationship is safe, nurturing and meaningful. This development creates a context within which the client’s deeper self can begin to open. With this opening in process, we can find ourselves on the path that leads to our inner world, the realms of the subconscious and unconscious minds. When my first therapist, Mark Skinner, offered an image of me holding a statue of my mother aloft and adoring it, his image was so right on that it surprised me into a moment of openness and vulnerability. Because I was defended against both of these feelings at that time, I could not sustain either of them for very long, but I felt the opening nonetheless.
It was as if my therapist had managed to slip behind enemy lines to deliver a message to me. My “enemies” were my denial of the depth of my losses, and my need to stay strongly on top of my underlying grief and vulnerability. A client’s unintentional defensiveness is noticed with some frequency at the beginning of the therapeutic process. Having a clear sense of some aspect of the client’s experience that is important to their healing, and with a bit of luck on her side, the therapist may touch on something that is held in the client’s unconscious mind. This information is “classified” so to speak. It is being kept from the client’s conscious mind for a variety of reasons by protective parts of the psyche. If the therapist gets close to something important that is outside of the client’s conscious awareness, the client’s doors of perception may open temporarily. Without the support of the therapist, and without some teaching about how the subconscious and unconscious minds operate, the client’s defense system will quickly close the opening. Even with a good deal of support and information, if this is the client’s first experience with psychotherapy, it is likely that the opening will only be temporary.
So to an important degree, it is the therapist’s responsibility to keep the passage to the deeper self as open as possible in the beginning stages of therapy. If the therapist simply goes along with what the client is presenting without some guidance, there is a strong likelihood that the process will stay on the ground floor of the client’s consciousness for longer than necessary. The great short term therapist Paul Watzlawick, who died is 2007, talked about first and second order change. He emphasized the necessity that exists to get to the second level of the change process in order for any lasting change to happen. “He believed that people unintentionally created their own suffering in the very act of trying to fix their emotional problems.” (Wikipedia article: Paul Watzlawick) Here he was referring to the reality that the obvious quick fix might work for a while, but the change would not last. He saw the client’s existing problem as a solution to some other important conflict or difficulty. Mel Brook’s line in the 2000 Year Old Man sketch with Carl Reiner is a great example of this. Carl Reiner comes to interview Dr. Haldanish (Brooks) about his latest techniques for helping people. He asks if the doctor has cured anyone, and after admitting he is not a Dr. but a Dcr., pronounced “docker”, he says, “Yes, two people. One of them, Bernice, sat around all day in her apartment tearing paper.” “How did you cure her,” asks Reiner. “I told her, ‘stop doing that,’ says Brooks, and then I moved in with her so I could keep telling her to stop tearing paper.” This is a wonderfully comical way of illustrating that basic advice to do or not do something is seldom sufficient for getting real healing to take place.
(Copyright, Toby Landesman 2014)
So how do we help open the client’s “Inner World” in psychotherapy? I believe there are three essential elements that facilitate this opening that therapists must help the client to learn: the development of emotional intelligence and experiential self-acceptance, and then learning to become adept at going into states of passive receptivity, i.e. developing the ability to work in altered states of consciousness. The most important thing for the client in psychotherapy to understand is that all three of these elements can be learned. Our emotional intelligence will grow by leaps and bounds if we develop our capacity for identifying and experiencing our emotions. To become emotionally intelligent we must be willing to get in touch with our inner world. If we are not willing to do this, then we will have to rely on Dcr. Haldanish telling us what to do about our problems. But if we are willing, the practice of “going inside” to experience whatever we feel at the level of sensation and emotion will bear much fruit. Anyone who is a serious meditator will tell you that there is no substitute for meditating on a regular basis. So, if you are willing to practice getting in touch with your inner self on a regular basis, your emotional intelligence will grow exponentially!
Learning to be self-accepting is also a matter of practice. Self-acceptance, as taught by my mentor, Richard C. Olney, entails that we allow ourselves to experience whatever we are experiencing, without judgment, without criticism, without evaluation, without comparison, and without expectation. Since we learn to run our experiences through all of those filters in childhood, learning to be self-accepting is a real challenge. I can assure you however, as a formerly very judgmental and critical person, that self-acceptance can be learned. I have written extensively about this process in a much earlier installment of Tools of Transformation. Please refer to it for a full discussion of the process of learning to practice this liberating process. For our purposes here, I will simply re-iterate that in order to practice self-acceptance, we need to learn to get in touch with our internal world. This process of being-in-touch embraces our sensations and emotions, our inner visions, our inner voices, and the spontaneous thoughts and impulses of our free associations. If we can suspend self-judgment, even temporarily, and be with ourselves in the flow of the present moment, our inner world will open to us more and more. Here the beautiful words of Jesus of Nazareth seem applicable, “Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened to you.”(Matthew 7:7)
This brings us to the third element in the process of opening our doors of perception, the resource of passive receptivity. Regular meditators, yogis, artists, musicians, actors, daydreamers, mystics, and to some degree athletes have more facility than most of us in this realm. Most of us grow up learning how to use our ability to reason, which is an active resource that we can use to figure things out. Reasoning is a very important skill in our educational development, and once we have chosen our vocation, it is invaluable to learning procedures, analyzing formulas, and patterns, and problem solving. Unfortunately, reason, all by itself, is insufficient for working out the conundrums we create, when we are trying to avoid pain and suffering in our relational and emotional lives. Dr. Milton H. Erickson, a major innovator in the areas of modern hypnotherapy and strategic therapy, would repeat over and over to his clients, “Your conscious mind is very intelligent, but it gets in the way of your unconscious processes.” This was his way of saying that there are problems and difficulties in life that we will not be able to think our way out of. We must instead feel our way through them by utilizing passive receptivity. Erickson taught that doing so gives us access to the profound intelligence of the unconscious mind.
Dr. Erickson believed that we have an inner guidance system known as the “creative unconscious mind.” He taught that we could gain access to this highly intelligent resource, but that we could not arrive there by an act of will. He utilized the process that he created, indirect hypnosis, as the pathway to the creative unconscious mind. I have used his methods with some of my clients over my years of practice and the results are often excellent. However, since some people are afraid of hypnosis, it’s good to know the alternative pathways to healing that are available as well that give us access to the creative unconscious. One of these pathways is known as “Inner Source” work. You will find an article on this powerful method of discovery in another chapter of Tools of Transformation written by me in 2011. Since this article gives you more information than you need to begin to use the process, here are the essential ingredients for activating your inner guidance system.
- Lie down on a yoga mat or sit down in a comfortable chair that will provide neck support.
- If you know what your objectives are, state your intention for this session, i.e. the issue you are focused on and what you would like to accomplish. However, you do not need an intention other than to turn your healing process over to the inner guidance of the creative unconscious.
- Bring your attention to your breathing and begin to take long slow breaths, emphasizing the exhalation more than the inhalation.
- After a few breaths do three eye-roll breaths, rolling your eyes up into your head on the inhale, and relaxing them on the exhale.
- Allow yourself to relax in a receptive meditative state in which you are present to and accepting to your experience. You can do this with your eyes closed while you pay attention to your body’s feeling sensations and your internal visual and auditory experiences.
- In other words, pay attention to what you feel, hear, and see inside with your internal senses. Pay attention also to your free associative thoughts and impulses, the ones that just pop into your awareness.
- Don’t try to create anything or to act on whatever is coming up for you. Instead tell your therapist whatever you become aware of. Say this straightforwardly. At this point, do not interpret your experience.
- Be prepared to be surprised. This process is like waking dreaming or day dreaming in many ways. If you are able to let go of the impulse to consciously control your experience, you are likely to experience much more than you might anticipate.
Make a copy of the above bullet points to give to your therapist if she is not familiar with this method. Her presence and attention are all that is required. I find it helpful to say out loud what my clients tell me about their experience. This provides a feedback loop for them that tends to anchor their process in reality and to connect it more clearly to their work.
So these are the three essential ingredients to opening the inner world of the therapeutic healing process, emotional intelligence, experiential self-acceptance, and passive receptivity to your internal sensory experience. As I stated above, using them effectively will take some practice, but the effort will be well worth the outcome. If you have trouble going into a passive receptive state, you will find a link below to Susan Jennifer Grace’s formulas for Autogenic Training, which use self- suggestion to progressively relax the entire body.
(For an elegant and informative guide to a step by step approach to deep relaxation using Autogenic Training, click here.)
You will be able to move easily from this relaxed state to being open to and in touch with your internal guidance system, the Inner Source.
The value that these three resources bring to the healing process is inestimable. Learning to use them closely resembles the process of building muscle mass. The more you exercise each resource, the more they will gain strength and effectiveness for you. Your therapist will have her own suggestions about how to develop these resources, and she may have alternative ways of navigating our unconscious processes. I have not mentioned all the avenues here. Working with one’s dreams, for example, is another important way of exploring our unconscious processes. Nor have I discussed some of the wonderful trauma reduction techniques that utilize ways of communicating directly with the body and the psyche. EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a method of alternating bi-lateral stimulation discovered and developed by Francine Shapiro, PhD., and EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique developed by Gary Craig and other EFT practitioners fall into this category. I will write about those methods soon in another article.
Next month I will continue this series on the healing power of psychotherapy. I will explore some of the developments you can expect as you become a veteran of assisted self exploration and healing. Great thanks to my frequent collaborator, Toby Landesman for her exquisite photographs, and to my many teachers, many of whom have moved on to the Happy Healing Ground. They continue to inspire, motivate, and strengthen me in my practice and in my evolving healing discoveries. You can find Toby’s work on the web.
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY THOMAS GOFORTH
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.