The search for the Self was a journey that had been consistent from childhood. It was this journey that had brought me to the porch of psychology. I hoped that through a study of human nature, I might come closer to understanding myself and others in a more compassionate manner. Two university degrees later, I continued to stumble over the manner in which I was relating to myself and others around me. I had attempted to put my experiences under different paradigms- cognitive behaviourist, post modernist ... Even surrealist.
During the course of my study in university, the development of the self was often emphasized in textbooks and weekly activities. It was awarded 3 credits per semester. However, much of this insight into the self was related to my professional identity. This was fleeting in nature and often times incomplete. There appeared to be a need for a deeper and wider exploration of my(S)elf.
Under academic regime, spiritual experiences were mostly pushed to the periphery. Caught up in the more fashionable social constructionist theories, I was apprehensive about bringing in my spiritual nature into a discipline which did not encourage it at large. I dealt more with how the environment and my past were shaping my Self. Though this was revealing to an extent, I remained largely dissatisfied. The answers I derived did not appear to encompass my entire experience, much of which was distrusted by me. I remained at the level of the constructed self and wondered why my ego continued to struggle with the pain if it had insight about why the pain existed.
This had its implications in the therapeutic setting- often unable to deal with the intensity of emotions that I experienced in a therapeutic space, I was left to question the pain and suffering that I saw and the reason behind it all. I could not make meaning of the vicious cycle of suffering and felt incapable of exploring this with another being. To deal with these challenges, I had decided to not enter the work field immediately but to take some time to answer questions I had long grappled with but had failed to come up with acceptable answers. In this 'gap', I had joined the summer school.
To choose to study a summer programme in Indian psychology was primarily an academic endeavour- an intellectual experiment. Having been through 5 years of studying psychology which was predominantly Eurocentric in nature, I was looking for a perspective that might match my own lived experience. I saw it as another 'paradigm' that I could add. However, through the course the primary purpose shifted dimensions- to my own personal Self.
When asked to come up with a project, I immediately chose one that did not have anything to do with myself but with others around me. As a part of my project I had decided to visit the school I was planning on volunteering in. I wished to understand how teachers dealt with the experiences of children in the classroom. The head of the school gave me a background of the children and the challenges they came in with. As I was listening to him, I could feel a growing sense of deep dread crawling underneath my skin- he spoke of the disparities in society, the helplessness the teachers experienced when they encountered the poverty and abuse the children faced and the like. These were issues that I still had to answer for myself and the reason why I had not entered a mainstream job.
While struggling with these issues and unable to think of a way to comprehend them, Ms Neeltje Huppes intuitively suggested that I work with myself to address the challenges the teachers were facing as I would be entering the same situation. On hearing this, I was struck by the inescapable truth- I had to consciously discover this Self and see this as the pivot of my personal and professional bearings.
Aim: To gain insight into the challenges that I faced as a counsellor.
Method: Exercises on self growth in the book Psychic education (Huppes, 2001); Meditative practices.
When I picked up the book psychic education, I answered a few questions to initiate the process of self observation, before I started on my journey of disciplined self discovery. Though the answers lay within me, it was through a process of concentrated will and practice that the reflections below were elaborated over the days. They served as a blueprint to come back to and contemplate upon.
Questions to begin the process of self observation.
- When, where or from whom do I find the maximum guidance in my life? the voice within
- A moment or situation of great learning in my life was… Watching a flower fall from a copper pod tree.
- A most valuable moment in my life was… being around my family.
- The feeling associated with that moment is… love.
- What brings me closer to my inner nature? Spending time amidst nature and writing.
- The best present I give myself is… life.
- Something I would like to develop in myself is… courage.
- What is it in me that wants a deeper consciousness? The inner voice that tells me, 'there is more'.
The purpose of the exploration of the self was to enhance my awareness as a human being engaging in the process of self discovery with another. Engaging in the process of self discovery remains to be one of the most important and arguably the most important perquisite for a therapist (Cortright, 1997). The nature of self discovery is to be highlighted here- it is the spiritual journey that a therapist engages in, in order to understand the individual who has come seeking help. When a therapist aspires to reach one's consciousness, they are more likely to be open and understanding of another who is doing the same. In the profession of healing others, it becomes equally important to heal oneself. Reaching out, requires one to reach in and realize the divinity that the human being emerges from.
To realize this inner self and open oneself to the promised bliss of existence, self observation was one of the first steps recommended (Huppes, 2001). In order to do this, I decided to go through the events of the day, every night, and observe them. Reading about self observation as well as attending sessions on witness consciousness informed me on the essence of this way of existing. Hence, it became an experiment which I tried to practice throughout the day- while interacting with people, reading, walking, petting a cat and the like. While observing these, I found that every action had a thought or feeling attached to it. Initially, I categorized them into 'positive, negative, neutral'. However, this was not the intention of self observation. While this attitude helped me recognize my preferences, areas of conflict, fears and anxieties, I remained judgmental about them. I was actively engaging on the surface level constructions of the world around me. To get out of this mould, I let the thoughts come and go as they wished, watching them as I had watched the streets from my balcony. Self observation was leading to greater awareness of the shift in emotions and an increase in body awareness. It was also helping me keep track of the pace of my thoughts.
The one incident that helped me experience the peace and calmness that comes as a consequence of self observation was through an argument I had. In the middle of an argument I was having with a friend, I excused myself for a while and closed my eyes, trying to control the pace of breathing which had become rapid. As the thoughts came, I felt my emotions surge. Not only was I thinking about the present, but I brought back past arguments as well as prophesized future catastrophes. I started to observe the thoughts in a detached manner. As my breath became shallow, I could feel the thoughts and emotions fade away and a sense of pervasive wellness flood in. After this, I was able to look at the situation with more clarity. More importantly, I saw that the person who I was arguing with was also struggling with the same emotions and thoughts. This helped me empathize and treat him with equanimity and compassion. My interactions were more transparent and stemmed from a deeper understanding of oneness between the two of us. Working from this attitude, we were able to work through our differences and found the entire situation to have enriched us in a manner we had not experienced before.
Consciously attending to this situation helped me experience the often quoted statement of seeing the divinity and universality in every being. Bringing myself to experience the situation in the here and now, practicing self control as well as being aware of the dimensions of my existence(mental, vital and physical), helped me transcend the murkiness of the surface nature that I could get tied up in and attend to the humanity that lies within each one of us.
'…I stepped back and observed Anger. It blinked at me- 'why did you abandon me (anger)?'. It needed me to grow… I could see that I was frustrated how time bound our relationship was. I was anxious that we were losing time. But, now was not the time. I could not move time. It had its plan for me. I was to wait. It knew best. I relaxed and saw the being in front of me. I experienced love- a transparent fluid I could dive into'. (Excerpt from my journal)
The three core qualities of the therapy process were a part of this experience- empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard(Rogers, 1986) As mentioned earlier-to reach out, I had to reach in.
Strengthened by this experience, I was keen on exploring the practice of meditation and self observation on a more regular basis. In fact, it started to become a very enjoyable experiment. Though it started from isolated incidents that I would contemplate upon, living in the here and now became a way of being. While I started developing this way of being, there were several noticeable changes in the way I was sensing and perceiving the world. The changes which I observed over the days were:
- Ability to silence the mind easily.
- Clarity in thought while trying to understand new ideas and concepts.
- Slowing down of movements- doing and saying only what was necessary.
- A feeling of love and compassion that existed throughout the day.
- Heightened senses.
- A sense of peace and calmness despite facing situations which might have upset me earlier.
- Lucid dreams.
Moving through the book, I started on the exercise on Purification from the outer to the inner. I drew up a list of my strengths and weaknesses in the therapeutic setting. One of the challenges I had faced was that of getting emotionally attached to the children. This made termination very difficult for me- I would get anxious four sessions prior to the termination and felt great apprehension for the child's well being after they left. My aim was to only provide a safe space for them to explore themselves and to imbibe a sense of autonomy. While I believed this, I worried about their future once our sessions were terminated. These doubts not only affected me, but, transferred to the children as well.
While talking to my project guide about it, she indicated that I needed to explore my ego in relation to this as there might be some power dynamics at play. I had decided to meditate over this challenge in the following week to gain some insight. Following were some of the insights that I gained into this issue-
'…caught in the schema of an adult and a child, I assume that I am in the position to make things better; the person in front of me, cannot. However, this negates the being in front of me. I am negating the sameness that exists in us. We have the same amount of strength, love and compassion. A silent knowing connects us.'
Though my training had helped me develop the idea of seeing children as 'human beings' and not 'human becomings', I found that the attachment was related to my sense of being an adult which translated to a person who knew better than the child. From the experiences I had been having and through my meditative practices, I not only believed in the oneness that existed but I knew it. Reviewing my reports on my therapy sessions, I also found that the session where I had practiced silence and given the child the space to explore himself or herself, saw greater movement than the sessions where we were engaging in some technique, such as, debating irrational beliefs and the like. It was in these moments of silence where I felt most connected to the individual and trusted them to know what was best for them. It was in these moments that I felt most inspired and reflected a more positive attitude about the session.
While I was working from the outer to the inner, often there was movement from the inner being to the outer as well. Through the weeks, I felt the inner being taking over and guiding my movements, thoughts and emotions. After I meditated, certain conversations, events or actions struck a chord. Every moment became a moment to be experienced in its fullness and an opportunity to grow.
While I was being reintroduced to my deeper self, there were spaces in my mind that remained wary. I wondered if surrendering to this sense of peacefulness and allowing it to guide me was an escape; a loss of my previous self; denial of a harsher truth (for the truth was never meant to bring happiness, was it?). While meditating, I offered these doubts to my inner being, hoping that I would find some insight on it.
As the universe conspires for those who are asking questions, another event popped up to strengthen my conviction about the inner self. I was to attend an interview in an organization I was interested in but for a job profile that did not appeal to me. The morning of the interview, unsure of what to do, I went deep into myself and asked for guidance through the day. Knowing that the opportunity had come for a reason, I decided to attend the interview. Reflecting upon the events through the day, I do not think I would have answered the interview panel in the manner I did without having something stronger and higher guiding me. The interview eventually ended in the panel reprocessing my application for the profile that I was interested in.
Experiencing the sense of surrendering my Self to that greater force, knowing that I would be guided along the right way, no longer related to losing my sense of self. Rather, I felt my sense of self widen. There was openness to experience and a tolerance towards anxiety and ambiguity. Surrendering did not seem like an escape or a passive act, rather it required utmost courage and trust- it required my full participation in the process.
As described by The Mother, receptivity and aspiration are closely related. While opening oneself to the higher force, to do it in completion makes us more receptive to the answers we receive. Hence, while aspiring to reach higher realms of existence, it became equally important to be receptive to whatever came by and to not negate any experience. By staying in this frame of thought, the events that came by everyday did not appear to be coincidental. Rather they followed an intricate frame that led me to receive certain insights. By trusting that inner voice within me that came during times of quiet contemplation, I was able to carry the spirit through the day and receive the lessons that the universe wished to offer.
Often times, it has been said that when one goes deeper into oneself, one becomes reclusive, unwilling to interact with those around. My experience has been contrary to this belief. Prior to starting a concentrated journey into the inner self, I was aloof and shy around people. I feared getting attached to people and doubted my social abilities. However, as I turned inwards, my interests and energy towards the outer was more transparent and enjoyable. I was able to concentrate on what was being said and saw every person as another being who was on a similar journey. This sense of connectivity was energizing and made social interactions more enriching.
While the aim was to address the challenges that I faced as a therapist, I saw that the challenges I faced stemmed from a deeper sense of being that pervaded every other part of me. To address the origin of these weaknesses I needed strength. Fortunately, strength emerged from the same source as well. I started reading the reports I had written, detailing the sessions I had with my clients. I was able to reflect on the areas where I had sensed tension, anxiety and areas where I had sensed growth and hope- I found that many of anxieties came from past learning and anger which I had held onto- such as, having felt a sense of abandonment from my caregivers during my childhood, I felt the same sense of anxiety and helplessness when I had to close a session. However, reflecting on these consciously helped me look at the same issue from different angles. The weaknesses appeared to be illuminated experiences which I could grow from.
To illustrate this experience, I found the eloquent words of Rumi apt.
An empty mirror
'An empty mirror and your worst destructive habits,
When they are held up to each other,
That's when the real making begins.
That's what art and crafting are.
A tailor needs a torn garment to practice his expertise.
The trunk of trees must be cut and cut again
So they can be used for fine carpentry.
Your doctor must have a broken leg to doctor.
Your defects are the way your glory gets manifested.
- Mevalana Rumi
Though the aim of the project was limited, I found that the insights I received were much wider. The personal and professional self were fluid. They were emerging from one being, and hence, could not be compartmentalised. The personal is the professional. For me, this is the most exciting part of my profession for I can work towards translating these insights into action.
Implications of insights on professional practice
When seeking a deeper understanding of my experiences, I turn towards Sufi literature and music(1). I have found many of my thoughts resonating in the verses by Sufi saints. Upon exploring the relevance of Sufi thought in psychology, I found that many of the key concepts in Sufism were applicable to the therapeutic setting. Consciousness in Sufism comes through a personal experience of unity with the divine. It is not an intellectual human inquiry but an inquiry that stems from the soul of the person devoted to find the truth.
How does this knowledge apply in therapy? Granick, a transpersonal psychologist examined the construct of Presence, which refers to the optimal state of awareness, being and relatedness in the therapist when he or she is in interaction with the client. He analyzed it to draw implications for the personal and professional development of a therapist (2010). I have used his themes to ground my experiences.
He drew four themes to examine this phenomenon-
Being: Being refers to the relationship that the therapist shares with oneself. This is intrapersonal in nature and reflects the level of congruency that a therapist might exhibit in therapy. It also includes the experiences the therapist has of his or her own spiritual journey and how this has affected their view of human nature and being.
In terms of translating this in therapy, the idea closely related to the being of the therapist is that of congruency or authenticity. In other words, it is closely related to the extent to which the therapist is able to work from the sense of unity that consciousness upholds. It reflects the therapist's ability to be in the 'here and now', and relate to the client as an authentic transparent individual. Thus, the spiritual experience of uniting with the Divine comes to the forefront. It is from this Being that the therapist works from.
Receiving: Receiving is more interpersonal in nature. It refers to the therapist's ability to perceive the client's state of being and the level of empathy which they can communicate to them. Empathy not only relates to the ability of the therapist to intellectually understand the client's experience- it is a practice that comes when a therapist adopts a more open, accepting and non judgmental attitude towards the client.
Experiencing that connectivity with every human being and realizing that they are facing similar struggles can help the therapist adopt this attitude. Thus, empathy does not become an intellectual exercise but is transformed into a living experience between the therapist and the client.
Influencing: influencing refers to the effect that a therapist's self is perceived as healing by the client. When working from the inner, the calm that a person radiates is often perceived as healing by those around him or her. Also, holding the belief that every person possesses the same consciousness which in essence is healing can help the distressed individual believe in his or her abilities to heal oneself.
Participating: It refers to the 'I thou' relationship that the therapist and client are ideally bound to experience in therapy. It is the experience of coming together as souls, with an aspiration to achieve a growth promoting experience. This transcends the subject-object schema and attempts to widen, deepen and heighten the experience of the two beings.
In order to understand how my learning would help me build on my skills as a therapist, I explored what the optimal characteristics of a helping professional were. Using the list of characteristics of effective helpers by Patterson and Welfel (2000), I tried to understand how my insights could help me hone my skills as a therapist.
Effective at reaching out: To reach out a therapist is required to actively listen to the content of the client. To do this, the therapist must be able to control his or her own anxieties and fears and communicate a healing and calming presence to the distressed individual. Here in, continued self observation can help me develop this attitude and remain in touch with that calm inner self. Working from this state, I might be able to provide a safe space for the client.
Inspire feelings of trust, credibility and confidence from people: To listen to the client from a non judgmental stance and empathize with their situation is critical in a therapeutic setting. The feeling of oneness that I experience from my inner self can be translated in therapy. To see the being as a person who is on a similar journey of transformation can help me empathize with their struggles.
Able to reach out and reach in: An effective helper is required to engage in one's own healing process and think about one's own actions, feelings, and values. While this is mentioned in theory, continuous and dedicated self work is required. The exercises in the book have helped me experience the effects of consistent self work and how it can be helpful to me as a counsellor.
Heal oneself to avoid burnout: Burnout has been one of the dangers among individuals working as helping professionals. To quote Cortwright, 'consciousness heals'(1997). To see oneself as an instrument through which a higher purpose can be translated, and to attempt to manifest that in everyday life does not appear as a challenge, but, as a worthy experiment. By trusting oneself to that higher will, one can see how everything is guided by a reason and understand the cosmic design. By aspiring to achieve this in therapy, I can observe overwhelming sensations about helplessness that I feel when faced by dire situations and reach into that inner self that heals.
An in-depth understanding of human behaviour: Human behaviour can be understood on various dimensions- spiritual, being one of them. To understand another's spiritual journey, traversing through one's own helps familiarize oneself to the dilemmas that one might face along the way as well as the ways in which one might address them. Also, to derive one's ontological understanding of human behaviour as stemming from a higher force is a life affirming view. It is empowering to the individual who can view distress as an opportunity to transcend and connect to their true blissful selves.
Having a view of a fully functioning person: My journey has led me to know that every being is dynamic, possessing an inner source of infinite joy. This inner source is the centre of healing. A fully functioning person is able to translate this inner joy into their worldly affairs. They are not fearful of the constructions that surround them, but, are able to see through the constructions and attempt to derive their essence. It is not that they do not feel pain or unhappiness, rather they see the aesthetic purpose of such an experience; becoming to be.
The process of committing myself to my inner transformation has certainly taken priority after this exercise. The lessons I learned were not new- it was knowledge that existed within me. The exercises helped me create an environment which elicited this knowledge. Engaging with myself, intimately, has helped me see my insecurities and pain in a different light. Using the inner self as the foundation, I was able to muster the courage to look outwards and examine it as truthfully as I could. The pain did not appear to bring me down; rather, I was grateful to have had experiences that brought me closer on the path to reach the eternal self.
Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Granick, J. (2010). Sufism and Psychology forum. Retrieved 2012 йил 20-June from International Association of Sufism:http://ias.org/departments/sufipsychology/spf-articles/presence-in-transpersonal-psychotherapy/
Huppes, N. (2001). Psychic Education. Pondicherry: All India Press.
Patterson, L., & Welfel, E. (2000). The Counseling Process (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Thomas Learning.
Rogers, C. (1986). Carl Rogers on the Development of the Person-Centered Approach. Person-Centered Review, 1(3), 257-259.
(1)Sufism or Tasawwuf is the set of mystical Islamic beliefs and practices in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through the direct, personal experience of God.