The practice of psychotherapy began in the middle of the 19th century. The human situation at the core of psychotherapy, however, is as old as human beings are. For as long as the historical record allows us to see, we – human beings – have experienced suffering, and we have met other human beings to understand and heal from our suffering.
2500 years ago, in India, there were places away from the cities where small groups congregated to inquire into what life means, into why we suffer, and how we may find joy. The Upanishads are a record of these dialogues.
A few centuries later, in North Africa and the Middle East, men and women left the cities to live in the desert, in small caves and huts. Often, people would travel long distances to visit these persons, called the desert fathers and desert mothers, to talk to them of their sorrows and their inspirations. A few conversations with the desert dwellers could deeply affect the lives of these travellers, bringing to them inspiration and healing.
Today, when a person visits a psychotherapist, the encounter that takes place between them is part of the same journey, the uniquely human and timeless journey to understand oneself and heal from the wounds that life inevitably inflicts on us.
The client and the therapist meet every few days. The client talks about what feels most important in his life, and the therapist listens. The act of listening is an act of bearing witness to another human being, as his inner life unfolds. As a plant is nourished by the light of the sun, human consciousness is nourished and unfolds its destiny by a simple act of attention – attention that is unforced and radically accepting.
In listening, if the therapist feels that the client is avoiding certain aspects of his life experience, he offers this understanding to the client in a way that is sensitive and respectful. By a quiet, attentive presence, the therapist brings the client to the space where this avoidance can be seen and, if the client wishes, let go of, so that more of our inner lives can be open to our conscious awareness. The possibilities in such an exploration are infinite, because human consciousness is infinite.
What is the impact of this listening on human consciousness? There is less avoidance of what has habitually been pushed away from awareness. There is more intimate contact with one’s own feelings. Pain is seen as a wave that rises and falls, rather than as a stream of emotion pent up inside with no outlet.
In the fire of awareness, all feelings arise and burn away, good and bad alike. Psychological energy that was entangled in suppressing away a part of oneself is awakened and available. It can now express our unique capacity to contribute to the world, in work and relationship and other spaces. There is the possibility of finding an inner peace, a peace that reflects one’s place in the scheme of existence, and of discovering a sense of meaning in what was earlier a seemingly un-meaningful and random universe.
Over time, the client learns to go further on this journey on his own, and the therapist’s presence is not essential, even if it may still be enriching.
The therapist is not an authority figure. He has experienced the same anxiety, sorrow, and trauma as any other human being, and by the virtue of this very fact, is able to listen and contemplate on these experiences when they are shared by the client. He can be incorrect in his understandings, inaccurate in his speech, and is always learning more deeply what it means to listen to another human being.
Every sharing is a deeply enriching experience for the therapist, where he sees more intimately the experiences that constitute the human condition. In every person who comes to the therapy space, he sees the unbounded possibilities of the universe expressing themselves in a unique manner. Therapy, then, is an encounter with this unbounded possibility. There are few privileges as great as this.