Psychotherapy as Spiritual Practice

By Ron Kurtz

I’m grateful to be here. I’ve never spoken to an audience this large before and, nervous though I am, I’m intrigued by the challenge. I am the principle developer of a therapy called Hakomi. It is a “body centered” psychotherapy, meaning it’s experiential and sometimes physically active. It has another side: it is based upon a set of principles, among them the use of mindfulness and the adherence to nonviolence. As you may have noted, these principles are often associated with certain spiritual disciplines, like Buddhism. In fact, Hakomi was once described as “applied Buddhism”, by an American Buddhist teacher, Marvin Casper, who started the psychology department at Naropa Institute.
Here’s an outline of what I’d like to do: I would like to talk about psychotherapy, especially Hakomi, as spiritual practice. What I will discuss, however, is in no way limited to the Hakomi method, but is applicable to all healing and, indeed, all human interaction. I also want to talk a little bit about my personal journey with this and how I came to think of psychotherapy as spiritual practice. Then I want to do some experiential explorations with you. I want you to experience something about the way this method is taught.

So, first something about training for this aspect of the work. Sixty to seventy percent of the teaching of this work is through experiential exercises. I am now ready to confess that I am an addict. I’m addicted to quotations. I’m strongly affected by them and I like to start my talks with a quote or two and sort of bounce off of them. I’m going to talk a little bit about the nature of “full human-beingness” and personhood in psychotherapy and I will begin with a longish quote from a book called Human Change Process written by Michael J. Mahoney:

Studies of the psychotherapist’s contribution to the therapeutic experience have begun to make it clear that the magnitude of that contribution is exceeded only by that attributable to the client. After their extensive review of the existing literature over a decade ago, Alan Bergan and Michael Lambert concluded that the largest variation in therapy is accounted for by pre-existing client factors such as motivation. Therapist personal factors account for the second largest proportion of change, with technique variables coming in a distant third. In four major research projects at the University of Pittsburgh, John Hopkins, the Veterans Administration and McGill, the therapeutic impact attributable to the psychotherapist was eight times greater than that associated with the treatment techniques.

“Therapist personal factors.” Eight times as impactful as “treatment techniques.” Well, reading that woke me up a bit. I’d been teaching technique and method almost 100% of the time. Not much about therapist personal factors. I’d been talking about the healing relationship and the techniques that create it, but I hadn’t seen that it’s the state of mind of the therapist that really does the work. The techniques are best used as an extension of the therapist’s natural behavior and not just something like a screw driver that anyone can pick up and use. In some way, it has to be a natural extension of the therapist’s “personal factors.” Just to be Buddhist about it, I’ll call that the therapist’s state of mind.
So, what is there about the therapist that makes her or him such an important variable? What is it that’s eight times more important than treatment techniques? We’ll get some clues about this from the next quote. It’s from Chogyam Trungpa.

The basic work of health professionals in general and psychotherapists in particular is to become full human beings and to inspire full human beingness in other people who feel starved about their lives.
—Chogyam Trungpa, Full Human Beingness

The serious quote of Trungpa …did a lot to wake me up when I first read it. It was a very different idea about what I believed my basic work was. I had to consider: “Was I a full human being?” “Was I even on the path to becoming one?” He was saying that my own spiritual growth was what I needed to pursue, if I was going to help others. That’s how I read it. Later, I learned I could do both at once, pursue my spiritual practice and work with people at the same time. I’m going to spend a little bit of time going over how I learned that.

In my personal journey, I started out enamored and fascinated and hypnotized by the techniques. I was amazed at what Fritz Perls was doing. Then it was Reich and Lowen and John Perrakos. Then it was Al Pesso. Then a whole slew of others and the whole idea of changing people with these wonderful and exciting tools: awareness, experiments, the hot seat, techniques for promoting emotional expression — I loved them all. After a while, they became habitual and I started thinking more about method, method being that set of rules which tell us when to use which technique. I got very enamored of that for awhile and out of that interest I created the Hakomi Method. Finally I began to think about relationship, the relationship between the therapist and the client. Now I’m going to throw another quote at you (which may or may not give away something about my character pattern). It’s a quote from James Hillman on psychopathy.

“Descriptions of psychopathy or sociopathic personalities speak of their inability to imagine the other. Psychopaths are well able to size up situations and charm people. They perceive, assess and relate making use of any opportunity, hence their successful manipulation of others. But the psychopath is far less able to imagine the other beyond the fantasy of usefulness, the other as a true interiority with his or her own needs, intentions and feelings.”

When I discovered relationship, I began to understand something about “the other as a true interiority”. I call what we do at this level of the work, developing the healing relationship. I’ll tell you a little bit about that. I believe very strongly in the power of the unconscious mind. I agree with Jung about its enormous capabilities and its connection to what John Nelson calls the “Spiritual Ground”. It seems to me that in order to work successfully, we have to have the cooperation of the client’s unconscious. And I asked, how do we get the cooperation of the client’s unconscious? How do we earn that? There seem to be two factors that are most important. To earn the cooperation of the unconscious, we need to demonstrate two things. First, we need to demonstrate that we know what’s going on; particularly that we understand their interiority, their experience. We have to demonstrate that we understand what the other has experienced or is experiencing. That’s first. Second, we have to demonstrate that we are also compassionate, accepting of the person no matter what the experience was. We must we be without judgment. If we can demonstrate those two things, the unconscious will usually cooperate. Not that it will give you anything you want, no. But, if you maintain your good behavior, it will allow you to be part of the healing process. It will listen to you and take you seriously. It will treat you with respect.

I use some techniques to bring the healing relationship into place. It’s not really the techniques that do it, it is the fact that I do know something about what’s going on and the fact that I am compassionate. That’s what really does it. You can’t just look like you’re compassionate. That won’t fool anybody’s unconscious very long. You’ve got to really be compassionate. And when you are and can demonstrate successfully that you are, you’ll get the cooperation of the unconscious. Then the work will be relatively easy and much faster. The unconscious can unfold healing in most remarkable ways.

When the setting is right (and the therapist is the setting and eight times more powerful than the techniques he or she is using), then the work goes well. If the therapist is not the right setting, the process can take a long time.

That satisfied me for awhile, this work with the healing relationship. In the most recent stage of this journey I came to realize that the work I have to do to become a full human being involves creating the state of mind, the right state of mind. Then all of this understanding and compassion comes quite naturally, without effort. And the healing relationship sets up without effort and the method and techniques work easily and the process moves more quickly. So, I got to the place where I began to think about the state of mind of the therapist.
Another quote, this one from Martin Buber, spoken in 1947 after the Holocaust.

What do we expect when we’re in despair and yet go to a man. Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless, there is meaning.

A presence! Buber calls it, “a presence.” One which conveys that the suffering, the despair is not meaningless. Life is not meaningless. Life, your very life, has meaning. And with meaning, life can go on. I was in Jung’s office in Zurich, last week. One of the things he said, “Patients don’t get cured, they just move on.” (I think he said this. I’ve never seen it written, but I’ve heard it quoted.) That sounds very reasonable to me. They don’t devote any more serious psychic energy to something that once needed it. They understand it. They get the meaning. They drop it and they move on. So I think that’s part of what Buber’s saying here. Once we have the meaning, we can move on. Once we understand, we can move on. We’re not in shock any more, we’re not confused, troubled, lost. When understanding comes, you can move on. And sometimes, we need something to help us do that. We need a presence.

I developed a workshop lately on presence, loving presence. It focuses on how we create the loving presence state of mind. It looks at the small habits of mind, the attitudes and understandings that allow us to be loving presences. I want talk to about that and I want to do some of the exercises from that workshop with you. On a very recent (last two or three years) piece of my personal journey, I discovered something very important about the particular process that leads to loving presence.
I was working in Germany doing a nine-day therapy group. One German after another. Some Germans are very thorough; they give you all the details. So I sort of lost contact. I couldn’t follow the details anymore. I was sitting there in front of one person, nearly exhausted with trying to hold all those details and I slowly yielded to the inevitable. I gave up. Being the kind of person I sometimes am, I thought, well, I’ll just look like I’m listening. They seem to go on and on anyway. Maybe I’ll recover later and think of something to do. I certainly won’t know what they said, but maybe I can still make something happen. We’ll see. This surrender was very serendipitous because, as I let go of trying to understand, I suddenly saw a very special kind of beauty in the person. I could only equate it with a masterpiece of art. I realized I was looking at something as beautiful as a Cezanne or Rembrandt. This thrilled me. I loved it. I just got wrapped up in it. I was having a wonderful time, feeling so loving and interested. (Though at that point it was just about what the client looked like.) I suddenly thought, “My face must be a perfect demonstration of loving presence. This would be a good time to ask the client to look at me.” I wanted the client to see me and know how I felt. It came right out of creating the healing relationship. I wanted to demonstrate that I am compassionate, that I’m present. I felt exactly like that and I wanted the client to see me feeling that way. So, I asked the client to open his eyes. (Hakomi clients back then, when they got into their feelings, usually closed their eyes.) When the client looked at me and saw what he saw, he started to go deeper.

He saw my loving face and he started to open up more and feel more intensely. He became very open and vulnerable. Well, that was just as thrilling for me as seeing him as a masterpiece. So, I got more loving. He went deeper. Loving. Deeper. Deeper. More loving. We were in a reinforcement cycle. We were triggering each other and together, we were creating exactly the right setting for a healing process. Whatever else we said or did, this mutual reinforcement was driving it.

After that, it happened somewhat with each person I worked with. It didn’t always happen as strongly, but it would happen at least a little and often. It happened enough so that the processes were deep and important healings took place. I can’t always do it. I can’t always get the love going. But I can feel it often enough to remember to keep trying. I know that it’s always a possibility and that it is rather easy when it does work. Seeing beauty in the other became my “therapeutic meditation”. It became my way of becoming a loving presence. Of course, it also helps if you have techniques and methods you have learned and can use. It wouldn’t be a disaster if you didn’t. The client’s healing could still go deep and have lasting effects, even if the therapist is just being a loving presence and using no interventions at all. The work is all the more powerful when technique and method are added to and supported by that presence.

There are some other ways I’ve learned that also help establish the cycle of loving presence and deep processing. One is seeing the universal in the other. You’re not just hearing this individual’s story. You’re also hearing it as an example of the human condition. You’re hearing it almost like a myth — it’s all our story, yours, mine and everybody’s. It’s the human story. That seems to evoke in me this loving presence state of mind. So, I’m not working with just this mother and her grief or love for her child. I’m working with all mothers and all children. I feel it that way and I feel blessed to be part of it.

A second way involves remembering that we are all destined to be enlightened and that much of this suffering which feels so real to us is really based on a misunderstanding. We are not this self which suffers so, we are something very different. We are in illusion and we do not know that. We take it all too seriously. As Da Free John has said, “Nothing ultimate is at stake.” Then our compassion is aroused because we know the person suffering doesn’t understand and is caught up in self. It is unnecessary. It will be forgotten sometime. When I see it this way, I feel very courageous and very tender towards the other. Being courageous, I can express the tenderness I feel.

And finally, when I remember that love is what we’re here for, that our journey on this plane is about learning to love and that love is all that will count when we tally up our days, I am able to be the loving one and so happy that I can be that.

Thank you!


  1. Talk at Menninger Clinic, May 1994

With permission, excerpts from writings of Ron Kurtz
© 2007 Ron Kurtz Trainings, Inc.