Notes for January 2016

The Therapist and the Healing Relationship

Article by Ron Kurtz

The Healing Relationship

I used to think of psychotherapy as intrapsychic, that the client did all the work internally. The therapist suggested things, but was, basically not really involved as a person. That was the way I thought. I thought of myself as a technician. My image was the samurai, in the movie Seven Samurais, who was a master swordsman, but who did what he did without emotions, passion or personality. His goal was perfect precision. I thought of myself in that same way, as trying to master techniques. It was no doubt inspired by a character flaw of mine, but I liked that image: precise, technical, without feelings or personal involvement. I took a secret pride in that.

Eventually though I saw that, the difficulties that emerged in therapy were the result of my personal limitations, my incomplete personhood. They weren’t technical problems at all and it wasn’t about mastery. It was my ego, my puffed up attitude and my inability to understand people, because I didn’t understand certain things in myself. It was about my ability to relate. Again, the focus changed and the change was a vertical one. It was deeper than just technique. I came to a place where I focused for a few years on what I called the healing relationship. For a healing relationship to happen, more than just safety was needed; what was needed was the cooperation of the unconscious. It required a relationship at the level of the unconscious, a deep, person-to-person connection – and that’s a two way street. Not only did I learn that I needed the cooperation of the unconscious, I also learned that I had to be worthy of it. I needed to earn it.

The healing relationship involves two basic things. First, the therapist has to demonstrate that she’s trustworthy, non-judgmental and compassionate. Second, she has to demonstrate that she is present, attentive and really understands what’s going on for the person. If the therapist can consistently demonstrate those things to the person, she will earn the cooperation of the unconscious.

The unconscious is waiting for somebody who can do that. If the client has painful secrets, shame, confusion and emotional pain, the therapist will need extraordinary sensitivity, understanding and caring to become an ally of the unconscious. The unconscious has been managing this pain for a long time. It won’t allow just anyone to become part of that process. The healing relationship is about gaining the trust and cooperation of the unconscious through compassion and understanding. If you can do that, therapy really happens. Building such a relationship doesn’t have to take three months or three years. It can take as little as fifteen minutes. But creating it requires more than just technical skills.

The creation of a healing relationship in therapy requires that the therapist be a certain kind of person, a person who is naturally compassionate, able to be radically present, able to give full attention to another, able to see deeply into people and to understand what is seen. All of that takes a certain state of mind. We could call that state of mind non-egocentric. The therapist needed to be free of as many ego-centered habits as possible, when working with the client. Realizing that and teaching that was the next big vertical jump for Hakomi. This jump was beyond just the use mindfulness and non-violence. It was about who the therapist was, the therapist’s being. It was about the therapist’s consciousness.

The Development of the Therapist

This next step in the vertical evolution of Hakomi involved the spiritual development of the therapist. It involved the development of personhood, an expansion of understanding and insight into levels of consciousness beyond the ordinary, rational and objective. To sustain this higher level of consciousness, one needs a base, a source of inspiration. One needs to find, recognize and cultivate a source of spiritual (or non-egocentric) nourishment. With a stable connection to that source, confidence, calm, understanding and compassion come naturally.

Outside of therapy, there are many, many sources of spiritual nourishment. But in the present moment of a therapy process, the source I use is the client. I search for and find non-egocentric nourishment in some aspect of the client. This is very close to the Buddhist practice of searching for the seed of Buddha in every person. Or as Swami Premananda says, “The purpose of life is to see God in everyone and everything.” When he was asked how this was done, he replied, “In the silence.” The idea is to drop the “noise of self” and to see the other as spirit. With this as habit, with this as a base, therapy becomes a deeply heartfelt journey shared.

Working this way, compassion emerges spontaneously. With the mind quiet and attentive, understanding comes easily. The two qualities most important to the healing relationship, compassion and understanding, are the natural outcome of searching for non-egocentric nourishment from the therapist-client relationship. The development of that practice is a spiritual discipline and its fruition is personhood and full human beingness. It is this approach that makes psychotherapy a spiritual practice.

Some years ago, I read Michael Mahoney’s book, Human Change Processes.[1] In it he cited a few, twenty-year long studies which showed that “the ‘person’ of the therapist is at least eight times more influential than his or her theoretical orientation and/or use of specific therapeutic techniques.” I took that very seriously. I realized I couldn’t just teach people technical methods. I had to define, recognize and teach “personhood” which includes spiritual development. Up to a point, it is personal growth and the usual emotional work that we all have to do. But beyond that, and especially when you wish to become helpful to other people, spiritual development is the natural and necessary next step.

So I started to focus on the state of mind of the therapist. I developed methods to explore and support the spiritual development of the therapist. My trainings and workshops now include a lot of work and practice around that. That brings us up to date on the development of the Hakomi Method. The principles of mindfulness and non-violence were the beginning of the uniqueness of Hakomi and the last vertical jump was the focus on spiritual practice and the state of mind of the therapist.

Six Skill Sets:

  1. State of Mind Skills
  2. Relational Skills
  3. Observational Skills
  4. Modeling Skills
  5. Experimental Skills
  6. Support for Healing Skills.

[1] Mahoney, M. J. (1991). Human change processes: The scientific foundations of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.