Sunday, April 25, 2010

Socrates: [...] you might have known with certainty before you came in contact with me, but now you're certainly non knowing.
Plato, Meno

A person comes to psychotherapy because of suffering in one form or another. Part of the problem is not knowing the origin of suffering, not its cause or why I am suffering (which is usually misattributed to something external to myself, e.g. my mood or bad habits, my relational conflicts, miserable job, or troublesome children), but its source, or how suffering has come about.

When someone breaks through to seeing the origin of this suffering, he or she usually has an Aha! moment. Something comes into focus that was never realized before, and it is simply seen without judgment. For example, I see that I am unhappy in my marriage, not because my husband is a mean guy, but because I have gone along with married life as a passenger rather than a co-pilot.

This is insight, or understanding. It is a humbling moment, as well as a liberating one. Humbling because it exposes the shadow-boxing you’ve done all these years, liberating because it sheds light on the real enemy: yourself.

Many forms of therapy stop there, at the intellect. But in order for insight to lead to a blameless attitude to oneself and, by extension, to others, the heart must be engaged as well as the mind.

Alicia Lieberman, an infant-parent psychotherapist, talks about “‘the cure by empathy as opposed to the cure by interpretation” (Infant-Parent Psychotherapy: Core Concepts and Current Approaches, in Zeanah, C.H. (ed.) Handbook of Infant Mental Health, 2005, p.475)

By this, she means that there is an opening between therapist and patient, between a living me and a living you, resuscitating parts of the self that have been reified into concepts and patterns mindlessly caught in well-worn grooves.

When therapist-patient uncover these desiccated parts and add the air and water of empathic dialogue, they result in the voice and emotion, the breath and tears, of unmediated presence. Empathy miraculously reshapes suffering into compassion, for myself and others.

This is not a state of mind, seeing or knowing, as much as it is a state of heart, being with or opening to, the mystery of our shared humanity.