Field Notes

Ruminations About Psychotherapy and Being a Psychotherapist

October 26, 2019 - 0 Comments

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My doctoral thesis supervisor, the late Professor Carl Leggo, was a poet and a writer whose works touched countless students in schools along with many students of life. I was particularly fond of his writing style, amongst very many others, that he often titled “ruminations.” These are short fragments, often no more than a few sentences, or a paragraph that capture the vital meanings in everyday occurrences that Professor Leggo encountered. In this Field Notes edition, I wish to curate a couple of fragments of my own (although my fragments are more like short tracts) that I generated over the past summer.

 

“Know Thyself”: Knowing the Knower (July 27, 2019)

Plato’s works are considered the foundation of Western philosophy. His work is deemed to be so monumentally important that the 20th century’s revered philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, stated that all the works that had been generated in Western philosophical tradition were but footnotes to Plato. And Plato wrote his work to defend and propagate his beloved teacher’s teaching. Socrates was Plato’s teacher. What was Socrates teaching? Socrates put forward two principles: “Know Thyself” and “Care of the Soul.” It is truly astonishing to me that these two cardinal principles that framed the hallowed Western philosophical tradition totally are the same for the principles behind psychotherapy, at least in the way that I understand and practice.

 “Know Thyself” is about a person knowing the interiority of one’s self: perceptions, feelings, values, beliefs, desires, motivations, meanings . . ., in short, what makes a person a ‘subject,’ and not an ‘object.’ As David Wallin tells us, subjectivity is a given in counseling (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBMjGL0iymw). And a further point to make that’s crucial to a psychotherapist’s work is, however, that it is not just a clients’ subjectivity that matters, but most significantly, it is their own awareness of their subjectivity.

I propose that your ability to make changes to your subjectivity would be built upon the degree of awareness you have of your subjectivity. When a client (let’s say it’s a ‘he’) comes into my office and expresses how much he has been wronged by his lover and, as a result, is suffering badly, I’m presented with his subjectivity. But if he lacks awareness about his own subjectivity and is unable to recognize and acknowledge the part he might have played in the interaction, contributing to the couples dynamics, chances are that this client would mainly want to offload all responsibility, namely, the part he played in co-creating the relational tangles.

Inasmuch as we may want to believe for the sake of self-acceptance that one is a good person, critical awareness of subjectivity would reveal that one has the capacity to be harmful and hurtful, and one may indeed have inflicted harm and hurts on another person even if in self-defence and, of course, revenge is not an unknown motive. In fact, it’s fair to say that an underlying value might well be that all persons at their core are ‘good.’ However, as we know, good persons can do bad things, albeit with good intentions. All-too-understandable, and yet, the belief that one is a good person and the other is the bad person would stand in the way of self-change that is needed to overcome one’s suffering. Being aware of one’s subjectivity and making changes in one’s interiority, rather than wanting to change the other person to alleviate one’s suffering, is how I see a psychotherapeutic application of the Socratic injunction: “Care of the soul.”

 

Psychotherapy as an Educational Process (August 27, 2019)

I view psychotherapy as an educational process—education about self, other, relationship, community, and all and everything. This certainly goes against the grain of contemporary mainstream psychotherapy that tends to focus on a medical model of therapy: that is, the person has a pathology. From a medical model perspective, therapy then has to provide treatment and cure. In this model, practitioners “treat” mental illnesses, after “diagnosing” them. In aligning psychotherapy with educational process, I am not implying there are no such thing as mental illnesses. Rather, I wish to place the phenomenon of mental-emotional and somaticized suffering on a continuum that signals degrees of amenability to educational process. If the phenomena of suffering occurring in the severest degrees are not amenable to educational process, then, certainly, let’s call these “mental illnesses.”

I am reminded of an incident many years ago. A child in a residential treatment center was diagnosed as paranoid, and this ‘disorder’ was unequivocally stated to be incurable. As the story unfolded, the child and his family were immigrants and were running a business for someone. Secretly the family was also living in the shop. This meant being on a constant lookout for discovery. The child grew up in an environment where suspiciousness of others made sense. As the circumstances of his background experience unfolded in his therapy work, the paranoia slowly but surely melted away.

Most of the phenomena of affliction, such that I work with in my practice, are amenable to this in-depth educational process known as psychotherapy. By the latter, I mean that the process of studying and learning: that is, we are talking about clients’ self-study and self-learning. My clients are studying themselves: how their life and personality have come to be constructed the way they are, and how they can enact changes in the way they view the world and self, and value things differently so as to be able to live with more harmony, fulfillment, and meaningfulness. This process is an ongoing and endless process.

As a psychotherapist to my clients, I act as a teacher-facilitator-guide, and most profoundly, a fellow traveller on the path of wisdom based knowledge. I share my knowledge of human beings, and ask questions that prompt increasingly deepening self-inquiry on the part of my clients. I call such self-inquiry, borrowing from the founder of the Process School of Psychotherapy, Arnold Mindell, as well as the Jungian psychotherapist Robert Johnson, inner work. In introducing inner work to my clients, I provide encouragements and work to co-create a safe and secure ‘held space’ within which my clients can undertake the challenging task of addressing and redressing the psychic wounds and scar tissues that are interfering with radical openness to and vigorous engagement with life and world. Inner work has profound transformational and life changing potential.

Such inner education facilitates the ‘discovery’ of your most deeply held values (this arises out of the ‘discovery of who it is that holds the values), which support the growth and development of your ways of being with yourself, others, your community, and within the context of the cosmos. I would like to assert that this kind of education is really the radical (from ‘radix,’ the roots) education in that it is education about your inner world and its roots. This education has the power to clear the way to ‘see’ what is, as it is. Invariably, through this process, one would learn to see how the self and the other are massively interconnected. What we arrive at is self-other, not just self and other.

 

I invite you to respond with your own thoughts and experiences within the domain of psychotherapy; as a therapist, as a client, as both, and from any other perspective you might feel moved to share.

Many thanks as always to Heesoon for her work on this Note, and particularly the opening philosophical section.