Over the years, again and again, young therapists have come to me for supervision complaining:
I’m stuck. For a while the work was going well, but now we’re at an impasse. My patient has reached a plateau. He’s blocking and I can’t seem to get him over his resistance. I’ve tried and tried to figure out why he’s doing that but he’s fighting me all the way.
At times like these it’s difficult for the therapist to understand that “a therapeutic impasse” is simply a time when the therapist is trying to make a patient do something he is not ready to do. By focusing on the patient’s “progress,” the therapist engages in a needless power struggle. By getting hung up on how well or poorly he himself is doing as a therapist, he distractedly drains his own creative energy from the Work. The most ready resolution for this deadly problem is the therapist’s shifting his focus toward concentrating on his own techniques. Getting out of that awful stuck place requires that the therapist turn his attention from the patient’s behavior to the therapist’s own capacity for doing impeccable work.
The best model I know for getting unstuck is the release from bondage provided by the discipline of Yoga, “the yoke that frees.” Though I myself no longer regularly practice ritualized meditation exercises, the freeing discipline of Yoga serves me well as a metaphor for getting beyond being stuck in trying to get my own way in working as a psychotherapist (as well as in the rest of life).
I remember my own early instruction in the Yoga of breath-counting. To prepare myself, I was to sit comfortably at regular times each day for short periods of time. My mind would be cleared by focusing all my attention on the edges of my nostrils, at that place where the breath is exhaled.
My guide told me: “You need only breathe in and out quietly and regularly, concentrating on that point. Each time you exhale, you count to yourself, ‘one . . ., two . . ., three . . .,’ and so on. When you get to ten begin again.”
That certainly sounded easy enough. But my guide went on to warn me of the demons with which I would struggle: “You’ll find that you begin ‘one . . ., two . . .,’ and then the thoughts will come. And so it will be ‘one . . ., two . . .,’ and suddenly you’ll think ‘This isn’t working!’ At that point you must go back to one. You try it again: ‘one . . ., two . . .,’ and all at once ‘Now I’m getting it!’ Back to one. Still other thoughts will arise to distract you. Discomforts (‘My legs are getting stiff’ or ‘My ass itches,’) and temptations (T wonder what it would be like to go to bed with that woman I met yesterday,’ or ‘Someday I’ll be truly enlightened.’) will emerge as distractions. Each time you need only go back to one.”
At first I did not see why / would have to go back to one. All I would have to do is overcome those thoughts. As if reading my mind, my guide went on: “You’ll be tempted to try to dismiss the thoughts, to simply get rid of them. That won’t work. It’s just another trap. All that will happen is that you’ll get deeper and deeper into your insistence that you can overcome the struggles. The only solution each time is to go back to one.”
It began to sound not so easy. I started out with the notion that I was certain to go through the series up to ten and begin again. I could do series after series. Should I count them? “Not to worry,” said my guide. “During the first year of breathing meditation most people do not get beyond four or five. And then come the thoughts, and again it’s always back to one.”
So it is in the practice of psychotherapy. Again and again the therapist’s willful attachment to how he is doing, to how the patient is progressing, to the results, to getting his own way … all arise as distractions from the work. In each case the solution is to go back to one. But first the therapist must have prepared a setting in which the basic work can be done. What’s more, he must have a clear idea of what he does, and how he does it, or else there is no “one” to which to go back.
This is the reason why each therapist must have a definite and detailed picture of the basic technical steps and sequences of his or her work with patients. It is not that there is only one proper way to work. Rather it is simply a matter of each of us needing to have a clear sense of what constitutes the fundamentals of his or her own style of work.
It is necessary to be clear about Work in order to free oneself from the bondage of attachment to its results. When we do not concentrate one-pointedly on the basic work, we pay attention instead to the patient’s “progress,” or to our own ego-bound “Look how well (or badly) I’m doing” trip. Neither path benefits the patient nor the therapist. At the point of impasse the only thing that helps is to go back to one.
But to find your way back, you first must know what “one” is for you. Clarity about what you do, about how you run the therapy is absolutely necessary. It is sometimes useful, creative, and fun, to vary from the basic parameters of your work. But first you must know what it is you are varying from. Otherwise how can you know when to return home, and how to find your way back?
Learning to go back to one by returning to fundamentals of the Work, the therapist is helped to feel comfortable simply being in charge of the therapy, leaving the patient to be in charge of his own life. Out of this comes the best work, that alliance in the absence of blame in which healing can occur. It is only then that the therapist can offer the expert services of a professional guide, and so avoid the impasse born of the presumption of thinking that he knows what is best for the patient. By concentrating on his own work the therapist gets unstuck, leaving the patient free to discover what he wants for himself, how to go about getting it, and at what cost. The patient must choose for himself just how he is to live. When the therapist helps the patient to be happier without needing the patient to change, the therapist’s own impeccable work will be reward enough.
So it is with the practice of Yoga as well. Each seeker at first practices Yoga as a path toward the goal of spiritual liberation. But the burdensome efforts of self-discipline initially taken on as a means to an end by the beginner are later pursued for their own intrinsic rewards by the more advanced Yogi.
In the West, many people think of Yoga as nothing more than a peculiar system of breathing exercises accompanied by grotesque gymnastic postures. This is a gross misconception. Classical Yoga practices are something more than a matter of holding your breath and standing on your head. In fact, they have little to do with the Americanized popularization of Yoga into a gymnastic cult of physical beauty and prolonged youth.
Another common misconception about the practice of Yoga is imagining that it is an Oriental form of magic, a vehicle for the attaining of occult powers. The Indian writers who do believe that Siddhis or “miraculous powers” exist, view them as distractions from the right practice of concentration and meditation. Sri Ramakrishna calls these by-products mere “heaps of rubbish”1 the only importance of which is as obstacles to enlightenment and stumbling blocks in the path to liberation.
The goal is: the raising of consciousness beyond the distinction between the watcher and the watched, awareness free from desire. The goal is no less than total deliverance from needless struggle through the non-attachment of knowing that concern with making things happen is meaningless.
To understand the discrediting of miraculous powers in the context of Yoga, we must begin with the Indian conception of life as a “wheel of sorrows” turning from birth through the suffering of this life to death and rebirth into yet another round of pain. As Buddha proclaimed: “All is anguish, all is ephemeral.”
The misery of human life is due to the ignorance that attributes substance to the illusion that is this life, and to that attachment which leads us to try to hold onto the impermanent things of this life. To whatever extent we focus our longing on getting our own way, on doing in order to achieve results, on holding on to things beyond our control, to that extent we are trapped in needless suffering.
Paradoxically, the Indian conception of universal suffering does not lead to a pessimistic philosophy founded on despair.. Suffering is not a tragedy. It is a cosmic necessity. Yet each person has a chance to become free of it. For each, his or her Karma is the crucial pivot.
Karma is the conception that each act has consequences. Our circumstances in this life are the consequences of actions in earlier lives. How we live in this life will determine what our next life will hold in store. It is not necessary to believe in Reincarnation to apply this view to our own lives. Even if we have only one life, we create our Karma as we live it.
We can gradually liberate ourselves from suffering. It is possible to effect future Karma by doing the Work on my Self of raising my consciousness beyond the ignorance of attachment to the results of my efforts. I only get to keep that which I am prepared to give up. In Western terms, Virtue is its own reward. There is no hope of redemption in doing Good in order to be saved. Only by doing Good for its own sake, without seeking reward, can we attain Salvation.
For the Patient, psychotherapy may be seen as an attempt to improve his Karma in this life. The therapist helps him to heighten his awareness of the consequences of his acts and of the price of willful attachment to getting his own way. This the therapist offers in part in the role of the guru who shows the patient ways to unhook from old patterns by liberating himself from attachment to his neurotic past.
The therapist offers not only the enabling practices of his treatment techniques, but his own non-attachment to the results of his own therapeutic efforts as well. The practices and the non-attachment are both crucial to the process. Baba Ram Dass describes the Karma Yoga of such offerings by saying:
. . . the only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being . . . everything, whether you’re cooking food or doing therapy or being a student or being a lover, you are only doing, you’re only manifesting how evolved a consciousness you are. That’s what you’re doing with another human being. That’s the only dance there is! . . . Consciousness . . . means freedom from attachment . . . You realize that the only thing you have to do for another human being is to keep yourself really straight, and then do whatever it is you do.2
The Yoga practice of meditation begins with concentration. At first this sounds simple enough. All that you have to do is to fix your attention on a single point. It might be the tip of the nose, on a thought or an action, on a holy saying, or on an image of God. This simple exercise turns out to be enlightening in its unexpected difficulty.
. . . it’s like trying to take an elephant that has been wild in the jungle and putting one of those iron bands around its leg and then sticking a post in the ground to tame it. When the elephant (like your wandering mind) realizes that you are trying to tame it, it gets wilder than it ever was at its wildest in the jungle . . . It pulls and it pulls and it can hurt its leg. It would break its leg, it starts to bleed, it does all kinds of things before it finally gives in and becomes tame. And this roughly is the tradition of meditation.*
It is not possible to pursue the meditational path of liberation without straying. Concentration in the practice of Yoga, psychotherapy or any other spiritual folk art is a matter of developing the ability to do one thing at a time. In the practice of meditation, straying from this goal has been characterized as “itching, twitching, and bitching.” Because most psychotherapy lacks the physical demands of yoga, and is interpersonal as well, the distractions with which therapists must struggle are more focussed on needless evaluative comparisons between how the therapist is doing and how he thinks he should be doing, or on the reciprocal of how the patient is progressing and how the therapist thinks he should be progressing.
Nonetheless, the problems are fundamentally the same. It is easy for either practitioner to think of other things, to distract himself with remembrances of times past and of other places in which he has been. Or he may lose his concentration by straying into future concerns about how this is all going to turn out. Again, the required correction is back to one.
Even seemingly present-oriented self-consciousness serves as a distraction if it has any element of comparison embedded within it. Comparisons are always deadly, whether they pivot around how I am different from or the same as another, or merely around how I am different now from how I was or will be at another time. The Law of the Good Moment* holds for the practices of both meditation and psychotherapy. In either case the danger of distracting myself from concentration in the moment is best expressed by the self-competitive thought: “Here I am, wasn’t I!”
The goal is to have your whole being concentrated in what you are doing at the moment. So it is that when the therapist does his best work, he does not experience himself as trying to change the patient, nor even experience himself as doing psychotherapy. He becomes the Work. He is the psychotherapy and it all just seems to flow. The irony is that when the work goes this well, it is difficult to recapture in retrospect just what it is you did right.
For most of us just one life-time does not seem long enough to attain a state of perfect concentration. In our work as psychotherapists, as in our personal lives, we will get distracted, make mistakes, and lose our way again and again. We must learn to give ourselves permission to blunder, to fail, and to make fools of ourselves every day for the rest of our lives. We will do so in any case. Scolding and self-recrimination are no more than further errors. Instead you turn toward the unconditional self-acceptance of one of India’s greatest discoveries: consciousness as a witness. To do this you must simply try to:
treat yourself as if you were a much-loved child that an adult was trying to keep walking on a narrow sidewalk. The child is full of energy and keeps running off to the fields on each side to pick flowers, feel the grass, climb a tree. Each time you are aware of the child leaving the path, you say in effect, “Oh, that’s how children are. Okay, honey, back to the sidewalk,” and bring yourself gently but firmly and alertly back to just looking . . . “Oh, that’s where I am now; back to work.”*
Le Shan’s “back to work” is my “back to one.” His “just looking” is a reminder that if we are to tame the wild elephant of the mind, we must not beat him. We recognize that at first it is not easy to get used to staying in one spot. Wildly resisting by struggling to be somewhere else is painful and self-destructive.
But willfully trying to force the elephant or the mind or the patient to stay calmly in a place in which any of these is not yet ready to stay is also an exercise in futility and needless suffering. Instead we must learn to witness the discomforting interruption and the tendency to stray, without longing, without coercion, and without blame.
. . . when it comes up—it’s like somebody who drops by for tea when you are trying to work on a manuscript. You say, “Hello, it’s great to have you. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and have tea with my wife (if she’s not busy too), and I’ll be along later. I’m working on this manuscript.” And then you go back to the manuscript*
Whether it’s the manuscript or the meditation or the work of psychotherapy, at such times you simply go back to one.
1. Pal an j ali. How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Pataniali, translated with a new commentary by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, A Mentor Book, New American Library Inc., New Jersey, 1953, p. 126. 2. Baba Ram Dass. The Only Dance There Is, Anchor Books, Anchor Press/Double-day, Garden City, New York, 1974, p. 6. 3. Baba Ram Dass. p. 118. 4. Lawrence Le Shan. How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery, Bantam Books, New York, 1974, p. 55. 5. Le Shan. p. 54. 6. Baba Ram Dass. p. 120.