Carrie, Sharon, and I had our weekly meeting the day after the news from San Bernardino broke. Like everyone, we were in touch with a sense of hopelessness and despair. That awful feeling of “not again.” I told them how only days earlier, I’d had to hold back tears as my kids matter-of-factly compared their classrooms’ lock-down drills over dinner–the grief that they will never know the kind of safety we so took for granted as children. I’ve even heard of teachers who prearrange which of them will take a bullet based on the age of their own children. “Yours are still young, but mine are already grown, so I’ll be the one.” In our disheartenment, the three of us recommitted ourselves to our mission to partner in healing with each other, our clients, our greater world. Thank goodness for my partners and for other devoted people in my life because without these connections, I’m sure I’d just withdraw into fear and primal safety-seeking. Or else I’d become fatalistically passive, or both.
In the face of so many humanitarian crises–and ones whose impact is hitting ever closer to home–who can blame us for feeling overwhelmed? On the other hand, in a culture with no shortage of hypnotically entertaining distractions, who can blame us for accepting the invitation to go numb? Collectively, we vacillate between these states of hyper- and hypo-arousal. And in moments when we’re resourced enough to remain engaged, we sometimes despairingly ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Most of us can relate to the understandable impulse to want to do something, but as we often see, action without purposeful consciousness can be ineffective at best, deeply destructive at worst. Everything we do arises out of the consciousness with which we do it, so perhaps the more crucial question is, “Who, how, and what do I need to be in the face of all there is to do?”
An important mentor of mine says that what our world most needs right now is enough individuals who are able and willing to hold the center. What he means is that in the face of the tremendous polarization and reactivity characteristic of our times, there need to be enough of us that source our thoughts, feelings, and actions from a place of deep groundedness rather than impulsive reaction, or perhaps worse yet, indifference and resignation. This centered state includes the ability to embrace opposites–to understand and even value seemingly contradictory perspectives at once.
As psychotherapists, we may be among the most uniquely and importantly positioned to contribute something to the question of who and how to be right now. After all, we regularly practice holding the center for others facing waves of overwhelming experience. In the face of clients’ emotional and relational storms, we remain steady figures, calmly reflecting their various parts in conflict with each other. We teach our clients how to find and expand their windows of tolerance by differentiating between those parts that hold fear, loneliness, rage, or despair and the steady consciousness that can observe those experiences without being at the effect of it all. In this way, we’re also helping our clients learn to hold the center in their own lives.
But this steadying and stabilizing is only part of what we practice as psychotherapists. The goal is not just that clients feel less vulnerable to the waves of reactivity. Yes, there’s that, but its greater purpose is to set the stage for the deeper healing work that comes next. Once stable, we move on to help our clients assimilate all that experience until it reaches a state of peace and resolution. Each of us is programmed for change in the direction of growth, but as we seek to activate this potential, the technique or modality by which we do it is far less important than who and how we are as we do it. While it’s imperative that we learn good methodology, no interventions will result in deep, transformational healing unless we cultivate an atmosphere of uncompromising openness, curiosity, and acceptance. When we offer our clients the fullness of our presence, our attunement, and our deep resonance, it feels, not surprisingly, like a healing form of love. In my collaborations with Sharon and Carrie, the more we delve into what we believe accounts for our brightest moments in psychotherapy, the more this truth becomes obvious: deep, transformative healing only ever occurs under the auspices of love. And not a sentimental or a soppy love, but an unwavering, often radical, sometimes even fierce form of love out of which only greater possibilities arise. It’s not just a matter of what interventions we use with our clients, but that our being offers a calm, reassuring, hopeful, and loving presence. The hope is that, over time, they become that for themselves and for others in their lives. Conspiring around love has a powerful and transformational effect on our clients. If it’s programmed into an individual to heal under the right conditions, then those same conditions can and will heal the collective. Because when we know what changes one life, we know what changes the world.
There’s no doubt that we’re in trouble here. San Bernardino, Paris, Umpqua Community College, Charleston, Waco. Horrifyingly, the list goes on. And we can no longer ask that the world be changed. We must ask that we be changed as we participate in the world. In Gandhi’s words, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world–that is the myth of the ‘atomic age’–as in being able to remake ourselves.” And what a gift to realize that, all this time, our best work in psychotherapy has already had us remaking ourselves into the people our world most needs us to be. Think, for example, of how intentionally we prepare ourselves to help our most challenging clients as part of our responsibility to our work. Perhaps we meditate or seek consultation, peer groups, or therapy for ourselves. By whatever form, we do it in recognition of the need to purify ourselves, to warm up and tune the instruments of healing that we are before each performance. We use these resources so that in whatever way we may be judging, we find our way back to compassion. In whatever way we may be angry, we commit once more to forgive. In whatever way we may be anxious, we reconnect with peace. In whatever way we may have closed our hearts, we open them again. As we remake ourselves in these ways, we become greater spaces of transformation for ourselves and others.
Our world now needs this from us in earnest. We’re on, and it’s time to get our instruments tuned. Given our state of affairs, perhaps it is no longer enough to offer it only in our work with our clients. Our practices have made us ready to be vehicles of change for more than just ourselves and our select few clients. Just as we are called in our psychotherapy practices to live more conscious lives in order to help people on an individual level, our world is now calling on us to live more conscious lives collectively and for the benefit of all. Just as we center ourselves to receive a hurting client, and just as we hold firm the framework of healing for that client–repeatedly stabilizing and applying love–now is the time to do so collectively for us all. The action each of us ultimately takes will naturally take on many different forms, but the underlying state of being is one we’ve been practicing over the course of our careers. We are, indeed, among the most equipped to hold the center. To mindfully observe our own reactivity and make conscious choices rather than just being possessed by the flood of emotion. To compassionately understand points of view vastly different from our own. To meet anything and everything that arises with openness and curiosity and the unfaltering assumption that somehow it makes sense, even as we seek to influence it into a healthier state. To hold out hope even in the face of the most seemingly hopeless situations. We already are the very ones we need.
I’m reminded that in Spanish, there is only one word for hoping, waiting, and expecting. With no distinction among these concepts, hope takes on a different quality than we often mean in English. Rather than just wishing for something good, there is a certainty and conviction that it will come, and so, in faith, we wait. In the coming year, may we strive to be the people we are called to be. May we strengthen our ability to hold the center for our world in crisis, yet so filled with infinite possibility. May we know our most powerful and only function is that of love. And then, may we hope. In the surest sense and with the deepest conviction that it will come because it must, may we hope for all that is possible for each of us and for our world in 2016.
Photo above by Hannah Steinberg