Inner Work: Integrating counselling and psychotherapy with mindfulness practice as the pursuit of enlightenment

In the Spring 2018 issue of Insights magazine, Avraham Cohen, PhD, RCC, CCC, and Heesoon Bai, PhD, RCC are interviewed for the Member Profile. The following excerpt is from the original interview and is a supplement to the article in Insights. Read more in INSIGHTS.

 

Insights: Do you see shifts and changes in client issues? Have people always had many of the same problems or are there trends?

Avraham: From my five decades of professional experience, I have come to see the core issues that individuals and couples present to me to be perennial, even though how issues are presented in their languaging and nuances, their emphasis and social relevance, may have changed over time. I have also seen many “new” modalities of treatment come and go, but they all try to address the same core issues and attempt to alleviate suffering.

This is how I explain the core issues: basically, individual human beings are subjected, from birth onward, to the societal programming in mainstream culture (norms) that strongly suggests — nay, defines — what constitutes a good, successful, and meaningful self and life. Under such pervasive pressure to conform to norms — and to face withdrawal of love and support for not conforming — people end up getting disconnected and dis-integrated from their “minds,” “hearts,” “bodies,” “souls,” and “spirits.” When this happens, they then begin to chase after the externalized ideals of what an individual or couples’ life should be like.

This often translates into unquestioned beliefs like: “There is a perfect person out there,” “If only I could just get it right, I would be happy like those other people,” “The world is a place of scarcity, and I have to compete for survival,” and so on. According to this programming, if you are not having a successful life, you just are not trying hard enough, and you only have yourself to blame. Or else, in defiant self-defense, you may practice other-blame: your children, your spouses, your boss, your government, and endless others.

Putting this in a more metaphoric way, most of us are born bright and shiny, and this is consistent from the inside to the outside. Over time and persistent subjection to the influences of the world, the shininess begins to be covered and the psyche-soma changes shape and some hard structures are produced that protect the shiny core. As we grow up, these hard structures become our personality, and most of us do not question that this is who we are. However, it is not!

As Schellenbaum describes eloquently in his book, The Wound of the Unloved (1988),* we have become who we are not, in the service of getting what little love that’s available; we settle for the scraps and not the full-bodied essence of love, as this is all we know, at least until something happens in life to show us a different view.

Heesoon: I agree: core issues that confront humans have not changed. I will point to the 2,500-year-old Four Noble Truths of the Buddha’s teaching that has been gaining a solid recognition amongst counsellors as “truths” about human existential conditions. I will also point to the prevalent and still mounting interest in practices like “mindfulness” and “self-compassion” as an indication of recognizing the core and perennial human existential issues.

Avraham: In my professional and personal life, I am witness to an enormous amount of experience that suffering people describe. Overtime, I have developed a psychological perspective and ways of making sense of all these materials presented to me. For us, most all these descriptions are signs of a problem, not the problem itself — an indication of the underlying early bonding and related security/personal comfort issues that proliferate and lead to the formation of personality structures that have been constructed for survival, protection, and getting along in the world.

Since these structures are seamlessly tied together with patterns of thinking, emotion, sensation, and energy, they are very powerfully locked into place, automatic, and unconscious. They run our lives, and we behave as though “we can’t help it.”

For me, the only substantive question for a therapist is: how do we awaken enough to effect change to the harmful and damaging programs that are running our lives and the lives of our clients? I see counselling and psychotherapy as the pursuit of a personal enlightenment.

Avraham and Heesoon will be presenting a “Presence and Relationship Workshop”  June 22 – 23, 2018 in Vancouver. The workshop explores the intrinsically related processes of presence and relationship within the context of  personal history and contemporary culture.  Click here for more information on this workshop .

 

*Schellenbaum, P. (1990). The wound of the unloved: Releasing the life energy (T. Nevill, Trans.). Dorset, GB: Element Books. (Original work published 1988).

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Many of Avraham’s writings can be found at http://summit.sfu.ca/collection/204. To reach him directly, email: cohen2therapy@gmail.com.

Heesoon is currently co-editing a volume on ecological virtues (University of Regina Press). Many of her academic publications can be downloaded at http://summit.sfu.ca/collection/204. To reach her directly, email: baitherapy@gmail.com.