A Core Principle of Transpersonal Psychotherapy

A transpersonal approach to psychotherapy requires that the nature and being of the psychotherapist become a central subject of attention.  Presence, in all its manifestations, can be used as a core principle in our exploration of what it is to be therapeutic.  It bridges the experiential, psychological and spiritual realms and provides a model of aspiration for the transpersonal psychotherapist.  This model comprises both a psychological dimension: Being in the Present, Becoming Present, Creating Mutual Presence; and a spiritual dimension: Embodying Presence and The Numinous Presence.

For near five decades therapists have labored under the admonition to be ‘client centered’–to put the client at center stage.  It is as if we have been told to look away from our own experience as therapists, toward the experience of the other.  Yet this is, at best, only one element of a comprehensive paradigm for therapeutic excellence.  Who we are, as therapists, is the single most important deciding factor in the therapeutic equation.  Ask clients; they will tell you it is the personal quality of the therapist that makes the difference.  Yet this is the aspect to which we pay least attention.  We wish to ignore the fact that our very being is called into judgment by our choice of profession.

In a more general sense, it is apparent that even an experienced therapist’s ability to be therapeutic waxes and wanes.  A night of broken sleep, the beginnings of a cold, a family crisis, and connection with the client diminishes.  Sometimes, for no easily apparent reason, sessions seem longer and less alive.  Awareness drifts and one is distracted by vague and irrelevant thoughts and feelings.  The heart of the client’s process is lost amidst all the details.

At other times, everything flows.  There is a magical synergy about the connection between oneself and the client.  Clients make themselves comfortable and bring themselves fully to the situation.  Some are ready to plunge into profoundly moving therapeutic work without hesitation or the need to fully test out the therapist.  Sessions do not resemble those described in the text books.  There is more happening, and it is profoundly divergent from the tidy images of therapy that are learned at school.

Upon examination, the essential difference between the alive and un-alive session is related to a particular quality of the therapist and the therapeutic situation.  When magic happens it is easier to engage and be with the client.  There is less thinking or planning or scheming what to do next.  The therapist becomes less concerned with what might happen or how it may appear to others, or even whether the client is having a worthwhile experience.  There is more curiosity and interest in allowing the possibility for something to occur which has not yet been imagined.  There is an immediacy that defies the limitations of time.  The therapist feels, understands and connects with the client on different levels that are all but indescribable.   The room may be filled with forces that have little to do with abilities or interventions.

Therapeutic concepts do not illuminate these experiences; they, in fact, tend to obscure the encountered reality.  It is only when we look outside traditional psychology that we find an idea that elucidates.  Knowledgeable clients will say that it is the presence of the therapist that is all important.  The word presence is found in normal conversation but also within existential and transpersonal psychology  and writings on spirituality.  It has powerful potential to engage with the more inarticulate aspects of psychotherapy, yet it remains ill-defined and amorphous.  Presence is a concept to contemplate, a multifaceted lens through which we can examine the mysteries of therapeutic experience.

Presence can be soothing or stimulating, intrusive or spacious, compelling or allowing.  It can have impact, influence, authority and potency; it can create a space of containment that is ultimately safe and nurturing.  It is the ground from which the activity of therapy emerges organically; it can elucidate the differences between dysfunction and ultimate health.  A present therapist provides a foundation marker firmly rooted in the moment; presence draws the client back to the reality of their life and the ongoing experience of living.  Becoming aware of presence in all its many aspects – and knowing how to influence one’s own quality of presence – is the heart of the healing relationship.

The practice of presence is implicit in the accomplishments of consummate therapists and runs as a golden thread through the great spiritual teachings.  This paper takes strands from experience, psychology and spirituality to weave a web of interrelated aspects of presence that illuminate therapeutic being and practice.  The resulting model includes both psychological and spiritual dimensions that can be used to explore the attributes of a therapist who wishes to fully embody presence.

Experiencing Presence
What is the experience of presence?  Presence describes essential aspects of human reality that are difficult to grasp consciously.  A dictionary definition of presence covers a range of phenomena from ‘being in the moment’ to the ‘sense of a nearby invisible spiritual agency.’  As Ralph Harper reiterates in his profound philosophical treatise, On Presence, the experience defies our attempts to fully pin it down:

Presence is elusive — one cannot say this too often — just as the very soul of a person is elusive.  Thinking about either presence or the soul is extremely difficult and seldom satisfies unless presented in story form.  Even then it may elude understanding.  We can marshal claims and definitions to try to reflect intuitions of what is real, but the intuitions themselves must arise from living experience. (Harper 1991, p.120).

This elusiveness of definition contradicts the immediacy of experiencing.  We may not be able to fully describe presence but we know it with every part of our being.  It is implicit in every natural experience and action.

Natural Presence
Human beings sense presence; we swim in it as fish in water.  Each of us knows when someone is there; it is a sense or feeling that is both compelling and indescribable.  Animals have presence; the intentness of an animal’s gaze demands attention even before we know where that animal is.  Forces, spirits and energies intrude on awareness without invitation.  We may dismiss these as imagination but the effect on our physiology is indisputable — hair rising, heart beating, breath coming faster.  Bodies know presence even when minds fail to recognize it.

Presence fills nature.  It waits and watches and connects with something more than ourselves.  Certain landscapes – mountains, trees, rocks, bodies of water – demand awe and attention.  They bind us, beyond our understanding, to something fundamental and majestic.  They expand the little ego towards a more encompassing way of being.  They invite us into communion with aliveness.

Presence often comes to awareness through absence — an emptiness of being that causes inner suffering and distress.  Babies demand the presence of care-givers.  They cannot be safe and content until someone is available.  Those we love become presences essential for our well-being.  We immediately feel the emptiness of home when those we wish for are gone; we sense their absence.

The presence of a loved one resonates in our being and awareness, not just through contact and interaction.  The quintessence of loss is knowing that the presence of a beloved person is forever unavailable.  We can be separated from a friend for years, yet still experience their potential presence.  Knowledge of that person’s death brings an immediate sense of grief and loss.  Perceptible presence is unchanged, yet the inner awareness of presence is unavailable.

Disturbances of Presence
Personal presence reflects the quality of connection with the essential self.  Self, in the Jungian sense, is that totality of being that excludes nothing.  It encompasses the everyday “I”, or ego, and extends far beyond the known into realms of the unconscious and spirit.  As much as our identity and awareness expands into the self, so much is our wholeness and health.  When that self connection is undeveloped or disturbed, presence diminishes.

In different terminology, presence is of the soul.  Thomas Moore explains in Care of the Soul, that, “Soul is not a thing, but a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves.  It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance.” (Moore, 1992, p. 5).  Those who have loss of soul also lose presence.  We sense when a particular person is not available; their soul is disconnected.

Pathologies of presence reflect an incoherence in the self.  When a soul is severely disconnected, whether due to inheritance or profound trauma, extreme disturbance of presence results.  I worked with an autistic boy as an intern.  He never made eye contact or acknowledged that I existed.  Because I was not a living presence for him, it was difficult for me to be with him.  As I spoke, his eyes would wander across my face as if I were part of the walls.  We could not remain in mutual contact; it was as if he and I were in different worlds.

Recent ideas suggest that autism is a failure to develop an internalized theory of mind.  The autistic individual does not recognize himself as a person among other persons; he does not know that human beings possess the ability to relate to and understand each other.  He is an object, alone in a world of objects.  As he cannot be present with himself, he cannot be present with others.

A client diagnosed with dissociative identity or multiple personality disorder has been a client for a number of years.  For her, I am truly a dream figure, a figment of her imagination.  Because of her extraordinary traumatic history, the outer world of relationship and people remains insubstantial.  Only her inner world of splits and pain truly exists for her.  She cannot engage with me, so  I have little impact on her essential experience.  Because I am not a real presence for her, her healing is attenuated.  Because she cannot be in the present, very little holds.  Her therapy creeps along.

These examples are the extremes of lack of presence.  Most of our clients have lesser distortions of presence.  To recognize when and how a person is not fully present is one of the first step to formulating the therapeutic task.  The more distant and unavailable the person, the longer and more difficult the process of healing.  In work with couples, much frustration between intimate partners is caused by psychological, rather than physical absence.  Parts of self have withdrawn from the relationship.  The couple feels alone even with each other.  To be in relationship requires that souls are engaged; all parts of the self must be present.

Once the client becomes fully engaged in relationship with therapist, self, and others, we can begin to assume that the outcome will be positive; the person is on the journey to becoming whole.  As integration of self progresses, presence develops and blossoms.

Exemplary Presences
We all experience transient disturbance of presence in ourselves and others.  Who are those, at the other end of the continuum, that are able to remain most fully present?  In my experience, without exception present individuals embody a rich inner life and bring a particular quality to relationship.  They radiate presence.

Integrated Presence
I met Abbot Dom Aengus while on retreat at a small Cistercian monastery in Northern Ireland.  A white haired, ruddy featured man in his late fifties, he glowed with love and enthusiasm.  His presence literally went before him like a wave of energy; you could feel him approaching.  He was impossible to ignore, not because of anything he said or did but because he seemed to create a space of acceptance and brightness.  His conversation was simple and direct, yet there was an understanding aura about him; he contemplated everything and saw the goodness in it.

The qualities of goodness, love, compassion, lack of malice, are essential elements of the present person.  It is as if the darker side of human nature  has merged into the wholeness of that person.  They can be themselves without fear that pettiness or self-pride will jump out and capture them.  There is a refreshing spontaneity; they no longer need to be careful, to be good.

My first therapist, Winifred Rushforth had a quality of resting fully in herself.  At 95 she had nothing to prove and much wisdom to share.  Fifty years as a therapist left her more, rather than less, excited and appreciative of the complexities of the human soul.  Her motto, “Something is Happening”, (Rushforth, 1981), reflected her sense that there is always a positive movement in the universe — and that movement is God.

Her welcomes were rich and loving, always personal and accepting of whoever arrived.  There was no pretense of knowledge, no need to make the right interpretation.  She would preside over her dream groups with a quiet and attentive presence, occasionally commenting or telling a story sparked by a dream.  These stories were invariably about the connectivity and meaningfulness of life and relationship.  Everything always made sense in some greater context.  For her, if you were there, you were meant to be there; your presence was sacred.

Transcendent Presence
Integrated presence lies within the possibilities of normal development.  Each of us may be able, with grace and effort, to manifest this order of presence.  There are others, however, whose quality of wisdom and being is beyond possibility for most in this lifetime.  Certain “modern mystics and sages”,  according to Anne Bancroft (1976), express an energy that is numinous or transcendent; it is beyond the ordinary.

Renowned spiritual leaders immediately spring to mind — Mahatma Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Krishnamurti.  However I would like to describe one who is not so well known, whose impact I can describe from experience.

Pak Subuh, called Bapak in the spiritual organization of Subud he founded, was a quiet humble spiritual seeker in his early life in Java.  In his thirties, he experienced unexpected revelations and spiritual receiving that filled and guided the rest of his life (Bancroft, 1976; Sumohadiwidjojo, 1990).  Because he surrendered his whole personal self to the “Life Force”, the experience of his presence is difficult to describe.

When he gave a talk, the content of which arose spontaneously for the occasion, his presence would expand to fill the whole space with an energy that was almost uncomfortable.  This rather frail man of 80 would grow larger and imbued with a quality of spirit that was beyond the personal.  His voice became powerful and resonant, his presence compelling and his words profound.  Many in the audience would find it increasingly difficult to stay in a normal conscious state of awareness.  It was as if the ego could not quite tolerate the vital force that was transmitted.  The all encompassing vibration of that other presence demanded a response of the whole self; it was not enough to stay present in an everyday sense.

When the talk was complete, the energy in the room changed.  On the podium, would be a small, relaxed, unselfconscious man in Western dress, chatting with those around him in an ordinary manner.  The audience could sense the shift; the greater sense of presence had left.

This greater presence is not of the personal; it is transpersonal or numinous.  Something more happens that cannot be described fully; it transcends the limitations of ordinary understanding and formulations.

Psychotherapeutic Connections
Presence has impact.  Just being with those who embody that quality can change our experience and conceptions of reality.  In a more limited sense, we know that it is the physical presence of the therapist in the therapeutic situation that creates the opportunity for healing to occur.  There is no psychotherapy without a present therapist.  But what does that presence entail?  How is it to be manifested in ways that facilitate therapeutic change?

The concept of presence, per se, has not been afforded much psychological attention.  In a study that attempted an empirical investigation, Fraelich, (1989), asked therapists to describe their experience of therapeutic presence.  He identified 14 general psychological structures that constituted the experience of presence.  These included: presence as spontaneous occurrence, immersion in the moment, openness of being, self-sacrifice, immersed participation in the client’s world, connected relationship with client, unconditional regard and valued acceptance of the client, presence as trust, genuine and authentic, with self and others.  He concluded that the experience of presence exists for psychotherapists and that it is a powerful psychotherapeutic influence that has significant implications for the outcome of psychotherapy.

Many aspects of presence have been addressed by the important innovators in psychology.  These figures are the powerful presences of existential, humanistic and transpersonal psychology.  Many therapists have internalized their understandings, principles and practices.  Their example implicitly guides us in our therapeutic work.

Existential, Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology
Karl Jasper, one of the founding fathers of existential psychotherapy puts it succinctly: “What are we missing!  What opportunities of understanding we let pass by because at a single decisive moment we were, with all our knowledge, lacking in the simple virtue of a full human presence!” (quoted in May, 1983, p.157).

From the existential perspective, presence is the essence of authentic encounter.  It is the commitment to meet the other person, being to being, to enter into the client’s relationship “field” so that the therapist can not only understand the other but really see them (May, 1983).  As Martin Buber, one of the most influential existential philosophers, puts it: “All real living is meeting”(Buber, 1958, p11).

By necessity, a fully human encounter – the I-Thou relationship in Buber’s terms –  takes place only in the present; “True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.” (Buber, 1958, p13).  The dual aspects of authentic encounter and engagement with the present moment are fundamental to the existential experience of presence.

Authenticity is also the cornerstone of Carl Rogers’ approach to counseling.  As he says so many times in different ways, it is the ‘realness’ of the therapist as well as the intention to remain unconditionally engaged with the client that is curative.  Rogers embodied a gentle and loving presence that is obvious even in his videos.  He invited the client to become more present with their own experience just as he was present with them.  In his later writings he expressed the transcendent aspects of therapy more personally:

I find that when I am closest to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing.  Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other.  … it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other.  Our relationship transcends itself and becomes a part of something larger.  Profound growth and healing and energy are present.  (Rogers, 1980, p.129.)

If Rogers is characterized by gentleness, Fritz Perls, on the other hand, used his forceful personality and engagement in the moment to move the experience of the client.  He could be playfully involving, but also challenging and even aggressive in his efforts to have the client be fully in the moment.  Contact with the environment only happens in the present; “Whatever is actual is, as regards time, always in the present.  …But whenever we speak of the present, we (shall) mean the immediate, here-and-now present — the time of your present attention span, the time that is right now!”  (Perls, Hefferline, Goodman, 1951, p.59.).

Rogers and Perls offer complementary examples of therapeutic presence: gentleness, compassion, reflection on one side; dynamism, forcefulness, intention on the other.  They both worked in the moment with whatever the client brought, though Perls put more emphasis on immediate present experiencing.

More recent practitioners in Gestalt therapy have retreated from the confrontational style of Perls.  There is more balance between challenge and support, more emphasis on intimacy as well as contact.  Gary Yontef, for example, views presence as a fundamental aspect of the dialogue between therapist and client: “In therapy dialogue means a relationship based on engagement and emergence…”(Yontef, 1993, p. 34).  That engagement also has the qualities of  confirmation and inclusion — acceptance of the whole person and an empathic feeling into the other person’s viewpoint.

Humanistic psychology has long been concerned with the wholeness of experiencing in the present.  Carl Jung, on the other hand, was more interested in the timeless than the time-bound.  From the perspective of the collective unconscious – that strata of unconscious process common to all human beings – time does not exist as a linear progression of moments; all things are continually present.  Archetypes of the collective unconscious are universal throughout humanity and provide the common patterns that shape our shared experience of inner and outer reality.  Contacting that level of experiencing connects us to the eternal present.  Experience become numinous and imbued with meaning as we engage with these deeper and more primordial strata.

From a transpersonal perspective, the eternal moment is identical with the here and now.  As Ken Wilber put it so eloquently, the “No Boundary”  experience is timelessness within the present:

Clearly, in this present moment, if we would but examine it, there is no time.  The present is a timeless moment, and a timeless moment is an eternal one – a moment which knows neither past nor future, before nor after, yesterday nor tomorrow.  To enter deeply into this present moment is to plunge into eternity…  (Wilber, 1979, p.62).

It is integration of the limited ego within the encompassing archetypal self that creates the possibility for the experience of the timeless.  Edinger, (1972) in his Ego and Archetype, describes this phenomena as the development of the “Ego-Self axis”, that channel between the limitations of the everyday sense of “I-ness” and something greater and more profound.  Jung himself spent his lifetime in a personal and professional search for that essential connection.  He came to embody the timeless wisdom of age and inner development; his presence expressed the fullness of his own realization of the self.

If we draw these psychological ideas together, a number of aspects are apparent.  Therapeutic presence partakes of the moment.  It requires authenticity and immediacy that is both timely and timeless.  It has an intensity of connection between participants that allows something greater to emerge, that expands potential.  It reflects the quality of being of the participants.  Although these are psychological constructs, we can see that they also reflect the essential truths of mystical and spiritual traditions of the world religions.

Spiritual Connections
It is impossible, in this space, to do more than touch upon the wisdom and depth of teachings about presence in the great spiritual traditions.  The traditions speak for themselves; our understanding of presence may be advanced through a selection of writings from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

In Buddhism presence of mind is the practice of mindfulness, being immersed fully in awareness of the present moment.  For Tich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master and advocate of engaged Buddhism, it is the “Miracle of Mindfulness” that leads toward full awareness of the present realities of human existence:

But mindfulness itself is the life of awareness: the presence of mindfulness means the presence of life….  Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully each minute of life.  Mindfulness enables us to live.  (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1975).

Mindfulness is the essence of meditation and the path toward self awareness and enlightenment.  Without mindfulness there is constant attachment and distraction; presence is lost.

If Buddhism is concerned with mindfulness, the mystical Sufism of Islam can be characterized by heartfulness.  The heart is the organ of connection, not only to others but also to God.  This profound yet very human wisdom is exemplified in the writings of the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan:

The Sufis have therefore considered spiritual culture to be the culture of the heart.  It consists of the tuning of the heart.  Tuning  means the changing of pitch of the vibration.  The tuning of the heart means the changing of the vibrations, in order that one may reach a certain pitch; then one feels the joy and ecstasy of life, which enables one to give pleasure to others even by one’s presence because one is tuned….  Rumi says, Whether you have loved a human being or whether you have loved God, if you have loved enough you will be brought in the end into the presence of the supreme Love itself.”  (Inayat Khan, 1982, p. 173).

The attainment of “the presence of the Supreme Love” is also the intention of Kaballah or the mystical tradition of Judaism.   This teaches that the Shechinah, or divine presence, has been exiled from the Infinite Nature of God.  Through contemplation, prayer and sacred activity humans can embody the Shechinah and manifest a channel for the reunification and harmonization of the universe.  The divine presence is always available; “So kabbalah means when we reach the point of listening, of being ready, then we can receive that which is there, which was there all the time.” (Gelberman, 1978, p.54).

In a similar vein, Christian mystics urge us toward contemplation of the presence of God.  This is described as not only awareness of the flow of experience as it happens, but a searching and yearning for the sacred inner nature of all phenomena.  There is an opening of the self to that which is greater and more essential in all experience — a sense of the mystery and majesty of the universe that is pervasive and immediate.  In the Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century Carmelite monk, exhorts us to constantly become aware of the ineffable that is the ultimate presence:

I have given up all my non-obligatory devotions and prayers and concentrate on being always in His holy presence; I keep myself in His presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God which I can call the actual presence of God or to put it more clearly, an habitual, silent and secret conversation of the soul with God….(Delaney, 1977, p68.).

Wisdom, spirituality, mysticism is the pursuit and realization of transcendent presence.  The path is varied: prayer, contemplation, meditation, mindfulness, love, compassion, right action – each an aspect of the practice of presence.  The goal is one: connection with the mystery of ultimate presence.

A Therapeutic Model of Presence
From the preceding exploration of experience, psychological understanding and wisdom traditions we can develop a model for the therapeutic application of presence.  This is detailed in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.  A Therapeutic Model of Presence

Being in the Present
Becoming Present:

  • Presence of Body
  • Presence of Heart
  • Presence of Mind
  • Presence of Action

Creating Mutual Presence

Embodying Presence
Numinous Presence

At its most simple, the therapist and client must be physically present for therapy to occur.  Although this may seem self-evident, it is important to keep in mind the natural boundaries of time and space that are essential aspects of the therapeutic container.  No doubt, some forms of therapy can be carried out over distance and through technological means.  However, when therapist and client do not share the same space and time, psychological presence and therapeutic possibility become attenuated.

Given the limitations of the physical therapeutic container, how then can presence become manifest?  The first requirement for the therapist is to be in the present, to pay attention to the “here and now” — to become aware of each succeeding  moment of experiencing as it occurs.   Once the therapist is in the present, it is possible to become present — to be there as fully as possible.  This requires that all aspects of the totality of self be involved: presence of body, heart, mind and action.  As the therapist becomes more fully present, the client is invited into engagement and involvement.  This is mutual presence, the essence of the healing relationship.

These levels of presence are necessary and sufficient for good enough therapy.  Yet, as exemplified by the masters of psychotherapy and spirituality, there are further levels of presence to emulate.  Once the therapist’s self experiences a certain level of integration, it may be possible to move into an archetypal way of being that is embodied presence.  Here, presence reflects a holistic quality of connection between all aspects of the self that paves the way for something to happen beyond the limitations of conscious understanding.  That ‘something’ is numinous presence.  This is the presence of transcendent mystery that defies control or definition.

These categories can be used to articulate and expand those aspects of presence that relate to being a therapist.  The transpersonal therapist connects to the present moment and endeavors to become fully present.  This difficult task is accomplished through discipline and effort and an intention to gather all aspects of the self – body, heart and mind – into presence.  Then the present therapist can act with a wholeness of being that create a mutuality of presence with the client.

The Present Therapist

Being in the present
To be a therapist, rather than simply doing therapy, demands that the self  of the therapist, the key instrument of the therapeutic process, becomes the center of attention and awareness.  Awareness of how the self manifests, how it can become a presence for other person, is essential.  The self is an ongoing process in time and the encounter of self with self must be maintained in each succeeding moment.  That can only occur in the present; the self must constantly be in the present .

I am listening to an account of a professional man nearing fifty.  He tells me how masculine, confident and outgoing he used to feel ten years ago; it contrasts totally with his state of acute sensitivity and indecision now.  He wants to know what happened, how he can begin to recoup his strengths and become that younger man. I am drawn into his descriptions, his yearning and sense of loss.  Then something reminds me – what happened was life!  I ask him, “Who are you now, here, with me?  That younger self is gone forever.  What can we do for you now, as you are, with all that added richness of experience?”.  I begin to feel myself return to the moment and the clinging ghosts of the past recede.

The present is the opportunity for wholeness and healing.  Our ability to influence our own lives and the lives of others exists only in this moment and no other.  The nature of the manifest universe demands that we respect that prime dimension of existence – the present moment.  Without the present, nothing is real or realizable.  We lose ourselves easily in the future or the past.  Even thinking and planning for things that are not here and now decreases presence.  Reliance on that which is past and gone destroys the immediacy of the moment.

To be too focused on the past creates depression in the present; it draws away energy into what has irretrievably gone.  Depression has the quality of an intense concern with the past, either as a lost good or an irreversible bad experience; with it goes a projection of negativity into the future.  Naturally the depressed person is unable to change their distress; there is not enough of themselves in the present to engage with life.  As therapists we may be guilty of supporting this backward looking to the exclusion of what is happening now; we help our clients avoid being in the present.

While the depressed person is lost in the dismal past, the anxious person exists mainly in the catastrophic future.  The past has laid down a personal pattern of intense dread about things yet to come.  The world is full of potentially devastating or destructive events and experiences.  When panic hits, this person jumps out of his skin into his feared future.  The possibility of creating a calmer and more flowing current experience is destroyed by disconnection with the present.  Reality becomes what you most fear when it is not firmly grounded in the lived experience of this moment.

At the most extreme, in severe and ongoing trauma each moment becomes overwhelmingly terrifying.  The person stops time and creates a different identity to deal with that next moment of terror or pain.  The sense of self splinters; it becomes multiple rather than singular.  The person cannot exist as a whole self in the present; they are lost in time.

Good therapy provides a foundation rooted firmly in the present.  Engaging with the process of the moment constantly draws clients back to the reality of their lives and ongoing experience of living.  The sense of time and timeliness is an essential connecting line that creates the container for therapy.  What is happening right now for the client, for the therapist and between both participants, is the ground of the therapeutic process.  We can only influence the present; change happens now.

Becoming Present
The present therapist is always in process.  Presence is not a final state; it is a way of becoming.  There is no ultimate realization, just a constant striving toward awareness of being in the moment.  As an aspect of being, presence comes and goes with its own natural rhythm that is at the limits of our conscious influence.  As an ideal and constant condition, presence may be inaccessible.  Yet it can provide a beacon that guides therapy toward increasing profundity.

The process of becoming present directs the light of our interest, attention, awareness and understanding toward the therapeutic process.  It creates a context of exploration and insight that lifts mundane experience to new levels.  It strives toward wholeness away from distraction, avoidance and dissociation.  This is the essential self-discipline of the therapist: to be mindful and aware, to embody wholeness and integration, to be congruent and authentic, to be fully there in the therapeutic process.  Becoming present requires that we transform and even transcend the limitations of ego.  It is a continual process of aspiration.

So how can we begin to become presence?  Becoming presence demands that all parts of our self be involved — bodies, hearts, minds.  Engaging the self more completely to the therapeutic purpose extends presence into action.  Though presence is an indivisible totality, it must be realized in all four aspects of self:

•  Presence of Body

•  Presence of Heart

•  Presence of Mind

•  Presence of Action

 Presence of Body
In its simplest form, presence of body requires us to be physically present with the client; this is the basic foundation for deeper therapy.  Physically present, we become embodied; we experience ourselves as inherently ‘within’ our own bodies; we are our bodies.  Presence in the world is physical manifestation; the physical self forms the foundation for existence and experience in space and time.

Body is the ground, the earthy quality of experience that reinforces the reality of the physical world.  Body is also the vehicle of aliveness and vitality that illuminates experience and contact.  Finally, body is a way of knowing the world and others through sensation and resonance.  Presence of body is grounded vitality; it is contacting and knowing the realities of physical existence; it exudes life.

I am with a dissociative client who damages herself through mindless accidents.  She has fallen again.  She knows she is hurt, but not where or how badly.  I sense her invitation to help avoid the acute pain.  The thought comes, “Maybe relaxation would make her feel better.”  I feel drifty and disengaged, resonating with her dissociation.  I catch myself, feel into my body, find my place.  I begin to help her focus on the detailed experience of her damage.  It is awful – excruciating pain all over.  She moans and screams and my body contracts in sympathy.  Her body finally releases and there is a flood of memories and vitality followed by quiet well-being.  I begin to feel better.

Awareness of body-self is the constant shift and flow of sensation, physical needs and states.  We cannot pretend to be present if our body contradicts us.  Needs must be fulfilled at some point; uncomfortable sensations require attention before we can move towards a fuller presence.  Always the body reminds us of its power to draw us toward distraction and unconsciousness.  We must respect that power.  To be fully present is to accept the reality of the physical self and all its strengths and vulnerability.  The body reminds us constantly of the physical realities of life.  It demands our presence in the world.

The life of the physical self is sensation and resonance, the inner movement of our experience vibrating in synchrony with that of another.   We enter the world through sense, touch, feel and rhythm.  Babies begin inside a mother’s body, a part of its motion and flow.  From before birth we are physically immersed in the vibrant field of moods, feelings, movements of those around us.  Bodies know bodies.  Through the body – its sensing, resonating acuity – we first encounter, and know, the quality of presence of others. We feel how they feel inside their own skin.

When the therapist is present in body, clients sense that presence.  They resonate to the therapist, just as the therapist resonates to them.  They know someone is there with them.  That someone is real and alive and subject to the same joys and discomfiture that all bodies bring.  They sense the therapist’s vitality – an aliveness that connects body experiences with heart and mind to create a whole self.  Without this energetic charge, therapy and the therapist sleeps — literally or figuratively.

The present therapist brings aliveness to all experiencing.  Details are highlighted, sensations and perceptions made vivid.  Both participants become immersed in the actuality of what can be seen and heard and felt; they are curious, interested, fascinated by the lucidity and vitality of experience.  The world becomes immediate and present.

When body presence is lost, the world dies, life becomes boring.  Boredom is that state, caught between aliveness and depression; it is to lose the ability to create vividness in experience.  Clients are boring when they or the therapist is absent.  Many clients cannot tolerate to be present; their being in the world is tenuous.  They are so fearful of the demands and expectations of relationship that they can never really be there .  Resonating with the client’s escape from the present, away from themselves, facilitates the therapist slipping out of presence.  The therapist struggles against the tide of absence to recreate a living presence.

To lose presence of the body is to become disembodied.  Many therapists relegate their body to the basement of awareness — the mind is more important.  Clients will come to question whether that therapist is a real live person.  They sense the unspoken wish that the corporeal body of the therapist be ignored in favor of the scintillating intellect.  The therapist models unconscious disconnection while overtly attempting to heal the client’s own splits.  Therapy becomes a figment of the therapist’s imagination; there is no bedrock.

Presence of body is the ground; upon it we can build awareness of presence in all aspects of the self.  Sensation is the underpinning of feeling.  We know what we feel through reactions of the body.  But beyond body feeling are those more enigmatic experiences of emotion, meanings, values — the subtle qualities of the heart.

Presence of Heart
“There is a certain fineness that belongs to human nature, a certain nobleness, a certain delicacy, a certain manner.  And all these become blunted when the heart quality is left undeveloped.”  (Inayat Khan, 1989, p. 164).

In its simplest form, presence of heart is love; not only the wish to nurture or support, but the ability to relate fully, with compassion and intention, to the whole person.  Compassion is the absolute foundation of therapeutic relating.  It is Rogers’ “unconditional regard”  –  Buddhist metta, loving kindness – Christian, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  Without the heart-felt intention to help alleviate unnecessary suffering, there is no essential truth to the therapeutic relationship.  It becomes an empty form, a process of manipulation.

Loving compassion, however, does not lose itself in identifying with the other’s pain.  Nor does it withdraw to a safe distance away from suffering.  These are the polar opposites of pity and apathy.  Pity strips the recipient of their dignity and discounts the meaningfulness of their suffering.  Apathy treats the person as an alien, separate and different from humans.  In the harmonious balance of closeness and distance is empathy, engagement of heart that flows freely.

To be present in your heart requires discipline and self awareness.  Presence constantly walks the line between closeness and distance: be available as a loving presence but do not crowd in; feel with the other but not for them; connect deeply but leave all the space they need.  This line moves and shifts with the changing needs and processes of the client.  It is like treading a high wire in a strong wind, constantly catching balance, always tending to lean one way or the other.

If compassion is the softer, more receptive aspect of heartfulness, then intention and discipline are the balancing counter-weight of the active.  Compassion holds; intention moves.  Therapeutic love, unlike romantic love, is love on purpose.  That purpose is healing and growth and the avoidance of avoidance.  It must, on occasion, be ruthless.  It is there to create the fullest context for growth regardless of the discomfort and fear this may evoke.  It creates the clarity to distinguish between pain that is created out of stuckness, and the impeccable suffering of facing life, humanness, growth.  Each person needs help to face their own necessary suffering; true compassion never avoids.


 She is a mess.  Tears and make-up running down her face.  She knows how stuck she is in despair and anger.  She cannot face it alone; she needs help.  Her five year old daughter died five years ago in a freak shooting accident.  It is heart-wrenching, makes no sense; it should never have happened to a sweet little girl brimming with joy and love.  I feel overwhelmed by the tragedy, the intense suffering, the darkness of life that allows such things.  Yet I must help her live the memories more fully, feel the pain more deeply, plumb the abyss of dark meaninglessness to find a spark of hope.

If therapists lose their way most often, it is in the realms of the heart.  Therapists confront when they should support, and support when they should confront.  They take on too much of the pain, worry too much about the person, carry client’s suffering around with them and into sleepless beds.  Or they lose that sense of caring.  It is easier to become distant and rely on technical tricks to create change — or refer on to other therapists when it is all too much.

So how can we continue to maintain presence, stay connected with our hearts?  We must minister to ourselves, as to our clients – with trust, patience, forgiveness of shortcomings and a relentless effort to become more present.  The ultimate aim of therapy, for both therapist and client, is the slow growth of whole-heartedness; the inner capacity to be one with our feeling experience.  Whole-heartedness carries that quality of knowing that is reflected in decisiveness and clarity; it connects to the whole human quality of the other person, and with our self.  When we are at one with ourselves, we do not waver.  Our being is behind what we say and do.

As the heart becomes present, it must find its direction.  The heart relies on clarity of understanding to guides its compassionate intention.  Understanding is of the mind and presence of mind is the intimate companion of the present heart.

Presence of Mind
Therapy is never simply the domain of the heart; mind and understanding must be fully engaged.  The thinking mind is beautifully designed to help create meaningful patterns of connection that allow for control and predictability.  When intelligence is disconnected, nothing makes sense; there is no form, no understanding; our world unravels.  Or, just as bad, the mind stagnates; new experiences are forced into the dead frames of the past.  Then we see the present through the distorted lenses of yesterday and become lost in projection and false expectation.

When mind is present, the patterns and processes that are all around us are perceived and understood.  This is the threshold of wisdom.  There is a lawfulness and meaningfulness to human experience that cannot be denied.  People make sense.  Mind can begin to explore the connectivity and patterning of each person’s unique experience only as much as we are able to hold our attention and awareness to the task.  This is mindfulness; a quality of being undistracted and focused in the moment.

With mindfulness there is a single-mindedness that is attentive, but not attached, to any thought or perception.  This allows the process of life, of experience, to flow through awareness.  Then the therapist can sense the patterns and processes of the other person and begin to unravel the meaning of the client’s experiences.  There is a curiosity and interest that is energizing and truly appreciative of each person’s unique complexity.

A deep depression was recently triggered by whip-lash.  Now she is relating her checkered history with men who are distant, critical yet demanding.   She blames her mother who was clearly narcissistic.  But something does not fit.  Her presence is too bright, too inviting, too willing to please.  I cannot find the pattern, the sense of connection between then and now, the meaning behind her way of being.  I ask about her father.  He left early.  “Other masculine figures in childhood?”  “Oh yes, there was a step-father for a few years around age seven who used to play sexual games, but he is unimportant.”  I sense a piece of the puzzle fall into place.

Presence of mind has a questioning quality that does not grasp onto certainty.  There is always tension between our theories and assumptions of human nature and the actual living experience of that person before us.  True insight invites uncertainty; understanding grows from familiarity with the person and their process that unfolds over time.  Acceptance of not knowing is essential in order to halt the headlong rush towards premature assimilation and overconfidence.  The desperate need for certainty, security and control, drives many professionals toward trivialization of personal experience through mental health diagnosis and structured treatment plans.

Diagnosis and personality profiles can never capture a human being.   The present therapist sees and articulates humanness: “This person is fascinating.  Her presence fills my awareness and demands my attention.  The smallest aspect of her experience and action finds its place in creating her uniqueness.  She make sense in all aspects of her complexity and I am intent on learning just how that wholeness can become fully realized.”

This complex wholeness is fully manifest in the process of interaction with the therapist — the movement and flow of action and response, the ongoing rhythm of give and take.  The mindful therapist is aware of the intricate connectivity of communication and meaning.  There is always room for shifts and changes, always space for silence. Presence of mind allows insights and intuitions to well up into awareness, to reach fruition and expression.  It is curious about the response of the client, ever ready for the unexpected and creative.

This curiosity and attention to what is happening and how it happens means that experience is highlighted — there is a vividness and aliveness to the flow of experience.  The therapist invites the client to pay attention to any process that is neglected or avoided.  Joining attention creates a new awareness that allows possibility for change and growth.  Always there is a search for life, form, newness and flow away from stagnation, formlessness and death.

Often, the simple paying of attention is enough to help create movement.  However, if a stuck process does not open up to gentle awareness, then a more dynamic energy is required.  This is the sphere of intervention and action.

Presence of Action
Presence of action is action of the whole self; let us call this being whole-hearted, single-minded, body-centered.    Action moves process and the experience of both therapist and client.  So the intention for an intervention must be inclusive of self, other and the flow of relationship between.  It must be timely and skillful, dynamic yet receptive, connected in awareness to the being of the client and the most inclusive outcome.

The difficulty of collecting ourselves fully behind an action cannot be overestimated.  Our childhood, education and socialization tends to split and disconnect parts of ourselves.  Lives become incomplete patchworks of job, home and leisure; conflicting expectations and cultural messages pull at us.  Therapeutic practice is artificially divided up into 50 minute sessions; there is a temptation to put off a difficult intervention because there is so little time – or alternatively, rush in too precipitously.

To act in therapy is to take a risk; the outcome is often obscure.  Much of human behaviors are reactions rather than actions; they reflect responses of parts of self rather than an engagement of the whole.  Willing some action may be a function of a therapist’s part-self that happens to be in the executive seat.  It is not from willfulness that present action arises.  The pushing and forcing and feeling that something must or should happen is a symptom of fragmentation.  It is not of the whole.

Often we lose awareness of this sense of forcing.  There is something in us that wants so much for something to happen.  This push may come from a sincere wish for the other person to progress but is most often fueled by fear, frustration and a deep sense of our own personal inadequacy/omnipotence.  It may seem paradoxical to pair inadequacy and omnipotence, yet they exist as extreme ends of an unstable continuum.  We may fluctuate easily from a sense of overpowering competence to a feeling of impending failure.  A strong outer need for control and specialness creates the compensating inner feeling of helplessness and worthlessness; a somewhat ‘nice’ and ineffectual presentation may disguise a hunger for power.  As we become more harmonious, inadequacy moves toward humility, omnipotence toward competence.

Presence balances and connects dynamic and receptive energies.  Action is necessarily of the dynamic sphere.  It requires a certain decisive clarity that moves things along.  However, without receptivity and sensitivity, acting becomes lost in forcing and the superficialities of doing.  To act without receptivity is to invite progress at the expense of consciousness and connection.  Forcing things to happen constellates the opposite reaction in ourselves and others — the outcome is certain to be distorted and filled with hidden opposition and resentment.

On the other hand, if the receptive is too strong there is a danger of stagnation.  Action loses its impetus and intention; it yields to a sense of resignation and powerlessness – the dark side of acceptance.

It is only through balance and integration of the whole of ourselves that we are able to overcome the natural conflict of parts that results in inertia or impulsivity.  We recognize the moment and act decisively with awareness to influence whatever happens next.


We keep coming up against his fear and unwillingness.  He is young and homely and has been mostly scared and depressed all his life.  We have worked through the depression, he has gained skills and confidence but still cannot face asking that girl out on a date.  He desires, but avoids, intimate connections of the heart and body.  I look at him: he is a nice guy, I am very fond of him and his fear is achingly intense – yet he has to get on with being alive.  There is no other way  – he is at a turning point.  However painful, I throw my weight behind that unremitting inner pressure to connect and act.

Timeliness of action is an aspect of wisdom: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” as Ecclesiastes says.  To be wise in therapy is not only to understand the what and how, it is to know the when.  Timeliness senses the flow of the life force that is manifest through the process of therapy.  Everything happens in the continuous now.  Presence of action senses when that now has arrived and acts with awareness, patience and decisiveness.  If we are rushed and impatient, we intervene too soon.  If we are slow and apathetic, the moment passes by.  Presence of action responds to the moment and its intrinsic necessities.  The time is ripe; the present therapist acts.

Presence requires that we take responsibility for the impact of our actions, both intentional and unintentional.   Before each intervention, the therapist clarifies the intention to act and considers how the client may respond; after the intervention the therapist recognizes the impact on the other person and decides whether further action is required.  There is an impetus and outcome for every action that gives rise to the next cycle — a sense of rhythm and flow encompassed in a sphere of awareness.  All action is a response to whatever preceded it.  The cycle of accepting and projecting energy, listening and expressing, give and take, are inseparable.  Within the circle of mutual influence the therapist maintains awareness and guides the process toward wholeness.

This require a strong intention, a sense of effort and a focused attention.  But it also requires willingness and surrender that allows something more and different to happen.  Presence allows, it does not constrain.  Actions that proceed from presence have the quality of quiet importance, an intention to effect change, but also a letting go of outcome.  All essential change and growth proceeds from the self of the client.  Our actions are intended to facilitate those changes, not to make them happen.  In a profound sense, it is not the therapist’s business what the client’s self does with therapy.  Be grateful this remains a mystery.  It is our business to use all our abilities and presence to support and stimulate the necessary and natural healing processes.

The path to becoming a present therapist is a journey toward wholeness of being.  Presence is indivisible.  For its full realization, all elements of self – body, heart, mind and action – must unify.  Only as we become present in ourselves can we enter into mutual presence with another being.

Creating Mutual Presence
Presence cannot exist in a vacuum; it requires a meeting or joining.  As Ralph Harper puts it, “There is no presence without some kind of encounter.  Presence is never a strictly solitary experience, not even our presence to ourselves” (Harper, 1991, p. 121).  Both participants are involved.  The psychotherapist is present on purpose, and that purpose is to invite and draw the client into the space of mutual presence.  The client must enter into presence, just as the therapist becomes a presence for the client.  It is the presence of each that creates possibilities that are beyond the known.

At the beginning of a therapeutic alliance, presence is attenuated.  There is not enough of both participants connected in the room to create a deep and satisfying relationship.  As time progresses, therapist and client settle in and get to know each other.  There are many subtle shifts in the quality of connectedness from wariness toward a sense of committed relaxation with the other.  As this occurs,  the presence in the room changes — deeper therapy becomes possible.

He seems such a stereotype of the abstracted computer engineer, spending endless hours in front of the monitor.  High forehead, slightly balding, dull eyes, slim with disarticulated body movements, he is scarcely here in the room with me.  His feelings hardly register; relationship is tenuous.  I struggle to engage with him in some essential way – to find the lost person.  He has been coming for some time and still he is not here yet.  Unexpectedly, in response to something I say, he chuckles.  It is as if the sun comes out.  His eyes light up and he sees me.  We are together.

In a fundamental sense the client determines progress toward presence.  Ideally, the therapist is always available.  However, it is the quality of presence of the client that catalyses the process of therapy.  As the client enters the therapeutic arena more fully, the encounter becomes authentic and immediate; something greater than both participants happens.  This is the I-Thou encounter; the forum for deepest changes.

Because it is I-Thou, and not I-It, the relationship cannot treat the person as an object or anything less than fully human.  In the therapist’s eyes, the client is never a diagnosis, a treatment plan, a recipient of psychological superiority, an object of manipulation or greed.  For the client, the therapist becomes less an object of projections and fantasy, more a source of potential energy that helps connect experience — a person who is equally human.

Without mutuality of presence, there is no engagement and limited impact on experience.  The therapist cannot be completely comfortable until the client arrives.  Without mutuality of presence the therapist struggles to remain in contact.  We need others to experience the depths of relationship with ourselves.  The underlying human need to experience connection and presence may be the most powerful reason that therapists extend themselves into the therapeutic relationship.

The path of healing is the struggle to achieve presence in relationship.  Connection is the heart of psychotherapy, just as heart is awareness of that connection in relationship.  The psychotherapist may become present, but until the client is able to endure that presence and allow connection, only the superficial aspects of healing can occur.  At the most profound level, the ability of the client to relate to the therapist reflects their ability to relate to themselves.  The client becomes a presence for the therapist in order to become a presence for themselves.

Mutual presence is never static.  It moves, dances and flows with the demands of the situation and the state of the participants.  Presence contracts distance and creates more aliveness; it is in constant motion that reflects the vibrant process of the life force.  It invites both participants to become fully alive.  To be alive is not always pretty.  Presence invites all experience – hate, irritation, anger as well as love and appreciation –  it always engages the participants fully.  It has intensity and immediacy that may be uncomfortable and daunting to both because it cannot be fully controlled or predicted.

As relationship moves, so does the joint experience of presence.  Therapists learn the quality of presence of their clients.  Then, when there is a shift in that presence that is not a reflection of the therapist’s own state, something has mutated in that relationship.  This is the primary channel of information about changing transference and countertransference, about how possible it is for there to be a real relationship.  Maybe the client is angry and withdrawing.  Even if this is disguised or unconscious, the therapist will notice the attenuation of presence.  Maybe there is a blossoming in the capacity to love; presence becomes rich and nourishing.

Countertransference, like transference, decreases the immediacy of presence. The therapist is caught in the I-It — lost in unreality and disconnection.  This may be a function of projective identification; an unconscious process of the client demands recognition through the experience of the therapist.  Or more simply, the therapist’s presence is attenuated through unresolved personal issues that are currently activated.  Until the therapist recaptures presence, healing is on hold.

Embodying Presence
To embody presence is to embark on a spiritual as well as psychological journey.  Moving beyond ‘normal’ psychology into the transpersonal takes therapy into the realms of contemplative or spiritual practice.  The intention of this practice is integration of the whole self in the service of others.  In practical terms it means working to achieve a personal coherence and integrity that manifests the deepest and most transcendent aspects of humanness.

Each moment of life is an opportunity for contemplative practice — for engagement with the mysterious presence of God, the Universe or Ultimate Mind.  Even more so, the presence of clients – with their inevitable human dilemmas and suffering – provides an unique occasion for the therapist to achieve deeper dimensions of connection, compassion, understanding.  In the therapeutic session, with few distractions, the client’s process provides a constant point of meditative focus.   There is an intention to be mindful and compassionate; there is mystery and immanence.  It is a potentially sacred space for the realization of inner peace and wholeness.

Embodying presence is immersion in the life of the spirit.  The quality of integration that carries authority and inspiration comes from contact with the transpersonal.  It matters little what outer form the path takes; wisdom exist in all spiritual traditions, and outside of these traditions in the soul of the wise person.  What is essential is that spirit, whatever its form, becomes a real and living presence in our lives and work.

Furthermore, each therapist stands in for the archetypes of healing power, wisdom, love and wholeness.  This is an honor and a formidable responsibility.  A therapist can never own these archetypal attributes; they cannot be the property of any individual.  The best that can be aspired for is that the therapist surrender to that honor and attempts to provide a container to embody presence in its transcendent form.

There lies the paradox.  To try to embody presence  is to lose it.  The greatest disservice we do our clients is to need them to see us as wise and all-knowing.  That robs them of their own wisdom and power.  Only as we surrender the compulsion to be ‘special’ for others can we begin to truly embody presence — have less ‘self-consciousness’ and more self-awareness.  Presence is grounded in the largest context of the self and the life force, not the narrow confines of the ego.

Because embodied presence is not concerned with form and propriety, it can appear to be uninhibited and irrational.  Greater presence injects an unpredictable quality in the session that creates unexpected possibility – anything can happen.  It is untamed life energy; it must have a container that is strong and intact.  This container is the inner discipline of the therapist.

For William McNamara, director of a Carmelite hermitage, “the whole of spiritual life can be summed up in the three words: personal, passionate, presence.”  These could as well form the guiding principles for transpersonal psychotherapy.  He goes on to offer a manifesto for realization of spirit:


We must get off the surface, away from the periphery, and move into the center where the fire is, and there become consumed by the fire and really become alive.  Aliveness is the first effect of living a disciplined life.  We must all become disciplined wild people.  That’s the spiritual life.  You participate in the life of the spirit — the spirit of God.  God has no boundaries and no limitations.  He’s infinitely wild!  (McNamara, 1990, p. 108).

This wild and numinous presence is constantly available.  Only as the being of the therapist becomes able to embody discipline and aliveness can it become manifest.

The Numinous Presence
As psychotherapists we are transpersonal in as much as we have the intention of creating opportunity for numinous or transpersonal presence.  It is not enough to be able to be present or to become a presence for our clients.  We must attempt to embody presence and create a space for the transpersonal in our work.

Numinous presence is that contact with the ineffable that is beyond the knowing of the mind.  In Christian terms, we might call it the Glory of God, Grace or the Holy Spirit.  It is Buddha nature, Tao, the Sacred Path of native American, Hindu Brahma.  Psychologically, we use the concept of the oceanic or numinous experience of engagement with the collective unconscious.  It is unpredictable and entirely outside of human control.  Technique will not capture or create the numinous; “…we cannot seek presence (although we can long for it); it must be taken, or we must be taken, by surprise.” (Harper, 1991, p.123).  The best we can do is invite that presence through our own inner practice and willingness to let go of predictability and control.

We have no power to coerce the numinous presence into experience.  It exists, in potential, in every moment of our therapeutic practice.  At best we pray, invite, surrender or create a potential container that may be filled with grace.  This container is the meeting of participants.  The numinous emerges as an unexpected but welcome in-filling of inner content.  Between the participants a potential has been created that allows something more and greater to arise – a mystery and power that allows for connection to a greater whole.

When the numinous presence manifests, it may be an effortless flowing of experience, a sense of lightness and completeness, sudden joy and humor when despair seems near, unexpected healing, a deeper sense of knowing the larger and more universal picture.  However it manifests, it is always new and unexpected.  It comes like a breath of fresh and cool air that enlivens the staleness of our therapeutic interactions and intentions.  It lets us know that we are involved in a sacred endeavor to produce a little more wholeness and holiness in the world.  It sacralizes therapy and takes it forever out of the realms of the mundane struggle to make things better for clients.


As I have explored and followed the promptings of presence in this writing it has taken me inevitably towards the sacred.  That journey is not only conceptual but also experiential.  The deeper we look within our experience, the more we see the universal and ineffable.  This is a path that invites all therapists, if they wish to pay attention.

As we recognize essential aspects of therapeutic presence, there is a natural and inescapable transition towards a more profound approach to psychotherapy, and our own path as psychotherapists.  We move away from a purely technical approach to healing; we recognize the mysterious forces of relationship, connection, awareness; we necessarily direct our attention toward the being of the therapist, rather than the client’s problems.

Too long has therapy and counseling been caught up in the worthy myth of client-centered therapy.  With due respect to Carl Rogers, that formulation was appropriate for his time — a profound attempt to counteract the authoritarian medicalization of counseling and therapy.  There is a need to move beyond that formulation towards a new ethical and transpersonal perspective that firmly puts the psychotherapist at center stage.  This could be described as transpersonal therapist-centered psychotherapy.  In this approach, it is the being, nature, attitudes, intentions of the therapist that we examine.  We look to the manner in which the therapist experiences and lives his or her own vision of human existence.  It is the presence of the therapist that provides the fundamental reference point for what it is to be therapeutic.


© Roland Evans, 1997.



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