October 20, 2011

The SECRET to better relationships.

Empathy and Compassion.

Relational psychotherapy and meditation together deepen our capacity for empathy and compassion. The two modalities enhance each other and our ability to maintain contact with our internal and external environments simultaneously. Empathy is not about getting entangled or overwhelmed by another person’s emotions. Rather, it means learning to stay present with yourself while appreciating another person’s experience. There is a mutual understanding that we are all living in our own subjective reality and therefore no one’s truth is right or wrong. Similarly, compassion is not about fixing problems or changing anything, but rather it is about being with, “I see you. I feel you. I am here with you.” The ability to hold self and other together is what increases our capacity to love. The mindful relational journey naturally leads to psychological and emotional healing.

As we know from spiritual practice, life is a dream, an illusion, that we are attempting to wake up from. In psychological language, we refer to this dream as the subjective field where all our experiences are organized and shaped by our culturally conditioned reality and emotional history. In relational psychotherapy, the emphasis is on the intersubjective field created between client and therapist. As the therapist enters the client’s dream, because of the transference/countertransference phenomenon, a new dream is co-created. As a result of new relational experiences that occur in the intersubjective field, rigid habitual patterns from the client’s past begin to loosen their grip. As conflicts are resolved and laid to rest, clients are better able to receive new relational information and therefore achieve the ability to create healthier relationships.

In relational psychotherapy, there is an understood mutuality and equality of the overall process. Therapist and client are on a journey together exploring the client’s mind. Repressed unconscious material comes to life as feelings and images get projected onto the therapist and the relational field. Therapist and client analyze, interpret, and make sense together, so that clients become empowered to trust their own experience while staying open to input from another. There is mutual experiencing of whatever arises in the intersubjective field so that pain, grief, and unprocessed memory from early childhood can be met with empathy and compassion. As long as we are still living in the dream of the past, we are not able to take in what is happening in the present moment. By introducing new experiences into the relational field, clients can begin to have a wider array of subjective organizations (better dreams) which are cause for change in how they relate to both themselves and others. Like meditation, relational psychotherapy does not believe in a solid, separate, and fixed sense of self. Through the process of engaging in a loving and attuned relationship, old patterns and fixed identities that were defensively constructed are no longer needed and fall away.

Meditation enables us to live in the present moment and experience life in a more vivid and intimate way. By living a mindful life, we are able to embody qualities of authenticity and spontaneity, both necessary for satisfying relationships. We learn to stay open to the flow of our experience by ceasing to identify with or reject any aspect of it. A regular meditation practice is highly beneficial for both therapists and clients to facilitate the healing process. Both therapist and client affect the intersubjective field so a greater capacity for presence makes for a more vivid and engaged journey. There is a natural movement towards healing and aliveness.

We practice meditation to wake up from the dream of our conditioned identity, but we are doing this in isolation without access to the relational blocks that were shaped early in our life when we were most vulnerable. Because we were wounded in relationships, our patterns won’t get evoked until we re-enter the space of self and other. These experiences need to be processed and resolved before they can fall away. Many spiritual practitioners, in pursuit of freeing their minds, tend to dissociate or dismiss feelings and needs that supposedly belong to the undesired ego self. An essential opportunity for psychological and emotional healing is lost in this dismissal. Further, our ability to know ourselves inwardly and deeply, which is essential for both relational and spiritual maturity, becomes blocked. If we are not able to stay in contact with ourselves, we will have obstacles in our ability to maintain contact with others. It sounds paradoxical, but it is through coming deeply into yourself that you are able to maintain intimacy and peace in your relationships with others. It is important to remember that the vortex of our suffering is often the doorway to our liberation. By coming into our subjective experience directly, we can surrender, not to something external, but to the all pervading ground where experiences arise.

Relational psychotherapy and meditation practice support people in developing inward contact with themselves while staying present in relationships. Therapists are also encouraged to stay with their own experience while attending to a client’s unfolding. Therapists who practice meditation can improve their ability to attend to the present moment, increase their capacity for empathy and compassion, and strengthen their stamina to sustain balance and aliveness in their work and personal lives. Authentic contact can only happen between two individuals who are in authentic contact with themselves. We stay attuned to our ourself and our client’s emotional state at the same time. We listen attentively and track the client’s process without getting entangled and mistaking the client’s emotions for our own.

Emotionally healthy and mature contact with others requires the ability to maintain internal contact with ourselves. We can stay open and compassionate to others while staying connected to ourselves and our capacity to respond. Any contemplative practice that directs awareness to the internal space of your body can help you stay open to others while maintaining contact with yourself. My personal favorites are bringing my focus into my belly center (to stay grounded), and/or my heart center (to stay open and loving), and/or my head center (to stay clear). Walking meditation and any movement practice are also excellent methods to maintain self awareness while moving through the phenomenal world. I use mindfulness of the physical senses in session to help clients come back into their bodies. Explore and discover whatever helps you stay anchored in your felt experience and practice this as much as you can in the dynamic space of your relationships.

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