“Naomi, I’m only trying to do what I’m asking you to do,” I said. “Breathe, relax, into my heart, and stay connected to you and your open heart.”
“But why do you feel such kindness toward me?” she asked again. I said, “Well, I like you. I feel we have a nice connection. And your suffering and vulnerability just naturally opened up my heart even more to the natural goodness I so clearly see in you.” She seemed puzzled by my answer.
When she was more composed, I asked her what had prompted her emotions when she thought about talking from her heart. She winced, closed her eyes, and said, “I wanted to say to myself, to you, to my husband that I was feeling very lonely, very distant from him, and, . . .” she choked up a bit, “and that I could see it was my not wanting to be vulnerable with him that made me feel so locked up inside.”
“What do you think would happen if you told him all of that, speaking from your heart?” I said. She looked very sad, cast down her eyes again, shook her head some more, and said, “I can see his being very open to me, even kind and loving.” She got teary and shook her head more. “I’m just not ready to tell him that. It makes me feel too vulnerable. Maybe when I sort this out more.” She was quiet for a moment and then looked up and said a bit hastily, “Is that OK?” I smiled softly and said, “Why wouldn’t it be?” She broke down crying again.
What I’ve discovered in my qigong practice I’ve learned to translate into a mind-body-heart model of therapy. I always try to be mindful of my breathing, of maintaining a relaxed body, and especially of sinking my consciousness into my heart. All of these are easily done with little practice, especially dropping your consciousness into your heart. If you believe that, in your heart, there’s an inherent love, or light, or soul, or what I call goodness, then you can imagine a simple image. A light is the most common, but the sun or moon or a religious icon will work. Then just conjure that image in your heart area, and breathe, relax, and focus on that place of goodness. Often you’ll feel a softening or relaxing in that area that helps you begin to center yourself there and reach out from that place. You don’t need to meditate, read books, or study anything to do this mind-body-heart practice. Most clients get it the first time I encourage them to try, and can return to it quickly when I remind them to.
When I do this, I find an energy that feels like love, but much bigger and purer than what we usually mean by love. It’s a warm, soft, outgoing but unthreatening kind of energy, which clients frequently mention, always enjoy, and want to experience in themselves. So I teach them how to use this mind-body-heart practice in our therapy sessions—which means they get to practice it in their lives.
There are several qualities about this energy that make it such a wonderful practice for a psychotherapist. First, when I see and acknowledge my client’s innate goodness from this heart-centered place, I can’t help but know my own. Second, this energy doesn’t allow me to distance myself from the client. While I’m clearly aware of professional boundaries and responsibilities, I deeply sense this person as a human being struggling with life, just as I’m a human being who’s struggled in my own life. The energy gives me the sense that something in me—something invisible, yet alive—is reaching toward something in my client. It provides an intimacy and vulnerability in our relationship that transforms the therapeutic process. Third, because it’s an energy, not an emotion, my capacity to be present and compassionate is limitless. I never feel drained after connecting with a client like this; I feel enlivened. Finally, I can speak decisively when my client needs me to be strong and directive. For instance, I may have to say he or she is being cruel and mean, if that’s so, but I can do it without distancing and becoming judgmental.
In therapy, this approach turns what can sometimes be a dry or mechanistic technique into a dynamic process. I can maintain my boundaries, practice my craft, and yet become intimate and vulnerable with my clients. This kind of practice not only challenges me to be present and compassionate, but helps me become more alive and fully human. For clients, this offers them an experience of connecting with another deeply and taking in loving-kindness, and models for them how to do it with others.
Patrick Dougherty, M.A., L.P., is a psychologist in private practice, a teacher, and the author of Qigong in Psychotherapy: You Can Do So Much by Doing So Little. He just released the spiritual memoir A Whole-Hearted Embrace: Finding Love at the Center of It All. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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