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Site-Wide Activity Forums Therapy room Buddhist Psychology ONENESS AND DIFFERENCE IN PSYCHOTHERAPY

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      Recently I was involved in a discussion about “oneness”. Clearly, to some people in the Buddhist world, oneness is a big number. However, it is not always that clear what people mean by this idea and it may be that different people take it to have different implications. Nonetheless, this particular discussion helped me to think about the issue in some interesting ways.

      After some teasing out, it became apparent that, in practice, what my colleague had in mind was what I would call “sharing”. When one person shares something from their life experience, the listeners may well find that experiences of their own get triggered. If the listeners then share a little of their own experience this can be reassuring for the original protagonist in that he no longer feels alone. It can also lead to a loosening of discussion in the group as a whole since everybody has now shared something and so may be more willing to share more. This might aid the “forming” of the group which some might see as a valuable step toward unity whereas others might understand it more in terms of freedom from inhibition.

      Again, there are interesting questions whether such sharing is itself therapeutic or not and whether the effect that it has upon the therapist tends to make her into more or less of a therapeutic agent. On the one hand, if, in sharing, the therapist becomes strongly warmed up to her own material, this could detract from the attention she can now give to the client. On the other hand, to really understand a client, or any other person, one does have to draw upon one’s own experience in one way or another.

      Then again, there is the question of the role of reassurance. Reassurance, in itself, is not really therapeutic, though it might in some circumstances, lower tensions that could otherwise inhibit therapy. Nonetheless, there are circumstances in which a client is likely to make more progress by not being reassured, but staying with their own material in its full force.


      My colleague saw sharing as being a manifestation of oneness because it brought out the commonality between people. I, on the other hand, was inclined to put the emphasis upon seeing sharing as a manifestation of plurality and diversity. I think that the implication of what she was saying would have been that when we recognise that we all have something in common we feel connected and safer, whereas the implication of my way of thinking was, rather, that when we see that a variety of people can share their diverse life experiences and nothing disastrous ensues, this frees us to explore an even greater diversity. It is fairly easy to see that there is some merit in both these perspectives, but I wonder if holding to a particular philosophy has practical consequences for what actions we might take in particular circumstances, especially when in our role as psychotherapist.

      Somewhat later in the proceedings I gave a short demonstration of working with a client. In the feedback, my colleague gave some very useful and precise observations that I valued and finally commented that she could see that I had not been “in the oneness” and that, rather, the session had been precisely centred upon the client. Our discussion did not go so far as for me to discover whether she thought this enhanced or detracted, but my impression was that it was an acknowledgement that there could be many different ways of working and that being “in the oneness” might be one way and my way might be another.


      Clearly there are many different ways of responding to a client that might all be regarded in general as valid, legitimate and useful.

      Reflection of content:
      Client: I don’t know why my sister did that. It made me so angry when it happened.
      Therapist: It was a shock. It made your blood boil.

      Reflection of current state:
      Client: I don’t know why my sister did that. It made me so angry when it happened.
      Therapist: It is still with you now, trying to understand, trying to make sense of your feelings.

      Congruent response:
      Client: I don’t know why my sister did that. It made me so angry when it happened.
      Therapist: As you say that I can feel the sense of shock in myself.

      Client: I don’t know why my sister did that. It made me so angry when it happened.
      Therapist: Yes, it puts me in touch with times when a dear one has acted out of character and left me feeling dismayed, or even betrayed.

      Client: I don’t know why my sister did that. It made me so angry when it happened.
      Therapist: Perhaps it stirred a certain anger in you, a desire sometimes to act in a similar fashion yourself.

      Client: I don’t know why my sister did that. It made me so angry when it happened.
      Therapist: Do you really not know why she did it? What is the truth?

      We can imagine, depending upon what had gone before, situations where any of these could possibly be an appropriate intervention and there are no doubt more options.


      In my way of thinking, none of the above represent nor manifest what I might understand by “oneness”. Rather, they are part of my attempt to create the conditions in which the special and hidden wisdom of the client may manifest itself. Or, alternatively, using the language differently, I could say that the oneness that interests me is the singularity of the client rather than any sense of our merger. When the unique quality of the client shines forth uninhibited by the many pressures that confine his normal life, then I feel that we are getting somewhere. This means that I too must avoid becoming part of that inhibitory pressure. I must tailor my responses to this requirement.

      I speculate that my colleague would say that this “unique quality” will turn out not to be so very unique but will partake of the humanity that we all share. She would see the client finding his way back into the oneness of the human community as the healing factor, where I see his liberation from the social prison as being more significant. At the same time, I acknowledge that when I see my client shine, something in me is also made radiant. There is something about what we might call human spiritedness that can be moving or inspiring. So I allow that there is a kind of common ground, even though it is not my main concern.

      At the same time, it is worth reflecting a little on the situation of non-sharing. If person A recounts and experience, let us say one of distressing failure. “I just attempted to do such-and-such and it didn’t work and I felt humiliated. Did you ever have a situation like that?” Let us say that the second person responds, “No, I never had a situation like that,” what is the effect? I think what one needs to ask here is, which party is being more genuine? Perhaps the second person is honouring the first with honesty, or perhaps he is trying to avoid getting into an emotional situation that he would rather avoid. Perhaps the first person is asking a genuine question or perhaps she is fishing for reassurance. If both are completely genuine, the dialogue will proceed well. If only one is genuine and the other is “playing a game”, it could go well or badly. If both are manipulating, we can expect the dialogue to descend into pathos or even acrimony.

      Therapy can be thought of as an approach toward truth. Little by little we become more honest and authentic in our communications. Therapists thus learn methods of communication that avoid conflict while not actually being dishonest. For instance. an empathic reflection actually reveals nothing of the therapist other than her ability to be empathic. If the client is fragile, meeting difference may be too much. However, later, when the client is more robust, contrast and challenge may be more liberating than any amount of placating. In the illustration given in the last paragraph, the second person could, no doubt, have found something, somewhere in all his life experience, that had some distant similarity to what the first person had shared. Whether putting that forward would have been a better response would depend upon the relationship between the two people and the stage it was at.

      Another colleague who contributed to the discussion asked, “What’s wrong with difference, anyway?” This seems to me a very good point. The world will not come to peace through our discovering that we are all the same. It will, surely, only come to peace by our discovering that we can live with our differences and, indeed, value them. If we were all the same, what would we have to offer to one another? One person’s strength may be another’s need and this kind of complementary is a foundation stone of community.


      No doubt the oneness debate will go on and at a philosophical level is almost certainly irresolvable. In Buddhist circles in recent years there has been a vogue for such ideas a “interbeing”, but, personally – and it might be no more than a personal quirk – I find these notions less than helpful, obscuring reality factors that I would prefer to attempt to meet in a more naked fashion. I do not find much basis for this approach in the actual teachings of Buddha. The best one could find would be some bits of the Avatamsaka Sutra that introduce ideas like Indra’s Net or of the universe as being somewhat like a hall of mirrors. Even here, however, no two knots in the net are the same and although we may all pull on one another, the Buddha’s offer us a liberation that goes beyond merely being influenced.

      I hope to be useful to my client by being a certain kind of mirror. The mirror reflects the other. The reflections that pass within the mirror never become part of the mirror itself. They come and they go. “This is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself.” The client may have a destiny and direction that is completely different to myself. I hear his story and wish him well, but I, myself, might be headed for a quite different land. If there is a oneness it is only visible in the eyes of God. We mortals live in a land of relativity. Even the onenesses that we do create are relative. When a group achieves some sense of unity it does so by differentiating itself from other groups. This is not bad, it is simply how it is here in the land under heaven. Furthermore, every unity has parts. As it says in the Sutra of the Questions of King Milinda, a chariot is only the assemblage of wheels, cockpit, rains, axle, etc. and a person. likewise, has many sub-elements. In therapy we try to do justice to as many as present themselves, whether they seem to make one whole or not. Even when we start to think that we perceive a wholeness, we should try not to be blind to the possible appearance of the discordant note. That may be the true key to liberation.

      If “oneness” is your code word for nirvana, then it could be a good object of faith, enabling one to weather the ups and downs of fortune. If oneness is a practical goal of some kind, then I want to know how you define it and what are the implications. If it were merely a way of avoiding the importance of difference, then I would think it misguided. We each have different ways of talking. For me, the oneness that matters is the ekagata, the singularity of the person, their unique value and quality that I hope will come forth through our work together. There are many ways.

      I shall certainly be interested in whatever comments or responses may be provoked by this sharing.


      If you would like to comment, do so by following the link below

      :: Link to Dharmavidya’s post on Eleusis Ning

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