What is my therapist listening to?

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The conventional wisdom is that a therapist is supposed to be a good listener.

There is a lot more to it than that, of course.  I would add courage, self-worth, boundaries, self-reflective capacity, strong ethics, compassion, and broad theoretical understanding to the list of traits that are important for a therapist.

But to stay with listening for a moment.

We say that quickly.

“You are a good listener.”

“If you are a therapist you must be a good listener.”

Listen to what?

The sound of the rain outside the window?

The sensations in my body?

Voices in my head?

We usually mean listening to the words spoken by the client.

The more I practice the less the words matter.

What is said is only one piece of information.

Over the years I have come to trust my body.  When it gets anxious - something is going on. Something my mind can’t process.  And I need to pay attention and see - is this my trigger? The client’s? (Usually) both of us?

And then as I have expanded I have come to notice that everything works with us in therapy.  The smell of apple pie being baked below my office that wafts upstairs on a particular day. The time the power goes out.  The fire drill. The children running around in the building. The air conditioning going on and off.

It is challenging to put words to what has happened in my own healing process.

I have opened.  My heart, my body…I feel safe in the world.  “I” means something different than it used to.  I feel myself as a particular instance, wrapped in skin, of universal energy.  I sense myself as one version - a space full of its own information and also not separate either.  

I have experienced much beyond the usual definition of rationality or the five senses.  My perception is heightened. I feel into our interconnectedness.

And so for me, now, listening is broader.  I’m seeing and hearing more. I’m working with traditional countertransference, somatic countertransference and something else - signs - like Jung’s exploding bookcase.  And visions - a being passing through. The eyes of one of the items in my room lighting up.

Jung is comforting.  Perhaps I haven’t travelled so far after all.

Perhaps this is our birthright.  Perception like that of a child. With imagination and feeling - each moment new.  Without the need to pin it all down with understanding.

I call this spiritual psychotherapy and yet am unsatisfied by this term.  It’s not like we pray - although I am open to that.

For me, the term signals a willingness to talk more broadly about purpose and meaning and spirit.  It signals a willingness to use healing methods from our ancestors. It signals a listening that is broader - a willingness to make a broader kind of meaning.  

Ultimately, spirituality has offered me a more profound possibility for enjoyment.  A way of orienting myself based on the amount of expansion and freedom each of us has rather than the amount of stuff we own or achieve.  

An orientation towards allowing rather than keeping it together.

Spirit is consistently nudging me towards powerful pleasure.  A sensate kind of life that turns towards an open window and longs for the lake with a need that stops me in my email-oriented tracks.

There have been times when I have wondered if the container of psychotherapy can hold where I am going.  And consistently I find that it can. It is a practice that can hold each of us in our totality and can grow with us.

We may need to practice outside.  Or practice less. Or work online so we can be in environments we can afford to live good lives in.  Lives closer to green and blue colours and fresh air.

Psychotherapy as a practice can include all of this.

One way of describing a therapy is the broadening of a client’s listening - to self, to other, to everything.

So listening goes beyond words, beyond the traditionally defined unconscious into all of it such that we meet that still point which is also packed with everything and it all cascades everywhere and all there is to say is…..   oh.

Alison Crosthwait