When a young therapist once expressed her anxiety over seeing her first patient, Carl Jung told her, “It’s not what you say, it’s who you are.” I tell this story to my students in order to lay the groundwork for their roles in their clients’ lives, and to make clear to them that I, too, believe that my effectiveness as a teacher and therapist cannot be reduced to information, or to facts that can be easily forgotten. I present myself, not as a repository of information, but as a legacy of experience that will take the form of stories and timely feedback that can inform them of their own unique style of being present in the world. After all, what I teach—counseling and psychotherapy—is not something that can be easily codified. It is more art than science. And, as Norman McClean once said, in A River Runs through It, “All good things come of grace, and grace comes of art, and art does not come easy.”
My own education lines up as an archipelago of impactful interpersonal experiences awakened and consolidated by my teachers and therapists. I have forgotten almost all the details of what they have told me, and I assume at the beginning of every course that my students will forget most of what I say, as well. The things I remember from my mentors are significant moments when they revealed themselves in their teaching, and moments when they saw me clearly. I remember, for instance, when my professor at William and Mary, Dr. Fred Adair reprimanded me in his marriage and family class when I asked him how I could help my own family. He was an ex-Marine fighter pilot sporting a handlebar mustache. He raised his voice and sternly replied, “Never be your family’s therapist! Love them! Love them!” I remember, as well, when my spiritual director leaned over after meditating, and said, “Don’t ever hesitate to let me know what you need.” Both of these mentors saw me in a profound way, and gave me what I needed in those moments.
What I carry of my teachers and mentors in my own approach to teaching are experiences of who they were that informed me of the core truths that guide my work. I am thankful for their courage in revealing themselves to me, and in turn, for awakening me to my own deep capacities and limitations.
Existential-Humanism as the Contemporary Standard
It is customary for counselor educators to espouse an existential-humanistic stance in their therapy and teaching, which is based on the assumption that people are intrinsically good. When guided by this positive view of human nature, counselor educators endeavor to help their students embrace their own unsullied goodness and authentic voice. Whether the teacher/therapist sees this essential goodness as divinely instilled or an aspect of human evolution, the corresponding teaching stance customarily expresses itself in an attitude of “unconditional positive regard,” and then sets about to assist the recipient in experiencing “unconditional self-regard” and the actualization of their inner potentials.
While this philosophy enjoys almost universal acceptance by the major schools of counseling and psychotherapy, it nonetheless contradicts almost two thousand years of orthodox Christian belief founded on the notion that human beings are fundamentally sinful. The belief that humans are fallen by nature was contested in the first centuries of the Church by Universalism and other subversive threads in the movement, but Augustine finally drew a line in the sand in the 4th century A.D. when he declared, as heresy, the then-popular belief that we possess a core of goodness as our divine birthright. Augustine thought this idea so damaging to the core doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement that he persuaded the Pope to excommunicate the British monk Pelagius, who was the main exponent of the belief at the time. Thereafter, the orthodox Church rebuked the idea that humans possess any intrinsic goodness of their own.
It is common for teachers and therapists to ignore the orthodox legacy that still influences Christian doctrine. But I think it is naive for us to believe that this pessimistic view of human nature is merely an artifact of superstition and outdated religiosity. To the contrary, one can find this conservative view expressed by Hobbes, Freud, and political systems that view humanity with mistrust, as driven by destructive and hedonistic impulses. It may not be the whole picture either, but any idea that has served humanity for so long is likely to reflect some truth, and to serve some purpose. Churchill was correct, after all, and Chamberlain was wrong.
I part ways with existential-humanism somewhat by embracing another truth alongside it. In my teaching and therapeutic work alike, I find it insufficient to approach my student as only imbued with greatness, even though I believe it’s true that each person possesses a unique “genius” waiting to be activated and expressed in the world. People also need to find a way to confess their errors, and to unburden themselves of their real and perceived shortcomings. While the Catholic confessional once served as the principal way that people confessed and received expiation, the priest’s sacerdotal function has spread to the secular professions, as well.
…fragmented and mobile, competitive societies leave many without stable supportive communities and community figures, such as priests, who previously supplied many valued facilities including the confessional; and the breakdown of the concept of selfless duty, altruism or love (Agape) also leaves a large hole in the social and interpersonal fabric. (Feltham, 1999, p. 7)
By uniting a perspective that celebrates the goodness within the human soul but recognizes our capacity for grave error, we arrive at a complex, twofold view of human nature—one that when expressed as an attitude toward others, can be termed, “informed love.”
My Discovery of Informed Love
I started to question the existential-humanistic paradigm principally through a decades-long phenomenological study of religious experiences. In the mid-1990s, I wrote two nationally published books on Christian religious experience—I Am With You Always: True Stories of Encounters with Jesus (Bantam, 1994), and Blessed among Women: Encounters with Mary and Her Message (Crown, 1995)—not from the standpoint of a believer, but from the perspective of a psychotherapist interested in answering the question, What impact do such experiences have on a person’s life? I was intrigued by the specific “curative factors” exhibited by alleged encounters with embodiments of higher power.
I discovered that what might be termed the “core experience” of higher power involves two simultaneous convictions of the recipient. In analyzing over 200 contemporary visions and deep dreams of Christian religious encounters, I determined that the experience of being totally known and totally loved was the unifying factor in all of them. George Richie, the recipient of what is perhaps the most famous near-death experience in history, described this two-fold experience as follows: “Far more even than power, what emanated from this Presence was unconditional love. An astonishing love. A love beyond my wildest imagining. This love knew every unlovable thing about me...and accepted and loved me just the same.”
Our capacity for emulating such love and knowing is certainly limited by our knowledge of a person, and our capacity for accepting them deeply. But while we cannot know everything about a person, our knowledge of clients and students increases over time, and our regard of them can grow commensurately. Thus we can embrace informed love as an aspirational ideal, and look for instances where we can serve in this capacity, if only briefly. Such experience of informed love are acknowledged as a normal consequence of spiritual practice in Hinduism and Buddhism, in which the guru serves as an external symbol of one’s own true nature. The guru facilitates this awakening to this unconscious wholeness through the bestowal of darshan—a Sanskrit word that means, literally, “glance.” But it is the guru’s full apprehension of the essential self where one’s prodigious strengths and weakness of moral compass cohabit in a unique, non-dual synthesis. So when the guru bestows darshan, the recipient is abruptly exposed to the heights and depths that coinhere within oneself.
My own William and Mary professor and eventual therapist, Dr. Chas Matthews discovered the power of darshan unintentionlly. When he found out that both of his children had gone to live in an ashram in the Catskills, Chas was understandably concerned. Having a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in psychology prepared him, he believed, to evaluate the authenticity of the presiding guru. Chas dutifully traveled to the ashram to make his assessment. Like the other devotees, he stood in the “darshan line” to experience what it was like to receive the guru’s blessing. As he finally faced her, she smiled and touched his head with a peacock feather. He immediately fell to his knees weeping uncontrollably, and spent the next three hours in a special room where he was cared for. He said he’d never felt so totally loved or revealed to anyone in his life.
Comparing the impact of ostensible “Christ encounters” with the Eastern phenomenon of darshan, I believed that I had discovered what might be termed the ultimate “curative factor” in relationships—one combines a simultaneous witnessing of one’s exhaulted and faulted nature. I wrote a paper for the journal, Mental Health, Religion and Culture, titled “Informed Love as a Curative Factor” to present this premise. In this paper, I drew on my years of research into religious experiences, and laid out the phenomenological evidence for the way that people experience profound healing and change through informed love. One of the reviewers of the paper said in her review, “I was ready not to like this paper, but I was surprised.”
Informed Love Provides a Basis for My Teaching Philosophy
My theory of teaching thus has its roots in my theory of human nature, which is founded on the concept of our twofold natures, and the importance of “informed love.” This courageous attitude is nothing new: It can be found in the psychology of Jung, the philosophy of the alchemists, the poetry of Rilke, and the emptiness doctrine of Tibetan Buddhism, among other places. As a thread throughout history, it often contends with partisan and moralistic perspectives that hide the greater truth of who we are, and project the unexamined fear and judgment upon those who differ from us, in particular.
What form does this take in my everyday teaching and therapy work? When I work with counseling students, and clients, I endeavor to witness the unique gifts that they bring to our profession. I am curious, even fascinated by their uniqueness, and I want them to see what I see. I also want them to find the courage to face what stands in way of their greater expression in the world. I also want them to develop the capacity to see others in the same way, and to elicit from them the full breadth of self-consideration activated by the presence of someone who cares for them and yet holds them accountable, as well.
An example of a classroom event that I believe demonstrates “informed love” occurred some time ago in one of my group counseling classes. As part of each class, we meet together as an “ecological group” that is, at once a teaching environment as well as a place where group dynamics are on display. As we sit at small tables arranged in a rectangle with me at one end, I am able to perform quasi-therapeutic interventions in order to demonstrate how they can function as group leaders. If I use a group technique to facilitate our interaction, I will stop and explain its use shortly afterward.
One night, we were all seated and ready to start the meeting, except for one woman who arrived late. She had missed a couple of classes, and had arrived late on several occasions. I knew that she was struggling with depression, and I was trying to make it possible for her to continue.
As she came in and seated herself, looking despondent, I noticed a couple of people reacting nonverbally with apparent impatience. In most educational settings, the professor would not inquire into these nonverbal behaviors. But as a counseling educator, I want to know what’s going on beneath the surface of such behaviors, in order to facilitate self-awareness and deeper engagement. So, I asked one of them what she was experiencing. As you might expect, she resisted sharing, but eventually admitted that she was irritated at the late-arriving woman. A woman beside her nodded, and agreed that she, too, wondered why the tardy woman was even in the class, given her irregular attendance. A third woman concurred, as if there was a consensus growing. They obviously wanted to make the deviant member the issue, and expected I would follow suit; but I would not allow it. I asked further questions about the source of irritation, and any other feelings the women were experiencing. Without judgment or criticism, I asked them each to share their own experiences with mental disorders: Had they ever experienced depression or anxiety, and had they ever been in therapy, I asked? They had not. They became very uncomfortable with my questions, but then I asked them to consider the basis upon which they could judge the woman. That is, had they ever been in such distress, I asked? Well, none of them had. And when I inquired further, it suddenly became evident that they were uncomfortable with the idea that they, too, might suffer with mental illness one day. None of them had any basis, as yet, for empathy.
I have no doubt that those three women, as well as the target of their impatience, will never forget that group exchange. Nor is it likely that the rest of the class will, either. The three women who were ready to eject the deviant member were able to access their own fear of losing control, and their own fragility in never having experienced the stronger currents of life. The woman represented a side of life that they feared, and the mode of inquiry that I took helped them realize that their judgement cloaked an underlying fear.
Informed love is, I believe the most integrated perspective on human nature, and facilitates a form of inquiry and witnessing that speaks to a deep need within us for a kind of stewardship through which we are finally seen. Of course, it in order to emulate this stance of firm but compassionate witnessing, we cannot remain unconscious of our own darkness—of what Jung called the shadow. We need to turn within and participation in the alchemy of non-dual engagement and the ransmutation of all that we consider unacceptable. For that ambitious quest to succeed, we need our own therapists and mentors to guide us.
Ultimately, I believe we can intentionally express this philosophy of informed love as teachers and therapists, and thus bring a core complete view of human nature to the world through our example, and through the students and clients who similarly awakened to this truth within themselves. By our own example and willingness to inquire lovingly and soberly into what makes them great, and what can undermine them, we will encourage them how to be present for others and awaken them, accordingly.
Feltham, C. (1999). Contextualising the therapeutic relationship. In C. Feltham (Ed.), Understanding the counselling relationship.London: Sage.