In every age, men have set out on pilgrimages, on spiritual journeys, on personal quests. Driven by pain, drawn by longing, lifted by hope, singly and in groups they come in search of relief, enlightenment, peace, power, joy or they know not what. Wishing to learn, and confusing being taught with learning, they often seek out helpers, healers, and guides, spiritual teachers whose disciples they would become.
The emotionally troubled man of today, the contemporary pilgrim, wants to be the disciple of the psychotherapist. If he does seek the guidance of such a contemporary guru, he will find himself beginning on a latter-day spiritual pilgrimage of his own.
This should not surprise us. Crises marked by anxiety, doubt, and despair have always been those periods of personal unrest that occur at the times when a man is sufficiently unsettled to have an opportunity for personal growth. We must always see our own feelings of uneasiness as being our chance for â€˜making the growth choice rather than the fear choice.’*
So, too, the patient’s longing for the growth is the central forces of his pilgrimage.
The psychotherapist needs only to be aware of this force, in his patient, and to keep it within his vision. Then he may enjoy his work and need never bog down in boredom. His task is simply to watch, as the person in front of him wrestles with well-nigh paralyzing conflict, for the emergence of what he knows is there: man’s inherent longing for relatedness and for meaning. The therapist is an observer and a catalyst. He has no power to “cure” the patient, for cure is entirely out of is hands. He can add nothing to the patient’s inherent capacity to get well, and whenever he tries to do so he meets stubborn resistance which slows up the progress of treatment. The patient is already fully equipped for getting well… Since he [the therapist] is not “responsible” for the cure, he is free to enjoy the spectacle of it taking place”**
Of course, like everyone else (including the therapist), the patient is too often inclined to act out of fear, rather than out of his longing for growth. If not, pilgrimages would always begin out of an overflow of joy, rather than (as is more often the case) being conceived in pain and turmoil. People seek the guidance of a psychotherapist when their usual, self-limited, risk-avoiding ways of operating are not paying off, when there is distress and disruption in their lives. Otherwise, we are all too ready to live with the familiar, so long as it seems to work, no matter how colorless the rewards.
And so, it is not astonishing that, thought the patient enters therapy insisting that he wants to change, more often than not, what he really wants is to remain the same and to get the therapist to make him feel better. His goal is to become a more effective neurotic, so that he may have what he wants without risking getting into anything new. He prefers the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.
Given this all too human failing, the beginning pilgrim-patient may approach the therapist like a small child going to a good parent whom he insists must take care of him. It is as if he comes to the office saying, “My world is broken, and you have to fix it.”
Because of this, my only goals as I begin the work are to take care of myself and to have fun. The patient must provide the motive power of our interaction. It is as if I stand in the doorway of my office, waiting. The patient enters and makes a lunge at me, a desperate attempt to pull me into the fantasy of taking care of hi,. I step aside. The patient falls to the floor, disappointed and bewildered. Now he has a chance to get up and to try something new. If I am sufficiently skillful at this psychotherapeutic judo, and if he is sufficiently courageous and persistent, he may learn to become curious about himself, to come to know me as I am, and to begin to work out his own problems. He may transform his stubbornness into purposeful determination, his bid for safety into a reaching out for adventure.
You may then ask, “Of what sustained value is the presence of the therapist to such a seeker?” He can be useful in many ways. The therapist, first of all, provides another struggling human being to be encountered by the then self-centered patient, who can see no other problems than his own. The therapist can interpret, advise, provide the emotional acceptance and support that nurtures personal growth, and above all, he can listen. I do not mean that he can simply hear the other, but that he will listen actively and purposefully, responding with thee instrument of his trade, that is, with the personal vulnerability of his own trembling self. This listening is that which will facilitate the patient’s telling of his tale, the telling that can set him free….
The seeker comes in hope of finding something definite, something permanent, something unchanging upon which to depend. He is offered instead the reflection that life is just what it seems to be, a changing, ambiguous, ephemeral mixed bag. It may often be discouraging, but it is ultimately worth it, because that’s all there is. The pilgrim-patient wants a definite way of living, and is shown that:
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.***
** Robert Murphy, Psychotherapy Based On Human Longing
*** Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching