The It-entity Of Therapy

'The photo album is kept in remembrance of those we love and we trust our memory to them. It's the first and possibly the most sacred thing we grab if our home's on fire', I think out loud. Isabel, my 20-something grand-daughter and rebel art student, holds my hand and looks up at me with that special kind of wise young pity, reserved for very old and very slow men and tells me the 'photograph is Absolute and Unchanging. Perfect even when technically flawed. Religion's been replaced by Photography Pops!' she declares triumphantly. My heart sinks. I hear the truth in it and I don't like it. And to add to my barnacled woes she adds, 'pod casting is the new eucharist and the new synagogue. These are the religious rites of today.' I wonder what next?

But then I began to think of those of us who aren't interested in relationship or encounter; have no time for old fashioned intimacy; who only have time for Declarations. You can't pod cast those fire side, intimate conversations we used to have with Life. They are too personal and too demanding of honesty with oneself. Too naked. We prefer it pre-packaged and popped into the micro wave when it suits us. Even better shrink wrapped to a therapeutic hour, behind closed doors so that we don't have to tell any one else. That intimacy is more like fast food for the soul than feeling the shoulder of the lion. I come out of my reverie thinking to quote Rumi for Isabel, clay in hand as she models my head for a portrait, 'remember how your brightness is borrowed from the universal intelligence. Your mental brilliance like your physical beauty is a thin outer layer. They're not your reality. Remember how a beautiful sweetheart grows old and withers. Little by little, physique and intellect decline. There is another beauty, a love-centre with lips that taste the living water...' but wisely I still my epitaph and hear Isabel's deeper truth - the living sub-text about the magical power of therapy.

I am both a client and a therapist and more. As I replay our conversation I doubt and ache about my therapy skills and the pitiless objectivity potential in there use in even a simple diagnosis. Am I not separated from heart felt dialogue with Isabel and thus she with me by these skills? And also with my therapist and thus he with me. We have agreed on the need for objectivity and professional distance. And with my clients and thus they with me - they expect it of me. And finally, with my synagogue and thus they with their Rabbi?

Martin Buber spoke of being completely available without pre-conditions for a chance that a heart melting dialogue will arise and spirit freed to manifest between us. Carl Jung said it above his door: "Summoned or not, the god will be there". But am I, are we open to that god in therapy? I'm not sure I can approach any situation without some taste of prejudgement. It is consecrated in the function and objectives of the therapist role. The service I provide and receive, defines our relationship rather than an encounter with the spirit who will be there. It is the moment where words and definitions may not preside. And when words arise, their meaning is carried like love, like living water one to another, like a fragrant mist in the breeze without ever naming it or containing it. Isabel interrupts my thoughts and tells me I'm 'an idealist, there isn't time to linger these days Pops. Podcasts are perfect, you can turn it on when you want it.'

How can that melting lingering surrender be appointed, prescribed or legislated by treatment programs, skills based training, professional codes of conduct and then all hung on a stick like therapist skin to go out and practice. Surely it can only occur in the moment, without anubian masks or pre-ordained roles.

However, I owe my life to the ordained alternative. Many years back I was treated as an object, just a container of tissues and fluids by an emergency team. At that moment it would not have helped if the team had not kept themselves outside of the moment and failed to analyze my body and respond according to the protocol for cardiac failure. But in other times and situations I think method and methodology can not deliver such a saving gift.

Some weeks after Isabel's last visit, my great grandson David came to stay for the weekend. He's only five and he can't say the word inter-subjectivity. Believe me, I have repeated it often enough together with encyclopedia and tarantula. He loves spiders and reptiles and he can say 'alligator in the sewer'. When he sat on my lap in the garden with the summer fruits we had just picked, he looked into my happy-sad eyes, shining moist and tender with him. He pulled my beard to open my mouth, pushed in a berry and said, 'I love you poppyjar'. I melted and my soul came to my eyes.

Similarly, when I saw the movie 'In My Shoes' it was a community of wise old ladies, a grandmother and a blind man who helped heal Maggie - the sister from hell. She could then meet the truth of this ee cummings poem with her sister at her wedding,

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

'In My Shoes' is a story of intergenerational healing without a diagnosis or therapist in sight. I, of course, read into the sub-text and declared to my wife in confidential tones, 'her mother must have been bipolar!' But the story's power included that 'it' was never spoken, only the consequences were shown from all sides. Yes, this tree of life does have therapy in fruit but I sense that today it has become a food fetish in the absence of the heart melting and community participation explored in the film and that I felt in a moment with my grandson.

I could not reproduce that moment in a photograph or a pod-cast. I know that every I-Thou encounter ends and we slip back into an I-it relationship with each other but I am more than an It entity. I can't turn it on at will, alone. We are required to participate for a chance of a moment. With David the moment unfolded and my soul sang with thanks. Maggie met her sister 'in my shoes' and though film objectifies, the subject rang true.

In this process of objectification and packaging of therapy into a skill, an ordered process, I come to a core question about therapy. Is it ultimately harmful to the therapist and harmful to the client? 'I-it' meetings happen in therapy and they may seem necessary because I, for one, can't bear to be fully in the moment with every heart that walks into therapy or when I show for my appointment. From where do I give that much of myself without it becoming rehearsed, pre-meditated and thus 'It-entitied'? The situation expects some observance from me of a presumed shared, everyday reality even though I am thinking the situation of therapy in our culture is that of a fetish.

I notice these doubts arise from a felt sense that participation and embodiment are sidelined when I function in the role of therapist and of client. I don't want to take my therapist home with me and I hope he reciprocates. I don't want to participate in his community and neither am I invited. I attend for the performance of a skill which defines the situation in a here and now that has its clock ticking. And that puts 'us' outside of the moment. I don't believe change happens in an It. In attempting 'it' in therapy, I think 'we' are diminished and even further alienated from our enduring, abiding self.

Martin Buber's Philosophy of Dialogue

"Buber's philosophy of dialogue views the human existence in relations, and that in two fundamentally different kinds of relations: I-It and I-Thou relations. An I-It relation is the normal everyday relation of a human being towards the things surrounding him. Man can also consider his fellows as an It - and that is what he does most of the time -, he views the other from a distance, like a thing, a part of the environment, forged into chains of causality. Radically different the I-Thou relation. The human being enters into it with his innermost and whole being, in a meeting, in a real dialogue this is what both of the partners do. For Buber, interhuman meetings are only a reflection of the human meeting with God. The essence of the biblical religion consists for Buber of the fact that - regardless of the infinite abyss between them - a dialogue between man and God is possible."

From the Martin Buber homepage.

See also Martin Buber on education.

Words by Peter Fox

Posted on 21 November 2005